What Role Does Culture Play in Islam?

Question: Could you please clarify what is the view of Islam regarding different peoples maintaining their native character and mentality, and being proud of them: I mean not in a bad way, which denies validity of other peoples, but simply appreciating what they have been given and cultivating it as their unique heritage? Does really Islam ultimately deny value of native, ancient heritage and cultivating it in terms of that which does not go against Islamic principles, like decent folk songs and costumes, symbols and distinctive, irreducible mentality and world-view? I ask this because I see that for many of my compatriots this is a major obstacle for accepting Islam: they might actually, perhaps partly unconsciously be considering Islam as something alien to our mentality, coming from distant Arab lands, suitable for Arabs; so they might see accepting Islam as a kind of treachery towards this ancient heritage, which additionally is already on the brink of extinction thanks to globalization, modernity and so on. However, I feel that it cannot be true – it is Allāh that created all the different peoples with their peculiarities as a sign from Him, not to be ignored and destroyed, and Islam is intended for all of those people.
I will truly appreciate any qualified suggestions and clarifications.

Answer: Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah. Please see below.

Maxim Five: Custom has the weight of law. (Taken from Dr. Umar Abd-Allah’s ‘Living Islam with Purpose.’)

This maxim is the theme of the Nawawi Foundation Paper “Islam and the Cultural Imperative,” which illustrates the importance of culture in Islam and the imperative that Muslims in America create their own distinctive indigenous culture.55 The maxim “culture has the weight of law” affirms that Islam is not culturally predatory, and it teaches Muslims to look upon all cultural heritages with an open mind, especially those where they live and to which they belong.


Once, a group of Ethiopian converts began to dance with drums and spears in the Prophet’s mosque in celebration of an annual Islamic festival. The Companion ‘Umar attempted to stop them, but the Prophet intervened and urged them to continue. In one Hadith, he said to them: “Play your games, sons of Ethiopia, so that the Jews and Christians know that there is flexibility (fusḥa) in our religion.”57 By this and similar acts, the Prophet set the precedent of affirming cultural differences and made it clear that, for non-Arabs, entering Islam did not require them to give up their own cultural norms for those of the Arabs.

The Qur’an revealed the following verse to the Prophet on the eve of his migration to Medina, where his legislative activity began.

It establishes several primary legal principles, acceptance of culture being one of them: “Accept from people what comes naturally for them; command what is good by custom; and turn away from the ignorant without responding in kind” (Qur’an 7:199). The Prophet’s attitude toward ethnic and cultural identity provides an example of the application of this verse. He did not destroy the indigenous cultures and subcultures of pre-Islamic Arabia, rather he lived in harmony with them, correcting what was unsound and repealing what was degenerate. Perhaps, the best example of the Prophet’s accommodation of Arabian subcultural norms was his practice of propagating the Qur’an in the seven principal dialectical variations (aḥruf) of Arabic. Throughout Arabia, the Arab tribes understood the Meccan dialect of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, which served as the linguistic standard for all. The Prophet’s use of the seven dialectical variations was not a necessity; it was a respectful gesture toward the Arab tribes, which acknowledged the integrity of each tribe’s cultural identity.

The Prophet’s attitude toward the cultural norms of the Arab tribes and other ethnic groups constitutes a major precedent and a basic standard in Islamic law. Because the Prophet gave broad endorsement to diverse cultural conventions and did not alter them except when necessary, Abū Yūsuf, the principal student of Imam Abū Ḥanīfa, regarded Islam’s openness toward other cultures as the Prophet’s Sunna. Abū Yūsuf’s position contrasts sharply with certain Muslims today who regard the Sunna (narrowly defined as certain details of dress and personal behavior) as a substitute for culture.

Islamic legal theory regards sound cultural norms as constituting an independent and authoritative source of Islamic law. The noted Ḥanafī jurist al-Sarakhsī stated: “Whatever is established by good custom is equally well established by sound legal proof.”

Al-Tusūlī, a prominent Mālikī judge and legal scholar, wrote: “It is obligatory to let people follow their customs, usages, and general aspirations in life. To hand down rulings in opposition to them is gross deviation and tyranny.”

The word “custom” (ʿāda) as used in the maxim “custom has the weight of law” refers to acceptable cultural norms. Jurists define their usage of the word “custom” as “matters that are firmly established in practice and frequently repeated in people’s lives and acceptable to sound natures (al-ṭibāʿ al-salīma).” Reference to “sound natures” is linked to the Islamic belief that human beings are created with sound natures; humans are intrinsically good and endowed with basic intuitive knowledge of God, good and evil, benefit and harm. In a normative state, human beings adopt cultural norms suitable for themselves and the particular circumstances, times, and places in which they live. Thus, the basic purpose of cultural conventions is to obtain benefits and ward off harms to the furthest extent possible in widely divergent contexts. From the perspective of Islamic law, the nature of indigenous cultures and subcultures is fundamentally linked to the wellbeing of the social groups that have adopted them. For this reason, Muslim jurists regard Islam’s endorsement of diverse cultural norms as an instance of its overriding commitment to acquiring benefits and protecting from harms.

Cultural conventions make up a fundamental part of identity and have a strong hold over people accustomed to them. Islamic law acknowledges this reality and expresses it in the form of the legal maxim: “Custom is second nature” (al-ʿāda ṭabīʿa thāniya).

Customs are so deeply ingrained in people that it is difficult to distinguish them from their intrinsic natures. Therefore, it is all the more wise, from the standpoint of the law, to leave customs unchanged insofar as possible. Changing customary conventions unnecessarily is detrimental, because of the strong connection between customs and societal needs. When unhealthy customs must be altered or repealed, the process requires wise strategies and must be given time. Here again, the Prophet’s example sets the precedent; he brought his Companions into full compliance with Islamic norms gradually through a process that lasted more than two decades.

Some Muslims challenge the validity of indigenous customs by citing the Hadith mentioned earlier: “Whoever imitates (tashabbaha) a people belongs to them.” As noted, the Hadith condemns the servile imitation of others; it does not condemn healthy cultural interaction or the mere act of resembling (tashābaha) other people.

