Let me begin by making two things clear. First, this article is not seeking to defend the positions of any person nor is it related to the issue of CVE and what it means to the Muslim American community. I am in no way claiming that CVE is not controversial or harmful to the community nor am I suggesting that affiliations with governments are without concern.
Second, this paper is meant to critique the arguments made by the author that encourage holding Islamic scholars accountable. I encourage the reader not to think of this article as an attempt to defend an individual(s) but rather as an attempt to present an important issue through the framework of Islamic discourse – Quran, hadith supported by scholarly opinion. In that spirit, I would love to see articles providing other scholarly views that are contrary to this articles. The goal is to reach the position that is most pleasure to Allah and not the one that best fits our agenda, whims, or world views.
In this article I argue that Islamic scholars in America cannot effectively be held accountable, not because they are above accountability but because (1) accountability in Islam is based on law derived from Quran and hadith and this is the responsibility of Islamic experts not those ignorant of the Islamic sciences. And to be frank, this type of discourse is absent in Muslim America. (2) Muslim Americans have no standard code of law, conduct, or ethics that can be used to judge behavior and decisions of Muslim Americans. I do believe, however, that criticism should be allowed under certain conditions, as I will elaborate in the proceeding paragraphs.
To begin, the evidence used to support the concept of holding leaders accountable is the statement of Abu Bakr upon his appointment to office:
“O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.”
This is a well-known statement of his, and without a doubt part of Islamic discourse applied by the pious companions. However, one should take notice of the context in which Abu Bakr made his statement. Specifically, who he was speaking to. The companions were a generation that embodied and practiced a pristine understanding of Islam and therefore, if anyone were to hold him accountable they would do it in the proper manner. It would be done with pure intentions that they seek to empower Abu Bakr with Quranic and Prophetic principles rather than attack him personally or with ill intentions.
Furthermore, their knowledge of the faith was sufficient to where they understood where and when the boundaries of Allah are transgressed, and therefore understood when he was accountable. However, when these facets of accountability are lost then the validity of accountability is lost as well.
To give an example, during the life of Abu Bakr, prior to appointing Omar (ra) as his successor he took the opinion of several companions. The prospect of Omar’s appointment upset some of the companions because of Omar’s stern character. These companions approached Abu Bakr and asked him “what will you tell Allah when he asks why you appointed the stern and severe (ie Omar).” Abu Bakr replied “I will tell Him that I appointed the best person on earth,” after which Abu Bakr angrily commanded them to turn their backs and leave his presence.
Fast forwarding to the life of Uthman, large groups of Muslims accused Uthman of changing the Sunnah of the Prophet in several manners. Part of this group felt the need to hold Uthman accountable and ended up sieging his home leading to his death. Now, when one researches what this group was criticizing Uthman for, you find that Uthman (ra) did make mistakes in applying the sunnah that even companions such as Ibn Mas’ood expressed concern and disagreement with. However, due to the lack of fiqh and knowledge, these Muslims felt that the actions of Uthman made him guilty of “crimes” against the sunnah and therefore he must be held accountable.
With this I make my first point. A distinction between criticism and accountability must be made. Ibn Mas’ood and others criticized Uthman but, since they were scholars, understood that although Uthman was mistaken his mistakes did not cross the boundaries of Allah, and therefore he was not guilty of anything and thus was not accountable.
Holding Muslim scholars accountable cannot be justified unless evidence from the Quran and hadith indicate transgression against Allah’s law. Thus, before the Muslim American community can call for the accountability of Dr. Jackson, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, or others, an argument founded in Quran and Sunnah and supplicated by scholarly (classical scholars) research and books must be made.
It is simply against Islamic discourse to claim that a scholar is guilty of unethical decisions or affiliations simply because CVE is a plot against Muslims (as I will detail shortly). Rather, an argument must be made that shows how involvement with CVE is against Quran and sunnah. Again, I emphasize the difference between criticizing their decision because of the potential harms versus accusing them of transgressing Islamic principles.
To further elaborate this distinction I offer the following examples. First, Allah says in context of the battle of Badr and the decision to ransom the prisoners of war,
“It is not fit for a prophet that he should take captives until he has thoroughly subdued the land. You ˹believers˺ settled with the fleeting gains of this world, while Allah’s aim ˹for you˺ is the Hereafter. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. Had it not been for a prior decree from Allah, you would have certainly been disciplined with a tremendous punishment for whatever ˹ransom˺ you have taken. Now enjoy what you have taken, for it is lawful and good. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (8:67-69)
In these verses Allah criticizes the decision taken by the Muslims but then states that ransom money was made permissible by Allah, and therefore they are not guilty of a punishable offense. In other words, Allah criticized their decision because it was a less than ideal choice but did not hold them accountable for their actions since it was permissible.
Another example is the well-known incident of Osama bin Zaid and his killing of the individual who proclaimed shahadah during battle. Despite this, Osama proceeded to slay him. Upon hearing of this the Prophet (s) criticized Osama and said, “did you see what is in his heart?”
Although Osama’s actions resulted in the death of a person the Prophet (s), did not hold Osama accountable for his actions and no punishment was implemented. Similarly, Khalid bin Waleed killed a group of people who accepted Islam accidentally and similarly, the Prophet (s) criticized Khalid but did not hold him accountable.
