January 30, 2012
Some had been frank with me. Some had told me that they wanted to go home but didn’t have anywhere to go to, or in the enthusiasm of migrating from the lands of unbelief, had burned their passports. I knew several students who had asked the sheikh for his view on the wisdom of a return to life among the unbelievers. He had advised against it. Even if he had given his consent, most students didn’t have the money for plane tickets. Most of us were pretty much broke.
There were days when I woke up, performed my ablutions, listened as the sheikh sang Koran over the village loudspeakers and thought: Whatever is happening here cannot end well. There were other days when I woke up, climbed into the hills above the mosque and thought: For some of the young people here, the easiest way out will be suicide.
I THINK part of the problem had to do with jilted expectations. Nothing in their experience of reading about Yemen had prepared the students for years of slow-motion memorizing, for depression, and for the isolation one feels as a student of the Koran in Yemen. The longer you’re there, the more you feel the world outside slipping away.
Since the students generally get their information from one another, and since the students never express such doubts about Dammaj, these emotions are not discussed. Among the students, there is really only one story about Dammaj to be told:
Damaj Akhi [brother], its the place to learn, it is intense and there will be many brothers there to help and teach you, whether you prefer one on one or group teaching, its a win win situation. i advise you to come and benefit from such a place which in this time and era is certainly a lighthouse in what is a dark time . you will learn how to read , how to right , infact if you work hard and with the tawfiiq [consent] of allah and allah’s will you’ll learn arabic less then a year inshallah.
This commenter, writing in 2009 at fearthedunya.wordpress.com, touches on the story’s most basic themes: the dark times, the lighthouse in Dammaj, the learned brothers who’ve united in Yemen in study. In a 2006 web essay intended for prospective students, an elder student in Dammaj, Abdallah Macphee, attended to the more advanced themes.
Dammaaj is the birthplace of the Reviver of the Sunnah, the Great Scholar Muqbil ibn Haadee Al-Waadi’ee. The Sheikh set up an institute of knowledge that by Allaah’s will has changed the face of Yemen … Now by Allaah’s grace the da’wah [teachings] of Ahlus-Sunnah [People of the Tradition] can be found in all parts in Yemen, stronger in some areas than others.
Here and in what follows, Macphee’s essay hints: Is it not odd that a great man should appear in an unknown village in an unvisited valley in northwest Yemen? Is it not interesting that the ancient faith should now be radiating from this village? Is it not a bit noteworthy that students and proselytizers from across the world should now be collecting on this spot?
No, none of this was odd—neither to Macphee nor to any of the other students with whom I studied in Dammaj. The revival is happening, they believe, because in the beginning of time, Allah directed his angels to write that it would happen—in this place, under this man’s direction, at this time.
Later in the essay, Macphee puts the big ideas aside in order to focus on the quotidian facts incoming students ought to understand before they turn up on campus. Not all was perfect in Dammaj, he wrote, and students should prepare themselves for nuisances. For instance, there was a trash problem in Dammaj and a sewage problem (resulting, he neglected to mention, in a typhus problem among the students). So newly arriving Westerners were often taken aback. “I advise the brothers and sisters that they read the history of our Prophet, May the peace and praise of Allaah be upon him,” Macphee wrote:
And I remind them that this dunyaa [life on earth] is not everlasting. We are all on a journey to our Lord and we will leave behind these belongings we have in this life. Our Prophet, may the peace and praise of Allaah be upon him has said: Be in this life as if you are a stranger or a traveler.
Something in Macphee’s writing must have struck a nerve because in the years since it was first posted, it has been passed from Islamic advice site to Islamic advice site, eliciting a flood of joyous responses along the way: “Salam aleikom dear brother!” wrote a correspondent who read the piece when it was posted to fearthedunya.wordpress.com in 2008. This writer hoped to bring his mother and siblings to Dammaj. “I am a young brother and I live in sweden. I want some god [good] advice and that u say me how much a house with 4 room and kitchen 2 toilets coast. I dont need luxery. … InshAllah Damaaj is my final homeland before Akhirah [afterlife].”
In America, Macphee’s description of life in Dammaj elicited similarly enthusiastic responses. “i pray ALLAH lets me meet you there and i get to benefit from you, your brother in Islam in CHICAGO, ” wrote Abu Yusef. Noting the enthusiasm of other blog fans, one correspondent addressed them all at once.
Please make sincere dua’a to Allah for your Salafi brother in the west, currently in the United States (California). I, too, am asking my Lord, but subhan’allah [glory be to god]—please ask the Lord of the Worlds to give me the means to leave Dar al Kufr [land of the unbelievers]. I am sick of this lifestyle, sick of the evils here, and sick of the kufur of these people. I want to make hijrah [immigration] … and Dammaj is on my mind!!!
MOST OF the westerners one meets in Dammaj are refugees from the urban ills of home. They’ve grown up in troubled neighborhoods, haven’t always succeeded in school, have lived through substance abuse issues, jail sentences, and have usually drifted a bit from city to city before coming to Yemen.
