Mar 27, 2009 - islam op-eds    8 Comments

Islamic Groups: The Fracturing of Islam in North America

Muslim orgs today.

Muslim orgs today.

A number of years ago while I was studying in Damascus, I applied for a deen intensive program that was to be held in Makkah/Madinah. I was tipped off by a friend in a high place that registration would be opening within the next day or so. So before and after classes I went to the internet cafe (there wasn’t any internet at home in Syria at the time) and checked online. The next day after school, the application was up and I spent an hour or two, or three filling it out and even went home and wrote some more stuff out on my flash drive before going back to the cafe to submit it.

I added some things I had pre-written which included an ‘autobiography’ and ‘thoughts on Islam’ and some longer essays I had written before. The application was long and thorough and I spent time filling everything out carefully and really tried to add any Islamic activities, courses, study abroad, classes, learning, shaykhs, references, organizations, everything I could think of that could help me get in. I would say I submitted it at about 5 or 6 AM US time after registration had opened at 12 AM. Over the next few weeks the program and registration was advertised and I heard from many friends who applied as well.

About 2 weeks after I submitted the application I received a polite email that I was rejected, but no reason or explanation. D’oh! You could imagine my consternation. What did I do wrong? Was I too old? Was I too young? Did I not study with shaykhs they liked? But I had studied with some of them! Did I not have any Islamic experience or did I have too much? Was I not active enough or too active? I just didn’t get it. Especially when a number of people I knew and even people in my own community were accepted months after. And I mean MONTHS! Later, a few people (again in those high places) told me that I didn’t know the ‘right’ people and I hadn’t been to the ‘right’ programs.

Last year when I attended a wedding I met a sister who was very friendly and we chatted about various Islamic activities going on in her area. I then mentioned a shaykh that I studied with and her reaction was absolutely priceless. “Him! Oh we don’t do that, we’re ____” After that, cold shoulder, she just visibly ignored us the rest of the 3 days of wedding activities. I was shocked, and am kind of still shocked that any debates over shaykhs or groups would come down to such a level where it influences personal interactions.

Over the last few years we have seen a number of organizations established by various shaykhs and groups. We have Zaytuna, Al-Maghrib, Sunnipath, Aalim, ZamZam, Nawawi, MAS, SeekersGuidance, Fawakeh, Zawiyah, Bayinnah, Sunniforum, Texasdawah, Mecca, Al Madina, etc. etc. etc. Their purpose was and is noble. They want to organize and teach Islam. I don’t discount the good work they have done and how they have changed and revitalized the knowledge scene in North America. I also don’t begrudge the formulation or ‘professionalization’ if you will of these organizations because I do believe Muslims should start paying their scholars and for knowledge in order for these to develop. But what I’m talking about are the side effects of these organizations. At times, it’s just unbelievable.

The amount of vitriolic debate across Islamic forums, blogs, in speeches, in communities is appalling. This shaykh said this and that one said this in response. This organization did this and that one did that. Oh I’m a part of thisgroup, I don’t go to thatgroup. I mean, it gets much uglier than that with words like “kaffir” and “aqeedah” and “islam” and “truth” thrown around, along with specific quotes and incidents. Some shaykhs advocate not attending other’s lectures and classes “in case they get messed up by them”. Some downright declare other teachers/teachings to be heretical. A shaykh who decides to teach at another camp (ie Suhaib Webb) is immediately declared to be a traitor. If you attend a certain group’s classes and courses, you are part of that crowd and enjoy it’s exclusive benefits like getting into certain exclusive programs or forum or mailing list. If you don’t, you’re locked out.

At one point I believed that all the debating and fighting was perpetuated by ignorant, zealous students only, but I know now that’s not true. Each of these organizations has their own agenda and “aqeedah” so to speak and by that virtue even its leadership is involved in perpetuating this fracturing of Islam in North America.

They certainly have done nothing to stop it. I don’t know how you guys feel, but I’m truly just sickened by it all. Ten years ago, Farid Munir likened ISNA – as an umbrella organization, to a mall. In the mall there were a ton of stores and anyone could choose to go into any store. And Thank God it was like this, because the day ISNA decided which stores were right and wrong and which would be closed, God help us. Well here is that day. Each organization has now decided to open up their own store, has set up its own times of business and customers, what to sell and sent out its sales fliers to its exclusive customers. If you are one of those people that are part of the club you are quite happy I’m sure. But what is happening to the bigger picture, Islam & Muslims!! What about those people who don’t want to be part of your club? What about those people who do want to be? What about those who want to benefit but don’t want to join you?

