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What the Niqab Taught Me About Myself As A Muslim Convert and a Latina

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Niqab Journey

The year 2019 is only few weeks in and already has its very own social media challenge, the “How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge,” with its accompanying hashtags, the #10YearChallenge, #2009vs2019, or for the more seasoned veterans, #1999vs2009. The goal? Compare how your appearance has changed over the past decade or two. Have you aged gracefully or are you a hot mess compared to when you were younger? Simply find an old picture of yourself and place side by side with a current picture, post on social media with the appropriate hashtag, and voila! Let your followers comment away and tell you how gorgeous you are, lie about how you haven’t changed a bit, or laugh at the photos of you with no facial hair or loads of acne.

I have only started sharing pictures of myself recently on Facebook as a means of rekindling relationships with distant relatives, but the temptations to cave in to the latest social media trends pop up every now and then. I was thinking of finding a picture from 2009, but then it dawned on me that a lot more than my appearance has changed since that year. In fact, there would be little benefit in trying to compare a picture of me from 2009 with a picture of me now on Facebook, because back then my face was covered. I was wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil). It has been so long since I stopped wearing it that I had almost forgotten.

In 2009 I was just returning to the US from Egypt, still high off an increase in iman (faith) after being in a Muslim land surrounded by towering minarets, the melody of a dozen adhans, and the sight and smell of the street markets where smiling Muslims sold warm flatbread and falafels. I started reflecting on why I had chosen to wear a face veil, and then later remove it. To me, that has more weight than how many wrinkles I have gained in ten years.

A little background… Prior to moving to Egypt to study Arabic for a year, I had been living in Northern New Jersey with my family. We were attending a predominately African-American mosque in Paterson which strictly adhered to what they described as the “Salafi” methodology, taking guidance mostly from a list of “approved” Saudi scholars. As such, most of the women who attended the mosque dressed in all black and wore niqab. Some of them wore niqab “full time,” while others only wore it to and from the mosque and at Islamic gatherings. The male congregants often complained or inquired (for marital purposes) about the sisters whose faces were uncovered, causing newcomers to often feel awkward and uncomfortable, myself included. Most sisters opted to bring along a niqab to wear to the masjid rather than deal with unwanted attention and unsolicited marriage proposals.

Before you, the reader, make any assumptions about this masjid based on the above, I want to express that I still consider it, at that time, to be one of the most welcoming centers I have attended. There was a warm, family atmosphere that I have only found in few mosques in the years that I have been Muslim. The sisters helped each other in taking care of the children, they never reprimanded anyone for bringing their young children to the mosque, they hosted regular classes for free (up to three or four times a week), the imam was approachable and relatable (a convert, himself), and they were very meticulous about following the Sunnah to the finest detail.

Nevertheless, as the Spanish saying goes and the Prophetic hadith confirms, Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres (Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are), you are on the religion of your close friend (At-Tirmidhi), so I believe my decision to don a niqab was prompted by this environment. As a convert, I was even more inclined to follow the people around me. I would not say I was completely ignorant; I had converted about seven years prior to attending this masjid, I had read about the reasons why women wear niqab, general ahadith about hijab, and different scholarly opinions. I counted on the fact that my husband and I would be moving overseas, and I thought it would be easier to wear it in a Muslim land. Why not get a head start? What I failed to grasp was the lifetime commitment that it entailed, and how much it would change me.

One thing that I was not willing to do was disclose this choice to my parents. As a Latina, Puerto Rican, and ARMY brat, there was no way that my family would accept such a thing. It had been challenging enough to get them to tolerate the headscarf. Telling them that I would be wearing all black and covering my face would either enrage them or give them a heart attack, or both. Likewise, some of my husband’s family, like his 90-year-old grandmother, would probably not take it well.

Being Latino and Muslim around non-Muslim family is, for a lack of words, crazy hard. Aside from some aspects of our cultural traditions that need to be tweaked to make them halal, we tend to be very affectionate, family-oriented people, and that includes with extended family. Forget navigating the corporate world without shaking hands with a woman as a Muslim man, try not kissing all your 50 male cousins on the cheek at a family gathering! Women from Latin America also tend to be obsessed with taking care of their appearance. Some of the conversations that I have had with my mother, even as an adult, go something like this:

Mom: Why don’t you just wear the scarf with a pair of pants?

Me: Ma, I have to cover my figure.

Mom: But you look like a vieja (old woman). You’re so palida (pale), put some make-up on.

Me: I did… er… put a little bit.

Mom: Don’t listen to your husband, :::closed fist in the air:::  you don’t have to be submissive to him! Here’s some lipstick (pulls out red lipstick from purse and begins to smear it on me).

Me: Gack!

I couldn’t even imagine the telenovela type of drama that would unfold if I tried to cover my face. The compromise was that I would wear the niqab as much as I could, but never around my parents or other family. I stocked up on black abayas and long khimars, along with the Saudi niqabs that tied in the back and had an extra thin veil that flapped over the eyes for extra coverage, should I feel the need. I later realized that wearing this style of all black or even very dark colors was more of a regional thing, than a strict ruling. I could have just as easily, and comfortably, covered my face with one of my colored scarves. But, alas, as the saying goes, we live and learn. When anyone asked me, “Why do you wear all black?” I used to respond, “It makes me look thinner!”

Contrary to popular opinion, the niqab was not restrictive, it was empowering. As an introvert, I welcomed the sense of privacy and complete ownership of my personal space. If I cried, I could do so without displaying my vulnerability to the world. If I smiled, I could do it from ear to ear without being self-conscious about something being stuck in my teeth! It also tamed my Latino non-verbal communication methods of exaggerated body language and hand gestures that I had been told by some “born Muslims” were not compatible with the modesty and manners of a Muslim woman (I stopped believing that after living in Egypt).

But, of course, with this empowerment came great responsibility. If before, with hijab, I was a billboard for Islam, now, with a niqab, I was a billboard for oppression. On the one hand, non-Muslims looked at me with disdain or pity, and on the other, fellow Muslims either saw me as an extremist or looked up to me like I had vast amounts of knowledge, like the niqab and abaya were my cap and gown and I had just graduated with a PhD from Islam University.

There is something about the niqab that brings out other people’s insecurities. Either they feel guilty because they put you, the niqabi, on a high pedestal of understanding and spirituality (even though you do not deserve it), or they are envious for not having the courage to also wear it (giving more importance to a piece of fabric rather than their relationship with Allah), or they hate niqab with a passion, think you are absolutely crazy for wearing it, and they constantly lecture you about how it’s not obligatory. This added stress, ridiculous accusations, and false expectations make wearing niqab a real test of faith, in which one can easily fall prey to arrogance, self-aggrandizement, religious doubt, exhaustion, or even depression. I felt like the best way to avoid these issues was to isolate myself from people.

I wore the niqab for two years mostly on, but sometimes off. I found it easy to wear in New Jersey, especially surrounded by other sisters who wore it, and in Egypt, where it provided the extra benefit of filtering the sand, dust, houka and exhaust fumes. I felt comfortable and well-protected. However, it was when we returned from Egypt that I started noticing the increasingly negative attention I was getting from strangers for the way I dressed.

In one incident, a couple of Latina women began speaking about me in Spanish, not knowing that I could understand their conversation. I was standing behind them in line at a store in the mall with my 2-year-old in a stroller. They were saying, “Poor kid, having to be raised by ‘that’ in that horrible culture.” They shook their heads and looked at me condescendingly. Rather than be confrontational, I simply turned to my son and started speaking to him in Spanish, making sure they overheard. Both women turned away embarrassed. I thanked Allah for the niqab, because my cheeks were burning red out of anger.

Similar incidents occurred to me whenever I would go out, but it was when I moved further south that I felt afraid for my safety and that of my children. At that point, my eldest was 2 and a half years old and my second was a baby. The verbal abuse came more frequently. I was called a terrorist by Walmart employees in front of my children. I was also violently confronted at a gas station, while my children were in the car, by a man who thought I had been staring at his wife, even though I was not even looking her way (I guess he couldn’t tell because my face was covered). A gentleman who worked at a grocery store where my husband and I would frequently do our shopping stopped us and demanded to know why my husband forced me to “dress like that.” Again, in front of our children. These hate-driven incidents grew until I could no longer go outside alone out of fear.

I started to realize the niqab no longer offered me a sense of closeness to Allah or protection, and it became a burden on my own children. Not only was it a physical veil, but it had also begun to obscure who I was as a person. Dawah became more difficult, because people were no longer willing to see beyond the piece of fabric covering my face. My own people, Latin-Americans, did not see in me, as they had in the past, a similarity to the Virgin Mary, which made Islam more familiar and appealing to them. This was the same reason why I knew I would never wear niqab in front of my family, and why it could never be part of me 100%.

