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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Surviving Salafism: An American Muslim Recovers from Extremism and Makes a Difference

Editor’s Note: On June 25, 2009, the text of this post was removed at the request of Tariq Nelson.

There Are 18 Responses So Far. »

  1. Excellent piece!

    Kudos to Tariq for having the courage to speak on his experiences regardless of what others think. Also, a salute to RW for accurately rendering Tariq’s story for all of us.

    RW and Tariq, keep up the good work!

  2. [...] Surviving Salafism: An American Muslim Recovers from Extremism and Makes a Difference | Religion Wri… [...]

  3. Wonderful! Great job Tariq and RW. Keep up the wonderful writing and interviewing and most of all, clear-headedness.

  4. Salafi-ism also affected immigrants Muslims as well who are rediscovering Islam on the American turf.

  5. I had been a practicing Muslim for about 9 years when, around 10 years ago, I had begun studying what was called “Dawah-tus Salafiyyah”. I was impressed by the peoples, level of scholarship and the call to study the lives and teachings of the first few generations of Muslims.

    During my two years of study, I was dismayed that I wasn’t able to really connect with those in the American community who were known to be knowledgable. In what I now believe was a mercy from God, I couldn’t prevent my natural inclination to question edicts (which were given often and seemingly randomly), or practices (which seemed to follow the letter of the law and ignore the spirit of it). I also saw that both these edicts and practices lead to many bitter, angry and spiritless people.

    Over time, I also began see that many of the teachings were beginning to simply make no sense. After constantly being told not to “blindly follow” previous (and respected) scholars of Islam, we were expected to blindly follow contemporary “scholars” of Islam. In addition, I noticed that a significant number of the people that I came into contact with (more than I was used to seeing) seemed to have some form of personality disorder or mental health problem.

    So, after two years and a near nervous breakdown later, I left the “Salafis” behind…gladly. I had had a “near” nervous breakdown because I couldn’t possibly follow the practices that they endorsed, yet I was constantly warned that I would go to hell if I fell short of following this “call”. I discovered that I wasn’t being allowed to be me.

    Two things happened as a result of that experience. The first, is that I am still a Muslim. I had a foundation to fall back on that left me know that Islam is a religion that is meatn to allow people to be who they are within a framework of guidelines that prevents them from harming others. The second is that I left scarred. I am what I can only described as jaded and cynical. I’ve reexamined all of my beliefs, I’m extremely careful about those that I may now adopt, and I look for truth wherever it may be found.

    I am now working towards a place that will allow me to serve God without becoming a slave to ideology.

  6. I have to agree whole heartedly with the above post.
    The salafi movement would like people to follow the letter of the law but do not provide the neccessary requirements for new muslims/salafis to facilitate them.

    what I found, as a salafi, was that the scholars and more importantly the da’ees in the west are very uneducated about needs of the muslim community. I live with one of the most highly esteemed da’ee in england and I can personally say that he is not friendly nor caring about the muslim community around him. Yet can travel the world to give preach a version of islam that is shortsighted and narrowminded.

    The brother also made an excellent point about not dealing with issues such as marital discord, employment, brotherhood, and realistic problems muslims all over the world face.

    when My husband asked to learn arabic at uni .. the answer was NO because it was a mixed community. Yet this same brother holds a phd in biology from a mixed university. That really doesn’t make much sense to me.

    that same brother also has contacts when learning arabic.. And has close relationship with the scholars.. Yet cannot even humble himself to teach his community arabic or even visit people to give relief from the practice of Islam.

    even more so.. I was very surprised when the brother took a loan for a very expensive house.. while a smaller home would have been sufficient.

    unfortunately.. I have learned that the “salafi” movement is very much a insular group.. that one will never break into unless they grovel at these peoples feet. Which is very sad indeed. Even more so.. the salafi’s seem to be arrogant as if they are the best and have the most complete knowledge.

    Islam is a very rich religion and One must be able to admit when they have made mistakes and done wrong.. and correct themselves.

    I still call myself salafi.. (because of the meaning) and inshAllah I try my best to adhere to the principals.. But I do have very little respect for those who hold such bad manners and arrogance in their hearts. Those who have no mercy for those around them

    It is so easy to say salaamu alaikum and so hard to mean it with ones heart.

