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The Ethics of Muslim Charisma | A Proposal for Leadership Standards

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The American Muslim communities have several distinct ethics problems. Consider these hypotheticals.

  • A professional imam trained in Islamic Studies becomes popular in his local community. The local police arrest him for improper conduct involving a woman in the Masjid. The criminal matter is quietly resolved, but the Masjid fires the imam, who is quickly able to obtain new employment at a nearby Masjid where the board did not know of the imam’s prior conduct. The imam later commits misconduct involving women and flees the jurisdiction.
  • An Islamic Scholar in the United States obtains payments from working with organizations that are funded by military contractors and governments that routinely abuse human rights.
  • A nonprofit holds a banquet where the speaker fails to disclose 25% of all donations will be the fee for the speaker himself.

I want to be clear about something. This article is not about Nouman Ali Khan. I have no unique knowledge about his case, nor do I have any position on his guilt or innocence. The subject goes far beyond the publicly known facts of his situation. However, the public discussion should cast a spotlight on how Muslim leaders handle misconduct by those who are in a position of public trust. What was clear about Nouman Ali Khan is that there was no system for managing allegations of unethical conduct, breaches of trust and “spiritual abuse” that did not rise to criminal misconduct. Furthermore, attention came to his case primarily because of Mr. Khan’s international celebrity. There is a continuing concern about ethics among imams, shuyukh, heads of charities and other public figures inside the Muslim community, regardless of if their profile is local, national or international.

As a lawyer, I am part of a regulated profession.  Think of it as an organized tribe with a group of elders that can determine who is in, and who is out.  There are rules of professional conduct. For anyone in an actual profession, Dentistry, Architecture, those who sell insurance, boats and even cannabis, there are defined standards, a group that sets them and a group that enforces them.

There are no intellgible standards in the American Muslim community for shuyukh, public figures and those who provide some form of spiritual guidance. We need them. What I want to do in this article is provide a path for us as a community to do exactly that.

Ethics for all?

The term “unethical” does not mean the same thing for all people. If you are a private business and your primary goal is value for shareholders, your ethics will be different if you are a non-profit organization meant to provide a public benefit. If you are a shaykh that specializes in Islamic Finance, the Muslim community may hold you to a different standard than if you speak out against domestic violence to Muslim groups. Those two people may not appear to belong to the same tribe, though they are similar in that they take leadership roles inside Muslim spaces and their roles may overlap.

Shuykh and imams, unfortunately, have not yet been able to regulate themselves or hold bad actors accountable in the same way other professions routinely do. So, the situation described in the initial hypothetical can still happen. What we also know all too well is that accusations of spiritual abuse and unethical conduct are in no way limited to shuyukh and professional imams. We need a broader framework.

Public figures or semi-public figures who provide spiritual guidance to Muslims can easily be social and political activists. They can also be business people, educators, professors and community members in unrelated professions who are adept at public speaking and leading halaqas. Yes, they can also be Shuyukh or professional imams. It is possible for some personalities to operate exclusively online, like YouTube or social media stars who are only “Twitter famous.” However, much of a leader’s legitimacy and indeed, capacity to personally affect people for good or ill, comes from speaking in physical spaces to live audiences organized by non-profit Muslim groups, particularly large Islamic Centers and Islamic Conferences, such as ISNA and ICNA, as well as other events for Muslim organizations.

The Non-Profit Choke Point

An organization like the Islamic Society of North America (which I do not represent here though I have a vote on its Executive Council) can invite as many as 200 speakers to a single conference, usually on Labor Day weekend in a major US city.  Many speakers are not the same from one year to another. Nearly all the best-known Muslim speakers have spoken at ISNA, as well as other conferences such as ICNA and MAS. The North American Islamic Trust either owns outright or through trust arraignments hundreds of masajid around the country, many of which (regardless of their connection to NAIT) are connected through regional shura councils.  If there is an opportunity to manage ethics in American Muslim spaces, it comes from these organizations.

These organizations can develop formal rules of ethics governing a range of subjects. A shura, such as an independent ethics commission should determine these rules, so I will not attempt to enunciate them all here. However, it is vital those who are involved in formulating these rules have no business or grant ties with foreign or domestic governments, non-profits interested in reforming Islam, defense contractors or financial institutions (more on this later).

All Muslim speakers would need to sign an ethics agreement developed by this shura, if they are famous in the Muslim community or not. It should not matter if the speaker is a head of a nonprofit, an author of the latest Islamic children’s book or a nasheed singer. Such an agreement could be universal throughout the Muslim community in the United States and can apply to board members, khateebs, halaqah leaders, youth leaders and everyone else who is a trusted voice in the community. The only speakers with no signing requirement would be foreign dignitaries and non-Muslim speakers (such as interfaith leaders and government officials). Should a group, such as shuyukh, wish to eventually regulate themselves for things that are specific to their vocations, such a system would encourage wider adoption of rules they develop. The initial ethics rules I suggest here would be broad and general and necessarily apply to a specific profession.

What if something bad happens?

Part of what these speakers and others would sign up for would be consent to a system in the event someone makes allegations of violations of these rules. This would not be to cover up criminal misdeeds. Criminal conduct gets reported to the police. However, it would be a fair and dignified way to resolve allegations where there is a violation of Islamic ethics regardless of it violates a criminal or civil code.

Perhaps the hardest part of implementing such a plan is not formulating rules, but developing a dignified resolution of an allegation that is fair to the accused and the alleged victims. It should also protect organizations- both those that associated with someone who acted with poor judgment and those groups looking at hiring a charismatic leader or speaker to fulfill their future needs. Those organizations who have subscribed to the system can protect themselves from bad actors by having access to the names of individuals who have violated the rules of ethics so that they know who to avoid.

