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15 Signs Your MSA is Just a Social/Cultural Club




The Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) in the United States or Islamic Societies (Isoc) in the United Kingdom at colleges, universities, and (increasingly) high schools play a significant — sometimes even pivotal — role in Islamic development of Muslim youth. The impact of the MSA can be so decisive, in fact, that Muslim adolescents and their parents should factor in a college’s Muslim community and MSA in deciding whether or not to attend that school.

Unfortunately, many MSAs around the country have a tendency to devolve into little more than social or cultural clubs. This is related to the problem of “cliquishness,” a general problem that plagues not only MSAs, but also mosques. But the problem is deeper than that.

The fact of the matter is, the very idea of a group of people getting together for the purpose of increasing and improving their worship of God is just weird. These kinds of groups don’t typically exist in the college environment or society at large, for that matter. The only two reasons young people in college typically get together in a group is to 1) socialize and network on the basis of some shared interest or ethnic background, or 2) organize for a particular social justice cause. “Worship of and devotion to God” don’t fit into either of those categories, so MSAs tend to minimize or disregard the devotional aspect — which should really be the whole purpose of the MSA — and instead implicitly, if not explicitly, make the MSA all about socializing.

Has your MSA fallen into this trap?

Just like individuals, organizations can also have an underlying intention (niyya). And since the merits of actions are based on their intentions, as the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) has told us, it behooves us to uncover the true intentions behind our MSAs and to purify any defects we find.

The difficulty is that intentions are not always manifest. They can be hidden. For example, socializing is an important part of worshiping Allah. As Muslims, we should be connecting with others, and the MSA should be facilitating that in the right way. But is the intention behind that socialization sound, i.e., ultimately for the sake of Allah? Or something else?

To help you diagnose the state of your MSA’s “heart,” so to speak, here are the top 15 signs that your MSA might really be nothing more than a social/cultural club. If many of these signs apply to your MSA, then something is wrong.

15 Signs That Your MSA/Isoc is Just a Social Club

1. Your MSA does not have regular study circles dedicated to educating MSA members on the bare essentials of faith and practice (fiqh of salah, fasting, etc., basic pillars of iman and aqidah, tajweed, etc.). If your MSA doesn’t have anyone qualified on campus to teach these subjects, no effort is made or funding is dedicated to bring qualified people to campus to teach said subjects.

2. Your MSA does not organize congregational prayer (e.g., fajr, isha, etc.) other than Friday prayers.

3. Your MSA does not have a sustained dawah effort directed toward the student body at large, for both non-Muslims AND Muslims.

4. The bulk of the MSA budget revolves around funding dinner events, socials, mixers, etc.

5. Your MSA’s annual Islam Awareness Week/Month is mostly comprised of culture- and social-based programming, e.g., henna-tattoo booths, “ethnic food” tasting, ethnic garb “fashion shows”, Middle Eastern music and poetry, ice cream socials, etc.

6. Your MSA refrains from getting involved in “politics” when it comes to “controversial” issues like Palestine, #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, raising the minimum wage for university employees, etc., but has no hesitation co-sponsoring/endorsing events with LGBT groups, campus Democrats/Republicans, anything related to “denouncing Islamic extremism,” other events/causes that have mainstream support but are no less political in nature.

7. Your MSA’s number one priority is being “more welcoming” and “more inclusive,” but the desired inclusivity is clearly catering towards a very specific demographic or clique.

8. According to your MSA, being “more inclusive” invariably means being “less conservative.” No one talks about inclusivity in terms of, for example, being more welcoming to the disabled, to black students, to students of different socio-economic backgrounds, to international or foreign exchange students, to people in surrounding communities, to the homeless and the needy who may live near campus and who would love to be invited to an MSA event and would be very grateful for a free meal, etc.

9. Your MSA’s dedicated prayer space or musalla on campus is always a mess and is primarily used as a storage closet (storing all the food supplies/utensils needed for the annual dinners, banquets, etc.).

10. Your school is one of the few that has a full-time Muslim chaplain, but he or she is not utilized for any recurring MSA programming other than Friday prayer or token interfaith events. His/her office hours are usually unattended.

11. Your MSA is events-based and has no long term roadmap that extends beyond the present year, let alone 4 years in the future after all current members have graduated. Social clubs, after all, are about friendships, networking, and having fun in the present and don’t need to build towards anything larger in the future.

12. You never hear from Muslim alumni and few if any Muslim alumni care to “give back” to the MSA by donating funds or getting involved in any other way. If the only value said alumni got from the MSA was socializing with Muslim friends, it’s no surprise they’re not inspired to make contributions to what they see as just another social club. After all, their Muslim friends graduated with them, so why bother?

