Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2007, pages 52-53

Islam in America

AlMagrib Institute: Islamic Scholarship Meets “Cool” and “Hip”

By Susan Smith

A collage of AlMaghrib Institute textbooks taught in 16 North American cities (Courtesy Almagrib Institute).

CONTRARY to conventional wisdom, fundamental Islam and “cool” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, since 9/11 the pursuit of Islamic scholarship has grown exponentially, and part and parcel of this revival is a new generation of hip and self-confident young Muslims. While previous generations sought to emulate mainstream American society by shedding their scarves and beards, today’s younger Muslim Americans increasingly show up in classrooms wearing traditional Muslim garb with self-esteem.

Much of this phenomenon is in response to the microscope put on Muslims since 9/11. The intense scrutiny and resulting introspection have caused Muslims to defend, protect and relish their faith and identity. As a result, North America is witnessing a burgeoning of organizations promoting Islamic education and awareness. Foremost among these is AlMaghrib Institute, which offers university-level double-weekend seminars to a growing student body of 7,000 in the United States and Canada.

Perhaps the AlMaghrib phenomenon is the result of its state-of-the-art advertising, graphics and 21st century vernacular. Or maybe it’s the way reverent material is delivered with a touch of, well, irreverence.

The AlMaghrib Institute’s Internet homepage reads: “Even to a seasoned Arabic ear, the name ”˜AlMaghrib’ carries with it a collage of connotations and images. To some, it may remind them of a land—ancient Andalus or the Northwest lands of Muslim Africa. To others, the name may offer a feeling of heritage, a heritage of advanced Islamic Scholarship and discipline. And yet some—perhaps this is what you pictured—envision the sun embracing the ocean announcing the beginning of a new Islamic day......you’re like, “Umm...no, actually I was thinking Maghrib prayer.”

Muhammad Alshareef, the 31-year-old founder and director of AlMaghrib Institute, admits that he gets mixed reviews for his avant-garde style—even though he is scrupulous not to deviate from basic Islamic teachings rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah (practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

Students respect Alshareef’s credentials (including memorization of the Qur’an, and an Islamic Law degree from the University of Medina, Saudi Arabia) and are drawn by his “hip” approach to boosting their Ilm (knowledge) and Eman (faith in God). They can visit his EmanRush Audio Web site to buy CDs which “accelerate faith...and bring a rush of blood to the mind and heart, causing tears, warm whispers of repentance, hair to stand and an overwhelming urge to prostrate to Allah; sweet.” Or, they sign up for personal Islamic coaching by clicking “Dude, I’m in!” at his DiscoverU Web site.

Some of the more traditional ulama (Islamic scholars) give Alshareef a hard time, however. “They don’t think it’s fitting for an Islamic organization to make jest of itself,” he explains, “but this attracts students. Students who want to learn about Islam don’t need to suffer through serious, strict lectures sitting on a hard floor. We smile, laugh and have a good time.”

Thus Alshareef imports “21 Teaching Methods of the Prophet” into the 21st century to impart scholarly material in a manner consistent with Islamic tradition, while underscoring brief, relevant, and practical applications of Islamic knowledge to daily life.

Despite the criticism by some of their elders, young Muslims love Alshareef, and today AlMaghrib Institute is offered in 16 cities, from Houston to Toronto, and from New York to Los Angeles. Particularly when many in the West view Islam as a pariah religion (with even the pope bashing its teachings as “evil and inhuman”), AlMaghrib gives a shot in the arm to those who feel misunderstood, battered and beleaguered by the press—and, worse, blamed for 9/11.

“When you sign up for a seminar,” explains Alshareef, “you become part of that city’s Qabeelah (tribe), and suddenly you’re part of the dedicated, knowledge-seeking, hip, Muslim crowd that everyone is looking for.”

And because this tribe is connected to a huge student body across North America, students feel validated and vindicated. As their faith in God soars and Islam takes on new meaning and purpose in their lives, they have an increased commitment to their religion. Moreover, because they are getting an Islamic education generic to the 7th century, the unity in message and purpose transcends their local mosque, city or culture of origin.

Another aspect of AlMaghrib’s success is the symbiotic and consultative relationship it fosters in its student body. The institute is particularly reliant on young, idealistic and hardworking volunteers to galvanize enough Muslims in their communities to welcome the establishment of AlMaghrib in their respective cities, while organizing the calendar and securing venues to offer three or four double-weekend seminars a year.

