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I Almost Left Islam: Why Am I Muslim?

Umm Zakiyyah

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 A Burdened Soul

This isn’t a story I am proud of, and it’s not one I ever planned on writing. It’s not even one I planned on living. When I was younger, I imagined that leaving Islam was a logical process, one arrived at through careful analysis of Islamic beliefs and finding in them something inherently contradictory or something that one disagreed with. Thus, I never really comprehended it, and it consistently confounded me. How could a person go from believing in only God and worshipping Him alone to disbelieving in Him and worshipping creation instead of Him? It just didn’t make any sense.

I remember being deeply intrigued by the story of a famous NFL player who had left Islam and converted to Christianity. I was never a football fan, but as a youth, I had been a fan of his, mainly because he was both a star player and a practicing Muslim. When I’d heard that he had converted to Christianity, I dismissed it as an absurd rumor, it was so unbelievable. The media was in the habit of taking sensational stories and making them front-page “news” with little to no regard for authenticity or credibility. I’d assumed this was what had happened with the football player. Or at least I was hoping so—because the alternative was too difficult to fathom.

In my young mind, it was impossible to go from being a “devout Muslim” to worshipping one of Allah’s prophets and declaring this shirk as the only way to Heaven. Some months before, I had read a magazine feature about the NFL player in which he explained Islam to the readers and discussed the significance of the five daily prayers. I remember the piece really touching my heart. So it was difficult to reconcile this inspirational image with someone leaving Islam.

Months later, I was watching television and happened upon a Christian talk show in which the host said that today’s guest would be the NFL player telling the story of why he’d left Islam. Naturally, this caught my attention, and I waited to see if the athlete would really be there. Eventually, he came on to the set, and the first thing I noticed about him was how visibly uncomfortable and fidgety he was. I watched as he kept glancing over his shoulder as if he expected someone to walk in and “catch him” there, though I’m sure he was fully aware that he was on national television.

When the host asked what inspired his decision to leave Islam for Christianity, the NFL player said, “When I was Muslim, I always felt guilty when I sinned. Now that I’m Christian, I don’t feel guilty anymore because I know Jesus died for my sins.”

I was only a teenager at the time, but I felt like it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. I nearly laughed out loud for how ridiculous this man’s reasoning was. So you want to get drunk and sleep with multiple women without the guilty conscience? I shook my head in humored disbelief.

But at least his decision made sense to me now. I had been waiting for some profound reflection on how he’d happened upon some groundbreaking “evidence” that God was now a man in flesh and part of a Trinity instead of the Creator who was completely separate from His creation and who shared no kinship to them. I couldn’t imagine what that “evidence” would entail, but at the time, it was the only logical reason my mind could accept for leaving the worship of God alone.

However, after hearing the NFL player’s explanation, I understood his soul’s desperate longing to live life without the burden of regret, self-correction, or personal accountability for his wrongs. Nevertheless, though I myself still had a lot to learn about life, I knew that even many devout Christians would find the man’s reasoning problematic. Till today, I find the reasoning problematic myself.

But the man’s story no longer confounds me.

It terrifies me.

Because I know how close I myself came to allowing my own soul to become “unburdened” by giving up on myself and my Lord.

I still haven’t found all the words to explain exactly what was happening to me during this time. But in this book, along with the video series , I pinpoint ten spiritual struggles that I faced during that time, along with ten solutions that I implemented to weather the most tumultuous spiritual storm of my life.

Our Agreement.

The agreement was

I was to accept the blows

And accept them quietly.

I was to show hurt

To ensure my shame

And to deny hurt

To protect their name

If they lied

I was to believe them

If they slandered me

I was to repent

If there was pain

(And there always was)

I was to cry in silence

And smile in front of the world

If I needed help

Love

Compassion

Or relief

I was to confide in the ones who hurt me

Or risk

Suffering beyond belief.

