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Interview : Mohammed Yaseen & Emmanuel House

This interview was a great opportunity to talk to Mohammed Yaseen (Director of Youth Services, Karimia Institute), one of the most articulate people to guest on the BFTF radio show about a recent project in which Karimia Institute had run a campaign in the Muslim community to raise money for Emmanuel House charity. Here’s the discussion which took a few fascinating detours along the way…
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BFTF : Welcome to the show Yaseen! To start off, could you give a small clue about what Emmanuel House is and the project that Karimia has been involved in.

MY : Well, I first came across Emmanuel House when I was working for the local authority. I used to work at Carlton Street for the Youth Service. I used to run the “Youth Shop”. Carlton Street is the street that runs directly behind Nottingham City Council building in the square and it you go over the top of the hill and drop down as though you were heading towards the Victoria Market, you come across EH right at the bottom of the hill where the traffic lights are…

It’s an old fifties-sixties kind of building and I remember always seeing people who looked homeless in fact. You could tell that some of them were alcoholics, some of them would have been just very shabbily dressed and they would be hovering outside this building.

Having said that, I think there may be some listeners out there that might be able to reflect on the principle of helping people who are homeless, people who are poor, people who are needy. We come across this all the time. When I was last in Pakistan, people would go to a darbar(shrine), they would give, they would volunteer, donate money, a goat or something. So I don’t think it is an alien concept to look after people who are hungry, who are poor. But to do it in this country, that is a departure.The reason I got to know about this project at least 10-15 years ago, was because every time we used to do events at our premises in the Youth Shop for young people, we would have food and other things left behind at the end of the event. Some of the volunteers used to say “shall we just take this stuff down to Emmanuel House?”. Well, it did occur to me one time to say “Well, I’ll take it down with you” just to find out what this place was and when I went down I realised that it was essentially an advice and support type service for people who were homeless and then I realised who all these people were that were standing outside waiting to go into this building. They obviously had a timetable for when they had to go in. And essentially, that was my first introduction to Emmanuel House. But I didn’t know what the service was, in terms of who it was organised by, why there were volunteers there. And it wasn’t until Dr. Musharraf called me and said that through the Christian-Muslim Forum, a request has come to see if the Muslim community might support this organization which is meeting the needs of people who are homeless in the city of Nottingham, that I realised that there was a connection on the other side with the churches. So I think their church is supportive of the work that they are doing. This is slight departure from the type of routine work that Muslims would tend to get involved with.

What’s happened with Emmanuel House is that with these current financial cutbacks that the local authority has decided that it was going to make some cuts to Emmanuel House’s budget – and these were really significant, they were to the bone to be honest. There was some sense that the whole of the operation helping homeless in Nottingham might collapse and their Chief Executive decided that she would start a local campaign to see if she could generate community support for it. Their (the community’s) initial responses were that people would come in with tins of money, children would come in with piggy banks and that’s when they realised that actually the community is very supportive of supporting people who are really vulnerable and likely to get into even more trouble, at worst, die on the streets of Nottingham City. So they approached Karimia Institute and said “Do you think the Muslim community would support this?”. I think that is a really big challenge. On the one hand I thought it was quite cheeky that the churches, who are so wealthy, would have the gall to ask the Muslim community “Would you like to support something that we are supporting?”.

But after I had thought about it, you know, who are the beneficiaries? Is the church the beneficiary here, or is it the people? And whom are we supporting? Are we supporting the church or are we supporting the people? It wasn’t very difficult for me to conclude that our intention is the most important thing. So what is our intention? It is to help people to safeguard themselves, to help them get out of poverty, to get a roof over their heads and to feed people as well. So when I met with their marketing manager, she asked me how the Muslim community would view supporting a charity like theirs. I said that frankly, we have a very great spirit of feeding people who are hungry and that would be a really excellent mission and something that I think Muslims would feel empathy for. And if there was anything we would want to support. So I kinda narrowed it down a bit because I thought that I wouldn’t feel comfortable about seeing my donation propping up the churches work, as it were, and there mission. I wouldn’t want it to be seen in that way, if I was going to help people I would want to help people who are really in need.

Joe and a volunteer in the kitchen

To help your neighbour is important, They have rights over us so we have a responsibility to them and, in the same way, people who are living in Nottingham on the streets, they are our neighbours. We walk past them, drive past them, sometimes taxi drivers will see them lying in the street. These people are our neighbours. We have a responsibility, as Muslims, to do something about that.

With the support of Zameer from Radio Dawn, we decided to launch a small campaign to support them. We were very keen to make sure that we supported the aspect of work which was going to have the greatest impact. It is admirable that all those people (who donated) looked beyond the initial thing that they saw, which was a white non-Muslim charity that was doing work, to the people that it was going to benefit.

I remember my father telling me that Christianity did well because they gave the Bible with one hand and bread with the other. You show humanity when you feed people, you show that you care for people – and if you can show that you care for people you can influence their perception of what you are and what you believe, and maybe that is one of the ways we can bring people to Islam.

