“We were of the most disgraced of people, and Allah granted us honor with this Islam. Now, whenever we seek honor in other than that which Allah honored us with, Allah shall disgrace us (once again).”
—‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb
“Black people in America can never be Muslim,” he said to me as I stood next to his desk. I stared at my teacher with an expression that must have conveyed very little of what I felt right then. I didn’t know what to say. I studied his eyes, slightly enlarged by the thick glasses he wore. The deep olive of his Arab complexion was nearly the same as my American brown. We even shared the same hair texture—though my hair was covered right then.
But, even so, to an outsider looking in, he could have easily been my father. And given that he was the only Muslim teacher I had at the high school, I should have at least shared with him the commonality of “brother and sister” in Islam. But that, I knew, was impossible to this man. He was Arab. I was American—and “Black” at that. He wanted to make sure I understood this impossibility. I did.
I continued standing where I was only because I was waiting for my teacher to mention the reason he had called me to his desk. The other students were at their seats working, some looking up curiously every now and then, wondering what it was our teacher wanted from me. Naturally, like most students would, they imagined I’d gotten myself in trouble somehow, and they didn’t want to miss the action. I waited only because I didn’t want to miss his point.
The teacher’s matter-of-fact expression as he blinked back at me confused me only momentarily. I hesitated for only a second after the realization, mostly out of respect, and I made an effort not to display disdain for my elder as I excused myself and returned to my seat. But it was impossible for me to concentrate after that. I was genuinely perplexed.
“In life,” my father told us once, “you’ll meet many people who’ll say al-salāmu ‘alaykum, but they’re not really Muslim.” He shook his head. “No, I don’t mean they’re not Muslims to Allah. I mean they’re not living Islam. They have no idea what this religion means.”
I thought of my Arab teacher.
“Beauty is in carrying yourself like a Muslim,” my parents would say. “Beauty is in living Islam.”
I stood browsing the shelves of the modest store—“the Sooq”—adjacent to the prayer area of the Islamic center I liked to attend in suburban Washington, D.C. I did a double take before picking up the small box. I stared at it a moment longer, realizing my eyes hadn’t been mistaken at all. The skin-bleaching cream—manufactured in a Muslim country—did indeed say what I thought it said.
The solution to pollution.
Next to this tagline was the image of two faces, one brown (incidentally very close to my own skin tone) and the other white—the “before” and “after” of this product. Disgusted, I returned the box to the shelf and left.
“And here we have a black woman,” the Muslim lecturer told the audience, his voice rising to reflect the sincerity of his message as he shared the famous ḥadīth about the black woman afflicted with seizures, a story he hoped would encourage his Muslim sisters to take ḥijāb more seriously, “a black woman who wanted to guard her modesty. So she asked the Prophet, ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam, to invoke Allah so that she wouldn’t become uncovered. Sisters, this was a black woman…”
“My father would never let me marry a Black man,” my friend from Trinidad told me as we chatted one day. She laughed and shook her head. I couldn’t help noticing that her skin was a much richer brown than my own. “He told me, ‘You can marry whoever you want, but don’t ever marry a Black man.’”
“I must admit,” a sister from Somalia said after meeting me for the first time. We were at a book event for my novels held at an Islamic convention. “I’m really surprised you’re Black.” As we talked, she apologized for her prejudice: She had been unable to fathom that such “well-written” books could come from a Black American. Later at the same convention, a fellow American said something similar—but in different words. “And she’s really intelligent,” he said as he introduced me to his wife. His voice was between disbelief and awe. I smiled as I reached out to shake the hand of a woman who studied me with a sense of uncertainty that strangely mirrored her husband’s shock at my brain’s capacity. I read the question in her eyes. Really? Are you sure?
I could say that these experiences scarred me for life, that I went home in tears, and that these people’s bigotry incited within me that horrible inferiority complex due to my “Blackness” and my utter inability to be accepted not only by “White America” but also by the “real” Muslims of the world.
But I won’t. That would be dishonest. Truth is, I felt sorry for these people.
