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The Five Dysfunctions of Islamic Organizations

Omar Usman

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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 ibnabeeomar.com.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  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

    shahgul

    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

      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

    ahmed

    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

      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

      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

    muslimfitforlife

    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

    shirtman

    January 26, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    Only 5?

    • Avatar

      shirtman

      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

    UmmeSuleim

    January 27, 2010 at 6:58 AM

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

  8. Avatar

    Secrecy

    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:

    wassalaam.

  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

    Assalamalikum

    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,

    Quaid

  11. Avatar

    Hasan

    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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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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