Sister Intisar Shah: QAAMS

QAAMS

Intisar Shah is one of the most recognisable and respected members of the Philadelphia Muslim community. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, she accepted Islam in 1973. Some people have described Intisar Shah as a rock of the community, but she is more than that; she’s a gemstone who has been polished through perseverance, faith, and dedication to her community.

While small in stature, sister Intisar has a calm and commanding presence that is respected by everyone. Qasim Rashad highlights Intisar’s positive attitude, explaining, “She has an ability to make you feel the world cares about you while at the same time she is as candid and truthful as they come.” Perhaps it’s her mid-Atlantic dialect, with traces of Southern warmth, or that Philly swagger, which transcends age, that makes it so easy for people of all ages to relate to her. She acknowledges, “I work with both ends, the youth and elders, and the adults in between.”

 

For over 40 years, sister Intisar has worked with inner city youth. Keziah Ridgeway, educator, writer, and Philly fashionista, relates, “I still remember her work with the youth back when I was in high school and it doesn’t seem that she’s slowed down one bit as she grows older.” Intisar lives just one block from United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, one of the city’s most active Muslim communities. Qasim Rashad, Amir of United Muslim Masjid, notes, “Everyone that knows sister Intisar knows she loves her community, her people and the youth.” She considers the Muslim community her family and the masajid across Philadelphia home. Intisar recounted her youth, “I came from a family of very motivated leaders. My mother fought for community rights and a clean neighbourhood. She always had an extra plate at the table for a stranger, for anyone that may drop by.” Intisar’s most meaningful work is linked to turning personal tragedy into blessings for the youth and Philadelphia Muslim community as a whole.

 

One of the great testaments to her faith and dedication to Islamic education is the life of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul-Majeed Staten. Like his mother and father, Sam Staten Sr., Qa’id devoted much of his time to volunteering in the community. Despite his youth, Qa’id inspired others around him and even began his own organisation. When I asked her what the key was to raising such a devout, thoughtful, and inspirational young man, Intisar stated that every child needs discipline and order. She said, “I am a believer in being firm, but first and foremost, I always tried to put Allah I in the front of our life.” Intisar, like her mother, opened her home to others and almost every night three to a half dozen of her son’s friends spent the night. She said, “Everything I did with our son and his friends was to always let them know the role that they played as men in our community. They should be God-fearing, make prayer, and call their families to prayer.” She also stressed the importance of her son’s Islamic education in shaping his character. Intisar highlighted how Clara Muhammad School was a safe haven compared to many public schools in Philadelphia, which are plagued by drugs and violence.

Qa’id had plans to attend Howard University on scholarship but on April 27, 2003, just a few weeks short of his graduation, he was fatally shot by a robber. During Qa’id’s funeral, a group of young adults who knew him decided to create an organisation that honoured his generosity and service to the community by also giving back to the community through a hajj fund. Intisar said, “My son and two of his friends made intention to make hajj the same year that he graduated. I went to perform the rites for my son and those two young men were the first recipients to hajj scholarship.” The youth formed The Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten (QAAMS) Hajj Foundation.

 

Sister Intisar Shah has been an integral part of QAAMS since its inception. This year, QAAMS celebrated its 10th anniversary and now has a youth council and senior council. The organisation seeks to preserve our youth through spirituality, education and recreation. Qasim Rashad says that there are over a dozen youth actively involved in the QAAMS youth council, which provides a healthy alternative to children who have outgrown the Jawaala (for boys 7 to 17) and Muslimah Scouts (for girls 6 to 16). QAAMS organises ski trips, hosts iftars during Ramadan and feeds the hungry with organisations, such as Feeding Philly. QAAMS also organises and sponsors Family Night at United Muslim Masjid and collaborates with the Muslim Students Associations in Philadelphia through events aimed at the youth, such as open mic poetry. QAAMS continues to sponsor hajj tours. About 11 members have performed hajj to this date. Many of the youth council members are currently starting college and are looking forward to performing hajj.

 

Most of the original members of QAAMS are now in their late 20s and have been involved with the organisation for about a decade. Intisar said that many are active in the community and restructuring the organisation. The youth who started QAAMS, she says, “ Are now married, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, Bachelors, Masters, entrepreneurs, working in a variety of fields from health to social services.”

 

Organisations like QAAMS are so important for our community because they nurture and empower our youth, creating safe environments for them to flourish spiritually. Both Keziah Ridgeway and Qasim Rashad highlight how many of QAAMS’ members continue to give back to the community. At the QAAMS 10th anniversary gala, they didn’t need big name speakers. Instead, members inspired attendees by speaking about how their lives have been impacted by QAAMS and hajj. Intisar related that QAAMS is working on obtaining a building. She said, with a physical location “we can create safe quarters for the Muslim youth. So people can come and be educated about Islam, have social programs and be safe.” By working through QAAMS, Intisar is committed to building the Islamic community and creating opportunities for the youth, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 

This past May, Intisar received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Sister’s Recognition Luncheon and Fashion Show, which is sponsored by United Muslim Masjid. Intisar was acknowledged for her work; she has given over 40 years of service to the private and public sectors. She is the Executive Director of QAAMS Hajj Foundation, active in Jewels of Islam (a comprehensive program and support network for women 50 years and older), a Board Member of Islamic Heritage Foundation, and Committee Member for the City-Wide Eid. In addition to her work with QAAMS, she has also coordinated countless youth and adult activities for the Philadelphia Muslim community. Keziah Ridgeway highlights Intisar’s involvement and abilities as a facilitator, explaining, “When I participated in the Islamic Heritage Foundation Youth Committee and attended related events I always remember how involved Sis. Intisar was with participating and being the glue to hold it all together.”

 

Sister Intisar’s community building is not limited to the Muslim community; she also works in the broader public sector as an active member of Mothers In Charge (for women who lost family and loved ones due to violence), Support Community Outreach Program, and the Equal Partners in Charge, Department of Human Services Community Prevention Services. She also researches and writes with a joint effort for the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program in the Department of Health and Human Services promoting abstinence programs.

 

Women like Intisar are the backbone of our community. It is clear that she does her work out of love and to please her Lord. Qasim Rashad notes, “I think the most important lesson that any person can learn from Intisar is consistency. Her undying love and commitment to our community has not permitted her to waiver one bit. “Through her dedication, she has become an effective and influential leader. Keziah Ridgeway explains, “As a result of seeing her hard work and dedication, it inspired me to continue to give back to my community in whatever way that I can whether that be through the students that I teach, the girls I mentor through Alimah Scouts or online through my website and social media!”

 

Intisar’s community work following her son’s tragic death is a perfect example of how we can find strength through hardship. We often go to lectures and hear about how we should be steadfast and not despair. In the past, I have often asked myself ‘how?’ We have so many inspiring reminders in the Qur’an, such as the following verse where Allah I tells us: “Oh you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Al Imraan: 200)

 

Looking to Intisar’s life and hearing accounts of how she remained steadfast, I am reminded of the follow verse: “But give glad tidings to the patient. Who, when afflicted with calamity, say: “Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah: 155-156)

Some recounted the strength Intisar demonstrated during her son’s funeral, and she continues to have so much patience and grace when faced with hardship or struggle. Intisar says, “I am thankful to Allah I to be His servant. I am thankful that my son accepted Islam as a way of life. And I pray that Allah I is pleased with him. I really want to please Allah I. So I pray that I can meet him in Jannat al Firdous.” Sister Intisar has shown me how I can better embody the Qur’an and Sunnah in my life; how I can turn whatever hardship I face into a lifetime of meaningful work.

 

You can find more information about Intisar Shah’s work by visiting QAAMS’ Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/QAAMS2003, or their website, http://www.qaamshajjfoundation.blogspot.com.

 

Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, blogger, and writer who lives just outside of Philadelphia.

 

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet.  Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death. As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds.   Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam  due to different political, cultural, and religious orientations. Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under two million. This still represents a significant number. CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (i.e. Bosnia) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger. Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

In America, there is fierce competition over resources which has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term, “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class, and religion, but also with its relationship with blackness.   However Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the America, even predating the formation of the United States. There are  also Sunni communities dating back to the 60s, such as Dar al-Islam movement. Some communities have origins much earlier, such as Quba Institute with roots in the 1930s Izideen village in New Jersey. Yet, consistently, there continues to be a portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion, with only internationalist interests. For over a century, some Black Americans have looked to African cultural legacies, addressed local issues, and have maintained transnational networks and ties, to articulate religious thought that is African, Islamic, and uniquely American.

