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Zakat, Poverty and the Kitchen Sink

Zakat, that economic act of worship often paid in Ramadan we regard as the third pillar of Islam, is increasingly becoming a hollow shell. A few examples:

An Imam is invited to give a seminar on Zakat at an Islamic Center serving an affluent neighborhood. The organizers ask him if he believes Zakat funds can be used for their Masjid construction project, he answers in the negative. He is disinvited.

Zakat is used to rent an expensive hotel conference space so that a panel of speakers can discuss current political issues.

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A major Muslim non-profit spends Zakat funds to pay a famous public figure thousands for an honorarium and a first-class flight to speak at its gala.

 

9_60

Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise. (9:60)

This oft-cited ayah of the Quran has eight categories of eligible recipients. The first two deal with poverty, the third is the one who collects and distributes Zakat and the others included are those in bondage or in debt and “those whose hearts are inclined” to champion the cause of Allah and the stranded traveler.

Poverty colors every other category. Zakat recipients need not always be poor of course. For example, refugees may be land barons but could benefit from Zakat all the same.

In the United States today, non-profits provide vital services that are often done by governments in other countries and are a significant portion of the economy. Tax benefits are provided to the non-profits and to those who donate – a recognition of their importance to society.

The Muslim non-profit sector includes places of worship, educational institutions, and service organizations. It employs much of the US Muslim community’s leadership, activists, teachers and other professionals and provides a system of conferences, symposiums, galas, buildings and a speaker circuit that educates and inspires many. This is all good. Many of these organizations take special care with Zakat contributions and do good work with them. However, many non-profits have found reasons to not take special care with Zakat. The American Muslim community should guard against this.

Why You Should Care

givePoverty is a continuing concern though it is often invisible to the well-off by design.  As Khaled Beydoun pointed out recently, a Pew study found 45% of American Muslims families earn less than $30,000 annually.  While the study did not measure poverty per se, this level is sufficiently close to poverty for many families.  The federal poverty guidelines are not a measure of Zakat eligibility; rather it is nisab, possession of 87.48 grams of gold (approximately $3500), which would not overlap perfectly with the guidelines. Around 34% of Americans have no savings at all to fall back on. Muslim community leaders all over the United States would attest to the many struggles of individuals and families who need help, brought on by illness, incarceration, displacement or a wide range of other chronic and transitional circumstances. Islam’s prescription for addressing these difficulties is Zakat. We help each other out as an act of worship. Just as prayer demonstrates how serious we are about our relationship with Allah, Zakat demonstrates how serious we are as a community.

Oversleeping for Fajr is considered bad even when no social harm comes from it. Misappropriated Zakat causes social harm. With Zakat there are often genuine differences of opinion among scholars that should be worked out and standards should be established for use of these funds. In other situations, its use is a clear grift that no scholar could rationalize.

Charitable giving  does not always help those in genuine need. Indeed, much of what passes as “charity” in the United States is merely giving donations for the benefit of the affluent. The poor are becoming increasingly numerous in the United States even as the non-profit sector continues to grow in size and strength.

There Will be Fatwas

Some non-profit organizations rely on the general sounding opinions of individual Islamic Scholars to validate their view that their own organization should receive Zakat. While there are differences of opinion among scholars, these differences can be exaggerated. Even if a donor is told a scholar agrees with a non-profit that a particular non-self-evident use of Zakat is acceptable, that should begin the inquiry and not end it.

Often the context of the Fatwa will be mixed up. A common example is using an opinion that justifies the construction of a Masjid in an impoverished or war-torn area to justify an expansion project of an existing Masjid in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Those are not the same thing.

A significant controversy concerning disbursement of Zakat comes from the phrase “in the path of Allah” as the kind of cause for which giving Zakat is acceptable. The debate arises as to whether this phrase in the Quran means something specific (the physical struggle of Jihad was the traditionally understood meaning), if it means somewhat more (yet still specific) in the modern context, or if it means there are no practical limits. The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to Zakat has become more popular among certain non-profits as everything they do can be viewed as a public good.

Zakat donors should be skeptical of “kitchen sink” claims, even while donating non-Zakat funds for organizations that do good work. The relevant verse in the Quran (9:60) is restrictive in terms of the categories that are allowed to receive Zakat. If every noble endeavor can be classified as “in the path of Allah,” then all other categories would be superfluous.

Some Muslim non-profits do not make public their rationale for accepting Zakat funds for their general budget. They just do it. Muslim Advocates for example, an organization that has done excellent work, makes the “Zakat-Eligible” claim without supporting it. Calls to the organization revealed they do not know why they make the claim, or can’t say. They are far from alone. This can be easily fixed as described below.

Inventing New Reasons to Take Zakat

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has been perhaps the most aggressive among Muslim non-profits in inventing novel rationalizations for accepting Zakat funds. The organization cites several categories on its website, explicitly including the entertainment awards galas they host as counting towards “those whose hearts are inclined.” Another reason they give is helping people be free of bondage, undoubtedly a permissible reason for giving Zakat. But what has MPAC done here? MPAC cites their work in the “Arab Spring” and “sustainable solutions for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

We confirmed with a call to MPAC that it has no solutions to the real problem of people in bondage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or anything else in those countries. MPAC’s work on the Arab Spring consisted of opining on current events, hosting panels in the US and participating in them. They also signed a petition to Egypt’s then President, asking him to oppose proposed wording of “Sharia” in that country’s constitution, as this would violate human rights. Political opposition to Sharia internationally as being a “Zakat-eligible” activity would seem to be the logical endpoint to this wild west state of affairs for Zakat in the United States. However, they went further, opining on how they “rejoice and celebrate” the military coup by General Sisi against the democratically-elected government they had previously petitioned.

