Betty Shabbazz ? What a Muslim woman!

Even as we remember Malcolm X forty years later, we ought also to remember and honor his beloved wife, Dr. Betty Shabbazz. I met her twice.  The second time was when she was lying in her coffin beside Malcolm’s grave, and her six daughters had honored me by asking me to recite from the Qur’an and to offer a prayer over her body before it was lowered into her husband’s grave.

I remember myself shaking like a leaf as I stood beside Malcolm’s grave for the first time, and as I watched his beloved wife rejoining him after surviving such awesomely difficult trials in life.
The dominant characteristic of her life, after Malcolm’s death, was her fierce loyalty and unflinching devotion to her husband’s memory, and to his mission in life. And this brings me to my first meeting with her that is the subject of this essay.

It was 22nd September 1996, just eight months before her death, and I was escorted to the back of a large hall in midtown Manhattan to be introduced to her.  She did not smile to greet me. There was something distant and lonesome about her, as though she belonged to a far away place and another time – not the kind of woman who would put you at ease in her presence. But I could almost feel her quiet strength and power as she waited with infinite patience for the time to come when she would go back home to her beloved. 

She sat at the back of the hall, she quietly explained to me, to be better able to assess the four speakers who were scheduled to address that night the challenging topic ‘Beyond Malcolm X – The Future of Islamic Leadership in North America.’
She had heard of me, of my Trinidad origin, and of my constant references in New York and elsewhere to her husband, and she was curious to listen that night to what I had to say on the topic. I devoted myself in my address to describing the unflinching faith in Allah that was the very substance of the man. He lived for Allah, and he died for Allah. And that was the kind of Islamic leadership that North American Muslims needed.

But I also took time off to dwell on his matchless integrity. His passionate commitment to truth and justice was such that he absolutely abhorred opportunism and expediency. And so his values in life were located at the very heart of Islam. I then went on to observe that Malcolm, perhaps, did not know about the prohibition of Riba (borrowing or lending money on interest) in Islam. How else could we explain Alex Haley’s comment in the ‘Autobiography’ that Malcolm took an advance from him to make a down payment on a house in Elmhurst, New York, after his home was firebombed by Nation of Islam enemies? And that was the comment that got me into trouble.

After all four speakers had made their presentations Betty came forward, ever so slowly and deliberately, to the front podium, to address the gathering. She began by quoting my words: “The Imam said that my husband lived for Allah. The Imam said that my husband died for Allah. The Imam is right.” But then she turned around to face me, and to look at me squarely in the eyes, and to defiantly declare, “But Imam, he did not sign the agreement. He died before he could do that. So he was not in Riba!”

Only after she had passionately defended her husband did she calm down. But the way she had looked at me (Don’t you dare criticize my husband!) was such that it took me much longer to calm down. Seldom in my life have I ever witnessed such passionate devotion to a leader’s memory and legacy. And it is that dazzling example that she has left behind for the Muslim women of today.  She went on to plead for Islamic leaders who would be men of courage and integrity, men who, like her husband, would defy the oppressors of the world. But she also spoke of faith, and of the quest for knowledge.

Later that evening, after I had left the hall to go to another engagement, she autographed a copy of the ‘Autobiography’ for me. And this is what she wrote. “You are a leader for men and women of all ages and all times. May the peace and blessings of Allah forever guide you.” And she signed Hajjah B. Shabbazz / Mrs. MX. It brought tears to my eyes.

May their common grave be wide, cool and spacious for them, and be filled with light. And may they both sleep peacefully together in that grave. Ameen!