Addressing the Diminishing Role of Leadership: The Mosque and the Imam

COURTESY OF YUSUF RIOS AND WWW.SUHAIBWEBB.COM

In the name of Allah, the All Hearing, the All Knowing

In 2012, Dr. Ihsan Baghby republished the 2011 report The American Mosque1 . In that research piece which seeks to map the growth, tendencies and leadership structure of the American Muslim community, there are a number of points to which I will call your attention as the subject of this da`wah (invitation to faith) reflection.

Mosques are under-staffed. Only 44% of all imams (Muslim religious leaders) are full-time and paid. Half of all mosques have no full-time staff. Program staff such as youth directors and outreach directors account for only 5% of all full-time staff.
Mosques are under-financed. While mosque attendance is higher than that of other American religious congregations, mosque budgets are less than half the budgets of other congregations. The median income for mosques is $70,000, whereas the median income of all congregations is $150,000.
The role of the imam in the mosque is evolving. In 26% of all mosques, the imam is not considered the leader, in 55% of mosques the imam is considered the leader, and 19% of mosques do not have an imam. This is a significant change from 2000, when in 40% of mosques the imam was not considered the leader, and in 41% of mosques the imam was considered the leader.
Key Points:

We can gather a number of important themes from the report as quoted above.

The roles of the imam and the mosque are evolving.
The mosque for the most part is understaffed and underfunded.
The Muslim community lacks in effective, qualified leadership.
Reflection:

Dr. Baghby’s research has chronicled major trajectories that draw our attention to the manner in which the Muslim community has grown in the US. Coupling the report with grass root experience, we gain new insights into the form and shape the community is taking. Much of the Muslim community has grown without solid leadership and with few resources for understanding of Islam. Of interest is the reality that most communities do not have a spiritual-religious guide (for lack of a better term).

The role of the imam is diminished in the overall community and increasingly, the mosque resembles a religious center more than a Prophetic institution. The days of the “strong-man” grass roots imam that was the hallmark of the Muslim African-American community have faded, and in many places they are a thing of the past. Today many communities are instead governed by the “strong board” composed of professionals with little to no Islamic training. And let us face the reality that many of our institutions are locked in a political grind that is not very productive. Couple that scene with the lack of collaborative, visionary leadership on the da’wah scene, and then we are ready to ask a series of questions.

Before moving forward I want to add a few more layers to the scenario being built here. Along with an evolving mosque lacking in funding and leadership and a da’wah platform lacking in collaborative, visionary leadership, we find our youth struggling to make sense of the world around them. A growing professional community left to itself, sincere but lacking roots in Islamic learning, and a cry for reform in the way we interpret Islam in regards to women, society, culture and other religions puts us in a very awkward space. There is no question that we are aiming to redefine ourselves and make sense of life in a new space we now call home–and seeking to do so with integrity.

The responsibility of those on the da’wah platform is to guide this process or at least guide the discourse by seeking to answer the question: Where are going? Put differently, into what are we evolving? For most of us, our responsibility is to open up the platform to engage this dialogue. But before doing so we must commit ourselves to studying Islam and the life of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) and to holding his model as a paragon for evolving the community. Without mature dialogue, humility, learning, guidance and leadership rooted in knowledge, piety and wisdom our community is headed for an evolution based on circumstance and whim.

In the Qur’an we learn the importance of dialogue among those of varying status, for Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) allowed the angels to engage a dialogue with Him (swt). According to scholars of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) this indicates that Allah (swt) teaches us to dialogue with others regardless of the station they hold in relation to us, and by extension, this teaches us the very spirit and principles of leadership.

And [mention, O Muhammad] when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.” (Qur’an, 2:30)

In a Prophetic tradition narrated by Bukhari and Muslim with their chains of transmission on the authority of Umar (radi Allahu `anhu – may God be pleased with him), the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “Actions are guided by intentions…” From this we learn that an end should guide all action. Imam ibn Abi Zaid al-Qayrawani (ra) teaches us that all actions and intention should be rooted in the Qur’an and sunnah (traditions of the Prophet ﷺ), thereby teaching us the centrality of revelation in our life on earth.