The dictatorship they celebrated went on to commit one of the largest single day peacetime mass-killings of civilians in history, incarcerated and “disappeared” tens of thousands and engaged in systematic torture. Instead of working against bondage, as claimed, American Zakat was used to cheerlead a repressive military coup in another country. To their credit, unlike other organizations, MPAC is transparent about their Zakat use. This state of affairs of American Zakat is not primarily the fault of any one non-profit.

The privileging of Zakat funds for expenditures on ornate buildings in wealthy neighborhoods, expensive hotel conference spaces, panel discussions on politics, airline tickets, press releases of dubious value, interfaith networking, awards and honorariums for the already-affluent over the rights of those families and individuals in genuine need is a racket Muslim donors have been either tolerating or enabling for too long.

A Few Suggestions

1. Donors should be more purposeful about who they give Zakat to. Never accept a bald claim by a non-profit that donations are “Zakat-eligible” if the claim is not otherwise obvious to you (i.e. it is for the poor).  An independent, qualified scholar you respect should provide a specific, well-reasoned rationale to support such claims.

2. Muslim non-profits should collect Zakat. However, donation forms should allow donors to designate Zakat funds separately from other donations. Zakat funds must then be accounted for and disbursed with transparent policies different from general fund donations. Non-profits that accept grants are already used to this. Grants, like Zakat, are usually for specific, enumerated purposes and not for a general fund, so there should be no excuses. It’s fine to pay large honorariums to speakers at expensive hotel banquet halls or build nice buildings in affluent communities. Just don’t do it with Zakat.

3. Islamic scholars, leaders and activists in the non-profit sector should do more to protect the institution of Zakat and the rights of those in need. This starts with implementing best practices and addressing abuses taking place in the Muslim non-profit sector.


Osman Umarji was born and raised in Southern California. After spending years working as an engineer, he left his career to pursue an Islamic education at Al-Azhar University, specializing in Islamic law and legal theory. He  previously served as an Imam and has spent years studying Zakah and has given numerous seminars on the topic. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UC Irvine in Educational Psychology, while also serving the community as an educational consultant.

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Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. He is the co-author of "Estate Planning for the Muslim Client," published by the American Bar Association. His Islamic Inheritance website is www.islamicinheritance.com

46 Comments

46 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Nasreen

    June 20, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    Assalamalaikum brother,

    Since youve done quite a lot of research on this. Can you name some reliable organizations we can donate zakat to?

    • Avatar

      Rafe

      June 20, 2016 at 12:18 PM

      Assalamu Alaikum brother Osman,

      Yes, I agree with Sr. Naseen. We would appreciate some suggestions on reliable organizations.

      • Avatar

        Osman Umarji

        June 20, 2016 at 1:33 PM

        Assalaamualaykum,

        I would simply suggest you ensure that the organization you are interested in donating to promises 100% usage of zakah for the poor and needy. I also recommend giving priority to organizations that support the local Muslim community, as that is the sunnah of the Prophet. Since locality is a preference, I cannot sincerely advise beyond where I live. If you live near me, send me an email and I will provide some names of great organizations.

  2. Avatar

    Fatima

    June 20, 2016 at 2:01 PM

    Salamalaikum

    A small suggestion.

    Before searching for an organization, look around in your circle. In your masjid, your family, relatives. If you cannot find anyone, alhamdulillah.
    You can ask if anyone knows of any muslim who is needy. Once a recipient has been found, you just give them what you can/should.

    PS: You will need to figure out how to work the tax exemption.

  3. Avatar

    Fatima

    June 20, 2016 at 2:15 PM

    Br Usman,

    I would request your opinion on giving Zakat to eligible relatives, family, acquaintances and the poor in our neighborhood. This could be a way to avoid one enmity and contempt between the rich and poor families.

    Should one rely solely on organizations to dispense of Zakat?

    • Avatar

      Ahmed

      June 20, 2016 at 10:33 PM

      I have the same question. Is Zakat something that should be dispensed through organizations, or can individuals give it directly to eligible relatives, acquaintances, etc.?

      A related question is who has more right on an individual’s Zakat: an overseas poor relative or a local poor person?

      • Avatar

        Osman Umarji

        June 20, 2016 at 11:05 PM

        Zakah can be dispersed by individuals. In fact, if you know someone needy, it is better you give them than rely on organizations to channel it to them. Relatives have rights and should be given priority if deserving.

  4. Abu Ibraheem

    Abu Ibraheem

    June 20, 2016 at 4:48 PM

    Assalam Alaikum, I’m interested in giving zakat to someone in my local community and I have identified an individual that I think would qualify. However, how can I ascertain that they have less than the nisab? Can I assume they have less? I don’t feel comfortable investigating further as it may make one appear nosy and intrusive. This has happened in the past and then I ended up just giving online instead to an organization instead locally.

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 21, 2016 at 12:41 AM

      As long as you pretty sure they qualify (based on your observation of their lifestyle and conversations with them), you may give them zakah. You do not have to disclose that the money you are giving them is zakah. If it later turns out they did not qualify, you have still fulfilled your obligation. The consideration in such a fiqh matter is called ghalabat-al-dhann (that which is one considers to be most likely).

      • Avatar

        Abu Yusuf

        June 21, 2016 at 11:31 PM

        I read that it is only the hanafi madhab which uses the Nisab as the criteria to determine who is poor is and the other Madhaib have different definitions and criteria to determine who is poor. Is this correct?

      • Abu Ibraheem

        Abu Ibraheem

        June 23, 2016 at 6:57 AM

        Thank you, jazakAllahkhair for taking your time to respond, I appreciate it !

