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Mass Marketing Islam and “Edu-tainment”

Those with greater “like” counts for their FB pages, witty tweets, and personalized web sites are deemed ‘relevant’, while those who have chosen to eschew online media are not. Authority is conferred by influence lists, with people eagerly checking to see where their favorite personalities rank.

In light of Ustadha Zaynab Ansari’s recent critique of Celebrity Scholars and ‘blurred lines’, it is perhaps an opportune moment to perform a more extensive examination regarding the current state of Islam in America.  Though there are many aspects of her discussion that need exploring, for the purpose of this article I want to engage one particular aspect of Muslim American practice: Islam as entertainment.  By this, I am referring to the means by which we communicate programs, brand scholars and individuals, and attempt to spiritually engage members of the community.

A Marketplace for Spirituality

It is no secret that we live in a highly commercialized society.  Although this commercialization is nothing new, the introduction of the internet and the myriad media associated with it – social media, blogging, streaming videos, etc. – presents an entirely new set of circumstances.  Products are exchanged and marketed at startling rates such that even routine activities (paying bills, accessing ones email, reading the news) exposes one to dozens of advertisements.  In this context, generating demand for programs, activities, or even organizational viability requires a level of marketing that will be on par, if not superior, to what is being offered elsewhere.

And for the most part, this approach has proven effective, at least for its immediate intents.  Scholars who have taken to YouTube are popularized at greater lengths than those who have not.  Those with greater “like” counts for their FB pages, witty tweets, and personalized web sites are deemed ‘relevant’, while those who have chosen to eschew online media are not.  Authority is conferred by influence lists, with people eagerly checking to see where their favorite personalities rank.  But the crux of the problem is this: by marketing scholars, branding organizations, and producing the copious online material we now have, we have created a marketplace for spirituality.

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shutterstock_297663284As consumers, we can now select among a variety of options which message resonates for us on any particular topic, or at any particular moment.  Our interest in a particular event or program is not driven by educational interest (though it may factor in, of course) but title, flyer, viral marketing, the organization’s logo, and much more.  Our perception of what an ideal sermon, class, or program consists of comes with a heightened expectation of entertainment, of marketability, and of relevance.  Though the message is important, it stands as a corollary to quality theatrics.

When communities become normalized to religion-as-entertainment, they become incapable of receiving Islam any other way.  And people are coming quite close to that: Prayers are always too long, attendees complain.  Accents are intolerable.  In conferences, the most knowledgeable personalities often find themselves in poorly attended parallel sessions, and over time simply get uninvited.  Masajid are constantly subject to the demands of fun, with communities becoming more recreationally oriented by the day.  Whereas once upon a time people listened to lengthy CD sets and read books, two to five minute emotionally charged, funny, or pithy YouTube clips now go viral.

 

In addition to more qualified scholars/teachers/du’at, a generation of youth is rapidly joining the party.  My own observation has been that ‘traditional’ volunteer and teaching platforms for youth – things like Sunday school, or local halaqat – are forfeited in favor of more visible da’wah.  From a young age, youth are conditioned to set their sights on a bigger stage where they can command a larger audience.  So now we have under-qualified (and at times, entirely unqualified) youth who don public FB pages as speakers/scholars which they curate aggressively.  Some upload their own YouTube lectures, manage their own websites, and promote their own brand.  And the reality is that if one wants to feign expertise, it’s really not that difficult.

This, to me, is not a sustainable approach for conveying or receiving sacred knowledge.  Teaching and studying the religion were historically viewed as serious vocations, and when one approached a subject of study, the assumption was that they did so with some intent of personal growth and implementation.  Entertainment is designed to make you feel good, to amuse, or to distract.  Religious knowledge is designed to tame one’s nafs, to remove distractions, and connect one with Allah.

A proper program of spiritual growth works to attenuate one’s dependence on being entertained, such that a person would be able to find fulfillment elsewhere.  And the irony of it all is that this is what people need.  In an environment so deeply materialistic, people are desperate for a program of spirituality and education that brings them closer to Allah.

Simple Solutions

A Conscientious Approach to Marketing

It is, of course, easy to criticize and difficult to offer solutions.  So as not to be found entirely guilty of such an accusation, I will attempt to offer two simple solutions as starting points.  Firstly, I believe everyone would benefit from a conscientious approach to how we market and convey religion.  I am not at all hostile to employing new media for outreach so long as that outreach is tactful, purposeful, and situated within a larger program.  It should be justified, and its limitations understood.  We simply cannot afford to ignore, or refuse to acknowledge, the many limitations of entertainment in relation to religion.

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The Student-Teacher Relationship

Secondly, we need to engender a culture that appreciates the benefits that come from a student-teacher relationship.  Youth eager to participate in da’wah need tarbiya with a teacher that can shepherd their growth in a healthy way.  I personally have spoken to popular du’at that complain about how their presence in a remote city can garner hundreds of people, but local classes in a masjid produce no more than a handful of regular, committed students.  When local classes and imams are no longer valued, communities rely on visiting du’at, mass-marketing, and controversial topics to appeal to an otherwise disinterested constituency.  We have to commit to a goal of altruism that is above quantity, growth, and expansion.  Our masajid are not Walmart, and we cannot be so indebted to the marketplace that we lose our ability to rise above it when necessary.

A natural objection to what I’ve written, I assume, will be in regards to the ostensible benefits of attracting large audiences with charismatic preachers. This critique should not be read as a criticism of anyone in particular, but rather about an environment. My contention is that although preaching religious doctrine is imperative for a minority community that routinely finds itself on the receiving end of public vituperation, if we are not careful, we will likely give rise to an environment that is not in the best interest of our community. As I have mentioned above, unless we as a community take a more conscientious approach to how we convey religion, we will inevitably find ourselves grappling with the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and the many challenges presented by religion in an age of entertainment.

It is my hope that the above critique presents itself as the start of a conversation rather than the closure of one.  I’m certain there’s lots I’ve overlooked.  If one wishes to, there is ample opportunity to distort its messaging to fit one’s belief, but believe me when I say that I question no-one’s intentions, nor do I advocate a simple piety that is neglectful of the world around us.  I am merely calling for deliberation, and I pray that this article contributes to animating a more substantial discussion on religion as entertainment.

And Allah Knows Best.

Mobeen Vaid is an activist in his local community, regularly delivering khutbahs and volunteering with Muslim non-profits.  He is a student of traditional islamic sciences, and is a contributing writer for MuslimMatters

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Mobeen Vaid is an activist in his local community, regularly delivering khutbahs and volunteering with Muslim non-profits. He is a student of traditional islamic sciences, and is a contributing writer for MuslimMatters.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Siraaj

    July 29, 2015 at 9:11 PM

    Salaam alaykum Mobeen,

    Great piece, a lot of valid concerns raised. I have my own related to social media and Ilm infotainment, though my concerns are less about the spread of knowledge and more about the self-promotion side of things.

    My own feeling overall is that what we’re seeing is what occurs as Islamic Ilm is accessed by more “mainstream” Muslims, ie the people who believe but are not strictly practicing down to the minute details.

    I think initially, we had a binary of either you were a student of knowledge, or you weren’t. We later added an in between category of literate but not true student of knowledge on the path to scholarship necessarily (eg bulk of almaghrib, alkauthar, aalim students).

    With the pervasiveness of social media and engagement from various personalities / teachers, I think what we’re seeing is teachers are reaching out to the mainstream, the third category, who would otherwise not attend the masjid because the talent, organization, and vision is lacking. I tend to see it as a bridging mechanism for mainstream Muslims to local programs like bayyinah, almaghrib, or whatever is being locally produced with quality (like qalam). Those orgs in turn are a bridge for a smaller group to further their studies elsewhere as serious students of knowledge who dedicate their lives to learning and teaching.

