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The Wahhabi Myth: Debunking the Bogeyman


“Wahhabism”—a term used by different people for different reasons. My purpose was to collect some of these uses to serve the end-goal of debunking the term itself. After all, if it means enough different things for different people, it really comes down to not meaning anything real in an absolute sense. Also, as you will see, the use of this term is almost exclusively negative or with implied negative connotations. Hence, you will hardly hear anyone proudly referring to himself as a Wahhabi or a Masjid named Masjid al-Wahhabi. It simply doesn’t occur. What this implies is that there is usually some emotional or prejudicial baggage with the term’s usage or some other sinister agenda.

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As I prowled the internet, there was nearly an unlimited supply of Wahhabi-referring articles, analysis, discussions, blogs, etc. It would fill pages upon pages if I attempted at collecting many of them, let alone all of them. So, here are my top-ten reasons to drop this word from the dictionary, esp. the dictionary of Muslims:

10. Let’s start with the definition of Wahhabis from the Encyclopedia Britannica. After you finish reading the definition, ask yourself, “So how they are different from what Muslims should be?”

9. There is no doubt that the term Wahhabi has its historical derivation from the Sh. Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. While his father’s name has formed one of the most defamatory labels in history, Abdul-Wahhab himself actually was not too excited about his son’s mission either. So, in some ways, the word itself is technically inaccurate. A more accurate label would be Muhammadis, and we all know why that wouldn’t work as a pejorative term. Doesn’t that say something about the term’s negativity?

8. Those that use the term Wahhabi as an ideological attack form their basis on the opinion that Sh. Muhammad brought something new in the religion to the Arabian Peninsula. There could be nothing further from truth. Historically, there is no doubt that the Shaykh’s mission was simply to revive lost practices of Sunnah and to remove polytheism. Whether one agrees with his style is a different issue. Since this article is not a discussion about the Shaykh’s life, I am going to just mention two important legacies that Sh. Muhammad left, and leave it to the reader to read further, if interested. The legacies: (a) Were it not for the Shaykh, tombs and structures upon graves would be widespread in the current Saudi Arabia. Consequently, grave-worship, yearly celebrations at these tombs would probably be as widespread (as they are in Indo-Pak, Iran, Egypt and other Muslim countries) (b) There would likely be still 4 congregations (one for each madhab) for each Salah at the Harram in Makkah! For further reading, see this article on his biography, misunderstandings about him, in non-Arabic sources, and articles by the Shaykh. An absolute must-read is a book by Natana DeLong-Bas, called “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad”, excerpts here, and buy it here. In fact, why not read some of the Sheikh’s books and ask yourself if you really disagree with what he said. Get past the propaganda and go to the source yourself. Here’s his Kitab-ul-Tawheed, audio on the “Three Fundamental Principles”.

7. Having said that, Sh. Muhammad’s real influence was largely limited to the Arabian Peninsula, but his revivalism of Tawhid did extend beyond the borders of the Arab world.

6. Speaking of Sh. Muhammad’s revivalism, the point is that it was exactly that—revival of what was already established in the religion. There was nothing new that he brought, nothing that wasn’t found in the works of previous scholars. In fact, many Orientalists and detractors of the Shaykh claim that he was mostly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah. Well, if so, then why don’t we just call everyone Taymiyyans? Let’s take another example. Suppose this humble servant of Allah, me i.e. Amad, goes to Pakistan and somehow causes a revival of major proportions (of course highly improbable and nearly impossible), and rids Pakistan of the disease of innovations and polytheism. Would it be then that every person who observes the Aqeedah of the Salaf after me, whether directly affected by me or not, should then be called Amadis? How absurd is that?

