The Naqshbandiyya in the United States
by Dr. Annabelle Bottcher
Translated from the French by Adil James
[Excerpts from a talk delivered by Professor Bottcher while teaching Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, Spring, 2000. Extracted from a version entitled "La Naqshbandiyya aux États Unis", written and corrected from a seminar given March 28, 2000 at l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Section Religieuse, Sorbonne, Paris.]
The activities and the structures of the Order of the Naqshbandis in United States are inseparable from the situation of Muslims in the country. In 597, the number of Muslims living in the United States was estimated at between 5 and 8 million persons. The descendants of black slaves constituted the first layer of American Muslims.
Between 550 and 560, foreign students who stayed in the U.S. after studying there have composed the essence of the second layer. Since the 570’s, immigration for the sake of a better living, from the Middle and Far East, Morocco, and Asia has expanded the number of Muslims on American soil. Research on Islam in the United States is relatively young, and research into the Sufis is practically nonexistent except for some brotherhoods which have begun to distribute their own research and to publish from their own publishing houses. Certain Sufi circles and orders were created by people who came to the United States to study and then chose to stay. These individuals began by starting circles of dhikr and study. Some of these circles have grown and have become movements. In other cases, it was Americans who studied in the Islamic world and accepted the tariqa of a shaykh and then came back to the United States. This is the case with Kabir and Camille Helminski who founded the Threshold Society. They are at the head of a Mawlaniyya tariqa based in Fairfax, VA in the USA. Another example is Frithjof Schuon, who was based in Bloomington, Indiana.
The adaptation of Sufi Islam on American soil is a strange phenomenon, and very interesting. It seems to me, although it is only a hypothesis, that spiritual Islam in the United States is more intellectual than in the “old” Islamic world. I use this term to describe a rational approach rather than pure experience. American Sufism seems to lack a popular base for spreading through the population. Americans who adopt spiritual Islam are frequently white Americans – academics of the Middle Class.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between spirituality inspired by Sufism and Islamic spirituality. In certain groups, the conversion to Islam is not mandatory. The flexibility of Sufism seems more attractive to new converts than the Salafi Islam inspired by Wahhabism.
There is a large variety of tariqas – turuq – originating in Pakistan, the Middle East, Indonesia, China, Turkey, etc. I propose to examine a case study from the Naqshbandiyya of the United States: the Haqqani-Naqshbandi of Shaykh Nazim al-Qubrusi al-Haqqani, of which you must certainly have heard. I want to present to you, today, the fruit of my research which is still (plein bricolage) in its infancy.
1.3 The structure of the organization in the United States
The leader of the American branch, Shaykh Hisham, has a double background in Natural Sciences and Islamic Sciences. He studied chemistry at the American University in Beirut and [medicine] at Louvain in Belgium. He also studied in Damascus, at the faculty of al-Azhar in Damascus. He married Naziha Adil al-Haqqani al-Qubrusi, the eldest daughter of Shaykh Nazim (q). In 591 the couple received green cards to emigrate to the United States where Shaykh Hisham was named khalifa for leading Islamic dawah.
They began with an ambitious project of constructing a Sufi religious enterprise, well-structured around several different foundations, and with the help of a strong presence on the Internet. We will discuss it next week during a seminar course on Sufis and the Internet. This American branch made remarkable progress over the years with development and foundation of 23 Sufi centers in the United States and Canada. The head office located near a large farm, is located in Fenton, Michigan. The residence of the couple is in Los Altos in California; and in the capitol, Washington DC the organization has a lobbying office.
I will try to describe the structure of this religious enterprise, according to the presentation that is made on the Internet and in its publications, not all of which I have read. I have not had the opportunity to have direct contact except for a short visit in Washington, DC, where Shaykh Hisham received me. I am perfectly aware that one must be very prudent and not judge the importance of an organization solely based on its “virtual” presence on the Internet. This presence does not necessarily reflect reality, because the majority of Muslims in the Islamic world don’t yet have access to this genre of information. Therefore, it is a phenomenon limited to the Muslims residing in the United States and Europe.
