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Influencing Culture Change: A Call to American Muslims


DC Muslims of 'Project Downtown' serve the poorOn studying History, we see that everywhere Islam spread, it exerted a stimulating influence on the local culture. Islam revitalized life in a dying urban center like Constantinople by providing new civic norms and social relationships enabling people to cope with the urgent problems of city life. In towns and villages battling epidemics, Islam revolutionized care-giving by introducing the concept of a hospital. In regions filled with newcomers and strangers, Islam offered a basis for firm attachments. In places filled with the homeless and impoverished, Islam offered charity as well as hope. In areas teeming with orphans and widows, Islam provided a new and expanded sense of family.

Today, we are living in times in which particular segments of our country are mired in a barrage of moral and social decay: spiraling crime, an onslaught of high-school drop outs, out of wedlock pregnancies, deadbeat dads, single mothers, infidelity, unhealthy eating, obesity, diabetes, and so much more. In 2007, 46.8% of twelfth-graders and 35.6% of tenth-graders admitted to taking illegal drugs. In 2006, 20.9% of eighth-graders admitted to taking an illegal drug in their lifetime.

The perfect cultural custodian to clean up this social mess is the Muslim community.

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I believe that our community is the great hope of our country and is positioned like no other to influence and begin to re-shape the American culture – that is, if we decide to step back into the community and do our jobs. This is especially true, since the United States is probably the most change-oriented society in the world.

I believe that the call to the American Muslims is to influence and change the culture of the community around us as past Muslims have done. Part of our challenge is to become a vital part of our neighborhoods by convening and encouraging formation of future culture that serves the common good. We must become connoisseurs of an alternative way, recognizing and celebrating the good, true and beautiful way of Islam in our communities as an example to all others. Nowhere else does this potential for synergy exist except with the Muslims of America.

Sadly, we strayed away from our massive potential influence when large numbers of people (myself including) came into Islam inspired by the Malcolm X cultural craze of the 1990’s. Instead, we have become just another subculture. The result has been that we have stood on the sidelines while have tolerating the destruction the future of a generation of young people in our country. So today, rather than tuning out the important discussions around us and founding our own little Muslim bubbles, we should not be afraid to become mainstream and learn to appeal to the public at large. This does not mean that we should discard our Islamic principles. However it does mean that more of us should stop thinking we’re above getting into the trenches of mainstream culture. Here are some things that I feel that each of us can do to re-establish this initiative.

– Learn your religion

Educate ourselves in Islam and about the world around us. If we are educated in our religion this will insha Allah bring clarity to our responsibility to our communities. We do not need to simply condemn and be suspicious of the world around us.

– Inspire

Inspire the people within our circles to get involved and pursue excellence in all fields. Help them cultivate and create culture that serves the common good. Your interest in serving them will go along way in building their confidence in the Muslim Community’s understanding of their opportunity for influence while reminding them of God’s provision.

– Connect with your local neighborhood

Ask yourself, “If your local masjid were removed from the community today, would anyone even notice?” …Would you, as an individual, be missed if you left today? What are you contributing?

As an integral piece of your local culture, integrate a duty-bound approach to the needs of your community. We should add value to the culture, support local businesses, and schools and serve the community with volunteers for good events that are redemptive in nature. Be an advocate for goodness and beauty throughout your environment.

– Search for Good

Instead of being offended when confronted with deviant behavior and darkness – and there is plenty – be motivated to get involved to make a constructive change. Challenge yourself to find something good in all things and identify the redemptive nature of your neighbors and your place in shaping a healthier world.

Initiate conversations about the values of your community. Host them at your local Islamic Center or any other location and drive the intellectual conversation instead of simply responding to it. Raise issues of concern and propose solutions. Be the first to praise the good culture being created in your community and inspire imagination around opportunities that support the common good, elevate beauty, and align with truth.

Numbers aren’t the important thing, but sustainable commitment, dedication and Iman are. If a few dedicated Muslims throughout our communities embraced a holistic view of Islamic influence, we could see the tide turn on the social ills plaguing the social fabric. If we do these things Islam and the Muslims can once again be the powerful culture-shaping influence they have been in the past. We must recapture the historical Islamic message that calls us to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals. Yes, individuals are important – don’t get me wrong – but those who seek the common good of the social whole, tap the opportunity to vitalize the hearts and minds of individuals in the masses.

We must recapture the historical Islamic message that calls us to redeem and reform entire cultures, not just individuals. Yes, individuals are important – don’t get me wrong – but those who seek the common good of the culture, have an increased opportunity for the hearts and minds of individuals.

