Malcolm’s religious journey is marked by a continuous struggle to find a faith in which he can believe and flourish both spiritually and intellectually. As with his views on race and racism, Malcolm’s views on religion play a key role throughout his life, but also evolve as his own understanding and experience changes and broadens.
Despite the fact that Malcolm’s father was a Christian minister, Malcolm never felt at home in Christianity. As a child, he simply finds it hard to believe in Christianity. As he puts it, “Even at that young age, I just couldn't believe in the Christian concept of Jesus as someone divine.”
When Malcolm later begins to study more about history and religion while in prison, and then to preach as a minister of the Nation of Islam – which practiced an idiosyncratic variant of Islam that held black people to be gods and whites to be devils – his issues with Christianity become explicitly tied to his views on race. More specifically, Malcolm argues that Christianity played too large a part in European imperialism and oppression of blacks – both physically and psychologically – for it to be something in which black people could find spiritual sustenance. First, he argues that Christianity had, in practice, been used by whites in hypocritical ways to oppress black people. As Malcolm puts it: “I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the non-white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ's teachings—meek, humble, and Christ-like.” More specifically, he argues that whites used Christianity’s message of “turn the other cheek” for their own gain: forcing Christianity on African Americans, who are then compelled to forgive the white man even as the white men take everything from them (even their freedom). Second, he preaches that Christianity conditions black people to worship a blond, blue-eyed God, which functions as a kind of psychological warfare upon black people’s self-image.
Not surprisingly, Malcolm’s preaching puts him in conflict with many Christian black leaders – including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who are both outraged by his slandering of Christianity and, as leaders of the Vivil Rights Movement, feel that a more moderate approach of dialogue and peaceful protest is more likely to produce progress than Malcolm’s (and the Nation of Islam’s) more incendiary language. Malcolm, in turn, accuses these leaders of having themselves been “brainwashed” by Christianity’s message of forgiveness.
Yet what Malcolm desires in a religion is not just something that justifies his political beliefs, but rather something that gives him ideals in which to truly believe. Malcolm thus experiences cracks in the foundations of his belief when it’s revealed that the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who was held up within the Nation of Islam as someone who “surely stood next to God,” had numerous affairs and then attempted to cover it up. As Malcolm puts it: “And that was how, after twelve years of never thinking for as much as five minutes about myself, I became able finally to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself.”
After his doubts about Muhammad lead to his ouster from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm continues his quest to find a religion in whose beliefs and ideals he can thrive. This question drives him to make the Hajj to Mecca – a traditional Islamic pilgrimage. During the Hajj, Malcolm encounters a version of Islam that exposes the exclusionary practices of the Nation of Islam and the cult of personality around Elijah Muhammad. The brotherhood of the Hajj emphasizes a religion in which everyone is equal under the one true God, in which there are no good or bad races and there are no “Divine Men.” Malcolm’s attraction to the Islam he experiences on the Hajj stems from its openness to exploration of truth and equality between people. Put another way, while the Nation allowed him to see his dignity as a black man, orthodox Islam now confirms his dignity as a human being.
Religion Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
"Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you'd get all kinds of work."
In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn't know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man's American social system. In another sense, the tragedy of the once master pickpocket made him, for those brother old-timer hustlers, a "there but for the grace of God" symbol. To wolves who still were able to catch some rabbits, it had meaning that an old wolf who had lost his fangs was still eating.
Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
And Allah blessed me to remain true, firm and strong in my faith in Islam, despite many severe trials to my faith. And even when events produced a crisis between Elijah Muhammad and me, I told him at the beginning of the crisis, with all the sincerity I had in me, that I still believed in him more strongly than he believed in himself.
“Today's Uncle Tom doesn't wear a handkerchief on his head. This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now often wears a top hat. He's usually well-dressed and well-educated. He's often the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent. Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional Negro . . . by that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man.”
And that was how, after twelve years of never thinking for as much as five minutes about myself, I became able finally to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself.
We both had to leave to make appointments we had, when he dropped on me something whose logic never would get out of my head. He said, “No man has believed perfectly until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
Back at the Frankfurt airport, we took a United Arab Airlines plane on to Cairo. Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn't any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.