We all know the name Malcolm X, but few of us have heard of Malik El-Shabazz, the name the civil rights activist adopted after his conversion to Islam and under which he journeyed to Cairo in the early 1960s. As those who travel in the pursuit of knowledge so often do, Malcolm travelled alone, arriving in the Egyptian capital just before embarking on a long journey through Africa. Malcolm’s time in Cairo is rarely touched upon. Still, it seems to have had an important impact on his politics towards the end of his life, sparking a new emphasis on Black unity and the importance of brotherhood in the face of white oppression.
The year before Malcolm X’s last visit to Cairo, he’d left America to travel the Middle East and West Africa. When he returned on May 21st, 1963, he had visited Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Algeria. This journey also saw him undertake the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The long journey to the holy city completely changed Malcolm’s worldview, marking a transition from the Black separatism that had defined his activism thus far. As he would later 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.”
The road to this epiphany was a long one. Malcolm’s early experiences of racial violence gave him every right to believe that white people were devils. While his family had attempted to improve the relationship between Black and white residents in their native Omaha, they were eventually forced to flee after a white fascist organisation torched their home. Then, at the age of six, Malcolm’s father was killed in a racially motivated attack. Even his white teacher’s told him to consider a life in carpentry rather than Law, despite his excellent grades and sharp intellect. After landing a six-year prison sentence, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam; an African American movement that combined ideas from Black Nationalism with Islamic teachings. He soon converted to Islam, later becoming one of the leading figures of the Nation movement.
But by 1962, Malcolm was reassessing his role within the Nation Of Islam. The movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, had turned out to be a far cry from the paragon of virtue Malcolm had believed him to be. He discovered that Elijah Muhammad was having extra-marital affairs with several of his young secretaries. As well as being plagued by fits of violence and jealousy, the leader didn’t even have a substantial grasp on Islamic teachings. “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam,” he later wrote, “and not knowing the prayer ritual.” The controversy surrounding Elijah Muhammad coincided with an already tense period of conflict between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam, which eventually saw him turn away from the Nation and start afresh, carving a solitary path towards the true heart of Islam.
Malcolm arrived in Cairo completely untethered from any administrative support. He was entirely alone and relied on the generosity and guidance of the expatriate community, many of whom had left cities like Chicago and Philidelphia, seeking African and Islamic identities away from the dislocating vacuum of the United States. During his two-month stay in Cairo, Malcolm met with African heads of state, spent days conferencing with senior officials of the Al Azhar Islamic Center and visited many of the tombs and temples from the days of the Pharaohs. The statues and ruins that he saw in these ancient places offered him something that simply wasn’t visible in America: historical examples of Black excellence. As he once explained to an attentive audience back in the US, “The Black people who lived in that day had mastered science to such an extent, had mastered chemistry to such an extent, that they could create colours the dye of which hasn’t changed to this day. They were master chemists.”
The historical artefacts littered around Egypt demonstrated to Malcolm that white colonialism had spread its tendrils into the very history of the African continent. Pointing to photographs of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, Malcolm noted how American historians and curators were deliberately marring the Black features of these statues in an attempt to whitewash Africa’s history. For X, this concealment was an example of white culture severing Black Americans from their heritage. But there was something even more formative that Malcolm X witnessed during his time in Egypt: the sight of men of all nations treating each other equally. As soon as landing in Cairo from Frankfurt, he saw: “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound for the pilgrimage.” All of them were “were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.” As Malcolm X would later clarify in July 1964: “My heart is in Cairo.”