Path to Islam : Suhaib Webb

Coming from America's Bible Belt to the halls of Al-Azhar, this young imam wants to combine the best of both worlds in Islam.

By Farzina Alam
From Egypt Today

Born in the USA

Now in his third year of study at Al-Azhar, Webb has a growing following among American and British Muslims. But he wasn’t always Imam Suhaib Webb. Once upon a time he was William Webb, born in 1972 to a Christian family in Oklahoma, where his grandfather was a preacher. “I had a lot of trouble accepting God as a human being or creation,” he recalls. “Even as a young child I would ask my mother questions. Suddenly, God is one of three instead of God just being God. So I became a little confused. How could the prophets before Jesus go to heaven if they couldn’t worship Jesus? If [the criteria for heaven was] worshipping and recognizing him as a deity and [as] the key to paradise?”

At 14, Webb went through a spiritual crisis. By then he had become a gang member. “Although I came from a middle-class family, I went to a rough high school,” he says. Deeply entrenched in the 1980s hip-hop community, Webb worked as a DJ.

“Hip-hop was more of a social movement than it is now. Now it’s all, ‘I got girls, I got some nice gold, nice car, I’ll kill you and I love my mamma.’ [Back in the] ‘80s and ‘90s, there was more of a sociopolitical, almost Afro-centric feel, which was kind of laced with the teachings of Islam due to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.”

Webb credits this as his first exposure to Islam. “There was always a feeling among the hip-hop community and among inner city African-Americans and the whites that mix with them that Muslims are correct, and Islam is the true religion. Malcolm went that way so it must’ve been right.”

He got his first copy of the Qur’an at age 17. “I read the Qur’an for three years in the restroom because I was scared my mother would pulverize me if she saw the Qur’an in her house,” he says, his eyes growing wide. “It was a big deal!”

Once in college, his life became further intertwined with gang violence, culminating with his involvement in a drive-by shooting. That, he says, was a wakeup call. At the height of his material success as an artist, “I was completely empty inside and spiritually dissatisfied. I felt impoverished on an internal level.”

At age 20, when most freshmen in college were joining fraternities and spending the year drunk on dormitory lawns, Webb made the shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith, recited at the moment of conversion).

“You’re a Westerner, Brother!”

The interview is interrupted several times as visitors wander through Ibn Tulun mosque doors. Imam Suhaib greets them all. When addressing me, he keeps his eyes on the floor. He knows the mosque quarters well: When a man approaches to ask where the fatwa office is, he gives directions without a pause.

For him, converting to Islam wasn’t enough. In one year, Webb will finish his studies at Al-Azhar, adding a formal degree to his already formidable accumulation of religious knowledge: He spent 10 years studying with a Senegalese scholar and memorized the Qur’an under his guidance. He has studied with well-known sheikhs in the US and United Kingdom, and traveled to Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia to learn more. Egypt has been the first place in which he has dropped anchor.

The Muslim American Society sponsored Webb’s move to Egypt in an attempt to cultivate leaders among American Muslims and deal with a crisis facing modern Muslims in the West. In a country where about 85 percent of non-African-American mosques are led by foreign-born imams, scores of religious leaders are confronting a community they do not understand.

“We felt that the youth were very confused when dealing with imams [sent from abroad], who are not really able to understand where the youth are coming from. They don’t even speak the language at times. At times, they even exhibited behavior that is reprehensible for us in the West, like in their understanding of women and their role in the community. [] We had a hard time swallowing that, so we felt we needed some local expression.

“The quality of the [imam] is that he should have knowledge of the religion and knowledge of the place in which he articulates his views. There was a need for indigenous scholarship and articulation in America — so in order to do that, we had to sponsor people.”

There are 8-9 million Muslims in America, but Webb counts only nine or 10 Americans at Azhar with him. “It’s scary because if you take all the students of [Islamic] knowledge in Syria, Saudi, and Africa — probably only 100 [American] students are out there studying, with a mere handful going back.”