When I was still in high school, I would come home and recount such stories to my younger sister, and like myself at the time, she would become perplexed. And to be really honest, we would even laugh at times—not with the quiet, hesitant giggle most appropriate for our “lowly” status, but with the thunderous throw-your-head-back laugh that makes your stomach hurt and tears sting your eyes. This was how we dealt with much of the bigotry we witnessed in life.
Perhaps I am an exception. I can’t be sure. But I didn’t reach adulthood thinking I was less than anyone else. I didn’t shrink in the face of those deemed above me—whether Muslim or non-Muslim—and demurely accept their “superior” status. Quite frankly, I didn’t know they had one. Yes, I knew about those suffering from a tragic sense of insecurity, which made it necessary for them to release “statistics” about others’ intellectual abilities (or lack thereof) or call a student to their desk to say she couldn’t be Muslim.
Or to believe, perhaps, that those who aren’t Black are actually inferior. But, alḥamdulillāh, I didn’t go through any of that.
Yes, in childhood, I was mistreated—by non-Muslims mostly due to my Islam and brown skin and by Muslims mostly due to my “lack of Islam” because of my brown skin. And yes, it hurt. And yes, I cried from time to time. And no, I didn’t always feel confident in my Muslim headscarf and brown skin. And, naturally, I didn’t reach adulthood without insecurities (if such a thing is possible).
But, by Allah’s mercy, I also didn’t reach adulthood insecure. My self-image and self-esteem centered around one thing: my Islam. So when I picked up a “Muslim” magazine and happened upon the matrimonial section, it didn’t even occur to me that I should feel slighted or offended when I read dozens of ads by men looking for “fair” wives. I had a good laugh. And my sister did too.
“I’m Whiter than You”
I flipped back to the page of Al-Jumuah Magazine I had just seen. For a moment I just stared at the title. I couldn’t imagine what the article would be about. If there was a turning point in my youthful naïveté, reading this article was probably it—though I was a wife and mother at the time I came across this piece.
To the author’s credit, the article was well-written and reflective. She was a White American who had accepted Islam and, due to her (apparently) being the recipient of superfluous praise for her appearance, she wished to let us know the downside of having white skin—sunburns and the like.
What was life-changing about this for me was two-fold: that the author had been inspired to write it in the first place and, what’s more, that a reputable Muslim magazine had seen value in printing it.
I sat still for quite some time. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t indignant. I was…confounded.
When I was in high school, a local radio show held a citywide essay contest, and contestants were to write about the hero in their lives. The winning piece would be read live from the Indianapolis radio station and broadcast for all the city to hear. As I contemplated whom I would write about, many personalities crossed my mind. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks… But in the end, I chose my father. And, to my surprise, I won.
I stood before the microphone as the radio host looked on, and I shared with the world my honest testimony of what I felt right then—that my father was my hero in life. It wasn’t because he was a well-known community activist or because I’d grown accustomed to seeing his name in the newspaper or his face on television. It wasn’t even because he was the spiritual advisor to the famous boxer Mike Tyson. It was because, despite the many obstacles he faced in life and despite his being a rather ordinary man, he managed to instill in me, as well as my siblings, a love for the lives that Allah gave us. And never once did he make me or my siblings believe that our worth (or beauty) could be measured by—or limited to—our bodies or skin.
In a word, he taught us…truth. Today, I find it truly heartbreaking that of the more than one billion Muslims in the world, so few of them could say the same of their parents.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, Muslims—whether “fair” or “dark,” Arab or non-Arab, Black or White—seek honor in lifestyles and values that are far removed from Islam.
“Is it honor you seek among them? Nay, all honor is with Allah.”
—Qur’an (Al-Nisā’, 4:139)
While in truth, we should seek honor in only one lifestyle:
That of being slaves.
Not to our country, skin color, tribe, or family name. And not even to our “victim status” as oppressed people of the world.
But to Allah, our Creator. Who has given us Islam.
If we don’t seek honor through this religion, we will continue to live in humiliation and make utter fools of ourselves. Not only through revealing our tragic colonial mentality in racist comments, ridiculous matrimonial ads, and bizarre articles in magazines. But through our sullied souls when we die and meet Allah.
For to our Creator, there is but one measure of human beauty and worth: Being Allah’s slaves on earth. And these superior slaves are not distinguished due to their bodies or skin. But due to their pure hearts and righteous deeds…
And through having in their breasts not even a grain of pride when they are buried in the dirt from which they were created.