This project is not the first time I have come across this practice. When I was a student in Bradford University, I was cajoled by some of my student colleagues into doing some volunteering that would “blow my mind”. They took me to an underground hall of a church and in the underground part of the church and when I went inside, Lo and Behold, there were all these Muslims who were cooking and preparing food and I asked “What is going on here?” and they replied “Well, the church is allowing us to have this space so that we can feed homeless people” and that was for me the first shock – I anticipated that I would see white non-Muslim people walking through with a tray, with food, picking up an apple and some fruit and going back to a table and eating. And the number of Pakistani people, men and women walking through – and I could tell that they weren’t people who had homes, they were genuinely homeless, you could tell from their dress. Some had mental health problems, that was very apparent, and it dawned on me that I was feeding people here that were not just Muslims but there were other people as well.

I was just given an apron and told, put the food on the platter, smile, give them some water and let them pass by. And after one hour of doing that I was asked to take my apron off and pass it to the person who was walking through the door. What they had was a rota for three hours and a local businessman, who has a relationship with Nottingham as well, was located in Bradford was sponsoring this and paying for the food to be served every single Thursday evening.

So that was really my first experience of actually feeding people, so when I heard about other brothers in Nottingham wanting to do the same, I can support that 100%. For an hour a week, to make that much impact on that many people’s lives who were walking through, was the backdrop for what I was seeing that needed to be done with Emmanuel House.I was dragged in as a student to do this one hour and after that I used to go back every Thursday and I did that for six-seven months. That work in Bradford is still continuing today.

That’s one of the things I’ve tried to implement with many of the things done here at Karimia Institute. Things like the Scouts, I’m asking volunteers to come forward and I’m saying to them, “Give one hour a week. Don’t give me two, I don’t want two, just give me one. Just come here, do something good, enjoy yourself working with young people, making a difference in their lives and go home feeling like you have actually done something. If everybody just gave me one hour, I’d be a lucky bloke!

Why not volunteer a day to help the scouts?

BFTF : Regarding the fact the some people may say that we need to help our community first. It’s not an either/or, you can do two things at once. It’s like saying that we shouldn’t have gone to the Moon because we should have solved hunger on earth, but I don’t think that if we had not gone to the Moon, the problems of hunger would have been solved. What would be your perception on that viewpoint ?

MY : I think that one of the issues with people saying that we should do something for our own is that what they don’t realize is that there is a ripple effect. And things happen to us as a consequence of we not taking responsibility. For example, if we had taken responsibility over CFC’s, we wouldn’t have damaged the ozone layer – and the damage to the ozone layer affects not just Muslims, it affects everybody so to do something about that is important. Similarly there are plenty of examples where, you have someone who is so desperate that they might be forced to rob somebody and somebody might get hurt there. Now, if they weren’t so desperate, because they had had a meal in their belly that evening, they might not need to have to do that. It’s often the case that people say “It’s not going to happen to me” until it happens to you and then it’s like “Why did this happen to me?” and the reason is that globally, as a community, we failed to do something. And so I think that feeding people who are homeless, who have no home, no food, no livelihood, no work, no place that they can use as an address, can’t get access to benefits – are basically completely detached. Well, those people are human being and they are going to want to fulfil some of their basic desires and that might be getting money from somewhere. Somebody could get held up, somebody could get injured, somebody could be killed – and if that outcome happened because we didn’t feed somebody, that’s our responsibility.

BFTF : Can you give a little more detail on what Emmanuel House does?

MY : Well they do all sorts of advice. Essentially, when you walk through the door they provide you with a free meal, access to a nurse to deal with any injuries you may have sustained and they arrange for you to have a roof over your head. They will also wash your clothes so that you can put some clean clothes back on. These are the very foundation stones of decency in our society.

Our campaign was not about the whole of the Emmanuel House organization, we felt that the best thing that we could do was to feed those people who are hungry and that that would be an excellent thing to do. And that is essentially what we have done, we fund raised quite a large amount of money for them and that money is going to be dedicated to spending on food for people who are homeless.

We raised about £6000, but they need a lot more than that, their target spend – just on food, is around £13,000. I think this is the first time that the Muslim community and the Christian community have collaborated on a programme like this and consequently it’s clear that the Muslim community are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and are prepared to see beyond the structural differences between the communities, see through that fog to the people who really matter who are those lonely souls walking around on the streets during the day thinking about where they are going to sleep that night.

Imagine if this was your bedroom every evening…

BFTF : If people are interested in this project, how can they donate?

MY : They can send a check to Emmanuel House directly, or they can send it to us at Bobbers Mill Community Centre and we will forward it to them. Or the same thing can be done via a cash donation.

BFTF : What has been the response from the Non-Muslim community, the churches etc.?

MY : I don’t think they expected us to come forward as we did and, as always, when Muslims rise to the challenge, people are astounded. If anything, we have demonstrated that we are not easily put into a box. Muslims are much more globally thinking, they are charitable, we are very, very generous compared to many other communities. We both look after our own community and we are prepared to look after other communities. In some ways it is a really valuable lesson to give to people who are non-Muslims because where they have had stereotypes about the Muslim community, about us being insular, not interested in other people, wanting to live parallel lives – that is not the case. I think we are part of our community, part of the city of Nottingham. We reflect both an eagerness to support people who are vulnerable, who are homeless, we are at the front-line.

No-one should be under the impression that Muslim communities are only interested in themselves or that they do not have any part to play in British society. British Muslims are interested in everybody in this country, as we are for people overseas as well.

Some people may think that Muslims are only interested in foreign affairs, well this is a really good example of how we are interested in home affairs – very close to home affairs in fact.

BFTF : BFTF often seen individual Muslims working in a whole range of voluntary organizations, but what is unusual is to see a Muslim Organization stepping forward to work with the wider society.

MY : What we have done here is to trail-blaze for other Muslim organizations in the city. We can demonstrate that we have an interest in helping people and we are building bridges and links with other organizations and I think there is a level of respectability that comes from this as well. Rather than us always being seen, dare I say it, terrorists or radicals and extremists in society, what we can be seen as is humanitarian people who think about their neighbor, who think about other people around them and can appropriately respond when needed.

I hope very much that anybody who contributed to the campaign, whether they were givers or supporters, will realize that when we are talking about working with people who are vulnerable, we have vulnerable people in our own community. We have people who are getting into drugs or alcohol, we have young people going to prison – at one of the fastest rates of any community in the UK and there is very little understanding of why we should be sympathetic to their needs. It’s almost like “they have brought it on themselves, so they should pay for it” – but we forget that when these people come out of prison, their behaviour and what they do in society is likely to have an impact on us. So if you get burgled and you find that it was someone on drugs, you may also find out that that person may have been a Muslim. So when we talk about supporting people who are drug addicts in our community, people should not turn their noses up at it and think “That’s their own fault”. . . How do we respond to ALL vulnerabilities in our community? Should we be open handed with them? Should we think about supporting those causes?

Because there are so many of those (causes) but the Pakistani and Muslim communities does not tend to focus on them. But this one campaign with Emmanuel House has, I think, demonstrated that there is a soft spot, a soft underbelly within the Muslim community that is prepared to look at that.

BFTF : What are your plans for the future of this project?

MY : Emmanuel House are the drivers and what they asked us to do was to support them with their campaign and that is essentially what we have done. Karimia does not have any plans to set up feeding services and I think this is primarily because this was our first trial run at seeing what the community is likely to be interested in doing.

For the future, an idea would be to put people on the street, we are already working with Radford Road Police Station to look at some of the issues with Muslim Youth in Forest Fields, there have been so many complaints and so many arrests carried out of young people involved in anti-social activity and crime that the Police Station is absolutely overrun with cases and they have approached us and said “Is there any way you can help?”so we have come up with a project, we haven’t launched it officially yet, but I’ll give listeners an inkling as to what it is about. The idea is that we are going to have “Imams on the Street”, the idea would be that we have people who are strong in their Iman (faith) who feel that they want to make a difference to their community and they will go out on the street and they will engage people and support them to divert them from crime and anti-social behaviour. That’s our starting point and I am really fortunate to be supported by about 30 people so far, men and women, who have come forward to take a youth work qualification which we have laid on to NVQ level 2. We are appealing to these people to, when they have completed their qualification, to become part of this team of people who will go out onto the streets of Nottingham. Not just in Forest Fields but wherever this issue occurs, where Muslim youth are being led astray or going astray themselves – to interject, to make a difference in their lives.

BFTF : Why do you think this is happening now? Why not 10 or 15 years ago.

MY : Certainly 10 years ago, we didn’t have the same rates of crime, anti-social behaviour and unemployment. There was a higher degree of control by families in terms of supporting their children. I think as time has gone on, certainly into the last decade, more and more people are thinking about working, the cost of living is going up, so there are lots of socio-economic factors that are affecting the make up of our community and also the impact that it is having on the different elements of the community, whether they be the elderly, middle aged parents, young people or even children. So, in some ways, to ask why this kind of work didn’t happen earlier, we are reacting to current needs and maybe 10 years ago these weren’t current needs.

But engagement with young people was, and maybe Karimia is in a good position to be able to boast that we were doing youth work . I can certainly remember when I was working in the local authority delivering camps at Overton Park . We would take young people and families camping and they would be able to see the countryside, some young people had never seen the countryside.

BFTF : On a slightly separate subject, I noticed that you were involved with a recent Himmah Institute “Big Supper” event, where they provided food for local homeless people. What’s your perception of their work?

MY : It’s interesting that you ask me that question because I was cajoled into supporting that one as well. I think that it is a very good connection by Muslim young people and I think that it is admirable that it is young people who are at the forefront of this one. The work that they have done is building bridges with organizations that wouldn’t know the Muslim community and certainly they do know the Muslim community now. You know, if you maintain a clear Niyat (Intention) as to why you are doing it then it both benefits us and it benefits them. Perhaps what they should do is to have a calendar of events and invite people along to it, so if there are people out there who are thinking that they could give some time to volunteering, perhaps an hour or two, that might be an ideal way of doing it. Perhaps if they could produce such a calendar we could put it out on the airwaves.

“The Big Supper” for local homeless people

 BFTF : Lastly, could you give feel for the quality of mentoring that you and Perwaise do in the Youth Club as listeners may not be aware of everything that goes on behind the scenes.

MY : We are really keen to start supporting and helping young people achieve. As you know, Karimia Institute is about education, our mission statement says very clearly that we are about education.

We are about keeping people in education for a start. Many of our young people are beginning to find themselves in positions where they are excluded and not only that, they are not succeeding in achieving their 5 GCSE’s and so were are hoping to support that education effort through our tutorial classes.

