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The Five Dysfunctions of Islamic Organizations

Omar Usman




This information should benefit anyone involved in Islamic organizations, but it really needs extra attention from those in leadership positions in their communities to start to effect the type of change needed to prevent dysfunction.

The Five Dysfunctions Are

  1. Absence of Trust411jl6sYd+L._SL160_
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

These are laid out by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. While the pertinence to a professional or corporate environment is obvious, these are at the core of the problems faced by Masajid and Islamic organizations across the country.

1. Absence of Trust

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Understanding trust means refining our notions of the term. Trust means knowing the others around you have good intentions, and that you don’t need to shield yourself around them. It is distinct from reliance, which is “trusting” that a peer will perform a given task reliably. Trust is being able to open up, and show vulnerability while knowing that those vulnerabilities won’t be used against you.

What we find with many Islamic organizations is that people’s actions are dictated by what others will think about them. Think about the person elected to be the Masjid treasurer with no accounting or financial experience whatsoever. This person continues to do this job day in and day out, despite not being able to do it well. Instead, this person is focusing on holding this position for strategic reasons vis-a-vis others within the organization. He is constantly trying to protect himself. If trust existed within the organization, he would be able to display that vulnerability and instead be 100% focused on performing the treasurer duties to the best of his ability.

It is commonplace that the higher ranking members in these organizations are usually the “well-educated” ones (e.g. the “doctor uncle”). One thing we often fail to realize is that these people have been trained their entire lives to be competitive with their peers and constantly outperform them. Personal reputations are at stake. If these instincts cannot be ‘turned off’ for the betterment of the organization, then a lot of time is invested into managing the fallout. Examples of this include having constant meetings to manage people’s behaviors, and seeing a decrease in the willingness of organization members to help one another.

Organizationally, another factor that contributes to a loss of trust is not identifying and utilizing people’s skills. How can trust exist in a masjid construction project when a Muslim contractor who has been managing construction projects for a living for over 20 years is sitting around while the organization turns over the masjid construction plans to a pediatrician?

This is the fundamental building block to freeing Islamic organizations of dysfunction, and it is perhaps the hardest because it requires the greatest overhaul in attitude and environment.

Once established however, it can foster constructive conflict.

2. Fear of Conflict

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.

-Important concept to understand: Ideological conflict vs. Personal conflict-

Have you ever met a husband and wife who never had an argument with one another? Have you ever met a parent that never had a disagreement with his or her children? Didn’t think so.

Why do we expect that Islamic organizations should operate under some kind of happy-go-lucky utopia? To preserve this naive notion of how things should be, we avoid engaging in any kind of conflict. What ends up happening then is that direct conflict is avoided within the organization, but it is replaced with back-stabbing, personal conflicts, and politics.

You have seen the organization where there may be a body of 7 people. 3 of them meet separately, and 4 of them meet separately. Then they concoct conspiracy theories about how the opposing camp really feels about an issue, and why they are pushing a particular position over another. Then they get riled up, and go out to the community seeking more support for their own side. Next thing you know, it’s an all out community conflict with name-calling, people not talking to each other, and the conflict finally erupting at a dinner party at some innocent person’s house while the innocent bystanders try to enjoy some chicken biryani.

Muslim organizations simply seem to want to avoid having any healthy conflict (discussion). This is why they all dread meetings that are boring, and where nothing gets done. When organization members trust each other, they can talk freely with one another and debate the merits of different ideas. Sit down and completely hash it out. A certain level of maturity is of course required, so that the debate does not turn personal. The element of trust is what allows people to freely credit or discredit ideas without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings (and then later making personal attacks behind their back).

Meetings should be lively and focus on the concepts and ideas being discussed – even if they become emotional. Let people be passionate about why they feel that a certain project is a waste of money, or that the dome of the masjid should be 25 feet in diameter instead of 30 feet, and so on.

This is important because once the merits of an idea have been thoroughly discussed, everyone has had a chance to air their objections or concerns, and people can respond to them. So let the best ideas win. Once that is done, even the people who initially opposed the idea, can support it from an organizational perspective. Contrast this with a board member who unwillingly votes in favor of a certain project, waiting for it to fail, then running around telling the community, “I told you so!”

3. Lack of Commitment

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions to which they will commit.

Commitment only comes from the step above – once everyone’s perspectives and opinions have been heard, they can all buy into the concept knowing that all ideas have been considered. And of course, that discussion cannot take place without step 1 – establishing trust.

According to Lencioni, the two biggest factors hindering commitment are:

  1. Desire for consensus
  2. Need for certainty

It seems many Islamic organizations refuse to move forward even one step without both of those being in place. Finding consensus is a nearly impossible task, and consensus is usually sought out of fear of backlash. It seems leaders are unwilling to make decisions without 100% support in case something goes wrong, they can defend themselves. This is unhealthy for the growth of any organization.

People do not need to agree with a decision in order to support it. As long as their ideas have been properly heard (explained in the step above), then they can rally around the decision – even if they disagree with it.

The need for certainty is closely related to the phenomenon of analysis paralysis. Organizations are unwilling to make a decision until a certain amount of data is available to them – at which point it might be too late. They have an innate need to feel like they have made the correct decision. Often times, a decision will need to be made quickly, and without the benefit of having all of the relevant information available. It is important to decide, and move on. Better to go down swinging then not show up at all. We are blessed with Istikharah and shura. Utilize them. Constantly delaying a decision, or flip-flopping back and forth will not help you make the correct choice, instead it will just kill your credibility.

Symptoms of lack of commitment include: ambiguity about direction and priorities, lack of confidence, fear of failure, and revisiting issues over and over for discussion. Islamic organizations need to clearly define their goals, rally around those common objectives, create an environment of learning from mistakes, and moving forward without regret.

The Prophet (sal-Allahu ‘alayhi was-Sallam) said the believer is not bitten from the same hole twice. We cannot demand perfection, but we demand the best effort.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Lack of clarity and direction (as explained in the step above) makes it impossible to hold anyone accountable. How can someone be accountable if they do not know what is expected in the first place?

Successful organizations must have an environment in place where people are able to call each other out for not living up to their standards. This should be the case whether positions are paid or unpaid. People are uncomfortable letting others know that their performance may not be up to the expected standards because they fear losing a volunteer, or perhaps even a friendship. Letting these feelings fester though, will only cause those relationships to deteriorate. It is time for Islamic organizations to stop settling, and demand the best – even if it requires some personal discomfort along the way. Doing this will actually develop mutual respect amongst the people working within the organization because they know they are equally being held to the same high standards by one another.

If this accountability is not there, then people begin to simply look out for their own self-interests over and above the interests of the organization.

5. Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Once an organization has clearly defined its goals and objectives, it must focus on meeting them. When an organization loses sight of those results, their attention shifts elsewhere. Lencioni says ‘elsewhere’ in this case would be team and individual status:

Team Status: For [some], merely being part of the group is enough to keep them satisfied. For them, the achievement of specific results might be desirable, but not necessarily worthy of great sacrifice or inconvenience. As ridiculous and dangerous as this might seem, plenty of teams fall prey to the lure of status. These often include altruistic nonprofit organizations that come to believe that the nobility of their mission is enough to justify their satisfaction … as they often see success in merely being associated with their special organizations.

Individual Status: This refers … [to people focusing] on enhancing their own positions … at the expense of the team.

The collective results must be more important than individual aims and objectives. One important note is the relationship of this dysfunction to the issue of trust (step 1). Individuals getting involved must also cleanse their hearts of any ill intentions such as seeking fame and credit in the community. The eventual breakdown of an entire organization can start from the simplest of individual wants or intentions.

Concluding Thoughts

Lencioni summarized it best:

And so, like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish.