We lack a transparent vision(s) that makes clear what principles and evidences are guiding our thinking and action. In the last reflection it was mentioned that Abu Bakr (ra) as a leader had clear principles to guide his leadership. The question of leadership for that generation was highly pertinent. The question of continuity of the community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ preoccupied the community not solely for political reasons but more so from the angle of keeping the effort of Prophecy alive–that is, to guide people to the best life, to Allah (swt). In the moment of intense crisis Abu Bakr (ra) illustrated the qualities of a leader concerned with the community’s well being, and hence he is remembered today as the only companion to be recognized as the amir (leader) of the Believers and the vicegerent (khalifa) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

In the struggle for definition and existence as we aim to find a space within the broader American culture, we are tending toward loosing a sense of what a life lived as a Muslim means and entails. And we witness this reality in many adults and youth. In an environment where debate, illiteracy, conflict and confusion reign right alongside sincerity, hard work, knowledge and sacrifice, we would do well to reflect on the reality that our community was governed by volunteerism and sincerity for so long before us. Now we are in need of knowledge, mentorship, organization, wisdom, sacrifice and investment. Until that moment is seized we need to strengthen ourselves and families and support our friends in the Muslim life lived in the 21th century. And that begins with drawing near to Allah (swt), learning, practicing, being good to others and encouraging the good for others and in others. Pray and work so that we evolve into a community of iman (faith), a community of deeds and testimony, a guide for others and ourselves.

The Four Seasons

COURTESY OF MAHAM MASOUD AND WWW.SUHAIBWEBB.COM

An elder relative once said to me, “There’s joy in remembrance.” At the naive age of 10, I assumed he meant having lived a life that’s full of good memories.

Upon reflection now, I think he meant it in a different context. I think he meant the joy in doing dhikr, remembrance of Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala, exalted is He‎). Isn’t it wonderful to remember Him in all aspects of life? Because remembering Him provides us the stability our thoughts require. The barakah (blessings) our plans require. The humility His Magnificence brings in us mere mortals. We are reminded of the ayah (verse):

“Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest,” (Qur’an, 13:28).

The four seasons are just one of the many examples of such remembrance for me. Changes in the weather remind me how man has no control over the seasonal weather and how God has control over everything. The chilly winters remind me of the gratitude I should feel when I come home to a centrally heated house or the warm clothes I wear when I step out. It reminds me to not only reflect, but to also give back through donating my winter clothes or buying hot food for those in need.

After the hardship of winters comes relief in spring. The flowers and the colors in bloom, subhan’Allah (glory to God)! It makes me wonder what Paradise will be like which in reality is beyond anything we can imagine as said in the Qur’an:

“And [as for all such believers,] no human being can imagine what blissful delights, as yet hidden, await them [in the life to come] as a reward for all that they did,” (Qur’an, 32:17).

The spring reminds me of His beauty for He is al-Jameel (the Absolute Beautiful) and how He bestows His loves for us in all things beautiful. This is a blessing to have not only the outer sight but also the inner sight to recognise the sights that surround us. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) said: “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty,” [Sahīh Muslim (911)].

The summer is a time for family vacations in many countries, and festive events and the sunshine generally puts everyone in happy mode. When you fast in this heat, how do you feel? There are poor people who feel like that 365 days a year. When I apply sun block, I remember the hellfire and realise no form of protection will give me shade except for my obedience, good deeds and His Mercy.

The autumn is another palette of colors. From Johannesburg to Chicago, the colors of the fall are breathtaking. They make me stop for a moment by the neat rows of autumn trees in the pretty lanes of my neighbourhood and thank Allah (swt) that I see this sight rather than torn down buildings from drone attacks and natural disasters. Autumn also provides an opportunity to reflect on the past summer and the oncoming winters. What we achieved this year, how was our Ramadan and what can we do better in the New Year given the opportunity. Life is all about continuous improvement and gratitude. Indeed Allah (swt) says: “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor],”(Qur’an, 14:7).

May He increase us in our remembrance of Him, in gratitude, and in recognition of all the signs He sends our way for reflection.

How to Deal with a Non-Practicing Spouse

Courtesy of www.suhaibwebb.com

I want to find out what is the ruling for a practicing Muslimah whose Muslim husband does not pray except occasionally. He has tried intermittently to establish salah (prayer) but it was not consistent. He doesn’t go to the mosque and he’s never read the entire Qur’an. Before, he would combine three days at once and pray extremely fast. In the end, he gave up and it has been almost two months now. He doesn’t pray Friday prayer, but he fasts the month of Ramadan. He tells me he believes in prayer, but he is very busy with managing his business and works more than 12 hours a day. He comes back home and always gives excuses that he is extremely tired and would promise to pray the next day without fail.

I have put in much effort to encourage and motivate him, read to him ayat (verses) from the Qur’an and ahadeeth (traditions of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him). Sometimes he listens and other times he gets angry/annoyed and tells me all I talk to him about is deen (religion). He doesn’t like communicating with me about religion much and he sometimes complains about my time spent on the deen although he doesn’t mind me wearing the hijab and going to the mosque.

Before we got married, I made it clear to him that we would pray together, share our deen and raise our children according to Islam. He promised me and gave me his word, and I understood he was devout in his heart. I asked a couple of imams about this issue, and they all told me that all I should do is be motivating/encouraging and make du`a’ (supplication). I fear mostly for any children we may have, because they would be confused as to what is the truth and what they should do. This would also cause problems providing an appropriate Islamic environment at home to raise upright Muslim children.

