A Holy War of Words in Islamic U.S.
In velvet-tipped turban and long, flowing robes, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani goes where few immigrant Muslim leaders have dared go before: the Southland’s meanest streets. There, he comforts gangbangers who have seen their mothers shot dead, feeds the poor, and moves scores to declare their faith in Allah.
Kabbani does what few Islamic clerics have dared do before: outspokenly challenge the religious practices of Muslim America’s established leadership. The Lebanon-born shaykh says most leaders are failing to teach Islam’s spiritual path of Sufism--the religion’s mystical, inner dimension--and he is trying to spread it through conferences, lectures, publications and centers nationwide.
And, lately, Kabbani is saying what no Islamic leader has dared say before: that most of America’s Muslim leaders are religious “extremists.” That unnamed Muslim American groups condone terrorism abroad. That Muslim American students are being radicalized by anti-Western fanatics.
In just nine years here, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani has quickly become the most controversial figure in Muslim America. His fervent followers paint him as an inspired spiritual master fearlessly fighting a fundamentalist religious establishment to bring Islam’s true love and light to the masses. His legions of critics say he is an egotistical, divisive charlatan who encourages cultic adoration and is feeding national Islamophobia.
Kabbani’s allegations about Muslim American extremism, delivered at a State Department forum this year, have, in particular, turned what began as a theological debate into a political war. In an unprecedented joint statement, major Muslim American groups condemned Kabbani and demanded an apology.
“It is ultimately a battle of ideas, but it is now taking a very nasty form,” said Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Minaret magazine in Los Angeles, who accuses Kabbani of endangering the Muslim community and twisting Islam into a cult of personality.
The shaykh is a kinetic and combustible speaker of Arabic, French and English whose most prominent feature is a white beard three hand spans long. He flashes dimpled smiles one moment and flailing arms the next as he alternatively speaks of peace and war.
“We want to bring unity to the Muslim community and build bridges with America to show Islam as the religion of peace, love and tolerance,” Kabbani said during a recent interview, as he sat surrounded by devoted followers.
But in another encounter at his Los Altos home, Kabbani came out swinging, leaping off his sofa to denounce opposing views as “garbage!”
“Ignorance is everywhere!” he proclaimed.
At its heart, the clash between Kabbani and his opponents reflects a struggle for the soul of Islam in America. The clash pits Sufi Muslims like Kabbani--those who seek inner knowledge and spiritual advancement through a hierarchy of teachers, veneration of saints, meditative chanting and other practices--against modernist and orthodox Muslims who reject such practices as blasphemous, cultic or corrupt.
Both sides claim the high ground of “mainstream Islam;” the battle is sometimes compared to the split between Catholics and Protestants.
Such theological disputes have roiled Islam for more than a millennium. While many of the Muslim world’s great scholars, artists and musicians have been associated with Sufism, experts say mystical practices have come under attack since the 13th century, when Ibn Taymiyah, considered the father of the Islamic revival movement, challenged the mystics. More modern attacks have been waged since about 1800 by fundamentalists describing themselves as Islamic reformists, said Carl W. Ernst, author of “The Shambala Guide to Sufism” and chairman of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Fundamentalists have blasted what was long a central tradition of Islam as a hodgepodge of idolatrous practices derived from Christians, Hindus and pantheistic Greeks, Ernst said. They have also attacked some Sufi shaykhs as greedy con men or lap dogs for repressive regimes.
Despite the attacks, Sufi traditions remain deeply grounded in the hearts of many Muslims. In the United States, however, they are less visible in part because most of the engineers, doctors and other Muslim professionals who immigrated here had no training in Sufism. In addition, Saudi financial support for mosques and Islamic schools since the 1970s has helped spread more conservative, literalist interpretations, said Marcia Hermansen, an Islamic studies professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
Some Sufis--who are organized under schools that can differ considerably in political and religious outlook--have quietly practiced their traditions here since the mid-1960s. But experts say Kabbani is the first to openly challenge the dominant orthodox ideology with a national organization, deep pockets and the wide-ranging connections of his global Naqshbandi order--VIPs that include the president of Chechnya, the sultan of Brunei, Malaysian royals and his uncle, the grand mufti of Lebanon.
“Naqshbandis are not only staking their claim for leadership in America, they also feel they have the moderate form of Islam more suitable for the West,” said Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Spreading the Word
At well past 9 p.m. in one of Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani is enthralling more than 100 followers, a rainbow of races and ethnicities, at the Masjid Al-Omar. He exhorts them to connect to their spiritual core and learn to see the unseen, regaling them with tales of divine love and miracles from the Islamic sacred texts.
