Desi Nationalism, Hanafi Purists and the Ouster of an American-Muslim Pioneer

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. )


26 thoughts on “Desi Nationalism, Hanafi Purists and the Ouster of an American-Muslim Pioneer

  1. So sad. He was such a gem…

    Bigotry and nationalism are very sickening, indeed.

    I personally can’t be around those Hanafi fanatics, they are total idiots, it’s like they just left the Indian jungle and can’t live with other Muslims from different schools of thoughts becasue they don’t know a language of communication with them!

    Funniest issue they had going around when they were surrounding me at the university is their ‘leather socks’!

  2. I still dont know the purpose of why people are following schools of thought which are a product of 12century ijtihad, in the 21st century? people treat the Imam’s of the 4 school’s of thoughts as if they where divine, or divinley inspired. People treat them as if their word is final, as if they had some sort of divine authority. I personally belive the word of anyone who is not Allah(SWA) or his Messenger Muhammed(PBUH) can be accepted or rejected. Its a opinion, its not binding in anyway. Really the 4 schools of thought are very illogical in many ways in modern times, not to mention scientifically inaccurate. They where a product of their age, and these school of thought should be abandoned. We have the Quran and we have the Sunna. Thats all we need. We dont need the commentary of Middle Aged era scholars. We need 21st century scholars to engage in ijtihad. In my opinion to blindly follow any school of though is a act of Shirk.( thats just my opinion).

  3. ultra-liberal progressive Muslims who wanted him to dispense with any notion of adhering to the Sunnah

    Why? The Sunnah is dirived from ligitamate, and authentic sayings, and teachings of the prophet. Anyone who rejects this is a kaffir, no? I never understood these people who belive in “Quran Only” Islam. This is very strange to me. The Quran is impossible to understand without the sunnah, how would we know the historical context of verses? The interpertation of verses? ect?

    As far as interfaith is concerned we Muslims should only engage in it with those who do not wish to harm us. The Christians and Jews are hypocrites who wish us nothing but harm, if you dont belive me turn of TBC anytime of the day, or Conservative Talk Radio, Micheal Savage, Shawn Hannity, Rush, Oriely, Glen Beck ect. We need to establish dialogue with the left, because they unlike the right tolerate our existance. Yes that means alligning with Gay, Trannies, Liberals, and all kinds of weirdo’s. I have no problem with that. America is for everybody. In Islam their is no compulsion in religion, unlike Judism and Christianity.

    What the leftist’s do is none of the Muslims buisness, Gay Marriage, Abortion, ect. Thats fine and dandy with me. Allah saysin The Quran to let them be, their punishment is in the hearafter. I have never been bothered by a liberal, if anything Ihave alway been treated kindly by them. They even ask me about Islam, and Berber culture, they are very open minded people, who mean me no harm, and thus, i accept them, and I am kind back. We the Muslims must learn the deen and see the bigger picture of life, we need to stop criticizing everyone who is not like us, it goes against our religion. We worship what we worship, and they worship as they worship. I am not going to side with “fellow belivers”(jews and christians) who want me dead, who claim my religion is a invention by demonic powers, and that Islam and The Muslims are the Anti-Christ….

    to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and liberals. Absolutly not. I wont vote for or against abortion or gay marriage. I dont support the idea of these practices, and I wont applaud them, but at the same time, people are free to do as they please in America, and in Islam(The Non-Muslims that is).

    So many Muslims are interjecting themselves in the conservative camp, trying to gain approval from the jews and the christians by voting conservative, but the truth is the Jews and Christians hate Islam an The Muslims and they are laughing at them, they will never accept the Muslims until the Muslims become Judeo-Christians themselves.

  4. Salaam Alaikum

    It is true that Islamic centers are driven by people who dominate the community. The minority has literally nothing to say on what goes in and out at the masajids.

    As for the Hanafis & Tabliguees imposing their ways, same would be said about other Muslims who impose their methodologies indiscriminately.

    My thing is that masajids are political centers where you have PHD’s, Doctors and Pharmacist who think their degree gives them license to be Islamic scholars and the same goes for well studied Faqihs who just came from Azhar, Medina University or the desert of the Sahara and believes he has mastered everything an American Muslim needs, he is equally disadvantage for lack of secular studies.

    As for the Madhahib disagreement, its old war of the schools of thoughts and unfortunately the new Muslim Tom and Harry and Paco would like to take a shot in fixing this argument, good luck! The four imams were upon the Quran and the Sunnah and Salaf, and most of the great scholars followed a Madhhab, like Imam Abu Jafar at-Tahawi, he was a Hanafi, but hey you are free to call the shots.