I wrote this poem while in a state of melancholy as I reflected on what I’d experienced in my life thus far as a result of taking to heart what I’d been taught about not having the right to exist. In my sincere ignorance and spiritual zeal, I had allowed myself to be mistreated and abused by those who claimed to love and care for me, and who claimed to have so much religious knowledge that I was obligated to do everything they said.

As I withstood the slander, emotional manipulation, and spiritual abuse, I was continuously reminded—often by the abusers themselves—of the rights these people had over me, as commanded by Allah Himself. Yet ironically, the reason I was continuously slandered and abused was that I consistently made exceptions to fulfilling the demands and desires of these people whenever I genuinely believed that doing so would displease Allah or harm my life and soul.

On many occasions, I would try to explain myself to them and give detailed, heartfelt explanations (and apologies) so that they wouldn’t be offended by my life choices. But it was to no avail. I would be consistently asked, “Who do you think you are?”

So Why Am I Muslim?

It makes no sense to question one’s spiritual path based on mistreatment by those who claim the same path. However, due to the combination of my spiritual exhaustion and emotional trauma, I began to question why I was Muslim. I don’t have a detailed analysis of why this question weighed so heavily on me for so long, but it did. As a grappled desperately for an answer, I felt the dark waters of disbelief pulling me in, and I had no idea if I could keep my head above the water.

Why I Almost Gave Up

This is not a story that is easy to put into words. However, when I look back at the first problem I faced during my spiritual crisis, I can safely say it was rooted in three things pulling me down:

  1. I felt overwhelmed spiritually such that I feared I could no longer continue.
  2. I felt that I didn’t have the right to exist.
  3. I found many Muslim communities to be sources of pain and institutionalized pride.

I Felt Overwhelmed Spiritually

During my spiritual crisis, Islam began to feel like an increasing list of doubtful, haraam, and religious obligations; and I couldn’t keep up. I wanted to hold on to my emaan, and I knew that I needed to. But I felt like I couldn’t.

Part of the problem was my desire to stay away from anything that could even possibly be wrong. As a result of this determination, I followed the strictest opinion on nearly every ikhtilaaf issue amongst the scholars. The following excerpt from my blog Walking Guilty, the Weight of Doubt and Sin paints a pretty accurate picture of what led to this spiritual exhaustion:

I thought I had it all figured out. I know that sounds cliché, naïve even, but it’s true. I wasn’t going to compromise my soul. I wasn’t going to open myself up to sin. I wasn’t going to Hell with my eyes open. Yes, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew I’d have to sacrifice and struggle. And I knew there would always be that internal battle for sincerity that nobody could conquer perfectly in this life.

But I could at least protect my actions in some way.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The halaal (permissible) is clear and the haraam (forbidden) is clear, and between them are matters that are mushtabihaat [unclear or doubtful]. Whoever is wary of these doubtful matters has absolved his religion and honor. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haraam. It is like a shepherd who herds his sheep too close to preserved sanctuary, and they will eventually graze in it. Every king has a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is what He has made haraam. There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily, it is the heart” (Bukhari and Muslim).

In my youthful zeal, I thought that staying away from doubtful and forbidden matters was as simple as doing what was “safest”: following the strictest opinion so as to remove any possibility of falling into error or sin.

So that’s what I did.

In my commitment to religious “safety,” I broke all my music CDs and stopped listening to music, thinking, “It might be a sin.” I questioned singing and dancing [even in my own home] because that too had been labeled as haraam by some scholars. I even tried to stop listening to nasheeds (songs without musical instruments) because “that was safest.”

I donned the niqaab (the face veil), thinking, “It’s certainly not wrong to wear it.” I wore an over-the-head abaya and gloves, and even experimented with covering my eyes. And I even left America to “make hijrah”, thinking, “I fear for my soul in a non-Muslim society.”

And though I loved to read, I even stopped reading novels for fear of “wasting time.” I stopped giving speeches in front of men because, allegedly, that was a fitnah (severe temptation) for men. I stayed away from co-ed gatherings because I didn’t want to “intermingle.” I stopped taking and keeping pictures, and contemplated throwing away my family photos because “pictures are haraam.” I questioned my calligraphy wall art because it “might be disrespecting the Qur’an.” I stopped reading the Qur’an during my menses because menstruating women were “unclean.”

