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How to Save Your Family from Self-Destruction

“Your possessions and your children are only a trial, and Allah it is with Whom is a great reward.” – Quran 64:15

I was sitting in a Los Angeles courtroom waiting on a client’s estate litigation case.  These are cases that regularly fracture families, but that was not my case that day.

This day as I waited I listened in on a public hearing with perhaps eight lawyers from different sides on if the court date should be continued for one week so that one of the lawyers could get some paperwork.  It occurred to me as I listened that I knew the family that hired all these opposing lawyers.  I knew the decedent whose assets everyone was now fighting over.  He was a pillar of the Muslim community, a great businessman, and philanthropist who was a benefactor to some of the most recognizable non-profits locally and nationally.   He had a great family, many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, mostly all lived near him, all in regular contact with each other.  After his death, beneficiaries went straight to battle stations. Many hired lawyers.  The family would never be the same again.

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In all, the family spent over twenty million dollars in attorney fees in the next few years.  Many years later, problems of various sorts continue. There was a cost to this conflict, but it was borne not only by the family but by the larger society as well.

My law practice involves litigating inheritance disputes and planning estates.   Drawing on my over 10 years of experience as an Estate Attorney serving both Muslims and non-Muslims are five suggestions protect your family from the kind of ruin that often takes place when it comes to the fitna of wealth and family.

Follow the Fara’id

I have clients in what you might call the lower rungs of the family who were not directly involved in the estate dispute I described above.  When I told one of them I happened to be sitting in at the hearing over his family’s wealth his analysis of the problem was simple: If they had followed Islamic Inheritance, none of this would have happened.

Whatever the facts of that case and if this analysis was entirely correct or not (only Allah knows for sure)- one thing  is certain: Islamic Inheritance, (the fara’id), mandates a uniform system of inheritance regardless of who you think is deserving or not.  Your biases, prejudices, and vanity play no part in distribution to your own family.  The beauty of the system is that when inheritance gets distributed per Allah’s command (Quran 4:11-14 and elsewhere), there is nobody to be angry with, no one to fight when it comes to distribution.

If someone plans based on Islamic Inheritance, virtually everyone concerned, even those that don’t practice Islam, will usually understand what happened.  The decedent was a believing Muslimah.  She acted upon her religious beliefs.  There was no fraud, no undue influence, and the decedent knew who her family was and knew what her wealth was and chose to follow her religion when it came to these things. There is no problem here.

People often ask me if someone who had properly planned their estates based on the Islamic Rules of inheritance risk a challenge in court.  My answer:  Yes, the courts are always open for disgruntled heirs to accuse anyone of anything.  However, I had never seen such a case involving Islamic Inheritance in over a decade of doing this.

If you talk to families where one brother has not happened to talk to another for decades, the trouble can often be traced to an inheritance dispute.  For society, there is tremendous wisdom in having a uniform system that reduces these conflicts.  We build our community around families.  A breakdown here is a breakdown in community.  As my client in the above story remarked “Imagine how much good could happen in the Muslim community for twenty million dollars,” – referring to the amount that went to lawyers. But the strength of families inside a community goes far beyond money.  A community is built on relationships and not just wealth. Fortunes can be rebuilt. A family, once decimated in such a manner, cannot be.

Sadly, most American Muslim families barely know Islamic Inheritance is a thing. Knowledge of it is scarce, despite it being an obligation for Muslims with wealth.  The most important thing you can do for your family over the long term is to learn about Islamic Inheritance and implement it correctly.  The process involves organizing assets, re-titling and creating agreements.

Marry wisely

If I were to give advice to both Muslims and non-Muslims on the best way to avoid estate disputes, getting a good lawyer to do your estate planning (though that should be obvious) would not be first on my list, but rather, it would be to be select your spouse wisely.   I suppose I may say it in a manner that could come off as flippant, but it is still true.

What we in the estate litigation world notice with disputes is that most of them appear to involve “blended families.”  These are families where a second marriage is involved either after a divorce or the death, where children are not common to both spouses.  Adult children will often see the remarriage of their parent as a threat. Sometimes this concern is legitimate- people do marry for the money and can be ruthless in its pursuit.  Often the concern is overblown.

The lack of financial boundaries at the outset of the marriage and susceptibility to being manipulated by one faction of the family versus another can easily cause problems.

