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I Almost Left Islam: Why Am I Muslim?

 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.

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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.

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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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#Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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#Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering Mufti Naeem (Jamia Binoria)

Guest post from Areeba Baig

Sometimes you are so busy with life you don’t think much of where it all started, how you became who you are, the journeys you took and the people who helped you along them. And then something happens which forces you to pause. Only then you remember there were people who played a major role in shaping you to the person you are today, in turning your dreams which you thought would remain dreams forever into a reality.

I’m remembering now.

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I was just one of his thousands of students. Not one of the best, not even close to accomplished. I’ll admit I wasn’t even someone who was considerate enough to keep much contact, keep him updated, despite how much he had advised us to. As the years went by, the relationship, even memories, faded away.

And yet I haven’t been able to focus on anything else all week long. Not surprising, of course, considering the influence he had and the role he played in enabling me to study. It’s surprising, rather, how I took his presence granted for all of these years.

I wasn’t sure whether I’d share this initially. I was writing this to sort my own mind and thoughts. Then I remembered he would tell us that he hoped we’d remember him with goodness all our lives, and share his words when we teach in the future, the same way he’d always quote his own teachers and mention them by name when he taught. A legacy through ‘ilm. Sadaqah jariyah. That is all he ever worked for.

Apart from the final year Bukhari class, I didn’t have much direct encounter with him, but my entire stay in Pakistan was due to him and under his care. It was his invitation and his hospitality that brought me ther,e so everything about my stay in Pakistan is intrinsically linked to him and his family.

When I went to Pakistan to study back in 2006, there were few, if any, quality Alimiyyah programs in America for girls. I chose Pakistan because I had family there. But, really, I chose it because of his school. There are many seminaries in Pakistan, but it was only his that really accommodated foreigners.

He would go out of his way to encourage and allow foreign students in and accommodated every request or need along the way. Although he had many other responsibilities, foreign students were his personal guests. He understood that traveling so far and studying in a land where everything was different was a big adjustment and sacrifice, so he did his best to make it easier. He also understood the stakes here; if these students could successfully study and go back to their lands, the benefit they could have in their communities was critical.

This treatment wasn’t just for western students. This is how he treated every student who came from afar. Students from Thailand and Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Tajikistan, Russia and Fiji; students from remote villages in Sindh and Baluchistan and other parts of Pakistan all called his madrasa their home. And that’s one of the biggest things that sets him apart.

As Mufti Rafi said, “His service to foreign students can never be forgotten. There is no similar example in any other madrasa.”

When I last visited Pakistan two years ago, a classmate of mine and now a teacher at the madrasa for the past decade asked me “We don’t get many students from America anymore the way we used to before. Why? You guys aren’t encouraging kids to study anymore?”

It dawned upon me then that his dream to spread this knowledge worldwide had already begun to be realized. I told her there were now so many programs and schools and teachers in America that students didn’t need to go abroad the way they did before.

Thousands of his students, male and female, are teaching across the world. He’d proudly tell us of his students starting madrasas in remote villages in Baluchistan and Sindh. “These girls are educating their entire villages and communities, people didn’t even know how to say the Kalima before. People come from miles away to learn from our students.”

It is this that really gave him joy and fulfillment.

At a time when the political climate in Pakistan made it difficult for foreign students, he took responsibility for all of them. He promised them he would take care of them. He fought for their right to study. He built relationships with ambassadors of other countries. He opened his doors to both foreigners and anyone else who wanted to see what a madrasa is like. He invited the media to come and see a madrasa from the inside, to show them that far from being places of extremism and violence, they were places of learning and teaching sacred knowledge. He so earnestly believed that madrasas could and should exist in the modern world, and he knew it wouldn’t be possible without building links with the outside world, something that many madrasas were hesitant to do then.

His efforts and attitude enabled so many to come and study the words of Allah and the Prophet ﷺ. Even those who didn’t attend his institute benefited from his presence, knowing that he was there to stand up for them if anything was to happen. He didn’t discriminate when it came to helping others. Any foreign student of any institute was welcome at his place.

There are so many stories of entire families traveling to Pakistan to study at his seminary. And many more of them entrusting their children to him completely. He fulfilled that trust.

