Click through to access the audio transcripts for “The Black Stone of Mecca: Malcolm X, Prison Letters, Tasawwuf Poetry, and Ethical Texts,” published as a chapter in Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives.
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm as a Poet (Excerpt)
Maytha Alhassen: Malcolm’s Writing as Poetic
Zaheer Ali: Black People of America + the Black Stone
Hussein Rashid: The East
Maytha Alhassen: No Pork + No Cigarettes
Maytha Alhassen: Uncovering Sourcing for Poetry
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm’s Demonstration of “Literary-ness”
Omid Safi: Hafiz + Translations
Maytha Alhassen: Malcolm’s Writings as Poetic
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm as a Poet
Zaheer Ali: Even Malcolm’s Name is Poetic
Zaheer Ali: First Revelation
Omid Safi: Sa’di + The Rose Garden—The Text Whereby People Learn to Read and Write
Zaheer Ali: IYKYK
Omid Safi: Adab Tradition
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: Learning from Incarcerated Muslims
Hussein Rashid: Ethical Poetry
Omid Safi: Omar Khayyam
Maytha Alhassen: Multiple Literacy Exploration
Omid Safi: Poetry—A Way of Imagination
Maytha Alhassen: “Prison, Thanks to Islam, Has Ceased to Be a Prison”
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: The Power of Signs
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: In the Name Of
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: Medina Letter—Seeking Refuge
Zaheer Ali, Malcolm as a Poet (Excerpt)
There is a kind of structure to Malcolm’s most famous addresses. So like we think of “Message to the Grassroots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet.” And even fast forward to like why I think Malcolm is sampled so much in hip hop. I never thought of Malcolm as a poet, and I wonder what kind of space that opens up if we think about Malcolm as a poet. He certainly understood alliteration, right? So like the ballot or the bullet and the idea of repetition. I think there’s something rich here to see the growing mind of Malcolm as a poet and his appreciation of the power of not just words but how those words could be arranged.
Maytha Alhassen, Malcolm’s Writing as Poetic
That analysis had me thinking throughout the trajectory of Malcolm’s writings and the way poetry, not just functioned for him. It made me see his writing in terms of being poetic.
Zaheer Ali, Black People of America + the Black Stone
I think first we should think about what is the story of the Black Stone in Mecca that Malcolm is thinking about when he asks this question. For people who don’t know, the Black Stone is something that was used by Abraham to build the first house of worship that Abraham built. You go back further, it is believed to have been, you know, some particle of an asteroid or a meteorite that fell from the sky, right? Like there’s this theory that that’s what it is. Like how did this particular stone become so special? And that’s because it came from the sky. It was a meteorite or something like that. But then there’s the story of Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, who is because of the trust that he is given by the community is given the task of carrying the stone in the rebuilding. And he’s the one that places the stone in the corner of the rebuilt house.
He receives his prophetic mission, right? Like this is when this community of rebuilding the house. And then you think about how Malcolm at this point in time understands Elijah Muhammad’s role and history and the idea of that a or the Muhammad will use or build the house of God or the next house of God or the foundational house of God by taking the Black Stone and putting it in its proper place as the cornerstone of that house. So when Malcolm’s asking this question, he’s referencing this framework that sees Black people of America as the essential cornerstone to the reestablishment or establishment of Islam in North America. That Black people are that stone that had been displaced from its proper place and had to be restored to its proper place in order for that house to be built. And that the person to do it would be a Muhammad or the Muhammad. With this line in 1950, we are all already getting into the figurative engagement with poetics essential to Malcolm’s way of understanding and explaining Black people and Black people’s role and relationship to Islam.
Hussein Rashid, The East
If you look at the language and the text that somebody like Noble Drew Ali, for example, is referencing—the knowledge that Elijah Muhammad had as he talks about in the early Nation of Islam, right? It does seem like this is part of the zeitgeist. Now, I don’t wanna make a direct line between Elijah Muhammad and Noble Drew Ali and the Theosophical Society. I think the Theosophical Society is simply representative of this larger interest in, you know, what Noble Drew Ali calls the Moorish world, where somebody like Elijah Muhammad is looking outside of the United States. And this is coming out of slightly earlier, where you have a group like the Shriners, who post Civil War were also very actively looking towards the East and the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions. That sets up the sort of Turkish zone that, you know, Americans are sort of fascinated with. It’s very clearly part of the American discourse in the early part of the twentieth century, and it feels like that is a natural growth, right? I mean, particularly for Malcolm, who’s very interested in knowledge, in literacy, both before and after becoming Muslim, and really participating and partaking of what is considered good literature from across the world at this point, particularly in English.
Maytha Alhassen, No Pork + No Cigarettes
That letter to his brother Philbert in 1950 is during this time he’s in a place called the Norfolk Prison Colony, which Garrett Felber, who is a colleague of Zaheer’s and I’s and from the Malcolm X project. He wrote this excellent book about Black Muslims and the carceral state. And he delves deep into what Norfolk in Massachusetts was trying to present itself as, which was this liberal approach to prison as this community prison. They didn’t call cells “cells,” they called them dormitories. There was more time, and Malcolm brings this up in his diaries, outside of the prison walls to be outside. And then the really important point in this moment is that Malcolm gets access to an excellent library. And so we’re gonna see what comes out of that.
