Connect with us

#Culture

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

Published

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.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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.

shutterstock_139160516

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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 ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Books

Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

Avatar

Published

We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading

#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 9: All We Have To Do

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

Avatar

Published

Corredor Sur, Panama

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

“Policia Nacional!” – Omar

Broken Window

Tocumen International Airport
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Tocumen International Airport

Back in Panama, pulling his wheeled suitcase along behind him, Omar walked out to the long-term parking lot at Tocumen airport. It was a hair past noon, and the sun poured forth its fire as if the earth were a morsel of meat it wanted to cook for lunch. Knowing the weather in Panama, Omar had changed his clothes in advance in the airport bathroom, putting away the linen suit and slipping on a pair of knee-length basketball shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad he had. After the chilly skies of Bogota, being back in Panama was like stepping into a sauna.

When he came to his car, he found the driver’s side window shattered. He shook his head in disgust. Why would anyone break into his car? It was a five year old silver Toyota sedan with no frills. It didn’t even have a CD player, just a basic AM/FM radio. He could have afforded better, but he drove this old beater for exactly this reason: it didn’t look worth breaking into.

Searching the car, he found nothing missing. There hadn’t been anything worth stealing anyway. Just the manual in the glove box, a little LED flashlight, a pack of cinnamon chewing gum, and some napkins. Oh, wait – they’d taken the Quran CDs. Arabic recitation with Spanish translation. Maybe the thieves would listen and be guided.

When he inserted the key and turned it, he got nothing. Not even a click. Opening the hood, he discovered the reason: the thieves had stolen his car battery. So that was what they’d been after. Now he was angry. Where was airport security?

Car with shattered window

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered who to call. He needed someone to bring him a battery. His wife didn’t drive. Fuad didn’t drive either, because he never knew when he might have an epileptic attack.

Fuad’s crazy wife Ivana did drive, but Omar didn’t want to deal with her. If Fuad somehow convinced her to come out here, she would either want to be paid, or would expect Omar to take her and Fuad to the most expensive restaurant in Panama. Ten times! Omar laughed at the thought.

He could call Nadia Muhammad, his old friend from IIAP. She was married and sometimes came to visit with her husband and two kids. She was a goofball, always telling jokes and making his son Nur laugh. But even though they were just buddies, and his wife thought nothing of it, he didn’t want to push the boundaries of trust by spending half a day driving all around Panama city with her.

It Burns!

Deciding that there was nothing left to steal, and that it wouldn’t hurt to leave the car alone for a while, he trudged back to the taxi stand in front of the terminal. Ignoring the touts who snatched at his sleeves, desperate to put him in a limo or town car, he found a 60ish, balding taxi driver with forearms like German sausages. The man sat disconsolately in his cab, filling out a crossword puzzle. The two of them negotiated a price of $40 for the whole business, and took off.

As they headed into the city with the windows open and hot air whipping through the car, Omar reclined his head against the seat and closed his eyes.

Apparently not noticing or caring that Omar was trying to rest, the driver called out, raising his voice to be heard. “Oye, jefe. You some kinda tuna fat foreigner?”

“I’m Panamanian.” Omar opened his eyes and studied the road, and was dismayed to see that the driver had taken the slow midtown route. Avenida Domingo Diaz was an interminable road lined with auto shops, plant nurseries and love motels – known as pushbuttons in Panama, because all you had to do was drive in and push a button. You never had to see any clerk or staff face to face. “Hey, why did you go this way? I would have paid the tolls on the Sur.”

“Well I din’ know that, no?” The man’s sped-up slang Spanish marked him as having been raised in Colon. Omar could barely understand him. “Just because you a tuna fat Colombian. You might be a biter. You ahuevao foreigners is welcome if you bring some flus. Otherwise we don’ need you.”

Ignoring the fact that the man had just called him stupid – he’d understood that much – Omar, repeated, “I’m Panamanian.”

“Then where the president live?”

“Palacio de Las Garzas. I’ve been there.”

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

There were a lot of Chinese in Panama, true, but they didn’t take jobs. Just the opposite. They opened stores, restaurants, internet cafes and electronic shops, and employed Panamanians. Omar explained this.

“Then the mascabola Venezuelans! Ñangara Comunistas!” The driver hawked and spit on the floor of his own car. “They spray the word taxi onna side of a car and steal my fares, don’ even have licenses.” He pounded the dash with a meaty fist. “It burns!”

“I see how that’s bad for business, but they’re our neighbors. We have-” Omar stopped talking as the driver abruptly swerved across two lanes of traffic and pulled up beside a love motel called Lady Finger.

“Get out!” the driver demanded. “Ain’t drivin’ no mascabola Communist-lover. And I ain’t votin’ for you!”