There was a girl in my class from Tanzania. When she was about 9 her uncle came to Pakistan for Tabligh, and upon visiting the seminary he was impressed with the opportunities here for girls. Mufti Naeem invited him to send his children, and he went back and brought four of his daughters and nieces to study. The girls grew up there. They first memorized the Qur’an, then started the alim course. He came back eight years later at the graduation ceremony of the oldest girl and decided to take all the girls back because the separation had been too long. He brought home with him four hafizas of the Qur’an, one who had completed the alima course, and another who had nearly completed it. Her uncle’s plan was that the oldest girls would tutor the rest in their studies and then they’d all teach together in their city in Tanzania. We had laughed then at the idea of her and her cousin teaching the younger cousins books like Mishkat, but we missed the bigger point, that this was how knowledge is shared and spread.

There was another girl in my class from Sri Lanka. Her entire family moved to Pakistan and both parents and all three siblings enrolled. They first memorized the Qur’an, and then completed the course before returning to Sri Lanka.

These are just some of the hundreds of stories of people studying at his seminary, who otherwise wouldn’t have that chance, and then going back to benefit others. This was his constant emphasis. Study and teach those who don’t have access. Always be involved in teaching, he told us in one of our final lessons. Even if you have no formal teaching opportunity, just invite people to your home to learn.

His concern for girls’ Islamic education in particular is especially noteworthy. Of course, there are many seminaries and institutes of Islamic knowledge for girls in Pakistan, and many people who support them. But he was one of the influential people who was an outspoken proponent from the beginning and truly believed in the potential. He was also one of the few who accommodated female foreign students, especially those who were there without family.

Before I went to Pakistan to study, my father consulted other scholars. Some discouraged him. Doing an Alima course isn’t that important they said, especially with all the difficulties and risks of going far from home. It’s not fard to study the deen at that level. Karachi was going through a very unstable period back then so they did have a point. We also inquired with other girls madrasas in Karachi, that were closer to where my extended family lived (Jamia Binoria was in the outskirts of Karachi). But they all said they don’t allow girls over the age of 13 and they don’t encourage Americans to attend.

Mufti Naeem, rahimahullah, was the only one who really encouraged it. He’s the one who understood the value and need, who was willing to take responsibility for it all, despite the risks. He’s the one who kept inviting my father, and reassured him everything will be taken care of, that there would be nothing to worry about. He accommodated all our requests and needs, to the point of welcoming my grandmother into the madrasa community and allowing her to spend her day there whenever she liked. He assured us that my only worry should be to study. Everything else will be taken care of.

While many other girls madrasas in Pakistan suffice with the standardized curriculum for girls, which back then (it has since changed a bit) was an abridged version of the regular curriculum and especially subpar when it came to subjects like Arabic. Jamia Binoria had its own curriculum, which included a very strong Arabic curriculum. Many other teachers including my late teacher, the principal of the girls division, Maulana Masood Baig rahimahullah, had a role in this but it was also something Mufti Naeem would take pride in and mention. It’s something I took for granted initially and only much later did I learn that most madrasas in Pakistan, and perhaps even worldwide do not have a strong Arabic program for girls, which makes it very difficult for them to pursue independent research and further studies after graduation.

Jamia Binoria was also one of the few madrasas in Pakistan then that had an ifta (mufti) course for women. In my final year, at least once a week he’d encourage us to enroll in it the next year. He’d tell us how important doing takhassus fil ifta was, how if he was to have it his way he would make ifta a requirement for all students. He would emphasize how much there is a need for female mufti(a)s, how there are already thousands of male Muftis, but they can never replace the role a female one can have.

He’d talk about how proud he was of all the female ifta students, how every time he looks at their work he’s so impressed. “They’re better than our male students,” he’d say. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t become a mufti. If a woman can become a surgeon or engineer why can’t she become a mufti?”

As a teacher he was always encouraging, appreciative of the smallest of achievements, and ready to praise and make du’a for his students. The term “mushfiq” is what everyone is using to describe him, because that is what he was. Loving, caring, encouraging.

