I’m a Blackamerican Muslim man speaking to my son, who is locked in a prison and I’m answering his question about the un-compromising approach to Islam he is witnessing there.
My Beloved Son,
I will start off by saying that there is only one Islam, it was lived by our Beloved Prophet over 1400 yrs ago. The Qur’an and his example are a guide for all humanity. A guide, not an iron clad absolute way of living as if we were robots, but a guide, something that points you in the right direction. However there are many interpretations of Islam, valid interpretations. (this has absolutely nothing to do with the 70 sects described in the hadith).
So in the 18th century, a sunni preacher said he wanted to purify Islam by returning to the ‘original principles of Islam’, his name was Abdul Wahaab, he died 1792 c.e. (Christian era). And so he began to preach a very strict, take no prisoners type of Islam. He says his way as the only way to practice Islam. Never mind that there were a thousand years of people practicing Islam. Never mind that there were universities teaching Islam established 600 and 700 years before he came up with this great idea. Universities such as The University of al-Qarawiyyin or Al Quaraouiyine 859 c.e in Morocco or Al-Azhar University in Egypt 970 (ce) . Anyway, in all that time, the Muslims were able to practice their religion along with the Jews and the Christians in relative peace. They all recognized the rights and humanity of each other, as did our beloved Prophet (pboh).
Abdul Wahaab decided he needed to purify the religion and he did not tolerate any deviation from the very narrow and literal interpretations of Qur'an and narrow understanding of the Sunnah.
So Abdul Wahaab and a small band of followers began waging wars on other tribes in the Arabian Peninsula both Muslim and non-muslim (already that’s a problem) in order to ‘purify’ Islam. Note: purify here means – to make others see it his way and bow to his will . Don’t get hung up on the words used, see the reality of the words.
By himself he was a nobody, just a small time preacher with a small band of followers. What was fortunate for him was that at some point he hooked up with one of the most powerful tribal leaders on the Arabian peninsula named Muhammad Ibn Saud. Saud liked Wahaab’s approach and enjoined his family to follow the same.
Enter White people
So, now you have Abdul Wahaab and his quest to ‘purify’ Islam being backed by one of the most powerful men in Arabia and what happens ? The Europeans discover oil on the peninsula. The Europeans encouraged Ibn Saud to dominate the other tribes and they recognize him as the only leader of the Arabian Peninsula. So he signed over the rights of his countries oil to these European charlatans. Ok, ok.. another word to understand here is ‘encourage’ . In this context, remember now we are talking about politics and governing, here ‘encourage’ means the Europeans supplied him with all the guns, ammo and tactical experts to dominate the peninsula thereby ensure that they would have access to the Arabian oil fields.
So now you have the Ibn Sauds, a bunch of filthy-rich Arabs, whose land and resources are in the hands of Europeans and whose religion is the strict version of Abdul Wahaab. Somewhere down the line they begin to think that with all this money they have and with other countries looking at them as the keepers of the Qaabah, they should exert some influence in the Muslim world. (by the way, also along the line here, the Sauds rebelled against the Ottoman Caliphate and declared themselves the rulers of the Muslim world , all of this prior to the collapse of the caliphate in 1920, but this history is for another time)
As they continued their journey towards a national identity the Saudis decide that since they have the Qaabah and the Prophets Mosque they should also be the leading teachers of Islam, this would seem to follow some logic. But they didn’t begin thinking about this until the 1940’s.
In the mid to late 40’s they set up the university in Mecca. In 1949 c.e. King Abdul-Aziz established the College of Sharia (Islamic Law) in Mecca, making it the first higher education institution in the country. It constituted the kernel of Umm Al-Qura University. It was followed by the establishment of the Teachers' College in 1952. This continued until 1959 when the College of Shari'a took the responsibility of teachers' preparation and became the College of Shari'a and Education. In 1962 the College of Education was established as an independent college.
Its important to note here, that the Saudis were not known for their scholars, at all. They didn’t have any to speak of. Their educators and scholars came mostly from Al Azhar in Egypt.
But with this new feeling of nationalism and nationhood, a feeling supported by the wealth given to them by selling their natural resources to European and American interests, the Saudis felt it was a it was not in keeping with their newly crafted image to be the leaders of the Islamic world and at the same time have all of the most respected Muslim scholars in the world come from Egypt. They sought to have their scholars, Saudi scholars perceived as the foremost authority of Islam and Islamic practice.
So what happened
Not much differently than what happens on the street. What happens when a new dope dealer representing a new supplier shows up in someone else’s territory, in order to sell his product he has to say that his product is better. That he’s got a better deal. That you get more bang for the buck by patronizing his product.