I’m sure they were remembering figurative rather than literal truths, but when they spoke of their earlier time in the West, they often seemed surprised to have escaped with their lives. They spoke of sinister forces, and of places that lived in darkness. At first, I thought the biggest threats in the West had been the violence and drugs of the inner cities, and perhaps also police harassment. They themselves spoke frequently about the wickedness of sex and commercial culture. Over time, however, I started to notice that in the background of these discussions there lurked an especially troublesome, impossible-to-escape force. In most cases, the name of this force was “dad.” The father-son argument fell out along these lines: The dads wanted the sons to get jobs, to respect authority, to give up the ridiculous pretense of Islamic scholarship, and to stop dressing like terrorists. If the sons couldn’t reconcile themselves to the West, they could get the hell out of the family. The sons told the dads to study the Koran.
By the time a student gets to Dammaj, he has traveled across the globe and backwards through the centuries. He has passed tests of endurance and Islamic learning. It won’t be easy for his dad—or any other authority figure from home—to bother him anymore because those authorities now live in a different universe, under different laws. The student himself is now embracing, even in the tiniest of actions, like peeing, the ancient, irrefutable laws. Every time he opens the Koran, he utters a tiny but musical (in Arabic, anyway) prayer: “I seek refuge in Allah from the Shaytan and from the djinn.” It would appear that he is now residing within the mother of all protective fortresses.
Now that the students’ sacred space is under a literal siege it ought not surprise anyone that the students are digging their battle trenches. Nor should it surprise anyone that they would like other Muslims to participate in their struggle. To this end, they have posted their sheikh’s most recent call to jihad on YouTube. This jihad, says Sheikh Yahya al Hajoree, is not merely an occasion to kill the Yemeni Shia, though of course it is that. This is a matter, he stresses, of Islam’s truest defenders versus its truest enemies, of aggression versus peace, of good versus evil. “You must use offense against the offensive,” he says, “and Allah the most high, declares, ‘Kill them until such time as Muslims are no longer divided among themselves.’”
*I HAVE been following news of this academy carefully in the press, have been held for questioning several times at U.S. borders, and once, for reasons I still don’t understand, was put in jail. Nothing in my reading or in my subsequent FBI interviews has given me the sense that the Western authorities know how many students are studying in Dammaj, what they are learning, or how the experience of studying the Koran in Yemen changes them. Nor do the authorities, in my view, understand how ready others are—those who are not in Dammaj yet feel themselves similarly hounded—to pour their emotions into the current battle.
This last point—the empathy around the globe—can be understood by anyone with an internet connection. “May Allah break their backs,” writes Muslimah Salafi of the Yemeni Zaydi, “and place them in the deepest level of Hell Ameen.” This woman posts on a Facebook page, Tottenham Da’wah, that was set up to spread Islam in London. Meanwhile, on Twitter: “Brothers need to take off their Call of Duty computer games and go fight in the real world #Dammaj,” writes Umm Abdul Wahhaab whose Twitter profile says she is in London. “Make dua [prayers] for our brothers and sisters in dammaj the filthy shia are killing women, children and the elderly Allahu musta’an [god help them],” says Mutah Beale, whose 5,588 followers probably have to do with the movie he has out about his rap career (Life of An Outlaw) and his interesting bio (“Motivational Speaker, Business owner, former member of 2pac Outlawz”). His Twitter feed says he has lately been touring in Australia.
It’s also clear that some of these internet observers have understood Sheikh Yahya’s underlying message: Everything is at stake in this battle because Allah’s truest sons are being attacked by his truest enemies.
We know who the truest sons are. Who are the truest enemies? “May Allah Destroy Those filthy dirty Mushrik [pagan] sons of the Jews, known as the SHI’AH,” writes a YouTube user, Nasir al Hamdani. “AMEEN and May Allah give victory to Ahl-us Sunnah [People of the Tradition].” Nabil’s YouTube profile says he is from Bradford, England.
When I was in Dammaj, I found that the students had absorbed this logic as well as could be expected: They were surrounded by a monstrous Other. Its powers were large but Allah was on the students’ side, and, by his will, the wicked people would die. The students would flourish.
During the first months of my studies, I thought that “flourish” meant “flourish here on earth.” In fact, this kind of flourishing is not the goal of a religious education in Yemen. One is rather meant to disassociate oneself from the things of this life, and to prepare for flourishing in the next.
What does it feel like to live within this state of disassociation? On November 26 of last year, in the hours after some 25 students were killed in an artillery barrage, an American Muslim in Dammaj delivered an hour-long sermon-by-phone to the Masjid Sunnah wa Tawheed in Durham, North Carolina. The imam of the mosque recorded the phone call and posted the recording to his blog.
The theme of this sermon was the excellence of a sinless, Islamic death. As he talked, this student, Abdul Hakeem, ranged through the sacred literature of Islam. Every assertion he made, he supported with an apposite quotation, memorized and recited, with fluid pronunciation, in the original Arabic. Some 50 students had been wounded in the artillery attack, and were now lying prostrate, beyond the range of any hospital. The Zaydis were threatening to move in with machine guns but Abdul Hakeem had other, more important news to impart. Because the hour of your death has been determined long ago, he told the congregants, you exercise no control over your end. Nevertheless, you should be preparing for it every minute of every day. He spoke with a dreamy, rhythmic affect in his voice, like someone having a vision. At the final hour, he said, the believers should rejoice: “When death approaches and he feels confident and he looks forward to meeting Allah, he doesn’t sit there in confusion and doubt. No! ... This is what you live for. This is what you dedicated your life for.”
Theo Padnos is the author of Undercover Muslim.