5. The majority of Muslims who consider Sh. Muhammad to be an esteemed scholar* do not consider him like people who consider, say Imam Abu Haneefa or Imam Malik, etc. i.e. you will not find that Sh. Muhammad left any madhab or any methodology. Thus, when you enter upon a library of a so-called “Wahhabi”, you will not find that the Shaykh’s teachings form a mainstay in either materials or practice. So, if one were to say that a Wahhabi is similar to a Hanafi in the following of Sh. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and Imam Abu Haneefa respectively, then that would be utterly inaccurate, and with no basis whatsoever, because there is no equivalency neither in their works equivalent, nor in their following. Especially since you find people attributing and calling themselves Hanafis, while you do not find hardly anyone who call himself “Wahhabi”. [*Respect for Shaykh Muhammad among Muslims varies as with any scholar. While there is a greater respect in areas where he had greater impact (i.e. Arabian peninsula), he still garnered respect in the non-Arab world, such as among the Deobandis in Pakistan, for instance Rashid Ahmed Gangohi’s praise of the Shaykh]

4. If a label is unacceptable to those to whom it is applied, it is not used by them, is almost repulsive to them, then it is a label that is unjust, inaccurate and unIslamic, as Allah says what means “…Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed…” [49:11]

3. Almost always the term “Wahhabi” is used in a pejorative sense. It is usually intended as a slur. Many times, when Muslims feel uncomfortable with the practice of other Muslims, many times when they feel that someone is more religious than he should be, and for neo-cons, whoever practices basic Islam, is called a Wahhabi.

2. The term Wahhabi was created by the enemies of Islam in order to tarnish the movement that called for a return to pure Islam. It is like the latest term “Islamo-fascism”… would Muslims adopt this term for other Muslims now, saying so and so is an Islamo-fascist? If we abhor the adoption of what our enemies have created for us today, then we should abhor the term that our enemies created for us in the past. Also, a significant reason for rejecting this term is how these terminologies are being used to “divide and rule”. If you think that is just my imagination, then you haven’t heard of the RAND report on “Civil Democratic Islam”, a lengthy report on how Muslims should be classified; to encourage and support modernists and Sufis, and to attack the what they call “fundamentalists” (this of course is our bogey-man: Wahhabi). Here is the full report, and here is a press release summarizing the intent. RAND is of course run by neo-cons (google ‘RAND and neocons’ and you’ll get the gist). See here for articles by Abdus Sattar Ghazali on Rand‘s attempts to divide Muslims: Part I and Part II. Want to join RAND‘s efforts? Keep the name-calling going and you can get yourself a seat on the modernist or the “good traditionalist” side!

1. And the top reason is that Wahhabis has different meaning to different people. The data collected here proves that Wahhabis means so many different things for different people, that in the end, it doesn’t mean anything real at all. As one example, let’s just take the Indo-Pak region: Deobandis call the Ahl-Hadith Wahhabis, and in turn Braelwis call Deobandis Wahhabis. And to top it off, the Western neo-cons or the progressives call all of them Wahhabis! With an origin inaccurate, with usage incoherent, and with connotations divisive and slanderous, is it not time to bury this term, once and for all?


Some of the blog readers I polled provided good thoughts. Here are some uses of the term Wahhabi that I was able to compile. Of course the list will fall far short of the copious use of this term (practically by everyone for everyone). As you go through it, you will likely see some common themes, and perhaps a common thread. However, the common thread and themes affirm my hypothesis that the usage is driven more by a hatred of Islam’s practice at any level, than a real ideological affront.

Muslim Usage (I use the term Muslim loosely)

· Let me preface the discussion with an old report from the dictatorship of Uzbekistan, whose president may have been more worthy of the gallows than Saddam was for his rampant human rights abuses and mass murders. According to Igor Rotar of Keston News Service, in the wake of a visit between 15 and 20 May (2002), to the Uzbek city of Bukhara, the Uzbek authorities are not simply not opposing the spr ead of the Naqshbandi order but, on the contrary, are doing all they can to support it. “In Soviet times it was even more dangerous to be a Sufi than simply to be a Muslim – the police got rid of such people right away,” the imam- hatyb of the mosque next to Naqshbandi’s mausoleum, Bobodzhon Rahmonov, told Keston on 16 May. “But now we do not have any problems with the state. For example, the chairman of the state committee for religious affairs, Fazil Sobirov, belongs to the Naqshbandi order. Moreover, we are working with the state to show people how wrong the Wahhabi outlook is. We explain that the building of mausoleums in honor of holy Muslims – something the Wahhabis oppose – is not against Islam.” The Law on the Exercise of Religion, promulgated on May 1st of 2003 states: “The wearing of prayer garments in public, such as the Islamist veil for women, is forbidden.” “There are beards and beards,” says Shoazim Minovarov, deputy chairman of the government’s Committee on Religious Affairs, who describes the more copious facial hair of Islamic fundamentalists as emblems of revolutionary zealots. According to reports by human rights groups, during the broad waves of anti-Islamic repression in 1992 and early 1998 a full beard could be enough to get a man arrested. So, for Islam Karimov, Wahhabis represent anyone that practices his religion properly.