I’ve gotten a lot of serious flak for my views on this subject, so I’ll end with two reminders from our Prophet (Peace and Blessing be upon him) that back up my point:

The Messenger of Allah said :
“The believer who mixes with the people and has patience in spite of their annoyances is better that he that doesn’t mix with them and doesn’t have patience in spite of their annoyances.” Narrated by Ahmad and Ibn Majah

He also said:
“The believer is cordial; there is no good in one who is neither cordial nor sociable.” Narrated by Ahmad.

With all of this in mind, some of us have begun to challenge our local community to begin a new conversation that will begin the process of transforming our community in a positive way

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.



  1. islam blog

    April 14, 2008 at 4:30 AM

    Masha’Allah a very well written piece. Much of what you say applies to Muslim minorities across the world. There’s always a tussle between people who call for assimilation and those who fear that our religious principles may get diluted.

    But being proactive and engaging society gives us the advantage of preserving our deen and having a good influence on society at the same time.

    But as you pointed out, learning (and then practicing) is the first and most important step.

  2. Manas Shaikh

    April 14, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    Br. Tariq

    I agree with you in. In principle.

    However, how does one keep out of disallowed things while being engaged? I was once disowned by some Hindus (“friends”) because they forced me into a bar but failed to make me drink (even lying to me- “this one is not alcoholic!”)

    I have been disparaged for not taking part in “puja”- seasonal festivals of worshiping idols.

    Constant psychological pressure to keep my ego down.

    I still try to be nice, but they try to seclude me, pick on me in matters of religion and otherwise and badmouth me in other company. I have seen better company of Hindus elsewhere.

    Do you agree that I should try to move away from such a community?

    I can think of a verse that supports my view that says- take not as friends or protectors who take religion as a play. Or in another verse where Allah asks us not to take as friends who are hostile to Faith.

    The hijra is an example from Sunnah.

  3. Tariq Nelson

    April 14, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    Br. Manas,

    Obviously I am not talking about participating in things contradictory to our faith. A convert can keep in contact with his/her non-Muslim family without attending church with them or drinking alcohol and such things. We can participate and volunteer in the community without being made to engage in sin. We can stand up, engage and offer solutions to the community.

    There is an old saying that someone has “gone from preaching to meddling.” If the Muslim Community insists on a serious discussion about bad culture and engages, we will clearly have gone from simply preaching to “meddling” and some people will not like it. So there will be some individuals (such as your Hindu ‘friends’ who were hostile) that we may not be able to engage at this time, but we should not use the broad brush everyone as being hostile and keep ourselves isolated from the entire community at large.

    We should also try not to think of people as irredeemable. Hopefully your Hindu ‘friends’ will be guided some day.

  4. abuhunain

    April 14, 2008 at 11:12 AM

    Tagging on to what Tariq mentioned in his reply below:

    One thing that Muslim’s have to remember and keep close to heart is their identity and a level of confidence in dealing with non-Muslims. How is it that brothers and sisters go out to work and yet can’t grasp how to engage in community and social work? It’s quite simple, you set borders, parameters and limits. If we are confident and we hold to our principles then people will know how, when and in what way to engage us (Muslims).

    I have to be honest and say that I can’t recall running into an issue engaging non-Muslim whether within my family, at work, or out and about. For instance, people at my job know I don’t shake hands with women. It has come to such a point that women are informed prior to meeting me not to extend their hands for a shake. They make special accomodations if they are ordering food to find something that might satisfy my criteria. They know I don’t drink, smoke or say foul words. They even at time correct themselves if they say fould words in front of me.

    I say all that just to emphasize the point that coexistence in these lands (to me) is more about respecting our differences or having our difference respected than trying to gloss over our differences. Part of the responsibilty lies on the individual Muslim to make the rules of engagement clear. Sure we can have interfaith dialogue but I’m not going to praise Jesus as being Allah (swt) [na’audhubillah] so when the Christians pray we will withdraw. We might go out to feed the homeless but that doesn’t mean we cuss, sip wine and smoke cigarettes to bond with them. We may setup social services offices for counseling and workshops but that doesn’t mean we don’t engage the rules of gender interaction.

    I think alot of Muslims have a problem putting their Islam up front and establishing the boundaries so when we discuss issues like this there is a fear of lossing our identity or getting caught up in things that are haram. I encourage brothers and sisters to make it clear what you will and will not stand for. People will respect you Insha Allah if you are well spoken, confident and secure in your personality and self.

    and Allah (swt) knows best…

    -Tariq Abu Hunain

  5. AnonyMouse

    April 14, 2008 at 12:37 PM

    Excellent article, masha’Allah – reminds me of the stuff I used to think about and discuss with my friends a while ago… these are the steps that, if implemented correctly, can lead to revolutionary change!
    May Allah strengthen us upon Islam and grant us the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to act correctly and be able to cause this kind of positive change in the world, ameen!

