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5 Ways The Gas Station Owner Mentality Is Killing Our Masjids

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Why is it that a large number of Muslim communities in North America are all struggling with the same issues? Board politics. Getting rid of good community leaders. Incessant focus on fundraising at all costs.

Clearly, these issues can’t be logistical. They wouldn’t be this prevalent if they were. It’s almost as if there is a shared underlying mentality that is common to many of these frustrating and annoying situations.

This mentality is the “gas station owner” mentality, and it is more prevalent than we think. It’s a metaphor for understanding a lot of the common issues that we face. In this post we will highlight 5 characteristics of this mentality.

1. Ignoring the Spiritual Side of Rizq (Sustenance) and Barakah (Blessing)

In sports, there are some teams who seem to continually be winning. They have a good run of making the playoffs and advancing for a few years. Then they lose their good players, rebuild, but then get right back to winning again.

There are other teams, no matter what they do, they hit a wall and can’t get past it. They may be able to get good players on their team, but it never translates into winning. These are the teams that haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years – they’re consistently losers. And when those good players move on to other teams, they suddenly start winning.

Both scenarios above indicate a deep organizational issue that transcends individual leaders, talents, or personalities.

We have communities like this as well. There’s the place that’s been operating out of a rented retail space for years now, but the community is active and vibrant. People enjoy going there.There are other places that have fancy, empty, structures. They have lots of money, so they keep bringing in qualified and talented individuals – but they keep leaving. No matter what they do, the community won’t get involved.

A million different reasons could possibly explain why these scenarios exist. The one reason we don’t like to talk about, though, is the spiritual one.

What is the impact on a community if a significant amount of their donations originate from haram sources (alcohol, cigarettes, lottery, interest, fraudulent billing)?

Our sins have a real impact on not just us, but those around us as well. It is naive to think these issues do not have an effect and impact on the spiritual development of our communities at large. It’s compounded by the fact that instead of potentially rectifying the situation by at least seeking forgiveness, we seek instead to justify our behavior.

There’s no way of tiptoeing around this issue. When a person chooses to openly sell liquor, and then still wants to serve in an administrative capacity at the masjid, it is a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

At the root of this is a flawed understanding of what it means that Allah is Al-Razzaq (The One Who Provides Sustenance). They assume that they cannot make (as much) money without indulging in a haram business.

That’s between a person and Allah as far as their personal life goes. Bringing that mentality into the masjid is a different story. It changes the dynamics of understanding the spiritual side of money.

This is a mentality of money scarcity. If I make $5, it means you lose $5. If our masjid raised $250k last year, and this year a new masjid opened down the road, it means we’ll only be able to raise $125k. They see wealth with a fixed mentality and operate accordingly.

The more appropriate mindset of tawakkul (or abundance) would be the understanding that if things are done for the right reasons, Allah will provide the financial means. He is fully capable of letting both masjids raise $500k apiece the following year – the same way 2 Starbucks across the street from each other both manage to stay successfully in business.

Consider this hadith about the spiritual side of wealth.

Anas b. Malik raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that there were two brothers. One of them would come to the Prophet (s) and the other would seek his sustenance by working. So the one who used to seek his sustenance complained to the Prophet (S) about his brother. He ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) replied, “It is possible that you are provided your rizq [sustenance] because of him!” [Tirmidhi]

In other words, providing for a student of knowledge is a way of increasing your own sustenance. This hadith should have far-reaching ramifications in our communities when it comes to discussing hiring a full-time Imam and paying a real salary.

Someone who feels that they need to engage in a forbidden business to make money will not have the same understanding and reliance in the provision that Allah provides.

The irony is that these masjids will fundraise excessively for their own (usually construction/expansion) projects. They simultaneously limit the fundraising for other causes, and refuse to invest the money they raise. People employed by the masjid are not just underpaid, but forced to take 1099 contractor status and work without any basic benefits (such as health insurance) while extra funds are invested into construction. Likewise, it is not uncommon for a masjid to have a surplus of zakat funds sitting around that end up getting sent overseas at the end of the year – funds that should have instead been providing ongoing services to the local community.

2. Commoditization of Human Capital

This is basically a fancier way of saying that once a board gives a paycheck to someone, they feel like they own them.

In a gas station, the owner’s relationship with the employees is basically nil. This is not the place where you find inspirational leaders creating a vision and rallying their employees to reach their potential. It’s a place where an abysmally-low-leadership-capacity owner hires employees at minimum wage (or often less, but that’s a different story), and then treats them like garbage.

To better understand this, contrast it with Chick-Fil-A where managers take their leadership duties seriously and you see it manifested in the service delivered from front line employees.

The gas station owner has no care or concern for the employee at the register. That employee is a commodity. If that employee quits, you just replace them with another warm body – it doesn’t matter who. They do this because in their eyes it is low level work. It doesn’t matter if the cashier is a jerk or provides stellar service – your clientele is still going to come and purchase whatever they were planning on purchasing.

When this mentality extends into the masjid, the Imam, teachers, and other servants of the community get treated the same way. They are being managed by individuals who are themselves of low leadership competency, and therefore cannot truly understand the value of spiritual leadership in the community. It’s the polar opposite of the “game recognize game” principle.

When those entrusted with being administrators over our communities lack an understanding of the depth of Islamic knowledge, they will never be able to treat its people with the proper respect. The ultimate irony is these people will complain that their teenage children are leaving Islam on one hand, and with the other they work to get rid of those very same people who were in a position to provide mentorship to those kids.

So when you actually do have amazing people working for the masjid, a board infected with this ‘gas station owner’ mentality will fail to recognize or value their work. Instead, they will treat them like that minimum-wage, easily replaceable, cashier.

