In Saudi Arabia, he’d experienced what amounted to the second life-changing epiphany in his life as he accomplished the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and discovered an authentic Islam of universal respect and brotherhood. The experience changed Malcolm’s world view. Gone was the belief in whites as exclusively evil. Gone was the call for black separatism. His voyage to Mecca helped him discover the atoning power of Islam as a means to unity as well as self-respect: “In my thirty-nine years on this earth,” he would write in his autobiography, “the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being.”
It had been a long journey in a brief life.
Before Mecca: The Nation of Islam
Malcolm’s first epiphany first had occurred 12 years earlier when he converted to Islam as he was serving an eight-to-10-year prison sentence for robbery. But back then it was Islam according to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam—an odd cult whose principles of racial hatred and separatism, and whose strange beliefs about whites being a genetically engineered race of “devils,” stood it in contrast with Islam’s more orthodox teachings.
Malcolm X bought in and rapidly rose in the ranks of the organization, which was more like a neighborhood guild, albeit a disciplined and enthusiastic one, than a “nation” when Malcolm arrived. Malcolm’s charisma and eventual celebrity built the Nation of Islam into the mass movement and political force it became in the early 1960s.
Disillusion and Independence
But the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad turned out to be much less than the upstanding moral paragon he pretended to be. He was a hypocritical, serial womanizer who fathered numerous children out of wedlock with his secretaries, a jealous man who resented Malcolm’s stardom, and a violent man who hesitated neither to silence his critics nor to intimidate them (through thuggish emissaries). His knowledge of Islam was also relatively slight. “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam,” Malcolm wrote, “and not knowing the prayer ritual.” Elijah Muhammad had never taught it.
It took Malcolm’s disillusionment with Muhammad and the Nation finally to break-away from the organization and set out on his own, literally and metaphorically, to the more authentic heart of Islam.
Re-discovering Brotherhood and Equality
First in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, then in Jeddah, the Saudi city, Malcolm witnessed what he claims he never saw in the United States: men of all color and nationalities treating each other equally. “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound for the pilgrimage,” he’d begun to notice at the airport terminal before boarding the plane for Cairo in Frankfurt, “were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.” To enter the state of ihram required of all pilgrims heading for Mecca, Malcolm abandoned his trademark black suit and dark tie for the two-piece white garment pilgrims must drape over their upper and lower bodies. “Every one of the thousands at the airport, about to leave for Jedda, was dressed this way,” Malcolm wrote. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know.” That, of course, is the point of ihram. As Islam interprets it, it reflects the equality of man before God.
Preaching in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, Malcolm’s journey was held up a few days until authorities could be sure his papers, and his religion, were in order (no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca). As he waited, he learned various Muslim rituals and spoke to men of vastly different backgrounds, most of whom were as star-struck with Malcolm as Americans were back home.
They knew him as the “Muslim from America.” They plied him with questions, he obliged them with sermons for answers, and in everything he said to them, “they were aware,” in Malcolm’s words, “of the yardstick that I was using to measure everything—that to me the earth’s most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability o God’s creatures to live as One, especially in the Western world.”
Malcolm in Mecca
Finally, the actual pilgrimage: “My vocabulary cannot describe the new mosque that was being built around the Ka’aba,” he wrote, describing the sacred site as “a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world. […] My feeling here in the House of God was numbness. My mutawaf (religious guide) led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’aba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain.
It was that sight that inspired his famous “Letters from Abroad”—three letters, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Nigeria and one from Ghana—that began redefining Malcolm X’s philosophy. “America,” he wrote from Saudi Arabia on April 20, 1964, “needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases the race problem from its society.” He would later concede that “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly.