Labels and the Insensitive Sheikh

I’ve always hated labels. But certain labels tend to annoy me more than others. The terms  “salafist” and “fundamentalist” are two such labels that make me roll my eyes at their blatant inaccuracy.  The ideas that are propagated by these so-called salafists are vastly different from what was practiced by the actual salaf (which translates to predecessors or early generations). The term “fundamentalist” has come to imply ideologies that diverge dramatically from the actual fundamentals of Islam. And yet, these labels are used with seemingly no qualms by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Case in point: when I first announced that I was going to be taking a class at the Dar el-Iftaa of al-Azhar University, I was warned that they were all salafis. I was asked: Wouldn’t my knowledge be better served by readings books that I could choose for myself, rather than having a salafi sheikh project his views onto me?

Ironically, the issue of labels was raised during that class when the Sheikh made a seemingly derogatory comment about salafis. In response to a question by one of the students, the Sheikh said “I don’t want to hear any of this salafi speak”. He explained that he hates these labels just as much as we do, and he understands how inaccurate they are and how labels such as “salafi” and “fundamentalist” paint a negative picture about the earlier generations of Muslims and about the fundamentals of Islam. The actual “salaf” – the early generations of Muslims – did not equate between non-observance of the hijab and kufr (a term generally used in Islam to refer to someone who does not recognize the onness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, and is thus outside the folds of Islam). Similarly, the fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence in no way equates non-observance of prayer with kufr. In fact, according to traditional Islamic scholarship, a person is a Muslims as long as (s)he believes in the shahada (there is not God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet), regardless of whether or not they practice the Sharia. However, according to the Sheikh, current so-called salafi or fundamentalist groups equate the Sharia (practice of Islamic rules) with Aqida (adoption of the Islamic faith). Unfortunately, the Sheikh said, these labels have now become a reality, especially in the field of research [which is the field we are studying].

What should be and what actually is are two completely different things, and as researchers we must operate from a context that represents reality.

Personally, I’m not quite sure if I agree. Isn’t it this very attitude that has resulted in the normalization of these terms? Isn’t it this very non-resistance to their usage what gave credence to their ideas? On the other hand, I see what he means about operating from a realistic context.

He continued that we must acknowledge these labels and understand what they represent so as to avoid falling into the traps of the ideas they have come to represent. At this point, the Sheikh started addressing an older woman who does da’wa in a non-Muslim country. Her and her daughter are both students in the class. He remarked that she has the heavy burden of doing da’wa in a non-Muslim country, and that she has to be careful that often in non-Muslim countries because Muslims are under so much pressure they tend to fall into the trap of believing that the ideas propagated by so-called salafi groups actually represent the true Islam.

“By the way,” he said, “I actually found that your name pops up a lot on salafi websites, both yours and your husband’s, so I’m worried about you!”. The woman just smiled wisely and said “don’t worry about me Sheikh”, seemingly aware of how condescending that statement sounds but willing to let it slip for the sake of the class. Her daughter, however, tensed up immediately. The Sheikh didn’t say what he said in a condescending tone, in fact, it sounded as if he was genuinely just trying to give her advice. But if it were my mother he said that to, I would have been annoyed to tbe point of offense. This man doesn’t know them, he doesn’t know how they think or what their life is like. Just because he did an internet search he feels he has the right to advise this woman on how to do her job? Sure, he is a scholar of Islam,  and he is our teacher, but his job is to pass on the knowledge he has, not pass on his personal opinions, and definitely not to question those of the students!

The daughter had had it. She interrupted the Sheikh’s speech telling him that the use of these labels is incorrect and that they actually don’t use these labels in their country (the non-Muslim country where I mentioned the mother does da’wa), so he does not have the right to use these labels to describe her family. These labels, she said, are divisive in a time where unifying the ummah should be our top priority, especially in a non-Muslim country where having a strong Muslim community is vital to the Muslims living there. She was offended, and I was offended on her behalf and proud of her for speaking up. The Sheikh kept trying to interrupt her to defend his point, but she wouldn’t have it and insisted on finishing her point first. The room was peppered with nervous laughter as the other students started saying she had misunderstood and that the Sheikh didn’t say that at all.

Perhaps they were right, but if so she’s not the only one who misunderstood, I also felt that he had crossed a line by implying that this woman might “fall into the traps of the salafis”. I must point out that in no way do I belittle these so-called traps, for they are very real and I have personally seen people slowly but surely drift away from the mainstream middle path and gravitate more and more towards the extreme. But nevertheless, it is not his place to say what he did, definitely not in front of the entire class and especially keeping in mind that this woman is his elder, even if she is his student.

I could tell the daughter was embarassed at the prospect that she may have misunderstood the Sheikh and been too harsh in her tone. But hey, at least she has the knowledge that she spoke up to defend her point of view despite the looks of disbelief on the faces of almost every student in the class, and the Sheikh himself.

July 27, 2009 - Posted by | Islam, Personal


  1. Labels are misleading in general. In fact labeling ourselves or others is a means to imprison ourselves and keep everyone else out and away.

    When it comes to Salafi traps it is quite difficult to escape them as in so many cases the boundaries are so blurred that you can’t really know when you cross them. Rather than watching out for boundaries, I prefer seeking to understand the basic principles that constitute the core of an Islamic thinking. Weighing any idea against such principles you may judge it to be truly Islamic or not. It won’t matter then whether such Idea is labeled as Salafi or Fundamentalist, or even secular. It is Islamic as far as it falls within the web of an Islamic view of life and beyond.

    Comment by Tamer Mowafy | July 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. The ironic thing is that if we want to check what ‘salaf’ had done, we’ll discover that it was applying the principals of Islam which I see today missed today in almost everything.

    Comment by Hicham | August 2, 2009 | Reply

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