Why was there no accountability? Because the decisions of Osama and Khalid were based on reasonable – although incorrect – perspectives which falls under the mistake category of Islamic law “And there is no blame upon you for that in which you have erred but [only for] what your hearts intended. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:5)
The previous examples, among others, are referred to in Islamic discourse as ta’weel (interpretation). There are many examples in the lives of the companions where decisions were made that lead to misapplications of Islam but were considered mistakes worthy of criticism but not crimes worthy of punishment or accountability.
Ta’weel, as Ibn Taymiyya states, is an aspect of Islam that requires deep understanding of the Islamic sciences. It is the grey area that becomes very difficult to navigate except by scholars as the Prophet (s) states in the hadith, “The halal is clear and the haram is clear and between them is a grey area which most people don’t know (ie the rulings for).”
Scholars have commented stating that the hadith does not negate knowledge of the grey entirely and that the scholars are the ones who know how to navigate that area. The problem arises when those ignorant of Islamic law attempt to navigate the grey area or criticize scholars attempting to navigate it.
Going back to Ibn Taymiyya -skip this part if you believe Ibn Taymiyya was a dancing bear- I would like to discuss his own views on associating oneself with oppressive rulers. In his book “Islamic Political Science” (As Siyaasa ash Shar’iah) he details the nuances of fiqh in regards to working with or for oppressive rulers.
It would be beneficial to quote the entire section, but for space sake I will be concise. Ibn Taymiyya argues that the issue of oppressive rulers should not be approached with a black and white mentality. Rather, one must inquire of the relationship between the person and the ruler.
One can legitimately adhere to the verse “And cooperate in righteousness and piety” (5:2) while working for an unjust ruler such as: “performing jihad, applying penal laws, protecting the rights of others, and giving those who deserve. This is in accordance to what Allah and His messenger have commanded and whoever refrains from those things out of fear of assisting the unjust then they have left an obligation under a false form of asceticism (wara’).”
Likewise, accepting a position under an unjust regime may prevent or reduce the harm of that regime, or prevent someone mischievous from taking the position and inflicting even more harm, then such an association is Islamically valid. Furthermore, someone working in a particular department is not responsible or accountable for the crimes being committed in another department nor are they guilty of “cooperat[ing] in sin and aggression” (5:2). He ascribes these fiqh rulings to the majority of scholars including Abu Hanifa, Malik and Ahmed.
The argument against those who are affiliated with the UAE is simply not grounded in fiqh or supported by clear evidences from the Quran and hadith. How does being part of a peace forum make the participants guilty of the crimes in Yemen? The claim that such participation enhances the influence of these regimes is not necessarily consistent with Quran and hadith.
Dr. Jackson, I argue, is in line with Islamic discourse when he says that being part of such initiatives does not mean he agrees with all they do. The same goes for CVE. As Ibn Taymiyya suggests above, participating in such programs is Islamically justifiable if the goal is to reduce the harm and this is what Dr. Jackson claims. Ibn Taymiyya gives the example of someone working as a tax collector for a ruler who unjustly takes taxes from his citizens. If the individual can reduce the amount being taken then his position is Islamically valid.
One might state that such a claim – reducing the harm – is naïve and an excuse to justify their affiliations. No doubt this is a possibility, however, I once again quote Ibn Taymiyya,
“The obligation is to bring about the benefit to the best of their ability and or prevent the harm or at least reduce it. If there are two possible benefits then the individual should pursue the greater of the two even if it leads to losing the lesser. If there are two possible harms to prevent then they should prevent the greater of the two even if it results in the occurrence of the lesser.”
There are ways of determining whether a persons is clearly excusing himself. At the same time, the debate as to whether the benefits outweigh the harm is almost always within the grey area mentioned above. Thus, it is irresponsible to attack Islamic scholars and call for their accountability for positions that are not clearly against Quran and hadith.
Another rebuttal might claim that the rulers during the time of Ibn Taymiyya were better than present day rulers and that his fiqh was addressing his realities which are inconsistent with ours. My response is that although that is true, Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings are not built on contextual realities that are only effective in those realities. Rather, his teachings are built on principles that are formulated in a way that renders it capable of measuring a particular context. In other words, it acts in a way that considers the realities and context as part of the equation and decision process.
A third rebuttal might claim that Ibn Taymiyya, like many others, warned of the harms of befriending rulers. Again, this is accurate, however, an important distinction must be made and that is between spiritual advice and fiqh rulings. An issue can be spiritually problematic but permissible fiqh-wise and this differentiation is seen in the lives of the companions and spiritualists in general.
For example, the companions rejected many worldly pleasures out of zuhd and wara’ (two forms of asceticism) and not because they are forbidden. To be more specific, a person may restrict themselves from drinking green tea not because it is forbidden by Quran or hadith but because of they view it as a desire that distracts them from the next life.
Similarly, the discouragement scholars expressed towards relationships with rulers was because of the spiritual harms and not because of an unequivocal prohibition against it. This is an important facet of Islamic discourse that should be recognized by the Muslim community. That is, a person can critique an issue from various angles (for example the psychological harms of political rhetoric and how it effects a person’s spirituality) while remaining neutral to Islamic law. What I am trying to say is that legitimate criticisms can be made about a particular issues without having to bring a person’s Islamic credibility into the discussion.
To conclude, I’d like to once again emphasize a distinction between criticism and accountability. Criticism is justified when the criticizer is qualified in the topic and when the one being criticized has made a mistake. Accountability is legitimate when a person has transgressed red lines established by Islam itself. But, in order for such accountability to be valid one must invoke the Quran and hadith and here lies the problem.