    Lastly, the doors of Ijtihad have always been open… within the Sunni community, I don’t know where Arshad Manji people got the story about the doors are close. I think she and they means that the Quran should be divided into Old Testament and New Testament, Allah’ Know best!

  5. Lybian….said “In my opinion to blindly follow any school of though is a act of Shirk.( thats just my opinion).”

    I am impress, you just gave a Fatwa…without following a Madhab……nice….—–

  6. gomez now this paradigm of having an islamic degree without secular studies is changing.

    Look at sheikh ali tamimi, or sheikh yasir qadhi, or ustadh muhammad al shareef.

  7. Re: The Libyan Observer

    It’s interesting that you say following a mahdhab blindly is Shirk, yet you accept Hadith without question? If your logic is that the four schools of thought that survive today (five if you count Jafri) are based on middle age-era, flawed humans, then the same should be said about those who transmitted ahadith. Our beloved Prophet (pbuh) never had his hadith dictated – they were compiled years (decades, centuries) after he spoke. How can these hadith be trusted to be authentic (using your logic)? (Have you ever played the game ‘whisper down the lane’ as a child? Humans have flawed memories.)
    And to say th Qur’an is impossible to understand without hadith is sad, even blasphemous. Allah (swt) sent the Qur’an for all of mankind, for all of time. Why would Allah (swt) send us something we can’t understand? It states in the Qur’an that this book is for men of understanding – not “this book is not understandable without the hadith.”
    Those who tell you you can’t understand the most important document of our religion seek to maintain their power by enslaving you in ignorance. Break the chains, ahki.

  8. Madhab fanatics exist today among the so-called “traditional Muslims” (i.e., Sufis & Ash’aris), and these people today mainly exist outside the Arab World or in few scattered pockets found in the Arab world like in Syria, al-Maghreb, Egypt, Sudan, but the Call to the Way of the Salaf is spreading like wild fire, and part of it is spreading the correct understanding of the 4 madhabs.

    Search online for Albani’s book the Propeht’s Prayer and read the introduction where he cites the 4 Imams on this issue of following the madhabs.

    Indeed, Ibn Taymiyah said that those people who raise the 4 madhabs to the level of sources of guidance equal to the Quran and Sunnah commit an act of ‘riddah’ (apostasy) and they should be asked to repent, and if they don’t they are to be exterminated.

    There are many idiots today like this, who wouldn’t pray behind a certain person because he’ll pray a certain ‘nafl’ prayer in the non-Hanafi way, so they would seperate from the congregation and pray alone!! Or they wouldn’t ask but a known Hanafi shaikh!! Before their idiocy became rampant, one’s madhab was the madhab of him whom he was questioning! But these idiots created parties within the ranks of the Sunnis, and they closed the doors of Ijtihad (somehow, only after the Tatar invasion of Baghdad near the end of the 13th century) and want it to remain closed because to them..there can be no scholars to match those of the past!! Which is true, of course, that’s just common sense, but to have this despicable distrust of all humans after the 4 Imams out of the silly fear that they might “pick and choose” from Islam what suits their whims and desires..that is the height of hypocrisy, because they themselves “pick and choose” people (who are harder to check than the written proofs found in books that are now collected like they never were at the times of the 4 Imams).

    Blind Taqleed..leave it for the grave-worshippers, this is what they deserve. They are total mess in all corners of their aqeedah and sharee’ah. Only the ignorant and the lazy follow them.

  9. The blindly dogmatic are a problem whether they follow a madhab or are salafi.

    Go on any fatwa type website of any kind and you will find it full of trivial questions from people willing to do anything they are told because they feel the scholar on there is so knowledegable and must be followed, forgetting that Allah swt gave everyone a brain to use.

  10. The Madhahib is a misunderstood system, because of some actions of its so-called followers to the point that uneducated Muslims have a horrible hatred towards the four Imams and the Madhhab itself.

    This problem of hatred or dislike is the same for some Sunnis regarding Ahlul-Bayt. It’s rare to hear people talk about Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussein [r] but will have high reverence for Abu Bakr and Omar [r] and view them as champions of Islam but wont even mention Ali’s name because of the whole Shia thing.

    When I used to go to the Halaqa in my early years of Islam, I knew about Abu Bakr, Omar ibn Khattab, Uthman more than anybody else, and Ali was mention rarely. The only thing I remember about Hassan and Hussein was that the Prophet loved them so much and used to play with them. And honestly the most intensive story about Hassan and Hussein I learned from my teachers was when an old man was incorrectly making Wudu and everyone ones the rest of that story.

