يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
“O you who have attained faith! Be patient in adversity, outdo all others in endurance, and be ever ready [to do what is right], and remain conscious of God, so that you may succeed!” – Qur’an 3:200
This open letter was inspired by a noticeable increase in requests for advice and reassurance from frustrated community activists and baffled non-Muslim allies.
At the root of this widespread sense of bewilderment and disappointment is what I call “uncle behavior.” Below, I breakdown the most common types of uncles and then explore some practical advice which may help you deal more effectively with our community.
Dear – sometimes too idealistic – community activist,
We get it.
The election of President Trump was literally your last straw. The administration’s weekly debacles, the scary campaign rhetoric now being echoed in public policy, the spikes in hate crimes, and the Muslim bans have broken the proverbial camel’s back.
Now, you’re more motivated than ever. You’ve finally decided to act on all those late-night, coffee shop conversations. You know the ones, where you and a few of your closest homies solve all the world’s major problems over an overpriced, sugar laden, espresso based concoction.
So now, you just can’t wait to get more involved with the community and make a real difference!
Well, before you jump in with both feet, let me introduce you to a saying that – while not a hadith – is nonetheless full of wisdom. The saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
We’ve all witnessed this, a person starts volunteering or gives a halaqah (short religious talk/reminder) and they weren’t known to be particularly active or religious before. All the sudden their very own friends are questioning their motives. Well, right now that is you and your friends are the uncles.
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” – Malcolm X
About this field guide:
First, we have to come to a common understanding of the term.
Here’s a helpful definition of uncle, chacha or ammu as used in the context of this article:
cha·cha /cH’aah-cH’aah,/ noun a:
Urdu for uncle, the brother of one’s father.
informal b: an individual, normally male, who often is a community elder and who wields considerable power, influence and/or authority in the Muslim community at some level.
Another way to grasp the meaning is in the following joke, the American Muslim community has far too many chiefs and not enough Pakistanis. In this crude joke, if you substitute “chief” with “chacha” you’ll get a different layer of the meaning we are exploring in this article.
In short, we are not using uncle in a family sense, and not even to denote a male community leader, as we’ve got plenty of women “chachas” too, and please note we also have several examples of “chachas” who are not only, not immigrants, but who are second generation and beyond as well. What I’m talking about is individuals who play a role in a specific way and with certain identifiable behaviors (often controversial) in the internal Muslim community’s politics and activism.
Eventually, it all boils down to one quintessential question about uncle behavior; how can one get things done despite the egos, the old style thinking, the tit-for-tat obstructionism, and of course other abuses of authority?
Now, that we understand our purpose, let’s explore the various types of “chachas” by examining their core and defining characteristics.
WARNING: If you believe that you are being described as one of the following types of chachas, that is your inner voice talking.
- The “BIG” Donor aka Mr. Money Bags – These chachas believe money buys authority. In fact, it is a reality that professional and sustained activism starts and ends with funding. What should also always be remembered is that more often than not what distinguishes Mr. Money Bags from a normal donor or philanthropist, is not their potential for making a large gift, but instead the way they use that potential for status and influence. If you pay attention a telltale sign that you are encountering a Mr. Money Bags is that he or she doesn’t often actually give or give at the level that folks believe they can.
- The Diva aka The Super Star – These uncles need to be the center of attention. It simply does not matter if they did any of the work or just showed up the day of the event, they will be seen and they will often find a way to speak to the media or even invite some sort of attention for themselves (welcomed or not) to your effort. These are the folks that (while not on the program) will just walk up to an empty podium and start talking to the attendance as if they’re a guest speaker. Or, they are the folks that are known for getting in line during your event’s Q&A time, only to give a long-winded dissertation from the audience instead of actually asking a question.
- The Secular Fuqaha aka Mr. Entitled – Normally younger than other uncles, The Secular Faqih is also often lacking in real world experience. A defining characteristic of these chachas is their need to make sure you know about their “credentials” say a JD or other advanced degree from XYZ (read impressive) university. Also of note, is that these uncles are often unconcerned about religious norms and can behave very callously with imams, students of knowledge and scholars. To compensate for this, they frequently become fatwa shoppers (folks who rely on Shaykh Google for religious opinions that confirm what they already decided they wanted to do). The bottom line with Mr. Entitled is that he or she feels themselves to be uniquely qualified for and expects to be given key leadership roles and authority, but doesn’t want to actually earn it by building trust and accomplishing milestones for the community.
