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Dancing the Muslim “ChaCha” (aka Dealing With Ammu)

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.

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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.

Challenges force us to grow. Success is not achieved at the competition, but during all the preparation you did before it. Expect difficulties and use them to become a better person.

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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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.

Successful people have coaches. It is impossible to learn jujitsu on your own, you have to be able to feel your opponent’s energy and you need experienced teachers to learn technique. Build yourself a team of coaches so that you can grow and navigate problems quickly.

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!

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

Paul "Iesa" Galloway is a native born Texan. He was recently called "the Yoda of interfaith affairs" by a colleague from his daytime gig. After hours Iesa serves as a consultant, messaging strategist and trainer on media, government and community relations.Iesa is a product of the "Military Brat" experience of the 1990's on US Army bases in Germany he has traveled extensively, for extended periods in Kenya, Hungary and Communist Poland on missionary trips, visited Communist East Germany with the Boy Scouts of America, as well as enjoyed time in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Austria. Since embracing Islam, Iesa was asked to be the founding Executive Director of CAIR-Houston, where he served the community from 2002 to 2006, he has completed the Hajj pilgrimage, participated in an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Society for Biblical Studies and completed a study abroad program on the history of Islamic Spain, Morocco and Andalusian Philosophy with the University of Houston. Iesa's education is rooted in History and Public Relations and he has a interfaith and multiracial background.

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Mental Health & COVID-19: Light, Guidance, & Much Love | Part 1

Insha’Allah, you and your loved ones are safe & healthy. May Allah swt protect us all from COVID-19, Ya Hafidh, and open the way for our spiritual growth, Ya Fattah Ya Rabb. No doubt, we are living in very challenges times, and many in our community are suffering. As such, my intention for this two-part series is to provide some beneficial perspectives and practical strategies that will make your emotional journey safer & easier, insha’Allah.

And a journey it surely is. We are on a very long hike up a very steep mountain. And we have only two choices about HOW we approach this challenge: unskillfully or skillfully. If we wear flip-flops, and fail to pack water and snacks, we will have a very difficult time reaching the summit. And if we do, we will be in very bad shape. If we wear good socks, sturdy hiking boots, and our backpack is well-stocked, not only are we likely to reach the summit, but reach it in great shape. This is what I want for our beloved community, insha’Allah.

As Muslims, it is crucial to remember that the ultimate summit is the hereafter. Truly, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our goal and pleasing Him is our aim. Truly, everything we do or fail to do here has an impact there. For many people, this haqq is much more difficult to remember and actualize when their day-to-day challenges are daunting. This is why historically and traditionally, in times of crisis, Muslims have always sought the nasiha of wise elders. Imam Muhasibi, the father of Islamic Psychology, developed this crucial, beautiful science in response to the human needs of his students. Sadly, the loss of these teachings as a widespread living tradition has contributed in large part to the widespread mental-health problems that have been plaguing our community for a very long time, which have now been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Here’s a good metaphor. The science of nutrition teaches us about our body, the properties of different foods, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum physical health. Likewise, the science of mental health teaches us about our heart and mind, the impact of specific activities, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital psychological nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum mental health. Lack of knowledge about Islamic Psychology and the absence of the vital psychological nutrients have taken a huge toll on our community. The stories I hear would probably shock you. They would certainly break your heart. Especially the stories of our young people, who are my top priority. Insha’Allah, the wake-up call of COVID-19 propels us to reclaim en masse this lost part of our spiritual heritage, so we can reclaim our vitality and nobility as the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

To continue with the metaphor. Working one-on-one with an experienced nutritionist is very different than reading a book about nutrition. With the former, your nutritional program is specifically tailored to your particular problems, challenges, habits, and temperament. The same is true when it comes to mental health. So I must manage your expectations honestly and honorably by saying that it is not possible for me to do in two articles for the general public what I do one-on-one in my private practice as a psychotherapist, life-coach, and spiritual mentor. Truly, there is a palpable, powerful, fitrah-based alchemy that can only happen when two human hearts link-up in real time. That said, in the same way that reading and learning about nutrition is very beneficial, so too reading and learning about mental health, especially now.