    • Avatar

      Fatima

      June 25, 2016 at 2:36 PM

      https://islamqa.info/en/82974

      This link is Shaikh Munajjids opinion on the poor person in America.

  5. Avatar

    Qasim

    June 20, 2016 at 5:42 PM

    According to charity navigator the number one org to give your zakat to is Helping Hand. They also are the top rated Muslim org http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=2215

    • Avatar

      Rafe

      June 20, 2016 at 6:33 PM

      Jazakallahu Khairan

    • Avatar

      Baabu

      June 21, 2016 at 1:40 PM

      Brother Qasim…i hope you dont work for Helping Hand..that would be a conflict of interest. Also, that link doesn’t say its #1-just lists it as a 5 star charity.

    • Avatar

      Abdullah

      June 21, 2016 at 2:54 PM

      The CEO of helping hands earns $158,315 a year. Your link shows their financials. This is the best charity? What has the world come to, SubhanAllaah

  6. Avatar

    OmarK

    June 20, 2016 at 10:00 PM

    What is the requirement to pay zakat on 401k and on IRA?

    • Avatar

      Ahmed

      June 20, 2016 at 10:30 PM

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 21, 2016 at 12:51 AM

      InshaAllah a future article will address this matter, but it is my opinion that you pay on the full vested amount in your account. You do not subtract taxes or penalties unless you actually realize them (e.g., if you do not have enough cash on hand to pay zakah and have to dip into these accounts). The truth of the matter that many 401k fatawa miss is that one has complete ownership of the wealth (milk taam) in a 401k. They have chosen to stash money into an account voluntarily in order to maximize the financial gain for the future (yes, it has its conditions, but every participant chooses this voluntarily). It would be extremely oppressive to exempt 401k participants until retirement (who generally are from the wealthier class of society already) from paying zakah on their investments, while someone who stashes their savings in a checking account is obliged to pay. It is akin to telling the poor “you can’t touch our wealth for 30 years, even if it’s in the hundreds of thousands or millions”.

      • Avatar

        Arjmand

        July 1, 2016 at 11:09 AM

        Assalamu alaykum,

        Since I didn’t find a way to contact you personally, I wanted to know which organizations would you recommend that are in your state or area?

        Jazak Allah khair

  7. Avatar

    Fatima

    June 20, 2016 at 11:14 PM

    Muslim Advocates is disturbed by the reporting in this article, which includes false and misleading information regarding our organization’s zakat eligibility. Muslim Advocates is always happy to share zakat eligibility information with donors who request details. We have asked for a correction to this article and are hopeful the editors will make an update to reflect the facts.

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      June 21, 2016 at 12:24 AM

      Thank you for your comment. If you know how Muslim Advocates justifies taking Zakat and using it for all its expenses please let us know and we will note it. I asked multiple people in the organization and nobody has any idea why they do that. If you are willing to share it, do so now. It would be false and misleading for us to alude to information we do not have, especially as there is no evidence such information exists.

  8. Avatar

    AHMAD

    June 21, 2016 at 12:19 AM

    Maşallah.Allah’u Ekber.

  9. Avatar

    Shams Khan

    June 21, 2016 at 1:11 AM

    At Zaytuna College, we only use Zakat for needy students, and do not take any overhead costs out of the zakat we collect. Zaytuna.edu/Ramadan

  10. Avatar

    Faheem Baig

    June 21, 2016 at 3:56 AM

    Jazak Allahu Khairan Brother Usman for making us carefully think and consider this matter with fear of Allah.

    What is your opinion about zakat eligibility towards CAIR?

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 21, 2016 at 4:59 PM

      I believe people should give sadaqa money (general donations) to CAIR and give zakah specifically to the poor via other institutions or personal connections. If CAIR changes their policy so that zakah donations will only be used for projects that serve the needy and poor, while using other types of donations for general operations, then perhaps they will be eligible in the future. This would need to be shown through detailed financials. I recommend people ask CAIR to do this.

      Some scholars have said CAIR is eligible for zakah under the general category of “fi sabeelillah”. I consider this to be exactly the kitchen sink dilemma the article has discussed (see https://ca.cair.com/sacval/home/donate/does-cair-qualify-to-receive-zakat/ for their justification).

      • Avatar

        Osman Umarji

        June 21, 2016 at 7:08 PM

        After a conversation with the brothers and sisters at CAIR, here is how they use their zakah: They absolutely do NOT use zakah for banquets, honorariums, or Quran donations. Rather, they use zakah for their civil rights work, which constitutes protecting Muslims from discrimination in schools, workplaces, and with government agencies (primarily through salaries for their legal staff). There is debate among scholars over whether this form of defending Muslims is zakah eligible (does it fall under fi sabillah). Regardless, defending Muslims is indeed noble work that the community needs to support, so sadaqa should be given for this cause even if you don’t give them your zakah.

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      June 22, 2016 at 3:05 AM

      Just to add to Sh. Osman’s comment. CAIR comes up a lot in this discussion, it is the elephant in the room we did not introduce. Some may wonder why we picked Muslim Advocates and MPAC when abusive Zakat practices are rampant throughout Muslim nonprofits, especially Masajid (and we did not single out any, they know who they are). I think some feel there should be an equivilancy drawn between CAIR and MPAC, which is unfortunate. While some, including Sh. Osman, disagree with how CAIR may use Zakat and they may not be the model zakat organization, they do things very differently from MPAC, Muslim Advocates and bad practices of many Masajid. They (1) segregate their donations (2) are reasonably transparent about what they use Zakat for and what they don’t use it for from among these segregated funds and (3) they have opinions from respected independent scholars that say they can do what they are doing. There appears to be an effort to respect the institution of Zakat, despite what may appear to be misgivings by some Zakat experts. Keep in mind I have not looked at their books or evaluated the accuracy of these claims. Here you as a donor would need to evaluate this for yourself based on the information you have. Note MPAC and Muslim Advocates have done none of these things. They were highlighted because of how egregious their practices are and because they are national in scope (which is why we did not highlight an individual Masjid). Collection and distribution of Zakat on behalf of others is a public trust. It is time donors started demanding more from those who take on this responsibility.

