The Arabic word for trial is fitna, which has the connotation of purifying a useless external shell and leaving the useful inner core. A goldsmith in classical Arabic is called a fattan, meaning one who causes fitna, because his actions cause the outer layer of impurities present in gold ore to fall away, and leaves the pure gold underneath. Similarly, a fitna exposes the reality of a person: the veneer of false mannerisms intended to show off a façade of falsehood disappears, and one’s core level of God-consciousness, integrity, and commitment to truth are displayed for all to see. For me, that is exactly what this latest online fitna has done.
Everyone who is connected to the Western world’s blogosphere is painfully aware of the internet fury that is abuzz for the last week, involving a very dear friend of mine, Ustadh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who has come under fire for some jokes posted on his Facebook page. I have not gotten involved until now for two primary reasons. Firstly, because I try to concentrate on that which is beneficial to the Ummah, and leave controversy as much as possible; and, secondly, because I was waiting for AlMaghrib Institute’s official response, since I did not want to cause more confusion for AlMaghrib by releasing a personal statement from me before they released an official one from them. Now that the situation has reached such unprecedented levels, with all and sundry feeling the need to comment and write, and now that AlMaghrib has officially released its response (here), I feel that it is beneficial to offer some thoughts from someone who is directly involved with AlMaghrib, and is a friend to Abu Eesa.
Here are my thoughts, summarized in seven points:
(Disclaimer: if you are unaware of this controversy, and don’t wish to expose yourself to that which will not benefit you, PLEASE, stop reading now, and read some Quran or do some dhikr or support some useful charity or make du’a for Palestine/Syria/Guantanamo instead!)
Firstly, what amazed me most about this whole debacle was the power of the Internet to generate such a movement and stir up such controversy. In all my years of blogging and using this social media, I have never seen any issue taken up so rapidly and passionately by the Islamic blogosphere. Quite literally overnight, the world witnessed thousands of Facebook messages and tweets about this issue; dozens of articles; half a dozen petitions – all involving tens of thousands of people. For me, such power was simultaneously astounding and terrifying: astounding because it demonstrates the sheer clout of this tool to highlight one cause and hijack all others, and dominate every other news item; terrifying for exactly the same reasons. Abu Eesa’s controversy quickly spiraled out of control and escalated to a global online topic in less than 48 hours; it was as if this was the only subject of conversation around the online globe for an entire week.
I wish that, in the future, even a fraction of this power could be utilized to highlight other projects and causes that we can all agree about.
Secondly, while nothing new, the harm of casual conversation and useless chatter and made-up gossip was demonstrated once again. Allah warns against such casual smearing in the Quran (‘Why did you speak with your tongues that which you have no knowledge of?’), and informs us that when any news comes from an untrustworthy source, we must verify it directly. Yet, it appears that people simply lose the ability to think critically when all of their friends say the same thing. It is as if the human situation is such that groupthink is the default. Democrats and Republicans. Blacks and Jews. Mexicans and Southerners. It doesn’t matter what the actual facts are: what matters is how ‘my people’ are interpreting the facts, and if ‘my group’ says something then I must see the world in the same way.
Abu Eesa never made any jokes about rape, or FGM, or domestic violence. Anyone who thinks otherwise, after reading the entire conversation, either does not speak English as a mother language, or is blinded by rage. The context of his words clearly indicates this. (Yes, there were jokes about the role of women and IWD, which will be discussed in a later point, but there was not a single joke about violence towards women). Yet, the flagrant lie that he joked about such vicious topics continued (and continues) to be perpetrated, even by respectable bloggers and academics online.
Be truthful, and criticize him for the jokes that he actually said, not ones that you’ve heard others assume him to have said.
Thirdly, one of the main problems of this controversy was that there were multiple truths at play here. Each party had some legitimate issues and real concerns, and the supporters of both sides took on Abu Eesa’s case as symbolic of their grievances with the other group. From my perspective, Abu Eesa and his jokes became a pawn that played out between far larger and antagonistic forces within the Ummah.
And it was interesting and useful to see the dynamics play out between two camps. For many on the (for lack of better term) liberal side of the spectrum, Abu Eesa became the stereotypical bogeyman radical fundamentalist misogynistic Mawli/Imam/Shaykh figure. By examining the criticism leveled against Abu Eesa, one could even more tellingly examine the psychological mindset of some critics and their perception of most traditional Islamic scholarship. What these critics failed to realize that this bogeyman was largely a figment of their own imagination, and not the real Abu Eesa.
Similarly, on the (again for lack of a better term) conservative side of the spectrum, the knee-jerk reaction of complete defense also revealed the extreme anger that this group feels towards the tactics of the other group. It was as if no criticism of Abu Eesa was valid, or even allowed, merely because some critics were coming from a ‘liberal feminist’ paradigm, intent on (allegedly) challenging the authority of Allah and His Messenger and wishing to destroy the very foundations of the faith. Hence, to point out any fault with such jokes, however politely and Islamicly, automatically caused one to be labeled as ‘the Other’.
The world is not monochromatic, and every real picture is multifaceted. The critics had some legitimate concerns, and the supporters also had some legitimate concerns, and very few people realized that.
Fourthly, regarding the actual content of the jokes themselves. I believe that jokes, and even the occasional sarcasm, are permitted in Islam, but with certain conditions. And of those conditions is that people’s sensitivities not be unnecessarily provoked, especially when those sensitivities involve the rights of an already oppressed and marginalized segment of our community.
Jokes are like salt to one’s food, and should be used in miniscule quantities, with great wisdom. One of the first pieces of advice that a dear mentor, Ustadh Yusuf Estess, gave to me before I started preaching, was the following, “If a joke offends one person, then you’ve offended one too many.”
I do not believe joking about women’s issues, or their intelligence, or belittling their role in society, helps anyone. I do not believe such joking is in accordance with the Sunnah of our Prophet . I do not believe it is befitting of a scholar and an Islamic activist to make light of such a delicate subject. And Abu Eesa knows this of me and from me – he can testify that I have expressed this to him and to others who joke in such a manner multiple times.
Our Prophet , when his servant `Anjasha urged the camels his wives were riding to hurry up, said, “O `Anjasha! Be careful with the fragile vessels!” Words can hurt more than the jostling of a camel, and I believe that Muslim men need to follow this advice with their tongues, and their actions, and be careful of harming society’s fragile vessels if they wish to achieve the pleasure of Allah.
It is true that cultural differences also played a minor role here. It’s not a coincidence that most detractors came from North America, whereas most supporters came from England. The genres and styles of British humor are completely different than its American counterpart (they even spell it differently!), and the Brits are more accustomed at ‘taking the mic’ than Americans are.
Still, even taking into account British humo(u)r, I believe Abu Eesa’s jokes went too far. I believe that when he was confronted about this, he initially acted stubbornly, which exponentially compounded the entire situation to the nth degree. I believe he took too long to apologize the first time. I believe that the first apology was unnecessarily worded, with too many caveats and qualifications. But I’m happy to see that he’s finally realized all of the above and issued a much better apology (although not quite perfect in my opinion). I pray that he learns from his mistakes and does not repeat this behavior again. And I say all of the above regardless of who his critics are, for the truth is independent of which side you happen to be on.
Fifthly, it was extremely distressing as well to see the complete lack of adab shown by many of his critics. To me, it was reminiscent of scenes portraying a Salem witch hunt, in which crazed mobs go banging door to door to increase their numbers, chanting slogans of ‘Burn the witch! Off with her head!’ The sheer lack of compassion and mercy – of Islamic manners – was very depressing. Even if one believed Abu Eesa behaved in an inappropriate manner, surely there are better ways to get one’s point across than by calling for his firing?
Those who criticize others for lacking proper manners must be the first to demonstrate it. In this regard, I say loudly and clearly: most of the critics themselves failed this test.
Sixthly, it was surprising to see so many peers from amongst the scholarly and activist community commenting on this issue so brashly. Scholars and Islamic activists should rise up above emotional, knee-jerk responses, and work to minimize tensions amongst Muslim groups, not exacerbate them. This point was especially disappointing for me to see. I can excuse the masses and activists who don’t have an Islamic studies background, but for someone who claims to speak on behalf of the religion to act in such a manner was disheartening. Although a few activists did write leveled and fair responses, I feel that most of them wished to portray themselves as ‘heroes’ for a cause that all of us wish to champion, viz., women’s rights in Islam, but they did this by furthering tensions between groups of Muslims. Rather than working to solve the tension, many activists only wanted to jump on the bandwagon and raise banners calling for revenge without studying the issue thoroughly.