Answer:

It sounds like when you married your husband you expected him to change and become more religious because it was important to you that you marry a religious man. You feel that he has a devout heart and wish that he would manifest his faith outwardly because you fear that if your children do not see him practice his faith they will become confused. The reality is that people will only change when it is important to them. When you chose to marry him, you chose to accept him with his strengths and weaknesses. If he chooses to pray and read Qur’an, it would be ideal for you, but you now realize you can’t control him nor change him and that your ideal is not the reality.

Your decision to marry him was based on a promise but not on the reality of where he is religiously. Despite not being religiously observant, he is encouraging you to grow religiously and does not stand in your way of spiritual growth. His relationship with Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), is a personal one and despite your well-intentioned encouragement, he may only be hearing nagging and judgment from you. He may not feel accepted by you for who he is despite his flaws, so he will continue to pull away from you because you may remind him to feel awful about himself for not praying dutifully. This negative spiral will only continue to hurt your relationship and potentially hurt your relationship with your children. The greatest gift you can give to your children is to role model empathy for your husband’s struggle. He may be inspired by your attachment to the faith and the peace it brings you. By role modeling what you wish for your husband and children, you will embody the faith in your family because your actions will “speak” louder than your words. You cannot control how your husband and children choose to practice the faith. Approach your family with tenderness and understanding as they progress in the faith and continue to rely on Allah (swt) when you have feelings of fear and anxiety.

Love: It’s What’s Missing

Courtesy of Reehab Ramadan and www.suhaibwebb.com

There is this uneasy feeling that I often get after being friendly with someone. It’s a feeling based on many experiences of misunderstanding and mistaken intentions. It is that uneasy feeling of fearing that my kindness and compassion will be mistaken as flirtation or affection by the person standing in front of me. But here’s the thing: I am a firm believer that this world lacks compassion. This world lacks love. Not the romantic or sexualized love that we are bombarded with in every book, movie and billboard. I am talking about true, genuine, love for all of humanity. The love that would allow me to go out of my way to buy my brother or sister in humanity a gift to bring a smile to his or her face, despite the hardship that he or she may be going through. The love that motivates me to check up on my brothers and sisters, because I really do care how they are doing. The love that makes me raise my hands in the middle of the night and request from the One who answers our prayers to bless my brothers and sisters in humanity with peace and light.

Why is it that the only kind of ‘love’ that comes to mind today is that of the marriage-bound, or at times not-so-marriage-bound, love? Yes, that is a type of love. Yes, that is an important kind of love. But there is another type of love that is missing in our day-to-day interactions, our hearts, and our lives. A kind of love that I am–and hopefully you will be, too, after reading this–determined to revive. A kind of love that, if spread, would revolutionize our quality of life, from the inside out.

But before I take this leap and begin to infuse this blessed emotion into all of my words and actions, let me take a moment to apologize:

I’m sorry, you misunderstood; I am not infatuated with you.

My soul is attracted to your soul, in the most platonic way possible. My heart wants what’s best for you, without gaining anything in return. My smile wants to see your smile reflected back in my eyes, not because I am “in love” with you, but because I love you, just as I love the rest of humanity.

I love you because through you, I begin to see me. I look in your eyes and I see my reflection. I love you because you just happen to be living on the same planet as me, and if I didn’t love you, I could even start to hate you. I love you because if you are hurt, a part of me is pained, because in reality we are a part of a whole; we are one. I love you because when I’m with you your state impacts my own. When you are angry and upset a part of that is reflected onto me. When you are joyous and content, the peace spreads to my soul as well. I love you because when I look at you and see your flaws, what I am really seeing are my own flaws being projected onto you. I love you because love heals wounds and makes scars vanish. I love you because without you, whether I like it or not, I would not be exactly who I am today, even if I don’t know your name. Even if I have never had a conversation with you. God placed us together on this Earth for a reason, and it was not so we could stay as far away from each other as possible. It was so that we can love each other, and through each of our love, we can begin to experience His Love—the one true Love.

Love has many faces, but we have stripped it down to only one type, and in doing this we have deprived ourselves of caring for and helping others in ways that can only be achieved by allowing His Love to shine through us. His Love and His Light.

Many of you reading may find these words too flowery, too weird or just plain absurd for your liking. If that’s the case, don’t worry. It’s okay. I love you anyway.

To be a Seeker of Miracles.