So that’s exactly what happened here. After a generation or two of trained scholars (by the Egyptians don’t forget) the Saudi scholars began to say that they had the real dope, the real Islam and the approach of Abdul Wahaab (the salafi) was the real thing. So they then began to undermine all the education that had existed before they became ‘suddenly enlightened’ and they downplayed the scholars at Al Azhar and other places. And because they had the money, they had the ability to send their newbie scholars all around the world saying that only they had the real dope. And so what we are witnessing around the world, like in Somalia and Nigeria and Yemen, the UK and Pakistan and here in the United States particularly beginning in the 1980’s with all the discussion of various salafi scholars , is really a turf war ! Who is going to sell the dope.
And so We of course are an exaggerated people. If you tell us we can wear pink, we will find neon pink. We, in terms of converts to Islam, began this adventure back in the 1920’s in America. There were communities of color, black people, practicing sunni Islam in places like Cleveland, Philadelphia and of course New York, all in community settings, purchasing land, building houses and places of worship.
In the early 1960’s in New York City, Brooklyn to be exact, the Islam we gravitated toward was one of tolerance, love, respect and with the understanding that being Muslim in America, and Blackamericans at that, we also wanted to improve the condition of black and poor people here. The New York experience owes much to the orientation of Sheikh Da’oud Faisal who stressed the brotherhood of man and love of Allah and His Prophet (pboh). One of the main reasons that some brothers left the community of Sh. Da’oud was that they felt they could do more in the poorer sections of the Black community to introduce Islam to our ‘kith and kin’. This is the kind of Islam we brought into the prisons when we, the Dar ul Islam Movement, began the introduction of Sunni Islam in the 70’s.
( Now in all fairness and truth, The Dar was influenced by both Sayyid Qutb from Egypt and Maulana Mauddudi out of Pakistan, both of these men subscribed to a politicized Islam but the Movement, also at the same time, flirted with Sufi tendencies. See, real life is complicated. )
Then in the 1980’s and 90’s there was this salafi stirring. All of a sudden, the accepted hadiths weren’t good enough, the acknowledged scholars weren’t good enough and because we are an exaggerated folk, we tried to out-do the strictest of the strict. This new salafi interpretation of Islam was intolerant, unforgiving, it became black or white, nothing in the middle. And that’s what you are seeing now. That is the present orientation of Islam in many of America’s prisons. But this is not the Islam of the world. Most Sunni adherents are still connected to interpretations of the classic schools of thought where tolerance is understood, forgiveness practiced and love of humanity is expressed.
The salafi agenda, however, is aimed squarely at negating any connections with classical interpretations and comportment or behaviors. The overarching idea is to direct all religious inquiry back to the authority of the Saudi intellectual elites. If we were discussing this in purely political terms, it would be called ‘Cultural Imperialism’. This happens when a nation imposes its culture on populations physically separated from itself through books, lectures, conferences, etc.. With respect to Islam, this ‘imposing’ means that the validity of one’s practice is suspect unless it is approved by the salafi /Saudi intellectual elites. This salafist orientation has some horrible consequences. As a matter of fact, in Muslim majority countries the death and destruction comes not from outside European aggressors ONLY, but more from those who subscribe to this intolerance, they have different names in different countries but they are the same people with the same orientation. They are blowing up masjids, both shia and sunni, kidnapping little girls off the streets in Africa, bombing cultural events put on by children in Pakistan, setting off explosions at weddings and family gatherings ( Mustafa Akkad, Director of the film The Prophet, was killed in an explosion at a family wedding by people who subscribe to this kind of thinking ) and if they think there’s a threat to whatever their agenda is, they are killing innocent people in every Muslim country. Just study their history in Algieria ! Names would be tacked on the doors of masjids where this orientation was promoted and it was a way of telling the community that is was ok to spill the blood of anyone on the list. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people were killed by those who subscribe to these tendencies. The overwhelming number of people killed by them were other Muslims.
But keep in mind, this is not the Islam of our beloved Prophet. He was asked about the troublemakers in the Muslim community and he said, ‘they will take the ayats of Allah about the disbelievers and apply them to the believers’. And this is what we are seeing today.
When today we think of the ‘Golden Age of Islam’, it was a period of tolerance. The Muslims recognized the humanity of the Jews and the Christians and even of the Zoroastrians. They allowed the religious institutions of Christianity and Judaism to be preserved unmolested. It was a pluralistic society.
So my son, you are where you find yourself. Be honest to yourself, remember Allah much, be forgiving to your brothers, be safe and remember your family loves you.
I love you Always,