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The 401(k) Zakat Shelter

One of the primary objectives of Islam is the development, preservation, and equitable distribution of wealth in society, and Zakat is the main vehicle for social and economic justice. Charitable giving is considered a proof of faith and withholding charity considered as a serious offense. Thus, when Abu BakrraḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) became the Khalifa, and some tribes withheld paying Zakat, he emphatically stated, “I swear by Allah if they withheld only the [amount in Zakat] of the reins of a camel of what they used to give to the Prophet, I would fight them for it.” While the early generations realized the importance of Zakat, it has, unfortunately, become the least understood of all the pillars of Islam.

Last Ramadan we wrote about the problem of non-profits abusing Zakat. Even more potentially damaging is when people don’t properly pay their Zakat at all. Poorly reasoned opinions on Zakat can lead to hundreds of millions of dollars that are not going to those in need. There are many topics related to Zakat that need clarification, but we will focus on one particular issue, the 401(k). The 401(k) is how Americans tend to hold their wealth. The average 401(k) has roughly $100,000.00 while a typical savings account has less than $1,000.

While there are several legal opinions on the 401(k), it is relatively common for Muslims to be told the 401(k) is exempt, at least until the age of 59 ½. The rationale is that individuals do not have full ownership of the 401(k) as it cannot be withdrawn until the age of 59 1/2 because it is subject to taxation and an “early withdrawal” penalty, which somehow makes the asset illiquid. This view creates a massive Zakat shelter that perpetuates inequity and treats people with similar assets differently for seemingly no good reason.

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Let’s illustrate why with the following examples:

Musa has $2,000,000 in gold stock (this is an exchange-traded fund that owns gold), a home worth $700,000, and $20,000 in cash savings. He wants to pay Zakat, so he consults a Shaykh about his situation. The Shaykh tells him he needs to pay Zakat on $2,020,000, or $50,500 (2.5% of $2,020,000). The Shaykh explains that one’s home is exempt.

Musa’s twin brother, Haroon, also has $2,000,000 in gold stock, an identical home next door worth $700,000, and $20,000 in cash savings. He asks the same Shaykh how much he should pay in Zakat. The Shaykh tells him his home is exempt and he does not need to pay any Zakat on his gold stock. Therefore, he only needs to pay Zakat on the $20,000, which would mean he pays $500 (2.5% of 20,000).

Why the difference? Haroon’s gold stock is in a self-directed 401(k), while Musa’s gold stock is in a regular brokerage account. Haroon’s 401(k) is subject to ordinary income taxes upon withdrawal, in addition to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. However, Musa can sell his gold and be subject to a 28% maximum federal tax rate on the capital gain of the stock. Both Musa and Haroon voluntarily choose how they would own these assets.

Both are subject to taxation upon withdrawal. However, only Haroon is subject to the 10% penalty and ordinary income taxes for all the gold stock he owns. So, for Shuyukh who take the view that the 401(k) is exempt from Zakat for those under 59 ½, Haroon should not have to pay anything on the gold stock.

Same Asset, Different Wrapper

To show why Musa and Haroon should not be treated differently, let’s go over some basics of zakat, though this short article cannot be a comprehensive treatment of the subject:

A prerequisite of paying Zakat is possessing the nisab (threshold of possessing surplus wealth) and the passage of the hawl (lunar year). So, if you don’t have enough money over the duration of the lunar year, you don’t pay zakat. You don’t pay zakat on exempt assets, you partially pay on business assets, and you pay the full 2.5% on assets that are fully “zakatable.” Note though other rates apply for agriculture and livestock.

Retirement plans like 401(k)s are not assets in and of themselves, capable of being sorted in the flow chart above. They are “wrappers” for almost any asset providing tax treatment that is different from assets in other “wrappers.” The tax treatment can be considered either better or worse depending on your perspective. Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s come from post-tax dollars and are treated differently. However, Microsoft common stock owned in a retirement 401(k) account and Microsoft common stock in other types of accounts are the same, you get the same rights of ownership, such as a dividend (if it is paid) and voting rights.

Voluntary Financial Choices and Landing the Right Job

When you open a 401(k), you are voluntarily participating in an employee benefits program by taking pre-tax dollars from your paycheck and depositing it into an investment account. This money can be invested in your company’s stock, a menu of mutual funds, or perhaps a brokerage option where you can invest in almost anything available for sale in an online brokerage. There are other wrappers for the same assets, such as irrevocable trusts, non-qualified plans, captive insurance companies, limited partnerships, LLCs and other vehicles. A 401(k), as well as other Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) Qualified Plans also offer asset protection benefits to those who have them. Additionally, your employer may match your contributions up to a certain percentage, essentially giving you free money as a reward for saving.