    I never learned how Hassan died or how Hussein and almost his family were martyred. Not until I went I stepped back from those brothers who I used to frequent my studies.

    Fanatics come from both sides of the aisle; the pro-Madhahib people and the people who abhorred the Madhahib. They both bicker about small things, how to make wudu, the qibla direction, how many rakas… all that. I can honestly say that the Salafis have the same problem when it comes to arguing and calling names for small differences of how long your beard is and high you’re the bottom of your pants are.

    I think we argue because we are men and we want to prove others what think is right in order to prove ourselves we are right.

  11. I’d have to agree that the Sheikh Nur’s ousting is about cultural chauvnism. One of my friends is a convert and has lived and worked in a Desi community for years. She understands Urdu and Pashtun so she knows how many South Asians talk about everybody else when they think that nobobdy can understand. I’m not sure if a lot of them really care to give da’wa to Americans or interact with non-Desis, instead the mosque is a place to hold on to their cultural values. Desis aren’t alone. African Americans do it, choosing charismatic imams are ignorant and uneducated about the Deen to and Arabs choose imams who are ignorant about American realities. All three groups tend to bring their bring their cultural baggage to the mosque, creating roadblocks for those who have good intentions.

  12. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    The issue of Indo-Pak Muslims not wanting to be led by other Muslims is not really a matter of madhhab. A lot of Muslims of the Shaikh Nuh / Shaikh Hamza tendency do not share the particular attitudes found among Tablighis and, to a lesser extent, Bareilawis as well. These attitudes principally consist of the idea that certain practices which other madhhabs consider to be sunnah are in fact compulsory, such as growing the beard to a fist’s length and keeping the trousers high for men. These positions are valid ones, and I don’t fault any Muslim for keeping to them, but what I do object to is that many of them – particularly the common people who are in the jama’at, rather than scholars as such – do not accept that a Muslim can be accepted as upright if he does not follow them, even if he is not Hanafi. To give an example, a book about the beard issue published in South Africa mentions that some Muslims object to their position, citing scholars in Egypt who do not have beards even though they are ulama – and then launches into a discourse on corrupt ulama.

    The fact is that, in most countries which do not have a Hanafi heritage, where men can grow beards, for the most part they don’t. This may well be partly due to police harrassment of men who do so in many of the Arab republics. The other group who are fond of long beards and high trousers are, of course, “salafis”. The Deobandi scholars were, until recently, prepared to speak ill of non-Deobandi mainstream Muslim scholars than of the likes of al-Albani.

    Not all Muslims who follow madhhabs have this chauvinism which follows from such hardline attitudes. In my experience, people seek out scholars like Shaikh Nuh Keller in order to follow traditional Islam without this kind of mentality. I’m not familiar with Shaikh Nur and his work, but I very much doubt that any other madhhab-following mainstream Muslim community would have ousted a long-standing imam for such reasons.

  13. The Desi Hanafis in New York are not at all like that. In fact the Deobandis and Salafis get along pretty well. You will even find Salafi Tablighi Jamaat’s and you will also see the respect the Salafis get from the typical Desi Hanafi audience and vice versa.

    It really depends on the local community and the type of culture thay have.

  14. You are Sufi yourself, eh Ryder? I see that from your site.

    I’m surprised by your comment, realizing that you have Sufi leanings. How do you explain this to us? I’m interested in your reply.

  15. Nuh Keller, the Jahmi American philosopher heretic is non-entity!! Let him be buried in his Shadhili zawiyah for good, please, sweeping the dust with his red beard!!

    When he comes to the West, his followers are frightened that Salafis hear the news, so they whisper about his arrival to each others in the ears!!

    Wish if Kharabsheh folks in Jordan could kick him out to be beside his ‘wali ul-amr’ Bush the Idiot. The “traditionalists” are what caused our downfall, and it is the “orthodox” who will bring our rise again (the Salafis). The Western Sufis will only benefit the Western powers, and never Islam.

  16. Salaam ‘Alaikum

    We here in Kharabsheh like our neighborhood just fine, and we don’t need people who haven’t even been here telling us what to do about it. It is a place of true Islam, true friendships, true brother and sisterhood, the beauty of Islam shines here, from the Arabs and the non Arabs, from his students, and the people, like me, who happen to live here. He is a benefit, and he is a Muslim, and the flesh of the scholars is poison. Walhamdulillah ‘ala ni’matul Islam. Ignorance and the lack of adab is what has caused “our downfall,” not to mention the will of Allah. Itaqullah wa itubu ‘alay.

