by Farzina Alam
Originally published on Egypt Today
William Webb would never have had to hide in the men’s room at a convention, waiting for a gaggle of girls to lose interest. But Imam Suhaib Webb is a different story. Such is the Muslim community’s fascination with this American-born Azhari student that one day he had to do just that.
“I’m married!” he says, almost at a loss for words. “This is a fitna [discord]”
Webb is hard to miss, and his charisma and vision are even harder to ignore. Whether ambling through a bookstore in Old Cairo or sitting on the floor of Al-Azhar directing visitors, Webb is clearly at home. But few Azhari students are tall, blond, blue-eyed and reared on American hip-hop in a rough part of America’s heartland.
More importantly, few students at Al-Azhar share Webb’s daunting mission. Part of the vanguard of a new generation of American Muslim leaders, he is trying to articulate an American Islam that reflects both its heritage of Eastern scholarship and the needs of its American believers. Easy? Not in the slightest.
Born in the USA
Now in his third year of study at Al-Azhar, Webb has a growing following among American and British Muslims. But he wasn’t always Imam Suhaib Webb. Once upon a time he was William Webb, born in 1972 to a Christian family in Oklahoma, where his grandfather was a preacher. “I had a lot of trouble accepting God as a human being or creation,” he recalls. “Even as a young child I would ask my mother questions. Suddenly, God is one of three instead of God just being God. So I became a little confused. How could the prophets before Jesus go to heaven if they couldn’t worship Jesus? If [the criteria for heaven was] worshipping and recognizing him as a deity and [as] the key to paradise?”
At 14, Webb went through a spiritual crisis. By then he had become a gang member. “Although I came from a middle-class family, I went to a rough high school,” he says. Deeply entrenched in the 1980s hip-hop community, Webb worked as a DJ.
“Hip-hop was more of a social movement than it is now. Now it’s all, ‘I got girls, I got some nice gold, nice car, I’ll kill you and I love my mamma.’ [Back in the] ‘80s and ‘90s, there was more of a sociopolitical, almost Afro-centric feel, which was kind of laced with the teachings of Islam due to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.”
Webb credits this as his first exposure to Islam. “There was always a feeling among the hip-hop community and among inner city African-Americans and the whites that mix with them that Muslims are correct, and Islam is the true religion. Malcolm went that way so it must’ve been right.”
He got his first copy of the Qur’an at age 17. “I read the Qur’an for three years in the restroom because I was scared my mother would pulverize me if she saw the Qur’an in her house,” he says, his eyes growing wide. “It was a big deal!”
Once in college, his life became further intertwined with gang violence, culminating with his involvement in a drive-by shooting. That, he says, was a wakeup call. At the height of his material success as an artist, “I was completely empty inside and spiritually dissatisfied. I felt impoverished on an internal level.”
At age 20, when most freshmen in college were joining fraternities and spending the year drunk on dormitory lawns, Webb made the shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith, recited at the moment of conversion).
“You’re a Westerner, Brother!”
The interview is interrupted several times as visitors wander through Ibn Tulun mosque doors. Imam Suhaib greets them all. When addressing me, he keeps his eyes on the floor. He knows the mosque quarters well: When a man approaches to ask where the fatwa office is, he gives directions without a pause.
For him, converting to Islam wasn’t enough. In one year, Webb will finish his studies at Al-Azhar, adding a formal degree to his already formidable accumulation of religious knowledge: He spent 10 years studying with a Senegalese scholar and memorized the Qur’an under his guidance. He has studied with well-known sheikhs in the US and United Kingdom, and traveled to Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia to learn more. Egypt has been the first place in which he has dropped anchor.
The Muslim American Society sponsored Webb’s move to Egypt in an attempt to cultivate leaders among American Muslims and deal with a crisis facing modern Muslims in the West. In a country where about 85 percent of non-African-American mosques are led by foreign-born imams, scores of religious leaders are confronting a community they do not understand.