    I pray for these brothers and sisters who fall into this trap.. and hope that they take what they learn that is good and leave that which is bad from this group. Take everything with a pinch of salt.. cuz until one knows arabic himself.. and gains knowledge then we can never be sure these days who is saying the right thing.

    I am so much happier now that I have stopped trusting these people and seeing for myself that they actually have very little knowledge!

    knowledge mandates action!

  7. Asalamu 3alaykum,

    I am a muslim 26 year old woman. I am a born muslim from Lebanon, Middle east, however, I am well travelled and lived most of my life outside lebanon. My fiance is a salafi. As oppose to the description of salafis above, he allows me to carry a very normal lifestyle entailing of a job, moderate interaction with non-muslim friends etc etc. At the same time, he is very religious and so I have become as well. The lifestyle that salafis depict is not that of a dream but its the ambition to always be better and submit more wholeheartedly to God as that is Islam’s bottom line. There is an explanation for every islamic law as small as “A woman is forbidden to wear perfume for anyone other than the husband” or as big as the commandment “alcohol is forbidden”. Often I have seen people say “JUST BELIEVE” NOT bcs there isn’t an explanation but bcs they do not know the answer and do not wish to say so. Yes islam is about submission but there is an explanation for everything. Stereotyping is a very common habit to many people, not only about religion too. My point to all this is that not all salafis are like the description above. Many I know are like my fiance as well. Its sad to see that when someone really lives by every law of islam is seen as an extremist but really can you call a nun or a priest or a monk extremists? I know of many that cut themselves from society but they are not called christian extremists. There are many forms of the same accusations bestowed on islam in other religions but sadly enough, islam just happens to be the target these days bcs of political propaganda. I want to point out that many call themselves muslims but they don’t necessarily follow true ISLAM……not all muslims are good just as with any other religion in this world. Good and bad exits in every country every race every neighborhood.

    I AM VERY BOTHERED WHEN SOMEONE EVEN WITH THE BIGGEST DEGREE IN ISLAMIC STUDIES or theological studies (AND HE OR SHE IS NOT A BORN MUSLIM NOR A CONVERT) GIVEs THEIR opinion of Islam or an explanation for the act of a muslim because you really cannot know it until you live it.

    The above is my opinion, opinion of a muslim shared by many others as well. I only hope to shed some light of the real status of islam in any community on how we should be seen as we are and not as what people think or assume we are.

  8. Assallamualaikum,
    I am sorry to hear that you, among others, had a negative experience with “Salafi’s”. But, know that every person that calls themself “Salafi” does not represent the the correct following of the Salaf us Salih. Many people are caught up in an extremist Super Salafi belief here in the states. American Muslims who have learmed some arabic and hadith have decided to tell everyone to take the safe road and go to extremes, while there should be no compulsion in religion. I have to give you some friendly advice though, hijab is fard-while niqab is not. The Salafi’s that I know treat their women with such respect and honor-unmatched by any other! I have to say that the proof is in the pudding. Search your heart for the truth and you will find it. Ascribibg to the salaf filters out innovations such as: women uncovering to “blend in”, all aspects of interest, etc. When Islam is practiced as it should be, ascribing to the Quran and Sunnah and looking to the best of the Salaf, Muhammad Sallahu Alahi Wasallam, and then the next three generations of the Salaf us Salih- you will find the essence of what Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala has gifted us with these days…the purest form of submission to Allah Azza Wa Jal you can find. And when you find it, you will have no complaints, no arguments about it. All the evidence is there to be followed. Alhamdulillah. So why not follow it as Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala wants us to worship Him? Not as we think we should.

  9. peace be upon those who follow the guidance. So some of these post attempt to disfigure salafiyyah and others try to lift it up. The reallity is that salafiyyah can not be disfigured and it needs no uplifting. Because it is the truth. a salafi follows the salaf in the same sense that a sunni follows the sunna (as opposed to being shi’a). So how can following the salaf be extreme?! from them is the best of mankind, the prophet, peace be upon him. and those whom the glad tidings of paradise was giving to while they were still alive. and Allah revealed ayat saying He was pleased with them. Now as far as the so-called salafis that dominate the scene in the west, they are mostly claimants without action. and this is like the saying “everyone claims to have been with layla, but layla does not claim any of them.” so they may claim salafiyyah but salafiyyah may be far away from them in reality. I have been blessed by Allah to see both. I was in a community of “salafis” that were in reallity far away from the way of the salaf in action and where more like non-muslims in their mannors and dealings. I wanted to be far away from this crap. and I said and still say “if that is salafiyyah, I don’t want any part of it.” Then Allah placed me in a community that was salafi in belief and action. It was full of college students, business owners, etc. But most importantly they followed the salaf in truth and even the non-salafis loved them and spoke highly of them and would take their children to them to learn the religion! Allahu akbar. They had mercy, kindness and concern for every muslim (salafi or not). They ARE salafi. If you think I am making this up then go see them yourself at masjid assahaba in columbus, oh. I have since moved and I feel regretful for that almost daily.

