The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement in America: A Memoir by Umar Lee will now be available in an expanded and edited version via Kindle at my Amazon author page.
Below I have left the article a sister submitted after the original publication and the comments section from the original posting.
Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
I had taken all in this ten-part series off of my page and only left the last page which is where the comments are. This is the entire series plus some my clarification and an introduction from a sister.
A Sister’s experiences from 1980’s Salafi Movement
A sister wrote this “prequel” and emailed it to me. Masha Allah, my original series on the 1990s Salafi movement made it to all corners of the globe and insha’Allah will spark some much needed change. However, the sister basically gives a summary of her experiences with the beginnings of the movement in the 1980s:
This isn’t going to be very eloquent because truth to tell, I am saddened and sickened by the whole subject of salafism/wahabbism. I came across Brother Umar Lee’s blog a week or so ago and have been hanging out there ever since. Trying to find the logic in many comments, and when I can’t, trying to point it out. I should have learned from the past. In truth, it can’t be done.
I read Br. Umar’s discourse on “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Salafi Dawah’ in the US”. I think he was spot on in his assessments. Br. Umar began with the 1990’s, because he’s too young to know what US Islamic life was like back in the 80’s, pre-salafism as a defined group with a name. But there were groups of brothers exactly like many salafis today, who would help to create, and/or go on to embrace the movement and call it by the name by which it is known today.
This isn’t a pretty picture, but it is the truth. And in the nearly 25 years since I said my shahada, I am grief-stricken that not much has changed.
When I became acquainted with Islam, I was guided to one of the few masjids in town. It was, I guess you could say, the largest congregation and the most ethnically diverse. It was also located in the heart of the universities area, and attracted a variety of Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, born Muslim and converted, Arab, Asian, African, European and “American”—in those days primarily “African” American.
The long and short of it is this: This particular masjid was usually only occupied at prayer time, except for a group of young American, convert men who always seemed to be there. Other members of the congregation were either students or employees, or both. Not this particular group. They were neither. I would come to know most of them as I studied Islam before I said my shahada. And sadly I would come to learn what a blight they were on the Islamic community. They were the source of most of the fitnah and destruction of brotherhood/sisterhood among us.
I would first like to say that when one has too much time on his hands, Shaytan uses him as a plaything. Under the guise of “Islamic education”, this group lounged around the masjid day in and day out. There wore the pre-salafia dress, favoring long white jalabiyahs and turbans instead of the “highwaters” and kufis preferred nowadays. They went by the name of the Islamic Propagation League. It was their mission to bring Islam to the masses in my city, and correct the aqeedah of those already Muslim. They went out of their way to catch those inquiring about Islam—or new shahadas—hoping to convert them to their own particular brand of Islam. I guess this was one reason for staying in the masjid all day. If anyone came or called asking about Islam, these brothers were usually the first to pounce on them. They provided “dawah” on Islam, emphasizing rejection of all things western as tools of the devil.
They placed great emphasis on how one was to dress, as western-style clothing was to be abandoned in favor of long robes for the men and full hijab, including niqaab, which they pushed as fard, for the women. There was precious little talk of tawheed, the pillars of Islam, etc. The emphasis was on outward appearances, even down to rejecting your birth name and choosing an Arabic one.
They were my second encounter with Muslims. My first was a man I had met at a party at the university, a Nigerian student who patiently answered all my questions about Islam once I discovered he was a Muslim. My only “knowledge” of Islam in those days what that Allah was an idol in the desert and women were oppressed. Alhamdulilah he set me straight, and guided me to the location of the masjid, and providing me with a number to someone eager to help me whom he described as “part Arab, part European”. But on my first visit I encountered the Islamic Propagation League, of which this Arab/European kid was a part, and very nearly left Islam before I embraced it.
I’m not sure what the token white guy’s qualifications were to have been known around the masjid as someone schooled enough to give dawah. I think he just seemed a bit more acceptable as he was white and a fluent English and Arabic speaker.
It came to be known that white converts—and there were many women especially—were a prized commodity to those slackers who lay in the masjid all day. They tried to snag us at all costs. Somehow they believed the addition of a white feather in their caps would give their group legitimacy—something it was sorely lacking. They often complained that the Arab brothers “stole the white women” away. I don’t know about that, but after listening to dawah lessons from both sides, with the exception of one lecture, I was much more impressed with the Arabs. Why? Because they concentrated on those concepts I mentioned above…tawheed, the five pillars, and cardinal beliefs. They weren’t about damning the West and telling me I needed to get myself into mandatory niqaab and start calling myself Aisha or something.
My first Islamic outfits were sewn by me, long, loose flowing robes and the veils included niqaab. I thought I was doing the right thing. It wasn’t until I met other members of the mosque that I learned niqaab was optional. I thought it was pretty and rather exotic-looking, but I was relieved because my family wasn’t having any part of my conversion to Islam, especially the clothes. So when I left the house on the way to the masjid, in jeans and a t-shirt, changing into Islamic clothing on the way, I was at least relieved to know that showing my face wasn’t a sin.