Another way to understand this model is to take the opposite approach – a positive one – and imagine how members of a truly cohesive team behave:

  1. They trust one another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Please also see: The 90/10 Rule for Masjids

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



  1. Avatar

    Aboo Khalida

    January 25, 2010 at 1:51 AM

    Assalaamu Alaykum Ibn Abee Omar
    Mashaa Allaah, a very informative, well thought content which every Islamic Organization must put into practice. And rightly said, many organizations fail in the long run especially because the initial zest, motivation and other fuels dry down over a period of time due to lack of professionalism in running and this article clearly defines the “lack of professionalism” cause for the dysfunctions. I wish and pray to Allaah that Islamic Organizations do look into this matter seriously and commit again to the cause of developing a good healthy Islamic Community. May Allaah bless you & your family with the best in this world and the Hereafter.

  2. Avatar


    January 25, 2010 at 1:59 AM

    I am not sure the above model fits our organizations like a glove.

    For one, our members have no fear of conflict. We are always ready to get physical, bash each other in the worst possible ways and then not let anybody call the police on each other.

    The thakaydars (those people who think they have all but bought exclusive property rights to the masjid) of the masjid are totally committed to the masjid as long as they are re-elected/appointed forever. There is not need for consensus, as the will of one man, one family, or one group prevails.

    The biggest problems, though are, first, the Doctor Syndrome. The very fact that Dr. so n so is the biggest donor, also empowers them to deliver the khutba, become president of masjid, and give fatwas. This problem is, however subsiding, now that more people are learning the deen and less people are willing to swallow the placebos handed out by these doctors.

    The second problem is the Uncle Syndrome. Every man over fifty thinks he is entitled to play the masjid politics game. The masjid is the place where these gentlemen can have endless meetings where they can endlessly listen to the sound of their own voice.

    The third problem is the Back Home Syndrome. A lot of us, specially the uncles, have still not arrived in the US. We try to recreate the environment, culture and politics of our home countries on this soil and fail terribly.

    The fourth problem is the bad attitude of the Youth. Yet, they are not willing to work with the general population. That is, they are all right and happy working and volunteering with youth organizations, but will not contribute to the general day to day working of the masajid. They will, yet, complain about not being given chance to participate. For example, the volunteer organizer of a yearly conference did not allow anyone above 30 to volunteer, just because the youngsters did not like working with older adults.

    • ibnabeeomar


      January 25, 2010 at 11:39 AM

      The dysfunctions aren’t meant to “fit like a glove” but when you have a dysfunctional team, i would contend that the issues outlined here exist in the team.

      for example:

      Fear of Conflict: Remember the distinction in the article, conflict over IDEAS. not conflicts between people. id say that the fact that there’s so much personal conflict is probably a result of the fact that ideas can’t be discussed properly.

      the rest of your points are good and highlight a lot of what we see in many communities. but i also believe that once the steps in the article are implemented, it would alleviate some of these issues by having more accountability in place. some of the issues you mention are also a result of the points above like lack of trust and commitment.

  3. Avatar


    January 25, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    MashaAllah, excellent article as always.

    I have been in several masjid management meetings, and i find abundant examples for all of the issues you have mentioned. Having been disappointed many times, i chose to expend my energies elsewhere.

    Do you suggest that younger people who work in a corporate culture get involved, even though it will probably mean years of being a gopher for those entrenched in power?

    What do you think is the process (or is there a process) so that these hurdles can be overcome?

