Question: Is marking out the 15th night of Sha‘ban (laylat al-nisf min sha‘ban) with extra prayers and devotion sanctioned by Islam, or is doing so judged to be a reprehensible innovation (bid‘ah)?
Answer: Each year, a fair amount of fussing and fighting takes place over this issue. Yet the truth of the matter is that scholars have long-held this issue to be one over which there is a valid difference of opinion. The first group considered the night to have no specific virtues over and above any other night of the year, and believed that singling the night out for extra acts of worship is unsanctioned. Another group begged to differ and held that the middle night of Sha‘ban does possess special merits and should be earmarked for extra prayers and devotion.
What follows is a discussion about why such a difference has arisen and how each of the two stances has its legitimacy in the canons of classical Islamic jurisprudence. The discussion will also make a distinction between prayer in mid-Sha‘ban and the prayerof mid-Sha‘ban: the first, as will be shown, is textually grounded; the second, actually unfounded.
Although there is no explicit reference to the 15th of Sha‘ban in the actual Qur’an, the hadith corpus does record the merits or fada’il of this night – of which the following hadiths are among the most significant and widely cited:
1. The hadith of Mu‘adh b. Jabal that relates the Prophet saying: ‘God looks at His creation during the middle night of Sha‘ban and forgives all of them, except an idolator and one who harbours rancour.’1
2. The hadith of ‘Abd Allah b.‘Amr where the Prophet said: ‘God, majestic is He, looks at His creation on the middle night of Sha‘ban and forgives all of His slaves, save an idolater and a murderer.’2
3. The hadith of the lady ‘A’ishah: ‘Allah, exalted is He, descends to the nearest heaven in the middle night of Sha‘ban and His forgiveness is greater than the number of hairs on the sheep [in the tribe] of Kalb.’3
At first blush, the bone of contention seems to be settled. For if the Prophet has spoken about the merits of mid-Sha‘ban (as per the above hadiths), then who are we to object. That said, the fact of the matter is that the actual authenticities of the above hadiths have been greatly disputed. Hadith specialists differ over whether or not the above words can be reliably ascribed to the Prophet .
Typifying those in ‘the night has no special distinction’ camp is the acclaimed Maliki jurist, Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi, who said: ‘There is no authentic hadith which may be relied upon in respect to the middle night of Sha‘ban; neither about its merits, nor the decree being written in it. So pay no attention to it.’4 Others in this camp include Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Tartushi and al-Hafiz al-‘Iraqi.5
This group of eminent scholars take the view that, although there is a sizeable body of hadiths that speak about the merits of this night, none of these hadiths are free from having defects and flaws in their chains. Some contain narrators whose memory and precision have been called into question. Some contain missing links in their chains. While in other cases they contain narrators whose truthfulness or veracity have been seriously doubted and disparaged.
In contrast, there are those who advocate singling out mid-Sha‘ban with optional acts of devotion. Their reasoning is straightforward enough. They take the view that since some of the hadiths about mid-Sha‘ban are only mildly weak they may, according to certain established rules in the science of hadith, be used to strengthen one another to yield a final grading of sahih or hasan (“authentic” or “sound”). On this basis, Ibn al-Salah, the notable Shafi‘i jurists and hadith master, ruled: ‘The middle night of Sha‘ban does have merit. To spend its night in acts of worship is recommended (mustahabb); but on an individual basis, not collectively.’6
Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Hadiths and salaf-reports about the virtues of the middle night [of Sha‘ban] have been related. It is also reported about a group of the salaf that they would pray during the night. Thus the prayer of someone praying individually during the night has a precedent with some of the salaf, and therefore stands as a proof for it. So it cannot be objected to.’7
In another fatwa, he stated: ‘If someone offers prayer in the middle-night of Sha‘ban, whether individually or collectively, then this is excellent (fa huwa ahsan).’8
In closing his definitive account about the 15th of Sha‘ban and the stance of the early scholars concerning it, Ibn Rajab states: ‘Thus it befits a believer to devote himself in this night to God’s remembrance (dhikr), exalted is He, and to asking Him to pardon one’s sins, conceal one’s faults and relieve his hardships. This should be preceded by offering sincere repentance. For God, exalted is He, relents towards those who turn to Him in repentance.’9
The above is a sample of the juristic difference surrounding mid-Sha‘ban. And insofar as there is a legitimate difference on the subject, there need be no fussing over the 15th of Sha‘ban; no dividing Muslims over it; no deploying it as a benchmark to distinguish ‘pure’ follower of the Sunnah from ‘tainted’ ones; and no whipping up a frenzy among the public by blowing things out of proportion. Wherever such schisms are occurring, they simply have to stop, and repentance be made.