  6. Dawud Israel

    April 14, 2008 at 4:19 PM

    Great post!

    This is the type of stuff I am trying more and more to gear towards.

    This discussion is not really about “in theory” because it’s something that can only be known “through practice”.
    Trust me, when you make your intention sincere to do some good in your community, Muslim or non-Muslim, Allah will help you and make it easy. He will test you at times, but later on this will just make you stronger and more capable to handle tougher situations.

    The Cult article you linked to is also bang-on bro! The reason we are so weak is we don’t actually do anything more community oriented. If we for example did things such as Orphan Runs (which MSAs are doing now, masha Allah) instead of doing Halaqas on helping orphans we have something then to show to the community. Since we already have something going—people will not push us to participate in their haraam festivals–we’re in the driver seat and they know it would be stupid to ask you to sit in the back.

    So when you are doing something to better society and tell them, I can’t do this because I’m Muslim–they will indeed RESPECT you. When you contribute, they are going to give you more respect and make things easier for you. A good deed is universal and even the worst of people appreciate it. They may have once been an enemy to you, but they will indeed change. THAT is the True nature of the SUNNAH!


    But more to the point: Less talk, more Action.

    Everybody should go out and take a look in their local community. You think third world conditions happen in the third world—but if you take a look around where you live, you’ll find that it is in your neighbourhood. Get conscious and in touch with what happens around you. And do not be shy to commit a good deed. :)

    Abdul Sattar Edhi is a good positive example to aspire towards:

  7. Dawud Israel

    April 14, 2008 at 8:31 PM

    I had a few more thoughts for ya Tariq…

    Although there are Christian groups out there that already do some good- there is something that feels off about them. There is no feeling of genuine authenticity–the feeling you get when you see a shaykh for example. It’s the effect Haqq has compared to Baatil.

    Muslims also have the advantage–especially in the West where we will be very carefully watched, we can use that extra attention to make the most of our efforts.

    Whereas the Christian does his relief work in order to persuade others to come to Christianity–the Muslim does it solely for the sake of Allah. Allah has told us to feed the poor, care for the orphan and give charity for His sake–not solely as a method of preaching as the Christians do. So we can show that genuine concern without any motive except for pleasing Allah SWT in fulfilling those needs. If they become Muslim than none guides but Allah.

    And additionally, we won’t have to limit ourselves to social change if we can really pick up our eeman. Muslims lack confidence in their own abilities so at times we don’t man up to certain tasks when in reality we possess a great deal of potential.

    The same fisabilillah zeal we exhibit in blogging or arguing can easily be brought about elsewhere in not-so common fisabilillah causes.

    Fi Amanillah.

  8. Tariq Nelson

    April 15, 2008 at 6:52 AM

    Abu Hunain and Dawud

    I think that you both are getting what I am saying. Part of my point is that in MANY neighborhoods and communities there is NO moral leadership whatsoever. You can’t find ANYONE (of any religion) to publicly take a stand against the moral and social ills while the Muslims until recent times simply used it as fodder for a khutbah or lecture. There is a massive void and the Muslims can (and should) not only step into, but take the lead. This is the point: Become a trend setter for good. I am not talking about simply joining good efforts by others, but by leading great new efforts for improvement. So we have a unique opportunity to reengage in a important issues of today rather than sit on the sidelines and point fingers.

    We have a long way to go in this new conversation as there are MANY who still feel that isolation is the best course of action. If we are going to do this, we have to be honest with ourselves. This debate must continue beyond the internet and into our khutbahs and lectures. It must go beyond there to action. The reason why this conversation must continue is that many in our community have no appetite for engaging in this and I believe that this thinking has stifled us. Because of this thinking, we are no longer hands-on. We somehow believe that things will change for the better simply because we believe or because there was a lecture or khutbah given about it in the hopes that someone else will be inspired to go out and do the work of culture change.

    I encourage everyone to volunteer in their community in some way to begin to learn how to do this work. Join Big Brothers/Sig Sisters. Adopt a child. (anyone know how many unwanted children there are?) Mentor teens. Get involved.

