Another Interlude (Entry #27)
I think it is apropos before speaking about my stay in Philadelphia to talk a little about what was going on amongst Muslims (and those who self-identified as such) during this era. Umar Lee, in his blog series he entitled, “The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement,” I think, does a pretty good job of capturing the time, although we were on different sides of the `Aqidah (Doctrinal) battle.
As “The Rise and Fall” mentions, during this time there was for a few years a brief cultural and social-political awakening in black America—or more particular, in the urban Northeast. This was in no small part spawned by the more “conscious” (and I use the word loosely and only relative to the typical party music that pervaded rap prior to that time) rap acts, such as, Public Enemy, KRS-1, X-Clan, and a variety of the rappers of the Five Percent ilk. Likewise, there was the hype surround the production of Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X and the impression the movie itself made upon the minds of many young black people.
Conversely, this was also during the era of the Crack Plague (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crack_epidemic_%28United_States%29). This transformed the nature of street life—making it far more violent, and it also led to an explosion in the number of young African-American males being incarcerated for either drug related or violent crimes. The “conscious” hip hop and the Malcolm X movie, helped counter this—to a certain extent. Young African-Americans, via (some) rap were offered an alternative vision to the drug trade and street life.
After the death of Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the so-called Nation of Islam) in 1975, there was a power vacuum among African-Americans who self-identified as Muslims. Wallace D. Mohammed tried to step in and fill that gap by steering his followers away from the vitriolic racism of his father, but some African-Americans were seeking what they would consider a more “traditional understanding” of Islam. What better place to look for that that “traditional understanding” than from Saudi Arabia—the land of the Prophet Muhammad?
It was at this time also that the Saudis, became increasingly active in promoting its Wahhabi ideology in the US. It should be made clear, that contrary to what is said in the mainstream media and amongst many Muslims who may not actually be familiar with what Wahhabism (so-called “Salafism”) teaches, Wahabism is not a form of conservative or strict “Islam.” The foundation of Islam is the belief in One, Perfect, Eternal, Omnipotent, Incomparable, Transcendent Creator (Allah). The Creator has no beginning or end. Allah is not subject to time or age. The Creator is does not have a size or shape or dimensions, because the Creator is not a spatial entity. The Creator is not in a location (or a direction). Allah existed before any of the creations, and Allah absolutely does not need or resemble any of the creations. Whatever a person’s imagines, the Creator is different from that. The person who does not believe in Allah properly cannot rightfully be called a Muslim. The person, who for instance, prays to an idol, or a planet, or a human, or a spirit, or a body of light, or to everything is not in reality a Muslim. To be a Muslim, the person must worship the Creator only and not any of the creations.
As for the origins of Wahhabism (quasi-Salafism), it starts with a man named Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab. He lived during the 18th century. And he was dispraised and refuted by his contemporaries (including, his father and own blood brother, who were both scholars). Although Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab claimed to be an adherent of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, in reality, he resuscitated misconceptions from a faction of early pseudo-Muslim literalists. As a result of their distorting and misconstruing Qur’anic verses and Hadiths (Prophetic statements), these people (i.e., Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab and his predecessors) promoted the idea that the Creator was a giant shadow-casting extraterrestrial being with a smiling face and various organs and limbs. Muslims believe there is only One Creator. There cannot be two correct beliefs in Allah. It should be clear that the one who prays to an object located in a distant place with large body parts is not praying to the Creator of all places—the One Who is not an object and is not composed of parts. Muslims worship the latter and not the former. The Wahhabis worship the former and not the latter. From this we know that the Wahhabis don’t worship the One the Muslims worship; hence, the Wahhabis (quasi-Salafis) are not Muslims.
The Wahhabis went beyond just masquerading as Muslims, while inviting people to object worship. Part of the doctrine of the Wahhabis was (and is) to claim that the Muslims who do not follow them are deviants, or pagans and disbelievers… and, according to standard Wahhabi ideology (as taught by the earliest Wahhabis), slaughtering such people is considered an act of worship. This is the root of the terrorist ideology we see plaguing Somalia, Libya, Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. This is the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
To be fair, I don’t know of any African-American Wahhabis (as a group) engaging in acts of terrorism, and I would suspect the reason being that international terrorist cells with a modicum of intelligence would know that the typical opportunistic goonish African-American Wahhabi could not be trusted with sensitive information, like a bomb plot or an assassination. (Although, there was the case of some characters from the the main Wahhabi center in Philadelphia robbing a bank and killing a police officer (or security guard) while dressed in niqaab.… Oh wow… I just went to googled some of the details about the incident I was familiar with, and it turns out in the past year or so there have been multiple robberies by men wearing niqaab in the Philadelphia area). Nonetheless, even if the African-American Wahhabis have not been guilty of terrorism, they praise and follow the ideology that enables terrorism. And, they praise and follow an ideology that makes a travesty of the Sunni Muslim belief in the Creator.
As for myself, although I was very jacked-up and confused in my first couple of years in trying to learn about Islam, praise Allah, I never embraced Wahhabism. When I try to talk to the younger second generation Brothers or to the more recent converts, it’s hard for them to relate to the dearth of what could remotely be considered “traditional Sunni Islamic knowledge” available to the converts of twenty years ago. There was no widespread access to the internet. You had the public library and books written by non-Muslims. You might find some pamphlets or booklets and the IMMENSELY problematic Yusuf Ali mis-“translation” of the Qur’an, and a few collections of Hadiths (which were hideously misinterpreted) at your local Islamic center. Works on the Sunni Doctrine (much less detailed explanations) were virtually non-existent in the English language. Most of the English material that was available came from the publishing houses in Saudi Arabia (i.e., they were works of Wahhabi propaganda).
