Black Muslim histories: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Mansa Musa
What do they all have in common?
Okay, yes they start with the letter ‘M’ and they are men.
Cool, what’s next? Alright, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were phenomenal Black Americans. Mansa Musa was the world’s richest man, who hailed from Mali. But, they were also Muslim. Notable Muslims that you probably may have heard of.
Throughout history, it’s one thing or another — your Blackness is not acknowledged, such as how Black soldiers were written out of history when fighting in both World Wars or how 13th century Persian poet, Rumi’s Islam was not acknowledged. To the extent, Ivanka Trump inaccurately quoted what she believed to be Rumi’s poetry, as if her dad would let him in the country.
Usually, this would have been a rant about racism within the Muslim community. I mean, it still happens. But instead, it’s vital to shine a light to the non Muslim Black community about Black Muslim historical figures that are always claimed for the Blackness and have their Islam ignored. You can’t pick and choose on what to accept. It’s just ironic because the philosophies of both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were inherently Islamic but nobody wants to speak on it. So, I will.
1. Malcolm X
You cannot speak about Malcolm X’s political ideologies, without understanding how Islam is woven into his political beliefs. Not even woven, his political beliefs are laced with Islamic theology.
On April 13th 1964, he left the United States in order to perform the obligatory pilgrimage, the Hajj. This is fifth and final pillar of Islam where as Muslims we go to Makkah to perform the Hajj, just like how it was done centuries before us and how it will continue long after we are gone.
Islam and the Nation of Islam are two completely different things, just to clarify this. The Nation of Islam views that white people are devils and called for Black separatism. I mean, each to their own but this isn’t true Islam. His pilgrimage shifted his beliefs and in his notable autobiography, he noted:
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)-while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
We are truly all the same-brothers.
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.”
Not to romanticise his political philosophy or pander to the white gaze but it’s important to note that this profound shift in his philosophy stemmed from Islam and his life changing experience in Saudi Arabia. Values of fraternity and justice are at the core of Islam such as standing firmly for justice even it be against yourselves and loving for your brother what you love for yourself. Again, this is evident in his philosophy.
2. Muhammad Ali
I don’t know how more Muslim you can get with a name like that and still have your Muslim identity erased from your Blackness. As if you can’t be both. I digress.
Renown for his unparalleled boxing achievements, Muhammad Ali was never ever silent of his belief and his love for Allah (swt). He moved with purpose and was more than aware of his greatness. To be a famous Black Muslim man in 1960s America, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, is an act of resistance, defying the notions on what it means to be one or the other. How about just both? His passing in 2016 was a reset for me, I was 14 and to say the least, I was shook. I knew about his contributions to the Black American Muslim community, Black Muslims period. It was just amazing to see someone who was like me on such an international level, just living unapologetically in his Islam and his Blackness.
But since people fail to understand the significance of Islam in his life, I present to you some authentic quotes by Muhammad Ali himself.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.”
3. Mansa Musa
If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen Tweets about ‘getting money like Mansa Musa’ or how ‘Mansa Musa was the richest man in history’. Yes, he was the richest man in history and historians estimate his wealth would be about $400 billion — twice the amount of the Amazon’s capitalist leader, Jeff Bezos.
Mansa Musa was the emperor during the Mali Empire from 1312 to 1337. His empire covered roughly 500,000 square miles of land and it was the biggest empire West Africa has ever known. It was also one of the most notable empires in history that is never discussed. Why is that?
In Islam, being a leader is so crucial because you are accountable to Allah based on how you treated those you lead. Conversations about Mansa Musa never seem to involve his Islam which is incredibly weird seeing as Mali is one of the largest Muslim majority countries in Africa and the world, with a 95% Muslim majority.
As we know that the Hajj is obligatory upon all Muslims, Mansa Musa was no exception to the rule. In 1324, he embarked on his pilgrimage and by no means was he alone. He travelled from Mali to Saudi Arabia, just imagine how difficult and treacherous the journey would have been in the 14th century where there were no planes. He brought 60,000 people, 21,000 kilograms worth of gold, 100 elephants and 80 camels.
60,000 people to Makkah. I can imagine back then it was a significant number of people performing the Hajj but this is nothing compared to today with over 2 million pilgrims performing the Hajj annually.
Majority of his wealth came from gold and salt. He gave away so much gold that the Egyptian economy was impacted for years because of his kindness. We see still his influence today with the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali built by Mansa Musa. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO — this is cute but it never needed acknowledgement from such institutions. Unfortunately, because of large corporations causing climate change, the mosque and other African landmarks are at risk of being eroded due to climate change.