Omar pursed his lips. It would be hard to find another taxi out here. He considered offering the driver more money, but the guy was a nasty piece of work. As much as the man wanted Omar out of his cab, Omar wanted to be done with him too.

He collected his luggage and paid the driver a quarter of the normal fare, which under the circumstances he felt was generous. The driver cursed at him and peeled out with a squeal of burning rubber.

Allah blessed him. Omar had only begun to contemplate his options when another taxi pulled up to the Lady Finger. A 60ish man in a business suit and a young woman in a skin-tight dress headed into the pushbutton. Omar called out to the driver and half-ran, pulling his bag behind him. A minute later he was on his way – again – with a driver who kept the windows rolled up, the AC on and a Cuban jazz CD playing softly. Alhamdulillah.

Do the Right Thing

Three hours later, with a new battery in his car, Omar navigated his way out of the airport parking lot. He noticed several other cars with shattered windows. Useless airport security officers walked around making notes, and two cars were being lifted onto tow trucks.

Corredor Sur, Panama

Corredor Sur, Panama

He headed home along the Corredor Sur, the express toll highway that led along the Pacific waterfront. The area bordering the highway had once been an expanse of impenetrable mangrove swamps, but now it was Costa del Este, the most expensive seaside neighborhood in all of Panama. Two-hundred meter skyscrapers glittered in the tropical sunshine, their glass sides reflecting sky and sea, while construction cranes marked the sites of future towers.

These million dollar apartments were occupied by business people, wealthy expatriates and even crime cartel bosses, mostly hailing from neighboring (and less stable) countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. And, of course, by Fuad, who – pushed by his Cuban beauty queen – had purchased an apartment he really could not afford.

The mangroves that had been drained and filled to make Costa del Este possible had been one of the richest wetland habitats in Panama, home to dozens of endemic species. Such was the way of his country. No one valued nature, nor even old things of human make. It was all about what was new and sleek.

At least people like Naris Muhammad were out there fighting to protect what was left. Naris, the serious-minded member of the Muhammad triplets, was one of the most prominent environmental activists in Panama.

He exited the freeway into the leafy district of San Francisco. It was an upper middle class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of gated homes, all bordering Parque Omar, the largest urban park in Panama.

Passing by Parque Omar, he eyed the spot where, last year, he’d intervened to stop a man from beating a woman. He’d been out for a morning jog and had seen a tall, thin man with hollow eyes punching a young woman in the face.

For a good portion of his childhood he had been the one beaten while the person who should have protected him stood by helplessly. He’d always promised himself that he would not be that impotent bystander, allowing someone to be abused before his eyes.

So when he saw the man punching the woman, he instantly ran forward, wrapped the man’s neck from behind and pulled him off the woman. The woman, instead of thanking him, screamed, “Leave my boyfriend alone!” She picked up a broken tree branch and struck Omar on the head, and the pair of them dashed off. Omar went home with his scalp bleeding, expecting a tongue lashing from his wife. But she cleaned the wound, kissed him and made him one of his favorite foods: an apam balik pancake filled with banana slices, sesame and sugar.

He returned his eyes to the road. He couldn’t be responsible for the choices people made. But he could do the right thing.

As he approached a large, sky-blue home fronted by a high brick wall and a steel gate, he hit a remote control and the gate slid open. The house had a circular front driveway that curved around a bubbling Islamic style fountain shaped like an eight-pointed star, covered in green tiles. The crisp water sparkled as it poured out of an upper bowl and into the larger basin below.

Nur liked to play in this pool, while Omar’s wife enjoyed sitting beside it after sunset, listening to the Quran on a little cassette player. Omar had offered to buy her a portable CD player, but she said she couldn’t tell one side of a CD from the other.

Tall trees flanked the front yard, with a pair of mango trees anchoring east and west. Around them grew passionfruit trees, guava and berry bushes. Nur often came out here with his mother and ate the berries straight from the bushes, until his cheeks and chin were red from the juices.

Something For Everyone

When he opened the door, Nur came running. Omar dropped to one knee to catch the boy. He was a handsome tyke, with sturdy limbs, a strong nose and square face. His eyes were dark and his black hair was straight, like his mother’s. Omar’s love for him was a deep river that would never run dry.

He found his wife in the kitchen standing at the stove, garnishing a red snapper for the oven. The split AC in the corner hummed, its cool air circulating the scents of lemon and parsley. The space was large and comfortable, with a cooking island in the center, and teak cabinetry all around. A matching rustic teak table occupied one side, beside a low, molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall and was covered with cushions. The family spent a lot of time here.

His heart surged at seeing his wife again. Her face was dewed with perspiration from the heat of the stove. Even so, she looked beautiful, with a slender, strong form, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He went to her and she turned to embrace him, saying, “Careful of the stove.”