- The Puppeteer aka The Manipulator – The Puppeteer is very different person than a ture and inspired leader, i.e. someone who sees the bigger picture and tries to help people find where they can best contribute to the cause. The Puppeteer does not look to how to best allocate talent, nor do they try to utilize shura (consultation) and will often not even attempt to build a consensus around their agendas. Instead, they create factions and/or emphasize distractions among the key leaders. What makes The Puppeteer dangerous and distinct from an effective leader is that they do not uplift others, they instead undercut others and stunt the community’s growth and empowerment.
- Mr. Photo Op aka The Partisan Hack – These ammus have somehow concluded that our entire community’s best interests, and in some extreme examples, Islam itself, is analogous to the platform of whatever political parties they have drank the Kool-Aid from. What distinguishes Mr. Photo Op from effective political activists is that for these uncles, access to elected officials, and not actual policy influence is the goal. Mr. Photo Op is the civic equivalent to the groupie culture we see around our more famous “rockstar” imams and speakers.
- The Status Climber aka The Name Dropper – Status Climbers are defined by their desire for advancement. They may be most active at the local level; however they are often seen traveling from one meeting of national leaders to the next. They do this of their own volition (read they’re not invited as a panelist or intellectual contributor) and are often relegated to a position of observing the meeting, rather planning it or being charged with responsibility for some outcome. These uncles are after what they see as advancement by way of a position with a national and/or more influential organization.
- Lil’Saddam aka The Authoritarian – We Muslims often have a real issue in our community, which is the lack of willingness to challenge our leaders in a constructive way. We are really good at criticizing them, especially behind their backs, but when we perceive a “strongman” type, we far too often retreat from active engagement and shura. This tendency creates a vacuum of talent and an artificial leadership lid limiting our growth and level of accomplishments. The main problem with the Lil’Saddams of our community is that they control disproportionate amounts of influence without benefiting from the genius and talent in our community. Sadly, these little dictators see often talent and effectiveness as personal threats and undermine new approaches, new efforts and upcoming leaders.
- The Tribal Chieftain aka Mr. in MY culture/nation/movement – Tribal Chieftains put their ethnic identity or their affiliation with an ideology on par with or even above their religious identity. They mix cultural organizations with Islamic work. Admittedly, where culture stops and religion begins, can be at times a complex issue and a confusing line to draw. But for the purposes of this post, the Tribal Chieftain is that community leader who simply has to have his ethnic or ideological group at the center of all things Muslim; even when an event is clearly about other groups than his or hers. Pro-Tip: Tribal Chieftains often get into conflicts over what ethnic cuisines are served or not served at community functions.
- Millennial “Wannabe” Malcolm aka Mr. Perpetual Conflict – Let me first state that Malcolm X’s autobiography was my personal introduction to Islam. He was my first inspiration to become a Muslim. He was a great man who dealt with tremendous adversity, and he had the courage to really see the world as it was. He was also pragmatic and bold enough to make dramatic life changes, regardless of the costs. He boldly made those changes throughout his life, whenever he was presented with compelling evidence or arrived at a new perspective. Today’s “Millennial Malcolms” are very different. They are driven by anger and frustration, but they do not look beyond calling out injustices. Millennial Malcolms’ activism and leadership potential end at the conclusion of the latest protest. Millennial Malcolms are often great motivators, who excel at raising awareness of critical issues. They are often very beneficial to the community. The mistake we too often make is looking to a Millennial Malcolm for long term solutions or to develop comprehensive and long-term empowerment strategies.
- Diwan Trump aka Mr. Insecure – Diwan Trump is a combination of Little Saddam and The Puppeteer, however, Diwan Trump’s most defining characteristic is his or her need to be praised. I am not talking about: describing a successful event, or campaign in order to fundraise or promote a new venture and/or way of doing things. Diwan Trumps self-promote to fill a void, to feel important and to become or stay relevant. Diwan Trumps care about Diwan Trump, first and foremost. A good indicator that you’re dealing with a Diwan Trump is their tendency use bully tactics like withdrawing from or even undermining support for positive efforts once they are no longer finding praise and reassurance in the effort.
