Malcolm X and the Sudanese

Sudan and Sudanese people left a deep imprint on Malcolm X and his activism.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X is shown with his 16mm Bell and Howell motion picture camera at JFK International Airport on July 9, 1964, before his departure for Egypt [Matty Zimmerman/AP]

Over the past year, the Sudanese revolution has sparked a renewed interest in pan-Africanism among Sudanese youth, as Nubian culture is celebrated and the ideas of revolutionary African leaders like Amical Cabral and Thomas Sankara are re-examined.

But it seems few people are aware of how much Malcolm X was drawn to the Nubian civilisation and deeply impacted by Sudan. Much has been made of his trips to Africa, his interaction with people like Ghana’s anti-colonial leader Kwame Nkrumah and Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the cultural consequences of his visits.

But the impact of Sudan on Malcolm X’s thinking – and Sudan’s subsequent influence on African American culture – remain unexplored.

In July 1959, Malcolm X took his first trip to Africa. Travelling as an ambassador for the Nation of Islam and with a passport issued in his new name, Malik el-Shabazz, the young minister visited Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt – and a few months later Ghana, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Malcolm X’s sojourn in Sudan seems to have been formative, leaving a powerful impression on the 34-year-old. Until the end of his life he praised the Sudanese for their kindness and solidarity, and recalled the wonders of the city of Omdurman.

His travel diaries and letters are sprinkled with references to the Sudanese. In one entry in April 1964, he writes of the “quiet confidence” of the Sudanese – in another, he says, “I never cease to be impressed by the Sudanese.”

On August 22, 1959, Malcolm X wired a letter to The New York Amsterdam News stating that people in Africa seemed more concerned about the plight of their “brothers in America” than their own conditions; and that Africans saw America’s treatment of black people as a “yardstick” by which to measure the sincerity of America’s offer of assistance. He often mentioned the Sudanese as evidence of Africa’s support for the African American struggle. 

Malcolm X’s guide in Sudan was Malik Badri, a 27-year-old student of psychology, who met the American Muslim leader at the Grand Hotel in Khartoum. Badri gave Malcolm X a tour of Omdurman, and invited him home for lunch. “[Malcolm] had clearly read a lot about the ancient Sudanese civilisation,” the 88-year old Badri recalled in a 2018 interview. “What moved him most actually was how the Sudanese treated him.” He said Malcolm X was keen on filming with his camera everything he saw.

Badri observed that Malcolm was very well-versed in Sudanese history, with a particular interest in Nubian civilisation and Muhammad al-Mahdi, as a black anti-colonial figure. Nubia, after all, occupied a central role in the Nation of Islam’s narrative. The head of the organisation, Elijah Muhammad, taught black Americans that their ancestry went back to the Nile Valley and that they were of the “Tribe of Shabazz” which built the pyramids.

Badri recalls walking with Malcolm X to the Khalifah House Museum of Omdurman, located across from the Mahdi’s tomb, as the American spoke spiritedly about his interest in al-Mahdi – the Nubian leader who launched a rebellion against Sudan’s Turco-Egyptian rulers and defeated the British to create “the Mahdist state” (Mahdiyya) which stretched from the Red Sea to Darfur from 1885 to 1899.

Malcolm X often recalled his visit to Sudan. In October 1962, he wrote in The Pittsburgh Courier: “In 1959, I visited Khartoun [sic] and Omdurman in the Sudan, and also visited the Muslims in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and Arabia. I was impressed the most by the Muslims of the Sudan. Their religious piety and hospitality are unmatched anywhere. I really felt at heaven and at home there.” Two years later, he warmly remembered the two Sudanese students he met in Mecca who randomly told him, “The Sudanese people love American Negroes.”

The Sudanese individual who played an outsized role in Malcolm X’s life was Ahmed Osman. The 22-year-old Osman met the Nation of Islam minister by chance in July 1963 when he walked into Temple #7 in Harlem, and went on to play a critical role in the black leader’s life – drawing him to Sunni Islam and arranging for Malcolm X to go on Hajj, even delivering a eulogy at his funeral.

His friendship with Malcolm X is the subject of a recent documentary, in which Osman eloquently examines the American leader’s affection for Sudan and the Afro-Arab world more broadly.

Some scholars like the late historian Manning Marable have claimed that Malcolm X’s Hajj experience – as life-altering and epiphanous as it was – was hardly “representative” because the American was surrounded by elite “white Arabs”.

But as Osman explains in the documentary, Afro-Saudis played an important role in Malcolm X’s pilgrimage, especially Muhammed Suroor Sabban, a Saudi poet and politician. Sabban, whom Malcolm X described as “tall, black, very alert”, was the head of the Muslim World League (al-Rabita) when he took the young American under his wing.

Sabban appointed the Sudanese Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, who taught at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, as his spiritual adviser. Hassoun returned to New York with Malcolm X, and resided at the headquarters of Muslim Mosque Inc. Harlem elders still recall the Sudanese sheikh with his white robe, white turban, and walking stick – “looking like the Prophet Moses” – walking down 125th street.