That means micromanaging their hours, minimizing the payroll expense, and maximizing the hours worked. They see the person as nothing more than an expense on their balance sheet at the end of the month – “labor costs.” The cognitive dissonance continues because they convince themselves that the best thing they can do for the community is to cut costs. So they do it, without any regard or understanding of the long term impact it will have on the community.

It also means that a high rate of turnover is normal to them. It is doubtful that the same cashier has ever worked for them more than 1-2 years. At the slightest disagreement or issue with a masjid employee, their knee jerk reaction will be to cut this person loose. After all, if they’re a commodity, they’ll just as easily find someone else to replace them.

It’s worth noting that the end game for people who actually want to do community work is not financially driven. There are much easier ways to earn money. Ironically, many will even overlook the difficulties and continue to fight to serve the community. Sadly, even this has its limits as board politics and suffocating environments eventually take their toll on a person both professionally and spiritually to the point that they end up leaving.

3. Operate From a Premise of Greed

WIIFM. What’s in it for me? And therein lies the problem. The mentality here is that if we are going to pay someone, what return are we getting?

This does not mean that you ignore job duties, or KPI (Key Performance Indicators), or general performance benchmarks. It does mean, however, that you cannot measure and quantify everything financially (see also: Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should it Be).

Operating from a premise of greed means that you have a constant need to not only financially quantify every expenditure – but come out ahead. This is also rooted in a lack of being able to quantify the real impact of spiritual leadership on a community.

Think of it this way. Imagine someone came and asked the gas station owner for a job and asked for $12/hour instead of $7. This person asked for that salary because they have an excellent customer service background, and at a previous job they helped the business owner realize a small uptick in revenue due to an increase in customer loyalty and sales – resulting from providing better service on a regular basis.

A business owner with a high leadership capacity would be able to recognize the value of this skillset. The gas station owner will simply say – “only way I’m paying you $12 is if you clean the bathrooms too.”

Every decision is dictated by not just the bottom line, but the immediate bottom line. The irony is that a gas station owner will take out a business loan to buy the gas station and have the patience to wait X number of years to be profitable. Or to build a car wash and be willing to wait X number of years to break even. The only part of the business they do not have this patience for is the actual human resources.

Sounds a bit like masjid construction projects and hiring of an Imam.

We’ve lost the patience to find and develop good talent in our communities. We take up any number of roles – board member, prayer leader, mu’adhin, Sunday school teacher, khateeb, treasurer, social events coordinator, social media marketer, or even random volunteer. How many take the time to understand the skillset needed to serve these positions with ihsan (excellence) and actually make the investment of time and money to develop that skillset? What about investing in others to help them develop? This is why communities feel they can simply get by with a hodgepodge of part-time and volunteer efforts.

4. Insecurity and Paranoia

When you’re worried about getting swindled 24/7, it’s hard to turn that off.

You’re worried about customers getting gas and leaving without paying. So you make them pre-purchase. People might shoplift, so you install security cameras. Employees might cheat, so you put special cameras over the register and watch the livestream on your phone constantly.

There’s nothing wrong with taking precautions. There is, however, a problem when your default mode of behavior operates on the assumption that everyone is out to cheat you.

This type of insecurity is the same kind of insecurity that drives a middle manager in the corporate world to micromanage his or her employees. They lack the requisite competence or leadership demanded of their position, so they micromanage others to assert their authority. It’s a textbook power play made by low-competency individuals.

Sadly, Zakat distribution is the ultimate illustration of this. When someone comes to the masjid seeking help, they are often treated in a disrespectful and undignified manner. They’re made to wait around for a board member in such a way that it becomes obvious to everyone that they need help. Then they have to fill out twenty different forms and justify their need for zakat funds.

The same paranoia of a cashier stealing money from the register is carried into this situation. People asking for zakat funds are implicitly deemed guilty until proven innocent. Contrast this with the Prophetic example to immediately distribute zakat funds (instead of hoarding them), and responding to requests for help.

Yes, some people cheat the system. Yes, there are cases of fraud. Our faith, however, does not teach us to be paranoid and default to the assumption that everyone asking for help is trying to swindle the masjid out of a couple of hundred bucks.

This is a spiritual issue more than anything else. Do the right thing for the right reason, and Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will take care of the outcomes, results, and future financial needs.

The same mentality applies to paying an Imam. The supposedly well-intentioned concern is assuming that once someone goes on payroll, they’ll suddenly start trying to find ways to get paid without working, or that it is some kind of get rich quick scheme. I have personally heard people say things to the effect of – I went to school for 8 years and work 50 hours a week to make X salary, how dare this person just sit in the masjid and get a salary.

We make a default assumption to the worst possible behavior someone could do [perhaps because deep down that’s what we  would do in that situation], and project our personal insecurity onto others.

5. They Live in a Bubble

We have to pick on doctors a little bit.

In a hospital, a physician simply needs to threaten to stop bringing patients to create all the leverage he or she needs to get anything they want.

A gas station owner yields authority over everyone. Do as commanded, or be fired.

In both situations, it creates an environment where a person is catered to individually on a constant basis. No one around you wants to make you mad. You get used to people [subordinate to you] acquiescing to your viewpoint on nearly everything all the time.

This is why, when challenged on something, they’re usually not able to handle it well. Islamic knowledge and community work are not their strengths. It takes a huge slice of humble pie to be able to admit that you’re weak in this area.

That’s hard to do when you’re used to being the expert on everything.

It’s easy for a physician to acknowledge the expertise of a car mechanic. They might try to fix their own car, watch YouTube videos, but realize they don’t even know how to operate a wrench. In this case they can easily go to a mechanic and follow their advice. It’s not a big deal because this is not a skillset that really has any priority or meaning in their life.

Islamic work is a different story. People assume that by being Muslim, or having volunteered to find a catering company for a fundraising dinner, they suddenly know what it takes to spiritually lead and develop a community. Moreover, there is an emotional attachment to the status that comes with holding some type of official title in the community. They often do not realize that their high competency and proficiency in one arena does not translate into another.

