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How to Really Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

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In this post – 2 books, 2 videos, and one story.

A few lessons many of us often learn in childhood or early in life-

  • Always look at those who haven’t been given what you have so that you are thankful
  • Try to imagine what someone else goes through before criticizing them
  • Things are not always what they seem

I recently read two books, and while they don’t necessarily have any intrinsic Islamic benefit, per se, I did find them to be quite interesting. They orient around the idea of submerging yourself into a lifestyle or culture that is not your own, in order to better understand it.

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If nothing else, it really made me thankful for the blessing of Islam. I feel that many Muslims often live in an insulated reality. Even though we may be ‘integrated’ into society, we still often don’t have a full grasp of the problems that many segments of society face.

There are a large (and growing with the recession) number of Americans who not only live paycheck to paycheck, but do so while working odd-jobs. Many of these people have no stable family, or even a place to live. Rather, they work whatever jobs they can find (Wal-Mart, janitorial positions, fast-food, and so on) while being relatively homeless – staying in motels and weekly stay inns when enough money is saved.

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich tells the story of how she attempted to live this lifestyle for a number of months – joining the 30% of Americans who live on less than $8/hour. The book itself has received mixed reviews from readers, but I definitely felt it was a worthwhile read – if nothing else than to open our eyes a bit more at some of the problems many people around us face.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh was a really amazing read. I first heard about Venkatesh from reading Freakonomics when they discussed how much crack dealers really make. The book details an Indian guys descent into the housing projects of Chicago and learns how the drug trade works, and how this community supports itself while the outside world has more or less turned a blind eye to them. Again, there is no real tangible Islamic benefit that I can outline for this book, other than that I simply wished so hard while reading the whole book that the message of Islam properly reaches them. [Side note – watch this video if you are a Freakonomics fan – Why do Crack Dealers Still Live with their Moms?]

One issue that came up a bit indirectly was a slightly better understanding of some of the immigrant Muslim conflict with indigenous Muslims. Being on the ‘immigrant’ side of it, I can say with confidence that the issues discussed in these two books area not really issues that are focused on. Simply put, many immigrant Muslim families have never had to deal with drug abuse or poverty. Or if they have dealt with poverty ‘back home’ they have quickly forgotten about it here.

For Muslims to make a positive impact where we live, we all have to start taking a vested interest in all the societal problems around us, and show how Islam can help fix them. I’m reminded of the stories I have heard about Imam Siraj Wahaj’s masjid, and how they took drugs out of their neighborhoods.

I also wanted to share this video from the author of The Year of Living Biblically. The author spent a year of his life basically trying to implement every single commandment that is in the Bible – including flogging. To put it another way, it was a year of being a dhahiri Christian. I haven’t read the book yet, however, it does look interesting. The author, AJ Jacobs, discussed some of his experience at TED:

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Lastly, this is a story that cannot be passed up – and it is a captivating Muslim story of a man who … actually, I can’t really summarize it properly. I simply suggest you go read it – http://www.suhaibwebb.com/blog/general/a-day-ill-never-forget-giving-the-khutbah-on-96th-in-nyc-and-meeting-an-amazing-brother/

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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.

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Dawud Israel

    April 14, 2009 at 12:46 AM

    ibnabeeomar: You should be a Sociology major…like moi. :)

  2. unconventionally-traditional

    April 14, 2009 at 1:35 AM

    @ dawud
    funny my friend and I used to mock sociology, and now shes doing her a multidisciplinary MA in security studies and sociology, while inshallah I plan on doing mine in cultural studies. Funny how the world works.

    I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews on freakonomics, I’m really excited to read it!
    barakallah fik for the summaries

  3. MM Associates

    April 14, 2009 at 1:51 AM

    I really liked this post. I’m in Social Work, maybe I’ll dabble in Sociology as well inshaAllah when I further my studies.

    I really do and inshaAllah plan on benefiting the community with what I’m learning, but I always wonder where does someone in this field start? I have only met a handful of professional Muslim social workers/psychologists.

    SubhanAllah the story of br Douglas was really moving. We receive so many letters at the masjid from brothers and sisters requesting da’wah material. It brought back a lot of memories of their touching words.

    -Amatullah

  4. student

    April 14, 2009 at 3:47 AM

    Masha Allah, great post! But I don’t think you should diminish it by claiming that these things do not have “intrinsic Islamic benefit.” The knowledge that your neighbour is suffering and in need of your help is most certainly Islamic. :D

    Unfortunately, we often think it is enough to donate for the upkeep of their local mosque, and we might also donate to support our brothers and sisters in Palestine, or relatives back home, or victims of the latest natural disaster, but we too often forget about the poverty and social problems in our own community. May Allah overlook our shortcomings, and may He make Muslims the leaders in improving their local communities. Ameen!

  5. IbnAbbas

    April 14, 2009 at 11:52 AM

    Jazakallah khair akhi Omar, really interesting stuffs!! took me a long while to go through every single thing you’ve posted but all worth it. Alhamdulillah.

  6. Ahsan Sayed

    April 14, 2009 at 2:22 PM

    I think MM should give Br. Douglas Kelly and his letter a post all to himself. His letter deserves it and more. It is a story that moved me very much. Because I am currently a senior at the Bronx High School of Science Br. Kelly’s letter hit home for me. His story helped me realize the struggles of so many Muslims and non-Muslims who we may see walking in the street or on the train or even in our schools. When we see their ragged dress, and their unkempt styles we might just dismiss them as the quintessential thug or gangster who deserves to pick up societies leftovers. It is a sad fact that even we, Muslims, harbor so much prejudices against our fellow brothers. Prejudice, racism and bigotry should not be qualities of a Muslim. I can only imagine a brother like Douglas Kelly walking into my local mosque, with his dreads. I can assure you, many of the uncles would start staring and whispering right away. Their “holier than thou” mindset can only work to alienate and isolate the people like Br. Douglas Kellly who end up in prison for all the wrong reasons, and who have the ability to become the best of the Muslim community.

    If you can please dedicate (with the brother’s permission) one post for his letter.

    Jazakallah

    • Amad

      April 14, 2009 at 6:20 PM

      salam
      Br. Douglas is working on an article for us inshallah.

  7. Zaynab

    April 14, 2009 at 5:37 PM

    JazakAllah khayr, great post.

  8. Bint AbdelHamid

    April 14, 2009 at 11:46 PM

    Great post, with a lot packed into it. Barak Allahu feekum.

  9. Atif

    May 12, 2009 at 4:48 PM

    The video with AJ Jacobs was actually very enlightening as to why non-muslims in the West frown upon Orthodox Islam.
    As AJ’s experiment exemplifies, to be a strict adherent to Biblical law is impractical and foolish in today’s modern age. Based on that, they extrapolate that it is impractical, foolish, and “backwards” to be a strict adherent to the Qur’an and Sunnah (or any other religious text)
    The truth of the matter is that the law of the Qur’an and Sunnah are practical in any time and place (as they have some flexibility in regards to that)

  10. Mike

    October 6, 2009 at 2:03 PM

    Great post – I have a hard time fitting other’s shoes on my feet. Good book recomendations too.
    Mike

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