Joining the journey

After a troubled youth, Malcolm Shabazz seeks to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Malcolm X

Malcolm Shabazz, the eldest grandson of Malcolm X, recently went to Mecca for the hajj

Malcolm X once said "Tomorrow is for those who prepare for it today." And today, Malcolm Shabazz, the eldest grandson of Malcolm X, says he is trying to carry on the storied legacy of the radical advocate for African American civil rights and leading voice for the Nation of Islam.

Shabazz, 26, was recently in San Francisco discussing that legacy, as well as his own spiritual and personal journeys, which included making the pilgrimage to Mecca for the hajj in November, a requirement for Muslims that his grandfather also undertook in 1964, the year before he was assassinated.

It was the latest chapter in a long and complicated story. At the age of 12, Shabazz started a fire in his Yonkers home that left his grandmother (Malcolm X's wife, Betty) with burns over 80 percent of her body, which led to her death a few days later. Shabazz has spent more of his adolescence and adulthood in prisons and other institutions than in the real world.

After serving four years in juvenile correctional facilities for arson and manslaughter charges for the fire, Shabazz pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in 2002. He served three and a half years in prison for that crime and then went back to prison months after his release for punching a hole in a store window.

Although he is often portrayed in media accounts as disturbed, Shabazz seemed calm and reflective during a two-hour interview with the Guardian. A soft-spoken man with few but well-chosen words, Shabazz is not unafraid to speak his mind about the state of the country and his grandfather's legacy.

"If you want to know anything, then go back to the source," he told us, which is what we did, reviewing his long, twisted journey to Mecca.

As the oldest male heir to Malcolm X, Shabazz was born into a fascinating family. Media accounts have documented him as a troubled young man, shuttled back and forth among family members. Like his grandfather, he spent time on the streets and in jail. Like his grandfather, it was behind bars that he finally regained his faith and found himself fully immersed in Islam. Shabazz explains that while he was born into Islam, he finally began to fee its presence in his life during his most recent incarceration period. While quarantined in Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Shabazz explained that he "didn't have any hygiene supplies, I didn't have any reading materials."

But it was during his time in Attica that he met another prisoner — half Mexican, half Iranian — who identified himself as a Shia Muslim. "He asked me 'Are you in a lie? Or are you a real Muslim?' " Shabazz recalled. He answered that he was a real Muslim. "He gave me reading materials to read in my cell."

According to Shabazz, this was the man who discussed and poured over religious texts with him during their time together, and the one who inspired him to convert from the Sunni sect to Shia.

"I was raised a Sunni, everyone in my family was Sunni," he said. There is much antagonism between the two sects, so his conversion caused a backlash akin to when his grandfather left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and declared himself a Sunni, which let to his assassination the following year.

When word spread of Shabazz's conversion, various Sunni leaders and community members expressed their discomfort with what he had done. He explained that many people wrote to him asking him, "How could you become a Shia?"

After his release, Shabazz decided to move to Syria to study at an Islamic institute and then spent the following eight months teaching English to children. "I came home from prison [and] I wanted to get away for a little while," he explained.

After arriving back from Syria in April, Shabazz went to Miami and worked on his memoirs, which he said are due to come out this May. The book discusses Shabazz's life and tribulations, noting that "there are misconceptions that I would like to clear up."

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