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Sh. Qasim Hatem’s Road From The Rose Bowl To Religion

Hatem in 2000 (Photo: University of Washington)

Hatem in 2000 (Photo: University of Washington)

At the moment he accepted that he was going to die on the cold bathroom tile of his college apartment, a life that had revolved around football for Qasim Hatem found a familiar and yet entirely new focus.

In the spring of 2001, Hatem was a 20-year-old defensive lineman at the University of Washington, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound force in the trenches for the reigning Rose Bowl champions. Going into his redshirt junior season for the Huskies, Hatem was beginning to draw the attention of NFL scouts and college football kingmakers.

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And then one morning, Hatem woke up experiencing sharp chest pains. With each abbreviated breath he took into his massive chest, he found it harder to get oxygen. Making his way to the bathroom, he was physically unable to call for help from his roommates.

Hatem realized he was about to die. He looked into the mirror and told himself that was it. He was done.

“The most valuable things to me crossed my heart at this moment of death and only one stuck,” Hatem recalls about that morning. “I thought that I couldn’t die yet because I have school, football, friends, family, my mother, religion … It was religion that stuck with me and was the most important and valuable thing to me.

“So at the point of death, I dropped to my knees in the bathroom and I recited the first and most important pillar of Islam called the shahadah: ‘I bear witness that there is no God except Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger.'”

Hatem doesn’t remember how long he repeated the shahadah — perhaps half an hour, he estimates — but eventually the fact that he was still alive struck him as a message that Allah was giving him another chance.

Crawling out of the bathroom, the young and extraordinarily fit athlete who had been breaking school records in the Husky weight room just weeks earlier couldn’t muster the strength to climb a flight of stairs. Hatem was finally discovered by a roommate and rushed to the hospital.

After bringing Hatem back from the brink, doctors ran tests and eventually found three large blood clots—pulmonary embolisms—in his lungs. They said the chance of surviving an attack like Hatem had survived, given the size of the clots, was one in a million.

Hatem would have to miss the upcoming football season while being placed on blood-thinning medication. When a nurse told him to prepare himself for the reality that he may never play the sport again, Hatem cried uncontrollably.

“I thought my life was over because I could not play football,” Hatem says.

Hatem focused on school while sitting out the 2001 season and was eventually given medical clearance to return to the field in 2002. But in his time away from the game, Hatem had expanded his worldview and began to see football for just that —a game.

“I was so caught up with the fame and glory of football that I didn’t have much time for religion,” says Hatem, who was raised Muslim during his early childhood in Iowa and practiced semi-seriously as a three-sport high school star in Spokane, WA.

“It did cross my mind though that there is more to life than this,” Hatem says of his mindset during his scheduled hiatus. “Still though, I had been playing football since I was 11 years old. It was my life. It was what I loved and put most of my time into. I thought it was my purpose.”

With two years of college eligibility remaining, Hatem decided to quit football. He finished his undergraduate degree in psychology and, trying to figure out the next step, had another religious epiphany that inspired him to travel to Yemen and study abroad.

At the Badr Language Institute in Tarim, Hatem studied Arabic. He then enrolled at the prestigious Dar al-Mustafa school for an intensive study of Islam and the Quran. He stayed in Yemen for seven years before returning to the U.S. with licenses to teach Islamic jurisprudence (Shafi’i fiqh), Islamic creed (aqeedah), the Arabic language, Quranic recitation (tajweed) and methodology of inviting others to Islam (dawah).

“I came back [from Yemen],” Hatem says, “with the intention to show people who the Prophet Muhammad really is and what Islam really says.”

Today, Hatem is recognized as a leader in the Pacific Northwest’s Muslim community. He is the executive director and resident scholar for the Mihraab Foundation in Seattle. He counsels hospital patients and prison inmates, mentors teenagers and teaches elementary-school kids.

Taking some rare down time to sit for an interview at the Islamic Center of Eastside in Bellevue, WA, Hatem talks about the value of what’s he has been doing since he walked away from a million-dollar opportunity:

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Photo: University of Washington

Photo: University of Washington

MUSLIMMATTERS: For lack of a better way to put it … What do you do?

SH. QASIM HATEM: Alhamdulillah, I’m a servant. I serve Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) by serving His creation. I’ve committed and dedicated my life to the service of this religion of Islam and of Allah and the way of the Prophet Muhammad.

Primarily, my focus is on education and the youth. I’m the resident scholar, executive director and chairman of the board of trustees for an organization called the Mihraab Foundation, which is an Islamic non-profit organization. Our mission is to promote traditional Islam in a Western context. We have two main branches: the youth branch and the scholastic branch. We do a series of classes, conferences, workshops, those kinds of things, for the scholastic branch; and we do youth programs, camps, social activities and other things for the youth branch.

So there’s the Mihraab Foundation, and I’m a teacher, a public speaker, a caller or inviter to Allah and Islam. That’s kind of what you’d say I do in terms of my work and my service. But I don’t consider what I do a job. I consider it a duty, an obligation. I consider it part of my faith. So I don’t wake up and say, “I’ve got to go to work.” I say, “I have to fulfill my obligation to Islam.” I’m going to do this work with or without an organization, with or without structure or a place. I’m gonna do it anyway.

I try to fulfill community needs. If somebody has a fiqh question, if somebody wants a marriage, if somebody needs a funeral procession, I’ll try to help. Any issues, questions or conflicts between husband and wife, or between families, I’ll try to help.