Putting his arms around her, he could feel the muscles in her shoulders and arms. The two of them ran five kilometers every morning in Parque Omar, and two evenings a week he taught her karate in an upstairs bedroom they’d turned into a training studio.

Labrador retriever He felt something cold touch his hand and looked down to see the dog, Berlina, nuzzling him with her wet nose. She was a young labrador retriever, well trained as a guide dog. She was a gentle creature, intelligent and good with Nur as well.

He reached down to scratch Berlina’s head. Her tail thumped happily against the kitchen cabinet. Nur grabbed his other hand. “What did you bring me, Papá?”

Standing in the middle of the family mob, Omar laughed. “I have something for everyone, okay?”

They sat at the kitchen table and Omar parceled out the gifts: for his wife, a pair of silver earrings shaped like crescent moons and fashioned in the uniquely Colombian “momposina” style, with finely woven silver threads. For Nur, a set of coloring pencils with a small leather carrying case.

“What about Berlina?” Nur wanted to know.

In answer, Omar stood, grabbed the plastic jar of beef jerky sticks from the top of the refrigerator, and tossed one to the dog. Berlina caught it in mid-air, settled down and went to work, her wagging tail brushing the floor.

Drawings

Later that evening Omar sat at the kitchen table with his son, watching the boy draw. He could hear the shower running upstairs.

Papers were scattered across the table, covered with drawings of ocean waves, leaping dolphins, a squid brandishing a scepter, and a mermaid wearing a crown. Nur had always been fascinated by the ocean and all its creatures.

Nur held up a picture of a tsunami arching over a small town. He’d even drawn tiny cars on the roads and stick figures of people. “Do you like it, Papá?”

Omar raised his eyebrows. “It’s drawn very well.” He leaned close to his son’s ear. “But let’s not tell Mama that story. We don’t want her to be sad for the people.” Nur’s mother could not see the drawings, so normally Nur would describe them to her in detail, telling the drawing’s story.

Nodding, Nur tucked the sketch beneath a pile of others as his mother came down the steps, tying a towel around her hair. Omar was always amazed at how confidently she moved. A stranger would never guess she was blind, at least not here inside the house, where everything was laid out precisely in its place. Though her vision was not 100% gone. She could sometimes make out broad outlines and colors.

“Sad for what people?” she asked.

“Nothing, just drawings.”

Omar’s wife sat on his lap, resting an arm around his shoulders. She ran a hand through his hair, playing with the curls, taking care to stay away from his mangled ear, as he was sensitive about that. He kissed her on the cheek, happy to be home with the loveliest woman he knew. He was blessed, alhamdulillah.

A Scarcity of Friends

“I missed you,” his wife said. “But I’m glad you found your friend Hani. You don’t have many friends.”

It was true. He had Mahmood, Fuad, and Nadia. That was about it. Nadia’s sister Naris could have been a friend if she weren’t so engrossed in her work as an environmental activist. As for Nabila, she’d moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her Youtube stardom, and ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Was this scarcity of friends the reason he’d been so excited to see Hani again? And why he had overlooked the brother’s disconcerting negativity?

“What’s his wife’s name, by the way?”

“He never told me. She works as a house cleaner.”

“Do you think it’s wise to invest with him? He sounds unstable.”

Omar pulled her hand out of his hair. It was too close to his ear, and was making him nervous. “Does he?”

“The way you describe him.”

“Hmm.”

She ran a hand over his face – her way of reading his expression. “You’ve already decided to give him the money, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Then why make him write a business plan?”

“For his own benefit. To help him succeed.”

“I think you just wanted a reason to see him again.”

As a reply, Omar pulled his wife close and kissed the side of her head. Her black hair smelled of the papaya shampoo she favored. She knew him too well, and never failed to let him know it.

He watched his son working on a new drawing of a squadron of flying fish. Each fish wore a beret and had a cigar in its mouth. As the boy drew, he chewed on his upper lip.

Nur was an intense child, but was he happy? Omar thought back to his own early childhood, training in martial arts with his father, watching football games, attending the masjid for Jumah prayer; and going on hikes with his mother, or visiting that amazing ice cream shop on Avenida Central that sold a giant scoop of mango sorbet for a quarter. They had been poor, but Omar had been happy because he was loved by his parents, and what more did a child need?

That’s all we have to do, he thought. Love him. He reached out and stroked the back of Nur’s neck. The boy did not even look up. “All we have to do,” Omar said out loud.

“Do what?” his wife asked.

“All we have to do is love each other.”

His wife settled into him, resting her back against his chest. “Yes. That’s all we have to do.”

Put Your Hand Down

Karate class “I KNOW YOU WANT TO EARN A BLACK BELT ONE DAY,” Omar said as he strode up and down in front of the line of kids. One girl – an especially enthusiastic eleven year old green belt named Tabina who was always asking when she’d get her next promotion – raised her hand frantically. Some of the kids nodded their heads.

