“He Was My Brother”

After a chance meeting with Malcolm X, Ahmed Osman ’65 became a spiritual guide to the Muslim icon.

Malcolm X was mistaken. As the militant civil-rights leader thundered in his Harlem mosque about how white people were akin to devils, a Dartmouth student named Ahmed Osman, who happened to drop by that day—a summer Sunday in 1963—sat shaking his head. 

The gut punch of a comparison, which in many ways justified Malcolm’s attacks against white supremacy, was inspired by a verse in the Quran. But in drawing from the holy Islamic book, Malcolm was relying on a poor translation of a key passage, according to Osman, a devout Muslim from Sudan and fluent speaker of Arabic. 

“Brother Malcolm, I challenge you,” said Osman, rising from his seat to address the pulpit, which prompted scowls from some of the 500-member congregation.

“There is no human being you can call the devil in Islam,” the skinny soon-to-be-junior said. “There is no place for any kind of discrimination.”

Osman was not tossed onto the sidewalk on that sunny afternoon. In fact, speaking truth to power seems to have had the opposite effect. It crystallized the beginning of a deep and influential, if low-key, friendship between Osman and Malcolm. Accounts of the era rarely mention Osman. When reporters did refer to him, they often got his name wrong. A 2020 documentary, Malcolm X and the Sudanese, seeks to give Osman his due.

As a skilled interpreter of dense and sometimes opaque religious text, Osman became a sort of spiritual advisor to Malcolm, a role with philosophical and political implications, according to scholars. 

Indeed, introducing Malcolm to alternate ways of understanding the Quran seems to have brought about a profound shift in the leader’s thinking. Around the time he met Osman, Malcolm turned away from the Nation of Islam, the controversial religious group known for its Blacks-only dogma, toward a more holistic view of Islam that allowed for white worshippers. 

“[True Islam is] a religion that had eliminated the color bar and a religion in which the people didn’t judge one another based upon the color of their skin,” Malcolm told a student interviewer from WDCR during a trip to Dartmouth in 1965, just weeks before he was gunned down by assassins. 

The pivot hardly seemed to make Malcolm soft. “Fight against those who fight against you,” he said in Hanover during the visit that Osman helped organize. “This is one of the things that I love about the Muslim religion.”

The shift intriguingly suggests that had Malcolm not been killed at the age of 39, his once-intransigent take on race relations might have evolved further. That possibility, and its potential to address systemic racism, owes at least something to an undergraduate from Hanover.

“Here’s a guy, Ahmed, who was very wrapped up with the Nation of Islam at first, but then he sees that Malcolm is doing things that [Osman] doesn’t consider Islamic, because anything a Muslim would do, there was no racism in it, ever,” says Dale Eickelman ’64, one of Osman’s roommates in Hanover who is now a professor in the College’s anthropology department. “It wasn’t a gamble to challenge him on it that day in New York. It was compulsive.”

A World of Difference 

Ahmed Siddig Osman, 78, grew up in the windswept village of Argeen, near Lake Nubia, before moving to Omdurman, where his father, Siddig, served as headmaster of a high school, while his mother, Sultana, raised Osman and his three brothers and four sisters.

As a teenager Osman won an essay contest sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune that earned him a spot in a program that placed international students in American schools for three months. After arriving in the United States in December 1959, Osman attended classes on Long Island, New York, and in New Jersey and Maryland. There were also field trips, including one to the White House, where Osman posed for a photo in a white turban and robe. 

His appetite for the West was whetted. After attending the University of Khartoum for a year, Osman applied to transfer to an American college. Brandeis said yes and so did Dartmouth, which offered to cover his tuition, courtesy of a first-ever class of 1956 scholarship for foreign students. Osman’s strict father, who did not want his son cavorting with coeds, was opposed until Osman showed him a film about Dartmouth he found in a local library. “I said, ‘Look, there are no girls,’ ” Osman recalls in an accented and steady voice that radiates calm.