13. Casual gender mixing is the norm for your MSA, at events, at internal organizational meetings, etc. Most of your MSA members, even board members, openly flirt, go to each others’ dorm rooms, eat meals with each other on what can only be described as “group dates,” and no one thinks twice about any of that.

14. Your MSA doesn’t even consider organizing gender-specific activities, e.g., “Sisters’ Quran Study,” “Sisters’ Bowling Night,” “Brothers’ Qiyam Night,” “Brothers’ Pizza Social,” etc. The mindset is, why split people up when everyone can have fun together?

15. Your MSA thinks that inculcating bonds and developing deep friendships are ends in themselves, rather than understanding that those things are just means towards what should be the true purpose of the MSA.


Ultimately, if you are on the executive board of your MSA or just an active member, ask yourself one question: If all the MSA provides is a social outlet, what value does that provide to Muslims (or non-Muslims) on campus? College life provides endless opportunities to socialize, so yet another social club, even if Muslim-flavored, does not provide much additional value to students on campus.

But what if there were a campus organization that offered students the opportunity to get closer to their Creator? An organization that offered the opportunity for spiritual enrichment and true peace in difficult and confusing times? That would be something truly valuable — something that can’t be provided by just another social or cultural club.

Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Email Daniel here .



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    December 15, 2015 at 4:42 PM

    And what would be your solution aside from asking rhetorical questions and implying only that there is something wrong? Thanks for pointing out 15 possible problems and 15 possible things every MSA supposedly should be doing but what else?

    Ive been the president of an MSA and Allah knows it isnt easy to both maintain and carry an organization to the next level. My year was acceptable Alhamdulillah but there is a disconnect between those who know and those who simply criticize. Even during my year MSAs were being spat on for being social clubs and places to hookup and it smeared those who try so hard to do the right thing. Even so called scholars and shiekhs and teachers ran their mouths with nothing to back themselves. All talk and no solutions.

    I agree that the MSAs have gone downhill and have issues – I actually agree with a lot of the “signs” – but this is no better than the high minded talk of the past that I had to debunk and fight alongside the ever present fight to stay legitimate within the college system itself. Events are such a problem because the MSA is either always on the defensive or hesitant to take the offensive on issues. We are the medium between the Masjid and the home.

    MSAs dont hold the responsibilities of the Masjid but rather to provide alternatives. MSAs dont hold the responsibilities of the home to teach children and stop them from drinking and going out and hooking up and bringing them back to prayer. The MSA is an association, an organization for Muslim support and dawah, not a Christian group backed by a church hell bent on converting each and every last lost college youth in sight.

    We cant smile that sweet smile, put our arm around their trembling shoulders and slowly shove a bible down their throats like cake to a fat child.

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      Daniel Haqiqatjou

      December 15, 2015 at 7:22 PM

      Recommendations are embedded in the questions themselves. E.g., if the musalla is a storage closet, recommendation is to clean it up and use it and conceive of it as what it is meant for: a prayer space.

      I was part of one MSA or another for over 10 years, as a high school student, college student, then grad student, so I am very familiar with the variety challenges that MSAs face. Everything goes back to intention. Those MSAs that have a clear understanding of their purpose and mission on campus are the most successful.

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      December 16, 2015 at 3:47 PM

      The point of an MSA is to provide spiritual enrichment to students. However these social aspects you highlight I don’t see as problems. In fact, I argue they are what makes MSA’s special. It creates a community, a family, and a backbone at the most impressionable and pivotal time in a young adults life. These social “dates” are better then members of the muslim community going out with people who don’t have the same cultural or religious backgrounds. The inclusivity of more liberal muslims is not a hinderance at all. In fact it pushes the boundary of thought within the community, and opens discussions on a deeper level of why people do what they do or are the way they are. Religious circles, talks and so forth are important, and they exist. But the social outlet is one of the best qualities of every MSA. Within non student based muslim communities there is a surge of traditional boundedness that retracts from the exploration needed to grow as a person. Coming to college and having the MSA social outlet, with people who grew up under similar backgrounds provides a necessary element to individual growth as well as communal growth. Deen is found within ones self, and if MSA’s provide the same environment that we find at home there is no further growth, or point. We learn from one another, make mistakes with one another, and learn why islam is so important through our social interactions, and the mistakes we make. Also, the social element of MSA’s draws more people from the community. Without that large social basis, MSA’s can loose their draw. I am not saying that having very social MSA’s and loosing the religious learning aspects is good. However I’m saying that it is just as important. A personal opinion, no offense intended.

