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The Ethics of Muslim Charisma | A Proposal for Leadership Standards

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.

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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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Social Justice

Podcast: Priorities and Protest | On Muslim Activism with Shaykhs Dawud Walid and Omar Suleiman

Islam teaches us to stand up for justice, to enjoin good and forbid evil, and to help our brother whether he’s the oppressor or the oppressed, but how?

To help us fully understand the answer to this question, we have the honor of speaking to not one, but two subject matter experts on Muslim activism. Dr. Omar Suleiman and Shaykh Dawud Walid are both scholars, authors, and Imams internationally known for their work in civil rights and social justice.

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Excerpts from the interview:

“You can’t say I don’t believe any bad things about black people because I love Sayyiduna Bilal. We have to move past, and move beyond the tokenization of Bilal and talk about the haqeeqah (reality) of America and how the broader super culture really has influenced a lot of anti-black frameworks inside the Muslim community of those who are not black.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'We believe very deeply that our deen calls us to stand for the sanctity of life and to stand against oppression, and to stand against state violence and all that it represents in this regard.' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“We can never elevate any other cause to where we equate it to anti-blackness in America, we can and rightfully should point to the fact that the same frames that have been used to justify state violence and white supremacy embedded in state policy towards black people in America is what guides America’s foreign policy and imperialism as well.” – Imam Omar Suleiman

'When the Muslim community stands up for the importance of black life, it is standing up for itself and with itself.' - Shaykh Dawud WalidClick To Tweet

“You know your name, and you know what land your family came from and you know the language that they spoke. Imagine the centuries of trauma that African Americans have gone through in this country, where we were brought here as chattel, like a cow or a chicken, our children were separated from our parents, our names were taken from us, our language, our culture, our religion, and then we were forced into the religion of Christianity, and the psychological warfare and violence of then having to look at a picture of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that looked just like our slave-master, and to be told that our slave master looked more like the embodiment of civilization and purity of Jesus. And then we looked at ourselves and we saw the exact opposite. And then this dehumanization, being baked into every single system of the socio-political life of black people in America.

Anyone who is named Jones in America, it’s because their great, great grandfather was owned by someone named Jones. It has nothing to do with their lineage or their culture. And people like me, who are lighter skinned African-Americans – there’s no one from Senegal or Gambia indigenously who looks like me – it’s because my great grandfather’s mother was raped by a white man on a plantation in South Carolina. What we face in America isn’t just a moment or two of discrimination here or there.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'Why should cops with a list of seventeen prior violations of excessive force still be on the force? Why is it that penalizing of everyone but the police exists?' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“Many Muslims feel very stressed when they’re driving across the border to Canada or flying back into the country. They’re very fearful about CBP or about being interrogated or held. Take that feeling, multiply it by about three, and imagine every day of your life living in America feeling that way. That’s about the best way I can explain it, but if you’re black AND you’re Muslim, that’s double trouble.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

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Continue Reading

#Society

Raised by Converts

Note to the reader:  Some Muslims debate which term we should use for someone who has chosen to accept Islam. Is it supposed to be “convert” or “revert?”  In this article, I choose to use the word “convert.”  Before I start receiving comments from individuals who are convinced that the term “revert” is the only correct one, I would like to share this superb article on the issue written by Ricardo Peña, who says it better than I ever could.  

Nuha* thought she had found her soulmate and future life partner in Joel*, her co-worker. He was kind, hardworking, and charming, and the young couple wanted to get married.  Nuha’s father, however, would not give his blessing to the union because the potential groom had recently converted to Islam.  Nuha’s dad wanted his daughter to marry a man who had grown up in a Muslim family and therefore, presumably, had years of Islamic experience and fairly solid religious knowledge. He speculated about some of the things Joel might have done before embracing Islam and whether he had any habits that would be hard to break. He also thought it would be wiser for his daughter to marry someone from the same background; he doubted a white guy would really know how to relate to a Pakistani-American girl and her desi family. Most of all, he worried that Joel would not know enough about Islam to be a good husband, father, and imam of his family.  

Was Nuha’s father justified? Do converts make good spouses and parents? Can they ever truly move on from any un-Islamic aspects of their past and adhere to their new deen

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

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.

How do converts attain the knowledge necessary to raise children with Islamic knowledge, taqwa, and adab?

To answer this question I spoke with six Muslims who grew up in a household where one or more parents were converts to Islam. Their answers give insight into the true dynamics of what happens when converts raise children.  

