Exhuming the Martyred Memory of Malcolm and Mother Betty: Cultivating a Uniquely American Muslim Ethos by Visiting a Largely Forgotten Burial Site (Part 2)

By Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes

In Part 2…..

I made my first ziyarah, an Arabic term meaning sacred visitation in Islamic spiritual culture, to Malcolm and Mother Betty the next year. I have had the blessing to travel widely in Muslim lands from Senegal to Singapore since God first expanded my heart for Islam in 1993 and have observed and participated in ziyarah to the burial sites of many famous and not so famous men and women revered for their spirituality, piety, and scholarship.  Such sacred visitations to burial sites to meditate on the inevitability of death, pray for the well-being of departed souls, and seek closeness to God and the answering of supplications through the believed sanctity of a deceased saint, sage, or scholar has been a major issue of ideological difference between a handful of Muslim communities in recent centuries.  Nevertheless, it is a widespread practice that those who participate in it see as one more means to divine grace if done when devoid of praying to the deceased or performing any act categorically prohibited by God through the Qur’an or the authentic reports of Prophet Muhammad (God exalt him and grant him peace with his folk), and those who condemn it see as a form of idolatry, a mortal sin, by virtue of being a means not explicitly prescribed by scripture. 

One of the many things that struck me on that radiant spring day surrounded by so many, young and old, who either adored Malcolm or were discovering him, was that I had never made the connection between the importance of ziyarah in traditional Muslim culture and visiting my mentor, Malcolm, here in America.  The burial site, or maqam, of an esteemed Muslim man or woman, is a sacred center in traditional Muslim societies, a spiritual vortex.  It is a place for renewal and redemption of the individual and community.  The annual commemorations of the birth (mawlid, hawl) or death (Urs or “wedding”, so called because of the metaphorical union of the deceased soul with its Ultimate Beloved, God) of such notables are opportunities to realign the soul and society with those lofty values and universal principles for which the deceased lived and educate the community about indigenous examples of prophetic selflessness and service not as historically and physically distant as the great prophets and friends of God mentioned in our sacred texts.  Such gatherings inspire millions and revivify their faith, work, and relationships with meaning and renewed commitment.

Another thing that astonished me was how few Muslims were present.  Out of about five hundred people I could only identity five as Muslims from either dress or comportment.  I was confused.  Why would so many cultural nationalists, Afrocentrics, socialists, Christians, and others who did not share Malcolm and Mother betty’s spiritual tradition be in attendance while those who did were hardly there?  This mystery was solved by an elderly Muslim gentleman whom I met at a Spring Valley halal restaurant offering mediterranean fare.  After giving the greetings and some small talk, I divulged the purpose of my visit to New York, and he told me, “Yeah, there used to be a time when thousands of Muslims would visit Ferncliff on May 19.  People would come from everywhere.  There were so many cars that if you didn’t get there early enough you couldn’t park anywhere in the cemetery.”

“What changed?” I asked.

“Well, it hasn’t been that way since the 80s.  You know, brothers started going overseas to study the Deen, came back, forgot who they was, and told people it was bid’a [a religious deviation].  So Muslims stopped coming and our numbers just kept getting smaller and smaller.”

Imam Abdul-Khaliq explained to me that the visitation was first started and maintained by the late Hajja Ella Collins, Malcolm’s mentor, half-sister, and sponsor of his historic hajj to Mecca.  Who is largely unknown to those whose only source of information on Malcolm was Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.  Hajja Ella was a pillar of the Black community in Boston and an active member of the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, both established by Malcolm before his martyrdom. She along with other members, family, and students of Malcolm kept the annual commemoration going since 1966.  There are many others who commemorate his assassination on February 21 every year but the bitter cold and snow often keep away the multitudes that make the pilgrimage to Hartsdale and Harlem in May.  Harlem Muslim notables like the late Shaykh ‘Allamah Tawfiq Ahmad, a member of both aforementioned organizations and one of the brilliant young students sent by Malcolm to study at the renowned Azhar University in Egypt, his chief protégé and student Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, the late Shaykh Abdul-Quddus (Sons of Afrika), along with Afrocentric activist-scholars like Professor James “Abdul-Lateef” Smalls (the first Imam of the Muslim Mosque Inc.), Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Mother Rosalind Jeffries, the late Baba Herman Ferguson, and countless others helped Hajja Ella keep the flame of the annual commemoration burning for decades when it was largely abandoned and forgotten by the American Muslim community.

