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What do #Ferguson, Anti-Black Racism, Muslim-Owned Liquor Stores, and Detroit have to do with Gaza?

Hena Zuberi

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30% of American Muslims are Black. Every 28 hours a Black person is killed by someone employed or protected by the US Government. What affects the Black community affects us—all life matters, Black life matters. It is crucial that we take a good look at what is going on in the working class city of #Ferguson and why it is important for the Muslim community to stand in solidarity with our Black brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends and coworkers.

Last Saturday in St.Louis County, Missouri, an unarmed 18-year-old student named Michael Brown was shot and killed by someone from the Ferguson Police Department. His body was left out in the sweltering heat for 4 hours. He was walking with a friend near his grandmother’s house. This killing came soon after a father of six, #EricGarner, was choked and killed to death by the NYPD and it was caught on a cell phone. Following a vigil after his death, riots erupted in Ferguson, and if you want to know why they are rioting watch this video. Vigils, protests and civil unrest were met by armored officers, GI joed up in surplus combat gear from the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

Colorlines reports that besides “…racial profiling, police shootings and lack of transparency surrounding their investigation has for the past few years been a subject of local concern.”   One of the only Black elected officials who had been doing citizen journalism, Alderman Antonio French, was arrested. Journalists were arrested and tear-gassed—coincidentally, the same American-made tear gas used by the Israeli army. It was extremely twilight zone-ish seeing folks in Gaza sending Ferguson protestors tips and tricks on teargas via Twitter, but started making sense when according to a St. Louis County Police department press release the former Chief Timothy Fitch, along with law enforcement officials from across the United States, visited Israel to “learn how Israel’s police, intelligence and security forces prevent terror attacks.”

A Lesson in Structural Racism

Let’s look at the underlying problems, not the symptoms, and see how we, as a community, can try to understand what is happening. Many of us conflate individual bias with racism; racism is bias plus power. 

Structural or Institutional Racism – a system of societal structures that work interactively to distribute generational and historic advantages to groups of people based on race and that produces cumulative, race-based inequalities.

Aggressive police tactics and racial disparity are the core of this struggle in this town. Ferguson, near St. Louis, Missouri, is 60% Black, yet almost all the police force is white. Last year, Black Missouri residents were 66% more likely to be stopped by police, and more likely to be arrested, even though white residents were more likely to be found with contraband.                                                                               In the two-minute video posted to YouTube Sunday night, in a digitally altered voice hacktivists Anonymous delivered a strict list of demands for local police and legislators, “Anonymous will not be satisfied this time … with simply obtaining justice for this young man and his family,” the voice says, “Anonymous demands that the Congressional Representatives and Senators from Missouri introduce legislation entitled ‘Mike Brown’s Law,’ that will set strict national standards for police conduct and misbehavior in the USA.”

“No Justice, No Peace”

This protest cry was heard when 50,000  protesters took to the streets of Washington DC for Gaza. It was again heard in Ferguson. As we see in Gaza, true peace cannot exist without justice. Natasha Lennard writes that ‘to urge that citizens remain “peaceful” all-too-wishfully asks for a peace that does not exist.‘  Much respect to the Muslim community in St. Louis for sending this letter in solidarity to the Brown family. But were Muslims out en masse as they were for the rallies for Gaza? Justice should not mean ‘just us’ as Br Dawud Walid says eloquently in his khutbah and writes about here.

Far too many of us use words like ‘those K%^lu and ab#$d” to demonize and criminalize an entire race without looking at any underlying factors, especially the structural racism that exists in this country from mass incarceration, housing policy and employment and education practices to even how and where highways were built.

Muslim-Owned Liquor Stores

Many Muslim businesses were looted and destroyed by some of the protestors in Ferguson. It is easy to look at pictures of looting occurring in the city and perpetuate stereotypes. I am categorically not supporting the looting, especially of businesses like these, but I do want to comment on an aspect of Muslim business in inner cities across the US, especially because so much media focus in on property damage instead of  loss of human life.