Arriving in September 1962 by train from New York City, Osman found himself in a class with about a half-dozen Black students, though his status as one of only a handful of Muslims made him stand out even more. Forget about finding a proper place to pray—even distant Boston didn’t yet have a mosque, he says. Honoring the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are supposed to fast during daylight hours, was difficult. Since the dining hall and local restaurants closed relatively early, he had a hard time finding meals at night, when he was permitted to eat. 

Osman purchased a coffeemaker so he could at least have a beverage at night. But since it was against the rules to have appliances in dorm rooms, campus police confiscated the machine and fined Osman $25. After he explained his religious practices, they returned the coffeemaker.

Otherwise, the economics major kept busy with the swim team, even if there could be awkward moments. During a flight to an away meet that overlapped with prayer time, friends say, Osman, unfazed, stretched himself flat in the aisle to express his devotion to Allah. “Try doing that today,” says Eickelman, who roomed with Osman during his first semester. “He was up for serious conversation, and I would regard him as very friendly, very engaged. But he was not the type to seek out a fraternity basement.”

There were also spirited arguments about Islam’s superiority, which may have had an effect. Eickelman focuses on Arabic and Islamic studies, a specialty inspired by those dorm-room back-and-forths, he says. 

Osman says he never felt prejudice on campus, though he believes that might have had something to do with his coming from such an exotic place. Had he come from, say, Harlem, his experience might have been rougher. “In America,” he says, “Africans and African Americans are treated quite differently.”

The X Factor   

In summer 1963, the time of his fateful run-in with Malcolm, Osman was living in Manhattan with George Yeager ’56, Tu’57, and working at a Wall Street bank. Glad to finally be in a place with appropriate houses of worship, Osman spent much time praying at West 72nd Street and Riverside Drive, the site of one of New York City’s first mosques, he says. 

Where Malcolm was led astray, Osman says, was how he understood chapter 20, verse 102, of the Quran, which focuses on what will become of sinners on Judgment Day. A popular translation by Muhammad Ali, which Malcolm preferred, indicates that those sinners will be distinguished by their blue eyes—in other words, people who are white. But a much better translation of the passage, by Yusuf Ali, interprets the “blue” phrase to mean eyes that look a certain way because they’re filled with terror, regardless of race, Osman says.

“Moreover, the Quran states that humankind was created from a single male and female and that ‘O people, we have created you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other. The best of you is the most righteous,’ ” he says. 

Encouraging Malcolm to experience this version of Islam, Osman helped him plan a trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 that included a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. There, Malcolm was surprised to find Muslims “whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white,” he wrote. “[I’ve had to] toss aside some of my previous conclusions.” Later, as Malcolm fully embraced orthodox Islam, he would rename himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. 

“With his background—being from Sudan, with a passion for Nubian history—Ahmed was positioned very favorably to influence Malcolm,” says Aisha al-Adawiya, founder of Women in Islam, a Harlem-based advocacy group, and a friend of the El-Shabazz family. 

In 1960s Hanover, a lily-white enclave, Black leaders were, surprisingly, not an unfamiliar sight. Martin Luther King Jr. packed Dartmouth Hall on May 23, 1962. (King was also scheduled to speak on two other occasions, in 1960 and 1961, though they never came to pass.) But when it came to extending an invitation to Malcolm X, there were mixed feelings. “The students wanted to invite him,” Osman recalls, “but the College wasn’t interested.” Another hurdle: The Undergraduate Student Council didn’t have enough funds to cover a speaking fee, says Osman, who volunteered to write a letter to Malcolm and request that he waive his honorarium.

“It would not have happened otherwise,” says Richard Joseph ’65, a council member who calls Malcolm’s visit one of the most important events of his life. “Malcolm X came because he enjoyed taking on the best of America,” adds Joseph, a retired professor of international history at Northwestern. “He would say, ‘Bring it on,’ so he could match wits with the best.” 

Malcolm seemed to present different versions of himself during that Hanover visit on January 26, 1965. On one hand, he still seemed every bit the Black nationalist, skeptical of integration with whites and willing to strike back against racists. 