“We felt that the youth were very confused when dealing with imams [sent from abroad], who are not really able to understand where the youth are coming from. They don’t even speak the language at times. At times, they even exhibited behavior that is reprehensible for us in the West, like in their understanding of women and their role in the community.  We had a hard time swallowing that, so we felt we needed some local expression.
“The quality of the [imam] is that he should have knowledge of the religion and knowledge of the place in which he articulates his views. There was a need for indigenous scholarship and articulation in America — so in order to do that, we had to sponsor people.”
There are 8-9 million Muslims in America, but Webb counts only nine or 10 Americans at Azhar with him. “It’s scary because if you take all the students of [Islamic] knowledge in Syria, Saudi, and Africa — probably only 100 [American] students are out there studying, with a mere handful going back.”
But it isn’t merely the imams who are to blame for this gulf of misunderstanding, he says. “The problem is also the communities these imams from abroad land in. If those communities don’t engage that imam and don’t encourage him to branch out into society, then you have problems.”
As a Western convert to Islam, Webb has found himself in an unusual position: smack in the middle of East and West. Coming to terms with the responsibility such a position holds isn’t always simple. “As Western Muslims, we have a complex when we deal with the tradition. [In the sense that] we are told that traditional Islam is the savior for everything in the West. But I don’t buy that Our job as Western Muslims is to synthesize and articulate a Western Islam.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. The Malaysians articulate a Malaysian Islam. The Pakistanis love biryani; the Arabs hate spices and the Africans like a mix. We in the West, because of the society we live in, because of the way our society moves, we cannot just merely regurgitate sixth- or seventh-century texts and try to answer the crisis of humanity. Our job is to fuse both.”
As a convert, knowing what aspects of East and West to adopt or reject is also a challenge. “I have to engage the tradition first, understand it, then what I learn from the teacher, I have to translate into my experience as a Westerner. And I shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
“We have a lot of brothers and sisters who convert to Islam who experience crises in dealing with modernity. What brought sovereignty to women and urbanization is modernity, what brought management — we don’t have any management here — is modernity.
“At the same time spiritually, I have issues with modernity. The absence of God, the absence of a creator. The outcome of modernity was basically Hitler and Mussolini, but we can take just the good. I felt that I didn’t want to lose my identity as a Westerner. I don’t want to start speaking like,” and he adopts a fake Indian accent for a moment, “‘Hello, my name is Suhaib from Oklahoma.’ I meet brothers who go through this crisis. I meet people who don’t want to dress like a Westerner — why not? You’re a Westerner, brother! The Prophet rarely asked people to change their dress or their names unless their names meant something really bad.”
Webb believes converts in the West have not really come to grips with this fusion. “Our job as Western Muslims is to learn our religion well, to have an understanding and articulation that’s balanced within the confines of our environment, because we represent a reservoir of prophetic guidance to the West. And the West represents a reservoir of material guidance for us.” The trick, he believes, is knowing how to fuse the two.
“All of us, whether you like it or not, here [in the East] we are representatives of the West; [over] there, we are representatives of the East. Although I’m definitely not Eastern: My hair is blond, my eyes are blue. But immediately people assume I have experience with the East because I’m Muslim.”
While in Egypt, Webb is equipping himself for a return to the States, where he will try to bridge the gulf he believes Western Muslims experience. “I feel I have a long way to go. I’m still in the beginning. What I’m learning here is very theoretical, I learn a lot more when I go back to my environment and I can thematically relate what I study here here it is hard for me to contextualize.”
But, as Webb’s case shows, the respect a scholar earns in our world can be a double-edged sword. The ugly fact is that many scholars, especially white converts, cannot avoid the probing lights of celebrity.
Webb follows a long line of white convert sheikhs, such as Hamza Yusuf, Abdal-Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) and Nuh Hamim Keller, all of whom have been slated for unwelcome celebrity status. “Groupies,” as the followers who amass around such scholars at public events are sometimes called, are frequently criticized for blind, unconditional acceptance of their leaders’ words.
In a world where Muslims are increasingly demonized, does a white man’s conversion provide a form of validation for the followers?