I’m also the Muslim chaplain for Harborview Hospital and the University of Washington Medical Center, and I’m the Muslim chaplain for the corrections facility in Shelton (WA). Any Muslim who is sick or dying, I’m basically on-call to sit with them, to comfort them, maybe pray or make du’a with them, read the Quran and so forth. Sometimes it’ll be non-Muslims who request an imam or a shaykh, and sometimes they want to convert to Islam. In that state where they’re sick or dying, people often have strong realizations about life and now they want to make the right decision. They believe Islam is the truth and want to become a Muslim in that vulnerable time when they’re not sure if they’re going to live or not.

And I’m going to Seattle University as a graduate student in the School of Theology and Ministry for a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership degree. I’m in my second year of a three-year program.

MM: Why are you pursuing a master’s degree?

SQH: I was trained for seven years in Yemen at a school that disseminates traditional Islamic knowledge. Now I’m going through “imam training” or pastoral training through a Western, Christian university. It’s interesting to combine Western teachings with Eastern Islamic teachings. It’s quite powerful to contextualize traditional Islam in a way people can understand it today in the world we live in.

MM: Could you do what you do effectively without both sides of that education? If someone only went to school in the East without going to school in the West, or vice versa, can they be an impactful imam or sheikh in America?

SQH:  I think it’s possible, but it probably would be harder.

One helps the other, supports the other, but the base and principle is traditional Islamic knowledge. Somebody couldn’t be a scholar or imam in any facet if they didn’t have the traditional Islamic training and education from scholars of the tradition that goes back to the Prophet Muhammad. But it’s also important that once they learn this, they can apply it to the society and culture they live in.

It doesn’t mean they compromise religion or compromise Islam, but how do they contextualize and understand it within their society and culture? That is where the secular sciences come in, where (Western) academic institutions and chaplaincy programs come in. To go through those programs helps you understand society and culture better. It helps you use certain terminology and understand interpretations to better serve people and educate them about Islam.

It comes back to an interesting view that was told to me by somebody, which is that you have the text and you have the context. You have people who know the context and have it down very well, and then you have people who know the text and have it down very well. But the marriage of the two is much more powerful and effective in outreach to call people to Islam.

MM: Is that marriage of text and context what you’re trying to do for young people with the Mihraab Foundation?

SQH: Yeah. We’re trying to bring an element of cool and fun to religion. We keep it religious, we keep it halal, we keep it traditional, but we also want to make it fun and entertaining and beneficial.

The people who work and volunteer at Mihraab, most of us have been raised in America. Most of us have been born and raised in the West. We are the next generation. We are Americans. We are Westerners and we know this society and culture and we know what issues the youth are facing.

MM: What is your favorite part of serving the community?

SQH: That moment when you help change somebody’s life for the better. And not just this life, but their afterlife. When you really benefit someone, really help somebody, you can really see it on their face and see them change.

If you really care about somebody, you care about them in this life and in the next life. You care about their salvation and their survival. You care about their eternal abode. So those are things I try to help people with – not just this-life decisions but next-life decisions. It can be very stressful, very heavy. It’s a big responsibility.

MM: Is that the hardest part of what you do: the weight of that responsibility?

SQH: It’s partly that. I would also say being pulled in so many different directions is difficult. You get so many requests and you want to answer all of them, but you can’t. It’s hard to focus sometimes and find that balance between religion, work and family.

MM: Talk about your experience in Yemen and how you wound up there.

SQH: Yemen was a wonderful experience. As for the process of how I went there: I’d graduated from college and came to Spokane to live with my mother and stepfather. I was there for a year, working with my mother and stepfather, trying to practice (Islam) more.

One time I was sitting in a room by myself and said to Allah, “Allah, I know that you exist and I don’t doubt that. But show me a sign that you exist.” I said, “I commit myself, everything that I am, my health and my wealth, to you for your sake; just show me a sign that you exist.” Not that I doubted; I just wanted to be reassured. That night, Allah answered my prayer through this really powerful dream that shook and changed my life forever.

After I saw that dream, I started studying and reading the Quran more. I was reading books, watching videos about Islam, trying to learn Arabic, trying to memorize the Quran. Allah was guiding me in a certain direction. I started to ask about studying abroad to study Arabic and I looked into programs, and the one place that responded was a place in Tarim, Yemen, called the Badr Institute. (Author’s note: Tarim reportedly has the world’s highest concentration of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).)

I went there initially to study Arabic for a year and come back, but I fell in love with the place, the people, the knowledge. I ended up staying year after year … each year was supposed to be my last year. Seven years later, I graduated with a license to teach. I came back to the United States in 2011 when I was 31 years old.

MM: When you study a religion as in-depth as you studied in Yemen and in the years since, do you come across things that may challenge your faith or that contradict what you believed going in?

SQH: When I ran into things like that, it only strengthened my faith. The reason why is because a lot of knowledge is in the people. It’s in the heart – from heart to heart, teacher to student, father to son, it’s passed down. Remember, Islam began as an oral tradition, not necessarily as a book. It starts with people.

The chain of transmission that goes back to the Prophet Muhammad is the proper way to understand Islam. You have to go back, as Allah says in the Quran: “So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.” (16:43) When you come to things that may seem like contradictions or conflicts or something that doesn’t seem right, it’s very important to bring that back to the scholars who understand and who have that chain of transmission back to Prophet because they can help one understand and interpret it.