I went through a period where I questioned why I was wearing niqab, and I questioned why I was questioning it. I read and reread fatwas, articles, and books about hijab, and made du’a for guidance and strength. I no longer had a community of niqabi sisters around me, and as I read more about niqab, I saw that things were not as black and white as some people make it seem. I realized eventually that I was guilt-shaming myself for something that I had never considered obligatory in the first place. Unfortunately, for convert sisters and some who are raised Muslim and finding their way, learning that there are varying opinions on certain religious matters is a long process. I have known of some newly converted Muslims who rush into the Deen, and overburden themselves with unnecessary practices, only to then abandon Islam altogether. Likewise, there are others who take baby steps and their faith grows gradually over time, like a firmly rooted tree.

Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary. Alhamdulillah, I sought advice from a friend about my struggle and surprisingly, she shared with me her own failed niqab story. She (a South Asian “born Muslim”) had also worn it and stopped after years for the same reasons, and although some people in the masjid shunned her for some time, she felt it was the best course of action for her and her family. She reassured me that it was my decision and advised me to seek comfort in the mercy of Allah.

When I removed the niqab, I started to find myself again. Now, ten years later and almost two decades into the Deen, I feel reconnected with my culture and have long accepted that I can be Puerto Rican while being a Muslim, and that I can be modest while maintaining my identity. The process of converting and then really “owning” your faith take time, and we will hit many bumps along our journey. Wearing the niqab was part of my learning curve, and I appreciate both the good and the bad from it. So, for those who want to compare how they looked ten years ago to now, I challenge you to instead reflect on how much you have learned about yourself.

Note: This reflection is by no means a criticism of the niqab. Many sisters, some Latinas, wear niqab with pride, and the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us. May Allah make your personal journeys easy. Ameen.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jiya

    February 4, 2019 at 4:19 PM

    Hi there,
    The first-time I wore hijab, it was really tight around my head that it wasn’t ‘me’ and now I wear it loosely wrapped so it is in line with my culture. As a latino, maybe you can go creative with your hijab. To wear the niqab is really tough, and not everyone is suited to that.
    I wish you all the best,
    Your sister,
    JR.

  2. Avatar

    Umm Al-Ameen

    February 8, 2019 at 9:24 AM

    Really enjoyed your piece. Very clearly written from the heart. I do not wear the niqab, only the hijab. Everybody’s situation is different and truly our environment influences our decision and we may need to adapt so long as we are still within the limits of the deen. You made your decision after prayers and soul searching. The religion should be one of ease. We often forget that. Allah knows best what is in our hearts. He knows best our motives. May He accept all we do for His sake as Ibadah. Aameen.

  3. Avatar

    Ahmed Brown

    February 15, 2019 at 8:41 AM

    Loved the story. As a man, I’m always impressed with hijaabis in America and with niqaabis exponentially so. Any woman wearing either is immediately identifiable as a Muslim as soon as she steps out her front door. With that comes the stares, comments, insults, etc. I don a kufi on a daily basis—to work, to the grocery store, etc.—but it’s simply not the same. Most people don’t know to associate a kufi with Islam or Muslims, so I’m not a potential target like my wife, mother, etc.

    These lines had me reflecting throughout the day: “Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary.”

    Thanks for this piece. Keep writing!

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    Bryan Winters

    March 14, 2019 at 7:13 PM

    My heart goes out to you too, even though I am not Muslim. You may well be right with various interpretations of your holy scriptures, but those tend to be the logical arguments we use after we’ve decided something. Ironically, almost on the same day as your article, we read about the Islamic Republic of Iran, a highly educated Islamic entity, imprisoning a woman for opposing the hijab. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/world/middleeast/nasrin-sotoudeh-iran-lawyer-lashes.html
    I do wonder whether Western Muslims wearing the hijab is an insult to the millions of women in Iran forced to wear one. The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement, where Iranian women post photos of themselves in nature without the head covering, seems to be ignored by Western Muslims who have the choice.
    Perhaps this is why the Ayatollah Khamanei derides Western Muslims, virtually saying they are not true to the faith.
    As an outsider, who am I to believe? The various (so called?) Islamic nations around the world, or a minority of American immigrants with their ‘new Muslim’ interpretation? (That’s what the local leader of our mosque labels them as.)