Additionally, at the human level, I believe it is almost impossible to look into the recesses of one’s own heart and be completely sure that one is criticizing a peer, or someone from an alternative theology, or a scholar from competing Institute, sincerely for the sake of Allah. Can one be so sure that the heart is absolutely pure in such criticism, and that there are no personal, selfish motivations as well? It is for this reason that scholars of hadith have unanimously agreed that criticism of contemporaries and peers against one another needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous examples of this in our books of the narrators of hadith.
When a problem is created in a community that is not your own, Islamic activists should reach out to someone in that community and express their frustrations to him first, rather than tweeting about it and airing dirty laundry in public immediately. And even if you deem public criticism necessary, attempt to heal wounds through your comments rather than rip them apart more. And one final reminder to them (and the ones that I reference know exactly who they are): know that as just as you were eager to pounce on and display the faults of your brother, so too shall others even more eagerly pounce on and publicize your faults.
Seventhly, I want to make my position on ‘feminism’ explicitly clear. The term itself is almost useless, since there is no clear, well-defined, agreed-upon definition. Hence, when a term becomes meaningless, it makes little sense to either use it or refute it. Rather, the word is discarded, and the realities and concepts underlying it are discussed specifically.
I firmly believe that the sacred texts of Islam, the Quran and the authentic Sunnah of our Prophet , are the ultimate sources of our theology, legal code, and ethics. Hence, any attempt to discredit these sources is one that I will oppose in every way possible. I will not and cannot accept that men and women are physically, physiologically, emotionally, biologically, and psychologically the same. Any claims of this nature contradict known facts, lived experiences, and explicit Scripture. Hence, the Shariah views men and women as having complementary roles in society and in family, not identical. While men and women are spiritually equal, and both have equal opportunities to earn Allah’s Pleasure and Paradise, in this world, the Shariah takes these differences into account, and does have different sets of laws for them in some arenas (not all). Any attempt to claim otherwise is simply wrong and untenable in light of the Islamic tradition, and I will oppose it as a Muslim scholar and theologian.
That having been said, I also recognize that historically, many Muslim societies have gone too far in depriving women of their legitimate rights, and in relegating women to a second-class status that I do not view our religion as sanctioning. We need to differentiate what the religion ordains, and what culture has sanctioned. Merely because a practice is culturally acceptable in a Muslim context does not equate to religious endorsement of that practice. There is no denying that women in many Muslim societies are physically and mentally abused and molested, and that Muslim culture has turned an increasing blind eye to such blatantly un-Islamic abuse. I consider it my religious duty to combat such abuse and to expose any such un-Islamic practice as being opposed to the teachings of this pristine religion.
I also recognize that the Shariah allows for change and reform in some areas, and I feel it is imperative that religious scholars, duly trained in the sacred sciences, take the lead in such reform. Historical traditions are not necessarily sacred and immutable, and I welcome changes that the Shariah allows. It is of little concern to me whether one wishes to call these types of reforms ‘Islamic feminism’ or not. What matters is meaningful change that the Law allows and which betters the lives of Muslim women, not cheap slogans devoid of meaning. Yet, I would be unwilling to call for reform in, say, the Islamic laws of inheritance, since these have been explicitly laid out in the Sacred Texts. If some people consider rejecting the explicit texts of the Quran to be ‘Islamic feminism’, then I view it as being a manifestation of kufr, and you count me an ardent opponent of any such endeavor.
Anyone who wishes to supplant the Sacred Texts with another ideology does so because of a simultaneous lack of faith in the Divine Revelation of Allah, and an inferiority complex to another system of laws and culture.
