The Fight for the Soul of Islam in America

By: Yahiya Emerick, American convert and writer


The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam, by Yahiya John Emerick

Islam fastest growing religion in US

Amidst the competing agendas of Salafees, Sufis and Modernists, Yahiya Emerick calls on "everyday Muslims" to remember that Islam is a balanced way of life.

If you're like me, you really care about Islam becoming a permanent part of the fabric of this nation. You don't want to be the last Muslim in your family tree either and you're convinced that Islam would make everyone around you much happier if they only gave it a try. You or I may not always be the most perfect Muslims, but we do work at it and we genuinely hope in the mercy and forgiveness of Allah.

Now if you get around, like I do, you've been to a variety of Masjids, conferences, gatherings and dinners. I say a variety because the style and substance between one and the next can be like night and day. You probably also have seen at least one copy of the several types of Muslim magazines that are in circulation. It would be hard not to given that the people who publish them usually give them away free at every gathering they can find. (No wonder no one subscribes, they always get them free.)

You've probably also heard a lot of different types of scholars speak and heard a lot of different theories and concepts presented for how to live Islam. Some you may agree with, others you may not. But isn't it true that there's always something going on somewhere, whether it's in the Masjids, universities, organizations, magazines or centers? There's always something going on and always some idea being advanced.

And if you've noticed, as I surely have, there is quite a lot of range in the opinion and presentation style. So much so that you would think different religions were being taught at each function! Some conferences, magazines or Masjids make you love Islam while others make you feel like grabbing your Eman and running away and hiding. Amazing isn't it?

What of organizations? The same holds true. There are a zillion Muslim groups operating in North America right now. So many, in fact, that most everyday Muslims don't know who they should support and thus remain dormant. Part of the problem which is fueling this tendency to inaction is that we often don't see the members of many of the organizations practicing or implementing any meaningful sense of Islamic brotherhood, at least in the way you or I have read it's supposed to be done according to the Qur'an and Sunnah.

In fact, we so often complain about there being too many Islamic groups who don't reflect Islamic teachings that it can be quite un-nerving. But we have to redefine this lament in order to get at the real crux of the problem. The real issue is not that there are too many Islamic groups out there- hey, the more Islamic groups the merrier! Neither is the issue whether or not the groups adhere to Islamic standards, because if you're a Muslim, you work for Allah regardless of how helpful the people around you are.

The real problem is that each group seems to teach something different or to present Islam in their own, narrow way, to the exclusion of the rest of the Ummah. They give us their interpretation of what the perfect Muslim does and then they ardently try to get everyone else to follow this interpretation. Other Islamic groups, who may lean in a different way, are then labeled "weak" Muslims, mis-guided or even kuffar. Thus the wall of disrespect.

If you're interested in participating in the building of a healthy, self-perpetuating Islamic community in North America, then you probably look upon all this foolishness and sigh in sorrow. But if you're really an optimist, as Islam tries to get you to be, then you just don't complain about something, you try to understand the problem and then work towards a solution. So how can we learn how to cure this problem and how can we know which direction for change we must take? To do that then, requires a little analysis. So let's go.

First, we have to recognize that Islam in America is probably closer to the true teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, may he be blessed, than at any other time in the last five hundred years. No, I'm not saying that Muslims are better believers today. I'm saying that the access to pure Islamic teachings and the ability to live them to their fullest moral and social potential is more pronounced here, in North America, than in Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria or anywhere else. The Muslim world: forget about it. It's too bogged down in stupidity, corruption, nationalism, racism and every other kind of ailment you can imagine. The light of Islam has been put out in the Muslim world and has been reborn in the heart of the secular, faithless West. (Allah is truly great!)

There is nothing you or I can do to improve the Muslim world. Nothing. Just accept it and get over it. Part of being a Muslim is to choose your battles wisely. Even the Prophet left Mecca when he saw no more change could come. In the open and cosmopolitan society of Medina, the focus of the Muslims was in building a solid community which could live in relative safety. The Medinan situation is where the ideal of the community took form and flowered. We are now in the Meccan times today in the Muslim world and Islam, like so many Muslims, has made Hijrah to safer lands where it can work on regaining its strength.