Closing his eyes, Kabbani leads them in a devotional group chant of Allah’s name. For several minutes, the chanters sway, some bathed in blissful smiles.
Kabbani brings the chants to a close, and a young American man promptly rises to take shahada, the declaration of faith that marks Islamic conversion.
Through such devotional practices, Kabbani says he is battling to bring Islam’s true light to Americans--too many of whom may view the religion as intolerant and harsh, he says. Like Zen Buddhists and other pilgrims on esoteric paths, Sufis take teachers as spiritual guides to help their inner development. They believe in saintly intercession and express an intense devotion to the prophet Muhammad through celebrations of his birthday and other rituals of remembrance.
Among non-Muslim Americans, the Sufi path may best be known for the passionate love poetry of Rumi and the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes. Although some practitioners are spoofed as New Age “goofy Sufis,” Kabbani’s Naqshbandi order is firmly grounded in Islamic law and practices, said Nyang of Howard.
But the mystical gifts, Kabbani says, are honed through periodic stretches of intense seclusion where Sufis spend as many as 22 hours a day in devotional practices: chanting God’s name 700,000 times, offering salutations to the prophet at least 48,000 times, and reciting 15 or more chapters of the Koran.
“Under this kind of meditation, you begin to transcend the ego” and attain a heightened spiritual awareness, Kabbani said.
But many Muslims reject such practices.
Local Islamic leaders such as Muzammil Siddiqi, the Garden Grove-based president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California, say they reject hierarchies, holy men and the “grave worship” of saintly intercession.
Muslim feminist Sharifa Alkhatoob calls obedience to a shaykh “psychological slavery.”
To orthodox Muslims such as Salim Morgan, a Fresno computer programmer, Sufi practices constitute forbidden and degenerate innovations to the divine teachings as revealed to the prophet and practiced by his companions more than 1,400 years ago.
The long-running theological wars between Kabbani and his rivals in books, magazines and cyberspace are steeped in details of Islamic practice that are impossible for the non-initiated to judge.
But those who choose Kabbani say they are drawn not by the intellect, but by the heart.
Mahboob A. Khan, a math teacher in the Bay Area town of Concord, grew up around Sufism in his native Bangladesh. But like many modern intellectuals, he wondered if those traditional Islamic ways were somehow responsible for the Muslim world’s laggardly development.
Vowing to “grow out of the old and into the new,” he subscribed to modernist thinking, but eventually felt a yearning for a deeper spirituality.
“I met Shaykh Hisham and found what was missing: love for others, love of the prophet and learning, through a teacher, the inner knowledge, not the analytical knowledge,” he said.
For ex-gang member Bo Taylor, the emotional connection with Kabbani was almost immediate. First acquainted three years ago at a fund-raiser for O.J. Simpson--Kabbani converted the celebrity at the request of a mutual acquaintance but says they no longer meet--Taylor soon found himself and his buddies pouring out their hearts to him.
What do you do when you witness your mother killed? How does God forgive you when you’ve done so much wrong? Kabbani embraced them, told them how to live, reminded them of God’s love, Taylor said.
Taylor figures that the shaykh has converted more than 500 gang members to Islam in visits to battle zones around the Southland. Kabbani sends him money for rent when he falls short and, Taylor says, has helped feed more than 40,000 people in joint food drives with the activist’s charitable organization.
“We love him,” Taylor said. “Here’s this man coming from the Middle East and offering assistance to people in the community who don’t even know him--which is more than I can say for a lot of people who live here.”
Such stories of lives touched are endless--shared until 2 a.m. during the recent Oakland visit and, later, sent via e-mail from around the world. They tell of marriages saved, spiritual yearnings fed, sicknesses healed.
Oakland college student Wais Al Qarni says Kabbani transformed his brother “from a bad-ass to a very humble guy” after helping him overcome debilitating arthritis using traditional Islamic energy healing techniques--an art the shaykh has lectured on at Harvard Medical School, New Age conferences and elsewhere.
Not all Naqshbandis are thrilled with Kabbani’s latest moves. Kim Hayward, a Minneapolis convert, says she wishes the organization would refocus on spirituality rather than terrorism.
And some Sufis who embraced Kabbani as a true master when he moved to Palo Alto in the early 1990s say they were soon disillusioned. Monterey psychologist Ibrahim Gamard said he was disturbed by Kabbani’s continual demands for funds, vengeful behavior and questionable spiritual claims, such as announcing the presence of the prophet during one prayer gathering.