This has a negative impact on board dynamics as well. Due to their lack of ability to recognize or admit their own weakness, they have to put themselves at the same level (or higher) than everyone else. So if someone on the board does have actual experience with running a masjid, or organizing Islamic activities, they put themselves on equal standing. “Everyone’s opinion is equal and important.”

No, it’s not.

The car mechanic’s opinion on how to treat cancer is not on par with an oncologist. And a board member’s opinion on how to establish a moon-sighting policy is not on par with an Islamic scholar.

Solution?

After reading this kind of article, everyone always makes the same snarky remark – “Well, what’s the solution then?”

The answer is that there is no real easy solution. There aren’t 3 bite size nuggets or action items that are going to fix this. Ultimately, a more significant portion of the general community is going to have to wake up and take their spirituality more seriously. When that happens, they can hold their boards to account via elections and/or social pressure within the community.

The community is the only check and balance against bad leadership – but enough of the community has to really care about it to make a difference. Part of that effort includes a deep level of self-reflection and addressing our own spiritual issues regardless of our role and position within any community.

Another alternative, and it is my personal theory that this will become more prevalent in the next few years, is to redefine what the masjid means in America. Currently, we expect the masjid to serve almost as a mini nation-state with its own prayer hall, kids area, gym, clinic, community center, school, grocery store, and Muslim only neighborhood within walking distance.

If we can’t reform this model because bad leaders simply won’t let go, or can’t be forced out (probably because they keep redoing the constitution to keep themselves in power), then we have to create a new model. That model might be to change the role of the masjid to being one of a prayer space only (daily prayers and Juma). Schools would become private entities in their own buildings. Smaller, independent, third spaces would then fill the gap of relevant community programming and development. This is not necessarily a solution, but it appears some communities are now trending in that direction as a workaround to the existing system.

Lastly, just do the opposite of the 5 characteristics above.

Additional Reading

  1. Running a Masjid is a Lot Like Bikeshedding
  2. Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be
  3. A Leadership Lesson from the 4 Types of Imam/Board Relationships
  4. The Age of the Full-Time Imam is Over, Here’s What The New Era of Islamic Work Looks Like
  5. How Much Should Islamic Clergy Make?
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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.

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jackie

    August 21, 2017 at 1:10 AM

    I think it’s demeaning and degrading for you to make fun of the hard working people who have built and run our masajid. How many masajid have you run? Probably none.

    It’s also demeaning to look down at people who worked hard to earn halal income thro owning a gas station

    Shame!

    • Avatar

      Muttaqi

      August 21, 2017 at 1:32 AM

      I think you missed his point. Read the article again.

    • Avatar

      Yunus

      August 21, 2017 at 10:10 AM

      1- There is nothing demeaning in this article. Truth needs to be said.
      If our masajids are dysfunctional, we need to discuss what’s going wrong and what can be done. Yes that includes people who don’t follow the Sunnah in their management of mosques and their shortcomings.

      2- How many gas stations do you know do halal work? The vast majority of gas stations in the US sell alcohol including many owned by Muslims. Period. If there are some that don’t, those exceptions don’t override the rule.

    • Avatar

      Imran

      August 21, 2017 at 4:11 PM

      I think it’s demeaning and degrading for you to make fun a Muslim Matters writer. How many articles have you written for MuslimMatters? None.

    • Avatar

      Fritz

      August 24, 2017 at 5:32 PM

      Brutally honest and to the point. Really well written. We need to wake up!

  2. Avatar

    Asiah Kelley

    August 21, 2017 at 9:29 AM

    Another great article! Definitely gives me some hope when Muslim drama overtakes me. May Allah reward you for all the great work you are doing!

  3. Avatar

    Noor Saadeh

    August 21, 2017 at 9:58 AM

    Masha Allah this hit every nail on the head. If only those gas station mentality could see it! So insightful. Must share with all those in our community and elsewhere.

  4. Avatar

    Mohammed

    August 21, 2017 at 12:33 PM

    These uncles forget the basic purpose of a Masjid, which is from a place for 5 times daily salat to educating the community with practical knowledge of Islam. It’s a complete conceptual problem that drives these actions.

  5. Avatar

    Abdul Sheikh

    August 21, 2017 at 4:26 PM

    I have notice a common trend among the 30-40s individuals raised in US for criticizing the pioneers who are approaching retirement. These pioneers has built institutions in last 25 years under difficult conditions. The young critics do not want to work hard and contribute. They want every thing free. You have no right to criticize if you do not participate and contribute.

  6. Avatar

    Asma

    August 21, 2017 at 6:12 PM

    SubhanAllah great article. Exact situation of our masjid and I am sure many other masajid.

  7. Avatar

    Munawar

    August 21, 2017 at 11:55 PM

    Very uneducated comments i hope you would have done some research ( what’s halal and haram ) . You are generalizing your bad experience with someone, May Allah guide us all and make us able to look beyond self interest.

  8. Avatar

    Mehmood

    August 22, 2017 at 9:22 PM

    How about an article about a mosque that does it well, and efficiently, a model to follow. This would be a great start for many mosques who want to improve but lack ideas and resources.

  9. Avatar

    Hassan

    August 23, 2017 at 5:56 PM

    As a desi fob (well 18 years here almost) it will be not racist for me to say that what you described are desis in any matter. I have software business, and after many years learned that I need to avoid desis. A non-desi person/company will pay good and be very accommodating or understanding of everything. A desi will give very little money and then will practically expect that they have done huge favor and own you as a slave.

    So once they pay imam 15k/year with additional whopping benefit of 600$ apartment rent, they think he is their slave and are extremely shocked to think otherwise, they just cannot comprehend.

  10. Avatar

    Tami

    August 31, 2017 at 9:22 AM

    That’s the problem with South Asian. Helping someone means that they own you and expect something in return. This happens in family matters and businesses. When it comes to business and career, there’s too much competition. Non-south asians are there to mentors you and honor and appreciate your work.

    I have known 3 imams that grew up in the states and have left the masjid because the community control how they should live, spend money and have no respect for their livelihood. They treat them as a volunteer person. No Muslim will work for free and do fulfilling duties at the masjid. If they are paid then you’ll see the job taken care of.

  11. Avatar

    Miriam

    September 27, 2017 at 9:09 AM

    About the “nation-state” model of a masjid: I’ve been told that a masjid should be a place of meaningful experience for every member of the household. That means classes, activities, and even games, for everyone to get involved in. Wouldn’t segmenting this into chunks like prayer-only, school-only, take away from that? If someone doesn’t pray, they won’t go to the masjid. Whereas before, they may have gone just to play ball. Hope this makes sense. Please shed some light, jazakallahu khair

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#Culture

Book Review of Revolution by the Book by Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (Formerly known As H Rap Brown)

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Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s magnum opus, Revolution by the Book, is a paradigmatic Islamic liberation theology manifesto. It gives an outline of spiritual cultivation specific to the experience of the marginalized who are advocating for freedom from structural oppression, particularly Black Americans in the context in which Imam Jamil is writing. In his book, Imam Jamil Al-Amin argues that Islamic religious practice, which he refers to as “the Muslim program” provides a successful guide to revolution, specifically for Black Americans who have been marginalized, dehumanized, and oppressed in the United States for over 400 years. This revolution is not to be understood in the context of the masses suddenly rising up and overthrowing the ruling class. Rather, it is a suttle and spiritual revolution of the hearts. Imam Al-Amin argues that only through the revolution of self can a person be able to revolutionize the community around them. He writes that “It is said in Islam that the greatest struggle is the struggle against the evil of self. The struggle against the evil of self is the great Jihad, the foremost holy struggle,” alluding to a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad(Peace be upon him). The book’s quotations are almost completely from two sources: the Qur’an and ahadith, which are sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Revolution by the Book is adorned with these two sources of Islamic knowledge. It is seldom impossible to find a page of the book without either a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad(Peace be upon him), or a verse of the Qur’an. Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s book begins with Surah Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an. Following them come the 10 chapters of the book all deal with a particular aspect of this program. Each chapter begins with a particular set of verses of the Qur’an.

The first chapter, “God Alone” stresses the importance of belief in God in transforming society. Without this belief, society cannot move forward in improving itself. It is followed by a chapter entitled “Born to Worship” which emphasizes the importance of prayer. Thereafter comes a chapter titled “Holy Money” which speaks of the importance of charity, which morphs into a discussion on the sociopolitical imperative of investing one’s money in the community. Then comes “God’s Diet” which speaks of the importance of fasting and eating healthy food. The fifth chapter is titled “Pilgrim’s Progress” and mentions the Hajj, and how Islam connects Muslims to a broader community of brothers and sisters around the world. The book is then followed by a chapter titled “God Natured” which speaks of the importance of the fitrah, or original nature of submission to God that all human beings possess, described in a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad(Peace be upon him). The book then presents a chapter titled “Turn Right at the Light” which emphasizes the importance of repentance when one commits a sin. Chapter 8, “In Your Family” emphasizes the importance of the nuclear family, and is followed by a chapter titled “Everybody Can Fight But Everybody Can’t Win” which emphasizes the importance of practicing the program and living by an Islamic epistemology, as opposed to ascribing to secular ideologies such as nationalism and Marxism. The book ends with a chapter titled “Finish Lines” which accents how death can come any day for a human being, and how the Muslim must prepare for it, each and every day. The book then culminates with Surah Asr, a three verse chapter of the Qur’an dealing with the importance of time, and making the most of the limited time that man has on Earth. Revolution by the Book serves as a call to action, intended to resurrect the soul of the reader, so that they can ultimately resurrect a broken society. The text reads in the voice of a powerful figure. In order to understand just how powerful of a figure the author is, one must understand both his contributions as both an Imam and leader of American Muslims as Imam Jamil Al-Amin, as well as his contribution to the freedom struggle of Black Americans as H. Rap Brown.

Imam Jamil Al-Amin is a leader within the Dar Al Islam movement, a Sunni Muslim, predominantly Black American, Islamic movement in the United States. Founded in 1962, the Dar Al Islam movement was the single largest Sunni Muslim organization in the United States until Imam Warith Deen Mohammed transitioned his father’s formerly pseudo-Islamic Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam in 1976. The Dar Al Islam movement’s ideology can be seen in the sources that Imam Jamil Al-Amin cites. He uses very few sources outside of the Qur’an and ahadith of the Prophet Muhammad. This is because the Dar Al Islam movement overall did not affiliate itself to any particular madhab, or school of Islamic jurisprudence, nor did it affiliate itself to any Sufi order. However, the organization is distinct from Salafis in the sense that they are not anti-madhabb or anti-Sufism. But one can see the ideology of not following a particular Sufi Shaikh or school of thought in this work of Jamil Al-Amin. Rather, he focuses on preaching to people the Qur’an and authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. This is not necessarily an issue as he is preaching very rudimentary and basic Islamic teachings, and means of purifying oneself in this book.

The title of the book may also seem strange to some. As opposed to a revolutionary manifesto, the book seems to rather be a book on how to change one’s own self and how to restructure society from there. Before his conversion to Islam, Imam Jamil Al-Amin was known as H. Rap Brown, a charismatic and nationally-known leader within the civil rights movement. He would be mentored by now-Congressman John Lewis, who was then Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the young age of 23, H. Rap Brown became Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, succeeding Stokely Carmichael. Under Brown’s leadership, SNCC entered into a working relationship with the Black Panther Party. Brown took the nonviolent out of the name of the organization, and renamed it the Student National Coordinating Committee, lamenting that “violence is as American as cherry pie” and that they would “use violence, if necessary” and fight for freedom “by any means necessary.” 