NOTE: This list has been drawn from over 16 years of experience and travel as activist, advisor, consultant and nonprofit leader. Nearly every type of chacha can be found in your local community regardless of location, the community’s size, maturity or cultural and ethnic makeup.
So you’ve identified a chacha, now what?
First of all, you have to come to grips with the realization that we are all – to varying degrees – chachas. More importantly, even though we’ve been frustrated by uncle behavior in the past, is that we (you, me and our brothers and sisters) are becoming chachas ourselves and at an alarming rate!
Please remember that the categories above are not absolute, nor are they mutually exclusive, and a person can have elements from multiple uncle classifications.
What’s most important for us as Muslims, is that our intentions are not to label the people in our lives as a form of belittlement or chastisement.
Instead, we should use this guide to identify behaviors and formulate strategies so that we can get more good work done. Being able to work with, around, or at least with as minimal conflict as possible with our community’s existing power structures is one of the primary goals of this post.
Also, we must realize that being a chacha can be simply a matter of perspective. You (me), and/or your favorite scholar are very likely seen — right now — by others as a Diva, an Authoritarian, a Manipulator or etc.
In fact, with the possible exception of the Diwan Trumps of the world, the people who fit into one or more of the other categories of chachas, can be and more than likely ARE very valuable and beneficial assets to the community.
Also, let us never forget the amazing levels of sacrifice that the earlier generations of Muslim leaders have made. I’m talking about those who are effectively the first generation of the modern American Muslim Community. These community founders (the early African American Muslim community leaders and the late, baby boomer and Gen X era, immigrant leaders who both were pioneers and funders of so many of today’s masajid and community institutions). These extraordinary people, gave of their time, prayers and money at levels that we RARELY see nowadays. May Allah reward them for all they’ve done, as we continue to benefit from their sacrifices, vision and deeds every day.
Also, it may be a hard to acknowledge reality, but, it just might be the case, that our problem with who we think of as uncles, is in our own hearts, and in how we see others.
So, I’d like to share some advice that I was blessed to get early in my career. In late 2001, a community leader told me to think of the community’s leadership as members of my own extended family. He said, “We all have that uncle that we don’t want to invite to the wedding, but we know we have too.” Then, in 2002, another gem was given to me, and it came from someone with whom I had a very adversarial relationship with, he said: “You are not responsible for the actions of others. However, how you choose to react to others is on you.” I pray that Allah blesses both these brothers for their wisdom immensely.
You see, it is completely natural for other leaders to want to recruit, influence or collaborate with you. It is also natural for people to feel threatened, or worry about competition that could affect them or their work.
Our job is to emulate Prophet Muhammad and find ways to achieve the greater good, regardless of your environment. Rasulullah did not give up after the incident at Ta’if, nor did he seek revenge. Instead, our beloved Prophet saw the potential in those that rejected him, and prayed for them and the future. He did this immediately after examining his own relationship with Allah.
When contemplating if and how to work with the various types of uncles in your life, I recommend the following litmus tests. 1) Look to see if they have effectively become gatekeepers between the Muslim community and our neighbors and allies. 2) Try to figure out if the person can work with others across ideological and political lines, in short is the person a uniter or trying to build personal power? Always remember, we do not need more gatekeepers or more division. But we absolutely need more opportunity.
Finally, my strongest recommendation for anyone seeking to be a more effective leader is to develop a personal cabinet of advisors. I recommend the following categories:
- The Subject Matter Experts – People who are standouts in their field and know their own perspective comes from their specific expertise. As a barebones start, you should include Islamic scholars (draw from multiple sources), lawyers, media professionals, and successful business men and women. Then you should add more niche personalities as your activism and leadership develop.
- The Connectors – These are folks that want to see your circles of influence expand. They are connected movers and shakers and are not threatened by new talent.
- The Builder – Builders are people who see your talent and potential and want to invest in your growth. Be careful though many builder types want to build on you instead build you up.