One Wahhabi book, in particular, did mess my head up. While I was in colllege and taking a course purported to be about Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, I read (on my own—not part of course work) Bilal Philips’s book that he called The Fundamentals of Tawheed. This was for probably a decade or more, the main book in English that elaborated upon the doctrine of Wahhabism. The book disturbed me not because I detected its gross corporeal Wahhabi doctrine (one of the amazing aspects of “before and after” learning authentic Sunni teachings is that the contradictions and errors that one may have previously overlooked now jump off the page), but because of Bilal Philips’s hatred toward Sufism. Even prior to reading Montgomery Watt’s translation of Al-Ghazali’s work, it seemed to me that Sufism was the ultimate path of Islam. I wanted (and I say this ideally and not because I make any claim to having achieved such a level) to conquer my lower self by the route of full-fledged asceticism; I wanted to flee from this world of deception and transient pleasure to devote my heart (and body) to obeying God.
From my readings (typically of Orientalist writers ), I saw that the Sufis had a vast science of “spiritual psychology” which charted the different stages one passes through while traversing the path of internal transformation. I wanted this deeper level of self-understanding. Given my readings about Buddhism and yoga philosophy and my experiences with meditation, I knew that self-mastery was no easy task, and that it required pulling the senses away from this fleeting world and concentrating my mind on the remembrance of Allah. As for Wahhabi “spirituality”–if someone wanted to call it that—it entails imitating (some of) the outward acts of the Prophet Muhammad, but it seemed (and is) devoid of the understanding of the spiritual states behind those acts. The Wahhabis failed to recognize the importance of rectifying their hearts and adorning themselves with good character. And it should be of no surprise that the Wahhabis are notorious for their brutish and thuggish behavior in mosques all across the world.
The Brothers warned me early on about Wahhabism—and they warned me frequently about it. My initial attitude was that these people (i.e., the Wahhabis) simply had a misunderstanding. I figured that once someone explains to a Wahhabi that Allah exists without a place (for Allah is the Creator of place, and Allah existed before place existed, and Allah is not dependent upon any of the creations), and it is explained to the Wahhabi that not every Qur’anic Verse can be taken in its most literal sense, for the Arabic language is vast and is filled with figurative usage and metaphors—and the Qur’an is the greatest form of Arabic expression—then such a person would recognize his error, repent, and become a genuine Muslim.
I could readily understand (and sympathize with them—at least initially) that they, like myself, had read mistranslations of books (purporting to be) about Islam, that misled them. They had read books that deluded them into believing that Allah is a giant smiling faced object with organs and limbs located above Paradise. Once the absurdity and contradictions of such a belief were presented to such a person, they would feel disgusted with themselves for ever believing such ugly things about their Creator… so I thought. Reality, however, did not correspond with my thinking.
My early face-to-face encounters with Wahhabis showed me that they had little regard for reasonable discourse. They were, as the media portrays them today, irrational fanatics. Where as part of my search into religion and into Islam was for a doctrine that was rationally consistent, the Wahhabis have disdain for explaining the Sunni creed in a logical manner. The Wahhabis see logic and reason as a threat to their ludicrous doctrine, and this was another big turn-off for me and their ideology.
Another big turn-off for me with Wahhabism was that it had no historical connection with mainstream Sunni Islamic scholarship. Wahhabism has no historical continuity. And it seemed strange when I first arrived in Philadelphia that the average Wahhabi had no concern about history. In my mind, I could not help but wonder how could someone be so devoted to an ideology and have no grasp of the history behind that ideology. (Later, this became clear when I came to realize just how abysmally ignorant the average Wahhabi was—reading and reasoning simply are not the fortes of the typical Wahhabi.) And as I’ve said elsewhere, the African-American Wahhabis seemed to have no understanding of international affairs and the politics of the Saudi regime. These are the main reasons, praise Allah, Wahhabism never appealed to me.
Umar Lee speaks about the decline of African-American Wahhabism. He ascribes it to the in-fighting amongst the Wahhabis (and deeming each other deviants), standard ghetto antics (like, men having multiple marriages (like, in the dozens) and not taking care of their children, and then after 9/11 the government arrested, harassed, deported, banned from entry some of its main proponents. “The Rise and Fall” speaks of the disillusionment that many so-called Salafis faced as the movement began to disintegrate. Later, people would blog about what they called “Salafi Burnout,” that is, the recuperation process many people were struggling with after having been involved with the movement. The tragic thing—and Umar Lee fails to mention this—is that whoever was in that movement who believed as the quasi-Salafis believe (meaning, believing that the Creator is in a location or has real-actual limbs and organs) was never a Muslim to begin with.1 Many of these quasi-Salafis have never come to grips with the fact that their acts of prayer, or going to Hajj, or their charity, marriages, fasting, etc. were never valid, because they were doing their forms of worship to an object and not to the Creator. They were in a state of kufr (disbelief). This is the greatest tragedy for the African-American Wahhabi.
Philly was one of the main battlegrounds where the Sunnis would clash (sometimes physically, but mostly theologically) with the Wahhabis. Although the fitnah of the Wahhabis remains there, the Wahhabis, as a movement have lost much of their momentum. And where at one time they had the potential to become a dominant force in representing (what might be seen as) “Islam,” they have, praise Allah, become more of a bearded joke—or punchline—in more recent years… as we see with these characters here:
Praise be to Allah, the One Who gives success to whomever He wills.
1 This is not much different from the followers of Elijah Muhammad and the so-called Nation of Islam. Many of those people believed they were devoting their lives to Islam, while in reality, they were worshiping a (human) object. As a result all of their acts that they deemed “worship” were invalid.