The value of such interaction is especially clear when it is done for laudable reasons like living with others harmoniously and building bridges of understanding and cooperation. Furthermore, it is indisputable in the light of a body of authentic Hadith that the Prophet himself often wore various types of non-Muslim clothing that were given to him as gifts from Byzantium, Yemen, and other distant regions.

When introduced to this maxim, “custom has the weight of law,” some American Muslims have anxieties about which indigenous customs are acceptable and which are not. In certain cases, their response reflects the culture of inhibition in which many of them grew up and the general presumption of prohibition common to that culture. It should also be noted that the word “culture” has taken on a pejorative meaning for many Muslims in America, especially those who come from immigrant families. For them, the word “culture” is often associated with the old world folkways of their parents, certain aspects of which they may deem to be “un-Islamic,” in conflict with American norms, or otherwise unacceptable.

“Custom has the weight of law” cannot be invoked to repeal what is clearly obligatory or prohibited in the Prophetic law, and the law categorically repudiates detrimental and degenerate customs.

But, as has been seen, Islamic law takes an open-minded attitude toward customs in general, and, when judging cultural norms, it prefers to err on the side of leniency and not rigidity. The presumption of permissibility also applies to indigenous customs; customs too must be presumed acceptable until proven otherwise. A relevant maxim states: “Permissibility is the basic rule in customs” (al-aṣl fi al-ʿādāt al-ibāḥa). As before, the burden of proof that a particular customary convention is impermissible falls exclusively on those who repudiate it, not on those who affirm it. Nevertheless, in borderline cases, the law prefers to err on the side of lenience. The applicable maxim in this regard states: “The basic rule in customs is exemption” (al-aṣl fī al-ʿādāt al-ʿafw), meaning that they are exempt from blame.

Accommodation of indigenous cultures made it possible for Islam to lay indigenous roots wherever it spread on the continents of Africa and Eurasia. Muslims learned new weights and measurements.

They adopted and enriched local languages. In addition to the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims adopted solar and astral calendars to determine the seasons and the best times for planting and harvest. They designed distinctive styles of dress; the long onepiece garment (thawb) and many other items of clothing that some Muslims today call “Sunna” are largely cultural products and differ significantly from the dress of the Prophet and his Companions. Muslim cultural genius is still reflected in simple things like the ways they receive guests and prepare food and in grand things like their achievements in regional styles of art and architecture.

Throughout the pre-modern period, local expressions of Islam bore witness to indigenous cultural creativity. When Islam entered Indonesia, Muslims found that the standard Islamic call to prayer (adhān) did not always serve its purpose. The human voice could not carry well in the dense Indonesian rain forests. Muslims adopted the local cultural convention of communicating through “talking” drums. They preserved the Sunna of making the prayer call but complemented it by using enormous drums, which they hung horizontally outside their mosques and beat loudly to call people to prayer. The deep, hollow sounds of the drums resonated through the forests. The drumbeats signified that the place from which they came was empty and needed to be filled; they stopped what they were doing and came to prayer.

In many parts of Indonesia, Muslims worked in rice paddies and came to the mosques with muddy feet. Instead of repeatedly reminding the rice farmers to clean their feet before entering the mosques, indigenous architects constructed shallow pools in front of the mosque entrances. The farmers could not enter the mosques without walking through them, which cleaned their feet. But the standing water in the pools created the potential hazard of becoming habitats for mosquitoes and other insects. So the pools were also used tobreed carp; the fish ate the insect larvae, and the people ate the fish.

In speaking about creating an indigenous Muslim culture in the United States, it must be emphasized that such a culture would not be a single, monolithic whole, nor would it necessarily develop along the lines of the dominant culture or any particular subculture.

American culture, like human cultures everywhere, is not a single uniform entity. It is a complex of many diverse cultures and subcultures coexisting. They complement and compete against each other and have the same relation with the dominant culture of the mainstream. Endorsement of American culture means being open-minded toward all the multiple expressions of the indigenous cultural heritage. As emphasized before, the maxim “culture has the weight of law” disallows outright rejection of any of cultural or subcultural legacy; the maxim allows American Muslims to adopt or to adapt what they like from what they like as long as it is not detrimental. Our attitude should remain consistent with Islam’s default position that customs are presumed to be permissible, beneficial, and good until proven otherwise; in borderline cases, we have recourse to the maxim “the basic rule in customs is exemption.”

In traditional Muslim societies, creative adaptation of indigenous norms was conspicuous and often more beneficial than mere adoption of them. Likewise, American Muslims need not be content with just adopting good cultural norms; it is often better to adapt them imaginatively in order to produce results that are more beautiful and more beneficial than what existed before. In this regard, noteworthy achievements have already been made in areas like music, poetry, comedy, journalism, fiction, non-fiction, fashion, and interior design.

One of the most significant cultural challenges before American Muslims is to design truly indigenous styles of American mosques. The American mosque should not have a single set form. As stated above, American culture is multiplex; American mosques must reflect that complexity and suit the localities and neighborhoods where they are built. Several North American Muslim communities have made laudable efforts in this direction already.

Throughout history, Muslim mosques have been the products of regional cultures and subcultures. Islam does not dictate a set design for mosques; the only necessary architectural element in a mosque is that it have an area for prayer. Some Muslims regard domes and minarets as essential features of the mosque. The Prophet’s mosque did not have a dome or minarets during his lifetime.

Domes and minarets were post-Prophetic cultural innovations in the Muslim world. The dome were a relatively late development in Islamic architecture; its design was created to allow for expansive prayer areas that were not taken up by pillars in an age when builders did not have access to iron and steel beams. Minarets were also later developments. They were ideal for making the call to prayer in an age without microphones, but they also had a second primary purpose. Just as lighthouses are beacons for ships, minarets were originally beacons for caravans. Bonfires were lit on the tops of the minarets after the night prayer to give distant caravans a point of reference. The name “minaret” reflects their original cultural function; in Arabic mināra (minaret) means “place of fire.” Muslims in China, Andalusia, and North and West Africa did not adopt domes or minarets, in part, because they did not suit their environments.