Think about it: living in the West is the real test of a believer. You're living Islam in a place where there are no restrictions against your 'Ibadah. No one will prevent you from praying here, no one will make you shave your beard or remove your Hijab. (If someone tries, you can take them to court!) No one will make you eat pork or renounce your beliefs. No one will make you stare like a wolf at a pretty girl. No one will make you take drugs or alcohol. No one can make you lie, cheat or steal. No one will make you open a liquor store or accept interest money. No one will prevent you from living near the Masjid, etc... America today is literally Sodom and Gomorra: a place where anything, including Islam, is allowed. You are like Prophet Lut in the midst of the pit of sin. No one made him change his religion. He prayed and taught whatever he wanted. Most people just refused to listen, that's all.

The whole matter comes down to you. It's you who will either grow in strength and Taqwa or sink into depravity and wish for your endless desires to be filled. If a person accepts Islam, they can develop themselves to their fullest moral potential even while surrounded by the most alluring temptations. The advantage for Muslims here is that no one can legally oppose you and you have access to the most accurate Islamic information from books, to audios and videos to whatever. And you don't have the stupid village traditions about wily jinns, evil eyes and palm reading and the like to dilute your knowledge as they have in virtually all Muslim countries.

So now that we know that the Islamic potential is the greatest here, and that most of the Islamic program can flourish pretty much unimpeded, what currents are going on among the Muslims of North America and what forces are tugging at them. Well, to be blunt, we have a lot of Muslims who are trying to import the garbage of the Muslim world into North American Islam. At the same time, we have some converts to Islam here who are trying to blend the garbage of the West into Islam as well.

Think about that for a minute. In most of our Masjids and conferences, over half of what you hear being talked about will be issues of politics overseas or the mindless promotion of sectarianism that is over a thousand years old. I'm sitting here watching the second generation out in the parking lot of the Masjid blaring pop music from their expensive cars and talking to the opposite sex while their parents are inside arguing about things that have been argued about forever. In the end, everyone goes home mad because they staked their identity on non-issues and petty sectarianism. The teens, however, have a hot date to look forward to that weekend.

This sectarianism has no place in Islam in America whether its the Shi'a/Sunni thing or the fundamentalist/modernist clash. Let me tell you something interesting. I taught in an Islamic school a few years back in Michigan. Fully a third of the students came from Arab Shi'a families, the other two-thirds were from Sunni Arab families with the odd Indo-Pak kid here and there. By themselves, these kids mixed with each other and thought they were all just Muslims. It was beautiful. The Shi'a kids didn't think they were Shi'a and the Sunni kids likewise. Everyone was a Muslim.

The second year I was there, sectarianism reared its ugly head. Some of the parents (and these were all settled immigrants who were involved) objected to the fact that a "Shi'a" was on the school board. Some of the "Shi'a" parents objected to the "Sunni" orientation of the school and to the performance of the Eclipse prayer in a certain manner. (Never mind that the Prophet's basic definition of a Muslim was believing in the message of the Shahadah, making Salat and eating Halal meat!)

You can well imagine the situation six months later. Most of the Shi'a kids, at the behest of a few parents, formed themselves into a unified block and some even refused to pray with the rest of the students at Zuhr time. Some of the Sunni kids started spreading rumors about what they thought Shi'a beliefs were and on it went. By the time it was all over, the Shi'a families pulled their kids out and opened a school of their own a year later and the Sunni families rejoiced, even as their school was plunged into chaos and financial hardship from the exodus of so many tuition-paying families. The garbage of the Muslim world, brought in the suitcases of those who came here, disillusioned a whole lot of people- for nothing. (I'm not immigrant bashing, mind you, for many immigrant Muslims I know are models of the perfect Muslim. I'm talking about specific issues here only and the few who participate in them and ruin it for the majority.)

Beyond the Shi'a/Sunni thing, however, there is a heated ideological debate going on in the majority Muslim community (the so called Sunnis). It threatens to destroy the vibrancy of the rising Muslim community and has the potential to create a wide, new gulf between Muslims as serious as the ones currently plaguing the Muslim world. This debate centers around three, powerful forces. There are the Salafees, the Sufis, and the Modernists. Most Muslims don't adhere to any of these three groups, and rather prefer to just live as good Muslims. But because the organizations, magazines, Masajid and centers are often controlled by one of these three groups, (because they're motivated by their cause to promote themselves,) it's inevitable that the regular Muslim becomes embroiled in the contentious issues and stupidity. And that's the last thing they wanted!