The influence of the erudite and prolific Sheikh Hassoun on Malcolm X has yet to be studied, but he is still remembered as a kind, humorous man, who joked that after New York, he was going to go spread Islam in Alaska. 

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while addressing a gathering of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Upper Manhattan. That very night, Osman – then a student at Dartmouth – took the bus down to New York to see Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, who asked him to arrange for an orthodox Muslim burial. At Osman’s behest, Sheikh Hassoun washed and shrouded Malcolm X’s body on the eve of the interment, but fearing reprisals, he did not attend the funeral. Thus Sheikh Heshaam Jaaber, imam of the New Jersey-based Addeynu Allahu Universal Arabic Association Inc, led the janazah, funeral prayer.

Interestingly, Sheikh Jaaber would also claim a Sudanese ancestry, though he was born in South Carolina. In the post-war years, it was not uncommon for converts to Islam to claim a “Moorish-American” or “Sudani-American” identity. The accomplished Brooklyn-born jazz musician Ahmed Abdul-Malik – who in the mid-1950s was integrating the maqam and taqsim of Arabic music into jazz compositions, would also claim a Sudanese genealogy (though his parents were from St Vincent in the West Indies).

Nubian cultural consciousness began to spread in earnest on the East Coast a few years after Malcolm X’s death, largely through the work of the charismatic and controversial Dwight York (also known as Imam Issa and later Malachi York). Raised between New Jersey and Brooklyn, York travelled to Sudan in the late 1960s, returning to the US to launch the Ansaar Pure Sufi movement in 1967 in Brooklyn, as an alternative to the Nation of Islam, which was later renamed Ansaaru Allah Community. 

York renamed himself Sayyid Isa al Haadi al-Mahdi, claiming to have been born in Sudan in 1945, to the grandson of the Mahdi. Imam Isa would claim a connection to Malcolm X, saying that he was one of the young Sudanese who guided the American leader during his visit to Mecca. York published dozens of booklets teaching Arabic, Muslim dietary laws, the “Science of the Pyramids” and Nile Valley stick-fighting, often mixing images of the Mahdi, Sheikh Hassoun and Malcolm X on the cover.

“The person who brought Nubian culture into the African American community was Imam Isa. He made Sudan hot. He taught about the Mahdiyya while producing R&B and hip-hop records,” the Bronx-born Mohammed Reeves, a hip-hop pioneer who spent his teens in the city of Omdurman, studying to become a sheikh of Sudanese Ansar al-Mahdi movement, told me.

“All the Arabic teachers he brought to his community were Sudanese who taught Quranic Arabic mixed with Sudanese dialect and expressions like “alik Allah?” – which means “really?” in Sudanese. “In the early eighties you had pockets of Brooklyn – Bushwick in particular – where brothers wore white galabiyas, white turbans wrapped Sudani-style, and spoke fus’ha,” he added.

By the late 1990s, York had abandoned Islam, renamed his group the Nuwaubians, and moved with his followers to a compound in Georgia where they constructed pyramids and a sphynx. In 2004, York was convicted of child molestation and tax evasion and sentenced to life in prison.

The Afrocentrism and Egyptocentrism of recent decades – in part inspired by the “Malcolmania” of the early 1990s – has dipped. Sudanese Sufi tariqas such as the Burhaniyya and Qadiriyya remain influential among African American Muslims, as do the myriad scholars and imams who were trained in Sudan.

Sudanese cultural influence in America today comes mainly from Sudanese American writers and artists – like Alsarah & The Nubatones and rapper Bas – who are mining Sudan’s rich cultural repertoire as well as the long-standing connections between Sudan and African America.

In Sudan, the revolutionary moment has unleashed an interest in Nubia and Kush. The “Kushite revival” has inspired striking public art – murals celebrating the Kandaka and the pharaoh Tirhaqa (depictions sometimes reminiscent of early 1990s Afrocentrist hip hop). In the musical realm, Sudanese hip hop artists like Mao and Nas Jota are producing compositions that creatively blend Sudanese vernacular with an African American practice.

Young Sudanese scholars like Gussai Hamror are again connecting the Sudanese situation with the African American struggle. On his channel Ayin Network, under a red, black and green pan-African banner, Hamror regularly reflects on pan-Africanism and economic empowerment, and on how Sudanese activists can connect and build with grassroots African American movements. In April 2019, Angela Davis, the veteran scholar-activist, addressed the Sudanese protest movement in a video, congratulating them on removing Omar al-Bashir from power.

Ahmed Osman was a high school student during the first wave of African decolonisation – he was out on the streets of Khartoum protesting against the death of Lumumba and apartheid South Africa. He has been in the Sudanese capital during this revolutionary period. In February, he celebrated his 78th birthday and told a gathering of young Sudanese: “I see Malcolm X as part of the Sudanese revolution. He loved Sudan – he would have loved seeing this African Arab nation rising. And the youth of Sudan – youth everywhere – have a lot to learn from Malcolm. Today’s youth can complete his dream.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.