Let me conclude with a final anecdote from the recent annals of American history. When President Obama was first running for office, and the Right was desperate to find anything to smear him with, they used the tactic of smearing his cleric and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. They found, from amongst the Reverend’s thousands of sermons, snippets of fiery rhetoric that made him appear anti-American. Now, everyone who knows anything about the African-American experience, and the type of rhetoric typically heard in their churches, would have immediately understood such rhetoric and put it in its proper place. But the Right persisted in attacking the Reverend and succeeding in portraying him a most unpleasant and evil person, which he clearly was not. Initially, Obama tried to defend the Reverend, and even went so far as to drag his grandmother into the picture by claiming that his own grandmother had also made racist remarks, but that doesn’t deny the overall good in her. However, as the Right increased the savagery of their attacks, Obama buckled under pressure, and simply cut off all ties with the Reverend. That was the first sign for me that Obama was a politician like all other politicians, and that he had no stamina or backbone to stand up for the very principles he won his campaign on. I think I speak for most of our readers when I say that we have no respect for the morality and principles of our current President; his handing of Reverend Wright’s issue is symptomatic of why we have lost all respect for this man. When his own popularity was at stake, Obama was willing to throw a close friend and ally under the bus merely to pander to people who didn’t even care about him in the first place. In so doing, he lost a good friend, and he lost his integrity.
I seek refuge in Allah from pandering to anyone’s threats and from sacrificing what I believe to be the truth for the sake of popularity. I pray that Allah always give me the courage to speak what I believe is the truth and not fear the criticism of the critic.
Abu Eesa is a dear friend to me because he is a loving, caring, gentle, sincere scholar. I would trust my life and my family’s life to him – and I don’t say that merely as a figure of speech. He is no misogynist, he is no woman-hater, he is no racist. If he truly were any of these, I would not be a friend to him. I know that he will not like me saying this, but as a family friend I know that he treats his wife like a queen, that he is a loving and caring father to his daughters, and that he is a dutiful son to his mother. And that is the actions of ‘feminism’ that Islam calls for, and Abu Eesa lives up to (even if he despises the word!).
In his time of need, when he has been improperly smeared, made into a bogeyman scapegoat and charged with false accusations by people who do not know him personally, I cannot abandon him for the sake of my own popularity. It is true, he made a major mistake in this incident (and will continue to make other mistakes), and God knows he has faults (the primary one being his stubbornness!) but in my eyes, he is one of the most God-fearing, God-conscious and merciful people that I have the honor and privilege of befriending. I would rather allow my reputation to be sullied, and all of my critics to continue criticizing and defaming me, before I jump on the bandwagon of popularity and smear him or dissociate from him. He has faults (don’t we all?), but these faults drown in the good that exists in him, and this is a matter that his family, his friends, and his students can all testify to.
And in the end, true success lies with Allah alone.
“And patiently persevere in the company of those who call upon their Lord, morning and evening, desiring His Pleasure; and do not allow your gaze to stray beyond them merely to acquire the luxuries of this world. And do not follow those whose hearts We have deprived of remembering Us, and follow their whims, and their entire affairs are in disarray.” [Sura al-Kahf; 28]
 For example, an area of reform that I personally am very interested in leading and being a part of is the Islamic laws of alimony. Historically, a divorced lady only received her mahr – nothing more and nothing less (although the Quran encourages an adequate ‘gift’). And pre-modern Muslim societies dealt with divorcees in an appropriate manner: large-family and tribal systems provided adequate means to absorb the care and maintenance of such ladies; divorcees didn’t have the type of stigma that is attached to them today; and polygyny was commonly practiced. All of these conditions (and more) allowed divorced women the freedom to continue living in somewhat normal conditions after a divorce. However, in our times, all of these conditions have changed, and all too often, divorcees have little recourse to maintenance and living expenses, putting them in undue hardship. It is simply unfair that a man can divorce a woman after many decades of marriage, and leave her stranded in a strange land and country, without any means to take care of herself, after she has given him her youth and support for most of her life. The mahr dating back half a century, might be a thousand rupees (thirty dollars?), yet she is now stranded in America, after her husband’s newly-acquired wealth allows him access to a younger and prettier woman. I have no qualms in saying that the goals of Islamic law would not allow for such injustice. Let us bring about reform and put conditions in the marriage contract that would obligate a prorated alimony percentage depending on the years of marriage. This is but one example; many more can be made. Such reform is long overdue in my opinion, and the Shariah allows for and encourages it.
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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