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    December 15, 2015 at 7:39 PM

    assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

    I speak as a former executive member of an ISOC and someone still regularly involved with my ISOC.

    Many of the points resonate with me and articulate many of the frustrations that I have/hold about ISOCs.

    The problem is that ISOCs/MSAs cannot be the means to raise the thinking and spirituality of others, until those taking part in the ISOCs/MSAs do so FIRST themselves.

    Therefore as it is implicit in the article; IF tomorrow the ISOCs/MSAs were to become organisations that were more than a Muslim flavoured culture club then ISOCs/MSAs would collapse overnight as there would be no one interested in them.

    This is not to say that ISOCs/MSAs do not do any good; for many this halal socialisation easies the pressure to do harm. But you could easily argue that if the spirituality of the Muslims was developing and this was the focus then the pressure to do harm would not be such a problem in the first place. As you can see we start to go around in circles.

    My conclusion on the matter is that if YOU as an individual who sees this problem and wants to do something about it, then you FIRST need to seek Allah’s help and put in effort to come closer to Allah and thus become a light for others as well. Doing this will mean the situation starts to change, we will start to take useful (even if small) steps in the right direction and people will be positively influenced even if by one person to begin with and insha Allah this will only then spread. A group is only made from its individuals, even if one individual goes in the right direction, in deed Allah is the one to put in barakah (blessings)!

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    December 15, 2015 at 11:11 PM

    See all these are problems if you consider MSA to be a masjid/Islamic school replacement. Which I don’t believe it is. To me MSA is a “Muslim flavored social club” which gives people an opportunity to hand out with people of similar values.
    In university where all your other class mates are involved in drinking, partying and clubbing having a Muslim based club is priceless (something people on the outside fail to realize).
    It is an imperfect organization run by imperfect Muslims for imperfect Muslims. But Alhmdulillah my personal university career is a lot better of because if it.

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      December 15, 2015 at 11:46 PM

      I think the idea he’s getting at is that these are religious organizations first and foremost and they should be treated as such. It is the responsibility of MSA members to engage in dawah, to be engaged in activism, to keep each other guided on the straight path. There is nothing wrong, if I understand the writer, with some socializing (in the bounds of Islam) as long as it’s not becoming the focus of the organization which a lot of times it is. I’ve gone to Eid banquets where they have women, non-Muslim, dressed scantily, dancing for the audience and having these cultural fashion shows and they have nothing to do with Islam or even being remotely appropriate. So yeah, socialize with each other, hang out, have fun. But remember that these are religious organizations and there’s still a responsibility to be had with that.

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      Daniel Haqiqatjou

      December 16, 2015 at 3:32 PM

      I agree that “hanging out with people of similar values” is important, but what are Islamic values in the first place? What if Muslims on campus have a limited or only partial understanding of Islamic values? Shouldn’t the MSA play some role in facilitating learning such values, or practicing such values? Being consistent with prayer is an important Islamic value — is the MSA facilitating isha and fajr prayer on the regular? Helping the needy is an important Islamic value — is the MSA facilitating volunteer activity at local soup kitchens?

      If all the MSA strives to do is put in touch people with “similar values,” that is a pretty low bar to set. And, from my experience, it usually just means putting people of a certain ethnicity in touch more than anything.

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    December 16, 2015 at 2:52 PM

    By Allah’s grace I was blessed with having a “conservative” MSU. We always had some version or another of a halaqa or quran class going on, dawah efforts were on the forefront, always gender separated events, Quran competitions, but the main focus of the group was the prayer. The athan would be given three times a day (zuhr, asr, maghrib) and whether Shia or Sunni we would pray side to side. During my years, it proved amazing. It was what saved me. My MSU taught me fiqh and tajweed, it had spiritual sessions with amazing Sheikhs ( eg.Hassan El Wan ). I am not saying it was perfect, but if you want a model of an MSA to look at and emulate, look at UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union.

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    December 17, 2015 at 8:29 PM

    I am writing as a veteran of an ‘imperfect’ Islamic society of a uk university. Yes, I agree with many of the points raised in the article that we committee members should have done more to promote Islamic values, and believe me that was the intention we started out with. But I also agree with the points made in the comments that even if these societies become more like social clubs, they do serve a purpose of providing Muslim students a place to interact with like minded people away from the pressures of drinking alcohol, sex and drugs and other lifestyle choices which are all too prevalent on University campuses. I remember some Muslim students coming to me and saying that they felt excluded and judged which is why they did not come to the Islamic Student Society events. This is why I think at every campus there should be two societies: a Muslim Society which would provide more social and cultural events and support, and an Islamic Society which would follow all the Islamic norms. Thus all the Muslim students would be catered for. We have to be realistic and realise that there are Muslims who come to University and lose their way and their faith and we need to prevent that by providing support and friendship rather than excluding and judging them.