While it is true that Black American Muslims were often drawn to Islam in an attempt to articulate their own cultural identity outside of the dehumanizing ascribed identity of Black inferiority, Black American Islam is thoroughly embedded in the American tradition. From the proto-Islam movements of the early 20th century, to the Black separatist movements of the 1960s, heterodox communities, and orthodox communities with leaders from or trained abroad, many Muslim communities sought to address social ills in America and globally. In particular, racism, economic and social inequality, economic exploitation, and family instability are on the main agenda of many Black American Muslim leaders. Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Americans, including Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraaj Wahaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americaness. The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrant and descendant of immigrant Muslims Americans to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of immigrant Muslims. Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are  vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.  They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially, and culturally. This includes two Black Congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, and Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam,  Sherman Abdul-Hakeem Jackson, and Zaid Shakir. There are also many young scholars, such as Jamilah Karim, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and Intisar Rabb. There is a large wave of Black American Muslim leaders who have demonstrated mastery of Islamic sciences and have graduated from Muslim institutions of higher learning, including Abdullah Ali, who earned a degree from  Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes. Black American Muslims have made cultural gains including a feature length film, “Mooz-lum,” and prominent Hip Hop artists, including but not limited to Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).  The Abdullah brothers shared their story of taking time off from from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer,  Ibtihaj Muhammad, was the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in an international competition and win a medal. Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims have used their social capital to critique American foreign policy, Islamophobia, and erosion of American civil liberties. As a group, Black American Muslims are far from nativists, as many identify with and relate to  numerous international and transnational Muslim communities. They are much more likely to attend a mosque in which another group dominates, showing their willingness to assimilate into an immigrant dominant mosque. Black American Muslims participate anti-war protests, critique extra-judicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet  pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence, and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty, and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

Perhaps the flexibility of thought can be tied to the Black American  Muslim identity, which is comprised of multiple intersections.  They are connected to many faiths and ethnic groups as part of this nation building project that we call United States of America. They are connected to many faiths and people who were either forcibly or willingly migrated to other lands  as part of the African Diaspora. They find connections with people on the African continent, and Black communities in South America and the Caribbean. They are also connected to people all over the world in  a multi-ethnic global community,  ummah. These connections have given Black American Muslims a unique juncture to relate to and speak on various issues and causes. Black American thinkers continue to be influential in defining American Muslim thought, as they connect their day to day lives with Muslims globally.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars, and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections.  The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevancy of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this  intellectual heritage.  Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought. I look forward to the next wave of scholars who study Black American Muslims, such as Donna AustonZaheer Ali, and others who will shed light on roots of Black American Islam. These scholars can help us look at the ways in which Black American Muslims drew upon their intersecting identities in their interpretations of textual traditions in ways that address their global and local issues. I look forward to future studies of our rich intellectual traditions and the insights  that these brilliant scholars can bring to the discussion about American Islam.

Pilgrimage for Life

Pilgrimage for life
Like many converts, I was drawn to Islam’s egalitarian message. Through Muslim student groups on college campuses and community life in various masajid,  I developed close friendships with Muslim women from all parts of the world. We were brought together by our mutual love for Allah and His Messenger.  The bonds that I developed with some of them gave me a sense of real belonging and acceptance that I had not felt with my high school friends and even member of my own family. But there were also  times when those cross cultural encounters brought to light some unsettling realities of racism and colorism. But by addressing our shortcomings we can meet the challenge and create communities that are more closely aligned with the example set by our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

Although language and cultural differences can create challenges to forming social bonds, perceptions of race and ethnic identity can have the greatest impact on how well some women are received by a community.  When asked how her ethnic identity influenced her integration into the Muslim community, Keziah. S. Ridgeway, an African American  high School Social Studies teacher, responded that her outgoing personality helped bridge the cultural divide. She noted, “however, as time wore on I did realize that many of the people that I hung out with had biases towards people who looked like myself.”  Safiyyah, a white American convert, said that her ethnicity as an Ashkenazi Jew influenced her integration because some Muslims were suspicious of her and others denied her cultural identity. She added that by extension of her African American husband, she has experienced discrimination. “We rarely get invited to the homes of immigrant Muslims. This is despite the fact that the Muslims in our mosque know us very well, and that my husband and I are active in our mosque.” Some argue that this is old world thinking and they place their hopes on the next generation.

In many Islamic schools, students socialize along racial lines,   repeating the social patterns of their own racially segregated Muslim communities. The language that many of the Arab American students use alienates a number of African American students. Kezia highlighted the common usage of the word abeed (Arabic for slave) to refer to African Americans. She said,  “their parents use it on a regular basis to describe African Americans. To them it’s just a cultural term and many don’t understand why it evokes anger from their Black counterparts.” In a Michigan school, when two weekend school teachers disciplined a child for using the term, the parents came to the child’s defense. Islamic schools are often a crucible for race relations in our ummah.