A mosque should fit in harmoniously with its surroundings. Historically, the design, structure, and landscaping of mosques were suited to local and regional architectural norms, topography, and climate. Mosques should not clash with indigenous tastes and styles; they should not appear out of place or give the impression of being foreign transplants. Like all architectural achievements, creation of American mosque styles requires artistic, technical, and cultural genius. At a time when secular architecture is the dominant norm, the Western mosque must be attractive and inviting by today’s standards yet readily identifiable as sacred space.

Related Answers:

Giving & Receiving Christmas Gifts
Partaking in a Thanksgiving Dinner: Permitted or Not?
Did The Prophetﷺ or Companions Partake in Poetry?
Listening to Islamic Songs with Musical Instruments
Denim Clothes, Saris, and Imitating The Unbelievers
Can Women Wear Colourful Clothing?
Women & The Workplace

Related podcasts and videos:

In Conversation with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: Islam and The Cultural Imperative
Mercy of Diversity: Cultivating Understanding Despite Difference (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)

Coping With Tragedy – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Coping With Tragedy – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Beyond the devastating physical effects of natural disasters, it is the emotional burden that can be the hardest to bear. Rebuilding our lives in the aftermath is often more difficult and taxing than riding out the storm itself. To overcome the challenges of impatience, anxiety and depression, the cornerstone of the rebuilding process requires deep spiritual effort, an effort which can begin by reminding ourselves what our religion teaches us about calamity. Join Dr. Umar Abd-Allah as he discusses how to cope with personal tragedy in this recording of Al-Madina Institute’s teleconference event.

To listen to this talk click here

See also videos of Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah at SeekersHub:

In Conversation with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: Islam and The Cultural Imperative – 10 Dec 2011

Dr. Umar Abd-Allah On Spiritual Guidance: Commentary on Ibn Ata’illah’s Hikam – 03 Dec 2011

Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: General Q&A session

Video: The Noble Character of the Prophet (pbuh) – Habib Kadhim in Montreal

Video: “The Noble Character of the Prophet (pbuh)” – Habib Kadhim in Montreal

MSA McGill , Ilm Foundation and collaborated together to host Habib Kadhim Al Saqqaf – a highly respected and prominent scholar of the Islamic sciences from Yemen – to present a series of talks over two days in the city of Montreal.

He honored McGill’s downtown campus by presenting a public lecture titled: ” The Noble Character of the Prophet (pbuh)” , where he encouraged modern Muslims to live up to the ideals of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings (pbuh) and his virtues in dealing with God and his fellow human beings.

Habib Kadhim was accompanied by Dr. Umar Farooq Abdallah , who introduced Habib Kadhim and gave some words of advice for the audience.

You can view and listen to the whole lecture in HD here.

For more information on Habib Kadhim and his Canadian tour:

MSA McGill website:
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Video: Continuity and Community: Eid al-Adha 2012 Khutbah – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Video: Continuity and Community: Eid al-Adha 2012 Khutbah – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah delivers Eid al-Adha 2012 khutbah.

Be Aware of your Breaths – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Be Aware of your Breaths – Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Transcribed by Sr. Shagufta Pasta

This is what living in breaths is about. It’s about being present in yourself, being present in the time that you are, in the place that you are. And not to live in another world of what I’m going to do this evening, what I’m going to do tomorrow, the things I want to do next year, or worrying about the past.

The ordinary human being is torn between all sorts of you could say, illusionary considerations. Feeling regret about things in the past, worrying about things in the past, living in the past, (reliving the glories of the past) or more frequently, we live in terms of the future, of things that we want to do, places that want to go.

The spiritual path is one of getting in the present moment, being where you are. Being aware of the situation you are in, being aware of yourself, your breaths and everything else about you. But also being aware of people that are with you, the needs of people with you. Being conscious of your breaths, that in every breath you take, there is a special destiny just in that breathing. You didn’t create that, God created that for you, you acquired it. So that has the spiritual effect of anchoring you in the present moment. Living in the present moment. Not living in your dreams, or your ideas or your fears or your expectations or anything else. That is really really important. That means also to be thankful for what you have now, instead of when I get this, when I go there, when this time is up, things will be so good. No. Where are you right now?

~Dr. Umar Abd-Allah On Spiritual Guidance: Commentary on Ibn Ata’illah’s Hikam – 03 Dec 2011, SeekersGuidance

Video: In Conversation with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: Islam and The Cultural Imperative

Video: In Conversation with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: Islam and The Cultural Imperative

DEC 10/2011 :: Full video of the discussion with Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah at SeekersHub on his article, “Islam and The Cultural Imperative” — — ( reading package for the “In Conversation” sessions can be downloaded here:… )

Recorded at SeekersHub (, a new Islamic learning centre in the Greater Toronto Area, committed to providing a wide spectrum of free learning opportunities and spiritual activities that are open and welcoming to all individuals.

For the latest on Dr. Umar Abd-Allah’s tour, please visit…

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Reflections from the SeekersHub Retreat: “I Want to Study to be an Islamic Scholar”

Reflections from the SeekersGuidance Retreat: “I Want to Study to be an Islamic Scholar” – Allah Centric blog


Last month, I wrote about the importance of ensuring access to Islamic knowledge to all segments of the Muslim community. At the conclusion, I requested assistance in raising $900 to help several brothers from inner-city Washington DC to attend the SeekersGuidance retreat in Tennessee. Alhamdulillah, within 10 hours, over $2000 had been raised and we had to turn several donors back.

I requested that the brothers who went to do a write up about their experience. The following post is a series of reflections from the brother who arranged the caravan from DC.

– Khuram

Our Experience

By M.R.K

Getting There

After plenty of stops and a late start, we were officially on the road. For the boys, it was a mostly sleepy car ride. We kept up the legal speed, feeling a bit anxious about possibly not making it in time for Jumu’ah (although we were travelers, we all wanted to check out the Jumu’ah khutbah at the Muslim Community of Knoxville). Our GPS estimated our arrival time as 3:00, but as it turned out, we didn’t have the right address locked into the system. After the adjustment, our ETA was determined as 1:00pm. Alhamdulillah!