- The Protector – Protectors are like cheerleaders but are more substantive in that they not only promote your work, or help motivate you when you’re feeling down, but they also give you real criticism. They will tell you when they think you are wrong, or making mistakes. Protectors keep it real, but do so in a respectful way.
- The Pillar – The Pillars are those few, very rare, gems of a human being that are almost universally revered. They enjoy a positive reputation, but more importantly they are deeply respected. There are no shortcuts to Pillar status, so look to elders who have huge and compassionate hearts. The role of a Pillar – if you can find one – is to be a combination of all the above roles, but with an emphasis on being your strategist when it comes to relationships. They keep you healthy by reminding you to maintain balance in your life. They advocate to you, the needs of your family and your own spiritual journey and relationship with Allah.
If you pick them right, these advisors will help you navigate your uncle environment and prevent you from unwittingly becoming one yourself!
Lastly, and to conclude take advantage of Ramadan. Cleanse your heart and see if any of the chachas in your life have the potential to become part of your personal cabinet of advisors. Be bold, take calculated risks and always remember success is due to Allah’s blessing and favor alone. Your effort and gifts are only the tools that allow you to be the best servant of God that you can be.
May Allah bless us all to complete Ramadan washed clean of our sins and with renewed spirits, ready to serve!
What Does Sharia Really Say About Abortion in Islam
Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice, Islam recognizes the nuance.
The following article on abortion is based on a research paper titled ‘The Rights of the Fetus in Islam’, at the Department of Sharia at Qatar University. My team and I presented it to multiple members of the faculty. It was approved by the Dean of the Islamic Studies College, an experienced and reputed Islamic authority.
In one swoop, liberal comedian Deven Green posing as her satirical character, Mrs. Betty Brown, “America’s best Christian”, demonized both Sharia law as well as how Islamic law treats abortion. Even in a debate about a law that has no Muslim protagonist in the middle of it, Islam is vilified because apparently, no problem in the world can occur without Islam being dragged into it.
It is important to clarify what Sharia is before discussing abortion. Sharia law is the set of rules and guidelines that Allah establishes as a way of life for Muslims. It is derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which is interpreted and compiled by scholars based on their understandings (fiqh). Sharia takes into account what is in the best interest for individuals and society as a whole, and creates a system of life for Muslims, covering every aspect, such as worship, beliefs, ethics, transactions, etc.
Muslim life is governed by Sharia – a very personal imperative. For a Muslim living in secular lands, that is what Sharia is limited to – prayers, fasting, charity and private transactions such as not dealing with interest, marriage and divorce issues, etc. Criminal statutes are one small part of the larger Sharia but are subject to interpretation, and strictly in the realm of a Muslim country that governs by it.
With respect to abortion, the first question asked is:
“Do women have rights over their bodies or does the government have rights over women’s bodies?”
The answer to this question comes from a different perspective for Muslims. Part of Islamic faith is the belief that our bodies are an amanah from God. The Arabic word amanah literally means fulfilling or upholding trusts. When you add “al” as a prefix, or al-amanah, trust becomes “The Trust”, which has a broader Islamic meaning. It is the moral responsibility of fulfilling one’s obligations due to Allah and fulfilling one’s obligations due to other humans.
The body is one such amanah. Part of that amanah includes the rights that our bodies have over us, such as taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally – these are part of a Muslim’s duty that is incumbent upon each individual.
While the Georgia and Alabama laws in the United States that make abortion illegal after the 6-week mark of pregnancy are being mockingly referred to as “Sharia Law” abortion, the fact is that the real Sharia allows much more leniency in the matter than these laws do.
First of all, it is important to be unambiguous about one general ruling: It is unanimously agreed by the scholars of Islam that abortion without a valid excuse after the soul has entered the fetus is prohibited entirely. The question then becomes, when exactly does the soul enter the fetus? Is it when there is a heartbeat? Is it related to simple timing? Most scholars rely on the timing factor because connecting a soul to a heartbeat itself is a question of opinion.
The timing then is also a matter of ikhtilaf, or scholarly difference of opinion:
One Hundred and Twenty Days:
The majority of the traditional scholars, including the four madhahib, are united upon the view that the soul certainly is within the fetus after 120 days of pregnancy, or after the first trimester.