When things get taken out of context and out of the proper understanding of what was going on at that time, then somebody can misunderstand and misinterpret, and that can lead to an extreme version of religion. And we see that all over the world today. You have to read the texts and go back to the teachers. They’re professionals; they’re experts. They’ve been studying this since they were kids and now they’re old men. Like, day in and day out, it’s their full-time job. Where we suffer today in the world of Islam is we have people who have the text but not the context, or they have the context and no text. The combination of text and context is very important. That helped remove any contradictions for me.

MM: So when you arrived in the U.S. from Yemen, were you considered a scholar?

SQH: By American standards, yes. They say the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind (laughs). In America, where we don’t know our religion and our knowledge is so little, yeah, I would’ve been considered a scholar. But by the standard of where I studied, I would be a student of a student of a student of a scholar. And these are giants – massive scholars. Here they’ll say “Shaykh Qasim” or refer to me as a scholar, but not how I see it.

MM: What did you do when you first came back to put that Islamic education to use?

SQH:It was really hard. People who come back like me, you have to be prepared to struggle. You have to understand you’ll start small and have to build up. It’s not a prestigious thing, what I do, in the Western world. We need imams, we need scholars and teachers, but it’s more lucrative to be a doctor or a computer programmer, you know? People value other jobs.

When I first came back, it was a major culture shock. Even though I was born and raised here, it was all different. Good was bad, bad was good, everything was flipped upside down and I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t have anything. I was married. I was struggling to get a license again; I didn’t have a car, no house, no job, no money … we didn’t have anything. So when I came to Seattle, I stayed with my brother initially, and my wife moved to California to stay with her family for month and a half. I then moved into some brothers’ apartment and was sleeping on the floor, basically starting from scratch. It was cold. I was hungry a lot.

So, all I could do is what I came back to do: I started teaching a few kids, upstairs in the masjid. I wasn’t getting paid. I started with a very small group of kids, and then more and more kids came, and pretty soon adults started coming. The word spread and the community started to help and support; I was able to get a very humble salary and bring my wife back from California. Eventually we got low-income housing, got a halal loan for a car, and just slowly started to build.

Hatem in 2014

Sh Hatem in 2014

MM: We’ve seen a few stories over the years of people like yourself who played big-time college sports and either had a chance to go pro or made it to the pros, but walked away voluntarily for religious or health reasons. The perception of those athletes seems to be that they fell out of love with their sport, or grew disillusioned with their sport, making it easier to leave. How do you feel about football today?

SQH: Football is a great sport. I still watch football. I still play football sometimes with the youth we work with. It’s kind of funny because they’ll be surprised when they find out Shaykh Qasim can actually throw a Hail Mary (laughs).

But at the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s not worth losing one’s religion over and certainly not worth dying over. And I’ve had a couple of teammates die, actually; one from a broken neck and another from drugs. When you really break it down, you’re putting on armor and trying to prevent another man from crossing a line, or you’re hitting a ball between two posts. When you really break it down, it’s kind of silly and not important. But people love it and they’re big fans and want to watch, and that’s okay.

But putting it in perspective, I don’t think that on the Day of Judgment, Allah is going to ask me, “How many sacks did you have?” He’s gonna ask, “Who is your lord? What is your religion? Who is your prophet?” Those are the questions I want to be able to answer in my grave. I want to be able to enter paradise through what I do in this life. That’s what’s important to me. It’s about working and striving for the next life, not necessarily playing a game in this life.

MM: What was so attractive about the athlete lifestyle before you changed your mindset?

SQH: Like any kid at that time, I wanted to play in the NFL and be famous and make a million dollars and be on TV, stuff like that. I loved the team, the brotherhood. But that brotherhood is temporal.

Football is a business and the athletes are commodities. They want you to gain weight, lose weight, be faster or be stronger so they can win more games and make more money. It’s a business. And as soon as you’re not playing or not winning games, that brotherhood disappears. But the brotherhood of Islam remains forever.

MM: How did you fit into that brotherhood since you identified as a Muslim?

SQH: At first it came with a lot of curiosity. “Why won’t you take showers with everyone else in the locker room?”

“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” “Why don’t you drink with us at the parties?”

They were wondering why I was doing certain things, and I would tell them it’s because I’m Muslim. When that came up, then it’s like, “Oh, you’re different. You’re not like us.”

There’s pressure to conform and assimilate to the American ways or ideals of football culture. And this was pre-9/11, but it was still socially acceptable to make fun of, criticize and stereotype Muslims. I mean, everything under the sun … I was called a terrorist, a camel jockey, a towel-head. Whatever derogatory name that could describe a Muslim, I heard it from my own teammates.

I could relate more with the African-American players because we were both minorities and we understood that racism and bigotry. A lot of the bullying, stereotyping, hazing, intimidation, prejudice … a lot of it came from the white half of the team. When I was being hazed as a freshman, I had to stand on a chair and sing, “Oh, thank heaven for 7-11” over and over again. Because, you know, you’re Muslim so you must own a gas station. And that was okay. It was done in front of coaches, in front of staff, everybody.

So I got that for a while before I earned my stripes. Then when I started to play, I got more respect. When I became a starter, the remarks and comments went down, because it was like, “Oh, now we actually need him.” Then, that love occurs.

MM: Did any teammates come to you interested in learning more about Islam or in converting?