    • ibnabeeomar


      January 25, 2010 at 11:53 AM

      my take is that when there is a will, there’s a way. i think people often mistake being involved, and having a position. in the masjid politics i have personally experienced, i don’t recommend younger people to get involved, unless they are able to come in as a BLOCK with community backing.

      if its a small number of youth, or people without as much influence, i would suggest getting involved in other ways. even doing simple things like taking charge of organizing small programs (even without any official title) will get you noticed, and in many cases give you more authority/influence and team “membership” than people who do hold the official titles.

      but i dont recommend the gopher route at all. i think if a person builds his value in the community, he can then dictate his terms of involvement. if a person comes in with the intention of biding his time to then get higher up, i dont think it will happen. masjid politics are simply too volatile for that. plus its not an environment that will foster real trust.

      now let’s say a young corporate person starts showing up to every general body meeting, and politely starts raising specific issues and asking pointed questions – then even though the board may scoff and not entertain it, he will build his influence in the community because of the ideas he has. and once that reaches a tipping point, push will come to shove, and that person will be able to dictate his terms of involvement in the organization, knowing he’s got the community backing him.

    • ibnabeeomar


      January 25, 2010 at 11:55 AM

      and if you’re a khateeb, you can always preach your phiosophy on how things SHOULD be in a “general” manner. it wont be long until people start asking you to take over stuff ;)

  4. Avatar

    Jon G.

    January 25, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    When I was involved with my local Islamic school I found it helpful to have clear meeting objectives, agendas, and actionable items. Meetings should last no longer than 30 minutes. The key to productive meetings is to keep discussions task oriented. It’s not the time for group therapy.

    When we look at the Prophetic tradition, the haters were always around just as they continue to be today. This is just part of the human experience. We tend to recreate ourselves in our kids and the organizations we’re involved in and it’s only natural for folks to recreate their “back home” experiences. The key is to put aside your own ego and do what is best for the organization.

    Br. Nouman Ali Khan has a great series of videos on some of the problems Islamic organizations face; entitled Communication Catastrophe. One of the things he addresses is how to conduct meetings. It’s really worth making the time to watch it.

  5. Avatar


    January 26, 2010 at 5:50 AM

    Jazaka Allahu Khair for the post. I have this book also. It was required reading at my company. It should be required reading at the masajid. To echo earlier posts, I have been to far too many meetings held in our community that lack professionalism. Unfortunately, the five points above is how too many masajid are ran. Great book summary.

    • Avatar

      Naved Rehman

      February 2, 2010 at 12:33 PM

      Nice to see you wrote correctly : Masajid (plural for masjid) and not masjids (which I see alot)

  6. Avatar


    January 26, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    Only 5?

    • Avatar


      January 26, 2010 at 12:38 PM

      Great article man…I think the way to change the org. and masajid.. is for the indigenous american Muslims to start building our own Islamic Centers… and non profits..

  7. Avatar


    January 27, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    Very keen obversations. JazakAllahu khairan for shedding light on this issue.

  8. Avatar


    January 30, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    Salaam ‘alaykum,

    This article is awesome mashaAllah.

    Personally, it also applies to all types of Islamic organisations and if you read in between the lines, you’ll pick up some great wisdoms in how to deal with people and get results.

    It also goes down to who is actually running the organisation and those people in power, if they have the attitude to improve and their team are motivated, ANYTHING is possble. InshaAllah.

    JazaakAllahu khayrun for the beneficial article, I hope you write some more on such topics akhi!

    I’ll pass this on to a lottt of people insha Allah and I hope they benefit as I have. :excited:


  9. Avatar

    Abu Ibrahim

    January 30, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Conflict is natural and beneficial in any organization. Being able to express, explore, and expunge different ideas will help bring about the best results, Inshallah. If we look at the most influential Muslims of all time, we will see that all of them had to deal with conflict at some point in their lives.

    But I don’t like the ideas I see in some of the comments where people seem to endorse getting involved in Islamic organizations for personal reasons; either for status or power. Our intentions should always be to please Allah.

    Alhamdulillah, in my short lifetime, I’ve always managed to be involved in some respect with the leadership of whatever community I belonged to, without lobbying for certain positions.

  10. Avatar

    Quaid Saifee

    January 30, 2010 at 8:17 PM


    This is an excellent article. In this age of Internet, one would think more and more masjid boards would be transparent in their dealings. One of the ways I think organizations can become more open is to post the meeting minutes and votes online.

