Posted by: Dawud Israel | April 24, 2008

Arab Islam and Desi Islam

One thing I’ve noticed in Muslim communities is how different races and cultures interact. You will always get a bit of racism: the Black Muslims think the Desis and immigrants are racist towards them when they aren’t, or the immigrants are actually racist towards Blacks, or Arabs looking down on Desis.

What I will focus on has less to do with race and more to do with religious prejudice. I don’t mean one religion attacking another or one sect attacking another as much, but more to do with the cultural differences relating to one group of Muslims and another not getting along.

Because Arabs speak Arabic (although not Quranic fusha) they are seen as being more religious. Whether they are Shia, Sufi or Salafi–this gives them more credibility when they speak about religious matters. Blacks are grouped in with Arabs (because they have a longer history with Islam) or with Nation of Islam. The wide divide seems to be between Desis and Arabs. The reason I focus on these two groups is because they are the majority in the West and so will be the dominant face of Islam.

Hanafis comprise of the largest portion of the Ummah and are mainly non-Arab. Imam Abu Hanifa was a Tabieen however his ancestry was non-Arab as well. So this is where the divide comes–Muslims who are Hanafi/Desi are usually seen as being not “authentic”. This is more or less linked with the whole rise of the Salafi movement of looking for the “correct” position and although they have their justification for what they do–it has lead to a condescending view of Islam that has been practiced traditionally, whether it’s Hanafi, Deobandi, Sufi etc.

(Is it a Desi book? Or an Arab one?)

What I have noticed is Desi Muslim youth have inclined more towards Islam as it is taught by Arabs because they have felt “religiously inferior” when they practice the traditional Islam as practiced by their cultures and families. Whether it’s the “Bidah” or the practices that seem all too different from Arabs–they opt for the Islam of the Arabs, thinking, “better safe than sorry”. This is a problem because it means these brothers have low self-esteem in who they are and constantly look for approval from their Arab friends. I remember reading one article where an Arab shaykh had to endorse the notion that indeed there are great scholars in India. They want to feel “accepted”. It probably also has a lot to do with Zaytuna and AlMaghrib being the more attractive Islamic teaching institutions that have a Arab Islamic base. The other major problem is that most Muslims do not appreciate the Islam of the Muslim East (West being the Arab world). It is almost strange because there are Desi scholars who have done much Islamic work in the Middle East. Shaykh Saif ur-Rahman Mubarakpuri authored Ar-Rahiq al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar in the image above) and Dr. Muhammad Mohsin Khan who has done a number of translation and pieces for Dar-us-Salam publications which is probably the biggest translators out there.

However, Desi and Arabs have had a strong relationship historically. Allama Iqbal who took after the history of the Persian poets (that’s another post for another time) is studied in Islamic universities in Arab countries although his religious poems were in Urdu. There is also another story which I don’t fully recall but I will paraphrase so perhaps someone else can detail it. An Arab nation was attacked and they were helpless so they sent a message to a Muslim ruler in Hyderabad who sent them help. Ever since then there is a colony of Arabs who went and settled in Hyderabad and live there to this day. And if you go to this Arab country (I think it was Saudi or Libya) and are a Desi, they will give preferential treatment to people from Hyderabad.

My point is that there needs to be a greater appreciation of Islam as practiced by non-Arab people and the workings of non-Arab Muslims. Most people have not taken a close detailed look at Desi Islam or any other non-Arab Islam. In my opinion as time goes on you see how Islam can evolve a people and it’s culture. People don’t realize that many of the words in non-Arab Muslim languages are Arabic or even Quranic. But unless you actually knew traditional Islam and how it basically evolved into societies you would never realize these things. It is often times more enriching as it is an Arab religion mixing with a non-Arab culture and so you see something even more beautiful.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, Ameen.


  1. Good job, bro. JAK.

  2. Excellent article Brother. I think Desis in general have a low esteem when it comes to their race. I guess it has to do with the effect of British imperialism and colonization. Its sad to see how they come up with “jokes” that mock their own race (yeah Desis have some weaknesses, so what?! EVERY race does). I have even seen a Desi ‘scholar’ do that. I will not name him as he is VERY well known. If some Arabs think that they are superior to Desis, which some DO, then its because some Desis act like they are inferior (to Arabs).

    I was born in Saudi and lived there a significant portion of my life. I grew up seeing some Arabs who were good, open hearted and magnanimous–but some of them really had their noses stuck up in the air! They acted like they were superior.

    I remember this one Arab guy I came across while I was playing in a park. When he saw me he started to make fun of me thinking I was Hindu. I feel like punching him when I think of the whole incident. Silly idiot.