  17. Prophet Muhammad said: “whomever shows respect to an innovator, then he’ll have aided in the destruction of Islam.” Sufism is the height of innovation and heresy.

    The phrase “the flesh of scholars is poison” is baseless, we have no ‘untouchables’ in Islam. Everyone, esp. those who become or make out of themselves ‘public figures’ are objects of scrutiny and criticism, NO sanctity is given based on what this guy read for whatever number of years and because he held the label ‘shaikh’. We have no revered ‘popes’ in Islam either.

    Sufis, indeed!

    Oh and by the way, its “’matEl Islam”, and “..wa tubu elaih”.

    Tell the dead saints I said “salaam.” Oh, wait, they don’t hear us :p

    But here’s a gift from the Orthodox Muslims >>> (Nuh Keller EXPOSED).

  18. Inspite of the fact these points, and everyone as good points; especially about the need for Ijtihad all the time, and it should not stop at the 12th century scholar, this discussion about Shikh Nur ouster, got out of track.
    I think we should not attack, nor insult each other becase we disagreed, or some one did someting wrong. We have to objective in discussing any issue.
    Attacking the Ino-pakistani community -as a whole-, or calling names, or dicrediting the Mufti, will not fix things. Stuff like that would put more rift in the community.
    Tackling a problem, should still in a nice and polite way.
    We have to keep Allah’s -as well as his Messenger’s- orders, including working for our unity, “calling for Allah path with wisdom, and beautiful advice”, and many other behaviors we were ordered to follow. Islam is a wholesom religion.We should not lose its spirit, especially if we think there is something wrong, and we try to fix it.
    I don’t think the people whom we are defending would approve of our actions, if we don’t follow the right etiquet.

  19. Hariri….have you ever been able to have a profound change in someone? I doubt it since you seem to be so belligerent.

    First, don’t make takfir on people on the internet. if you have doubt about them, leave that on Allah first and then the scholars.

    Secondly, learn and gain knowledge instead of using bad mannerism and little knowledge to explain your points. It’s this attitude that has hurt the salafi dawah everywhere. You people accuse others to be fanatic muqlids but fail to examine yourselves. Akh, check your emotions.

    Thirdly, get your facts and understanding straight and remove superficial observations (which today people take for knowledge and keen insight). You claim that ,’…”traditional Muslims” i.e., Sufis & Ash’aris), and these people today mainly exist outside the Arab World or in few scattered pockets found in the Arab world like in Syria, al-Maghreb, Egypt, Sudan…” and this clearly shows your lack of knowledge and superficial observations. You’re dreaming if you think ash’aris and sufis mostly exist outside the arab world—it’s almost laughable and stinks of arrogance. You must be US/West-born and basing your opinions on what you have observed while living there. You are confused between desi hanafis being stringent about their madhab and arabs being not stringent with practices of sufis and ‘aqeedah. the whole of arab world outside of gulf states is ‘ashari and desis are technically maatrudees in ‘aqeedah (but that’s quite similar to ‘ashairis). and, sufi practices are common there (except gulf states) as they are in other places. i’ll get you the proof if you need it, inshaAllah. you are correct in saying that desis are very strict about their madhab and arabs are not, and this is only because of diversity of madhaahib in the arab world while india/pak. only follows hanafi madhab (outside of salafis/hanbalis). Scholars have said that the madhab follows the rule/ruler. Arab countries have been ruled by both Hanafi and Shafi rulers while India/pak. has only been ruled by Hanafis.

    Your writings smell of ta’assub and of little knowledge. Read, learn, sit with scholars, think, reflect, become a scholar (or at least well-versed student of knowledge) and then maybe pass judgment on other people.

  20. Salam,

    I have known Shaykh Nur for close to ten years and used to travel from Columbia MO to study with him. Masha Allah, he is just like his name: nur.

    The community in St. Louis – particularly at that masjid – has a lot of issues and to be quite frank, never knew what priceless gen they had in their midst.

    If people are so unaware and so thankless of the gifts that Allah gives them, then He takes them away and gives them to those that will appreciate them.

    O believers, whosoever of you turns from his religion, God will assuredly bring a people He loves, and who love Him, humble towards the believers, disdainful towards the unbelievers, men who struggle in the path of God, not fearing the reproach of any reproacher. That is God’s bounty; He gives it unto whom He will; and God is All-embracing, All-knowing. 5:54

    It’s not that these desi uncles are pro-Hanafi or Tablighi or anything. It’s that they want someone that they can control – that’s why they brought in a young, unknown `alim without any experience.

    Allahu al-musta`an.

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