And, believe it or not, the list goes on…

Stay Away From Doubtful?

“Of the most doubtful matters to me is continuously staying away from what is doubtful to someone else because they said it should be doubtful to me. This sort of spiritual manipulation makes me more fearful of my soul than that ‘doubtful matter’ ever could. So I stay away from doubtful by focusing on what my Lord has made clear—and by striving to not stress over others’ never-ending ‘what ifs’ of mind and heart, which they label ‘doubtful matters’ in my faith.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy. So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection. Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).

As I reflected on the burdens I’d put on myself and the personal extremes to which I’d gone to “be safe,” I had an epiphany: Religious safety isn’t an objective matter; it’s a personal matter. Safety isn’t something you arrive at based on a theoretical reality “out there”… on the pages of Islamic books or in scholarly lectures. It’s something you arrive at based on your spiritual reality “in here”… in the heart and soul—and rooted in what you truly understand and believe about your faith.

No, you certainly cannot throw out objectivity altogether and ignore scholarly evidences, but after steering clear of what is undeniably wrong and doing what is undeniably obligatory, religious safety is first and foremost what preserves your soul.

What ‘Staying Away From Doubtful’ Really Means

It is well known that religion is defined by core beliefs and specific acts of worship. Islam is no different. Thus, the rules of what we believe and how we worship are very specific. In fact, they form the very definition of faith. The slightest deviation from what Allah and His Messenger taught regarding belief and worship is at the very least bid’ah (blameful religious innovation) and at the worst kufr (disbelief in Islam itself). Hence, our greatest concern for religious safety must be in protecting our beliefs and worship.

It is well known that worldly affairs, as a general rule, are not religious matters. Thus, humans are free to enjoy and benefit from anything of this world that they wish—unless Allah has expressly forbidden it (i.e. eating pork, drinking alcohol, or engaging in any sexual intimacy outside the God-mandated union between a man and a woman).

In other words, all matters of belief and worship have the general principle of prohibition unless there is clear proof for them in the Qur’an and Sunnah; and all matters related to our worldly life have the general principle of permissibility unless there is clear proof against them in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Thus, for me, I was able to reclaim my faith by staying away from doubtful by adhering to this general rule, rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah: If I hear of a religious belief or mode of worship that I cannot be absolutely sure (based on evidences) is sanctioned in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, I stay away from it “to be safe.” But if I hear of a worldly matter being prohibited based on “proofs” not rooted in clear evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah (or historical ijmaa’), I consider it permissible “to be safe.”

Focus on Allah, Not Other People’s Doubts

Reaching a spiritual place where I could let go of other people’s doubts and focus on my own has been a long, tough road. Shedding the indoctrination that I don’t have a right to my own mind, life, and soul has not been easy, as many communities and Islamic classes don’t teach tawakkul, such that you establish a personal relationship with Allah and trust in Him alone. They teach human dependency and scholar-worship, such that you establish a spiritual relationship with your imam or teacher, whom you are expected to trust to do your thinking and soul-work on your behalf.

In some cultures, this human dependency is taught as being between parent and child, such that parents must be trusted to do the thinking and soul-work on the children’s behalf, even when these “children” are now adults.

However, in my own spiritual crisis, I reached a point where this “so-and-so always knows better than you” thinking was no longer an option, literally. It was either let go of this human dependency or let go of my emaan. I chose my emaan.

Today, I consciously stay away from environments and classes that teach self-denial over self-care, particularly regarding worldly matters subject to permissible disagreement. Islam itself has enough rules and guidelines that restrict aspects of our worldly life such that healthy self-denial is an integral part of practicing our faith. Thus, I don’t understand the obsession of some Muslims with continuously adding to this list.