What gets governed?

Ethics is a vast area and the goal should be to make the rules as comprehensive as possible over time. The most obvious thing that would need to be reviewed are the accusations leveled against Nouman Ali Khan, particularly “spiritual abuse.” This is not to re-litigate it, but to address how well defined the allegations were, and can we do a better job at making sure the rules are clear in the future. Vague terms do not help justice.

This agreement should also govern business practices inside the Muslim community, both in non-profits and to the extent private individuals do business with organizations that are public trusts inside the Muslim community. Many of the worst practices in business, from the exploitation of employees to profiteering, can sometimes be found in Islamic organizations. Other practices may be more specific to nonprofits, such as zakat abuse.

Lastly, a broad area of concern would have to be conflicts of interest.  How do we deal with those who may speak for the interests of a financial institution, a foreign or domestic government, defense or domestic security contractors, anti-Palestinian interests or non-profit groups looking reform Islam into a secular identity. Rules of ethics go primarily to actions and income sources, not necessarily points of view, which should be diverse. However, this is not to say that a formal or informal system of “blacklisting” does not happen already or that this is always a bad thing in a religious space. However, someone being banned from giving khutbas or speaking to youth purely because of his or her expressed point of view is often not an ethical concern. It may be that the individual does not fit the role well.

In some ethics cases, it would be appropriate for Muslim organizations to not associate with personalities because they are known to be harmful to individuals. In other situations, ethics should be looked at, not to judge a person as good or bad as an individual, but instead with a view towards protecting the independence of our community’s intellectual and spiritual development from interests that are opposed to justice, human rights or the religion of Islam itself.

Ethics in the American Muslim community is in dire need of leadership. I do hope we have people willing to provide it.

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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

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abu Sufian

    October 18, 2017 at 6:01 PM

    Assalamu’alaikum,

    There are ethics already. They are the Quran and Sunnah. If someone who is supposed to be teaching these two is not following them it’s probably unlikely they will hold themselves to other man-made standards.

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      October 18, 2017 at 7:08 PM

      My hope is that the standards would be in keeping with the Shari’ah. There is a long history of Muslims drafting agreements and even laws that are understood to be in keeping with our values.

  2. Avatar

    Thehardtruth

    October 18, 2017 at 10:19 PM

    “Ethics” won’t ever work, when a large chunk of the community places conservative Islamic-values over everything else, and can draw support for almost any “unethical” action if needed.

    Take Nouman’s case. I would say most American Muslims were disgusted with his “unethical” conduct, once some of the evidence and statement from officials came to light.

    However, there is a large minority of conservatives who continue to defend Nouman vigorously, and they draw on Orthodox-Islamic precepts to do it.

    They’ll say, “using his station to influence female-students/workers isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “marrying multiple women in secret and not telling each one about the other isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “divorcing your wife and leaving your kids so you can have younger, hotter women isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “even if he’s truly guilty of Zina, you need 4 upstanding witnesses to prove it, or we’re committing sins even accusing him. Orthodox-Islam doesn’t even allow recorded video or pregnancy as proof of zina, it has to be the literal 4-witnesses”. And they are right.

    The point, is ethnics mean nothing when a large segment of our community can just ignore our “liberal norms” as they call it, and judge behavior entirely on Islamic-ideals.

    • Avatar

      shondhabati

      October 18, 2017 at 11:57 PM

      To be fair, many who make these statements understand the importance of ethics in their secular workplaces. ‘Ethics’ is primarily a western and secular concept, in the absence of a law-giving God. In the history of workplaces in the Muslim countries, we did not have the concept of ‘ethics’ the way its understood in the West. We only had the clearly haram, the clearly halal and everything in between. Since this discussion of ethics is very new in Islamic circles (used specifically by Muslims willing to practice, so most people in these ‘circles’ know the clearly halal from the clearly haram), I don’t think its fair to say this is how people would have reacted had there been a pre-agreed set of ethical conduct. I also think it is unfair to go after people based on a loosely, vaguely defined set of ethics. What this author suggested would solve part of the problem.

  3. Avatar

    Usman

    October 18, 2017 at 10:32 PM

    The irony of ethical committees needed for policing religious leaders who espouse and promulgate ethics is regrettable. What does this say about the Islamic speakers and scholars of our era? The intellectually lazy answer would be that
    Universal Justice would be served without such a system of checks and balances. My fear would be that by having another organized layer of authority beyond the Ulema, academic Scholars, and Islamic organizations (ie ISNA, ICNA, MSAs, etc) would generate politics. Politics breeds corruption and favoritism.

    I think the answer lies at the micro-level of individual communities acting as the gatekeeper to speakers. Word of mouth moves quickly via electronic communication which would caution the community Masjids from allowing corrupt speakers from extorting or abusing their respective congregations.

  4. Avatar

    DI

    October 19, 2017 at 5:58 PM

    There’s a few problems with this.

    1) Cherry picking religious texts. We always do this in our community, our hadith are clear on good conduct but then the standard gets lowered to halal-haram from ihsan-good akhlaaq when it comes to misconduct. It becomes a battle of interpretations and overseas fatwas. Its nafsi nafsi.

    2) Even if an ethical framework is created, the leaders of these big organizations have their hands dirty. Their seasonally embroiled in power struggles, in-fighting, government audits for mismanaged funds and under investigation. Any ethical standard or regulation they create gets discarded quickly. Most organizations don’t even abide by their constitutions and bylaws. The only way to control the cronyism is bringing in a non-Muslim voice.