But in the Youth Club itself, that is an opportunity for youth workers, older young men and women to build a relationship with young people. So if those young people have got issues and they want to talk to someone, they should have someone who they can talk and look up to. I can remember years ago people used to organise events and I would get invited along to them and they would show an interest in me, and as a young person, I used to value that. And that is what we still need to provide – an appropriate adult who can be both a role model to young people but also show an interest and care for young people because that is what they don’t have. Many of them are lacking in people who care and love them for who they are – and certainly in the Youth Club, people may think that the Youth Club is all about playing games but it’s more than that, it’s about building relationships with other people and if these people are building relationships in a place like a masjid (mosque) then that is phenomenal because that says that coming to the masjid is cool, its OK. So we don’t need to cajole young people to come here and if they come to the Youth Club and the Azaan (call to prayer) goes then it is the norm that that they will say their Salat (prayers) and then come back to the Youth Club. We don’t want to create an environment where you HAVE to go to the masjid and it has to be done with a stick – how it should be done is through love and association and the youth club provides that, and certainly the youth workers here are working with parents to address issues that the parents have identified. So if the parents are concerned and worried about their son, as has been the case – I can think of numerous examples of where people have come to see me and said “Look, I am really concerned, my son continually gets arrested by the Police and I’m really unhappy about that”. So when does he get arrested? “He gets arrested in the evenings”. So if he comes to the Youth Club he is active in those hours when he would be getting into trouble, then we are diverting him from crime.

So we are doing things that people do not see, normally. People see young people in our centre and they think “what are all these young kids doing here, running around” – well actually, they are running around in a good place, in our masjid and that is a really good thing.

Interview with Mohammed Yaseen, Director of Youth Services, Karimia Institute, on 29th June 2011 on Radio Dawn 107.6FM was originally posted here.

Emmanuel House have, quite reasonably, commented that Emmanuel have “moved away from being such a strongly Christian organization. It has a much broader base of support now.”

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#Life

Convert Story: To Ask Or Not to Ask, That is the Question

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“How did you convert to Islam” is a question that is commonly asked to those who convert to Islam. While the short answer to this question is, “I said shahada”, the long (and more detailed) answer is one that is commonly expected.

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of “born Muslims” who ask this question do such out of good intentions. For this reason, I wrote this piece out of a place of love and not out of a place of judgment or hatred. While it is important for “born Muslims” to be mindful of how they ask this question, it is equally important for converts to not hold ill will towards born Muslims who ask this question. Due to the fact that Islamophobia is rampant in both the media and political discourse, many “born Muslims” are naturally shocked and emotional when they meet people who accept Islam. Some “born Muslims” have also had limited interactions with converts and therefore, to them, it is not only shocking for them to meet converts, but they are genuinely unaware of certain etiquettes when it comes to asking a convert for his or her story.

In this piece, I am going to write about a pet peeve that is shared among many Muslim converts. While I cannot speak for every single convert, I can say that based on innumerable conversations I have had with fellow converts, there is one thing most of us agree on and it is this; it is rude to ask a convert about his or her conversion story when you haven’t built a relationship with the convert. This piece will explain why many converts consider such a question to be intrusive. The purpose of this article is to better educate the “born Muslim” community on how they can do a better job in support of converts to Islam. In this piece, I will break down the reasons why this question can come off as intrusive if it isn’t asked in a proper manner. I will also include personal anecdotes to support my position.

I would like to conclude by saying that I do not discourage “born Muslims” from asking this question entirely, rather I am merely arguing that this question should be asked with the best of adab.

Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:  “Part of a person’s being a good Muslim is leaving alone that which does not concern him.” (Tirmidhi) For this reason, such a question should be asked for purpose and it should be done with the best of manners. This is supported by the fact that Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said, “I have been sent to perfect good character.” (Al Muwatta)

Note: For the sake of avoiding confusion, the term “born Muslim” is defined as anyone who was brought up in a Muslim household.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask about the person’s personal relationship with God

Within the context of a friendship, it is generally understood that friends will share personal details with each other. However, it is also generally understood that it is rude to ask people you just met personal questions. To ask a new acquaintance a personal question in most cases comes off as intrusive. This is especially the case in which you ask a person about his or her relationship with God.

For example, there are women who do not wear hijab. Even if we do (for a moment) ignore the Islamic ruling concerning hijab, we should all agree that a woman’s reason for wearing (or not wearing) hijab is a personal matter that is between said woman and God. If one was to ask a woman who doesn’t wear hijab why she doesn’t wear it, that would be intrusive because such a question would involve interrogating said woman about her relationship with God.

Another example concerns a married couple. If one was to meet a married person for the first time, it can be considered rude to ask said person about his or her relationship with his or her spouse.

When one asks a convert about his or her choice to convert, one is literally asking said convert about his or her relationship with God.

I am not saying that it is wrong in all cases to ask such a question. However, one should be mindful of the fact that because this is a personal question, one should have at least have built some form of a friendship with said person before asking.

convert friendship hugs

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is another way of asking, “Why do you believe in Islam?”

Many people identify to a faith tradition because it was part of their upbringing. If you were to ask a person who was born Muslim, “why are you Muslim?” you might hear said Muslim respond with, “I am Muslim because I was raised Muslim” and you wouldn’t hear a detailed answer beyond this.

In most cases, a convert to Islam (or any other religion) did such after research and critical thinking. To convert to a new religion involves not only deep thinking but a willingness to step into the unknown.

I have on many occasions told my story to people. In most cases I will ask the person “why do you believe in Islam?” I am then disappointed when I find out that the only reason the person is Muslim is due to upbringing. While I am not saying that said person’s faith is invalid or less than mine, a person who only identifies with a religion due to upbringing is a person who didn’t engage in critical thinking.

Any relationship should be built upon equality and mutual benefit. If I as a convert am able to provide a well thought out answer as to why I believe in Islam, I expect a well thought out answer to the same question from the person who initially asked me.

Again, while I am not saying it is wrong in all cases to ask, a born Muslim should ask himself or herself “why do I believe in Islam?” In my opinion, there are many who are born into Muslim families who don’t truly believe until later in their lives. Those Muslims in my opinion (and mine alone) are similar to converts.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to perform labor.

In some cases, “born Muslims” expect converts to tell their stories. I can remember a few incidents in which I have been asked to tell my story and I politely declined. In response, the person became angry. This to me is a symptom of entitlement. Nobody is entitled to know anything about anyone else (aside from people with whom one has a natural relationship with).

In addition, one should be cognizant of the fact that converts typically get asked this question repeatedly. Thus after a significant amount of time, a convert is prone to get tired of repeating the same question over again repeatedly. Naturally, it can become exhausting eventually.

While I do not believe it is wrong to ask this question in all cases, one should not ask this question to a convert from a place of entitlement. I can think of cases where I have been asked this question by “born Muslims” and when I have refused to provide an answer, they have gotten angry at me. This is entitlement.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to explain his or her personal life.

Backbiting is one of the worst sins in Islam. Another major sin is to disrespect one’s parents. Thus we can conclude that backbiting about one’s parents is a huge sin.

This is evidenced by the fact that Allah has said (ﷻ) “We have enjoined on humankind kindness to parents.” (Quran 29:8)

A typical follow-up question to “Why did you convert?” is “How did your parents react?” This in many cases puts the convert in a position where one may feel pressured to mention some negative details about his or her parents. In Islam, parents are to be respected, even if they aren’t Muslim.

Before asking a convert this question, one should be mindful of not putting unnecessary pressure on the convert to commit this injustice.

convert friendship

Cases when it is appropriate to ask

However, I do maintain a firm belief that in any true friendship, things will be shared. I don’t think it is wrong in itself to ask a convert about his or her story provided that there already exists a relationship where personal information can be shared. It is highly suggested to hang out with the person first and then ask the convert for his or her story.

As a personal rule of mine, unless I have hung out with the person one on one at least once (or a few times in group gatherings) I don’t tell any born Muslims my conversion story. Naturally, I only share personal details with people I consider to be a friend. If I would hang out with the person, I consider that person to be a friend.

The reason I am also hesitant to share my story with just anyone who asks me is because I can think of countless cases of when I have shared my story to people I have never seen or heard from again. I choose to exert my agency to share personal details of my life to people who I consider to be part of my life. While many Muslims are happy when people convert, many Muslims also fail to provide any form of support for said convert after conversion. I have seen too many cases of when a person recites shahadah, people pull their phones out to record it, but very few will give the convert his or her number. I genuinely believe that many “born Muslims” fail to see the big picture in this regard.

Before asking a convert for his or her story, you should ask yourself if you are comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person. If you are not comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person, there is nothing wrong with that. However, you shouldn’t expect the convert to share personal details if you aren’t comfortable sharing personal details. Even if you have built a close friendship with someone, you still aren’t expected to share every detail of your life to someone. Even if you consider a convert to be a close friend, you should still respect a convert’s wishes to not share his or her story.

Conclusion

While I have addressed concerns about the tendency of “born Muslims” to ask converts about their journeys, I want to acknowledge that most people have good intentions. In Islam, the natural state of any person is one of righteousness.

I firmly believe that a friendship that isn’t built on trust and the sharing of personal information isn’t a genuine friendship. Therefore the key term in this context is “friend”. If you wish to ask a convert his or her story, please make sure the following conditions are met:

  1. You are already friends with the convert to a point where asking a convert about his or her relationship with God isn’t an intrusive question. Ask yourself, “Are we close enough where we can share other personal details of our lives with each other?”
  2. You have a well thought out reason as to why you believe in Islam.
  3. You don’t feel entitled to know about the convert’s journey and that you will allow the convert to choose not to share such information if the convert doesn’t wish to.
  4. You don’t probe into the convert’s relationships with other people.
  5. You aren’t just asking the question to somehow feel validated about your belief in Islam.
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Dawah and Interfaith

10 Lessons I Learned While Serving Those in Need

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I have spent about a decade serving the impoverished domestically and recently, abroad. I don’t work for a major charity organization, I work for my community, through grassroots efforts. It was something embedded in me while learning Islam. Before starting a charity organization, I started studying Islam with Dr. Hatem Alhaj (my mentor) and various other scholars. The more I studied, the more I wanted to implement what I was learning. What my community needed at the time was intensive charity work, as it was neglected entirely by our community. From that, I collected 10 lessons from servicing those in need. 

1. My bubble burst

One of the first things I experienced was the bursting of my bubble, a sense of realization. I, like many others, was unaware of the hardship in my own community. Yes, we know the hadith and see the events unfold on the news and social media, but when a father of three cried before me because a bag of groceries was made available for him to take home, that moment changed me. We tend to forget how little it takes, to make a huge difference in someone’s life. This experience, made me understand the following hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “Every Muslim has to give in charity.” The people then asked: “(But what) if someone has nothing to give, what should he do?” The Prophet replied: “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and also give in charity (from what he earns).” The people further asked: “If he cannot find even that?” He replied: “He should help the needy, who appeal for help.” Then the people asked: “If he cannot do (even) that?” The Prophet said finally: “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from evil deeds, and that will be regarded as charitable deeds.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 524. I

t is simply an obligation, due to the amount of good it generates after you do this one action. I then realized even more how beautiful Islam is for commanding this deed. 