We all know that Islam must adapt to this environment to survive. No, I don't mean that the teachings or beliefs of Islam must change, that's an idiotic line of thought that some wealthy secularists are pushing. No, Islam must stay intact for it to be acceptable to Allah. "Adaptation" is not the same thing as "change," however. Islam "adapted" to Malaysia, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Bosnia and Gambia. Islam didn't change, it adapted. No one complains about that. So if Islam needs to do the same here, (adapt,) then instead of complaining that our kids love pizza and hate kabobs or can't identify our home country on a map, we must get to work and see how we can implement the Islamic lifestyle in this American context faithfully.

What the three opposing sides in the struggle for the future direction of Islam in America want is for Islam to adapt here in their specific ideological way- in the way that is acceptable to their narrow world view. The Salafee-style Muslims, who almost always are Middle-Easterners, have a conservative vision which is usually intimately tied to Arab culture and politics. They shun everything modern or Western, unless it can be used to further their cause, and they feel nervous all the time lest some point of "correct belief" is breached by some Muslim here or there.

When you read their books or magazines, you find everything they say about Islam is in terms of correct/incorrect. (Such and such is not correct belief, etc...) It is admirable, of course, to be interested in the truth, but in their approach there is no life, no love, no spirituality. It's all about legalism such as the legalism of the Jews at the time of Prophet 'Esa. Hence, the recently coined condition of "Salafee Burn-out" whereby people drop out of this movement after their heart has been completely drained of all spirituality.

For the Salafees, "Everything is Haram" seems to be their primary position of Fiqh and something is only allowed if one of their Sheikhs issues a big fatwa and says it's OK. They always take the position of most hardship for people as well. Such as saying face veils are required for all women, women should never pray in the Masjid, any type of bank account, even a non-interest bearing checking account is haram, etc... All these "fatwas" are from Al Jumu'ah magazine, one of their premier party publications. (Al Jumu'ah magazine, by the way, has a checking account in a Western bank per the admission of the editor in a private phone conversation with a friend of mine.)

In addition, their emphasis is on imitating the Prophet so closely that one's desire is to become a robot. If the Prophet wore a leather sandal, they will wear a leather sandal. If he didn't like the taste of squash, they never eat it. If he held a staff, they walk around with sticks in their hands. If he used a sword in battle, they hang swords all over their houses. If he grew up in Arabia, they hang pictures of the desert all over their houses and buy stuffed camels for their children to play with. If he wore a red cloak, they all buy red cloaks, if he said a Du'a once, they say it all day, if he used a miswak, they walk around all day with miswaks hanging from their mouths, etc...

I like the line where they say they want more than one wife because the Prophet had more than one. They say they are being a "Sunnah man" by doing it. Interestingly enough, the Prophet had only one wife until he was about 53 years old, and after that he married mostly widows and other women in need of support. So what are all these "Sunnah men" doing marrying another wife in their thirties and forties? Follow the Sunnah exactly, wait until your old, then marry a second wife.

Regarding his eating habits, the Blessed Prophet ate dates, camel milk, moistened barley, coarse bread and the like most of the time. He almost never ate meat. But all the Salafees are "kabob kings"- eating meat with almost every meal. Where's the barley? Where's the camel milk? Why do dates only come out in Ramadan? He also only took a staff regularly when he was old. I could go on and on and on. Sounds like they are "Selective Sunnah" men to me!

Indeed, they fail to distinguish between Sunnahs (both moral and behavioral) based on Islam which the Prophet promoted, and mere personal habits or the cultural conditions of the time. (Interestingly enough, the Prophet always wore a turban and told people to do likewise, but you hardly ever see the Salafees wearing turbans. Really now, is the modern-style Kufi necessarily "Islamic"? Who invented it? What type of head covering did the Prophet, peace be upon him, wear?