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    Immad Ansari

    February 8, 2016 at 3:42 PM

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Br. Daniel

    Jazakalah Kheir for this piece of writing. I totally agree with you, and this seems like you looked into my mind. These are the same points that I have thought about and you have put them in a organized manner. I was the president for my MSA as a senior during my Undergrad and I tried to keep the MSA on the right track as I believed it to be. Due to that I got a lot heat from people but I am happy with myself. At the end of the day, I really think it is about the intention and the what people think MSA is there for.

  7. Pingback: As an MSA Term, Inclusivity is Overrated – Think MSA

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    Bilal Ansari

    April 20, 2017 at 8:00 AM

    Dear Br. Daniel,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with MSAs. I hope your experience has inspired you to join MSA National and work to bring about a culture of change. Truth is most MSAs are institutionally constituted as either a social club, identity club, or independent affiliated organization. This framework shapes mission and vision and limits intentionality of ‘spiritual enrichment’ which leaves ‘cultural fulfillment’ options. As a chaplain, I respect both and work to provide a healthy medium between both realities.

    To have a group of self identifying Muslims gather in one space to talk to each other can be a spiritually enriching experience. If such conversations bring about deeper understanding and commitment to support each other or good causes. Believe it or not study circles are not a testimony or measure to a spiritually healthy community, especially if aqidah is taught while the communal need is other than creedal theology.

    This article I think is a great conversation starter to a larger conversation about pastoral care of MSAs. Who is the shepherd responsible to God for the flock of MSAs? If the answer is the MSA student leadership than one can not blame the limited social nature of these MSAs. However, if the answer is that this kiffayah is upon trained leaders, such as chaplains, than we are responsible to build the appropriate infrastructure to build such change. MSA West I believe is actively pursuing the latter and I believe will lead the way forward to a healthy middle way between cultural and religious enrichment on our colleges and university campus, with God’s assistance.

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    April 20, 2017 at 9:46 AM

    After Salah, MSA was and still is a place to find/meet what Allah has written for you. Access to Muslim women maybe in short supply in your life. Going to MSA is part of tying your camel. When you desire something, you go where your desire is.

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    April 20, 2017 at 3:32 PM

    It was mostly a waste of time reading this self-righteous, salafi-inspired diatribe. The validity of #6 and the need to be a social justice organization is lost amongst the other 15 judgmental, proselytizing, and veiled homophobic and sexist “signs.”

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      Ahmad B.

      June 2, 2017 at 6:43 PM

      Get a grip. How is Daniel’s article “self-righteous” (he’s trying to offer sincere advice to Muslims about topics of ultimate importance), and how is it “salafi inspired” (everything he says accords with very mainstream positions in the deen, not just salafi ones)? As for #6, he is criticizing MSAs precisely for NOT being justice oriented enough when it comes to these lesser profile issues. As for partnering with LGBT groups, it makes no sense to partner up with a group dedicated to normalizing a lifestyle and identity fundamentally at odds with one’s faith. That’s not “homophobic,” just principled. And where do you see even the slightest hint of sexism?

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    April 21, 2017 at 11:35 AM

    It’d also be appreciated if you considered people other than Wahhabis/Salafis like yourself Muslim. You talk about inclusivity and minorities, but MUSLIM minorities are severely underrepresented and not all those portions of Islam (yes they are equally Muslim as you) feel a lot of this is true. Especially about gender mixing. Just think twice before posting holier than thou messages.

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    May 11, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    MSAs talk about Palestine all the time but never about kashmir