But it isn’t merely the imams who are to blame for this gulf of misunderstanding, he says. “The problem is also the communities these imams from abroad land in. If those communities don’t engage that imam and don’t encourage him to branch out into society, then you have problems.”

As a Western convert to Islam, Webb has found himself in an unusual position: smack in the middle of East and West. Coming to terms with the responsibility such a position holds isn’t always simple. “As Western Muslims, we have a complex when we deal with the tradition. [In the sense that] we are told that traditional Islam is the savior for everything in the West. But I don’t buy that Our job as Western Muslims is to synthesize and articulate a Western Islam.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. The Malaysians articulate a Malaysian Islam. The Pakistanis love biryani; the Arabs hate spices and the Africans like a mix. We in the West, because of the society we live in, because of the way our society moves, we cannot just merely regurgitate sixth- or seventh-century texts and try to answer the crisis of humanity. Our job is to fuse both.”

As a convert, knowing what aspects of East and West to adopt or reject is also a challenge. “I have to engage the tradition first, understand it, then what I learn from the teacher, I have to translate into my experience as a Westerner. And I shouldn’t be ashamed of that.

“We have a lot of brothers and sisters who convert to Islam who experience crises in dealing with modernity. What brought sovereignty to women and urbanization is modernity, what brought management — we don’t have any management here — is modernity.

“At the same time spiritually, I have issues with modernity. The absence of God, the absence of a creator. The outcome of modernity was basically Hitler and Mussolini, but we can take just the good. I felt that I didn’t want to lose my identity as a Westerner. I don’t want to start speaking like,” and he adopts a fake Indian accent for a moment, “‘Hello, my name is Suhaib from Oklahoma.’ I meet brothers who go through this crisis. I meet people who don’t want to dress like a Westerner — why not? You’re a Westerner, brother! The Prophet rarely asked people to change their dress or their names unless their names meant something really bad.”

Webb believes converts in the West have not really come to grips with this fusion. “Our job as Western Muslims is to learn our religion well, to have an understanding and articulation that’s balanced within the confines of our environment, because we represent a reservoir of prophetic guidance to the West. And the West represents a reservoir of material guidance for us.” The trick, he believes, is knowing how to fuse the two.

“All of us, whether you like it or not, here [in the East] we are representatives of the West; [over] there, we are representatives of the East. Although I’m definitely not Eastern: My hair is blond, my eyes are blue. But immediately people assume I have experience with the East because I’m Muslim.”

While in Egypt, Webb is equipping himself for a return to the States, where he will try to bridge the gulf he believes Western Muslims experience. “I feel I have a long way to go. I’m still in the beginning. What I’m learning here is very theoretical, I learn a lot more when I go back to my environment and I can thematically relate what I study here here it is hard for me to contextualize.”

Interviewer: Hisham Al-Zoubeir

Q: As-salamu `alaykum wa rahmutullahi wa barakatuh. On behalf of DeenPort, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed and benefiting our visitors. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to Islam?

A: Before I start, I want to thank the brothers and sisters at DeenPort for this opportunity. I hope our brothers and sisters will take time to utilize DeenPort as a means for increasing their faith and identity.

In my early years I found that my ideas pertaining to God, Prophets and the Unseen were very much in agreement with Islamic principles. However, in my early teens I became frustrated with my inability to find those who shared my ideas. Thus, I turned to a life of crime, drugs; the whole '50 cent Tupaq gangster utopia'. After some time, I became a successful DJ, made a few records and had it, as they say, "Going on."

However, I was very empty on the inside and my heart began to cry out. A great scholar said, "The heart is in need of Allah, more than the stomach is in need of food and drink." Finally, I met some Muslims, asked questions and found myself reading and studying Islam. Al-Hamdulillah, I accepted Islam at the age of twenty after three years of study. I would say the number one motivator for accepting Islam was the Qur'anic message pertaining to the uniqueness of our Creator.