    It’s not altogether very different from the Hamza Yusuf Sunday night lecture phenomenon that would happen in the 90s and o’naughts where he would deliver a powerful uplifting speech at the comprehension of the mainstream audiences level. It was mildly informative, uplifting, and also entertaining. I think a part of this is recognizing the audience you’re targeting and messaging accordingly.

    • Avatar

      Arif

      July 30, 2015 at 12:32 AM

      Siraaj, what you said reminded me of the 3 types of Muslim youth that Nihal Khan and Nouman Ali Khan refer to: http://muslimmatters.org/2010/12/22/working-with-muslim-youth-the-dos-and-do-nots. The speakers are now not going for those that are starting to practice, but to those that are socially Muslim.

      Sh. Hamza Yusuf says it beautifully: “Things have become topsy-turvy. In the past, it was understood that the common people needed to seek knowledge and be elevated – Shaw’s Doolittle had aristocratic pretentions to speak like Higgins, whereas today Higgins is wearing designer torn jeans and speaking in the debased vernacular of Doolittle, pretending to be hoi polloi. Today, the burden is on the scholars to downgrade their discourse so the common people can “get it.” Hence, rap replaces poetry, music replaces the maqams, stories replace study, and ideology replaces creed.”

      https://www.sandala.org/blog/-604

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 30, 2015 at 6:27 PM

      Walaykumsalam Siraaj,

      My own observation is that the employing of technology in the context of da’wah is far less situated than the process-orientation you’ve outlined (social media da’wah -> intensives -> more rigorous studies). Although it’s true that online da’wah may in fact serve as a mechanism for people to attend in-person studies, it often serves not as a complement to in-person learning, but in lieu of it. Moreover, I find that much of the dialogue that surrounds socializing religion vis-à-vis technology displays a tremendous technological naiveté – by this, I’m not referring to technical acumen (Alhamdulillah, we have a fair number of IT specialists in our community), but rather the way that technical modalities inform and shape content (think McLuhan here, ‘the medium is the message’).

      There is a much larger point here to be made that would take longer to elaborate (and I sense I’ll probably have to at some point lol), but suffice it to say that so long as we look at technology as the solution – that we need to make better, higher quality, shorter youtube/vimeo/periscope/etc. lectures – it will never have to justify itself and as such we will never appreciate its impact on our environment. Why are we using a particular technology? What do we hope to gain? What are its possible shortcomings? Do we foresee negative consequences? How does it fit into a larger program of servicing the spiritual needs of our constituency? The problem is that in the minds of most, there are no negative consequences. Technologies are seen as value-free media when they are far from that. Technology is not ontologically neutral. It comes with assumptions, biases, and constraints.

      To give you an idea of what I mean, allow me to parochialize the discussion slightly and focus on youtube talks to demonstrate where one can readily identify problems with using a particular medium. Offhand, here some random problems I can think of:
      – The most popular ones are emotionally-driven and are often < 10 minutes. Meaningful content is rarely communicated effectively through it.
      – There is no significant discriminator for a person of knowledge vs. random joe on Youtube. Youtube view counts are a byproduct of a variety of factors including topic, dynamism of speaker, etc.
      – There are no prerequisites to becoming a Youtube speaker. Or to becoming a FB/Twitter/etc. authority on religion. In fact, there are no prerequisites to becoming an authority on anything. Authority is conferred by popular acknowledgment and little else.
      – Youtube reputation is built on language, not on character (this is a point Fredrik deBoer makes often). The notion that people can project images of themselves on the internet as something they are not is a well known problem. Relationships with teachers should be built after sustained programs of study with someone whose manners you learn simultaneously with their knowledge.
      – Youtube is unidirectional. It offers no opportunity for clarification or inquiry.
      – It has the potential of turning da’wah work into theatrics (far more potently than a masjid halaqah). That someone may partake in this environment as a matter of show rather than genuine service in the path of God.
      – Successful Youtube talks are interpreted via view counts. When one is not getting the traction they desire, they will invariably adjust their messaging or content in ways that may well be questionable.
      – Youtube has the potential of commoditizing faith. When someone has a commodity they sell, if the market shows disinterest, the proprietor modifies the commodity in accordance with market demands. As individuals, we have to be willing to rise above the market when need be at the expense of popularity.
      – Youtube can create a culture of how lectures are to be delivered. Cadence, content, emotions, articulation, comedy, etc. are all expected.

      I’m sure there are many more as I literally just did this offhand. Of course, the above exercise is not a fair one because I didn’t consider any of the positives (of which there are many…perhaps more than the negatives I outlined). And my point is not to disparage Youtube or any other technology, or the people that use it. It is to state, as I have in the article, that so long as we are not conscientious about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what we hope to achieve, we will remain ignorant of the shortcomings/problems with the technologies we use and as a result fall into those very problems.

      This is what I mean when I speak about televangelism, or the prosperity gospel, or youth that are spiritually immature gaining fame and notoriety (many of whom experience spiritual crises largely as a result of said popularity). When we are aware of the shortcomings of technology, we become more conscientious about what we put, for example, on Youtube and what we actively acknowledge might not be appropriate for it. We begin to think about how we can structure our online da’wah so that it is dignified and not entirely about entertainment. We begin to ask how we can start distinguishing or adjudicating people who take to online media (at least as spokespeople for Islam), people who, despite good intentions, may contribute cumulatively to an environment that we can no longer control.

      As a final note, an important point you raised is with respect to reaching the disengaged. My own opinion (and I cant stress this enough – it’s my opinion, you can disagree and I’m sure others will too) is that we fixate too much at times on random contemporary issues in support of ‘relevance.’ Although topics like theodicy, eschatology, God's ontology, soteriology, evolution, transgenderism/homosexuality, and a litany of other contemporary issues are important, what would benefit people struggling with their iman enormously would be a teacher that they had the temerity and humility to sit with on a weekly basis for an hour going through the 40 hadith of imam nawawi, or a basic understanding of the fatiha, or the life of the Prophet (pbuh), etc.. A teacher that ideally would teach them from his/her adab along with ilm, someone who could answer their questions along the way, and with whom they could work to increase their iman doing all the difficult things a Muslim who wants to be better has to do (praying with khushu', fasting with taqwa, giving zakah with awareness, increasing athkar, etc.).

      This doesnt mean those issues dont have a place, just that the latter (ie 40 hadith type class) is what so many people really need, but cant find the muster to do b/c its too boring, outdated, 'irrelevant', etc. This is, unfortunately, one of the many unpleasant outcomes of normalizing edutainment. Allah Knows Best.

      • Avatar

        Siraaj Muhammad

        July 30, 2015 at 7:03 PM

        Salaam alaykum Mobeen,

        Completely agree that often there isn’t a conscious plan to move people from friday prayer Muslim to mujtahid in 3 easy steps =) What I am saying is that our ability for outreach has grown considerably, and we’re doing more with less available people resources. While the number of people online is also growing, the cost of entry to engage large numbers of them is practically free. This is an important point when you realize just two decades prior how much of a big deal it was to fundraise and launch a Muslim channel, or distribute cassettes and CDs of various du’aat.

        I agree with you on the disadvantages you’ve named and agree there are even more. However, I don’t find it either scalable right now to have that weekly review with the qualified teacher because the qualified teacher resource is lacking. The umbrella organization that will give each masjid its marching orders for how to run itself and prioritize islamic learning also does not exist.

        Given these practical realities, I think we can afford to absorb the unqualified da’ees and the mass market issues in favor the good that comes out of it – the increased outreach, the idea that people may find unqualified individuals, but at least they’re looking at that instead of something worse (some form of entertainment), and even if it isn’t ideal, it’s certainly better than having nothing whatsoever in the local community, or worse, dealing with whatever is driving unmosqued issues.

        From my own family, I can say the more popular speakers, like Nouman, have been more beneficial online than anything they could find locally.