Malcolm is incarcerated in February 1946, a sentence of 8 to 10 years for breaking, entering, and larceny. Four counts served concurrently with his friend Malcolm Jarvis, known as Shorty. They initially go to Charleston, which is a state prison, and they’re put into solitary confinement for 24 hours in the beginning of that term. And he writes when he learns about Norfolk, requesting a transfer. He gets transferred to Concord, which is in West Concord, Massachusetts. And then eventually in 1948, March 31, 1948, with the help of his older sister Ella, gets transferred to Norfolk. So this is all 1949, and as I mentioned, he moves to Norfolk. The year prior, Philbert is hardcore preaching to Malcolm of the teachings of the NOI, and it kind of turns Malcolm off actually. And then his brother Reginald tries a softer approach. Hey, just stop eating pork and taking in tobacco. And he does. And then his sister Hilda suggests that he starts corresponding with Elijah Muhammad. And then towards the end of the year, this is what’s happening. So as we see this is the beginning of 1949, there’s something different brewing for him. And as he says in one of these letters from these two in February, he apologizes because in this new prison scenario, he’s been able to be outside more often and access the library. So he hasn’t been corresponding as much, and it’s in these winter months that he
s reaching out to his family.
Maytha Alhassen, Uncovering Sourcing for Poetry
“O time of broken vows that none would mend!
The bitter foe was once a faithful friend.
So to the skirts of solitude I cling,
Lest friendship lure me to the evil end.”
Now, what’s interesting about this is there’s no citation, right? And when I read this as I was sitting, and some of you here know the process of going through microfilm and microfiche and you’re wondering like, okay, this looks like it could be a pretty famous poem. And then I was able to identify that this is actually from Hafiz.
Zaheer Ali, Malcolm’s Demonstration of “Literary-ness”
Malcolm’s desire to be literary. It’s not just writing a letter. There is a demonstration of literacy in writing the letter. But there’s also a demonstration of not just literate-ness but, and I don’t know if this is a word, but literary-ness, like there’s a demonstration of being familiar with the literature or of the literature. Someone said to him or wrote to him, his siblings wrote to him or even when he encountered the visitor, I think it was an Ahmadiyya visitor that visited him and Shorty. So he hears this word Islam and he’s like, I gotta go find everything I can find about this thing, right? Wherever I can find it. And even if it’s being translated through the kind of texts that would have been available in a prison library in 1949. This is a demonstration of his capaciousness, of his expansiveness with which he is embracing this idea. And this way of sharing it is not overly didactic.
He isn’t like, here y’all, I want y’all to read this cause I found this thing and this is what it means. He is putting it there to, I think, practice, model, and demonstrate his literacy with, and I put in quotes “Islam,” because I know that that’s a construction. But he’s doing that in this way. And he’s doing that with an assumption that his readers know that’s what he’s doing. He’s doing that with an assumption that this will be another thing. You know, it’s kind of like if he were to open a letter with “In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” or greetings of peace, there is an assumption that his readers, in this case his siblings, would automatically know where that’s coming from. There’s a sort of telegraphing that’s happening here. And he doesn’t know what they know or don’t know. He’s just assuming they are also diving into this Islam thing as much as he is. And hey, here’s this thing I found, and this is why I think he opens, or you know, starts his letter with this.
Omid Safi, Hafiz + Translations
Hafiz, in particular, there’s a really amazing quote about him that is in the book of Shahab Ahmed, the late Shahab Ahmed, called What is Islam? And he calls Hafiz the most widely copied, widely circulated, widely read, widely memorized, widely recited, widely invoked, and widely proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history. He is someone who is simultaneously spiritual, sensual, erotic, mystical. And of course, his name means someone who’s memorized the whole Qur’an. It’s fascinating that, you know, someone like Malcolm, Brother Malcolm, would have been quoting him because Hafiz in so many ways disrupts our ideas about what Islam is and has been historically. And there are a whole lot of really juicy and wonderful debates about how Muslim really was he? How Sufi was he really? But none of that challenges his extraordinary popularity in South Asia, in Iran, in the Ottoman Empire, right until today.
The places that Malcolm is getting his quotations of Hafiz from, which is the writings of someone named Syed Abdul-Majid. It’s very interesting if you read the introduction, he spends pages and pages discussing where Islamic mysticism or Sufism comes from. Is it Greek? Is it Christian? Is it Indian? And then of course, he ends up by saying, no, no, no, it actually comes from Islam. But the very fact that he has to spend all that time answering this question tells you a little bit about the Orientalist context of early twentieth century, where many people simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe that something so beautiful could have arisen out of what they had already deemed to be the dry, barren desert of Islam. There’s a book that is published in 1912 called The Ruba’iyat of Hafiz, and this translation seems to have come from there. It’s translated and introduced by Syed Abdul-Majid. It says, rendered into English verse by L. Cranmer-Byng. It’s published in London in 1912. That seems to be as early of a way that I can trace it to.
Maytha Alhassen, Malcolm’s Writings as Poetic
Malcolm X is transcribing from what appears to be shared in Charles Sylvester’s The Writings of Mankind, volume two, Arabia, Persia, Egypt, the Near East, Hebrew literature, and the excerpt goes:
“Allah did not forget thee in that term
When thou wast but the buried, senseless germ:
He gave thee soul, perception, intellect,
Beauty and speech and reason circumspect:
By him five fingers to thy fist were strung,
And thy two arms upon thy shoulders hung.
O graceless one! what cause has thou to dread
Lest he remember not thy daily bread?”
Malcolm continues in this letter to Philbert with a philosophical revelation about poetry, and he says, “I’m a real bug for poetry. When you think back over all of our past lives, only poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man.”
