Malcolm X and Macaulayism; the Intersectionality of Epistemological Oppression

Malcolm X in Istanbul

Malcolm X and Macaulayism; the Intersectionality of Epistemological Oppression

Written by: Shabbir Agha

Last year (2020), on the anniversary of her father’s assassination, Ilyasah Shabazz was giving a lecture about her father’s philosophy and what he was desperately trying to accomplish in the last days of his life. She began her talk by quoting her father by saying:

“Only a fool would let his enemy teach his children.”

She then went on to elaborate who this enemy was, and she too mentioned that it was this enemy that her father was preoccupied with in his final year. This enemy according to her was not a person, it was an educational policy known as Macaulayism; which was enacted by the British empire in order to eradicate indigenous [traditional] forms of education from their colonies.

Ilyasah Shabazz speaking at her father’s commemoration, February 21st, 2020 (Photo Credit: Shabbir Agha Abbas)

While Macaulayism impacted all British colonies, from Africa to Australia, it was specifically designed in order to support their colonial ambitions in India. Malcolm X, by concerning himself with the after effects of European imperialism whilst leading the charge for racial justice in America, shows just how sophisticated a mind he had. He realized that the plight of Black people in America, and the colonized abroad were tragically linked through their mutual disenfranchisement when it came to education. Macaulayism gave an absolute monopoly over epistemology to the west, particularly the elite of the Anglosphere, to the extent that they could define what was and was not to be considered as ‘knowledge.’

Portrait of Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington Macaulay (d. 1859) was a lifelong British statesman, who spent his entire career serving the colonial enterprise in many different roles. He oversaw the British East India Company as its Secretary to the Board of Control, he was on the Governor-General’s Council, and he served as the British Secretary at War. Nevertheless, his lasting legacy, as preserved in the eponymous Macaulayism, was the English Education Act of 1835. This act in effect barred traditional institutions from receiving official funding; reallocating these funds to institutions who complied with approved western curriculums. Macaulay was the chief proponent of this policy, and in promoting it he delivered his ‘Minute Upon Indian Education,’ in which he presented the argument that indigenous forms of education were inferior to that of the west, that this preventative measure would help the Indians progress, he stated:

“I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Macaulay himself admitted to his complete ignorance to Indian literature, he had no knowledge of the intellectual discourse of that part of the world; all that he knew was from the sparse imperfect translations of his European comrades. Therefore, the real driving force for his promoting the English Education Act of 1835 was European supremacism. Macaulay and his colleagues feared that their colonial subjects had the potential to not only stand as intellectual equals of theirs but also superiors, thus they endeavored to stifle their intellectual capabilities by didactically molding their minds according to their colonial standards. The nefarious nature of their reformulating of Indian education is thus exposed in Macaulay’s own words:

“I feel… that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

So, while overtly the colonial policy to replace indigenous forms of education involved assaulting the Persian language, as well as Arabic and Sanskrit in favor of English, the latent objective was even more sinister. By altering the educational systems of India, the British could control and dominate their colonial subjects at much greater levels, furthermore through this education they could employ the colonized into willingly supporting their own destruction. Thus many Indians were thoroughly brainwashed into seeing the British as benevolent rulers, when they were in fact vicious barbarians. 

A British Man being attended to by Indian servants (Circa: British Raj)

The lasting consequence of Macaulayism has been such that for the most part Indians can no longer access their historic literature, so they are forced to view and understand themselves via the lens given to them by their colonizers. An ‘educated’ Pakistani or Indian today could probably quote Shakespeare (d. 1616), but not Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) or ‘Abd al-Qadir Bedil (d. 1720). By divorcing the Indian people (and other colonized peoples) from their own literature, they have been forced to enter into a perpetual inferiority complex, where they are made to look outside themselves for inspiration; for science and technology one must look towards the west, for Islam one must look towards the Arabs or the Iranians (depending on sect). One has no need to look at others, instead they should dive into their own selves in order to unlock their God-given potential. Understanding this predicament Malcolm X stated:

“In the ghettos the white man has built for us, he has forced us not to aspire to greater things, but to view everyday living as survival.”

Colonized Indian and African youth will not find inspiration in the stories of far away white men who accomplished so little; they instead arise reading the stories of their saintly progenitors, whose accomplishments in unveiling the secrets of this earth and the cosmos, serves as the foundation of modern science and mathematics. European colonizers rid generations of colonized peoples of their linkages with their glorious past, thus setting them up for a life of mediocrity and impotence. Knowing that the histories of the Indian people were written in Persian and Sanskrit, the British denied the Indian people from the ability to read, let alone, understand these languages.

“A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”

“History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals” – Malcolm X

Sister Clara Muhammad Elementary School, 102 W 116th St, New York, NY 10026 (Photo Credit: Shabbir Agha Abbas)

The British East India Company, as a killing machine, perfected the art of physical violence and domination, yet it was their epistemological violence unleashed on their colonial subjects that has had the most lasting of effects. One should wonder how the British arrived to one of the wealthiest regions of the world, yet left it as one of the poorest? Alongside with their pillaging of India, they subjected the great African nations to similar feats of savagery. 

Malcolm X understood that if the oppressed were to ever attain true justice, if the shackled were to ever shatter the chains holding them back, they had to firstly break the ‘white man’s’ hegemony over knowledge and education. While western education primarily serves the interests of capitalism, increasing the profits of the wealthy, the objectives of traditional education, especially in the Islamicate world, are diametrically different. Western education strives to produce good laborers, whereas traditional education strives to produce good human beings. This is so because ethics and morality fully soak the fabric of traditional education, math and physics were taught without neglecting the metaphysical essence of things. Conceptually the literature of the west is not at all analogous with that of the Islamicate world, for the latter’s belles-lettres are intertwined with etiquette, with refinement, with morals and humaneness, as all these words including literature itself are united in a single word ‘adab.’

An individual who studies a text like the Gulistan of Sa’di (d. 1292) – its poems and fables – as was commonplace in pre-colonial Indian curricula, cannot be expected to imperil the Amazon Rainforest in the name of limitless profit, to the detriment of the ecological welfare of our planet; as have done the über successful graduates of the top educational institutions of Europe and America. Success according to traditional education is not defined in terms of material gain, but instead in doing good and benefiting others, in the Gulistan we read:

خوردن برای زیستن و ذکر کردنست

تو معتقد که زیستن از بهر خوردنست

One eats to live and remember God

You think you live to eat

These lessons on life are lost to those whom western education is imposed upon, however this imposition cannot be treated as prohibitively necessary. These impositions can and must be walked back, and it all begins by reintroducing our [POC] communities with our native literature. Malcolm X asserted that “people don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book,” this entails some effort on our part. We must work on improving literacy in our communities, we must encourage language acquisition, and we must break the cultural and economic barriers separating the streets from the scholars. Scholars who understand the necessity of reversing Macaulayism must come down from their ivory towers, and must engage with as well as serve the streets. These were the undertakings of Malcolm X in the last days of his tragically short life;  by establishing the Muslim Mosque, Inc (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) he was rekindling the ties of the oppressed of the world with their ancestral forms of knowledge, liberating them from this didactic tyranny. May we have the courage to follow his path, and the tawfiq to learn from his wisdom.

(al-Fatihah for the soul of Malcolm X (d. 1965), and his grandson Malcolm Latif Shabazz (d. 2013))

Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, formerly known as Mosque No. 7 (Photo Credit: Shabbir Agha Abbas)

Published by ahlulbaytblog

Islamic Scholar

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