Each Qabeelah is led by an ameer and ameerah who enroll and involve as many people as possible of all ages and walks of life. “Everyone is invested. Everyone is pitching in,” says Mostafa Khalifa, the ameer of New Jersey’s Durbah (Pursuit of Excellence) Qabeelah. “We delegate at Durbah because everyone has unique talents, whether they be advertising, graphic arts, public relations, etc.”

Munazzah Shirwani, a mother of four from Toronto’s Qabeelat Majd (Tribe of Glory), describes a personal responsibility and sense of ownership fostered by the AlMaghrib tribal system. “One thing that impresses me about the more successful tribes,” she notes, “is how you don’t see the student ameers juggling everything themselves. AlMaghrib has created a culture of delegating responsibilities. If the leader is down, the student body doesn’t go down with him or her. The tribe keeps going. In short, the leaders make themselves dispensable.”

This voluntary spirit extends to enrollment in the $165 seminars. “Our students aren’t attending classes because parents make them,” Alshareef points out. “They’re saving their allowances; they’re begging their parents, ”˜Please can I go?!?’ with an enjoyment and passion not found with the typical university student who attends classes as an unpleasant means to the end of getting a good job. Students studying to be doctors or engineers and taking AlMaghrib classes actually become better professionals because of their higher purpose. They are not motivated by money but by higher goals that will gain them the pleasure of Allah.”

There is no doubt that AlMaghrib offers an education in fundamental Islam. In a recent Washington Post article, “For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation is a Challenge,” Alshareef was described as a former imam (prayer leader) at Dar-us-Salaam, which the paper characterized as “one of the Washington area’s most conservative Muslim congregations. Many of its members believe that, in order to be true to their faith, they should live apart from secular society as much as possible.”

According to the Post article, a traditional approach to Islam, often referred to as Salafism or Wahhabism, is “attractive to young Muslims searching for a more ”˜authentic’ Islam than what their Westernized parents offered.”

Alshareef’s demeanor, however, contradicts the stereotype of the intolerant dogmatic cleric. This he attributes to “growing up laid back California-style in Winnipeg, Canada.” His response to allegations that the institute’s teachings are too strict, too irreverent, or too inclusive is to diffuse all the hype and disassociate from any Muslim group. “Allah calls us Muslims and I have no allegiance to do anything other than that,” he explains. “People want to label me but they can’t. We are Muslims without labels. Labels and differences put a sour taste in my mouth. They blow my mind...We should spend our lives doing positive things to build our community rather than knock each other.”

A Principle of Good Works

It is this overriding principle of doing good works in the hope of “gaining the pleasure of Allah” that generates contagious enthusiasm about AlMaghrib classes. Among the institute’s offerings are “The Light of Guidance: Fundamentals of Faith 101,” “Route 114: Sciences of the Qur’an,” and “Fiqh of Love: Marriage in Islam.” Khalifa, the Durbah ameer, describes “Rules of Engagement: The Islamic Code of Ethics” as a course that “generates positive energy encouraging us to elevate our consciousness and make the world better, rather than complain about what’s wrong or unfair. The more good we do, the more we increase our Eman (faith), and there is a huge ripple effect.

“I’ve seen this reflected in the student body with family, friends, neighbors, their masjids (mosques) and communities. We take what we learn in class and integrate it into our daily living and, as a result, our relationships and everything we do—our knowledge, faith, spirituality, and effort to do good deeds—improves.”

When asked to describe Alshareef, Khalifa responds: “The boss! He’s young. He’s a Hafiz (one who has memorized the Qur’an) and has interacted with a lot of prominent scholars, but he doesn’t consider himself a scholar. He is aware of not being a scholar. He is very confident: a successful leader with intense focus. He is immensely talented in motivating people to learn more about Islam and share the knowledge. Oh! And he loves to joke.”

“I believe that Muslims really do want to learn about their religion and apply it better to their daily lives,” says Alshareef, “and we will do our best to make this knowledge available to them. So long as any city can maintain the class, any city has the potential to host AlMaghrib seminars and we will be there insh’Allah (God willing).”

Next on the AlMaghrib horizon are Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. For more information visit <www.almaghrib.org> or call 1-888-ALMAGHRIB. 

Susan Smith is a free-lance journalist based in New Jersey.

Additional information