When Race Matters: How I learned about Jesus through Malcolm X

ONE OF MY EARLIEST memories as a child is going to the cinema as an eleven-year-old with my father and sisters. My father didn’t take us to see a superhero movie or some other blockbuster that a child my age might have reveled in seeing; rather, it was Spike Lee’s 1993 film Malcolm X (which I must say as an eleven-year-old was quite the educational experience). In my father’s defense, I should mention that (seeing as there was no Google at this stage) he knew next to nothing about the titular character other than the basics; that he was a courageous champion of American civil rights and that at some point during his struggles he ended up embracing Islam during a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Since being introduced to Malcolm X in this way, I have read Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X on at least three occasions and have always, in some form or other, gotten something out of doing so. One of the more memorable scenes from the movie (even alluded to in Haley’s book) is how Malcolm, as played by Denzel Washington, whilst in prison for charges of larceny and breaking & entering, smugly points out that the description of Jesus (peace be upon him) as indicated in the Bible is akin to that of a non-white, specifically in his reckoning, that of a black-person.

The scriptural evidence which Malcolm, at this point in this life, was referring to was a vision of Jesus as recorded in the Book of Revelation. In it, John describes Jesus as having hair akin to wool:

The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. [Revelation 1:14]

This passage, albeit circumstantial in nature, led several Afrocentric groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Church of the Living God to entertain the notion that Jesus was in fact black. No doubt, the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America continue this ‘tradition,’ as can be seen in their ‘jubilant assessment’ of the concept:

If Jesus was [an] original Black man, as many believe, then his referenced flowing loc[k]s and lamb’s wool hair might have looked a lot like Bob Marley’s glorious mane. Let the Church say Amen to the possibility. [1]

Admittedly, when concentrating on such an issue far too more than necessary, the reason as to why Malcolm originally felt the need to bring forth this concern becomes lost. Rather than being an issue of racial pride and jingoism, it should be one which informs us to question religious claims rather than blindly obeying them. This is especially the case when such claims do not have strong bases to begin with and when they are intended to be used in such a way so as to prolong a narrative that is disingenuous to begin with. Regarding this notion, the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America write:

The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures not only bore witness to the flexibility of racial constructions but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.[2]

As a child from a sub-continental background who studied at a private Anglican school populated predominantly by white upper middle-class boys, I found that Malcolm’s example resonated with me to the extent that I challenged my school chaplain just as Malcolm did with his own chaplain at prison.  The fact that I perceived school to be my own ‘personal prison’ only heightened the parallels I saw between myself and Malcolm. Upon doing so however, I was quickly rebuffed and told that there were no descriptions of Jesus as far as the Bible was concerned.

As it turned out my school chaplain may have had a point, just not one which was as ‘black and white’ as he may have thought it to be. The passage which Malcolm references, after all, was one in which Jesus –as far as Christian belief is concerned– is described in his ‘godly form,’ one in which he is to ascend to heaven with a glorified body.

Although Malcolm’s proof might not have been a decisive one (as the passage in question may even be interpreted symbolically, given that a neighboring passage speaks of a sword coming from his mouth), it is nonetheless one which does raise a valid point in so far as prolonging shaky narratives are concerned.

Though the Bible does not explicitly mention Jesus’ racial or physical features, which are ultimately not that important from an Islamic perspective due to Islam’s stance on racial equality, Muslims may nonetheless be interested to know that there are biblical proofs–aside from a purely Israelite genealogy–which indicate a physical appearance:

But he (i.e. Jesus) walked right through the crowd and went on his way. [Luke 4:30]

According to this passage, Jesus possessed an appearance which allowed him to easily blend into a crowd of Israelites. Islamic teachings would not necessarily disqualify this view, only adding to them in that his descriptions, as mentioned more specifically by the Prophet œ are that:

– He has a reddish complexion.[3]

– He has wavy hair and a broad chest.[4]

– His hair falls to his shoulders and will appear as though it were wet when not wet at all. [5]

– He is of medium height, neither abnormally tall nor abnormally short.[6]

In order to accurately explain to the Companions  what he meant (and perhaps clarify that what he meant was by no means metaphorical), he explained that the individual which Jesus most resembled (though was not identical to) was a Companion (and a chieftain of Taif) by the name of ‘Urwah ibn Mas’ud ath-Thaqafi (may Allah be pleased with him),[7] in other words, an Arab with a specific appearance amongst several other Arabs.

For this reason, despite how sympathetic we as Muslims might be to ideas which are intended to unite rather than divide, it would be misleading for us to argue for the acceptability of interpreting a Jesus (or any other prophet for that matter) that is subject to the “infinite malleability” spoken of by Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. According to him, the reason as to why Christianity spread so rapidly and is currently the largest religion is because it “allows different people to define what God in human form would look like.”[8] In response to such a view, Bryan Hurlbutt, the Lead Pastor of Lifeline Community, explains that when this approach is taken to its logical conclusion:

Theology then becomes just an opinion or an assent to other opinions postulated from a particular perspective of the world…[9]

There are many differences we may potentially have concerning Jesus, which the Qur’an even alludes to:

…And We gave clear miracles to Jesus, the son of Mary, and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. And if Allah had pleased, those after them would not have fought one with another after clear arguments had come to them, but they disagreed… [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2: 253]

Though we may disagree on the specifics, we Muslims and Christians do have a commonly-held belief regarding what it is that will actually occur once Jesus does return back to the world he left so long ago – an end to the unnecessary divisions which have plagued humanity for so long and an opportunity to finally enjoy an era of peace and prosperity.

As far as Islam is concerned, the return of Jesus to earth implies an existence in which men will use their weaponry for nothing other than farming.[10] More notably, in part of a longer hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, we are told by the Prophet œ,

You will not bear grudges against one another or envy one another or hate one another.[11]

In other words, a world which has successfully eliminated even racism. I know he would have loved the idea, but I can’t help wondering what Malcolm would have said about it.

——————————–

[1] Byrd, A. & Tharps, L., Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Macmillan, 2014, p. 114.

[2] Blum, E.J. & Harvey, P., The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America, University of North Carolina Press, 2012, p. 8.

[3] Bukhari, no. 3438

[4] Bukhari, no. 3438

[5] Bukhari, no. 3440

[6] Bukhari, no. 3396

[7] Muslim, no. 167

[8] http://www.christianpost.com/news/zealot-author-reza-aslan-responds-to-megyn-kellys-jesus-was-white-controversy-says-he-looked-palestinian-110703/

[9] Hurlbutt, B.F., Tasty Jesus: Liberating Christ from the Power of Our Predilections, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.

[10] Recorded by Ahmed in his Musnad. Al-Haythami referred to it as authentic in Majma’ Al-Zawa’id.

[11] Recorded by ad-Daylami in Musnad al-Firdaws, classified as Sahih by al-Albaani in as-Silsilah as-Sahihah 4/559.

Written By

Furqan Jabbar was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. Upon completing his schooling, he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies (specializing in fiqh and usul al-fiqh) from King Saudi University, Riyadh. He then pursued a Master degree in Islamic Banking and Finance from La Trobe University, Melbourne and is currently pursuing preliminary steps to study his PhD. As well as working with several da’wah organisations and advising several financial institutions, he regularly counsels members of his community and serves as a local teacher and assistant Imam. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his children, reading, writing and practicing archery.

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."

9 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *