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15 Signs Your MSA is Just a Social/Cultural Club

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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 .

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Flint

    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.

    • Avatar

      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.

    • Avatar

      Z

      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.

  2. Avatar

    Abdul

    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)!

  3. Avatar

    S

    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.

    • Avatar

      C

      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.

    • Avatar

      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.

  4. Avatar

    Ahmad

    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.

  5. Avatar

    F

    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.

  6. Avatar

    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

  8. Avatar

    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.

  9. Avatar

    Yusuf

    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.

  10. Avatar

    Samia

    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.”

    • Avatar

      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?

  11. Avatar

    X

    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.

  12. Avatar

    Khawaja

    May 11, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    MSAs talk about Palestine all the time but never about kashmir

  13. Avatar

    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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#Life

How To Be Positive In Hard Times

Amina Malik, Guest Contributor

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How to be Positive

We all know that we should be grateful. And we definitely know that we should be certain that whatever happens is good for us as believers. However, when we are tested -as we inevitably are-, many of us crumble. Why is that? Why are we not able to ‘pass’ these tests, so to speak? Many of us after a tragedy become hapless, sad, depressed, angry, or bitter.

The essence lies in knowledge that is beneficial, and the best form of knowledge is that which an individual can apply to their day-to-day life on their own. Here are a few tips to increase your patience in hard times. Like building muscle at the gym, it takes time to exercise this habit, but becomes easier over time:

Manage Stress:

Unfortunately, stressful events are abundant in our lives. People under stress can find themselves falling into thinking errors. These thinking errors include -but are not limited to-: black and white thinking, mind-reading, self-criticism, negative filtering and catastrophizing. Together this can affect how we perceive reality. Next time you are tempted to make a catastrophe out of a situation, stop and ask your self two questions:

  • Is this really a big deal in the larger scheme of things?
  • Are there any positives in this situation?

Have a Realistic Perspective of Qadr:

Although it is part of our creed to believe in divine destiny, personal responsibility is still of importance and we cannot simply resign ourselves to fate; especially if we have some sort of influence over a situation.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Quran:

لَهُ مُعَقِّبَاتٌ مِّن بَيْنِ يَدَيْهِ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِ يَحْفَظُونَهُ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۗ وَإِذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ بِقَوْمٍ سُوءًا فَلَا مَرَدَّ لَهُ ۚ وَمَا لَهُم مِّن دُونِهِ مِن وَالٍ 

For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah. Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. [Surah Ar-Ra’d;11]

This puts the responsibility on us to change ourselves. Notice the word, themselves. We are not responsible for events beyond our control. These events include the behavior of our spouses, the affinity of our children to the religion, the love in the hearts of people, the weather, the gender of our child (or how many we have), or even the amount of money we will earn in a lifetime -to name a few. Often we become stuck and focus on our conditions, rather than focusing on our own behavior.

Nourish Positive Thinking:

How to Be PositiveIn order to be able to have a wise and calculated response to life’s events, we must learn to interpret these events in a way that assign positive meaning to all. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is after all, how we perceive Him to be. Shaytan interferes with this process through waswaas (interjecting thoughts that are based on negativity and falsehood). His goal is for the Muslim to despair in Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy. The goal is not to be happy all the time; this is unrealistic. The goal is to think well of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as consistently as possible.

  • Create a list of what you are grateful to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) for daily.
  • Remind yourself everyday of the positive aspects of situations when your mind falls to default negative thinking. Self-criticism will will only encourage you to take full responsibility for negative life events and become depressed, or at the opposite end take no responsibility whatsoever; either mind-set does not help us improve our self.

Remind yourself as well as others of the benefits of Positivity:

  •  On an individual level, once we begin to think positive about ourselves and our life, we become optimistic. This positivity will then also effect our perception of others. We become more forgiving, over-looking, and patient with others when we can see the positives in any situation.
  • Increased rizk and feelings of well-being
  • Reduced likelihood of reacting in a negative way to life’s events; increased patience.
  • Increased likelihood of finding good opportunities in work, relationships and lifestyle.
  • Higher energy levels and motivation to take on acts of khayr and benefit.