    Yet I had another Arab girl friend, also a neighbor, who was really really sweet. She used to come down to our apt. and wait outside the door for me so we could go and play together.

    Also, another thing I remember is how Saudis loved “Amreekis” If you are a white living in Saudi, I don’t know about now but back then, you could expect to get some preferential treatment from the locals.

    I guess for some Arabs, Muslimness doesn’t matter but whiteness does. Some Desis even act that way. Shame on them all!

  3. Oh I forgot to mention one more thing…I also saw an Arab ‘scholar’, once again I will not name him as he is VERY well known standing in front of an audience that was primarily desi and quoting a hadith about how the Prophet (sa) said that a person of certain nationality (I will not name the nationality) should be treated nicely. He never provided the source for his hadith but was saying that it was acceptable. Btw the hadith he was quoting was of his own nationality.

  4. He didn’t say “nicely” but something like the people of that nationality should be given ‘special treatment’. No source provided for the hadith, though.

  5. Clarification: He didn’t say they should be treated ‘nicely’ but more like the people of that nationality should be treated in a ‘special manner’. No source for the hadith though.

  6. Yeah I think I know which hadith you are alluding too. The one thing I didn’t mention is that there are hadiths where the Prophet SAAWS extols and compliments the great qualities of Yemenis (the Prophet SAAWS is Yemeni in ancestry), Syrians, Persians and one that my Tableeghi Friends love to quote about India. They all associate the fact that pious people will emerge from these areas. Let’s not forget that a great deal of the scholars of the past were Persian.

    Aside from the special status that WAS given to Ahlul Bayt and the fact that the tribe of Quraysh are mentioned in the Quran which was a factor in the past–there really is nothing that can put one group above another today.

    And this is not a Salafi bashing article. You find in the Sufi crowd in the West, Shaykh Ibn Ata’illah (rahimullah) is quoted the most (an Arab Sufi shaykh) just as much as Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya (rahimullah) is by the Salafis. Both are Arab. The problem is not quoting them, but why are they discussed so much when there are many many righteous shaykhs out there. If you do a bit of reading you realize this Ummah has 1400+ years worth of illustrious scholarship that is NOT appreciated. We zero in on the Arab Islam and ignore any others and deprive ourselves.

  7. isn’t the sufi aqeedah messed up though, because of innovations in conducting ibadah?

  8. Uhhh that’s a discussion for another time. I really avoid those Salafi vs. Sufi debates. If you want to do your own research you will find no shortage of arguments, debates and useless talk about that topic in the Muslim blogosphere, web forums, websites etc. It never ends.

    What I am dealing with here is how Muslims think in these religious matters. There will always be Sufis as they have been around for a long time–what I am trying to get at it here is how Arab Islam is seen as better whether it is Sufi, Salafi, Shia, etc.

  9. Nahh…I wasn’t looking to get into a debate; simple yes/no answer. I was just wondering if you were Sufi, in that case I just wanted to say that I hardly know about the scholars you are mentioning; so I can’t agree or disagree. I read from the Quran and hadith. I really don’t care about much about sectarian debates.

    Anyways, back to the real intersting topic!

  10. Now one question I want to ask is this:

    If the leader of all the Muslims (the Caliph?) in a specific area (such as those who lead ISNA, ICNA, MSA National, MAS, etc) was a Desi or an Arab–how do you think the opposing groups would handle the situation?

  11. Brother, who are you addressing?

  12. Oh, anyone.

    Just a thought. 🙂

  13. Really good post!!!

    I’ve seen some really nice muslim communities (incl. my own) go WAY downwards because of racial politics. Every 1st generation muslim immigrants have some pre-conditioning of islamic ideas and are so stubborn, that they cannot even consider the ideas of others to be right.

    For example; how many rakahs should the imam pray at taraweeh, most desi’s go for 20 short ones, and arabs go for 8 long ones. And in effect these two groups have HUGE fights. In fact my community has two masjids now, b/c of this.

    I am however optimistic of the future of the young western muslims, b/c they have that open-mindedness and have been exposed to different opinions, so they aren’t so narrow minded, and rather accept each others ideas.

    I think a main goal of the new, young emerging leaders of Islam, at least in the West, should remember to educate the younger muslims how silly and unproductive these arguments, and debates can be. We should educate them on the importance of unity and brotherhood.

    I mean if the time spent on those sufi/salafi debates were instead spent on dawah, we could really be somewhere, and muslims would be able to have a much larger voice in the west.

  14. grrrrrrrrrrrrr, everytime i try to post something any blog won’t let me

  15. yes it worked !!!! /\/\/\/\

    too bad i didn’t save the post that i wanted to say.