This view is shaped by the following hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood :
قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إن أحدكم يجمع خلقه في بطن أمه أربعين يوما ثم يكون في ذلك علقة مثل ذلك ثم يكون في ذلك مضغة مثل ذلك ثم يرسل الملك فينفخ فيه الروح..
“For every one of you, the components of his creation are gathered together in the mother’s womb for a period of forty days. Then he will remain for two more periods of the same length, after which the angel is sent and insufflates the spirit into him.”
The exception to the above is that some scholars believe that the soul enters the fetus earlier, that is after the formation phase, which is around the 40 days mark of pregnancy.
This view is based on another hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood :
قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إذا مر بالنطفة إثنتان وأربعون ليلة بعث الله إليها ملكاً، فصوره، وخلق سمعها وبصرها وجلدها ولحمها وعظمها…
“If a drop of semen spent in the womb forty-two nights, Allah sends an angel to it who depicts it and creates its ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones.”
Between the two views, the more widespread and popular opinion is the former, which is that the soul enters the fetus at the 120 days (or 4 months) mark, as the second hadith implies the end of the formation period of the fetus rather than the soul entering it.
Even if one accepts that the soul enters the fetus at a certain timing mark, it does not mean that the soul-less fetus can be aborted at any time or for any reason. Here again, like most matters of Islamic jurisprudence, there is ikhtilaf of scholarly difference of opinion.
No Excuse Required:
The Hanafi madhhab is the most lenient, allowing abortion during the first trimester, even without an excuse.
Some of the later scholars from the Hanafi school consider it makruh or disliked if done without a valid reason, but the majority ruled it as allowed.
Only Under Extreme Risks:
The Malikis are the most strict in this matter; they do not allow abortion even if it is done in the first month of pregnancy unless there is an extreme risk to the mother’s health.
As for the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools of thought, there are multiple opinions within the schools themselves, some allowing abortion, some only allowing it in the presence of a valid excuse.
Valid excuses differ from scholar to scholar, but with a strong and clear reason, permissibility becomes more lenient. Such cases include forced pregnancy (caused by rape), reasons of health and other pressing reasons.
For example, consider a rape victim who becomes pregnant. There is hardly a more compelling reason (other than the health of the mother) where abortion should be permitted. A child born as a result in such circumstances will certainly be a reminder of pain and discomfort to the mother. Every time the woman sees this child, she will be reminded of the trauma of rape that she underwent, a trauma that is generally unmatched for a woman. Leaving aside the mother, the child himself or herself will lead a life of suffering and potentially neglect. He or she may be blamed for being born– certainly unjust but possible with his or her mother’s mindset. The woman may transfer her pain to the child, psychologically or physically because he or she is a reminder of her trauma. One of the principles of Sharia is to ward off the greater of two evils. One can certainly argue that in such a case where both mother and child are at risk of trauma and more injustice, then abortion may indeed be the lesser of the two.
The only case even more pressing than rape would be when a woman’s physical health is at risk due to the pregnancy. Where the risk is clear and sufficiently severe (that is can lead to some permanent serious health damage or even death) if the fetus remained in her uterus, then it is unanimously agreed that abortion is allowed no matter what the stage of pregnancy. This is because of the Islamic principle that necessities allow prohibitions. In this case, the necessity to save the life of the mother allows abortion, which may be otherwise prohibited.
This is the mercy of Sharia, as opposed to the popular culture image about it.
Furthermore, the principle of preventing the greater of two harms applies in this case, as the mother’s life is definite and secure, while the fetus’ is not.
Absolutely Unacceptable Reason for Abortion:
Another area of unanimous agreement is that abortion cannot be undertaken due to fear of poverty. The reason for this is that this mindset collides with having faith and trust in Allah. Allah reminds us in the Quran:
((وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا أَوْلَادَكُمْ خَشْيَةَ إِمْلَاقٍ ۖ نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُهُمْ وَإِيَّاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ قَتْلَهُمْ كَانَ خِطْئًا كَبِيرًا))
“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty, We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin.” (Al-Israa, 31)
Ignorance is not an excuse, but it is an acceptable excuse when it comes to mocking Islam in today’s world. Islam is a balanced religion and aims to draw ease for its adherents. Most rulings concerning fiqh are not completely cut out black and white. Rather, Islamic rulings are reasonable and consider all possible factors and circumstances, and in many cases vary from person to person.
Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice. These terms have become political tools rather than sensitive choices for women who ultimately suffer the consequences either way.
Life means a lot more than just having a heartbeat. Islam completely recognizes this. Thus, Islamic rulings pertaing to abortion are detailed and varied.
As a proud Muslim, I want my fellow Muslims to be confident of their religion particularly over sensitive issues such as abortion and women’s rights to choose for themselves keeping the Creator of Life in focus at all times.
Why I Turned to Tech to Catch Laylatul Qadr
Make sure you maximize your sadaqah
My life, just like yours, is sooo busy. So naturally, as the tech nerd I am, I turn to tech to help me manage my regular routine including project management apps to manage my daily tasks. I even have a sleeping app that wakes me up at the optimum time (whatever that means!). But even though tech has changed everything in all sectors and helped make efficiencies in my daily life, it had had little impact on my religious activities.
A few years ago, whilst I was preparing for the last 10 nights of Ramadan, it hit me – why doesn’t something exist that automates my donations during these blessed nights to catch Laylatul Qadr. Rather than putting a reminder on my phone to bring out my bank card every night and inputting it into a website – why doesn’t something exist that does it for me, solving the problem of me forgetting to donate. After all we are human and it’s interesting that the Arabic word for human being is ‘insan’ which is derived from the word ‘nasiya’ which means ‘to forget.’ It is human nature to forget.
So the techie in me came out and I built the first scrappy version of MyTenNights, a platform to automate donations in the last 10 nights of Ramadan (took two weeks) because I wanted to use it myself! I thought it would be cool and my friends and family could use it too. That same year, nearly 2000 other people used it – servers crashed, tech broke and I had to get all my friends and Oreo (my cat) to respond to email complaints about our temperamental site!
I quickly realised I wasn’t alone in my need – everyone wanted a way to never miss Laylatul Qadr! Two years down the line we’ve called it MyTenNights, and our team has grown to 10, including Oreo, senior developers, QA specialists, brand strategists, creative directors and more. It fast became a fierce operation – an operation to help people all over the world catch Laylatul Qadr!
Last year alone we raised almost $2 million in just 10 days – and that was just in the UK. We’ve now opened MyTenNights to our American, Canadian. South African and Australian brothers and sisters and we’re so excited to see how they use it! We’ve made it available through all the biggest house name charities – Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Helping Hand, Penny Appeal, you name it! All donations go directly to the charity donors choose – all 100% of it.
Looking back at the last couple of years – it feels surreal: The biggest charities in the world and tens of thousands of users who share my need to be certain they’ve caught Laylatul Qadr. Although I hear many impressed with the sheer amount MyTenNights has raised for charity (and that excites me too!), it’s not what motives me to go on. What excites me most is the growing number of people who catch Laylatul Qadr because we made it easier.
I often tell my team that the number of people that use MyTenNights is the only metric we care about, and the only metric we celebrate. It makes no difference to us whether you donate $1 or a million – we just want you to catch Laylatul Qadr and for you to transform your Akhirah, because (after Allah) we helped you do it.
Ismael Abdela is a Law & Anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics. He spent some years studying Islamic Sciences in Qaseem, Saudi Arabia. He is now a keen social entrepreneur. Ismael likes to write about spiritual reflections, social commentary, and tafsīr. He is particularly interested in putting religion in conversation with the social sciences.
How Do Muslims Plan for Disability
Families with children with disability have an extraordinary set of challenges and blessings. Disability (or special needs) is a broad term.
Many disabilities will prevent what we often think of as “normal.” It may hinder or prevent educational opportunities, and employment. Many people with “special needs” can get educated, get married and live long and productive lives. The problem for many parents of younger children with special needs is that they typically have no certainty about their children’s future needs. Even if the situation looks dire, it may not stay that way.
How do parents plan for a world where they may not be around to see how things will end up for their special needs children? What can they do to help their children in a way that does not violate Islamic Inheritance rules?
Certain types of disability, especially the loss of executive decision-making ability, could also happen well into adulthood. This can be a threat to a family’s wealth and be the cause of internal conflicts. This is the kind of thing every adult needs to think about before it happens.
