No Scholars in the West Salafi Networks of Knowledge from Saudi Arabia to Philadelphia

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Emily Goshey


Salafism, African American Muslims, Islam in America, Networks, Philadelphia


Seeking knowledge from scholars is an imperative for Salafis. But what does that mean for Salafis in the West who deny that there are  any scholars among them? Since the 1960s, Western Muslims have been taking advantage of the scholarships available for Islamic  studies programs in Saudi Arabia. A steady stream of students has gone, studied with leading Salafi scholars in the heart of the Muslim world, and returned home to promulgate Salafi teachings and lead their communities. Why do none of these former students count as  scholars? If they are not scholars, then what is the nature of their role as local leaders? To answer these questions, this study looks  closely at the predominantly African American Salafi affiliate community in Philadelphia. The arguments here contribute to a growing  body of literature on global Salafism and specifically studies of so-called Madkhalī communities tied to the Islamic University of  Medina. Primary fieldwork from 2010 to 2013 and interviews as recent as 2021 inform the conclusion that this community’s pattern of knowledge transmission perpetuates and even celebrates the continual reliance of Philadelphia’s Salafis on scholars abroad.

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1 Umar Lee has spoken of the importance that this position held in his memoir, “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Salafi Dawah’ in the US.” The initial series of blog posts have since been removed from, but the text was released in book form on Amazon. com as The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Dawah in America: a memoir by Umar Lee, 2014,
2 DawahSalafiyyah, “Everybody Wants To Be A Shaykh In The West – Hasaan as Somaalee.” YouTube, April 17, 2012., accessed November 25, 2020.
3 Qur’an 16:43.
4 Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2005); Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering (Oxford University Press, 2009).
5 Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience (Indiana University Press, 2003).
6 Patrick D. Bowen, A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2:The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975 (Brill, 2017).
7 Aminah Beverly McCloud, African American Islam (Routledge, 2014).
8 Edward E. Curtis IV, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (SUNY Press, 2012).
9 Bowen, A History of Conversion, 86.
10 Ibid., 97.
11 Ibid., 223, 224, 333-5.
12 McCloud, African American Islam, 21-24.
13 Susan Frith, “Music Lessons,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov/Dec 2006, Accessed June 19, 2021.
14 The Nation of Islam has survived as an independent organization under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, but never regained the prominence it held under Elijah Muhammad. As for the majority that remained loyal to WD Mohammed, their transition into Sunnism has been a complex process of re-interpreting both their own history and their relationship to historical Islam. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican, 49-50.
15 Ibid., 3-6.
16 For a history of IUM, see Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission (Stanford University Press, 2016).
17 Some women have, however, gone abroad and completed Islamic studies degrees. One woman based in Philadelphia completed her studies with her husband in Saudi Arabia.
18 Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 2015).
19 Danny Salgado, Jr. has written in greater detail about the differences between Salafism as a creed, a daʿwah, and a manhaj and their significance in the African American context. “The Formative Years of al-Daʿwa al-Salafiyya among African Americans (1975-2006) and the Ongoing Quest for Authenticity,” MA thesis, Hartford Seminary, April 2020.
20 Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 3 (2006): 207-239.
21 Anabel Inge has also spoken about this concern among Salafis in the UK: The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (Oxford University Press, 2017),
10-11. Likewise, experts on American policy are perpetually concerned with the question of whether or not purist Salafis are at risk of radicalization. See Alexander
Meleagrou-Hitchens, “Salafism in America: History, Evolution, Radicalization” (The George Washington University, 2018),
22 Meleagrou-Hitchens, for instance, acknowledges this in his study, “Salafism in America,” 16, 32, 54-55.
23 For examples of documents that discuss “Madkhalis”, see Zoltan Pall, “Kuwaiti Salafism and its Growing Influence in the Levant,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2014; Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “Salafism in America,”, accessed December 14, 2020; Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy (Oxford University Press, 2019).
24 Roel Meijer, “Politicising al-Jarḥ wa-l-Taʿdīl: Rabīʿ b. Hādī al-Madkhalī and the Transnational Battle for Religious Authority,” in The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam: Essays in Honour of Harald Motzki, ed. Nicolet Boekhoffvan der Voort, Kees Versteegh & Joas Wagemakers (Brill, 2011), 380-381.
25 For more information on the role of the Islamic University in the establishment of international Salafi communities, see Roel Meijer, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Oxford University Press, 2013). For information about the connections between British Salafis and IUM, see Inge, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman, 27-37, 111-115, 230.
26 Umar Lee, “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Salafi Dawah’ in the US.”
27 Shadee Elmasry, “The Salafis in America: The Rise, Decline and Prospects for a Sunni Muslim Movement among African-Americans,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 30, no. 2 (2010): 217-236.
28 Meleagrou-Hitchens, “Salafism in America,” 56.