  16. Ok ill answer your question Mr. Israel,

    I think that it is not so much desi vs arab, it is more, the culturally religious aspects of desis vs the culturally religious aspects of arabs.

    In other words, if we want a seriously successful Khalifah, we need one that will never associate himself into any sect/division. we need one that won’t even tell us whether he is Hanafi/Malaki/Shaafi, and by no means whether or not he is salafi/sufi. If he can just say ” I AM A MUSLIM, AND SO ARE YOU” then our ummah can seriously go somewhere, except the fact that most Muslim countries are run by hand selected tyrants whom the west have so cleverly puppeted (is that a word?) for many many years.

    And yes, that includes Saudi Arabia! But I digress from my point!

    We really just need to be open-minded to be a successful ummah. I am optimistic about the new young muslims in the West, b/c of all the different islamic views and concepts that have been pooled together by immigration, has left a lot of our kids open-minded. It’s important to educate them about the importance of unity, and how the mistakes of division and intolerance has left us without a Khalifah.

    And to Woman, if an islamaphobe said a bunch of bad things about Islam, and you knew someone who was actually buying it, what would you say? You’d tell him/her to go to an actual masjid, and talk to actual muslims, to see what they really are. Well if you want to find out about sufism then go ahead and try to find a sufi. They’re not hard to find, they kinda look like Jasmine’s dad from Aladdin. :D.

    One more thing, these salafi/sufi debates have exhausted YEARS from 100s if not 1000s of muslim minds. Imagine if all that energy was put towards dawah? Where would we be? How amazing will it be when we inshAllah breakthrough this sillyness?

  17. This article has been islamified.

  18. Br. Usman,

    You are right. Though I have read Sufi poetry in the past, I have never explored the beliefs Sufism on my own. Before making a judgment based on what non-sufi scholars say maybe I should discover it on my own. But in the end, I guess I wouldn’t care much about what scholars have to say. Religion comes from the Quran and sunnah…not from scholars. Hearing all viewpoints is good but in the end one has to use one’s own brain in light of what ALLAH said.

    Ok br. Dawud. I’m Sorry. no more comments on the sufi-sunni topic. I think the ‘real topic’ needs more exposure.

  19. You bring up some good points. I agree with most of what you say. Let me just put this out there, not as a complete explanation but as an influencing factor.

    I don’t think it’s completely correct to group things as Desi Islam or Arab Islam, and one group of people preferring or looking down on one of those. The reason that many desi youth prefer to learn from institutes like AlMaghrib and scholars you affiliate with “Arab Islam” is because of their authenticity. Said authenticity doesn’t necessarily come about due to their ethnicity! If someone tries to introduce something into the practice of Islam which isn’t based upon Qur’an and Sunnah, people won’t follow them – irrespective of their ethnicity.
    The subcontinent has major scholars which many people look up to as well: Maulanas Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Maudoodi, Yusuf Islahi, Kandahlvi, Palanpuri, Taqi Usmani, etc. And the Arabs have their black sheep too.

    I don’t think it’s the case with most people that most things Arab are assumed authentic by default ..

  20. Also, what comes to your mind when you think of Desi Islam?
    If you mean institutions like Deoband or Nadwatul-Uloom and others, I don’t think there is any problem of acceptance or authenticity there except among extreme takfiri-type Salafis.
    If you mean certain cultural practices we’re all aware of that creeped into the practice of Islam, we don’t need to be non-desi to feel something is off there. And doing so among desis shouldn’t imply lack of self-esteem and need for validation by others.

    PS: Br. Dawud .. are you connected to the University of Waterloo in some way?

  21. You’re right. And the authenticity is merely something superficial. You go in closer and you’ll find some weird scholars or ones that say one thing and do another. And there will always be people who are more authentic. It’s just when the Desi looks at the Arab he thinks, “this must be genuine”.

    I can remember one “Arab shaykh” spoke against people gathering blessing from the shaykhs by kissing their hands etc. Then later on, he prayed for someone and the prayer was answered and people found out about this. So the students all were like, let’s get him to pray for us. The point is whether you agree with this or not–a contradiction is taking place. You can say it in a lecture but the fact of the matter is, don’t think it will never happen to you because you talked about it and hence think you are protected. Making speech a reality is not easy.

    The other thing is, everyone makes mistakes. Even shaykh’s make mistakes. I talked about this in a previous post see Worshiping the Shaykhs

  22. By Desi Islam I mean just about ANY form of Desi Islam. Even some of the one’s you would dismiss at first glance saying it’s bidah. I don’t know much about Deobandis but when I discussed it, I was thinking of Tableeghi Jamaat, Sufis (Shah Wali Ullah, Nizamuddin Awliya, Moiniddin Chisti, Bawa Muhaydeen etc.) and also Muslim thinkers and intellectuals like Iqbal and Jinnah who thought of the welfare of the Ummah.