As one imam calls it, “The most disgusting ironies of Muslim life in the United States.”  Muslim liquor stores in the corners of inner cities and Black neighborhoods is an epidemic problem. Downtown Baltimore, DC, Oakland, LA – name any city in the United States and I will find you tons of Muslims who own liquor stores there. This practice is exploitative. Many of these areas are food deserts, where there are no grocery stores, no safe places for families to shop and for Muslims, many of whom are immigrants, to come and open stores in areas with high concentrations of existing liquor stores that contribute to the crime in the area is really problematic.

The liquor store business is highly lucrative, pumping out $2 billion out of the inner cities. Little children who have no place to buy a candy bar are introduced to alcohol a few steps from their homes and schools because our Muslim brothers choose to partake in the free economy and wring the system. With each visit to buy anything from bread to cashing a check, alcohol abuse is normalized. Many store owners often don’t live in the areas, as it is deemed ‘unsafe’ for their own families.

According to a Brookings Institute report, “Although the relationships are complex, the high concentration of liquor stores in the inner cities, the ready availability of beer and hard liquor, and the high incidence of alcohol abuse are deeply implicated in the troubled homes, disorderly neighborhoods, and dangerous streets there.”

“Alcohol use has been associated with assaultive and sex-related crimes, serious youth crime, family violence toward both spouses and children, being both a homicide victim and a perpetrator, and persistent aggression as an adult. Alcohol ‘problems’ occur disproportionately among both juveniles and adults who report violent behaviors.”

The report further states that neighborhood disorder takes many forms — “public drinking, prostitution, catcalling, aggressive panhandling, rowdy teenagers, battling spouses, graffiti, vandalism, abandoned buildings, trash-filled lots, alleys strewn with bottles and garbage. But no social disorder is at once so disruptive in its own right and so conducive of other disorders and crime as public drinking.”

We know ourselves how damaging the effects of alcohol can be when we are not even allowed to assist, account or transport alcohol because of the multitude of sins that can come from it. It is abhorrent in itself to call a race ‘animals’ and then to provide them the very means that God has forbidden, precisely because it ignites the animalistic behavior in all of us, regardless of the color of our skin. Are these businesses making the community or destroying it? Remember Muslim or not, they are also the Ummah of our Beloved.  

Anti-Black Individual Bias and the Global Ummah

I was at my daughter’s homeschooling review and the reviewer, after pleasantly chatting for a while, asked me personal questions about where I grew up and my ethnicity. “You are the first Pakistani/Indian who has spoken to me this way.”

Needless to say I was shocked, especially since I know we have many ‘desi’ home-schoolers in the area. She went on to say, “I grew up in Chicago and many Pakistani corner store owners would look at us like we would steal something, they called us names that they thought we could not understand, but we did.”

If you have ever wondered why some of your Black Muslim brothers and sisters may not be as hyped about the Palestinian cause, or any other cause overseas—although there are many vocal Black voices here who support justice globally—allow me to share some of their voices and points that made me pause and reflect:

“To be brutally honest, Muslims from other countries expect you to donate to their native country, but won’t invite you to their home for iftar or Eid, won’t make you feel welcome at the masjid (where their nationality is in the majority), and most likely wouldn’t donate to charities that support individuals who are African-American and Latino (both Muslim and non-Muslim).”

Not going to assume collective guilt, but how do you expect a people to feel your pain when you call them ‘ab$%d” and sell them haram? How do you think you are looked upon?

“Umm yeah. I’m like so y’all asking me to send money and aid overseas but you selling pork liquor and lottery tickets (all haram) to MY people and I’m supposed to be cool with it? NO.”

Men who come from overseas are seen as exploitive predators, as they come to the inner city to pick up women — many who are working the streets because they are victims of sex traffickers — instead of representatives of the Sahaba whose ethics spread Islam to Southeast Asia through their business and trade. And on top of that, if a Black man asks for an Arab or South Asian sisters’ hand in marriage he is told he cannot even look at them, let alone ask for her hand in marriage.

