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Shaykh Power © – Righteous Leaders, Superheroes, Shallow Celebrities or Hungry Wolves?

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“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -Uncle Ben.

Clergy -or shayukh-  in Muslim communities hold sacred power in that their positions symbolize a representation of character and religious authority in their community.

The role of a shaykh is complex in that community members can turn to their him for financial advice, marital counseling, matchmaking, conflict resolution, religious classes, youth engagement, and pretty much anything else a community needs. You name it and a shaykh is approached for it. In most communities, the shaykh is a critical component of a healthy community, but in some cases – the great power is used to facilitate great abuse instead.

Understanding Shaykh Power©:

Shaykh Power© doesn’t mean the ability to bless or forgive,  it simply means the effect a shaykh can have on the general public for the very reason that he preaches about religion.

People subconsciously associate their spiritual growth with the shaykh, building a bond of love, respect and trust. It’s perfectly natural – someone who has helped you, taught you, or supported you through a difficult time is likely to become dear to you regardless of their position. As a result it’s natural for people to:

  1. Look up to a shaykh
  2. Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
  3. Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
  4. Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
  5. Giving him a place of authority in their lives

Again, it is natural for people to attach themselves to a shaykh, and it is completely okay for a shaykh to be respected and trusted to that level. It is a relationship built on faith, in which the shaykh earns trusts by demonstrating trustworthiness, fearing Allah in the relationship with his congregants, and maintaining a consciousness of his actions and consequences with God.

There is no conflict in this trust when viewed alongside human fallibility. No one is sin-free, not even a shaykh. They are humans and humans are weak. A healthy community is not one with a sin-free shaykh. However, the line is between fallibility and abuse is crossed when the shaykh’s sins or inherent weakness start hurting others, and the authority they hold is abused to give into those weaknesses.

What is Abuse of “Shaykh-power©”

The abuse of a shaykh’s power happens if a shaykh uses his position, authority, or religious knowledge to manipulate people into compliance or obedience to his sin.

A very simple example of a shaykh using all three – position, authority, and knowledge – to manipulate someone into compliance came from a woman who covers her face. During a Skype call related to business -and not marriage at all- a well-known shaykh diverted from the agenda to convince her to remove her face-veil as he was a “shaykh” and it was okay for him to see her face. The shaykh tried to establish a religious basis for his exception to the rule and made his female student believe that as a shaykh he had “special privileges”.

There are common patterns of “special privileges” that emerge.

The Secret Marriage

Secret marriages occur where the shaykh uses his authority to wrongly legitimize a marriage without witnesses. Please be aware, there is no marriage valid without 2 witnesses, and in majority of the fiqhs, marriage is not valid without a woman’s wali (representative guardian) present.

While the term “marriage” is used, what happens in secret marriage is not what Islam recognizes as marriage. Rather than entering a serious, long-term commitment in which each party agrees to honor the rights and terms decreed by Allah, a secret marriage is usually the culmination of grooming and manipulation. The victim is led to believe that the shaykh is sincere in his pursuit of their marriage and future together, but cannot go public for whatever reason. He convinces the victim that their secret marriage is valid by manipulating Islamic information is his favor, and the result is that the victim consents to what is an otherwise shady arrangement.

After the “marriage” is consummated, the women are divorced – also in secret and without due Islamic process. They have no legal recourse – since they were not legally married. They don’t even have Islamic recourse since oftentimes there are no witnesses to the secret marriage.  Some shayukh misinform the women that they don’t need witnesses because as a person of knowledge, a shaykh is sufficient as a witness to finalize his own marriage contract.

Consider the difference between marriage as a communal celebration, a public declaration, and a legal protection of the rights of both spouses – and compare it to a verbal agreement with one man in a hotel room. Consummation followed by divorce, with no intention to sign a marriage-contract or honor the woman as a wife, is not a valid marriage.

The impermissibility of secret marriages has been discussed in detail here.

https://muslimmatters.org/2017/10/06/secret-marriages-dr-shaykh-mohammad-akram-nadwi/

Some argue that women who are legally adults and gave their consent to the secret marriage have no claim to victimhood. It is true that secret marriage and serial marriage are not rape, but secret marriage is an abuse of the trust that our community places in a shaykh.

Women are deceived into marrying by means of the shaykh’s authority. The shaykh – a person of religious credibility with community trust – implies that something halal, lasting, and keeping with the Islamic sanctity of the family will happen. What happens instead is a woman falling victim to the shaykh’s pattern of marrying a variety of women to satisfy carnal curiosity, and then divorcing women once the desires are satisfied.