    My point is, how do people know what is there when they haven’t sat down and researched it or learned themselves? There may be some bida present, but one shaykh I have asked said the presence of bida this does not mean they will never be exceptionally pious individuals. You don’t have to accept some of these people, but all I’m saying is take a look around! 🙂

    Go to your library and take out a book on some of these people. Their following in the Muslim world dwarfs the ones in the West and it shows how the young Muslims in the West aren’t in touch with their Islamic heritage.

    P.S. I know a really super awesome brother at Waterloo who made this tool bar–that’s my connection and I wish I knew more like him. 🙂

  23. asssalamu alaikum, excellent article and blog in general. Living in Australia I havn’t noticed so much relegious preferencial treatment on racial lines as I have on ideological lines. To make it clear we do have paki mosques and leb mosques and albanian mosques etc… but in the islamic youth and dawa circles, race is not an issue, and as far as I was aware, scholars were prefered on thier madhab rather than thier race.

    So do you think this problem happens more in North America ?

    I’m reading the sealed nectar in increments every day, it’s an amazing book mashallah.

    JK, wassalam

  24. I really don’t know anything about Australia or the UK for that matter. Since it is a “Western” country, I thought the same thing would occur there…but I’m probably wrong. What I spoke of here is common mainly in regards to North America (Canada and US) and I’m pretty confident in that regard.

    The division between madhabs is related, because Hanafis are the largest madhab and are mainly non-Arab, whereas the other 3 are dominantly Arab. So that division might take place and I know Hanafis are viewed in somewhat of a strange way at times, and Arabs see them as peculiar although it was the very first madhab (Imam Abu Hanifa was the only Imam to be among the Tabieen). The other 3 great Imams are connected where Imam Malik influenced Imam Shafi who influenced Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. So already there is a setup where it is easy to view the Hanafi madhab as more “different” from the other 3 and so as somewhat “other” since it isn’t in the same sphere as the other three…I think this difference of Fiqh is the most marked difference between Desi Islam and Arab Islam.

  25. Here is a rough map of madhab prevalence around the world:


  26. My Question is why do u talk about islam here while this web site advertice about “sexy women dress” our “Sexy swimsuits” people who come to read about islam will be navigated to sex and who will be responsible ????????????????

  27. ^What?

    Where is that mentioned on my website?
    Please let me know and I will remove it.

  28. AssalamuAlikum,
    The link from muslimmatters got me to this post. So i though i would paraphrase a statement of Sh. Rashid Rida (Rahimuallah), “It it wasn’t for the ulema of indo-pak the Arabs would have no books of sunan left” This tradition of writing commentaries upon works of sunan belongs to both the Ahlul Hadeeth Ulema and Hanafi Ulema of the subcontinent. This would include Awn al Mabood Sharh Sunan abi Dawud, Tuhfatul Awadhi sharh Jami Tirmidhi, Sharh of Mishkat, Awjazul Masalik Sharh Muwatta Imam Malik. The list continues…

  29. You are very thoughtful. I would have to agree with BrownSandokan about what you are referring to as Desi Islam. I did read your comment. My understanding is that if everyone were to learn pure Islam, the religion our prophet taught, then the only difference between us would be our food, dress, and languages, art, music, (any maybe all the inside jokes :p). The food, dress, languages and arts make up culture. The rules of religion made from culture are when we start talking about bidaa.

    If you are speaking of having everyone educated in all different cultures, I’m with you but to actually practice some of the desi Islam would mean falling into Shirk.

    Anyway, I wrote an article on somewhat this topic and wanted to see if anyone else had done it–this is where your site popped up! Feel free to drop on by my blog. Your blog is awesome!

    Jazakallahu Khayran

  30. ARABISM = RACISM!!.thtml


    The global virus of racist Arabism has claimed/claims millions of victims, it includes:

    Kurds (under Saddam or Syria), Berbers, Jews (inside Israel – the genocide campaign since the massacre in 1929 by the Mufti Haj Amin Al Husseini until today, or in the Arab world or on ‘Arab street’ in Europe, etc.), Africans (genocide in Sudan, oppression in Egypt, Slavery in Mauritania, etc.)…

  32. […] as well as their xenophobic tendencies towards other groups of Muslims. Sites like AltMuslimah, Muslimology, and plenty of others have articles and posts talking about the heartbreaking racism in both of […]

  33. Your claim that that racism doesn’t exist is totally false and resent the fact you speak on this matter as if you know it as a fact May Allah have mercy on you

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