In the several articles posted against UAE and CVE, Quran and hadith are excluded and such has become Muslim American discourse – we are Muslims who invoke Allah and His messenger yet exclude their words from the conversation. I remind the Muslim American community and myself of the following verse “And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result” (4:59).
I would like to pose the following questions to the Muslim American community:
- Under what code of law and ethics should scholars be held accountable? In other words, what standards do we use to deem a scholar accountable or guilty? Who determines these laws and principles? Is it other scholars who are well versed in fiqh? Is it American standards or perhaps Muslim American activists and whatever is in line with their agenda?
- Who or what institution has the authority to hold scholars accountable?
- To what extent do we consider Quran, hadith, fiqh and scholarly opinions in determining illegal actions, problematic decisions, and or immoral behavior?
- Are these laws and principles only applicable to scholars or are other Muslim leader figures held to the same standards?
- Are all scholars “dancing bears” who have no credibility? If not, who, in your opinion, is trustworthy and credible and why do you think so? Is it because they are following Quran and Sunnah, or because they fit activism?
- Do you believe that certain celebrated Muslim American activists / politicians present theological and moral problems to American Muslims that are corrupting their faith and behavior? Should they be held accountable for their statements and actions? What about the various Muslim organizations that invite them as keynote speakers and continue to show unwavering support?
- Do you believe it is fair to say that these celebrated activists are not responsible for clarifying to the community their controversial positions and statements because they are not scholars or seen as religious figures?
- Do you believe that activism is dominating Muslim American discourse and do you believe that there is a serious exclusion of Quran and hadith in that discourse?
I hope the community will acknowledge the concerning reality of the exclusion of Quran and hadith from our affairs. Until we live up to the standards of Quran and sunnah our criticism will only lead to further division and harm.
Questions About My Political Activism | Imam Omar Suleiman
Bismillah Al Rahman Al Raheem,
I thank Allah for the blessing of in person interactions. The simple joy of meeting your brother and sister in the Masjid with a smile and salaam that removes the shaytan from our hearts. The ability to ask questions clearly and immediately bury hatchets (which some forgo for destructive emails and WhatsApp threads even with their neighbors). I’m blessed to live in the incredible Valley Ranch Islamic Center community where I serve as Resident Scholar in a voluntary capacity. Members of my Masjid and the Dallas community can approach me and ask me anything about something I’ve said or something being said about me, and we walk away as brothers and sisters. I had the same blessing in New Orleans where I served as full-time Imam for 6 years. And I am blessed to meet people around the country and around the world that I love for Allah. Those are lifelong bonds that I pray continue in the hereafter under Allah’s shade.
I also thank Allah for the online world that allows people to connect in good when otherwise they would not have been able to benefit. Without social media and expanding ways of technology, good content and avenues for charity would be far more limited. I’m grateful for all of you that have connected with me and prayed for me over the years. I don’t want to take away from any of that. With that being said, the online world does of course have its pitfalls. There can be a lack of mercy and husn al dhann (good assumptions) with one another, and widespread gossip and slander. It’s also uniquely destructive to those who garner large followings even due to good reasons. It’s very easy to praise someone you only know through videos and pictures, as it is to tear them down. Allah has tested some of us with fame through this machine, and it is a mighty test. I pray that Allah allows all of the people that I’ve been blessed to benefit in this world to be witnesses for me on the day of judgment, and that He not shame me or raise me amongst the hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached.
As the great sage Imam Ibn Al Jawzee (ra) said, “Know that if people are impressed with you, in reality they are impressed with the beauty of Allah’s covering of your sins.” It is very easy to deceive and be deceived through a screen. I pray that Allah allow any unjust critiques that I receive to be an expiation for all the undue praise I receive. People are usually imbalanced in their love and hate. The test is whether that love stops you from correcting your brother when he is wrong, or that hate that causes you to swerve from justice.
With that introduction, I’d like to address questions about my political positions and affiliations. Why? Because I do believe in accountability and transparency. Deceptive voices should be ignored, concerned ones shouldn’t. Certainly, there are falsehoods and hit pieces that often are disguised as legitimate critiques. But there are also legitimate critiques and/or requests for clarification. Over the past several years, I have had both types forwarded to me. I am not concerned with those who use deception to falsely portray me or my work. I am concerned about those who genuinely have questions, and don’t have them answered. I have sought to clarify my own political positions through my work on numerous occasions such as here, here, and here. I will quote some of that content here. But I hope this will be a thorough article that can be referenced any time in the future when questions about who I am and what I represent are brought up. Moreover, I hope it can be a conversation starter about what types of political frameworks are actually beneficial to the community.
The Foundation and Legitimate Differences
I believe that the Quran and Sunnah should be the foundation for everything that we do, public and private. That means never exceeding their boundaries, and also manifesting their calls. Many people forget the latter, and only focus on the former. If the only time the Quran and Sunnah are invoked in discussions of activism and justice is to shut down something deemed illegitimate or impermissible, we suggest that our divine sources have stagnated and are unable to converse with the world around us today. I believe in amplifying the beautiful solutions from our religion to confront the ugly realities of the climate around us. The Deen is rich and beautiful. The Seerah is an incredible guide to everything in life. Through Yaqeen Institute, I had the blessing of doing the 40 on justice series that spanned for over a year and a half where I hoped to articulate a Sunnah-lens to the issues around us. My goal is to now develop that into a book. I believe the person and message of the Prophet (saw) speaks to us as clearly now as it did in the year 620, and that everything we do should be in accordance with it.