The khutbah by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah was excellent. I was not sure what to think at first, as I had never heard Dr. Umar speak, but as he delved into the subject matter, I was fixed upon Dr. Umar’s words. He cited a Hadith Qudsi and started to speak about the importance of having a good opinion of God and of each other. He spoke about the Sunnah of being optimistic and greeting others with a genuine good smile and pleasant spirit. He spoke about the magnificence of Lady Khadijah (ra) as she comforted our beloved Prophet (saw) after the first revelation, having such a high opinion of him. Was there a recording? I can’t recall everything else but I sure wouldn’t mind a copy of the recording.. if there is one?

The Environment


As we headed up into the mountains after a brief lunch break after Jumu’ah, we made our last phone calls and sent our last texts. Back to the basics for a few days, masha’Allah. It would be different but welcome.

As Dr. Umar duly stated at one point, there was something about the environment which made the retreat really special and impactful. Perhaps it was the predominance of nature, starkly contrasting our normal urban or suburban surroundings, but he also gave us a bit of history behind the location—the fact that this was where the mighty Cherokee natives had once treaded, and that, according to oral history that he has heard straight from the source, there have always been Muslims in their numbers.

The Programming

It was nice to see that there was a well-organized schedule with two tracks set up, an adult program and a youth program, which would run concurrently (and sometimes include both youth and adults). The adult program was more intensive and focused on learning, while the youth had learning but also more time for recreation and physical activity. It seemed to work very well, as several of the youth, once realizing all that the facility offered, were looking forward to swimming, basketball, etc. (Br. Noman did an outstanding job at keeping things in order. Br. Irfan Shuttari did a great job working with our group as well. They all loved his great smile. May Allah reward those brothers for being so ready to facilitate things for us.)

Special Highlights: The Youth

With our group of young brothers from the same area, some of whom were not well-acquainted each other before the trip, a unique bond developed as they were taken from their familiar realm–where certain antagonisms might have lingered–into an unfamiliar environment. As ambassadors of DC’s inner-city, held together by common experiences, terminologies, and all kinds of other local quirks, not only did their internal cohesion develop–with petty hostilities being quickly squashed—but their relationships with others outside of their group also flourished. This because they were placed in an environment where their identity as Muslims was foremost in importance, before any other form of identification. Islam brought everyone together, from the folks in Tennessee to those from California, and others from Chicago, to our group from DC. The youth came to be known as “those DC brothers,” unique in certain ways but still woven easily into the circle of brotherhood and compassion that was shared and promoted by all the attendees. It was nice to see the connections being made between the youth. They spoke some universal youth language where, in one of my observations, they exchanged stories about slang, style, music, etc. and how each of these was approached differently in their respective towns and cities, yet they accepted each others’ differences with ease and brotherliness. In a word, it was awesome.

I sat in on a few of the youth sessions taught by br. Sa’ad Quadri—a wonderful brother and excellent teacher, masha’Allah—and was pleased to see our youth eager to raise their hands and answer questions. There is a look that I know from the youth, when they are focused. It is the look of the attentive student. They hang on to every word and absorb whatever is being presented; it is as if you can see them digesting the information. I saw that look on them at least once each day while we were there, masha’Allah.

Here are some other notables and quotables:

  • “When I took my shahadah, I felt like my iman was really high. But then after a while, it seemed like it got low. But right now, it’s back up again.” – Leo

  • After a period of silence and quiet contemplation, one of our youth, Giovanni, suddenly stated, “I want to study to be an Islamic scholar.” Although many of our youth have said the same at some time in some form or another, this time, it was stated by one of our youth who stands out for a few reasons. After a few conversations with him, it is plain to see that he’s been blessed with intelligence and an inquisitive mind. Also, he remains focused when his mind is set on something. There was many a time during the trip when he beat the others to congregational salah, lectures, etc., simply because his mind was set on it.

  • There was a moment during one of the “Nightly Reflections” sessions that, by itself, made the whole retreat experience worth it. Br. Sa’ad Quadri, in his very engaging style, was telling the youth about certain details of Paradise and the great sacrifices made by pious people in our history. At some point during the talk, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Wadi with a smile and a thumbs up.

  • Another one of our youth, Abdul-Jabbar, always a connoisseur of good times, simply had a great time. Jabbar can be extremely playful but cloaked underneath all of that is a real love for Islam, demonstrated by his consistency, his incessant questions when something is on his mind, and his ability to hold onto and popularize things Islamic (lectures, nasheeds, etc.), even when they are unheard of or unpopular. He was amped about being far away from home, all the way in Tennessee, having new experiences. “They love us down here,” he said at one point. “They’re gonna remember us as ‘those DC brothas’. We comin’ back next year?”

  • “I want to study under Shaykh Yahya.” This was stated at least 3 times by Nasir, who has gone on to post lectures of Shaykh Yahya on his Facebook account. At age 19, Nasir has seen a lot of violence and hardship in his life. He’s bright and has clear leadership potential, easily navigating through different groups of people. If he overcomes some of his current battles and actually commits himself to studying Islam, he could be a great asset in uplifting others who are struggling through circumstances in the inner-city.

  • During the retreat, there circulated the prospect of having a basketball game, potentially featuring some of the shuyukh and the youth. I’m not sure how it got started, but somehow it came after discovering that Shaykh Yahya Rhodus was once an accomplished basketball player. The youth got it in their minds that they’d be playing “the scholars”. The scholars were fortunately spared (just kidding)—the game never materialized due to a rain on Sunday during the intended time.

  • Can I get seconds?” This question issued from several mouths numerous times throughout the trip. The food was delicious and wholesome. Made even better by its zabihah-ness.

Highlights for Me

I personally benefited greatly from the whole experience. There were several moments in which I felt genuinely inspired. I don’t think I can even do justice in words. What I saw in the retreat was the great potential of the Muslim community:

  • How iman, islam, and ihsan can come together in a concrete way; a way that inspires and moves.

  • Great scholarship—scholarship sincerely focused on getting closer to Allah (swt)—radiates this closeness and propels others to follow suit.

  • Muslims can actually get along with excellent manners and good character learned from the example of our beloved Prophet (saw). Muslims can actually avoid arguments!

  • An environment of great scholarship, friendly Muslims, and nature can heal a suffering/ distracted heart and motivate one to be better and aspire to greater heights of one’s potential.

