The “X” Phenomenon: Reflection on the Resurrection and Commercialization of El-Hajj Mali

The “X” Phenomenon: Reflection on the Resurrection and Commercialization of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

By James Edward Jones

In a patriarchal, patrilineal culture, the subjugation of one people by another is dependent, in large part, on how effectively the males of the subordinate group are controlled and/or annihilated by the dominant group. The Biblical story of Moses is a compelling testament to how an oppressor’s lack of success in this regard can be extremely catastrophic and ultimately fatal.  EI-Hajj Malik EI-Shabazz’ (Malcolm X) biography represents a saga of how, in spite of stifling conditions, a nihilistic black rage was transformed into assertive black manhood. This transformation served as the catalyst for the development of Shabazz’ more Islamically inclusive social justice agenda. Despite the powerful, positive potential of such a story, the current packaging of El-Hajj Malik EI-Shabazz could possibly worsen racial and interfaith relations in the United States.
The intent of this paper is to suggest and outline a preliminary parameter for reflecting upon the import and impact of what many are calling the “X” phenomenon in American life. Consequently, the paper is organized into three parts.

Part I entitled “NO!: A Reaction to Racism” focuses on the racially-oriented philosophy of the Nation of Islam and its still powerful attraction for the many young American males of African descent who see themselves reflected in Shabazz’ earlier life. It is this philosophy which many young urban African Americans still identify with El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz today. [1].

Part II examines the basic Islamic teaching on the issue of race. “Islam and Race: is an attempt to place ElShabazz’ post-Mecca philosophical orientation into a broader context.
A brief concluding discussion of the “X” phenomenon’s likely impact on the future of racial and interfaith relations is the topic of Part III. Entitled “‘X’ and the Future”, the purpose of this section is to offer some tentative conclusions and begin to outline some problems and possibilities that this phenomena portends for the future of racial and interfaith relations in the United States.

1. NOI: A Reaction to Racism

There is little question that the Nation of Islam was, as a sociological phenomenon, a systematic response to the racist anti-black, post Civil War stratagems aimed at reinforcing a status which was similar to that of slavery. [2] Discriminatory Jim Crow laws, exploitative sharecropping arrangements, lynching of black men and rapes of black women were some of the most common and blatant manifestations of this brutality. World War I and industrialization brought some economic relief. However, the Great Depression occasioned devastating financial problems for African Americans. Thus, African Americans were ripe for the messianic racial supremist ideas of people such as Noble Drew Ali, W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad with a definite anti white focus. [3]

Such a focus was clearly a reaction to the racism that was and is endemic to American society. In essence, the Yacub theory of the whites as devils was retaliation for the centuries of verbally abusive disinformation heaped upon the African American. Such negativity included various religious doctrines and scholarly theories which supported the stereotype of the child-like, pliant, lazy, unintelligent, animalistic sub-human known as the Negro.

In constructing the Yacub theory, the Nation of Islam presented the white man with a story about himself that rivaled all of the dehumanizing stories white people told about the so-called Negro. The key elements of this scathing discourse begin with the idea that the Black Man was the original man. Therefore, the universe as known psychologically to blacks and whites in the United States was inverted. Instead of an essentially Eurocentric view of the world, this paradigm promulgated an Afro-Asian orientation.

The second key element of this story was the reduction of the white man to sub-human for - “blond, paleskinned, cold-blue-eyed devils-savages, nude and shameless; hairy like animals, they walked on all fours and lived in trees.” And so the tables were completely turned. Through the Nation of Islam, the once all-powerful slave master was unmasked as the real “devil race” which was really less than human. [4] In fighting fire with fire, it seems that the ex-slave had learned a powerful lesson from the former slave master -
use skin color to denigrate others!

It was from this organization that the man, born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska was Malcolm Little, received his “X”. The “X” represented the unknown original name which had been obliterated by the dehumanizing process of slavery in the western hemisphere. [5] thus, the “X” constituted a form of liberation from the ex-slavemaster because the descendant of most ex-slaves still carried the names of their ancestors’ former owners.

Elijah Muhammad’s son and successor, Warith Din Mohammed, has discontinued this practice of substituting and “X” for a new Muslim’s last name. Further, since his father’s death in 1975, he has discarded the Yacub theory, accepted whites as members and dismantled the paramilitary structure and even dropped the name of the “old” Nation of Islam. Such significant changes generated major controversy both within and outside of the organization. Consequently, there are African American who still promote and organize under the tenets of the pre-1975 Nation of Islam. [6]

II. Islam and Race

According to the Qur’an, the essence of the human being’s existence is service to Allah. [7]  In the modern materialistically and racially oriented American society, it is difficult to get most people to understand and accept this viewpoint.