And here, I differentiate between those who follow the strictest view because they genuinely believe it to be correct in front of Allah (and thus respectfully share with others what they’ve studied or learned), and those who resort to emotional manipulation or spiritual abuse when it becomes clear that the other person is not convinced that such-and-such is haraam. When their threats of Hellfire, censuring quotes from their sheikhs, and implications that the person is a bad Muslim don’t work; like clockwork, they resort to the final spiritual manipulation technique, as if reciting from a memorized script: “You should stay away from what’s doubtful.”

Today, when I hear this statement used as a guilt tactic to convince someone to follow the strictest view on a non-ijmaa’ issue, I sometimes have to recite dhikr to calm down, I get so angry. As I mentioned in my blog “Suffering From Religious OCD?”: You cannot live your entire life throwing every worldly issue into the category of “doubtful matters” just because you aren’t personally aware of its specific “ruling” in Islam. If you do, you’ll likely overburden yourself in the religion until you are paralyzed into inactivity, anxiety, and stress—and until you give up on practicing Islam altogether.

Furthermore, as many scholars have explained, “doubtful matters” is not a definitive category of issues in Islam. What is doubtful to one person is not doubtful to another, as “doubtful” depends on each individual person’s level of Islamic knowledge, as well as his or her own internal discomfort with something.

Unfortunately, it is rare that a Muslim advises a fellow believer to simply turn to Allah for guidance on how to handle a practical dilemma or a confusing predicament that involves permissible disagreement in Islam. Instead, we rush to make the person’s life difficult by saying, “Stay away from doubtful,” as if this is the cure-all to all of life’s problems and uncertainties. But we label this approach “protecting the soul.”

However, I know firsthand the spiritual harms of continuous self-denial in the name of “protecting your soul.” I stayed away from any and every thing that I felt could even be possibly be doubtful, only to find myself exhausted and my soul harmed so much that I felt I couldn’t even be Muslim anymore. I wish it had occurred to me that the most serious “doubtful matter” to stay away from is that which makes me doubt my faith itself.

Daughter of American converts to Islam, Umm Zakiyyah writes about the interfaith struggles of Muslims and Christians, and the intercultural, spiritual, and moral struggles of Muslims in America. She is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the newly released self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, with contributions by Haleh Banani, behavioral therapist. Her books have been used in universities in America and abroad including Indiana University-Bloomington, Howard University, University of D.C. and Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. To learn more about the author, visit uzauthor.com.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    RY

    June 11, 2017 at 5:51 PM

    Salam Sister,
    That was amazing, I have had to grapple with this and similar issues. I really like the fitrah aspect you touched on, I think the fitrah is amazing and it is that common human experience. I love that you balanced that with using the clear guidelines in Islam, but on those matters that lack clarity use your God given intuition (fitrah) as a compass. One example that relates to me, is that I find provocative imagery on movies, games, and other mediums to be a fitnah to myself, now I think to a great degree all muslims (esp brothers) should feel uncomfortable with such things, but there may be some gray as in for example going to a mall or other things that is a personal decision and it may not be right for some but it may be right for those that aren’t affected by it. Every person has to be honest with themselves “Does this action take my heart away from Allah and into something that will displease Allah, is this a stepping stone of Shaytan”, I think its beautiful that all of us have our own strengths and weaknesses and each of us know what’s good for us in those gray areas. Another example is more simpler, but is that of eating sugar. I personally cut out sugary foods and drinks for the most part, because I know when I eat it I binge eat and can’t control, however there are those that can eat it and not necessarily succumb to it. I hope what I’m saying makes sense and is relevant to what you’re saying JAK for the article.

  2. Avatar

    Simeen

    June 13, 2017 at 1:33 PM

    Jazakillahu khayran katheera for such a thought-provoking article.

  3. Avatar

    Ruqayya

    June 15, 2017 at 3:25 PM

    I am so glad that you were able to find balance in your faith…this is a battle that a lot of us go through nd unfortunately not all of us are able to break hold of the chains that bind us to religious extremities. may Allah ease things for us, forgive us our shortcomings nd bless us with insight to distinguish right from wrong. Amin

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The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

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My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

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Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

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israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

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This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

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Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

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