There is big oil money behind the Salafee groups. They are funded by the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Middle-Eastern businessmen and others. The Salafees, therefore, lean towards supporting the policies of these gulf-Arab governments and have very good ties with the corrupt religious establishments in that oil-rich region. Their main celebrities are extremely conservative Sheikhs, almost always Arabs, who come from the king-supported universities in either Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Jordan. (I hope you understand I'm not "Arab-bashing" either.) Their master is an Albanian who was raised in the Middle East whose name is, appropriately, Al Albani. He did most of his work years ago and was so audacious that he even labelled many accepted ahadith from Bukhari and Muslim as "weak" or fabricated. For the Salafees, there is Allah, the Prophet, Ibn Taymiyah and Al Albani. This is their chain of authority.

The Salafees have been reasonably good at recruiting some African Americans into their fold through the distribution of thousands of nearly free books written in their ideological style, but most native Muslims, black or white, have remained aloof, complaining of too much legalism and emphasis on ultra-correctness that tears the heart out of Iman. ("I didn't become a Muslim because I wanted to become embroiled in legal disputes and challenges all the time." is a common statement.)

Will they be successful? I don't think so. Many MSA's are controlled by Salafee minded students and the first thing they do is either exclude totally or marginalize the participation of sisters. They also drive away almost all of the Western born Muslim students, sometimes in a very shameful way. (I've seen it first hand and have had innumerable others tell me about their experiences.) When they run a Masjid, it becomes a hot-bed of Arab nationalism/culturalism. Even if their are African American Salafee recruits there, they orient them towards Arab political concerns. I really feel it is a movement that can only survive with continued immigration from the Middle East. It's not a movement that can be passed on to their children. I've met and taught the children of Salafees many times before. They are the most disillusioned about Islam of all.

The Modernists are next in our analysis, for indeed, these people are the most potent of the enemies of the Salafees. They are made up principally of settled Muslim immigrants from the Indian Sub-continent (with a few from the Arab world). No, not all Indo-Pak Muslims are modernists, mind you, just a small, very powerful segment. The modernists, who are almost always wealthy professionals, follow the Western-style secular-liberal tradition. (The infamous "American Muslim" crowd. When a person places their national citizenship in front of their Muslim designation, then watch out! The priorities are made clear.)

They were brought up in countries in which the ways of the British (and now the mythological Americans) are worshipped and idolized to this day. They are the people who are almost always in control of the suburban immigrant-dominated Masjids and Islamic schools (because only they had the money/clout to build them). What is their agenda?

In my experience, observations and travels, I seem to have identified three main goals of these modernists. They can be roughly listed as: Assimilation of Islam into the American mainstream, promoting an interpretation of Islam which is as loose and uncontroversial as modern Christianity or Judaism, and finally, curiously enough, the establishment of a class system based on status, position and a well-defined hierarchy dominated by the leader class. All three of these things are in contradiction to each other, but this fact seems to have escaped their intellectual gymnastics.

Their goal of assimilation is easy to analyze: they want to be like the Jewish community in America. That is their model and they always reference it. They have this image of the Jews as being a "prosperous" minority which is accepted in mainstream American society. The Jews, in their eyes, control the media, government and foreign policy of this nation and therefore cause American policy to be pro-Israel.

They do this with no serious backlash and no one bothers them based on their religion or ethnic group. Of course, the strengths of the Jewish community in America are well known, but what the modernists fail to realize is that the Jews have no religion. They are thinly united on a loose, ethnic affiliation and there is never any talk of prayer, morality, obedience to God or anything of the sort. As is accepted by all today, most Jews are atheists or hopelessly secular. (Inter-marriage with non-Jews, according to the few Orthodox Jews in America, is threatening to destroy even that tenuous ethnic affiliation.)

Modernists fight against communal living and never desire to challenge the validity of other religions, desiring, rather, to "live among the society" and to "dialogue" with others. Now if the modernists succeeded in getting themselves and their families assimilated in the same way the Jews are, then they would be Muslims no longer. (I have met a lot of Modernist Muslims and almost all of their children are hopelessly unIslamic.) They would be Americans of Indo-Pak heritage who are only interested in getting foreign aid dollars for their nostalgic homeland. Their spoiled, fun-loving Americanized children of course, would not continue this trend and thus their mission of foreign aid dollars for home-country X, Y or Z would dry up real fast.