There can be reasonable debate about the Sunnah and how it’s lived in certain aspects around us. Some use Hudaybiya to justify every form of engagement and say things like, “if the Prophet were alive, he would do this.” I don’t want to project anything on the Prophet (saw). My attempt is to draw from his Sunnah, not legitimize my shahawat. There are areas where the Prophet showed compromise, but he never lost clarity. While the treaty of Hudaybiya had to omit “Al Rahman Al Raheem” from the name of Allah, and “RasulAllah” from the name of Muhammad , none of the companions were confused about their realities.
The legitimate debates around how to truly implement the Sunnah today largely emanate from what aspects of the Prophetic call are it’s defining features, and what our priorities and timelines, political or otherwise, should be. Tawheed is the foundation and primary basis for it all. As for what aspects of the call are defining features, the Prophet was sent us a mercy to the worlds, defined his mission as perfection of character, said that Allah loves gentleness in all of His affairs, and was revolutionary in his compassion to everything around him. That doesn’t mean he didn’t at times get angry or use power to eliminate evil. He was not limited by his mercy, but always enhanced by it.
As for priorities and timelines, even the companions frequently differed. There are examples from the life of the Prophet , and after. During Hudaybiya, Ali (ra) did not want to erase from the treaty what the Quraysh wanted him to. Omar wanted to proceed forth to Makkah that very moment. The companions found themselves unwilling to accept that they would have to turn back. Abu Bakr saw things the way the Prophet saw them. Umm Salama advised the Prophet in those difficult times how to get everyone on the same page despite those strong feelings.
The debates about this were deep in many aspects of Fiqh (jurisprudence) after the death of the Prophet (saw), none so more than regarding political issues. We know the Prophet taught us to seek both justice and stability. But at what point and at what cost is it permissible to challenge the power structure? No one was ambiguous about tyranny, but they differed greatly as to how to challenge it. In the first massive fitna to engulf the community, the painful debate over the assassination of Uthman put Ali on the defensive about whether or not he was interested in pursuing his killers in the first place. He was of course, but believed in stabilizing the Khilafa before pursuing the assassins to not cause more bloodshed. When Omar Ibn AbdulAzeez (ra) who pushed legendary reforms in his 2 year Khilafa was questioned by his son about some of the things he wasn’t pursuing, he responded, “Oh my son, do you want me to try to compel them upon the religion all at once, so that they abandon it all at once?”
My work politically revolves around eliminating suffering, domestically and abroad. This shapes how I view militarism, poverty, policing, mass incarceration, environmental issues, healthcare, immigration, and torture. The Prophet said, “find me amongst the oppressed. Are you given aid and support by Allah except by how you treat your most vulnerable?” I believe that we as Muslims, especially those who claim orthodoxy, should assert ourselves in these areas. This doesn’t mean that I think this is the only area in which Muslims should be active. Different people should work in different areas of good, and not undermine one another. Good efforts should be complementary to each other. My background suits this particular role. I grew up with deeply humanitarian parents, worked as a field coordinator in disaster relief, and feel strongly moved towards these causes. While most came to know me through Islamic lectures, I have never not been involved in these things. Fighting exploitation and oppression are part and parcel of our religious identity. Not only should Muslims be present in these areas, they should be leading the way. And that’s not because it’s good political strategy or public relations, but because it’s scriptural imperative.
I’m also concerned with Religious Freedom and think we should assert our right as a Muslim community, as should other communities, to live out our faith unhindered, and our institutions un-harassed. Conservatives tend to leave Muslims out in their calls and lace them with other forms of bigotry we can’t stomach, and liberals often alienate religious communities like Orthodox Jews, Black Churches, Muslims, etc. while claiming to be for pluralism and inclusivity.
I cannot in good conscience support anything that is opposed to the Sunnah, even as a matter of political expediency. I believe in working together with communities on things we agree upon, and learning to respectfully coexist with things we don’t agree upon. On such affairs, I maintain political neutrality with religious clarity and relationship building that allows us to have these hard discussions as human beings seeking to reduce societal tension and promote the common good. I use multi-faith work as a blueprint for this. If people can harmoniously coexist despite strong beliefs about God, purpose, salvation, and scripture, surely they can learn to coexist on political issues that are of far lesser consequence to them in their worldviews.
All of this warrants discussion on priorities, pragmatism, gradualism, and political programs. As Muslims, we should have vibrant disagreements that start off with: 1. What Allah and the Messenger deem as good is good, and what they deem as bad is bad. 2. People can disagree on how to apply those realities to the world around us without obscuring the lawful and the prohibited. 3. People should maintain good assumptions about one another and not accuse their intentions when they disagree.
At the end of the day, these are largely areas of Ijtihad and we’re all on the same team.
Pictures and Associations
I rarely request anyone to take pictures with me, but I never turn them down. I have my reasons for that. It is primarily a personal decision I formed after going to the funeral of Muhammad Ali (may Allah have mercy on him) in Louisville. I was deeply moved by how everyone from the shuttle driver, to the hotel clerk, to the gas station employees, etc. had a story about meeting him. He never turned down a request, and that meant something to people. My colleagues and I differ on this issue. On one hand, we don’t want to feed celebrity culture. On the other hand, we don’t want to disappoint, hurt, or leave people feeling slighted. This is where I’m at on this, and I don’t think I have it in me to say no to someone who asks for a picture.
My “associations” are widespread because I engage numerous spaces. I get invited to conferences and campuses, mosques and festivals. Anywhere I go, I try to be courteous to people and that should not mean an endorsement of all that they do or stand for. I do not believe appearing in a picture with someone or in a common space is me promoting them, or even them promoting me.
Guilt by association is the most deceitful way of targeting someone. It’s what the Khawarij do. It’s also what Islamophobes have been doing to take down every Muslim leader in the community since 9/11. They draw the association as wide as possible, then associate you with every position through that association making it impossible to defend yourself.
My positions are only the ones I actually espouse.
Platforms and Panels
As for platforms and panels, I typically will not turn them down unless I feel like the platform itself is so biased that I won’t be able to speak my mind, or there is no value in my opinion even if I’m allowed to speak it. Most recently I sat on a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival on religious freedom with Sr. Asma Uddin from the Freedom Forum Institute, and staunch republicans like Rep. Matt Krause and Kevin Roberts, the Executive Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. I’m in dialogue at an event early next year with the most prominent evangelical preacher in the country. I often share the stage with staunch liberals who agree with me on issues of militarism, torture, policing, and immigration, but are quite hostile to religion. I try to do right by my part on panels regardless of who else is serving on it. The only time I would participate in a public boycott of a panel or platform is if it’s a collective push to purge someone who has just taken a position or done something that would inherently tarnish the panel or platform. I did this, for example, in the wake of the Rabaa’ massacre with scholars who legitimized it. When I’m invited to a highly partisan place like the Texas Democratic Convention, I try to be very specific with my subject matter (where I spoke about children victimized by policy here and abroad, and brought up Gitmo and Abu Ghraib).
How Do I Choose Whether or Not to Accept an Invitation
Istikhara (prayer) and Istishara (consultation). I have turned down many high profile events because I thought my presence would be tokenizing and unsubstantial. With my invocation in Congress, I literally forwarded the invite to my teacher and asked him whether or not I should do it. He advised me to go forward and give an invocation that would leave people thinking. I hope that was achieved even though I must admit I wasn’t expecting the flurry of attacks afterwards. Imam Siraj traces the beginning of the avalanche of hate against him to his invocation in congress, but I had hoped that all the relationships I had built would ward off some of that.
Most of my invites are not so confusing, but some of them are. Have I regretted accepting certain invites? Yes. But I don’t lament too much over them so long as I did proper Istikhara and Istishara.
Demonstrations, Coalitions, and Alliances
In our tribal politics in America, platforms are wide and coalitions are narrow. I believe in the exact opposite. I believe we should have specific issues that we determine important and meaningful, and form broad coalitions around those specific issues. This way the work is focused, the ally-ship is clear, and the advocacy is unproblematic. When it’s a bunch of people working on a small set of issues, the issues dominate the conversation as opposed to who is at the table. It’s about what we’re at the table for.
So if we’re going to organize a march on the border, against ICE deportations, or against police brutality, I don’t care who else is coming to march or where they stand on other issues. This to me was the essence of Hilf Al Fudul. The tribes came together for one purpose of supporting those who were exploited because they didn’t have the protection of belonging to powerful classes, and the Prophet (saw) said he would take that pledge in jahiliya or Islam.
I don’t believe in uncritically adopting a platform, or letting a party take advantage of our vulnerability. We need to challenge Democrats just as strongly as we do Republicans, while remaining independent and principled. We have a right to an agenda like any other community. Politicians should have to work for our vote, and we shouldn’t shy away from where we differ with candidates even when we vote for them.
You can read my article on voting here in which I lay out those principles.
As a side note on endorsements, I’ve only endorsed 2 candidates in my life, one a Muslim candidate for city council and another a candidate for county chair. With the Beto campaign against Ted Cruz last year, who I believe is the most dangerous man in the Senate for various reasons, I particularly reached out to the campaign to clarify some concerns about the criminalizing of BDS. I applauded him for taking the time to meet me and clarify those concerns. With the recent news on his comments on revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions, I once again reached out to those who I know from the campaign to register the community’s disapproval and was able to have a fruitful conversation about it. And no, I’m not endorsing him or any candidate for president right now.
Left vs Right
I wrote an article in the Dallas Morning News about transcending the left/right divide. In it, I said, “Most of the religious presence in our political discourse seems to be superficial with the religious left and the religious right often simply representing nothing more than the political left and the political right with collars.”
I believe Muslims should be engaging well-meaning people on different issues from different backgrounds. While the political right may have taken on an overtly Islamophobic posture, there are conservative religious groups that may be willing to work with us and dialogue on issues of mutual concern. I welcome that
We need to be a part of constructing the moral center in America instead of waiting for it to happen without our input whether its on domestic or foreign policy. We don’t have to adopt anyone else’s blind spots. We can talk about the child from Guatemala and the child from Gaza. We can talk about the sanctity of the child in the womb, and the sanctity of the child in the cage. We can talk about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib abroad, and our own mass incarceration systems at home. If some Republicans are the only ones willing to speak about the Muslim Uighurs in the name of religious freedom, we can work with them on that.
Not everyone has to work in all of these spaces simultaneously, but we should appreciate those who do so long as they don’t forsake their principles in the process.
On Engaging Government
This is a hard one so I’ll break it down into a few things:
- Local, State, Federal
I strongly believe in the idea of most politics being local, and that Muslims need to have a strong presence in city and state government. My invitation to Congress was due to my local work with Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson who has been an incredible ally to our community. I think it gets trickier at the federal level. I’ve personally never been inside the White House under any administration for an Iftar or otherwise, but I don’t fault all who have. I know some who have tried very hard to do right in those tricky spaces. I was invited to the last Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department and declined. I think this is the trickiest space of them all, and wish those who engage it well. My hope is that anyone who does engage it raise our issues and make it clear to the community that they are doing so. I have never participated in CVE work, nor has Yaqeen ever taken CVE money, and I am opposed to it as a framework due to how it’s used exclusively against the Muslim community.