Courtesy of Lusana Ahsan and www.suhaibwebb.com

I am a believer in miracles. Yes, I was a chemistry major in college. I saw and still see this world as a conglomeration of atoms and molecules that follow the precise laws of nature in a symphony that defies the notion of miracles. I am in a profession where treatment must be evidence-based—a calculated evaluation of patient parameters where the data takes precedence over a doctor’s hunch. Yet, there are so many moments in life when I can only describe the gifts of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) as miracles—signs of His Power, Mercy and Grace.

It all started when I was a little girl in Bangladesh. I saw the servant girl removing the stems of dried pepper on the rooftop of my grandfather’s house and decided to help her. It was fun, until my hands started burning as if they were on fire. I could not stop crying. Being only five, everyone in the house was by my side as I started bawling. I sat on my mother’s lap with my hands immersed in a jug of cold water, but the burning simply would not go away. Then my grandmother had an idea. She turns to my grandfather and goes, “Why don’t you read the du`a’ (supplication) that Ibrahim `alayhi as-salaam (peace be upon him) read when he was thrown into the fire by Firawn?” So I took my hands out of the water and held them in front of Nanabhai (Grandfather) as he repeated the du`a’ of Ibrahim and blew on my fingers.

“Sufficient for us is Allah , and [He is] the best Disposer of affairs.” (Quran 3:173)

Suddenly, the pain was gone! It was not a gradual decrease of pain the way we normally expect; but an instant relief. I remember laughing in disbelief at that amazing miracle. In my five years of existence, it was the most wonderful act of God that I had ever witnessed. Subhan’Allah (Glory be to God), there is no cure like Allah’s cure. It is a beautiful memory that still lives within me today and makes me a believer in the power of du`a’.

Du`a’ is difficult to make if you do not believe in its power to be accepted. When I was five, I believed with all my heart that my Nanabhai’s du`a’ would cease the burning of my hands and alhamdulillah, (praise be to God), it did. However, as an adult, I wonder, do I still have that same pure conviction, the same reliance on Allah’s divine help?

Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an, “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein,” (Quran 50:16). Allah (swt) knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our thoughts, our fears, our desires and our hopes, and therefore, He grants us our du`a’ in a manner that is best for us. Allah (swt) responds to every du`a’, but we lack the clairvoyance to appreciate the journey that is necessary to receive the gifts that we desire.

Although we are encouraged to make du`a’ for many things, we will probably not live long enough to see the full effects of the du`a’ that we make for our children, community, and the world. Other types of du`a’ we are encouraged to make are for our afterlife: to be in the shade of Allah’s Throne on the Day of Judgment, to be entered into Jannah (Paradise), etc. Although these du`a’ are for the future, there are still times, when the answer to my du`a’ is so instantaneous that it knocks me to my knees. I end here with another story.

When I was a third-year medical student, I was observing the final moments of a woman’s delivery. After thirty hours of labor, she screamed in pain as it came to the final push to the birth of her first child. Nurses and physicians smiled as the baby was finally born and we all cocked our ears for the first cry. Except the baby did not cry. The delivery room turned chaotic as pediatric intensivists rushed in to take care of the newborn. I looked at the mother and all I could see were silent tears streaming down her face. The hope that sustained her for nine months of pregnancy and thirty hours of labor had turned to devastation in the blink of an eye. I held her hand and started making sincere du`a’. Everyone in the room was silently praying. After some agonizing minutes, the baby started breathing by the mercy of Allah (swt). Alhamdulillah. You may say it was by medical intervention, but I believe it was a miraculous response to du`a’. For every human effort there is a chance that it will fail; its success is only with the permission of Allah (swt)

With Hardship Comes Ease: Embracing Discomfort

By Ismail Sheikh. Courtesy of www.suhaibwebb.com

I cried after my first interview. It was June of 2011 and I had finally landed an interview after frantically sending out applications to prospective employers. Job-hunting had been a stressful experience as I began to feel increasingly desperate under both family and financial pressure. So when I received a call to interview on short-term notice, I happily obliged.

Without much time to prepare, I went into the interview feeling very anxious. It was a panel interview and for the first time I experienced what it was like to be “grilled” by management. The short of the long of it – it was a poor interview and the program manager scoffed at my level of preparation. I exited that interview feeling relieved it was over but terribly sad, embarrassed, and fruitlessly hopeless. Still, I adhered to interview protocol and sent a thank-you email to management, sincerely explaining to them what had happened.

Allah, the Most Exalted, is the Best of Planners.

The next week I received a call from human resources for a round two interview. Not wanting to repeat myself, I prepared well and felt relatively calm and confident. A week later, I got the job alhamdulillah (praise be to God).

Since then I have had many interviews in my attempt to climb up the career ladder. With each interview, I can sense myself feeling increasingly confident. This is vastly different than how I started out.

What have I learned from this experience? That there is growth in discomfort, uncertainty and unpredictability.