2. Friendships were developed on good deeds

Serving the poor is a great reward in itself. The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “Save yourself from hellfire by giving even half a date-fruit in charity.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 498. But it is better done with a team, I began building a team of people with similar objectives in serving the needy. These people later became some of my closest friends, who better to keep close to you than one that serves Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) by helping the neediest in the same community you reside in. Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “A person is likely to follow the faith of his friend, so look whom you befriend.” [reported by Abu Dawood & Tirmidhee] This is turn kept me on the right path of pleasing Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Working with a team removes a lot of the burden as well and the depression that might occur seeing the saddest stories on a daily basis. Allah says in the Qur’ān, “Indeed the believers are brothers.” (49:10). Sometimes there is a misconception that you have to have a huge office or a large masjid in order to get work done. But honestly, all you need is a dedicated group of people with the right intention and things take off from there. 

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: 'If you love the poor and bring them near you. . .God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.' - Al-Tirmidhi,Click To Tweet

3. Made me thankful

This made me thankful for whatever I had, serving the less fortunate reminded me daily to turn to Allah and ask for forgiveness and so be thankful. This kind of service also puts things into perspective. What is truly important in life? I stepped further and further away from a materialistic lifestyle and allowed me to value things that can’t be valued by money. I learned this from the poorest of people in my community, who strived daily for their family regardless of their situation — parents who did what they can to shield their children from their harsh reality. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “If you love the poor and bring them near you. . .God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1376. They had a quality about them, despite their poverty status. They were always some of the kindest people I have known. 

dardir

4. People want to do Good

I learned that people want to do good; they want to improve their community and society. I began to see the impact on a communal level, people were being more engaged. We were the only Muslim group helping indiscriminately in our county. Even the people we helped, gave back by volunteering at our food pantry. We have schools where small kids (under adult supervision) partake in preparing meals for the needy, local masajids, churches, and temples, high school kids from public schools, and college organizations (Muslim and nonMuslim) visit frequently from several cities in neighboring counties, cities, and states. The good spreads a lot easier and faster than evil. People want to do good, we just need more opportunities for them to join in. United we can rock this world.

“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” Malcolm X. Click To Tweet

5. Smiles

Smiles, I have seen the wealthiest smiles on the poorest people. Despite being on the brink of homelessness, when I saw them they had the best smile on their faces. This wasn’t all of them, but then I would smile back and that changed the environment we were in. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Charity is prescribed for each descendant of Adam every day the sun rises.” He was then asked: “From what do we give charity every day?” The Prophet answered: “The doors of goodness are many…enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms–all of these are charity prescribed for you.” He also said: “Your smile for your brother is charity.” – Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98. Smiles are truly universal.

6. It’s ok to cry

It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allah said: “A man who weeps for fear of Allah will not enter Hell until the milk goes back into the udder, and dust produced (when fighting) for the sake of Allah and the smoke of Hell will never coexist.” Narrated by al-Tirmidhi and al-Nasaa’i. There are situations you see that hit you hard; they fill your heart with emotions, but that never swayed my concrete belief in Allah’s wisdom. Crying before Allah, not just out of fear, but to be thankful for His Mercy upon you is a relief.

7. Learning to say no

It was one of the hardest things I had to do, a lot (if not all) of the requests I received for help were extremely reasonable. I do not think anyone asked for anything outrageous. Our organization started becoming the go-to organization in our area for help, but we are one organization, with limited resources, and a few times we were restricted on when or how we could help. This is where learning to say no became a learned skill. Wedid do our best to follow up with a plan or an alternative resource.

8. It is part of raising a family and finding yourself

How so? Being involved in your community doesn’t take away from raising your family, it is part of it. I can’t watch and do nothing and expect my children to be heroes. I have to lead by example. Helping others is good for my family’s health. Many people living in our country are consumed with their busy lives. Running out the door, getting to work, driving the kids to their after school activities, spending weekends taking care of their families, etc. So people have a fear of investing hours in doing this type of work. But in reality, this work puts more blessings in your time.

One may feel they are taking time away from their family, but in reality, when one comes back home, they find more peace in their home then they left it with. By helping others, I improve the health and culture of my community, this in turn positively impacts my family.

I enjoy being a softie with my family and friends. I am a tall bearded man, and that image suited me better. I am not sure what made me softer, having kids or serving the poor. Either way, it was rewarding and defined my role and purpose in my community.

I learned that you make your own situation. You can be a spectator, or you can get in there and do the best you can to help. It gave me an opportunity to be a role model for my own children, to show them the benefit of doing good and helping when you can.

It came with a lot of humility. Soon after starting I realized that all I am is a facilitator, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is giving an opportunity of a lifetime to do this work, a line of work very little people get to engage in regularly. My advice to my readers, if you can serve the poor do so immediately before you get occupied or busy with life.