Again, that’s a letter to Philbert, February 4, 1949, and that analysis had me thinking through the trajectory of Malcolm X’s writing, speeches, commentary, and how poetry not just functioned for him, but it made me see these discursive interventions made by him as poetic.
Zaheer Ali, Malcolm as a Poet
There is a kind of structure to Malcolm’s most famous addresses. So like we think of “Message to the Grassroots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” and even like fast forward to why I think Malcolm is sampled so much in hip hop. And it’s partly because, I’ve never thought about it this way until this conversation, but I think Malcolm, when he’s like, “I have a real, bug for poetry, when you think back over all of our past lives, only poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man.” I never thought of Malcolm as a poet. And I wonder what that, what kind of space that opens up if we think about Malcolm as a poet.
He certainly understood alliteration, right? So like the ballot or the bullet and the idea of repetition. So throughout that speech, for example, he’s like “that’s why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet.” And he goes, he goes on, he goes and he comes back and he’s like “that’s why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet.” And there’s a rhythm in his lecture or in his talks or in his speeches. There is the construction of a slogan or a phrase that has stickiness to it that could be a refrain that you kind of come back. In “Message of the Grassroots,” he’s like “the Negro revolution versus the Black revolution.” He’s like “the house slave and the field slave.” There’s this playing with duality, this playing of tension, this playing of parallels, and the idea that when you’re giving a talk, it’s not just a straight line. You kind of do have to circle back, and you do have to bring, it’s almost like you have to introduce a tension into the ideas that your audience are considering, and then you have to introduce a way to resolve that tension. You bring it to a peak, and then you have to leave your audience in a kind of place.
And I say all of that to say, I’ve often thought of what it would be like if Malcolm was a musician. And I know that Manning Marable talks about Malcolm taking on this persona of Jack Carlton as a drummer, a short-lived drummer, but that Malcolm was very fond we know of music and paid very close attention to music and paid very close attention to the movements and shifts that were taking place in jazz. And that jazz artists also reciprocated that attention when you look at someone like Max Roach or Abbey Lincoln and the ways that they would appear at rallies and stuff that Malcolm spoke at.
And so there is, I think here, I think there’s something rich here to see the growing mind of Malcolm as a poet and his appreciation of the power of not just words but how those words could be arranged, right? To convey ideas both directly and indirectly. And how there’s a play with suspense and tension. I’m just thinking about some of his famous clips that have stuck in my head over the years. And the reason why they stick in my head is not only because of the power of the ideas that he’s conveying, but because of the way he does it. That can be at times funny. That can be at times inspiring. That could be at times empowering. That can be at times, you know, depressing. That could be at times enraging. But you know, someone who understands it’s not just the power of the ideas. It is the words as containers of those ideas. And I think what we see here is Malcolm practicing that containment. I mean, when he is saying like “poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man,” he’s thinking about what can carry these ideas. And I think that’s why he’s drawn to these poems and using them as introductions, as bridges, as carriers to get from one point to the next.
Zaheer Ali, Even Malcolm’s Name is Poetic
He understood the power of symbols. And you know, I think whether it is, I mean even, and we know that the concept of taking on the “X” is not something that he originated. We know that that comes from the Nation of Islam’s tradition. But that Malcolm is drawn to it, that Malcolm is drawn to the power of naming, that Malcolm is drawn to what information is carried in a name. It has me thinking of Ruha Benjamin’s notion of “the name as a code” and what does the name encode, right? What history is carried by a name? And so I think even, you know, even “Malcolm X” is poetry. Like that name is poetic, right? And whether or not he intended it this way, the choice of Malik as his Arabic name. I don’t know that etymologically, Malcolm and Malik are related, but in sound they are, right?
Because they have those three consonants, the M, L, and K, right? And we know in Arabic that the trilateral roots, you know, convey the meaning. And so it’s almost that Malcolm is in that name being given or chosen by him or given to him. It’s that that name is sonically related to Malcolm. And just even that’s like a poetic thing, right? Because the thing with poetry is that it’s not always literal. It’s like word play. And then the word helps shift the meaning, right? So we go from Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm, to Malik, right? And that’s the bridge. It’s a sound bridge, right? Sometimes it’s not an ideas bridge. And so thinking of like, even how he’s using these poems in his letters.
They have different kinds of functions. And sometimes it’s not just about literary continuity. Sometimes it’s about, oh, you ended with this letter, you start with that letter. And that’s no less significant, right? But it is an art. It’s a sort of constructive art. And so I think even his name as, I mean, and there’s like a whole thing, it’s also just a wonderful coincidence that the name that Malcolm chooses sonically is related to Malcolm in Malik. And then of course, Malik, the trilateral roots of Malik are, you know, mim, lam, kaf. And so it’s M, L, K and that’s Martin Luther King, and who’s king? And it’s just like [laugh], for someone who is an artist who is looking at this moment, it’s just like, beautiful. You know? And I don’t even think that can be intentionally created completely, but that’s what a poet would do, right? Like a poet is, they’re gonna, there’s a kind of poetry that’s gonna make associations that may not necessarily be obvious or may not even make literal sense or ideological sense, but in their arrangement together invites us to think about something more differently and more profoundly. And this comes back to when Malcolm is like, so we’re the Black Stone, we are the East. Outside of understanding that framework, it’s like, what is he talking about? But if you allow yourself to be engaged by that, what does it invite you to think about? What if we are the Black Stone? What does that mean? What does it invite us to think? And so I think just that kind of, I feel like Malcolm’s engagement with poetry invited that, right?