After Brown’s murder, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, especially on Twitter, showed how mainstream media paints a narrative of young Black men, picking and choosing what is shown. Looking at this is an important exercise in examining how many of us are influenced by what is shown about African Americans on TV and movie screens, and examining our own racial bias.

Criminalizing a race-hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown shows how mainstream media paints a narrative of young Black men pic.twitter.com/QDuPL6Rt2b — Hena Zuberi (@HenaZuberi) August 11, 2014

The State of Many Inner City Masajid

Last year, I was given a tour of inner city masajid in Baltimore and I was dismayed at the state of several masajid. If every dollar that we spend in masajid in the ‘burbs was matched, and community centers were built by Muslims in the places they are needed the most, Islam in America would be a force of positive social change that we wax so eloquently about. It is about time that we go beyond the homeless feedings, Eid gifts and coat drives and start building institutions and safe places for young men and women in inner cities.

This is the kind of institutional building that we need to be doing for the dawah and for the betterment of our wider communities. As we know that we are all the ummah of the Beloved, Muslim or not. We have a collective responsibility to want the best for others, no matter their religious or non-religious affiliation. Our neighbors have a right upon us.

ISNA 2014 and the Water Crisis in Detroit

On a related note because it has been on my mind, how many American Muslims know what is going on in Detroit (the economic and water crisis) where the largest Muslim organization is holding its convention? I bring this up because 30 percent of American Muslims are Black and it is vital that their issues and voices be heard.

This is what it means to be poor in #Detroit, where water prices are twice the national average. Exorbitant water bills come in that working class families can’t afford so the water gets cut off, leading to unsanitary conditions, which means now you are scared of losing your kids.

“Many parents in homes without water are sending their children to live with family or friends for fear of losing their sons and daughters to Child Protection Services.”  The Detroit Water and Sewage Company supplies water to nearly the entire metropolitan area, but it is set up in such a way that it doesn’t have the power to increase rates in the suburbs, only for city residents.

Structural racism again. 83% of the population is African-American. 

Some immediate proactive things that your Muslim community can do:

  • Sign this petition
  • If you are attending the ISNA convention this year in Detroit than learn about the water crisis there. You can use this website to donate to vetted folks who are suffering from unfair water bills http://detroitwaterproject.org.
  • Mobilize and join the protests for issues aside from the ones that affect Muslims and your ethnicity/race
  • Every masjid in the United States should be talking about Ferguson, social and racial justice and structural racism in this country at Friday prayers (request it from your imam).
  • Learn about Anti-Black racism.
  • Confront your own stereotypes and racism- stop the next person who you see use words that are racist, that dehumanize or criminalize any race.
  • Give salaam to a Black brother and sister as they walk into the masjid.
  • Invite Black voices to speak at the masjid or community center to share their experience.
  • If you know someone who owns a business that sells liquor, introduce them to organizations like IMAN who have helped some Muslim store-owners turn their businesses into grocery stores or replaced the liquor with fresh produce. Here is an awesome incentive and if you don’t have one in your city start one. Look at how this indigenous Muslim community tackled the problem of liquor stores and all that they bring with them to the neighborhood. This is Islam.
  • Have the masjid that you attend adopt a masjid in the inner city to hold joint fundraisers and events to build the bonds of brother and sisterhood.

