Members of the Nation of Islam, often referred to as the Black Muslims, relinquish their given names for others provided by the organization. Prior to receiving this Islamic name, a member must demonstrate, through their lifestyle, that they are a decent, respectable person. While awaiting this formal name, the member carries the surname “X,” to symbolize the shedding of the slave master’s name, acknowledge that black Americans are a lost tribe and demonstrate acceptance that an original Islamic name is an honor.
Shedding the Slave Name
To members of the Nation of Islam, the last names black Americans receive at birth are representative of the race’s enslavement. According to the Prophet Elijah Muhammad, in his book "Message to the Blackman in America," in order for black Americans to realize who they are as a people, they must give up these names that tie them to their former slave masters. Muhammad wanted the world to recognize black Americans as a distinct people who had lost their true identity during the slavery era. To achieve this recognition, blacks must reclaim their original names, which the Nation of Islam would provide to each individual in due time. First, a Muslim had to prove a desire to become free by publicly becoming an ex-slave by accepting the symbol “X” as a last name.
The Lost Tribe of Shabazz
Over the course of 400 years of enslavement in the New World, contends Black Muslim doctrine, black Americans forgot their true identity. Black Americans, under this theory, are the Lost Tribe of Shabazz, kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as slaves. Members of the Nation of Islam fully accept this creed by taking on the “X,” mathematical symbol of the unknown, to represent their lost African name.
A Black Muslim’s Original Name
After demonstrating acceptance of the tenets of Islam, a member may petition for a full Muslim name, referred to as an original name. Initially, upon its founding in 1930, the Nation allowed people to purchase their original name for thirty dollars. Those unable to afford this amount received the temporary “X” instead. The Nation eventually began awarding members this new name based on merit, after a long period of service to the Muslim community.
The “X” as Politics
There is some evidence that politics could influence Black Muslim naming practice, at least historically. For example, when Cassius Clay, a young, talented boxer, began dabbling in the Nation, the Prophet Elijah Muhammad refused to accept him into the fold. Clay was too loud and egotistical. No known members of the Nation, except for Malcolm X, attended Clay’s 1964 heavyweight title bout with Sonny Liston. In fact, "Muhammad Speaks," the official newspaper of the religion, unequivocally supported Liston. A little over a week after defeating Liston, Clay received his “X," which the Nation had previously refused him. Furthermore, Cassius X officially received his original name, Muhammad Ali, within months, much more rapidly than the years endured by others.
- Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images