The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj, is a religious obligation that every orthodox Muslim fulfills, if humanly able, at least once in his or her lifetime.” As the Nation of Islam is very different from what Malcolm calls “orthodox Islam,” he has generally been quite hostile when other Muslims suggested he make the Hajj and learn more about the religion. But now that he’s broken with the Nation, he wonders if he should expand his thinking and religious knowledge, an idea which Wallace Muhammad supports as well.
Malcolm’s exit from the Nation of Islam allows him to expand his thinking not just politically, but also spiritually. By becoming more independent, he also becomes more willing to listen to opposing views and perspectives, rather than simply rejecting them as hostile towards his own view.
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Often, Arab Muslims urge Malcolm to talk with Dr. Mahmoud Youssef Shawarbi, a professor from Cairo and a well-respected scholar. One day, they are introduced by a newspaperman and proceed to have a very cordial conversation. Dr. Shawarbi makes quite an impression on Malcolm.
This interaction stands in contrast with Malcolm’s previous interactions with orthodox Muslims, which were normally hostile and unproductive.
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Malcolm also feels inspired by his sister Ella, who has freely broken with the Nation of Islam. Instead, she’s joined an orthodox mosque and opened a school for teaching Arabic. After talking all night, she firmly believes that Malcolm should go on the Hajj, using the funds she had been saving to make the trip herself. Her independence and generosity have both been very important factors in Malcolm’s life, and he is very grateful to her.
Ella has always been an independent character, unafraid to break ties that are no longer good for her. Early in his life, Malcolm respected her for having “broken” with two husbands who were unable to keep up with her and for establishing her own business, as she has done once again.
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When applying for a visa, Malcolm is told that he will need approval from Dr. Shawarbi—a fact Malcolm takes as a sign of Divine Providence. Dr. Shawarbi readily approves, and also gives Malcolm a book by Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam, an Egyptian intellectual who wished to send this copy specifically to Malcolm. Dr. Shawarbi also gives Malcolm the contact information for his own son in Cairo and for Abd’s son, Omar Azzam, who works in Jedda.
Malcolm insists throughout his journey that his good fortune is a sign of Divine Providence. This proves that of all the experiences he has undergone in life, this one will be the most formative and the most important.
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The beginning of Malcolm’s trip is marked by surprising instances of friendliness from strangers, like his two Muslim seatmates on the flight to Frankfurt or the white boy from Rhode Island in the airport men’s room. Malcolm notes that the shopkeepers in Frankfurt are more “humane.” Many pilgrims of all nationalities are also there on their way to Cairo (and then on to Mecca).
As soon as Malcolm leaves the United States, he feels integrated in society in a way he never has before, even with white people from America.
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Once he arrives in Cairo, Malcolm encounters people of all races in what is a festive and friendly atmosphere. He parts ways with his new flight friend, who gives him his number and promises to get Malcolm in contact with an English-speaking group that would be headed to Mecca soon. After spending a couple of days sightseeing in Cairo and having a lovely dinner with a very intelligent couple, Malcolm meets up with the Hajj group, who speak English perfectly and welcome him warmly.
It is important for the reader to keep in mind the environment that Malcolm has just left – a hostile New York full of racist white authorities and black Muslims gossiping about his disloyalty and threatening to kill him. His friendly reception in Cairo is therefore all the more stunning and soothing.
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At the Cairo airport, thousands of pilgrims are entering the state of Ihram, “a spiritual and physical state of consecration.” In this state, all pilgrims don two simple white towels, a pair of sandals, and two small bags for carrying their papers and money. Then they call out, “Labbayka!” (Here I come, O Lord!) to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the journey.
The pilgrims’ garb reflects their humility as they prepare to enter the Holy Land. Before God, all pilgrims are now equal.
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On the plane, Malcolm sees people of all races, ready to make the Hajj together. He feels a profound sense of fraternity and equality. Meanwhile, word spreads that he is an American, and the captain comes to meet him. Malcolm is taken to see the cockpit, where another dark-skinned man is in the co-pilot’s seat. Surrounded by Muslims treating him like a brother and watching black men fly a plane, the experience begins to feel surreal, or as Malcolm puts it, “Brother, I knew Allah was with me.”
On his journey, Malcolm has entered something like a parallel universe, where he is treated as an honored guest, rather than a second-class citizen, and where black men can be pilots. It’s almost as if he is in a mystical or dream-like haze.
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The plane lands in Jedda, where the airport is even more packed than in Cairo. The airport has only three kinds of people: pilgrims, their guides (known as Mutawaf), and the airport officials. The airport resounds with the sound of chanting and praying as Malcolm’s group makes their way slowly towards customs.
At the airport, Malcolm enters in a mass of people who all share the same state of mind. He is no longer one man on a journey, but a part of something larger than himself.
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Malcolm is nervous, as he knows an American passport will raise questions. Sure enough, the customs official protests in Arabic, and despite the objections from the others in his group, he is told that he must go before the Mahgama Sharia to determine whether or not he is an authentic Muslim, before he can enter Mecca. Sadly, and with much concern, his friends are forced to continue on their journey without him.