“Put your hand down, Tabina. It wasn’t a question. Fix your stances.” His own son Nur was leaning too far forward in his horse stance, and Omar showed him by giving him a slight push, which nearly toppled him. Technically Nur was not old enough for this class; it was for kids aged six to twelve, but being the instructor’s son had privileges. Not that Omar went easy on the boy. Just the opposite. He demanded much from him.

Omar loved these kids at the Centro Islamico, which everyone called the Centro. He volunteered twice a week, teaching this class and another for teens.

“There are three things you must do,” he went on, “if you want a black belt. One, come to class. Two, practice at home. Three, don’t quit. If you do these things, week after week, month after month, year after year, I guarantee you will get your black belt eventually, inshaAllah.”

He cast a glance at the clock on the wall. It had been a month since his return from Bogotá. Hani and his wife were supposed to arrive today. In three hours, actually.

“Line up,” he ordered the class. “Respect Allah, your parents and yourselves.” With a command of, “Sensei ni rei!” he bowed the class out. “Domo arigato gozaimusu,” all the kids intoned in Japanese.

His own wife was teaching a Quran memorization class in one of the upstairs rooms. He called Nur over and kneeled to give the boy a hug. “Run upstairs and tell Mamá we have to go.”

Refugees

As the three of them exited into the audacious Panama sun, unmitigated by any trace of cloud, they saw a scene unfolding in the empty lot across the street. A group of refugees – Venezeuelans no doubt – were camped in a large weed-ridden field, which was muddy and spotted with litter.

One family hunkered in the shade of a patched-up tent, while a thin woman with frizzy hair in a ponytail sat beneath two pieces of corrugated metal that had been leaned against each other and covered first in cardboard, and then with a tarpaulin. Her two small children kicked a deflated soccer ball in front of the shelter. A toothless old man with a cane sat on a plastic milk crate, out in the open, with only a gray baseball cap to shield his face from the sun. There were about a dozen people altogether, mostly women and children. They were a doleful, dejected group. It broke Omar’s heart to see such scenes, but Venezuelan refugees were everywhere in Panama these days.

Now, however, a group of young Panamanian men and women – in their late teens or early twenties, perhaps – had pulled up to the lot in two tricked-out Japanese cars. They began shouting at the refugees, telling them to go home, and calling them leeches and scum. The well dressed youths, consisting of five boys and two girls, exited their cars and began throwing stones at the refugees.

Omar had witnessed scenes like this before. With over one hundred thousand Venezuelans in Panama, resentment was rising among those who chose to scapegoat the refugees for all of Panama’s problems – like the taxi driver.

The little boys who’d been kicking the soccer ball ran to their mother in the lean-to. The old man with the cane yelled at the youths, who shouted insults in return.

“Papá,” Nur said in alarm, “why are they doing that?”

“What?” Omar’s wife wanted to know. “What’s going on?”

Omar gave his wife’s shoulder a squeeze. “Kids misbehaving. Go back inside the Centro with Nur.” She did not have Berlina with her, as dogs were not welcome in the Centro, not even guide dogs. It was a bad policy, but one that Omar had not succeeded in changing. But she had her cane, and of course she had Nur.

He strode across the street, mindful that if these youths chose to fight he’d be badly outnumbered. An idea came to him. Taking out his wallet, he opened it and held it above his head. “Stop!” he commanded loudly. “Policia Nacional! You’re all under arrest.” He did not have a badge of course, but the kids were several meters away and probably would not notice.

Indeed, the youths scattered, dashing back to their cars, jumping in and peeling out, tires squealing.

Omar strode across the muddy field to the refugees, who all looked frightened. “Easy,” he told them, making a calming motion with his hand. “Are you okay?”

A woman in her forties, her brown face weatherbeaten and lined, stepped forward. “It’s nothing new,” she replied bitterly. “But thank you anyway.”

Omar looked the group over. He wanted to do something, say something, but what? In the end all he said was, “Do you have enough food?”

“No,” the woman replied bluntly.

Omar’s wallet was still in his hand. He took out $60, which was all the cash he had on hand, and held it out to the woman.

Her eyes flicked to the money, then to Omar’s face. Her mouth was a grim line. “We did not ask for anything.”

“I know. But you’re my neighbors. Maybe Panama will be in trouble one day, then I’ll come to your country and need your help.”

The woman’s mouth quirked upwards into a smile. “I don’t think so. You are rich, and you don’t know it.” But she took the money.

When Omar went back across the street, his wife and child were still there, to his consternation. “I told you to go inside,” he said.

“Excuse me?” She was annoyed. “Number one” – counting on her fingers – “Nur wanted to see. Number two, you don’t tell me to go inside like I’m a child.”

