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Should Spiritual Leaders Who Violate Our Trust Be Forgiven?

Some people want to move past the indiscretions of community leaders quickly as though they never occurred while others wish to permanently blacklist them. This article examines a third option between the two that can be a win-win for the fallen leader, the victims, and the community.

In the past couple of years, a number of simmering scandals among spiritual leaders became public knowledge and the subject of vigorous and often painful public debate.  As someone who has worked in the community dawah space the past 15 years, often acting as a bridge between past and present microcelebrity as well as non-celeb teachers to the community at large, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly – should community leaders who violate our trust be forgiven?  I’m often asked by people who aren’t fanboys / fangirls taken by microcelebrity dawah culture or wearing spiritual blinders for non-celebs, and often don’t even understand what has occurred.  Below I share answers I have heard as well as what I believe is fair and pragmatic in many (not all) situations.

Answer #1:  Yes, We Must Forgive Them

One group of people argue we should completely forgive them. No one is perfect, everyone is human and makes mistakes.  If we assume the mistake was truly made, then we should also forgive them and move on. Our faith is replete with statements about Allah’s Mercy, and if we want His Mercy, surely we should also give it to others. Oftentimes, members who fall into this group don’t actually believe the person in question is at fault and are trying to convince others either on the fence or against the individual to let it go. Of course, there are some who believe the violation occurred and not think it a big deal, while others may think the violation indeed was a big deal, and should still be forgiven. I can agree with some aspects of this, but not completely.

Answer #2:  No, They Should Never Be Forgiven

Another group believes that once a person commits a violation of trust, they are no longer to be trusted again. They should leave their positions and be ostracized from the community permanently. They are to be tarred and feathered and made an example of for life.  Members within this group oftentimes don’t need to wait for evidence to arrive at any conclusion – they were judge, jury, and executioner well before there was a trial.  Not all members are like this, of course – some waited for evidence and then reached their conclusions that the gravity of the charges was too much and therefore the person should never be forgiven.

Answer #3:  It Depends – Forgive Them If They Take Ownership and Make Amends

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In my view, the problem with the first group is they don’t often see that the person did anything wrong, or if they did, it’s trivial relative to the khayr, the good and benefit they bring to the community. They keep citing that Allah is forgiving, so we should forgive automatically, but in their haste, they forget that part of the process of making restitution is first sincerely regretting what one has done.

To sincerely regret, one must also move out of denial and into acceptance that they made a mistake. Once one admits failure, they can then ask to be forgiven, and then the aggrieved party is in a position to grant it. The community forgiving and re-integrating a person who refuses to take responsibility for their wrongdoing does neither them, their victims, nor the community any good. We continue to distrust the person and they continue to believe they can get away with whatever they wish because they are “special”. Victims fear community integration, everyone becomes cynical about religion, and the cause of calling people to become better worshippers of Allah is harmed.

On the flip side, the second group is far too extreme in their view of justice. To ostracize that person and leave them no path of return means they have no means to redeem themselves, and de facto their families are casualties who must deal with the fallout of being pushed out of the community. I agree that none of us are perfect, and we all often make egregious mistakes. In my own experience, there are many instances where activists who advocate publicly for better are often involved privately in worse than those they go after.

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That being the case, there is no person that can’t be forgiven, and I would say we shouldn’t leave aside this possibility in our dealings with those who fail us just as we expect it when we ourselves fall short, sometimes seriously so. I would add that we would lose the skills and talent of that person – if we believe in allowing people with criminal histories back into the general population and providing them with opportunities to become productive, reformed citizens, I don’t see why we wouldn’t offer the same to our community and religious leaders.

The key I believe is in following a process which includes the following for the individual:

  1. Taking ResponsibilityThey own responsibility for the mistake and acknowledge it was made.  No amount of denial, minimization, and spin will suffice.
  2. Make Restitution:  First and foremost, they apologize and make amends as best they can with the victims.  If the issue went public, then they should apologize to those they were serving as a leader for their mistake as well. This includes handling financial compensation.
  3. Remediating Oneself:  Enroll in counseling, therapy, mentorship, and / or group support programs to help them overcome their issues.
  4. Being Held Accountable:  Work with others on concrete milestones of both behavior and programs that demonstrate their commitment to change.  Be able to show the community that they take reformation seriously and are committed to coming out of their mistake a better person, one who can even advise others of the mistake and how not to repeat it.