So as we take pride in the color (or lack thereof) of our fleshy dirt,
Tell me, O child of Adam…
Are you amongst these honored slaves?
A Code of Conduct To Protect Against Spiritual Abuse
When there is a claim of spiritual abuse, the initial reaction of concerned Muslims is often to go to another Muslim leader and expect that leader to take care of it. Most of the time, however, religious leaders in the community have no authority over other religious leaders who are found abusing their position. Many of these leaders feel a foreboding sense of powerlessness to exert change, leaving those who abuse, to do so freely and with impunity.
There have been attempts by some leaders to take action against abusive religious figures. However, when this happens, it is usually followed by a public or ‘in-group’ campaign against the abusive figure, and the abusive figure and his supporters return in kind. This becomes messy, quickly. There is name-calling, mud-slinging, and threats, but in the end, it amounts to nothing, in the end, leaving everyone involved to make their own decision as to whether or not to continue support for the alleged perpetrator. Other religious leaders may know the accused is guilty, but due to friendships or programs they wish to continue doing with the accused, they will cover for them, especially when there is only a perceived low level of evidence that the public could ever discover it.
There are several methods and excuses through which abuse is covered up.
The Wall of Silence
In cases of tightly knit groups, whether Sufi tariqas, super Salafi cliques, activist groups, or preachers who have formed a team, the abuser will be protected by a wall of silence, while the victim is targeted, maligned, and ostracized for speaking out against the leader. They, not the abuser, are held accountable, liable, and blamed. While the abuser is expected to be ‘forgiven,’ the victim is socially shamed for a crime committed against him or her. More often than not, the victim is intimidated into silence, while the perpetrator is left free to continue abusing.
The Kafir Court Rationale
There have been countless situations when there have been legal claims made against a transgressing spiritual leader, but through coercion and pressure, the shaykh (or those close to him) will be able to convince his victim that they are not allowed to go to kafir court systems to solve issues between Muslims. Ironically, these same shaykhs see no difficulty signing legally binding contracts with other Muslims they do business with, or when they give classes, which stands to reason, they are perfectly fine accepting the same ‘kafir court’ as a source of protection when it is for themselves.
Stop Hurting the Dawah Plea
In other cases, when the disputes are between fellow students, or representatives of the shaykh and those lower ranking students, the shaykh himself is able to get on the phone with the disgruntled victim, give him or her special attention, and convince the person to drop it and not pursue justice, as that may ‘hurt the dawah.’ Sometimes, the shaykhs will ostensibly push for Islamic mechanisms of justice and call for arbitration by other religious figures who they know will decide in his favor. It is critical not to fall victim to these arguments.
Your Vile Nafs Culpe
Far too often in these groups, particularly the more spiritually inclined ones, everyone will acknowledge the abuse, whether illicit sexual behavior, groping, financial fraud, secret temporary marriages, or bullying by a Shaykh, but steadfastly invoke the ‘only prophets are perfect, and our Shaykh is a wali–– but he can make mistakes’ refrain. Then, when those seeking recourse dare disclose these issues, even when there is no dispute about the factuality of their claims, they are browbeaten into compliance; told their focus on the negative is a sign that they are ‘veiled from the more important, positive efforts of the group, and it is they who should overcome their vile nafs.’ With such groups, leaving may be the only solution.
Pray it Away Pretext
Sometimes, a target of abuse may go to other teachers or other people in the community to seek help, guidance, or direction. The victims hold these teachers in high regard and believe that they can trust them. However, instead of these teachers acting to protect the victims, the victims are often placated, told to pray it away. They are left with empty platitudes, but nothing concrete is ever done to protect them, nor is there any follow-up.
The Forgive and Forget Pardon
They are told to forgive…
Forgiveness has its place and time, but at that critical moment, when a victim is in crisis and requires guidance and help, their wellbeing should remain paramount. To counsel victims that their primary job and focus at that pivotal juncture is to forgive their abuser is highly objectionable. Forgiveness is not the obligation of the victim and for any teacher or religious leader to invalidate the wrong that took place is not only counterproductive but dangerous––even if the intention behind the advice came from a wholesome place.