It’s why, you know, in his speeches, whether or not the word negro actually is etymologically related to the word necro. Whether or not that is the case, that association invites us to think about the ways that quote unquote negro was rendered social death, right? You have all these like Afro-pessimists right now talking about the social death in the afterlives of slavery. And Malcolm introduced this idea of negro and necro. And whether or not it was etymologically correct, that wasn’t the point. The point was, let me do this poetry here of bringing these two words together, and you will remember these two words together because of their sonic relationship, because of their visual relationship. And the point that I want you to walk away from is to never call yourself by a name that you yourself did not create or was given to you, right? And a name that has socially come to mean social death. So that I think is what I think about when I think about what does it mean to think about Malcolm as a poet.
Zaheer Ali, First Revelation
When I read this passage that Malcolm has quoted in this letter that talks about the creation of the human being, the two things that resonate with me are the first revelation in the Qur’an. Chapter 96, The Clot, or Surah al-‘Alaq, which you know, starts with “read in the name of your Lord, who created you from a clot.” And then there’s another section in the Qur’an, Surah al-Muʼminun, or The Believers, which is Chapter 23, which gets into even more detail. “We placed in him as a drop of sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then we made it into a clot. Then from that clot, a lump.” And there’s like this whole evolution of the human life that God is governing. So that’s what I’m thinking about when Malcolm uses this passage or quotes this passage.
And again, I think from the poetic mind, we have to think about what these associations mean and what do they invite us to think about. And you know, certainly Malcolm’s growing literacy with the pen is being encouraged and guided in part through his encounter with Islam, right? And it’s almost that he is responding to that first revelation of “read in the name of your Lord who created you.” That’s this, that’s what we see happening here. Malcolm is reading, Malcolm is using the pen. Malcolm is understanding that he is a being in evolution. And I think, you know, even with the Chapter 23, The Believers, Malcolm is in the process of becoming a believer or understanding himself as a believer. And that is what I see here, why he uses this passage or why this passage speaks to him.
He doesn’t quote the Qur’an, but the Qur’an is the reference for this, right? The Qur’an is the source of this. It is the framework for this understanding, and it’s why he’s drawn to it. Because he would have, by this point in time, I’m almost certain, and we know that he was given a Qur’an. And so knowing that Malcolm is now engaged in this really intense, dedicated devotional study inspired by his siblings calling him to Islam, you know, it makes perfect sense that he is now looking and going through the world, drawing and identifying and picking on and picking out the things that echo that Islam. We see this in his activism in 1950, where, and the years following, where he’s requiring or requesting a pork-free diet, where he wants a space where he can face the east to pray. That even though there are all of these ways that people see the Nation of Islam as different from how they understand Sunni Islam, that that is not relevant to Malcolm. In this stage, Malcolm is in the process of becoming a believer. And everything that he sees, that’s gonna be his touch point, his touchstone. And I think that whether, anything that Malcolm encounters of Islam, he is going to process through his experience, life, and identity as a Black man in America. And anything that he encounters as a Black man in America, he is now processing through his encounter with Islam. And that’s what we see here.
Omid Safi, Sa’di + The Rose Garden—The Text Whereby People Learn to Read and Write
Sa’di simply is the author of the single most important work of prose in, again, the Eastern, the Persianate half of Islamic civilization. It’s a work called The Gulistan, The Rose Garden. And The Rose Garden, which is written in the late 1200s, right up until today, is the text whereby people learn how to read and write. We really have no analogies to its influence in the English-speaking world. I sometimes tell people it’s not even like teaching second graders Shakespeare. It would really be much more akin to teaching second graders Chaucer. The Rose Garden, which is Sa’di’s masterpiece. He’s also an extraordinary writer of love poetry. And fascinating again that Malcolm would be quoting from him because Sa’di becomes the epitome of what you could call a humanistic tradition in Islam. His most iconic line, which is sometimes used a lot by human rights organizations, is a paraphrase of a hadith of the Prophet, which interestingly enough, is actually much more well known in Sa’di’s retelling than it is actually as a hadith of the Prophet, in which he says that, you know, human beings are like members of one body. And if any parts of the body hurt, the whole body experiences pain. And that if you’re not moved by the suffering of others, you are maybe unworthy of the name human.
So Sa’di really becomes the paradigm of this kind of ethical voice that transcends narrow religious and national kind of considerations. And the quote that he has for Sa’di that comes out of Charles Sylvester, The Writings of Mankind. This is the sort of great Orientalist effort to catalog all the great literature of humanity. It’s kind of that evolutionary Darwinian tradition applied to literature. And so let us catalog the great writings of the Africans and the Indians and the Persians and the Arabs. Oh, my! So Sylvester’s book seems to be, what is, I’m guessing given the fact that he’s narrating these kind of verbatim, I would guess, that he somehow had gotten access to this 1924 book by Charles Herbert Sylvester. The Sa’di translation comes from, these are really great Orientalist works. They don’t give us a way of going back to the original, but the book is called The Writings of Mankind in 20 Volumes. Volume two deals with Arabia, Persia, Egypt, the Near East, and Hebrew Literature.