While chairman of SNCC, Brown simultaneously was appointed Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party. In 1971, Brown was sentenced to 5 years in jail for “inciting a riot”, a crime that many suggest came out of the Cointelpro program that specifically had the goal of “neutralizing” him. It was in jail that chaplains from the Dar Al Islam movement invited him to their weekly Friday prayers. Familiar with Islam because of Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown attended Friday prayers without becoming Muslim. After a few Friday prayers, H. Rap Brown converted to Islam and took the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. Upon leaving jail, Imam Jamil Al-Amin studied the classical Islamic sciences in West Africa, India, and Pakistan. Following that, he became Imam of a community of around 400 Muslims in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. The title Revolution by the Book comes from Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s credentials as a revolutionary. He is alluding to how he feels that his Islam is the culmination of his revolutionary days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party, and that he has now finally found a means of making this revolution possible. He says in the prologue of the book that becoming Muslim did not mean a shift from his revolutionary lifestyle. Rather, he says that Islam was a “continuation of a lifestyle” of the struggle for freedom for Black Americans.

Imam Jamil Al-Amin writes that:

It became evident that to accomplish the things we had talked about in the struggle, you need a practice. Allah says He does not change the condition of people until they change was is in themselves. That is what Islam does, and it points out right from wrong. It points out truth from falsehood.

He continues on to say that:

It is criminal that in, in the 1900’s, we still approach struggle…sloganeering saying, “by any means necessary,” as if that’s a program. Or “we shall overcome,” as if that’s a program. Slogans are not programs. We must define the means which will bring about change. This can be found in…[what] Allah has brought for us in the Qur’an and in the example of the Prophet. Our revolution must be according to what Almighty God revealed…Successful struggle requires a Divine program. Allah has provided that program.

The remainder of the book outlines the ingredients for successful struggle. Imam Jamil Al-Amin claims that the most important aspect of revolution is belief in God. Without this, none of the other objectives such as prayer, fasting, charity, repentance, and pilgrimage to Mecca can be actualized and implemented. He also goes on to argue a divine command morality. If a person does not have belief in God, they lack an objective morality to base their lifestyle on. As a result, they fall into a subjective morality that makes it very easy for them to stumble and constantly reinterpret their values in accordance to their whims and desires when faced with pressure to compromise their values. To successfully mount a revolution, a person needs to be solidly grounded and not constantly reinterpreting what is right and wrong. Such an action could jeopardize the struggle and place the one engaging in the revolution in danger of selling out his or her values. Divine command morality serves as an anchor for the person revolutionizing society. This is why Imam Jamil Al-Amin believes that Imaan, or faith in God is the single most important ingredient to successful struggle. It is also interesting to note that the Arabic word “imaan” which means faith comes from “Amaan”, a root word that means safety or security. Through faith, believers are strongly anchored and have safety and protection from being misled by their whims and desires.

Imam Jamil Al-Amin writes that:

Iman is an essential ingredient to success, for a fearful, doubtful person is unable to struggle; he gives up easily, submits to every oppressor, compromises his integrity, acquiesces in injustice, and accepts enslavement. In contrast, a person who has taqwa, God-consciousness, fears only the Ruler of the Universe, Almighty Allah; he perseveres against the greatest of challenges, maintains his integrity, resists injustice, refuses enslavement, and fights oppression without regard to man-made standards.

Next, Imam Jamil Al-Amin claims that the most important aspect of this struggle is prayer. He says that prayer is the center of the community. He quotes the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that prayer is what separates a believer form a disbeliever. He also quotes verse 11 of Surah Raad which states that “God does not change the condition of people until they change was is in themselves.” This is the most quoted verse of the Qur’an in his entire book, emphasizing the change in self that is required for the revolution that SNCC and the Black Panther Party imagined. He asserts that prayer is the key to this change, and that prayer is also what binds his mosque together.

Imam Jamil Al-Amin writes that:

Any building is just an edifice. The mosque is built to make prayer. Prayer is the key to the community, not buildings…Prayer is a practice, a program, that begins to make you aware, that makes you conscious of the Creator; it makes you fear Allah, and that brings about within you a transformation, a change that is necessary to throw off that whole system that you have become accustomed to. It is the beginning of a revolution in you which expands to other aspects of you reality.

Following his emphasis on prayer as the foundation of successful Islamic practice, Imam Jamil emphasizes other very important aspects of Islam, cemented with verses from the Qur’an and ahadith. Aside from just emphasizing the religious obligation of the action, Imam Jamil Al-Amin connects the idea to a sociopolitical imperative. It is not just his goal to explain to the reader why the action is religiously mandated. But he also seeks to connect it to why it is important for the social resurrection of the community in which a person resides. For example, he presents many hadith and the verses of Qur’an on the importance of charity. But beyond that, he connects the idea to the spiritual and social resurrection of Black Americans. 

Charity — you cannot have an effective social struggle, a successful movement, if you don’t have charity. You cannot have a successful revolution if people don’t have charity, if you are not willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice deals with giving, with sharing those things that Allah places in your trust? 

Beyond just laying out religious obligations, Imam Jamil Al-Amin points out many flaws in modern society, particularly those of materialism and corporatism. In his view, modernity is filled with many diseases that have deprived people of who they really are. People just go around consuming food, drugs, and entertainment, and are unable to cultivate their souls, or even ponder the fact that they have one. He writes about how society is devoid of values and how Americans have become a people who just go from one holiday to another without contemplating their existence. Americans have become a people not just intoxicated by drugs. More prominently, they have been intoxicated by holidays and entertainment.