SQH: Some were curious, like, they just want to know more about you and your background and what you believe. There were some that were probably genuinely interested in Islam. Being that it is the fastest-growing religion in the world and it’s the truth, a lot of people are attracted to it. And once they meet a Muslim and see they’re not like what they see on TV, it draws them to it. The resilience, the faith, the steadfastness of Muslims – it either bothers people or it attracts them.

MM: Did you ever feel conflicted playing football while practicing a religion that teaches peace?

SQH: It was hard for me because that’s not how I was raised and not what I was taught. I was taught to be non-violent, and then football is probably the most violent sport I’ve ever experienced in my life. They say you’re protected because you have pads, but the pads just allow you to hit harder, faster and stronger and potentially cause more damage because you’re hitting over and over and over again. Most players finish their careers and have severe injuries that affect them the rest of their lives. They’ve put more miles on their bodies and advanced their age 10, 20 years because of football. It’s a violent game, and not only are you doing it, but it’s being done to you.

They say they don’t want you to hurt anybody, but actually a lot of the coaches directly or indirectly suggest that you do hurt the opposing player and take them out of the game, because ultimately the goal is to win the game.

What it all boils down to is not even winning games, but making money. Football is a meat market. It’s a business. It’s about money, and a lot of money. And the way that they make money is by winning games. So they’ll do what they can to win games to reach their ultimate goal of making money, and as an athlete you’re the product. You’re the commodity. You can be bought, you can be sold, you can be traded … Obviously, college football players get a free education, but it’s a full-time job.

So there is element of encouraging athletes to be violent. Football is organized chaos. It’s legal war on a field. To say it’s just a game and there are no consequences is false. You’re trying to take out the other guy, he’s trying to take you out, and there are consequences. The ultimate was in 2000, when we played Stanford. I was right next to an athlete, Curtis Williams, No. 25, and I went one way while he want the other way. I probably should have hit the fullback, but he ended up hitting the fullback in a head-on collision. His head was low and he broke his neck. I saw him on the field. We thought he was dead because he’d stopped breathing. About a minute or two later he came back to life and started breathing again, but he was still unconscious. He was a quadriplegic for two years, had kidney failure and died. And what was it that resulted in his death? A football game.

MM: How is your health now?

SQH: Alhamdulillah, I’m getting older (laughs). I have some knee problems and back problems, but my health is good now.

I actually had a reoccurrence of the blood clots 10 years later (in 2011). This one was from a long flight from Yemen to the U.S. I had another three clots – not as large as the first ones. The first ones, I waited until the last possible moment. This time I saw the signs earlier. So to this day I’m cautious of blood-clot issues.

It’s very different when you’re practicing Islam and trying to follow the will of Allah and you see the bigger picture. The first time, I was so attached to the life of this world that I couldn’t let it go. It was so hard for me to think about letting it go. This time, I was like, “Whatever Allah wills.”

MM: Why focus your work on the youth?

SQH: Probably the two most neglected groups among Muslims are the youth and converts. They need the most help.

There’s a major disconnect between the first generation and the second generation, between immigrant parents and their children. There are a lot of immigrants in Seattle; it’s an immigrant community. And they’re having kids and they think their kids are being raised like they were back home, but they’re raising them in America now. Their kids are showing one face to them but another face to their friends or to their community. There’s a huge disconnect and a huge generational gap. We’re trying to bridge that gap and also be supporters for the youth.

We are losing more [youth] than we’re retaining. A lot of them are going astray and leaving the practice of Islam altogether and doing some pretty crazy things. Some of them have almost a dual personality; they show their parents one thing, show the people at the masjid one thing, but when they’re in the club or in school or at work, they’re a whole different person. It makes them not sure who they are, so there’s an identity crisis. We’re trying to show people that you can be Muslim and American — Muslim first, but also American as long as it’s halal.

There has to be a group of people who were born and raised in America, Islamically educated and practicing, who can take them by the hand and guide them through the ropes. Instruct them; be a role model; be an example; show them how to weave through the wild waters of how to be good Muslims and also be an American.

One of the mottos of our program is, “Come as you are, to Islam as it is.” We’re not going to change. Islam is what it is, but come as you are and you’ll be accepted.

MM: What role can sports play in making that outreach to the youth and strengthening their deen?

SQH: Sports is a huge way to attract the youth. They already don’t have as many options compared to non-Muslims. And if we don’t make the halal accessible to the youth, they will go after the haram. If we make it difficult for them to do halal things like sports, video games, fishing, hiking, then they’ll go after haram things that are easy and accessible for them. And we know how rampant that is in our society.

It’s very important just to bring them in – that’s why we call it the filter. We attract the biggest amount we can through the big filter. It’s through sports a lot of times because that’s what they like, that’s what they play, that’s what’s fun and that’s what’s halal. But then we filter that into, “OK, this is how we’re going to practice Islam. These are the etiquettes and manners. This is how a Muslim should be.” We can play sports and have fun, but now let me show you how to do wudu and how to fast and how to pray.

MM: Can sports help develop some of the morals and values you’re trying to impart?

SQH: Sports is about team building, teamwork, social bonding. You see character come out in sports. You see personalities of individuals come out. You learn work ethic, how to work together. There are good morals one can learn from sports.

There are some good things about sports, but there are also some bad things. I probably wouldn’t want my own children playing sports on the collegiate or pro level because the norm is that they’ll get lost in it. I’ve seen that from Muslims. There are exceptions, but not everybody is the exception.