I differentiate between patriotism and nationalism and believe that our government should be held accountable for its violation of human rights like any other government. And war crimes have spanned administrations of both parties for a very long time.
- Foreign Governments
I am particularly skeptical of many Muslim governments considering the role that installed dictators and despots have played in suppressing the Muslim community worldwide. They have been the greatest violators of our rights, and the most shameful purveyors of Islamophobia as evidenced by the support given to China’s genocide of the Uyghurs. I don’t think it’s impossible to work with foreign leaders on specific issues, but that it requires crystal clear clarity from those who do on the issues those governments are criminally implicated. Granting religious legitimacy to tyrants who have themselves harmed or enabled harm towards the global community is incredibly dangerous. And it is important to not become co-opted by the lesser aggressors from the Muslim world. While some foreign leaders do better than others on certain issues, they will consistently disappoint on others. None of them should be able to buy the silence of the American Muslim community.
On Muslim Politicians
No politician, Muslim or otherwise, deserves our uncritical support for their political positions. Every Muslim, politician or otherwise, deserves our dua for their guidance and wellbeing.
This is a tricky reality to navigate. When they take bold political positions, they should be qualifiedly praised specifically for those actions. When they do things that are problematic, they should be measuredly criticized specifically for those actions. We should want them to do well, and want well for them. As politicians, they naturally make decisions that they have to be accountable to the public for. As brothers and sisters, we should pray for them to make the right decisions and be enabled with and for the truth. As a community, we can’t put it on them to save the Deen. There will be more politicians that will come up in coming years, and our Dawah needs to continue independent of them while reminding them with good manners, supporting them with Dua and Naseeha, and politically engaging them like any other politician.
“Donate your reputation to Allah.” by Imam @OmarSuleiman504 Click To Tweet
I will not engage in mudslinging or callouts personally, even when they’re against me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something that I could easily respond to with one line. But Allah is sufficient for me, and He is the best disposer of all matters. I would hope people can see through unfair attacks. And even when they can’t, I trust that Allah will make the best of the situation and I’d rather not take the community on a ride. Through one of these particular episodes, my teacher and friend told me, “Donate your reputation to Allah.” That stuck with me. If I’m doing what I’m doing for His sake, I shouldn’t be too bothered when other than Him deals with me uncharitably. If I am, I need to work harder on my own intentions.
As for others, I will not use social media to put people on blast. I discuss concepts, not people. Now two fair questions arise from this:
- Can one assume that because I’ve supported people by name in certain contexts, but not criticized them by name, that I support all of their positions? I understand why people could derive that conclusion, and it’s not something I’ve particularly figured out. I don’t think ambiguous cheap shots are the solution either. I personally don’t burn bridges with people in fear of wronging them, and in hopes that I can still advise them. I feel like that’s the best I can do. I hope that people can appreciate that approach not as the only approach, but as an approach.
The Prophet used to employ the language of “what is it with a people that do such and such” (ما بال أقوام يفعلون كذا وكذا ) without actually naming the person in several narrations. This could be seen by some as passive-aggressive, but it’s about clarifying the concept and not focusing on the individual. I typically will try to employ this approach, and will sometimes fall short of it.
- Should there not be those who explicitly address wrongdoings, fairly hold leaders accountable, and ask important questions? There absolutely should be, but with good character and fair critique. We can’t adopt the tactics of Islamophobes against our own community. Half-truths, guilt by association, casting aspersions on character, etc. are grievous sins. They also take away from the legitimate critiques. Unfortunately, social media seems so drenched in toxicity that it seems impossible to discuss things with balance. With that being said, we need more forums to have important conversations and I can’t blame people in the meantime for feeling left out of those conversations and confused. As a rule of thumb, try to keep things depersonalized and to the issues. And when you have to say something critical of your brother or sister, try to say something about their good as well.
What is considered public vs. private
There seems to be this prevailing idea that if it isn’t posted or tweeted, it’s not public. I try to be open in discussion with brothers and sisters when they meet face to face and am much more willing to discuss sensitive issues then. I don’t know of any basis in the Sunnah that would suggest social media is the only way to have a public position. I don’t mind being quoted in what I say in my halaqas or public settings, but simply don’t prefer to engage in certain discussions on social media.
Yaqeen’s direction and funding
I am not Yaqeen. My political activism is not Yaqeen. I serve as the President of the organization with one vote on the board. I am blessed to work with an incredible team of over 60 people and growing that believe in the mission of the organization to foster a strong viable Islamic identity that preserves the religion in the hearts of our future generations, takes back the narrative from Islamophobes of all sorts, and demonstrates a path forward that doesn’t depart from our divine sources. Some of the writers are my teachers. Others come from entirely different backgrounds. I contribute a tiny fraction of papers myself, but am fulltime in my role as the President of the organization. Yaqeen set out to be as encompassing as possible of Muslim scholars and academics that believe in commitment to the religion, and contributing to the world through it. I believe strongly in institutions that are bigger than personalities, and that is the culture we try to foster from within.
As for our methodology, we have a course and a paper out soon from our scholars which should clarify further what we view as valid means of interpretation, and valid opinions. We try to do extensive peer review and allow opinions to be published within the fold of Islamic acceptability.