Of course there is a level of comfort in knowing; to be able to predict with certainty how life events will exactly pan out. But then life would lose purpose with no opportunities for personal, professional, and spiritual growth. I have realized that it is difficult to grow when we are in our comfort zone. Many of us prefer to stay here because we don’t want to experience the stress and anxiety of discomfort. But by doing so, we limit our potential for growth.

For many of us, the anxiety and stress is understandably unbearable. Sadly, too many of us have often been scarred in childhood—emotionally beaten down rather than being built up. Experiences in adulthood are a microcosm of this earlier life where we never truly learnt how to carry discomfort, to manage our anxiety and learn to soothe ourselves while moving through life. Consequently, we find safety in avoidance.

It is easy to forget that once upon a time, in our attempts to walk and run as toddlers, we had to embrace falling and bruising ourselves. Instead, the relationship many of us have with our discomforts, as a result of trials and tribulations, uncertainty and unpredictability, is negative. Rather than viewing them as windows for opportunity, we fall into hopelessness and despair.

However, the idea of growth through discomfort is not novel. Fourteen hundred years ago, the concept was revealed in the Qur’an, where Allah, the Most Exalted, says, “With difficulty comes ease,” (Qur’an 94:6). Hence, facing discomfort in this life is inevitable; what is important is how we view this discomfort and respond to it. If a moment of discomfort for a believer brings them closer to Allah, is that not a sign of growth? It is essential to also mention here that Allah will never burden you with more than you can handle, as taught to us in the Qur’an when Allah says, “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear…” (Qur’an 2:286).

The reality is that we need to embrace our healthy share of uncomfortable experiences in this life. A simple but effective way of doing this is finding one thing in life that makes us a little anxious and embracing it. For instance, maybe someone is socially anxious and has difficulty having conversations with people. If this is something they want to change, a starting point could be greeting at least one person at the local mosque or in the neighborhood. This is not done with the hope of having a positive outcome (as this may not happen). Rather, the idea is to embrace the discomfort that comes with stepping out of the comfort zone for a moment. With time, the discomfort faced will, God willing, pave the way for learning, reflection, and growth.

How to Overcome Sadness and Be Happy

Courtesy of Taheerah Alam www.suhaibwebb.com

So should I be thankful for the good clothes I wear or the Gucci bag I carry? Maybe the good food I can eat? Oh wait, what about the opportunity to study at a reputable university or being employed at a good company? Hey, did I mention my caring and wonderful parents or my cool siblings who are my best friends? Hold on, I completely forgot about the blessing of Islam in my life; How Allah guided my heart to His path! AlhamdulilLah (praise be to God).

Tired of counting already?!

No wonder Allah said in the Qur’an that if we were to count the favors of Allah, we will not do justice to even one favor! (14:34)

Yes, we are all struggling with something and I feel ya, my brother/sister in Islam. Maybe it’s been months and you are still looking for a decent job. Maybe you are a single brother/sister struggling to fight off temptations while there seems to be no progress in the ‘marriage’ part of your life and you are tired of searching for that ‘right’ person. Maybe you have been trying for years and still with no success in conceiving a baby. It could be anything. Anything that makes you feel that sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. A gap between what you desire to happen and what is happening in reality. And I feel your pain and I will never underestimate it.

But brothers and sisters, I request you all to take concrete steps to change your situation. Do something about it right now! You know how?

“…If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]…” (Qur’an, 14:7)

Here’s how:

Shift your focus.
Pay attention to the wonderful things you have, as opposed to what you don’t have.
Believe me, you will get lost in the counting of those blessings even if you’re a math expert!

And then, when you genuinely appreciate the blessings you enjoy and, in turn, appreciate how Merciful He, your Lord, has always been to you, He will do as promised inshaAllah (God willing); He will increase you in various ways in life. Trust me, with a positive and grateful mindset, you will feel His barakah (blessing) in your life constantly and that will make you a much happier human being. You will enjoy the days and nights of this fleeting life that doesn’t want to slow down! You will kick away depression from your life and make way for activism and energy!

And most importantly, you will be able to remember your Lord consistently and His consciousness will become ingrained in your lifestyle inshaAllah. What a wonderful way to worship the One to whom we owe everything!

But then you might be thinking “how” exactly do I show this gratitude? Is it just repeating “thank you God” every time I buy a Louis Vuitton bag?

That too and maybe something more. The best way to be grateful for Allah’s favors is to use them for things that make Him happy.

So you’re good in accounting? Help someone to do their homework. You love writing? Use your beautiful words to inspire people to Allah’s deen (religion). Maybe Allah blessed you with wealth so you can buy all the good stuff alhamdulilLah. Why not buy something nice and gift it to a poor person once in a while? And you can be as creative as you want! The list is endless. But you get the point inshaAllah.

