The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 17 : Mecca | Summary



Malcolm X tells readers that all Muslims attempt the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once, "if humanly able." With Ella's help he will be able to go. Malcolm's friends advise him to talk to an Egyptian professor in New York, Dr. Mahmoud Youssef Shawarbi, Director of the Federation of Islamic Associations in the United States and Canada.

When Malcolm attempts to get a visa for the hajj from the Saudi Arabia consulate, he is told he needs a letter of approval from Dr. Shawarbi because he is a convert. Dr. Shawarbi gives him his approval and a book about Islam by Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam.

Malcolm flies from New York to Frankfurt, Germany. On the plane he makes friends with his seatmate, a Muslim from Jedda also on the way to Mecca. In Germany Malcolm notices a lack of anti-black prejudice. He says, "people seeing you as a Muslim saw you as a human being." From Frankfurt he flies to Cairo. The Cairo airport is full of "Muslims from everywhere ... hugging and embracing." The Muslims are "of all complexions" and Malcolm realizes "there really wasn't a color problem here."

Malcolm spends two days sightseeing in Cairo. He telephones his friend from the airplane—the Muslim from Jedda. He and a group of friends are all going to Mecca, and Malcolm will travel with them to Jedda and from there to Mecca.

At the Cairo airport Malcolm does as the other Muslims do. To enter a consecrated state for the journey he leaves behind most of his baggage and exchanges his suit for "two white towels" he drapes on himself. The pilgrims periodically call out Labbayka, or "Here I come, O Lord!" Malcolm flies from Cairo to Jedda, in Saudi Arabia. In Jedda an official tells Malcolm he must go to a Muslim high court to have his conversion to Islam authenticated. However, it is Friday, a day of rest for Muslims, so no courts in Saudi Arabia will be operating that day.

Malcolm's friend from the plane regretfully leaves him behind. Malcolm spends several days in a hostel full of pilgrims in the Jedda airport. In his days at the hostel Malcolm finds no one who speaks English. He does, however, learn to pray correctly, in the prostrated posture. He feels the others look at him with suspicion; he is a Muslim who knows no Arabic and can barely manage the praying posture. Malcolm mentions Cassius Clay to his fellow Muslims and they become friendly toward him. But the time in the hostel remains bewildering and frustrating.

Eventually Malcolm gets the idea to telephone Omar Azzam, son of the author of the book he received. As soon as Malcolm calls Omar his visit is transformed: Malcolm is put up in the author Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam's suite at the Jedda Palace Hotel. Malcolm is overwhelmed by the Azzams' generosity. He remarks to readers that white people had never done anything for him without a purpose of their own. In the morning Malcolm thinks about what a white man is. He decides "white man" describes a set of "actions and attitudes" in the United States as much as color. The Azzams and the other white-complexioned Muslims Malcolm has seen on his pilgrimage lack those attitudes; they have been "brotherly." Malcolm says this morning was "the start of a radical alteration" in his "whole outlook about 'white' men."

That morning Malcolm goes to the high Muslim court, and the judge recognizes him as a Muslim and records his name in "the Holy Register of true Muslims." Later in the chapter Malcolm reveals his new name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

At the hotel later that day there is a surprise for Malcolm. The Deputy Chief of Protocol for Prince Faisal is there to tell him a special car will drive him to Mecca after dinner. When it arrives the car contains two Arab men who will go with Malcolm to Mecca.

At Mecca he meets with a Mutawaf, or guide for the pilgrimage. They drive to the Great Mosque, which houses the Ka'ba, a black stone the pilgrims walk around and around. Malcolm prays and prostates himself, as do the other pilgrims. He describes his intense feeling as "numbness."

In the following days Malcolm makes other ritual journeys that are part of the hajj, such as drinking from the well of Zem Zem. The final act is to stand on top of Mount Arafat. With that the Ihram or holy state is over. In New York meanwhile the Nation of Islam is trying to kick his family out of the house on Long Island. However, Malcolm does not know about these events at the time. In a tent on top of Mount Arafat, some Muslims ask him his impressions of his first hajj. He comments on "the people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!" He then gives a "little sermon on America's racism, and its evils."

