The average Muslim convert does not convert to any particular sect of Islam; they convert to what they regard as simply Islam. Non one converts and says; ‘I want to be a Salafi, or I want to be Sufi, or I want to be a Tijani, or a Tablighi, or an Ikhwaani, or a izaul Tah’riri. One the contrary, a new converts to islam simply wants to become a Muslim. Then after that, if they end up as part of a Muslim sect, or an ideological group, it’s because they choose a sect post conversion, had a sect chosen for them, or enforced upon them. Sometimes they simply stumbled upon a sect and not realized it until later. Or perhaps as it happens in many cases, they adopt the cultural norm of a sect and do not even realize the difference between that, and Islam. This article is written for Muslim converts who maybe got caught up in sectarianism or anyone else who wants to understand about Muslim sectarianism in the United States. Wal Allahul Musta’aaan.
I realize that there are many brands of Islam people have to choose from today. Many paths, and many different ideologies. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. However, I firmly believe that we should stick as much as possible to the original, simple version of islam as established by the Prophet (SAWS); the Quran and the Sunna, the five pillars, being good to neighbors, good to parents, helping the poor, honesty, good character, etc. the basic stuff. Especially given the fact that Eesa ibn Maryam (Jesus the Messiah) is coming and the Dajjaal [The antichrist] is at our door steps. , we should stick as much as possible to the simple Islam of the Prophet (SAWS).
Many converts to Islam are pressured to choose from different brands of Islam, and it seems that there are more and more varieties, and sects to choose from everyday. Why all the choices? Isn’t Islam one religion? Yes but it’s not that simple. People like to add stuff to the religion, and for some, its an obsession. Its like choosing between different brand names of Islam, each claiming to be better than the original. The Prophet (SAWS) had his brand, this is the true and pure version of the religion. Later, a bunch of other people came along, each having their own brand and modifications of Islam. So what is the best Islam for the convert Muslim, and why? Who’s serving up these choices? This last question has a very long answer because there are a lot of people and groups vying for the hearts and souls of the new convert and first generation of Muslim Americans. This alone should get your attention.
Nevertheless, before I answer the question about what is the best type of Islam for the convert, my first advice for any new or first generation Muslim is that you do not join a sect at all. You will probably be better off as a Muslim without one. Secondly, if just can’t resist to lull of the sect, then wait for at least ten years after your conversion before joining one. Thirdly, consider your children if you have any. Muslim children are born in a state of fitra [natural submission to monotheism]; they are not born in a state of sectarianism, and will not be in such a state unless you put them there. Muslim American Muslim children are ill-suited for islamic sectarianism; its confusing to them and they do not usually take too well to life inside most Muslim sects unless you can totally isolate them, and control their environment around that particular sect and its ways and teachings. Meaning that you have your own schools, your own neighborhoods, your own controlled environments, your own ideological self-sufficiency, and your own local leader. Otherwise your children will be exposed to too many things and too many other kinds of Islam and Muslims to buy into Muslim sectarianism. It won’t make any sense t them in the long run.
So, as a new Muslim, or an established Muslim, you should take the time to master just practicing the five pillars and understanding the basics of Islam first, and you can easily do that without joining a sect, a Sufi order, or an Islamic political group. While you’re busy understanding the basics, maybe spend a little time doing research about different Muslim groups and sects, and perhaps talk to people who have had experiences with joining different sects. Especially talk to them about how their children have fared, and what made them leave. It’s a lot easier to be gung-ho about original Islam for your whole life than it is to be gung-ho about your sect. Muslim sects in America can lose their novelty and shininess very quickly but pure Islam never loses it’s appeal.
If, after ten years of practicing the basic, simple religion of Islam, you’re still hankering to become sectarianized, then put off joining a sect for another ten years. If after twenty years, regular Islam has not been enough for you so that you don’t need to join a sect, then think about it one last time for at least another five years. If after 25 years you still find that you must belong to a Muslim sect in order to feel good about yourself, or in order to find what you believe is salvation, then this is a free country and you are free to join any sect you like and there are many to choose from. However, before you join any Muslim sect, then there are some things that it would be good for you to know first.