The abuse of women goes beyond just the women- the entire community is deceived when a shaykh abuses their religious credibility. They trust that the man committed to the spiritual betterment of their families will act in keeping with that trust. There is no way to legitimize the secret wooing, secret wedding, and immediate, premeditated divorcing of anyone in the community.

Divorce can happen under completely normal circumstances, just because a man is a shaykh doesn’t mean he has to stay in a bad marriage. However, when a pattern is developed to frequently marry and divorce, sometimes after a week or less, and a shaykh does so knowing that the position and reputation will help him replace the wife soon enough-  then this is not what either marriage or divorce is for. This is abuse.

A man on the podium, delivering the Message of God and helping people connect with their Lord holds enormous spiritual power over his community. Unfortunately, some shaykhs can and do use that power to satisfy their desires in religiously inexcusable ways.

Misuse of Polygamy through “Shaykh Power”:

Polygamy itself is not the issue here. Polygamy itself becomes abused when it is used to justify secret marriage and divorce of multiple women, without having any sincere intention or giving any marriage or divorce it’s due Islamic rights or process.

Shayukh who abuse polygamy paint a glamorous picture of polygamy, making it a special mission to “revive the sunnah”, and practicing polygamy almost a measure of a woman’s level of iman.

The delusional idea of becoming more religious under the wings of a shaykh as his wife is also used to entice women seeking closeness to Allah. A more intimate relationship to the shaykh is directly conflated with a more intimate relationship with Allah.

What the shayukh are luring women into is not a revival of polygamous marriage, as much as it is a revival of temporary marriage – without the decency of telling the women up front what they are consenting to. The woman believes she will be the shaykh’s second wife. Instead, she is third, or fourth, or fifth ex-wife.

Do We Have a Solution?

The first step towards resolving an issue is to acknowledge that problem exists. As a community, we have tried to conceal our dirty laundry in the name of gheerah and satr, only to suppress ‘adl instead. As an ummah, we need to address the harmful behavior of shayukh who abuse their our religion and their power to manipulate and use women – leaving them emotionally and spiritually broken in the name of a religion that is mean to protect them.

Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.

It is women’s religious right to have access to a religious scholarship for knowledge and seeking verdicts, and the mistakes of few cannot outweigh the virtues of many.

1400 years ago, we– Muslim women — were given protection from a society that sold their daughters in exchange of money and loaned out their wives to other men.  Our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) taught and showed us how to treat women with honor, and he then entrusted the knowledge of Islam to his inheritors– the shayukh.

Consider the gravity of that abuse, when our scholars are trusted to carry forward the Prophet’s legacy, and instead weaponize the Prophet’s words to abuse us instead.

Needless to say, not every shaykh is abusive of his congregants. Alhamdulillah, the abuse is the exception and trust fulfilled is the norm. However, that doesn’t mean that silence should be the norm as well. As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed.

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Saba Syed (aka Umm Reem) is the author of International award winning novel, "An Acquaintance."Saba has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language & Literature at Qatar University and at Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi.She had been actively involved with Islamic community since 1995 through her MSA, and then as a founding member of TDC, and other community organizations. in 2002, she organized and hosted the very first "Musim Women's Conference" in Houston, TX. Since then, she's been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam.She is a pastoral counselor for marriage & family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas, also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abu Hamza

    December 31, 2018 at 3:52 PM

    I find it strange that the women in question are never held responsible. Somehow they are just so gullible that they will fall for anything. Until and unless you put the blame where it lies, you will never find a solution to the problem. Throughout history shuyukh had power, but women had haya and gheerah. We didn’t have these problems.

  2. Avatar

    Umm Isma'el

    December 31, 2018 at 8:40 PM

    Assalamou alaykoum,

    You are talking about who? Is this Nouman Ali Khran? Can he defend himself of these accusations? How can you know theses secrets marriages were meant to be temporary? Sometimes, they struggle to find the right partner. And because polygamy is forbidden, they have to make it secret. But I agree this issue has to be addressed, but it should not be in a very aggressive and accusative way like this paper. Wa Allahu allam.