Working Skillfully with Difficult Emotions

No doubt, COVID-19 has unleashed a wide range of very difficult emotions. People are struggling with tremendous anxiety, uncertainty, fear, sadness, loneliness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, frustration, confusion, grief, despair, and in some cases, a full-blown crisis of faith. So let me explain a little bit about emotions and how to work with them skillfully  

One of the foundational principles of cognitive-behavioral psychology is called ‘reframing.’

It is the process of deliberately thinking differently about our situation. Reframing it. The fact is, the lens through which we view our circumstances makes all the difference in the world insofar as how we feel. Thoughts are like the front wheels of the car and feelings are like the back wheels. We must be in the driver seat, steering intentionally. Whichever way the front wheels turn, the back wheels follow. So paying attention to our thoughts moment by moment, and making sure they are aligned with the Qur’an and Sunnah, is crucial. The mind is a like a muscle that MUST be trained through specific exercises, and our tradition is rich in the techniques for doing so. Truly, we must hit the spiritual gym regularly. The heavy lifting of muhasiba (self-reckoning) and muraqaba (mindfulness/meditation) are not optional. If these are not already a consistent part of your spiritual practice, NOW is the time to take them up. You will be so happy you did!

Here’s a good metaphor. If you are a longtime couch potato, even a flight of stairs leaves you huffing and puffing. If you are in good shape, you’re able to jog around the block easily. If you’re in great shape, you’re able to leap over the hurdles like a gazelle. For many, COVID-19 has been like asking a couch potato to run a marathon. So we need to get in the best spiritual shape possible as quickly as possible. To that end:

The Centering Exercise 

Every time you notice that you are feeling sad, anxious, fearful, angry, hopeless, helpless, impatient, frustrated, confused, or depressed, here’s what to do.  

  • Turn off your devices and put them in another room.
  • Close your door and put a “Please do not disturb.” sign on the doorknob. Lay down.
  • Close your eyes. Turn your attention to your heart. Remember the Hadith Qudsi, “Heaven and earth cannot contain me but the heart of my faithful believer is where I reside.” Truly, Allah is closer than our jugular vein. (50:16)
  • Take some slow-deep breaths. On the out-breath, silently recite “La illaha.” On the in-breath, silently recite “il Allah.” After a few minutes, notice the shift in your state. Notice the deep connection between ‘self’ and ‘breath’, not just experientially, but also etymologically. They both derive from the same Arabic root, transliterated nfs.   
  • When you are centered, mentally review what you had been thinking about that gave rise to the difficult emotions.  Then do a ‘search and replace,’ deliberately and intentionally replacing your dark thoughts with the Light of The Qur’an or Hadith. Here is one example: Search: “I’ll never get through this.” Replace: “Allah never burdens a person with more than he is well able to bear.” (2:286)

As individuals, we each have our own particular dark thoughts. NOW is the BEST time to fix them. I lovingly encourage you to get a blank journal, so that each time you do The Centering Exercise, you can make note of what you observed, what you learned about yourself. Write down each dark thought and then write down each Rx of Light from The Qur’an or Sunnah. Having a personal journal gives you a concrete means of reinforcing your new thought patterns. 

We know from our neuroscience that the human brain possesses ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the capacity to be shaped, molded, changed. As such, the more often you do The Centering Exercise, the more your thinking patterns will change. This is how Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) created us, mash’Allah! It’s really quite amazing to realize that the Qur’an we’ve been given provides Light upon Light from The Lord of The Worlds. And the Sunnah is that Light fully actualized to perfection, mash’Allah. The fact is, no matter how dark a room may be, if we light just one candle, it illuminates the space. Mash’Allah!