  10. Masha’Allah, I agree with the above three posts and am happy to have read them!…just because of experiencing bad things from some people who claim they are salafi, yet act badly or without wisdom, should not make you hate the true essence of what ’salafiyyah’ calls to (which is the middle path). Allah is the source of Guidance. By labeling all salafis in one way is in no way objective nor fair.

  11. Maa shaa Allah its good to see people defend salafiyyah;true islam. On the otherhand I am very saddened that people wish to generalize. Especially when they claim to be upon the book & sunnah, as this is not an action of ahlul sunnah. Have not the muslims & islam seen enough generalizing from those who oppose this guidance, throughout history? So why would we do this to our own brethren? Are you not in actuallity doing the exact same thing you claim to hate about the “salafies”? I use the term salafi loosely in my last sentence. Indeed if they were truly upon salafiyyah their manners would show the beauty that is salafiyyah. I still won’t make tabdi (not for me to do) and call them innovators,but their actions are far from that of a salafi.

    If we indeed listened to the ulema, their manners are beautiful and humble. So I refuse to blame them. They do have the most knowledge in regards to this religion. There are some evil individuals who call them and ask verdict without giving the whole story,in order to reach their own selfish objective. They ask in the guise of a genereal situation and then lie & say our precious ulema made a statement upon an indivudual. This is NOT the fault of our ulema, Allah preserve them,ameen! For this reason Shaykh Muhammad Al-Madhkhali,hafidhullah refuses to take calls from the UK & the Americas.
    I do not blame him. The problem is NOT nor was it ever salafiyyah. The problem is those individuals who were always seeking the limelight,to be with the ‘in-crowd” before islam,thus they are the same now as muslims. Their character never changes; only their clothing and some broken arabic words. They are status seekers and THEY are the problem NOT salafiyyah. If they sought knowledge to please Allah & to rectify their ownselves & families,indeed they would reap the benefits of this great & true manhaj.
    So do not generalize because you are doing the same thing the non-muslims do to us,unjustly making us all criminals due to the errors of some rogue but LOUD few. I agree too that someone who is NOT muslim,let alone not a salafi,should not attempt to speak on something they can never possibly know antyhing about.
    Those “salafies” who engage in ribaa & unjust harshness & seek status will get theirs eventually. Allah is not blind nor is He deaf. Neither is He unjust. So if they do not rectify their affairs they risk Allah’s punishment. Thats why even though it makes me sad to see them behave so horribly; I don’t let it bother me so much.
    My salafiyya is for Allah not just when its cool to be salafi. Thus, I am now, was always & will die by Allah’s leave, a salafi.
    Thank you!
    Please excuse & read through my typos. No time 2 revise as I must run & tend to my family.
    P.S: I too have heard absolutely wonderful things about the salafyeen of Columbus, OH. May Allah preserve them,ameen.

  12. May Allaah Raise those who uphold The Qur’aan & Sunnah & call to the way of the Teachings of prophet Muhammad sallalahu Alayhi was salaam. Those who with the guidance firstly of Allaah contact the Ulemma to educate us and keep us upon clear guidance. Those who assist in us learning the Fundamentals of this deen, who assist us in keeping away from Biddah. May Allaah guide you and me my brother- shouldnt let personal issues keep you away from the Haqq.