· A young teen sister from ‘Musings of a Muslim Mouse” communicated a thought she considered un-intellectual, however, the simplicity of this thought provides deep insight: “I don’t have anything intellectual to contribute, just personal experience – my father runs an Islamic centre (well, he used to, in our old city – we moved a few months ago and now he’s running a small Madrasah for kids), and many people who didn’t like what he said and taught called him ‘Wahhabi’ – simply for saying things like, pray 5 times a day, give zakaah correctly, fast properly in Ramadan, cancel your vacation to Disneyland and go for Hajj instead, women should wear correct hijaab, men should grow their beards, everyone should follow the Sunnah!” As you can see, what Islam Karimov terms as Wahhabis is similar to what this sister’s father ran into. Well, at least he is safe in the non-Muslim Canada versus the “Muslim” land of Uzbekistan.

· Abdal-Hakim Murad is particularly vitriolic about the “Wahhabi” bogey-man. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, instead of giving a fair chance for investigations of who was responsible, etc., he did what the rest of the neo-cons did, blame “Wahhabis”. In his article here, he pointed to the great wisdom of Kabbani that was duly ignored by America. I wonder what he wanted the government to do. Arrest the leaders of 80% of America‘s mosques, which Kabbani claimed were run by Wahhabis? Abdal-Hakim’s hatred for certain Muslims is unfortunate (even if he doesn’t agree with their methodology); instead of discussing the root-cause the fanaticism and the terrorism (i.e. Israel & other injustice upon Muslims), he chose to attack Muslims. Br. Usama Hasan (son of Suhaib Hasan) tears down Abdal-Hakim’s arguments in this article.

· The Sufi Yursil commented on the blog that anyone who didn’t think the Ottoman Empire was legitimate and deserved a rebellion, is a Wahhabi. So, by this logic, a “non-Wahhabi” could technically be one who follows “Qur’an and Sunnah” without a madhab, as long as he believes that the Ottoman Empire was illegitimately removed from Arabia. In other words, Yursil claims the historical context, rather than ideological. The Sufi, Waqf Ikhlaas, books seem to agree, as seen in this article on the web. Other historical accounts of Wahhabism discuss Sh. Abdul Wahhab as the cornerstone of this movement. That may sound obvious since the term bears the Sheikh’s name, but the fact is that the ideological front is the more popular basis for the term’s usage.

· “Sheikh” Abdul-Hadi Palazzi of the Italian Muslim Embassy also considers pretty much all mainstream Muslim organizations and Sheikhs to be Wahhabi. In this article, he talks in length his love Israel, and his denunciations of Wahhabis in India (Deobandis), Saudi Wahhabis, MSAs (according to him, a student branch of Muslim Brotherhood- a Wahhabi movement). On his website, completes article devoted to Wahhabism, including one especially for Sh. Qaradawi.

· AICP, the organization run by the Habashis (Ahbaash), a recently created deviant sect in the Muslim world, has a little video speech on google, fire displayed in the background as the speaker spews hatred, and poison on the fictional “Wahhabi” group. Interesting how a group, considered deviant (see here and here) by the majority of the Muslim world, is attempting to revile other Muslims!


· LotaEnterprises blogger reports that Stephen Schwartz basically calls anyone who isn’t a follower of Hisham Kabbani or Shia, as being Wahhabi. Mr. Schwartz, a convert to Sufism (Islamic Sufism or just ‘plain-old Sufism’??) has a website, where he runs a “Wahhabi-watch” section. The list is expansive including CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, MAS, MSA… hmm, what’s left? Oh yes, the Islamic Supreme Council of Kabbani. What a joke! Here is an article where he points fingers at Yusuf Islam, Hamza Yusuf, and Siraj Wahhaj, another one here more at Hamza.111CCC

· Robert Spencer’s Jihad-watch website is mostly directed at a “Wahhabi-hunt”. Like Schwartz, there is hardly anyone that isn’t Wahhabi. Here is the CAIR-hunt, here is the ICNA, ISNA, MSA-hunts.