Since the annual commemoration has been maintained and led by the Black cultural nationalist community through the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee for so many decades except for the presence of a handful of Muslims led by the young Shaykh Abdul-Quddus (God be pleased with his soul) and Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, current resident Imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem which inherited the mission and vision of the Muslim Mosque Inc., when I first attended there were more libations poured honoring ancestors, drums beaten, speeches by elders and activists, and calls of “Free the Land! Free the People!” than were supplications to God, recitation of the Qur’an, and the chanting of Divine Names and Attributes that Brother Malcolm and Mother Betty used in their own spiritual practice.   To the credit of these pioneers of Black consciousness and self-determination, not once did they ever denigrate or belittle Islam at these commemorations, not only out of their love and respect for our two beloved martyrs but from their own innate human decency.  As Imam Abdul-Khaliq, Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, and I, along with a few others have worked to raise awareness of this annual commemoration, the numbers of Muslims in attendance has increased every year.  Now Muslims do not only offer a prayer or give a short talk during the visitation ceremony, we also call the adhan, chant “La ilaha illa’llah” (Arabic for There is no creator but God), and recite the Qur’an during the main ceremony with the encouragement and deference of our brothers and sisters from the Afrocentric community. Not that honoring ancestors in a practice alien to Muslims who revere the Salaf as-Salih, but method and emphasis differ. My hope is that this year’s participation from our Muslim community will be even greater than in years past, Allah willing. That the commemoration enables us to engage in much needed dialogue and collaboration with the many diverse individuals and communities that adore the memory of Malcolm and Mother Betty in spite of attempts to malign and distort their lives and legacy from every possible angle.

If we listen humbly and attentively there is still a great deal we Muslims can learn from El-Hajj Malik, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and their daughters; even though they were not classically trained Islamic scholars or holders of doctorate degrees in the Islamic Studies, in fact it was partiallly due to their lack of formal Islamically training that they have been highly effective and impactful in their respective arenas. Malcolm was certain that Islam if internalized by Whites and Blacks could heal America of its original sin, racism, through a new spiritual identity and restorative justice.  But for this to happen we, like Malcolm eventually did, must transcend race.  The Shabazz family has much to teach us about how to build healthy, prosperous, upright, highly educated, and spiritually trascendent American Muslim communities that are meaningfully connected with all sectors of society.

Malcolm is a martyr but no ordinary martyr, he is America’s own Imam al-Husayn who refused to kneel to the Yazid of his time, and the Audubon Ballroom was his Karbala’.  During a recent trip to Istanbul this similitude was made even more real for me. I visited a dear acquaintance and respected sociologist, Dr. Recep Senturk, who gifted me a precious book he wrote about our dear Brother Malcolm in Turkish, Malcolm X: Insan Haklari Mücadelesi (Malcolm X: The Human Rights Struggle). It is in its ninth edition he told me and his bestselling book to date.  This book is both a testament to Malcolm’s rightful place in history as a pioneering human rights leader and a spiritual biography that explores his ascending all seven of the degrees of the soul delineated in the Gracious Qur’an and Islamic transpersonal psychology. Senturk deftly examines Imam El-Hajj Malik Shabazz’s transformation from an intellectually brilliant child of natural leadership ability, to a selfish and violent criminal in his youth, to a selfless and fearless servant of humanity in adulthood like Imam al-Husayn, who had attained the peak of self-actualization and the highest ranks of Muslim sainthood, saying in his final days:

“I am for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I am a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Exhuming the Martyred Memory of Malcolm and Mother Betty: Cultivating a Uniquely American Muslim Ethos by Visiting a Largely Forgotten Burial Site (Part 1) 


Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes serves as Founding Director of SacredService for Human Liberation and the AHAD (African-American Healing and Development) Institute, as well as a community Imam and instructor of Arabic and the Islamic Theological, Jurisprudential, and Metaphysical Sciences at various mosques and schools in the Metro Atlanta area.

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