The name “Shabazz”: Where did it come from? *

Yahya Monastra

Posted Feb 14, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The name “Shabazz”: Where did it come from?

By Yahya Monastra

Probably most people first became aware of the name Shabazz as a designation for the African-American people through a reference to it in the autobiography of Malcolm X; where Malcolm (may Allah’s mercy be upon him), in the middle of a discussion on Elijah Muhammad’s racial doctrine, says: “One of the scientists, at odds with the rest, created the especially strong black tribe of Shabazz, from which America’s Negroes, so-called, descend.” [1] The name gained further currency when Malcolm adopted it during his Hajj as part of his new Islamic name: EI-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. To this day, it is used as a surname by many African-American Muslims.

One of the lengthiest published expositions on the mythology of the “tribe of Shabazz: is in Elijah Muhammad’s book A Message to the Blackman in America, in the chapter “Original man, know thyself’:

”(God) had declared that we are descendants of the Asian black nation and of the tribe of Shabazz. Originally they were the tribe that came with the earth (or this part) 60 trillion years ago when a great explosion on our planet divided it into two parts. One we call the earth and the other the moon.”

“We, the tribe of Shabazz, say Allah (God), were the first to discover the best part of our planet to live on. The rich Nile Valley of Egypt and the present seat of the Holy City, Mecca, Arabia ... Weare the mighty, the wise, the best, but we do not know it.” [2]

Despite the continuing popularity of the name “Shabazz,” which by now has become independent of Elijah Muhammad’s mythology, no authorities on the Nation of Islam have offered any convincing explanation of the name’s origin. Was it simply invented, two meaningless syllables that have an appealing sound? Or is it derived from some existing word or words in an actual language? It should be worthwhile, especially for those who hold this name, to determine its derivation and meaning.

Some have suggested that “Shabazz’‘’’ come from the Old Testament, but this writer found nothing there that really resembles it. There is a Sheshbazzar, :prince of Judah,” in the Book of Ezra, [3] but it is the name of an individual, not a tribe, and the difference in form between “Shabazz” and “Sheshbazzar” is too large for this theory to be taken seriously.

Urdu-speaking Muslims from the Indian subcontinent who come to America and the encounter the name “Shabazz” see in it an obvious resemblance to the Persian name Shahbaz, which is a popular given name amongst Indian and Pakistani Muslims. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, of 13th century Sind, [4] is one of the most beloved saints of Pakistan. Shahbaz in Persian means “royal falcon,” so it carries a connotation of pride and nobility. For this reason, Pakistanis and Indians in America assume that “Shabazz” is really Shahbaz, Americanized.

This opinion might seem to be strengthened by the fact that some of the da’wah to AfricanAmericans in the early years of the 20th Century was done by Urdu and Panjabi speaking members of the heterodox Ahmadiyah/Qadiyani sect, beginning in 1921. [5] This early Indian influence, which may have introduced some Islamic ideas into Marcus Garvey’s movement, [6] formed part of the religious background when Noble Drew Ali was running the Moorish Science Temple for the “Asiatic” black race, one of the direct forerunners of the Nation of Islam [7] However, it is doubtful that this line of speculation can lead to a satisfactory derivation for “Shabazz,” despite the close phonetic similarity. We would need to document the actual transference of the name “Shahbaz” to African-Americans by Indian immigrants. In the absence of such evidence, it would be advisable to look for an Arabic derivation, and one that is semantically closer to the mark, considering what is known about the sources of Elijah Muhammad’s thought.

First of all, the likely semantic import of the name, and thus the purpose it was intended to serve, cannot be ignored. When giving a name, it is important to select one with the right meaning, as the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself taught. [8] The meaning of one’s name contributes an important component of one’s self-image and it must accord with one’s chosen identity. Elijah Muhammad’s mission amongst AfricanAmericans was to uplift them from their state of misery and degradation, to which four centuries of racist oppression had reduced them. He effected a thorough transformation of their self-image, and he needed to rename them so as to remind them of their past greatness, their superior status among the peoples of the world. Their voices could then be heard to ring with pride when they identified themselves with the tribe of Shabazz.