The issues are not just that parents believe their special needs child will need more inheritance than other children. Muslim parents usually don’t think that. Some parents don’t want their special needs child to get any inheritance at all. Not because of any ill-will against their special needs child; just the opposite, but because they are afraid inheritance will result in sabotaging their child’s needs-based government benefits.
Many, perhaps most special needs children do not have any use for needs-based benefits (benefits for the poor). But many do, or many parents might figure that it is a distinct possibility. This article is a brief explanation of some of the options available for parents of special needs children. It won’t go over every option, but rather those that are usually incorporated as part of any Islamic Estate Planning.
Please Stand By
Example: Salma has three daughters and two sons. One of her children, Khalida, 3, has Down Syndrome. At this point, Salma knows that raising Khalida is going to be an immense challenge for herself, her husband Rashid and all the older siblings. What she does not know, however, is what specific care Khalida is going to need through her life or how her disability will continue to be relevant. She does not know a lot about Khalida’s future marriage prospects, ability to be employed and be independent, though obviously like any parent she has nothing but positive hopes for her child’s life.
In the event of her death, Salma wants to make sure her daughter gets her Islamic right to inheritance. However, if Khalida needs public benefits, Salma does not want her daughter disqualified because she has her own money.
Her solution is something called a “stand-by special needs trust.” This type of trust is done in conjunction with an Islamic Inheritance Plan and is typically part of a living trust, though it could also be a trust drafted into the last will. I will describe more about what a special needs trust is below. For Salma, she is the Trustee of her trust. After she dies, she names her husband (or someone else) the successor Trustee. The trust is drafted to prevent it from becoming an “available resource” used to determine eligibility for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid and other benefits that go with that.
If it turns out that Salma passes away when Khalida is 5, and her assets are held in trust for her until she is 18 and her Trustee determines she does not need a special needs trust, she will get her inheritance precisely like everyone else based on their Islamic right. If she does need benefits, the Trustee will only make distributions to Khalida that would not harm her eligibility.
This way, there is no need to deny Khalida her inheritance because of her disability, and she is also making sure giving her daughter inheritance would not harm her daughter’s healthcare or other necessary support.
The Shape of Special Needs Trusts
A stand-alone Special needs trusts, which is sometimes called a “supplemental needs trust” the kind without the “stand-by” variation I described above, are a standard device for families that have children with special needs. A trust is a property ownership device. A Grantor gives the property to a Trustee, who manages the property for the benefit of a beneficiary. In a revocable living trust, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary are typically the same person.
When the trust is irrevocable, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary may all be different people. In a special needs trust, the person with a disability is the beneficiary. Sometimes, the person with a disability is also the Grantor, the person who created the trust. This might happen if there is a settlement from a lawsuit for example and the person with special needs wants it to be paid to the trust.
In many if not most cases, the goal may not be to protect the beneficiary’s ability to get public benefits at all. Many people with a disability don’t get special government benefits. But they do want to protect the beneficiaries from having to manage the assets. Some people are just more susceptible to abuse.
The structure of the arrangement typically reflects the complexity of the family, the desire of siblings and extended family to continue to be involved in the care and attending to the needs of the person with a disability, even if they are not the person directly writing checks.
Example: Care for Zayna
Example: Zayna is a 24-year-old woman with limited ability to communicate, take care of her needs and requires 24-hour care. Zayna has three healthy siblings, many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her father, Elias, earns about $70,000 per year and is divorced. Zayna’s mother Sameena cannot contribute, as she is on social security disability. However, Zayna’s adult brother and sisters, brother in laws, sister in law and several aunts, uncles want to help Zayna meet her needs E.lyas creates a third party special needs trust that would ensure Zayna has what she needs in the years to come.
Zayna receives need-based public benefits that are vital to her in living with her various disabilities and her struggle to gain increasing independence, knowledge and dignity. So the trust needs to be set up and professionally administered to make sure that when Zayna gets any benefit from her trust, it does not end up disqualifying her ability to get any needs-based benefit.
Contributions to the special needs trust will not go against Islamic Inheritance rules unless made after the death of the donor.
