Forty is a special age. It’s the quintessential age of mid-life. It’s older than ‘young’, but younger than ‘old’. It’s an age where one has typically finished jumping all the hoops that society and education and starting a family require, and where one now looks forward to thinking about the major accomplishments of life, and the legacy that one wishes to leave.
The Quran mentions forty as the age of reaching full maturity: “Until, when (man) reaches his maturity (ashudd), and reaches forty years of age, he says, ‘O My Lord! Allow me to thank the blessings that you have bestowed on me, and on my parents, and that I perform good deeds that are pleasing to you, and make my children righteous as well. Truly, I repent unto You, and are of those who submit totally to you” [Ahqāf; 15].
No wonder, then, that our Prophet Muhammad actually began receiving inspiration and preaching his message at the age of forty. For forty years, he was merely being prepared for the real purpose of his mission: the call to Allah.
This is the year that I reach that important milestone of life. I do not know what the future holds for me, although of course I have my visions and plans. But it seems fitting for me to pause and reflect upon the last four decades of my life, and ponder over its ups and downs.
I remember vividly many of my thoughts and emotions when I was twenty. It was exactly twenty years ago that I graduated from the University of Houston, and left for the Islamic University of Madinah, beginning a new phase of my life. I began thinking, “If I could, somehow, give my younger self some advice; if I could address the young man of twenty, now that I am forty, and hope that he would listen to my advice, what would I tell him?”
These are the top ten things that came to mind. I hope those of you who are still in their twenties (and perhaps some of you who are older!) will benefit from it.
1) Don’t be so certain about your opinions and views.
Arrogance and cockiness define teenage years, and a young man (or woman) at twenty really is just a teenager, plus one. Views about how to live, about interpretations of religion, about how you would do things differently than everyone else in the world – those views typically stem from a naïve and inexperienced view of the world. You will realize that over-enthusiasm and strongly held opinions are the quintessential signs of being young. Don’t judge others who disagree with your views too harshly: you just might find yourself holding those same views a few years or decades down the line!
2) The most important source of practical knowledge is life itself.
Continuing from the last point, realize that the single greatest source of wisdom is learnt by living life itself. No matter how many lectures you attend, or books you read, or how deeply you contemplate or think, nothing substitutes the wisdom gained from simply experiencing the world around you. In order to be a good spouse, you need to learn to navigate the ups and down of a marriage. In order to be a good parent, you need to have your own children and learn to take care of them throughout their stages of childhood. In order to be a good human, you need to experience the good and bad of humanity.
‘Facts’ from books are great, but they must be shaped and seasoned and tested on the playground of life. Appreciate that you might not be in the best shape to judge everything, especially since you might not have experienced those things before. Through experience, and trial and error, one’s methods for dealing with all types of problems are refined.
A corollary of this piece of advice (and if I had more than ten in this list, this would be number eleven) is: Respect and benefit from those older than you. Perhaps you know more than an elder about a certain matter (or, to phrase it more precisely: perhaps you think you know more than them about a certain matter), but no matter how knowledgeable you are about quantum mechanics, or investigating sahih hadiths, or understanding the latest psychological theories from your textbooks, you simply cannot match the wisdom of your grandmother when it comes to navigating the intricacies of human interactions and raw emotions.
3) Friends come and go; family stays.
Many young men and women act as if their friends are more important than their family. They will show more concern about hurting their friend’s feeling than their family’s. Much of the conflict at that age, in fact, comes from the frictions of interacting with and arbitrating between family and friends. Yet, as anyone older than you can tell you, your friends are not a permanent fixture of your life. They will come and go into and out of your room of life, and every few days or months or years, you will look around that room and realize that an entirely different set of friends are standing where once another batch stood. But, lurking in the background, never actually disappearing (until death!) are your family members. These are the permanent fixtures in your room of life, not your set of friends.
True, problems with parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins and so forth are extremely painful, and all families have their internal disputes and major problems. It is absolutely normal to have intra-family fights (particularly, for some bizarre reason, during and concerning marriages!). And it is normal, although not Islamic, to go for long periods with minimal or no contact with close family members. Yet, in the end, blood is thicker than anything else, and you will always be connected with family. Time heals all wounds, and even the worse of family arguments are healed (thankfully, family tragedies or celebrations act as catalysts in that regard). So never overlook your family for the sake of friends.