The sad reality in our Islamic schools and segregated communities contrasts with the egalitarian message that we find in the Qur’an, which says:

“O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.” (49:13).

The Prophet (PBUH) said during his farewell pilgrimage:

Oh humankind, your Lord is one and your ancestors are one. You are from Adam and Adam was from dust. Behold, neither the Arab has superiority to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black nor the black to the red except by virtue of piety (taqwa). Truly the most distinguished amongst you is the most pious

Yet, Muslims old and young are often stereotyped and categorized by their ethnic background and color of their skin.

Some have argued that the colorism and racism we find in the Muslim ummah is due to colonization. Yet, we can find even in classical Islamic literature racial hierarchies. Ibn Khaldun wrote disparaging of sub-Saharan Africans as lacking intellect. A famed Andalusian poetess, Hafsah Ar-Rukaniyyah  (1190-1191) asked Abu Jaffar how could he love a Black woman, ”Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty/
And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face?” In the chapter on marriage in the Revival of the Religious Sciences,  Imam Ghazali wrote, “a black woman is better than a barren beautiful women,” implying that black women cannot be beautiful. Blacks were assumed to not have status in Arab society. This was reflected in some classical positions where a man could marry a black woman as a guardian. Their documentation  points to how Muslims fall short of our ideals. Blind acceptance of social norms and customs perpetuate ignorance and bias. Ethnic chauvinism leads to arrogance and robs us of our ability to see the inherent value and beauty of each human being.

Like racism, colorism is a blight in our community.  I found the traces of colorism in my students’ creative writing projects as they wrote about protagonists with skin as white as milk. Dark skin has been looked down upon in many Muslim societies through the ages. And now, there is a huge market playing into fears and insecurities.  Some halal and international markets in the US are stocked with bleaching cream. There are young girls who fear playing outside lest they become black and ugly.   Girls and women with curly and kinky hair struggle with issues of self worth and shame because they can’t tame their curls into submission. The standard of beauty is centered around pale skin and straight hair, with as European features as possible. An international student from the Gulf suggested that I pinch my daughter’s nose to make it grow straight and pointy. She recently expressed a desire to have work done on her own nose.  The frequent comments about my daughter’s fair complexion and the Muslim obsession with European features makes me shudder to think about what type of self image will my curly haired, button nosed daughter have in the Muslim community. While living in abroad, one friend said that in the West there are many types of beauty, but in Egyptian society there was one standard. It worries me that we use veiled rhetoric about liberating ourselves from western standards of beauty with hijab, all the while embracing notions of beauty that are just as oppressive, if not more. The beauty regime of whitening and straightening continues even as the society becomes more outwardly religious.

Challenging beauty norms or patterns of racism in our community can seem daunting for the individual.  Muslim womanSafiyyah said to “Remember all the Qur’an and ahadith that speaks out against racism” and “defend victims of racism when it occurs.” Citing the example of the “We’re All Abeed of Allah” campaign, which uses T-shirts and wristbands to deliver their message, Kezia argued that Muslims must unite and form coalitions to change racial perceptions. Her role as an educator, activist,  and Muslim fashion blogger places her in a special position to address these changes through education and meaningful dialogue.  Both women point the power of women’s voices. We need to speak up and against expressions racism and colorism. The disease of prejudice that plagues our community can be cured if enough of us create a stigma against violating the prophetic example.

You can read the full article and other thoughtful pieces at Sisters Magazine  January 2013 edition “All the Colours of the Ummah”

Waqf

After reading a post on Why Don’t Our Mosques Pay for Themselves,  I posted this on my tumblr account:

I found this article by Muhammad Ashour cross posted on Steven Zhou’s blog. Hat tip to Steven Zhou for his thoughtful analysis on issues pertaining to Canadian Muslims and the Middle East.  Ashour’s article  is definitely a timely read and something that supports what I’ve been saying about the new mosque leadership.  Ashour brings up important issues of transparency when it comes to how funding is applied in various masajid and the need for social ventures in order to fund masjid operations. We had a such thing in history, the religious endowment or waqf. Unfortunately, Muslims are largely detached from their own history because either they think they are too forward thinking to look at pre-modern institutions or they deny the relevancy of any social institution or Muslim practice that can not be directly found in the Qur’an and Sunnah. But the religious endowment is an absolutely important institution that helped provide social services and humanitarian aid, supported students, and kept many masajid afloat. The only problem is that these days, Muslims want to see immediate returns on their investment rather than raising enough funds to start an endowment and then building. We keep fundraising for a new parking lot, or an addition, or to pay for a full time imam. Investing in an endowment results in sadaqah jariyah, but I’ll leave the fiqh issues to the scholars. Anyways, let’s start thinking long term folks!