The Dire Need For A Code of Conduct
It is very easy to feel let down when nothing is done about teachers who abuse, but we have to understand that without a Code of Conduct, there really isn’t much that can be done when the spiritual abuse is not considered illegal. It is the duty of Islamic institutions to protect employees, attendees, and religious leaders. We also must demand that.
Justice is a process. It is not a net result. This means that sometimes we will follow the process of justice and still come up short. The best thing we can do to hold abusers accountable for our institutions is to set up a process of accountability. A code of conduct will not eliminate spiritual abuse. Institutions that adopt this code may still cover up abuse, in which case victims will need to take action against the institution for violating the code. This code of conduct will also protect teachers who can be targetted and falsely accused.
As members of the community, we should expect more. Here is how:
- Demand your Islamic institutions to have and instill a code of conduct.
- If you are in a group outside of an institution, get clarity on the limits of the Shaykh.
- Understand that anyone, no matter their social status, is capable of doing horrible things, even the religious figures who talk about the importance of justice, accountability, and transparency.
- When it comes to money, expect more from your leadership than emotional appeals. Fundraising causes follow trends, and while supporting good causes is a positive thing, doing so without a proper audit or accountability is not. It lends itself to financial abuse, mistrust, and misappropriation.
Establish a Protocol
A lot of hurt can be saved and distrust salvaged if victims are provided with honest non-judgment. Even in the event that there is a lack of concrete evidence, a protocol to handle these kinds of sensitive situations can provide a victim with a safe space to go to where they know they won’t be ignored or treated callously. We may not be able to guarantee an outcome, but we can ensure that we’ll try.
Using Contract Law to Hold Abusers Accountable – Danya Shakfeh
In cases of spiritual abuse, legal recourse (or any recourse for that matter) has been rare due to there being no standard of conduct and no legal means to hold abusers accountable. In order to solve this problem, our Code of Conduct creates a legal mechanism of enforcement through contract law.
The reason why contract law is important and applicable is that the law does not always address unethical behavior. You have heard the refrain “Just because it is legal, it does not mean it is ethical.” The law, for varying reasons, has its limits. Although we associate the law with justice and morality, the law and justice and morality are not always interchangeable and can even be at odds with each other.
Ultimately, specifically in a secular society, the law is a set man-made rules and sometimes those rules are arbitrary and actually unfair. For example, there is a class of laws called ‘strict liability’ laws. These laws make a defendant liable even if the person committed the offense by accident. One example of strict liability law is selling alcohol to a minor. In some states, even if the person tried to confirm the minor’s legal age, the seller could still be held liable for the offense. On the flip-side, there are is a lack of anti-bullying laws on the books in the United States. This allows employers to cause serious emotional damage to employees, yet the employer can get away with such offensive behavior. Accordingly, the law does not always protect nor is it always ‘just.’
This is one of the reasons that victims of spiritual abuse have had little success in having their claims addressed at a legal level. Because abuses are not legally recognized as such, there is often no associated remedy. For example, when a woman enters into a secret second marriage only to find that the husband is not giving her all her Islamic legal rights, that woman’s recourse is very limited because the law does not recognize this as abuse and does not even recognize the marriage.
Further, if a victim of spiritual abuse is abused due to religious manipulation unless the abuser engaged in a stand-alone crime or civil claim, the victim also has no legal recourse. For example, if a religious scholar exploits a congregant’s vulnerabilities in order to convince the congregant to turn over large amounts of money and the congregant later learns that the Islamic scholar did not really need the money, he or she may have no legal recourse. This is because manipulation (as long as there is no fraud) is not illegal and depending on how clever the religious scholar was, the congregant would have no legal recourse. Our way of solving this problem is by using contract law to set and enforce the standard for ethical behavior.
Use of Institutional Handbooks
Whether people realize it or not, institutional handbooks are a type of contract. Though an attorney should be consulted in order to ensure that they these documents are binding, policies do not necessarily need to be signed by every party nor do they need to be called a “contract” in order to be legally binding. By creating institutional handbooks and employment policies that relate to common issues of spiritual abuse, we can finally provide guidelines and remedies.
