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Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi: The Shi‘a Connection?
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  • Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi: The Shia Connection?John Andrew Morrow

    Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2012, pp.5-24 (Article)

    Published by ICAS PressDOI: 10.1353/isl.2012.0020

    For additional information about this article

    Access provided by University Of Southern California (2 Apr 2014 05:49 GMT)


  • Journal of Shia Islamic Studies Winter 2012 Vol. V No. 1


    Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi:

    The Shia Connection?

    J O H N A N D R E W M O R R O W

    Department of Spanish, English & Religious Studies, University of Virginia, Charlottesville,

    Virginia, USA

    ABSTRACT: According to accepted knowledge, Malcolm X left the

    Nation of Islam to embrace orthodox Islam after his pilgrimage to Mecca. As a result of his contacts with Saudis and Egyptians, it was

    assumed that Malik Al-Shabazz had embraced Sunnism or Salafism.

    This study, however, suggests that Malcolm X was brought into

    mainstream Islam by Dr. Mohammad Taki Mehdi, an Iraqi Shia. Not only did Dr. Mehdi make arrangements for Malcolm Xs pilgrimage, he appears to have acted as his spiritual and political

    mentor. On the basis of interviews with family and friends of the

    late Dr. Mehdi, it is suggested that the famous activist may have

    shared the story of Imam Husayn with his African American

    associate. If Malcolm X decided to follow in the footsteps of Imam

    Husayn, he could be considered a de-facto Shia by some. At the very least, it would suggest that Malcolm was influenced by Shiism.

    KEYWORDS: Malcolm X; Shabazz, Malik; Mehdi, Mohammad

    Taki; Shiism; Imam Husayn; Karbala.


    While most Muslims are aware that Malcolm X was a minister in the

    Nation of Islam and that he eventually embraced mainstream Islam

    after his pilgrimage to Mecca, it has always been the accepted

    assumption that Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz had converted to Sunnism,

    as a result of his training at the University of al-Azhar, and perhaps

    even to Salafism, as a result of his contacts with the Muslim

    Brotherhood and the Saudi leadership. Recently, however, Dr. Manning

    Marable, the late author of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, has made a

    startling suggestion, namely, that Malcolm X may have consciously

    attempted to emulate the example of Imam Husayn.

  • Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi John Andrew Morrow


    Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi and Malcolm Shabazz (a.k.a. Malcolm X).

    1958, Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA. (Higher resolution unavailable.)

    Malcolm X and the Message of Imam Husayn

    While many Shia Muslim converts from North America and the Caribbean have always viewed Malcolm as a modern-day Imam Husayn,

    and have even organized pilgrimages to his grave, they could never

    claim that he had been directly influenced by Shiism. While Marables biography of Malcolm X has elicited both praise and criticism, the

    authors insight into the Shia influence on his subject is particularly thought-provoking. In a chapter titled Death Comes on Time, Marable argues that:

    As Malcolm became more aware of Islamic tradition in his

    last years, he probably learned about the third Shiite imam,

    Husayn ibn Ali, and his tragic murder. Husayn was the

    grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and the son of Ali ibn

    Abi Talib and Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad. After the

    murder of Ali and the abdication of his older brother, Hasan,

    Husayn became the object of allegiance for many Muslims. At

    Karbala in 680 CE in what today is Iraq, Husayn and a small

    band of supporters were attacked by religious opponents;

    nearly all of them were killed or captured. Husayn died

    bravely and gloriously, so much so that his murder became

  • Journal of Shia Islamic Studies Winter 2012 Vol. V No. 1


    central to the Shiite ethos of martyrdom, suffering, and

    resistance to oppression. The Shiite mourning observance of

    Ashura reenacts the tragedy as a passion play, in which

    participants engage in remorse and self-punishment over

    Husayns assassination, and rededicate themselves to the struggle for freedom and justice. (Marable 2011: 430)

    According to Marable, although Malcolm was well-aware that his

    days were numbered and that the Nation of Islam had put a price on

    his head, he followed in the footsteps of Husayn and refused to flee

    death (430). Knowing that he would be targeted at any time, he

    loosened his security detail rather than tightened it, ordered that his

    bodyguards be disarmed, and invited his wife and children to witness

    what would be his final speaking engagement on that fateful 21

    February 1965. As Marable points out, Perhaps, like Husayn, he wanted his death to be symbolic, a passion play representing his beliefs (433).

    As intriguing as Marables suggestion may be, the biographer made no attempt to substantiate his claims. The evidence, however, was

    staring him right in the face. As Marable mentions in his book,

    Malcolm participated in a gala reception for the Republic of Pakistan

    in Los Angeles in the spring of 1958 and spoke at a press conference at

    the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, coordinated by Mohammad T. Mendi [sic] of Karbala, Iraq (149). Although Marable gets his name wrong, it was Mehdi and not Mendi, Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi was Malcolms Shia connection.