We have extended our hands to Muslim organizations around the country and world to partner in good, and never charge a dime for our content. And for the sake of maintaining independence and integrity, Yaqeen has never taken money from any government entity or foundation that espouses ideas that would delegitimize it. Al hamdulila, all of it is through generous private donors that have found benefit from our content and I’m grateful to each of them for it.
Let me start with the personal. Anyone that serves as an Imam, activist, or representative of the community will be put in awkward situations frequently. Part of growth is learning from those mistakes and being wiser in future situations. I will still inevitably be put in compromising situations and pray that Allah guides me to deal with them with wisdom and rightful guidance. I will continue to listen to people who lovingly point those mistakes out to me in hopes that I do better in the future. May Allah reward them all. And I will take the best of unforgiving critiques and try to still benefit from them. May Allah reward them also if they’re done in sincerity, and forgive them if done for other reasons.
As for the communal, we haven’t figured out a way to host reasonable disagreements that involve various segments of the community. Yaqeen is meant to be a platform to foster some of that within our scopes of research, and some sites like Muslim Matters have also sought to be that when issues of concern arise. Over the past few years, I’ve had the blessing of being a part of an annual retreat that brings together various Islamic scholars of different backgrounds to foster unity amongst ourselves and create space for critical conversation. Sadly there are too many other divisions that exist in the community though to be remedied through that particular space. I think the community has felt locked out of certain discussions, and I can’t blame them for feeling that way.
Clarity. People like myself who are involved in multiple worlds need to not leave the community out of our thinking and articulate our frameworks better. I own that, as I have made many assumptions about what the community did or didn’t think about my positions.
Spaces. I’ve been blessed to be a part of forming some wonderful onsite spaces and forums where we have had some of these difficult conversations. I want to be a part of forming some of these spaces online with the realistic expectation that they will never equal the blessing of sitting with one another. I hope our community invests in more retreats where scholars of different backgrounds, activists, etc. can come together and discuss tough things, and then produce their findings.
The Rope of Allah
Allah tells us to hold firm to the rope of Allah. The rope isn’t a political idea or opinion, it’s divine revelation. We are bonded by it and should honor that bond. We can disagree with each other and still love each other. We can debate ideas intelligently without descending into tactics unbefitting of the ummah of the Prophet (saw). We should be just with one another and not use the ways of our enemies against each other. I’m sure not everyone agrees with my framework above, and I may also change some of my opinions as time goes on. I pray that none of it ever swerves from what is established through the divine sources, or into anything divisive, hateful, or unjust.
The Quran speaks of justice, unity, and accountability. Those themes are not contradictory in Allah’s book, nor do they have to be in our lives. The Sunnah manifests that in a way that we can all learn how to conduct ourselves. This doesn’t mean we excuse everything in the name of Adab, it means we use Adab even when holding people accountable.
I end with this: Yunus al-Sadafi reported: I have not seen anyone wiser than Al-Shafi’i, may Allah be pleased with him. I debated him one day over an issue, and then we separated. He later met me and took my hand, then he said, “O Abu Musa, can we not continue to be brothers, even if we disagree on an issue?”
May Allah keep us united upon good, faithful to Him always, carriers of His Prophet’s way, and beneficial to the entirety of humanity. May He forgive us for our shortcomings, guide us to the straight path, and remove from us all that displeases Him in our worship and work.
اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ أَنْ أَضِلَّ أَوْ أُضَلَّ أَوْ أَزِلَّ أَوْ أُزَلَّ أَوْ أَظْلِمَ أَوْ أُظْلَمَ أَوْ أَجْهَلَ أَوْ يُجْهَلَ عَلَىَّ
O Allah, I seek refuge with You from going astray or stumbling, from wronging others or being wronged, and from behaving or being treated in an ignorant manner.
Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families
On the border of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, several families live their lives torn apart—they were born on the wrong side of a wall. Now, faith groups are joining together to give them hope through prayer. Since the Mexican-American War in 1848, the boundary that divided the two countries transformed from an imaginary line, to a monument, to a simple barb-wire fence where people on either side could meet, greet, hold hands, or exchange a warm smile, to a heavily monitored steel wall stretching across almost 15 miles between San Diego and Tijuana.
In recent years, crime, drug trafficking, an influx of undocumented workers, and increasingly white nationalism created stricter immigration policies in the U.S., directly impacting those who live straddling both sides of the border. Included in these are families whose loved ones have been deported – parents, spouses, children, and other relatives – to Mexico, undocumented workers providing for their families, and relatives who have not made physical contact with each other in years, sometimes decades. They gather along the steel mesh barriers of the border wall at Friendship Park to touch each other’s fingertips and pray.
The documentary, “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” produced by CAIR California, MoveOn, and Beyond Borders Studios captured some of these emotive moments during a Sunday prayer service held by the Border Church in partnership with the Border Mosque. Christians and Muslims came together in solidarity at Friendship Park on September 30, 2019, and held a joint bilingual ceremony, led by Reverend John Fanestil, Pastor Guillermo Navarrete, Imam Taha Hassane, and Imam Wesley Lebrón.
Imam Lebrón, National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for WhyIslam, witnessed the nightmare families separated at the border endure when he was invited to participate in this first meeting of the Border Church and Border Mosque. As a Puerto Rican, U.S. born citizen who never experienced the hardships of immigration, he was moved by what he witnessed. He said,
“I entered Mexico and reached the border at Friendship Park and immediately noticed families speaking to each other through the tiny spaces of an enormous metal wall. They were not able to touch except for their fingers, which I later learned was the way they kissed each other.”