      • Avatar

        Faheem Baig

        June 22, 2016 at 3:39 AM

        Jazak Allahu Khairan for both of your quick and insightful responses. May Allah bless you and guide you and us all to the truth. I separately consulted with my community Imam who sided on the cautionary opinion to consider donations to CAIR as sadaqah. But as brother Ahmed pointed out, I again reviewed the options that CAIR gives for donations, and it clearly demarcates a button for payment of “Zakat”. Further it provides 5 categories for you to select, with at least one of them sounding the closest to me as being a means of disseminating Islamic awareness to the public (possible fi-SabilAllah?).

        That said, this is a personal lesson to me as I started donating to CAIR about one year ago with the intention of “Zakat”, but I don’t recall going through these options carefully, and simply started the donation through their general portal. Therefore, this portion is heavily called into question, and now I have to go back to evaluate, and possibly repay the Zakat properly for the prior year.

        So it is very encouraging that CAIR has actually established a precedent for clearly demarcating the Zakat funds, and has answered your questions with transparency.

        I am a huge supporter of CAIR and will continue to support them In sha Allah. But I will also request of them to make more careful consideration on how they present, solicit, distribute and account for their Zakat collections. In addition, I will request them to put a little more thought with scholarly backing, and add more scholars to their page in describing how CAIR may be Zakat eligible.

        You are absolutely right to put the onus on us as the individual donors to be far more careful in demanding transparency and accountability in Zakat.

        I would not have given it as much careful consideration had it not been for your very insightful article.

        Jazak Allahu Khairan.

  11. Amad

    Amad

    June 21, 2016 at 5:37 AM

    I don’t know how I missed that MPAC celebrated the coup by Sisi — wow

    Did the organization ever recant or express condemnation of Sisi’s slaughters?

    However… Speaking generally, Can we really make the case that if an organization does something wrong, it is colored negatively completely? I mean couldn’t we make the argument that the zakat would be thought of as going toward the other good that the organization may do?

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      June 21, 2016 at 7:57 AM

      You can check with them to be sure but I never saw them recant their position on the coup.

      The point was to not only highlight the ad hoc Fiqh being made up by a nonprofit, but the gap between the Quranic justification provided (freeing people from bondage) and the actual record, where it either makes up things in its solicitations that it does not do, or does the opposite. MPAC is a valuble organization as it provides abundant cautionary examples of things other groups should never do.

      Zakat does not merely exist to support “good.” Rather it must be for specific groups who have the right to it in the Sharia. Misappropriating it for other vague notions of “good” represents grift.

  12. Avatar

    Zain Zubair

    June 21, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    Kind speech and Forgiveness are better than Charity followed by Injury. & Allah is Free of need and Forbearing. Surah Al Baqarah [2:263]

  13. Avatar

    Muhammad

    June 21, 2016 at 11:55 AM

    This discussion has been long over due. JZK Br. Osman. In my limited experience many organizations lack interest and infrastructure that would be necessary to segregate zakat eligible funds. In some cases even Zakatal Fitr and Saadaqa funds are commingled with other funds. These instances are either reckless or quasi intentional.

  14. Avatar

    Baabu

    June 21, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    It’s about time someone had the courage to write about this. Too many imams staying silent on the issue because they are on the receiving end of zakat money. There also many Madaaris (Hifz Specialists) that use zakat money to basically pay for salaries under the disguise of covering student tuition. This needs to be exposed on a wide scale and transparency should be required and demanded from every non-profit organization.

  15. Avatar

    Abdullah

    June 21, 2016 at 3:09 PM

    http://www.uwt.org/site/default.asp

    Ummah Welfare Trust has a 100% donation policy. Whatever you give you are assured all of it will be spent for the poor. According to my research this is the most reliable.

    • Avatar

      Ahmad

      June 12, 2019 at 12:18 PM

      I contacted UWT a couple of weeks ago, and they informed me that the wealth is directly transferred to the poor. And their board is made up of scholars. And they strive to do everything in line witht he fiqh of imam abu hanifa… (As a point aside i am not sure what the differences between the 4 imams are on this issue; but it is better than using non-classical fatwas).

      As an aside they do ask you to pay the surcharge charged by the bank for processing the payment (a positive step as i wouldnt want my zakat to go to Mastercard)

      N.B. The correspondence was in May 2019, future readers of this comment should verify the info is accurate

  16. Avatar

    Sara

    June 21, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    The article recognises that non profits may have other sources of income apart from Zakat. Therefore, unless there has been clear mention in published audited accounts or official publications, what evidence is there to suggest zakat funds are being utilised for various activities such as political conferences or lobbying governments? (All of which are legitimate activities for non profits.)

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      June 21, 2016 at 5:28 PM

      Zakat that goes for general overhead (is not segregated) is by definition co-mingled and used for all expenses of the organization.

  17. Avatar

    Abu Yusuf

    June 22, 2016 at 6:18 AM

    This seems mostly a US problem. In the UK i havent heard of barely any orgs or masjids use zakat for purposes outlined in the article (it only goes to the poor). The issue here in the UK was trying to get most/all zakat collecting charities to be 100% zakat donations or as close as possible to a 100% donations policy (i.e. the full 100% of a zakat donation goes to the poor, no funds are used for admin, marketing, office, staff etc costs) …which by a large alhumdulillah many charities seem to have now.