It is difficult to say how much of Elijah Muhammad’s teaching was his own invention and how much came from MasterW .D. Fard, who Elijah called “Allah” or “God.” Still, the basic outlines of the “Lost-Found Nation,” tribe of Shabazz mythology are known to have originally from W.D. Fard.  Hee carried out his mission to the African-American people in Detroit from 1930 to 1934. He lived and preached among the most downtrodden levels of society, in a milieu almost completely overlooked by the official recorders of history, so that he could disappear as mysteriously as he appeared. His real background cannot be discerned within the mists of his self-mythologizing. A recent author writes: “So far as I know, there is still no certain identification for Fard, whether as to his nationality, race, background, education, or even his age.” [10] Whether he actually came from Mecca as he claimed cannot be verified, but extant photographs show him to have been Middle Eastem in appearance. He came in the guise of a Syrian peddler, a common sight on the street in those days. There have been numerous speculations about his identity, but they all have to do with him being of Middle Eastern origin. [11] Thus It is more than likely that he knew Arabic, and the obvious place to search for the derivation of the name “Shabazz is in Arabic.

One immediately runs up against the fact that no word can be found in any Arabic lexicon, classical or modern, derived from the root Sh-B-Z. There is no such root used in any Arabic word. (Nonetheless, an Arab author writing recently took it upon himself to recast Malcolm X’s name in a more familiar Arabic pattern as ‘’‘Abdul-Malik al Shabbaz,” doubling the b and making the double z single, apparently in imitation of the pattern used in words like khabbaz baqqal, sammak, etc. What is more, he was careful to place the word Abd [the slave (of)]. That author must have forgotten that Malik is a perfectly proper Muslim name, as for example Imam Malik ibn Anas of the Maliki school.)  We admit to having remained puzzled for several years over the question of how “Shabazz” could have come from Arabic. The clue that led to the solution was that final doubled z (the Persian word shahbaz ends in a single z. Why was the Shabazz z doubled? Generally, in Arabic morphology, (except for the derived pattem if’alla) a final consonant is doubled only when it belongs to a geminated root, i.e., one in which the second and third letters are the same, e.g. in hajj (H-J-J) or shaddah (Sh-D-D). Four-letter roots, however, are never found geminated in this fashion. Then it occurred to us, might this be a compound of two words? In that case, the name would divide into shab+azz.

Now keep in mind that there is no equivalent in the Roman alphabet for the Arabic letter ‘Ayn. Careful writers represent it with a left-handed apostrophe, but it is commonly omitted. If we supply two missing ‘Ayns to these two syllables, we get two genuine Arabic words: sha’b meaning “a people” and ‘azz, which is a verb meaning “to be mighty and glorious” (familiar from the Islamic formula of glorification mentioned after the name of Allah, ‘azza wa-jalla, the root of the word ‘aziz, which in addition to meaning “mighty and glorious” is also a term of endearment…or it could be the elative adjective a ‘azz, “more” or “most mighty and glorious. “) Thus sha’b ‘azz clearly means in Arabic “a people mighty and glorious,” which carries exactly the meaning the W.D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad wanted to convey. Since the intended meaning, the form of the name, and its Arabic derivation all fit well together, we may conclude that the origin of the name “Shabazz” is now know. And all praise is due to Allah, the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds.

1 X, Malcolm, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) p 190.
2 Muhammad, Elijah, Message to the Blackman in America (Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No.2, 1965) P 31-32.
3 “Ezra 1:8 fT.
4 Schimmel, Annemarie, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1975) p 354-355.
5 Rashad, Adib, The History of Islam and Black Nationalism in the Americas, 2nd ed. (Beltsville, Maryland: Writers’Inc., 1991) p 61.
6 Ibid.
7 Marsh, Clifton E. From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Transfonnationfrom Separatism to Islam, 1930-1980 (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1984) p 44
8 Muslim ibn al-Ha.ijaj, al-Jami’ al-Sahih, Kitab al-Adab, Bab 3.
9 Muhammad, Warith Din, As the Light Shineth from the East (Chicago: WDM Publishing Co., 1980p 10-14.
10 Bloom, Harold 1., The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992) p 248.
11 Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in American, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) pp 12-14.

Originally published in the TAM print edition Spring 1994