A major part of creating a beloved community is the creation of a family but a Muslim marriage crisis is at our doorstep.
Men and women who really want to get married often face a myriad of issues in finding a good match. The issues are as diverse as the American Muslim community scattered all over the country. Meeting venues and forums are few and this seems to be one major deterrent to suitable marriages.
Adherence to cultural norms and expectations, generational disparity and the neglect of the Islamic standard for the choice of partners are also hurdles single American Muslims face.
An Epidemic: Unmarried and over 30
There is an extraordinary number of very educated women in their thirties and above who have not found a spouse. As intelligent, educated, single women venture to find men to set the cornerstone for a family, they cannot find suitable matches. Women in their late 20s and early 30s, urged to be educated all their lives, settle into their careers or studies, suddenly become less desirable mates to some men.
Another phenomenon faced by several ethnic communities is that many educated men marry outside of their community, race and religion. They are not as bound by the ticking biological clock factor and can usually (not always) find a wife when they get serious about marriage.
Nawaz Khan*, in his 70s, has coffee with his wife in the lobby of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. He is in tears, worried about his very well-educated daughter’s prospects of finding a husband. They are here to attend the matrimonial banquet. He is amongst the many worried parents at the ISNA convention.
At any Muslim marriage event, there are more females attendees than males. The ISNA marriage banquet sold out for the women’s section weeks in advance, while men strolled in at the last minute. Al Rahmah Marriage Bureau in Baltimore has two women for every man in its database. At a local marriage brunch, many of the women attending were born and raised in the US, educated and articulate, while most of the men were first generation immigrants, without large local networks.
Muslim community leaders are taking notice and some are calling it an epidemic. Shuyookh with large social media following often bring up the topic on their timelines.
“We are modeling for our community the lack of marriages, single families and broken homes, that good practicing sisters may never get married. So, if you are a young girl looking at the life of a mu’min versus the life of the dominant culture, the dominant culture may seem more alluring and look to have more opportunities than the mu’min life. We should not be surprised if we continue on this path that in another generation we end up with a community who is either not getting married or having more sisters marrying outside their faith and children who become adults who think that having children on their own is the ideal instead of in a two-parent home,” writes Heather-Laird Jackson.
“I know sisters who have started dating because they cannot take being single anymore,” said Sr. Denise*, a divorced mother of two boys from College Park, MD, attending the ISWA matrimonial brunch.
Another troubling point brought up by Muslims across the diaspora was the desperation angle. If a single Muslim woman of any age expresses interest in getting married she has to deal with the stigma of appearing desperate. This is very damaging to the psyche of the sisters in the community.
“‘Oh my God, she wants to be married, she is so desperate – astagfirullah…’ this popular statement comes mostly from married females when a single Muslimah shares with her that she wants to be married!! Even [those] who were once in the same situation… it’s like, as a community, we don’t have each other’s back anymore,” laments Naeema*.
“Now, it became a taboo for a Muslimah to say ‘I want to get married’,” says Denise*. “[There is] way too much emphasis on sex. Women are being told that they are desperate, weak, and can’t control themselves.”
The delaying of the American adolescence experience or the new emerging adulthood stage has also contributed to the delay in marriage, especially, with the high school experience extended by local community colleges. According to the New York Times, in 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five [what sociologists term as] milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.
Culturally, American society as a whole is seeing this trend of delayed marriages. “Young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone,'” say the researchers at the Brookings Institute. “That is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”
Surveys conducted by AlMaghrib Institute of its student body found that the main reasons that its students were delaying marriage were parents, finances, education, fear of rejection and commitment for men and fear of control and intimidation for women.
“A lot of men fear rejection and get intimidated. In the meanwhile, women wait for proposals and decide to pursue further education while they are waiting. This, in turn, intimidates men more and they think the women are too overqualified or will not make good ‘Muslim’ wives for them and eventually get married to someone from overseas,” says Shaykh Yaser Birjas of AlMaghrib. Or someone much younger since they can without issues.