First of all, what is a sect? The short answer is that any group that requires that you take on additional beliefs and theology above what was related in our scripture; the Quran and the Sunna, is a sect. When you hear them say that the Quran and the Sunna is not enough, or that there is some secret knowledge that was left out of the original Islam, then best believe that they are a sect. Most every sect or group, but not all, has a specific ideology or platform that is particular to them. Just like a political group has a political ideology that is specific to them like democrat or republican, or communist or socialist. So does religious sects; each has a religious ideology that is specific to them. It defines who they are and it distinguishes them from other sects or groups. Otherwise, if all sects were completely the same, then why should you join their sect and not join the others? What makes their sect stand out? What makes it so special and appealing? these might be questions you want to ask yourself.
There has to be a hook, a special concept, a special distinction, or an honor that at least according to them, makes their sect superior or better than others sects. When it comes to religious sectarianism in Islam, almost every sect claims that their sect represents the truest and most correct form of Islam. I happen to believe that the truest, most authentic form of Islam is that which the Prophet ﷺ was upon. I mean the Islam that is free of division, free of ideological nuance that distinguishes it from the original. The simple, basic Islam. Many sects are built around or even named after individuals and their feats, their personalities, their greatness, and their alleged closeness to God. These are some of the things that makes a sect, a sect.
Some groups or sects emphasize practices that are already firmly established in Islam, while other sects bring entirely new things [bid’ah or innovation] to the religion. Many sects and groups are built around other sects, or extensions of them, such as the group Jamaa’aat Takfeer wal Hijra, which was an extension of the group; the Muslim Brotherhood. Another example is the Darqaawi Sufi order which was a branch of the Shaathiliyyah Sufi order and there are many other examples of group extensions that became separate groups themselves. Each sect or extension has specific beliefs, and ideologies with regards to Allah, His commandments, His being, His relationship with the creation, and the creation’s relationship to Him.
All sects are not entirely bad. Just like in about everything else, there is good and there is bad in these Muslim sects. There is that which is very beneficial, and there is that which is disastrous. There is that which is faith and there is that which is heresy [kufr]. Some people wouldn’t know what to do if they were not in sect, and some people have never known islamic life at all except from the inside of a sect. I’m writing here about American Muslim converts who are starting fresh as a religious community.
There are two types of sectarianism. Old world sectarianism and new world sectarianism. By old world sectarianism we mean sects that have been around for hundreds of years, and that have existed in Muslim societies for a long time, developed other own hierarchies, customs, shuyookh, and have their own history and ideological stretches. By new world sectarianism, I mean old world sects that have taken root in the United States or, start-up Muslim groups and sects in the United States that in most cases are a mixture of the old Muslim order, imposed on the new Muslims to produce a hybrid sectarian order.
After talking to hundreds of people who are current or former members of imported islamic sects, I’ve found that most converts who joined these groups, knew very little about the group’s core beliefs. Some simply were impressed by the costumes and the attire of the sect’s members. Others like a particular, trendy aspect of the sect. Most of new adherents of sects believe that you are not allowed to challenge your sect’s views or practices, and that somehow this is disrespectful. I also found that when it comes to Muslim sectarianism in the United States, there is a general understanding by convert [mostly African American] disciples, that you will always be a subordinate, and that you will never reach the level of the sheikh, or the level of your foreign counter-parts in your sect. It’s simply accepted that if you are a Black American Muslim, you will always be a lower class disciple in the sect. Sometimes, the foreign members of a sect, will not even associate with the African American Muslims members who join the sect. You see this in some of the Tijani groups for example. African Tijanis living in the United States will hardly have anything to do with African American Tijanis.
Entire Muslim countries are built around a certain Muslim sect or group, to the degree that if you to challenge it, or have questions, you could have problems, become an outcast, or even face imprisonment or death. Some old world sects try to impose this theorem on new Muslims converts; that you cannot challenge anything no matter how irrational or heretical it sounds. Some sects regard their sheikhs as saints, and afford them infallibility. Other sects believe that you cannot get to paradise except through the sheikh. In most Muslim sects, dissent of any kind is not welcome. Even asking too many probing questions is frowned upon.