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    A Muslim

    December 27, 2017 at 3:29 AM

    This article has some great points but some of the points have nothing to do with Islam. The point of MSA should be to bring Muslims together and to inform people (Muslims AND non-Muslims) about what Islam is. It should be a place for students to ask questions that they might be uncomfortable discussing elsewhere. MSAs need to be much less clique-y especially in regards to race. All that should matter is that we are all creations of Allah. I really do not understand the merit behind having separate male and female socials/meetings/lectures. Separating men and women is not mentioned in the Quran and Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) never mentioned this in any hadith. Yes, men and women need to lower their gaze and be modest but there is no rule that men and women need to be separated. If men want to talk to men they should do so and if women want to talk to women they should do so. We see men and women on a daily basis in our classes and such. It is our decision who we talk to. Men and women will separate on their own if they want to. But if a man or woman from MSA flirts, he/she will do it regardless of whether the MSA is segregated or not. We should be making decisions as Muslims regardless of our environment. I would like to point out that friendships with our fellow Muslims are ends in themselves. There are some amazing hadiths about friendships such as “Try to have as many as possible true friends, for they are the supplies in joy and the shelters in misfortunes.” (Bihar-ul-Anwar). We need friends from MSA because they can keep us closer to Islam. I would argue that one of the many true purposes of MSA is to “Associate” with other Muslims. We should try to keep in mind that at the end of the day, we are all Muslims so instead of judging our fellow Muslims and thinking that you are superior to them, create change instead of creating negative perceptions on others.

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Why I Turned to Tech to Catch Laylatul Qadr

Make sure you maximize your sadaqah





By Ismael Abdela

My life, just like yours, is sooo busy. So naturally, as the tech nerd I am, I turn to tech to help me manage my regular routine including project management apps to manage my daily tasks. I even have a sleeping app that wakes me up at the optimum time (whatever that means!). But even though tech has changed everything in all sectors and helped make efficiencies in my daily life, it had had little impact on my religious activities.

A few years ago, whilst I was preparing for the last 10 nights of Ramadan, it hit me – why doesn’t something exist that automates my donations during these blessed nights to catch Laylatul Qadr. Rather than putting a reminder on my phone to bring out my bank card every night and inputting it into a website – why doesn’t something exist that does it for me, solving the problem of me forgetting to donate. After all we are human and it’s interesting that the Arabic word for human being is ‘insan’ which is derived from the word ‘nasiya’ which means ‘to forget.’ It is human nature to forget.

So the techie in me came out and I built the first scrappy version of MyTenNights, a platform to automate donations in the last 10 nights of Ramadan (took two weeks) because I wanted to use it myself! I thought it would be cool and my friends and family could use it too. That same year, nearly 2000 other people used it – servers crashed, tech broke and I had to get all my friends and Oreo (my cat) to respond to email complaints about our temperamental site!

I quickly realised I wasn’t alone in my need  – everyone wanted a way to never miss Laylatul Qadr! Two years down the line we’ve called it MyTenNights, and our team has grown to 10, including Oreo, senior developers, QA specialists, brand strategists, creative directors and more. It fast became a fierce operation – an operation to help people all over the world catch Laylatul Qadr!

Last year alone we raised almost $2 million in just 10 days – and that was just in the UK. We’ve now opened MyTenNights to our American, Canadian. South African and Australian brothers and sisters and we’re so excited to see how they use it! We’ve made it available through all the biggest house name charities – Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Helping Hand, Penny Appeal, you name it! All donations go directly to the charity donors choose – all 100% of it.

Looking back at the last couple of years – it feels surreal: The biggest charities in the world and tens of thousands of users who share my need to be certain they’ve caught Laylatul Qadr. Although I hear many impressed with the sheer amount MyTenNights has raised for charity (and that excites me too!), it’s not what motives me to go on. What excites me most is the growing number of people who catch Laylatul Qadr because we made it easier.

I often tell my team that the number of people that use MyTenNights is the only metric we care about, and the only metric we celebrate. It makes no difference to us whether you donate $1 or a million – we just want you to catch Laylatul Qadr and for you to transform your Akhirah, because (after Allah) we helped you do it.

To catch Laylatul Qadr with MyTenNights, visit their website

Ismael Abdela is a Law & Anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics. He spent some years studying Islamic Sciences in Qaseem, Saudi Arabia. He is now a keen social entrepreneur. Ismael likes to write about spiritual reflections, social commentary, and tafsīr. He is particularly interested in putting religion in conversation with the social sciences.

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How Do Muslims Plan for Disability




Families with children with disability have an extraordinary set of challenges and blessings.  Disability (or special needs) is a broad term.

Many disabilities will prevent what we often think of as “normal.”  It may hinder or prevent educational opportunities, and employment. Many people with “special needs” can get educated, get married and live long and productive lives.  The problem for many parents of younger children with special needs is that they typically have no certainty about their children’s future needs. Even if the situation looks dire, it may not stay that way.  

How do parents plan for a world where they may not be around to see how things will end up for their special needs children?  What can they do to help their children in a way that does not violate Islamic Inheritance rules?

Certain types of disability, especially the loss of executive decision-making ability, could also happen well into adulthood.  This can be a threat to a family’s wealth and be the cause of internal conflicts. This is the kind of thing every adult needs to think about before it happens.  