      • Mobeen Vaid

        Mobeen Vaid

        July 30, 2015 at 8:05 PM

        Walaykumsalam bro,
        I know it was a joke :), but I think the ‘mujtahid’ analog is quite telling in some respects. To me, sitting down with a real human being to hear a lesson doesn’t seem to be a task reserved for scholasticians alone.

        As for the topic of reach, any conversation that confines itself to broadening reach will overlook the more essential questions of how a particular modality of communication alters our conception of religion, mosque, or of God. Consider politics and television. One can, at least I think, produce a pretty compelling argument that television has caused irreparable harm in the sphere of politics. I can go into more detail here, but I would hope the meaninglessness of political dialogue by politicians in our era to be obvious.

        Re: scalability. As a general matter of dialogue, it can be taxing to have to address assumptions that were not implied (and I do believe you drew those implications in good faith), but to address the concern I actually believe that if there was value placed on the role of local murabbi, more people would consign themselves to it willingly. Actually, I think there are far more than people are willing to acknowledge, and as I mentioned in the article, most local teachers I know find their classes poorly attended. I think one area in which we’re beginning to see a resurgence in mentorship is college campuses and chaplaincy, which I think is great.

        As for people looking at unqualified material being better than some form of entertainment, I think part of the criticism I’m making is that for many consumers, this is all just entertainment. There is no serious qualitative difference in some instances between one and the other. As for the unmosqued issue, this is a longer discussion, but I would contend that there are a number of factors that contribute to it, and one factor may be this very problem – mosques forced to modify their programming to commensurate to an environment obsessed with amusement and image will do so at the expense of its spiritual character. I linked to this in reply to another comment below, but I think its appropriate here as well:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html

        I love Shaykh Nouman (may Allah preserve him). I benefit from his talks and attend his classes. There is no objection here.

        Jazak Allah khayr for the thoughtful reply

      • Avatar

        Maryam

        July 31, 2015 at 7:37 AM

        As-salaamu alaikum,

        Thank you for writing on this interesting and timely topic. In regards to your comments on how you prefer people would obtain their knowledge for local sheikhs and people of knowledge, I think what is important for us as religious and practicing Muslims to remember is that a lot of the people who watch these videos are not necessarily the same kind of people who would be willing to dedicate even a single hour of time a week to sitting with a local sheikh or knowledgeable aalim. They may not even attend the masjid. There are many kinds of Muslims, and sadly here in the US (and around the world, I’m sure), there are people who are Muslim in name only and do not pray or follow any of the teachings of the Deen.

        A lot of times (and I’m speaking from my own experience here), interest in Islam and dedication to spiritual betterment and desire to learn must be built upon, oftentimes from a level of no interest or devotion at all.
        At the time when I became interested in Islam less than a year ago (though it seems like a lifetime ago), I did not have the discipline or interest to spend even a single hour listening to an Islamic lecture on my daily commute. Islam had just entered my periphery as a valid subject of interest. So I started with those short but powerful reminders by dynamic speakers. And alhamdulillah, the speakers I listened to were pretty orthodox in their messages and did not sugar coat things or distort them. These short messages (5-10 min long each) aroused my interest and I felt myself yearning to learn more and more and more and watching more and more lectures, to the point where alhamdulillah I have taken the next step and enrolled in classes and programs to gain more knowledge. Allah knows best where this path to knowledge will lead me, but I have been inspired to call others to the faith (although exactly how I should do that to make the best use of my faculties I admit I don’t know yet…). So without those short, emotional videos, which I admit pander a bit to our modern short attention spans and constant desire to be entertained (excellent book on this phenomenon BTW is called “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”)…well, let’s just say Allah knows best where I’d be now instead. But alhamdulillah I did see and hear those reminders and I felt my heart changing as I watched more. I’ve just started Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s series on the Seerah, and subhanallah it is incredibly powerful and moving. But I did not arrive overnight at the point where I am embarking on a 100+ hour lecture series on the life and times of the Prophet SAW.

        We have to remember that people come to the Deen in all kinds of ways. I agree completely that there could be uneducated, self-proclaimed scholars running rampant and unchecked on Youtube and such, but I have never run across one (or at least I didn’t know about it…). I cannot verify anyone’s Islamic education credentials myself, but I suppose this is the nature of some of these media. I mainly follow the most popular “big-name” scholars (NAK, YQ, Mufti Menk, Omar Suleiman, Hamza Yusuf, etc.), and to me they seem very legitimate because they quote from the Qur’an and hadith a lot.

        Let me just close with an interesting use of social media I saw from a scholar. Saad Tasleem (Sheikh Saad Tasleem?) had a daily Tarawih reflection he posted on Snapchat everyday during Ramadan. At first I balked a bit at the use of such a common/disposable medium to convey important reflections on the Qur’an. After a few moments of shock, I realized this was actually very smart of him, using a form of social media that kids use to reach out to them and speak to them. These days, like you mentioned in your post, scholars have to reach out to the common people, because the common people are not reaching out to the scholars.

        I realize this has gotten long, but I just wanted to share my personal experience of how this modern phenomenon of Islamic elcturers has brought me back to Islam

      • Avatar

        Hakeem

        August 4, 2015 at 3:07 PM

        I really appreciate this ongoing discourse. While both of you are properly enunciating the 2 sides of the same coin, i want to favor the concern of mobeen for now whc is why i believe he has written this. I wouldn’t necessarily refer to it as the beauty of the innovation of social media, to have youths who necessarily cannot read the complete alphabet of the Arabic language engage in conversations that would have taken a long time of learning and meditation based on so many knowledge acquired overtime. I was self-schooled myself (i mean i followed a true calling that i had discovered), but my ignorance was further obliterated because i had the priviledge of sitting with scholars. Old men of knowledge who have dedicated their whole life to the study of faith and da’wah. Like mobeen said; men of deep knowledge: ‘A teacher that ideally would teach them from his/her adab along with ilm, someone who could answer their questions along the way, and with whom they could work to increase their iman doing all the difficult things a Muslim who wants to be better has to do (praying with khushu’, fasting with taqwa, giving zakah with awareness, increasing athkar, etc.).’
        As much as the benefit of social media (youtube, particular in case) cannot be overemphasized, on an individual basis, youth still needs to find and commune with teachers who would satisfy these basic cravings of tauhid and tohatulilahi. And to really identify those whose focus is rather on some eccentricities and not necessarily the basic identification of one’s humanity and duty to Allah. Allahu a’lam.

  2. Avatar

    M.Mahmud

    July 29, 2015 at 11:51 PM

    I think Islamic conferences and stuff are showing a few similarities to Evangelicals. Not that we are that extreme yet but the parallels are undeniable.

  3. Avatar

    Amatullah

    July 30, 2015 at 2:10 AM

    Assalamu Alaikum bro Mobeen,
    I agree with most part of what you said. Though there are up-sides to the widespread youtube videos and self-promotion. It largely depends on a promotor’s intention. Your article made me feel how golden the earlier days were but also, if it wasn’t for a li’l part of promotion, people like me sitting across the globe in a non-muslim country wouldn’t have access to any Islamic material leave alone Islamic scholar.

    I liked your perspective bro, much like mine. Keep writing.

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 30, 2015 at 6:38 PM

      Walaykumsalam!

      Absolutely, and its important to note that I’m not necessarily advocating a moratorium on popular content, social media proselytizing, video posting, or the many other things people do to convey the message of Islam. My concern is not with the benefits, but what comes if we don’t at least try and acknowledge the problems. Just look at modern Protestant Christianity – the prosperity gospel, for example, has done significant harm to the image of Christian belief. This is an interesting op-ed on the topic specific to Christianity that was published in the Washington Post:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html

      Hope things are well and thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Avatar

    Abu Seerah

    July 30, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    Asalamu Alaikum Mobeen,

    JazakAllah khair for your article. I do have some contentions that I will mention, would love to hear your thoughts.