However, the days of not asking questions about what Muslim ideologies people are bringing to the country are soon coming to an end. This is the United states of America. Asking questions and seeking proof is part of our culture. That’s how we needed up abolishing the slave trade. We are Americans and when things don’t add up or doesn’t quite make sense. We (at least some of us) are conditioned to challenge it. When people come to the United States and they are already part of these sects, then ma sha Allah, this is a free country. However for the convert community, the culture of Muslim sectarianism has been a disaster. As world Muslim sectarianism is starting to gain traction in America. I haven’t seen where it has benefitted Muslim America, American Muslim converts, or our country as a whole.
An important point to to keep n mind is that anytime you think that your sectarian brand or branch of Islam is equal to the sum total of all of Islam, then you are definitely either in a sect, or you have sectarianized your Islam. This article should not be looked upon as a challenge to anyone’s sect, I’m not claiming to be the religious police here, and like I said, this is a free country. Still, if you are sectarian bound or oriented, here is a list of things that a Muslim might want to consider before joining a sect.
- Know your sheikh’s real name. One of the things that have been a part of islamic civilization from the begining is that people have scholars and sheikhs to teach them the religion and to direct them in their religious affairs. The tradition of having shuyookh [shaykhs] goes all he way back to the companions of the Prophet ﷺ. Having a sheikh is a good thing; some say it is a necessary thing. I’m saying its a very beneficial thing if you first have the right intention. However, in modern Muslim culture, particularly amongst American Muslim converts, having a sheikh is a trendy thing, for may it is a fad thing, and the more super your sheikh, the greater your standing. People, boast about their affiliation with this or that sheikh, or that they’ve sat with this or that sheikh as if it is some sort of badge of honor. If you are seeking out a sheikh, try not to do it in this fashion. However, first and foremost, you should know your sheikh’s real name, his real origin, and something of his real parentage and lineage. At least know his name. I know situations where people followed and were disciples of a person calling himself a sheikh, they followed him for years and didn’t even now his real name or where he came from. So the first thing to know is your sheikh’s real name. If he doesn’t want to reveal his real name, then that’s a red flag. Red flag being to stop.
- Know the beliefs [aqaa’id] of your tariqa or sect. There are a lot of different groups in Muslim America; religious groups and sects, political groups, social groups, and ethnic groups representing Muslims of different ethnicities. Each of these different groups all have their own political leanings and associations, their different ideologies, and sub-theologies, and their own individual agendas. Therefore, you should know the belief of your group before you join and not follow blindly. Being a groupie may look cool, and their words and pretty poetry can put you into a trance like state. Still, you should know what you’re getting into; what new beliefs you are taking on, and what theological additions you are adding to your Islam. Many Muslim sects have heretical beliefs that take you ideologically outside of Islam. Some people have set up shrines in their homes for this or that Sheikh and not have a clue to what their beliefs are. Some people have taken wirds [special daily thikrs] from sheikhs in their Sufi order and not even now what they are saying. Sometimes even calling upon the jinn [demons] and not knowing it. Other sects believe in magic, believe in astrology, believe in the the use of talismans, special rings and signets to give you power or protect you from evil or that can harvest the power of the sun. So if you insist on becoming an initiate in a sect, then at least do yourself a favor and learn their ideology.
- Know the rules of your group. Some groups have rules that require that you check in and get permission even to travel. Some have dues that you have to pay. Some require that you make certain sacrifices. They have certain initiation rites and others have specific rules for being in the group, for leaving the group and for maintaining membership in good standing with the group. Some sects have weekly gatherings that are incumbent upon its members. Some groups require that you venerate and pay homage to certain individuals. Some groups require sexual favors, and sexual sacrifices that they seek from you once you have been in the sect after a certain time.