  • I can see the coming emergence of great scholarship, both male and female, in this country. This scholarship will, with Allah’s (swt) help and guidance, transform individual lives and bring communities into harmony with His will. They will be relevant and they will fit naturally into the tapestry of this land.

The Shuyukh: A Few Observations

The shuyukh were outstanding. What stood out to me the most about them was their shining character. They had not only great ‘ilm, but great adab as well. And their outward manners seemed only to reflect a great inward state.


Shaykh Faraz Rabbani seems to be very learned in fiqh and the spiritual path, and has an exquisite ability to frame and market ideas and break down big concepts into digestible bits that can stick easily in your mind (and in your notes). He also seems very humble and someone who you wouldn’t mind sharing your problems with, who you could trust to provide sound advice. Although he was not able to make it due to circumstances beyond his control (i.e., the authorities), I benefited much from his recorded lectures which were made specifically for the retreat attendees after discovering that he would be unable to be present.


Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah had a way of painting a picture with his words and then bringing you into the picture. I found him very inspiring. I listened very intently to his story of how, as a student in the 1960s seeking justice and Truth through revolutionary ideologies, he was strongly impacted by the Autobiography of Malcolm X (a book and a personage I’m very fond of), which moved him to embrace Islam as he saw the connection between “God” and “Allah” and realized them to be one and the same. Dr. Umar’s talks spring from a deep well of knowledge and wisdom. He knows what he’s saying and how to say it, and he feels what he says. He gave some very engaging talks on Aqidah and the importance of being strongly rooted in our beliefs, and his talks on spirituality were absolutely penetrating. As a plus, his lectures were often decorated with intriguing references to the histories of peoples, languages, and lands.


Shaykh Yahya Rhodus connected with our group on the first night. He had a very calm and kind demeanor which easily accepted our youth and he was very interested in them and their struggles. He joined us for lunch one day and was very generous with his time. Sitting in on a few of his lectures, I liked how he could draw, through his learning, reading, and experiences, connections of great relevance and insightfulness. I was also drawn to his concern for social ills and his urging fellow Muslims to start bridging gaps within our Ummah to serve those who are underserved. This resonated very well with me. The youth and I were blessed to see him in a recent visit to a masjid in VA.


Shaykh Omar Qureshi, a great mind with a very modest and humble demeanor, had those thorough slides that take big concepts and break them down logically into the most essential bits of information. You can’t help but want to jot down the info on each slide. One of his talks were on “Suffering and Divine Wisdom,” which effectively responded to the question—a question with flawed underpinnings—of why suffering and evil are allowed to exist by Allah’s (swt) will. He took an extensive article authored by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and extracted the main points. Subhan’Allah, you will not believe this, but just last weekend, one of the youth called me and told me that he was asked by someone, “Why does Allah let people do bad things, and if He knows they’ll do them, why does He punish them?”. My notes came to very good use, masha’Allah.


Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya surprised me. I was not able to sit, in full, in any of his classes, but that’s okay. On the last day, we were blessed with his presence at breakfast. To my surprise, he was very familiar with the realities faced by our youth in the inner-city. He knew the implications that an improper versus proper Islamic understanding could have on the youth. He was quite familiar with the narrow-minded trends that often plague Muslim communities in the inner-city. Asked about the differences of Muslims on certain issues, schools of law and why they should be respected, etc., he provided very satisfying answers with strong points and good examples that sunk in well. All with good character and a genuine interest in the youth, masha’Allah.


Shaykh Muhammad Mendes, whose classes I was unfortunately unable to sit in, struck me as a very kind scholar with a good understanding of Islam. When I was able to see him–in the gatherings that featured all the scholars–I saw him drawing connections and knowing very well how to provide context and articulate concepts with a very able vocabulary. He also composed an awesome nasheed poem entitled [?].


Shaykh Muhammad Alshareef, who I believe is also an imam at a Tennessee masjid, had a very intimate understanding of the Arabic language and a clear love for the Qur’an. He was genuinely passionate and committed to sharing whatever knowledge he has gained so as to benefit others. His talks were often decorated with intriguing stories from scholarly history and tradition, from which he would bring forth strong lessons to reflect on.


Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, with whom I took a class on SunniPath in the past, had a very able mind and spirit by which she could discuss a subject, explain its significance, and humble us in the process. She has a strong and critical mind and is plainly not a blind follower. She is dedicated to crushing some of the false barriers that we have erected between each other, whether based on race, class, flawed thinking, or anything else, and she also knows how to draw from our rich tradition and history to provide social commentary relevant to trends and challenges that surface in modern times. For example, she spoke about how females in Islamic history have often flourished in their circumstances without feeling “limited,” while interestingly enough, in the self-proclaimed land of freedom, women have seriously struggled with feeling (and being) limited.


The Story of One

One of our youth carried with him a very narrow view about what the correct belief and practice of a Muslim is supposed to look like. This is due to his association with Muslims who promote this narrow approach. In the first day, he almost immediately dismissed some of the participating scholars’ claims to scholarship simply because they had not studied under the few scholars he had been familiarized with and taught to revere. Besides that, unlike what he had been accustomed to, these scholars seemed to not flaunt their knowledge by quoting the Qur’an and ahadith in every other sentence. For him, it was a different picture of scholarship.


Masha’Allah, as the days passed, we had opportunities to sit down with some of the scholars, including Shaykh Yahya Rhodus and Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya. All of our youth were encouraged to ask whatever questions might be on their minds. Over time, and particularly on our last morning, I think it began to sink in that: 1) we have many knowledgeable scholars to benefit from in our Ummah; 2) these individuals have gone through rigorous training and have a very thorough understanding of the Deen; and 3) their understandings are, in fact, strongly rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This particular youth seemed to come away with a wider acceptance of Islamic scholarship and a preparedness to be less harsh when differences come up. A lot of times, whether we agree or disagree, we can find that our fellow believers are drawing from the same fountain.


