Globally, Muslim sectarianism affects almost all Muslims in one way or another. Many Muslim groups would not thrive as a sect or be able to keep their adherents in check without having a sub-ideological focus, or without being in opposition to another Muslim group. The modem day Salafist phenomena in the United States is just one example of that. At their height, they would ascribe medieval, and early islamic sectarian labels to other Muslims and then proceed to demonize them. They would attach the title Mu’tazilite, Raa’fidee, Juhamee, and Khawaarij to everyday converts who have never even heard of such titles and groups, and of course to many of them; to be a true Salafi, you must call yourself a Salafi.
This methodology is not only a characteristic of some modern day Salafists, it’s typical of many islamic groups who came to the country already sectarianized. Sectarianism works better in a small village somewhere where everybody is of the same tribe, or believes the same, thinks the same, and has the exact same values for generations. However, in Muslim America, sectarian Islam creates an entirely different dynamic. Especially for the convert or revert to Islam. It means a march towards near total fragmentation.
Sometimes converts/reverts come across one or another of these sectarianized versions of Islam and don’t even realize what hit them until much later when they try to raise their children on the sect’s sub-ideology or on veneration of the sect’s founder or leader, or until they go and try to integrate with another group of Muslims and then they discover that one group hates the other. This can be a pretty mind blowing, faith shaking discovery for someone who just recently entered into the religion of Islam. Which is why those who stay in Islam for a long time and survive the twist and turns of sectarianism become so strong in their faith and grasp on tawheed. When confusion sets in, believers tend to resort to the foundation of Islam; laa ilaaha illa Allah Muhammad Rasoolu Allah.
It’s not that sectarianists are trying to mess with your head, for many, sectarianism is the only Islam that they know and understand. The simple Islam of the Prophet ﷺ for many sectarianists is a betrayal of their sect’s sub-constitution. But it is the simple Islam of the Prophet which attracts converts to Islam in the first place, which is why sectarianism is not compatible with the convert. It ruins faith more than it enhances it.
When people convert to Islam, they are completely vulnerable. The nature of true conversion is that sins are forgiven, faith is untainted, and previously held ideology is discarded wholesale.
Converts Muslims come into the religion without belonging to, or yearning to belong to any particular sect; they come in on pure tawheed without sectarian alignment and simply want to belong to the Muslims. They are natural marks for sectarianists and easy targets of post conversion proselytizing because they are trusting, they are open and they, in many cases, are very naïve to the nuances of Muslim sectarianism and in fighting. It’s like; okay, now that you are a Muslim, what kind of Islam do you want? Even worse, some people are presented with the notion that they really aren’t a true Muslim until they join this or that sect, or initiate into this or that tariqa, or follow this or that sheikh. People are in essence, taking two shahadas; the shahaadah of Islam, and then, the shahaadah of the sectarian group.
Extreme Salafism has had its heyday amongst American Muslim converts, but it is waning. There are more ex-Salafis now than there are Salafis. A lot of Muslims have discovered that you can follow the ways of the Salaf [righteous predecessors] without having to call yourself a Salafi. That realization for many, was an eye opener of cathartic proportion. These days, Sufism is the hot craze amongst many indigenous American Muslims. This is not a condemnation of Sufism as a discipline within the legitimate islamic practice. It’s just an honest assessment of where we are in Muslim America.
People are using their Sufi affiliation and titles like gang signs. Many of the more popular Sufi tariqas maintain that if you leave the order, or disengage from the sheikh, then you have left true Islam, and will fall into disfavor with Allah. That’s a pretty hefty psychological burden to lay on an unsuspecting, impressionable, recent convert to Islam. Even more so if the sheikh lives thousands of miles away and you’ve never even met him face to face. Ironically, many Muslims are discovering that you can embrace and practice Islamic spirituality according to what the Prophet ﷺ practiced and taught, without having to call yourself a Sufi and without being a so called Sufi.
Converts come into the religion believing in tawheed, Muslim unity, and in the simplicity of Islam, and are then betrayed on so many levels. Sometimes, they are literally chased away from Islam by racism, marginalization, or by the pressure to give up their critical reasoning, their common sense, and their identity. Other times it is the sheer confusion and perplexity of sectarianism that leaves their heads spinning. There are many Muslims who convert to Islam, and gradually understand and practice the faith, get married, perhaps, have children and produce healthy Muslim families that continue into the next generation. However, that’s not the way it is for many converts during these times we live in today.
Many new Muslim converts in America these days are a one shot, single generation deal. They convert to Islam but it doesn’t really spread to their children or next generation. The average convert today is simply subject to too many fluctuations, and quirky influences in his or her faith and ideology in the name of Islam to keep up.
It’s interesting to note that most American Muslim converts to Islam already believed in god before they converted to Islam. In fact, most of them believed in one god. For these new Muslims, Islam only confirms and gives deeper meaning and definition to what they already believed before they converted to Islam. Which in part, is what lead them to Islam in the first place. Many converts to Islam where already honoring their parents, being kind to their neighbors, keeping family ties, giving charity with their hard earned money and were already truthful and honest before they ever knew about Islam.
There is nothing purer for the one that Allah Himself guides to Islam than the Islam that was practiced and taught by the Prophet ﷺ. Sectarianism for the Muslim convert is a demotion of faith, not a promotion of faith. It is imperative for converts to Islam to understand it’s damaging effects and to extricate themselves from the cyclical morass and confusion of modern Muslim sectarianism. In my humble opinion, there is no better Islam for them, than the original version, without supplemental editing or ideological appendixes. I believe and will in sha Allah, continue believe that Islam is best practiced when it is independent of sectarianism. Which is why Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala said; “Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty“. (Quran 5:105)
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
[Taken from the up coming book; ‘The Dilemma of the American Muslim Convert’ by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad]. American born Luqman Ahmad is the son of converts to Islam. He is a writer, consultant, and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Folsom California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation, a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations), 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. He is also author of the book: “The Devils Deception of the Modern day Salafi Sect“. The Imam blogs at, imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.