Clerics of two theocratic movements - Arabia's Salafis and South Asia's Deobandis - have spent over a century denouncing each other's theologies, only pausing, occasionally, for tactical alliances. Over the past few years, however, ecumenical attitudes have begun to change among Western Islamist clerics. As an increasing number of modernist preachers from both movements have stepped forward to establish new forward-facing organizations, cautious longer-term partnerships between the clerical components of the two movements have begun to emerge – providing us with a glimpse of American Islamism in the years to come.
This new-found inclusiveness was recently evident in September 2019, when a Deobandi Islamist seminary, the Institute of Knowledge (IOK) hosted its "Ilmspiration" Conference in Anaheim, California. The purpose of the day-long event was to bring together 14 Islamist scholars and imams from the IOK and two other likeminded, leading institutions: the Qalam Institute, a wildly popular Deobandi religious training organization led by Abdul Nasir Jangda; and the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, a project of Omar Suleiman, a prominent Salafi-trained cleric.
What makes these schools and their leaders so dangerous? Whether Deobandi or Salafi, both movements are adherents to the broader political idea of Islamism, which seeks to impose an Islamic state run under Islamic law. These clerics provide much of the arguments, propaganda, and most importantly, the theology, to persuade Muslims into believing in the supremacy of a medieval religious legal system. This ideology sows the seeds of terrorism both at home and abroad.
In their methods, the new social media-savvy generation of Deobandi and Salafi clerics in the West are very different from the insular, ascetic preachers of the previous generation; but not in their core beliefs. Qalam's Deobandi leader Abdul Nasir Jangda, who commands a social media following of hundreds of thousands, defends female sex slavery and advocates the death penalty for apostasy. Meanwhile, Yaqeen's Suleiman, a media darling for his involvement in progressives' protests against Trump administration policies, warns young women they may be killed by a "jealous dad" if they commit adultery.
So what influence will these organizations exert on American Islam over the next few years? And how will these once hostile sects work together?
In a packed, segregated ballroom - filled with hijab-clad women on the left, men on the right, and families in the middle, the founders of IOK, Qalam, and Yaqeen described their institutions' goals and methods.
Suleiman went first – introducing Yaqeen as a voice of "authentic" American Islam and claiming that his organization's goal is "to be a think tank with a megaphone." This "megaphone," Suleiman explained, was working to change Google search results – using search engine optimization (SEO) tricks to direct readers to Yaqeen's research, videos, and infographics. On such search inquiries as "Islam and Apostasy," "Was Islam spread by the sword?" and "honor killings in Islam," Suleiman bragged that Yaqeen is now the top result after Wikipedia. He also noted Yaqeen's ability to influence mainstream media, from the Dallas Morning News to CNN.
In other words, Yaqeen is not just about influencing the public's perception of Islam; it is attempting to impose Yaqeen's very particular strain of Islam on both the American public and American Muslims.
In fact, Suleiman promised "that all of the organizations in the Muslim community" can use his material for free – from children in weekend schools and teens in private Islamic schools, to adults watching on YouTube and entire congregations making use of his "masjid [mosque] resource kits... so the whole masjid can be empowered." Yaqeen is working to ensure the next generation of American Muslims adheres to a united Islamist creed: "We're also piloting Islamic school curriculum at 20 different schools right now and it's going to be free, inshallah, for all Islamic schools to use, Sunday schools or otherwise."
Jangda went next, explaining Qalam's goal is to educate the Muslim ummah. "Every single person should have access to the education and the understanding of Islam," he said, before laying out the broad range of training courses Qalam offered: a seminary for full-time students, "intensives" that last a few weeks, online classes for part-time students, and, for those on-the-go, podcasts – to which 8 million have already listened.
In an pledge familiar to a Salafi audience, the Deobandi cleric spoke of teaching the form of Islam first heard by audiences of Islam's early leaders, and expressed his hope that Qalam's "authentic" Islam will consequently be passed on "from generation to generation."