· This list would be remiss without the addition of Daniel Pipes. He is Schwartz’s partner in crime. Here is his attack on ISNA and CAIR.

· Of course, this list is never-ending, other examples include O’Reilly, Krauthammer, Glenn Beck, Steve Emerson, etc.

· There is certainly not any certainty about who leaked the Obama-madrassa connection, but the story doesn’t end there. In fact, this “madrassa” may have been “Wahhabi”. Wow! Wahhabis are becoming a great political power, even though they don’t technically exist.

· Yasir Qadhi recounted a recent incident where during the course of a conversation with a very high ranking government official, this official mentioned ‘wahhabis’. When Yasir asked him to define this term, who did HE mean? He said, ‘Aren’t those the guys that want to establish the Sharee’ah?’ And that should give readers an idea of the ignorance of this issue even among the elites of America.

“Objective” Sources (Encyclopedias, etc.)

· Wikipedia has some interesting info. on Wahhabism. They claim this ‘movement’ is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. Interestingly, they also mention that Wahhabis are also known as Deobandis in Pakistan. Here I would like to quote an interesting note from Ingrid Mattson, who still unfortunately refers to Wahhabis as something of a real thing, but at least she makes an attempt to be reasonable:
“This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had (been) acquired over the centuries. Because the Wahhabi scholars became integrated into the Saudi state, there has been some difficulty keeping that particular interpretation of religion from being enforced too broadly on the population as a whole. However, the Saudi scholars who are Wahhabi have denounced terrorism and denounced in particular the acts of September 11. Those statements are available publicly.” [CNN interview]

· Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition):“Members of the Wahhabi call themselves Al-Muwahhidin, ‘Unitarians’, a name derived from their emphasis on the absolute ‘oneness of God’ (tawhid). They deny all acts implying polytheism, such as visiting tombs and venerating saints; and advocate a return to the original teachings of Islam as incorporated in the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions of Muhammad), with condemnation of all innovations (bidah). Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence based respectively on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah and on the legal school of Ahmed ibn Hanbal, stress literal belief in the Qur’an and Hadith, and the establishment of a Muslim state based only on Islamic Law.”


· BBC Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, in his analysis on ‘Wahhabi Islam’ takes exception to Deobandis inclusion in Wahhabis. He reminds everyone that even Saudis don’t use the term.

· Obviously I am not the first one to take a crack at the term’s (“Wahhabism”) usage. Haneef Oliver has written a book, aptly named “The Wahhabi Myth”, and runs a website with the same name. The main theme in the book seems to be distinguishing Wahhabis (he equates them with Salafis) from the terrorists, rather than attacking the term itself. Nevertheless, there seems to be useful information in the book/website. However, Br. Oliver carries some of his own baggage with a narrow-minded “Salafi” approach, so “buyer beware”.

· PBS has a few different people talking about Wahhabism, including the Saudi Shia-dissident Ali al-Ahmed, who says that Saudi Wahhabis say that they will be the only ones entering heaven, all others are kafirs. I guess Ali got some special information that no one else has yet been privy to!

Copyright information: Feel free to distribute article as long as it is properly credited, and a link to the original article is provided.

Acknowledgements: Yasir Qadhi, Ruth Nasrullah, and Omar Usman for reviewing and providing valuable comments.

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Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").


Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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History and Seerah

Podcast: Five Historic Events That Rocked The World During Ramadan | Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter

We all know that Ramadan is the month of fasting, abstinence and reflection. Ramadan also just happens to be a month of awesome history defining events that shaped the world we live in today.

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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Prosperity Islam And The Coronavirus Problem

Hadith: “Hasten to perform good deeds before seven events: Are you waiting for poverty that makes you forgetful? Or wealth that burdens you? Or a debilitating disease or senility? Or an unexpected death or the False Messiah? Or is it evil in the unseen you are waiting for? Or the Hour itself? The Hour will be bitter and terrible.

