By Bill Donahue for The Washington Post
Suhaib Webb, an Islamic imam and social liberal, takes part in Jumu'ah, or Friday prayers, at the Church of the Epiphany. Webb is a former hip-hop DJ from Oklahoma City and now a Koranic scholar who lectures worldwide. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)
A quarter-century ago, before he converted to Islam and long before he was a Muslim cleric, Imam Suhaib Webb was a street gangster. He was a swaggering 6-foot-5, 18-year-old blond, blue-eyed member of the Bloods, a Los Angeles contingent whose tentacles reached east to Webb’s home in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. He smoked weed. He skipped school. His English teachers, he says now, were rappers — Tupac Shakur, NWA, Biggie Smalls and Public Enemy — and Webb spun his own tunes, serving as the DJ in a hip-hop ensemble called AK Assault. On the cover of the band’s second album, “Mafia Style” (1992), Webb stares sullenly off into the distance, arms crossed. The hint of a scowl on his smooth baby face conveys a message embraced by teen rebels everywhere: The whole world is totally lame and in need of serious reform.
On a cool, rainy afternoon in October, as Webb stands before a congregation of Muslims gathered for Friday prayers at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, he’s 40 or so pounds heavier than he was in his AK years, but his hard gaze has not softened. He’s sporting a bushy, mustache-less beard and a gray suit. He is 43 years old. But somehow he still carries the same badness and verve that enlivened the album cover. Maybe it’s the sleek, snappy cut of his suit or the gleaming white kerchief tucked in the lapel pocket. His size 12 shoes are pointy-toed — fancy and well-suited for dancing — and as he stands on the altar, politely waiting out the emcee’s introduction, there’s a bristling energy in the way he shifts on his feet.
A newcomer to Washington and a deeply educated Koranic scholar, he is the founder and guiding spirit of a faith-based community group aimed at gathering the city’s young Muslims. Center DC does not yet have an office or a single donor. There are only three volunteer staffers, all part time, but in leading his small group — which offers prayer sessions at iconic sites like the Lincoln Memorial and fortnightly classes on Muslim theology — Webb aims to make classical Islam relevant to modern Americans and to help a hate-addled world see that, if the prophet Muhammad were alive today, he’d be politically in sync with Bernie Sanders. He’d be tolerant of gays and abortion, and he would, like Webb’s long-ago rap idols, be sickened by the systematic racism pervading America. When Webb introduced his agenda to Washington — at Center DC’s first gathering, in mid-2015, at Busboys and Poets in the U Street corridor — hundreds of people waited in line outside the building beforehand, and many were turned away.
At the Church of the Epiphany in October, Webb’s subject is Donald Trump. “We’ve got a presidential candidate who has no respect for women, for Latinos, for Muslims, for blacks,” he says. “This is a guy who doesn’t know how to wear a suit properly and has a bad spray tan.”
For Webb, Trump is a reason to read Islamic history more closely and to find inspiration in two Muslim heroes of the first millennium, Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and his descendant, Zaid. Both men died in battle, “sacrificing themselves,” Webb argues, “for the freedom of the Muslims. Zaid was killed and his body hung on a fence for four years.
“You have a responsibility to honor his legacy,” Webb intones to the hundred or so faithful kneeling on prayer mats arrayed on the altar. “You need to stand up against persecution, for what is right and just. Think of Rick in ‘The Walking Dead,’ of the way he wakes up in the hospital. We can wake up like that and speak out against white male privilege in this country. We have the collective power to propel causes like Black Lives Matter. We can make a huge difference.”
When he stalks off, Webb is swarmed by admirers. Some fans pound him on the back as others take selfies with him, leaning in close as he looms above, grinning. It is an ebullient moment — and a moment that now, in retrospect, seems like it happened seconds before an earthquake or in the instant before the sun fell from the sky. On Nov. 8, American voters elected as president a candidate who has said that he would “absolutely” require Muslims to register in a database, a candidate who has said, “Radical Islam is coming to our shores. ... The immigration laws of the United States give the president powers to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons.”