Q: You did not just convert to Islam, but set out to learn the deen. What were your motivations and circumstances for doing so?

A: I would describe my life prior to Islam as out of focus. After investigating Islam the main message that struck me was the focus on Allah. "I have not created the Jinn and humanity except to worship Me." Thus, the more I learned the more I understood that learning was a catalyst towards increasing that focus with Allah. As Ibn Abbas said, "Any thing you learn that fails to increase your khushu' (reverence) for Allah was done so for pride." And Allah says, "Indeed it is only the learned from (Allah's) servants who venerate Allah."

Q: What books have most influenced you and why?

A: I hope that by writing this I will not be labeled. But, inshallah I must be honest.

* The Qur'an and the great work of tafsir by Imam Al-Qurtubi (ra). Also, the recent tafsir of Shaykh Dr. Wahba Al-Zuhayli.

* The Forty ahadith of Imam an-Nawawi (ra) and Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali's (ra) commentary.

* Any book on Maliki and Shafi'i Fiqh. I'm currently reading an interesting explanation of Ibn 'Ashir with a Shaykh.

* Any book related to Nahu, Sarf, Balagha, or poetry. We are currently studying the explanation of Ibn Aqeel in Azhar and I'm really enjoying it.

* The books of hujjat-al Islam (the proof of Islam) Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (ra).

* The Hikam of Ibn Ata'illah al-Iskandari (ra).

* The works of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (ra) .

* The works of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (ra) .

* The works of the Shaykhul- Islam Sidi Ahmed az-Zarruq (ra).

* The works of Imam Hasan Al-Banna (ra).

* The works of Syed Hawa (ra) .

* The writings and speeches of Malik Al-Shabaaz (Malcolm X) (ra) with a primary focus on
him after his conversion to Ahl-Sunnah.

* The works of Shaykh Abdul Fatah Abu Ghuda (ra).

* The works of Shaykh Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (May Allah preserve him).

* The works of Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah (May Allah preserve him).

* The works of Shaykh Dr. Ali Jumma' (May Allah preserve him).

* The books of Dr. Tariq Ramadan, particularly 'To be a European Muslim' (May Allah
preserve him)

Q: What people have most influenced you (dead and alive) and why?

A: * The Prophet (saw) and his (saw) companions (ra).

* Fudayl bin 'Iyaad (ra) (x-gangsters love x-gangsters).

* Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (ra) (never scared to asked questions and move forward).

* Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (ra) (He was able to combine the best of two great schools).

* Hasan Al-Banna (ra) He has one statement that has always touched me. When asked why
he failed to write a large number of books, he responded, "I wrote men."

* Malik al-Shabaaz (Malcom X) (ra) (It is that x-gangster thing again).

* Jamal Badawi (He is one of the few people who I've seen who lives by his words, may
Allah preserve him).

* Siraj Wahaj (He has always given the youth his time and wise council, may Allah preserve him).

* Amr Khalid (Just listen to his cassette on the love of the Prophet and you'll know why, may
Allah preserve him).

* Shaykh Abdullah Hamoud (one of my teachers from Yemen).

* Shaykh Abu Mustafa (my first sheikh and teacher).

* My father Dr. Webb. (He has an amazing mind and a great work ethic).

* The 'Ulema of Azhar whom I've met since my arrival to Cairo.

Q: You have left the United States for the time being to study in Cairo. Could you tell us why? Tell us more about al-Azhar, and what you think the place of al-Azhar will be for the Muslim ummah for the future.

I left because of my lack of knowledge and reverence for Allah. I found, in the States, that there were many things that I needed to work on inwardly and outwardly. For that reason I decided to set sail and head for Al-Azhar. I chose Al-Azhar because of its respect for traditional sciences with a look towards the future. Unfortunately it has become the habit of the Muslims in the West to blast Al-Azhar; forgetting the hadith of the Prophet, "Speak well or remain silent."