The Problem

The issues are not just that parents believe their special needs child will need more inheritance than other children. Muslim parents usually don’t think that. Some parents don’t want their special needs child to get any inheritance at all.  Not because of any ill-will against their special needs child; just the opposite, but because they are afraid inheritance will result in sabotaging their child’s needs-based government benefits.    

Many, perhaps most special needs children do not have any use for needs-based benefits (benefits for the poor).  But many do, or many parents might figure that it is a distinct possibility. This article is a brief explanation of some of the options available for parents of special needs children.  It won’t go over every option, but rather those that are usually incorporated as part of any Islamic Estate Planning.

Please Stand By

Example:  Salma has three daughters and two sons.  One of her children, Khalida, 3, has Down Syndrome.  At this point, Salma knows that raising Khalida is going to be an immense challenge for herself, her husband Rashid and all the older siblings.  What she does not know, however, is what specific care Khalida is going to need through her life or how her disability will continue to be relevant. She does not know a lot about Khalida’s future marriage prospects, ability to be employed and be independent, though obviously like any parent she has nothing but positive hopes for her child’s life.   

In the event of her death, Salma wants to make sure her daughter gets her Islamic right to inheritance.  However, if Khalida needs public benefits, Salma does not want her daughter disqualified because she has her own money.

Her solution is something called a “stand-by special needs trust.” This type of trust is done in conjunction with an Islamic Inheritance Plan and is typically part of a living trust, though it could also be a trust drafted into the last will.  I will describe more about what a special needs trust is below. For Salma, she is the Trustee of her trust. After she dies, she names her husband (or someone else) the successor Trustee. The trust is drafted to prevent it from becoming an “available resource” used to determine eligibility for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid and other benefits that go with that.

If it turns out that Salma passes away when Khalida is 5, and her assets are held in trust for her until she is 18 and her Trustee determines she does not need a special needs trust, she will get her inheritance precisely like everyone else based on their Islamic right.  If she does need benefits, the Trustee will only make distributions to Khalida that would not harm her eligibility.

This way, there is no need to deny Khalida her inheritance because of her disability, and she is also making sure giving her daughter inheritance would not harm her daughter’s healthcare or other necessary support.  

Munir Vohra is a special needs advocate and an athlete

The Shape of Special Needs Trusts

A stand-alone Special needs trusts, which is sometimes called a “supplemental needs trust” the kind without the “stand-by” variation I described above, are a standard device for families that have children with special needs. A trust is a property ownership device. A Grantor gives the property to a Trustee, who manages the property for the benefit of a beneficiary. In a revocable living trust, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary are typically the same person.  

When the trust is irrevocable, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary may all be different people. In a special needs trust, the person with a disability is the beneficiary. Sometimes, the person with a disability is also the Grantor, the person who created the trust.  This might happen if there is a settlement from a lawsuit for example and the person with special needs wants it to be paid to the trust.  

In many if not most cases, the goal may not be to protect the beneficiary’s ability to get public benefits at all. Many people with a disability don’t get special government benefits.  But they do want to protect the beneficiaries from having to manage the assets. Some people are just more susceptible to abuse.

The structure of the arrangement typically reflects the complexity of the family, the desire of siblings and extended family to continue to be involved in the care and attending to the needs of the person with a disability, even if they are not the person directly writing checks.   

Example: Care for Zayna

Example: Zayna is a 24-year-old woman with limited ability to communicate, take care of her needs and requires 24-hour care.  Zayna has three healthy siblings, many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her father, Elias, earns about $70,000 per year and is divorced. Zayna’s mother Sameena cannot contribute, as she is on social security disability. However, Zayna’s adult brother and sisters, brother in laws, sister in law and several aunts, uncles want to help Zayna meet her needs E.lyas creates a third party special needs trust that would ensure Zayna has what she needs in the years to come.

Zayna receives need-based public benefits that are vital to her in living with her various disabilities and her struggle to gain increasing independence, knowledge and dignity.  So the trust needs to be set up and professionally administered to make sure that when Zayna gets any benefit from her trust, it does not end up disqualifying her ability to get any needs-based benefit.  

Contributions to the special needs trust will not go against Islamic Inheritance rules unless made after the death of the donor.

If Zayna dies, her assets from the special needs trust will be distributed based on the Islamic rules of inheritance as it applies to her.

When disability planning is not about Public Benefits

Perhaps most families with special needs children do not use any needs-based public assistance.  They are still concerned about special needs and planning for it.