Come on fellas. It’s time to be positive. It’s time to be grateful. It’s time to act.

And always remember this motto no matter what you go through in life:

“An attitude of gratitude is what is truly needed!” – Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan

Stay blessed.

Thanks, but No Thanks: Imam Ghazali on Gratitude

Courtesy of Abid Mohammad and www.suhaibwebb.com

Being grateful is something that we all know is a virtuous quality. Lecture after lecture has been delivered on the subject of “showing thanks to God for His favors.” Articles have been written to encourage us to “recognize His blessings,” and “be grateful for what God has given us.” We are continuously reminded of how little appreciation we show for the fact that many of us have food on our table, a roof over our heads and relative peace and security in our lives. This discussion almost always takes place in the context of experiencing trials and tribulations, and I couldn’t agree more. There is a lot of room for improvement for many of us when it comes to gratitude. When the going gets tough, we should strive to avoid going towards ingratitude.

Yet, part of me always has always wondered—is gratitude an emotion to be experienced exclusively during times of hardship? And what are many of us actually grateful for? The gifts or the Giver? These may seem like easy questions to answer, but the next time you come across “gratitude,” be it as a topic of a discussion or an emotion you experience, I want you to pay close attention to the circumstances in which it arises and where exactly your heart lies. Does your heart only show thanks when it is pushed against the wall? And even then, does it only find happiness and peace intrinsically in the gifts of this world (albeit with some acknowledgement that God is the Giver), like a child who loses their favorite Buzz Lightyear toy, only to be consoled by the fact that he still has his awesome Optimus Prime helmet that his dad gave him for ‘Eid last year? Or does your heart delight in the fact that it can use those very gifts to draw nearer to Him and that the gifts, themselves, are meaningless?

In his Ihya `Ulum Al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Imam Al-Ghazali draws a beautiful analogy in trying to show the different form of gratitude that people express:

“Let us give an example. We say that a king who desires to make a journey grants a man in his entourage a favor in the form of a horse. He imagines that the man to whom it is granted will be delighted with the horse for three reasons. Firstly, he will be delighted because it is a horse and because it has monetary value which can be of benefit to him; because he can use it for riding and that suits his purpose; and because it is a valuable racer as well. This kind of joy is for one who has no interest in the king, his interest is only in the horse. Had he found the horse in a desert, he would have taken it and his joy would have been similar to this joy.

“The second kind of joy is when he delights in it, not because it is a horse, but because he infers the care of the king expressed in it, and his [the king's] compassion for him. Had he found the horse in the desert, or someone other than the king had given it to him, he would not really be happy with it because, in principle, he has no need of the horse and it is of no significance to him compared to his desire to have a place in the heart of the king.

“The third kind of joy is when the servant delights in the horse in order to ride it, to go out in the service of the king and bear the toil of the journey in his service and to obtain the rank of nearness to the king. Perhaps he will be promoted to the position of a minister, because he is not content that his position in the heart of the king should be limited to his [the king's] giving him a horse and caring for him only to this degree. Rather he does not want the king to convey the [favors] from his wealth on anyone. Except through him. Yet, he does not want the ministry for the sake of the ministry, rather he wants to see the king and be near him. If he had to choose between this proximity to him without the ministry and the ministry without proximity, he would choose proximity.

“These are the three levels [of joy]. In the first, there is no thankfulness at all because the vision of the one possessing it [this level of joy] is confined to the horse and his joy lies in the horse, not in the one who gave it. This is the state of all those who are made happy by a blessing because of the pleasure of it and because it is agreeable to their purpose. This is far from the meaning of thankfulness. The second [kind] enters the definition of thankfulness in that the person delights in the giver but not exactly because of him [the giver], rather, because of the knowledge of his care; this incites [the person] to seek favor in the future. This is the state of the righteous, who worship God and are thankful to Him for fear of His punishment and hope for His reward.

“Perfect thankfulness is found only in the third kind of joy. It is when the joy of the servant in the blessing of God (exalted is He) is because it enables him to reach a place of proximity to Him (exalted is He), to reside in His companionship, and enjoy the vision of His countenance continually! This is the highest level [of attainment]. Its characteristic is joy in this world only for what it is, a field under cultivation for the Hereafter and the means to assist him to it. He grieves at every blessing that diverts him from the remembrance of God (exalted is He) and turns him away from His path. He does not desire the blessing because it is pleasurable, just as the possessor of the horse does not desire the horse because it is a racer or an ambler, but because it carries him in company with the king, that he may continue to see the king and be near him.

“Thus Shibli (may God grant him mercy) said, ‘Thankfulness is the vision of the Bestower, not the vision of the blessing.’”1

May God enable us to show continuous gratitude towards Him, as best as we can, so that He will give us even more (Quran, 14:7), and so that we can use that more to draw nearer to Him. May He enable us to be amongst the “few” who are “thankful” (Qur’an, 34:13) and may He protect us from being amongst “most human beings” who “do not give thanks” (Qur’an, 2:243) and the terrible punishment that they face (Quran, 14:7).

When recognizing His gifts, may He empower us to say, as Sulaiman (`alayhi assalam, peace be upon him) said, “…This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous,”(Qur’an, 27:40).

Combating the Disease: Materialism and its Effects

Courtesy of Safia Latif and www.suhaibwebb.com

Rows of colorful handbags repose on shelves and display tables around me. They boast of their structured silhouettes and textured leathers: boarskin, saffiano, patent. But these are not just any handbags. Carefully embossed in the center in glossy patent black or lined in gold, the words of the designer brand catch the eye of even the most timid shopper.

The brand, a multi-million dollar high-end fashion company and daughter of a multi-billion dollar global corporation—caters to the world’s sophisticated elite. Handbags, accessories, and clothing are specially designed for a particular type of woman: the career woman on a mission, who gracefully flags down taxis and makes important business meetings just in the nick of time—all while modeling the latest haute couture and thousand-dollar handbag. She is fun, playful, and smart. But most importantly, she is rich.

This fashion house, like any other global brand, capitalizes on our naivety—our false belief that somehow a glamorous new handbag can solve our problems. Worse yet, it fools real working-class Americans into thinking that they too, can be worth a million dollars. You can be a celebrity so long as you acquire this superfluous material item most likely manufactured in China for a fraction of American minimum wage yet sold at the price of an average car payment. The shattering reality, however, carries deep social ramifications.

Last year, I lived abroad in Egypt where I studied Arabic at Alexandria University. When I returned to the States, I began the tedious process of applying to jobs. Egypt—where socioeconomic problems run rampant and a large portion of society visibly lives below the poverty line—had rendered me disillusioned with modernity and materialism. So one can imagine what a painful process it was to go from life in a developing country to the shiny interior of a wealthy corporation. I became a temporary employee at the above mentioned company to make, as one of my co-workers thoughtfully put it, “fun money,” while I pursued other more long-term enterprises.

I began work, detached and aloof yet resolute in my antipathy towards consumer culture. I hated the slew of handbags and their patina of false promises. I observed as customers attempted to trade in their personal problems for a new designer purse. One woman confabulated with me about a death in the family. She had recently come into money and decided to treat herself. Another woman also lamented over the loss of a family member. This evidently prompted a shopping spree. She bought four purses and a wallet and trying to justify her lavish expenditure stated matter-of-factly, “I needed retail therapy.”

My co-workers and managers, also puppets of a deceitful corporate puppeteer, cautiously pick up various handbags in the store, and as if children, cradle them longingly. Every particular purse has a name. Eerily, they are treated like animate objects, virtually assuming human value.

“I love this little guy,” my co-worker says, eying a pebbled cowhide neon green purse. “Little Curtis is my faaavorite.” Another popular piece, the “Beau Bag” or “boyfriend” bag replaces the need for male companionship. It is, according to the official fashion brand’s website, “the ideal companion to tote around town.”

Sales associates, like at most corporate companies, are paid minimally with little health benefits. Pressured into buying products, as the company demands that employees model the name brand at work, associates find their already meager paychecks further diminished. Duped by the illusion that employee discounts actually save them money, they end up spending more in the long run. One manager, a young dainty single mother, struggles to make ends meet every month. Although she works full-time, managing unseemly hours and forsaking invaluable time with her three-year-old daughter, she complains mournfully of having to eat ramen noodles for dinner. As American social critic, Chris Hedges contends in his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

“The wild pursuit of status and wealth has destroyed our souls and our economy. Families live in sprawling mansions financed with mortgages they can no longer repay. Consumers recklessly rang up Coach handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes on credit cards because they seemed to confer a sense of identity and merit. Our favorite hobby, besides television, used to be, until reality hit us like a tsunami, shopping. Shopping used to be the compensation for spending five days a week in tiny cubicles. American workers are ground down by corporations that have disempowered them, used them, and have now discarded them.”

In an age of capitalist fantasy and materialism, Hedges’s words ring painfully true. The upshot is unavoidable. Societal ills are tempered with and all together forgotten for a beguiling fantasy world that aims to encroach upon even the most fervent iconoclasts. Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad also preaches against materialism. In a scholarly essay, he notes:

“When we forget who we are, so radically, the protection begins to be withdrawn, and we are at the mercy of the material world, which we now trust and love more than we trust and love God.”