However, I would like to say that Al-Azhar is alive and well. Our program of study, in the high school system, covers 11 subjects including memorization of the Qur'an and Hadith. We study most of the major mutn with the focus being on grammar, rhetoric, and morphology as well as fiqh according to one of our Sunni legal schools. Although I am a Maliki, I study Shafi`i fiqh at al-Azhar itself and Maliki fiqh with an Azhari scholar outside of class time.

Azhar's role in the future of the Ummah is one of great concern. I think the greatest question it is wrestling with is how to take the traditional method of study and apply it to a trans-modern reality? If it can answer that question, then I think with people like Shaykh Ali Jumma' and others, it will continue to impact the Muslim world in a positive way.

Q: What do you think are the major challenges facing Muslims in the 'West', as an American Muslim of the 21st/15th century?

A: I think we face a number of challenges. Since 9/11, however, I think the greatest challenge we are wrestling with is our understanding, application and definition of traditionalism. How is it that a people who live in the most advanced society materially are unable to harness those advances and move forward, and are instead arguing over issues which have remained unsolved by our greatest minds for the last 1000 years? Thus, instead of allowing the dynamics of Islam to push us towards creativity and dynamism, we are still dwelling on issues whose conclusions are many.

I think this is a symptom of our lack of understanding the goals and objectives of our faith, as well as a lack of identity. If we are unable to define ourselves in our current reality, then the only escape is to head towards the past and rehash identity affiliations of days gone by. Thus, instead of realizing our role with our current societies and opening up organizations which will serve as catalyst in spreading our faith, we are busy arguing about the essence of Allah's attributes, the meaning of certain verse of Qur'an, and secondary fiqh issues.

On the other hand we are witnessing a complete rejection of our tradition and the interpretive devices passed down to us in order to answer the challenges of the Trans-Modern reality. Again, this will lead us astray as a people without a past are a people without a future. Thus, and Allah only knows, I think we are going to go through some major growing pains in the next decade and it would be safe to say that all types of extremes will appear within our ranks. Thus, by holding on to our traditions with an eye to the future, we can stay balanced and pass through the difficult storms that lie ahead.

If you look carefully, you've already seen this developing with the recent call for our sisters to take the mantle of Imam. Anyone with a grain of sense would have seen this a long time ago. And if our communities would have answered the simple request of our sisters for better facilities and a say in the community, this current trend would have lost its voice a long time ago. However, our lack of knowledge and inability to synthesize our tradition with our own reality is allowing for more and more of the extreme to have a voice.

My second major concern is that there is a lot of finger pointing within our community as to who is to blame for our current situation. I hope we will come to the realization that there are a large number of factors that lead to the creation of the extremism that has lifted its head amongst our Ummah. Therefore, it is important to criticise each other and offer advice, but I would like to see it done with the correct approach and adab.

Imam ash-Shafi'i (may Allah have mercy upon him) lamented over advice that was given in the public arena in a famous poem. Instead of using newspapers, web sites, and magazines to release worthy frustrations, I would like to see more direct contact and interaction amongst our leaders. Paper and pen can appear very cold, but warm smiles and sincere council can, inshallah, bring hearts together and increase respect.

My last concern, and I'm rambling, so I ask your visitors to excuse me, is that we don't break away from the international Ummah. In trying to define who we are and what we are. Although it is important for us to develop our own identify, it is equally important that in doing so we keep our bridges open with our brothers and sisters from other lands. I'm very concerned that our scholarship might move towards an isolationist mentality and cut the vein of relations with our great scholars in others lands.

On the other side of the coin it would be great if our non-Western Muslim scholars would discuss their ideas about the West with our own scholars before issuing religious rulings in the future. It is well known that the conditions for a fatwa are two:

1. Knowledge of the faith

2. Knowledge of the place

It would be great to see someone like Dr. Sherman Jackson on the European Fatwa Council and Dr. Tariq Ramadan on another. I think that in this current age of globalization and mass communication explosion there is a great opportunity for cross cultural scholarship to develop and have an important impact on the Ummah.

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