One branch of the Haqqani Foundation in California with Shaykh Nazim as its leader, serves as an official headquarters. The blueprint for this structure are in fact classical in origin and comparable to movements in the Middle East. These last are based legally on a jam’iyya khairiyya with diverse dawah activities. The different activities are distributed among education, charity work, and the distribution of the traditional Islamic message. They are of course very well imbricated. The presentation on the Internet of the tariqat is that of an international didactic foundation, whose vocation is the promotion of peace, tolerance, and respect as foundations of the Islamic faith. According to the website, the mission of the foundation is the diffusion of Sufi teachings. The Haqqanis engage themselves in this domain using modern methods like the Internet and the radio, along with traditional methods such as circles of dhikr and the spiritual development of muridun and muhibbun (students and seekers). The tariqat attempts to inform and influence both the Muslim and non-Muslim public. Its interest in regional politics in states and towns and in national and international American politics is, I think, a novelty in the milieu of American Muslims, and follows the strategies of other ethnic and religious groups. The interest in political affairs is a characteristic of the Naqshbandis, who have always in the past been involved in politics, and also in the present as we have seen in Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere.
The Haqqaniyya are at the same time an economic organization. They sell books, audio-visual materials like videos and CD’s, rosaries, and perfume. Recently they began to sell products like waterproof socks [khuffs]. We are seeing that the Haqqaniyya are trying to profit from their Internet presence by making links to large organizations like CVS.
According to their own descriptions, the Haqqani enterprise is subdivided into many “branches:”
- As-Sunna Foundation of America (ASFA)
- Kamilat (for women and families)
- Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA)
- American Muslim Assistance (AMA)
According to their description, As-Sunna Foundation of America (ASFA) occupies itself primarily with the promotion of knowledge of the different schools of fiqh (madhahib). According to ASFA, the stability of these madhahib guarantees at the same time the stability and the cohesion of the ummah. ASFA has published a number of books on fiqh, like the very well-made seven-volume The Encyclopedia of Islamic Doctrine. Several institutions, like al-Azhar in Egypt, the Supreme Council of Singapore (Majlis al-Ugama Singapura), the Center for Islamic Thought and Research at the University of Chicago, the University of Islamic and Social Sciences at Leesburg, VA, (an Islamic university for producing ‘ulama in Virginia), a university in London and one in Lahore, Pakistan, and even the Islamic center of Abu-Nour in Damascus – are all affiliated with ASFA. On the As-Sunna Foundation website, one finds a biography of Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and a list of biographies of ‘ulama and saints which we will discuss later during the seminar on Sufis on the Internet.
Kamilat is the organization of women under the Haqqani umbrella formed in 1997 by Shaykh Hisham, whose main center is in Fenton, Michigan. Kamilat works in [various] towns and treats questions relating to the family, children, their health, schools, marriage in Islam, and problems of domestic violence. These are the classic female subjects, which face a traditional public. Kamilat even provides information on the political campaign which intends to introduce a stamp for the commemoration of the month of Ramadan in the United States. Kamilat offers cultural sensitivity training seminars for private and public institutions. It works with families and refugees –for example people [refugees] from Bosnia.
This type of work is also done by another branch of the Haqqaniyya, American Muslim Assistance, an organization which helps refugees and orphans. This organization works with fundraising, which is done in the traditional fashion – by letter and email. The magazine “The Muslim Magazine” is published four times per year by AMA. Shaykh Hisham is the president and Mateen Siddiqui is the Editor in Chief.
Shaykh Hisham also founded the Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), to “put into practice and to structure the understanding in the United States of the revealed Islamic law according to officially accepted doctrine.” In effect, this is the political branch of the American Haqqaniyya.
1.3 The Political Message
The Haqqaniyya have made themselves known in North America by their tense relations with those known as the Wahhabis. Even if Sufism and the “Salafi” Islam of Wahhabi inspiration only rarely maintain cordial relations, the polemic against Wahhabism is presented everywhere in the writings of the American branch. In January 1999, this culminated in a declaration by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani at the State Department in Washington, DC. In the course of this debate, organized by the State Department on the theme, “The Evolution of Extremism: a Viable Threat to US National Security,” Shaykh Hisham criticized the degree of influence of Wahhabis in the mosques and in American institutions.