Having said that, and on a more cheerful note, in all likelihood the best set of friends you’ll ever have are your college friends. College friends will always have a special status in your life, maybe because you were all young and lonely and single and naïve and at the prime of your youths, thrown together due to circumstances beyond your control, facing the ups and downs of a new environment away from home. Or maybe that special bond is the result of some type of unstudied scientific byproduct of the hundreds of times you all had to eat takeout pizza late at night and share cheap Chinese food together. Whatever the reasons – banal or mystical – no set of friends will have the status of college friends. But once again: even they will go out of your lives, some never to be seen again, others once every few decades, and a small handful with whom you’ll remain in touch with forever.
One final comment about families: make sure you soak in as many memories as you can from your family elders, because you never know how long they will be with you. One of my greatest regrets in this department is that I didn’t get to know my grandmother as well as I could have. I never met two of my grandparents; a third died when I was only ten. It was only my paternal grandmother (who lived with us until she passed away, when I was twenty-two) that I got to know somewhat. But as a teenager, I would always be irritated when she began reminiscing of the ‘old days’. I would internally cringe every time she began a story that I had already heard a hundred times, yet I would still have to pretend as if each time were new to me. I never cared to ask her for more stories, or more details. ‘When will she stop!?’ I would internally ask myself as I fretted to get back to my TV show or college homework. It was only after I matured, and she and everyone of her generation passed on, that I truly realized my loss. How I wish now that I could have learnt more about her, and her childhood. She talked to us of British soldiers in her village, of her parents and in-laws (my great-grandparents), of the ways of purdah in rural India, of distant relatives long gone from this world, of incidents that took place almost a century ago, and of the interesting customs of the time. Now that she has been gone for two decades, I vividly remember much of what she said, but I wish for so much more. How I wish I had quizzed her for more details, more incidents, more stories. Now that I reflect upon her stories, there are so many unanswered questions: questions that I never bothered to ask because at the time, I really didn’t care to know, but now, have no answers to because I didn’t care to ask them.
4) Habits developed now typically stay with you.
I have had the great fortune (or misfortune!) of studying twenty-two years continuously as a student at various universities (two undergraduate degrees and four graduate). What I found remarkable was that the habits I developed while studying for my very first degree pretty much stayed with me throughout my two decades of study (with, of course, modifications and developments). And the same went for my routines and other life-habits: how I dealt with early marital spats dictated my future navigation; how I reared my first child influenced my later habits with my other children, and so forth. True, I picked up some habits along the way (I never drank caffeine early on in my life; now, I am addicted to one freshly-brewed quality tea every morning, and one freshly-ground espresso drink every afternoon), and dropped others (I used to love sleeping on the floor, and felt it gave me a better sleep – obviously that is a habit that only single people can practice!), but by and large, my ‘routine’ and lifestyle has remained the same.
Hence, be extra vigilant of your habits at this age, and realize that the hard work and good habits that you incorporate earlier in your life will help you throughout the rest of your life. It is easier to develop good habits at a younger age than to drop bad ones later on in life.
5) Take advantage of your health and energy while you can!
Wisdom and maturity might increase as you age from twenty to forty, but alas, strength and power does not! Looking back at those years, I can’t believe how much energy I had. I could get by on small quantities of food (or even skip meals without any adverse effect); didn’t require much sleep; had no trouble falling asleep; and could rough out the worst of conditions. I took my health completely for granted.
How much energy I had! Looking at people older than me, and seeing their aches and pains and arthritis and diseases, it never occurred to me that each and every one of those elders was at one point in their lives as young and vibrant as I was. I could never imagine myself with those problems.
Yet, as the years turn into decades, slowly but inevitably time begins to catch up, and you no longer can be as vigorous, as vivacious, as energetic, as you once were. Knee joints begin to hurt, back pains become more common, sleep becomes an issue, you can no longer skip meals so easily ….and the list goes on, and continues to grow, year by year.
Indeed, it was none other than our Prophet who reminded us to take advantage of our youth before we become old.
6) You’ve all heard of the adage ‘time flies’. Life will teach you how true that really is.
I have such vivid memories of those years, and yet they seem so far away. At times, when I recall memories from those years, I am startled to realize that fifteen or twenty or twenty five years have passed since then. How could two decades have gone by so quickly? Where did that time all go?!
And I know that as I grow older, I will also look back at these very years that I am currently living in in the same way.
Do not procrastinate what needs to be done today until tomorrow. You want to fill up your time with matters that will benefit you religiously, and worldly. Accomplish much, aim high, get things done, and you will live a full and wonderful life. Waste time, and you will end up watching the years fly you by as you stand bankrupt of any lasting good. The choice is yours.