    1) Is there really a big problem?
    I do agree generally that there are problems with the mass-marketing of the da’wah, however in lieu of the benefits, I do believe this is a case where the benefits outweigh the harms. You referred to the 90s where people focused on buying books and listening to long CD sets. It was implied that this doesn’t occur as much anymore – I would have to disagree here. I don’t think there is a decrease in terms of raw quantity of people who are engaged at a level of knowledge/spirituality that is free from the marketplace/entertainment issue. Rather, what we see is an overwhelming increase in the area of the short clips – and so although the proportion of the amount of people engaged who go for the shorter more entertaining material is much higher than before. But that is also because there were very few people engaged before.

    I like how Siraaj put it, there is almost a funnel that has been set-up, that I do see working. People get inspired by series like Omar Suleiman’s inspiration series, or an NAK story night, or whatever it is -> It leads them to start being more engaged, and their heart is sincerely orienting towards allah. I really have an issue with this statement you made here: “When communities become normalized to religion-as-entertainment, they become incapable of receiving Islam any other way.” I think it is quite extreme to say that people become incapable of receiving Islam in any other way. There are countless of transformation stories that started with a spirituality that was anchored in merciful servant spiritual fixes.

    I think the statement needs to be tweaked. Our communities are engrossed in a society of heedlessness, godlessness and entertainment. Generally the only way a person is able to receive ANYTHING (Islam or anything else beneficial) is through entertainment. This is why you have the popularity of Jon stewart, colbert and co., This is why you have Youtube’s crash course series, this is why you have the edutainment industry in general.

    If we don’t want mass appeal, then yes we can go back to the way things were. But personally, I think mass appeal has been great and has increased the amount of people coming to masajid, conferences, staying firm with their deen, and from this bulk, there are always the ones that Allah chooses to guide further and they pursue more serious islamic studies.

    I hope that this post was clear, the bottom line is that I think it is doing more good than harm.

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 31, 2015 at 9:34 AM

      Walaykumsalam wa rahmatullah Abu Seerah:

      I don’t think anyone would argue that there’s been a reduction in available content. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m not speaking about volume, but of culture. One culture expected of its consumer an ability to wade through hours of lecture time (which, I recall, was generally viewed as a nice ‘primer’ but not a substantial form of learning), whereas the other operates under a different set of assumptions for its consumer.

      I love Imam Omar and Shaykh Nouman, so no disagreement.

      I cant figure out what issue you have, or what is so extreme about the quoted statement. I guess the point I’m making would be like saying people obsessed with fast food and trans fats will become acculturated to junk food rather than transition to healthier diets. Or like saying that kids who constantly play video games and watch TV are going to be incapable of appreciating literature or art. Is this universally true? Of course not. The point is not to make an absolute universal declaration, but to state what I think is obvious – that just because fast food is a quick, accessible, and inexpensive means of getting a meal doesn’t make it desirable or nutritious. And that if we realize that people are going to be forced into buying fast food due to the pace of modern society, we should try to create an environment that makes healthier choices more appealing, like eating a salad on the go, or fruit cups, etc. as opposed to manufacturing things like cronuts that might taste good and sell like crazy, but cater to a culture that is detrimental to ones health.

      I’m not sure what ‘merciful servant spiritual fixes’ are, but I have no doubt that transformation stories exist, Alhamdulillah.

      As for the tweaked statement, I believe it posits a type of false binary: that we either supplant any attempt to engage people in meaningful ways with mass appeal or revert to some romanticized past and face the consequences of a disengaged citizenry.

      My point was not to eschew online marketing or mass appeal as a whole. In fact, I said “I am not at all hostile to employing new media for outreach so long as that outreach is tactful, purposeful, and situated within a larger program. It should be justified, and its limitations understood. We simply cannot afford to ignore, or refuse to acknowledge, the many limitations of entertainment in relation to religion.” It is this concern that I find important – the need to be cautious about the parlous effects of fixating on ‘reach’ or numbers as a metric of ‘success’ (which we need to qualify) and mass appeal faith.

      Something I think of in this context is the hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) which warns us against following the kitabi religions in their faults. Often, we interpret that hadith as an imperative to preserve our canonical traditions against corruption. But I think more pointedly, we would be well served to look at the recent legacy of ‘mass appeal’ (to borrow your term) Christianity and Judaism. As a community being affected by modernity at a later stage, we have the privilege of learning from the mistakes of others, but if we fail to do so, then we will invariably find ourselves victim to the same mistakes.

      On this note, here are few articles written early in 2014 after a Pew Study came out reporting on the decline of Conservative Judaism. It was not the first study that reported on the precipitous decline of Conservatism as a denomination, and was consistent with a broader trend that had been occurring for over a decade.

      http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/566/requiem-for-a-movement/?utm_source=Jewish+Review+of+Books&utm_campaign=f93df01a8f-Gordis_RejoinderNonSubs&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_538f7810ff-f93df01a8f-68856737

      http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/673/cognitive-dissonance/

      A few brief quotes from them:

      “That was the era in which Conservative rabbis, reasonably conversant in Jewish classical texts and able to teach them to their flocks, could mitigate the increasingly pervasive tendency of liberal Judaism to recast Jewishness as an inoffensive ethnic version of American Protestantism-lite.

      “But this reframed Judaism, saying little and welcoming all, has proven irresistible to an American Jewish generation to which difference is offensive and substance is unnecessary.”

      “But the real issue is that Judaism recast as a variant of American upper-crust social sensibilities simply says nothing sufficiently significant to merit survival. Indeed, Roth then predicts quite convincingly, “For my grandchildren, the fact that some of their ancestors were Jewish will have no more significance than the fact that others were Welsh.”

      “Given the enormity of the loss, it behooves us to ask, “What went wrong?” There were many factors, of course. America’s openness proved a Homeric siren-like allure too powerful for many to resist. And then, with no courage of whatever convictions they might have had and animated primarily by fear, leaders of all varieties of liberal Judaism decided to lower the barriers in order to further constituency retention. They expected less of their congregations, reduced educational demands, and offered sanitized worship reconfigured to meet the declining knowledge levels of their flocks. In many cases, they welcomed non-Jews into the Jewish community in a way that virtually eradicated any disincentive for Jews to marry people with whom they could pass on meaningful Jewish identity.

      But those, of course, were precisely the wrong moves. When people select colleges for their children, professional settings in which to work, or books to read, they seek excellence. Lowered expectations mean less commitment and engagement; less education means greater ignorance—why should that attract anyone to Jewish life? It didn’t, as it turns out.”

      ————-
      2nd article:
      “I would like to sharpen one point from my original essay: Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.”

      “Conservative Judaism sanctioned driving on Shabbat. It eradicated that productive cognitive dissonance for its members and, in so doing, created a Judaism that was non-aspirational. And the Pew results show what happens when Judaism doesn’t push us.”

      “What all this suggests, though many Orthodox rabbis will publicly deny it, is that a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox; “revelation” and “commandment” are key words in the lexicon of their communities, but not so deep down, they’re motivated as much by sociology as theology.”

      May Allah guide all of us to what pleases Him. Ameen. Allah Knows Best.

      Jazak Allah Khayr Abu Seerah for the thoughts and my apologies for the belated reply.

  5. Avatar

    M.S.

    July 30, 2015 at 11:50 AM

    Jazakal Allahu khayr, Mobeen. That was a good reminder for those who will listen.