Let’s take the case of Aisha and her twin sister, Fatima. Aisha works at a corporation that offers her a 401(k) that matches at the rate of 5% and her annual income is $150,000. If she invested $7,500 of her money, her employer would add $7,500 as well (5% of 150,000). Aisha would have $15,000 in her 401(k) account after one year.

Aisha’s twin sister Fatima works at another company that does not offer her a 401(k), and she has an annual salary of $50,000. She saved $10,000 of her money that year. While they both have savings and assuming a lunar year has passed, Aisha was fortunate to deposit pre-tax income into her retirement account, and her employer matched her contribution. Fatima had to save her post-tax money without any help from her employer.

A Zakat rule exempting 401(k) assets while imposing Zakat on other savings penalizes Fatima for not landing a job at a company that offers a 401(k) with matching as part of its benefits package. Such inequity seems arbitrary and unjust on its face.

Does a 10% penalty make something “illiquid”?

The claim that something is illiquid or inaccessible because it is subject to ordinary income taxes and a 10% penalty also appears to be a weak reason to exempt assets from Zakat on another count: The term “subject to taxation” does not mean it will be taxed.  The 401(k) is more complicated than merely a 10% penalty (which generally applies to similar plans), since there may be the ability to borrow from an account you do not close down.  Though this should normally not be necessary.

To illustrate, let’s add some facts to our first example. Say Haroon, who has his gold stock in a 401(k), is about to have losses for the year in a failed business. He does not know this will happen when he pays Zakat. His losses would wash out any penalties and taxes he may pay on his 401(k) if he decides to withdraw it. Musa will have a great year and would pay the full 28% capital gains tax on his gold if he sold it. Gold has a higher capital gains rate than other kinds of assets. So in this example if we follow the 401(k) is exempt from Zakat view, Haroon’s wealth is regarded as “illiquid” because he is subject to taxes he legally does not pay. While Musa has to pay taxes, but his gold is (properly) considered fully “zakatable” because his assets are somehow considered more liquid. Moreover, when the time comes to calculate Zakat, there is a realistic possibility that neither Musa nor Haroon will have any idea what tax bracket they will fall in, if they will make or lose money, what specific exemptions they will have and so forth. They may have some idea, but they don’t truly know the future.

The practice of making sweeping judgments on qualified plans based on their potential tax treatment serves to create a contrived Zakat shelter. Taxation, as taxpayers know, is subject to variables such as income, brackets, exemptions, exceptions, deductions, and credits. Furthermore, a flood of regulations, memoranda, and court opinions add to or modify tax rules regularly. The very wealthy, because tax laws tend to be written to favor them, often pay little to no taxes in comparison to their resources while the middle class often pay far more.

Does a 10% Penalty mean your money is not liquid?

As to the 10% early withdrawal penalty that evidently makes the asset inaccessible, according to some Shuyukh, the government is far more flexible than many realize. If you know you are going to withdraw a similar amount every year, for example, you can make the withdrawal without any penalty according to the tax code.

Does this mean the answer is clear and that you should treat the entire 401(k) plan the same as cash? Well, not really as there may be more to it. For example, some assets in a 401(k) may not be “vested,” which is to say not yet owned, and therefore exempt from Zakat. In the case of the 401(k), we share the opinion of reputable scholars, that all vested assets in a 401(k) are “zakatable”, regardless of which “wrapper” the asset is in (e.g., through a personal business, corporation, etc.). We leave aside for now the issue of calculating Zakat for the underlying assets inside a 401(k), particularly common stocks. This can be addressed separately.

If we are not careful in getting our zakat calculations correct, we will end up excluding what may be billions of dollars of wealth American Muslims possess from Zakat. The sad fact is, the current crop of articles, seminars, and overly-simplistic zakat calculators do not do justice to this pillar of Islam.

In General, knowledge of Zakat in the United States is woefully underdeveloped, providing opportunities for the proliferation of views exempting payment for dubious reasons. Islamic Scholars would serve the Muslim community best by developing appropriate uniform standards on payment of Zakat that both understands the realities of how Americans hold wealth as well as the rights of those entitled to Zakat.