When we do youth camps we have football, soccer, volleyball, inner tubing, fishing … we have S’mores and campfire talks and we discuss things as Muslim-American citizens. We try to make them feel comfortable while guiding them through challenges. We do all of that stuff, and we also have deen sessions. We talk about service, we talk about leadership, we talk about brotherhood, we talk about loving each other and respecting one another. It’s a very powerful model.

If you can combine fun, religion and social bonding, that seems to be a very powerful combination to attract those youth who are never going to just come to the masjid or never go to an Islamic conference. They might be on-the-fence Muslims, but they’ll go to a basketball game. They’ll join us there and meet some brothers, bond with them, there may be a brotherhood established where they want to spend more time with us. OK, now there’s a connection. So hey, let’s go have some halal food. Then, hey, let’s go to the masjid and pray. So now a kid who was just tagging along for the sports is now praying in the masjid. And I’ve seen this lead to them coming more and more often.

We had one kid who was on the streets selling drugs. He came to one youth halaqa, he liked it, so he came again. And he kept coming, because we’re talking about real issues. Whether it’s drugs, whether it’s gender relations, whether it’s drinking or parties, whether it’s peer pressure, we’re talking about real things … and we’re talking about Islam too.

Now that kid wears a thobe and a kufi when he comes to the masjid and prays.

[divider]—————————————[/divider]

Follow Sh. Qasim Hatem on Twitter: @QasimHatem
Visit the Mihraab Foundation: http://www.mihraab.com/

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Amaar Abdul-Nasir was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., and received his B.A. in Journalism from Seattle University. A sports writer and editor by trade, Amaar founded UmmahSports.net, which focuses on Muslim athletes and health and fitness in the Muslim community, following his conversion to Islam in 2013.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm Hadi

    December 20, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    Masha Allah, Takabbal Allahu minna wa minkum.
    https://alkalaamblog.wordpress.com/

  2. Avatar

    dude bro

    December 22, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    Very touching article mashaAllah, extremely inspiring. This mindset should be the paradigm of everyone looking to, or involved in community work. May Allah preserve Him and bless his work and make countless more like him around the world. Ameen.

  3. Avatar

    Razan

    December 24, 2014 at 7:00 PM

    This is honestly pretty damn amazing. Thanks for sharing your story – in my family we would say ‘qaddaralllahu wa ma sha’a fa3al’ – God willed, and what He wills is done.

    • Avatar

      john

      September 27, 2016 at 2:42 PM

      subhanallah i love this story..unbelivable

  4. Avatar

    Ahmed Brown

    December 24, 2014 at 11:36 PM

    A wonderful and poignant story. Thanks sh. Qasim for sharing, Amaar for writing, and MM for publishing!

  5. Avatar

    mufti ishaq

    September 28, 2016 at 6:01 PM

    i love the shieks beautiful talks.

  6. Avatar

    sheik google

    September 29, 2016 at 2:53 PM

    i as sheik google approve this story..its true

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#Islam

Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

The Prophet helped the Arabs overcome their asabiya (tribalism) and enter a new defining bond of Islam. The criterion for right and wrong was no longer clan membership, but rooted in the religion of Islam. Muslims were instructed to defend the truth, command good, and forbid evil regardless of tribal affiliation. Asabiya does not just relate to kin-based tribes.  One of the resurging traces of jahilya affecting our discourse is ideological tribalism. In ideological tribalism, we hold double standards between our tribe and other tribes, and overlook fallacies in our group that we would not for other groups. Just as we protect an idea that represents our identity, when a personality reflects our group identity, there is a personal reason to defend the personality. It then becomes instinctual then to double-down in discussions even when wrong to show group strength, which at this point is a survival mechanism and not a true dialectic. Abandoning a quest for truth and succumbing to an in-group vs. out-group dichotomy leaves us to defend falsehood and dislike truth. Refusing to accept truth is one way the Prophet described arrogance. 

Group belonging

One of the main drivers of identity scholarship is group belonging. When we focus on defending our group rather than principles which extend beyond group delineations we prove false our claims of wanting the truth.  The burden of moral responsibility is not offset by finding someone to follow [1]. Charismatic leaders have an ability to tap into latent desires of individuals and awaken in them the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Their own identities are often validated by following the charismatic figure, and they then work hard to preserve the group as they would to preserve their own selves.

According to Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic authority “derives from the capacity of a particular person to arouse and maintain belief in himself or herself as the source of legitimacy. Willner says that the charismatic leadership relationship has four characteristics:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.
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Charismatic leadership satisfies our desire to be part of something bigger, and paradoxically, to hand all power over to someone else can make us feel more powerful because we think that person is the best version of ourselves. We feel that we have gained ‘agency by proxy.’ We have also dumped all responsibility for decisions onto the leader- what Erich Fromm, the scholar of Nazism, called an ‘escape from freedom.’ When we are in a charismatic leadership relationship, our sense of self-worth gets (attaches) attached to the identity of the leader, so that we take personally any criticism of that leader, and have as much difficulty admitting flaws or errors on the leader’s parts as we do on our own. Because we see the leader as us, and we see us as good, we simply can’t believe that he or she might do bad things” (59) [2].

Charismatic leadership is emotional and works on desires. This type of leadership has no relation to truth. It exists and persists due to feelings, hence contradictions, double-standards, and outright hypocrisy aren’t issues for those in the relationship. Even when the leader confidently behaves irresponsibly, followers do not think less of him. What is inconsistent and irresponsible for an out-group observer is charming to members of the in-group. As Miller points out: 

Followers don’t expect charismatic leaders to be responsible for what they say, nor to behave responsibly; their irresponsible behavior is part of their power. Their use of hyperbole and tendency to be unfiltered in speech are taken to signify their passionate commitment to the in-group (60).

