For a book summary and reading guide, click here.
This review has two parts. The first is about the thesis or main argument of the book, and what I thought of it. The second is about other details and tangential arguments the book makes.
Part One: The Thesis
The main argument or thesis of the book, in my own words and from what I understood, is as follows:
The modern West is suffering, due to liberalism, secularism, individualism, and related phenomena. This helps fuel Islamophobia, because the West is insecure about itself and its own identity, and thus needs to create an external boogeyman to hold itself together, which is often Islam. Muslims should respond to this by empathizing with Westerners and recognizing the reasons behind their malaise, and by articulating solutions that are grounded in the Islamic tradition. Rather than pushing people away from the Deen or wholesale imitating the West.
My overall reaction to this thesis is that his approach is necessary and welcome. Muslims taking on this role of “therapists,” of people who develop authentic solutions to contemporary problems, is something we need to seriously adopt. Also, his diagnosis of the West’s own insecurities about itself and its own identity fueling Islamophobia is spot-on.
One impression you get from SAHM’s writing is that he’s done a lot of reflections on questions of identity, belonging, purpose, and so on. These are issues that surround us every day and there’s often discussion on them in the media at a superficial level, but he goes deeper and is able to better analyze things in a more fundamental way. You won’t find that elsewhere. He also does a great job understanding the changes that have happened in Western societies in the past few generations. Of course, the 20th century was not a golden age. But today, the people here are less and less satisfied with their current state, and are hungry for truth and authenticity.
One of the most salient contributions of SAHM’s book is that he re-centers Dawah to non-Muslims as a major goal for Muslims. Unfortunately, in recent years, social justice activism, fighting for “representation,” and intra-Muslim refutations have become more elevated, while general Dawah has taken a back seat. When SAHM talks about Muslims articulating solutions to social ills that the West is facing, the ultimate goal of that is Dawah, to invite them to Islam. It was refreshing to see this goal made a priority by a prominent Western Muslim figure in 2020.
Overall, I would say I agreed with the thesis of the book. However, the book itself falls short in certain ways, because it spends little time exploring how SAHM’s approach could be applied to specific areas (other than the chapter on Zakat). Instead, a lot of space is given to criticizing Islamism, chastising immigrant culture, and discussing Muslims’ overall mindset in dealing with contemporary issues rather than the issues themselves.
It should be noted that this isn’t a criticism per se, because it could very well be that the author considers this to be preparatory work before one delves into specific areas. Rather it’s a heads-up to readers for what to expect. In general, I think the best value from this book will be if readers take on the challenge of the thesis and work on their own to produce strategies that take on specific challenges in the way SAHM outlines.
Because the book discusses a lot of other things besides the main argument, I will analyze a few of the topics below. Some of which I liked, some of which I didn’t.
Part Two: Other Points
The Lessons from Bosnia
The Bosnian Muslims were tolerant, moderate Sufis. They were the same ethnolinguistic group (South Slavs) as the Serbs, just the religion was different. They had lived alongside the Serbs for 100s of years, most recently under Yugoslavia, one of the more prosperous of the communist countries. When the war happened, they had to take up arms to prevent the total slaughter of their people. And the only outsiders who helped them were Muslim countries who were willing to risk sanctions by defying the arms embargo, for little to no tangible material benefit. Western liberals and conservatives alike blamed “both sides” (with a few exceptions, such as Joe Biden).
It would seem like the lessons to be drawn from this are about the importance of power, especially on a geopolitical scale. If the situation in the Balkans unravels again, or if the Bosnia 1990s scenario repeats itself elsewhere, pointing out to the killers that their hate is caused by their own identity issues or by the alienation of liberal secular individualism won’t achieve anything. You need to be able to exert force. Of course, that kind of approach is still important and useful, I just think we need to be honest about how far it can go and how in certain circumstances, raw power is needed to do the job that compassion and empathy cannot.
Critiques of Islamism
SAHM often criticizes Islamism, which he refers to as “Movement Islam,” as well as Salafism. Unfortunately, his critiques of these ideas (especially Islamism) are often broad-brushed and lacking in substance. For example, he complains that Islamists turn Islam into an “ideology,” but it’s unclear what that means exactly, and why his proposed sociopolitical approach wouldn’t do the same.
I guess it would be fair to say that I don’t necessarily disagree with anything he said here, but rather wish it was more fleshed out. He might have written more details on this stuff elsewhere, so I’ll have to look it up.
Culture and Heritage
The shaykh says that the immigrant and descendant-of-immigrant communities in the West should adopt local modes of dress, cuisine, and even things like tajwid and adhan. There are a few areas where this could be done, such as mosque architecture, but otherwise I don’t think these Muslims in the West are going to become white people any time soon. And we can’t expect them to. For example, for a Desi, even one raised here, can anything really compete with their homeland’s cuisine?
