I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 16 years old. The pages are turning yellow, but I still have the paperback version I bought half a lifetime ago now. In nearly every chapter, there was something in it that struck me like lightning. I flip through these pages now and see things I annotated back then that still stick with me today:
“I said I respected every man’s right to believe whatever his intelligence tells him is intellectually sound, and I expect everyone else to respect my right to believe likewise.”
“I knew that in any society, a true leader is one who earns and deserves the following he enjoys.”
“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”
Malcolm’s journey, as a child born in Omaha who would eventually find his destiny and legacy out on the Coast, appealed to me on a variety of levels.
I wasn’t ‘the preacher’s son’ by any means, but I was part of the church growing up. I was in the choir briefly before finding my niche on the usher board. I’m not the type to belittle what anyone else believes in; the historian in me was already well aware of the key role the church has always played in the black community. The entertainer in me has always loved the showmanship that a great gospel choir can bring to the table. But if religion is about spiritual fulfillment, I definitely wasn’t getting that. As I’ve stated earlier, I was well past the point where ‘that’s the way it is,’ or ‘this is what everyone else is doing’ would satisfy me as a reason for anything. Another major element of my personality was making its way to the forefront: while I don’t always work my way into the ‘born leader’ position, I’m definitely not a natural follower. To a fault at times, but if I sense something amiss or someone coming at me sideways, I immediately start questioning their motives and looking for an agenda.
The only Muslim I knew personally worked security at my high school. He was in the Nation, which I was leery of because of what went down with Malcolm. But he always took an interest in me, especially when I initially got interested in black history. And yes, as a matter of fact, he wore glasses as well. I started chatting him up with questions I had. For the first time I could bear witness to how a Muslim prayed. He gave me my first copy of the small book with the hard green cover. The summer before my junior year, I decided I was only going to read two books: the Bible and the Qu’ran. I started with what I knew.
Studying everything from Genesis to Revelations gave me a deeper respect and appreciation for the Bible than I ever had. Whatever your stance on Christianity and religion in general, it’s a beautifully written book. I’ll come back to this point at a later time, but no matter how vocal the minority, no religion will thrive based on the actions and attitudes of its more extreme members. I spent a month digesting the verses, the parables, the message of the Bible. When I was ready to pick up the Qu’ran, I was ready to learn an opposing point of view.
Because this is how Islam has been presented ninety percent of the time. Islam is the opposite of Christianity and Judaism. The religion of Islam hates America. As a student of black history, I completely understand the politics behind why the Nation of Islam presented itself the way that it did. But as Malcolm learned in his final years, the true nature of Islam does not in many ways run parallel with those politics. Certain verses in the Qu’ran ring as true in my ears today as they did the first time I read them:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects Evil and believes God hath grasped the most untrustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.” (2:256)
“And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear God.” (5:46)
“Those who believe (in the Qu’ran), those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)
It was a feeling that I’ve found many converts to Islam had expressed: this was how I already felt. This was how I already looked at the world. I wasn’t ‘converting’ to anything; I had just found a name for my spiritual feelings, and it was Islam. I started to study the five pillars of Islam: the shahadah (that there is one God and Muhammad is his messenger), salah (ritual prayer), zakat (alms giving), sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and hajj (the pilgrammage which I have not done yet). I was comfortable in my prayers at 16; I fasted for the first time at 17.
As you can probably guess, Moms wasn’t feeling it. So I spent the last couple years under my parents’ roof by playing into the facade: going to church on Sundays, coming home and doing my religious study on my own time. I had already chosen my Islamic name, but it just wasn’t smart to rock that boat just yet. The mix of my spirituality and social consciousness provided the core to my adult identity. Going into my senior year of high school, my full attention turned toward my career ambitions, and finding a college on either the East or West Coast.