7) Life will get tougher, not easier.
We tend to exaggerate our problems at a younger age, thinking that no one has it worse than us. Looking back, I am now amused at what I considered to be ‘huge’ problems (the first time my first car broke down, I quite literally felt as if my life had come to a halt!). For those of us who live in stable family environments, away from war zones, with adequate financial stability (meaning: we will not starve to death no matter what happens), it is a very safe bet to say that the most painful problems of our lives are yet to come.
I say this not to make our young men and women depressed, but to make them put things into perspective. One of the most painful moments of most people’s lives comes when they see their children extremely sick or in some type of threat. At that moment, nothing that has ever happened to you as a twenty-year old could ever have been a serious problem. So, when you are tense about that exam or having missed a paper assignment or going through a tough patch with someone whom you love, take a deep breath, and realize that life is not all that bad!
8) The single most important decision of your entire life will probably be made in this decade: the choice of a spouse.
I cannot imagine a decision that will have more impact on the entire rest of your life than choosing the partner whom you intend to spend the rest of your life with! Your careers may easily change, and the field that you initially studied for typically becomes a launching pad into an entirely different trajectory. However, ‘changing’ spouses is not something that anyone willingly undergoes, and choosing a life-partner will have an immediate and a long-term effect on you. It will influence your character, shape your religion, bring you untold happiness and sadness and joys and pains, affect the genes of your progeny, and dictate the nature of the rest of your life (and even afterlife).
As a person who was going into Islamic studies, I knew that I needed to find a life partner who would be willing to sacrifice much for me. I am very fortunate to have been blessed with a wife who has always supported me in my efforts, and I am extremely grateful to Allah that I have ‘my Khadija’! But I can honestly say that many, many of my friends who wanted to become students of knowledge or otherwise benefit their communities, were forced to abandon their plans because of spousal issues. And the same goes for other choices that you will have to make: spouses must sacrifice for each other, and who sacrifices what for whom will decide the both of your fates.
So, be picky, and look at the most important criterion: character. Beauty truly is skin deep, and what really counts is good manners and religion. When you are all alone with your spouse, with absolutely no one to help or support you, nothing will bring about a better relationship than the both of you fearing Allah for the consequences of your actions.
9) Your obnoxious behavior will come back to haunt you, while your love and kindness will always benefit you.
Sadly, people (especially family) don’t forget. Yes, they might forgive, but they don’t forget. If you hurt someone, or do something stupid or rude, it will always be remembered, and occasionally brought up. One harsh incident might cost you an entire relationship,
As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” One incident in which you humiliated a friend, or were caustic to a family member, will always affect your future with that person. And an incident where you showed your mercy, or kindness, can win over someone as a true ally for as long as you live.
So be wise, don’t act rashly, and err on the side of mercy.
10) No one – and I mean no one – will ever love you, or care for you, or be as concerned for your welfare, as your parents. Cherish them in every way possible for as long as you have the opportunity to do so.
It is one of the saddest aspects of growing up that children, and especially teenagers, treat their parents in a rude manner. We are all familiar with the Quranic and prophetic commandments regarding good treatment of parents. Unfortunately, for many of us, those commandments do not seep into our hearts at a young age (and for a few unlucky ones, never!).
I have said many times in my talks, “You will never understand the love of your parents until you become a parent yourself, and it is only then that you will realize all that they did for you, they did out of love.” Even if you don’t have children of your own, however, try your best to give them the love and kindness that they deserve, and honor them with kindness.
It is true that all of us are at times extremely frustrated with parental expectations, or parental advice and rebukes, but our religion teaches us to control that anger and not express it verbally. ‘Zip it up!’ I advise my own teenager when I see he is about to get irritated with his mother (or me!). ‘Talk to us when you’ve calmed down. It’s okay to feel angry, it’s not okay to show it.’ (Alas, that advice doesn’t always work on him!!).
No one knows how long one’s parents will be around; take advantage of their presence, to earn your place in Paradise, and to have the best memories of serving them for as long as you live as well.
Now that I’ve passed this milestone, I ask Allah that He blesses me and my family to see many more positive milestones in my life and in theirs.
O Allah! Allow me to be thankful to you for all that you have bestowed upon me, and upon my parents! Bless me to continue to do good deeds that are pleasing to you! And make me from your righteous and beloved servants! Ameen.
[Note: for those of you forty and above, what advice would you want to give to our younger readers? And for those of you in your twenties: what advice on this list resonated most for you, and why? Leave a comment with your wisdom below!]
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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