We talk about intoxicants. We reduce the problem to cocaine and crack. But indeed, it is more than cocaine and crack. In fact, the problem is not crack and cocaine, the problem is that we live in a society that has made a virtue out of being high. This society arouses within you desires and passions that make you seek to escape reality by being high. Everything is geared toward keeping you in a state of euphoria. One holiday follows the next: Christmas to New Years, to Easter, to Mother’s Day, to Father’s Day, to the NBA playoffs, to the Superbowl, to championship fights, to Olympics. Everything keeps you high. Everything is geared towards keeping you away from encountering reality, everything is geared to keep you from remembering God.

He advises parents on the dangers of this corporatism also. Imam Jamil writes that: 

Your child must stop eating what the media sells; the television, radio, comics, magazines, recordings, etc. You must help them control their lives; you must take control of your children’s lives away from their enemy. You strive hard to teach your children right, then you turn the television on and allow everything that is against your religion, against your Lord, to be propagated in your house. You lock your doors and windows then turn on the TV.

One weakness in this text comes with regard to who Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s audience is. One review referred to it as “A valuable text for new Muslims and an excellent introduction to the fundamental teachings of Islam for non-Muslims.” So perhaps it is a text aimed at introducing non-Muslims to Islam, while also allowing Muslims to review the basic teachings through the context of his unique life experience. But which non-Muslims is he specifically speaking to? Is he speaking to Black revolutionaries who are not yet Muslim? He could be speaking to past colleagues of his from SNCC and the Black Panther Party. Is he making the case to them that Islamic practice presents a necessary program for them to actualize what they want in regard to this revolution?  Is that the purpose of this book? Or is he is referring to Islam as the continuation of the struggle in a rhetorical way. He is saying to his people that they do not need to wage revolution through protests and the ballot box. Rather, by the practice of Islam, each and every person transforming themselves will transform society. After all, society is merely the summation of a bunch of individuals. If all parts of the whole have revolutionized themselves, the whole too should revolutionize itself.

I also question if it weakens Islam or sells the deen short to present it as a means of good revolutionary praxis as opposed to salvation. The objective of Islam is to get close to God, not to restructure society. But establishing justice and ridding the world of this oppression is a result that comes from closeness to God. One begins a Muslim out of belief in God, and out of realization that the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the messenger of God, the last of prophets, and the greatest human being to ever walk this Earth. It is obvious that Imam Jamil Al-Amin understands. He emphasizes that the self must be transformed before anything else and that it is important to be aware of one’s close proximity to death. I wonder if maintaining the notion of a revolutionary self is to essentially say to those from his past days in the freedom struggle that he has not changed as a person. The H. Rap Brown who asserted that “violence is as American as cherry pie” has discovered what real revolution is all about—the greater jihad against the nafs. It is a sign that he has not committed some sort of political apostasy towards the freedom struggle, or cultural apostasy towards Black people. Rather, he has discovered that this materialism and lack of spiritual ethic guiding the freedom struggle can be purified and best applied when put into Islamic guidelines. 

For Muslims, this is an especially important text. It reminds them to fulfill the basic obligations of their religion and the evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah for fulfilling these basic obligations. It also connects to a figure who is seldom forgotten. Many know of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, but few know of the Imam Jamil Al-Amin. In addition, the Dar Al Islam movement which he was a leader in provides a model for dawah and Islamic institution building. But moreover, Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s book exemplifies to the reader that purification of the self does not have to take place in a vacuum of political quietism. Rather, in purifying themselves, the reader too can purify the community around them. Revolution by the Book is a seminal text representing a seminal figure.

Both Imam Jamil Al-Amin and his manifesto will be etched in the American Muslim imagination for years to come as symbols for purification of self, and the purification of society, insha Allah. 

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Convert Story: To Ask Or Not to Ask, That is the Question

covery islam story
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“How did you convert to Islam” is a question that is commonly asked to those who convert to Islam. While the short answer to this question is, “I said shahada”, the long (and more detailed) answer is one that is commonly expected.

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of “born Muslims” who ask this question do such out of good intentions. For this reason, I wrote this piece out of a place of love and not out of a place of judgment or hatred. While it is important for “born Muslims” to be mindful of how they ask this question, it is equally important for converts to not hold ill will towards born Muslims who ask this question. Due to the fact that Islamophobia is rampant in both the media and political discourse, many “born Muslims” are naturally shocked and emotional when they meet people who accept Islam. Some “born Muslims” have also had limited interactions with converts and therefore, to them, it is not only shocking for them to meet converts, but they are genuinely unaware of certain etiquettes when it comes to asking a convert for his or her story.

In this piece, I am going to write about a pet peeve that is shared among many Muslim converts. While I cannot speak for every single convert, I can say that based on innumerable conversations I have had with fellow converts, there is one thing most of us agree on and it is this; it is rude to ask a convert about his or her conversion story when you haven’t built a relationship with the convert. This piece will explain why many converts consider such a question to be intrusive. The purpose of this article is to better educate the “born Muslim” community on how they can do a better job in support of converts to Islam. In this piece, I will break down the reasons why this question can come off as intrusive if it isn’t asked in a proper manner. I will also include personal anecdotes to support my position.

I would like to conclude by saying that I do not discourage “born Muslims” from asking this question entirely, rather I am merely arguing that this question should be asked with the best of adab.

Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:  “Part of a person’s being a good Muslim is leaving alone that which does not concern him.” (Tirmidhi) For this reason, such a question should be asked for purpose and it should be done with the best of manners. This is supported by the fact that Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said, “I have been sent to perfect good character.” (Al Muwatta)

Note: For the sake of avoiding confusion, the term “born Muslim” is defined as anyone who was brought up in a Muslim household.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask about the person’s personal relationship with God

Within the context of a friendship, it is generally understood that friends will share personal details with each other. However, it is also generally understood that it is rude to ask people you just met personal questions. To ask a new acquaintance a personal question in most cases comes off as intrusive. This is especially the case in which you ask a person about his or her relationship with God.

