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The Rise and Fall of the 'Salafi Dawah' in the US (Parts 1-3)

Umar Lee
I am writing a series about the rise and fall of the "salafi dawah", the accomplishments, mistakes and ultimately, its fall amongst US converts from my perspective and consulting with some other brothers on the scene at the time.

The Beginning...
In the early to mid 90s, we witnessed a period in which lots of people were becoming Muslim after the new interest in Malcolm X brought on mostly by Spike Lee's X hats and the movie.

This brought on a short period of revived black consciousness in which we saw many black bookstores open that sold books such as "The Isis Papers" and "Stolen Legacy" promoting myths of a black super civilization that used to exist that had 25th century technology buried beneath the Saharan desert to protect their super knowledge from the evil of the white man. There was so much hope that 'knowledge of self' would finally bring blacks out of the rut they'd fallen into. This "hope" is what leads African-Americans into different movements. The strong yearning to be a part of something positive. Many of you will not understand this yearning, but it is very strong. I cannot understand it as well as a black person, but I do know what this yearning is like. This point is important because many of these new Muslims from the influx would find that their next "great hope" was in the salafi dawah.

The black consciousness period basically ended with the disappointment in lack of substantive response in aftermath of the "Million Man March". Lots of people showed up, lots of good feeling, lots of money made for some, but nothing happened in the black communities after that.

After the Malcolm X bio-pic and the new black consciousness movement, this led to a lot of interest amongst black youth (even white youth like me at the time) in "returning to their roots" which eventually led many of them to Islam. I became Muslim myself during this period after reading the 'Autobiography of Malcolm X'. The same is the case with others I know.
On top of pointing out the influx of Muslims that came in from the short black consciousness period in the early 90's, it must also be noted that the internet was taking off. This is important to note as the internet would feed much of the growth of the salafi movement and, ironically, eventually contribute to its current decline.

Before this time, in the late 80's, some of the forbearers of salafi dawah that were already here in the US, used to drive hundred of miles to give lectures in which there would only be like a dozen people who all knew each other. This was a "big gathering". There were few converts that were salafi at that time. These speakers would form part of the backbone of the salafi speakers circuit along with those that were about to graduate from the University of Madinah (Abu Muslimah and Abu Usamah). It is these individuals, along with Dawood Adib, that really took "the dawah" to the converts where it was originally mostly a Gulf Arab thing.

Part 2
After many of us became Muslim in the early 90's, we found that there was a competition for our hearts and minds between the Sufis/traditional Muslims, the Salafis, and the Tablighis. There is, however, a lot of overlap between the Sufis/traditional Muslims and the tablighis so in some ways I kinda put them in the same category.

The 'Ikhwani' movements just weren't interested in converts except where they could help speak out on issues such as Palestine. This usually required white converts and hence not a lot of black converts were interested in their movement and the ikhwan weren't interested in them...unless they had big money. This is why you'll find that there are more converts amongst the Sufis/traditional Muslims, salafis and tablighis than the Ikhwani groups where it is/was very rare.

Many of the new converts at that time, because of the internet, began connecting with other new Muslims across the country, learning their Islam together and many were learning about salafi speakers. Email lists were formed and websites began to go up. Thus began what some have called the 'cut and paste' era. A brother could in this era look like a scholar if he knew the right sources to cut and paste from.

Salafis - because they eventually had an army of zealous converts from which to pull - did an excellent job of book and tape distribution and had two magazines that were spreading like around the country in Muslim circles. These books, tapes and magazines went into the prisons where more Muslim converts eventually became salafis.

But one of the most important parts (if not THE most important part) of spreading the salafi dawah to other parts of the country were the annual winter conferences. The two major conferences were IANA (Islamic Assembly of North America) and QSS (Qur'an and Sunnah Society of North America). Although there were some conflicting issues with the leaderships of those organizations, many of the rank and file attended both conferences and there was a lot overlap of speakers at both.

It was at these conferences that the attendees would buy many tapes, meet other salafis, connect hearts, network, make new friends, meet the speakers personally and sometimes even become friends with the speakers.
At these conferences you saw many big beards, thobes (above the ankles), and many niqaabis wearing all black. All of this may sound cliché or even silly now, but back then it was really a big deal to see so many people actually "practicing the religion" in the eyes of relatively young and new Muslims.