Coming Home

Headed back to DC, we all jammed to a series of hits from Yusuf Islam’s “I Look, I See”. The boys really gravitated to that album; each of the songs carrying a simple yet very catchy style (several songs had to played twice upon request). We made a few stops for food, Salah, bathroom, and coffee, and hit a little traffic as we got close to home. As we neared home, Nasir stated, “I wish I could do this with y’all every weekend.” Adding further emphasis, and as if to clear any charge of insincerity, he went on, “No lie, I had a good time with y’all this weekend.”


I’d like to end with something that we experienced on our ride home. There’s a photo that we took which I’ve entitled “Endless”. It requires a bit of background. As we rode home, after a number of rounds of “20 questions”, there was a discussion that got started around what one should know about Allah (swt)—His qualities and attributes that should be recognized and remembered. In the midst of the discussion, one of the youth said, “He’s endless.” I responded, “Right. You studied this?” He said, “No,” and pointed out of his window to the scene in the photo. No lie. The youth can attest to it.

What is SeekersHub Retreat like? 6 Days in the Appalachian Mountains

What is SeekersGuidance Retreat like? 6 Days in the Appalachian Mountains

Sr. Whittni Abdullah shares 6 days at the SeekersGuidance Retreat in Cooker Creek Tennessee.

Day 1: We have Arrived


We have arrived…in the Appalachian mountains, in the heart of the Cherokee nation. We are exhausted. I’m not sure if this program should be called a retreat. The schedule is intensive with back-to-back classes that begin early in the morning before Fajr and end late at night after Isha. So the day basically runs from around 5am to 11pm, or is it 4 am to 11 pm? You know I had to digress from the schedule though, right? I do have a little one, after all. And I’m so happy to see that there are other mommies here with their babies, having to take walks outside to get the little ones asleep. There is babysitting though…but of course, I’ll be interrupting that so that Noora can get her nap, or else we will never survive this.

Alhamdulillah, it’s a beautiful place. Tennessee, or at least what I’ve seen from Knoxville and Tallico, is a great example of Southern hospitality. No matter who we bump into whether Muslim or non-Muslim has a friendly smiling face and kind words to offer, mashAllah. It almost makes me want to move here. Almost. It’s too country. So country that we had to drive an hour from the airport to get to this campsite that’s nestled in the woods, and I couldn’t find many places to shop besides old mom and pop stores that looked like they were on the brink of closing down if they hadn’t already, and Walmart….and those are miles away.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I like it here. And even though I cannot attend every session because I take my mommy duties seriously, I am blessed in that both my husband and mother-in-law are here, and can fill me in with notes on what I miss. That means you get the goods too! Well the gist of the goods inshAllah. Because I can hardly keep my eyes open to write this one entry. And I kind of feel like I’m cheating because I’m staying at a lodge 11 minutes away from the campsite with wifi. Oh well, I don’t think Noora and I would do too well in the bunks. We’d get voted out, Survivor Style, for sure. Then, no one would get any sleep. It’s better this way inshAllah.

I’ll have to fill you in with more later…(tomorrow), but I wanted to share one thought and some pictures with you from outside of my lodge. The thought: Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah reminded us very elegantly of the significance of the place where we are staying (Coker Creek, Tellico Plains, TN). It’s the heart of what was the Cherokee nation, a people that had Islam among them, just like the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. The point was that America’s roots were never too far from Islam. It’s nothing new, it’s been here all along, and it’s as much a part of American history and tradition as any other thing. Islam is part of the soul of America. And I’m not quoting; I’m generalizing. MashAllah. This is something I’m going to have to delve deeper into inshAllah–I’ve been inspired with another historical adventure!

As for the pictures…I found a flowering tree that I’ve never seen before. Does anyone know what it is? And my favorite part outside the lodge is the walking path made of cross-sections of trees. What a beautiful reminder of the natural path we are on to journey to our Lord.

Day 2: Trees may be some of the greatest teachers on the journey…

Today was the first day of classes, AND I went horseback riding and swimming. But we have to talk a little bit more about trees. There was a wonderful khatira from Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah today on the Moroccan scholar Muhammad ibn Ja’far ibn Idris al-Kattani al-Hasani al-Fasi’s Aqidat al-Najah (1857-1927). It’s a 19-line poem that talks about the essential beliefs in aqidah, and mashAllah, it’s so deep that we only covered like the first 2 verses, and that was enough to blow me away. The knowledge that we are getting here is so profound, there’s no way I could blog about it all, so we’ll just have to settle for snapshots of the day. Today we must speak of trees.

In the poem, Dr. Umar emphasized that Allah creates all things from nothing. And He constantly creates and re-creates and wills things to be in continuity until He wills otherwise. If He, azza wa jal, decided to stop this constant creative power, everything would not turn to dust. It would turn into nothing. He is the Only Necessary Being. He is Pre-Existent. And everything else is nothing. Subhanallah, I actually feel good about being nothing today. It’s a beautiful thing to think that you and I were chosen to be…for some reason, and we are not necessary beings. Subhanallah.

But that’s not what really grabbed me. It was Dr. Umar’s talk about becoming perfect in our existence, more pure in our existence–getting closer to the reason we were made–to worship and obey Allah. And how we perceive things is directly reflective of our hearts. Take for instance a tree. Most people just see a tree, and then they may begin to see signs of Allah being manifested in the tree. They begin their understanding from low to high. At one of the higher points, they may begin to understand the name of Allah, Ar-Razzaq (the Provider) through the existence of the tree, who provides. The tree gives us food, oxygen, shade, beauty, lumber, nourishment–just to name a few. It’s the tree’s job to be a provider. Subhanallah. And it does so unconditionally and willingly…and unceasingly until we chop its head off while its making its sujud (the roots). Subhanallah, where is our gratitude? To Allah and the tree? We can’t live without either one. Allah created the tree and it helps maintain our existence, though we don’t help the tree maintain its own existence in many circumstances. But before I get on my treehugging soapbox, the point of all this is that we must train ourselves to see beyond creation to see the Creator. The one with a more pure existence, a more pure heart, sees Ar-Razzaq first, and the tree second.