For example, there are women who do not wear hijab. Even if we do (for a moment) ignore the Islamic ruling concerning hijab, we should all agree that a woman’s reason for wearing (or not wearing) hijab is a personal matter that is between said woman and God. If one was to ask a woman who doesn’t wear hijab why she doesn’t wear it, that would be intrusive because such a question would involve interrogating said woman about her relationship with God.

Another example concerns a married couple. If one was to meet a married person for the first time, it can be considered rude to ask said person about his or her relationship with his or her spouse.

When one asks a convert about his or her choice to convert, one is literally asking said convert about his or her relationship with God.

I am not saying that it is wrong in all cases to ask such a question. However, one should be mindful of the fact that because this is a personal question, one should have at least have built some form of a friendship with said person before asking.

convert friendship hugs

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is another way of asking, “Why do you believe in Islam?”

Many people identify to a faith tradition because it was part of their upbringing. If you were to ask a person who was born Muslim, “why are you Muslim?” you might hear said Muslim respond with, “I am Muslim because I was raised Muslim” and you wouldn’t hear a detailed answer beyond this.

In most cases, a convert to Islam (or any other religion) did such after research and critical thinking. To convert to a new religion involves not only deep thinking but a willingness to step into the unknown.

I have on many occasions told my story to people. In most cases I will ask the person “why do you believe in Islam?” I am then disappointed when I find out that the only reason the person is Muslim is due to upbringing. While I am not saying that said person’s faith is invalid or less than mine, a person who only identifies with a religion due to upbringing is a person who didn’t engage in critical thinking.

Any relationship should be built upon equality and mutual benefit. If I as a convert am able to provide a well thought out answer as to why I believe in Islam, I expect a well thought out answer to the same question from the person who initially asked me.

Again, while I am not saying it is wrong in all cases to ask, a born Muslim should ask himself or herself “why do I believe in Islam?” In my opinion, there are many who are born into Muslim families who don’t truly believe until later in their lives. Those Muslims in my opinion (and mine alone) are similar to converts.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to perform labor.

In some cases, “born Muslims” expect converts to tell their stories. I can remember a few incidents in which I have been asked to tell my story and I politely declined. In response, the person became angry. This to me is a symptom of entitlement. Nobody is entitled to know anything about anyone else (aside from people with whom one has a natural relationship with).

In addition, one should be cognizant of the fact that converts typically get asked this question repeatedly. Thus after a significant amount of time, a convert is prone to get tired of repeating the same question over again repeatedly. Naturally, it can become exhausting eventually.

While I do not believe it is wrong to ask this question in all cases, one should not ask this question to a convert from a place of entitlement. I can think of cases where I have been asked this question by “born Muslims” and when I have refused to provide an answer, they have gotten angry at me. This is entitlement.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to explain his or her personal life.

Backbiting is one of the worst sins in Islam. Another major sin is to disrespect one’s parents. Thus we can conclude that backbiting about one’s parents is a huge sin.

This is evidenced by the fact that Allah has said (ﷻ) “We have enjoined on humankind kindness to parents.” (Quran 29:8)

A typical follow-up question to “Why did you convert?” is “How did your parents react?” This in many cases puts the convert in a position where one may feel pressured to mention some negative details about his or her parents. In Islam, parents are to be respected, even if they aren’t Muslim.

Before asking a convert this question, one should be mindful of not putting unnecessary pressure on the convert to commit this injustice.

convert friendship

Cases when it is appropriate to ask

However, I do maintain a firm belief that in any true friendship, things will be shared. I don’t think it is wrong in itself to ask a convert about his or her story provided that there already exists a relationship where personal information can be shared. It is highly suggested to hang out with the person first and then ask the convert for his or her story.

As a personal rule of mine, unless I have hung out with the person one on one at least once (or a few times in group gatherings) I don’t tell any born Muslims my conversion story. Naturally, I only share personal details with people I consider to be a friend. If I would hang out with the person, I consider that person to be a friend.

The reason I am also hesitant to share my story with just anyone who asks me is because I can think of countless cases of when I have shared my story to people I have never seen or heard from again. I choose to exert my agency to share personal details of my life to people who I consider to be part of my life. While many Muslims are happy when people convert, many Muslims also fail to provide any form of support for said convert after conversion. I have seen too many cases of when a person recites shahadah, people pull their phones out to record it, but very few will give the convert his or her number. I genuinely believe that many “born Muslims” fail to see the big picture in this regard.

Before asking a convert for his or her story, you should ask yourself if you are comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person. If you are not comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person, there is nothing wrong with that. However, you shouldn’t expect the convert to share personal details if you aren’t comfortable sharing personal details. Even if you have built a close friendship with someone, you still aren’t expected to share every detail of your life to someone. Even if you consider a convert to be a close friend, you should still respect a convert’s wishes to not share his or her story.

Conclusion

While I have addressed concerns about the tendency of “born Muslims” to ask converts about their journeys, I want to acknowledge that most people have good intentions. In Islam, the natural state of any person is one of righteousness.

I firmly believe that a friendship that isn’t built on trust and the sharing of personal information isn’t a genuine friendship. Therefore the key term in this context is “friend”. If you wish to ask a convert his or her story, please make sure the following conditions are met:

  1. You are already friends with the convert to a point where asking a convert about his or her relationship with God isn’t an intrusive question. Ask yourself, “Are we close enough where we can share other personal details of our lives with each other?”
  2. You have a well thought out reason as to why you believe in Islam.
  3. You don’t feel entitled to know about the convert’s journey and that you will allow the convert to choose not to share such information if the convert doesn’t wish to.
  4. You don’t probe into the convert’s relationships with other people.
  5. You aren’t just asking the question to somehow feel validated about your belief in Islam.
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Rebuilding Self-Love  in the Face of Trauma

touch trauma
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“…there is beauty in breaking” – Amir Sulaiman

Words fell softly from her lips as tears streamed down her face. A young woman, newly married, had reached out to me via social media to ask a question about how to reconnect with her body after trauma. Receiving intimacy and sex-related questions from Muslim women all over the world is a large part of my work.  But there was something about this particular questioner that struck me in a very deep place. I intimately knew her pain as a survivor. Not long after taking my shahada, I was the victim of sexual assault. The amount of trauma I suffered is indescribable. But rather than pulling me away from the faith, I relied heavily on the deen to pull me through one of the darkest periods of my life.