Perhaps it’s valid for a white Muslim to complain about this kind of stuff because it can be alienating for them, and there are cultural excesses that do need to be reined in. The immigrant Muslims should keep that in mind. But overall, this is a natural and organic process and it’s unrealistic to expect people to change overnight.
Furthermore, there’s a bit of selectivity when discussing the native culture to adopt. For example, take Britain. South Asians have arrived there in the past century, and many are now 3rd or 4th generation and have known no home other than the UK. In contrast, Anglo-Saxons have been there for a bit longer, but did also migrate there at some point. So where does one draw the line? Whose culture gets to be labeled as authentically British and whose doesn’t? As any anthropologist will tell you, culture is incredibly dynamic and fluid. There’s no way to define British culture that includes beans on toast but excludes the curry houses of Bradford, unless one accepts far-right identitarian ideas.
Islamic Studies Curricula
In the discussion on how to obtain an Islamic education in today’s world, the author ultimately settles on “carefully hybridized spaces” as the least-bad option – institutions such as Zaytuna College, Cambridge Muslim College, and Ibn Haldun University. These places sound great, but the overall discourse around Islamic educational institutions seems biased towards those who want to go into Islamic studies full-time, which is a small percentage of Muslims.
What’s missing here is that if the Muslim community is to adopt the approach he suggests in dealing with contemporary issues, it will have to be through the masses, not just a few imams and academics. Westerners are much more likely to learn about Islam through their Muslim coworker, colleague, or neighbor than via a SAHM lecture. Thus, the average Muslim needs to be able to navigate certain issues related to liberalism, secularism, identity, and so on while remaining true to the Islamic tradition. This underscores the need for a proper Islamic education for the masses, and not just an ivory tower elite.
The “carefully hybridized spaces” SAHM endorses seem to be over-focused on creating an ideologically pure intellectual elite. There’s a lot of focus in his book on having a curriculum that’s not Salafi, Sufi but not too Sufi, not influenced by Islamism, engages with Western thought but isn’t too influenced by it, etc. This is fine but when it becomes the main focus, it becomes counter-productive. You’ll end up with graduates who are precisely molded to be ideologically pure but there will be too few of them and their influence on society will be limited.
The bulk of Muslim students want to go into STEM as a career path. Some of the curricula that the shaykh criticizes as being too influenced by Islamism are usually taken alongside a degree in STEM that puts the student on a decent career path (e.g. “Islamiyaat” in Pakistan), which is why his critique that they don’t pass his ideological purity test is unpersuasive. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Pakistan’s Islamiyaat is good, just that there’s more work to be done in this area.
Zakat and Muslims’ Financial Strength
The chapter on Zakat and economics was one of the most eye-opening ones. It’s both disappointing and exciting to read about how Muslims in countries where they’ve reached 5, 6, 7% of the population have such a massive amount of financial power when they put just a small amount of their wealth together. Disappointing in that this hasn’t been fully taken advantage yet, but exciting in that once there are better ideas and initiatives to take advantage of it, the impact will be huge. I’m sure SAHM’s book will serve as a wake-up call and help people generate new ideas in this regard.
A Few Citation Errors
There were a couple mistakes the book made that should be called out:
- Page 129: the book cites Max Blumenthal as a source for US savagery in the Middle East. Max Blumenthal is a Russian agent who’s infamous for smearing Syrian first responders and mocking victims of Assad’s barrel bombs. He shouldn’t be considered a reliable source by anyone, and the Muslim community should do a better job in making sure tankies like him are thoroughly “canceled.”
- Page 205: it cites Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State to critique Islamism, which is fair, but it does so in the context of criticizing Western Muslims having “grievance issues” (Western foreign policy?), which is not relevant to Hallaq’s book. I love seeing substantive engagements with Hallaq’s ideas, so the offhand citation here was dissatisfying.
- Page 222: the book makes a citation on Pakistan’s national Islamic studies curriculum, but the citation goes to a civil service exam not the Islamiyaat curriculum that’s taught to students.
Conclusion: An Essential Contribution
At the end of the day, whether one agrees or disagrees with specific points, SAHM is one of the very few scholars who’s making the kinds of arguments he is. For Western Muslims, the collapse of the traditional Christian order represents a strange but historic opportunity. We should see ourselves as competing with nationalism, woke social justice activism, gender identity, out-of-control capitalism, and various other pathologies for the hearts of the people, with the truth on our side. If we take on that mindset, along with empathy and compassion, we will go far In Sha Allah. Travelling Home is a call for us to go in that direction.
On a final note, if I misinterpreted anything in the book, it’s my fault and feel free to correct me.