It remains unclear which components of his anti-Muslim platform Trump will enact. His rhetoric has generally become less inflammatory, post-election, and the Constitution could enjoin him from making good on his most extreme campaign promises. But Trump’s rise, driven by xenophobia and awash in crude, politically incorrect language, has already given many Americans license to unleash hatred. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 867 cases of hate-tinged harassment or intimidationin the country in the 10 days after the election, and in one instance, an ad hoc group called Americans for a Better Way sent copies of a handwritten letter to at least 10 Islamic centers across the country, calling Muslims “vile and filthy people.” “There’s a new sheriff in town,” the letter read. “President Donald Trump. ... He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews”.
Where can Muslims find hope in the wake of Trump’s win? And what can they do to fight back effectively? These are questions the nation’s 3.3 million Islamic residents have little choice but to face over the coming months as Trump settles into the White House along with staffers who share his views on Islam. Consider national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has called it “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet,” adding, “It has to be excised.” How can a Muslim leader stand in the heat of such vitriol and remain poised and effective? At this unique juncture in American history, a great pressure rests on the shoulders of such leaders as Suhaib Webb.
Webb arrived in Washington late in 2013 from Boston, where for three years he was the top imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center — and a target. When terrorists with Islamic ties bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three and injuring more than 260, Webb fended off baseless Internet rumors that the bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were trained in Boston mosques. In a New York Times op-ed, he wrote, “Radicalization does not happen to young people with a strong grounding in the American Muslim mainstream. ... What Islam requires, above all else, is mercy.” Meanwhile, he was under attack from a local activist, Charles Jacobs, co-founder of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, who alleged that Webb was anti-Semitic, homophobic and in cahoots with the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, even as Boston’s leading rabbis disagreed and one U.S. attorney, Carmen Ortiz, told the New York Times that Jacobs’s claims were “incredibly racist and unfair”.
Webb moved to the District, oddly enough, to duck the political limelight — and to reinvent what it means to be a Muslim cleric. He is now, almost uniquely, a freelance imam, unaffiliated with any mosque, foundation or university. He makes his living traveling the globe, giving talks on Islam as he addresses crowds of up to 2,500. His biggest fans are brainy millennials who were raised Muslim, only to come of age in the fractured techno blur of the 21st century. During a recent three-week period Webb traveled to Syracuse, England, Morocco, Oklahoma and Texas, and also to Boston, where one fan, a 22-year-old Somali emigre named Ahmed Hassan, noted that Webb is a passable basketball player. “He’s old-school,” Hassan says, critiquing his former imam’s on-court habits. “He posts up and shoots sky hooks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He fouls a lot. He plays to win”.
In Washington, Webb teaches two classes for the region’s biggest Islamic group, the Virginia-based All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS). But his main focus locally is his nonprofit, Center DC, which boasts about 25 frequent participants, most of them young Muslim professionals who are reminiscent of the Islamic believers who followed Muhammad into the hinterlands of the Arabian desert in A.D. 622. They’re idealistic wanderers of the city, revolutionaries whose faith is not moored to a building, but rather to “pop-up duas,” which are spontaneous prayer sessions on random street corners. As Webb sees it, they constitute a vanguard. “Eventually,” he told me, “one of them might become a federal judge or a congressman or a senator and they’ll remember their experience with Center DC. It could shape how we treat Muslims in this country”.
Center DC meets every other Tuesday night at George Washington University for a class, “Getting It Right,” a primer on Muslim theology. When I visit, Webb skates in exactly on time. He’s taller than everyone else in the room and more famous, but as he folds his legs under a small table, he stresses that tonight it’s all about community. “And that means knowing that Yasmin is pregnant,” he says. “It means knowing that Tara and Anders are newlyweds”.