    3) Most academics and Muslim leaders are involved in some way with those anti-Palestinian or anti-Muslim forces, even indirectly. For example, a PhD on madrassa systems in Pakistan or women’s roles can easily be passed off to military intelligence to undermine the Muslim lifestyle of distant Muslim lands. Even if the research grant is not from a shady source, it can still be used against us. You cannot regulate that and its bound to happen when Muslim want fame or have mouths to feed.

    Logistically, a better starting point may be the British movement of Unions for Imams. http://imamsonline.com/imams-fair-wage-campaign/

    Classically, religious leaders would be ‘regulated’ by their shaykhs and Sufi silsilas and madaris just as Muslims trades people would be ‘regulated’ by their sufi guilds (asnaf) to keep the market fair. Regardless of your view on sufism, asnaf and tariqas are how historically Muslims regulated and governed themselves without involvement from the state. Unions today seem to fulfill this function, but without the moral and spiritual authority.

    Many preachers that you are thinking of have no shaykh they answer to. They have no direct mentors or superiors. If anything, their mentor too cut themselves off from a system of religious chain of transmission. So how do you regulate them? If they really want, they can argue ‘freedom of expression’ and continue to teach as they wish.

    di.

  5. Avatar

    Latifa Aimaq

    October 21, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    Excellent article. For those of you claiming ethical standards are 1. Man made, 2. Cannot be enforced because of politics and cronyism, 3. Our Deen somehow allows for unethical behavior through texts that people can use to justify behaviors and so on, I believe you would be surprised that such standards used to exist in the past and have recently been discarded, which explains how ethical standards (which exist in the Quran and Sunnah as well, and in the best form) have disappeared over time. First of all, scholars used to reference students of knowledge and select people who were known for their good character (which obviously encompasses good ethical standards that one practices as well as others.) So prevention was key. Nowadays we accept as imams people who are unknown and whose knowledge and character is either unknown or deficient in some way. Before any other ethical standards are adopted, one should set preventative measures which include character and knowledge references and those are done by scholars who have seniority in knowledge and character. Secondly, a group of people who are highly knowledgeable in Islam can be part of ethics committees which may not have formally existed in the past but used to convene if a person of knowledge acted inappropriately or was suspected of doing so. The scholars would examine the claims and clear or consider the person unfit. The same needs to happen nowadays. Thirdly, for those who think that Islam allows abuse, think again. Yes, someone can technically leave his wife and kids for a younger woman and that technically won’t be forbidden but it would not be accepted as an act of good character when Islam emphasizes kindness toward women. Secondly, the idea of marrying secret wives and divorcing them while retaining a permanent “legal one” under clearly unequal terms in Islam is something not allowed. So for some of you to think that Islam would condone such behavior is to have a low opinion of our religion. I will accept that yes, people misuse the Deen to get what they want but is that person considered ethical in the least? No. Lastly, people in the past had a higher ethical standard than all of us combined. They had books and books on the character of people who passed on knowledge called, “The Knowledge of Men,” primarily in Hadith sciences. If someone was a lier, it was clearly mentioned. Their ethical standards were so high that forget halal and haram, they would not take knowledge from people who acted inappropriately. We need to revive the legacy of those who went before us in these areas and with the help of sincere and knowledgeable scholars and others formulate clear ethical standards and abide by them.

  6. Avatar

    Muhammad

    October 21, 2017 at 9:32 AM

    “It is possible for some personalities to operate exclusively online, like YouTube or social media stars who are only “Twitter famous.” However, much of a leader’s legitimacy and indeed, capacity to personally affect people for good or ill, comes from speaking in physical spaces to live audiences organized by non-profit Muslim groups, particularly large Islamic Centers and Islamic Conferences, such as ISNA and ICNA, as well as other events for Muslim organizations.”

    I agree with the author and I commend and applaud his recommendation for speaker to sign an ethics agreement developed by the shura.

    I agree with this statement of a reader:

    “the idea of marrying secret wives and divorcing them while retaining a permanent “legal one” under clearly unequal terms in Islam is something not allowed.”

    This ethics agreement should call for a recognition that secret marriages are haram. Of course, the ethics agreement should probably cover many other issues as well.

    Islam is above all about honesty. It started out from the honest Sadiq Al Ameen being chosen to be a messenger for his honesty and the message of Islam emphasizes that honesty is a must.

    A secret marriage entails not just one lie but thousands of lies. It entails living a life of lie every day and every night.

    It is said that Muslims need to be reminded of this but we must save our families and our honor from this family destroying deception which makes a mockery of Islam.

  7. Avatar

    Hafiz Gee

    October 21, 2017 at 11:35 PM

    Something that is sorely needed in our times. An issue that spans the Sufi-salafi-ashari-brelwi-deobandi-tradionalist divides.

    The is a difference between proving someone guitly of Zina in Islamic law and holding people in positions of authority in the Islamic community to higher standards.

    I think inevitably in the next 20-50 years sitting like this will come to pass whether or not individuals like the author of this article are supported right now or not, this sort of regulation/professional standards is inevitable at least in the west.

    A lot of students of knowledge who looked up to certain scholars, adherents of Sufi shaykhs, fans of shaykhs, etc. have faced far too many situations where the shaykh has let them down massively through their unprofessional behaviour.

    As with any other organized profession in the West, there needs to be a college or guild and there needs to be serious self-regulation.

    I think getting that regulation in place and imams shaykhs to buy in will take decades, but that’s no reason not to start such an eandeavour as it is necessary.