If Zayna dies, her assets from the special needs trust will be distributed based on the Islamic rules of inheritance as it applies to her.
When disability planning is not about Public Benefits
Perhaps most families with special needs children do not use any needs-based public assistance. They are still concerned about special needs and planning for it.
Example: Khadija, 16, is on the autism spectrum. For those familiar with the autism spectrum, that could mean a lot of things. For her parents, Sarah and Yacoob, other than certain habits that are harmless and easy to get used to, it means Khadija is very trusting of people. Otherwise, she does well in school, and her parents don’t think she needs way more help than her siblings and she has just as good a chance of leading a healthy and productive life as any 16-year-old girl.
The downside of being too trusting is that the outside world can exploit her. If she ends up getting inheritance or gifts, she may lose it. The parents decide that when she gets her inheritance, it will be in a trust that would continue through her life. There will be a trustee who will make sure she has what she needs from her trust, but that nobody can exploit her.
In some ways, what Khadija’s parents Sarah and Yacoob are doing is not so different from what parents might do if they have a child with a substance abuse problem. They want to give their child her rights, but they don’t want to allow for exploitation and abuse.
Considering your own needs
There are many people who are easy marks for scammers, yet you would be unlikely to know this unless you are either a close friend or family member, or a scammer yourself. While this often happens to the elderly, it can happen at just about any age. Everyone should consider developing an “incapacity plan” to preserve their wealth even if they lose their executive decision-making ability.
There is this process in state courts known as “conservatorship.” Indeed, entire courtrooms dedicate themselves to conservatorships and other mental health-related issues. It is a legal process that causes an individual to lose their financial or personal freedom because a court has essentially declared them not competent to handle their affairs. Conservatorships are a public process. They can cause a lot of pain embarrassment and internal family strife.
One of the benefits of a well-drafted living trust is to protect privacy and dignity during difficult times.
Example: Haris Investing in Cambodian Rice Farms
Haris, 63, was eating lunch at a diner. In the waiting area, he became fast friends with Mellissa; a thirty-something woman who was interested in talking about Haris’s grandchildren. The conversation then turned Melissa and her desire to start a business selling long distance calling cards. Haris was fascinated by this and thought it made good business sense. Haris gave Mellissa $20,000.00. The two exchanged numbers. The next day, Mellissa’s number was disconnected.
Haris’s wife, Julie became alarmed by this. It was out of character for her husband to just fork over $20,000 to anyone on the spur of the moment. What was worse is that the business failed immediately.
Three months later, Haris meets Mellissa at the diner again. She then convinces Haris to invest $50,000 in a Cambodian rice farm, which he does right away. His wife Julie was pretty upset.
How living trusts helps
As it happened though, Haris, a few years before, created a living trust. It has a provision that includes incapacity planning. There are two essential parts to this: The first is a system to decide if someone has lost their executive decision-making ability. The second is to have a successor Trustee to look over the estate when the individual has lost this capacity. This question is about Haris’s fundamental freedom: his ability to spend his own money.
If you asked Haris, he would say nothing is wrong with him. He looks and sounds excellent. Tells the best dad jokes. He goes to the gym five times a week and can probably beat you at arm wrestling. Haris made some financial mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.
Julie, and his adult children Haroon, Kulsum, Abdullah, and Rasheeda are not so sure it’s just a mistake. The living trust created a “disability panel.” This panel gets to vote, privately, in if Haris should continue to act as Trustee of his own money. If they vote that he should not manage his own money, his wife does it for him.
The family has a way to decide an important and sensitive issue while maintaining Haris’ dignity, privacy and wealth. Haris’s friends don’t know anything about long distance calling cards or a Cambodian rice farm; they don’t know he lost his ability to act as Trustee of his trust. Indeed the rest of the world is oblivious to all of this.
Planning for everyone
Islamic inheritance is fard and every Muslim should endeavor to incorporate it into their lives. As it happens it is an obligation Muslims, at least those in the United States, routinely ignore or deal with inadequately. However, there is more to planning than just what shares go to whom after death. Every family needs to create a system. There may or may not be problems with children or even with yourself (other than death, which will happen), but you should do whatever you can to protect your family’s wealth and dignity while also fulfilling your obligations to both yourself and your family.
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