Webb’s ostensible mission tonight is to explicate 28 qualities of God, but the splendor of his talk lies in his wild and erudite digressions. When he notes that God is “the first and the last,” he dwells for a moment on a 1996 book on Christian theology, “The Domestication of Transcendence,” before musing briefly on ’90s-era heavy-metal music and its facile use of divine phraseology — “guitar gods,” for instance. “I believe in freedom of speech,” Webb says, “but I think it’s important to see what’s going on.
“God is immanent,” he continues. “He’s part of your life. He’s alive. He’s living.” Soon, he’s stressing that Muslims must practice acts of charity and is dwelling on the “screaming liberal” bent of historical Islam by, for instance, quoting a 13th-century Syrian scholar. According to Webb, al-Nawawi said, “If a person is gay because of their nature, we have to treat them with mercy”.
The students listen attentively, taking notes. When the class ends Anders Rosen, one of the newlyweds, downplays Webb’s leadership role. “He makes us think,” says Rosen, a recent convert to Islam. “He gives us a place where we can unpack our ideas in an honest environment, but really it’s the group that matters. It’s an interesting time to be a convert, but among this group I feel like I’m supported. I feel like I’m on the TV show ‘Friends.’ ”
The following afternoon, Webb is giving a talk to a youth group at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., at 5. Or so I think, until I get out there and then receive a text from the executive director of Center DC — “They pushed it back to 6:45.” Soon, a pop-up dua — internally planned by Center DC but not announced to the public — is canceled. “Suhaib is going to rest up,” reads the text.
Webb isn’t just busy. His mother is in critical condition at a hospital in Oklahoma, struggling with congestive heart failure, and he’s going through a divorce after a long separation from his Malaysian-born wife of 16 years. Asma Ayoub is now back in her native land, along with the couple’s two teen children; he is lucky if he gets to see his kids two or three times a year.
When I meet him at Peet’s Coffee & Tea downtown the next day, though, he needs no caffeine. He is instantly antic as he tells me about one of his earliest Sunday school teachers, a Mrs. West who warned of an insidious rival faith. “One of these days,” she told her class, according to Webb, “these men are going to knock on your door. They’re called Muslims, and they’re going to tell you to denounce your lord and savior, Jesus Christ!”
“I was like, ‘Holy hell!’ Webb says, looking back to a time when his first name was William. “ ‘How are these guys gonna come to suburban Oklahoma?’ ”
At the time, in Webb’s eyes Islam had little more to offer than “camels and tents.” Besides, it was nothing compared with his true devotion, basketball. He was a talented shooting guard; by the time he was 14 he could dunk. In ninth grade, he transferred out of the mostly white schools of his home town, Edmond, and into a predominantly black John Marshall High School, in Oklahoma City, to play ball. But during his junior year Webb wrenched his knee, and he had more time to consider the hardships of his schoolmates: Many were on food stamps; some sold crack and broke into jewelry stores to survive. Suddenly hip-hop wasn’t just music to Webb. It was truth. When Public Enemy sang of how blacks were bereft of political power (“Neither party is mine not the/Jackass or the elephant”), Webb knew that the group was bearing witness. And he heard the poetry in rap as well. He is still rapturous as he recites lyrics from his favorite hip-hop album, “Paid in Full,” released in 1987 by Eric B. & Rakim: “I start to think and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink”.
“Who the hell talks like that?” Webb marvels. “Rakim brings in a control of the language that is almost like Chaucer”.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Webb’s first spiritual mentor was an Oklahoma City rapper. Chilly D. was four or five years older than Webb, who was 18 at the time, and he was, Webb remembers, a “pseudo Muslim. He was a cocktail of black nationalism, Judaism and Islam. He was a guy with dreadlocks who smoked a lot of weed.” He spoke in cosmic terms, telling young Webb, “Islam is where black people come from.” He noted, not inaccurately, that Kunta Kinte, the central character of “Roots,” writer Alex Haley’s saga of African American life, was a Muslim; Webb was intrigued. He bought a copy of the Koran and began reading, clandestinely. Fearful of angering his parents, he read the holy book in a cramped bathroom off his family’s kitchen, perched on the toilet, the door locked as he absorbed the Koran’s wisdom.