My knowledge about the Waqf came from my Ottoman studies in undergraduate and graduate school. In a lecture I gave at Philadelphia mosque a few years ago I told the audience  The pious endowments, or Waqf, played an important role in Ottoman economic and social life.  Considered one of the highest of good deeds a Muslim could perform, it consisted of helping other people. Often the waqfs supports hospitals, bridges, baths, inns, hospitals, and markets. The wealthier the individual, the grander the waqf. Many of the audience members were elders, so they had gone through the transition from Nation of Islam to Orthodox Islam in 1975. They recalled that the mosque owned property and back then there were several thriving businesses. But much of this was dismantled during the later years of W.D. Muhammad. One audience member mentioned that there was still community property, they just had to figure out what to do next. I know there are many communities that look to buy property and develop it, and I have heard positive things about another Philadelphia community called Masjidullah. Unfortunately the website is down and I haven’t made it out that way. But they seem to have a lot of programming and I have been told they have a greater amount of transparency when it comes to their allocation of funds. Similarly, I have heard of other communities with development projects in the works, one lead by Imam Okasha in Southwest Philadelphia and another Masjid al Madinah in Supper Darby.  I don’t know if these communities have a long term vision of creating endowments or whether or not they have their vision grounded in the Islamic tradition of waqf. But it would be interesting to explore that in a series of interviews. I guess I have another possible research topic at hand.

But going back to my original quote on tumblr. Unfortunately, I was mistaken about the origins of the waqf. A waqf is an established practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). I did a brief search on information involving the waqf (pl. awqaf). I found this informative page, from a Malaysian organization, Khalifah Insitute’s  website. In the article, it details the establishment of the first Islamic religious endowment:

In the history of Islam, the first religious waqf is the mosque of Quba’ in Madinah, a city 400 kilometer north of Makkah, which was built upon the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad in 622. It stands now on the same lot with a new and enlarged structure. Six months later, Quba’ was followed by the mosque of the Prophet in the center of Madinah. Mosques and real estates confined for providing revenues to spend on mosques’ mainten­ance and running expenses are in the category of religious waqf.

Philanthropic waqf is the second kind of waqf. It aims at supporting the poor segment of the society and all  activities which are of interest to people at large such as libraries, scientific research, education, health services,  care of animals and environment, lending to small businessmen, parks, roads, bridges, dams, etc. Philan­thropic waqf began by the Prophet Muhammad too. A man calledMukhairiq made his will that his seven orchards in Madinah be given after his death to Muhammad. In year four of the hijrah calendar (a lunar calendar which begins with the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Madinah in 622), the man died and the Prophet took hold of the orchards and made them a charitable waqf for the benefit of the poor and needy.  This practice was followed by the companion of the prophet and his second successor Umar, who asked the prophet what to do with a palm orchard he got in the northern Arabian peninsula city of khaibar and the Prophet said “If you like, you may hold the property as waqf and give its fruits as charity.” many other charitable waqf were made by the Prophet’s death in 632.

Now, back the situation of our ailing communities. Why can’t our mosques pay for themselves? That is because we are not following the established sunnah of how to fund our most central social institution. And down the list, with our short sightedness, we fail to fund endeavors that would have a long term positive social impact. I found this section especially insightful:

With regards to use of waqf revenues the most frequent purpose is spending on mosques. This usually includes salaries of imam [prayer leader and speaker of friday religious ceremony], teacher(s) of Islamic studies, preacher(s). With the help of this independent source of financing  religious leaders and teachers have always been able to take social and political positions independent of that of the ruling class. for example, upon the occupation of Algeria by french troops  in 1831, the colonial authority took control of the awqaf property in order to suppress religious leaders who fought against occupation (Ajfan, p.325).

Although religious education is usually covered by waqf on mosques, education in general has been the second largest user of waqf revenues. Since the beginning of Islam, in the early seventh century, education has been financed by waqf and voluntary contributions. Even government  financing of education used to take the form of constructing a school and assigning certain property  as waqf of the school. Awqaf of the Ayubites (1171-1249) and the Mamalik (1249-1517) in Palestine  and Egypt are good examples. According to historical sources, Jerusalem had 64 schools at the  beginning of the twentieth century all of them are waqf and supported by awqaf properties in     pales­tine, Turkey and Syria. Of these schools 40 were made awqaf by Ayubites and Mamalik rulers  and governors (Al cAsali, pp. 95-111). The University of al Azhar is another example. It was  founded in Cairo in 972 and was financed by its waqf revenues until the government of Muhammad  Ali in Egypt took control over the awqaf in 1812 (Ramadan, p. 135).

