Retelling our history as a Tall Tale

American folklore has its share of tall tales. Paul Bunyan and his Ox Babe, John Henry and his hammer, etc. All are retold as first person narratives, even though each has wild exaggeration and unbelievable elements. Quite recently I was forwarded an academic essay on “The Salafis in America” by Shadee Elmasry. While I never met the author, the fact that his resources include people known as fabricators and apostates, indicates he’s off to a bad start. Reading it, I was so taken aback by its litany of half-truths, outlandish fantasy and outright lies, that I felt the author was writing fiction masquerading as academic research. I will in spite of this, give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his essay is at best, poorly researched.

Indeed, I find it surprising given his relative young age (35), for him to be expounding about people and events that took place as if he were an eyewitness, when at the time he was no more than a toddler. But then, such is the essence of tall tales and political myth.

Take for example, his claims at the beginning of his essay, where he elaborates on the start of Al-Hijra magazine. “The theology was outlined quite clearly for English readers in Al-Hijra magazine in 1983. Syrian businessman Abdullah Makkawi began circulating this publication on the East Coast with the title: “Tawhid, Ittiba’, & Tazkiyya”…

As a former editor of Al-Hijra, I can say Elmasry’s claims are filled with fantasy and half-truth. Elmasry makes up factoids based entirely on what he gleans from dubious sources, who had little if any interaction or familiarity with Al-Hijra’s history and staff. Abdullah Mekkoui was not a ‘Syrian businessman’ as Elmasy alleges. Abdullah Mekkoui was a Lebanese chemical engineer who along with a group of Arab students in Syracuse NY, helped start the original Arabic Al-Hijra magazine in approximately 1983.

It was not until 1985 when Al-Hijra adopted an English language format who’s staff included, Abdullah Mekkoui, Jamil Pavlin, Abdul Rahman Congreve and Umar Treziez. I and Imraan Hossein (not the sufi one) joined the editorial staff in 1986, by which time Al-Hijra had moved from Syracuse to first Elizabeth and later to Newark, NJ where it was the official organ of Dar Al-Hadeeth. By the time Elmasry was seven years old, Al-Hijra had become a respected, multi-page journal with a global readership.

Al-Hijra magazine

Elmasry’s claims regarding the title is also inaccurate. The title was always Al-Hijra, with the subtitle, “Dawah for tawheed – ittibaa’ – tazkeyah”. Why didn’t Elmasry, a NJ native, simply taken the time to consult with Dr. Jamil Pavlin himself at Rutgers, who would have provided Elmasry with the facts? Indeed, I find it very revealing that he didn’t consult with Dr. Jamil Pavlin and chose instead sources known as unreliable. Esmasry cites forty-six references in his footnotes, yet the bulk of his narrations come down to two people, both with unreliable reputations.

Elmasry states that Bilal Philips was “the first Westerner to enroll at the University of Medina” and that Abdullah Hakim Quick was “the first American graduate, 1979.”  While Elmasry did interview Abdullah Hakim Quick, he apparently failed to inquire or pursue those Westerners who studied in Medina and elsewhere before Bilal Philips’ time. Umar Abdul Hakim and Sh. Khalid Yasin from NY were two of them. Likewise, this could have been verified simply by consulting Sh. Khalid, Dr. Bilal or Dr. Abdullah themselves. Elmasry further claims that “applicants needed to have some experience with the Arabic language and have a leaning towards Salafiyya”. This is simply not true. Many students came to Medina with little to no experience with the Arabic language or exposure to Salafiah. The blame here of course is with Elmasry’s unreliable chain of narrators.

Elmasry’s reliance on third-hand sources (one of whom has a reputation as a fabricator and another who apostatized from Islam in 2013, only to return a month later) for much of his information results in both insulting as well as hilarious errors. For instance, Elmasry claims that I “now run the Al-Huda School in Maryland”. Absolutely false. I’m sure Al-Huda’s staff will find Elmasry’s claim eye-opening when they see it. He also claims I was in Medina, “for two years.” Do the math, I was there from 1986-1989 and have the documents to prove it. He then claims that Khidr Lawrence “stayed fifteen years studying at the College of Hadith.” Had Elmasry simply made the effort to consult with Sh. Khidr himself or others from the same college (like Abu Salman Eberly), he would have seen that the alleged “fifteen years” is a tall tale exaggeration. Elmasry also repeatedly misspells various prominent names, which further suggests reliance on third-hand information. Hardly the cornerstone of scholarship.

He later refers to the now defunct IIASA (Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America) as “a University of Madina satellite school.” Wrong. First, he incorrectly uses the word ‘Studies’ instead of ‘Sciences’, in explaining the IIASA acronym. Secondly, the IIASA was never a satellite of the Islamic University of Medina, but rather was a branch of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh. Elmasry’s error is akin to someone mistaking USC for Harvard.

Additionally according to Elmasry, Dr. Jafar Idris founded SAS (the Society for Adherence to the Sunnah) and Ali Al-Timimi (who’s name Elmasry repeatedly misspells) founded Dar Al Arqam! Again Elmasry relies on third parties for details. Dr. Jaafar had little to do with founding SAS while Dar Al-Arqam was founded by several different people. He then alleges, “The communities of East Orange, New Jersey and the Virginia/DC area were the “Mecca and Medina” of Salafiyya in America.” How on earth does he reach such a conclusion?

Indeed, his conclusion is an oversimplification and unjust half-truth. He makes no mention of the individuals, organizations nor communities in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Boston to name a few, not to mention Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean! Based on his essay, one would assume that the bulk of American Salafis are either in East Orange, NJ or Northern Virginia!

Elmasry also makes a claim that due to what he calls a “civil war” between NJ Salafis, “the Salafi da‘wa was hijacked and broken for good.” He is apparently referring here to the neo-Murjia fitnah imported mostly from the UK in the late 1990s, that affected some inner city Muslims.

Yet more importantly, he makes no reference to the sweeping nationwide jailing, persecution and deportation of daiees in the aftermath of 9/11. Nor does he say anything about the systematic shutting down of various Islamic organizations who adhered to the Quran and the Sunnah, while subsequently replacing the organizations and leaders with people labeled “traditionalist”, “moderate” and “mainstream” (as if Salafiah is somehow NOT traditionalist, moderate and mainstream). All this strongly contributed to the resulting landscape one currently finds in America. Why did he not mention it?

Of course such details are not likely to be mentioned since they underscore the reasons why Sufi, modernist and even heterodox elements were overnight transformed from fringe groups to ‘mainstream Islam.’

In the end, the saddest part of this is that Shadee Elmasry’s essay appears in an academic journal. Meaning it will be used as a recurring reference for scholarly research. Imagine if you will, the National Enquirer and the Onion being used as references for a scholarly essay? Who would believe it and what types of mythical conclusions would result?

You don’t have to imagine such an outlandish possibility. It already exists. We’re not talking the tall tales of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill or John Henry. The tall tale is entitled, “The Salafis in America: The Rise, Decline and Prospects for a Sunni Muslim Movement among African-Americans”.

wa salam