There was warfare and bloodshed in the holy book’s 114 surahs, or chapters, yes, but as Webb read he also found a rhetorical zing that put him in the mind of the myriad rap rhymes he had memorized over the preceding years. He kept reading, and when he neared the end of the 18th surah, he encountered these words: “If trees were pens and the oceans were ink, you could never exhaust the words of God.”
Webb thought to himself, Wow, this is dope! I need to do this.
Within months, he stopped drinking. He stopped smoking pot, stopped eating pork. His parents were “concerned,” he says. They were relatively liberal Christians; they didn’t like Mrs. West. Still, they worried about their son. As a gang member, he had been shot at twice — luckily by bad marksmen. Once he watched a rival gang member bleed to death outside a restaurant. His parents asked, “How can you turn your back on Christ?” They worried that he was allying with a cult.
But Webb only deepened his faith. In time, he changed his first name — Suhaib was a disciple of Muhammad. He moved to Cairo and spent seven years studying Islam at Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of the Muslim world. In Cairo he learned to speak Arabic fluently. He became a hafiz, meaning that he joined the tens of thousands of Muslims worldwide who have fully memorized the Koran, all 77,500 words. On the day before he left Egypt, an aging, gray-bearded farmer approached him in the mosque, dressed in a simple homemade robe. Mumbling in a country dialect of Arabic Webb could scarcely make out, the man asked the American imam to explain the pronunciation behind a single Arabic word in the Koran: “shrri,” meaning evil. “Tell it to me simply,” he said, “in everyday language. Every time I ask you guys a question you give complex answers nobody can understand. Simple, please.”
Webb gave him an answer and the old man went home, satisfied. And in an instant, Webb apprehended his mission in life: He would teach Islam in simple language. He would reach out to young Muslims by speaking the casual street patois of his youth, and it would work.
It would be super dope.
Webb hopes, eventually, to have a brick-and-mortar home for Center DC, a small space that will function “kind of like a Jewish community center. People could talk about Muslim rock-and-roll artists or make Pakistani samosas,” he says, “and it wouldn’t need to be faith-based”.
Center DC incorporated as a 501(c)(3) only in September, though, and it’s still unclear how the group will find major funding. Its executive director, Lauren Schreiber, speaks of charging affiliates an annual membership fee, but that seems poised to bring in only a few thousand dollars a year, and Schreiber doesn’t see Center DC soliciting grant money or gifts from foundations. “There’s not a lot of foundation money in the Islamic world,” she says. “I think we’ll look for individual donors”.
Among Washington-area Islamic leaders, meanwhile, there seems to be some confusion as to Center DC’s mission. Mohamed Magid, the imam for ADAMS, in Virginia, tells me that, as he understands it, the group was created to “convert faith to social service.” But there is nothing about social service on Center DC’s website, and in my research I’ve learned of only one Center DC service event: It involved handing out sandwiches to homeless people. Still, Magid heaps praise on Webb. “He speaks the language of youth better than anyone I know”.
Sahar Mohamed Khamis, a professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that when Webb spoke at her school a student approached him, post-lecture, on fire with “these fanatical ideas he’d read online. Suhaib Webb took this guy aside,” Khamis says. “Then, very gently, he told him how Islam is a religion of peace and understanding. I think it sunk in. I was very impressed with Suhaib’s care for that young man”.
I could not find anyone in Washington who takes issue with Webb’s rare standing as a white leader in a religion populated largely by people of color. In 2014, though, one Canadian blogger, Dawud Israel, railed against Webb in an online screed titled “Imams of White Privilege — Are They a Problem?,” alleging that the convert imam was being paternalistic in decrying the misogyny of one Pakistani imam. Webb’s critique, Israel said, “is not far off from American boots in Afghanistan saving the oppressed Muslim damsel in distress”.