    If I may add:
    (1) AlhamdulilAllah. I think we are witnessing a time in history, were Islam is being accepted by so many diverse peoples from so many different backgrounds. I am not a statistician, but I don’t believe I would err if I said, globalization and the internet/social media, has brought a good number of new Muslims into accepting Islam. Even though the social media playing field is congested, and negativity and vitriol is still being readily spoon-fed to the masses by the merchants of evil, hate & bigotry, and there is so much other noise to filter through, the average Jamal still cannot escape the claws of the truth, when he hears the message of Islam. Anyone, believer, partial-believer, or non-believer can pull up a translation copy of the Quran, or read the hadith in their own language about the life and times of Prophet Muhammad salal Allahu aleyhi wa salim, or listen to the stories of the Messengers of Allah, and they can connect spiritually with that message. (Granted someone can also seek the negative stuff if that is what their intention is. It is a free open market after all). However way we put it, access to knowledge about Allah azah wa jal is everywhere and is going to be everywhere in the future insha Allah, whether one reads about it, or watches a video clip. And with Allah creating mankind with the fitrah, everyone single human is going to be attracted to the genuine descriptions of the Almighty and His Power as Creator and Sustainer, no matter how much weak minded people try to distort those descriptions, or other people with agendas trying to muddy the information. (I always recall the story of Musaylimah the Liar. Can you believe the audacity of this man in claiming prophet hood at the time of the Prophet? During a time when the revelation of the Quran was still coming down, with the Messenger of Allah salal Allahu aleyhi wa salim still alive amongst the people, this man Musaylimah the Liar wanted the lime-light for himself. Epic Fail!) Anyways, I digressed. AlhamdulilAllah the quantity aspect is here today, now I think, we have to work on or start asking/demanding the quality. May Allah guide us all to the right path.

    (2) And last but not least, a few solutions/standards to set-up for yourself, for example:

    a. Avoid seeking the feel-good stuff only – most of the time, it lacks substance. For example, whenever a friend tries to get me to listen to a “new” lecture or see a “new” video clip or asks me to jump on the band wagon on this “new” thingy, I like to inquire, “How has this “new” thing changed your life?” If they tell me it made them feel good, I know it is just another feel good-phenomenon. (The Houston pastor Olsteen has that market cornered in this business; you are going to feel darn good – Texas-style – after you leave one of his lectures.) Anyway you cut it, “feel goods” alone won’t bring spiritual connection to Allah azah wa jal. “Feel goods” alone also won’t bring calm, tranquility and solutions to our lives, or solve some of the problems we have as a practicing community. True change will come in doing righteous actions – praying salaat on time, constant dhikr, being generous in charity, constant duaa, seeking benefitial knowledge, giving dawah and good advice to others, helping the ones in worst shape than yourself etc. etc.

    b. Keep a mental priority list. Personally, I typically like to finish my dhikr right after my prayers without interruption. And I remembered a shaykh once telling us a story about his own teacher’s habits. His teacher didn’t like talking or taking questions at the masjid right after congregation prayers, he would make people wait a little until his finished his dhikr. It may come off a little stand-offish or it may look a little rude to make people wait. But, it is worth it. So I suggest to you, to keep a mental priority-list every time. Do what is more beneficial to your own salvation first, and do what is going to strengthen your own spiritual connection to Allah azah wa jal. Say for example, you are confronted with the daunting choice of choosing between watching a really cool youtube clip of a president Obama schooling Donald Trump on his birth certificate at a white house dinner, and whether to finish your Sunnah prayers before you go watch that distracting (WWE worth whooping) video clip – obviously, you must go watch the clip first, right? WRONG! Do your Sunnah prayers first, that should be a priority.

    c. Teach others to ask for quality, but don’t hurt their feelings in the process. Educate them insha Allah. For example, I have a friend who forwards me every single whatsapp clip that he gets on his phone. So I started to gently nudge him and tell him, “Bro, you know I really like lectures based on the Quran and the hadith. Those are very academic. This shaykh whose video you just sent hardly quotes anything from the Quran or Hadith, but he has a lot of stories. Some stories are fun & cool to listen to, but I am not sure I am benefitting, nor do I feel this increasing my love for the Quran and the Hadith.” AlhamdulilAllah, while being kind, I think my friend has started to get my point, and he also has started to become more selective in what he watches and who he follows.

    May Allah guide all of us to the right path, forgive our short-comings, and grant us paradise.

    • Avatar

      M.Mahmud

      July 30, 2015 at 5:40 PM

      I like this comment ameen to your dua

    • Avatar

      Maryam

      July 31, 2015 at 8:04 AM

      Ameen! If I could, I would also add a fourth item to your list: Checking our intentions and our follow-through. We need to make sure we are implementing what we learn in our daily lives. It does us no good to stay up late listening to a lecture on the importance of Qiyaam if it makes us so tired we fal asleep before doing tahajjud! We don’t want to become like the Qur’anic donkeys loaded down with books and scrolls of religious scripture and knowledge that don’t benefit us. It is very easy (and I am speaking from personal experience here) to get into the habit of listening to a video a day but after a while, without proper intention and action on the part of the listener, they tend to bleed together. We must make sure we

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 31, 2015 at 1:38 PM

      Walaykumsalam M. S.,
      A few thoughts:

      – With respect to the internet/social media bringing a good number of new Muslims to Islam, I don’t disagree. But as you pointed out, such a perspective would indeed be guilty of looking at the world with one eye closed. Just as people have come to Islam, people have gone away from it in scores and theologically find themselves vexed by the most rudimentary, basic elements of our faith.

      – I think you really hit the nail on the head with the ‘free market’ remark: consider ‘free market’ economics. In practice, free market economics is far less egalitarian than its idealistic proponents purport it to be. It favors the wealthy, is victim to monopolizing by the capitalistic impulses of the well-to-do, and because it lacks regulation, resulted in an almost permanent lower class. In many respects, a ‘free market’ economy that is completely unregulated is anything but ‘free’. Similarly, when we begin to view the world of mass media and commercialization as a ‘free market’ we have to begin to ask ourselves what biases it contains, how it can be victim to exploitation or the impulses of the powerful against the powerless. It is in acknowledging this reality that we can at least engage with the free market eyes wide open as opposed to the naïve laissez faire purists who genuinely believes it affords everyone equal access and attributes poverty to the character flaws of the impoverished.

      – I really love the standards, and this is really the type of thinking I was hoping to get people to start thinking about. I chuckled at the Olsteen remark because I cant tell you how often I hear Muslims say ‘if only we had a Muslim Joel Olsteen’ lol (may Allah guide him and us. Ameen). But yes, standards are essential, and I couldn’t agree more.

      Jazak Allah khayr for the comment

  6. Pingback: Tafseer Al-Baqarah Ayaat 67 – 68 | Verse By Verse Qur'an Study Circle

  7. Avatar

    Zahra K

    July 30, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    As a side note, can we please refrain from using unnecessary Arabic phrases like du’at or halaqat? [what do they mean anyway?]

    Apart from Quranic terms that aren’t translatable, lets stick to the language of the article or in the case of mosque events, lets stick to the language a lecture etc is delivered in in order to be inclusive of non-Arabic speakers.

    • Avatar

      desi lover

      July 30, 2015 at 4:33 PM

      dua’t is plural of da’i, which means people who invite (to Islam, in this case). Halaqat is the plural of Halaqa, which means circle (of knowledge, in this case).

    • Avatar

      M.Mahmud

      July 30, 2015 at 5:42 PM

      It can be annoying to those who aren’t used to mixing Arabic words with English when talking about Islam.

      I find it annoying at times. But be patient and keep your eye on the ultimate goal.