Omar wasn’t the type to give orders, and he knew it was her blindness that brought out the protectiveness in him. But sometimes his wife had to trust him to lead. He tried to explain this, and saw her growing angry. It might have turned into an argument, but Nur spoke up.

“Papá,” the boy said solemnly. “You lied.”

Omar twisted his mouth to one side in embarrassment. “Yeah,” he started to say, “I know, but-”

“It was cool!” Nur broke in. “Did you see how those bad kids ran away?” He held up one hand, pretending to be Omar holding up his wallet, then marched in a circle. “You went, ‘Policia!’ and they went, ‘Oh no!’”

“Okay, okay.” They walked to where their car was parked a half a block down the street. As they drove home, his wife patted his knee. “You did good, mashaAllah. I’m proud of you.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 10:  The Girl With the Goldie Gum

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.

Avatar

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading

#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 8: Rich and Poor

A security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly. Omar frowned. Why would the security staff be suspicious of him?

Avatar

Published

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

“Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.” – Omar

A Small Price to Pay

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

After high school, Omar attended Florida State University’s Panama campus, on the northern edge of the city near the Miraflores Locks. From the library’s second floor you could watch the ships rising and falling in the canal. It reminded him of his childhood, when his mother used to take him to the locks, then to Avenida Central for a snowcone.

What would he say now if his mother wanted to do that? Not that she would. No longer a battered widow, she was now the CEO of a successful company, and had little free time. Omar lived on campus, and rarely saw her.

He encountered old friends, made new ones, and founded the karate club. After graduating with a B.S. in international affairs, he went to work for his mother’s company, which had forty five employees by that time. He started in shipping, and rotated to other entry level positions, as his mother wanted him to learn the day-to-day operations.

Word came that Nemesio had been imprisoned for murder. He’d lost his temper and killed a prostitute who tried to steal his wallet. Omar thought he should feel satisfied at this news, but he only felt sad for the man, which surprised him.

He fell in love and married an extraordinary woman. Fuad was a witness at his wedding. No one who knew Fuad from high school would have recognized him that day. Gone were the inch-thick glasses, replaced by contacts. His formerly shaggy hair was expensively cut, and his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a beautiful blue suit that made him look like a Bollywood celebrity. He’d attended medical school in Cuba, then returned to Panama and joined a major medical group specializing in brain disorders.

Unfortunately, from Omar’s perspective, Fuad brought something back with him from Cuba: a beauty queen. He’d met and married the former Miss Cuba, of all things. Ivana was certainly beautiful, with flawless mahogany skin and flowing raven tresses that spilled over her shoulders; but she had the personality of a vampire bat. Greedy and materialistic, Omar watched helplessly as the woman pushed Fuad to spend money he did not have on luxuries he could not afford.

The other witness was Mahmood, a Palestinian brother Omar had met at Florida State, and who now taught history and English literature at IIAP, Omar’s old school. The Muhammad triplets were there as well, and even Mahboob came, as he and Omar had long since patched things up. Though Mahboob still joked that the only way they’d truly be even was if Omar went headfirst into a trashcan. To which Omar would reply, “Save that for the politicians,” or, “My name is Omar not Oscar,” and once, concocting an admittedly awful English-Spanish pun, “That would be an interesting sucio-logical experiment.”

Omar was eventually promoted to executive vice president of Puro Panameño. He bought a house, and his wife gave birth to a son. At some point, the nightmares that had plagued him after the dog attack stopped coming. He realized this only later, and could not pinpoint exactly when they had stopped, though he thought maybe the turning point had been his marriage.

He taught karate to kids at the Muslim community center, and ran three times a week at Parque Omar – something the doctors had told him he would never do again.

Fuad was always calling to complain about his psychotic wife. Okay, not psychotic, but Ivana wore a pound of gold to the grocery store, insulted Fuad in public, and had a vicious temper. Omar had once seen her lift an ice cream making machine over her head and throw it against a wall hard enough to crack the plaster. Aside from that, she spent Fuad’s money like it was her life’s purpose, and neither worked nor cared for the house. Spent all her time at the Coronado beach club, or out with her friends at night, doing nobody knew what. Though she had not converted to Islam, she’d promised to give up drinking when she married Fuad. But she would stumble home at 3 am so drunk she had to be carried to bed.

Fuad wanted Omar to talk to her, guide her, help her change. Omar tried one time to talk to Ivana about at least moderating the drinking, and she threw a table lamp at him. Omar suggested to Fuad that he and Ivana were simply not compatible.

But Fuad would have none of it. The woman had flawless dark skin, curves like a ripe peach, and a face that might have been molded by angels. Fuad could not give her up.

Not Omar’s problem, he decided.

Overall, life was good, and he was grateful. If his body was sometimes stiff in the morning, if the old wounds still ached when he ran or practiced karate – especially his left leg – so be it. It was a small price to pay for the life he lived. Alhamdulillah.

