The need for constructive discussion on tariqa problems

The last few weeks have seen an upsurge in attacks on shaikhs on various blogs, particularly on Umar Lee’s site and Salafi Burnout. It all started with Umar’s post about so-called Rand Institute Muslims and particularly Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, but the “discussion” quickly moved on to the subject of Shaikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoobi and Shaikh Nuh Keller, with a number of angry messages left on those two blogs, and a few on mine back in January and early February, mainly criticising the way Shaikh Nuh and some of those around him handle the personal affairs of students in Kharabsheh, the district of Amman where the shaikh’s zawiya and the Qasid Arabic school are located, and which is home to a number of western students.

The accusations included that Shaikh Nuh, or those around him, encourage divorce among their followers, to the extent that there had been some thirty couples divorcing in the past year or so, and that some were on their third marriage, among other things as summed up in this extract from an article posted a little over a month ago at “Salafi Burnout”:

Nuh Ha Meem Keller is hated by many because he is a sufi. This is wrong. He should be despised because he is a cult leader who has ruined the lives of many people. His aqeedah is not the big problem. Spying, money scams, sex scandals, a very high divorce rate, ruined families, children abandoned by their fathers, are all part of a normal day with Nuh Keller. His wife and her friend decide who marries, who divorces, and when and how. Women who are divorced are put through a gossip campaign to ruin them in their hometowns. They are notorious with the sufis for the number of people they have driven to insanity in their underground zikr cells and with their mind games.

Their friend Ms Hartford is supposed to be the premiere marriage counselor and yet she’s on her third marriage. That passes for success in Keller world. Women are taught to submit completely to their husbands and to sacrifice their dignity for his pleasure. If you leave Keller or piss off his wife and her friend, you are shunned. This means that you lose all of your friends, some people have lost their jobs, and they spread gossip about you all over the world. A favorite gossip is that you are crazy. Keller spreads poison about the other shaykhs of the sunni Muslims, saying that he is one of the only true shaykhs.

“Salafi Burnout”, a term popularised in the mid-1990s by Abdul-Hakim Murad, referring to fanatical “salafis” giving up and becoming irreligious, is a blog which largely consists of some guy’s bitter rantings about Muslims, and although he started out by reposting material from Umar Lee’s blog about the “salafi” movement in early 2008, by the end of last year he had moved on to mocking hadeeth and he has joined in the Sufi-bashing which started on Umar’s blog with some gusto. The post from which that extract came has 195 comments at the time I wrote this; a second post attacking Shaikh Nuh has 14 (two of them mine). What all of them have in common is that they are posted by people who do not give names - at least, not full names - and that the accusations are usually unspecific.

For example, one of those who posts repeatedly calls him- or herself “Ex Kharabsha” and gave this example of his alleged “antics”:

It was at a non tariqah event in the UK that was organised by Muslims that he was invited to where he and another person were acting quite ridiculously in public view. It could have been 2006, not 2007 or 2008.

So, no place, no description of the event, no proper description of the behaviour, and he or she can’t even pin down what year. What case is there to answer?

Some of the claims are not even about things which are unlawful in Islam. It’s not unlawful to have two failed marriages; it’s just a sad fact of life and that is why divorce is lawful in Islam. The claim that sister Hidaya Hartford has supposedly said that she would leave her husband if he took a second wife, even if it’s true, is irrelevant as this is also perfectly valid, as long as it was written into their marriage contract. Polygamy has always been a common cause of Muslim marriages breaking down, and I cannot count the number of times I had been told by sisters, while discussing possible marriage with them, that they wouldn’t tolerate it. A few years ago I saw a post on a blog by a Muslim sister castigating men who threaten their wives with it as a means of shutting them up or winning an argument. It causes a lot of distress to some women. No doubt some of these complainers (particularly the women) would be complaining more if sidi Ashraf did take another wife and Ustadha Hedaya just had to put up with it.

A lot of the other complaints are not valid, in my opinion. The rules on hijaab, particularly as regards female tariqa members who are expected to wear niqaab when in Syria and Jordan, are things which should be known before you leave home. Many of the women want to wear hijab, and in a community of religious Muslims, some of whom face pressures not to cover when in their home countries, it is entirely appropriate that proper hijab is not up for discussion. As for Shaikh Hamza Yusuf not speaking out despite supposedly disapproving of the Sufi tariqas, Shaikh Hamza is associated with the Hadrami Ba’Alawis who dispensed with the bay’ah system found elsewhere in the Muslim world several centuries ago. If he had found reason to disapprove of Shaikh Nuh’s behaviour, then surely he would say so rather than whisper it in people’s ears so that they could pass the whispers on.

I should add that there is only so much that Shaikh Nuh, and even Ashraf, Hedaya and Umm Sahl (Shaikh Nuh’s wife) can do to run the lives of a whole village full of students. The students are adults, after all, and back home they would not have Shaikh Nuh, or anyone else, looking over their shoulder. The community is probably too big, a product of the fact that it is the first stop for any English-speaking Muslim wishing to take a Sufi tariqa; the number of shaikhs, of any tariqa, who speak good English is not that many, and the number of well-known ones is probably in the lower single figures. It is much less easy for students to get quality time with the shaikh than it was earlier on, even when I took the tariqa in 2001. I should add that such contact is less important in the Shadhili tariqa than in some other orders, such as the Naqshbandiyya, in which the personality of the shaikh is an important focus. The important thing is the wird, and people have progressed in the tariqa while living thousands of miles away from the shaikh, and even without telephones and the Internet.

I am inclined towards giving the shaikh the benefit of the doubt, not least because nobody has seen fit to give full names, and because details of things which have happened have been rather vague. I still have some suspicion that some of the accusations are coming from “salafi” mischief-makers, not least because some of the comments posted to my blog came from Calgary, a notorious “salafi” hotbed with little or no tariqa activity. Still, the tone and content of some of them, and the use of words like “tariq” (rather than the usual feminine form, tariqa), suggest that some of them are from genuinely disgruntled ex-tariqa followers. The claims about police harassment of students is something that my sources also corroborate, although that is not Shaikh Nuh’s fault. In the past, Amman may have been an ideal base; today, it is much more overcrowded than it was in the 1990s, due to the presence of so many refugees.

If this is so, we need to talk about this in a civilised fashion rather than posting slander from behind pseudonyms on other people’s blogs. We can’t lecture non-Muslims about “civility” when they break our taboos about depicting the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and then be highly uncivil when talking to or about each other on a public forum (and non-Muslims do read them, and even contribute as I’ve seen at “Salafi Burnout”). Most people who take the tariqa from Shaikh Nuh, or anyone else, do so because they want to join a relatively progressive religious community which is free of Deobandi-Bareilawi baggage and yet maintains Islamic orthodoxy, and would not want to remain in a circle which was cult-like, let alone one in which people were being abused or having advantage taken of them.

If there are serious problems in the community at Kharabsheh, they need to be discussed openly rather than with accusations made in a shrill fashion on a blog run by a bitter ex-salafi. After all, the traditionalist-revivalist movement associated with Shaikh Nuh has done a lot of valuable work for Islam; it offers religious practice and orthodoxy while accommodating some modern attitudes and customs, and turning its back on old, pointless disputes. It cannot be allowed to break down amid bitterness and recrimination. These problems, if they are real, need to be rectified, not allowed to fester.

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