None addressed the rather important fact that Suleiman's "authentic" Islam differs on questions of jurisprudence to Jangda's "authentic" Islam. More important for both, it appeared, is the concept of a united Muslim ummah [global community] – a vital condition of Islamism. In fact, one of the few precursors to the new-found Salafi-Deobandi partnerships in the U.S. can be found in Haitham Al-Haddad, a British cleric who - despite the theological disparities - claims to representant both Salafi and Deobandi ideologies, for the sake of a "united ummah."
Nomaan Baig, the IOK's founder and director, went next, thanking his "brothers" Jangda and Suleiman and praising their institutions. Current IOK programs include a K-10 school, pilgrimage services, a Saturday school and after-school programs, and a successful series of podcasts. Echoing the others' belief in the supremacy of the ummah, he declared that his own efforts at the IOK are "only doable and possible because of our collaboration." In other words: only by putting theological differences aside can Islamism succeed.
And so with this understanding of the three groups' differing areas of emphasis and target audiences, the utility of their collaboration becomes clear. As a united Islamist front, the three organizations create a chain of custody: Yaqeen creates the materials for schools and mosques; the IOK then teaches this material at schools and graduate programs, while Qalam works with young adults and future clerics.
The collaboration and its future prospects went so well that near the end of the day, Baig said: "So imam Omar suggested, and Shayk Abdul Nasir and I conferred that inshallah, we're going to try and make this an annual thing here in Southern California." Baig described the groups' strategy as "'complementation.' We complement one another... because our propagation is that knowledge."
Such 'complementation' would have been extremely unusual just a few decades ago. Deobandis and Salafis follow different madhahib [schools of jurisprudence]. The founding Deobandi seminary in India urges its students to read books of "deviant" Salafis in order to refute them. In the United States, websites sympathetic to Deobandis are devoted to challenging and denouncing the Al Maghrib Institute, a Salafi religious training organization with which Suleiman has long been involved. Salafi clerics and preachers, meanwhile, denounce Deobandis as "deviants." Suleiman's own teacher, the Salafi cleric Salah As-Sawy, criticizes Sufism (in which the Deobandi school is technically rooted), while Salafi activists have established dozens of social media pages and websites to "speak against this SUFI demonic cult who misguide innocent muslimeen."
It is also important to note that these Deobandi institutions are relatively new – Qalam and the IOK did not exist some years ago, because Deobandi institutions were almost only found in American mosques and madaris [traditional seminaries]. Qalam and IOK are the result of a wave of new modernist Deobandis, likely taking their cue from the modernist Salafis who have rejected the political and theological isolation of the past, instead embracing social media, pan-Islamist activism and even some social justice rhetoric. Omar Suleiman (with his 318,000 Twitter followers) is perhaps the most notable example.
Suleiman does not just ignore the theological divisions of the past; he deliberately obscures his own affiliations, once writing, "Don't let people box you into a group because they're too narrow minded to think outside of their own cultish mind barriers."
"When you talk to [sic] much about politics and social justice, you'll be deemed 'Ikhwani.' [Muslim Brotherhood] When you stress the importance of the Sunnah too much and show aversion to innovation, you'll be deemed 'Salafi' or 'Wahhabi.' And when you speak too much about spirituality and how the Ummah is in need of the hearts being rectified as much as it's [sic] outwardly affairs, you're a 'Sufi.'"
Suleiman encourages this new generation of Muslims to "[S]leep peacefully while others waste their days and nights trying to 'figure you out.'" At the IOK conference, what was once merely talk of a united ummah is no longer speculation, but a working model. Islamic division is being forgotten for the sake of Islamist unity.
And the impact of this alliance? As the last session of the conference began after the three leaders introduced their organizations, the moderator noted: "Inshallah, before we begin I just wanted to make one quick announcement, alhamdullilah, our registration numbers indicate one thing here today: that there are more students here than adults."
David M. Swindle is a fellow for Islamist Watch and the Southern California associate of the Counter-Islamist Grid. He also works as the Director of Research for The Israel Group. Follow him on Twitter @DaveSwindle