Such loyalty is not specific for charismatic leaders, The Minimal Group Paradigm shows that we have more empathy for our in-group even if that in-group is arbitrarily assigned, and we will act biased in their favor against an arbitrarily assigned out-group. This is a tendency against which we must actively fight to maintain clarity in thinking and fair standards in discussions. When group loyalty is prized there is a fear of opposing the group, which obliterates any chance of scholarly discourse. Questioning a position becomes akin to questioning authority and leaves the questioner ostracized and out-casted. When the out-group is pejoratively labeled, there is an additional fear of thinking like or ending up in that group. 

Identity scholarship

Rather than looking at the argument constructed and judging whether or not it is sound, identity scholarship approves or dismisses arguments based on the person making them. Arguments are then validated by personalities and not standards of scholarship.  This is a dangerous shift from reasoning and evidence to personalities. 

Identity scholarship leverages the need to belong and centers the personality over the argument. However, focusing on the strength of arguments and not the personality is especially important given that the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is applied to vocationally trained Muslims, seminal graduates, preachers, or to those who display a scholarly caliber in Islam alike. This is a sufficient crisis. The term is heavily equivocated, and should never serve to stand in place of standards of scholarship in discourse. 

Ambiguity in the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is exploited by groups to strengthen their influence. Not always pernicious, this is the natural progression of proselytizing via group identity. An in-group who will dismiss dissenting voices for not having studied long enough, not obtaining ijazas, will promote voices of similar or less educated Muslims when those voices are in their ‘in-group.’ Titles like ‘ustadh’ and ‘ustadha’ are quickly conferred upon those who are volunteers or proponents of the ‘in-group’ even with minimal study. Advocating for the correct paradigm is rewarded more than a knowledge based approach to issues. Giving titles to those with social capital in your in-group is also an effective way for brand expansion. For example, loosely affiliated students with avenues into the growing Muslim mental health field are often referred to as ‘ustadha.’  Also, traditionalists will often promote in-group religious figures engaging in no-risk activism like condemning already popularly condemned figures as exemplary ‘scholars and activists’ who should be followed by other activists.  

If a person has been doing this long enough they become ‘shaykh,’ and then eventually a ‘senior scholar’ with assumed wisdom and spiritual insight, worthy of deference. I am well acquainted with the unfortunate irony in traditional circles where those who push a manhaj of studying at the feet of scholars have by and large not done so beyond attending general lectures by visiting scholars.  Many do not even know Arabic, but their zeal and tenure of feel good lectures in a community primarily interested in nasheeds and tea coupled with their promoting the right figures secure for them a scholarly status by generations who venerate the theory of studying at the feet of scholars. 

Thus authority and titles are conferred by virtue of in-group allegiance. 

Slip into demagoguery

When we accept an in-group and out-group dichotomy and don’t argue fairly, we lay the foundation for demagogic discourse. As Patricia Mill-Roberts writes “If people decide to see things as a zero-sum game- the more they succeed, the more we lose, and we should rage about any call made against us, and cheer any call made against them- then democracy loses” (13). The best way to avoid this is by maintaining fair discussions and letting go of double standards. Arguments appealing to in-group or out-group positions rather than being based in fact should not be accepted regardless of which group they are coming from. Several tactics used in these types of arguments are described below. 

Creating a strawman

Falsely representing the out-group is a common tactic in demagogic discourse. One example is portraying out-group critics as only critics. The critic is frozen in time as someone who has accomplished nothing, helped no one, and as only one who sees the faults in others. The in-group then goes on to list what they have accomplished -‘albeit with some faults’- to not seem as braggarts, but insists that those faults are magnified by the arm-chair critics. 

Another example is labeling Muslims more concerned with academic preservation and development as Muslims in ivory towers. This suggests knowledge is only relevant if immediately actionable and discounts the role of theoretical knowledge in both present and future action as well as an intrinsic end.  

Even when it comes to the epitome of practical action, Allah tells the Muslims to not all go out in battle, but to have groups remain behind to study.

Condescending discrediting

One way demagoguery characterizes the out-group is by a “dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness…”(66).  Just as Rudy Giuliani dismissed those protesting Trump’s 2016 win as “professional protestors” with nothing else to do in life, so do we dismiss dissenting voices. 

Terms like ‘keyboard warrior’ should be dropped from the vernacular of anyone who uses the internet for Islamic education. If the internet is good enough for theatrical Ramadan reminders and choreographed Islamic reflections, it should also be good enough for dissent and valid critiques.[3] We have to embrace the fact that the internet is not a pretend medium; social media posts are used in newsfeeds, are reacted to on the mimbar, and even prompt live events. If we dismiss valid criticisms made online as the act of ‘keyboard warriors’ we should also call those giving dawah online ‘studio daa’is.’  