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 30, 2015 at 6:49 PM

      Salam Zahra,

      halaqah and du’at are part of the taxonomy of Islam, and the article was intended to target a specific audience which I would assume would have familiarity with the term. Desi lover translated the terms well in reply. Whether a phrase is necessary or unnecessary to use is dependent on the context, hence the proverb ‘li kulli maqāmin maqāl’, which roughly translates to ‘for every place/time there is an appropriate saying.’ To me, the terms seemed appropriate for the target audience I was hoping to receive the article, but perhaps I was wrong. Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Avatar

    Jawaad Khan

    July 31, 2015 at 1:21 AM

    I understand the concern and I’ve personally felt that I when I was a teenager and just getting into lectures and these sorts of things, I realized I was taking them as somewhat of entertainment. I did seek to gain knowledge, but the realization I came to was that I had to stop and realize the times I was actually seeking knowledge (when I would go to my local imam’s classes, when I was actually paying proper attention in AlMaghrib classes, or when I seriously started to take actual courses on Bayyinah TV, doing all the exercises and all). I think it’s that realization that makes the difference between this being a problem and this being just a cool thing that’s happened that opens the door to many less-practicing Muslims to find their way into getting closer to their deen.

    Overall, though, what this article really means in my thought process is that there’s now a lack of actual Muslim entertainment. When I was growing up, there were nasheeds and a few videos available, but there was also a lot of camps and events that focused on having the Muslim youth creatively express themselves (through poetry, through writing, through performance of skits and things of that sort), and we’ve come to a place where I feel this “branding” of ‘ilm has taken over all of our events to the point where all we get are lectures, whether they’re scholarly in nature or entertaining, but that middle ground of content is missing — the content that doesn’t outright preach, but also isn’t just nonsense or forgettable, but rather something that can remind of Allah while still being actually entertaining.

    As an aspiring filmmaker, I think this is the gap I personally seek to fill, to have films and episodic series that tell stories that can entertain Muslims without offending our souls, but don’t have to extend to the level of preaching and teaching. I think if we had more content in that arena, we could actually reach even more Muslims than we do now with these entertaining lectures, and then of course the point of it all is to point back to the Creator, to sacred knowledge, to living with upright character and prophetic values. And Allah knows best.

  9. Avatar

    Sameer

    August 3, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    Salaam Mobeen

    Brilliant piece, and something that I have also been raising awareness about across the pond!

    I wrote this piece for Islamicate, and I make a brief mention of your piece:

    http://islamicate.co.uk/dawah-business/

    Wasalaam and keep up the good work

    Sameer

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      August 3, 2015 at 11:48 PM

      Walaykumsalam Sameer,

      Always happy to receive feedback from the other side of the pond :)

      A few thoughts:
      – Although monetizing faith is an important topic, I don’t want to conflate it with what I focused on which pertains to entertainment and faith, or rather, faith as entertainment. There is some overlap, but I think its important (at least for me) to treat them separately.

      – The language, at least for me, was somewhat heavy-handed. Referring to organizational efforts as a façade, their work not really being for the sake of Allah but instead for increasing financial gain, etc. really borders on questioning intentions. I don’t know Yawar Baig, or what sample population he is pulling from, but to me the context of the conversations he was part of are very difficult to ascertain from the anecdote provided. A fairly normal metric for evaluating a conferences success is total attendance, and from that attendance evaluating profits to me doesn’t seem altogether surprising. I say this as someone who has organized and helped with a number of conferences, which is again why I’m stressing context. It may in fact be that the particular post-conference briefing was focused inordinately on the revenue numbers, but at least with what’s been stated I don’t think one could (or perhaps should) present that as derogating from the organizations responsibilities to God.

      – I certainly empathize with the topic of Corporatizing Islam, but I find your example of NAK precarious. I can understand why you personally may have found an opportunity to personally sit with NAK among a handful of others more meaningful for your spiritual development, but the anecdote to me could have been fleshed out more. My guess is that many others would love the opportunity to personally sit with NAK as well, but the challenge for me is not that NAK or Bayyinah, for example, are focused on addressing larger audiences, but that people looking for that personal contact will overlook any number of local imams and teachers that can provide that personal connection and spiritual growth.

      Finally, I’d love to see more discussion specific to solutioning. You began down this route at the end of the article, but there were, to me at least, many questions unanswered. What are alternative means of financial sustainability for these organizations? How can they be more conscientious about their approach? Do you feel they should eschew their programming all together? etc.
      Jazak Allah khayr for linking to your article – honestly just trying to provide some constructive feedback and as you likely know from this post your sentiments in many respects mirror my own. Allah Knows Best.

  10. Avatar

    Abu humza

    August 3, 2015 at 11:51 PM

    The driving force behind this comes down to financial benefits. The day we as a community started paying exorbitant speaking fees and “honorariums” to these youtube star speakers is the day we gave rise to excessive branding and marketing in the name of dean. As a start, we need senior scholars to rule on whether taking these exhobiant amounts is permissible. This is something the Christians have grappled with for years and it has lead to absolute corruption within their scholarly ranks. I fear a similar fate for us.

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      August 4, 2015 at 2:35 AM

      Salam Abu Hamza,
      No offense, but this is a bit of a cop out. There’s nothing easier than externalizing the problem to some ‘other’ group or institution, and it’s something we have to caution against. The allure of entertainment was not created by honorarium-accepting scholars, and removing honorariums wont appreciably reduce an environment that has come to expect religion in the form of entertainment. I suspect all one would accomplish by removing honorariums would be replacing paid, more qualified scholarship with unpaid, less qualified scholarship, both operating under the same set of demands.

      Many of those scholars receiving honorariums don’t want to travel. Some have traveled for the better part of the past few years, leaving their families time and again to teach a class or deliver a lecture. I personally have spoken to many who would rather stay local, and I believe a number of scholars who were more active in the decade following 9/11 have already scaled back their traveling considerably over the past few years.

      The problem is that when they do remain local, there’s very little for them to do. When a local teacher finds his or her classes attended by a handful of inconsistent students, how will they stay motivated? Why would they stay local when their own communities don’t view their presence as essential or valuable?

      Frankly, we all as individuals have a tremendous problem with what we’ve been socialized to as part of this society. The fact is that many 20-something and 30-something Muslims are the driving force behind this environment. Their conception of relevance is little more than ‘sexy’, controversial topics, pithy quotes and pop culture references. When I see masajid posting surveys for jumuahs that fixate on whether or not ‘I found the khutbah interesting’, I doubt that standard was put in place by an imam. A comprehensive solution will take deliberation by national imams, organizations, as well as activists and lay Muslims, and we would be remiss if we fixated on an ancillary topic, one that may or may not be germane to resolving the problem at hand.

      As a final note, I don’t know how often you travel, but I travel all the time. I’ve been traveling on a fairly regular basis for the past few years for work, and I don’t like it. I’m writing this response right now from a hotel room in Las Vegas, and I would much rather be in the comfort of my house with my family. By Allah, it is not easy, and I have sympathy for any imam that has, as a core part of his responsibilities, to travel on a regular basis. Being remunerated for such difficulties, at least to me, should not immediately render them culpable. Allah Knows Best.

  11. Avatar

    Abu Milk Sheikh

    August 4, 2015 at 2:15 AM

    Bismillah.

    I hope this comment is beneficial. It took me over two hours to write.

    This is a really interesting topic and there’s so much to unpack here.

    I want to share a story that may, directly or indirectly, address some of the concerns raised in the article and comments. If nothing else, it’ll add another dimension to the discussion.

    Has anyone here gone through the http://www.Shariahprogram.ca sales funnel? It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve enrolled in the program.

    **DISCLAIMER: I’m currently enrolled in the program but my post today is completely unsolicited. I gain absolutely nothing from writing this. You’ll see why I’m saying this as you read on.**

    Ok so you opt-in, get the free-report, read it (hmm, this seems interesting) and watch Mufti Yusuf Mullan’s first video. Then you get four more videos in your email. All the while, he’s transitioning to sales content. Then you get a soft sell. Then you get a hard sell. Then you get a really hard sell. Then you either buy or don’t.

    All the while, you’re thinking to yourself “What the heck is all this? What is this guy doing? A ‘Mufti’ using ‘sleazy’ sales and marketing tactics to sell ‘Islamic Knowledge’?