    After learning the ropes, we should begin to organize as a community and tale the lead in these efforts. But first the conversation must open up and the taboos on doing this work must be broken

  9. AnonyMouse

    April 15, 2008 at 1:14 PM

    “You can’t find ANYONE (of any religion) to publicly take a stand against the moral and social ills”

    I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that morality is almost non-existent these days – if you try to to stand up for anything, you’re attacked for “judging” others and so on. Although, I must say that in my community (wider community, as in school and so on and not just amongst Muslims) there’s a lot of awareness and action against alcohol and drug use, social services for mental/ physical/ child abuse, lots of attention given to the issue of homelessness (something B.C. is dealing with on a massive scale).
    You’re right though, about the role Muslims have in these activities – very minimal.

  10. Tariq Nelson

    April 15, 2008 at 2:33 PM

    wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that morality is almost non-existent these days – if you try to to stand up for anything, you’re attacked for “judging” others and so on

    Yes, that is part of it. I mean in some neighborhoods, the out of wedlock birth rate is near 90%, but no one would dare say to abstain from sex until marriage. There is a moral leadership void.

    Who is out there talking about not drinking and the evils of alcohol in a loving and caring way when a Native American is 100 times more likely to have a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome than an Asian American?

    These are just a couple of examples showing that there is a massive void that we can fill by setting a new trend of being a people of faith with big hearts, big smiles that help others to achieve the standards of moral excellence that we set for ourselves.

  11. Dawud Israel

    April 15, 2008 at 4:18 PM

    There was recently an article published in a Toronto newspaper talking about how more and more Muslim are becoming homeless.

    It was really shocking–because to the extent it was mentioned it seems like we need to stop building masjids and start building shelters. :(

    Tariq, you are right once again: We Muslims talk too much and think/act less.

    Just curious, but what role do you think MM could play in this struggle?

  12. AbdelRahman Murphy

    April 15, 2008 at 7:21 PM

    I was at a khutbah that Imam Suhaib Webb gave recently where he made a point saying, “If your non-Muslim neighbors were asked today to write a book about Islam and about Muslims, what would they write? Do they know the true Islam? Or do they know CNN/FOX/BBC Islam? Have we done our jobs?”

    These questions shine a floodlight on the empty aspect of our dawah in OUR HOME the United States (enough of this Hijra speak. We’re at home, this is our home) – the communal dawah. The Muslim Housewife’s article (the wife of a close friend) shows a great example of how a seemingly tiny act of kindness can go a long way in showing non-Muslims what Islam really teaches, and what it’s about.

    A particularly touching part was when the neighbor responded, “I will be moving on Saturday and will carry forth the saying of the Prophet Muhammad and show respect to my new neighbor as well.” This statement came from a non-Muslim! Doing a sunnah! Subhan Allah, that’s so beautiful.

    Great post, Tariq

  13. Navaid Aziz

    April 17, 2008 at 8:47 PM

    As salaam ‘alaikum,

    Jazaaka Allahu khairan Tariq. I too feel Muslims in the west need to take a more active role in changing social norms. Sadly, most Muslims fail to realize that one of the most effective ways of giving da’wah is through offering social services. We were given some what of a spring break here in Madinah this week and I actually got a chance to catch up on some Internet reading and viewing, where I finally got to watch Moore’s “Sicko” and about half way through the video an amazing though occurred to me…Imagine the da’wah potential in opening up a free medical clinic in a poor run down area, and too make it even more attractive add a soup kitchen close by it! The da’wah potential in that locality (and after the fame that institution will get maybe even the city or state!) would be enormous. May Allah grant us the tawfeeq to fulfill such projects. Aameen.

    All great revolutions begin with a single idea.

    Baaraka Allahu feekum.
    Was salaam

  14. AnonyMouse

    April 17, 2008 at 8:53 PM

    Brother Navaid, have you heard of the Ummah Clinic? It’s exactly what you describe – a free medical clinic in a poor run-down area!
    Here’s a YouTube vid about it.

  15. Navaid Aziz

    April 17, 2008 at 9:08 PM

    Maa shallah, I’m pleasantly surprised to say the least! Now we need to get more of these across the states….Houston, Chicago, New York…etc.. I know there are more than enough Muslim doctors in those areas, and if networked properly I’m sure all of the communities can actually benefit one another as well insha Allah.

    Maybe make the cafeteria a soup kitchen… The ideas just seem to be flowing…

    Jazaakillahu khairan for sharing that.

  16. BintAbdillah

    April 19, 2008 at 2:28 PM

    The idea of soups kitchens are growing and are starting within the Masjids, I know of at least 2 masjids that run a regular soups kitchen, also package food for the Homeless.

    There are lot of programs that can be done, we just need dictated people to execute it.

  17. MrEspy

    April 24, 2008 at 9:38 PM



    Can you post more information the soup kitchens please? JazakaAllahu khair

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