29 Maleka Fruean, “Germantown Neighbors: Imam Hassan Abdi and the Germantown Masjid,” Germantown Info Hub, April 9, 2019; accessed November 22, 2020. GOSHEY: NO SCHOL ARS IN THE WEST
30 There are mosques with larger buildings that can accommodate more worshippers, but the Germantown Masjid is the only one that filled to overflow on every occasion that I visited it.
31 @GtownMasjid, accessed June 7, 2022,
32 The Germantown Masjid, for instance, purchased additional properties in its immediate vicinity in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Masjid Bin Baz, closely affiliated with the Germantown Masjid, opened its doors in South Philadelphia in 2013.
33 Meijer, “Politicising al-Jarḥ wa-l-Taʿdīl,” 378.
34 The Royal Decree that established this limitation in 2010 applies only to public fatwas, and in no way prevents these scholars from privately issuing advice or opinions to individuals. “Saudi King Limits Clerics Allowed to Issue Fatwas: King Abdullah Bids to Organize Religious Edicts,” Al Arabiya, August 12, 2010,; accessed November 24, 2020.
35 Meijer, “Politicising al-Jarḥ wa-l-Taʿdīl,” 377-382.
36 During an interview, a Salafi leader sent me a link to a blog post entitled, “Why do we refer to our teacher as Shaykh,” which he identified as a useful pronouncement on titles for local leaders. In the nine-point explanation, the sixth point explicitly clarifies that, unlike a shaykh, a scholar is “a reference point for the whole of the Muslim nation.” Maktabah Ibn Uthaymeen, June 7, 2020, Accessed November 24, 2020.
37 There is some scholarly disagreement on this point. Emad Hamdeh has described Salafis as ‘anti-clericalist’. See his article “Shaykh Google as Ḥāfiẓ al-ʿAṣr: The Internet, Traditional ʿUlamā’, and Self Learning,” American Journal of Islam and Society 37, nos. 1-2 (2020): 70, 83. However, I agree with Roel Meijer, who describes Saudi establishment Salafism as fundamentally committed to the idea that the scholars alone possess and can pass on true knowledge of the texts. Meijer, “Politicising al-Jarḥ wa-l-Taʿdīl,” 378.
38 TROID, “Knowledge Is To Be Taken from the ʿUlamāʾ Not from the Ignorant Ones,”YouTube, April 27, 2016,; accessed November 29, 2020.
39 Jonathan Berkey. The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton University Press, 1992), 21.
40 Ibid., 22.
41 Interview with Anwar Wright, May 26, 2020.
42 A Twitter page managed in the name of Ibn Bāz posted this quotation, which was then translated and shared by Hikmah Publications, run by Imam Hassan Abdi of the Germantown Masjid. See June 12, 2020. 6:08 PM.
43 Fuqahā’ (s. faqīh) indicates those jurists qualified to pronounce on questions of Islamic law. This quotation was taken from a recording of a lecture from al-Fawzān: SalafiDawahNZ. “Not Everyone Who Graduates From An Islamic University Is A Scholar.” YouTube, August 26, 2012.; accessed August 2, 2020.
44 Not all of these individuals are originally from Philadelphia. Abu Muslimah and Shadeed Muhamad are from New Jersey. All of them, however, have either served as imams in Philadelphia or were influential in Salafi circles in Philadelphia at one time.
45 For more information on Bilal Philips and the reasons behind his disagreements with certain Saudi scholars such as ʿUbayd al-Jābirī, see Abu Khadeejah, “Errors in Usool of Bilal Philips,” posted 11 July 2002, accessed September 5, 2021. Yasir Qadhi himself outlines his disagreements with Rabīʿ al-Madkhalī and the methodology that he represents in his article “On Salafi Islam,”, published 22 April 2014.
46 Although lay believers sometimes indicate that they do not personally have a problem with these individuals, the official position of the Salafi affiliate mosques and their leaders stands in clear rejection of these individuals as deviant in religious matters.
47 This was true for many years, and this article documents the trends of ongoing communication that persisted until the second half of the 2010s. However, interviewees have affirmed that most recently, at the end of the 2010s and in the early 2020s, actual direct contact with senior scholars is on the decline. With Rabīʿ al-Madkhalī in his nineties and other senior scholars increasingly busy or elderly, there is less open communication with former students in Philadelphia.
48 Interview with Hassan Abdi, May 15, 2020.
49 “Why do we refer to our teacher as Shaykh,” Maktabah Ibn Uthaymeen.
50 Al-Fawzān expressed this opinion in a response to a question about Yasir Qadhi: TROID, “Yasir Qadhi: Do Not Outsource Scholarship – Insource It! Shaykh Fawzaan Answers,” YouTube, January 25, 2014,; accessed August 4, 2020.
51 Yasir Qadhi, “Separating from the Scholars of Islam? ~ Dr. Yasir Qadhi,” YouTube, March 27, 2014.; accessed August 4, 2020.
52 Numerous interviewees confirmed this information, although I have not seen explicit documentation.
53 Ali Dawah, “WHO DECIDES WHOS A SCHOLAR? SH TAHIR WYATT,” YouTube, August 9, 2017,; accessed November 25, 2020.
54 Interview with Anwar Wright, May 27, 2020.
55 Farquhar, Circuits of Faith, 50-65. GOSHEY: NO SCHOL ARS IN THE WEST
56 Muhammad Qasim Zaman has noted a related trend at Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, where “numerous mater’s theses and Ph.D. dissertations take the form of annotated editions of medieval collections of hadith and works of law.” “Epilogue: Competing Conceptions of Religious Education,” in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, edited by Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton University Press, 2007), 257-58. For modern Salafis, the point is to communicate pieces of knowledge validated by the reputations of those who first articulated them, not to engage in personal interpretation.
57 “Word of Encouragement Allamah Rabi Ibn Hadi – Usool Sunnah 2018,” Germantown Masjid, December 25, 2018,; accessed November 28, 2020.
58 Hassan Abdi, “It Is Not Allowed to Perform the Jum’ah Prayer at Home: Coronavirus 2020,” Germantown Masjid, March 26, 2020,; accessed November 25, 2020.
59 Anwar Wright, “Islam’s Position on Oppression, Racism, and Police Brutality,”Germantown Masjid, June 7, 2020,; accessed November 25, 2020, p. 12.