Lecture: X as Variable: Muslim Invocations of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

X as Variable: Muslim Invocations of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

Speaker: Maryam Kashani

Date: Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Time: 6:00 pm Light Refreshments; 6:15 pm Talk followed by Q&A
Where: Conference Hall, Main Bldg, American Islamic College

Lecture Summary

On Wednesday, Nov. 7th, AIC welcomed Dr. Maryam Kashani, Anthropologist, Filmmaker, and Asst. Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to present on “X as a Variable: Muslim Invocations of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X).”

After some light refreshments, Dr. Kashani gave a thought-provoking presentation that ignited a powerful discussion. Her talk surveyed the complicated articulation, memory, connection, and legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in the American and Muslim American consciousness. She also discussed how invocations of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz enjoins Muslims in the US to take on the difficult task of reactivating the full force and implications of his words.

Topic Description

The Nationalists have claimed Malcolm. The Socialists have claimed Malcolm. Now, it’s time for you Muslims to claim Malcolm . . . because he was a believer.” Betty Shabazz, the widow of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X describes how her husband’s legacy had been taken up and interpreted in ways that reduced the significance of his Islamic beliefs and practices. In recent years Muslims in the United States, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds have returned to Malcolm X as an American Muslim figure. This presentation discusses how particular Muslims in the United States articulate a Muslim legacy of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, fifty years after his assassination and considers how invocations of Malcolm enjoin Muslims in the United States to take on the difficult task of reactivating the full force and implications of his words.

Maryam Kashani is an Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A filmmaker and anthropologist, her research is concerned with the lived experience of Muslims in the United States through the lenses of epistemology, gender, race, visual culture, and political economy. Her book project is based on ethnographic research and filmmaking conducted amongst Muslim communities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and at a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California. The related film works, Our Look Was As If Two Lovers Or Deadly Enemiesand Signs of Remarkable History premiered at the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates in March 2015. Her films and videos have been shown at film festivals, universities, and museums internationally.

Speaker Biography: Maryam Kashani

Maryam Kashani is an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Trained as an anthropologist and filmmaker, she is currently working on a book manuscript drawn from her ethnographic fieldwork and filmmaking at Zaytuna College and with Muslim communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Medina by the Bay will examine Muslim knowledge practices and institution-building in relation to issues of gender, race, visuality, and displacement, telling an interrelated story of American Muslim subject-making and dueling discourses of wealth and poverty, dissent and assimilation. Her films and video installations have been exhibited at festivals, universities, and museums internationally. Visit http://www.maryamkashani.com/ for details on her projects.

Recovering El-Hajji Malik Shabazz As a Believer

By Bill Chambers

11/9/18; article published in The Muslim Journal

American Islamic College of Chicago hosted a talk titled “X as Variable: Muslim Invocations of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)” by Maryam Kashani, an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Maryam Kashani explored all the new ways that the diverse Muslim American community is reclaiming Malik Shabazz as a believer and as a “spiritual ancestor.”

Kashani provided a number of concrete examples of where Malik El-Shabazz was “recontextualized for a multi-cultural and multi-racial world.” In one example, she cited the work of Imam Zaid Shakir from Zaytuna College in Berkley, California whose speeches and videos “create a multi-ethnic tableau of the American ummah” by emphasizing the message of Malik El-Shabazz appealing across the wide range of Muslims in the Imam’s audience. In one of the videos of Imam Zaid Shakir, he described his conversation with Betty Shabazz. “The Nationalists have claimed Malcolm. The Socialists have claimed Malcolm. Now, it’s time for you Muslims to claim Malcolm . . . because he was a believer.” Betty Shabazz, the widow of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, described how her husband’s legacy had been taken up and interpreted in ways that reduced the significance of his Islamic beliefs and practices.

Kashani explained how in recent years Muslims in the United States, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds have returned to Malik El-Shabazz as an American Muslim figure. Much of this revisiting of his life and message is to move away from the dilution of his message challenging white supremacy and the literature of his life that discounts his connection to Islam.

Kashani spoke of a powerful example called “X SPEAKS,” which was a program that involved multiple people from the community; they created performance art around the last eight speeches of Malik El-Shabazz (https://nsengaknight.com/xspeaks/)

“X SPEAKS” was a performance-based social social practice project conceived and led by artist Nsenga Knight conducted during Black History Month in February 2015. She invited members of the Black Muslim community to collectively recite Malcolm X’s final speeches and reflect on his continuing pertinence on the 50th anniversary of his death. All of the live performances were released on Google Hangout, YouTube and Twitter so anyone could participate in the live discussions. Kashani described the wide range of people who participated from activists, teachers, to whole families, each offering their unique perspective on Malik El-Shabazz words.

The room at AIC was packed; an audience member, Nafis Muhammad, reminded guests of the importance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as Malik’s original teacher and mentor bringing him to Al-Islam even with the later break in their relationship. To the question of which name to use in describing his life, Dr. Lynne Muhammad recommended using the name appropriate to that period of his life. Now it should be Malik El-Shabazz, the name on his passport when he went to hajj, and the name the community knew him by at his death. Especially, the “X” of Malcom X was given up and not used in the community. Lester Muhammad said to not emphasize Malik El-Shabazz being a Black Nationalist as he had a peaceful nature and was not a violent man. Another community member spoke of the issue of anti-Blackness in the Muslim community as being one reason that

Malik El-Shabazz was not accepted as a believer by all Muslims. Kashani responded saying anti-Blackness definitely is a factor among immigrant Muslims in the US.  She described her involvement in Believers Bailout, a campaign to raise money for those in Cook County jail or on electronic monitoring because they could not afford bail. She was afraid that many Muslims might not give to a fund that mainly supports Muslims of color. But she was proved wrong.

Many must have heeded the words of the Qur’an quoted by the campaign:

“And do you realize what is the steep road? It is the freeing of a human being from bondage.” (90:12-13)

Trained as an anthropologist and filmmaker, Kashani is currently working on a book manuscript drawn from her ethnographic fieldwork and filmmaking at Zaytuna College and with Muslim communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Medina by the Bay will examine Muslim knowledge practices and institution-building in relation to issues of gender, race, visuality, and displacement, telling an interrelated story of American Muslim subject-making and dueling discourses of wealth and poverty, dissent and assimilation. She is also author of “The Audience Is Present: Invocations of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz by Muslims in the United States” included in the book With Stones in Our Hands: Reflections on Racism, Muslims, and U.S. Empire.

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