As someone who has worked in dawah and supported the ascension of numerous modern-day microcelebrity spiritual scholars and teachers, I and others like me act as a bridge between them and the community.  I do not speak for all of them, certainly, but I know that any leader who tries to re-integrate into the community without taking responsibility will continue to find that many will not support them. Most, in this case, feel a sacred duty to oppose their elephant-in-the-room integration to protect the community at large.

Likewise, I know that many like myself would be willing to overlook and forgive such individuals if they took responsibility for their behavior and demonstrated they were taking concrete steps to make amends for their mistakes.  The month of Ramadan is upon us, and sometimes one just has to rip the band-aid off, go through the process of feeling the pain of scrutiny for owning up, and then moving forward to forgiveness.  I won’t promise it’s easy or that everyone will change, but I can at least say many of us would have an easier time accepting individuals back into the community.

What’s your view on these situations?

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Siraaj is the Operations Director of MuslimMatters as well as its new lead web developer. He's spent nearly two decades working in dawah organizations, starting with his chapter MSA in Purdue University, and leading efforts with AlMaghrib Institute, MuslimMatters, and AlJumuah magazine. Somewhere in there, he finds time for his full-time profession as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He holds a bachelor's in Computer Science from Purdue University and a Master's certificate from UC Berkeley. He's very married and has 5 wonderful children

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abdullah

    May 15, 2019 at 11:59 PM

    It’s almost laughable to think that any of these community leaders who have been caught will EVER ask for forgiveness or do any of the things you seek in point #3. Except for being punished by a court of law, they will never make amends. Their fanboys, fangirls, and the power of social media have given them unprecedented power and made them feel untouchable which seems to be the case with vagrants like **** and *****. To top it off, you have shameless scholars also defending them because of some notion that to accuse misbehaving scholars of something is an attack on all scholars. They’ve convinced themselves that a rapist scholar is better than a lay victim, so we must defend the scholar at all costs. It’s pretty disgusting actually how similar some in our community have become to those who blindly defend Catholic preachers or even Trump…at all costs and without any shame. These misbehaving, miscreant leaders somehow have convinced themselves that their Islamic work puts them above the fray and above reproach. “Ive done so much for the ummah…who cares if I’ve dabbled a bit…my good deeds are much greater than that…I mean look at all my supporters defending me!” Allah give swift justice to the victims in this world or the next inshaAllah.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      May 16, 2019 at 2:44 PM

      It may be the case that a sensible path that includes accountability and the potential to return in some cases where it can be accommodated are not considered. The goal of the article is to make the idea more public and help get the conversation moving in that direction, both for community leaders to consider and for violators to re-consider.

      • Avatar

        Dr S A H Khan

        August 22, 2019 at 7:30 AM

        Well said!

        Agree to the 4 steps–
        1.Taking Responsibility:
        2.Make Restitution: apologising publicly as per case.
        3.Remediating Oneself:
        4.Being Held Accountable: most important.

        Shaykhs and scholars have better insight of Islam and Law than common followers; so their wilful crime of violating trust is worthy of double punishment, if proven under the constitutional laws.
        After proper worldly punishment/fine/apology letter, if Shaykh shows remorse and is taking measures for not repeating offence, he may be gradually forgiven and rehabilitated into community for benefit of the person and the whole Ummah.

        Sometimes the mistake is from both sides between consenting mature adults like in case of adultery, affairs, indecent behaviour on social media.
        So approach needs to be balanced and fair.
        Always, Prevention is better and more palatable than cure!

        • Avatar

          Dr S A H Khan

          August 23, 2019 at 8:28 PM

          Muslim Matters is selective in approving comments.
          They seem to allow when it suits the narrative.
          Summary comment on abortion article was not allowed, though it was essential.
          As if they do not want an experienced perspective from a Medical specialist!
          Conflict of interest in realizing the Truth and in simplifying matters, which is the crux of Islam!
          Thanks.

        • Avatar

          Dr Sajid A H Khan

          August 24, 2019 at 12:53 PM

          By censoring constructive criticism against your Shaykh lost in theoritical seminary about Abortion in Islam; Muslim Matters has opted for mediocrity and hypocrisy for their publication.

          You dont genuinely wish to make things clear and simple for all common literate Muslims; you wish to play intellectual politics!

          Well, best of luck!

          Only Allah knows best!

          Shaykhs are NOT Prophets with innate wisdom from Allah , they are just pHD students of a faulty narrow-visioned educational system.