Discrediting due to inexperience

Experience is an important element in answering questions and dealing with different scenarios, and, should rightly be considered when one is looking for a teacher, etc. However, frequently, the standards for what constitutes experience are used inconsistently. The same individuals who refer to young teachers as ‘shaykh’ or ‘mufti’ while in their in-group, dismiss ‘shaykhs’ and ‘muftis’ in the out-group of similar age and experience, arguing that a person can’t be a ‘real’ mufti because studying 7 years doesn’t make anyone a scholar. Graduating from a seminary or Islamic university will be the standard for members of an in-group to be called scholars, but the out-group will be ‘immature graduates’ who have not learned wisdom.  Wisdom itself will be defined as the avoidance of actions which challenge the in-group. Likewise an activist saying the right thing and echoing in-group talking points will be called ‘ustadh,’ but if from the ‘out-group’ dismissed as a Godless- activist’ that just hates hierarchy. 

Victimization and Victimology

Demagoguery thrives on the in-group being victimized by the out-group. It is common for religious figures to dismiss valid criticism as nothing but hate, envy, or ignorance [4]. When criticized by activists, it is common to label them as ‘anti-clerical’ activists who only have an issue with Islamic leaders because they are neo-Marxists. 

‘Neo-Marxist’ is used as a catch-all term to discredit those who disagree with the positions of some religious leaders to insinuate the disagreements are rooted in hate for hierarchy or authority thus being illegitimate. Even conservative and practicing Muslims are labeled as ‘leftists’ and ‘Godless activists’ for simple critiques. In Sufi groups, disagreeing with leadership is often said to be the result of being spiritually veiled, or the work of ‘dark forces’ and ‘shayateen’ dividing us. If we can agree that black-magic and evil-eye are real but should not be the first culprit in a failing marriage, let’s also look for practical failures when religious organizations break down before we start blaming the ‘shayateen.’  

On one hand the in-group claims they are victims, on the other they blame the out-group for having a victim mentality.  This may seem like an obvious contradiction, but as Miller explains,  

If condemnation of out-group behavior is performed by a very likeable persona, then onlookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior she or he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values he or she claims to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that ‘good people- that is, people who say the right things- don’t do ‘bad’ things) (56) 

Another tactic is using terms like ‘victomology’ to belittle legitimate grievances of being wronged and falsely representing those grievances as an attitude of being a victim in life.

Being oppressed (mazlum) does not require living a tough life, being a victim in life, or being part of an oppressed group. We are told by the Prophet that delaying a payment owed while being capable of paying is oppression (Muslim). When our God given rights are transgressed upon, we are mazlum in that situation. It is not uncommon however to see Muslims want to claim their rights and express they have been wronged to be dismissed as those who love to be victims. Ironically, this is even done by organizations that describe themselves with the leftist concept of ‘safe spaces.’  

Disregarding Nuance

“Demagoguery is comfortable because it says the world is very simple, and made up of good people (us) and bad people (them)” (24). 

We must understand that if someone does not see an issue as black or white, it’s not because they are obviously corrupt, willfully ignorant, or stupid.  The word nuance itself triggers cynicism and is treated as an excuse to employ mental gymnastics to deny what is ‘obvious.’  The fact of the matter is when it comes to khilafi issues there is generally a vast scope of acceptable actions, and when it comes personal ijtihaadi matters for policy there is often no clear-cut best answer. Thus in such matters the objective is to come to a best resolution or course of action. In short, we should all take appropriate measures in our decisions to ensure the benefit outweighs the harm. Certain positions are cautioned against due to the likelihood of harm to one’s religion, but that likelihood may not serve as evidence that one has harmed his religion. As the great scholar Muhammad Awama relates in Ma’laam Irshadiya, the way of the scholars is to leave people in what they are following as long as it is correct and has a valid legal perspective [5]

Scholarly discourse

Advice from recognized experts in a field carries weight, but it should not be conflated with a scholarly argument. A common mistake is to confer authority upon an opinion outside the area of one’s authority. Scholarly works must prove themselves to be scholarly as stand-alone works. Even if a great scholar has published many scholarly works, his advice should be taken as advice. For example, Imam al-Ghazali was a great scholar, but Dear Beloved Son is not a scholarly work.  We have a malfoozaat (wisdom-sharing) tradition that is precious, but we must know where to place it in the hierarchy of Islamic knowledge. 

Islamic scholarly discourse should be evidence based, demonstrative of legal proficiency, and cater to Islamic concerns. Those engaging should share the evidence for what they say, the sources of the rulings they share, the difference between the reason for a ruling and the wisdom of a ruling [6], understand contextual fatwas,[7] and understand which rulings are based on urf and which rulings are intrinsic obligations or prohibitions. These are just some elements of Islamic scholarly discourse, and it cannot exist alongside identity scholarship. 

There should be private forums with prerequisites where scholarly discourse can take place. When these discussions move outside of their proper place other issues such as discussing weak or aberrant (shadh) fiqh opinions arise, which to an undiscriminating audience all will seem co-valid on the spectrum of differing opinions in sharia. Promoting aberrant positions caters to our cultural preferences of thinking outside the box and carries the façade of an intellectual approach to Islam. In Maharam al-Lisaan (Prohibitions of the Tongue) Muhammad Mawlud lists both mentioning the conflict between the Sahabah, and mentioning aberrant opinions as prohibitions.  This is not due to the utterance being sinful, but rather to the misconceptions it can lead to for the average Muslim if not properly addressed.  

There may be a need to dismiss open innovators and those spreading misguidance, because there is no end to the possibilities of innovation and it obfuscates what should be self-evident, and can be very difficult for even scholars to refute in ways that resonate with those affected by innovation. The double standard as previously mentioned is when lack of formal credentials is only a problem for out-groups. 