    The Family Origin of Dr. Mehdi

    Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi (1928-1998), whom Marable fails to mention

    any more, was the father of the Arab movement in America. Born in

    Baghdad, Dr. Mehdi was the second son of al-Hajj Abd Allah Mehdi, the owner of a coffee shop in the sacred city of Karbala. The city of

    Karbala is the very birthplace of Shiism and is as Shia as the Vatican is Catholic. That Dr. Mehdi was a Shia is not subject to question. His middle name was Taki, given to him in honour of Imam Muhammad al-Taqi, the ninth Shia Imam. His family name was Mehdi, the title of the Twelfth Imam, and his older brother was named Mohammad Rida,

    in honour of the Prophet and the eighth Shia Imam, respectively. According to family memory, his mother was named Zohra or Zahra. While the first name refers to a star, a constellation, or a flower, the

  • Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi John Andrew Morrow


    second name means radiant or resplendent. If Dr. Mehdis mothers name was Zahra, then this was the title of the Prophets daughter, Fatimah. It should be stressed that many Muslims give the name Zuhr or Zuhra to their daughters, with the intention of honouring Fatimah al-Zahra. Since they believe that there is only one Fatimah al-Zahra, and

    are under the impression that it is forbidden to use the title al-Zahra for

    ordinary human beings, they use a variant of the name which draws

    from the same Arabic root.

    Although Dr. Mehdi was an Arab culturally and linguistically, his

    mother came from Isfahan, Iran. While the Mehdi family could not

    confirm the place of birth of al-Hajj Abd Allah Mehdi, both he and his wife appear to have been first cousins; hence, an Iranian origin seems

    likely. It should be stressed that, historically, the border between Iraq

    and Iran has been quite fluid. Consequently, 75% of the population of

    Karbala is composed of people claiming Persian ancestory. In places

    like Najaf, Karbala, and Kazimiyyah, roughly half of the population

    speak Persian at home. While in his late teens, Mohammad T. Mehdis family relocated to Baghdad where he graduated from the citys High School of Commerce. Since he ranked second highest in Iraqs national examinations, Mohammed Mehdi was granted a full Iraqi government

    scholarship allowing him to complete his studies at the University of

    California at Berkeley in 1948.

    Subtle Signs of Shiism in the Thoughts of Dr. Mehdi

    After graduating with an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Political Science, Dr.

    Mohammad T. Mehdi devoted his life to full-time political activism in

    the United States, standing up for the rights of Arabs, Muslims, and

    African Americans. In the process, he authored ten books, including An

    Arab Looks at America: A Nation of Lions; Chained; Peace in the Middle

    East (1967); Peace in Palestine (1976); Kennedy and Sirhan: Why? (1968);

    Terrorism: Why America is the Target (1988); Islam and Intolerance: A Reply

    to Salman Rushdie (1989); and edited Palestine and the Bible (1970), a

    collection of essays from leading Christian and Jewish scholars. While

    virtually all of these books deal with politics, and provide scarce

    information on Dr. Mehdis religious ideas, Islam and Intolerance gives us a glimpse of the authors Shiism.

    Written in response to the scandal caused by the publication of

    Salman Rushdies Satanic Verses, a work which attempted to make a mockery of the life of the Prophet, Islam and Intolerance (1989) shows

  • Journal of Shia Islamic Studies Winter 2012 Vol. V No. 1


    several subtle signs of Shiism. For example, he mentions Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Iranian Shia scholar, as a great example (7). While Dr. Mehdi mentions Sunni sources like Muslim and Bukhari, he also

    includes Nahj al-Balaghah by Imam Ali (10), a work rarely cited in a religious context by Sunni Muslims. When describing Islamic beliefs,

    Dr. Mehdi mentions the belief in one God and the belief in the

    prophets (17). When describing Islamic practices, he mentions daily

    prayers, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, paying khums and zakat,

    promoting the good (18), and engaging in jihad (19).

    Dr. Mehdis breakdown of Islamic beliefs and practices is consistent, not with Sunni theology, which includes shahadah, salah, sawm, hajj,

    and zakah (the profession of faith, the daily prayers, fasting, the

    pilgrimage, and alms), but with Shia theology, which consists of five articles of belief and ten articles of practical faith. The articles of belief

    are tawhid, adl, nubuwwah, imamah, and qiyamah (divine unity, divine justice, prophecy, imamate, resurrection) and the articles of practical

    faith are salah, sawm, hajj, zakah, khums, hajj, jihad, amr bil-maruf, nahy an al-munkar, tawalli, and tabarri (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, poor-due, alms, sacred struggle, promoting the good, prohibiting the wrong,

    attachment to the Prophets family, and separation from the enemies of the Prophets family).