    And when you see the price tag you’re thinking to yourself “Oh no he didn’t! He did not just quote me $$$ to teach me Arabic.”

    Your reflex is to dismiss it as “sleazy marketing.” Many, I suspect the majority, are turned off by it and don’t end up buying as a result. As Muslims we have this deeply ingrained invisible script that Islamic knowledge ought to be offered/taught 100% free all the time. This is besides the fact that all humans hate what they perceive as “sleazy marketing.”

    We dismiss it because we don’t understand it.

    However, if we stopped to think for a moment “hmm, maybe I’m missing something here. Maybe he knows what he’s doing. Why does he do it like this?”

    This is what Ramit Sethi calls “going from disparagement to curiosity.”

    Once we do get curious and start thinking about it, we realize that it’s not “sleazy” at all. In fact, it’s highly ethical a practical application of Ihsaan.

    So, why does Mufti Yusuf teach Arabic in this way (by selling his program the way he does)?

    He actually mentions why in one his free videos.

    He believes in his method, the classical method. This is how he and thousands of others were taught to mastery. This is how he’s been teaching for over a decade. His method’s been tested and proven with thousands, if not tens of thousands of data points.
    He also has a dream of hundreds of thousands of Muslims mastering Arabic through his method and teaching others to mastery through it. This is his niyyah.

    If this is his niyyah, then it’s obligatory on him to use whatever tools are at his disposal and do the absolute best that he can to achieve it. This is ihsaan.

    That means mastering the inner Psychology of the Muslims he’s addressing, using masterful copy and effective persuasion. That means breaking down their internal barriers and negative self-talk. That means, once he’s identified his ideal customer, brought them into the funnel, made them understand the value of the program and generated interest, he sells them and sells them hard. It’s his obligation to do so.

    Similar concepts apply to our reflex to balk at the price of the program.

    As a community we’re oblivious to the fact that preachers, students of knowledge and scholars need to make a living. If they’re out making a living, they have much less time to teach and can benefit far less people as a result. Back in the day, this was taken care of by state-level infrastructure – awqaaf, bayt al-maal, zakat, sadaqa etc. None of that exists anymore. There’s clearly a “dunya” aspect to da’wah. Insert “this life is full of dunya” meme here.

    I’m going to use another concept taught by Ramit Sethi called “the Money Mindset.” There are three aspects to it.

    1) People pay him for the value he creates in their lives –

    What does someone get when they enroll in Shariahprogram?

    They get a rigorously tested, proven course that will take someone from zero to mastery of Arabic over two years. They don’t have to fiddle about for ten years starting and restarting course after course, book after book, never gaining any traction or momentum, losing motivation and quitting.

    They get to study at their own pace, from the comfort of their own home. They don’t have to spend time on travel or rearrange their schedule. They don’t have to quit their jobs, pack up all their stuff and live their pipe-dream of moving to Egypt of Morocco to learn Arabic.

    They get an amazing learning platform, high quality content and tons of value added resources (e.g. complimentary office hours, live review sessions.) They don’t have to go out and buy or download another series of Arabic textbooks that will be read once and then gather dust on their bookshelves

    2) The more money he makes, the more value he can create –

    Why is Shariahprogram’s product as good as it is?

    He doesn’t charge so much so he can swim in pools of money like Scrooge McDuck.

    It’s because the more money he makes, the more he can invest back into the business. He can create a better website, use the best learning platforms, create better quality content based on testing/feedback from his students, implement systems for automation and hire staff to take care of back-end work, all so that he can focus on teaching and enriching as many lives as possible.

    3) Money is a marker that he’s doing the right things –

    People love using things like social media following, likes, shares, youtube views, web traffic as metrics for success. In fact, they’ll use any metric whatsoever than the one that really matters.

    Actually getting people to open up their wallets and pay, given the nature of the invisible scripts Muslims have on this issue, is the #1 metric. The more paying customers you have, the better your product because people aren’t stupid. If your product sucks, they’re going to ask for a refund and they will tell other people not to buy. The fact that Shariahprogram is so successful is proof that his product is great and he’s doing the right things. As a corollary, the price also acts as a filter, sieving out people who aren’t his target audience.

    All of the above is based on looking at the “dunya” side of things, because these are what we can reliably measure. How do you measure the spiritual benefit of your work on your audience? That’s another two-hour long writing exercise that I don’t have time for right now.

    Allah knows best.

  12. Avatar

    Abu humza

    August 4, 2015 at 5:44 AM

    I get what you are saying br Mobeen, but I am not talking about the elimination of honorariums, rather making it resonable. These honorariums have created an environment where star scholars will only accept speaking engagements with organization that can afford their rates. This has created an environment of consumer and supplier. Essentially what is needed to created an edutainment type dynamic. The allure of this market has resulted in a constant effort on the part of some to brand, market and rebrand themselves. To compare your travels for work with the travel of a scholar for the sake of dean is not fair unless of course you both are driven by the same motive. Again, instead of us opining on this issue I would love to see a fatwa from a senior scholar on the acceptability of charging exhobiant amounts for speaking on the dean.

  13. Avatar

    ANMB

    August 4, 2015 at 12:36 PM

    as salaamu ‘alaikum. Part of the problem that was not addressed, is that the majority of Muslim children attend secular/conventional schools, and for those children who do attend Muslim schools, the Islamic schools are unknowingly following a ‘secular philosophy of teaching’ that permeates all educational goals and teaching plans. More details in this short paper:

    The Pedagogical Divide: Toward an Islamic Pedagogy
    Nadeem Memon, PhD Candidate, OISE/UT
    Qaiser Ahmad, M.Ed, OISE/UT

    Abstract:
    The past decade of educational research on Islamic education has increasingly adopted language
    and trends common to mainstream market-driven educational practices. In the push toward
    making Islamic schools more effective, mainstream conceptions of effectiveness, efficiency, and
    accountability have been employed without critical reflection on the values they promote.
    Several issues and concerns relating both to the purpose of an Islamic education and the values
    promoted through neo-liberal educational practices, call for a philosophical inquiry. This paper
    is divided into two sections. The first section addresses the purpose of mainstream public
    education and the neo-liberal agenda from a critical pedagogical perspective. The second section
    critically examines how Muslim educators in North America have attempted to negotiate an
    Islamic education within prevailing discourses of mainstream educational practices. Issues of
    the purpose of an Islamic education and the criteria, standards, and norms used to determine the
    quality of Islamic education will be addressed. It will be argued that without such critical
    analysis, Islamic schooling reproduces existing dominant values and promotes, often
    unintentionally, success in the market economy as an end rather than a means. In contrast, we
    propose a foundational return to an Islamic pedagogy that transforms the heart and brings out
    one’s humanity through the enactment of an Adamic education based on an Islamic
    epistemological framework.

    http://razieducation(dot)com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/nadeem_memon_and_qaiser_ahmad_2006_the_pedagogical_divide(dot)pdf

    and this program was developed as a result: http://islamicteachereducation(dot)com/

    In an attempt to build a bridge between the ‘separation of church/state’ in education institutions, Islamic mosques/programs have adopted a cultural model of ‘entertainment’ – that has failed for even the religious majority of Christians in America:

    http://www(dot)christiantoday(dot)com/article/are(dot)christian(dot)teens(dot)leaving(dot)the(dot)church(dot)because(dot)of(dot)unfulfilling(dot)youth(dot)groups/34475(dot)htm

    http://www(dot)christianitytoday(dot)com/le/2012/winter/youngleavechurch(dot)html

  14. Avatar

    Yusuf

    August 4, 2015 at 12:37 PM

    Who is the intended/target audience?

    Who is the audience for this article? Who even reads Muslim matters? Who clicks on “Islamic” articles in emails and on one’s news feed.

    Who are the people coming to the local classes? Who are the people coming to the mega marketed events?

