Malcolm X's International Travel
Pilgrimage to Mecca On April 13, 1964, Malcolm X departed JFK Airport in New York for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
His status as an authentic Muslim was questioned by Saudi authorities because of his United States passport and his inability to speak Arabic. Since only confessing Muslims are allowed into Mecca, he was separated from his group for about 20 hours.
According to his autobiography, Malcolm X saw a telephone and remembered the book The Eternal Message of Muhammad by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, which had been presented to him with his visa approval. He called Azzam's son, who arranged for his release. At the younger Azzam's home, he met Azzam Pasha, who gave Malcolm his suite at the Jeddah Palace Hotel. The next morning, Muhammad Faisal, the son of Prince Faisal, visited and informed Malcolm X that he was to be a state guest. The deputy chief of protocol accompanied Malcolm X to the Hajj Court, where he was allowed to make his pilgrimage.
On April 19, Malcolm X completed the Hajj, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the Zamzam Well and running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times. Malcolm X said the trip allowed him to see Muslims of different races interacting as equals. He came to believe that Islam could be the means by which racial problems could be overcome.
Malcolm X visited Africa on three separate occasions, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. During his visits, he met officials, gave interviews to newspapers, and spoke on television and radio in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria invited Malcolm X to serve in their governments.
In 1959, Malcolm X traveled to Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic), Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad. The first of the two trips Malcolm X made to Africa in 1964 lasted from April 13 until May 21, before and after his Hajj. On May 8, following his speech at the University of Ibadan, Malcolm X was made an honorary member of the Nigerian Muslim Students' Association. During this reception the students bestowed upon him the name "Omowale", which means "the son who has come home" in the Yoruba language. Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography that he "had never received a more treasured honor."
On July 9, 1964, Malcolm X returned to Africa. On July 17, he was welcomed to the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cairo as a representative of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. By the time he returned to the United States on November 24, 1964, Malcolm had met with every prominent African leader and established an international connection between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.
France and the United Kingdom
On November 23, 1964, on his way home from Africa, Malcolm X stopped in Paris, where he spoke at the Salle de la Mutualité. A week later, on November 30, Malcolm X flew to the United Kingdom, where he participated in a debate at the Oxford Union on December 3. The topic of the debate was "Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue", and Malcolm X argued the affirmative. Interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC.
On February 5, 1965, Malcolm X went to Europe again. On February 8, he spoke in London, before the first meeting of the Council of African Organizations. Malcolm X tried to go to France on February 9 but he was refused entry. On February 12, he visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, which had become a byword for racial division after the 1964 general election, when the Conservative Party won the parliamentary seat after rumors that their candidate's supporters had used the slogan "If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour."
That same year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The trip proved life altering. For the first time, Malcolm shared his thoughts and beliefs with different cultures, and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive. When he returned, Malcolm said he had met "blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers." He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. This time when Malcolm spoke, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.
On April 13, 1964, Malcolm X left the United States on a personal and spiritual journey through the Middle East and West Africa. By the time he returned on May 21, he’d visited Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Algeria.
In Saudi Arabia, he’d experienced what amounted to the second life-changing epiphany in his life as he accomplished the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and discovered an authentic Islam of universal respect and brotherhood. The experience changed Malcolm’s world view. Gone was the belief in whites as exclusively evil. Gone was the call for black separatism. His voyage to Mecca helped him discover the atoning power of Islam as a means to unity as well as self-respect: “In my thirty-nine years on this earth,” he would write in his autobiography, “the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being.”
It had been a long journey in a brief life.
Before Mecca: The Nation of Islam
Malcolm’s first epiphany first had occurred 12 years earlier when he converted to Islam as he was serving an eight-to-10-year prison sentence for robbery. But back then it was Islam according to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam—an odd cult whose principles of racial hatred and separatism, and whose strange beliefs about whites being a genetically engineered race of “devils,” stood it in contrast with Islam’s more orthodox teachings.
Malcolm X bought in and rapidly rose in the ranks of the organization, which was more like a neighborhood guild, albeit a disciplined and enthusiastic one, than a “nation” when Malcolm arrived. Malcolm’s charisma and eventual celebrity built the Nation of Islam into the mass movement and political force it became in the early 1960s.
Disillusion and Independence
But the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad turned out to be much less than the upstanding moral paragon he pretended to be. He was a hypocritical, serial womanizer who fathered numerous children out of wedlock with his secretaries, a jealous man who resented Malcolm’s stardom, and a violent man who hesitated neither to silence his critics nor to intimidate them (through thuggish emissaries). His knowledge of Islam was also relatively slight. “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam,” Malcolm wrote, “and not knowing the prayer ritual.” Elijah Muhammad had never taught it.
It took Malcolm’s disillusionment with Muhammad and the Nation finally to break-away from the organization and set out on his own, literally and metaphorically, to the more authentic heart of Islam.
Re-discovering Brotherhood and Equality
First in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, then in Jeddah, the Saudi city, Malcolm witnessed what he claims he never saw in the United States: men of all color and nationalities treating each other equally. “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound for the pilgrimage,” he’d begun to notice at the airport terminal before boarding the plane for Cairo in Frankfurt, “were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.” To enter the state of ihram required of all pilgrims heading for Mecca, Malcolm abandoned his trademark black suit and dark tie for the two-piece white garment pilgrims must drape over their upper and lower bodies. “Every one of the thousands at the airport, about to leave for Jedda, was dressed this way,” Malcolm wrote. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know.” That, of course, is the point of ihram. As Islam interprets it, it reflects the equality of man before God.
Preaching in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, Malcolm’s journey was held up a few days until authorities could be sure his papers, and his religion, were in order (no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca). As he waited, he learned various Muslim rituals and spoke to men of vastly different backgrounds, most of whom were as star-struck with Malcolm as Americans were back home.
They knew him as the “Muslim from America.” They plied him with questions, he obliged them with sermons for answers, and in everything he said to them, “they were aware,” in Malcolm’s words, “of the yardstick that I was using to measure everything—that to me the earth’s most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability o God’s creatures to live as One, especially in the Western world.”
Malcolm in Mecca
Finally, the actual pilgrimage: “My vocabulary cannot describe the new mosque that was being built around the Ka’aba,” he wrote, describing the sacred site as “a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world. […] My feeling here in the House of God was numbness. My mutawaf (religious guide) led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’aba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain.
It was that sight that inspired his famous “Letters from Abroad”—three letters, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Nigeria and one from Ghana—that began redefining Malcolm X’s philosophy. “America,” he wrote from Saudi Arabia on April 20, 1964, “needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases the race problem from its society.” He would later concede that “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly.