I want to tell you about a man that I have known since I was a teenager. His name is Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, or just Sheikh Nur as most people call him, and he is the former Imam or the Islamic Center in St. Louis and later the imam of the Dar al Islam Masjid.
Sheikh Nur is originally from Sudan, and is a black man who is a poster child for the reason the conflict in Sudan is not racial in nature. He came from a traditional Maliki family in Sudan and later studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with some of the leading scholars of our age including the late Sheikh Ibn Baz.
As a young man, in the mid 1970’s Sheikh Nur was offered the opportunity to come to Chicago and work with Imam Warith-deen Muhammad in order to help the community with the transition from the teachings of his father to that of mainstream Sunni Islam.
The sheikh will tell you this was not easy work as there was a cultural barrier between him and the African-American brothers and sisters he was working with and it was hard work easing them away from the teachings they had been so loyally dedicated to for years. However, he went as far as it was meant for him to go at this historic time on the Islamic frontier and then he moved on to a more traditional role of an immigrant imam and eventually ended up in St. Louis in the late 1980’s.
In St. Louis Sheikh Nur through his soft-spoken style of bringing people together was able to lead a congregation of virtually no Sudanese and to get along with a Shura full of Desi Doctors and businessman. He conformed to their way of doing things and always accommodated Hanafis when he could. At the same time he always had time for the American brothers and made a special effort to be available to all of those embracing Islam and couples in need of marriage counseling.
Much to the chagrin of the Salafi brothers, including myself at the time, Sheikh Nur put his full effort into participating in interfaith dialogue with Christmas, Jews and others during the 1990’s and had established ties with many of the leading clergy in the St. Louis-area. It was not until after 9-11 when I saw the wisdom of all this, as opposed to the isolationist mentalities of other Muslims, when Christian ministers and rabbis came to the Masjid, without being asked, in order to make a statement of solidarity with their fellow believers.
During this period of time Sheikh Nur also reached out to the local political establishment and media along with others at the Islamic Foundation and as a result St. Louis Muslims have not been vilified in the way that Muslims in some other American communities have. On a national level he was able to become the President of ISNA and the Director of the Fiqh Council of North America.
By any measure this man had done a good job in the position that he held over the years and was performing his job in much the same way in 2006 as he had been doing all along. As had been the case in previous years Sheikh Nur was on the attack from two fronts: the ultra-liberal progressive Muslims who wanted him to dispense with any notion of adhering to the Sunnah and those Muslims who felt he was too liberal and needed to be more hardline and cease with all the accommodations and interfaith stuff. From where I sit if you have both sides mad at you that means you are doing some things right.
There was another element in the air that led to the end for Sheikh Nur in his position. Over all those years Sheikh Nur was the imam of this mostly Desi and Arab Masjid I always saw his presence as a great statement to the diversity of Islam and the fact that in Islam we are all brothers. The Desis always had the power, but they always looked up to Sheikh Nur and gave him the utmost respect, unfortunately though there were some who were always lukewarm to the idea of having a Sudanese non-Hanafi imam.
Last year somehow the forces that opposed Sheikh Nur, almost all of them Desi and specifically Pakistani, were able to finally push him out. Who did they replace him with? A young Desi imam with virtually no experience who is a strict Hanafi and Tabliquee who has stated that he will not be continuing the work that Sheikh Nur has done in the community and has left that for other people (and there are many in St. Louis such as Kamal Yasin and Sheila Musaji who are more than happy to do the work needed).
He also left the practice of Sheikh Nur of not imposing his views on other people and this new imam, although much less educated than Sheikh Nur, sees the need to try and impose his views on other Muslims when that is not practical in such a diverse masjid.
When a brother asked me the other day what I thought of the decision last year to oust Sheikh Nur for the young kid who is now the imam I told him “ they got rid of a Grade-A Steak and replaced it with a day old White Castle cheeseburger” and I meant it.
This is how we treat our pioneers in the American-Muslim community.
( Note: I did not speak to Sheikh Nur before writing this and prior to this weekend of 5-12 I had not seen him for a year and I just happened to run into him after attending a lecture by Amr Khaled . These are my views and do not reflect the views of Sheikh Nur. )