That God should become secondary to our materialistic pursuits is a very real scare. We see it happening in our local Muslim communities. Muslim families compete over luxurious homes and fancy cars. Intrinsic value is measured monetarily by occupation and financial status rather than moral and spiritual conduct. Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), warns against this precarious state in surah Al-Takathur: “Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you. Until you visit the graveyards,” (Qur’an, 102:1-2). The reality—cold and difficult to swallow—reminds us that all trivial pursuits end in permanent privation. The middle path, however, can be hard to find.

Lately I have nurtured a radical desire to withdraw from the modern world, and become somewhat of an ascetic. Although many of my friends candidly pointed out severe flaws in this plan, I still struggle to maintain a balance between love of this world and love of the next. Shamefully I must admit that, despite all my attempts in resisting the urge, I am not immune to the sparkly consumer allure of this fashion house. I purchased my first leather handbag a few weeks ago. I can’t say that I am any happier than I was before. But I can say with every certainty, that money would have been better spent elsewhere. In the future, it might do well for me as well as everyone else battling the pathology of consumer culture to remember the beautiful adage attributed to the Prophet Jesus, alayhi as-salaam, blessings be upon him:

“The world is a bridge; so pass over it to the next world, but do not try to build on it.”

The Callers Epiphany

By Yadira Thabatah. Courtesy of www.suhaibwebb.com

“And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided” (Qur’an, 2:186)

As reverts, we share several common challenges. Many of us have felt the sting of loneliness, lived with the despair of rejection, and experienced our share of disillusionment. We’ve been caught in the trap of desperation and many of us have even questioned our decision.

For those of us who have forged ahead on this beautiful arduous path also share the same desire to worship and seek the pleasure of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He). We strive to embrace our identity as Muslims and gain balance in our lives through our Islam. As reverts, we also have found ourselves fervently searching for our place in the vast expanse of this ummah (global Muslim community). For many, this taxing search for acceptance has left us feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood by the very community we yearn to be a part of. Yet, it is in these moments of confusion, disappointment, and hopelessness that we should look to strengthen our relationship with Allah (swt). It is in these trying times that we should hold fast to the promises Allah (swt) has given us.

Often times, the voices of pained reverts will echo through what seems to be a hollow community. The cries for help and support seem to reverberate off of unyielding barriers only to return to the despondent crier. Many times, it seems our inquiries will never be heard and we are left wondering why the ummah fails to notice us. I myself have been in this very predicament.

When I first entered a masjid (mosque), my experience was disastrous. Not only was I a revert coming from a very different background, I also was facing the congregation as a blind Muslim. I endured a degrading experience that included women speaking to me as if I were a child. Their words were spoken very slowly and loudly. They seemed to panic whenever I made an attempt to move at all and honestly treated me as if I was the next good deed to acquire in their account. A few of them went as far as encircling me and demanding to watch how I prayed. They insisted that I was doing it wrong and that I needed to be promptly corrected. Now, I believe that these women did not act with malicious intent and pray that Allah (swt) grants them His mercy, but I was not treated like a dignified human being.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/joseherme/8342915856/In response to my trauma, I left the masjid and never returned. I did not abandon my beliefs but I did not integrate myself into a masjid. It is only now that I realize how grave this mistake truly was. Rather than questioning myself about what I could do to improve my situation, I allowed my feelings of humiliation guide my actions. I allowed myself to be swayed by hurt and anger, and crumbled under the pressure of this test. I didn’t follow my soul’s innate inclination towards Allah (swt) and became tainted by the worldly poisons of anguish and despair.

Unfortunately, I cannot regain the time I wasted feeling hurt and reveling in blaming everyone else. Yes, the ummah has a responsibility to make every Muslim feel welcomed and loved; However, simply blaming others for our trials will never solve anything. Life has taught me that if one desires change to come, one must approach situations with a positive and proactive mind and heart. We must learn to place our faith in Allah (swt) and know that he will always ease our pain and make a way for us to thrive.

Whenever our cries for help seem to fall upon unhearing ears, we must remind ourselves that Allah (swt) always hears our call. We cannot expect the world to solve our problems. Instead, we should rely on Allah (swt) to be our sustainer. If our issues are too grand then we should ask Allah (swt) to grant us the strength, wisdom and clarity to overcome them. We should take our experiences and use them as a tool to positively impact this beautiful ummah Allah (swt) has blessed us with. Yes, it is flawed and yes, it can be hurtful, but simply dwelling on our bitter ordeals will not improve anyone’s life; not even our own. As difficult as it may be to accept, Allah (swt) will only give us what is allotted for us. Whether our personal situations are good, bad, or indifferent, we can ultimately thrive through the will and grace of Allah (swt). It is up to us to open our hearts to Allah (swt), place our complete faith in him, and trust that he knows best.