Zaheer Ali, IYKYK
Even though he says in this letter “and most of the time I put down poetry to take up space, so it will look like I’ve written a long letter so I can receive a long letter in return.” Like even as he says that, and there is, I guess, a way to diminish the meaning and intentionality of this, right, of his use of poetry. He ain’t quoting Robert Frost. [Laugh] There is still a very intentional selection here. We could look at this as like, I don’t know, like you think of sampling. And I know that we’ve talked, other conversations we’ve had about Malcolm as a sampler, as a remixer. You think of people who are hip hop artists who sample, they are looking for something that’s gonna carry the song, right? So they’re looking for a beat. And sometimes they find the beat in the most unexpected of places.
At the height of hip hop sampling, there was this thing that everyone sampled, but then there was an art where people were trying to find the most obscure thing to sample, and then sample it in a way that you couldn’t recognize where it came from. And it wasn’t an attempt to steal or be a thief of authorship. It wasn’t an attempt to not cite your sources. It was an attempt to, I bet you don’t know where this came from. And it was a test too of your own musical literacy, that you could hear that and be like, oh, I hear James Brown, or I hear Parliament-Funkadelic, or I hear like something even more rare. And so it was this ability to create a different kind of literacy. And so, you know, as we think about Malcolm quoting these poems but not saying who the writers are, there’s this kind of, creation of a, it’s like he’s sub-tweeting.
There’s a way of “if you know you know.” A reliance on your knowledge, a reliance on your intimate knowledge of this thing. That if you don’t, you’re like, okay, cool, this is poetry that’s just taking up space. But if you do, you’re like, what we just did, you’re like, oh, I hear the Qur’an in that. Or I hear this concept of what Malcolm is trying to do, or I hear Malcolm growing in his own kind of word usage. Or I hear Malcolm, you know, looking at questions of beauty and existence and brotherhood and friendship. And that’s what I hear because I know something different. And I think Malcolm is relying on his siblings to do some of that as well.
And for the people who don’t, he’s just like taking up space, right? And so you think about the work of sampling. Yeah, there was sort of like meaningless sample of, oh, this does this, this is a good beat. But sometimes the sampling was done to recreate a different kind of world. A world that was accessible to people who shared something with you, right? And when you think about, you know, the work of art or culture creation or artistic creation, some of the best art has these multiple meanings. And so everyone isn’t going to get everything and that’s okay cause they still get something. And maybe if they come back to it, they’ll come back to it with a different set of resources that they’ll get something more, right? Or something different. And I think that’s one of the lessons I take away from this.
I’m not saying that that’s what this letter is, but I do think as an archive, if you come to this with very little knowledge of Malcolm, you’re gonna walk away with something. If you come to this with a better understanding of Malcolm, you’re gonna get something else. If you come to this with an understanding of Malcolm and maybe some Islamic history, you’re gonna be like, oh, I see something else happening here. If you come to this with an understanding of Malcolm and Islamic history and what’s happening in prison activism, you’re gonna be like, oh, this is how we understand this and the books that were available. And if you come to this with Malcolm and Islam and Black America and the Nation of Islam and their theologies, then you’re like, oh, I see all this is happening here. And I think that’s what you get when you have a rich archive that has mixed in all of these different elements.
Omid Safi, Adab Tradition
The people that you’re kind of asking about: Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, and Sa’di. I mean these are in different ways, some of the really great giants of the adab tradition, the fine tradition of literature. And they’ve kind of been really the marker, particularly Hafiz and Sa’di, of what it has meant to be a literate Muslim in the eastern half of the Islamic world. So really everything from Bangladesh to Bosnia, if you wanna think of it that way. Loosely speaking, the Persianate world. In Hafiz, we’ve got the sort of supreme ambiguous, sensual, erotic, mystical Muslim poet. And in Sa’di, we’ve got the ethical, humanistic work of poetry. And even though they write in Persian, their influence is not restricted to modern-day Iran because at this time Persian is really the literary high culture language of the majority of the Islamic world.
Almost all the great empires and dynasties—the Ottomans, the Safavids, the Mughals, and others—they have Arabic as the obviously religious language for Qur’an and prayer and certain religious discourses like law and theology. But it’s really Persian that is the language of literature and high culture in a way that far transcends contemporary national boundaries. So there’s a lot more Persian being composed in India, for example, than there is in modern-day Iran at this time. And the Ottoman Sultans are composing poetry in the Persian language. All of which is kind of saying that, you know, I find it fascinating that these lines of poetry, poorly perhaps translated, maybe not very poetically translated, hard sometimes to track down. But they’re still showing up in Malcolm, and I think that’s significant.
Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, Learning from Incarcerated Muslims
Maytha: We see people mining through his archive of books and other references. Why hasn’t this been of scholarly interest or intrigue? Or maybe, I don’t know.
Zaheer: Well, one, I don’t think people would have even recognized the poems without citation, right? If you don’t know, you don’t know. And we know that there has been a lot done on Malcolm by people who really understand Black history and the Black experience. There’s been less, but some, done on Malcolm by people who understand Islam, but don’t understand the Black experience and are not, you know, I don’t think are looking this far. I don’t think, you know, for people who think about Malcolm as a Muslim, many of them because they are coming to their study of Malcolm from the perspective of Sunni Islam, they’re not interested in a Malcolm before he is, in their minds, having satisfied the requirements of their understanding of Islam. Which is in 1964 when he announces he’s leaving the Nation of Islam and makes the Hajj. That is for them when he is a person worth looking at as a Muslim.