How to have productive discourse

Islamic historical discourse has its share of polemics. There are commentaries, fatwas and treatises which insult valid ijtihad and even refer to the entirety of a madhab with epithets. Some scholars were harsh and had a penchant for polemics. Transgressions into mockery and slander were not condoned, and belligerent attitudes were something scholars sought to check with reminders of adab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement). While the previously mentioned certainly existed and such an approach may serve to strengthen positions of the in-group to the in-group, it does not make for productive dialogue with the out-group.

Outside of scholarly discourse, when we debate policy and Islamic positions, we need to have sincere, fact based arguments with the goal of arriving at truth. Our ability to accept truth no matter who says it shows we have transcended in-group vs. out-group tribalism and have entered the realm of sincere discourse.  Overcoming in-group tribalism and following the truth, rather than blindly following our ‘fathers’ is a central message in the Quran. 

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?  2:170 

Arguments on points should never be personal. We should train ourselves to evaluate arguments and understand that people we like can make mistakes, and people we dislike and generally disagree with may be right on certain matters. 

Don’t take cheap shots if you disagree with someone, such as pointing out a typo to insinuate incompetence. 

It’s important to leave double-standards, and to point them out when someone is employing them.  When one side is unfair or uses double standards, it encourages the opposition to act in kind, and the discussion devolves into a fight. When disagreeing with someone, never insult that person.  When a personality is attacked, the response will be defending the personality, and the entire discussion is derailed. 

Sharing a post, or article should not be seen as endorsing an individual or a post. Sometimes it’s a means of opening a discussion, other times to share beneficial points even if the entirety of what is shared is not beneficial. Furthermore, endorsing an individual in one area is not a blanket endorsement, and should never be taken as such.  The Hanafi tradition was able to benefit from legal fatwas while not accepting theology of Mu’tazilite scholars. Likewise, many of our best tafseers are from Mu’tazilite scholars. The widely studied and highly regarded Tafseer al-Baydawi is basically a reworked Mu’tazilite tafseer without the Mu’tazilite aqidah. Scholars have been able to ‘take the good and leave the harm.’ 

“I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” – Malcolm X

We need to uplift our intellectual level and drop disclaimers like “I don’t agree with everything in this article” or “I don’t agree with everything he said.”  It is only worth stating when you do agree with everything someone says or does.  The common disclaimers should be taken as givens and we shouldn’t capitulate to a cultural push of walking on egg-shells so no one accuses us of supporting the wrong person or idea. 

It is critical we operate under the assumption that sharing a panel with or working with an individual is not an endorsement of that individual. Likewise, working with an organization is not an endorsement of that organization. Such associations are attacked as potentially confusing to the average Muslim, but we must work towards establishing that such actions are not support. 

Here we see an ambivalent conceptualization of the ‘average Muslim’ as someone who both deserves transparency from religious scholars for their actions as well as one who is easily confused or misled by the actions of Muslim scholars. If we can accept both propositions, that a scholar’s actions are not proof, and that working with someone and sharing posts and platforms do not equate support for every particular view or stance of a person, we may set the foundation for being issue focused rather than personality focused. 

In conclusion, it is important we all hold ourselves to high standards of discourse and not support behavior or fallacies from our in-group that we would deride from an out-group. The groups themselves are inevitable and not a problem, but we have to work to overcome the natural ideological tribalism that accompanies group membership.  If we personally transcend in-group bias and reflect it in our discourse, we can overcome the pettiness and hypocrisy that stifles productive discussions. 

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 16: The Best of You

Now that we have learnt about fruit out of season, let’s now talk about the best of you.

I want you all to think about your closest friends and how you treat them. 

Question: Would anyone like to share how they try to treat their closest friends?

That’s wonderful! You try to be thoughtful and considerate of their feelings. You bring snacks to share with them, you may buy or make them a gift.

Question: Now, I want you to close your eyes and think of the way you treat your family members. Is it the same?

Question: Why do you think that there is a difference between the way we treat our friends and the way we may treat our siblings or parents?

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Yes, we do spend a lot of time together. We see each other when we’re cranky or frustrated. Sometimes we want our own space to think, or we don’t want someone interfering with our things. Those are all valid reasons. But, do you know that it is more beloved to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that you treat your family members better than you even treat your friends?

It’s true! In a hadith, Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) reported: The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: 

عَنْ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَيْرُكُمْ خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِهِ وَأَنَا خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِي وَإِذَا مَاتَ صَاحِبُكُمْ فَدَعُوهُ

“The best of you are the best to their families, and I am the best to my family.” 

Question: What are some ways we can be the best to our family members? I’m going to share with you a hadith that may help you get some ideas: 

وعن أبى أمامه الباهلى رضي الله عنه قال‏:‏ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم‏:‏ “أنا زعيم ببيت في ربض الجنة لمن ترك المراء، وإن كان محقاً، وببيت في وسط الجنة لمن ترك الكذب، وإن كان مازحاً، وببيت في أعلى الجنة لمن حسن خلقه” ‏(‏حديث صحيح رواه أبو داود بإسناد صحيح‏).‏

“I guarantee a house in Jannah (Paradise) for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Jannah for one who abandons lying even for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Jannah for one who has good manners.”

If we work on these three things: less arguing, no lying, and good manners, alongside all of your other suggestions, we will be rewarded with Jannah, inshaAllah

Question: Do you think we can all work hard to be the best to our family members?

 

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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