And this was just five-ten minutes into the whole talk, one of nine given today by different scholars. If you haven’t listened to any of Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah’s lectures, you might want to start. MashAllah, he has a lot of knowledge to share and a beautiful way of conveying it. I hope that I have done this poem and his explanation of those things justice. It wasn’t my intent to give you notes because I deeply believe that you need to have the first-hand, primary-source experience to get the right meanings of things sometimes, but I just had to talk about my newfound understanding of trees. I will never look at them again in the same way, nor will I think of this attribute/name of Allah in the same way. Now let me go hug my friend-provider-Abdul Razzaq, the Calliandra Surinamensis (thanks Jodi!).

Day 3: You are like the company you keep

Today was such a spiritually uplifting day. I feel that I’m receiving so much benefit here–from the sisterhood and brotherhood to the information from the lectures. MashAllah. Today I want to share snippets from a lecture from Shaykh Mohammed Mendes, entitled “The Qur’an on the Journey to Allah.” In it, he extolled a shaykh that I’ve only heard about fleetingly: Imam Ahmadu Bamba Al-Hasani (1854-1927), who was a descendant of rasulAllah (saws) from Senegambia, West Africa!!! I never knew there was an African descendent of the Prophet, mashAllah, and a pretty contemporary one at that!! We read an excerpt from his 1600-verse poem, Masalik al-Jinan (The Paths of Paradise), that is specifically on the recitation of the Qur’an and related matters.

Imam Bamba was a lover of the Qur’an. He called it his beloved (habibi), his imam (imami), and friend (khalili). He loved the Qur’an so much that when given gifts, he would only accept the Qur’an by hand. Every other gift was told to just be put down. MashAllah. And the lesson from this poem is that the Qur’an isn’t the gift that should be put down on our shelves to gather dust. We should take the Qur’an as our friend, because as the Prophet (saws) said, A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)

And this seems to be the theme of today. Surrounding ourselves with positive influences so that we become better. At first, I thought of this only in the concrete way–the friends I hug and invite over my house, but as Shaykh Mohammed Mendes reminded us: Who could be a better friend than the Qur’an who has every answer inside of it? Every remedy–everything we need to know? He said that many scholars have said that if you haven’t found the answer you seek in the Qur’an, you aren’t reading deeply enough. Subhanallah. The Prophet (saws) was a walking Qur’an. His character was the Qur’an. We are to follow his example, so we must also become Qurani-c.

He (peace be upon him) also said: “A good friend and a bad friend are like a perfume-seller and a blacksmith: The perfume-seller might give you some perfume as a gift, or you might buy some from him, or at least you might smell its fragrance. As for the blacksmith, he might singe your clothes, and at the very least you will breathe in the fumes of the furnace.” (Bukhari)

Would you rather have the perfume of Heaven or the fumes of Hell? Hmmm…the choice isn’t that hard intellectually, but putting into practice in a world of distractions seems to be. But let me share two new hadiths that I learned today, both from Aish’a (ra), though I don’t know their source (I’ll get back to you on that inshAllah–by the way, Aisha is the one who described the Prophet and his character as Quranic as well). She said:

“I’m bewildered at a man who has reached the age of 60 and hasn’t memorized the Qur’an.”

She then further said, “I’m bewildered at a woman who has reached the age of 20 and hasn’t memorized the Qur’an.”

So it’s time to get cracking. I turned twenty-six four weeks ago. But it’s never too late to make a new friend. And even if I never finish this newfound goal (as of today, no less!!) of trying to memorize the Qur’an, actions are by intentions, and Allah records a good deed as done even if one does not complete it. And He doubles the reward for those who struggle with Quranic pronunciation, too…so don’t think of the Qur’an as a burden or hardship–what a blessing reciting it will be for all those who struggle with Arabic!! And doesn’t everyone stumble a little at some point or another with Arabic? :)

Day 4: The company you keep

Alhamdulillah, today I got to go to every class except for two. Today had a big block in the middle of the day for rest (like 6 hours!!) because truly, no one here is getting much sleep with the company of blessed knowledge. In the classes, the theme of the company we keep was echoed again, and very interesting points about reciting Qur’an that I don’t think many people know. Or at least, they were things that I didn’t know. So that is what I’ll share with you today inshAllah.

Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya said that the company we keep, the environment, and whisperings are what distract us from the path of Allah. And company is not just physical. It can be digital, literary, visual. The books we read and the movies we watch are like sitting in the company of the author, director, and actors of the script at the state they were in when they were writing and acting it out. Subhanallah. That’s something to think about…No wonder one feels so rejuvenated after reading Al Haddad and Ghazzali–they were in blessed states! So imagine what being in the company of the Qur’an is! You are enjoying the company of Allah (swt), the Educator, the best company there is!!!

And Shaykh Mohammad Mendes in his continuation of the poem by Imam Bamba (ra) said that reciting the Qur’an protects and strengthens one’s eyesight. It allows one’s eyes to worship Allah. Even glancing at the Qur’an is a work of devotion. And the worship we do is not just for us–it’s for our ancestors and progeny. It helps them in the grave, and in the future. It lightens the punishment of the grave for your parents and forefathers, even if they aren’t Muslim. Subhanallah. It was great to hear this at a time that I’m really interested in my ancestry and how it has played into my being. I also learned that you are told to recite in Jannah and you ascend the levels of Heaven until you stop reciting, so the more Qur’an you know, inshAllah, the more you’ll ascend. So let’s not let another day go by where we don’t keep The Best Company and ascend!!!

Day 5: On Acceptance

Today has been a relaxing, but long day, so this message will be brief. But I’ve learned a lot about acceptance from all the teachers. For instance…

  1. We must accept the place that we are in life. We must accept the decree of Allah (swt) and His Wisdom in putting us in the particular situation we are in at this moment and time. We are nothing without Him. And He Wills all. Every good deed we do is a gift from Him. We must show gratitude in every situation.
  2. We must accept our faults and failures. It’s an honorable thing to be able to admit our wrongs. For we do not admit the wrongs, how can we correct them and find out what’s right? How can we turn to Allah and be forgiven if we don’t recognize our deficiency and ask for it?
  3. We must accept who we are. We have been given our parents for a reason, and it is from the Wisdom of the Creator. We did not choose them, nor did we choose our ancestry. Allah chose them and Allah chose us to journey on His Path to find our better selves–the person He always knew we’d become if we put some effort into our potential.
  4. We must always ask Allah to accept our deeds. Just because we do them, doesn’t mean they are accepted. Ali (ra), said, “Be more anxious for your works to be accepted than for them to be done, for no accepted deed is small”. This was a reminder from Shaykh Yahya Rhodus in our Perfecting Prayer class, and it is also written in Imam Al Haddad’s Mutual Reminding.