TEN YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Bogotá, Colombia WHY WAS THE SECURITY GUARD STARING AT HIM? Omar was in Bogotá, Colombia, for a business conference where experts presented seminars on subjects ranging from marketing in China, to label design, to ensuring ethical treatment of laborers.

Now it was the morning of the second day of the conference, and as he approached the rotating doors at the building entrance, a security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly.

Omar frowned. He knew security was always a concern in Colombia, so it was not surprising that this event was staffed by a score of burly red-jacketed security guards. But why would they be suspicious of him? In his tan-colored bespoke Panama suit, light blue shirt and navy tie, he was just another businessman. Maybe the man wanted to search the leather laptop case he had slung over one shoulder?

The guard half-reached toward him with one meaty hand, pointed to the copper bracelet Omar still wore on his right wrist, and blurted, “Omar? Omar Bayano?”

Tipping his head, Omar studied the man. There was something familiar about that elongated face and nose. SubhanAllah! It was Hani. He would have walked right past him. Gone was the acne and the long, greasy hair. Hani was the same height he’d been in high school, but his complexion was a clear, burnished olive, and his hair was shorn to a crewcut and receding at the temples. His shoulders were huge, and he looked like he could lift a horse.

Omar knew that he too looked different. In tenth grade he’d been the shortest boy in his class; but now, at the age of twenty-eight, he was a relatively tall 182 cm. His formerly full head of curly hair was now just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, hiding his disfigurement. The scars on his face were faded, though you could still see the white lines if you stood close. Even his limp had disappeared.

Grinning widely, Omar stepped forward and embraced his old friend. He felt unaccountably excited, as if he’d just found someone he’d spent years searching for, even though the reality was that he’d thought of Hani only now and then in passing.

Hani gave a surprised laugh at Omar’s warm greeting, then beamed like he’d just won the Copa América. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet that night.

Rich and Poor

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia Omar was staying at the Click Clack, an ultra-modern hotel in Bogotá’s trendy Chico district. When Hani arrived, Omar was already seated in the hotel restaurant, a funky place that served dishes based on famous paintings. The food was actually crafted on the plate to resemble the painting.

Omar steered clear of the Jackson Pollock pollock – would it be chum on a plate? – and instead ordered the Fernando Botero cod, on the theory that even an unconventional place like this would not disrespect a revered Colombian artist like Fernando Botero.

Hani looked at the towering lobby fountain and plants literally growing on the wall, like a vertical garden. “You’ve come up in the world. I don’t know if I can afford to eat here.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the company expense account.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“My mom’s company. Puro Panameño, remember? It’s grown.”

“Man. That’s great.” Hani kept shifting in his seat, picking up the menu and putting it down. It occurred to Omar that maybe Hani was uncomfortable having someone else pay for him.

“Hey, you know what?” Omar offered. “We don’t have to eat here. We could go for a pizza or something.”

Hani frowned. “Why? You don’t think I’m good enough for this place?”

Omar was taken aback. “I didn’t mean that at all. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Then don’t patronize me.”

Omar didn’t know what to say. The silence grew, until Hani blurted out, “Why are you being so nice? You’re acting like I’m your best friend.”

“Well… you were, once. You still are my friend.”

“I was mean to you. We used to call you Patacon because your father was a security guard.”

Omar heard the unspoken continuation of the sentence: And now I’m a security guard. How ironic life could be. Did Allah teach lessons on a decade-long scale? Why not? A decade, a century, a millennium, an age, these were nothing to The One with no beginning or end. But Omar had never held a grudge against Hani. He’d never felt the boy – now the man – had anything to atone for.

“That,” Omar said firmly, “was Tameem, not you.”

“I participated. Then I barely talked to you before we moved away, because I couldn’t face you.”

Clearly, Hani had never gotten over the way he’d behaved in high school. And now there was an obvious wealth gap between them. In Latin America that was a big deal. Rich and poor lived in different worlds. The power imbalance between the classes colored every interaction. People were supposed to “know their places.” Omar had to alter that balance, and he had to do it with something true, because you could never achieve an honest rapport with a lie.

Honesty Between Strangers

Omar ran a hand through his hair and chose his words. “I admit, I was hurt by the way you went along with the bullying. That was a terrible time for me. I felt like no one was on my side, no one was helping me. My father was gone, Nemesio used to beat me every day-”

“Who?”

“My so-called tio.”

“He beat you?”

“All the bruises, remember?”

“I thought that was from karate.”

Omar shook his head. “Mostly Nemesio. It went on for years. There were times when I contemplated suicide.” Omar had never said these things out loud to anyone, not even his wife. Why was he sharing them with a man he hadn’t seen in twelve years? Maybe because it was safe, in a way. Hani knew him but did not know him at the same time. A familiar stranger.

