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The Rise and Fall of the "Salafi Dawah" in the U.S. (Parts 4-6)

Umar Lee (

The rise and fall of the ’salafi dawah’ in the US (Part 4)

 “East Orange” and its “satellites”As the word spread via word of mouth, conferences, tapes, magazines, websites and email lists, the salafi dawah grew stronger and more popular. For the first time in many of our lives, we felt like part of something special. There were so many young converts involvedOne of the most exciting and largest salafi-led tasks was the Islamic Center of America (ICOA) project in East Orange, NJ (E.O.) led by Abu Muslimah. During this time, E.O. gained a reputation amongst Salafis as “the best Muslim community in the US” and many moved there from other communities to help build the community. Unlike the remnant salafi movements today, E.O. did have some brothers in the ranks that were professionals and/or college educated. There were IT professionals, school teachers, Graphic Artists, engineers, and successful businessmen and women in the ranks.Most importantly, Abu Muslimah himself has a degree in Business Management from Rutgers. This made a big difference in E.O. over the “satellites” (communities that followed E.O’s lead) that would form in other cities. Abu Muslimah not only did not discourage brothers from going to college but also encouraged other brothers to acquire skills to help the community. Hearing what was going with the ICOA project on from the tapes, many families with these skills moved to E.O. with the hope of helping to build upon this great new thing. It was said that if you can’t make hijrah overseas, then E.O. was the place to go.There was amazing and persistent dedication. There were brothers that took second jobs in order to dedicate the entire salary of that second job to the ICOA project. Others sold furniture and other personal belonging and gave the proceeds to the masjid. Sisters sold their jewelry, organized bake sales and had fundraisers amongst themselves that raised several thousand dollars. There were also Muslims – even those that were not salafis - from around the country so impressed with what they saw in E.O. that they contributed thousands of dollars to help. Eventually, they got the building and made the necessary improvements.Over time, they had the most impressive salafi accomplishments that I knew of: A school that went up to 12th grade with certified Muslim teachers and students that often went on to college, a huge Eid sized musullah, a festive atmosphere - especially after Jumuah -  plenty of Muslim vendors on Fridays, a men’s and womens lounge, bookstore, Janazah washing facilities, food bar, sleeping facilities for guests, exercise room, and other things all in that building. The bookstore distributed tapes all over the United States and Canada as well as many parts of Europe and there was also an independent Hajj package and a Muslim security team.It was a great accomplishment and this drew even more people to move there. Others, like me, would make a ‘pilgrimage’ there (no, not religious) just to see the accomplishments of the community or just to get a ‘charge’ before returning back to a smaller community. But before you left, brothers would not spare any effort to lure you to move. A visit there though was enough to impress anyone from a small community. The apartment buildings all around the masjid were full of Muslim families. One could walk to the masjid and see several other Muslims doing so. At Jumuah time, the street was filled with Muslim families walking to the masjid. When one walked into the building, one could see that this was a pretentious-free environment. The community was a testament to itself.With so many Muslims moving to EO, the once abandoned section of town around the ICOA were now reinvigorated as the Muslims brought life to where it was once dying. The city of East Orange renamed the back alley of the ICOA “Ahlus-Sunnah Plaza” because of this.It was these accomplishments that caused more reasonable brothers to overlook a lot of the overzealous brothers that were in the rank and file. It would be these types of brothers that would lead the downfall across the country.In Philadelphia, the salafi community didn’t achieve what the community in E.O. had, but they still had a large number of salafis there. By everyone’s estimation, the largest number of salafis in the country, but still not the more complete community that was in E.O. In spite of their numbers, they were a satellite to E.O. at that time.In Philly, the salafis were in such large numbers that they set the trend for the other Muslims. Big beards and niqaabs became a normal thing even for people that were not salafi. The African-American Muslim community in Philly began to appear more Salafi and gradually incorporated Salafi norms of doing things into their speeches, dress and acts of worship. It even got to the point in Philly that non-Muslims even started to dress like the salafis. It was the latest trend. Outside of EO/Northern New Jersey and Philadelphia, there were some small salafi communities that formed in other cites that consisted of brothers that either could not afford to move to E.O. or Philly or were trying to form a community in their locality and get those from even smaller communities than their’s to move there as well. Some examples of these communities like this were Atlanta, Kansas City, and Nashville. However, all these cities were also ‘satellites’ of E.O. during that time. The smaller communities never really developed for several reasons, but the most prominent reasons at that time were lack of leadership and brothers eventually leaving for E.O. or Philly.However, like on Ghostbusters, there was a pink slime lying underneath that no one was addressing that would contribute to ultimately bringing the entire dawah down.