Thus, at a recent national conference for Muslims, a workshop entitled “Beyond Ism’s: Bridging Racial Tension” was focused on getting Muslims to live up to the nonracist ideals of the religion. The presenters (Jamilah Dixon and Shakura Nooriah) emphasized individual and communal responsibility in fighting this social disease which clearly contravenes the dictates of the Qur’an and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad. Their complementary presentations included the following issues:

A. Racism is a current major problem in the United States and the world.

B. Denial is a major component of racism in the United States.

Racism is about prejudice, power and control.  “Bridging racial tensions demands inter-religious peace, social peace, economic peace, political peace and individual peace. Islam presents a dynamic antidote that cures the poison of the race hatred when taken according to Divine Commandments.” (Nooriah)  [8]

The Muslims at this conference were not people who agree with the racially focused ideals of the Nation of Islam. However, even though attendees included people from a variety of racial, ethnic and national backgrounds, there was common agreement on the idea that racism and other prejudice-based in-group dynamics were major negative factors in most current national and international conflicts. These were people who see Islam as a religion for all humanity. In fact, as “orthodox” Muslims. They agreed with the idea that humanity “... according to Islam, is one large family, created by God from a single soul; from that soul He created a mate for it and then, from both of them, He scattered a multitude of men and women over the face of the earth. The diversity of tongues is simply a manifestation of divine power, and does not imply any notion of preference or privilege as opposed to God’s commands of love and brotherhood.” [9]

This kind of thinking is clearly congruent with the new mind set that EI-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz had after his Islamic pilgrimage to the Arabian peninsula in 1964. While he still saw racism as a real evil which needed to be confronted, the white man was no longer cast as the devil incarnate. This significant change should be kept in mind as we consider the current impact of the “X” Phenomena on the United States society.

III. “X” and the Future

Since the much anticipated release of Spike Lee’s epic movie, “Malcolm X”, in November, 1992, I have had the opportunity to make presentations and lead discussions on the “X” phenomena in a variety of forums. These have included: an almost totally African American “orthodox” Muslim community in a men’s correctional facility; a Black Student’s Union on a small predominantly white liberal arts college campus; a predominantly white audience at a campus ministry sponsored event at a northeastern university and; a Jewish congregation during its Friday night Sabbath services. Reflection upon these events, numerous informal conversations, media coverage of this phenomena and a review of the literature on the life and speeches of El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz leads me to three basic conclusions regarding the impact and import of the “X” phenomena on interracial and interfaith relations in this country.

The first conclusion is that the resurrection of Malcolm X is an expression of African American anger about the continuation of racism in the United States. While the African American middle class has grown over the past quarter century; so have African American intra-racial homicides, incarceration of both males and females, and births out of wedlock to increasingly younger women. Thus, many Americans of African Descent are worse off than they were at the time of Shabazz’ brutal assassination on February 21,1965. 10 The image of brother Malcolm “telling it like it is” has a strong attraction for a group of overwhelmingly urban, primarily young African American people who feel severely dehumanized by the ongoing repression of racism. It is Shabazz as eloquent, yet defiant anti-white national spokesperson for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad which has the most appeal for this group.

The second conclusion is that African Americans will derive little economic benefit from this commercially successful phenomena. It is bitterly ironic that one of the most caustic critics of capitalism’s exploitive excesses is being used a money maker for entertainment cartels which purvey the worst of popular culture. the same conglomerate which packages and promotes Madonna is doing the same for Malcolm X. Much like this country’s politics, Hollywood does make for strange bedfellow!

The third and final conclusion is that EI-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is likely to be satanized by “militant” African Americans and sanitized by popular culture through the media. By returning the post-Mecca Shabazz to the fiery rhetoric of his Nation of Islam days, he is made into white America’s worse nightmare, not unlike the “Satan” he was called while he was incarcerated. [10]  At the other extreme, by presenting as a “love everybody no matter what” humanist. His insightful blistering critique of the United States is blunted. We have seen the latter process take hold in the repackaged persona of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which deemphasises his confrontational tactics and overplays his message of love.

The problem that this phenomena portends for the future of interracial and interfaith relations in this country is clear. If we allow extremists at either end of the spectrum to distort the complex history of EI-Hajj Malik EI-Shabazz, inflammation or pacification will be the likely tendencies. The more useful path is to study and learn from this man who developed over many difficult years and managed to leave us with the following world view which, if put into practice, would likely improve interracial and interfaith relations:
“I’m for the truth no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” [12]


I. Isabel Wilkerson, “Young Believe Malcolm X is Still Speaking To Them,” 111e New York Times, 13 November, 1992, p. 1.(A).
2. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Black Messiah and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park:
The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982) 187.
3. Ibid.
4. Malcolm X, 111e Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Alex Haley (NY: Ballantive Book, 1965), 164-165.
5. Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, (Barrytown: NY Station Hill Press, 1991), 143-44.
6. The situation is complicated by the teaching of Mr. Louis Farrakhan who asserts that he is the true successor to Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Farrakhan is a charismatic speaker who is admired by many African Americans. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Mr. Farrakhan initially pledged his unnerving loyalty to Imam Warith Din Mohammed. He then broke away and re-established the Nation of Islam. In his newspaper The Final Call, he still prints “What we want” and “What we believe” verbatim as originallye authored by Elijah Muhammad. Thus, the basis of his philosophy still appears to be at odds with orthodox Islam. Nevertheless, this “Nation of Islam” is often mistakenly seen as representative of U.S. Muslims (especially African American).
7. Qur’an, AYA, 51:56.
8. Jamilah Dixon and Shakura J. Nooriah, lectures, American Muslim Council Third Annual Leadership Conference, Washington, DC, 20 February, 1993.
9. Abdul Aziz Kamel, Islam and the Race Question, 3rd ed. (Safat, Kuwait: Islamic Book Publishers, 1987) 54.
10. X, 151-168
11. H.F. Waters with V.E. Smith. “Malcolm X” Newsweek.. 16 November 1992: 67-71.
12. X, 366

Originally published in the TAM print edition Spring 1994