  13. Praise be to Allah, discord between muslims is not a new Phenomenon. Looking back at the lives of the Sahaba we see even between them they had personal issues but they strived with sabar. I remember a time some Salafi brother organised a 5 aside football tournament in my area and many people came from the muslim comunity. This one brother got into an argument with a Salafi brother during a game and just because of this when speaking to him later he branded all Salafi’s with the samae harshness and said he would never go to a Salafi masjid! This at the time made me just think how one dosent just reflect oneself but the whole jamat.
    Sad to hear the brother has been dismayed by his personal experience, all I can say is we are all humans and make mistake and will continue to do so, we need to show a little sabar when afflicted with some trail and know the truth is still the truth. May Allah help me and you in time of hardship and rectify the affair of the muslims.. Ameen

  14. First, I would like to thank and Tariq Nelson for bringing up this subject and many, many other important ones.

    I find RW very balanced, unbiased and engaging.

    Some observations:

    1. I really like and understand what Tariq Nelson has to say.

    2.I agree very much with some of the above posts that we should not “Generalize” or “Label” a fellow human being based on their belief system, or inclinations in faith.

    3. But sometimes, honest advice has to be given and it should be received in a well-meaning manner.

    4. All Muslims should try to emulate the behavior of the Prophets, Prophet Muhammad, his companions and succeeding generations of pious men AND women. So there really shouldn’t be “SALAFI” and “NON-SALAFI” It should be “MUSLIM” - one who submits to Allah.

    5. Treat your family, neighbors and friends with respect and love, do not shun them as Tariq Nelson mentioned. I know it’s easier said than done, but it is an effort and a test from God.

    6. Don’t use too many vowels in transliterated words as in Allaaah and Madeeeenah and Islaaaam. That just looks so hardcore!

  15. “Salafis” strayed from the Muslim scholarly tradition that has continued since the time of the Prophet (SAWS). They are considered innovators by all major Sunni scholars. They differ from Sunni Muslims in both Tawheed and Aqeeda (belief).

  16. Just try to visit:

    may Allah bless everyone who follow the true guidance, and salam from salafiyyin indonesia.

    -sorry 4 poor english-
    [Rully Abuhusain]

  17. as salamu alaikum wa rahmatullah. a “true” muslim is one who follows the Qur an & Sunnah in letter and spirit and clings closely to the menhaj of the salafus salih. that menhaj can be found in the works of the four great mujtaid imams:Imam Abu Hanifah,Imam Malik,Imam Shaafi,and Imam Ahmad(raheemahullahi alaihim);the great muhadditheen, the foremost of which were the compilers of the siha sitta;the imams of kalam or aqueeda:Ashari,Maturidi and Tahawee(raheemahullah alaihim);and,the Imams of akhlaq and/or islah batin-reformation of self-which is the main purpose of deen, develop ikhlaq i Muhammadi(sallallahu alaihi wa sallam),and ikhlas niyyah through tazkiyya(self purification)….these last Imams being the great imams of ahli bayt,Imams Hasan Basri,Junaid aL Baghdadi,Ma’ruf kharki,Bishr al Hafi,Qushayri,and many others from among the salaf,may Allah bless them all. anyone that adheres, not only in letter but in spirit, to the afore-mentioned sources is by defintion salafiyyah.along with the study of arabic and Deen,we need not forget ikhlaqi hameeda-developing praiseworthy characteristics-which can be found in the personage of the holy last messenger,Sayyideena Muhammad Mustafa(SAW). May Allah bless all of us to be truly salafiyyah.

  18. I dont see any act or life of sahabas in salafis.. my whole maternal family are salafi dawa activist but i dont see any sunnah in them.. some of them are involved in salafi dawa work and they listen to music, watch movies and some even go to parties..LOL .. all they think is that just pray 5 times a day and do what ever u want to do.. LOL.. except praying and criticizing other muslims they dont do anything :S.. I was a guitarist and had a band and used to do everything against islam but alhadmulillah I changed due to the efforts of ahlul sunnah wal jamaat and i was excited to tell my relatives about my change and when i told them all they did was criticizing me and the people due to whom i changed and those days of my life were miserable.. I mean on one hand I was leaving everything which was not easy and on the other hand my whole family was criticizing me :S and in the past none of them used to tell me any good thing about islam except criticizing usa and other muslims :S anyways i cant express those feelings that i have been thru.. I just pray to god to make muslims one ummah and make everyone realize the true islam which is 24hrs life following every commandment of ALlah and in the way that prophet SAW did.. May Allah bring us back to the life of the real salafis not the so-called todays salafis.

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