On a more practical note, we ascended Buck Bald Summit at maghrib (sunset) today, a mountain where we enjoyed a 360 degree panoramic view of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. We prayed maghrib on top of the mountain and made dhikr with the trees and grasses out in the open. It was a beautiful experience, mashAllah. And there were even some Christians on the mountain who joined in our dhikr at the end. Subhanallah. May Allah move their hearts and guide them. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow is the last day. I almost never want this retreat to end, though I know the real test for me will be implementing what I’ve learned back at home. Please pray for our success and acceptance of our ibadah, and our continual ascension in matters of the deen. May Allah ascend all of us through our prayers and everything we do for His sake. Amin.

~Please enjoy this snapshot of our evening from Buck Bald Summit~

Day 6: Homecoming

Yesterday was a very bittersweet day. It was the day we left to go back to the “real” world–back to our homes to continue the journey on our own. In a way, I feel that we already were in the “real” world in Tennessee. We were doing things as they should have been done all along in our regular lives. The key now is to bring that reality back home and break down the walls of illusion that have surrounded us.

So now we are back home. And the illusions seem crystal clear. The glitter of the dunya isn’t as attractive as it was before. We have disconnected the cable boxes and TVs. And we are doing fine. Alhamdulillah.

You know, when I first heard of the retreat, I wasn’t that excited to go until almost the last minute. I don’t know why. I could give you a million excuses. None of them would matter, but the truth was that my heart was dying from whisperings to ignore what I already knew to do. Then I started to read Imam Al Haddad’s Book of Assistance for the second time, my go-to book for when life overwhelms me and joy is hard to find within myself. At the same time, I read Ethar El-Katatney’s Forty Days and Forty Nights…in Yemen which detailed her personal journey to Allah in Tarim, Imam Al-Haddad’s city. I never even thought about traveling to Yemen before reading that book, but I connected with Ethar’s struggle between the dunya and akhira, and I also have always loved the wisdom of Imam Al Haddad. I’ve always felt a special connection to him, and since I knew I wouldn’t be able to up and go to the Dowra program this year for a 40-day intensive, I settled on the Seekers Guidance Journey to Allah retreat. But I did not settle. This retreat gave me so much more than I can describe to you. Allah gave a gift to my family by bringing us here…an eternal one that inshAllah will bring us closer to being a more heavenly creation throughout the generations. Allah blessed us in immense ways, and if you have the chance to go to the retreat next year, GO! Even if you don’t think you have a chance, pray istikhara and make all arrangements to GO! We didn’t think we would be able to go this year. It seemed to be a 100% chance that my husband would not be given leave of work. But lo and behold, Allah had other plans. Likewise, you’d think with 100% certainty that all the listed speakers would be there, but Allah did not will Shaykh Faraz Rabbani and Ustadha Shireen Ahmed, the founders of Seekers Guidance, to go. But Allah is the Best of Planners and we still benefited from their knowledge and presence of heart via digital communication. There is wisdom in everything. And you’ll never know what benefits you’ll reap until you go.

I cannot wait until the Seekers Guidance Retreat next year inshAllah. While I hesitated to go this year, I’m already excited and can’t wait for this time next year, inshAllah. Likewise, at the closing program, we prolonged our farewells. The program started late and we kept talking past the time scheduled. We drew it out. We didn’t want to leave each others’ company. We became family. And we made a du’a that the Prophet (saws) made to reunite. I truly feel like I have a larger family now, one of shuyukhs, brothers, and sisters, who look like every kind of ethnicity in the world, but feel as close as being my blood kin. Shaykh Faraz Rabbani told us during the retreat via satellite that a traveler doesn’t stop. He/she may pause to rest, but they are always thinking of the next steps–the next move, and they do this with intention. When I arrived in Tennessee, I was a woman battling her complacency in life–a woman who lost some of her nur and drive after she left the comforting handhold of the MSA and the ease and simplicity of the single life. But I can tell you now that I am complacent no more. InshAllah I am moving. I am traveling. And now again I feel like a stranger to the world (and happily so!), and at home with the company of Allah. Know that wherever you find me next on this journey, whether in Tennessee or in Yemen or perhaps in some other place that Allah has destined for me to go, I am happy to meet you on this journey to Allah. And my heart is beating again. La ilaha il Allah.

Dr. Umar Abd-Allah on SeekersGuidance, its Teachers, Trust, and Learning

Dr. Umar Abd-Allah of the Nawawi Foundation on encouraging people to take the SeekersGuidance courses and to benefit from its teachers and educational opportunities.

“Ibn Ata’illah says: ‘The expressions of the teachers, what they teach us, the people of knowledge of this religion as it truly is to be taught, is the basic sustenance of the family of the listeners.’ The expression of family of listeners it means the people who are poor and needy and need to be taught and given knowledge. The people of the path who are seeking God are like children in a family that have to be fed. So they have to have their sheikhs, their teachers, and they need to know the food they give them is good and proper for them. And when we don’t have people of the ibarat, that can speak these words of guidance and truth, then we are truly poor. And the poverty of not having people who can guide us is a poverty that is much greater and much more harmful than the poverty of people living in poor third-world countries who don’t have food to eat or clean water to drink. And SeekersGuidance is one of God’s solutions to that crisis because it gives us teachers who are authorized to teach the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) religion, who follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and who belong to Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jammah, who belong to the community of the sunnah and the larger community and will give us the nourishment we will need.” -Dr. Umar Abd-Allah


Learn & grow:
“Whomever Allah wishes well for, He grants understanding of religion,” said the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him).

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Gambian TV

While in Gambia for a conference, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah (biography) was interviewed for Gambian television. In it, he discusses evidence of Muslims visiting the Americas before Columbus, how he entered Islam, modernity as an economic system, how to deal with sectarianism, and the distinction between Shari’ah and haqeeqah.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5