Helping others is good for my family’s health.Click To Tweet

9. Dawah through action

As I mentioned before I did spend time studying, and at one point developed one of the top dawah initiatives in the country (according to IERA). But the reality is, helping the less fortunate is my type of dawah, people started to associate our food pantry and helping others with Islam. As an organization with one of the most diverse groups of volunteers, people from various religious backgrounds found the environment comfortable and hospitable. I began working with people I never would have worked before if I had stuck to traditional dawah, studying, or masjid involvement, all of which are critical. This became a symbol of Islam in our community, and while serving, we became those that embodied the Quran and Sunnah. For a lot of those we served, we were the first Muslims they encountered, and Alhamdulilah for the team we have. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) also says in the Quran: “So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you” (3:159). It is our actions that can turn people away or towards Islam.

10. Once you serve the needy, you do this for life

I wasn’t volunteering on occasion,— this was an unpaid job that was done regularly. I got requests and calls for emergencies daily at times. It took up hours upon hours every week. As a charity worker, I developed experience and insight in this field. I learned that this was one of the best ways I could serve Allah [swt. “They ask you (O Muhammad) what they should spend in charity. Say: ‘Whatever you spend with a good heart, give it to parents, relatives, orphans, the helpless, and travelers in need. Whatever good you do, God is aware of it.'” – The Holy Quran, 2:215

I believe the work I do with the countless people that do the same is the best work that can be done in our current political climate and globalization. My views and thoughts have evolved over the years seeing situations develop to what they are today. This gave me a comprehensive outlook on our needs as a society and allowed me to venture off and meet people top in their fields like in social activism, environmentalism, labor, etc.

I want to end with three sectors in society that Muslims prosper in and three that Muslims can improve on. We strive on individual education (noncommunal), distributing and organizing charity, and more recently being politically engaged. What we need to improve on is our environmental awareness, working with and understanding unions and labor rights, and organizing anti-war movements. 

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#Life

Looking To Get Married? Here Are A Few Tips

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that single young Muslims, despite not being in possession of any fortune, are always in search of a spouse.

However little prepared these people may be to undertake this ordeal is given little thought, and they are thrust out into the world of modern Muslim matchmaking. The generational divide in the community has meant that young people have received little training at home to navigate the process of finding a spouse. These individuals are seeking high-quality relationships, but few have the skills and emotional intelligence needed to find one. They are left to learn on their own through trial-and-error, and often a lot of pain.

With hopes of making this journey a little easier, we’ve compiled a few principles to keep in mind as you tread these cold uncharted waters.

You won’t attract what you want, you’ll attract what you are. Do you find in yourself the qualities that you seek in another?Click To Tweet

1. Work on yourself

You won’t attract what you want, you’ll attract what you are. Do you find in yourself the qualities that you seek in another?

Aspire to be self-fulfilled and complete on your own, rather than hoping for someone else to do that for you. Operationally, this entails refining both your inner and outer self. On the outside this could include basic things like being well-groomed (especially for men), knowing how to cook a healthy diet, exercising regularly and supporting yourself financially. You should also ensure you have good relationships with loved ones – do the people you care about love you back? Admit any wrongs you may have done to them and make amends to improve ties if they are strained. The state of your current relationships can be a good indicator of future ones.

On the inside, you should make a moral inventory and work to address your shortcomings in character. You must work on your selfishness, your anger, your dishonesty, your lust, your pride, your stinginess, your harshness, your resentments, your stubbornness, your fears, your jealousy, your self-righteousness, your vanity. This list is never ending and it’s a lifelong process; the sooner you get started the better off you’ll be.

You must also get help for any serious problems that you fear might affect a relationship – instead of hoping these problems will go away with the ‘right partner’. If you have a pornography problem, seek out help and don’t be deluded into thinking marriage will solve that for you. If you have no control over your desires before marriage, you won’t magically gain control afterward. If you have a substance abuse problem, join a 12-step program. If you feel you are emotionally unhealthy, get help from a professional. Bottom line is, have your house in order before you decide to build a new one.

2. Maintain good mental health throughout the process

Be purposeful in your search but don’t make it the purpose of your life. The process of finding a spouse can become emotionally draining and overwhelming if you don’t do it in a healthy fashion. Understand that this process entails too many factors that are completely out of your control; things won’t always go your way, so don’t be too attached to the outcome.  The only things you control are your responses and actions, so just focus on putting your best foot forward.

A common mistake people make is they give themselves a timeline e.g. ‘I want to be married by X age, or by X year’. This only results in unnecessary pressure that can lead to anxiety and poor mental health; it can also force one to make imprudent choices. Everyone has a different timeline; have trust in God’s plan for you.

Anytime mental health is disturbed, stop and revaluate. Some signs of poor mental health include: obsessive thinking, inability to focus on your everyday affairs, compulsive attachment and clinginess, disturbed sleep, anxiety, difficulty making decisions, inability to multitask, feeling overwhelmed, panic attacks, depression, irritability, changes in eating habits, and a loss of inner serenity. It is best to get help from counselors, such as those at Naseeha, if you feel stuck in this situation.

3. Adopt a mindset of giving

The measure you give is the measure you get back. Instead of worrying so much about what you want, focus on what you have to offer.

While you should certainly express your interest in someone you like, don’t taint it with desperation and neediness. If you’ve implemented the first point mentioned, you are already a confident and self-sufficient person. You will be fine no matter what. Focus on giving without expectation and building a healthy companionship. Be a giver and you’ll be surprised how easily you will attract the right people towards you. The ‘mindset of want’ is a self-defeating mindset: you might not find all the things you want in someone, and even if you did, there is no guarantee they’ll want you back!