He described families discussing legal matters and children crying because they could not embrace a parent who traveled for days only to speak to them briefly behind the cold steel mesh partition.
“Walls are meant to provide refuge and safety from the elements and they are not meant to prevent human beings from having a better life,” he explained, “As I stood behind that wall, I felt hopeless, angry, and had many other mixed emotions for our Mexican brethren who have been completely stripped of the opportunities many of us take for granted.” During the service he addressed the crowd gathered on the Mexican side of Friendship Park and recited the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It was the first time the call was heard in Friendship Park, but not the last.
The Border Church and Border Mosque will continue to provide a joint service on the last Sunday of every month and are calling for a binational day of prayer on Sunday, October 27th. They will be joined by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and indigenous spiritual leaders to “Pray Beyond Borders.” The event will be filmed and possibly live-streamed to a global audience with the objective of raising awareness and requesting financial support to address issues related to family separation in the region.
On October 7th CAIR California with MoveOn, Faith in Action, MPower Change, and a social media team and distribution partners released the film “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” With the digital launch of this film in English and Spanish they wish to reach millions of viewers in telling the story of the Border Church and the Border Mosque and bring more faith leaders and activists on board to protect families’ right to gather. Please join them at Pray Beyond Borders – A Binational Day of Prayer – Sunday, October 27th at Friendship Park.
“when the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles” (Psalm 34:17 – NIV).
“And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]” (Qur’an 2:45)
Zahra Billoo Responds To The Women’s March Inc. Voting Her Off The New Board
Earlier tonight, I was voted off the Women’s March, Inc. national board. This followed an Islamophobic smear campaign led by the usual antagonists, who have long targeted me, my colleagues, and anyone else who dares speak out in support of Palestinian human rights and the right to self-determination.
The past 48 hours have been a spiral of bad news and smear efforts. Part of the smear campaign is motivated by opponents of the Women’s March, because the organization has traditionally challenged the status quo of power and white supremacy in our country. However, much of the campaign is driven by people who oppose me and my work challenging the occupation of Palestine, our country’s perpetuation of unjust and endless wars, and law enforcement operations targeting the American Muslim community.
The Women’s March, Inc. is an organization I once held dear. I spoke at the first march, spoke at regional marches every year after, spoke at the convention, participated in national actions including the original Kavanaugh protests, and worked to mobilize Muslim women for their efforts.
During the past few years right-wingers, from the President’s son to the Anti-Defamation League and troll armies, have targeted the Women’s March, Inc. For so long, I’ve admired their resilience in speaking truth to power, in working together, and in never cowering. Over and over again, the co-founders of Women’s March, Inc. put their lives on the line, winning power for all women in all of our diversity. The Women’s March, Inc. that voted me off its board tonight is one that no longer demonstrates the strength that inspired millions of women across the country.
To see and experience its new leaders caving to right-wing pressure, and casting aside a woman of color, a Muslim woman, a long-time advocate within the organization, without the willingness to make any efforts to learn and grow, breaks my heart. This isn’t about a lost seat, there will be many seats. The Women’s March, Inc. has drawn a line in the sand, one that will exclude many with my lived experiences and critiques. It has effectively said, we will work on some women’s rights at the expense of others.
To be clear, anti-semitism is indeed a growing and dangerous problem in our country, as is anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, ableism, sexism, and so much more. I condemn any form of bigotry unequivocally, but I also refuse to be silent as allegations of bigotry are weaponized against the most marginalized people, those who find sanctuary and hope in the articulation of truth.
In looking at the tweets in question, I acknowledge that I wrote passionately. While I may have phrased some of my content differently today, I stand by my words. I told the truth as my community and I have lived it, through the FBI’s targeting of my community, as I supported families who have lost loved ones because of US military actions, and as I learned from the horrific experiences of Palestinian life.
In attempting to heal and build in an expedited manner within Women’s March, Inc., I offered to meet with stakeholders to address their concerns and to work with my sisters on the new board to learn, heal, and build together. These efforts were rejected. And in rejecting these efforts, the new Women’s March, Inc. demonstrated that they lack the courage to exhibit allyship in the face of fire.
I came to Women’s March, Inc. to work. My body of work has included leading a chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization for over a decade, growing it now more than six-fold. In my tenure, I have led the team that forced Abercrombie to change its discriminatory employment policies, have been arrested advocating for DACA, partnered with Jewish organizations including Bend the Arc and Jewish Voice for Peace to fight to protect our communities, and was one of the first lawyers to sue the President.
It is not my first time being the target of a smear campaign. The Women’s March, Inc., more than any place, is where I would have expected us to be able to have courageous conversations and dive deep into relationship-building work.
I am happy to have as many conversations as it takes to listen and learn and heal, but I will no longer be able to do that through Women’s March, Inc. This action today demonstrates that this organization’s new leadership is unable to be an ally during challenging times.
My beliefs drive my work, and I am not seeking accolades or positions of power. These past few days have been the greatest test of that. My integrity, my truth, and my strength comes from God and a place of deep conviction. I will continue my work as a civil rights lawyer and a faith-based activist, speaking out against the occupation of Palestine and settler-colonialism everywhere, challenging Islamophobia and all forms of racism and bigotry in the United States, and building with my community and our allies in our quest to be our most authentic and liberated selves.
Onward, God willing.