And so for people who have looked at Malcolm while he is in prison, and maybe reading his letters, they would not have been able to identify. Like the way you said about that first passage, you were like, “I know this was,” or “this reminded me of.” I wouldn’t have even known that, because that’s not what I’m steeped in, right? That’s not my reference. It’s like if you’re listening to a hip hop song, if you don’t have the knowledge of the samples and where they come from, you might think this is a new production, right? You might be like, oh, this is a jam. And then somebody’s like, oh, that’s actually from 30 years ago, or that’s actually from, you know, 50 years ago. And you’re like, oh wow. I didn’t even know that, right? So I think, you know, that is part of it, is that people don’t have that literacy. But I think the other part of it is that people don’t have that curiosity. They don’t have those questions guiding them. And I think this is uncharted and new, and so I don’t know that people would even think to ask these kinds of questions about Malcolm. I think people also just narrowly constrain Malcolm to a certain kind of intellect that would not allow for him to be a writer or to be interested in poetry or to be interested in beauty or to be interested in the kinds of things that they don’t see directly tied to a really narrow idea of Islam and/or liberation.
Maytha: And as you were speaking about that, thinking if people are coming in from a semi-orthodox lens, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re familiar with Sufi poetry, tasawwuf poetry.
Zaheer: That’s right.
Maytha: Or the ethical treatises that we just read. But also a Malcolm that’s incarcerated as a Muslim, right? Or seeking out Islam. And there’s something that feels like too much tension to explore what that means to think about people within the ummah incarcerated as people we learn from.
Zaheer: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
Hussein Rashid, Ethical Poetry
At the time Malcolm was writing the letters that you shared with me is sort of this time in amongst American belles lettres that they’re looking to the East, right? People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who obviously is a little bit earlier, but, you know, people would be reading his material. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson are fascinated with this Urdu poet Ghalib or this Persian poet Hafiz, and are translating his work. You know, there are these translations that are circulating in this time period in English of really important Persian works. I’ve seen works by Razi that are being translated in this period, who is this important philosophical thinker. Shabestari, who’s this monumental Persian poet slash philosopher, and he’s writing things that, you know, we consider ethical guidance.
And I think what I would be cautious of is trying to distinguish between poetic and ethical traditions, right? These poets saw themselves often when they were writing in a religious vein, which many of them were, or at least the ones who were being translated to English at this time, were. They saw themselves as transmitting and participating in an ethical worldview. So their poetry is deeply ethical in this process. You know, we look at somebody like Sa’di Shirazi, who writes this text The Gulistan, The Rose Garden, which is, you know, in the genre in English, it’s called the Mirror for Princes. You know, if you’re a ruler, you should behave like this. And then it intersperses prose and poetry as sort of giving this ethical guidance. And that’s probably one of the more explicit points where you see somebody walking into this and saying, I am giving you an ethical document, or a guidance document. But oftentimes the poets didn’t feel the need to make that statement. What they were doing was an ethical act and ethically edifying. So I just wanna be cautious about trying to make that distinction.
Omid Safi, Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam is sort of a fascinating case scenario because it really shows you that even when we think we’re talking about great Muslim figures, we’re never entirely free to do so on our own. And there’s always the watchful gaze of the West that is kind of present with us, and it’s just a matter of how we negotiate it. So Omar Khayyam was historically not known as a poet. He wrote poetry because that’s what every literate Muslim did. [Laugh] Poetry was the Muslim imagination. And up until the twentieth century, the vast, vast, vast majority of our literature is poetry. It’s not prose. Prose was seen as too didactic, and even when someone like al-Sa’di writes prose, to a certain extent it’s an imitation. It’s an echo of the Qur’an, in the sense that the Qur’an itself insists that it’s not poetry per se, but it’s saj’. It’s rhymed prose. So it’s a kind of prose text that has these internal rhyme and meter. And that’s what the prose tradition in Islam often has been.
To come back to Omar Khayyam, he’s a mathematician, and he’s an astronomer. The calendar that much of the Islamic world used was one that he revised in the late 1090s. And he worked at a great astronomical facility. The knowledge of the stars was, of course, something that every Muslim ruler was interested in. They wanted to do things that were auspicious. And so he’s a mathematician, he’s an astronomer. There was no line between being an astronomer and an astrologer. And he wrote poetry because that’s what all the great gentlemen did. And then in the nineteenth century, poetry attributed to him, as we say wallahu a’lam, becomes translated quite beautifully by Edward FitzGerald. And by some accounts it becomes the bestselling literature, poetry of English language in the nineteenth century. So that has a lot more to do with the inner dynamics of Victorian society, 1860s, and after, their fascination with something that is skeptical, humanistic, erotic, sensual, than it necessarily tells us anything about the historical Omar Khayyam. And not only do we see Omar Khayyam showing up in Malcolm. Omar Khayyam shows up in Dr. King’s writings as well.
Maytha Alhassen, Multiple Literacy Exploration
This is where we’re looking at the shift from the sampling to him being the writer, the poet. And being inspired by the poetry he’s written and the poetics of the faith that he is unearthed or uncovered in this multiple literacy exploration that he’s undertaken.
Omid Safi, Poetry—A Way of Imagination
The important thing to remember about poetry in Islam is that ultimately, ultimately, even though our poets are extraordinary masters of rhyme and meter, imagine someone like a Rumi writing 60,000 lines of poetry following a certain meter of dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah. And it’s almost, you know, similar in that sense to iambic pentameter, and, you know, these kinds of meters that you find in a Western tradition as well. But what makes poetry poetry is not the rhyme and it’s not the meter. It’s actually a way of imagination.