    As scholars of Sunnism and Shiism are well-aware, promoting the good is not considered one of the pillars of Islam for Sunni Muslims.

    Dr. Mehdi, however, stresses that Al-amru bil-Marouf wa-Nayhu anel-Munkar (Enjoin people to do the right thing and refrain from doing

    the wrong) is a most important Islamic commandment in the service of

    the society and God (18). This command is specifically cited as the sixth and seventh branch of religion for Shia Muslims. It is also known that Sunnis only pay alms or zakat and that they do not pay khums. For

    the Shia, khums represents the fifth branch of faith. While Sunnis do not consider jihad as one of the foundational precepts of their faith, it

    is ranked sixth for the Shia. Nonetheless, in an example of historical irony, the opponents of

    Islam and those who are misinformed about the subject consider jihad

    as a distinctive trait of the Sunnis as a result of the events of 9/11. And,

    of course, they consider jihad to be synonymous with terrorism. While

    Dr. Mehdi may have been intentionally or inadvertently hazy on the

    foundations and branches of faith, excluding divine justice [adl], the Imamate [imamah], tawalli [attachment] and tabarri [detachment], his

    understanding of Islam was clearly Shia in scope.

  • Malcolm X and Mohammad Mehdi John Andrew Morrow


    Further evidence of Shia influence on the ideas of Dr. Mehdi is manifest in his views on the earliest converts to Islam, ijtihad, Islamic

    unity, the succession of the Prophet, and the various schools of

    jurisprudence in Islam. Although, according to the Shia, Ali was the first male to embrace Islam, traditional Sunni sources often cite Abu

    Bakr as the first man to convert, dismissing Ali due to the fact that he was a teenager. Dr. Mehdi, however, presents the traditional Shia view on the subject: The early supporters of the new Prophet included his wife, Khadija, and Ali, his future son-in-law (24). He thus gives precedence to Ali over Abu Bakr. When speaking about the sources from which Muslim derive their law, Dr. Mehdi mentions ijtihad which

    he describes as personal judgment if there is no law to cover a new situation (27). As Dr. Mehdi explains, This latter source of law is mostly used by Shii Muslims even though the Sunnis are increasingly

    using it nowadays to meet the demands of modern life (27). When speaking of the two main communities of Muslims, Dr.

    Mehdi places the Shia first, despite the fact that they are a minority: The Shiis (about 15%) and Sunnis (85%) of the Muslim world population (27). For the sake of Islamic unity, he seeks to minimize differences between both bodies of believers as opposed to accentuating

    them. As Dr. Mehdi explains, all Muslims are agreed on the basic principles of Islam: One God, Muhammad is His last Prophet, the Holy

    Quran is the revelation of God to Muhammad (27). Demonstrating the type of tolerance that is rarely found by Sunni writers on the subject,

    Dr. Mehdi objectively presents both the Sunni and Shia positions regarding the succession of the Prophet without making any value


    The Sunnis point to an election which took place after the

    death of the Prophet (632 A.D.) in which Abu-Bakr became

    the Khalifa (the successor) and the Shiis question the

    legitimacy of that election and maintain that the Prophet had

    assigned Ali to become his successor. But these are political

    disagreement, not religious. (Mehdi 1989: 27-28)

    When speaking of the successors of the Prophet, Dr. Mehdi is inclusive as

    opposed to exclusive, mentioning both Caliphs and Imams (16). Dr.

    Mehdi also stresses that there are five major schools of fiqh in Islam as

    opposed to four: There are five schools of thought in Islam, Shafei, Hanbali, Maliki, Hanafi and Jafari with minor disagreement as to Islam,

    the religion, and somewhat serious disagreement as to its politics (28).

  • Journal of Shia Islamic Studies Winter 2012 Vol. V No. 1


    Since Dr. Mehdi was an Arab nationalist and a modernist, who

    believed in the division between Mosque and State, he viewed religion

    mainly as an identity marker. He identified himself as an Arab and as a

    Muslim and avoided encouraging sectarian strife. His Shia background, however, may have served his political interests when he

    travelled to Lebanon in December of 1986 and again in February of 1987

    as part of a delegation from the National Council on Islamic Affairs

    which sought the release of American hostages. Since the hostages were

    held by pro-Iranian Islamists and the only Muslim leaders who could

    place any pressure on the kidnappers were Shia, it makes sense that Dr. Mehdis Shiism served as a sign of legitimacy. As a result, Dr. Mehdis delegation met with Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the future

    Shia source of...

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