  2. Avatar

    Vugi

    May 16, 2019 at 12:40 AM

    What community leaders is this article referring to? Why has Muslimmatters become such a gossip hub for spreading rumors and innuendo about certain daees? Its ugly. If this is about NAK I was waiting to see any evidence of wrong from him but it never came from ppl accusing him and saying they investigated. Just questionable people who seem to have an agenda against him repeating the same line “he did something inappropriate.” What was it? And don’t tell me shirtless selfies cuz he could have sent them to his wife for all we know. I wasn’t a fan of NAK but after all the attacks against him, I start to wonder that he’s the victim in all this. Thankfully he seems to be doing just fine with the community and giving talks regularly hamdulellah.

  3. Avatar

    Yusuf

    May 16, 2019 at 12:47 AM

    All prophets had a dua. Our prophet used his for a people he never met. To plan for the future is a prophetic act. “Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not” – Aragon

    Any influencer’s contribution to mankind should be destroyed or continued to touch mankind so they may benefit? Look at out time period, it is a content war, a war of ideas, attention, and distraction. We are fighting for a position in the hearts and minds of real people. Does what this person say bring people closer or further away from Allah?

    When your in prison you are part of a group. Gangs have groups, races have groups, and the muslims have a group. It does not matter that your Shia, Sunni, 5 Percenter, Druids, Ismaili, Quran only, or any variation that is even remotely related to Islam you are one group. You dont have time to squabble among yourselves when there are other factions that can harm you.

    Imagine 100 years has passed. If you were in charge would you burn all the books they wrote, block all the youtube content they created.

    Do we honestly think we have time for this? “This War of Five Kings means nothing. The true war lies to the north…. Death marches on the Wall” We have more tests coming. If any influencer is creating more content and bringing people to Allah are you really going to stand in their way and hinder a souls connection to Allah.

    And Allah knows best.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      May 16, 2019 at 2:59 PM

      Yes, because just as they are influencing people for good, they are also harming others and and harming the dawah by what is publicly known that they haven’t accounted for. The Prophet (SAW) told us if it were his own daughter Fatimah who committed a crime he would have to punish her, and none here is as good as she was – with justice, we don’t play favorites. When we take accountability for ourselves, we make sure that these types of violations can’t grow and become more ugly in scope.

      • Avatar

        Dr Sajid A H Khan

        August 22, 2019 at 7:15 AM

        Well said.
        Balanced moderation and delivering appropriate justice is the key in Islam!

  4. Avatar

    Fritz

    May 16, 2019 at 7:44 AM

    I would just think of it akin to an issue of professional mis-conduct. If a doctor/dentist/pharmacist makes mistakes or misbehaves there is a process of professional remediation to ensure that their standards are rectified and that they are ready to continue to practise.

    In the same way, Imams etc need some form of regulatory agency whereby issues can be resolved at least with a degree of transparency and the public trust in these leaders as professionals can continue.

    Community leaders can have family problems, financial issues and other chaos in their personal lives that can cause them to slip. They are are Imams but not prophets.

    Its unfair to write people off after one indiscretion, and again having a supportive framework can help ensure there are mechanisms to bring people back into the fold of acceptability. In many ways this would be a deterrent and also stop problems from escalating out of hand whereby we are left to try and sort these things out with the mob of social media observing in the background.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      May 16, 2019 at 3:00 PM

      Agreed

    • Avatar

      Spirituality

      May 16, 2019 at 3:21 PM

      As Salamu Alaikum,

      I definitely agree with this idea, with the caveat that if the indiscretion is great enough, the Regulatory agency strips the Imam/Scholar of ‘their right to practice.’

      After all, this is what happens to doctors/dentists/pharmacists…some do lose their license…and in some cases, its this threat that may actually keep some of these professionals in line.

    • Avatar

      Dr S A H Khan

      August 22, 2019 at 7:33 AM

      Well said, Fritz.

  5. Zeba Khan

    Zeba Khan

    May 16, 2019 at 1:23 PM

    Excellent write up, and I love how you cite the mentality behind the first two options. People often demand forgiveness without accepting guilt, or therefore justice. People often demand a public lynching, without suggestion for due process or the possibility of justice and perhaps even rehabilitation.

    The third option is critical, because forgiveness AND justice, personality accountability AND community welfare are all part of our faith. We can’t just pick an option that runs with one to the exclusion of others. Thank you for expanding upon that.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      May 16, 2019 at 3:01 PM

      Thanks, I think we’re getting to a point where the dialogue is too polarized and the ability to see win-win third alternatives is becoming a lost art.

  6. Avatar

    Spirituality

    May 16, 2019 at 3:39 PM

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    I definitely think this article is in the right direction. A balance of due process is needed as well as justice.

    My issue is that steps 1 and 2 in the process: taking responsibility and making restitution – are rather vague.

