Chaplain’s Corner: Seeking spiritual maturity through the example of Malcolm X

Sidra Mahmood

Last Saturday, I was moved by Bilal W. Ansari’s intimate account of his family history at the Black Student Union (BSU) and Muslim Student Union (MSU) event, “Black Radical Thought & Movement.” Dr. Bilal shared that his father’s spiritual and personal transformation was directly influenced by El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Malcolm X and his teachings. As an American Muslim, Malcolm X has been a central figure in my spiritual journey as well — I even named my child after him. As I sat in the audience, I reflected about what Malcolm X’s life and teachings mean to me now, especially as the College’s new Muslim Chaplain. 

Feb. 21 marks the 58th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death. Each of us is on a journey of spiritual maturity, whether we call ourselves spiritual or not. The stage at which our life ends is what eventually defines us. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is recorded to have said: “Actions (are known) by their end.” (al-Bukhari 6607) 

Malcolm X’s life can be divided into three stages. As recorded in Les and Tamara Payne’s book, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the young Malcolm Little, perhaps due to hardship in his childhood and social pressures, lived a life where he was hesitant to acknowledge his true self. He wanted to fit into the dominant white culture of his time. Eventually, after entering prison for burglary and being introduced to the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X’s life entered its second phase, in which his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad and NOI doctrine defined him. His constant yearning for truth led him to a spiritual and moral quest, especially when he discovered the injustices of sexual and spiritual abuse committed by Muhammad, his former mentor, that Malcolm X could not reconcile with his moral conscience. He blossomed into a self-differentiated Malik El-Shabazz after his split from NOI and his journey to Mecca. The common thread that defined Malcolm X’s life through the three stages can be aptly summed up by his older brother Wilbert’s words: “Malcolm was never a liar.” 

By speaking truth to power and losing his life as a result, Malcolm X, may God have mercy on his soul, encompassed the following Quranic teaching in 4:135:

“O believers! Stand firm for justice as witnesses for God even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or close relatives. Be they rich or poor, God is best to ensure their interests. So do not let your desires cause you to deviate (from justice).”

As individuals who often have to navigate established societal norms and rigid organizational culture while clinging onto our identities, we have much to learn from Malcolm X. He went against the grain in his quest for an ethical way of living. He questioned and searched until he found the truth that put his heart at ease. He stood firmly for justice. In his letter from Mecca in April 1964 as recorded in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, he wrote:

“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

Therefore, it behooves us to ask ourselves: Which stage of our lives are we in? If we feel pressured to “fit in” while not staying true to ourselves, we can lean into Malcolm X’s last stage of spiritual maturity when he was unafraid and unapologetic in being who he was, and believed in the truth that he had found for himself.                                                           

If we are offered constructive feedback by our peers, or our blindspots are brought to our attention — do we get defensive, or do we listen with a sense of wonder and awe for what the other person has to share? Hopefully, with this self-reflection and constant shedding of our predilections in light of new evidence, each one of us, in our own way, can move forward on the path of spiritual maturity.

Sidra Mahmood is the College’s Muslim Chaplain.