“For myself, being financially ready [is important] because it is such a big responsibility, starting a new family,” says Farhan, 33, of Philadelphia, PA. His career goals are the major reason for the delay in his marriage.
Some Immigrant Families Issues
Many immigrant parents tend to disregard the fact that their children are raised in the West, and will, ultimately have some elements of their personality influenced by the West. The evolving identity of Muslims in this country further contributes to the marriage crisis. “My parents seem to have the idea – similar to some other Muslims in Western countries – that a spouse from their country would be better. Better for whom? Better for me or better for them? Is this preference due to the fact that they feel culture, ethnicity, and religion would be better preserved this way?” questions a single Muslimah.
Cultural baggage from immigrant parents is a constant problem in many of the communities, but many are optimistic that the tide is changing. Hayat, an Eritrean-American mother from Washington, D.C., says that she and her friends have moved away from this line of thinking. “Many families who come from war ravaged areas think that the only way they can hold on to their culture is by marrying their children to someone from the same background, but now we face [the] reality that as long as the spouse is Muslim, it is acceptable.”
Elitism plays a big part too in many cases, according to matchmakers I spoke to. A lot of focus is on being financially ready, instead of stability. “I just wish that parents would first look at the character and decency of another human being and their families and then look at their background-culture, language, likes, class, and career,” an attendee at the ISNA banquet gives his feedback.
Dowry is an issue faced by many immigrant families although the context differs from ethnicity to ethnicity. South Asian families with daughters are expected to gift the groom a hefty dowry, whereas in Arab and African communities, the demand for a large mahr deters men from proposing and an offer of too little mahr deters women from accepting. “The most hated sentence [to] Muslim sisters is when men say ‘We don’t marry because you ask for too much dowry (mahr)’. Just because a few females are greedy, doesn’t mean we are all like that,” says Naeema.
In cultures where arranged marriages are prevalent, men and women complain about the interference of the parents; in cultures where it isn’t, practicing Muslim men and women are finding it extremely hard to meet someone on their own.
A sister from the Somali community in Fairfax, VA, where there are a substantial number of unmarried women in the late thirties, vents her frustration. “The issue in [my] community is the expectation of the girl to find a man for herself: unfortunately, in our culture, “arranged” marriages are practiced by few and it is widely expected for the woman to take it upon her shoulders to bring the guy to her parents when she is ready to be married… only few, perhaps a handful of families do arranged marriages… I am a devout Muslimah and my religion tells me to never ever [sic] date a guy, but again, my community and the “social norms” are completely against that… I, along with many Somali females are now in their 30’s and single… The older generation needs to change this disgusting norm,” she says.
A few points specific to African-American Muslims
Black Muslim Americans write about constructs of the perfect Muslim woman and increasingly black men tend to think they will find this ‘Muslim’ bride in the immigrant communities.
When asked in an African American only Facebook forum, created to promote growth with-in the community, what barriers the participants face to getting married, both men and women blame the opposite gender, some playfully, others in all seriousness. Questions posed about marriage dissolved into hostility between the sexes, as women blame the lack of ‘good Muslim men’ and men have idealistic notions of a ‘good Muslim women’.
Some think that media gloom and doom which portrays myths about Black marriages in general may also contribute to the image that singles from this community have of each other.
Colorism and racism are very common experiences faced by a large number of people trying to get married.
Wanting to marrying Young
Aniq Tanwir, a South Asian American, was attending the session on pre-marriage counseling at the ISNA convention. It is a constant struggle with temptations for this outspoken 22-year-old electrical engineer. He lives at home and supports his parents. ‘How do you get to know someone? What if they are really dirty? You can pray for the best but the constraints are a big struggle,” he says. He mentions the trend of ‘halal’ dating where practicing men and women talk and meet, but do not get married.
He is frustrated because he is emotionally and financially ready for marriage but has three older sisters who are in different stages of their academics and medical careers. He will have to wait until his sisters are all married, otherwise it will ‘look weird’, and people from his parent’s social circle will wonder what is ‘wrong’ with his sisters. “I would never want to be the reason for my sisters not to have a wonderful match.” He is okay with marrying someone older and is okay with his sisters marrying someone younger. “It’s not about age, it is about maturity and compatibility.”
Should Muslims marry young to protect themselves or wait until they are emotionally ready for marriage is a popular question asked by the youth. “Don’t rush your marriage until you can do justice,” says Imam Mohammad Magid of ADAMS Center, in Virginia. Other local scholars urge younger marriages with room for the couple to struggle, navigating studies, careers and life together.
Instant Islam- Instant Marriage
Converts have their own set of issues. “What works for families from overseas doesn’t work for us. We have so much baggage as reverts,” say R. Kerns, a community activist. Many converts are often urged to get married as soon as they accept Islam. New converts are still learning about the religion and the pressure to get married is very high.
As many do not know their rights and understand differences in opinion, they think the only route to marriage is what is being presented to them. “I don’t recommend this to anyone. You are just learning the religion and getting married just makes the equation harder to solve,” says Kerns. Often with no family or support system, many turn to the imam to act as their wali but, in reality, a majority of the time, the imam does not know them. “I have had people call me late at night to perform a nikkah and act as a wali,” says Imam Magid.
Many are influenced into decisions that are culturally unsuitable for them. When women and men are introduced by the imam, they often don’t share their legal or financial history. “That’s what we don’t see in the imam’s office – the two sides of a brother,” says Kerns. “The lives we live as Muslims have to be inclusive of who we are, where we came from. Many of us have dealt with prison, abuse, and need to be deprogrammed.”
Tribalism, even more than racism, is prevalent all round. “We get requests that the candidate must be Indian and not Pakistani, Durrani not Mazari, must be African-American, not African, so we counsel them so they can enlarge their vision,” says Muhammad Jameel, a matchmaker in the Baltimore area for the past 24 years.
There is also an unrealistic focus on physicality all around. Outside the ISNA Marriage banquet, Dr. Parveen Qureshi, a volunteer who has attended enough of them to comment, says that people are too picky; they want someone who looks like a model. People want their ideal spouse who looks a certain way, has a certain job etc. and will not settle for anything else. Why should we compromise before the marriage. “With so many expectations and not many people lowering their expectations, it makes it much harder to find the right person,” says Malik Shabazz.
A woman at a forum at the Islamic Heritage Museum in DC complained of Muslim men pursuing women who were not Muslims, and how her hijab made it hard for her to find a spouse as she didn’t look as ‘sexy’ and could not compete.
Dr. Qureshi also thinks that the marriage banquets arranged by ISNA and others should be the culmination of careful matchmaking prior to the event, not 400 people thrown together in a room. The ISNA convention has provided marriage banquets set up speed dating style for many years, with mixed results . “People can confused when they have so many choices at one time.” Her nephew met a girl he liked but after meeting so many candidates all he remembered about her was her red scarf.
Social media has made it more difficult because there is little accountability involved, and it is easy to cross boundaries. “Once you get bored with talking to someone, it is easy to just drop that whole prospect. Also unrealistic expectations, on both sides, further complicates the issue. I think eligible guys and girls need a more natural and less induced forum to meet, with sincere facilitators who want the best for the single people in our communities,” says Dania*, a single dental student from Arizona.
Increased physical mobility is a hurdle too. Tolo O. is an eligible, eloquent Nigerian man with ties in Maryland. He doesn’t have a wide Muslim social circle or family in NYC, where he lives, to help him find a match. “You can’t just walk up to a woman and ask [do] you want to get married. I have walked up to someone before and was asked ‘Why are you talking to me?’” he says. He wants to find someone like him and doesn’t have much time to go on websites. He is open to being introduced to any race or ethnicity and is currently using the Islamic Center at NYU as a resource.
Divorced or Widowed Men and Women
Divorced and widowed men and women face an even harder road to marriage. “They are divorced, and then they are divorced from the community,” says N.J., a wedding planner in the DC Metro area. She has a recently divorced sister. “The stigma is so huge. She was physically abused by her ex-husband, and now is being emotionally abused by our community.”