    During the Prophet’s time, proven indiscretions by the Sahabah were punished harshly and often publicly. Often, these Sahabah, wracked by guilt, even requested the punishment from the Prophet (s). After the punishment, these Sahabah (if they were still alive) were able to completely re-integrate into society.

    So, its not as simple as saying “I was wrong, I’m sorry” and then paying the victim some money.

    Perhaps its because we don’t have the threats of harsh punishments as a deterrent in our Muslim society that some Scholars/Imams/Activists – and others – 1. actually fall astray and 2. may not truly repent afterwards.

    I used to be those wondering about the hudud punishments in Islam, but, after reading articles by Dr. Jonathan Brown, as well as reflecting on incidents like this, am now seeing the wisdom of Allah’s laws.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      May 16, 2019 at 4:04 PM

      Taking responsibility here means owning that one has indeed committed the fault they are accused of. There are some who refuse to acknowledge what they’ve done evern after having been investigated.

      As for public punishment, I think in the west that is beyond the scope of any individual or organization. At best, they can boycott the individual and warn others to stay away. In addition, many violations are not hudud-worthy, and if they were, require both the legal apparatus to enforce the evidentiary requirements to prosecute in that direction. These don’t seem practical options.

      • Avatar

        Spirituality

        May 17, 2019 at 9:08 PM

        As Salamu Alaikum,

        I agree that currently in the west, applying hudood punishment is not feasible at this point.

        I suppose the best alternative is what Fritz mentioned; having a regulatory body that has the power to revoke the right of practice. This information should be publicly available (for instance you can look up a physician to see if he has any board sanctions, lawsuits, etc).

  7. Avatar

    Basil

    May 30, 2019 at 1:52 AM

    Salaams,

    I think one needs to clarify what is meant by violating the trust of the community. As Vugi pointed out, vague statements and innuendos do not suffice.

    • Avatar

      Ilahi Bakhsh

      June 24, 2019 at 4:08 PM

      You can blame the mentor of mentors Omer Mozaffar for the vague accusations.

  8. Avatar

    Mullah abcd

    January 16, 2020 at 11:53 AM

    An academic scholarly article which can be presented as a final year paper. Other than that feelings are what Vugi/Basil have written earlier. As for #3 option, majority commentators are seem to be agreed upon, option is laughable (but not practical – sorry), that an “accused” speaker (Shaykh/Shaykha) will be introduced “…By the way Speaker is asking forgiveness from Allah (SWT) and from the community whatever was accused of, he/she already have issued a statement, and now please pay attention to his/her speech, the topic is family values”.. rally??? Or what will be the criteria that Shaykhs will send an apology letter to all centers/organizations in the N-America, congress, parliament??? and then he/she will be ready to teach our kids about Islam? Please. To me important thing is educating our community what kind of relationships are Haram/Halal, and report the parents/local community leaders right-a-away if there is bad touch, smells bad, etc. Shortening my comments…hope you got my point.

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#Current Affairs

This Eid And Beyond Boycott Goods Made With Enslaved Labor Of Uyghurs Even If It Is Your Favorite Brand

Bidding farewell to Ramadan, celebrating Eid?

Well, the Muslims of East Turkestan under Chinese occupation had neither Ramadan nor will they have Eid…

Not only that, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) run government has transferred Uyghurs and other ethnic minority citizens from East Turkestan to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Nike, Gap, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Carters and others. Read Uyghurs for Sale for more information

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CCP is also pressuring governments across the world to extradite Uyghurs back to occupied East Turkestan.

Here is what you can do to help them:

Action Items

  1. Keep making dua for the oppressed of East Turkistan and the world.
  2. Boycott Chinese products! Do not be complicit in slave labour. Start with focusing on the companies in the graphic. Share it with #SewnWithtTears, #StopChina, #BoycottChina. Write to them and demand that they do better.
  3. Raise awareness on the plight of Uyghurs and the East Turkistani cause. Learn more at SaveUighur.org
  4. Work towards reducing your country’s economic dependence on China.
  5. Build alliances with all people of conscience to demand a cessation of China’s oppression of all faith groups, be it Muslim Uyghur, Hui; Chinese Christian; or Tibetan Buddhist.
  6. Encourage and promote fairer trade and commerce with Muslims and others rather than China.
  7. Inquire about Uyghur diaspora members in your area. Organize to help out orphans, widows, and students.
  8. Pressure governments to provide legal protection to Uyghur refugees-exiles by granting either citizenship or refugee/asylee status. Stop the “extradition/repatriation” of Uyghurs to China!
  9. Get your universities/endowments to divest from China. Raise awareness about Chinese espionage and hired guns in academia. Demand academic and financial support for Uyghur scholars and students. Request more academic attention and funds for Central Asian, Uyghur, Turkistani studies. 