After trauma, rather than pulling away from the faith, I relied heavily on the deen to pull me through one of the darkest periods of my life. Click To Tweet

Healing after trauma took action, not only faith. For years, I struggled with the ability to connect with my body and to understand how to properly process emotions.  Intimacy, of all kinds, was a challenge for me. Reclaiming agency over my own body and establishing my right to pleasure led me down a life-changing path that has led to me now assisting other women in understanding and owning sexuality from a sacred perspective. My trauma broke me but it also showed me new ways to heal.

But getting back to pleasure really requires coming back to a sense of oneness and power within one’s self. It means owning your narrative and rebuilding the parts which have been broken. @TheVillageAuntieClick To Tweet

Re-engaging with sexual pleasure after trauma can be very difficult, especially for Muslim women who have been taught their whole lives to vigorously guard their bodies and not discuss sex. Talk of intimacy is still seen as taboo and, worse yet, the ability to report sexual assault and abuse remains a very difficult task for many women, regardless of faith.

But getting back to pleasure really requires coming back to a sense of oneness and power within one’s self. It means owning your narrative and rebuilding the parts which have been broken.

I have developed a five-step plan for helping women to navigate the heartbreaking process of reclaiming the body and opening one’s self to pleasure.

[*This plan is not to be used in place of mental health care (cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, trauma-informed somatic practice, etc.) but is meant to supplement intervention from a trusted licensed mental health provider.]

  1. Practice mindful forgiveness. This is not meant to be directed toward the abuser. Mindful forgiveness after trauma focuses on a need to forgive one’s self for the range of self-directed emotions that can be detrimental in the aftermath of sexual trauma. Sometimes women blame themselves when abuse takes place. This internalized oppression requires forgiveness because a victim should never assume blame for the heinous acts of others. Forgiving ourselves for any negative self-talk and asking Allah to grant His indelible mercy is a key foundation for the development of a healing path. It took years after my assault for me to understand the ways in which I had wounded myself with disparaging internal scripts. When I increased my level of istighfar and asked Allah to excuse all the instances where I doubted myself and harmed my spirit in the process, I was able to finally uncover long-hidden emotions and set about the work of true healing and reconciliation with my body.

    rights of women in Islam

  2. Seek knowledge about one’s own body and its rights. When I became a Muslim 21 years ago, I had no idea that Islam was such a sex-positive religion. The Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is full of instances where he demonstrated the beauty and importance of sex as a form of marital bonding as well as an act of worship. Scouring books of fiqh, I learned the rights of women in Islam which affirmed that we are not human possessions meant to be tilled; women have undeniable rights to pleasure and protection of our most sacred human parts. Understanding that Islam is a guide for all areas of life can give a sense of comfort and provide a pathway to explore the sacredness of sexuality. This is key, especially for women who have been abused by men of faith or who have been victims of spiritual manipulation for carnal gain. Also, learning about the female anatomy, how the brain is an integral part of harnessing pleasure, and ways to use the mind to develop an internal sense of pleasure can also be extremely helpful in re-igniting one’s love of self.

  3. Activate the sensuality of everyday life.  There is a misunderstanding of the role of sensuality in pleasure. Sex is the physical joining of bodies. Sensuality, however, is a conscious internal awareness of pleasurable stimuli. It does not involve engaging with another person. This is key because many trauma sufferers may find physical human touch triggering.  Recognizing the sensual aspects of daily life requires the mindful perception of things that titillate or arouse. It can be as simple as the feel of a particular fabric against the skin, the smell of the air after a heavy rain, a sound that evokes sensual memories, a scent that conjures an arousing mood. Why is this important? Sex is not the sole route to pleasure. For women, pleasure is largely dependent upon a spiritual or mental connection within the body. By engaging in self-motivated pleasurable sensations, this can assist women in realizing the power and control that we have over our physical vessels. Muslim couple healing reciting Quran

  4. Be easy with yourself. In the Qur’an, Allah reminds us “O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.” (2:153)  During the process of reclaiming one’s power, there will undoubtedly be times of anger, grief, sorrow, and resentment. These are human emotions and are quite reasonable given the magnitude of trauma’s effect on the heart. Be patient with yourself. Channel love and support during times of difficulty. Do not neglect your healing journey because of a setback. It is important to practice patience with one’s self and utilize prayer as a stabilizing force. Allah is Al Wali, our greatest Protector, and Supporter. During times of emotional despair, rather than directing our energy inward, we can learn to release these emotions through dua and remembrance. Trauma is not a fundamental characteristic of who you have become. Reclaiming your narrative means understanding that you have the power to create a different story with a powerful ending. Give yourself the time and space to rewrite your script.

    Allah is Al Wali, our greatest Protector, and Supporter. During times of emotional despair, rather than directing our energy inward, we can learn to release these emotions through dua and remembrance.Click To Tweethealing from trauma

  5. Find your circle. Healing is not a solitary act. Sometimes it requires the love and support of others. Do you have a circle of support? Who are the people in your circle? And if you don’t have one, how can you create one? When I was at my lowest, my circle was there to remind me of who I was and how far I had come. They were the ones with whom I could be my most authentic self. One of the ways in which we can heal trauma is by seeking human connection. Select your circle carefully and lean on them during times of need. The healing power of your personally curated community can be transformative and life-changing.

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