Khadijah is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach from the United Kingdom. Her mother, a white British woman, converted when Khadijah was eight years old.  When she and Khadijah’s father had divorced, she had felt a need to find a deeper meaning in life. This searching led her to Islam.  

“My mum taught me Islam in stages,” explains Khadijah. “As she learnt things, she passed them onto me. We went to study circles together, and we learnt to pray together as well. She wrote the transliteration of the prayer on little blue cards for us to hold whilst we prayed. I wouldn’t say her knowledge was sufficient at the time, but whose knowledge is? I learnt valuable lessons as I watched her do her own reading, leaning, and questioning. I felt like we stumbled through together. As I grew up, this taught me Islam is a constant journey, and it’s ok to ask questions.”

Shaheda, a freelance writer from North Carolina, grew up in different circumstances than Khadijah, but the women’s stories have definite parallels. Shaheda’s parents are African Americans who were both raised in traditional southern Christian families. The pair converted to Islam in the 1960s when they were college students who were active in the Civil Rights movement. They began to learn about Islam after their introduction to leaders like Malcolm X.  

As different as her parents’ life experiences were from Khadijah’s mum’s, Shaheda enjoyed the same benefit of being able to see her parents growing and changing due to the love of Islam. “My parents were learning Islam as they were raising us,” explains Shaheda, “and so their increase in knowledge was tangible to us. We grew up in a community where you would see the physical manifestations of knowledge acquisition. The style of dress of the sisters became more modest, the separation of women and men became more pronounced in social gatherings, social gatherings took on a more religious tone, we began to attend Sunday school to learn Quran and Arabic.”

Though it may come as a surprise to some, in families where one spouse was a born to a Muslim family and the other is a convert, the convert is often actually the more knowledgable and practicing parent. Aliyah is a family counselor from the Midwestern United States whose Indian mother and white American father met when they were partners in pre-med.  “My dad had read about ‘Mohammedans’ and would ask my mom lots of questions about them,” explains Aliyah. “My mom was raised in a home that was only culturally Muslim. Plus, back then most immigrants just wanted to assimilate. She didn’t really know the answer to my dad’s intensive questions. One day she suggested he ask her father the same questions. My grandfather took him to the ISNA convention where he could ask more knowledgeable people. Alhumdulilah he got all his questions answered and converted!”

 She continues, “As a little kid we always looked at my dad as the sheikh of the house. We all agree that he’s the reason my family is even practicing. He would always patiently entertain and answer my questions, read me stories about the Prophets and Seerah, and really focus on aqeedah and comparative religions.  When I grew up and both our levels of knowledge needed to grow, we learnt together. As a teen, my dad and I would walk to the masjid together and attend the Friday night halaqa. In college, our favorite thing to do was attend al Maghrib classes. I would ditch my friends and discuss with him what we had learned during the lunch break.”

For Iman,* a stay at home mom who grew up between the United States and the Middle East, it was her convert mother — not her Arab father — who was her main Islamic influence.  “I was about 6-7 years old when my mom converted,” she explains.  “I grew up celebrating Christmas and Eid. We had a Christmas tree in our living room for the first several years of my life. My mother, who was raised a Southern Baptist, embraced Islam when my youngest brother was a baby, so for most of his life she was a practicing Muslim. We learned most of what we know from her.  I remember as a child seeing stacks of books on the dining table that she would check out of the masjid library to read and learn. She was a very intelligent woman who knew more about Islam than lots of born Muslims.”

Based on her own experiences, Iman asserts, “Generally speaking, I think converts are more knowledgeable than born Muslims. It can be challenging,” she adds, “when the convert is more serious about deen than their born-Muslim spouse.”

Anisa, a former teacher from Missouri, agrees with Iman.  “In some ways, I feel converts may have more Islamic knowledge than born Muslims because they have had to search for the knowledge themselves as opposed to growing up with it. Also,” she adds, “many born Muslims have grown up with so much culture mixed with the religion that the difference between the two can get blurred.”

Anisa’s mom, a white American woman who was raised Christian, met some Muslims at Oklahoma Baptist College back in 1970.  She started conversations with them in the hopes of converting them to Christianity, but ended up intrigued by their faith. She took an Islamic History class and read whatever books she could find at the library. She decided to become a Muslim at an MSA conference and made her shahada in 1973. “By the time my mother was raising my sisters and me, she definitely knew all the basics of Islam and was able to teach us,” says Anisa.

