Malcolmology 101, #11: Middle East Travels

One of the periods most responsible for Malcolm X’s early religious and political development is also one of the most obscured. Along with greater visibility amongst black and white Americans, the Nation of Islam had also intrigued emerging Muslim states in Africa and the Middle East. Following the NOI’s support for the first Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference, held in Cairo, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser extended an invitation to Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad turned to his most trusted lieutenant, Malcolm X, to travel abroad first and make the necessary preparations. Although he intended to make Hajj, a requirement of the five pillars of Islam, Malcolm was delayed and set off from New York on July 3, 1959. Seeing him off from the airport was the Egyptian attaché to the United Nations, Ahmad Zaki El Borai. Borai’s presence was a preview of the royal treatment he would soon come to appreciate; for three weeks Malcolm traveled and stayed amongst heads of state and luminaries of the Muslim world.

The first eleven days of Malcolm’s trip were spent in Cairo, where he met several times with Anwar el Sadat and heads of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Despite a personal invitation from Nasser, Malcolm declined as the mere “forerunner and humble servant of Elijah Muhammad.” Although he enjoyed the pleasures of being an esteemed guest abroad, staying at the Kandarah Palace Hotel in Saudi Arabia and the Grand Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan, Malcolm was also laid up for several days with dysentery, suffered from the excessive heat, and felt increasingly embarrassed by his meager knowledge of orthodox Muslim rituals. After traveling on to Ghana briefly, he returned home on July 22.

Malcolm’s trip to the Middle East was not only of great interest to Nasser and the Egyptian government, who reportedly viewed the Nation of Islam as an important “minority pressure group,” but also to the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services (BOSS). Abdel Basit Naeem, a Pakistani Muslim who acted as a consultant to the NOI and made Malcolm X’s travel arrangements, updated BOSS on the trip. In his report, he noted that Malcolm encouraged Muhammad to move the sect towards greater synchronization with orthodox Islam. Malcolm advised that the leader study Arabic before going to Egypt and planned to return in six months. Perhaps due to Malcolm’s advice, or to his own experiences in the Middle East in early 1960, Muhammad did in fact move the NOI in this direction: “temples” were renamed “mosques,” Arabic instruction was instituted, and his son Akbar was sent to study at Al-Azhar University. For Malcolm personally, the trip introduced him to the possibilities of placing the NOI within the ummah, or world community of Islam. It also offered even greater prominence within the organization; just days after leaving for Cairo, an announcement at Temple 7 was made that Malcolm would need a home of his own in the future, to “welcome distinguished visitors.”

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