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Frederick Douglass

 

Photo Credit aol.com

Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She is also a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. She serves on the board of the Aafia Foundation and Words Heal, Inc. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. A mom of four and a Green Muslim, she lives and preaches a whole food, organic life which she believes is closest to Sunnah. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Pingback: WHAT DO #FERGUSON, ANTI-BLACK RACISM, MUSLIM-OWNED LIQUOR STORES, AND DETROIT HAVE TO DO WITH GAZA? | PASS THE KNOWLEDGE (LIGHT & LIFE)

    • Avatar

      Jamil

      August 18, 2014 at 9:23 PM

      The issue of Muslim owned businesses is complicated. Strictly speaking, selling alcohol is haram and Muslims should avoid businesses which deal with alcohol. However, calling Muslim store owners predators is not productive – many of these people have had a difficult time finding other employment due to limited educational opportunities and economic background. Pretending that America is the “land of plenty” for all immigrant Muslims is misleading and inaccurate. It’s part and parcel of the American Dream mythology which also suggests that native minority Americans (ie African Americans, Latinos, etc) need simply apply themselves to learning and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve financial freedom. Many Arab/Muslim immigrants don’t have the luxury of being employed as aerospace engineers like many “proper” upper middle class Muslims (where, in their gainful employment, they can design weapons systems used to murder countless innocent Muslims and others from the air – without, I might add, earning the ire or condemnation of our leadership). I also think it’s important to acknowledge another aspect of this again admittedly difficult dynamic – that of Arab/Muslim owners who have been murdered or assaulted in their stores. I can’t count the number of people I’ve heard of who have been shot and/or killed in their inner city shops over the past 30 years. These are not isolated incidents, but an unfortunate reality of doing business in impoverished communities. Did these individuals deserve to die because they’re selling alcohol? Who is shooting them? And does the fact that many of these individuals have been shot by African American men give Arabs/immigrant Muslims the right to vilify an entire community? The answer, of course, is no…blanket generalizations about any community are harmful and divisive and do little to advance the cause of positive inter-Muslim relations. I’m just pointing out that the equation is much more complicated than the author presents and will require more than one-sided lecturing. The American Muslim community doesn’t have the luxury of allowing itself to be divided by ethnicity, race, immigration status, etc.

      • Avatar

        candice

        August 22, 2014 at 5:01 PM

        Brother, I think you’re making excuses for Muslim business owners. If we were talking about Muslim women selling sex, rather than Muslim men selling porn mags and beer, would you be talking about these poor souls who didn’t have the luxury of putting themselves through nursing school or engineering school? I think not. Peddling haram is peddling haram, period. While it damages our image as a community in concrete terms, you have to wonder whether we all suffer from the collective harm of failing to enjoin the good and forbid the evil.
        At the same time, you’re demonizing some mythical population of middle-class Muslim aerospace engineers who design weapons of war. Where are these people? A Muslim can’t even apply for a gun license without raising suspicion, much less start designing AR-15s!
        I agree with you when you say that our community can’t afford to be divided, but it’s already divided. Can you deny that converts and Black American and Latino Muslims are marginalized within the broader Muslim American community? Sure, the masjid loves to have the local Spanish-language channel conduct an interview in the mussallah about Latino Muslims and broadcast it on the nightly news, but have I ever seen a Spanish-language sign (or even English, for that matter) in that very same masjid announcing that board elections for the masjid will be held? No. They wouldn’t say no to publicity, but actually having Latinos participate in directing the affairs of the masjid, that’s not gonna happen. And the same goes for the treatment of Black American Muslims. Everyone loves to hear brother so-and-so give a lecture, but actually inviting him to help the masjid make long-term plans is a whole ‘nother question. And if I even get started on Islamic schools, ya Allah, help me! The racism and bigotry that Black and Latino Muslim kids have to deal with in Islamic schools is enough to choke you up with tears. Their parents chose Islam. Their parents chose to raise them as Muslims. But it’s hard to convince a kid who deals with racial and ethnic harassment at school that the “Islamic” environment is better.
        The mere mention of these issues and the issues that Sr. Hena raised are not an incitement to division. It’s a reality that many Muslims refuse to face. Will these problems go away by NOT talking about them, for fear of causing division? Or is it more likely that the people who propagate and perpetuate racial/ethnic marginalization and tokenism are the source of the division?

    • Avatar

      Kesa Hopkins

      August 25, 2014 at 11:22 AM

      Wrong. The African American population of the County of Wayne is 39.6%- the whole for Michigan is 14%. DWS serves 40% of Michigan, 80% of whom are white, where on earth do you get the figure 83% (of any population in Michigan) is African American?