    This isn’t about casting aspersions on imams/shaykhs/mawlana/pirs this is about facing reality and the cumulative trauma that many in the Muslim community have faced because of the lack of regulations. If these folks don’t start putting their house in order they will lose their following. I think the level of scandals awaiting the Muslim when more and more of these abuses of power and position (specifically sexual abuses) emerg the Muslim community will be facing crisis not unlike that going on in the Catholic community.

    Ijazas, khilafah, isnads do nothing to stop unprofessional behaviour. Yes you can quote stories of famous shaykhs of the “glorious past” who upon hearing their mureed, khalifa, student was doing somethingnit only sinful but wholly unbecoming of station immediately revoked their khilafah (Sufi license), ijazah or whatever. But in today’s world you will see several examples where all of those abuses are overlooked and the unprofessional “imam/shaykh/Mawlana” is able to continue on and do their thing. Some are even today the principles of respected madrassas, heads of Sufi Tariqas, presidents of major Islamic organizations.

    I think the big challenge with Ahmed shaykh’s proposal is getting shaykhs to buy in and not make them feel insulted or like the organization is trying to discredit them or accuse them as a whole of wrong doing. Also it has to be more than just a salafi club, or Sufi club, or a salafi-deobandi club (at the expense of brelwis) or whatever sectarian flavour. This needs to be something universal. Everybody needs to buy in. The professional/ethical need to be sufficiently broad and not sectarian in their wording so as to include everyone, non-offensive, and needs to steer clear of big differences of opinion issues in fiqh. For instance of these professional standards were laid out

    Moreover what would this whole set up look like: would the qualifications of members of this “College of Islamic Educators” have to be vetted and what would that mean(what qualifications if any would suffice)? Or would it just be a pledge for anyone to take? If there reports of breaches of professional conduct (e.g. Quran teacher raping his student) how would these be reported? How would the issue be handled so as not to destroy a scholar’s credibility before a conclusion is reached or more importantly I the scholar is found to be innocent of breaching the code of conduct? How would breaches be handled? Would scholars have probationary licenses or would (I.e. Quran teacher may now only teach adults not children)? How and where would those breaches of conduct be reported so the Muslim Public can be made aware, and to what extent should details be reported?

  8. Avatar

    Educator

    October 22, 2017 at 8:20 PM

    I would also like to respectfully submit that Islamic school leaders (Principals and Board members) be included in the group that needs to adhere to a framework of ethical standards and be held accountable for their actions and words. There have been allegations of violation of Islamic principles that have been swept under the rug and the voices of victims in educational institutions quieted by the ‘elders’ of the respective communities.
    We need more conversations on this subject; it will take time, as one of the previous comments indicate but we must begin to have the difficult dialogue. If nothing else, then to raise awareness.

  9. Avatar

    Md Nayeem

    October 24, 2017 at 4:49 AM

    Jazāk Allāhu Khayr, Bro.!! Your following post is really analytical. I will say one thing that standardization of ethics for an actual leader is following Quran and Sunnah to lead people or giving people chance to trust on you. And the sariah, of-course, its also from the two basements….

  10. Avatar

    Amira

    October 28, 2017 at 8:56 PM

    Great efforts are coming about from these leaders everyone will agree, but time for a reconciliation of practicing what you preach.

    Not to mention the personal major sins and immoral practices community leaders make on a personal basis but hide it in from the eyes of community members affecting their ethical practices of running the nonprofit. Local Texas city youth organization anyone?

    Where do all the community donated funds go. Why are volunteer staff not reimbursed within a reasonable time frame instead of at least a year later. Why are volunteer staff worked like mad dogs with no training whatsoever, receive nothing in return besides self satisfaction, pumped up like crazy to their face, and being the object of trash talk behind their backs while being mentally blacklisted by the Director/President. Why is so much expected of volunteer teachers yet they’re given absolutely nothing in return not even from the supposed successful fundraisers. The community leader fails to reassess his last minute strategies and thus the organization doesn’t reach its potential.

    I know a community leader whose major theme of the organization(s) was the best of sinners is the one who repents and makes great efforts to align the organization’s practices with strict views BUT practices none of that in his own personal life. All in the name of status. Time to clean out some intentions.

  11. Avatar

    Hisham E

    October 28, 2017 at 10:57 PM

    Thank you brother Shaikh. I, also, applaude you for promoting this issue of setting ethical standards for Muslim community leaders.
    The point I like to raise has to do with litigation and litigation only as the one thing that would make this issue move forward, and would force the creation of Imam unions and guilds, that would be able to exclude and issue warnings to members that don’t abide with ethical standards.
    Take for example a lawsuit that would cost a community millions of dollars forcing them to sell their center (or several centers in the case of NAIT).
    It is then and only then that associations and communities would wake up and attemp to regulate their Imams, sheikhs, down to any employee who appeal to others as having any kind of moral or spiritual authority.
    Frankly, I am surprised that insurance companies don’t require such an arrangement. Or better, I should ask if Muslim communities ever have such insurance policies against ethical misconduct.
    This is not just about the image of Islam before our children and outer communities, and not about implementing Sharia, but rather about maintaining the very organizations (and realestate) that our communities put so much energy to create and maintain.

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Podcast: How Intimate Can a Couple be Post-Nikkah, but Pre-Marriage? | Yaser Birjas

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Question:

I just had my nikkah done with my husband and we are having our rukhsati done soon (in the next few months). The reason for [the] delay is just mainly to prepare for the wedding and  [to] accommodate family members’ schedule [for] the wedding. After the nikkah is it permissible to do all the acts that are permissible between a husband and wife even if the rukhsati hasn’t been done?

Sincerely,
Getting married in my 20s

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#Life

“It’s much worse than the flu.” An Epidemiologist’s Perspective on COVID-19

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In light of the suspension of Jummah prayers and the mosque closings across the nation, I want to share my expertise as an epidemiologist.

Some people are in denial of the enormity of the crisis and do not agree with the rulings on Jummah prayers being canceled. Others think that this crisis is hyped up. They are asking, isn’t this like the flu or just a little worse than the flu?

It is not.

It is much worse than the flu.

Before I explain why, I would like to iterate that we must not panic. We cannot think clearly if we panic. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) reminds us in the Quran:

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards East or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.”

Surah Al-Baqara, verse 177

While we should not panic, we should also not be skeptical about the unanimous consensus of all medical experts. Medical experts are authorities on medical issues.

“O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.”

Surah An-Nisa, Verse 59

This is a true crisis

We need everyone to do their part to prevent infections. The following is concise Epidemiology 101 for the non-epidemiologist regarding why there is so much concern by health authorities on the seriousness of Covid-19.

This is a crisis because of two simple mathematical reasons: the case fatality rate and the reproductive rate.

Case Fatality Rate

First, the case fatality rate – or the death rate – is the number of people who die if they have the disease, which in this context is the infection. In other words, out of the people who have the infection, this number represents how many will die.

For the flu, the case fatality rate is 0.1.For Covid-19, the case fatality rate based on the 133,000 so far infected as of March 13 and the 4,945 who have died is 3.7. This is not the true case fatality rate as some people with the mild infection are not being counted.

Some experts believe the case fatality rate is 2.0, which is 20 times higher than the flu. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who for over three decades has been the Director of the National Health Institute (allergy and infectious diseases) gave an estimate of 1.0 when he testified to Congress several days ago, and 1.0 is 10 times more than 0.1

If everything else that is important (such as the reproductive rate) was the same between the flu and Covid-19, then the number of people dying would be 30,000 times 10, which is 300,000.

Reproductive Rate (Basic Reproductive Number)

The other important number is the reproductive rate. The word “reproductive” in this name is not focused on the reproductions of the virus in one body, but the reproduction of cases. Technically this is called the basic reproductive number, but for ease of communicating, I will call it the reproductive rate.

The reproductive rate is related to how infectious the organism is from one person to another and what steps society is taking to limit the infections from spreading.

The exact definition of the reproductive rate (basic reproductive number) is the expected number of cases directly generated by one infected case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection.

Case Fatality plus Reproductive Rate Equals:

For the flu, the reproductive rate is 1.3. For Covid-19, the reproductive rate is between 2 and 3. The reproductive rate for Covid-19 is twice as high as the flu virus. Therefore we have to multiply the estimated number of deaths of 300,000 by 2, which is 600,000.

The case fatality rate could be lower than 1.0, it could be closer to 0.8 In fact, in South Korea, it is 0.9 so far. In Italy however, it is almost 5% because there are so many elderly people in Italy. In both of these cases, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 is still many, many times higher than that of the flu, which is 0.1.

To put it simply, at even a 1.0 case fatality, we can expect 600,000 people to die from COVID-19 in the US alone if we don’t follow the CDC guidelines. That’s not counting the huge number of people with other diseases who are at risk of dying from the effect of the healthcare system being overloaded beyond its capacity.

This is bad news. However, this disaster scenario is based on us treating it “just like the flu.” If we decide to take things seriously instead, and treat this as an emergency as it truly is, then InshaAllah 600,000 people don’t necessarily have to die. Following CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of the disease as well as the impact to the healthcare system can save hundreds of thousands of people.

We can lower the case-fatality rate and the reproductive rate, and the number of lives saved will be much, much greater than the number of lives who will die.

This is good news. We can, and will Insha’Allah, save lives by acting to lower the spread of COVID-19.

Malaysia reported an additional 190 confirmed infections on Sunday, an increase of 80% of cases over a day and bringing its total to 428. Most of the cases stemmed from a Muslim religious gathering held from Feb. 27 to March 1, which authorities said was attended by 14,500 Malaysians and about 1,500 foreigners. Malaysia is the worst-infected nation in the Southeast Asia. Bloomburgquint.com

We need to be on the same page

I mean this literally. We need to be on the same page, and that is the webpage of the CDC website:

The CDC, of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the agency responsible for preventing and limiting epidemics. You can keep yourselves, families, and the public at large safer by following their guidelines. Familiarize yourself with the following, and please ensure that all your family and friends have too:

1. How COVID-19 spreads

2. Symptoms

3. Steps to Prevent Illness

4. Older People and People with Chronic Diseases at Higher Risk

5. What to Do if You are Sick

6. Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The first five sections are the responsibility of every person to learn, since every person can spread the infection and thus contribute to the reproductive number of COVID-19.

“The Muslim is the one from whose hand and tongue people are safe. ” – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (An-Nasai)

For the many health professionals in the Muslim community, I encourage all health professionals to see the following resources on preparing your  practice to deal with Covid 19.

Do not go to Mosques until further notice

This is not an issue of a certain school of thought, but is the judgment of scholars from all schools of thought. Medical and religious experts are in agreement with regards to the suspension of Jummah for the protection of the community.

Please read the following joint statement by the Fiqh Council of North America, Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Medical Association of North America, and American Muslim Health Professionals. See also this declaration from the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America regarding the suspension of Friday congregation. 

Mosques are higher risk than churches

In Iran, the first cases started in Qom, a city that often sees more attendance to mosques and more gatherings than other cities. Most cases were in Qom and then spread to other cities. The number of grave plots dug for the dead and dying is large enough to be visible by satellite imagery.

How is this relevant to the disease, and why are mosques more vulnerable than churches or other places of worship?

  • Many attendees do wudu at the mosque. CDC guidelines are to not to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth, as these are mucous membranes. During wudu, the nasal mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times, the eyes mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times during the face rinse, and the mouth mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times.
  • Wudu does not require soap, so coronavirus particles (from an infected person) remain even after completing Wudu.
  • The vast majority of mosques do not have automatic sensors in their water taps, and attendees open and close them by hand shortly after touching their eyes, nose, mouth.
  • Almost all people close the taps with their bare hands versus holding a paper towel.
  •  Even if paper towels are used, there can be cross transference to the paper towel roll. There may be ways to limit transference but the risk cannot be eliminated.
  • People often relieve themselves before doing wudu, and clean their private areas with their left hand. We don’t have data on coronavirus in mucous membranes in the private areas, but we do know that the virus can often be in the GI tract in addition to the respiratory tract and eyes and nose, etc.
  • CDC guidelines say to use Social Distancing, staying 6 to 10 feet apart from others. But in the congregational prayer, we are standing shoulder to shoulder and some are also foot to foot.
  • Some attendees touch their faces after making dua, which is the first step in the virus’s transmission.
  • There are often handshakes and sometimes even hugs among some attendees, further spread person-to-person transmission.
  • A higher percentage of Masjid attendees are elderly, and thus, further susceptible to infection.

Allah tells the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that he has been sent as a mercy to all the worlds, and in following his sunnah, we strive for the same. By attending the mosques in the time of a pandemic, whether for the regular salah, Jumah prayers or ‘Eid prayers, we will not be a mercy to mankind. We will be a danger to it, spreading the coronavirus and increasing the number of people who suffer from it.

The bottom line, according to the epidemiology of this disease, is this:

It is guaranteed that some – likely a large number- will get infected if people go to mosques. And some of those people will die. And it is guaranteed that the infection rate will increase in the wider (non-Muslim) community because of this as well.

What to do if you think you have COVID-19

In general, call your doctor or ER if you think you are sick with Coronavirus. Do not automatically go to the ER or the doctor, first call ahead. Before even calling, familiarize yourself with what the symptoms of COVID-19 are.

Separate yourself from other family members and people at home, and call your doctor to get instructions to see if you need to be tested and to receive other very important instructions regarding supportive care to address your infection and to prevent the spread of it to other household members.

The doctor will instruct you as to whether you need to come to his/her office or go to the ER and when you need to go. Also by calling first, if you do need to go to the doctor’s office or the ER, they will make preparations to prevent the spread of infection from you to others as you come.

Social distancing in action: Death rates for the 1918 flu pandemic were heavily reduced by social distancing measures taken by the city of St. Louis, but not Philadelphia.

Do not delay calling your doctor since some people might deteriorate quickly, but try to read the CDC guidelines before calling so you can know whether you even need to call.

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately (call 911 to get immediate help).  Emergency warning signs include*:
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face
*This list is not conclusive.  Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

In summary

  • We must not panic, but we must be prepared.
  • We must recognize that this is a crisis due to the case fatality rate and reproductive rate of COVID-19
  • Read the sections on COVID-19 at www.cdc.gov.
  • Do not attend congregational prayers, Jumah prayer, weekend schools, etc. until further notice
  • Believe, with the help of Allah, that we can change the bad news to good news if we follow all the CDC guidelines in every section

Let us be calm but also serious. Let us also be grateful that we live in a time when governments are much more proactive than the past. Let us be grateful to our medical community. Let us not overwhelm ourselves with unverified articles or forwards on Whatsapp. Let us read and circulate medical information from only authorized sources such as the CDC.

And let us remember that we are so vulnerable and fragile and that we must often remember and supplicate to Allah for forgiveness, protection, and guidance. Thank you and may Allah keep us, our families, and all safe. Ameen.

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Like Tinder, But Safer: Troubleshooting Arranged Muslim Marriage

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Like many people in my mid-20s, I approached my parents about getting married and initially chose to use a more traditional route. That is to say, creating a resume – or biodata – and sending it to matchmaker aunties. I wanted this approach because I wanted to be able to balance my American, Desi, and Muslim identities. I wanted things to be done in a halal way with my parent’s knowledge. However, over the past 2 years, my experience with the process has left me jaded.

Before I continue, I want to preface with two things. The first is that my parents are wonderful. We’ve butted heads, but I recognize that they are doing what they think is best, via a method that they’re used to. Providing critical feedback of the method should not be taken as critical to my parents.

The second is that while I have critical feedback, I am not intending to discredit the entire process. Meeting people through family is hardly a bad thing, and maybe what some people need. It is very possible that I will still end up using this process. That said, there are changes that need to be made, especially in the modern world. I want to make sure that my younger brothers and sisters can get an idea of what the process is, and what they’re in store for.

Superficiality

The biodatas that we send and receive are inherently superficial. They are, in total, the person’s education/career, info on their parents and extended family, and pictures. There’s nothing written about the person’s personality barring, perhaps, a few sentences about their interests. This doesn’t provide any real depth of information about the other person at all.

Then there is the emphasis that is placed on the pictures. It is important to acknowledge that physical attraction plays a role in all of this. I think one of my early mistakes was that I was trying to pretend it didn’t matter at all, and that’s not reasonable for a marriage. The problem, however, is that given the lack of personal detail in the written part of the bio-data, we are left with the photo being the most personal piece of information presented. Unless you really care about where a person’s grandfather went to University in the 1940’s, that photo ends up being the most important thing you’re making your choice on.

Like “Tinder, but safer,” a friend said to me, as I explained how these situations played out. That’s not far off from how the experience played out for me. We’re not given much time to make a decision on the bio-data, so the result is the superficial, un-Islamic swipe based on attractiveness alone.

How many times have I heard, “Oh, she’s too fat,” or “Oh, she’s too short,” or “Too tall,” or “She’s pretty dark isn’t she?” Bengali speakers will recognize the word “moyla,” [dirty] used to describe women who are slightly darker, which is terribly problematic.

It’s not just that women are being chosen based on their looks alone, but on top of that, they’re being held to Eurocentric notions of what is deemed attractive. We’re all being held hostage to a standard designed by and for an entirely different race of people, and I have been told that it would be weird for me to be attracted to a darker-skinned woman because in the minds of many, dark skin is undesirable.

The superficiality is worse for women, but even as a guy I felt it. I’m fine with how I look, but you can only hear, “Oh, your face looks weird in that picture,” or, “He’s not tall enough,” so many times before it starts to mess with you. Men face another superficial judgment as well: the problem with men being reduced to their ability as moneymakers. I’m a graduate student and there are people in my class who have a spouse and children and are making it by just fine on the stipend we receive. But, inevitably, it will come up that I’m not making tons of money, so how can I support a family? While recognizing that men do have an Islamic responsibility to financially support their families, it troubles me that the process boils men down to one thing and one thing only – money, and not just having enough of it, but lots of it.

Age

I’m relatively young, 27 in May, and so when I started this process two years ago, I told my parents that I was willing to go +/- 3 years, just because I thought that would be a good range to encompass people I’d have some similarities with. However my prospect of an older wife – even a day older – was rejected with quite some vigor. I’ve been disqualified from matching with some women because they were born just a couple of months before I was.

The majority of the biodatas sent to me are of women still in college, between the ages of 19 and 22. It doesn’t matter when I say that’s too young, or how that I feel like I’d be taking advantage of someone who hasn’t fully grown up yet. I get told that I’m wrong.

Do you know how many random aunties and uncles have told me that a 7-8 year age gap is necessary to make a marriage work because otherwise, the women “will demand too much?” It’s shocking that I’m being told specifically that I need a wife young enough to be manipulated and shaped to my desires. When I push back on this, I’m, again, told that I’m weird.

I’m being constantly told to reconsider my age preferences as if wanting to marry a woman in her mid-20’s is a weird thing to do when I myself am in my mid-20’s. The sheer number of times I face this makes me think it’s an inherent flaw in how our cultures think, and not something unique to my situation. This is to say nothing of the fact that people will, to our face, tell me (26) that I’m too young for marriage, but my sister (25) is rapidly passing her expiration date.

Race

As a Bengali man, I have no problem marrying a woman of Bengali descent, but it’s annoying that even in 2020, it’s seen as a taboo to marry outside of your race in Desi culture. I personally have had it conceded to me, that if I choose an Indian or Pakistani woman on my own, that might be ok, but nothing else. Not an Arab. Certainly not someone with (black) African descent. And a white/Hispanic/black convert would cause a genuine scandal.

And even this concession is not universal, as there are many Bengali parents I know who will not let their child marry anyone outside of their own culture. Even when people have pushed through it and married outside of their ethnic backgrounds, there is still gossip and concern as to how the parents could “let this happen.”

Going into this I thought, “Well, all I have to do is show a few videos from Imams talking about how inter-racial marriages shouldn’t be taboo for Muslims,” but it doesn’t matter how many of these clips I show, it falls on deaf ears.

I understand the concern of losing culture and heritage to life in the West, I get it. But if I want to teach my kids about their Bengali roots I can do that with a wife of any background, and if I don’t want to teach them, having a Bengali wife isn’t going to make me any more likely to do so.

Ultimately, the feeling I get is that the older generation wants in-laws who they can go and have chai and gossip with, to do traditional things they saw their parents do with their in-laws. And again, while I empathize with the desire to do something familiar, this seems like an unhealthy reason to dictate why your children can’t marry someone from another race or culture.

Classism

I understand that families need to mesh and that it makes things easier if there are similarities that exist. However, in what world am I reading a biodata and seeing what a woman’s uncle does for a living, and then deciding that she’s marriage material?

It doesn’t work for me that way, but it works on the minds of the older generation, and there are even ways of working the class distinction to your advantage. Uncles in the community have actually told me that marrying into a “lower class” may be good if you want someone to be subservient to you because they’re thankful you brought them to your status. But they’ve also told me that marrying a “higher-class” woman isn’t bad either, because a rich father-in-law could have its perks. Caveat- beware of them being snobby with you, since you may be expected to be thankful, subservient one instead.

I can’t even wrap my head around what people are talking about here, but it’s yet another factor that I end up having to deal with during this process.

Religion

I want a wife who cares about the deen and prays 5 times a day, and I want this not to be a controversial take.

I have been told that’s unrealistic. Literally a couple of weeks ago, an auntie told my sister that ‘modern women’ do not pray regularly and so I should not expect that in a future wife. She said this, of course, to my sister who is both a modern woman and someone who prays five times a day without fail.

It’s crazy to be told that I’m being too picky because I want a wife who already has her religious-ness established. I have been told, by both aunties and uncles, that it’s better for me to marry a wife who isn’t too religious yet so that I can shape her deen. This isn’t about mutual growth in faith as you may hope for in a marriage. This is about controlling women with religion by only teaching her what I want to teach her. When older women tell you this, it raises so many concerns about what they’ve been through and what they want future generations of women to go through.