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

 

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

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Avatar

    abdul razzaq

    June 22, 2017 at 2:02 PM

    sorry I disagree. lets take your $100,000 in the average 401k. zakat would be $2500. more than the $1000 average people have in savings.

    so to pay the zakat of $2500 you would need to take out almost $5k so you could cover ordinary income tax and a 10% penalty.

    if anything the real zakat on a 401k 100k should be $100k -40% * 2.5%, leaving someone with $1500 zakat due and still not enough liquid assets to pay.

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      June 22, 2017 at 2:38 PM

      Thank you for your comments. 1) It may be that you need to pay $2,500 in Zakat if you invested in gold, but we did not address how Zakat is calculated on all conceivable assets inside a 401(k).

      2) The notion that 401(k) funds must be withdrawn in order to pay Zakat is interesting. This assumes there is no, or almost no other income throughout the year (which can be used to pay Zakat), in which case the money should likely be withdrawn free of penalties and income tax.

      • Avatar

        Teepu

        June 26, 2017 at 11:37 AM

        TIAA CREF? Where does that fall ?

    • Avatar

      Fahd A

      June 22, 2017 at 6:06 PM

      Br. Ahmad raises the critical point: no where in zakat owed calculus seems to be a barrier of liquid or illiquid assets. If a Muslim owns a second home that they don’t use personally, most of us will probably agree this would be zakatable. Then we wouldn’t quibble over the fact that they would have to sell a few bricks or a wall to pay zakat on it :-) I understand Br. Abdul Razzaq’s point, that if Allah blesses you with enough wealth and ability to save into a 401(k), you may find it increasingly hard as years go by to pay the zakat out of your regular income. In hard years, you may have no choice but to liquidate some savings to fulfill your zakat obligation. But illiquidity (vs. sheer control over the asset such as non-vested portions) does not seem to be a valid reason to exclude assets, as this article explains with clear logic.

      I am no imam but in my readings on this topic I have seen mentions of deferring zakat on certain kinds of assets and paying the accumulated sum later. Perhaps the authors can elaborate on our options, if any, when we have illiquid zakatable wealth of some sort, due to the inherent nature of the asset (e.g., real estate) combined with income hardship.

      • Avatar

        Mohamed Soumakieh

        July 2, 2017 at 12:26 PM

        If you own a second home usually u have plans for it such as selling that house for a profit or you may rent that house and make money which in both cases u will have the mean to pay zakat. So this is different from 401k scenario

  2. Avatar

    K S

    June 22, 2017 at 2:21 PM

    i agree with the commentor. If an average person who does not have much saved was to pull out 401K money every year their funds would be severely depleted for retirement since pulling out money will increase your taxable income too. You have to be careful and be keen to pay zakat properly

    • Avatar

      Yousif

      June 22, 2017 at 4:30 PM

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but what Ahmed is trying to say is you don’t have to pull money out of your 401k to pay Zakah. If you meet the “nisab” as he mentioned then you would calculate the Zakah on the 401K, but actually pull the Zakah out of your other sources of income.

      • Avatar

        Ahmed Shaikh

        June 22, 2017 at 6:12 PM

        It would be advisable. Of course, coming up with the money to pay Zakat is not always easy, even if you don’t have a qualified plan.

  3. Avatar

    Yousif

    June 22, 2017 at 4:23 PM

    Subhan Allah! your last comment nailed it!

    “… and overly-simplistic zakat calculators do not do justice to this pillar of Islam.”

    Is there a book you would recommend a layman or student of knowledge to read so that they are more familiar with Zakah in its entirety?

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 27, 2017 at 4:43 PM

      Sheikh al-Qaradawi’s book on Zakat is quite comprehensive and useful. It has been translated.

  4. Avatar

    AU

    June 22, 2017 at 5:05 PM

    Salam

    What happens in countries where you have no control at all of your 401k. Meaning there’s no way you can take out before the age of 60. There’s no option of hardship withdrawal or any exceptions. On top of that, it’s mandated on employers to pay to retirement funds and the individual does not have to pay to get matching (like in US). How should we treat that case?

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 22, 2017 at 5:59 PM

      In the case you mentioned, there would be no zakat due on that asset because there is no ownership. I doubt it would be classified as a 401(k), as it is specific to US tax code.