Waqf financing of education usually covers libraries, books, salaries of teachers and other staff  and stipends to students. Financing was not restricted to religious studies especially at the stage of  the rise of Islam. In addition to freedom of education this approach of financing helped creating a learned class not derived from the rich and ruling classes. At times, majority of Muslim scholars  used to be coming from poor and slave segments of the society and very often they strongly opposed the policies of the rulers (al Syed, pp. 237-258).

The third big beneficiary of waqf is the category of the poor, needy, orphans, persons in  prisons, etc. Other users of waqf revenues include health services which cover construction of  Hospitals and spending on physicians, apprentices and patients. One of the examples of the health  waqf is the Shishli Children Hospital in Istanbul which was founded in 1898 (al Syed, p. 287).

There is also waqf on animals whose example is the waqf on cats and the waqf on unwanted riding animals both in Damascus (al Sibaci). There are awqaf for helping people go to Makkah for pilgrimage and for helping girls getting married, and for many other philanthropic purposes.

  Thinking about these passages, I am reminded of how some our brothers and sisters are mistaken in their view of the past. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a sister who said, “Why study history? It is boring? It is dead. It is passed. It is the past.” But the forgotten model of endowment/waqf is why we should examine our history closely. We might see the more Islam in practice in models that worked, as opposed to being reactionary. We can be a constructive community, moving forward and addressing real social and spiritual needs. Let’s just think about the potential if we pool our money together to build endowments and hire trained people to manage them. Instead of each year our communities begging for what they need,  the continual fundraising can help us thrive and flower. 

Muslim Habitus

Over the past years, I realized that much of the spiritual problems I faced were largely due to my inability to bridge the disconnect between my intellectual knowledge and application of important principals.  The knowledge I gained was not transformative, so where was the misunderstanding?  Ali ibn Abi Talib said:

O you who carry knowledge around with you; are you only carrying it around with you ? For surely knowledge belongs to who ever knows and then acts accordingly, so that his action corresponds to his knowledge. There will be a people who will carry knowledge around with them, but it will not pass beyond their shoulders. Their inner most thoughts will contradict what they display in public, and their actions will contradict what they know.

Knowledge has not entered your heart until your legs, arms, and entire body act accordingly. There is a difference between knowledge and Muslim habits. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said: “I was only sent to perfect good character” [Muwatta’ and Musnad of Ahmad]. The primary purpose of knowledge in Islam is so that it can influence the individual to the correct course of action. And the correct course of actions should be guided by an intention to do that which is pleasing to God. This contrasts with doing that which is pleasing to oneself or others and guided by one’s own inclinations.

How does knowledge of the traditions of Muhammad become part of the character of the average Muslim? It is through understanding, or as we educators tend to emphasize, application and practice of that knowledge. One of the most powerful ways of understanding this came to me while I was in graduate school and looking at Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus.” The simplest and most digestible definition of Habitus can be found on wikipedia:

Habitus is the set of socially learnt dispositions, skills and ways of acting, that are often taken for granted, and which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.

Habitus is a complex concept, but in its simplest usage could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.

We are all creatures of habit (good and bad), but how do we develop them? How do we develop our tastes, dispositions, and inclinations?  These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, especially if we are concerned with personal and moral development. Many of our habits are learned, while other arise out of our own inner inclinations. We can learn through mimicking others or through experience. At the same time, we can supress our inclinations and habits in order to yield different results.

But breaking bad habits or developing healthy habits can be a difficult thing, especially when we come to accept certain behaviors as part of our personality. For those of us who are self-reflective and want to change for the better, we have to make some conscious efforts to change many things that are often not really thought about.