“The man is very intelligent and has a spiritual presence,” Gamard said, “but he is, in my opinion, misusing his gifts by being manipulative and deceitful. “
Kabbani does, at times, make assertions he does not back up. He claims as many as 30,000 U.S. followers and 23 Islamic centers in the United States and Canada. Phone checks could confirm only a dozen or so groups regularly serving a few thousand members; the organization did not respond to several requests for further documentation.
And although Kabbani has publicly challenged Muslim organizations to disclose their funding sources and “honestly account for every penny they collect,” he will not publicly detail the financial operations of his tax-exempt organizations. He declines to clarify whether his $767,000 home in Los Altos or his retreat center in Michigan were purchased with charitable donations or the private wealth he says his family enjoys. The organization did not respond to requests for its nonprofit federal tax form, as it is legally required to do.
Kabbani merely declares: “Nobody has the right to know what I do with my private money.”
Kabbani, 54, was raised in Lebanon in the lap of Islam as the nephew of the nation’s highest religious leader. He recalls sitting in prayer, meditation and discourse with scholars from around the world from the time he was 4.
He was educated at a top French secondary school in Beirut, then switched to English-language studies at an evangelical Christian school. He earned a chemistry degree from American University in Beirut, then continued studies in medicine and Islamic divine law.
While he hints at a onetime secular lifestyle of fast cars and Italian suits, Kabbani prefers to speak of religion. The most lasting impact of his cosmopolitan upbringing, he says, is an appreciation for the universal family of God.
“Our prophet said that human beings--he didn’t just say Muslims--are equal like the teeth of a comb,” Kabbani said.
The Kabbani camp says that years of good faith attempts at unity have been viciously undermined by character assassinations, dirty tricks and a shunning of their events and material. The attacks, they say, are motivated by professional jealousy and rival ideologies supported by oil dollars from orthodox Persian Gulf states.
Some Muslims, however, say the problem isn’t Sufism--other prominent Sufis, such as George Washington University professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, are widely accepted here. Rather, they say, Kabbani has alienated people with aggressive behavior, inflammatory claims and grandiose titles--such as his “Islamic Supreme Council of America.”
“Who made them the supreme council?” Siddiqi asked. “The only thing I find is that they hold meetings in the name of unity, but always criticize and condemn other groups.”
In recent weeks, the mutual attacks have turned nasty and personal. Kabbani’s Internet critics have “outed” the drug addiction of a close follower, and posted the shaykh’s U.S. property holdings of more than $1 million.
In one 15-point open letter to the Kabbani movement, leading critic AbulHasan Bin-Ramon accused Kabbani of deception, blasphemy, fishy financing, cultic behavior and Muslim scapegoating--not to mention “general flakiness” for listening to Madonna and embracing Simpson.
But it was the shaykh’s remarks at the State Department forum in January that coalesced the at times fractious Muslim American establishment into a united front of outrage. Among other things, Kabbani also declared that members of the Muslim Student Assn. were “brainwashed” by an extremist ideology and might be exploited by terrorists.
The allegations are “unfounded, insulting to Muslim Americans and reinforce the image of Muslims as extremists--which we have been working very hard to dispel,” said Khalid Turaani of the American Muslim Council in Washington. “It makes me wonder: Who does Kabbani serve?”
The shaykh says his enemies twisted his remarks out of context. He says he was sounding a warning to America’s peace-loving Muslims against mosque leaders who preach what he regards as religious extremism and fail to condemn terrorist organizations.
Current government investigations into fund-raising in the United States for radical organizations prove the danger to American Muslims of being caught in the middle, he says.
In any case, he says he plans to plunge forward with a new initiative that is certain to fan the firestorm: a Muslim anti-terrorist council that, he says, will investigate links between Muslim American organizations and the activities of Islamic militant movements.
Kabbani sees dangerous and growing ties between fundamentalist religious ideologies and militant movements in Central Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere; he says Sufi strongholds there are being threatened, sometimes with violence, by fundamentalists of the Wahabi sect and others.
“We are afraid this will spread to the United States,” Kabbani said. “We are afraid this kind of doctrine controlling mosques will lead to military actions.”
The shaykh pauses. Suddenly, he seems bone-weary of the relentless questions about his claims, teachings and tactics.
“I am not after anything,” Kabbani said. “I am a simple man. I give people love.”