Example:  Khadija, 16, is on the autism spectrum. For those familiar with the autism spectrum, that could mean a lot of things.  For her parents, Sarah and Yacoob, other than certain habits that are harmless and easy to get used to, it means Khadija is very trusting of people. Otherwise, she does well in school, and her parents don’t think she needs way more help than her siblings and she has just as good a chance of leading a healthy and productive life as any 16-year-old girl.  

The downside of being too trusting is that the outside world can exploit her.  If she ends up getting inheritance or gifts, she may lose it. The parents decide that when she gets her inheritance, it will be in a trust that would continue through her life.  There will be a trustee who will make sure she has what she needs from her trust, but that nobody can exploit her.

In some ways, what Khadija’s parents Sarah and Yacoob are doing is not so different from what parents might do if they have a child with a substance abuse problem.  They want to give their child her rights, but they don’t want to allow for exploitation and abuse.

Considering your own needs

There are many people who are easy marks for scammers, yet you would be unlikely to know this unless you are either a close friend or family member, or a scammer yourself.  While this often happens to the elderly, it can happen at just about any age. Everyone should consider developing an “incapacity plan” to preserve their wealth even if they lose their executive decision-making ability.   

There is this process in state courts known as “conservatorship.” Indeed, entire courtrooms dedicate themselves to conservatorships and other mental health-related issues.  It is a legal process that causes an individual to lose their financial or personal freedom because a court has essentially declared them not competent to handle their affairs. Conservatorships are a public process.  They can cause a lot of pain embarrassment and internal family strife.

One of the benefits of a well-drafted living trust is to protect privacy and dignity during difficult times.

Example: Haris Investing in Cambodian Rice Farms

Haris, 63, was eating lunch at a diner.  In the waiting area, he became fast friends with Mellissa; a thirty-something woman who was interested in talking about Haris’s grandchildren.  The conversation then turned Melissa and her desire to start a business selling long distance calling cards. Haris was fascinated by this and thought it made good business sense. Haris gave Mellissa $20,000.00. The two exchanged numbers. The next day, Mellissa’s number was disconnected.

Haris’s wife, Julie became alarmed by this.  It was out of character for her husband to just fork over $20,000 to anyone on the spur of the moment.  What was worse is that the business failed immediately.  

Three months later,  Haris meets Mellissa at the diner again.  She then convinces Haris to invest $50,000 in a Cambodian rice farm, which he does right away.   His wife Julie was pretty upset.

How living trusts helps

As it happened though, Haris, a few years before, created a living trust.  It has a provision that includes incapacity planning. There are two essential parts to this:  The first is a system to decide if someone has lost their executive decision-making ability. The second is to have a successor Trustee to look over the estate when the individual has lost this capacity.  This question is about Haris’s fundamental freedom: his ability to spend his own money.

If you asked Haris, he would say nothing is wrong with him.  He looks and sounds excellent. Tells the best dad jokes. He goes to the gym five times a week and can probably beat you at arm wrestling. Haris made some financial mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.

Julie, and his adult children Haroon, Kulsum, Abdullah, and Rasheeda are not so sure it’s just a mistake.  The living trust created a “disability panel.” This panel gets to vote, privately, in if Haris should continue to act as Trustee of his own money.  If they vote that he should not manage his own money, his wife does it for him.

The family has a way to decide an important and sensitive issue while maintaining Haris’ dignity, privacy and wealth.   Haris’s friends don’t know anything about long distance calling cards or a Cambodian rice farm; they don’t know he lost his ability to act as Trustee of his trust.  Indeed the rest of the world is oblivious to all of this.

Planning for everyone

Islamic inheritance is fard and every Muslim should endeavor to incorporate it into their lives.  As it happens it is an obligation Muslims, at least those in the United States, routinely ignore or deal with inadequately.  However, there is more to planning than just what shares go to whom after death. Every family needs to create a system. There may or may not be problems with children or even with yourself (other than death, which will happen), but you should do whatever you can to protect your family’s wealth and dignity while also fulfilling your obligations to both yourself and your family.

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Should Spiritual Leaders Who Violate Our Trust Be Forgiven?

Some people want to move past the indiscretions of community leaders quickly as though they never occurred while others wish to permanently blacklist them. This article examines a third option between the two that can be a win-win for the fallen leader, the victims, and the community.




In the past couple of years, a number of simmering scandals among spiritual leaders became public knowledge and the subject of vigorous and often painful public debate.  As someone who has worked in the community dawah space the past 15 years, often acting as a bridge between past and present microcelebrity as well as non-celeb teachers to the community at large, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly – should community leaders who violate our trust be forgiven?  I’m often asked by people who aren’t fanboys / fangirls taken by microcelebrity dawah culture or wearing spiritual blinders for non-celebs, and often don’t even understand what has occurred.  Below I share answers I have heard as well as what I believe is fair and pragmatic in many (not all) situations.