 The rise and fall of the ’salafi dawah’ in the US (Part 5)

Northern Virginia A lot of visits back in the day led to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC during the 1990’s was becoming the most active and vibrant Muslim community in America as a whole. (E.O. was the best SALAFI community. Northern Virginia was the best community overall - in my opinion. The DC area community was not founded by Salafis, rather by a concoction of organizations affiliated with the religious outreach programs of the Saudi government, organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its American branches mainly being the Muslim American Society, and a variety of other mostly ethnic based groups such as Afghans, Turks, and South Asians.  By the time the 1990’s rolled around, Salafis were becoming a major force in the area due to these major-factors: -          The opening of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences of America (the Mahad) in Fairfax, VA, which trained American-Muslims for free in Arabic and religious studies and many went on to study at the universities in Mecca and Medina. -          The other Saudi-backed organizations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the Muslim World League-          The emergence of a vibrant African-American Salafi community centered at Jammat al-Qawi in Washington, DC -          The lectures of two men who would become famous the world-over to Salafis and that is Jaffar Sheikh Idris and Ali al-Timimi. -          The American Open University which was affiliated with their line of teachings which varied slightly from the other Salafis in the area but became the most popular. The Mahad provided a fresh crop of students each semester who would come and live in the area. Many would stay for just a few months while others would stay permanently in the area and become active in the community. As the school had no housing students set-up makeshift housing where ten or fifteen brothers would stay in one or two bedroom apartments and give them names such as “Dar us-Sunnah” or “Dar as –Salaf”.As the Salafi Dawah was on the rise, the most dynamic part of the salafi movement in the DC-area was the students of Jafar Sheikh Idris and Sheikh Ali al-Timimi. In the DC area, they began in the 1990’s very small with a small office in DC for an organization called the Society for the Adherence to the Sunnah which was where the program of Ali al-Timimi was based. The office was run by Idris Palmer and Friday night lectures were given at the home of Jafar Sheikh Idris. The classes at the home of Sheikh Jaffar created a brotherhood amongst the students that grew and attracted an extremely diverse group of students from all racial and economic backgrounds. Eventually these classes would be given by Sheikh Ali al-Timimi and at other times by Sheikh Jaffar’s son Yusuf. Under the tenure of Sheikh Ali, the classes would expand tremendously and the tapes and CD’s of the lectures would be mass produced, sold and spread all over the US, Canada and the UK. Sheikh Ali became such a popular local figure that his classes became “the place to be” for the youth of the masjids throughout the DC-area. People would come who were raised in Muslim homes. Some were even secular or sufi and generally very far from the Salafi Dawah. The attraction of Sheikh Ali was the fact that this was a man who was born and raised in America, spoke in clear English, and not only had a great knowledge of the deen but was college educated, an IT professional, a cancer researcher and a very serious intellectual. This was a man who could take the knowledge of the Salaf and make it applicable to your everyday life and could speak in a language we all understood.   Contrary to media reports, he was not a firebrand and seldom raised his voice, and sounded like an NPR host most of the time. How he differed from the other Salafi leaders in the community is that he would - from time to time - address political issues and acknowledged the world that we live in. The aura around him and the strength of the brotherhood around Sheikh Ali was unbelievable and he knew that those who have an irrational bigoted fear and hatred of Islam and those in the government who sought fame out of the suffering of Muslims, and those within the Muslim community who could not intellectually or theologically counter what he was saying, would one day seek to undermine what he was doing, and they did in a most evil way. Eventually the brothers put together an organization called “Dar al-Arqam” where everyone would come together for the classes and get together for food and laughs afterwards. We used to have volleyball tournaments after the classes and did other activities together. There were NUMEROUS active sisters that would attend these classes at Dar Al Arqam from all over the area. These sisters were also highly educated and brilliant women who loved Islam and not victims of misogynist pigs.Generally, I also want to add that the people in this DC salafi circle tended to be thinkers, and highly educated individuals - including the African-Americans - but those of us who were not educated were made to feel welcome and a part of the family. There was a number of African-American brothers in this circle who had college degrees and good jobs particularly in the IT field.Those were some very good times. The best times of my life…Next … I begin to talk about The Downfall 

The rise and fall of the ’salafi dawah’ in the US (Part 6)