Islam encompasses all of human experience. We believe in the good and bad from divine decree. The ‘problem of evil’ is not a Muslim dilemma because the abode of this world is a test, and the next life is the abode of recompense. Those who do evil in this world may enjoy comfortable and pleasurable lives. Pious Muslims on the other hand may live in immense suffering and oppression.

One’s state with Allah is not known through worldly position.

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

The Quran has lots of mention of suffering in this world and the reward for the pious is constantly in the hereafter. Distance from the Quran distances us from what our Creator told us about living in His world.

Habituation to feel-good religious programs and motivational talks has left us unable to know how to be serious. The Coronavirus pandemic should be all the motivation we need for serious learning and hasten to good deeds.

New-age religion and the prosperity gospel

Modern Islamic discourse intertwines notions of sulook (spiritual wayfaring) with new-age spiritual ideas which make spiritual progression a self-centering endeavor of ‘personal development.’ Missing from this discourse is submission to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), which entails doing what one is obliged to do- even if there is no apparent personal win. A self-centering religious perspective is antithetical to true religion, and ironically a spiritual pursuit becomes a selfish pursuit.

Within this approach, we see our practice of Islam not in terms of fulfilling obligations or understanding we must develop virtues we lack; rather we approach Islam as consumers and form identities around how we choose to be Muslim. This is visible on marriage apps where Muslims will brand themselves around how often they pray, whether or not they eat halal, and how practicing they are. Once this identity is formed, such Muslims are less likely to experience contrition and ultimately improve. The self is then a commodity on the marriage market.

When it comes to worship, for example, giving charity becomes an ‘act of kindness’ to fill the quota of selfless acts to becoming a better person. In other instances, acts of worship are articulated in worldly language, such as fasting in Ramadan being a weight-loss opportunity. One can make multiple intentions, but health benefits of fasting should not be used to articulate the primary benefit of fasting. In other instances, some opt to not pray, simply because they don’t feel spiritual enough to pray. This prioritizes feelings over servitude, but follows from a ‘self’ focused religious mentality.

Much like the prosperity Gospel, Muslims have fallen into the trap of teaching religion as a means of worldly success. While it is true that the discipline, commitment, and work ethic of religious progression can be used for material success, it is utterly false that religious status is on any parallel with material status.

Too many Sunday schools and conferences have taught generations that being a good Muslim means being the best student, having the best jobs, and then displaying the power of Islam to non-Muslims via worldly success and a character that is most compliant to rules. Not only does this type of religion cater to the prosperous and ignore those suffering, it leaves everyone ill prepared for the realities of life. It comes as a shock to many Muslims then that bad things can happen even when you work hard to live a good life. The prosperity gospel has tainted our religious teachings, and the pandemic of COVID19 is coming as a shock difficult for many to process in religious terms. There will be a crisis when bad things happen to good people if we are not in touch with our scripture and favor a teaching focused on worldly gains.

Why it leads to misunderstanding religion

Tribulations, persecution, and events that are outside of our control do not fit the popular self-help form of religion that is pervasive today. Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self. An Islam that focuses on our individual life journey and finding ourselves has no room for the ‘bad stuff.’ This type of religion favors well-to-do Muslims who are used to the illusion of control and the luxuries of self-improvement. Those who believe that if you are good then God will give you good things in this world will have a false belief shattered and understand the world is not the abode of recompense for the believer.

Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self.Click To Tweet

Tribulations may then effect faith because it questions the often subconscious teachings of prosperity gospel versions of Islam that we are in control of our own destiny, if we are good enough we will succeed. If this is the basis of a person’s faith, it can be proven “wrong” by any level of tribulation. Having one’s ‘faith’ disproven is terrifying but it should make us ask the question: “Does this mean that Islam is not true, or does this mean that my understanding and my way of living Islam are not true?”

My advice is do not avoid struggle or pain by ignoring it or practicing “patience” just thinking that you are a strong Muslim because you can conquer this pain without complaint. Running from pain and not feeling pain will catch up to us later. Learn from it. Sometimes when we are challenged, we falter. We ask why, we question, we complain, and we struggle. We don’t understand because it doesn’t fit our understanding of Islam. We need a new understanding and that understanding will only come by living through the pain and not being afraid of the questions or the emptiness.