In a preview, perhaps, of the demonstrations against Black oppression that would erupt in summer 2020, Malcolm told an overflow crowd in Spaulding Auditorium that “the year 1965 will be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer yet witnessed unless something is done about the injustice my people continue to face,” according to The Dartmouth.

Malcolm struck a similarly combative tone when he signed the guest book in Cutter Hall, then a dorm for international students with a guest suite for speakers. He wrote, “If you don’t make things as good for us as they are for you, we will make them as bad for you as they are for us,” recalls David Weber ’65, class president and a teacher at Exeter. “It’s a reminder, among other things, that one needs to resist the temptation to exaggerate Malcolm X’s late cordiality.” Cutter, which features large Malcolm X murals, is today home to the Shabazz Center for Intellectual Inquiry. 

After Malcolm’s speech, The Dartmouth reported his “arguments were often irrational and his solutions, based on the ends to be achieved, often ignored the implications of the means to accomplish the ends.”

Still, Malcolm, well into in his post-hajj phase, seems to have leaned into his softer self. “If I thought separation would work, I’d still believe in it,” he told reporters then. “Now that I have found the true Muslim religion, I realize my original beliefs were wrong.”

Likewise, when Malcolm dined with some students at Lou’s Restaurant, he declined to take the bait when harassed by a local. “I remember Malcolm just smiling,” recalls Joseph.

A Tragic Turn

On February 21, a few weeks after his New Hampshire visit, Malcolm was killed in a hail of bullets at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. Three members of the Nation of Islam, which considered Malcolm a traitor for turning his back on the group, were later convicted of murder. 

Osman was in Hanover when he learned of Malcolm’s death. He quickly boarded a Greyhound bus for a 12-hour trip to New York City, where tensions were running high. The next day firebombs destroyed Malcolm’s former mosque, where Osman had taken issue with the sermon. Several Harlem churches, worried about more attacks, declined to host Malcolm’s funeral, according to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Faith Temple on Amsterdam Avenue agreed to conduct the funeral—and its bishop became the target of bomb threats, Haley writes.

On February 27, 600 people packed the temple. Thousands more waited outside. Actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee read messages of condolence from around the world before ceding the altar to Osman (who is misidentified as “Omar Osman” in Haley’s book as well as in The New York Times).

Osman spoke next. He defended Malcolm. Carl Rowan, director of the U.S. Information Agency, a public relations group, had slammed some of the foreign papers that had expressed solidarity for Malcolm after his death. “All this about an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler who became a racial fanatic,” said Rowan, according to Haley. Osman, apparently emphasizing the later-stage, more moderate Malcolm, told the gathering that his friend “never preached any racism, he never preached any segregation, he never preached any separation, but he stood for the full equality for his brothers and sisters.”

Osman’s support of Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, and their six daughters didn’t end that day. In 1965 Osman accompanied Shabazz on her own hajj (Islamic tradition required women to be accompanied by a male guardian). To make the journey, Osman took off the spring term of his senior year and missed graduation. He later helped some of Shabazz’s daughters complete their pilgrimages. 

Osman pursued a career in development economics and spent several years in Kuwait. Most of his Malcolm letters went missing when he fled the country during Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. Other employment has included consulting on PBS film ventures about Sudan and a mid-1970s teaching stint at Dartmouth that included a Malcolm-focused course. He missed an opportunity to go to Hollywood. Spike Lee couldn’t locate Osman for help with the 1992 film Malcolm X. Osman now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Sohair, although he’s been marooned in Sudan since the pandemic hit last spring.

Osman is featured extensively in the documentary, Malcolm X and the Sudanese, which was produced by Hisham Aidi, a senior lecturer at Columbia. In the short film Osman pays a visit to Malcolm’s grave in Westchester County, New York. Osman, working with an imam, was able to get Malcolm interred there as an orthodox Muslim.

An article by Osman in The Dartmouth a few weeks after Malcolm was killed includes a poem that offers a simple explanation for why Malcolm X mattered. “Yes, of what race, colour, land he was I care not,” Osman wrote. “But this much I care, he was my brother.”                            

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