“We have the habit in the West to transfer our constructs so if we like David Beckham, we replace David Beckham with so-and-so imam. Is there a subliminal factor in dealing with the white person, looking up to white people? I think so! I’ve seen our community react to an African-American becoming Muslim and saying, so what? But a white dude with blond hair who looks like Owen Wilson and everybody goes crazy.
“It’s [not] just Caucasian imams. We have a tendency to react and always blame the white man. The whole whitey syndrome, that’s also a symptom of a construct that exists within us. But I’ve seen other ethnic groups being idolized as well and put on a pedestal, which is not befitting a human being.”
Webb emphasizes the importance of not creating a utopian vision of imams. “People make mistakes, people are human beings. When they let us down, we grill them and destroy them, and this is another problem.” Part of the responsibility, Webb recognizes, lies with the imams themselves. His words reveal how much of this he incorporates into himself: His upbringing and his past are clearly still a large part of who he is today.
“We have to be very down to earth, sit on the floor, eating koshary, saying, ‘What’s up, how the homies doin’, chill’ We don’t have to be walking around with a conglomerate of bodyguards, paratroopers and storm troopers, because that creates an image that the Prophet did not want us to have.
“We have to be careful not to create that climate. When the Prophet went to Medina, people didn’t know who he was. He didn’t stick out; he was like an ordinary person. We have to be very cautious, not to translate the Catholic tendencies in the West to our religion, making imams and spiritual leaders above correction.”
He shakes his head as he recalls ducking into the men’s room to escape a clutch of groupies. “I’m just Suhaib Webb. Who is Suhaib Webb? My wife can write a whole encyclopedia about my mistakes and my errors. I struggle to pray and wake up in the morning just like you. I struggle with my non-Muslim family members — I’m nothing when I go visit them. I’m William! ‘Yeh, I know this guy — I knew this guy when he used to pick his nose and play basketball.’ ”
Some have called Webb the next Hamza Yusuf, but Webb shies away from that description. “We’re lowering him by comparing me to him. He has his own role and area to focus on. Me, I like to deal with people on more of a grassroots level. He is a very gifted person. I’m from Oklahoma; we barely speak English correctly.”
But, for some, this imam is more than just William. UK government officials were recently quoted in The Guardian defining Webb as a “moderate leader” along with the likes of Hamza Yusuf and Amr Khaled. Government endorsement of this form has proven a tight squeeze for community leaders such as Webb. When Hamza Yusuf was appointed a Muslim representative and advisor to George Bush after 9/11, there was no end to the accusations of treachery he faced. Is it fair to assume that community leaders are sellouts simply because Western governments like what they have to say?
Regarding the work he recently did for UK Muslim grassroots initiative The Radical Middle Way, which was backed by the UK government, Webb says, “There was a little bit of that slack working  on the Radical Middle Way, but we have to move beyond that and be more mature and engage. They are our governments, and we live within the framework of these governmental systems. If we reject them, what have we accomplished?” This anti-establishment trend among Muslims, Webb notes, is alarming. He stresses that accepting the system and engaging in it doesn’t mean agreeing with everything it does. “Protesting is part of engagement!” And on being labeled moderate? “I was actually pleased to be mentioned in that light — honored.”
Al-Azhar in America
After earning his degree at Al-Azhar, Webb hopes to return to the States where he has planned, along with the Muslim American Society, to start a foreign version of Al-Azhar, “hopefully trying to get it recognized by Azhar itself, as an official Azhar in the West. We also want to start an official imams’ training course.” Above all, he wants to deal with Muslims in the West on a grassroots level. “Sometimes we’re so involved in global issues we forget the Joe, Paul, John and his lunchbox who goes to the steel mill and doesn’t know whether he should pray dhuhr and asr together because he is working all day.”
In the meantime, this Azhari student has an afternoon of study and memorization ahead of him. Webb is just one of the thousands at Azhar, and the professors cut this American no slack. He is up for the challenge, because he knows that the work he has set for himself back at home will be harder than anything the sheikhs could throw at him. et