    • Avatar

      Shareq

      June 22, 2016 at 2:30 PM

      First world problems….process over people.

  18. Avatar

    Noor

    June 22, 2016 at 12:57 PM

    Every one has poor and needy relatives. The first and foremost recipents of zakat should be our own kith and kin. Other than our parents and grand parents, zakat can be given to our brothers sisters, their children so on and so forth. Its sad and tragic thatwe run to find organisations when our family is in dire need of money. Please reflect upon this point to get a greater reward from Allah.

  19. Avatar

    Shareq

    June 22, 2016 at 2:25 PM

    At the time of giving Zakat, think of those who are near you and close to you. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, people from your mosque.

    This is also a good time to reflect of you are fulfilling your other required financial obligations. Your children and parents have rights. These days many families are split and some fathers do not support their children due to hatred of the ex wife.
    Some children may have drifted away from their parents at their old age when they need help and support.

    May Allah guide us all to fulfill the rights of relatives, neighbors, the poor and the deserving. Ameen.

  20. Avatar

    Almir Colan

    June 23, 2016 at 1:02 AM

    This is not only a problem for zakat collection but in my opinion all general sadaqa/donation that are often collected without transparency and accountability. More often then not there is no way to trace how much is collected and how some of these organizations are spend it.

    In reality all donations and spending should be independently audited in my opinion. We should have professional Islamic auditing and accounting body that audits our books and finances to ensure shariah compliance and guard against fraud, misuse and cheating.

  21. Avatar

    Duston Barto

    June 29, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    Jazakallahu Khairoun for this MUCH NEEDED article!

    I used to work for The Zakat Foundation of America and I have been constantly frustrated with sociopolitical organizations like MPAC, CAIR and ISNA claiming that they are eligible for Zakat when none of their works fall into the 8 categories of Zakat!

    The “kitchen sink” analogy of the gross misinterpretation of “in the cause of Allah” is extremely appropriate. A scholarly opinion that I read recently states that since there is no truly Islamic leadership, that no overall cause can be declared a “struggle in the cause of Allah.” I tend to agree with this. We cannot be so arrogant as to presume that civil rights work is Allah’s work, perhaps we are overstepping our bounds in some of these issues. I have often felt that CAIR, for example, was pushing agendas where Muhammad (SAWS) would have found a more passive way to deal with a situation. One incident that sticks out is where CAIR fought vociferously to make a university prepare a prayer area near a soccer field when there was already a musallah on campus. I feel that Muhammad (SAWS) would tell the Muslims to pray in the grass.

    CAIR, MPAC and ISNA all do good works, but these are not Zakat eligible. We cannot change Allah’s law. Give your sadaqa to them, sure; but reserve your Zakat only for those Allah has instructed to receive it.

    One category of Zakat that I would like your fatwa on is “Warming the hearts to Islam.” Often I am told that this is exclusively giving money to people who would face financial hardships due to converting to Islam. This interpretation was used by Caliph Umar and it has sound scholarship. However, I am curious about dawah organizations whose purpose is to spread the message of Islam and to literally warm people’s hearts toward Islam.

    Would Dawah organizations like American Islamic Outreach and GAINpeace be eligible for Zakat?

  22. Avatar

    Duston Barto

    June 29, 2016 at 1:10 PM

    Another point of question. You stated that Zakat could not be used to pay off a loan the Mosque has, but Zakat is also to be directed toward those who have a debt and the classical scholars have agreed that this includes the debt one incurs in building a mosque. Why then would a mosque’s building fund not be zakat eligible?

    Or have I misunderstood and you are drawing a distinction between paying off a debt incurred by the Mosque and collecting funds for a new expansion/construction?

  23. Pingback: Reflections from Brother Daniel Haqiqatjou | Islamic Sunlight Canada

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Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

The Prophet helped the Arabs overcome their asabiya (tribalism) and enter a new defining bond of Islam. The criterion for right and wrong was no longer clan membership, but rooted in the religion of Islam. Muslims were instructed to defend the truth, command good, and forbid evil regardless of tribal affiliation. Asabiya does not just relate to kin-based tribes.  One of the resurging traces of jahilya affecting our discourse is ideological tribalism. In ideological tribalism, we hold double standards between our tribe and other tribes, and overlook fallacies in our group that we would not for other groups. Just as we protect an idea that represents our identity, when a personality reflects our group identity, there is a personal reason to defend the personality. It then becomes instinctual then to double-down in discussions even when wrong to show group strength, which at this point is a survival mechanism and not a true dialectic. Abandoning a quest for truth and succumbing to an in-group vs. out-group dichotomy leaves us to defend falsehood and dislike truth. Refusing to accept truth is one way the Prophet described arrogance. 

Group belonging

One of the main drivers of identity scholarship is group belonging. When we focus on defending our group rather than principles which extend beyond group delineations we prove false our claims of wanting the truth.  The burden of moral responsibility is not offset by finding someone to follow [1]. Charismatic leaders have an ability to tap into latent desires of individuals and awaken in them the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Their own identities are often validated by following the charismatic figure, and they then work hard to preserve the group as they would to preserve their own selves.