    When a khutbah is given who is the intended audience, the best in the room or the weakest.

    We are humans with wants and desires. If we desire knowledge we will go and get it where it is available. If we desire to socialize, we will go to events where there is an audience to socialize with.

    People intake information differently, some read books, the majority don’t. If infotainment can get some people’s attention, than rather we have their attention than another.

    When it comes to content and what we actually talk about at an event or speech, we assume the audience knows fundamental concepts and the basics of how reality is. One should not assume this position.

    So who is this comment targeted for ?

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#Culture

Trump And The Holy Gobble: A Tongue In Cheek Short Story

When Donald Trump tries to impress a secretary and is exposed to aloo gobi and black pepper, what follows could mean the end of the world.

Aloo Gobi

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. This story is satire, i.e. humor. You’ve been warned!

That’s Why They Love Me

The EEOB

The EEOB

With Secret Service agents guarding his flanks, Donald Trump exited the White House and headed across the street to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which housed the majority of the White House staff offices.

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“Mr. President,” the Special Agent In Charge protested. “I wish you would eat in your private dining room, or at least in the Navy Mess. It’s safer than the EEOB break room, of all places.”

Trump gave the man a condescending smirk. “You don’t understand what it takes to be a great president. I have to let my workers know that I care about them, bigly. I’m the best at that. No one has ever been better than me at being good to their workers. That’s why they love me.”

The SAIC rolled his eyes. He knew the real reason for the president’s desire to hang out in the EEOB break room. One of the new EEOB secretaries, a petite Russian immigrant blonde named Natasha Petrova, was a former “actress” known to her fans as Natasha Lipps. It wouldn’t be long, the SAIC expected, before Ms. Lipps – err, Petrova – would be made a presidential advisor, which would naturally require personal briefings with the president.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, strode beside him. Trump was fed up with the man, who kept trying to talk to him about the need to cover up his affair with Stormy Daniels.

“Can’t we just get the Russians to eliminate her?” Trump demanded.

The Nuclear Football

“Well, heh heh,” Cohen stammered. “That’s not really-”

Trump waved him off. Maybe it was time to fire the dopey dummy, if he couldn’t get things done. As they entered the EEOB, Trump turned to his aide-de-camp, a tall and muscular man wearing a medal-festooned military uniform and a beret. The man carried the nuclear football, and was always at the president’s side.

“Give me the football.”

The nuclear football

The nuclear football

The aide hesitated. The football, a Halliburton Zero aircraft-aluminum briefcase with a protruding antennae, the whole thing further housed within a thick leather satchel, contained a device that the president could use to launch nuclear missiles from any location. It was quite heavy. Besides, the aide knew that Trump only wanted to show it off to Natasha Lipps – err, Ms. Petrova.

Trump snapped his fingers. “Give it, loser.”

The aide handed it over, watching with satisfaction as the president listed to one side, nearly falling over.

In the break room, Trump, out of breath from the exertion of carrying the football, beamed with satisfaction. He’d timed it perfectly. Lipps was making herself a coffee. He admired her figure, resisting the impulse to grab part of her anatomy.

A few other employees sat at the cafeteria-style tables, eating sandwiches and chatting. A brown-skinned young man stood beside a humming microwave oven. They were losers, all of them. They weren’t the president. He was! They didn’t have people all over the world reading their Tweets. He did! Something smelled good, though. He looked around, trying to identify the source of the delicious smell, when the staffers noticed his presence. They all jumped to their feet, and one man saluted. Mental note: promote that guy to presidential advisor.

Natasha Lipps gave him a wide smile. Trump leaned forward even more than he normally did, all his attention focused on the Russian woman.

“Look what I have,” he boasted, grunting as he hefted the case. “The nuclear football.”

“You are such a poverful man,” Lipps purred in her Russian accent.

Cherokee People

“Something smells good in here.” He gave her a wink. “Is that you?”

“I vish it vas, Mr. President. Is Ahmad over there.” She nodded to the brown-skinned man. “He alvays bring delicious food.”

Trump frowned at the man, who had just taken a meal out of the microwave. Ahmad? Wasn’t that a Muslim name? He turned to Cohen. “Do we still have any Muslims on staff? I thought we fired them all.”

“I don’t know, sir. The White House has thousands of staffers.”

“Arrest him. But bring me his lunch. It smells really good.”

“I don’t know if that’s strictly legal, sir, there are laws-”

Trump silenced him with a chopping motion. “Hey, you. Ahmad.”

The brown-skinned man froze. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“You’re not Muslim, are you?”

Ahmad’s eyes shifted left and right. “I’m from California.” Which was technically true.

Trump made a face. “Just as bad.”

“I believe he is Indian,” Petrova whispered.

Oh, that was fine then. Trump had been dealing with Indian-owned casinos in Atlantic City for decades. “Cherokee people,” he sang out loud, “Cherokee trii-iibe. Hey chief, what are you eating?”

Aloo Gobi

Aloo Gobi

“Aloo gobi, sir.”

Holy gobble? What the heck kind of a dumb name? Getting back to more important matters, he set the football on one of the tables, touched his thumb to the biometric scanner, and popped the case open.

Inside, a special laptop computer was custom-fit into the case. The upper panel came on automatically, displaying a map of the world, with all the major cities marked with glowing dots. The lower panel contained a keyboard and a large red button, along with two smaller buttons, one labelled YES and one NO.

Allergic to Pepper

Trump grinned at Natasha Lipps. “Guess what this does? I could destroy the planet from right here if I wanted to. Pretty hot, huh?”

“Is vonderful.”

“Mr. President, sir!” the aide-de-camp protested. “This is highly irregu-”

Trump sneezed into Natasha’s face. It was a wet, jet-propelled sneeze. Her smile flickered for an instant, then returned as bright as ever as she wiped his spittle away. Trump scanned the room. The dark-skinned Indian guy had a hand-held pepper mill and was grinding pepper onto the holy gobble.

“Stop that, you moron!” Trump snapped. “I’m allergic to pepper.”

The man gazed at him pleadingly, and gave the crank a slow-motion turn. “But I like a lot of pepper on my food, sir.”

Trump let out a tremendous sneeze, one that shook him all the way down to his spinal cord. This time he felt himself losing balance, and reached out a hand, which landed right on the nuclear football’s red button. A loud beeping noise sounded, and lights flashed on the screen, along with the glowing words:

CONFIRM MISSILE LAUNCH = YES
ABORT = NO

Trump prided himself on being a positive person. No one had ever been more positive than him in all the history of the world. He didn’t believe in the word NO. He pressed the button for YES.

Arrest That Man

Everyone stared in horror, except for Ahmad, who used the distraction to give the pepper grinder three fast turns. Then he sat, said a quick dua’ and rapidly began to eat his aloo gobi.

“Dear Heaven,” the aide-de-camp breathed. “The Russians will retaliate. We’ll all be destroyed.”

Trump smirked. “You think I would point missiles at Russia? They’re pointed at Mexico and China. Immigration problem solved, plus we win the trade war! Am I the smartest or what?”

The aide-de-camp studied the laptop screen. “One of the missiles is off target. It’s headed for California.”

Trump nodded smugly. “I always keep one aimed at San Francisco.” Grinning widely, he crooned, “Goodbye, Pelosi!”

The SAIC tapped his earpiece. “We’re getting word. The Chinese have launched a retaliatory strike. We’ll be hit in fifteen minutes. We need to get you to the bunker!”

Ahmad took out a portable prayer rug, set it down and began to pray. “Alhamdulillahi rabbil aalameen,” he intoned. One last salat before the end of the world. He would meet his end with dignity.

“I knew it!” Trump pointed. “Arrest that man. For being Muslim, and for eating holy gobble.”

Cohen sighed, and Natasha Lipps – err, Petrova – began to cry.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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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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Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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