  5. Avatar

    S.B

    March 15, 2019 at 3:43 PM

    Asalamu alaykum
    Very enjoyable piece! maashaAllah. I am in the same boat, except I stopped wearing the niqab because my faith wasn’t at a high enough level to keep wearing it. At least that’s what I said and felt as a very silly teenager living in Dubai. I felt the guilt of taking it off because everyone looked down on me after… But I was glad I didn’t continue at that time.
    Then some 5 years later I was living in Saudi and said I wouldn’t wear it just to fit in with all the other ladies wearing niqab, I needed my faith to be better and to really feel the need to wear it, to really feel it is true…. But then I realised I just liked the attention of being different and everyone noticing me showing my face and being a foreigner. So I started wearing it again and I felt like I had actually submitted to Allah, I felt wonderful, and yes it was easy. When I got married I moved to France and once again left the niqab and now I’m Austria where they’ve banned the niqab as well so…
    I do believe it is the best form of hijab and really really don’t like when other hijabis shout indignantly it isn’t mandatory or even “it isn’t from Islam” (omg)…
    Allah reward you for your good deeds and the harshness you had to endure. Allah protect you and your family.

    • Avatar

      Husna

      June 6, 2019 at 11:48 PM

      Niqab isn’t the best form of hijab. Comments like yours are why I as a Muslim woman have such issues with the niqab. I wear loose pants and fashionable hijab and they are just as modest and pleasing to Allah as the niqab. My faith is just as strong if not stronger than any niqabi. Stop acting like Niqabis have more faith.

  6. Avatar

    Leyla Kute

    March 15, 2019 at 7:42 PM

    Salam sister I agree with you since covering the face is and should be considered an option not a must. I can recall a hadith regarding this issue where women asked the Prophet saw whether they should veil their faces from stranger passbyers and the Prophet saw answered YES.
    And to take this and make it a fardh a must is not acceptable as you see Allah swt never burdens a servant with unbearable burdens. Therefore I understand you and wish you all the best.

    • Avatar

      Husna

      June 6, 2019 at 11:51 PM

      There is no Hadith saying that one must cover the face in front of strangers.

  7. Avatar

    Saleem

    March 16, 2019 at 12:40 PM

    “the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us.”
    This sentence is self contradictory because the literal definition of Islam is exactly the opposite of what you said. In fact by entering into Islam a person gives up that freedom, by definition.

    • Avatar

      Wendy

      March 16, 2019 at 1:14 PM

      JazakAllah khaiyr for your comment and for taking the time to read the article. I appreciate you bringing this up. What I meant by this sentence is that while we are submitting to Allah, we still have a choice about what we can do according to our own limits and capabilities. Allah does not place a burden on us greater than what we can bear, as it says in the Qur’an. Likewise, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
      “Religion is easy, and no one overburdens himself in his religion but he will be unable to continue in that way. So do not be extremists, but try to be near perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. Gain strength by worshipping in the mornings and afternoons and during the last hours of the night.” (Bukhari)
      Alhamdulillah, our religion is balanced and just for all. There are things that are compulsory, and others that are flexible.
      Thanks again for commenting. May Allah bless you.

  8. Avatar

    Anonymous

    March 18, 2019 at 9:54 AM

    A sincere and honest piece of writing. Finally, someone who has opened the floor to discuss the struggles that come with niqab. As someone who has worn niqab for 16 years, it has been a wavering journey (and still is). This is the first time I have come across an article that has put into words the feelings and thoughts attached to the struggle of wearing niqab. I love the niqab and have worn it with much pride, nonetheless there have been times where I had struggled with the commitment of wearing the niqab (strongly). Until very recently, the relationship with my niqab (as well as my level of emaan) had fluctuated, it had driven me to the point where I questioned the purpose and sincerity of wearing it. When I read the part “I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary” this was exactly the thoughts that ran through my mind that the sister has so carefully worded. Through asking Allah endlessly for giving me the strength and guidance, as well as long talks with certain individuals, alhumdulilah I feel at peace (at this moment) with this piece of cloth that physically (and spiritually) defines who I am. May Allah give us strength to practise His deen to the best of our ability and allow us to grow as individuals spiritually.

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The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

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My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

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Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

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israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

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This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

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Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

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