According to Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic authority “derives from the capacity of a particular person to arouse and maintain belief in himself or herself as the source of legitimacy. Willner says that the charismatic leadership relationship has four characteristics:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.
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Charismatic leadership satisfies our desire to be part of something bigger, and paradoxically, to hand all power over to someone else can make us feel more powerful because we think that person is the best version of ourselves. We feel that we have gained ‘agency by proxy.’ We have also dumped all responsibility for decisions onto the leader- what Erich Fromm, the scholar of Nazism, called an ‘escape from freedom.’ When we are in a charismatic leadership relationship, our sense of self-worth gets (attaches) attached to the identity of the leader, so that we take personally any criticism of that leader, and have as much difficulty admitting flaws or errors on the leader’s parts as we do on our own. Because we see the leader as us, and we see us as good, we simply can’t believe that he or she might do bad things” (59) [2].

Charismatic leadership is emotional and works on desires. This type of leadership has no relation to truth. It exists and persists due to feelings, hence contradictions, double-standards, and outright hypocrisy aren’t issues for those in the relationship. Even when the leader confidently behaves irresponsibly, followers do not think less of him. What is inconsistent and irresponsible for an out-group observer is charming to members of the in-group. As Miller points out: 

Followers don’t expect charismatic leaders to be responsible for what they say, nor to behave responsibly; their irresponsible behavior is part of their power. Their use of hyperbole and tendency to be unfiltered in speech are taken to signify their passionate commitment to the in-group (60).

Such loyalty is not specific for charismatic leaders, The Minimal Group Paradigm shows that we have more empathy for our in-group even if that in-group is arbitrarily assigned, and we will act biased in their favor against an arbitrarily assigned out-group. This is a tendency against which we must actively fight to maintain clarity in thinking and fair standards in discussions. When group loyalty is prized there is a fear of opposing the group, which obliterates any chance of scholarly discourse. Questioning a position becomes akin to questioning authority and leaves the questioner ostracized and out-casted. When the out-group is pejoratively labeled, there is an additional fear of thinking like or ending up in that group. 

Identity scholarship

Rather than looking at the argument constructed and judging whether or not it is sound, identity scholarship approves or dismisses arguments based on the person making them. Arguments are then validated by personalities and not standards of scholarship.  This is a dangerous shift from reasoning and evidence to personalities. 

Identity scholarship leverages the need to belong and centers the personality over the argument. However, focusing on the strength of arguments and not the personality is especially important given that the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is applied to vocationally trained Muslims, seminal graduates, preachers, or to those who display a scholarly caliber in Islam alike. This is a sufficient crisis. The term is heavily equivocated, and should never serve to stand in place of standards of scholarship in discourse. 

Ambiguity in the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is exploited by groups to strengthen their influence. Not always pernicious, this is the natural progression of proselytizing via group identity. An in-group who will dismiss dissenting voices for not having studied long enough, not obtaining ijazas, will promote voices of similar or less educated Muslims when those voices are in their ‘in-group.’ Titles like ‘ustadh’ and ‘ustadha’ are quickly conferred upon those who are volunteers or proponents of the ‘in-group’ even with minimal study. Advocating for the correct paradigm is rewarded more than a knowledge based approach to issues. Giving titles to those with social capital in your in-group is also an effective way for brand expansion. For example, loosely affiliated students with avenues into the growing Muslim mental health field are often referred to as ‘ustadha.’  Also, traditionalists will often promote in-group religious figures engaging in no-risk activism like condemning already popularly condemned figures as exemplary ‘scholars and activists’ who should be followed by other activists.  

If a person has been doing this long enough they become ‘shaykh,’ and then eventually a ‘senior scholar’ with assumed wisdom and spiritual insight, worthy of deference. I am well acquainted with the unfortunate irony in traditional circles where those who push a manhaj of studying at the feet of scholars have by and large not done so beyond attending general lectures by visiting scholars.  Many do not even know Arabic, but their zeal and tenure of feel good lectures in a community primarily interested in nasheeds and tea coupled with their promoting the right figures secure for them a scholarly status by generations who venerate the theory of studying at the feet of scholars. 

Thus authority and titles are conferred by virtue of in-group allegiance. 

Slip into demagoguery

When we accept an in-group and out-group dichotomy and don’t argue fairly, we lay the foundation for demagogic discourse. As Patricia Mill-Roberts writes “If people decide to see things as a zero-sum game- the more they succeed, the more we lose, and we should rage about any call made against us, and cheer any call made against them- then democracy loses” (13). The best way to avoid this is by maintaining fair discussions and letting go of double standards. Arguments appealing to in-group or out-group positions rather than being based in fact should not be accepted regardless of which group they are coming from. Several tactics used in these types of arguments are described below. 

Creating a strawman

Falsely representing the out-group is a common tactic in demagogic discourse. One example is portraying out-group critics as only critics. The critic is frozen in time as someone who has accomplished nothing, helped no one, and as only one who sees the faults in others. The in-group then goes on to list what they have accomplished -‘albeit with some faults’- to not seem as braggarts, but insists that those faults are magnified by the arm-chair critics. 

Another example is labeling Muslims more concerned with academic preservation and development as Muslims in ivory towers. This suggests knowledge is only relevant if immediately actionable and discounts the role of theoretical knowledge in both present and future action as well as an intrinsic end.  

Even when it comes to the epitome of practical action, Allah tells the Muslims to not all go out in battle, but to have groups remain behind to study.

Condescending discrediting

One way demagoguery characterizes the out-group is by a “dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness…”(66).  Just as Rudy Giuliani dismissed those protesting Trump’s 2016 win as “professional protestors” with nothing else to do in life, so do we dismiss dissenting voices. 

Terms like ‘keyboard warrior’ should be dropped from the vernacular of anyone who uses the internet for Islamic education. If the internet is good enough for theatrical Ramadan reminders and choreographed Islamic reflections, it should also be good enough for dissent and valid critiques.[3] We have to embrace the fact that the internet is not a pretend medium; social media posts are used in newsfeeds, are reacted to on the mimbar, and even prompt live events. If we dismiss valid criticisms made online as the act of ‘keyboard warriors’ we should also call those giving dawah online ‘studio daa’is.’  