 The Decline  “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding” - Albert Camus When I speak of the downfall I speak with a voice that is full of pain as I see something that was once so beautiful torn apart and shattered. I want you all to know that they were human beings who had hopes, dreams and feelings. Many spent their own time, money and effort to put this together. It pains me when some of the moderate and balanced brothers are impuned along with the ones that became extreme.The Decline - in my mind - had three aspects-          Ideological-          Social Breakdown-          Aftermath of 9/11 The combination of these three things would be too much to overcome. First, I will talk about the ideological splits, which in turn caused the social breakdowns to be discussed later. Even during the time of growth, there was an overzealous element that I alluded to in the first posts that was narrow – and as time passed - and only grew more and more narrow. They were known amongst other Muslims for causing an uproar at local masjids where they would publicly confront the imams and lecturers on what they perceived as bid’ah. They quickly became disliked by the leaders of many local Muslim communities. This kind of attitude and ill advised outbursts stopped the amazing growth from being even more than it was.  In the beginning, it really centered around a couple of issues:-          Whether or not it was a MUST to call oneself a salafi even if he/she adheres to the salafi dawah-          Loyalty to the Saudi throne even if one is not Saudi (They will say “the rulers”, but they mean the Saudi throne) On the first issue, there were many of the opinion that it was almost sinful to not distinguish oneself as a salafi and became more and more belligerent and uncompromising over time. In the beginning, it was a minor issue, but as more and more new people came in – especially those who are more educated – these new people were less prone to label themselves with any label, although they would accept the teachings as the truth. This was not good enough for the zealous faction. As things were going well and moving forward at the time, the more reasonable brothers would simply overlook these zealots in the ranks in the interest of the greater good.  The zealots were also prone to banging brothers over the head on their position on the Saudi King. It was not good enough to recognize that Saudi Arabia printed copies of the Qur’ans and gave money to spread the dawah. One – in these people’s minds - must be loyal to and praise the Saudi rulers. You couldn’t even remain silent on the issue. I was not - and am not - anti-Saudi per se, but I grew tired of brothers trying to force the Saudi throne down my throat. To the contrary, their insistence would MAKE me - and others - have a disliking of them to some extent because they were trying to MAKE me love them, while I wanted to stay neutral as it was of no concern to me. When I reflect on this, this was pretty silly because these two issues had little to do with the issues that were right in front of us: Going to the next level, beginning to raise the new children and solidify the new communities that had been formed.On the top level, this schism was represented by IANA (Islamic Assembly of North America) on one side and QSS (Qur’an and Sunnah Society of North America) on the other. I referred to this split in my second post.Those with IANA were of the opinion that one did NOT have to call oneself salafi and loyalty to the Saudi throne was NOT a requirement upon every Muslim. QSS was basically of the opposite opinions and hence much of the reason for the split.  As I said, in the beginning, this was of little consequence to those of us in the rank and file, but it began to trickle down as QSS speakers started giving lectures about “the importance of obeying the rulers” and “Why one should call oneself Salafi” and began an inquisition to “purify the ranks of the salafis”. Their guiding principle was that the small evil must be exposed because it is not clear while the big evil is clear. In other words…we are going to concentrate on the small mistakes….we are going to drive it into the ground (and we are going to drive everyone away in the process)  It was slow at first and many of the QSS and IANA speakers were still attending both conferences. Only the most strident QSS people refused to go to IANA. Much of the promotion of this schism came out of the UK from Salafi Publications (SP) and they began to distribute mass emails that began to create a lot of confusion amongst the rank and file. New Muslims soon got involved in issues that had nothing to do with them and thought that Islam was all about these two issues. For a few years, this fitnah festered below the surface, and many hoped that this issue would go away, but it continued to grow and grow. The students at the Mahad - especially those from Philly - were affected by this. They would discuss ad nauseum Sunnah and Bid’ah and deviants of other non-salafi groups. (This was a time before the turned their venom on other salafis) However, although these guys were harsh, they were not takfeeri. We would talk to the lecturers about these issues in private and would continuously be told that this is not something that we should jump into. Problem is that the QSS/SP faction insisted that these two issues were very important and continuously took it to the next level.Eventually they made it an issue over which one should be abandoned or boycotted. This fitnah reached such a level to the point Ali At-Timimi felt compelled to give this lecture in the UK on it in an effort to arrest this cancer’s growth. That lecture got Sheikh Ali permanently thrown out of salafiyyah. At the grassroots level, those affected by the QSS faction – even in good times – were the ones that gave the salafis the bad reputation for having bad character. They refused to work with other groups of Muslims and were prone – even in those times – to not mix with other groups of Muslims except when they were calling them to salafiyyah. They were also known for shouting brothers down and generally making small issues into huge ones. Other Muslims hated to see salafis coming for this reason and unfortunately, the more reasonable brothers were painted with this brush as well. 
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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