During my studies, I was also made privy to the kind of life-style these pre-salafis were leading. They were all, with the exception of one, married to black women and on the prowl for a second or third wife—preferably a white one. Their families lived on welfare because it was “haram to work for the kuffar”. The kuffar would not allow you to wear a turban and jalabayih to work, so you couldn’t work for them, as “Islamic” clothing for men was wajib. It was not haram however to take charity from the kuffar. So these families existed on full welfare, which back in those days—before Clinton’s welfare reform—was a bundle. You could very easily raise a family on cash allotments—which by the way increased with the birth of each new child, food stamps—again increased with each new birth, medical care, WIC and free housing or ridiculously low monthly payments via a section 8 housing allowance. Most of these brothers lived better than others who had jibs for a living. They weren’t getting all that help, and struggled to make ends meet.
It was suggested to me that I might like to become the wife of one of these fine brothers. I politely declined, not just because I was uninterested in living on welfare, but because I couldn’t get with the polygamy aspect, being that not only was it illegal, but I would have to lie and pretend I wasn’t married to my husband. This is how the welfare department in our city came to call the Muslim women on the welfare role “the Holy Whores” – because they were often dressed in all black and niqaab and having children (as far as the state was concerned) out of wedlock. The second and subsequent wives could not be legally married to their spouse, and the government didn’t give a damn about or recognize a so-called Islamic marriage. And so the “Holy Whores” were born and I wasn’t eager to join their ranks.
My polite refusal was met with scorn. I was refusing a life with a decent Muslim man just because I thought myself above welfare and being known as a “whore”. Well, truth to tell, I was. I think there’s no shame in that.
To make a long story short, I accepted Islam during a Friday evening halaqa for the brothers at the masjid. My pre-salafi acquaintances were also in attendance. As was my future husband—a moderate Arab. Once my future husband asked about marrying me, we were sort of doomed. The American slackers had lost another white woman to an Arab man—something that apparently happened all too often. I guess my marriage to him was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because from then on, that group had it in for us.
My husband and I became very active in the masjid and in dawah. I was affiliating myself more with the Arab sector than I was the African-American group—mainly because I saw a better Islam and sensible work/study ethic from the Arabs. Because I was white, it often fell to me to meet other white women who were interested in Islam. I would share my own experiences with them while my husband shared the nuts and bolts of Islamic teachings.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of what happened to us – because that would jeopardize my anonymity – but we were put-down, taunted, accused of heinous things at every turn from a small band of these lazy devils masquerading as righteous Muslims. No matter that the greater Islamic community stood behind us—these pre-salafis were relentless. They would not let up on us in their quest to make our lives a living hell. After one particularly horrible incident, we decided to leave the city. We couldn’t take the pressure any longer.
But I kept in touch with many from my first community, including a few African-American sisters who knew this group, but were not a part of it. Upon hearing news from home, I was always so glad we had left. It was a constant string of gossip coming my way—this one had taken a third wife and divorced the other two. That one had caused a fight in the masjid between Arabs and blacks and the police had to be called. Another family had been set up in what would eventually morph into a rape charge against a very decent Muslim man and his family who had given shelter to a homeless ex-prostitute sent in as a decoy pretending to be interested in Islam. The list of atrocities committed by these pre-salafis was endless.
The funny thing is, in this town there was a totally African-American masjid, but the imam there would have none of their pre-salafi antics or dawah. He had forbidden them the opportunity to take up residence in his masjid. He was a decent, working class man who cared very well for his family. About 20 years later, upon his death, the masjid was taken over by salafis. What was once one of the oldest and most revered African-American masjids in the country is now a joke.
Over the years, even 20 years later—as self admitted followers of the salafi dawah, some members of the original group, were still making problems. Their wives still gossiping about people who had lived there ages ago, and trying to break up marriages and families of 20 years duration. Good deeds, if done by the persons still hated by the salafis, were turned into very near crimes against Islam. It continues to this day.
What happened to the original group? Basically they traded in their jalabiyahs and white turbans for highwaters and kufis. Their beards are down to waists, they reek of jasmine oil and henna, and their women dress like the beloved “black crows” of the Sunnah. But their hearts seem to be equally black. Most – if not all – have long since left that city, and formed or joined some infamous large salafi communities on the East Coast. Many got free trips to study Islam abroad and came back throwing around a few Arabic words in fus-hah and calling themselves “sheikhs”. Their second generation children are leaving the deen and are losing their own children to the dunya. They want no part of this extremist cult.
To this day you will find salafis gathered in person or on the internet, still discussing trivia to the point of insanity…Like the ruling regarding a particular sheikh who made a mistake in prayer, or the ruling on a particular community member who committed a sin. Hours and hours, days, weeks, months, volumes written on one single error—how to deal with it, discuss it, benefit from it, distance from it, ostracize the offender, etc, etc, etc.
Is this the Islam I envisioned when I took my shahada? No, and Alhamdulilah by the grace of Allah I never got sucked into it.
So the rise and fall of the salafi movement in the USA is a reality. It’s probably much worse actually then Brother Umar has indicated. There is a hadith of the Prophet (saw) that says…What starts on wrong is wrong. The beginning of the salafi movement in the
USA started with groups of men who were not willing to do their Islamic duties to Allah, themselves or their families, preferring instead to laze around the masjid in the name of “knowledge”. From my viewpoint, none of that has changed. The salafi dawah started on wrong, and will remain so. Unlike Islam—no sects, no labels, no bull—which will flourish and one day glorify hard-working, true believing Muslims, everywhere.
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