  5. Avatar

    Osman Umarji

    June 22, 2017 at 6:10 PM

    I just want to point out that our opinion is not a new opinion on the topic. This article was not intended to be a full legal analysis of the issue. Many other reputable scholars from various traditions hold the same opinion. See the links below:

    http://www.zamzamacademy.com/2010/08/permissibility-of-and-zakat-on-401k-plans-other-securities/

    http://seekershub.org/ans-blog/2013/05/21/zakat on-401kretirement-plans/

    http://www.calislamic.com/2017/06/17/zakah-401k/

  6. Avatar

    Frank C

    June 22, 2017 at 6:51 PM

    There are too many assumptions in this article. A company’s contribution is technically “free money”, but you don’t have access to it until the age of 59-1/2. Secondly, the average American is living paycheck to paycheck. What happens when the amount you owe on your 401k is greater than you have in the bank? Do you take out a loan each year to pay zakat on wealth you don’t even have direct access to? This will cause greater debt. The loan you take out will have high interest payments. It doesn’t make any logical sense.

    Take this example:

    Rashid promises his 18 year old son, Kareem that he will give him $100,000 on his 28th birthday, but if Kareem ever needs money in the mean time, he can borrow from him, but will need to pay it back. Does Kareem pay zakat each year on money he doesn’t have yet or pay it once he receives it? The logical response is to pay it once he receives it. Taking a loan from your 401k is essentially the same thing, except that you also have taxes AND interest payments.

  7. Avatar

    Ahmad

    June 23, 2017 at 2:25 AM

    This doesn’t make any sense and is not practical at all. As time goes on the 401k continue to increase each year more and more “zakat” is due.

    lets assume a 401k will earn 10% year on year. Someone makes 100k, after taxes, 5% contribution to the 401k, medical plan, rental, food, bills, car etc actual cash for saving is $4k. I’ve only factored basic needs shelter, food, transportation (two cars) for a typical North american family etc.

    Granted you haven’t spoken about how to pay for it, i’ve assumed 2.5% but how will this person afford to pay, by 25 years the zakat you speak of that would be owned by this is $35k

    1 $100,000 $2,500
    2 $115,000 $2,875
    3 $131,500 $3,288
    .
    .
    .
    25 $1,427,460 $35,686
    26 $1,575,206 $39,380
    27 $1,737,726 $43,443
    28 $1,916,499 $47,912
    29 $2,113,149 $52,829
    30 $2,329,464 $58,237

  8. Avatar

    Omaran

    June 23, 2017 at 4:18 AM

    Thank you for bringing this important and relevant issue for us Muslims living in the US. There are several fatawa regarding this issue and not all of them exempt 401k money as you seem to suggest. The method of calculation is to subtract the taxes due and the penalties and then pay 2.5% on the balance.

  9. Avatar

    Ali

    June 23, 2017 at 10:08 AM

    Is it your opinion that the payment of zakat is due immediately? Many of the opinions I’ve heard on this matter is that while zakat may be owed and should be calculated, it need not be distributed until you begin taking distributions from the 401k. This is more rational for a number of reasons mentioned by other commenters, plus it gives clarity to what your income tax rate (and hence liability) will be at the time of withdrawal. Every penny of zakat is eventually paid, just years later.

    What is your opinion on this approach?

    • Avatar

      Osman Umarji

      June 27, 2017 at 4:42 PM

      Here is my reply to a number of questions raised.

      1. To clarify, the opinion given in this post is not new or groundbreaking. Many reputable scholars have said the same years ago. See the following links for the opinions of Dr. Monzer Kahf, Mufti Abdurrahman Mangera, and Imam Mustafa Umar.

      http://monzer.kahf.com/fatawa/2000-2002/FATAWA_ZAKAH.pdf
      http://seekershub.org/ans-blog/2013/05/21/zakat-on-401kretirement-plans/
      http://www.calislamic.com/2017/06/17/zakah-401k/

      2. In the case where one ha 401(k) assets that are so large that one cannot pay them annually from cash on hand, here are a few choices one has. I will not comment on what one should do at the moment, perhaps that needs a separate article and analysis.
      a. Pay the taxes and penalty on what you need to withdraw in order to pay your Zakat annually.
      b. Delay payment temporarily and reduce annual contributions so one has more cash on hand to pay Zakat.
      c. Pay at the age of 59 and a half on all the previous years. This is tricky (not necessarily unlawful though) for two reasons. (1) You are essentially telling the poor to wait for decades for your wealth. (2) The number will be extremely high that will not be spiritually easy for many to pay.
      d. Pay a portion of your due Zakat with whatever cash you have on hand and pay the rest when possible.

      3. According to the fiqh of Zakat, some of the conditions of wealth being “zakatable” are if the money has the possibility of growth and one owns that wealth. The owner of the 401(k) account one is (possibly) making money on the full amount year after year and owns the fully vested amount. For example, if someone has $100,000 in a 401(k) and it grows at an average rate of 8%, they have $108,000 after 1 year. Thus, one is benefiting from the money in its entirety.