“Oh my God. I didn’t know, man. I’m so sorry.” Hani leaned forward impulsively and gripped Omar’s forearm, giving it a squeeze, then settled back into his seat.

Omar was moved by this. “You know, Hani, my most vivid memory of you is during the dog attack, when I saw you standing there with the knife. That little thing would barely cut a mango. You took a huge risk. The dogs could have turned on you.”

Hani shrugged, but Omar could see the words pleased him. “I did what I had to.”

“You could have done nothing.”

Hani shook his head. “You were my friend.”

Omar snapped his fingers and pointed. “Exactly. I could buy you a thousand dinners and it would be nothing. I’m breathing because of you.”

“You’re breathing because of Allah.”

“You were Allah’s instrument. But it must have been terrifying for you.”

“I peed my pants, actually.”

“For real?”

Hani nodded, and suddenly the two of them were laughing, and the tension was gone.

Nobody Uses Ice

They ate and talked. Omar told Hani about his family. His wife worked with him at Puro Panameño. She was his dream wife, and he was crazy about her. Their son Nur was four years old and a quiet child, but very smart ma-sha-Allah.

As for Hani, he’d gotten married nine years ago. Omar did the mental math. Hani had married at nineteen! He tried to ask about this, but Hani skirted the subject. Omar wondered if maybe Hani had an affair with a girl and was forced to marry her.

Hani’s father had early onset dementia, and his mother suffered from depression. His wife worked as a house cleaner. Life was a struggle. They wanted kids, but it hadn’t happened yet.

"Still Life With Fruits" by Fernando Botero

“Still Life With Fruits” by Fernando Botero

As it turned out, Omar was right about the Botero cod. The fish was served with a pear glaze, pea soup, a baguette and a watermelon slice. All items from Botero paintings, but grouped appealingly.

By ten o’clock the table had been cleared and Omar was tired. Hani kept brushing the tablecloth with his fingers. His high forehead was beaded with sweat. Omar flagged a waiter and asked for ice water for Hani.

The waiter stared at him blankly. “Ice?”

Omar made the shape of a square with his fingers. “Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.”

Hani laughed and waved the water away. “Nobody uses ice in Bogotá, man. We’re at 2,700 meters. We’re cold enough already.”

The thought of living without ice boggled Omar’s mind. In Panama ice was like the blood in your veins. You couldn’t live without it. “It’s just,” he said, “you’re sweating.”

“Oh.” Hani mopped his brow with a napkin. “I want to ask you something.” He went on to say that his security guard salary barely paid a living wage. He was struggling to support his wife and parents, and always on the edge of being broke. He had an idea to start a security business of his own.

“I know I can succeed.” He’d balled the napkin in one hand and kept squeezing it as if trying to wring water from it. “I’ve been a guard for five years. I know everything about the business. But it takes financing. I was wondering if you could loan me the money. I hate to ask, but I don’t know where else to turn.”

Omar nodded slowly. For a split second he thought that maybe Hani had joined him for dinner only to make this request. But he brushed that thought aside. He should give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

He told Hani to write a business proposal. Projected income and expenses, how he intended to acquire clients in a highly competitive market, that kind of thing.

Hani frowned. “Why are you making me do all that, man?”

“It’s for your benefit. You need this kind of analysis if you want to succeed.”

“Fine. So should I email you all that?”

Hani didn’t sound happy, but Omar plowed ahead: “Why don’t you bring it in person? I would love to have you and your wife visit us in Panama. Let me know what date works for you and I’ll reserve the tickets.”

Gheerah

Later that night he sat on a towel laid on the floor of the hotel room, having just prayed Ishaa’, and thought about the encounter with Hani. It occurred to him that Hani had told him almost nothing about his wife, not even her name. That seemed odd, especially since Omar had told Hani everything about his own family. But some Muslim men – especially the Arabs – were secretive like that when it came to their wives. For a long time Omar had not understood this cultural trait, but he’d mentioned it once to Mahmood, his Palestinian friend.

Mahmood was knowledgeable in the deen and said that this type of protective behavior was called gheerah, and that it required a man to ensure that the women of his household wore hijab, did not mingle inappropriately with men, and were shielded from lustful gazes. Not to do this, Mahmood explained, was considered shameful in Arab culture.

Islamic mashrabiya balcony “You see it in architecture,” Mahmood explained, steepling his fingers like a professor giving a lecture. “Islamic mashrabiya balconies allowed women to watch the street without being seen. Islamic Spain adopted the mashrabiyyah, so you see it in Latin America too.”

Gheerah was not about distrusting women, Mahmood said, nor about punishing them. Rather it was about shielding them from those who harbored ill intentions.