It’s not for nothing that the word for poetry, shi’er (شعر), in Arabic and Persian, in Urdu, in Turkish has something to do with sha’oor, which is consciousness. So I think it’s more useful to think about poetics as a different way of talking about God and a different way of talking about humanity and a different way of talking about love and reality that it’s not theology and it’s not restricted by theological ways of reading it. But it’s a suggestive language. It hints rather than spell out. And it leaves so much to the imagination. And it’s daring and bold and willing to push the boundaries far beyond what conventional philosophy and theology of the ulama’ would allow. And of course, what’s so interesting is that many of the scholars themselves are writing this kind of poetry. So imagine someone like a Rumi who in a daytime is teaching classes on hadith and on law, and then at nighttime he’s singing and composing poetry. Another reminder that our civilization was never characterized by dichotomy of something that we could call quote unquote orthodox and something that we could call mystical poetry. Things are much more interwoven, interconnected, fluid.
Maytha Alhassen, “Prison, Thanks to Islam, Has Ceased to Be a Prison”
You kind of see this change in the prose of Malcolm’s letters as he’s encountering the poetry. And you can see this melding of his poetics and of the way he uses it to have an analysis around the prison condition and faith. He actually gets transferred from Norfolk to another prison. And what he has basically communicated the reason behind that is he actually wants to practice kind of prison ministry and spread the faith and also change the conditions of folks in those prisons in Charleston that don’t have access to the material that he was given. And so he says “in this prison, thanks to Islam, has ceased to be prison… for I have learned to love the pricelessness of pure solitude.” He makes this reference point when he’s in Medina to this moment to the kind of solitude he was offered.
Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, The Power of Signs
Maytha: Well, and there’s this, that’s why I’m calling it “Poetics of Faith.” At the end of this letter, he’s, as you said, digesting the poetry and the Qur’an as exploration, talks about people outside hearing the thunder, not taking heed, getting wet, relating it to the signs of what he calls the final disaster. And wondering if people will see and bear the signs that are inevitable around them, but not take heed. This feels like a really poignant moment of him thinking about what it takes to make the signs to make it plain, right?
Zaheer: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Again, I think about the Qur’an, right? We know that ayat means sign, right? And so much of the Qur’an is like: Did you read the sign? Did you see the sign? Did you see the sign we sent you? These are all signs to those who know, right? So Malcolm, he wants to be one of the people who can read the signs, right? And so here’s that. He’s looking at the thunder, and he’s like that’s a sign for those who know. That is straight out of the Qur’an, right? That sort of thinking and formulation is like, this is a sign for those who know. There’s so many times where that’s said in the Qur’an. It’ll tell you this story, and it’ll be like, this is a sign for those who know, right? And you think about what signs are and signifiers are and language and the word as a sign and symbolism. And even semaphores and just the basis of language as a sign. I think that’s how Malcolm, I think one of the ways why he was so effective is because he understood the power of signs.
Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, In the Name Of
Zaheer: This particular opening and this style of opening would be really common in the Nation of Islam, of how ministers would open up their talk or their lecture. And it’s an introduction, right? And it’s an introduction of a kind of… I don’t wanna say traditional, I don’t wanna say archaic, but, and I’m not trying to be funny. But you know how the Game of Thrones, the person is introduced with all of their titles? So this is an introduction with all of the titles, right?
So it’s introducing God, “the All-Wise God, the Almighty Lord and Savior of the Black Nation, the Merciful Master of this Final Day of Judgment.” And so all of these different names. And then “In the Name of His Last and Greatest Prophet, the First Begotten of the Dead, Our Guiding Light in this wretched darkness of hell, the Door by Whom we must all Pass to Enter the Complete paradise, the Most Meek and Humble of the Faithful.” Right? Yes, this is poetic. This is like, let me find all of the different ways to lift up and even just the ways that some of this is coming from the Bible, some of this is coming from the Qur’an, some of this is coming from, you know, a Black poetic tradition of naming. And some of this is that, right? You see the ways that these words are put together to build on this introduction. So I think, you know, all of that just to “I’m happy to greet you in Their Great Name… As-Salaam-Alaikum.” And this becomes an opening song or opening line for every speech.
And sometimes it would get so long that by the time the person has completed the introduction, they have to remind you, oh, this is who I’m talking about. Because they’ve added so many accolades to it. And so, you know, that’s why he says I’m happy to greet you once again cause you already said as salaam alaikum, but you done like, built this whole opening into it. You done gotta bring us back. And so this becomes the building of that common introduction of how much praise can we give? And of course, again, there’s a Qur’anic model for this, right? The bismillah, the “In the name of Allah,” and it’s not just in the name of Allah, right? It’s “Bismillah, al-rahman al-rahim in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful,” and then in Sura Fatiha, it’s like “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, all praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the world, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the Master of the Day of Judgment.” You know, all of the accolades. This is the opening, this is Malcolm’s opening. I’m not gonna say it’s Malcolm’s Fatiha and get people all bent outta shape, but it is his opening.
Maytha: This reminds me of how Goodie Mob basically rapped or spoke the translation of the Fatiha. Where it could have been unmistakable for a series of monikers, right?
Zaheer: Yes, yes, yes. If you don’t know that’s what it is, you’re like, oh, okay, all right. [Laugh] And then what’s interesting is that, of course, the Goodie Mob’s version is a Nation of Islam version. So that line where it says “nor upon those who go astray,” that’s the Qur’an. After hearing your teachings, that’s the Nation of Islam, right?