  10. Avatar

    Ashraf Gomma ali

    June 23, 2017 at 11:26 AM

    Sh Salah al Sawi is of the opinion that you the zakatable portion of the 401k or any type of “wrapper” is what you would get if you liquidate today (after taxes and penalties). This would apply generally if the assets were held for trading purposes. If they were held for Income purposes, then only the income would be zakatable. If they were held for long term trading purposes, there are two opinions: one which requires zakat annually and another which requires zakat after selling the assets. I believe the second is more fitting for 401k in case of long term investments. And Allah knows best.

  11. Avatar

    Safiya

    June 23, 2017 at 12:11 PM

    If this is the ruling, then the same ruling should apply to pensions and social security.
    Both pensions of government employees and social security in general for all citizens,has the same type of calculation as 401K.But the investment funds that the money gets allocated to and the contributor is the government.Sheikh,please confirm why pensions and social security is not zakatable before the retirement age.

  12. Avatar

    OQ

    June 24, 2017 at 9:20 AM

    Does a service oriented business have zakah on its assets like a school on its chairs, computer lab etc?

  13. Avatar

    Justin Ducote

    June 24, 2017 at 7:12 PM

    Alsalamalaykum dear brothers,

    I think there is a typo in the sentence: “Roth IRAs and 401(k) come from post-tax dollars and are treated differently.”

    401k monies would come from pre-tax (not post-tax) income, correct ?

    Or perhaps it is missing a “that” or “which” somewhere in the sentence ?

    justin

    • Avatar

      Justin Ducote

      June 24, 2017 at 9:09 PM

      After reading this article and leaving my question, I just learned today about the existence of a “roth 401k” which is derived from post tax earnings, I figure that is likely what the authors meant as in “roth IRAs and roth 401(k)s”

      • Avatar

        Ahmed Shaikh

        June 24, 2017 at 10:01 PM

        Yes, this is exactly right. I should have said “Roth IRSs and Roth 401(k)s” and this has been fixed. Thanks for the catch!

  14. Avatar

    Osman Umarji

    June 29, 2017 at 12:23 AM

    Here is my reply to a number of questions raised.

    1. To clarify, the opinion given in this post is not new or groundbreaking. Many reputable scholars have said the same years ago. See the following links for the opinions of Dr. Monzer Kahf, Mufti Abdurrahman Mangera, and Imam Mustafa Umar. You can see there opinions at seekershub or calislamic websites.
    2. In the case where one has 401(k) assets that are so large that one cannot pay them annually from cash on hand, here are a few choices one has. I will not comment on what one should do at the moment, perhaps that needs a separate article and analysis.
    a. Pay the taxes and penalty on what you need to withdraw in order to pay your Zakat annually.
    b. Delay payment temporarily and reduce annual contributions so one has more cash on hand to pay Zakat.
    c. Pay at the age of 59 and a half on all the previous years. This is tricky (not necessarily unlawful though) for two reasons. (1) You are essentially telling the poor to wait for decades for your wealth. (2) The number will be extremely high that will not be spiritually easy for many to pay.
    d. Pay a portion of your due Zakat with whatever cash you have on hand and pay the rest when possible.
    3. According to the fiqh of Zakat, some of the conditions of wealth being “zakatable” are if the money has the possibility of growth and one owns that wealth. The owner of the 401(k) account one is (possibly) making money on the full amount year after year and owns the fully vested amount. For example, if someone has $100,000 in a 401(k) and it grows at an average rate of 8%, they have $108,000 after 1 year. Thus, one is benefiting from the money in its entirety.

  15. Avatar

    Mohamed Soumakieh

    July 2, 2017 at 12:14 PM

    This is very very difficult subject. I am not convinced with any opinion out there yet!
    I think paying zakat on 401k is extremely difficult especially after 10 or 20 years. Which will make Muslims stay away from retirement plans. If they do most people will end up not saving at all as they grow older which is not only bad for them but is equally bad for the Muslim community as there is a lot less wealth to pay zakat on (this point could be a lot more important than the tax shelter idea in terms of amount of zakat lost).

  16. Avatar

    BS

    November 23, 2018 at 2:48 AM

    This is a very important issue often overlooked by many Muslims. However, the article failed to illustrate the issue with a realistic example. For instance, it could assume simplified case where an employee contributes $10,000 a year and his employer matches $5,000 that vested throughout the year uniformly. So, after 1st year there is $15,000 in the 401k plan. How much will be the due, if we assume the employee’s tax bracket is 30% and there is 10% penalty.