    • Avatar

      Hyde

      August 22, 2014 at 3:40 PM

      Oh wow horray for political correctness :)

  2. Avatar

    ANMB

    August 17, 2014 at 6:19 PM

    There is hope of bridging the cultural divide amongst African-American and Immigrant Muslims, as evident in this article, that is worth reading:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/nyregion/11muslim.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    • Avatar

      Jamil

      August 18, 2014 at 10:44 PM

      The NY Times article is very interesting…indeed, heartbreaking at times. We have a long way to go. It all starts with education – immigrant Muslims need to educate their children about the the African American experience (which is part and parcel of the Muslim experience), and indigenous Muslim parents need to educate their children about how the African American human/civil rights struggle mirrors the global struggle for justice. Most important of all, we need to develop genuine empathy for one another. This is not a luxury but an article of faith, the sincere belief that if one part of the body (Ummah) feels pain, the the entire body suffers. Here’s hoping that the revolution in social media helps us overcome these barriers, allowing people (including Muslims) of different backgrounds to connect on a more visceral level, to truly empathize with one another so that we might connect the dots…to truly appreciate that human suffering is all connected.

  3. Avatar

    Salih Abdullah

    August 17, 2014 at 11:55 PM

    Mashallah this is an excellent post. Very well articulated and accurate from my perspective. I remember my mother (Allahu Magfirlaha) spoke to a Palestinian sister after Hurricane Katrina, and the sister had no sympathy for the people that were killed in New Orleans because they were kuffar. My mother became angry and said she had no sympathy for the Palestinians. Of course the sister was outraged after that, exclaiming “but they’re Muslims!” Although it could have been handled differently, the sentiments are real. And the fact that they’re Muslims was probably not the REAL reason for her outrage, because when Muslim from central Africa, Somalia, or some other non-Arab location are killed, much emphasis is not placed on their plights in our communities. Of course, unless those communities consisted of predominantly members of that ethnic group.

    Foreign Muslims come to America, reap the benefits of the freedoms and rights of the land, establish Muslim communities and much of the time they find ways to ostracize the indigenous Muslims of the community. As the article mentioned, they do not invite them to their homes; they will not give them their daughters and they don’t hear their concerns. Of course, many of the Black Americans come with baggage that many are not equipped to deal with, but much of the time, there seems to not be any effort to attempt to understand the plight, and what could be done to remedy these problems.

    I think this article is a good step in the right direction in regards to rectifying ourselves as an Ummah and uniting on the basis of Islam. I think we should create think tanks that can involve multiple segments of our community where topics like this can be discussed by influential members of our communities and then we make collective decisions that money, focus and energy can be directed towards. If anyone has any ideas as to how we can start something like this, or if there is anything like this that currently exists, please tell me.

    • Avatar

      Islah Umar

      August 18, 2014 at 7:07 AM

      ASA Salih, agreed. tThese articles are well researched and well written. I think the statistic -30% of muslims are African American may be on the low side. It is about time Muslims world wide openly support the plight of the African American. All have benefitted from our blood. ws

  4. Avatar

    Fazila

    August 18, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    Assalamu Alaykum! This is a great article, May Allah help us in realizing that united our ummah can be invincible. As a ummah we getting turning apart from the true essence of islam, starting from our ownselves as muslims, due to all types of prejudice, from racial to financial, complex of superiority and arrogance due to better knowledge of the deen, due to lineage, and the list goes on. If we don´t resolve this matters it will always be very easy for the enemies of islam to destroy us, as they are already doing. May allah forgive us our fauls and guide us to the straight path. Jazakallah for such a brilliant article and for all your efforts in sharing such beneficial knowledge. May Allah bless you always. AS

  5. Avatar

    Waleed Ahmed

    August 20, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    Great analysis Hena. This was much needed.