- Know who the head of your sect is. Most sects, if not all of them, have a living leader. Someone who takes responsibility for them, for their teachings, for their ideology, and for their religious practices. No sect among the famous sects that are in circulation today, are without a leader. There is someone, near or far who is the imam, or amir, or khalifa, or sultan or leader of that sect. The leader could be local or the leader could be someone overseas. In either case, you should know who the leader of your sect is. When people converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet ﷺ, they knew who he was. When they made bay’at to the khulafaa arr-raashidoon [the four righteous khalifs], they knew his name. when people take oaths of citizenship to become citizens of the United States of America, they know the President’s name. You should never join a sect without first knowing the name of its leader. It might even help to know something about the leader. You should also know what the leader of your sect says about himself. What does he believe he is capable of doing? Some leaders and founders of sects believe themselves to be infallible. Some believe that they are as old as Allah. Some believe that they have the power to place you in certain situations on the Day of Judgment, and others believe that they are so close to Allah and that they do not have to pray anymore. Be sure to investigate the beliefs of the person who founded or is the head of your sect. There are people today who are joining these sects without even knowing who the leader of the sect is, nor do they know anything about him.
- You should know and understand the additional prayers, remembrances, utterances, and religious practices of the sect you are joining. If the groups you are joining has supplementary prayers, utterances, practices, and liturgies in addition to the five daily prayers and Jum’ah, then you should know about that. For example, some Sufi groups make tawaaf [circumbulation] around tombs after Jum’ah, and this is something you should know about. Some of them have heretical beliefs that contradict the Quran the Sunna and the positions of most scholars of Islam, and you should know about that.
- You should get a second opinion. If you’re considering it, don’t be in a rush to join a sect, group, or a movement. Some sects and some movements only last a generation or half of a generation anyway. The Ansarullah Community was a sect that was headed by Eesa aka Dr. York. It only lasted about a generation or maybe half a generation. Other movements like the Muraabitoon, came and gone. Some sects, have been around for hundreds of years, and others, just for decades. Sects and sectarianism are not going anywhere, so try getting a second opinion. Maybe there are people who used to members of a sect and they can tell you some of things that went on that you may ultimately not want to sign up for.
- Know the difference between a group, an affiliation, a madhhab, and a sect. you should know the difference between a group, an affiliation and a sect because they are all not the same, nor do they have the same properties. For example, a person may affiliate himself or herself with salafiyyism and simply say that they are a Salafi. This does not mean that they have joined a sect. It could just mean that they are a Muslim who makes that affiliation in that they adhere to the way or the methodology of the Salaf as-saalih, [the first three generations of Muslims]. Now I do not advise that a person calls himself a Salafi. Calling yourself such will not make you closer to Allah or make your deeds more acceptable to Allah. In fact, calling yourself a Salafi does nothing at all for your hereafter but it might be a reminder for you to stick to the original Islam of the Prophetﷺ. However, it does not necessarily mean that you have joined a sect. On the other hand, if you believe that calling yourself a Salafi makes you better than other Muslims or that calling yourself a Salafi, gives you some sort of upper hand in your religion or some sort of superiority over other Muslims them, yes, you have joined a sect. otherwise, you have simply taken on an affiliation. Another example is that of a madhhab, and here I mean a madhhab of fiqh, or one of the four school of islamic law. If you say for example that you are a Hanafi, or that you are a Shaafi’ee, it does not mean that you have joined a sect; it simply means that you have decided to follow a particular course and a particular set of rulings when it comes to practicing your religion. However, at the same time you recognize that there are legitimate interpretational differences between the four schools of islamic law that are acceptable whereas one is not inherently wrong and the other s not inherently right. For example, the Shaafi’ee school of law, a person pronounces the basmala [saying of bismillaahirr Rahmaan arr-Raheem] audibly in their prayer as part of Sura al-Fatiha, while in the Maaliki school they start the Fatiha with al-humdu lillahi Rabbil aalameen. Both of these methods are accepted by the scholars of Islam whereas the prayer is considered acceptable in both ways. This is belonging to a madhhab. Madhhabs are not exactly sects but then again, a person can become fanatical about his or her madhhab to where it is a sect. for example, a person may opt to not give salaams o not pray being someone who is of a different madhhab of the four Sunna schools of thought. Then that person has elevated their school of thought to a sectarian level, whereas it becomes a sect to him. Overall, have the imported sects of Islam been beneficial for Muslim America? The answer is; perhaps in some small ways but over all? I would say no. We are better off just sticking to the original sect of islam; the Quran, and the sunna, the sect of Rasoolillaah (SAWS).
Imam Luqman Ahmad