    Next, the first year’s contribution grew by 10% next year. So at end of 2nd year the total amount in 401k = $15,000 * 1.1 + $15,000 = $31,500. Out of this $1,500 grew as “capital gain” from the fund’s investment. How much will be the due at end of 2nd year?

    Please write a follow-up article to demonstrate such use cases. Without that I don’t know how much useful this article is. Allah knows the best!

  17. Avatar

    Omer Minhas

    May 10, 2019 at 3:36 PM

    Assalamualikum, I recently came across the following 2 videos from shaykk Yasir Qadhi regarding zakat on 401k, and wondering how the author of this article reconciles them with what he has written.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuTr6LeoQHI 25:00 to 30:00
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDxfTL5PkHY 16:00 to 19:00

    I understand that there is an opinion that for those who do not have sufficient funds on hand to pay the zakat on 401k, can track zakat for each year and then pay it altogether at the time it is distributed on/after age of 59.5. However, what is the guarantee that one will live until that long, in which case wouldn’t it actually be a burden on that person?

  18. Avatar

    Salman Nazir

    May 12, 2019 at 5:02 PM

    Dear brothers Shaikh and Umarji, in a TIA-CREF account you are not allowed to withdraw at all unless you quit your job or retire. This means you do not have access to that money at all. So what about zakat in that scenario. Is it still applicable?

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      May 19, 2019 at 3:13 AM

      There is a question of calculation, which the article does not address. However, plans will often not let you withdraw. But the fact that you can withdraw if you leave your job is not the same as completely unavailable. You may consider calculating what you owe and paying through the year from other sources. Even so, say you had $10,000,000 in gold stocks in your account (you probably don’t). The article goes to point to the absurdity of taking the position that you owe no zakat at all. The article, which is three years old now, is still unsatisfying (to me anyway) and Zakat is no better developed and understood now than it was then.

  19. Avatar

    Usman

    May 19, 2019 at 2:50 AM

    This article and many like it on 401k accounts treat all assets within 401k to be similar. This is problematic. How can stocks be considered like cash or inventory? Owning a stock means I am a partial owner of a business. So I should only have to pay zakat on the inventory of that business (not on the market value of the stock). If a 401k account is all stocks (such as equity only mutual funds), then if the value of 401k is 100,000$ one can estimate the inventory on average that public companies carry per $ market value and use that to estimate the inventory one is responsible for. It seems illogical to treat ownership of a business in the same category as cash or goods for sale. Just because one can sell ownership of a business, it does not make that ownership equivalent to holding goods for sale. Stocks in 401k are long term investments (not day to day trading). Most people only cash out when they really need the money. When one really needs the money (if one did not have stock ownership) one can also sell books, clothes, car .. anything one owns can be sold in a hardship. Does that make all these things inventory and hence zakatable? All scholars say No. So why is ownership of businesses treated in this way? Also this poses a great dilemma esp in Muslim countries. Let’s say I own $100,000 worth of stock of companies in a Muslim country where all these companies pay zakat on their inventory. If I now have to pay zakat on these shares of these companies, then Zakat is being paid twice using 2 different rules for the same business. Also the value of a company (stock price) reflects current estimate of all future earnings. If one has to pay zakat based on stock price, it is like paying zakat on an estimate of all future earnings of the business. Doing this year on year would mean that business earnings get deducted for zakat numerous times. Imagine that one expects to earn 10,000$ after 10 years. Since this is part of the stock price, one would end up paying zakat on this 10,000$ earnings 10 times before it is even earned by the business. In short, there are many logical challenges in equating ownership of a business to cash or inventory, and hence paying zakat on stocks held for the long term based on stock price does not make sense.

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      May 19, 2019 at 3:07 AM

      Thank you for this comment. This article did not suggest what you seem to have gleaned from it. A 401(k) is not an asset class, but a kind of account, a wrapper if you will. It can hold real estate, gold, common stocks, cash and almost any other kind of asset. It is subject to both plan and statutory rules which makes it more challenging. It is like we described, an underdeveloped area which seems absurd given this is a pillar of Islam.

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Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

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

Group belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

Slip into demagoguery

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

Creating a strawman

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

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

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

Condescending discrediting

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

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

Discrediting due to inexperience

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

Victimization and Victimology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disregarding Nuance

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

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

Scholarly discourse

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

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

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

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

How to have productive discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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