Then on top of that, the emphasis on following the letter of the Islamic law and keeping the salaat lines straight and filling in the gaps that was emphasized no place else. Nowhere else would you see this type of emphasis, and through the eyes of a zealous convert eager to practice his new religion, this all looked good. Most importantly, we felt like we were "a part of something". This is a critical point. Unlike today's caricature of a typical salafi, there were quite a few professional and responsible brothers in the ranks that were African American. There were also white and Latino brothers there. It was the bulk of these type of brothers that would later leave.

In retrospect, I liken these conferences to drugs in a way. You got such a high (in your Imaan) on the first one that you just had to go back for another hit to boost. Eventually you Imaan becomes dependent on it in a way. More on the issues of the loss of responsible brothers and the loss of an outlet to get this 'high' when we discuss the decline.

The most popular taped lectures were by Dawud Adib, Abu Muslimah and Abu Usamah and they often at that time worked together as a group and spoke on the same panels along with Muhammad Syed Adly on weekend gatherings and mini-conferences that on a smaller level served the same purpose as the major conferences. The brothers that worked distributing the tapes were very good at marketing and created a demand for the tapes. Some brothers even made a living just selling these tapes. They didn't get rich, but they didn't have to do anything else during this time. It got to a point where it was not strange to find people who had 300-400 tapes in their collections. The salafi books and tapes were flowing like a river. In addition, a lot of the more savvy converts started putting out stylish t-shirts, hoodies, jackets, etc with catchy slogans that appealed to many of these same converts and sold very well. This helped promote the salafi dawah too. The talents of many of these new converts were utilized very well during these times.

The conference attendees would return to their cities ready to recruit others armed with tapes, books, magazines, new thobes and kufis and tales of their experiences at the conference. They would tell their friends to subscribe to the magazines and get the new books and tapes by these speakers (huge contrast to the boring speakers they would hear locally on a weekly basis) join the email lists and tell them about the websites and the latest books that came out. There was a lot of hope and excitement and when contrasted to what they saw in their small communities, it looked even better.

So hundreds, perhaps thousands of brothers and sisters would return to their homes all over the country excited, with a new look and would spread the word amongst other Muslims in their hometowns. "Man, where'd you get that thobe?" ... "Where can I get more tapes?" A 'buzz' was created and this helped spread the word.

Also, with converts of any religion by nature being more zealous, they were more dedicated to giving dawah and spreading of the tapes, books, and magazines.

In contrast, ISNA conferences, for example, drew far more Muslims, but they just did not have the driven and energetic attendees that the salafi conferences had, that would return to their cities ready to hit the ground running and enthusiastically spread the word.

The other movements (especially predominantly black ones) just did not have the magazines, email lists, and taped lectures to compete for this market of new Muslims. So a large number of those who entered Islam after the brief black consciousness period in the early 90's became Salafis.

Part 3
By the mid to late 90's, the salafi dawah - love it or hate it - had become a force to be reckoned with - especially on the East Coast - and had at least a small presence in almost every major US city. The conferences and mini-camps had become "must attend" events and groups of families would travel caravan-style to these functions. The converts that became Muslim from the short 'black consciousness era' had become salafis in large numbers and perhaps the majority of those from that era - the ones that stuck to Islam - have been salafi at one time even if they are not now.

The groups and pockets of salafis around the country consisted mostly of new Muslims and/or Muslims that used to be tablighis, former members of Jamil Al-Amin's or WD's group, or "old workers". The real strength - in my opinion - was on the East Coast because most of the major speakers and people of knowledge lived in that region at that time. Then again, most of the converts from the early 90's 'black consciousness' era lived in that region too.

Also, by the late 90's, the salafis had clearly established themselves as the most dominate Islamic presence on the internet. There was a vast worldwide network of articles and audio lectures that interlinked to one another and were sent on the numerous email lists. Even people who were not necessarily a part of the salafi group often referenced this vast network salafi websites. It was kinda funny to walk into an 'ikhwani" run masjid and see fatwas or articles from salafi websites posted on the board. One would also see posters for the salafi conferences and advertisements for the salafi magazines on the bulletin boards of these "ikhwani" masjids. This was from the tenacity of the brothers going from masjid to masjid posting these announcements or spreading these fatwas.

