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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.

Mobeen Vaid

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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.

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

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

To Kill a Muslim – Part 1

Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.

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1. Ragheads

Rotting wooden porch steps

Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.

It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.

Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.

Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.

So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.

So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.

It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.

He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.

As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.

Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.

But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.

He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.

But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.

But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.

2. Moving Day

Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.

His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”

He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.

“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”

Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”

He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.

They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.

Craftsman bungalow cottage

The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.

It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.

It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.

̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.

He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨

She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨

He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.

The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.

As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.

Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.

As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.

He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.

Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.

Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.

“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.

While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.

As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.

Cop with gun drawn

What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?

“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”

Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?

“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”

SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.

This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.

The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.

He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.

“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”

“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.

* * *

Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus

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.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.

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#Culture

Go Visit Bosnia

Amad Abu Reem

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Visit Bosnia

I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.

Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.

To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.

Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.

What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?

So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.

However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.

Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.

Travel Bosnia, Visit Bosnia

Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.

Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.

Sarajevo

Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a compact city on the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. Its center has museums commemorating local history, including Sarajevo 1878–1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. Landmarks of the old quarter, Baš?aršija, include the Ottoman-era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque.

Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.

The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.

As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.

Visit Bosnia

As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.

 

 

As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.

Visit Bosnia, SarajevoOur trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.

Visit Bosnia

Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.

You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city.  I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.

Visit Bosnia

A view from Hecco Deluxe Hotel, Bosnia

Visit Bosnia

In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!

Watering hole structure for stray cats and dogs

Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.

If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.

Vrelo Bosne:

 

Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.

Visit Bosnia

Museum Tunnel of War:

This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.

A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.

Blagaj

This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.

Travnik

Visit Bosnia

This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.

Jajce

It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans.  The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.

Mostar

Visit Bosnia

It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.

 

Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.

Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.

Visit Bosnia

Mostar Old Bridge (1567) (UNESCO World Heritage List)

Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica

Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman.  Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.

Bosnia

Srebrenica

Visit Bosnia

Srebenica, Bosnia

Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.

We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.

Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.

 

This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.

Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.

Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):

Woodcrafts in Konjic, Bosnia

On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.

Visit Bosnia

You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Visit Bosnia, Sunnyland

Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.

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#Culture

Gravedigger: A Short Story

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.

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fight, life, death, grave

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.

MMA ringShe never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.

Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?

And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.

She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.

Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.

Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.

She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray.  Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.

Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.

Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.

One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.

Kitchen knifeShe went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.

She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.

Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.

A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.

“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.

Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”

“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.

“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”

Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.

She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.

On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.

For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.

This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.

On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.

The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.

Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.

* * *

baba, death, suicide,She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.

The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.

Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.

The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.

As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.

They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.

“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.

Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.

“I’ve said it all.”

“So you two are good?”

She smiled. “Yeah.”

“You’ve changed since you started here.”

“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”

“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”

She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”

Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”

“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.

She said nothing.

“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”

“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”

“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”

“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”

It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”

“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”

“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”

Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”

“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.

She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”

Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.

* * *

“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”

Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.

Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.

Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.

She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.

What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.

Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.

The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.

Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”

THE END

* * *

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. Wael’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.

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