When an employee at an institution violates the institution’s policies, this is a “breach of contract” that can result in firing or even monetary damages. In other words, the policy is that document which victims and institutions can use to back their cases when there are allegations involving abuse. Policies can also hold institutions themselves liable for not enforcing the policy and remedies as to victims’ abuse. Policies also serve the purpose of putting the community and their beneficiaries and patrons on notice as to what is expected of them.
Our Code of Conduct is the most comprehensive of created ethical guidelines for Muslims leaders and institutions for making spiritual abuse remedies actionable. We believe it will provide remedies to victims that would otherwise not be available through other legal means. By binding the parties to a contract, victims and institutions can take these contracts, along with the abusers, to court and use the contract to fill in the gap for appropriate behavior that the law otherwise does not fill.
Ya Qawmi: Strengthen Civic Roots In Society To Be A Force For Good
For believers the traditions and teachings of the Prophets (blessings on them), particularly Muhammad , are paramount. Each Prophet of God belonged to a community which is termed as their Qawm in the Qur’an. Prophet Lut (Lot) was born in Iraq, but settled in Trans-Jordan and then became part of the people, Qawm of Lut, in his new-found home. All the Prophets addressed those around them as ‘Ya Qawmi’ (O, my people) while inviting them to the religion of submission, Islam. Those who accepted the Prophets’ message became part of their Ummah. So, individuals from any ethnicity or community could become part of the Ummah – such as the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad.
Believers thus have dual obligations: a) towards their own Qawm (country), and b) towards their Ummah (religious companions). As God’s grateful servants, Muslims should strive to give their best to both their Qawm and Ummah with their ability, time and skillset. It is imperative for practising and active Muslims to carry out Islah (improvement of character, etc) of people in their Ummah and be a witness of Islam to non-Muslims in their Qawm and beyond. This in effect is their service to humanity and to please their Creator. With this basic understanding of the concept, every Muslim should prioritise his or her activities and try their utmost to serve human beings with honesty, integrity and competence. Finding excuses or adopting escapism can bring harm in this world and a penalty in the Hereafter.
Like many other parts of the world, Britain is going through a phase lacking in ethical and competent leadership. People are confused, frustrated and worried; some are angry. Nativist (White) nationalism in many western countries, with a dislike or even hatred of minority immigrant people (particularly Muslims and Jews), is on the rise. This is exacerbated through lowering religious literacy, widespread mistrust and an increase in hateful rhetoric being spread on social media. As people’s patience and tolerance levels continue to erode, this can bring unknown adverse consequences.
The positive side is that civil society groups with a sense of justice are still robust in most developed countries. While there seem to be many Muslims who love to remain in the comfort zone of their bubbles, a growing number of Muslims, particularly the youth, are also effectively contributing towards the common good of all.
As social divisions are widening, a battle for common sense and sanity continues. The choice of Muslims (particularly those that are socially active), as to whether they would proactively engage in grass-roots civic works or social justice issues along with others, has never been more acute. Genuine steps should be taken to understand the dynamics of mainstream society and improve their social engagement skills.
From history, we learn that during better times, Muslims proactively endeavoured to be a force for good wherever they went. Their urge for interaction with their neighbours and exemplary personal characters sowed the seeds of bridge building between people of all backgrounds. No material barrier could divert their urge for service to their Qawm and their Ummah. This must be replicated and amplified.
Although Muslims are some way away from these ideals, focusing on two key areas can and should strengthen their activities in the towns and cities they have chosen as their home. This is vital to promote a tolerant society and establish civic roots. Indifference and frustration are not a solution.
Muslim individuals and families
- Muslims must develop a reading and thinking habit in order to prioritise their tasks in life, including the focus of their activism. They should, according to their ability and available opportunities, endeavour to contribute to the Qawm and Ummah. This should start in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad on one’s obligations to their neighbour; one that stands out – Gabriel kept advising me to be good to my neighbour so much that I thought he would ask that he (neighbour) should inherit me) – Sahih Al-Bukhari.
- They must invest in their new generation and build a future leadership based on ethics and professionalism to confidently interact and engage with the mainstream society, whilst holding firm to Islamic roots and core practices.
- Their Islah and dawah should be professionalised, effective and amplified; their outreach should be beyond their tribal/ethnic/sectarian boundaries.