    In these days of twitter and facebook, board members and other committee chairs must be required to blog about their activities for the masjid.

    About consensus, as it is said, Not everybody can have their way, but everybody need to have their say,


  11. Avatar


    January 31, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    You forgot one more: 6. The desire for leadership. This can be seen when a leader and all his cronies become the office bearers of the organization, before it is even launched.

    The prophet once said “a pack of wolves setting upon a flock of sheep will not do more damage than the desire for leadership will have on a person’s faith (iman.)”

    Imam Jafar Sadiq once said ‘By Allah, we do not give leadership to anyone who desires it.”

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    Zeky Ahmed

    July 23, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Barak Allahu feek Br. Omar, this is such a well-written article masha Allah. You highlighted some of the major issues afflicting our communities when it comes to leadership. I especially loved your points about the fear of conflict and the need for consensus. I’ve observed these things time and time again in different organizations but wasn’t able to pinpoint what the cause of the behaviour was, so reading this was very insightful alhamdulilah.

    I’ve had Lencioni’s book on my to-read list for quite a while now and this just makes me all the more motivated to get right to it. May Allah swt reward you and continue to bring benefit to the ummah through your efforts.

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Emotional Intelligence: A Tool for Change  

Imam Mikaeel Smith



Why do we consider emotional intelligence to be half of the Prophetic intellect? The answer lies in the word “messenger.” Messengers of Allah are tasked with the divine responsibility of conveying to humanity the keys to their salvation. They are not only tasked with passing on the message but also with being a living example of that message.

When ʿĀʾishah, the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, was asked to explain the character of the blessed Prophet ﷺ, her reply was, “His character was the Qurʾān.[1]” We are giving emotional intelligence a place of primacy in the construct of Prophetic intelligence because it seems implausible that Allah would send a messenger without providing that messenger with the means necessary to exemplify and transmit the message to others. If the Prophets of Allah did not have the necessary knowledge and skills needed to successfully pass on the message to the next generation, the argument would be incomplete. People could easily excuse themselves of all accountability because the message was never conveyed.

We also see clear examples in the Qur’ān that this knowledge was being perpetually perfected in the character of the Prophet ﷺ. Slight slips in his Emotional Intelligence were rare, but when they did occur, Allah gently addressed the mistake by means of revelation. Allah says in the Qurʾān, “If you (O Muḥammad) were harsh and hardhearted, then the people would flee from you.” This verse clearly placed the burden of keeping an audience upon the shoulders of the Prophet ﷺ. What this means is that the Prophet ﷺ had to be aware of what would push people away; he had to know what would create cognitive and emotional barriers to receptivity. When we study the shamāʾil (books about his character), we find that he was beyond exceptional in his ability to make people receptive. He took great care in studying the people around him and deeply understanding them. Only after the Prophet ﷺ had exhausted all the means of removing barriers to receptivity would the responsibility to affirm the message be shifted to those called to it.

Another example of this Prophetic responsibility can be found in the story of Prophet Mūsa when he was commissioned to call Pharaoh and the children of Israel to Allah. When Allah informed him of the task he was chosen for, he immediately attempted to excuse himself because he had a slight speech impediment. He knew that his speech impediment could potentially affect the receptivity of people to the message. He felt that this disqualified him from being a Prophet. He also felt that the act of manslaughter he committed might come between the people and guidance. All of these examples show that Allah’s Prophets understood that many factors can affect a person’s receptivity to learning something new, especially when the implications of that new information call into question almost every aspect of a person’s identity. History tells us that initially, people did not accept the message of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; they completely rejected him and accused him of being a liar.

One particular incident shows very clearly that he ﷺ understood how necessary it was for him to remove any cognitive or emotional barriers that existed between him and his community. When the people of his hometown of Makkah had almost completely rejected him, he felt that it was time to turn his attention to a neighboring town. The city of Ṭā’if was a major city and the Prophet ﷺ was hopeful that perhaps they would be receptive to the message. Unfortunately, they completely rejected him and refused to even listen to what he had to say. They chased him out of town, throwing stones at him until his injuries left him completely covered in blood. Barely making it outside the city, the Prophet ﷺ collapsed. Too weak to move, he turned his attention to his Lord and made one of the most powerful supplications made by a Prophet of Allah.