In Pakistan, teachers don’t really praise students; the tendency (both in schools/colleges and madrasas) is to put students down. And yes, too much praise can be dangerous, but a little bit of encouragement and upliftment is needed. He wouldn’t withhold this.

There was a curtain in our classroom, separating the male teachers from the students. This was the standard system of all girls madrasas in Pakistan, preserving religious guidance and cultural sensitivities regarding modesty and hijab while still enabling students to communicate with and build a positive relationship with male teachers. Hadith classes usually involve a student reading the Arabic text, with the teacher interrupting every now and then to explain. He would make it a point to ask the name of the person who read and praise them and make du’a for them.

It’s these little things that would encourage us all to work harder to succeed. He would often call my father and keep him updated and congratulate him on mine and my sister’s progress. Knowing that despite being in charge of 5000+ students and a host of other responsibilities, he was personally invested in our success always helped drive us to work hard.

He taught Bukhari with passion, you could sense the love for the Prophet ﷺ in his words. The Bukhari class was more than just facts and technical explanation. There was always a practical lesson. He strongly emphasized that knowledge must lead to action and he always made his classes reflect that. He would say, my goal is to teach you in a way you’ll never forget, that you still hear my voice when you read these hadiths the way that I hear my teacher’s voice when I read them, and that you carry these lessons with you lifelong the way my teachers enabled me to.

Now I hear his voice, not just in those hadiths but in every hadith or ayah I read. Everything has a connection with him for it is in his madrasa that I studied everything. It is in his madrasa, and through him, that Allah allowed the doors of knowledge to be opened for me, and for that I am forever indebted.

Hospitality is another word that defines him. Anyone that has visited him can testify to his boundless hospitality. This is something he practiced with both words and actions. It’s something he strived to build in his students and family too. I remember him going off on a tangent once in Bukhari. In a hadith in Kitab al-Nikah, the topic of guests came. He talked about how guests are a blessing, how we should always honor guests, how we should never complain about guests. “Many people complain about the work involved in hosting. They complain when they have family that constantly visits. Guests are a blessing from Allah. When you go to your homes remember this. Don’t ever complain about guests.”

I’ve always remembered this when someone is coming over.

My friend tells me that after his passing, as people crowded his house for ta’ziyah for his family, something that of course was more challenging and complicated with covid-19, his wife mentioned, “He would always tell us to honor guests. So what can I possibly do now?”

Thankfully others intervened and told people that it is best to show sympathy by genuinely doing what’s best for grieving family, which in these circumstances means not visiting so as not to afflict them with more worries and difficulties.

His hospitality meant that the doors of madrasa were always open to those who needed help. Beyond hospitality, he took care of those around him. Orphans, widows, converts to Islam. The madrasa was a shelter for so many who didn’t have a shelter. There would always be some girls sheltering there. He’d take care of their expenses and education and even get them married when they were ready if needed.

Once, he was hosting the wedding of a convert girl. This girl had spent quite some time at madrasa so everyone was excited. Obviously it wasn’t logistically possible to invite all of the students to the wedding but my classmates decided to try to get an invite anyway. When he came in to teach Bukhari the day before the wedding, they broached the subject of the upcoming event, knowing he would be excited to talk about it. He took the bait and started talking about the wedding plans and arrangements. “But we aren’t invited,” they said.

“You aren’t? Why didn’t anyone invite you? I am inviting you all. You all can come as my special guests.” He replied.

His wife wasn’t too pleased with us, “You have no shame in asking for an invitation, in taking advantage of the softheartedness of your teacher like that?”

But that’s how he was. Always rushing to take care of everyone around him. Solving problems, fixing things.

No problem was too small for him to address personally. He told us once about a former student who lives abroad who called him and asked if he could add photos of the girls’ campus to the website. The website had photos of the boys campus but not the girls. She missed the madrasa and wanted to see it again. He had photos taken and put up right away.

That’s the type of person he was. People would go to him for anything big or small and he’d oblige.

I remember when his own father passed away, he came a day later to teach his class. We asked about his father and he broke into tears. He shared the story of his father, the last moments, highlighting how his father was continuously reciting Qur’an until the end.

