Study Guide

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Religion

By Malcolm X and Alex Haley


I would sit goggle-eyed at my father jumping and shouting as he preached, with the congregation jumping and shouting behind him, their souls and bodies devoted to singing and praying. Even at that young age, I just couldn't believe in the Christian concept of Jesus as someone divine. And no religious person, until I was a man in my twenties—and then in prison—could tell me anything. I had very little respect for most people who represented religion. (1.13)

Malcolm X's own father was a minister, so it's actually kind of strange that he has this reaction to Christianity.

I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself. And my favorite targets were the Bible and God. But there was a legal limit to how much time one could be kept in solitary. Eventually, the men in the cellblock had a name for me: "Satan." Because of my antireligious attitude. (10.23)

Why do you think Malcolm X focuses so much of his anger on religion? Are there any other moments where he expresses a hatred for Christianity?

One day in 1948, after I had been transferred to Concord Prison, my brother Philbert, who was forever joining something, wrote me this time that he had discovered the "natural religion for the black man." He belonged now, he said, to something called "the Nation of Islam." He said I should "pray to Allah for deliverance." I wrote Philbert a letter which, although in improved English, was worse than my earlier reply to his news that I was being prayed for by his "holiness" church. (10.34)

Malcolm X is the complete opposite of his older brother Philbert. From the beginning, Philbert was always interested in religion and Christianity, while Malcolm just didn't get it. It doesn't look like anything's changed.

When a letter from Reginald arrived, I never dreamed of associating the two letters, although I knew that Reginald had been spending a lot of time with Wilfred, Hilda, and Philbert in Detroit. Reginald's letter was newsy, and also it contained this instruction: "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork, and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison." (10.35)

Reginald is also trying to convert Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam, just like his brother Philbert did. But Malcolm X's reaction is totally different. Why? How should Philbert have approached him?

The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. [...] You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone's house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. (11.5)

Kneeling is a sign of submission, and in Malcolm X's life as a hustler his most important asset was his reputation of being a powerful person. So no wonder it's so difficult for him to kneel and pray. It means he has to let go of his power and submit to Allah.

I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in criminal conquests. First, always "religiously," he branded "heathen" and "pagan" labels upon ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non- white victims his weapons of war. (11.46)

Here, Malcolm is probably referring to the Crusades. They were military wars fought by Christians against Muslims and people labeled "pagans" or "heretics." Considering that one of the Ten Commandments is "thou shalt not kill," that's just a little bit odd.

I saw the new faces of our Temple Seven meetings. And then we discovered the best "fishing" audience of all, by far the best-conditioned audience for Mr. Muhammad's teachings: the Christian churches. (13.50)

Why do you think so many Christians were willing to convert to the Nation of Islam? What made them different from other people Malcolm X tried to convert?

Any fornication was absolutely forbidden in the Nation of Islam. Any eating of the filthy pork, or other injurious or unhealthful foods; any use of tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics. No Muslim who followed Elijah Muhammad could dance, gamble, date, attend movies, or sports, or take long vacations from work. Muslims slept no more than health required. Any domestic quarreling, any discourtesy, especially to women, was not allowed. No lying or stealing, and no insubordination to civil authority, except on the grounds of religious obligation. (13.64)

Those sure are a lot of rules. How do you think potential converts felt about them? How would you feel about them?

Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and not knowing the prayer ritual. (17.44)

Malcolm X makes this statement after he goes to Mecca. That's when he realizes that what he's been taught in the Nation of Islam is very different from the eastern Islamic religion. What are the differences he found? Why do you think Elijah Muhammad created these differences?

"—not Muslim, nor Christian, Catholic, nor Protestant . . . Baptist nor Methodist, Democrat nor Republican, Mason nor Elk! I mean the black people of Americaand the black people all over this earth! Because it is as this collective mass of black people that we have been deprived not only of our civil rights, but even of our human rights, the right to human dignity…" (19.4)

What a total turnaround! By the end of his life, Malcolm X has gone from being a religion-hating atheist, to a fervent member of the Nation of Islam, to a tolerant follower of Eastern Islam.

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