اللهم إليك أشكو ضعف قوتي، وقلة حيلتي، وهواني على الناس، يا أرحم الراحمين، أنت أنت رب المستضعفين وأنت ربي، إلى من تكلني؟ إلى عدو يتجهمني؟ أو إلى قريب ملكته أمري؟ إن لم يكن بك علي غضب فلا أبالي، غير أن عافيتك أوسع لي، أعوذ بنور وجهك الذي أشرقت له الظلمات، وصلح عليه أمر الدنيا والآخرة، من أن ينزل بي غضبك، أو يحل علي سخطك، لك العتبى حتى ترضى، ولا حول ولا قوة إلا بك”

“Oh Allah, only to You do I complain about my lack of strength, my insufficient strategies, and lowliness in the sight of the people. You are my Lord. To whom do you turn me over? Someone distant from me who will forsake me? Or have you placed my affair in the hands of my enemy? [2]

The Prophet ﷺ felt that he was the reason why the people were not accepting the message. His concern that “my low status in the eyes of the people,” informs us that he understood that people naturally judge the seriousness of a message based on the stature of the message bearer. The people of Ṭā’if were extremely ignorant, so much that they adamantly refused to enter into any dialogue. In reality, this was not due to any shortcoming of the Prophet ﷺ; he demonstrated the best of character and displayed extreme patience in the face of such ignorance. But the beginning of the supplication teaches us what he was focused on: making sure that he was not the reason why someone did not accept the message.

Because his message was not geographically restricted like that of other Prophets, those who inherited the message would have the extra burden of transferring the message to a people with whom they were unfamiliar. The intelligence needed to pass the message of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ around the world included an understanding of the cultural differences that occur between people. Without this understanding effective communication and passing on of his message would be impossible.

A sharp Emotional Intelligence is built upon the development of both intra- and interpersonal intelligence. These intelligences are the backbone of EQ and they provide a person with emotional awareness and understanding of his or her own self, an empathic understanding of others, and the ability needed to communicate effectively and cause change. Emotional Intelligence by itself is not sufficient for individual reform or societal reform; instead, it is only one part of the puzzle. The ʿaql or intellect that is referenced repeatedly in the Qurʾān is a more comprehensive tool that not only recognizes how to understand the psychological and emotional aspects of people but recognizes morally upright and sound behavior. After that this intellect, if healthy and mature, forces a person to conform to that standard. Therefore, we understand the ʿaql to be a comprehensive collection of intelligences analogous to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory.

Taking into consideration the extreme diversity found within Western Muslim communities, we see how both Moral Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence are needed. Fostering and nurturing healthy communities requires that we understand how people receive our messages. This is the interpersonal intelligence aspect of EQ. Without grounding the moral component of our community, diversity can lead to what some contemporary moral theorists call moral plasticity, a phenomenon where concrete understandings of good and evil, right and wrong, are lost. Moral Education (Moral Education, which will be discussed throughout the book, is the process of building a Morally Intelligent heart) focuses on correcting the message that we are communicating to the world; in other words, Moral Intelligence helps us maintain our ideals and live by them, while Emotional Intelligence ensures that the message is effectively communicated to others.

My father would often tell me, “It’s not what you say, son; it’s what they hear.”

Interpersonal understanding is the core of emotional intelligence. My father would often tell me, “It’s not what you say, son; it’s what they hear.” From the perspective of Emotional Intelligence, this statement is very accurate. The way we interpret words, body language, verbal inflections, and facial expressions is based on many different factors. The subtle power of this book lies in the simple fact that your emotional intelligence is the primary agent of change and thus the most powerful force you have. You must understand how people perceive what you are communicating to them. What is missing from my father’s statement is the primacy of Moral Intelligence. Throughout this book, I attempt to show how the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ demonstrated a level of perfection of both of these intelligences.