Maytha: It is, and there’s that remix in this preamble, right?
Zaheer: Yes, yes, yes. This is…
Maytha: Because there’s the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is in there as well.
Zaheer: Yes, yes. This is a remix, if we wanna call it that. This is the remix of Al-Fatiha.
Maytha: I mean, you can use a better word. I don’t wanna impose.
Zaheer: No, no, no. I like that. But this is the remix of the Al-Fatiha. This is that, this is that opening, right? Where you can see that here. This is someone who’s been digesting the Qur’an. This… when were the other, okay, so the other letter.
Maytha: So this comes after.
Zaheer: So okay.
Maytha: Those were in February. So this is August.
Zaheer: So this is clear that Malcolm’s reading of that poetry and his writing of that poetry, which is a kind of embodiment, right? To rewrite something in your own hand is a kind of internalizing of that, right? So it’s his reading of that poetry, it’s his reading of the Qur’an. His exposure to the particular rhythms of the Nation of Islam’s language and, you know, the ways that the Nation was formulating these ideas and these words. So like “all-wise,” that’s a Black Muslim thing. That’s an NOI thing, right? The all-wise. Another one, which doesn’t appear here, but you will hear often is “the true and living,” right? That’s a community-rooted thing. But “Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding,” those three things together, that’s a very, you know, Black Muslim thing.
But you see the poetics here, and I think the genealogy also comes through the translations, right? Whoever’s translating the Qur’an has provided, you know, here’s the palette with which you’re going to color with, right? Because whoever said it was “merciful” and whoever… “Beneficent” was not a word in circulation, right? Until we read that as part of the Qur’an. We read that in the translation, right? So whoever the translator was, whether it’s, you know—at that time probably Maulana Muhammad Ali or Yusuf Ali or Muhammad Pickthall—the choice of words are shaping the framing here, right? So you’re getting words being introduced into the language or introduced into usage because of their showing up in these translations, right? Mercy, merciful, beneficent, all-wise, right? These are things that are coming out of that encounter with Islam. And I think shows that Malcolm is taking it in, right? And he’s taking it in, and he’s formulating it as someone who has read those earlier poems, right? The poems that he quoted earlier.
Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, Medina Letter—Seeking Refuge
Zaheer: When he says my prison years in quotes, it’s like I know I’m using a shorthand, but I don’t want to give prison that power. Like it isn’t prison that, he said “prison thanks to Islam has ceased to be a prison,” right? So it isn’t that prison did these things for him. It is Islam that did these things for him. So I think that he wants to be really clear that he’s not crediting prison, right? Because we know Malcolm’s use of quotations are very intentional. Like in his Letter from Mecca, he is like “white” in quotes, right? So I think like that’s what’s really important here is like I haven’t felt like this since quote: “my prison years when I would spend days upon days in solitude, hours upon hours studying and praying. There is no greater serenity of mind than when one can shut the hectic noise and pace of the materialistic outside world and seek inner peace within one’s self.”
If we didn’t have this letter, we would just say, he’s like for lack of a better term, we’re gonna call it my prison years. But that’s not really what it is. But just cause that’s what we’re gonna call it. And then we have this letter where he’s like, “prison thanks to Islam has ceased to be prison.” Like he’s really talking about Islam here, right? And how Islam transformed that experience. That’s the thread, right? It’s Islam that connects that experience of pure solitude with this experience of pure solitude.
Maytha: Exactly. And then here, of course, we noticed a lot as he’s traveling around the Muslim world, some of his great pains are seeing the materialism and not connecting back to the first explorations he started to have around Islam providing that solitude, that break from industrial urbanity.
Zaheer: And that’s why I think those quotes are so important. Cause he’s like, don’t get it twisted, I don’t want to go back to prison. And I don’t think prison is a place for any human being to be. But I do want us to go to Islam.
Maytha: As a refuge. And that’s the refuge within the prison. And that’s the refuge within America. And that’s the refuge within this dunya.
Zaheer: And, you know, in the Nation, they often didn’t just open up with the bismillah, they opened up with the auzubillah. They would open up with “say: I seek refuge in Allah from the cursed Satan.” And of course that has all kinds of meanings in Nation of Islam theology, right? But this idea of Islam or Allah being a source of refuge is something that Malcolm first articulated in 1950 and is revisiting 14 years later. This… it doesn’t work, right? It doesn’t work if it can’t reach the human condition. And that is why the Qur’an is revealed through a form of poetry, right? Like God’s revelation comes in the form of poetry because it’s not just instructive, it’s beautiful. Right? And that Malcolm, when he taught, wasn’t just instructive. He was funny. He was moving. He was beautiful. He made people feel beautiful. He moved people. And that’s the poetics, right?
It’s a handful of scholars who will sit around the table and be moved by just ideas, right? But the masses of the people, your politics have to have a poetry to it. It has to have a beauty to it. It has to have, you know, a joy. It has to have imagery, it has to have rhythm. It has to have, you know, play with words. It has to be interesting. And I think that’s what you see in these early letters. Malcolm is looking at, and again, he’s very intentional about what kind of poetry he’s paying attention to. But he’s looking at how these poets are doing what they’re doing. And he, I don’t know that he would ever say that he himself was a poet, but he absolutely used the poetics of language. And that’s why he’s an effective speaker. He wouldn’t have been otherwise. And so, no, it’s not a jump at all.