In which case it seemed to Omar that it should be a two way street, with husbands and wives both protecting each other. Anyway that was probably the reason for Hani’s silence on the subject of his wife. Hani’s ancestry was Arab and he would have been brought up that way.

Omar stood, stretched, then set about packing his bags. He’d be returning home early in the morning, inshaAllah. He’d spoken to his wife and son on Skype earlier that day, before the dinner with Hani. He was glad the conference was over, not only because he was eager to see his family, but also because if it had not been over, he might run into Hani again. Yes, he’d invited the man to come visit him in Panama, but for some reason he felt uneasy at the idea of seeing him again. Why should that be?

The World School

The world was covered in an unending school building. For a few days he would travel through crumbling, abandoned classrooms and auditoriums, sleeping on the floor when he couldn’t walk anymore. He never knew if it was day or night, since windows and doors opened only onto more hallways and rooms. Once he came to a staircase and climbed it through twenty floors, until he came to a floor in which the ceiling had crumbled, and the sun shone through. The sun! He sat on the dust covered floor and bathed in the warm rays, astounded at how good it felt. Dust had accumulated on the floor until it became soil, and shrubs grew. It was a different world up here.

He tried traveling on the upper floors for a while after that, but some rooms were occupied by masses of birds or bats, and the structure was so heavily rotted and mildewed at that level that he feared he might fall through a hole in the floor. So he returned to the ground level.

Sometimes, as he journeyed through the unending, purgatorial building, he came to sections that were better maintained. Occasionally, class was in session. But when he looked into these rooms, the children were like automatons, staring blankly at a chalkboard on which words and numbers appeared by themselves. When Omar spoke, no one turned to look at him. He was not even sure they were human.

In some places, a stream or river ran through the school, and bridges crossed over it. Omar saw creatures in the water: chimeras with the fins of fish but the tentacles of octopi. Creatures that looked like small, pale children with the tails of dolphins; and immense crocodiles that drifted with the current, turning their unblinking eyes to watch Omar as they passed.

One night (if indeed it was night – in this area most of the lights did not work, and everything was shadows and gloom) he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t put a name to it, but his heart sped up in excitement. Another human being! Someone he knew. The voice came from a dark classroom.

Dark, abandoned class room

Omar rushed into the room, and found Mr. Suwaylem, his old principal from IIAP, lecturing to a dark and empty room.

He glanced at Omar. “You’re late. As I was saying, the Byzantine empire was a… was a sprawling, tremendously influential nation that could be said… Could be said what? I think, to have been… have been… founded in 330 CE, when Constantine the First…”

As Suwaylem stuttered on, Omar took a seat. He saw now that the man’s normally immaculate suit was dirty and torn, and hung loose on his frame, while his usually well coiffed hair was tangled.

“Who can tell me,” Suwaylem said, looking around as if to a room full of pupils, “something… what was it…” He wrung his hands helplessly, then looked to Omar. “You.”

Before Omar could point out that he didn’t know the question, a terrible moan came from the back of the room. It was a drawn out, tremulous sound, somewhere between a groan of pain and a death rattle, and it made the hair on Omar’s arms instantly stand on end. He spun in his seat and looked behind him.

In the deep shadows at the back of the room, two figures stood. Omar stared, trying to make them out. Finally their forms resolved, and he saw to his horror that they were Tameem and Basem, exactly as they had been in high school, except for one thing: they were dead. Or they should have been. Tameem’s throat was opened from ear to ear. His skin was alabaster pale, and blood stained his clothing down to his bare feet.

As for Hani, his head was half crushed, flattened on one side and broken open, so that his brains were visible.

It had been Tameem who moaned, because he opened his mouth and did it again. The sound sent a shudder all through Omar’s body. The boy was trying to speak, Omar realized. Trying to answer the principal’s non-question, maybe. But he could form no words, because his throat gaped open like a papaya with a wedge cut from it.

Tameem and Basem’s eyes fixed on Omar, and they both stepped forward, their expressions sorrowful and pleading. Omar tried to leap to his feet but the school desk seemed to have shrunk and his legs were stuck. He yelled in terror and panic. The two dead youths took another step forward.

* * *

He woke up shouting. He lay in a strange bed, his legs tangled in the sheets. Looking around in confusion, he realized where he was: the Click Clack Hotel. He was still in Bogotá. The glowing digital clock on the nightstand said 4:16 am. His alarm would go off in an hour. Three and a quarter hours until his flight.

He thought about the dream. He hadn’t had a nightmare in many years. Seeing Hani again must have brought back memories of the bad old days at IIAP, before the Day of the Dogs. Now he almost wished he could cancel the invitation he’d extended. But that wouldn’t be right.

He rose from bed. Time to shower and pray Fajr. Time to go home.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 9:  All We Have to Do

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.

Avatar

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading
..

MuslimMatters NewsLetter in Your Inbox

Sign up below to get started

Trending