It is people like him who bring barakah to institutions, he said. Madrasas run through spirituality, not through money. Make dua this institution continues to run. He was worried about fulfilling his responsibilities after his father passed. He cited that with the passing of each scholar, degeneration follows.

Now we’ve lost another link to the previous generation.

He was a simple man. Whatever he did he did for the institution, for all madaris, for the deen. No personal benefit or enjoyment. No fun vacations. No days off. Just working for the people.

He didn’t care what people thought. It wasn’t glamorous work. Being under the spotlight meant there would always be people out there to criticize. But that didn’t bother him. He just went out of his way to serve the people, to do things that nobody else was doing, that many didn’t even see the point of doing.

Mentioning him won’t be complete without also mentioning his family, especially his wife. If he was the father figure of all students, his wife was/is the mother, especially of the girls. They were a team. She’d be with him on many of his travels. She was also the head in charge of the girls school, his representative at madrasa. Always looking out for the girls affairs, always ready to address issues that needed care, always extending hospitality. She took care of the girls as if they were her own daughters, especially those who had no family nearby. Because of her active involvement with the madrasa, he also was always an integral part of it, always accessible, always concerned about the girls. The madrasa was a family effort, and his entire family served it day in and day out.

May Allah always protect her and allow her to continue.

Although one the most defining thing about him is his service to others, which he spent his life doing, it never came in the way of worshipping Allah. He was a man who was always reciting the Qur’an, following the footsteps of his own father. A man who never left tahajjud. A man who always finished a recitation of the Qur’an in taraweeh independently every year. A man who always prayed in congregation. Even on his last day, though he was feeling unwell the whole day, he prayed at the masjid. He came home from Maghrib, rested for a while, felt more unwell. They took him to the hospital and he passed away on the way, before Isha.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon.

It is examples of my teachers like him and others which have given me the energy to carry on teaching even when life is busy, and balancing everything is difficult. Remembering their advices and their constant urging that teaching is a right that knowledge upon us, has always reminded me that it is not optional, that it is not a favor we do upon anyone, but rather an honor and trust Allah has given us.

What I feel now is a renewed purpose to continue this work and to internalize all the lessons from his own life.

I learned from him that the road less traveled may be difficult to take, but it is a necessary road to take to cause lasting good, and that sometimes the most benefit is in doing things that others are not doing.

I learned from him what it means to be the people about whom Allah says, “La yakhafun fillahi lawmata laim.” They do not fear the blame of the blamers. I learn that it is only Allah who we should work to please, because it is to Allah we will return, and as long as we are sincere and on the right path, there is no need to worry about what others say.

I learned from him to think beyond my own benefit and to think of the benefit of those around me. To think beyond the needs of the present, and consider the needs of the future generations as well.

I learned from him that while you should dream big and work hard, small efforts should never be underestimated. It is small efforts that grow into the big things that help fulfill those big dreams. No dream is too big if Allah’s help is with us and no action too small for Allah’s reward.

I learned from him what it means to be a hafidh of the Qur’an. That more than just memorizing the words, it means to fill one’s life with the Qur’an, and to regularly and always recite it, and to understand and implement it.

I learned from him that no matter how busy a person may be, it is always possible to have time for the Qur’an if a person wills it. The ability to recite the Qur’an is an issue of devotion and priorities, not an issue of the availability of time.

I learned from him that our character and our dealings with people speak much louder than any other words, that a student is more likely to remember and feel inspired by a kind word than a long lecture.

I learned from him what it means to be hospitable and generous with one’s time, and that this is the first step of dawah and teaching. I learned what it means to serve others for the sake of Allah. By lowering ourselves in front of others for the sake of Allah, we are only raised in rank by Allah.

But most of all, I learned that knowledge increases and multiplies as it is shared. I learned that the benefit of knowledge is not limited to the teacher and student, but rather it flows to the entire community. I see from his example how just one person of knowledge can have the ability to change the lives of hundreds of thousands, if Allah so wills it. And I learned that the legacy of sacred knowledge is the most valuable legacy to leave.

May Allah accept his efforts, overlook his shortcomings, raise him to the highest levels of Jannah, and increase his sadaqah jariyah.

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