The World Is a Prison to Believers

Naming and Worlds in Malcolm X


  • Joel Kuhlin
  • Anthony Paul Smith


In this paper, we look at the terrain of Malcolm X's "failed rhetoric" as producing an apocalyptic refusal of world, and world making. This refusal finds its intensity from a distinct gnostic calculus, driving Malcolm X's political theology of names and worlds, seen in his oratory from the years 1962–1964. First, Malcolm X's nominal history is discussed in relation to the violence of naming and political theology. Then, by turning to the speech "Black Man's History" (1962), we look at fundamental aspects of his gnostic theology of names and worlds. As we turn to the speech "God's Judgment of White America" (1963), a gnostic calculus is seen as intrinsically bound to the names of Muslim and Allah, and to refusal of the (White) World. With Malcolm X's hajj experience, best seen in the "Letter from Mecca" (1964), the rhetorical landscape of worlds shift into a discourse of a single Muslim World. As Malcolm X's rhetorical mood shifts from a gnostic indicative, of displaying and exemplifying the imminent end of worlds, into the imperative of political action for Black Muslims in the World, are fundamental elements of the 1962–1963 oratory transposed into a different key, or simply removed? We argue that much of Malcolm X's gnostic tendencies remain in the Meccan epistle, in terms of an unbending refusal of oppressive Whiteness. With the concept of being "double Muslim" of the Black Muslims, we finally turn to Salman Sayyid's Recalling the Caliphate in order to think a lasting problematic of the failure of Malcolm X's apocalyptic refusal of the world.