I have seen situations where older people marry into a family of grifters with multiple individuals who have criminal records, and the person getting married and his adult children have no idea about their past.  The facts get discovered later. Of course, most families where serious conflicts develop are not that bad, at least not at the beginning.

Before any marriage, particularly among people with assets, it is important to create a contract (called a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement) between the parties and determine early on what current and future assets belong to which spouse.  Both husband and wife in any marriage should be separate economic units.  Not setting boundaries around who gets to use your wealth can easily be a cause of fighting after you are gone, and sometimes even while you are still around.   Be transparent with adult children about how the arrangement is supposed to work.  Doing this will promote peace and harmony in a complex family.

Beware of Alienation

The exclusion of family members from elders is often a warning sign that financial or other elder abuse may be taking place. Elderly parents need not be wealthy for this to happen.

It is relatively common for a child or a son or child-in-law to create a dependency relationship with an elderly person, cutting the individual off from the rest of the world, including other children.  Adult children often give up too easily when they are told their parent does not want to see them or speak to them. Often this happens when access is being controlled by one party or another.  Cutting off family ties is always a bad thing.  However, when it comes to the elderly, it can be devastating.

Depending on the facts, it may be necessary to contact an Attorney or the local Adult Protective Services agency.

Actively Make Peace in Extended Families 

Parents have a recognized right to have a relationship with their minor children.  There is no real right for grandparents (in most jurisdictions), and certainly, there is no right for cousins who live near each other to spend summers playing together.  Disputes inside families have long term effects that go far beyond the four corners of an estate dispute.

All marriages, even the marriages of adult children (and future heirs) can complicate estates.  The most ruinous of estate litigation is often an extension of long-simmering family politics.   Many often recommend counseling for troubled married couples.    However, families often tolerate long-term warfare between sisters-in-law over petty nonsense. Indeed, I have seen elders egg on conflict inside their own families.  I once had a case where the deceased mother, in her own living trust, explicitly encouraged one daughter to sue another after her death over her own estate, which ended up happening.  While such a scenario is unusual, it is relatively common for parents to favor one child over another, and organize their finances to reflect this. This will cause long-term resentment that survives the life of the parent.

Actively work to make peace in families long before it can be ruinous.  If you are a sibling, or a half or step-sibling that a parent favored in this way, for whatever reason, recognize this can be a cause of fitna in your family and bring other affected parties to the table in whatever way is practical.

Often, disputes within the family are not so much about money as they are about respect, status, and identity.  They tend to happen at very emotional times (after a loved one died). You are far less likely to end up in conflict if the people concerned feel like they were respected.

Don’t give away stuff you still need

Ever hear that sad story about a man who put his son on the title to his home, then found himself kicked to the curb a few years (or months) later? While children and their priorities when it comes to taking care of aging parents may change over time, that story is not the only reason giving away a home to an adult child is not a good idea. As children become adults, they have more “drama” in their lives. Children get married, often to an unsuitable spouse, get divorced, go through financial troubles, get expensive medical bills, get sued over business disputes, file for bankruptcy and so forth.  Such things place their assets at risk.

If that adult child owns a home, you rely on for shelter, that drama is now directly your direct concern. A judgment creditor or bankruptcy trustee can stand in the shoes of your adult child and take away your home for reasons that have nothing to do with you.   Another problem with this is that it smacks of favoritism of one child over others, potentially causing future conflict.  If instead all children are treated equally in the giveaway, you only increase the level of personal risk.

Don’t give away things you need for yourself.  Give away things only if you don’t need it.  Otherwise, allow it to pass as inheritance after you have died.

It goes far beyond lawyers

We have been experiencing the breakdown of the family for many years now.  In many cases, there is no sense of shame, guilt, respect or even shared values within the same families. For the most part, these observations do not seem to apply to the Muslim families I work with but could happen.

Breakdowns in the family are often a symptom of deeper problems with upbringing, marriage and the lack of Islamic ethics.  Yes, it helps to go to a lawyer to organize an estate. Making sure inheritance is one based on rules as mandated in Islam is certainly helpful. Indeed, it is an obligation.  However, none of these things can help fix a family where greed, vanity and scheming take the place of love, compassion, and respect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Working Skillfully with Difficult Emotions

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

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

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

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

    The Centering Exercise 

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

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

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

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

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

    Say “Ameen!”

    Divine Reminders

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

    Say “Ameen!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Practical Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Divine Reminders

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

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

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

    Closing Du’a

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

    Say “Ameen!” 

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

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