Malcolm’s detention is largely because of his country of origin, which is not known to have a large population of Muslims. However, it also embodies his own questioning of his legitimacy as a Muslim after years spent in the sect-like Nation of Islam.
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Feeling very alone, Malcolm is taken by a Mutawaf to a dormitory above the airport to await his hearing the next day. While the other pilgrims in the room watch them, his guide shows him the proper Muslim prayer postures. Now Malcolm feels very embarrassed that as a minister of Islam, he has never learned these before, and his body’s lack of flexibility struggles to perform them.
As Malcolm tries to perform the prayer postures, his body betrays him; not only does he not know them, but he cannot physically perform them. This certainly creates doubts in his mind and in the reader’s as to whether he will be able to pass his hearing.
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When the sun rises and the other Muslims in his room wake up, they all watch each other attentively. Malcolm takes particular note of the multi-use nature of rugs in Arabic culture. Individual rugs are used for praying, while large communal rugs are used for eating, talking, sleeping, settling disputes, and teaching. He finally realizes why the rugs he once stole in Boston were so intricate and beautiful, given their cultural origins.
In this moment Malcolm makes a connection to his past, when he was less educated and less cultured. But even now he has only come to realize how complex these rugs are within their social setting, which mirrors his growing appreciation of the complexities of Arabic culture at large.
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One of the others in the room tries to talk with Malcolm, and Malcolm begins to teach him English. When Malcolm says “Muhammad Ali Clay,” the whole room perks up, as they believe he is Muhammad Ali. Malcolm soon learns that Ali is a hero to the entire Muslim world.
Here the specter of Malcolm’s friend is raised, bringing interest and care from those around him. In a way, Clay is still helping Malcolm along his journey.
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When the Mutawaf from earlier returns, he takes Malcolm down to the mosque for morning prayer. Malcolm knows that before prayer come ablutions, but even these he doesn’t perform correctly. Then, inside the mosque, he does his best to copy his guide’s movements and to quietly mumble along to the Arabic prayers.
To a certain extent, the reader may believe that Malcolm is indeed a fraud and shouldn’t be admitted to the Holy Land, or they may see his behavior as following the advice, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” 
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Back in his dormitory, Malcolm is offered food and tea by many of his roommates, but he politely refuses. Partially he does not want to impose, but he is also wary of the communal, utensil-less style of eating. So he decides to go exploring for food of his own. Malcolm finds a restaurant, orders a whole roasted chicken, and then proceeds to eat it with his hands just as everyone around him does. On another exploration, he meets two English-speaking Muslims, but they are just about to leave, making Malcolm feel alone again.
Malcolm’s journey through the Holy Land is a constant education in learning to adjust to different customs and ways of being. As eating is one of the most fundamental parts of the day, his discomfort with Middle Eastern dining habits stands in for his general discomfort as he slowly adapts to an entirely new culture.
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That evening after prayer, Malcolm suddenly gets a wave of inspiration and remembers that he has Omar Azzam’s phone number, and that he lives in Jedda. Malcolm rushes downstairs and asks a group of airport officials to please call Omar for him. Seeing that he is an American, they agree. Omar then shows up within half an hour, a very warm man whose only concern is that Malcolm didn’t reach out to him sooner. He promptly has him released and brings him to his home.
Omar feels that Malcolm has made a “mistake,” but it is not a normal one. Rather, he feels hurt that Malcolm did not think to reach out and depend on him sooner for support. Malcolm’s time in the Holy Land will teach him to expand his level of trust in and dependence on others who care about him.
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Malcolm is blown away by the hospitality shown to him by Omar, a civil engineer, and by his father, Abd, who is an extremely well-respected scholar at the United Nations. While it is quite late when they arrive at Omar’s home, everyone is waiting for him and treats him like a brother. Abd is also quite outraged that Malcolm was made to stay at the airport for a whole day, and goes to make a phone call.
These men, whom Malcolm does not know and who have nothing to gain from a poor, scandal-mired Nation of Islam preacher, nonetheless treat him as a brother, something Malcolm cannot even say about his “brothers” in the Nation of Islam.
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Malcolm is then ushered into a car and brought to the Jedda Palace Hotel. Omar leaves him in his father’s suite, while Abd spends the night at his son’s house. Malcolm says that he would have protested this arrangement, but by the time he knew what was going on, he was alone in the beautiful suite.
Malcolm is overwhelmed by their generosity and selflessness. In fact, one may say that he at first failed to understand his situation because he couldn’t even imagine such generosity coming from strangers.
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That morning, Malcolm reflects on the significance of Abd’s generosity. Here was a white-complexioned man with international influence and family relations to the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and with nothing to gain by treating Malcolm so well, and he nonetheless gave up his suite simply for Malcolm’s comfort. This forces Malcolm to reassess his views on the “white man.” Rather than racism being tied primarily to complexion, he says, it is actually a set of attitudes towards whiteness and those perceived as not white.
While the contemporary reader may find it odd that Malcolm identifies Arabs as “white,” rather than as people of color, this identification allows Malcolm to make a split between “light-complexioned people” and inherent or built-in racism. In other words, this man’s behavior proves that light skin doesn’t necessarily lead to racism.