EternalGarment.com, endorsed by 45 scholars, is a new website that caters to previously married men and women. “I had such a hard time getting remarried after my mutual divorce,” said Reza ul Hasan, the founder of Eternal Garment. Some masajid have started matchmaking services such as Salaam Nikah, a local service offered for divorced and widowed Muslims by the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia.
Shortage of Resources
The shortage of resources in local communities is staggering as every person interviewed complained about the lack of resources. “Imams don’t get back to you, and by the third call you feel so worthless,” expresses Denise*.
Imams say that they are overwhelmed with other duties. Some do not have any expertise or interest. Others do not want to take on the responsibility of making a bad match and say that this is a communal responsibility. “This is a community wide issue and all parts of the community need to come together to work on it,” says Imam Tahir Anwar. Others are confined to their own masajid and circles.
Many religious leaders do take an active role in arranging events and suggesting matches to their community members. Imam Magid holds more intimate singles gatherings, participants gather in groups and talk about the Quran and characteristics of husband and wives. Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of Washington Area conducts the bi-yearly Matrimonial Brunch. Khan has had many success stories, about 20 couples every year for the past decade.
Imams, Islamic Centers, Muslim Student Associations, online marriage sites, local professional matchmakers, volunteer matchmakers (khalas and aunties), active men and women in the community and Facebook groups are some of the options for resources.
In one city a ladies-only tea is hosted by Rukhsana Ameen, where females are invited to meet potential candidates for males they know. This unique solution caters to conservative women who do not want to meet men on their own.
Annual matrimonial events are also arranged by Islamic Centers where singles meet and greet in a pre-arranged setting. Islamic Circles is a London-based non-profit that holds specialized matrimonial events in DC, when requested by locals. They held 3 separate events in 2012 for practicing, converts, and professional Muslims.
ISWA caters to all ages. Talib* is attending as a wali for his widowed mother. Muhammad Mustaqeem, a single software engineer from Frederick, MD, is impressed with the event. He feels that the event was held according to Islamic guidance. “It is organized, and we know that everyone here is looking to get married. You get the information; it is just like a job hunt and you go for what you want, you have to be willing to put in your time to look,” he says, “If you are expecting to walk in and find somebody, [that] is silly. Just have patience.” ISWA has close to 400 individuals in its database.
“I treated it like a job hunt looking through pages and pages of profiles to find the right match,” says Reza ul Hasan, founder of EternalGarment.com. There are many other options online: HalfOurDeen.com, SingleMuslim.com, and even those that cater to particular backgrounds, such as shaadi.com, and singleblackmuslims.com.
Muhammad, a man in his late 20’s attending the ISWA brunch, did have issues with the lax nature of sites like SingleMuslim.com and appreciated the Islamic background and personal touch that the brunch provided.
Many American singles express their frustration with the many hours they spend online searching for the perfect person. Al Rahmah Marriage Bureau uses the Muslim Volunteer Matchmakers team, matchmakers that spend these hours on your behalf. Their goal is to help their clients find that perfect person. All MVM Team matchmakers have doctorates from the United States.
“We have many impersonal institutions opening up but those of us whose families come from traditional cultures are not used to this idea. We need another layer of institutions to normalize expectations for our parents,” says Farhan, a recent immigrant. The stigma attached to the use of these institutions has collectively waned in the second and third generations, but individually more singles need to stop waiting and proactively start looking for spouses.
“It is a shame that we see so many beautiful females out there who are waiting to be married, but yet, we as a community have failed them. Everyone says we have a problem in our Muslim community when it comes to marriage, but no one is willing to fix it. I say to anyone who wants to fix this problem to start with their single friends,” says Naeema.
The Muslims in US need more local matrimonial events, regional cooperative databases that shares resources amongst all the masajid and organizations, as well as pastoral care individualized to suit the needs of these diverse communities.
This is an urgent need and a collective responsibility.
*some names changed for privacy
A version of this feature was published in The Muslim Link newspaper.
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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