10 Steps to Happiness!

Practice self-care as a daily routine:

Our bodies have rights on us. Our souls have rights on us. Our family has rights on us. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has rights on us. Often, when there is an imbalance in one area, our whole being can sense it. This creates anger and resentment towards those around us and life in general.

  • Take care of your body, feed it well and in moderation and exercise in a way that makes you feel relaxed.
  • Pray your prayers, read the Quran, maintain the rights Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and your own soul have on you.
  • Take care of your tongue by avoiding back-biting and complaining.
  • Take regular showers, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and wear clean clothes; even if you are at home.
  • Take care of your mind by doing dhikr as much as possible and letting go consciously of ruminating on situations.

A Powerful Dua for Happiness

Do not over-rely on your emotions:

Our emotions are a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts can be affected by slight changes in the environment such as the weather, or even whether or not we have eaten or slept well.

 

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ 

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” [Surah Al-Baqarah;216]

How To be PositiveUltimately, our perception can be manipulated by our thoughts, shaytan, and other factors. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is not limited in His perceptions due to stress, emotions, or circumstances and moods. Therefore, we should be humble to defer our judgements to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) ever-lasting judgement. Far from naval gazing, the more we are aware of our internal perceptions, emotions, and motives, the more able we are to practice Islam in its full essence. Our forefathers understood this deeply, and would regularly engage in self-assessment which gives you a sense of understanding and control of your own thoughts, emotions and actions.

The Art of Overcoming Negativity

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#Culture

Go Visit Bosnia

Amad Abu Reem

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Visit Bosnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Bosnia, Visit Bosnia

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

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

Sarajevo

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

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

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

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

Visit Bosnia

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

 

 

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

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

Visit Bosnia

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

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

Visit Bosnia

A view from Hecco Deluxe Hotel, Bosnia

Visit Bosnia

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

Watering hole structure for stray cats and dogs

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

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

Vrelo Bosne:

 

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

Visit Bosnia

Museum Tunnel of War:

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

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

Blagaj

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

Travnik

Visit Bosnia

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

Jajce

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

Mostar

Visit Bosnia

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

 

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

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

Visit Bosnia

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

Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica

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

Bosnia

Srebrenica

Visit Bosnia

Srebenica, Bosnia

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Woodcrafts in Konjic, Bosnia

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

Visit Bosnia

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

Visit Bosnia, Sunnyland

Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.

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#Life

Mindful or Mind-full? Going From AutoPilot to Aware

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Mindful

Modeling Mindfulness

Mindfull

“Remember that God knows what is in your souls, so be mindful of Him.”

[Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:235]

Mindful or Mind-full?

Ever felt frustrated when you were trying to talk to your spouse, your children, your students, or your youth group and they would just not pay attention? This is a prime example of being on autopilot and getting carried away without actually being aware of what is most important in the present moment.

A recent Harvard study shows that our minds are not present in the moment and wander about 47% of the time1. In a world of technology and continuous sensory overload, the lines between work and home, friends and family, necessity vs. purpose, world-centric vs. Allah-centric have become blurred. We are either living in the past or ruminating about the future, and in the process, we are forgetting to live, enjoy, cherish, and make the most of our present moments.

For parents, teachers, youth leaders, and anyone in the beautiful role of guiding, teaching, coaching, or mentoring others, we can make a huge difference by modeling Mindfulness ourselves. But where do we start? The answer is to go from autopilot to becoming aware.

Autopilot to Aware

Being on autopilot is when you are distracted in the present moment, where your mind is wandering into the past or the future, and you are less aware of yourself, surroundings, or others. Autopilot can actually be pretty helpful for your regular habits. Waking up, brushing your teeth, getting ready for your day, going to school or work – many of the things we do habitually every day can be done more seamlessly without having to think, and that is a good thing. But there are times when you have to learn to turn off your autopilot to become aware. But how?

Here is a Mindfulness tool that can be done in just a minute or two for you to become more aware.

Step 1: Breath as a Tool. Say Bismillah. Focus on your breath. See where you experience the breath – the breathing in and breathing out of your body. Is your breath stemming from your nostrils, your chest, or your stomach? Just bring your attention to your breath and relax and stay with it there for a few moments.