Discrediting due to inexperience

Experience is an important element in answering questions and dealing with different scenarios, and, should rightly be considered when one is looking for a teacher, etc. However, frequently, the standards for what constitutes experience are used inconsistently. The same individuals who refer to young teachers as ‘shaykh’ or ‘mufti’ while in their in-group, dismiss ‘shaykhs’ and ‘muftis’ in the out-group of similar age and experience, arguing that a person can’t be a ‘real’ mufti because studying 7 years doesn’t make anyone a scholar. Graduating from a seminary or Islamic university will be the standard for members of an in-group to be called scholars, but the out-group will be ‘immature graduates’ who have not learned wisdom.  Wisdom itself will be defined as the avoidance of actions which challenge the in-group. Likewise an activist saying the right thing and echoing in-group talking points will be called ‘ustadh,’ but if from the ‘out-group’ dismissed as a Godless- activist’ that just hates hierarchy. 

Victimization and Victimology

Demagoguery thrives on the in-group being victimized by the out-group. It is common for religious figures to dismiss valid criticism as nothing but hate, envy, or ignorance [4]. When criticized by activists, it is common to label them as ‘anti-clerical’ activists who only have an issue with Islamic leaders because they are neo-Marxists. 

‘Neo-Marxist’ is used as a catch-all term to discredit those who disagree with the positions of some religious leaders to insinuate the disagreements are rooted in hate for hierarchy or authority thus being illegitimate. Even conservative and practicing Muslims are labeled as ‘leftists’ and ‘Godless activists’ for simple critiques. In Sufi groups, disagreeing with leadership is often said to be the result of being spiritually veiled, or the work of ‘dark forces’ and ‘shayateen’ dividing us. If we can agree that black-magic and evil-eye are real but should not be the first culprit in a failing marriage, let’s also look for practical failures when religious organizations break down before we start blaming the ‘shayateen.’  

On one hand the in-group claims they are victims, on the other they blame the out-group for having a victim mentality.  This may seem like an obvious contradiction, but as Miller explains,  

If condemnation of out-group behavior is performed by a very likeable persona, then onlookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior she or he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values he or she claims to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that ‘good people- that is, people who say the right things- don’t do ‘bad’ things) (56) 

Another tactic is using terms like ‘victomology’ to belittle legitimate grievances of being wronged and falsely representing those grievances as an attitude of being a victim in life.

Being oppressed (mazlum) does not require living a tough life, being a victim in life, or being part of an oppressed group. We are told by the Prophet that delaying a payment owed while being capable of paying is oppression (Muslim). When our God given rights are transgressed upon, we are mazlum in that situation. It is not uncommon however to see Muslims want to claim their rights and express they have been wronged to be dismissed as those who love to be victims. Ironically, this is even done by organizations that describe themselves with the leftist concept of ‘safe spaces.’  

Disregarding Nuance

“Demagoguery is comfortable because it says the world is very simple, and made up of good people (us) and bad people (them)” (24). 

We must understand that if someone does not see an issue as black or white, it’s not because they are obviously corrupt, willfully ignorant, or stupid.  The word nuance itself triggers cynicism and is treated as an excuse to employ mental gymnastics to deny what is ‘obvious.’  The fact of the matter is when it comes to khilafi issues there is generally a vast scope of acceptable actions, and when it comes personal ijtihaadi matters for policy there is often no clear-cut best answer. Thus in such matters the objective is to come to a best resolution or course of action. In short, we should all take appropriate measures in our decisions to ensure the benefit outweighs the harm. Certain positions are cautioned against due to the likelihood of harm to one’s religion, but that likelihood may not serve as evidence that one has harmed his religion. As the great scholar Muhammad Awama relates in Ma’laam Irshadiya, the way of the scholars is to leave people in what they are following as long as it is correct and has a valid legal perspective [5]

Scholarly discourse

Advice from recognized experts in a field carries weight, but it should not be conflated with a scholarly argument. A common mistake is to confer authority upon an opinion outside the area of one’s authority. Scholarly works must prove themselves to be scholarly as stand-alone works. Even if a great scholar has published many scholarly works, his advice should be taken as advice. For example, Imam al-Ghazali was a great scholar, but Dear Beloved Son is not a scholarly work.  We have a malfoozaat (wisdom-sharing) tradition that is precious, but we must know where to place it in the hierarchy of Islamic knowledge. 

Islamic scholarly discourse should be evidence based, demonstrative of legal proficiency, and cater to Islamic concerns. Those engaging should share the evidence for what they say, the sources of the rulings they share, the difference between the reason for a ruling and the wisdom of a ruling [6], understand contextual fatwas,[7] and understand which rulings are based on urf and which rulings are intrinsic obligations or prohibitions. These are just some elements of Islamic scholarly discourse, and it cannot exist alongside identity scholarship. 

There should be private forums with prerequisites where scholarly discourse can take place. When these discussions move outside of their proper place other issues such as discussing weak or aberrant (shadh) fiqh opinions arise, which to an undiscriminating audience all will seem co-valid on the spectrum of differing opinions in sharia. Promoting aberrant positions caters to our cultural preferences of thinking outside the box and carries the façade of an intellectual approach to Islam. In Maharam al-Lisaan (Prohibitions of the Tongue) Muhammad Mawlud lists both mentioning the conflict between the Sahabah, and mentioning aberrant opinions as prohibitions.  This is not due to the utterance being sinful, but rather to the misconceptions it can lead to for the average Muslim if not properly addressed.  