- They should jettison any doubts, avoid escapism and focus where and how they can contribute. If they think they can best serve the Ummah’s cause abroad, they should do this by all means. But if they focus on contributing to Britain:
- They must develop their mindset and learn how to work with the mainstream society to normalise the Muslim presence in an often hostile environment.
- They should work with indigenous/European Muslims or those who have already gained valuable experience here.
- They should be better equipped with knowledge and skills, especially in political and media literacy, to address the mainstream media where needed.
Muslim bodies and institutions
- Muslim bodies and institutions such as mosques have unique responsibilities to bring communities together, provide a positive environment for young Muslims to flourish and help the community to link, liaise and interact with the wider society.
- By trying to replicate the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, they should try to make mosques real hubs of social and spiritual life and not just beautiful buildings. They should invest more in young people, particularly those with professional backgrounds. They should not forget what happened to many places where the Muslim presence was thought to be deep-rooted such as Spain.
- It is appreciated that the first generation Muslims had to establish organisations with people of their own ethnic/geographical backgrounds. While there may still be a need for this for some sections of the community, in a post-7/7 Britain Muslim institutions must open up for others qualitatively and their workers should be able to work with all. History tells that living in your own comfort zone will lead to isolation.
- Muslim bodies, in their current situation, must have a practical 5-10 year plan, This will bring new blood and change organisational dynamics. Younger, talented, dedicated and confident leadership with deep-rooted Islamic ideals is now desperately needed.
- Muslim bodies must also have a 5-10 year plan to encourage young Muslims within their spheres to choose careers that can take the community to the next level. Our community needs nationally recognised leaders from practising Muslims in areas such as university academia, policy making, politics, print and electronic journalism, etc.
Blessed Are The Volunteers | Imam Omar Suleiman
Our communities would not be able to survive Ramadan without these precious souls
As the rows line up for prayer and the mosques are bursting at the seams, there is a small group of people that watch our backs, arrange our possessions, and prepare to nourish us after our prayers. They’re none other than the volunteers.
It’s not easy being one of them.
You hear the soothing recitation of the Quran in a prayer you’re not able to join because you’re on volunteer duty. And you also hear the painful nonstop complaints about how you’re not doing a good enough job. In those moments it’s easy to throw your arms up and say, “I’m not getting paid for this!” But there are so many better ways to be paid than money.
Allah’s rate is higher and more everlasting.
That doesn’t excuse the people from paying you basic necessary courtesy. Nor does it give you license to be unnecessarily harsh with those you’ve been blessed to serve. Know dear brother and sister that the reward of every prayer performed, every good word spoken, every stomach fed, every tear shed in humility, and every interaction held in tranquility is potentially on your scale of good deeds when you serve Allah through serving His people.
We may not always appreciate you, but Allah never loses sight of you.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that the reward of the one who serves the fasting person is the reward of that persons fast without decreasing from the reward of the doer in any way. What then of the prayer you facilitate that nourishes the soul? Charity is vast, and the heart of a charitable spirit must be vaster.
The Prophet said “Every joint of a person must perform a charity each day that the sun rises: to judge justly between two people is a charity. To help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it, is a charity. And the good word is a charity. And every step that you take towards the prayer is a charity, and removing a harmful object from the road is a charity.” (Bukhari) (Muslim)
All of this is at your disposal as you welcome people into the houses of Allah with a smile, which is also a charity, seeking no smile but the smile of the Divine on the day of judgment. You may be exhausted in these days of service, but you also are running away with the rewards of everyone’s worship. When someone fails to appreciate you, look forward to the appreciation of Allah as compensation. When someone advises you, smile at them again and consider their counsel.
Blessed is your station, and blessed is your service.
May we not abuse you or fail to appreciate you. May we be patient with you, and you with us. May the prayers we perform elevate us, and you. May our hearts be purified and brought together. May we all make the sacrifices needed to gain Allah’s pleasure, and relieve each other’s pressure. May we all be volunteers freed from our egos, and freely smiling at all in our paths.
May Allah accept you and us on that blessed night of Laylatul Qadr, and allow us to observe with worship, service, and sincerity. Ameen