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After writing in his notebook and praying multiple times to thank Allah for protecting him, Malcolm sleeps for several hours. When he receives a call from Omar informing him that he will come to collect him for dinner, Malcolm gets dressed and goes to the lobby of the hotel, where the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who lives down the hall, is being received by the press.
Malcolm’s actions at first seem to reflect a strange paradox. On the one hand, he is humble before Allah as he thanks and praises him. On the other, he notes the grandeur of his fellow guests, which may seem like bragging, but actually underlines Abd’s generosity.
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At dinner, Malcolm is once again blown away by Abd’s hospitality and intelligence; he has a command of many topics of conversation and world affairs. He also teaches Malcolm how the idea of color superiority is an idea that originates and dominates in the West.
In some ways, Abd takes on the role of teacher and father figure recently abandoned by Elijah. He temporarily guides Malcolm’s new ways of thinking.
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The next morning, Malcolm goes before the judge of the Hajj Committee Court. The judge is very kind as he enquires into Malcolm’s sincerity as a Muslim. Once he confirms that he is indeed a true Muslim, he gives Malcolm two books on Islam, and says that he hopes he becomes a great preacher in America one day.
After all of Malcolm’s fears and self-doubts, he finds that the judge is as friendly and supportive as the other Middle-Eastern Muslims that he has so far encountered.
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After having lunch at the Hotel and then once again sleeping, Malcolm is awoken by a call from the Saudi Prince Faisal’s office, saying that a car has been commissioned to take him on the Hajj after dinner. The car breezes through all the checkpoints, and Malcolm is astonished by such star treatment.
Malcolm always emphasizes that he feels humbled by the generosity others show to him, but this may make the reader question if Malcolm is a little blind to his own fame and star power.
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Mecca is an ancient city filled with winding streets and thousands of pilgrims headed for the Great Mosque. There, Malcolm performs the ablutions with a Mutawaf, and then enters the mosque, which is being renovated by Omar Azzam. Thousands of pilgrims are praying, chanting, and walking in seven circles around the Ka’ba, a large black stone at the center of the mosque. After his seventh time around, Malcolm prostrates himself to pray while his Mutawaf protects him from being trampled.
This experience overwhelms Malcolm with the majesty of the mosque and the piety and unity of the thousands of Muslims, walking together around the Ka‘ba. As before, he joins a living community that makes him one of many.
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Over the next few days, Malcolm’s Mutawaf takes him through the other essential rituals of the Hajj journey. They drink from the well of Zem Zem, run between the Safa and Marwa hills, and climb Mount Arafat, where they give thanks to Allah. Malcolm’s state of Ihram has ended.
It is important that the Ihram had a clear starting point (in the Cairo airport) and a clear end point; these mark off the in-between time as something truly special.
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Sitting with other Muslims who have also just finished the Hajj, Malcolm tells them about the contrast between the brotherhood he experienced here with the racism found in America. They seem shocked at the terrible plight of black men in America. Malcolm, meanwhile, is grateful for the feeling of oneness with others and with God.
Malcolm, of course, can never forget where he comes from and what drives him. Even in this moment of oneness, he has an internal pull to discuss and spread the truth about oppression in America.
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Malcolm writes a letter to his wife Betty, explaining that Allah has allowed him greater insight into the truth of Islam. Muslim society is essentially color-blind, and he has found great solace here. He is positive that Betty will instantly understand and join him in his newfound perspective.
Malcolm takes for granted that Betty will understand his conversion. This could reflect his respect for her intelligence, or it could mean that he simply assumes she will always follow him.
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Malcolm then writes more versions of essentially the same letter to his sister Ella, Dr. Shawarbi, Wallace Muhammad (who had advocated for the Nation to move towards orthodox Islam) and to his assistants at the new Muslim Mosque, Inc. He asks the latter to distribute his letter among the press. Malcolm is himself astounded at the profound shift in his mentality. And yet, his “whole life had been a chronology of – changes.”
Each of the changes in Malcolm’s life has been accompanied by a kind of education. Now, he has learned about the possibility of a race-blind society of brothers and sisters united in a common faith, which pushes him to be more open-minded and hopeful.
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In his letter, Malcolm recounts what he’s experienced on the Hajj, and especially emphasizing the sense of communion and brotherhood he felt with men of all colors and races, including the whitest of men, as they worshipped the same God together. He believes that it is up to the younger generation to see the destructive nature of racism and turn towards the “spiritual path of truth” in order to avoid disaster. Finally, he contrasts the way he has been treated with the utmost dignity and honor by the relatives and servants of Princes to how in America, he is simply “a Negro.” Malcolm signs the letter, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, (Malcolm X).”
When Reginald came to visit Malcolm in prison, he asked him to reflect on how every white person in his life had treated him as worthless. Now, Malcolm has experiences of the exact opposite, and these new experiences force him to begin to see a new path forward. In short, self-examination leads to change. Malcolm then makes that change very tangible by identifying himself with a new name (“El-Hajj” being an honorific for one who has completed the Hajj, and “Shabazz” being an ancient African Islamic name that Malcolm had actually used briefly before taking the “X”).
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