The internet presence along with the grassroots efforts the conferences produced was second to none at the time. With all of the tape, book, t-shirt, food and other types of sales, there was sort of an inner economy within the salafi movement. This was especially true on the East Coast where the brothers often made a point to support each other's businesses even if they had to pay more.

The groups of salafis in the cities outside the east coast would come together to listen to tapes, have their own make-shift classes or listen to 'ilm-online' which was a tele-link to classes in East Orange. These groups of brothers and sisters would become very tight knit and become such close friends they would form a loose network across the country and would visit and call each other often. (This is in a time when long distance was not free) There was a lot of genuine love. Brothers like me traveled from community to community, and each time we were received very well by our fellow salafis.

I would not even know where I was going to stay, but I knew that my salafi brothers would have my back. And they did each and every time during this period. I often didn't have to buy food or pay for a hotel, even though I was willing to do so. It wasn't about "milking" brothers. It was about competing for good deeds and genuinely wanting for brothers what you wanted for yourself. When brothers came to
St Louis, we were equally as generous to brothers when they came to visit. We loved to meet a new salafi brother.

When I traveled, brothers would often insist on my staying with them, and we would talk and have a good time over some food and I'd stay in their home with no problem. This was the case with many brothers. The environment often was hypnotic.

When it was time for departure from the conferences, mini-conferences and impromptu visits, tears would flow, not only because the brother were leaving the company of good friends, but they knew that they were often returning to dead situations in their hometowns. I can't describe for you the sense of loss one feels returning to a city with a small and generally inactive Muslim community.

One of the things that I want to keep emphasizing is the great hope and excitement amongst the brothers, because it will put into context the great hurt and pain that would come later during the decline. Another thing everyone needs to understand is that we believed with our very beings that this was going to be the answer to the world's problems. This way was the right way for everyone. We had discovered the roadmap to utopia. If only we could get everyone to realize it. This was behind the zeal (and in many cases over zeal) of many of the brothers. They had found gold and desperately wanted this good thing for everyone. Also, understand that we were largely a bunch of idealistic young people in our early to mid-twenties as well, so cut us some slack for being naive.

With these great ideals in mind - and reading books and listening to lectures of great sacrifice for deen by Muslims of the Salaf - many dropped nearly completely out of the world and immersed themselves and their families fully into this bubble. Many spent their own time and money to spread this message. They spent their own time and money to make these tapes and buy the books to spread them. They used their own gas in their own cars to travel to spread this message. I felt compelled to add this part because many think that everything was entirely funded by Saudi money. That is only true with the major organizations and some of the book publishers. This was not true on the grass roots level as many brothers sacrificed a lot of time and money, although they wish they could have gotten some Saudi money.

Remember those people who sold everything before Y2K and bought farms expecting the world to become like "Mad Max"? ... Well, we didn't go that far, but almost. Many completely invested their lives in every way to this movement expecting everything to keep growing.

You could not go wrong with this. Many put their lives on hold - no, STOPPED their lives - and dedicated themselves completely and dove in head first with full confidence that this movement would stand and continue to grow and prosper here. Brothers like me made their full time jobs 'being Muslim'. We would just find an odd job here or there to support ourselves and our families and return to our salafi world. Many others dedicated their time in trying to "go study" with no thought of what we were going to do when we got older. We had no idea that the world - the real world - was continuing to move on without us...

Many were very close and had some very good times. Many groups of friends traveled thousands of miles together, made hajj together, cried together, and had shared good times together. Some were so close that they were like blood brothers. Some were blood brothers. Many had come from a chaotic life as non-Muslims, and this brotherhood served as a nice contrast during these times. And this brotherhood made it attractive to others. These times still make me smile with nostalgia

Eventually, brothers in the smaller towns grew tired of the boring khutbahs and lack of reception of their local community to their calls to salafiyyah and eventually either established their own small salafi masjids or just left in frustration for other communities with large numbers of salafis.

There was an idea - at the time - that it was better to concentrate in certain spots and build up that area. This made East Orange, NJ become a major destination for those leaving the smaller communities and made it the most dynamic salafi community in the country during this period and the epicenter...
To be continued.
(Look for the expanded printed version of this series by Umar Lee)

Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.

Quran: 2:143
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