“She was the main parental source of knowledge for us, although we also attended Sunday school.”Click To Tweet

Mustafa is the child of an Egyptian dad and an American mom. He was born in the U.S. but raised primarily in Egypt where he was surrounded by Muslims, and yet his convert mother was a huge inspiration to him in his faith. “I know that I loved my mom so much,” Mustafa says.  “I felt that she had done the decision-making process for us. That if someone so smart, clever, and precise figured out Islam was the Truth, it must be.” 

“My mom became Muslim in the early 80s,” explains Mustafa. “She learned about Islam from her students while completing her Masters at the University of Illinois-Champagne. She was teaching English as a second language to Malaysian exchange students. She also ended up living with them and learning about Islam from them. People always assumed my mom converted for my dad,” muses Mustafa. “She didn’t even know him when she converted!”

As positive as their experiences were, overall, with the guidance of their convert parents, life was not always easy for the children who grew up with one born-Muslim parent and one convert. Many times, stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and cultural differences complicated their relationships with extended family members and outsiders. Both as children and as adults, many of them had to cope with people’s misconceptions and tactlessness.  

“I was always teased,” confides Aliyah.  “I’ve been called ‘half Muslim,’ ‘zebra,’ and ‘white girl’ in a derogatory way. Aunties always questioned if I was taught Islam properly. People would assume my dad converted for love (the pet peeve of my whole family). I would hear talk in Urdu in the masjid kitchen that I couldn’t cut an onion because I’m white. It was hard for us when we were getting married to find someone that clicked with us because we were so culturally different than everyone we knew.”

“Kids are rough,” adds Mustafa.  “Muslims can be ignorant, stereotypical, and not know what is offensive. Someone asked my sister, ‘Did your dad marry your mom because she wore a bikini?’ We were oddities at school in Egypt when people would see my mom pick us up from school. I was actually embarrassed to be seen with her for a while growing up, just because of all the attention it got me.”

I was “the white girl” in a Muslim school,” explains Khadijah, “and whilst that made the other girls very aware of who I was, there was always an element of separation there. I didn’t feel white. I didn’t feel Pakistani or Gujarati. I don’t feel like it affected me in either a negative or positive way. I got used to not completely belonging and forged my own ‘culture.’ I married an Afro-Caribbean brother, so my children have such a mix of cultures around them and I think it’s pretty beautiful. Whether my upbringing influenced this or not, I don’t know!”

While Shaheda did not feel any religious tension within her extended family, (“I understand from firsthand experience how people of different faiths can coexist in love and mutual respect,” she says), she does experience some difficulty from her brothers and sisters in Islam.  She reports “having to repeatedly validate my identity as an actual Muslim to those who don’t have the same experience. The assumption that there may be something missing or not quite Muslim enough is troublesome.” 

Wisdom to Share

These children of converts with their unique experiences and courageous dedication to their faith have excellent wisdom to share with the Ummah.  

Aliyah, whose work as a counselor focuses especially on Muslim families, has advice for Muslim parents whose marriage is mixed, either culturally or racially. “To youth,” she says, “identity matters SO MUCH, especially in this day and age when that’s all anyone ever talks about. If you’re a white convert parent of brown/black kids, identify your privilege that comes with that. If your kids are brown or black…learn about what that means in America. When I was with my non-Muslim relatives they would just make me feel so ‘other.’ They would focus on my exotic look and beliefs and just make me feel like an alien.” 

She continues, “Research things to consider when you are raising a child that is a different ethnicity than you. Ask your kids how they feel about it. Have an open conversation. Teach them about valuing both their cultural backgrounds.”

Khadijah’s advice to Muslim parents is,

“Learn WITH your children. Let them see that you’re still learning and struggling as well. Let them experience the journey with you. They’ll learn more that way than through lectures. You don’t have to act like you have everything figured out.” 

I believe the constant cycling in of converts into Muslim communities is a great blessing,” offers Shaheda. “And with that blessing comes a responsibility. We owe them our support, wisdom, and love, and I think we should take that responsibility very seriously. We should create bonds. These individuals who Allah has chosen as believers among disbelievers are special, and they keep us on our spiritual toes. There are multitudes of blessings when a community gains a new convert.”

When I asked them if they would have any concerns about their own children marrying converts, all of the interviewees answered a firm “no.”  They realize that a person’s dedication to Islam is not guaranteed by being born into it, or even raised with it. 

Converts — people who chose Islam as mature adults after a great deal of research, soul-searching, and personal transformation — are among our Ummah’s most passionate, educated, and sincere members.  

*Names have been changed

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#Culture

The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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