Once you give up the forms and structures of Islam, once you no longer really believe that it's true, then you defeat your original purpose, and that is to stay intact as an identifiable community. If no one prays, goes to the Masjid or reads the Qur'an, then your community is reduced to iced-tea sippers who water their lawns on Friday afternoons. Then there is no community after all. The paradox is that it's the modernists who make Americans less afraid of Islam and they are also the ones who usually make the mainstream aware of our holidays and similarities with them. Go figure.

The second goal of the modernists is to dilute Islam so much that it becomes harmless and "normal" in the eyes of non-Muslims. They want an Islam where there are no Hijabs, no beards, no prohibition of interest, no judgments of right or wrong, no haram meat and certainly no moral restrictions on personal or social conduct. The modernist agenda is basically to make Islam as irrelevant and harmless as "Reform" Judaism. (Maybe they'll make a "Reform" Islam one day.)

Their favorite argument against any teaching of Islam that they don't like is saying that it's based on a "weak" Hadith or that the scholars are "divided" about the issue- so they can do as they see fit! I have seen all of these ideas promoted by modernists and I'm sure you have as well. What's the point of saying you're a Muslim if you throw everything in Islam out that you don't like? This last objective is shamelessly played out everyday in our Masjids and politically-oriented "Muslim" organizations.

What about the class system? Indo-Pak culture is very old. It spans thousands of years of civilization and has its own features and values which govern how people interact. Whereas Arab culture is usually very egalitarian, Indo-Pak culture tends to be very, very structured. I guess we shouldn't be surprised when we realize that the Hindu caste system is still alive and well in the sub-continent even as it has been for four thousand years. Of course, the Muslims also follow this caste system to one degree or another and the culture of the Saab, Saheeb, Maulana, Zamindar and Nawab has been transferred to America in the form of a hierarchy based on wealth and family status. I'm not going to go into detail about this because it's just too sickening and I'm sure you've seen enough examples to make your head spin. I just want you to think about what you've seen and why it is wrong.

The last group which seeks to have its vision of Islam prevail in America is the Sufis. Now the Sufis are a hard bunch to define because they literally run from one end of the spectrum to the other. There are "Popcorn" Sufis who are usually white (or Jewish) Americans who want to experiment with this mysterious and cool sounding thing called Sufism. There is no Islam there at all. All they do is the chanting and dancing that they think is Sufism and then they go home and do whatever immoral things they choose. Such people are spiritual drifters who may go on to Tibetan Buddhism or Yoga next.

The legitimate Sufis are those who claim allegiance to Islam and who don't go overboard with the chanting, weird mysticism or dancing. The "halal" Muslim Sufis in America are usually affiliated with mother-organizations which are based in the Muslim world. They organize themselves into Tariqas, or Orders, with a leader, known as a Sheikh- the followers being spiritual "initiates." Their primary goal is to develop love for Allah and to spread Islamic peace to other people. But in their emphasis on spirituality, they sometimes are as extreme in their particular direction as the Salafees are in the opposite direction.

They sometimes resort to singing, ritual dancing and praying for long-since dead Sheikhs in ways that look suspiciously like hero-worship. While there is nothing wrong with group dhikr or molding one's self to model the Prophet's emphasis on love and understanding, many Muslims find that their style of dress (straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights) and their emphasis on tolerance at all costs can sometimes make their methodology difficult to model. In addition, many Muslims are put off by the term, "Saints," which they apply to their ancient "Spiritual Masters." (For Allah's sake, don't use the Christian term "Saint!" It doesn't mean the same thing as "Wali" does in Arabic and misleads people!) I also find it strange that some Sufi groups, the Naqshabandis in particular, seem to wish for the return of the Ottoman empire and they venerate that dynasty as if it were a duty in Islam to do so. In their magazine, "The Muslim Magazine" they refer to one of the descendants of the last Ottoman Sultan as "Her Highness." Now what is that?

It has been noted by several contemporary writers that the Salafee approach has brought death to the Eman of the second generation while the Sufi approach has caused Eman to be reborn among the youth. But the difficulty for the youth is that the majority of them would find it very hard to dress in green turbans, flowing robes and giant beards in their high schools and colleges. If only we could take half a Salafee with their correctness and half a Sufi with their spirituality (and add a dash of modernist adaptability) and put them together in one body, then we would have the perfect Muslim!