But Israel’s post hardly galvanized the Muslim world, and he recently took it down. He may have averted a spat.
At his worst, Suhaib Webb can be a hothead with a sharp tongue. In 2009, after a falling-out with an employer — SunniPath, an online Muslim academy for which he served as a teacher — Webb rounded on the school’s devotees, alleging that they often bought the “sweaty clothes” and “nasty old miswaks ” of SunniPath’s Jordanian leader, Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller. “This,” he said, “is an issue of a Jim Jones type cult.” In one 2014 speech, Webb’s fury focused on Dutch atheist and anti-Islam crusader Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom he called an “idiot,” even though she has taught at Harvard. In the same speech, he proclaimed, “Secularism is a radical lunatic ideology.”
When Trump won, I wasn’t the only one wondering what Webb would say.
Like a lot of liberals who spent last year terrified that Donald Trump would win, Webb had a whole array of reactions, post-election. In mid-November, he seethed with outrage. “White privilege is like cancer,” he tweeted. “You think you removed it, but it permeates, taking on new parts of society.” In another tweet he wrote, “Trump’s victory is steroids for white privilege.” Later, he tried a little dark humor, retweeting a picture of some Third Reich-era German soldiers striding along in jodhpurs. “Oh look,” the accompanying text reads, “it’s some dapper white nationalists!”
Eventually, though, Webb found his voice by baring his soul to the pain of Trump’s victory and writing and speaking in language that seemed almost to bleed. “There are times in life when Qada (God’s plan) chips away at us, ripping into our seemingly perfect worlds, leaving gashes, open wounds, and small crevices,” he wrote in a November Facebook post. “It renders us gasping, confused, feeling incomplete and struggling to comprehend Allah’s plan”.
Left unmentioned in the post was a more personal tale, a deeper hurt: Webb’s mother was not getting better. She was still in the hospital, and failing. In our conversations in Washington, he had spoken of her with admiring affection, noting that she had, many years earlier, come to embrace his conversion. In 2011, Mary Lynn Webb told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m proud of him” before marveling over his Islamic scholarship: “It’s amazing, really, when you think that he doesn’t have that background. I think it may have saved him from something had he stayed in the rap world”.
Now she was dying, and Webb was channeling his grief into eloquence. In addressing 350 or so people at an Arizona mosque in mid-November, he likened American Muslims’ current crisis to the period circa A.D. 620, when Islam was still a fringe faith in Arabia. The prophet Muhammad was, along with his followers, being persecuted in his native city, Mecca. “It was a time of economic and social isolation,” Webb said. “People were being killed. At least 85 percent of the prophet’s companions were suffering from malnutrition. Some of them were subsisting on grass. The prophet loses his mother, he loses his uncle, his city. But he soldiers on and he teaches us how to deal with oppression and how to deal with difficult times”.
Soon, Webb was imploring his audience to emulate the prophet — to enact “prophetic policies for our age. We’re seeing American citizens murdered,” he said, alluding to shootings by police officers. “We’re seeing the killing of innocents. Drones are flying over the Middle East. We have to be moved if we’re members of the prophetic office, and the prophet cannot be silent about the minimum-wage issues in this country, about paid leave for mothers. We should make sure that the forgotten in this country who voted for Trump and haven’t seen economic prosperity for years have a voice.
“I’m an ally,” Webb continued, “for Palestine, for black America, for the budding Hispanic community. Whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim, I approach these communities like a dead body being washed.” He threw his hands in the air. “Use me as you like. I have no control of myself”.
Two weeks later, Webb’s mother passed away. I spoke to him on the day of her death, and coming over the phone his voice was quiet, his tone understated and measured. I was reminded of a basketball player kneeling by the scorer’s table, collecting himself just before being dispatched onto the court in the last minutes of a critical game. Muslims would need to organize, he told me, but that was just the start. “Look,” he said, “the election of Donald Trump is going to be perhaps one of the greatest challenges we ever face. I’m just encouraging people to find spiritual strength”.