Can the centralized model (hitherto referred to as The Madinah Model) of Islamic community organization be copied and pasted as a Dawah strategy for Muslims in the West in the 21st Century? Robert makes the case for why it’s not that simple:

When I first converted to Islam in 2003, I was invited to an iftar dinner with the local Turkish community that had a cultural center on the outskirts of Windsor, Ontario. The lectures and announcements were in Turkish, there were Turkish flags everywhere, and there was Turkish food for iftar. I remember meeting one well-respected, knowledgeable Doctor (himself of Turkish descent), who heard about my recent conversion and took some time to talk to me. He lamented the fact that this center even existed, saying that the Muslims should be united only on the Deen. I soon realized there was a consensus among religious leadership that any type of cultural differentiation should be eliminated –– in favor of a pristine, monocultural version of Islam.

As a convert though, this utopian ideal was contradicted by the fact that Muslims by and large stuck to their own extended family units: had their own restaurants, spoke the same language, and married people from the same ethnocultural origin, often within the same family, tribe, or village.

Fifteen years later, the collectivization of Muslim sub-cultures based on shared linguistic, national, and/or ethnocultural heritage did not blend away as many Muslims hoped. In 2018, I went to an outdoor Eid prayer in Toronto. The mosque that organized it was run by Somali brothers, and 90% of the congregation was Somali. Just a block south of this Eid prayer was another Jama’ah, predominately Desi, who were having their Eid prayer simultaneously. The Imam at Somali Eid prayer was furious that the other mosque was not praying with them, whereas we as a small group walked over to wish our Desi brothers and sisters an Eid Mubarak.

When Islamic leadership attempted to acclimate new converts to the Muslim community, it would have seemed divisive and unfathomable that converts would form similar tightly knit social networks of their own. The fact that Muslims in the West were not collectivizing as a single homogenous unit drove both imams and converts crazy. They looked to the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and how he would pair one of the Ansar with one of the Muhajiroon after the Muslims migrated to Madinah. Given the universal message of Islam as a unifier of the hearts of the believers, the idea of separating the Muslim community by tribe, language, or ethnocultural origin in 7th Century Arabia was anathema to Quranic principles and tantamount to treason in some cases. Building a different mosque to create division was forbidden, and for good reason.

The question remains though: can this centralized, simplified model (hitherto referred to as The Madinah Model) be copied and pasted as a Dawah strategy for Muslim communities in the West (and by extension, any non-Muslim country) in the 21st Century? Should natural affinities for Muslims to free associate with ones extended family, tribe and ethnicity be torn down to make way to assimilate converts into their new faith, including advocating for unmitigated intercultural marriages?

Converts to Islam from the same cultural spheres should collectivize in the same manner as Muslim sub-cultures have already done so in the West, while still remaining part of the greater Ummah. They should be running their own organizations, restaurants, barber shops, marriage networks, and have a general wolfpack mentality. They should still be interacting with all other Muslims and giving them their full Islamic rights. However, these institutions are not just desirable, but essential for survival of converts and the image of Islam as a universal religion for all cultures.

I must admit that for 15 of my first 20 years as a convert, I would have been arguing against this idea. The knee-jerk reaction of most Muslims who follow the Madinah model is to outright reject it as “dividing” the Muslim Ummah. I think it is essential to understand the socio-historical and religious factors that have contributed to this mentality.

Islam does condemn nationalism (asabiyyah), insofar that people held allegiances to their tribe instead of the Muslim Ummah. There are several hadiths regarding this:

Narrated by Abu Hurayrah: Let people stop boasting about their forefathers who have died, who are merely fire for the Hellfire; or they will certainly be more insignificant with Allah than the beetle which roles dung with its nose. Allah has removed from you the party-spirit of the days of jahiliyyah and the boasting about one’s forefathers. Indeed, a person is either a pious Believer or a wretched sinner. All of mankind are the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay. (Abu Dawood 5116 & Tirmidhi 4233)

In addition, much of the Islamic leadership in the West (and laypeople) who came from the Muslim world are often escaping countries that were oppressed by Nationalist-type governments. The concept of Nationalism itself is often challenged within contemporary Islamic discourse, condemned as mere artificial borders drawn up by colonial oppressors.