When I tell people I want a religious wife, they seem to translate that as subservient to me, not Allah. And that scares me. I don’t mean to fetishize anybody, but I want a wife whose religion drives to be bold, to stand up for what’s right, to be outspoken. I want to partner with someone whose religiosity pushes me to be a better version of myself, not to do what she’s told.

Marry Back Home

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me, as someone who has lived their entire life in the US, to think that I’ll mesh much better with someone with a similar background. This isn’t universal, some people will genuinely get along better with people from “back home,” and that’s fine, but this needs to be a personal choice.

Yet, I keep getting told that it would be better for me to marry from “back home.” I have been told, straight up, if you bring a wife over here, she’ll be more “indebted,” to me because I brought her to America. Setting aside that I don’t want to marry someone who just wants to marry me for a Green Card, why would I want to marry someone who feels like they owe me?

I fail to see how marrying from “back home” is an issue of compatibility in this case, it feels way more like an issue of subservience.

You can see here that the concern isn’t about finding a spouse who matches with my personality, it’s about finding someone who’ll come and cook and clean and bear children for me without speaking up about it because they feel like they owe me. Which segues to…

Gender Roles

I want to preface this section by saying that this is one topic where my parents haven’t, at all, been the source of my concerns, but rather, this something that comes up when talking to certain members of the community.

For men, there is an emphasis on making money to provide for a family, and for women, raising children and taking care of the home. There’s no problem with this model, but it is not the only model. It’s a valid option, but I am being told it’s my only choice.

In the eyes of many, the preference is to pick a homemaker. This seems at odds with the desire to select a woman with a good education, making it seem that I’m then not expected to let her utilize that education professionally. After all, it could be embarrassing for me if my wife makes more than me, and I have been told to be careful, because a wife who makes too much money could be “too independent.”

I must also be careful to stay in my exclusive role as a moneymaker too, and not try to go beyond that. I had pictures with my nephews in biodata because they mean the world to me. I was told to take them out because somehow a man taking care of children is deemed…bad?. I also like cooking. I once said this to an auntie and I remember her saying, “Why do you like doing girl’s stuff?”

Quite bluntly, I don’t want a wife who will only cook and clean and raise children for me. I want someone I can share those duties with because they’re my equal partner, an idea that, to me, keeps getting glossed over in this process. Every couple deserves the opportunity to figure their marriage out for themselves.

Quick Marriages

There are limits to what we can(‘t) do as Muslims. I understand that we shouldn’t have 3 year-long courtships or live together before getting married, and I am not advocating that. But we should be allowed some time to make such an important decision. I’ve been shown bio-datas and have been expected to come back with an answer in two days – just two days – about whether the information on this piece of paper is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.

Please, can we have a few months? Can we talk, and try to make sure that this is the decision we want to make (chaperoned)? When reviewing potential spouses, try to make sure everyone is one the same page about how much time you give to each other in order to avoid heartbreak and confusion.

Nature Of Relationship With Parents

My parents and I have a pretty good relationship. It’s relatively open and comfortable, but it’s still a Desi parent-child dynamic. Expressing a dissenting opinion is disrespectful, which means it can be harder to speak up without fear of disappointing them.

Plus, my parents and I never openly spoke about sex or physical attraction, at least not in-depth. To go from that to suddenly having to talk to your parents about the physical aspects that you’re looking for in a wife is awkward, and it can lead to miscommunication.

It’s a culture clash on top of a generational one. I have a hard time articulating what I want to my parents, and it’s not easy to figure out. If you know this before starting the process, you can make an effort to speak as openly about things as you can. You can even recruit an older cousin or friend, or an Imam you trust to help you. Don’t do what I did and go by yourself, have people to support you to make sure you and your parents are communicating well.

In Conclusion

It’s not reasonable to expect that you’ll get everything you want in a spouse. There will be compromises that are made, whether they be with yourself or with what your parents want. But don’t sacrifice on the points most important to you. Determine those, know what your must-haves are, and negotiate on other things. Make sure your potential spouse is on board. It can be awkward, especially with how many of us were raised, but talk to your potential spouse about these important things.

While this was a reflection of my own experience, I place emphasis on the aspects I feel are more universal. Speaking to other Desi Muslims in my age bracket, it certainly does seem that my concerns are relatively common. Obviously, there are individual factors that are at play, but these were things that came up regularly when speaking to elders in the community.

I also, again, want to stress that this isn’t an attack on my parents. While I have a level of frustration with how this situation has played out, I recognize that this is what they’re used to. And to their credit, they have made some concessions. Furthermore, it’s not just parents who are playing a role in this. The (often unwarranted) voices of certain elders are given undue emphasis, and that, I think has complicated the situation even further.

Ultimately, I’m not telling people that they shouldn’t consider arrangements or biodata, but if you do, then you must openly discuss this with your parents. Make sure they know what you want, and stand firm if it’s something important, even if it complicates things. It may put a strain on your relationship with your parents, but it’s better to open about things now than to have anger and resentment towards them for years later.

I’ll end with a specific piece of advice to the brothers: You have a duty to learn about why these issues are red flags and to push back on them yourselves. Women can be labelled as too rebellious if they push back themselves, and we need to be aware of this. Speak up for your (biological) sisters, family members, and friends when you notice their discomfort. Make sure you establish with your potential spouse that she is actually on board with the process, not just going along with it because she feels that she needs to. It might be awkward, but it’s important to establish a clear line of communication with someone even before you get married.

May Allah bless us all with happy, healthy, and fruitful marriages. Ameen

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