  6. Pingback: Michael Brown, Gaza, and Muslim Americans | PASS THE KNOWLEDGE (LIGHT & LIFE)

  7. Pingback: Michael Brown, Gaza & Muslim Americans | NEWYORKUSTAN: American Muslim Series

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    Hira Amin

    August 21, 2014 at 12:27 AM

    Excellent analytical and well-researched article masha Allah. The Ferguson incidents is strikingly similar to the London riots over the same topic – structural racism.

  9. Pingback: What do #Ferguson, Anti-Black Racism, Muslim-Owned Liquor Stores, and Detroit have to do with Gaza? - Ka Waal

  10. Avatar

    Saf

    August 26, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    Brother Jamil,agreed that it is complex. But I do not get why there is a debate on whether it is right or wrong? Alcohol is haram,period.How to get these muslims selling alcohol to turn to other long-term halal productive businesses should be the solution to discuss, let us not justify a crime here and call it self-defence or survival.One cannot convert haram to halal because of not having plush middle class income?Poverty is a test for Muslims,after all they got born into the deen for free ! Its like the way Taiban sold heroin to Europe but boasted that they don’t smoke it anyway.Today Afghanistan and Pakistan have the highest number of heroin addicts after the balkan states.Haram breeds Haram,to me that is the point of Hena Zuberi’s article.

  11. Avatar

    snoozer

    September 4, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    This obsession with on this blog race and racism is bizarre. First off,each person is an individual, we are born of different races and nationalities, but we have no say in the matter. It is absurd to think we should pigeonholed into thinking a particular way because we’re born a certain race or nationality. I don’t represent a race or nationality, but myself. When I’m making some of life’s decisions, I don’t think how will this effect my race or nationality, but how it effects myself and family. We Westerners are suffering from neurosis when it comes to race, we put it above everything. If you’re not perceived to be a worshiper of so and so race you’ll get the worse label in society, a racist. The White Westerner isn’t the only one suffering from this neurosis, the so called I minorities do too! They think if anything goes wrong in their life it must be a result of them racist! They been conditioned, by the system that they are a prized people, any disagreeing with them and their ways can only be racist. If you ain’t understanding, think about the Israeli Jews, and their belief that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is an anti Semite! I’m not special as a person’s who ancestry is European or responsible for the world’s problems, and you as a “minority” aren’t a perfect little peace loving humanitarian, and vice versa. We are separated by our actions as Individuals.

  12. Pingback: Muslim Anti-Racism Response to Structural Racism | Margari Aziza

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Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview

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islamic online high school

He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah.  This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty.  Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college.  He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam. 

***

Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist.  Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible?  She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.

*names changed

***

An Unwelcome Surprise

Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.

Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam

We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an.  It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.

Identifying the Unlikely Suspect

This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.

Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”

Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution

There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.

How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?

Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:

  • Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
  • Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
  • Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
  • Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
  • Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.

Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12

Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:

  • homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
  • Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
  • Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
  • Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview

Alhamdulillah, Legacy IOHS is an accessible resource for families with children in grades 6-8 who are seeking curriculum and instruction that is Islamically infused.

Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond

For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.

Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.

What We Hope to Avoid

While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family.  *names changed

Our Resolve

Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:

  1. Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
  2. Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
  3. Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.

We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:

رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ

‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]

 رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا

‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]

يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ

“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”

Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.

An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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Who Can We Trust?

Danish Qasim

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Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.

Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.

Blurring Lines

Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.

They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.

There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.

While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.

One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.

Beware of Bullying

When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.

If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.

When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.

Trust Built and Trust Destroyed

There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.

If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.

Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.

It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.

Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.

Don’t Fall for Reputation

Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.

Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.

If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.

Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.

Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.

Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.

Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) only to the degree to which they embody his character.

When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.

The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.

Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.

Don’t judge by rhetoric

Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.

Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.

Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.

Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.

In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.

Don’t judge by fame

One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.

The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.

Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.

Look for a procedure

Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.

Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.

But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?

Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ

O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).

From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.

If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.

Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outright uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.

If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure.  For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.

Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.

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