Next Malcolm writes long letters to his wife, Ella, and Dr. Shawarbi, as well as to Elijah Muhammad's son, Wallace Muhammad. He writes another letter to his "loyal assistants at my newly formed Muslim Mosque, Inc." He asks his assistants to copy the letter and distribute it to the press. He is aware the press will be "astounded" by his revelations, which are so different from his "hate" image. He says he, too, was astounded. "My whole life had been a chronology of—changes," he remarks.

Malcolm then quotes the letter in its entirety. It tells of his journey to Mecca and the harmony between pilgrims of different skin colors. He says America must understand Islam. He met light-complexioned pilgrims, "but the 'white' attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam." He says his experiences on the hajj forced him to "re-arrange much of my thought patterns" and "toss aside some of my previous conclusions." He comments on sharing housing and food with fellow Muslims "whose eyes were the bluest of blue ... and whose skin was the whitest of white." Their "words and deeds" were the same as those of "black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana."

He observes that the Holy Land has given him "greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white." The black man, he says, "can never be blamed for his racial animosities." The black man is "only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites." Malcolm says the United States has a choice between "the suicide path" and the "spiritual path of truth." Malcolm also describes the generosity and high status of his hosts in Jedda. He received honors "that in America would be bestowed upon a King—not a Negro." He signs the letter "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz '(Malcolm X).'"


Occasionally Malcolm X seems naïve in this chapter, but the occasional naïve moment does him a world of good. On the streets he had to constantly watch for challengers with ambitions to replace him. The mosques of Elijah Muhammad turned out to be just as dangerous. As Malcolm remarks, "Nothing in either of my two careers as a black man in America" had left him with "any idealistic tendencies." Instead he used to look for "the reasons, the motives, of anyone who did anything ... for me." In another example of Malcolm's naivety he wonders why Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam would associate with him when Malcolm is alleged to be "anti-white." He seems unaware that Azzam might count himself among the world's nonwhite people. But what is more important is what Malcolm's idealism lets him see. When he is no longer under threat of arrest or murder, and when people treat him as a human being rather than first and foremost as a black man in a white-dominated society, he can see kindness and generosity in people.

Malcolm attributes to Islam the harmony he sees among people of all races. It is true that he is seeing people engaged in a shared activity, the hajj, which has meaning for all of them. However, other black Americans have reported a similar feeling of liberation when they travel outside the United States. During World War I black American soldiers in France experienced less racism from their French allies than from their fellow American soldiers who were white. In the early 20th century black Americans musicians and writers who found a haven in Paris included poet Langston Hughes, novelist Claude McKay, and singer Paul Robeson. In the 1950s and 1960s the black ex-patriate life in France continued, for example with American writer James Baldwin. France was also a colonial power, and they fought a bitter war to hang onto their North African colony, Algeria. However, French people did not have the same prejudices, assumptions, and attitudes as white Americans might have. During Malcolm's first trip to Africa he meets with a group of 40 or so black Americans living in Ghana, including the writer Maya Angelou. The ex-patriate experience in Ghana is different because it is connected to Pan-Africanism, the idea that black Americans and black Africans have common bonds. But Maya Angelou and her fellow Americans in Ghana were also able to live their lives without the burden of racism they had grown up with. So it is possible Malcolm was simply experiencing for the first time what it is like to be outside the United States. These experiences enabled him to see Islam in a new light. The doctrines he learned from Elijah Muhammad said white people were devils, that evil was in their nature. In Malcolm's new perspective on race there was potential for hope.

Malcolm's autobiography is a conversion story. When he was kicked out of school he became a street-wise hustler and was headed for a miserable life of always watching his back in fear of the police or a rival hustler. He converts to the Nation of Islam in prison. But when the Nation of Islam and its leader fail him he has a second conversion. He learns about Islam as it exists outside Elijah Muhammad's strict and limited ideas.

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