Skip to main content

Neo-traditionalism and the next-gen of Islam in the West

Enchanting the disenchanted: Neo-traditionalism and the next-gen of Islam in the West
11 min read
23 August, 2023
Book Club: Walaa Quisay's latest book examines the idea of 'tradition' within Anglo-American Islam by analysing three neo-traditionalist Islamic scholars in the West to look at how authority is formed and affirmed.
Walaa Quisay's book studies the impact neo-traditionalism has on the religious and political subjectivities of Muslims in the West [Edinburgh University Press]

How does the contemporary Muslim respond to modernity and the crises that exist within it?

In many ways that is the central concern of the movement that Dr. Walaa Quisay highlights in her book Neo-Traditionalism in Islam in the West.

The scholars who self-describe as neo-traditionalists have made responding and guiding their followers through the trappings of modernity the emphasis of much of their public messaging.

From the rise of political violence to the rise of authoritarian governance, they see their role as helping those known as seekers of sacred knowledge navigate through the complexities of the world – all of which is presented as a distraction from the ultimate goal, the afterlife.

Live Story

They are not alone, however. Over the last ten years, there has been an increased thought production within the space of Islamic studies, as different thinkers attempt to guide Muslims through modernity, and what it means to have a religious-ethical response to it.

Thinkers such as Wael Hallaq have produced books that situate a European episteme as the site of main concern – a series of philosophical underpinnings that give hegemonic power to capitalism and settler colonialism.

Others, such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, spent the early years of the global War on Terror presenting liberal pluralism as an ideal for Muslims to aspire to, but have more recently pivoted to decoloniality, having witnessed the destructive forces of racial capitalism within modernity.

Between all these different trends, there is near universal agreement that modernity presents unique challenges for believers that must be responded – but what separates them, is the way this should be approached.  

Walaa focuses on the scholarship of three white-convert Muslim scholars within the neo-traditionalism movement: Hamza Yusuf, Abdal Hakim Murad and Umar Faruq Abd-Allah:

She presents the conceptual ways they respond to modernity, but the key to her ethnographic work is to interview those who are consuming that knowledge – the seekers.

These seekers travel from across the world to learn and experience traditional scholarship from these scholars, to whom they ascribe answers to contradictions of the world.

They are given a view to neo-traditionalism because they are presented with the idea that an authentic Muslim man and woman could only exist in the past – modernity masks the ability to access the true tradition because our contemporary condition necessitates that we have been affected by modern thinking – a world that has become disenchanted of its magic as the collective vernacular of the divine has reduced significantly across all religious traditions. 

This imagination of the past operates like the yellow hue that is common in Hollywood depictions of Muslim-world desert scenes.

It posits the man who lives in the desert, untouched by the world, who is able to worship Allah without the noise of technology, media or any form of political instability – he is able to exist in an unadulterated communion with the Divine.

Due to the way that authenticity is presented, there is a material dressing that accompanies the idea of being an authentic Muslim for the seekers – a Moroccan aesthetic that was adopted, even by those from South Asia who might traditionally wear clothes closer to that worn by Prophet Muhammad (saws) – but the aesthetic went far beyond just clothing:

As Walaa presents her interview material, among some of the seekers there is a sense of contradistinction between the way they have an imagination of what they wish to experience and the reality of the programmes they attend.

Part of the reason why seekers gather in large numbers around the scholars at the centre of the book is due to their experience and understanding of the West – the seekers are more mistrustful of scholars in the East being able to impart knowledge that is relevant to their experience, while at the same time lionising the Eastern in what may be described at times as a performance of authenticity. 

Live Story

There is also something about the demographic of those who attend the rihla retreats – there is an economy involved that can reach up to $3,300 without the cost of flights – meaning that for the most part, those who attend are consumers who can afford the high costs associated with attendance.