The way we think shapes our actions, but our knowledge does not really penetrate our hearts until we set about a course of actions to embody those principles. I believe this is the problem with the over intellectualization of Islam. It is also the problem with the tendency of many Muslims to focus on political or social identity issues. There is a lack of embodiment of some important concepts. So, the way we should think about things is not changing our actions. At the same time, the ways we are doing things are not changing the ways our mind works. Somehow, our thoughts and actions become hollow. That embodiment only happens through rigor and training, which can take spiritual, mental, and physical components.  While we accept anyone who declares shahadah as Muslim, we recognize that there are different gradations of faith. In Surah 49 The Private Apartments, verse 14 God says:

The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

This verse is very profound, because it highlights the key for that spiritual development. Faith is developed through obedience. And even if we are struggling, by taking those steps, we will be rewarded by the Most Forgiving and Merciful. Sometimes the steps can be small, the most prominent example is salat. In actuality the combined time for the salat is about 17 minutes. Even then, I see people struggle with the idea of submission and it becomes apparent in their forms of resistance to the requirements of ritual prayer.  How have you developed Muslim habitus, if you as a man would never come to a job interview in sagging shorts that expose your butt crack, but you will come to the King of all worlds dressed inappropriately? The perfection of the Muslim habitus is worshipping your Lord as if you see Him, but you cannot, knowing that He always sees you. This is Ihsan, or the perfection of faith. And many, myself included, have a lot of work in that area.

Moving away from outer garments in order to wrap up this discussion, I want to talk about a simple way to develop our Muslim habitus. The first friday sermon I heard my husband give shed light habit-practice-application. He brought up Michael Jordan and asked rhetorically what does he think when he was about to make a play. Marc answered that MJ doesn’t think. His body knew exactly what to do from all those hours of practice. This is the true meaning of understanding, a real embodiment of that knowledge in a way that it becomes a part of you. Without thinking, MJ knew exactly what to do at a given moment.  It reminds me of the final moments of a former principal of Philadelphia’s Clara Muhammad School.  She was in a car accident in Egypt and her family reported that while she awaited medical attention she remained in constant remembrance of God. Although she was in pain, her thoughts were on her Lord. In that moment during her final true test, she faced death with courage and grace. And I wondered how I would react. I thought about some words, which I won’t repeat here, that I’ve said when I had a close brush with death or something traumatic. I think back to the times I experienced severe pain. I wondered would my last act be recorded as having yelled vulgar language, crying about why me, or would I remember my Lord instead.  I realized that only through constant practice of remembrance and prayer that I out of habit, I would just do the right thing without thinking about it.

We practice and practice so that during a real moment when we are tested, our habitus goes into auto-pilot and we know just what to do without thinking. So as part of that development, I’m not going to ask God to damn the thing I stubbed my toe on. Instead I’ll say something glorying Him  (in English or Arabic). Whenever I get frustrated with something or someone, I’m going to avoid cursing at it.  I will ask God to help me deal with the situation with dignity and grace.  And importantly, I will learn the appropriate prayers for the appropriate times so that constant remembrance become a habit, therefore my Muslim habitus. By bringing God into center focus throughout the day, I can make steps towards embodying all that I have learned over the years.  This is the cognitive shift that happens with real transformation. My hope is that more of us move from just being members of the I verbally proclaim to submit (I’m just a Muslim)club , to become those who truly believe and  try to ultimately perfect our faith.

References:

Quran Sahih international http://quran.com/49/2-14

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitus_(sociology)

A Virtuous Life

Why is it that every khutbah, every lecture, and every conference plays out more like a pep rally where we are mere spectators and fans, instead of  the players who should be training and practicing for the big game? And we keep wondering why our team is losing. That’s because none of us are in shape, we can’t decode the playbook, worse, we don’t know how to land that shot. Okay, I’ll stop the sports metaphor because I was never good at team sports. The whole point is that our community life is not necessarily helping us truly transform, improving our conduct and living good, wholesome, and happy lives.  What constitutes happiness and a good life is an ancient question and people have come up with different answers. But the most consistent in their views have been philosophers and religious thinkers. Even during the ancient period, both have agreed that living a good life entails living a life of virtue. A virtuous life is not just about the ability to follow a rule book or  perform rhetorical dexterity to find legal loopholes to justify our means to that end. The dominant approach that Muslims have taken towards virtue is the rule book or laundry list approach. However, this approach is often self-defeating, making us focus on the virtue without exploring what’s wrong with us. This is the same approach that Muslims take to the sunnah, where we focus on traditions and practices that appeal to us, hoping to be cured of certain ills. Often, we are treating mere symptoms, rather than curing the disease.  It is time we begin a holistic approach to bettering ourselves, treating both the symptoms and eradicating the diseases that are destroying the quality of our own lives and our community life overall. Moral and personal development  should be the focus of living a virtuous life or good life. Living a good life is based on universal principles that we find in Islam, as well as many other faiths.  There are many tools  to achieve that end, many found in Islam, but also wisdom that we can draw from ancient sages, philosophers, and even insights from our own society. We should not ignore any tool that can help us with personal mastery.