If the groups could just go back to being ‘simply ways to organize’ or if the leaders of these groups would actively try to teach and institute policies to eradicate exclusivity it would help. But what shaykh or group is going to say, ‘Go get your knowledge from anywhere, go to any program , we don’t mind’. The whole reason they were organized in the first place was to do things and teach things in the way they feel is important. But now in order for the group to survive, it must retain its supporters. The group by virtue of being a group, must inherently form mechanisms to perpetuate itself. Thus, the problem is so inherent that nothing short of dissolving all these organizations would actually solve it. But how can we then build institutions and organizations without groups? Physically, financially, organizationally we need them to progress.

The only alternative I see, is for us, we the people, who are part of these organizations, who attend these programs, who apply to them, is to protest. And by protest I mean to stop engaging in the politicking, the argumentation, the this-group-versus-that-group mentality, the my shaykh vs. your shaykh debate, and to advocate for transparency and non-exclusivity. Who makes up these organizations, who attends them? We do. We need to stop “being the problem we seek to change.” Let’s stop being exclusive and country club like and start standardizing some fairness policies. Let’s break the cult of personalities by seeking knowledge for the sake of seeking knowledge, not based on who teaches it or where. Why do we attend only certain programs? Who cares if this shaykh isn’t in your camp, can you not benefit from him? Why do we travel thousands of miles to go to something when there is that brother at the local corner mosque who has been teaching this subject for the last 10 years, when that local sister who knows Tajweed has no students? We need, sigh hate to say this in a recession :), but what we need, is to start shopping freely at the mall again!

ps i just realized i’ll probably now be blackballed from every north american organization, but please just take this as naseeha for the future. check yo’self b4 u wreck yo’self as my students say. :)


  • oh man I rememeber that “polite” note…i got it to, that same year and im STILL hurt about it LOL…a friend of mine just got in this year and i was having feels…oh man…i need to let it go….anyways, I hear what your saying and I do believe that the majority of the time its the students who do it, and noticed I said MAJORITY ;). Recently I had to hold my tongue back because a person who was invited to attend a free online course, accepted the invitation but afterwards was told by others that this organization is SUFI…so that person did not join this FREE class on the fatiha, with an AMAZING teacher because the organization is SUFI…and then decided to let us all know that it was sufi and they are practicing bida. Girl I so wanted to say something but I held my tongue, Alhamdulillah…like dude this is an amazing class, like who is teaching this in YOUR COMMUNITY, NO ONE…and its free like jump on it LOL…and do you even know what sufisim is, bida…arrgghhhhh…ya Allah…help us…anyways that was my recent experience, finally vented on it :) hehehe…thanks for sharing…peace L

  • Assalamo elikuim
    WOW right on target!!!
    I recently realized/encounter this.A website that I regulary read(not madina message board :) ) had some articles not directly but indirectly saying something not so good about the Sheikh I very much like(even my kids think he is the coolest Sheikh since he speaks their language :)) I was soo disappointed :(. I totally understand that there are difference of opnions/madhab but seriously cant we just accept different way of thinking as still in the folds of Islam ?
    Why cant we simply respect all Shiekh and just think that may be since they are more knowledgeable and have spent more time in learning deen, they might be right and there could be two ways of doing the right thing (An incident in the time of RasullAllah comes to mind when two group prayed Asr at different times )

    Tamseel (tq)

  • You should publish this in a Muslim Magazine or Newspaper – you’ve hit it right on the spot! Well written. Appreciate the recommendation for solving the issue or bringing things together…

    (just remove the names of the orgs:) )

  • Lab I got that email too… I was like ?? what’s it to you u know… if you think something is bida’ then don’t go to it but why are you preventing others from learning the basics like a tafseer of surah fatiha?? sad… Tamseel it’s so prevalent this bashing of other orgs/shaykhs… UBAB… i thought about removing the names but i think people wouldn’t know exactly what i mean and they would also think “oh that happens to other orgs, not mine”.

  • Sounds to me like the organized churches.

  • nice post but I gotta say blaming ur students for old ice cube lyrics is bad seriously plenty to chew on for self reflection

  • i got homework answers from this sight

  • Loved this post. Not surprising, really. As any religion gains a greater hold in a population, and progresses beyond the “fighting for it’s life” stage, it will spread seeds. Those seeds become trees, and eventually try to crowd out other trees from the sunlight, in order to ensure their own survival.

    One can look at the history of Christianity within the US to see a similar effect.