Step 2: Body as a Tool. Relax your body. We carry so many emotions in our bodies2. Our stress from the past or anticipation for the future sometimes finds its way into our necks, other times in our chest muscles or our backs. Pay attention to what emotions and sensations do you feel, and try to relax all parts of your body.

Step 3: Intention as a Tool. As you have centered your thoughts to the present moment through your breath and your body, ask yourself: “What is most important now? In this present moment?”

Just simply being aware makes us more mindful parents, teachers, youth and professionals – being aware makes us more Mindful of Allah SWT. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your mind and body and bring your attention to the present moment.

Mindful

Real Life in the Present Moment

You are an on-the-go parent: It has been a long day and you have to pick up the kids from school, but work is still pending. You’re picking up the kids from school, feeding them, and then shuffling everyone to their afterschool activities, be it Qur’an, softball, soccer, swimming, or the million other things that kids seem to have these days. You squeeze pending work in between drop-offs and pick-ups, and you function by living from one task to the next.

The Autopilot Impact: You’re getting a lot done, but are so engrossed in quickly moving your children along from one thing to another that you are unable to really cherish your time together.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: You can try to go from autopilot to awareness by focusing on your breath, paying attention to your emotions, and relaxing your body. As you do so, ask yourself: “What is most important now?” Make the intention to slow down, listen to the children more mindfully, and cherish and enjoy your time together.

You are a busy teacher: Last night you had to take all the grading home and spent two hours poring over students’ work. This morning, you woke up early to pick up some classroom supplies after dropping off your own kids to school. You’ve already had two cups of coffee and are trying to think through everything you have to do today. You like the idea of Mindfulness, living life in the present moment, and enjoying every day to its fullest, but your mind is not free to even enjoy the beautiful morning sunrise as you drive to school.

The Autopilot Impact: You want to listen and pay attention to every child’s needs, and enjoy the rewards of their growth, but you can’t. What’s more, you judge yourself for just trying to get through your activities for the day. You wish you could connect with your students better.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: Whenever you are stressed with an unpleasant parent or student interaction, think about breathing, relaxing your body, and asking what you need to focus on now. Try to do one thing at a time, and relax into what you’re doing.

You are an overstretched youth director: You are a role model. You have this major weekend event you are planning with the youth. Your budget is still pending from the board, you have to call all these people, have to get the graphics and remind everyone about the event, you have to visit all these masjids and MSAs to announce and remind people about the weekend.

This weekend’s theme is Living a Life of Purpose and you are super passionate about it. However, the whole week you have had a hard time remembering to even pray one Salah with focus. Instead, your mind has been preoccupied with all the endless planning for this weekend. You love what you do but you wonder how to also be mindful in your everyday worship while you are always prepping and planning engaging activities for the youth.

The Autopilot Impact: You enjoy shaping the youth but you are losing steam. You are always planning the next program and unable to focus on your own personal and spiritual development. It is difficult for you to pray even one salah without thinking about all the events and activities planned for that week.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: Get serious about taking some time for yourself. Know that becoming more mindful about your own prayers and self-development will also make you a better role model. Take a minute or two before every Salah to practice the simple, 3-Step Mindfulness Tool. You say Bismillah and breathe, focus your mind, and then relax your body. Empty your mind from everything else – what has past and what’s to come – and ask “What’s most important now?” to develop better focus in your Salah.

In Conclusion: Practice Simple but Solid Steps towards becoming more Mindful Muslims

Mindfulness is to open a window to let the Divine light in.

[Imam Al Ghazali]

Mindfulness gives us the ability to be aware. We can use Mindfulness tools to remember Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), refocus, renew our intentions, and engage with the present moment in a more effective and enjoyable way. Mindfulness also invites awareness of our potential negligence in being our best selves with both Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and His creation. To put it simply, being more aware of our selves can help us be better versions of our selves.

Mindfulness is both an art and a science, with brain and behavioral science research validating the importance of Mindfulness in improving our health, managing our stress, navigating our emotions, and positively impacting our lives3. In today’s modern and distracted world, let us treasure every tool that helps us center our attention on what matters the most.

  1. Bradt, Steve (2010). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
  2. Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111
  3. “What are the benefits of mindfulness,” American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx

To learn more about how to become mindful take the Define Course on Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence.

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