Parents, once you get the hang of The Centering Exercise, please please teach it to your children! Insha’Allah, make it the new normal in your household, transforming discord and upset into harmony and peace.

Say “Ameen!”

Divine Reminders

Insofar as reframing COVID-19 in the broader sense, I offer you this lens, this Divine Reminder, with much love. May it shift your state from embittered to empowered. My beloved sisters and brothers, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our Rabb, our Teacher, and COVID-19 is the Test we’ve all been given. Every single human being on the planet. We all woke up one day, walked into the classroom of Life, and got handed a pop quiz. The purpose of which is to show us the places where we weren’t prepared. This is great! Because the trumpet is absolutely going to sound, and we surely want to be ready. As long as we’re breathing, we have time to prepare. This is great!

Say “Ameen!” 

Beloved ones, we have the incredible privilege of being students of The One Who Knows Everything, including The Future and The Unseen.  It is very bad adab to question the teaching methods of our Teacher or to complain that we don’t like the Test.

This was the fatal mistake of Bani Israel that we are reminded 17x/day not to emulate. On the contrary, what we want to be asking ourselves is: “What must I do to pass this Test with flying colors, to ace this Exam?” Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “Not without purpose did We create heaven and earth and all between.” (38:27)  This pandemic is not some random event. It has a divine purpose. There is deep meaning in it. 

There is also enormous rahmah in it. Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “…My mercy embraces everything.” (7:156) The Divine Physician has dispensed this bitter medicine to heal us. To heal the whole world from its longstanding imbalances and injustices. Surely, it is no accident, the timing of COVID-19 vis-à-vis the murder of George Floyd and the global response it has galvanized.  Surely, every human being wants to and deserves to breathe.

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the whole world. Ours to do as students is to be fully present in each moment, to practice mindfulness (muraqaba), so we can be deeply receptive to the Lessons we are meant to learn (muhasiba). Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11) Beloved ones, NOW is the time for global tawbah (repentance). As the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), this is our Divine Assignment, individually, collectively, institutionally. 

My vision and personal commitment is that we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of this, insha’Allah. I can say this with great confidence because first and foremost, I know that COVID-19 or no COVID-19, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is not out of business! The presence of The Presence, the power of the Names & Attributes, are as robust as ever. 

We are being summoned to recognize our hubris and turn our hearts in humility toward The One Who Is In Charge, The One Who Calls The Shots, to The One Whose Decree we surrender. Humbly. Readily. Insha’Allah, NOW is the time to actualize the last part of Hadith Jibreel about qadr. The fact is, what’s happening around us is what’s happening, and this is always in the hands of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). HOW we respond to what’s happening is entirely up to us.

What I want for our community is the best possible response, the most skillful and beautiful response, the response that will be of maximum benefit here & hereafter, insha’Allah.

I can also say this with great confidence because time and again, working with Muslim refugees who have been through horrific trauma, I have seen with my own eyes how absolutely amazing human beings are. How resilient. How courageous. How creative. How capable of transforming sorrow into joy, lemons into lemonade, compost into roses. This is what I want for you, my beloved sisters and brothers.

No doubt, on any long and arduous journey, in addition to having the right equipment and supplies, having an experienced trail-guide makes all the difference. There is dangerous terrain you want to avoid, and beautiful vistas you don’t want to miss. In my experience over decades, I have observed that human beings thrive when we are given the right tools and the loving encouragement to master them.  So let me give you now some very practical guidelines to help you navigate skillfully, so you can extract from these precious days of your life what is meaningful & transformational. 

Practical Strategies

When it comes to protecting our physical health from the pandemic, there are certain steps we MUST take. Likewise with our mental health. As such, here are some practical strategies, culled from thousands of pages of research and decades of experience. My focus is on parents, whose job has never been more difficult. And with the new school year right around the corner, this guidance is extremely timely. 