Read a greater discussion of action items in A Response to Habib Ali Al-Jifri’s Comments on the Uyghurs, which also contains a greater discussion on East Turkistan’s history and its current situation. A condensed Arabic version of the article can be found here

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#Islam

30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 9: A Good Word

Now that we have learnt about the life of this world, let’s talk about a good word.

I want you all to close your eyes and think of a beautiful tree. 

Question: Who can tell me what their tree looks like? Is the tree big and strong? Does it have lots of branches and leaves? Does it have fruit?

Now, I want you to think of a time when someone said something really nice to you.

Question:  What are some of the nice statements you remember people telling you?

Question: How did those statements make you feel?

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Yes, they fill us up with a warm feeling. We may have felt proud of ourselves and we may have felt loved. Do you know that Allah [wt] describes a good word to a good tree? 

In Surah Ibrahim, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says:

أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا كَلِمَةً طَيِّبَةً كَشَجَرَةٍ طَيِّبَةٍ أَصْلُهَا ثَابِتٌ وَفَرْعُهَا فِي السَّمَاءِ 

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تُؤْتِي أُكُلَهَا كُلَّ حِينٍ بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهَا ۗ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ 

Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky? [Surah Ibrahim; 24]

It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. [Surah Ibrahim; 25]

Question: Now, I want you to think of a time when someone said something mean to you. How did that make you feel?

It’s not fun to remember the mean stuff right? Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) continues in Surah Ibrahim and says:

وَمَثَلُ كَلِمَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ كَشَجَرَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ اجْتُثَّتْ مِن فَوْقِ الْأَرْضِ مَا لَهَا مِن قَرَارٍ

And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability. [Surah Ibrahim; 26] 

Question: What do you think are good words we can use to build strong, firmly rooted trees?

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#Islam

30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 8: The Life of This World

Now that we have learnt about qalbun saleem, let’s talk about the life of this world.

Question: Do you know that there is an ayah in the Qur’an that takes us through all the stages of life and tells us what we find to be the most important aspect based on our age?

This ayah is found in the chapter named Al-Hadeed. 

Question: Does anyone know what Hadeed means? 

Yes! It means iron! The verse in Surah al-Hadeed starts by saying:

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اعْلَمُوا أَنَّمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهْوٌ 

“Know that the life of this world is play and amusement.”

Question: When you were really, really young, what was something that was important to you?

Yes, playing! You would use your imagination, play with your toys, and build legos. That is what  لَعِبٌ la’bun means. Then you got a bit older and you wanted to hear stories and be entertained. 

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Question: Can you tell me in what other ways you’re entertained? (Examples can include watching TV, reading books, etc)

Yes! This is what is meant by  لَهْوٌ l(ahwun). Then we get a bit older and our goals change. The ayah continues by saying, وَزِينَةٌ وَتَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُمْ (wa zeenatun wa tafakhirun baynakum). All of a sudden, you become a tween and a teenager, and you really care about your looks. You want to dress in the nicest clothing and look beautiful. This is zeena

Then you get even older and you enter college. You compete with your classmates and show off your knowledge and skills to impress future employees. This is tafaakhirun baynakum , i.e. boasting with one another. 

Then what usually happens after college? Work, marriage, and children! The ayah continues by saying, وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِي الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَوْلَادِ (wa takathur fil amwaali wal-awlaad), i.e. and competition in increasing wealth and children.

As parents, we try to give you the best life and education, and we work hard to provide for you. But, we always have to remember that it won’t be permanent, right? 

Question: We will be so happy, like farmers watching our seeds grow into beautiful plants, but what happens in the fall when it’s no longer sunny and becomes windy and cold? 

Yes, the plants turn yellow. Remember that toy you used to love playing with as a really little kid? Is it as interesting to you anymore? Remember that TV show you could not stop watching? You even memorized all the lines in it. Do you remember the title? Are you interested in something else now?

This is the example of our whole life. Once we get something we once were so excited to have, we realize that after some time has passed, that it has “turned yellow” to us. 

Question: What do you think that means?

Yes! It’s not as interesting as it once was. So knowing that this is going to happen, how can we make sure to not get distracted by the bright and shiny and stay focused on Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

We’re in luck, because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gives us the answer! Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says:

 “سَابِقُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ 

Race toward forgiveness from your Lord and Jannah! 

Question: How do you think we can race towards Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

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