*With the Heart in Mind is available for pre-order at

[1]Bayhaqī, Shuʿb al-ʾĪmān, vol. 3, p. 23.

[2] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah, vol. 3, p. 136.


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Read Books, Build Character, Inspire Generations





By Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari

Believers would recognise that God has made knowledge the foundation for the superiority of human beings over other creatures on Earth. The first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was ‘Iqra’, meaning ‘read’ or ‘recite’. The Prophet said “the seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim” (Al-Tirmidhi). Knowledge thus goes hand in hand with the Islamic creed.

Muslims are asked to seek knowledge by reading, learning and reflecting to live their lives as stewards in our planet. They are asked to supplicate “O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge” (Al-Qur’an 20:114). To emphasise the message of the superiority of learned people in Islam, the Prophet said, “The superiority of the learned man over the worshipper is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars …” (Abu Dawud).

One can observe exemplary practices amongst those who are often labelled as enlightened. A trait that typically stands out prominently is their craving for knowledge and emphasis on reading. Many would own bookshelves or even a private library in their homes; public libraries would abound across the country. Through knowledge, scholarship, good character and hard work they endeavour to create long-lasting civilisations; whether it be Greek, Indian or Chinese examples.

During the Islamic Golden Age which began in the 8th century and lasted over 600 years, Muslims flourished in intellectual pursuits because of their thirst for learning. They became the ardent lovers of books and became synonymous with knowledge. They made momentous progress in all areas of life. At a time when books were written and copied by hand, affluent Muslims spent their wealth to establish libraries, mostly adjacent to schools or mosques, so that everyone could use them. Books and libraries became the Muslims’ umbilical cord in connecting their material progress and spiritual quest together.

During their peak cultural and intellectual period, Muslim scientific and technological innovations, as well as their translations of ancient Greek knowledge into Latin, inspired Europe in its intellectual resurgence. This Muslim-led knowledge revolution with the flowering of science, art, medicine, and philosophy spread across the Muslim world. It was the infusion of this knowledge into Western Europe that fuelled the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. The invention of the printing machine in 1451 further helped to transform Europe, as knowledge rapidly reached beyond the elite class.

While Europe was brimming with energy and started its new journey with astounding vigour, political weaknesses and collective inertia meant the Islamic world fell into stagnation. One calamity that befell Muslims, considered by many historians to be a hammer blow to their intellectual backbone, was the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands. The occupation of Baghdad in 1258 witnessed an unparalleled barbarity; killing scholars, burning books and destroying libraries. In spite of the successful military fightbacks against the Crusading armies, the conversion of many Mongol invaders to Islam and the victories of the Ottomans over the next few centuries, the Muslim world gradually succumbed to intellectual passivity and socio-political fracture. The rest – the colonisation of lands and minds, eventual independence but subsequent failures of leadership to this day – is history.

Today, the overall condition of Muslims – in terms of their education level, economic performance and intellectual standard – is less than satisfactory. Their political and religious leadership has imploded in many places; their ineffective governance and lack of institutional capacity to harness human and material resources are still hindering progress. Post-9/11 disorder in the form of imposed or proxy wars in historic lands and failed or repressive politics in some countries have displaced millions of people from their homelands.

There are however signs of genuine awareness and reappraisal as well as positive changes in many places. It is time Muslims sharpen their reading habits, build character and find practical ways to join the dots of good works with a ‘glass half full’ attitude. The regeneration of their grass-roots leadership across the world of Islam – from parents at home, teachers in school and Imams in mosques – has become a necessity. Muslims must learn to excel in what they do in their family, community, workplace and wider society with inclusive social activism. Only then, can they create an effective civil society everywhere.