Upon investigation into both views, those qualified in the art of juristic evaluation and who see the validity of the night’s virtue, honour it; those who do not, treat it like any other night. The rest of the Muslims are muqallids; in other words, they simply follow the scholar they trust or feel at ease with in the issue, leaving it at that. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:
‘Whoever adopts a view by being a muqallid to someone, cannot rebuke one who takes another view due to being a muqallid to someone else. But if one of them does have a conclusive shari‘ah proof, it is required to comply with it when it becomes known. It is not allowed for anyone to to say that one view is preferable to another, without proof; nor be biased to one opinion over another – or one person over another – without a definitive proof. Instead, one who is a muqallid is obliged to follow a qualified scholar: he cannot evaluate, weigh-up, or say something is right or wrong … As for someone who only knows the opinion of one scholar and his proofs, but does not know the other scholar’s opinion or proofs, he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of the scholars who are able to evaluate or weigh-up [proofs].’10
The above discussion tackled the subject of prayer in mid-Sha‘ban. As for the prayer ofmid-Sha‘ban, often called salat al-alfiyyah – “Prayer of One Thousand Quls” – many a scholarly objection has been levelled against it. Ibn Taymiyyah, as an example, having endorsed praying optional prayers during this night, cautioned: ‘As for assembling in mosques so as to pray a fixed and defined prayer – such as congregating to offer one hundred rak‘ahs of prayer that require reciting Say: “He Allah, in One!” one thousand times during it – this is an innovation which none of the salaf ever recommended.’11
Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari states about salat al-alfiyyah: ‘How bizarre it is from those who have inhaled the fragrance of the knowledge of the Sunnah that they be taken in by such nonsense and pray it. This prayer was contrived in Islam after the fourth century and originated from Jerusalem.’12
In his documentation of various innovations and infringements against the Sunnah,al-Suyuti wrote: ‘And this includes salat al-alfiyyah, which is prayed in the middle of Sha‘ban. It is a lengthy and arduous prayer which is neither established by any [sound] hadith, nor any weak report from any of the salaf. The masses are put to trial with it, in their striving to perform it.’13
There is, I suggest, a peppering of confusion here. For some people mistakenly use the words of some jurists who have censured salat al-alfiyyah, and have taken this to mean that they object to any prayer or act of worship during the said night. In other words, they have confused between censuring a specific prayer of mid-Sha‘ban and prayer in mid-Sha‘ban. The first censure doesn’t entail the second, as can be seen in the fatwas from Ibn Taymiyyah.
In winding up the discussion, let me gloss two more concerns related to mid-Sha‘ban. The first concerns fasting the 15th day of Sha‘ban, based on the hadith: ‘When it is the middle night of Sha‘ban, pray the night and fast the following day.’14 Al-‘Iraqi is one of a number of hadith masters who have graded this hadith to be weak (da‘if).15 Ibn Rajab concluded likewise,16 as did al-Mundhari.17 Majd b. Taymiyyah declared: ‘The merits of the middle night of Sha‘ban are related in the [hadith] narratives and salaf-reports, proving its virtue. There were those of the salaf who even singled it out with prayer. Also, fasting in Sha‘ban is related in the sound reports: as for specifying the fifteenth day to fast, this has no [sound] basis to it. Rather, it is disliked to do so.’18
Other exhort fasting this day, based on the principle of fada’il al-a‘mal – encouraging “virtuous deeds”. This is the rule which states that, provided a hadith is not a forgery or extremely weak, then it is permitted to put it into practice, if the deed it is encouraging already has a general basis in the shari‘ah.19 In this case, they say to fast the “white [full moon] days” – the 13th, 14th and 15th of each lunar month – is encouraged in the sahih hadiths; so this forms a general basis for fasting mid-Sha‘ban.
Some people believe that the yearly decree is written down during the 15th night of Sha‘ban; and this is the second and last loose end that will be discussed. The yearly decree is mentioned in the verse: We sent it down on a blessed night, for We are warning. In that night every affair is wisely decided. [44:2-3] Though it is related from ‘Ikrimah, an eminent scholar among the Successors, that he held the night in which every affair is widely decided to be the middle-night of Sha‘ban; a second opinion is related from him which says that the night refers to laylat al-qadr – “The Night of Power”.20 This latter view is also that of the vast majority of scholars.21
Hence, Ibn al-‘Arabi asserted: ‘The majority of scholars hold that it refers to laylat al-qadr. Some have stated that it refers to the night of mid-Sha‘ban; however, this [latter] view is futile.’22
And God knows best.
1. Ibn Majah, no.1390; Ibn Hibban, no.1980. After evaluating eight different chains for this hadith, al-Albani concludes: ’The hadith, with its collective chains of transmission, is authentic (sahih) without doubt.’ Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1979), 3:138.
2. Ahmad, Musnad, no.6642. Al-Albani stated: ‘There is no harm in using this chain as support.’ Refer to: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihahah, 3:136.
3. Ibn Majah, no.1389; al-Tirmidhi, no.736. Al-Mubarakpuri wrote: ‘Collectively, such hadiths constitute a proof on those who allege that nothing is confirmed with respect to the merits of the middle night of Sha‘ban.’ Consult: Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990), 3:367.
4. Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 4:1690.
5. See: Kitab al-Mawdu‘at (Riyadh: Adwa al-Salaf, 1997), 2:440-45; al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 1:157; al-Hawadith wa’l-Bida‘ (Riyadh: Dar al-Samay‘i, 2000), 3:789, respectively.
6. Approvingly cited by al-Suyuti, al-Amr bi’l-Ittiba‘ wa’l-Nahy ‘an’l-Ibtida‘ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 2001), 170.
7. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:132.
8. ibid., 23:131.
9. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm & Mu’assasah al-Rayyan, 1996), 154.
10. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 35:233.
11. ibid., 23:131.
12. Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 439-40.
13. Al-Amr bi’l-Ittiba‘ wa’l-Nahy ‘an’l-Ibtida‘, 176.
14. Ibn Majah, no.1388.
15. Al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar, 1:157; no.634.
16. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif, 151.
17. Al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2003), no.1491.
18. Cited in al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:317.
19. This principle is discussed in al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 36; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa, 18:65-6; al-Sakhawi, citing Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani,al-Qawl al-Badi‘ (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1987), 215.
20. See: Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 7:336-37, where the two conflicting views ascribed to ‘Ikrimah are reported.
21. Consult: al-Tabari, Jami‘ an Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Cairo: Dar Hijr, 2001), 21:5-6; Qurtubi,al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutib al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 16:84-5; Ibn Kathir,Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 4:148; Sawi, Hashiyah al-Sawi ‘ala Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2000), 5:261; Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Beirut: Mu’assasah Tarikh al-‘Arabi, 2000), 25:308.
22. Ahkam al-Qur’an, 4:1690.
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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