  3. Avatar

    Leila

    December 31, 2018 at 9:26 PM

    Jazakumullah khair for this article, I married one of these powerr shaykhs unfortunately. He was abusive of his power inside the masjid, within the community, and inside the home. I realized what he was doing (using his power to get away with horrendous acts) and he didn’t care about me or his children and I finally built up the courage to leave. He was abusing me physically, mentally and emotionally and this has been going on for seven years. He refused to pay for his childrens’ needs saying I ran away from the marriage and so I am not entitled to financial support— an abuse of his Islamic knowledge. But alhamdulillah I live in a country where the law will protect me and my children from this monster. I couldn’t imagine what would have happened to us if I agreed to marry in an unlawful way. He has a 4 month old daughter he’s never seen and is already married since two months! I feel sorry for that woman whoever she is because he will dump her like trash when he’s done with her. He is the imam of masjid Aisha in downtown Montreal and people respect him for his khutbahs but I cannot stand the idea that someone who is a complete hypocrite teaches people their religion. Don’t do it ladies! Never accept to marry someone without legally registering the marriage. Thank you again for this much needed article.

    • Avatar

      Ali

      June 16, 2019 at 10:05 AM

      I like what you said in the end to never marry without legally registering the marriage. Also, know your Deen and your rights. Knowledge is for men and women. There are no secret marriages in Islam! In fact, one element which validates marriage is “Shuhrah”i.e., you have to let people know of your marriage. Another element is “Shuhood” or witnesses! It doesn’t matter who you’re marrying, a king, a Shaykh, a doctor, or one who is still struggling with his daily prayers, register the marriage for your rights and the rights of your children.

  4. Avatar

    Umm Isma'el

    December 31, 2018 at 9:50 PM

    The problem is not the ‘secret marriages’. The problem, indeed, as Leila said, is that some sheikhs are abusive in their private life, while they show another face in public. They are not fit for the job. A sheikh should have an irreproachable character and behavior. Some mistakes can be overlooked, but after a certain point, they should lose their position. This is the role of the community leader to take these decisions and to protect the community against these wolves.

  5. Avatar

    Um Nour

    January 1, 2019 at 10:35 AM

    I am amazed by this paper who is attacking in a very insidious way men who practice polygamy, and on the same website (Muslims Matters) we can find a paper who is taking the defense of an adulterer (and maybe a rapist), I am talking about Tariq Ramadan, and who compare him to Martin Luther King ! What is halal is disgusting, and what is haram is OK. The firsts are wolves the seconds are only human beings who have to be excused.

  6. Avatar

    Mustafa

    January 3, 2019 at 10:45 AM

    This article is a bit incomplete. Spends a good deal diagnosing the problem and doing so well, but then

    “Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

    Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.”

    Yes preventative measures are not a complete solution-there may not ever be in this life because Allah has allowed thulm to happen here and He seizes or forgives the oppressor in the next life.

    However, preventative measures do have some net benefit. And these net benefits do not need to be at the detriment of women. It’s not harmful if a woman consulting a Shaykh or Imam has two other trustworthy women (perhaps counselors?) present during the interaction-if she can confide confidential information with one professional she can do so with two other professionals as well. Developing a class of female Muslim professionals who can be witness or help in cases like these would go a long way-like having women be OBGYNs and encouraging the field to be dominated by women. It should also be noted, seclusion, which can be in many different forms in the modern era, between two non mahrams is itself HARAM-this is not up for negotiation.

    It’s just not practical or sensible to diagnose a problem then dismiss (in tone or reality) clear preventative measures that have a net benefit effect and then provide no solution apart from

    “As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed”

    How exactly??

  7. Avatar

    Umm Aasiyah

    January 4, 2019 at 5:17 PM

    @Um Nour. The author was not “insidiously” attacking polygamy. Far from it. Could you please read the piece again with an open mind?

  8. Avatar

    Alkalaam

    January 25, 2019 at 2:24 AM

    The men are made of Shahwaat, the Quran clearly states it…the love for women, children, horses,gold , silver, is inbuilt in men….all men, we need to strictly adhere to Shariyah in all sectors of our life and solutions will start coming in, In sha Allah.

    Well written, Barak Allah

  9. Avatar

    S

    May 9, 2019 at 6:47 AM

    Definitely a discussion that needs to take place but I was expecting to see some practical steps at the end.

  10. Avatar

    usman

    May 11, 2019 at 5:13 PM

    Umm Raba , you have issues with ignoring the many Muslm males who are also victims of Muslim men.

    Man…

  11. Avatar

    Cool_Guy141

    June 21, 2019 at 4:07 PM

    Salams — what’s with the copyright sign?

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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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“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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