Their reading, as in their heydays, should start from core religious texts for moral guidance and spiritual peace to all areas of modern knowledge which has made astounding progress in recent decades largely without Muslim input. Reading activates the human brain and provides food for thought and is vital for developing curiosity and enhancing critical autonomy. Ultimately it is knowledge that empowers a people.

In a world of information overload, one has to pick and choose what to read and what not to. With our short and limited lifespan, we cannot afford to waste time by only reading junk and indulging in vanity. Good books are the sources of silent power; they are the pillars of success. Like a balanced diet for a human body, good books are vital sources for mental agility and spiritual peace. Reading should be for a purpose that injects the attitude of reflection and action, build character to act for the good of all. Good reading nourishes from within, fills hearts and souls with gratefulness to God for all the bounties around and catapults people to serve others with the best of human character, Adab.

Let us read books, inspire children, and help create a better world for our future.

Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, parenting consultant, and author. His memoir A Long Jihad: My Quest for the Middle Way was published in summer 2018. Dr. Abdul Bari is the former Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Here is Dr Bari’s concise recommended reading list:

Children Related

1)  Islam for Children Series

2)  Children’s books on various topics – Khurram Murad

3)  Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim book of Colors – Hena Khan

4)  Crescent Moons and Painted Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes – Hena Khan

5)  A Guide to Parenting in Islam: Cherishing Childhood – Muhammad Abdul Bari

Al-Qur’an/Qur’an Related

1)  To choose 2-3 from classical and modern Tafsirs

2)  Understanding the Quran Themes and styles – Mohammad Abdel Haleem

3)  The Majestic Quran: A Plain English Translation – Musharraf Hussain

4)  Way to the Qur’an – Khurram Murad

Hadith/Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

1)  The Complete Forty Hadith – Imam an-Nawawi

2)  Stories of the Prophets – Ibn Kathir

3)  Muhammad – Martin Lings

4)  Companions of the Prophets 1 and 2 – Abdul Wahid Hamid

5)  The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet – Safiur Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri

6)  In The Footsteps of the Prophet – Tariq Ramadan

Islam/Islam Related

1)  Ihya Ulum Id Din: Book of Religious Learning Hardcover – Imam Ghazali

2)  In The Early Hours: Reflections on Spiritual and Self Development – Khurram Murad


1)  The Road to Mecca – Muhammad Asad

2)  Islam Between East and West – Alija Izetbegović

3)  Islam and the Destiny of Man – Gai Eaton

4)  Autobiography of Malcolm X

5)  Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes – Alija Izetbegović

6)  To Be a European Muslim – Tariq Ramadan

7)  A Long Jihad: My Quest for the Middle Way – Muhammad Abdul Bari

8)  1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in our World – Chief Editor, Salim TS Al-Hasani


1)  Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

2)  Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

3)  The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament – Wael Hallaq


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118 by Tariq Touré

Tariq Toure




Ummi’s house is beaten by the aroma
of a whistling kettle filled with red zinger tea
grandchildren bouncing in & out screen doors
firecrackers conversing in the backyard
neighbors shouting yesterday’s yesterdays
with living rooms just big enough to seat
the world’s problems
And July’s you had to stand dead center
to comprehend

Ummi is a house too,
with 7 attics and 55 windows
shaped in circles of all sizes
She is where searching souls find
a reflection of the words they once housed

She reminds us, with perfect diction
that we are strangers in this land
no matter how her smile threads
through a crowded room
it will one day return to the sky

Olivet Lane brought buttered biscuit to mouth
carved Sunday dinners out of maybe
deposited toy truck to hand and sent soldiers
into a world at war with our wishes

We too became houses wrapped in a concert of windows.
We too became a home for travelers
no duty more sacred than
serenity in the pores of our guests,
traffickers of light.

A nation passed through the arch of her back,
And while lightning never strikes
the same place twice,
it always found its way home

Infants crawling scattered below her ankles
will forget too soon
how close they were
to paradise

Purchase Tariq’s new book of poetry: 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breathe 

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