There may be a need to dismiss open innovators and those spreading misguidance, because there is no end to the possibilities of innovation and it obfuscates what should be self-evident, and can be very difficult for even scholars to refute in ways that resonate with those affected by innovation. The double standard as previously mentioned is when lack of formal credentials is only a problem for out-groups. 

How to have productive discourse

Islamic historical discourse has its share of polemics. There are commentaries, fatwas and treatises which insult valid ijtihad and even refer to the entirety of a madhab with epithets. Some scholars were harsh and had a penchant for polemics. Transgressions into mockery and slander were not condoned, and belligerent attitudes were something scholars sought to check with reminders of adab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement). While the previously mentioned certainly existed and such an approach may serve to strengthen positions of the in-group to the in-group, it does not make for productive dialogue with the out-group.

Outside of scholarly discourse, when we debate policy and Islamic positions, we need to have sincere, fact based arguments with the goal of arriving at truth. Our ability to accept truth no matter who says it shows we have transcended in-group vs. out-group tribalism and have entered the realm of sincere discourse.  Overcoming in-group tribalism and following the truth, rather than blindly following our ‘fathers’ is a central message in the Quran. 

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?  2:170 

Arguments on points should never be personal. We should train ourselves to evaluate arguments and understand that people we like can make mistakes, and people we dislike and generally disagree with may be right on certain matters. 

Don’t take cheap shots if you disagree with someone, such as pointing out a typo to insinuate incompetence. 

It’s important to leave double-standards, and to point them out when someone is employing them.  When one side is unfair or uses double standards, it encourages the opposition to act in kind, and the discussion devolves into a fight. When disagreeing with someone, never insult that person.  When a personality is attacked, the response will be defending the personality, and the entire discussion is derailed. 

Sharing a post, or article should not be seen as endorsing an individual or a post. Sometimes it’s a means of opening a discussion, other times to share beneficial points even if the entirety of what is shared is not beneficial. Furthermore, endorsing an individual in one area is not a blanket endorsement, and should never be taken as such.  The Hanafi tradition was able to benefit from legal fatwas while not accepting theology of Mu’tazilite scholars. Likewise, many of our best tafseers are from Mu’tazilite scholars. The widely studied and highly regarded Tafseer al-Baydawi is basically a reworked Mu’tazilite tafseer without the Mu’tazilite aqidah. Scholars have been able to ‘take the good and leave the harm.’ 

“I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” – Malcolm X

We need to uplift our intellectual level and drop disclaimers like “I don’t agree with everything in this article” or “I don’t agree with everything he said.”  It is only worth stating when you do agree with everything someone says or does.  The common disclaimers should be taken as givens and we shouldn’t capitulate to a cultural push of walking on egg-shells so no one accuses us of supporting the wrong person or idea. 

It is critical we operate under the assumption that sharing a panel with or working with an individual is not an endorsement of that individual. Likewise, working with an organization is not an endorsement of that organization. Such associations are attacked as potentially confusing to the average Muslim, but we must work towards establishing that such actions are not support. 

Here we see an ambivalent conceptualization of the ‘average Muslim’ as someone who both deserves transparency from religious scholars for their actions as well as one who is easily confused or misled by the actions of Muslim scholars. If we can accept both propositions, that a scholar’s actions are not proof, and that working with someone and sharing posts and platforms do not equate support for every particular view or stance of a person, we may set the foundation for being issue focused rather than personality focused. 

In conclusion, it is important we all hold ourselves to high standards of discourse and not support behavior or fallacies from our in-group that we would deride from an out-group. The groups themselves are inevitable and not a problem, but we have to work to overcome the natural ideological tribalism that accompanies group membership.  If we personally transcend in-group bias and reflect it in our discourse, we can overcome the pettiness and hypocrisy that stifles productive discussions. 

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 16: The Best of You

Now that we have learnt about fruit out of season, let’s now talk about the best of you.

I want you all to think about your closest friends and how you treat them. 

Question: Would anyone like to share how they try to treat their closest friends?

That’s wonderful! You try to be thoughtful and considerate of their feelings. You bring snacks to share with them, you may buy or make them a gift.

Question: Now, I want you to close your eyes and think of the way you treat your family members. Is it the same?

Question: Why do you think that there is a difference between the way we treat our friends and the way we may treat our siblings or parents?

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Yes, we do spend a lot of time together. We see each other when we’re cranky or frustrated. Sometimes we want our own space to think, or we don’t want someone interfering with our things. Those are all valid reasons. But, do you know that it is more beloved to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that you treat your family members better than you even treat your friends?

It’s true! In a hadith, Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) reported: The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: 

عَنْ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَيْرُكُمْ خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِهِ وَأَنَا خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِي وَإِذَا مَاتَ صَاحِبُكُمْ فَدَعُوهُ

“The best of you are the best to their families, and I am the best to my family.” 

Question: What are some ways we can be the best to our family members? I’m going to share with you a hadith that may help you get some ideas: 

وعن أبى أمامه الباهلى رضي الله عنه قال‏:‏ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم‏:‏ “أنا زعيم ببيت في ربض الجنة لمن ترك المراء، وإن كان محقاً، وببيت في وسط الجنة لمن ترك الكذب، وإن كان مازحاً، وببيت في أعلى الجنة لمن حسن خلقه” ‏(‏حديث صحيح رواه أبو داود بإسناد صحيح‏).‏

“I guarantee a house in Jannah (Paradise) for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Jannah for one who abandons lying even for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Jannah for one who has good manners.”

If we work on these three things: less arguing, no lying, and good manners, alongside all of your other suggestions, we will be rewarded with Jannah, inshaAllah

Question: Do you think we can all work hard to be the best to our family members?

 

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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