Answer #1:  Yes, We Must Forgive Them

One group of people argue we should completely forgive them. No one is perfect, everyone is human and makes mistakes.  If we assume the mistake was truly made, then we should also forgive them and move on. Our faith is replete with statements about Allah’s Mercy, and if we want His Mercy, surely we should also give it to others. Oftentimes, members who fall into this group don’t actually believe the person in question is at fault and are trying to convince others either on the fence or against the individual to let it go. Of course, there are some who believe the violation occurred and not think it a big deal, while others may think the violation indeed was a big deal, and should still be forgiven. I can agree with some aspects of this, but not completely.

Answer #2:  No, They Should Never Be Forgiven

Another group believes that once a person commits a violation of trust, they are no longer to be trusted again. They should leave their positions and be ostracized from the community permanently. They are to be tarred and feathered and made an example of for life.  Members within this group oftentimes don’t need to wait for evidence to arrive at any conclusion – they were judge, jury, and executioner well before there was a trial.  Not all members are like this, of course – some waited for evidence and then reached their conclusions that the gravity of the charges was too much and therefore the person should never be forgiven.

Answer #3:  It Depends – Forgive Them If They Take Ownership and Make Amends

In my view, the problem with the first group is they don’t often see that the person did anything wrong, or if they did, it’s trivial relative to the khayr, the good and benefit they bring to the community. They keep citing that Allah is forgiving, so we should forgive automatically, but in their haste, they forget that part of the process of making restitution is first sincerely regretting what one has done.

To sincerely regret, one must also move out of denial and into acceptance that they made a mistake. Once one admits failure, they can then ask to be forgiven, and then the aggrieved party is in a position to grant it. The community forgiving and re-integrating a person who refuses to take responsibility for their wrongdoing does neither them, their victims, nor the community any good. We continue to distrust the person and they continue to believe they can get away with whatever they wish because they are “special”. Victims fear community integration, everyone becomes cynical about religion, and the cause of calling people to become better worshippers of Allah is harmed.

On the flip side, the second group is far too extreme in their view of justice. To ostracize that person and leave them no path of return means they have no means to redeem themselves, and de facto their families are casualties who must deal with the fallout of being pushed out of the community. I agree that none of us are perfect, and we all often make egregious mistakes. In my own experience, there are many instances where activists who advocate publicly for better are often involved privately in worse than those they go after.

That being the case, there is no person that can’t be forgiven, and I would say we shouldn’t leave aside this possibility in our dealings with those who fail us just as we expect it when we ourselves fall short, sometimes seriously so. I would add that we would lose the skills and talent of that person – if we believe in allowing people with criminal histories back into the general population and providing them with opportunities to become productive, reformed citizens, I don’t see why we wouldn’t offer the same to our community and religious leaders.

The key I believe is in following a process which includes the following for the individual:

  1. Taking ResponsibilityThey own responsibility for the mistake and acknowledge it was made.  No amount of denial, minimization, and spin will suffice.
  2. Make Restitution:  First and foremost, they apologize and make amends as best they can with the victims.  If the issue went public, then they should apologize to those they were serving as a leader for their mistake as well. This includes handling financial compensation.
  3. Remediating Oneself:  Enroll in counseling, therapy, mentorship, and / or group support programs to help them overcome their issues.
  4. Being Held Accountable:  Work with others on concrete milestones of both behavior and programs that demonstrate their commitment to change.  Be able to show the community that they take reformation seriously and are committed to coming out of their mistake a better person, one who can even advise others of the mistake and how not to repeat it.

As someone who has worked in dawah and supported the ascension of numerous modern-day microcelebrity spiritual scholars and teachers, I and others like me act as a bridge between them and the community.  I do not speak for all of them, certainly, but I know that any leader who tries to re-integrate into the community without taking responsibility will continue to find that many will not support them. Most, in this case, feel a sacred duty to oppose their elephant-in-the-room integration to protect the community at large.

Likewise, I know that many like myself would be willing to overlook and forgive such individuals if they took responsibility for their behavior and demonstrated they were taking concrete steps to make amends for their mistakes.  The month of Ramadan is upon us, and sometimes one just has to rip the band-aid off, go through the process of feeling the pain of scrutiny for owning up, and then moving forward to forgiveness.  I won’t promise it’s easy or that everyone will change, but I can at least say many of us would have an easier time accepting individuals back into the community.

What’s your view on these situations?

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