4. Don’t overthink it

Living in a capitalist society, we’ve developed the bad habit of picking out people the same way we go shopping for a new product. We like to explore the market, do a cost-benefit analysis of various options, try to make sure the product isn’t damaged and hope to pick out the best possible item. We are careful about how we ‘invest our time’ and we try to ensure we can get an appropriate return on our investment. If we could, we’d ask for a money-back guarantee on people too!

Human hearts, unfortunately, cannot be picked out the way we choose commercial products. Each has its flaws and its strengths, you have to accept both the good and the bad; the pro-con list approach won’t work here. When we start taking this reductionist approach to relationships, we naturally get into overthinking, feel anxious and overwhelmed. With the widespread use of online dating, the choices seem limitless and it can seem impossible to try to figure out how to find the right person.

Marriage is a decision that’s to be taken with the heart; you have to rely on your guts and your instincts to steer you towards the person most suitable for you. This doesn’t mean throwing rational thought out the door, it means looking to your inner-self as the source of motivation for your decision making. It takes emotional intelligence and self-awareness to be able to determine what kind of a person you’ll be able to build a future with; it’s not always someone that looks best on paper. There are very few people with whom you’ll find compatibility and reciprocity, so don’t obsess over exploring as many possible ‘options’ with hopes of marking off all the items on your checklist.

We ultimately find the most fulfillment in caring for and taking responsibility for someone we sincerely love. So, look instead for the ingredients that will act as the foundations of love in your marriage. These could include the fact that you: enjoy someone’s company, find them beautiful, admire their character and kindness, respect them, find reciprocity in your interactions, have shared values and compatible temperaments. You are looking for that certitude, that good feeling in your heart; focusing on these factors will hopefully give you that and will get you out of the common mistake of overthinking and worrying.

One of the unique challenges Western Muslims face when looking for a spouse is finding religious compatibility. The diversity of our community, coupled with the individualized nature of faith in the West, has given rise to a plethora of ‘brands’ of Islam. Click To Tweet

5. Work to bridge religious differences

One of the unique challenges Western Muslims face when looking for a spouse is finding religious compatibility. The diversity of our community, coupled with the individualized nature of faith in the West, has given rise to a plethora of ‘brands’ of Islam. Personal levels of observance can vary vastly, even within members of the same family, so it can be challenging to find the right fit.

You will always find differences in religious observance and views between spouses. It is impossible, and foolish, to try to seek out someone at the exact same level. Some people might be more conservative than you, some might be more liberal. Do you really have to turn someone down because they don’t agree with your views on conventional mortgages? What if you like dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating, and they’re opposed to it? What if they don’t eat zabiha halal like you do? What if they don’t pray all the five prayers on time like you were raised to do so?

Given the unique circumstances we live in, we must be flexible and open-minded about resolving such differences. We ought to be careful when making a judgment about someone’s beliefs; we don’t know what’s in someone’s heart. Some of us were taught to honour God through worship and observing His law, some of us were raised with an emphasis on serving His creation with good character. People have their strengths and their weaknesses in faith; sometimes these are apparent, sometimes hidden. Your relationship with God is not perfect and neither will be your partner’s; we are all a work in progress.

If approached with kindness, mutual respect and a willingness to compromise, these differing religious views could be resolved in many cases. While sometimes people really are on extreme ends, most of us fall somewhere in between and can find a comfortable middle ground. It is often our stubbornness, self-righteousness and a parochial understanding of religion that gets in the way. Good people are hard to find, so don’t let suitable matches go because they don’t follow your exact flavor of religious observance. This is certainly a sensitive topic and needs to be dealt with tact and wisdom; it is advisable to seek counsel of more experienced people.

6. Don’t expose your past and don’t pry about someone else’s

If you have a past you are not proud of and it doesn’t concern your future relationships, you should not feel obliged to expose yourself. In fact, if this relates to sins of the past, it is actually prohibited to reveal your sins to someone else – even in the context of marriage. Shaykh Nuh Keller summarizes this pitfall well, “In Islam, to mention a sin is itself a sin. How many a person has been unable to resist telling a friend or a spouse of the wickedness they did in their previous life, and Allah punished them with disgust and contempt in the other’s heart that could never quite be forgotten! There is no barakah in the haram”.

Similarly, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be prying about someone else’s past and trying to dig up details on their misadventures. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded us to have a good opinion of people; he warned against the destructive nature of suspicion and spying. He told us, “Beware of suspicion for it is the most deceitful of thought. Do not look for the others’ faults and do not spy, and do not be jealous of one another, and do not desert (cut your relation with) one another, and do not hate one another; Rather, be servants of God as brothers”

7. Istikhara is not a solution for indecisiveness

The prayer of seeking guidance, or Istikhara, is oft cited by those considering marriage. The mistake many make, however, is that we are really wishing for someone else to make the decision for us. We are so afraid of making the wrong decision that we find it difficult to make any. We hope for a divine sign or a miracle to happen that tells us that the other person is right for us and that we will live happily ever after with them.

Making big life decisions, emotionally prudent ones, is an important life skill that must be learned. These decisions come with inherent risks, uncertainties, and unknowns; there are no guarantees. If you habitually find yourself having a hard time deciding, it is likely due to external factors. It might have something to do with you, it might have something to do with the person you are considering. It is advisable to seek counsel if you are in this situation.

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