We can also take examples from the Qur’an and Sunnah when it comes to holding onto the rope of Allah SWT while still celebrating and recognizing the diversity of Mankind. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ called to the worship of one God, Allah SWT, receiving the message of the Quran via the Angel Gabriel (AS). In Makkah, the early Muslims were oppressed and outnumbered by the rival Pagans. Indeed, Islam was a threat to the Pagan society as it lifted the status of the slave and the non-Arab on equal footing in the sight of Allah SWT. The Muslims stood shoulder-to-shoulder as a united front in the face of major oppression. After the migration to Madinah, the Prophet ﷺ established the first Muslim state in Arabia. The two previously warring tribes, The Aws and The Khazraj, were sick of fighting and converted in groups, resolving their differences, and became one united community.

However, there was never a Qur’anic mandate to drop all previous cultural or familial relations. Islam never called for the elimination of tribes and cultures, but rather the purification of those cultures through an Islamic lens. This distinction was made even while absolute unity was of utmost importance for their survival at the time. Umar Faruq Abdullah writes in Islam and the Cultural Imperative: “Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius. In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal-clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but having no color of their own reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”

There are several examples from both the Seerah and Islamic history in which this strategy was implemented. In one example, during the ‘Eid ceremony, the early Muslims from Habasha (Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia) performed their traditional spear ceremony in the Prophet’s ﷺ Mosque. The Prophet ﷺ instead allowed the ceremony to continue uninterrupted, and he would lift Ayesha (RA) on his shoulders so she could watch. He is quoted as advising them “Play your games, sons of Arfida, so the Jews and Christians know there is latitude in our religion.” Muslim leaders from the Aws and Khazraj never gave up their respective positions after conversion. Khalid ibn Walid (RA) would often arrange battle units by tribe to develop competition to see who can defeat the most combatants during battle.

Kafa’ah is a concept in Islamic jurisprudence that meant that it was mustahabb (desired, but not obligatory) to marry someone from a similar culture, profession, lineage, and income (and in the Hanbali madhab, geographic proximity). The Maliki madhab looks at religiosity only. As we all know today, most Muslim societies in the Muslim world operate in this fashion, with families preferring that their daughters marry someone within the city or extended family. Even in the Hanafi madhab, a father can reject a potential suitor to his daughter if he feels that their cultures will be incompatible.

Until recently, the Muslim world was mainly comprised of several monocultural societies that lived within their own specific regions. Chinese Muslims lived in China, African Muslims in Africa, Indian Muslims in India, etc. Even in multicultural cities, Muslims free-associated with their own groups to a large extent. For example, there are both Arab and African communities in present-day India and Pakistan. These groups have lived in their own enclaves up until this day. People migrated from time to time in the pre-Modern era, but they were always on foot or by animal. When Muslims did migrate to different regions, they chose to assimilate into the local culture, insofar that it did not contradict Islam. Since migrations were so difficult aside from the warrior or elite classes, it was common for the immigrant Muslim population to be superseded by the native converts to Islam after a generation. The Muslim population of Granada were not Arabs, but almost entirely native Iberians who had either converted to Islam, or were the descendants of Spanish converts. The island of Crete used to be half-Muslim, half-Christian. Aside from religious insignia and practices, there was no difference culturally between the two groups. Cretan Muslims spoke Greek, they dressed in traditional Greek clothing, and ate the same cuisine. There are several other examples of cultural variation within the Muslim world (one can just point to the various architectural styles of mosques, dress, and cuisines), but the main point to drive home here is that these populations had centuries to develop a synthesis of their culture within Islam.

In 2003, the Dar ul-Uloom organization purchased an abandoned school in a White neighborhood in a city of 40,000 people in rural Ontario, turning it into a masjid. This functions as a boarding school for children doing the six-year ijazah program. Both the students and teachers are overwhelmingly of Desi background. All of them wear traditional Desi clothing, the iftars are spicy Desi food, Muslim women never enter the mosque, and the scarce time they are seen in the area, they are all wearing black niqabs. They do not even have open houses at this mosque because they are (understandably) worried about the children’s safety. The only time a non-Muslim would enter this mosque would be contractors when they need to build or fix something.