Boundaries: Set clear boundaries regarding where and when devices can be used. This applies to everyone in the household, kids and parents alike. Parents, as your elder who loves you, I am reminding you that YOU are the CEO of your home. YOU are the policy maker. YOU are in charge. NOT your kids or their devices. So take charge!

  • No devices for kids 0-3. These guidelines are from the American Pediatric Association. 
  • No devices at the dinner table* or in the bedrooms.
  • No devices until after Fajr. Better yet, after breakfast.
  • All devices put away 1-2 hours before bedtime. Plugged in in the kitchen to recharge.
  • Limit on-line entertainment and socializing to 1 hour/day MAX.
  • Schedule tech fasts ½ day weekly, and 1-2 full days monthly, on a weekend.
  • An occasional family-time movie is fine on the weekend. Choose something meaningful, uplifting, thought-provoking, heart-opening. Pop some popcorn. Make tea. Engage in a special time afterward to really talk together about your experience. *Getting in the habit of real-time-face-to-face conversations is crucial. If you start when your kids are young, it will lay a strong foundation for their teenage years, when they desperately need wise, trustworthy, caring adults who really know how to listen from the heart.

Nature: Spending time in nature is the very best thing you can do for yourself and with your family. There are reams of data about the stress-reducing effects of being outdoors, especially in the woods. There are also reams of data about the benefits of exercise, not only for physical health, but for mental health. Given all the extra sitting everyone is doing during COVID-19, regular exercise is not optional. 

Furthermore, if your kids are schooling from home and you are working from home, everyone will surely need some breathing room, some physical and emotional space from one another, some time every day in solitude, unplugged from their devices. Spending alone-time in nature is the perfect solution. 

For family-time activities, unplug from your devices and enjoy these delightful experiences. They will engender tremendous awe (khushu’) and deepen your heart-connection with your Rabb, The One Who Created you and all the beauty around you. Subhan’Allah.

  • Take a 15-30 minute family-walk every night after dinner before homework.
  • Go hiking, biking, rollerblading, kayaking, kite-flying, or camping on the weekend.   
  • Set up bird feeders in your yard. Learn their names and identify their songs.
  • Go out nightly to look at the stars. Learn the names of the constellations.
  • Watch as many sunrises & sunsets, moonrises & moonsets as you can. 

As Muslims, our worship is guided by the natural cycles Allah put in place. The sun is our clock. It tells us when to pray. The moon is our calendar. It tells us when the new month begins. Sighting the moon is an act of worship, mash’Allah.

Divine Reminders

Our beautiful Qur’an teaches:“We will show them Our Signs (ayat) in the universe and in their own selves, until it becomes clear to them that this (the Qur’an) is the truth.” (Fussilat 41:53)

In this ayah, we are taught the two beautiful gateways into the sacred: the macrocosm of the universe, and the microcosm of the self. Both of these gateways open into the direct experience of Allah’s presence. 

As Muslims, we have been invited to spend time in this dunya in the company of The One Who is Love (al-Wadud). The One Who is Strength (al-Aziz). The One Who is Peace (as-Salaam). And on & on. What could be more beneficial during this time of crisis? Alas, calling upon our Rabb by His most Beautiful Names, with urgency & sincerity, is one of the Lessons we must learn from COVID-19.  My prayer for our community is that people do not squander the opportunity to connect in a deep, meaningful, intimate way heart-to-heart with Allah because they can’t put their phone down or turn their computer off. Insha’Allah, I will address the subject of digital addiction in the second article, as it plays a huge role when it comes to mental health issues.

Closing Du’a

Ya Habibi Ya Allah. Please grant us oceans of fortitude and mountains of strength Ya Sabur Ya Aziz. May we be dutiful beautiful students who strive with all our might in jihad al akbar to pass this test with flying colors, to ace this exam. May we, the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), love one another like he loves us, and strengthen one another every step of the way. May we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of COVID-19, reclaiming the standard of Insan Kamil as the Index by which we measure our lives. Ya Dhal Jalali wal Ikram.

Say “Ameen!” 

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