It's truly amazing when you really take a close look at each side. Each one of them has a serious defect which they are blinded to, but each also has a strength that needs to be present. The end result is that each side loses its followers as fast as they gain them. The Salafees drop out from spiritual draining, the Sufis drop away from to much fruitiness and the Modernists leave no second generation of believers behind them. Meanwhile, the masses of the Muslims are waiting for direction so that we can get down to the business of living Islam and building a viable, self-perpetuating community in America.

How do these three very different trends interact in America? Well, the modernists are the enemies of both the Salafees and Sufis, for obvious reasons, and tend to shun both, preferring to participate in "bridge-building" with non-Muslims. So for now, let's discuss the current, fierce battle between the Salafees and Sufis. Its not a new one. In fact, this battle has been raging in the Muslim world for over a thousand years. The Salafees quote their Ibn Taymeeyahs while the Sufis quote their Abdul Qaadir Jilanis.

Just what is this battle about? Basically it comes down to the difference between spiritual content and legal exactness. There are rules in Islam but don't forget that Islam is more than rules. The tragic thing is, as was outlined earlier, the two most vocal elements from among the Sufis and Salafees go to extremes. The most radical Sufis, in the history of Islam, actually began to incorporate Saint-worship, wine-drinking, dancing and hokey-mysticism into their Islam, while the most radical Salafees, in the history of Islam, actually began to suppress any expression of joy or spiritual satisfaction in Islam, equating it with unreliable emotion or suspicious beliefs. In addition, their suppression of women's Islamic rights is well-known. (The Salafees cheer the actions of the Taliban, and even fund them, for example.)

Now it must be pointed out that most Sufis and Salafees do not go to the fullest extreme, though many muddle around the edges, I'm talking about the leadership, the official ideology and the methods and practices of the loudest proponents of each pole. This same battle goes on here in America today. There are super-Sufis who talk about love ad nauseam and there are Salafee Fundamentalists who talk about punishments and legal rules so much that they make even you scared of and/or tired of Islam.

In the end, the interaction and friction caused thereby from each group can leave us everyday Muslims confused. Where do we go for reliable Islamic teachings? How can we cause our love of Allah to grow? How do I adapt Islam to America and make my neighbors understand me? These are the questions we ask everyday. When we see the various groups at each other's throats we get doubly confused. Whither Islam?

In this article I have tried to present a brief sketch of the main ideological elements which are battling for the future direction of Islam in America today. In the process I've probably succeeded in getting everyone mad at me, but my heart has been crying out to make these observations for some time now. (Remember, a Muslim is supposed to love getting ihtisaab, even if they don't agree with it.) As we have seen, the state of Islam in the international Muslim world is that of an unconscious invalid, whereas it is becoming more vibrant in the West.

Now, in the same way that American Christians have given up trying to convert Americans to Christianity and are now sending their missionaries and their billions to convert the illiterate natives of the third world, Muslim activists have given up on the Muslim world and have migrated to safer waters in the West where they can bother and harass Muslims at will in the pursuit of their own particular visions. This is the condition of the battlefield for the soul of Islam. I just hope we can keep at least a few of the youth safe from both atheistic secularism and also from the overpowering influence of these three groups so that there will be some normal, functioning Muslims to carry the torch of the Blessed Prophet's Islam into the future.

My advice to you, my Muslim brothers and sisters, is to remember that Islam is a balanced way of life, so seek balance by learning Islam from your own reading of the Qur'an and Hadith and don't let your hearts be swayed by those pulling you to an extreme pole. Join with like-minded people locally and form your own study groups, social networks and functions. You'd be surprised to learn that there is a whole invisible network of Muslims who have nothing to do with their local Masjids and organizations but who do Islamic activities all the time from different people's homes and rented facilities.

You can do the same in your area if your local Masjid "leadership" is beyond redemption. If you live in one of those rare communities where the Masjid and school are fine then say alhumdulillah and get Muslims to live around the Masjid. Whatever your situation, let's get to work putting Islam into practice! More on this in a future article.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam, by Yahiya John Emerick