Our faith needs to be able to encompass reality in its good and bad, not shelter us from reality because, ultimately, only God is Real.

Unlearn false teachings

Prosperity religion makes it much easier to blame the person who is suffering and for the one suffering to blame himself. As believers we take the means for a good life in this world and the next, but recognize that acceptance of good actions is only something Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows, and that life is unpredictable.

Favor from God is not reflected through prosperity. It is a form of idolatry to believe that you can control God or get what you want from God, and this belief cannot even stand up to a distanced tragedy.

Responding appropriately requires good habits.

Tribulations are supposed to push us towards God and remind us to take life very seriously. Even with widespread calamity and suffering, many of us still have a very self-centered way of understanding events and do not hasten to good actions.

For example, reaching old age is supposed to be an opportunity to repent, spend more time in prayer, and to expatiate for shortcomings. Old age itself is a reminder that one will soon return to his Lord.

However, we see many of today’s elders not knowing how to grow old and prepare for death. Most continue in habits such as watching television or even pick up new habits and stay glued to smart phones. This is unfortunate but natural progression to a life void of an Islamic education and edification.

Similarly we are seeing that Muslims do not know what to do in the midst of a global crisis. Even the elderly are spending hours reading and forwarding articles related to Covid-19 on different WhatsApp groups. This raises the question of what more is needed to wake us up. This problem is natural progression of a shallow Islamic culture that caters to affluence, prosperity, and feel-good messaging. Previous generations had practices such as doing readings of the Quran, As-Shifa of Qadi Iyad, Sahih al-Bukhari, or the Burda when afflicted with tribulations.

If we are playing video games, watching movies, or engaging in idle activities there is something very wrong with our state. We need to build good habits and be persistent regardless of how spiritual those habits feel, because as we are seeing, sudden tribulations will not just bestow upon us the ability to repent and worship. The point of being regimented in prayer and invocations is that these practices themselves draw one closer to God, and persisting when one does not feel spiritual as well as when one does is itself a milestone in religious progression.

While its scale is something we haven’t seen in our lifetime, it’s important to recognize the coronavirus pandemic as a tribulation.  The response to tribulation should be worship and repentance, and a reminder that ‘self-improvement’ should not be a path to becoming more likable or confident only, but to adorn our hearts with praiseworthy qualities and rid them of blameworthy qualities. Death can take any of us at any moment without notice, and we will be resurrected on a day where only a sound heart benefits.

Our religious education and practice should be a preparation for our afterlife first and foremost. Modeling our religious teachings in a worldly lens has left many of us unable to deal with tribulations to the point where we just feel anxiety from the possibility of suffering. This anxiety is causing people to seek therapy. It is praiseworthy for those who need to seek therapy, and noble of therapists to give the service, but my point is the need itself serves as a poignant gauge for how much our discourse has failed generations.

Benefit from Solitude

We should use solitude to our benefit, reflect more, and ponder the meanings of the Quran.  Completing courses on Seerah, Shamail, Arabic, or Fiqh would also be good uses of time. What should be left out however are motivational talks or short lectures that were given in communal events. In such gatherings, meeting in a wholesome environment is often the goal, and talks are compliments to the overall atmosphere. When that atmosphere is removed, it would be wise to use that normally allotted time for more beneficial actions. Instead of listening to webinars, which are not generally building an actual knowledge base that the previously mentioned courses would, nor is it a major act of worship like reading and reflecting upon the Quran. In other words, our inspirational talks should lead us to action, and studying is one of the highest devotional acts.

The pandemic should serve as sufficient inspiration and we need to learn how to be serious. I urge Muslims to ignore motivational and feel-good lectures that are now feel-good webinars, and focus on studying and worshipping. We should really ask if we just lack the capacity to move beyond motivational lectures if we still need motivation in the midst of a global pandemic.  The fact that after years of programming the destination is not the Quran for ‘processing events’ or studying texts for learning is symptomatic of a consciously personality oriented structure.

Muslims struggling to process a pandemic (opposed to coping with associated tragedies, such as loved ones dying or suffering) show the lack of edification feel good talks can produce.

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