Nuh Keller was born in 1954 and raised as a Roman Catholic in rural Washington State. He is a third-generation American of German ancestry on his father’s side, and German, Scottish, and Irish on his mother’s. During the 1970’s and 1980’s between his academic studies and work as a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific, he underwent a journey of reflection that culminated in his becoming Muslim. Nearly three decades later, he has become one of the most authoritative voices of traditional, moderate Islam in the English-speaking world.
Keller studied philosophy, focusing on the epistemology of ethical theory, with Andrew J. Bjelland at Gonzaga University and with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, author of The Symbolism of Evil and The Conflict of Interpretations, at the University of Chicago. He became interested in the Qur’an and began studying Classical Arabic at Chicago in 1975. He traveled to Cairo, Egypt in 1976, where he became Muslim at the famed al-Azhar University in 1977. He completed a graduate degree in philosophy from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1979.
Later that year he returned to the Middle East to pursue private studies with Islamic scholars in Syria and Jordan. In Damascus, he read Shafi’i jurisprudence (fiqh) and tenets of faith (‘aqida) with Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi, and Sufism and tenets of faith with Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri. In Amman, he read Shafi’i fiqh and Qur’an recital (tajwid) with Sheikh Yunus Hamdan, Hanafi fiqh with Sheikh Ahmad al-Khudari, Shafi’i fiqh and tenets of faith with Sheikh Nuh ‘Ali Salman al-Qudah, prophetic aphorisms and practices (hadith) and Hanafi fiqh with Sheikh Shu’ayb al-Arna’ut, and Hanafi fiqh and tenets of faith with Sheikh Ahmad al-Jammal.
In 1982 he took the Shadhili tariqa from Shaghouri in Damascus. Though often separated from him for extended periods of time due to political exigencies, Keller assiduously applied the teachings of the Shadhili tariqa and Islamic Sacred Law. Nearly 15 years after first taking Keller as his student, Shaghouri in 1996 invested him as a full sheikh of the tariqa to guide disciples to ihsan, or “worshipping Allah as though you see Him,” as defined by Islamic tradition.
Keller has a wide following of students. Most reside in English-speaking countries—the United States, Canada, England, and Australia—as well as Turkey, Pakistan, and the Middle East. To better serve his students, he holdssuhbas—informal gatherings where a Sufi sheikh teaches about the path—in various cities throughout the world. He has also given public lectures at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
In addition to teaching Sufism, Keller has written several books and articles on a wide range of subjects. Perhaps his most important work to date is the voluminous Reliance of the Traveler, an annotated English translation of ‘Umdat al-Salik, a Shafi’i legal work by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d.769/1368). It contains over six thousand legal rulings, and was the first English translation of an Islamic legal work to be certified by al-Azhar University. The translation was begun in 1982 and reviewed over a course of five years with Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi and Sheikh Nuh Ali Salman al-Qudah, both of whom gave written certifications to him for it. Since its first publication in 1990, over thirty thousand copies have been printed. It has not only gained a wide readership among Western Muslims, but has also become the standard reference for non-Muslim academics in America and Britain who teach Islamic jurisprudence at university level.
Other works include Port in a Storm, a comprehensive treatment of the Muslim direction of prayer, as well as a short account of the author’s conversion entitled Becoming Muslim. Keller has also produced a number of tariqa-related literature and recordings, including a translation of selected Shadhili litanies and a booklet explaining the practices and structure of the tariqa entitled The High Path. With the appearance of Reliance of the Traveler, Muslims in the West looked to Keller as a spokesman for traditional Islam.
He gave a number of seminars and speaking tours to promote the book’s basic manifesto—the superiority of traditional Islam over the reformist versions espoused by the Salafi/Wahhabi and modernist camps. He is joined in this effort by other writers and speakers such as Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah, Imam Zaid Shakir, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad. These four scholars—all converts—have sparked something of a mini-Renaissance among American and Western Muslims, inspiring them to seek traditional Islamic knowledge of the four Sunni legal schools (madhhabs). The rejection of parochial modernism and Wahhabi ideology is perhaps one of the more significant influences that Keller and similar scholars have had on the practice of Islam in the West.
Current information about Keller can be found at www.masud.co.uk, a website devoted to expositing traditional Islam via the Internet, and www.shadhilitariqa.com, a site maintained by Keller’s students that provides a comprehensive introduction to the Shadhili tariqa. He continues to divide his time between translating, writing, and teaching disciples about the Sufi path. He resides with his wife in Amman, Jordan.