Walaa does point out that a few attendees had spent years saving in order to afford the costs associated. Still, this places the seeking of sacred knowledge within a neoliberal frame – it is an economy where true authentic experiences of the tradition must be experienced at the cost of a financial burden.

The class of attendees subverts the logic of the seeking of sacred knowledge as the relationship veers into service provision – the cost of an authentic experience is X – but it also means that there are demands that the needs of the consumer be met. Walaa provides the example of a two-night retreat at Spring Lodge where the organisers had oversubscribed resulting in a lack of beds for the seekers, one of whom lost their temper with the situation:

Within a neoliberal economy, it is difficult to maintain the illusion of traditional authenticity as there exist too many nodes of interaction with the problematic logic of modernity to escape it, even if it is in a temporal vacuum of a retreat.

Wherever the rihla retreats take place, they are still subject to the overwhelming logic of the power dynamics that exist within that society – and so interaction with that infrastructure becomes an inevitability. Walaa’s interview with Eman who attended the Rihla in 2012 is perhaps most indicative of these contradictions:

Walaa’s book highlights the contradictions that exist within the world of neo-traditionalism in a concentrated way, precisely because she centres on the experiences of those who engage with that tradition.

While they share the same concerns about the contradictions that exist within modernity with their scholars – they ultimately have to return to the real world to practice their faith – and even within the sanitised retreats, they cannot fully escape that reality. This is perhaps brought into sharpest focus when it comes to the political reality of the world they live in.

For example, seekers are taught that it’s easier to live a comfortable life closer to the fitra (natural divine disposition) than it is to live under bombardment in Palestine – because the subjectivity of living in injustice confuses the soul from living a fully authentic traditional life.

The neo-traditionalist scholars attempt to veer seekers away from being political in their outlook on the world, for them this is a distraction from the Divine and a centring of the material world that would confuse them. As Hamza Yusuf explains:

This – somewhat Yoda-esque – narrative on the way that resentment builds leads neo-traditionalists to the conclusion that the best form of interacting with an unjust world is to accept that the world is unjust, and to try your best to not change things knowing full well that all justice is for the afterlife.

In 2016, Yusuf went further in his comments and explained that the devastating consequences we see in Syria today, are a direct result of the revolution, “Now, all these poor innocent people are begging non-Muslims to let them into their country. They are fleeing across the ocean in boats. Allah can humiliate whomever he pleases. If you humiliate a ruler, God will humiliate you.”

This explanation does little to assuage the seekers, who are often uncomfortable with such conclusions – after all, if the political choices of an unjust ruler are connected to God, then why are the political choices of lay Muslims not equally so?

The idea of God’s humiliation runs contradictory to their own position of Divine Will, because if one is to die in the cause of fighting for justice, then this is an act equally connected to the afterlife as much as their position of not intervening in the world.

Bizarrely, the neo-traditionalists, while placing much emphasis on not criticising the state, simultaneously warn against believing the media.

This is a central tenet of their political positionality, that as the media cannot be trusted, they should not be believed when it comes to the goings on of the state.

So when seekers were informed by the scholar Habib Ali Jifri that the killing of protestors in Egypt by the state was a concoction of the media, he masked the extent to which state media outlets are in fact an extension of the state in most parts of the world.

Believe the state, but don’t trust the media. Walaa was present for this declaration, and swallowed her own bias to faithfully record the reactions of the seekers:

What emerges from Walaa’s well-researched and important book and scholarship, is a world where quietism is sold as an ethic that is close to an authentic Islam – but ultimately one that cannot truly escape the modernity it claims to reject.

At many nodes in their self-organising, the neo-traditionalists replicate the modernity they wish to reject and become political even as they seek to disavow politics.

In trying to find enchantment in the Divine and mystical world seekers who are so disenchanted with the world, they end up riddling their followers with the cognitive dissonance of those who wish to be separate from the affairs of the world but have no way of truly escaping it. After all – if it costs you to escape modernity, then you’ve only bought right back into the very modernity you were seeking to escape.

Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror

Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP