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Positively Muslim in the West (July 2009): Mona Minkara

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InshaAllah, this is the first of what we hope will be monthly recognitions of outstanding and inspiring Muslims, residing in the West. We hope to showcase the talents and contributions of these individuals to the Muslim Ummah. Feel free to nominate other talented Muslim individuals, who have made a positive contribution to the society.

Our first, “Positively Muslim in the West” recognition for July goes to sister Mona Minkara whose inspirational and beautiful commencement speech at Wellesley College is making the rounds on the internet. We spoke to sister Mona, who is legally blind, and asked her a few questions:

MuslimMatters Exclusive Interview with sister Mona Minkara: Wellesley College 2009 Commencement Speaker.

What are you aspirations for the future?

InshaAllah I would really like to go to graduate school and get my PhD. I don’t have a set path in life but I really hope that somehow I get to show a different face and be able to be in the public eye in a good way for the sake of Islam and please Allah azza wa jal. I would like to memorize the Qur’an one day. One step at a time inshaAllah!

Someone (a Non-Muslim) actually approached me about writing a book, and I think it would be such a great form of da’wah to show the positive influence of Muslim women in the West.

What message do you have for Muslim youth?

One message I have for Muslim youth is to be who they are and not to be shy of who you are. We all have a place in this society and if you stick to who you are as an individual, people will respect you for that. This is my experience as a Muslim.

As a muhajjabah, what message do you have for other young sisters?

Be who you are. People should respect you for who you are and they should not judge you for what you are or are not wearing. People will see that you are more than just the hijaab.

Here is her inspirational speech in written form and video:

Thank you, thank you. Welcome everybody. Are you ready?

As Wellesley women, it has always been expected of us to strive to our utmost to reach the top, to be the best that we can be. Time and time again, since the speeches of orientation week, we have been told that we have the ability to achieve whatever we set our sights on, that we can go wherever we dream of going, that we can overcome any obstacle to reach the summit. We are Women Who Will. I don’t doubt this for a second.

But I want to make sure that in seeking to reach the heights, I never forget where I once was and how I got here.  I hope that as we await to receive our diplomas today, we each remember where we came from and how we got here today.

Let me tell you my story. Apparently I’m going to be one of the first legally blind students to graduate from Wellesley College with a science degree. I’m not saying this to be boastful, but this was not what was expected of me. When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone rod dystrophy; doctors predicted I would be completely blind. Currently I have no vision in my right eye, and just peripheral vision in my left eye. Around the time of my diagnosis, during a summer trip to Lebanon, my mom and my uncle took me to one of the most prestigious eye doctors in Beirut. I remember that day so clearly; my mom came out crying, and my uncle was telling my mom that he would go to the ends of the world to help us. I found out only later that the doctor had told my mother that it wasn’t worth spending a penny on my education because I was going to be blind anyway.

But as my life went on to prove, it was not I who had limited vision, but he.
I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who believed in me, first and foremost my parents. My parents gave up their dreams of going back to Lebanon so that I could stay here and become educated. My mom would stay up all night going through projects with me. My dad would literally wake up at the crack of dawn to go through math and physics questions with me. But the list doesn’t stop there. There were many more individuals who were instrumental to my success.

As I await my diploma, I fully realize that I would not have been able to make it onto this stage today, if it wasn’t for the help of so many individuals who have aided me, every single step of the way. From my fellow classmates who would read to me on a daily basis to my professors who would regularly meet with me and go over concepts and were willing to adjust their teaching techniques, I was never alone in my journey. If it weren’t for these individuals—family, friends, faculty, staff, and even strangers along the way—who took time out of their lives and ambitions, I would not have been able to graduate with all of you today.  Their kindness and generosity have inspired me to strive to help others. As I approach the end of my time here, I see, or sense, to be more accurate, many of my supporters around me, and I would not have wanted it any other way.

As I share with you my story, I want you to reflect upon your own story. Because the truth is, no matter how independent we imagine ourselves to be, we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness and generosity. Every single one of us sitting here today has a story: a set of goals and ambitions that drives us. Some of these goals have been achieved, like waiting here today for our diplomas. Some have yet to be realized. Surely though, just like there were individuals who helped me get to this day, there were individuals who helped you. Family, friends, faculty, staff, and even even an invisible hand, have all played a role in making this day possible.

Sometimes though, to be honest with you, we get so caught up in our own ambitions and our own struggles that we don’t notice the people around us. We don’t notice those who need our help. We become so self-absorbed and oblivious to whose struggles are much greater difficulties than our own. We become so consumed by our drive that we might even avoid or look down upon those who do not measure up to our definition of success. But I have come to realize, that as Wellesley Women, we don’t only achieve what we put our minds to, but we do so while helping others achieve their own goals.  For how else could we claim to live according to our very own motto: Non Ministrari Sed Ministrare: Not to be served unto, but to serve?

Let me share with you another story: Over the past spring break, Wellesley sent a group of students to Utah for the annual American Chemical Society meeting, and I happened to be one of those students. On my way there, I had a connecting flight in Denver. So I was sitting in the airport, growing kind of thirsty, and I asked a lady, a stranger, where I could find a water fountain. The next thing I knew, she had bought me a water bottle. I asked how much did it cost so I could pay her back. You know what she said to me? She said, “You can pay me back by buying somebody else a water bottle.”  I can’t share enough with you how much her words struck me.  I have realized from this simple incident, that it doesn’t take something phenomenal to make a significant impact. But something as simple as buying a water bottle for your fellow human being. Or even planting a seed to grow. Done selflessly, a small gesture can have a powerful rippling effect.

So during my time in Denver, while I was discovering the power of generosity, a fellow Wellesley sister was flying down to Costa Rica. She was volunteering her time farming, to help the local community. Now she’s not going to be awarded for spending her free time toiling outdoors under the hot sun, planting seeds she will most likely never see the fruits of.  She did what we all should do, offering to lend a helping hand to those in need of support, to our fellow human beings, to make a difference in any way possible.

Let us ask ourselves, as we embark into the real world, how happy can we be if all we do is work for our own ambitions and our own goals, and don’t notice anyone around us? Is this a life worth living? Do you want to grow older and remember that you only concentrated on your own interests? Or do you want to remember that you have helped our fellow human beings, and reaped the harvests of seeds that have been planted not only for our own success, but for the success of others? Among my quotes that have inspired me throughout my time here at Wellesley has been a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s been actually in my signature, part of FirstClass for the past four years. This is how it goes:  “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime. And, departing, leave behind us, Footprints on the sands of time.”

Now I hope we can all leave footprints on the sand of time, whether they be big or small. Yes, I bet one of us might find the cure for cancer, and that would be an amazing achievement. But I’ve come to realize, that’s not the only way to make a difference. Giving a helpful hand or even just a smile is, in my faith, an act of charity.  Take it from me, it matters. An act of kindness or generosity goes a long way. And these are the acts that brought me here today. And for that I thank all of you, Class of 2009. Congratulations, Class of 2009! Thank you! Thank you, Momma and Papa! Thank you, Pam, Katie….thank you professors! (More shout outs).

I have something for the President. Where’s my President Bottomly? I have a water bottle. I have it for the symbolism. I hope you enjoy the water.

Part One:

Part Two:

We ask Allah ta’ala to bless sister Mona in this life and the next and grant her success in all of her endeavors. Ameen.

If you would like to share a positive story of a Muslim in the west, please email us at info (at) muslimmatters (dot) org.

Amatullah is a student of the Qur'an and its language. She completed the 2007 Ta'leem program at Al-Huda Institute in Canada and studied Qur'an, Tajwid (science of recitation) and Arabic in Cairo. Through her writings, she hopes to share the practical guidance taught to us by Allah and His Messenger and how to make spirituality an active part of our lives. She has a Bachelors in Social Work and will be completing the Masters program in 2014 inshaAllah. Her experience includes working with immigrant seniors, refugee settlement and accessibility for people with disabilities.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    halalbuzz

    July 13, 2009 at 4:09 AM

    mashaAllah

    May Allah bless her and guide her

  2. Avatar

    vindicated

    July 13, 2009 at 5:06 AM

    masha’Allah, what an inspiring personality and an equally inspiring speech!

  3. Avatar

    midatlantic

    July 13, 2009 at 6:07 AM

    Lovely, inspiring article mashaAllah. And a great idea for a monthly feature.

  4. Avatar

    Nazihah

    July 13, 2009 at 12:42 PM

    I was reminded today: dawah is not just telling people about islam. the fact that a our muslim sister was chosen to address a commencement and she is role model for all to follow speaks 10,000 times stronger than just “talking” about Islam.

  5. Pingback: Muslim Matters debuts what is intended t… « Talk Islam

  6. Avatar

    usman

    July 13, 2009 at 9:17 PM

    Mashallah it is really nice seeing a sister accomplishing so much and being in a role model position. However, i would like to say i dont agree with the “be who you are” that is a very unislamic idea. Sisters wear hijab for Allah, and they and all of us for that matter should not strive to be who we are, but strive to be proper Muslims. Again very nice to see Muslims in good situations. Salaam

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      July 13, 2009 at 11:50 PM

      I spoke with Mona on the phone and she did not mean “be who you are” in the context that you leave the obligations of the Deen. She meant that, for example, if a sister wants to be an engineer and is thinking how her fellow students will perceive her with a hijaab, that she should be who she is without worrying about their opinions. She should be herself, a good Muslimah working to please Allah azza wa jal, and not worry about pleasing the creation over Him.

      I hope that is clear inshaAllah.

      • Avatar

        usman

        July 14, 2009 at 12:12 AM

        Alhumdulilah, that is great to kno. Jazakhallah Khair

  7. Pingback: amazing muslimah! « monkeynurseMD => sum of me

  8. Avatar

    Shabana

    July 14, 2009 at 12:45 AM

    I was truly impressed with this young lady. Obtaining a college education while not being able to see well is an incredible accomplishment. May Allah SWT always preserve her vision. I definitely think her story is worthy of a book and a movie. :)

  9. Pingback: Positively Muslim in the West (July 2009): Mona Minkara « Thoughts from a Muslimah

  10. Avatar

    Amatullah

    July 14, 2009 at 9:51 PM

    As-Salaamu alaikum,

    Jazak-Allah khair for posting this. This sister reminds me of Asma Mirza. May Allah bless and preserve all of our diligent, hijabi sisters. How much would we pay for one eye? We can never thank Allah the way he deserves to be thanked.

    Amatullah
    http://sisterswithpower.blogspot.com
    EMANcipate yourself

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The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

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My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

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Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

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israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

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This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

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Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

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