The Arab community in this city rented out their own musallah on the opposite side of town, but they made no effort for outreach either. I spoke with their Imam once, about their non-Muslim neighbors. His opinion of them was very low. He said flat out “they don’t like us here.” I tried to reason with this brother, saying that my non-Muslim family had no problem with my conversion, and there is a spectrum of attitudes on Islam in the Anglosphere. He just wouldn’t budge, saying that “very few” White non-Muslims are alright with Muslims here. And this is the Imam of the mosque! Most converts in this city are completely isolated, and neither mosque has any program for them. Even if they were to create a program, it would probably not be focused on ameliorating the relationship with the convert’s family.

The Madinah Model falsely pre-supposes that the Muslims and non-Muslims are living in the same sphere in the contemporary West. Any convert who has been Muslim for any length of time knows that this is untrue. Madinah, like most cities in the Gulf region, was very small and isolated. Everyday interaction between the Aws, Khazraj and the Jews was often necessary for their survival. In addition, our beloved Prophet ﷺ was the leader of the city, and he and his companions were widely known throughout it. In the contemporary West, aside from needed interactions in public life, non-Muslims and Muslims stick to their own cultural groups. The Madinah model also supposes that Muslims spent all of 168 hours of their week within a multicultural Islamic sphere. Most Muslims spend an average of 0 to 10 hours a week at a mosque, with the rest of their time within their own cultural sphere. Most programs designed to ameliorate converts are focused on the Islamic sphere, requiring full assimilation, and exiting of their own cultural sphere in most cases. You can start to see how this set up siphons off most regular Westerners from converting publicly and joining an existent Muslim community.

The Madinah Model also ignores the fact that non-Muslim populations have never seen the synthesis of their culture within Islam. For this to occur, it would require a cultural group to convert en masse. The Tzotzil Muslims in Chiapas, Mexico, integrated aspects of their traditional dress, cuisine, and architecture into their local mosques that they ran themselves. While they were originally marginalized by their own people, they eventually turned things around through local Dawah efforts. Now, the Tzotzil Muslims are a thriving Muslim sub-community in the heartland of Mexico.

The African American Muslim community were the flag bearers of Islam in the United States until recently. Islam was and is part of their history and culture. When a Black person in the U.S. converts to Islam, it is common that at least one of their family members is already Muslim, facilitating the acclimation process. You also see this cultural synthesis of their ‘Urf, with Muslim teens combining Islamic and urban-style clothing, and soul food for iftar. Finally, there is Islam in Spanish, an Islamic organization that has done wonders in spreading the message of Islam to our brothers and sisters in the Latinosphere.

The above results are night and day compared to The Madinah Model. The more Muslims who are in your cultural sphere, the easier it is to convert to (and stay in) Islam. So why aren’t converts of European descent doing likewise? Though controversial, this would be a win/win for converts and born Muslims. We Euro converts are doing a disservice by not doing so, and many born Muslims have told me this personally. This collective effort would remove us Euro converts from the White savior status that mosques foist upon us upon entering Islam. Since our efforts would concentrate on ameliorating the converts’ relationship with their non-Muslim sphere, it would decrease anti-Islam sentiment in the Anglosphere. Our fellow Indo-Europeans would see the synthesis of their own local cultures minus the degenerate aspects. Existing mosques like the Dar ul-Uloom could refer White people interested in Islam to us; they would not have to give up their own cultural identity or change how they run their mosques. Finally, since we would be marrying each other and raising families, Islam would be seen as a religion that would be increasing the native Total Fertility Rate (TFR). This would flip the script on the image of Islam in the West.

Converts in non-Muslim societies should be encouraged to take a communitarian approach to their local Dawah efforts, incorporating the halal aspects of their traditional cultures, while still maintaining ties with the greater Muslim community. In the face of the behemoth that is the global monoculture, Islam can be the strongest bulwark for us and our progeny. However, having a cultural tradition should supplement Islamic education to fully resist it.