Yeah, I know it’s a long title. Nevertheless, this is a really complex and deeply problematic topic. When people become Muslim, they’re not thinking; I’m becoming a Tijaani, I’m becoming a Shaafi’ee, I’m becoming a Jihadi, a Tablighi or a Salafi. They’re thinking; ‘I’m becoming a Muslim’. It’s only after they take their shahaadah that people indoctrinate them into this or that sect or group, at a time when no less when they are most vulnerable. I’m not knocking your group here but darn, can’t we just let people get used to being a Muslim first before we sectarianize them? If you think about it, that’s a really cruel trick to play on someone; have them enter Islam thinking unity, and then induct them into sectarianism. This article could have been titled ‘American Muslims and the Oftentimes Perplexing Sectarian Identity Politics’ but that’s heck of a long and confusing title so I settled for a shorter and slightly less confusing title.
Still, this is really a complex topic because for many people, entering Islam is awesome; it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to them in their lives, but what comes next can be a let down. Especially after they’re ushered through the labyrinth of supplemental isms which have become attached Islam. Hey don’t misunderstand me; I get it that one man’s ism is another man’s source of enlightenment. However, considering that according to a Pew Research study published earlier this year, the American Muslim convert community is at a zero growth rate, meaning that for every ten people who converts to Islam, ten other people end up leaving Islam, I wonder whether all these isms confronting the new Muslim might have something to do with it. Hey, we are human beings and we need to have groups for a whole bunch of reasons, we just don’t need a whole bunch of groups thinking that they have the monopoly on the truth. The haqq, if you will.
First of all, if you choose just to be a regular Muslim, you might not get much love in the first place because just about every sect, sub-sect, tariqa, group, or movement is looking to increase membership. If you end up as part of a sect or a particular group, you have to become indoctrinated not only in basic Islam from the Quran and the Sunna, but now you have to become indoctrinated and taught again, the tenants, beliefs and practices that are particular to your sect or group. This is not to say that every group is inherently bad, evil or wrong. I already mentioned that as human beings we need groups, Not every group is wrong and the Muslim ummah agrees to the legitimacy of the four orthodox schools of islamic legal doctrine as well as the Ja’fari and the Zaidi schools from amongst the Shiite, and there are all kinds of groups who follow the Quran and the Sunna. So let’s just say that right now, I’m not referring to any particular group; I’m just talking about sects and sectarianism. Just a little chat. Additionally, it is well known at least in what I believe that as Muslims, we are to follow the methodology of knowledge as set forth by the scholars of the first three generations of Muslim or the Salaf as-Saalih.
Still, you have to admit that sectarianism is an encumbrance on the new Muslim, and in my humble opinion, it’s hit us pretty hard, especially for the American Negroe. We come from a people that’s been pre-programmed for self-destruction, and a culture where our young men (and women) routinely fight and kill each other on the streets for next to nothing. We have people who fight over turf that they don’t even own and then we give them Muslim sectarianism to fight over. That’s the last thing we need; something else to fight over. I’m not seeing where that really worked for us, or where sectarianism has built anything for indigenous African American or convert Muslims. Sectarianism can produce a Crip versus Bloods mentality. People ready to argue and fight with someone over their sect, their sheikh, even over their madhhab or tariqa. When you join a sect, and of course most every sect has its protagonists and antagonists, you have to learn all the tenants of your sect that makes your sect different or better than the other sects, and different from the Islam that existed before your sect or group came into being. If seem people kicked out of their sect because they didn’t want to follow the rules. The Prophet ﷺ and the Salaf, preceded all of these sects. Then, every sect has their particular reasons why their sect is better than the other, otherwise there is no reason for people to be in the sect in the first place. Then once you become in full doctrinal mode then you have to be appraised of the sects (if any) that your sect or group is opposed to, as well as the ones that are opposed to your sect.
Most every self-respecting sect these days has its enemies and detractors to gather people against. The nature of sectarianism is that it is easier to gather people in opposition of something than it is to get them together in favor of something unless its some bid’ah. Sectarianists love them some bid’ah. Not just them. Any one of us can get caught up in some bid’s these days if we’re not careful. If the bid’ah is exciting enough and you’re going to get good news coverage, people will flock to some bid’ah. If someone belongs to a sect, then best believe if you look hard enough then you will likely find some religious innovation. Sometimes just a minor smidgeon of bid’ah, but sometimes you find the weird stuff. I mean real weird stuff. I remember a recent group that some brothers belonged to where they do turn off the lights to do thikr. Now that some weird stuff to me. Why turn off the lights? Unless maybe you’re trying to save money on the light bill, but why do it at thikr time? I wasn’t there and I’m not part of that group and it could be totally innocent, just trying to save money on electricity. I just have a thing when men and women gather together and then turn out the lights because it reminds me of back in the day house parties.
Once you enter into sectarianism you can easily find yourself in the unappealing position of attacking anyone who criticizes your sect, your sheikh, your madhhab, or your particular group. Or even worse, taking it personal. As you become deeper and deeper indoctrinated as happens to many people, they find themselves defending their sect even when the criticism is warranted and upholding the views of their sect and their shuyookh even when those views contradict the Book and the Sunna. This is how sectarianism gets out of control and for Muslim converts, it gets out of control quite often. Bottom line, if you think that your sect is the way to go, then al-humdu lillaah. If you think your madhhab is the way to go then al-humdu illah. I follow the Shaafi’ee madhhab in most every issue of fiqh but I’ve been known to take a Maaliki position here and there. I know that some people say that’s not allowed and they are free to try to bring it up when we all stand before Allah on the day of Judgment. I’m still of the view that if it agrees with the Book and the Sunna, I’m all for it, and if it doesn’t well… not so much.
Sectarianism may have its benefits and of course like I said, all groups, tariqas, islamic political parties, and movements aren’t bad and they all aren’t 100% pure good either. So don’t go off half cocked because you think I insulted your group or your sheikh. My advice is that if you’re going to be Muslim then learn the basics. Learn your prayers, do your prayers, pay your zakat, fast your Ramadan, and if you get a few dollars, or excuse me, a few thousand dollars to spare, go ahead and make Hajj. Do the five pillars. If you want to go deep into one sect or another, okay ma sha Allah, but still try to stick to the basics and keep your options open. If we can pay dues to all of these groups and spheres of foreign influence in our communities and still manage to all work together to address our problems with family, Islamic communal infrastructure, our many fatherless homes, and the other problems in our shared communities then fine. If not, we should think a little more about the impact of Muslim sectarianism on what’s left of our fragile communities. In the meantime, obey Allah and His Messenger ﷺ and your leaders that you are connected to in matters that are right, but remember, you have to trek your own path to Allah. No one else can do that your you. Not your sheikh, not your group, not your Imam, just you. Above all else, keep your loyalty and your sincerity to Allah and to Allah Alone. Wal Allahul Musta’aan.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism in the United States. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.