While many Muslims are concerned with righteousness, we seem to be confused about what does that truly mean. And this is why we should begin to think about virtue and ethics to understand the big picture or (كلٌيات). Before we begin throwing around the term virtue and ethics, let’s first look at what do these terms mean:

vir·tue   [vur-choo] –noun
1. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
2. conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.
3. chastity; virginity: to lose one’s virtue.

eth·ics   [eth-iks] –plural noun
1.( used with a singular or plural verb ) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
2.the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
3.moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confide

As I stated earlier, religious thinkers and philosophers have mulled over virtue and ethics for thousands of years. Socrates dedicated the latter part of his life to the investigation the development of moral character. Plato recounts a dialogue that Socrates had with Meno about the nature of virtue. Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught, whether it is something that someone can practice, or whether it is something that someone is born with. Socrates believed that there was a link between virtue and knowledge. Only, he believed that people aren’t taught things, they simply remember what their soul had forgotten. If this gets confusing, just remember that Socrates believed that the soul was immortal and that people were born over and over again. Therefore, they just had to remember what they knew before. But, let’s ignore this part of his philosophy and focus on his idea that in order for someone to be virtuous, that person has to have sufficient knowledge. Two arguments that back this up are as follows:

  1. All rational desires are focused on what is good; therefore if one knows what is good, he or she not act contrary.
  2. If one has non-rational desires, but knowledge is sufficient to overcome them, so if one is knowledgeable of goodness, he will not act irrationally. [7]

Socrates believes that no rational person would act in a way that was harmful to his/herself. Maybe people are mistaken in their knowledge? I guess Socrates didn’t account for atrocities like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. Harming someone else destroys our own humanity. So moving on to the next group of Hellenistic thinkers. The Stoics were sort of the inheritors of Socratic views on rational thought and virtue. They believed that human beings by nature were rational animals, and therefore it was natural to live “the life acording to reason.” Virtue was excellence and according to the divine law of the cosmos.  John Stobaeus the following as stoic goals in life:

  • Zeno: living in agreement
  • Cleanthes: living in agreement with nature
  • Chrysippus: to live according to the experience of the things that happen by nature
  • Diogenes: to be reasonable in the selection and rejection of natural things
  • Archedemus: to live completing all the appropriate acts
  • Antipater: to live invariably selecting natural things and rejecting unnatural things

Stobeaus goes on to define the four main virtues of the stoics:

Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither. [8]

These are all reasonable enough and can be found in many traditions, but who would like to live like a stoic, unaffected by passions or hardships? I suppose a lot of people, which is the appeal of Zen Buddhism for many people. Without going in uncharted waters (at least for me),  let’s move on to the lineage of philosophy and ethics within Muslim traditions.

Socratic thought profoundly influenced medieval Muslim philosophers, the Muatazilites. But I won’t go into the controversies surrounding their philosophical school, especially in their argument that one can derive God’s laws without revelation. Instead, I bring them up to point out that in using their Greek influenced dialectical methods, scholars like Imam Ghazali were able to safeguard and in many ways revive Islam. The strength of Islamic institutions and thought was in applying universal Islamic principles to local institutions or cultural forms to produce something that was relevant in societies across the globe and over 1400 years. But since Imam Ghazali was so successful in shutting down the philosophers that very few Muslims have ventured back in the territory of exploring virtue through reason, and not just solely from revelation and hadith traditions. The unfortunate consequence is that we are back to the laundry list approach to dealing with virtue in Islam. We are a community concerned with ethics, but without an ethical system.

A few western scholars have approached Azhari scholars over the need to consider ethical systems. Some of the traditional scholars were amenable to this idea, but perhaps we all lack the training in performing the task. That doesn’t mean that we can develop the requisite skills, especially with some effort.  I think this would be a fruitful direction to go in because over the past few years, I have often wondered how is that many religious people can do things that are harmful to themselves and others, but still consider themselves moral and receive no censure by the religious community. In many conversations with friends, peers, and loved ones, the answer came to the lack of  a consistent ethical system. The basic assumption is that if something is allowed in Islam that it is the right thing to do at any given point in time. People often overlook the question of whether something was right in one given circumstance could be wrong in another, and what guiding principles should we draw upon to determine a proper course of action. The salad bar approach to the religion undermines holistic development and moral consistency. Further, many adherents have used Islam to justify their own shortcomings, in effect deluding themselves with self righteousness. This is how we have people hiding behind, beneath, and under the guise of religion.

Recalling Socrates, I do think that even though many Muslims rejected the Greek influence in Muatazilite thought, they still seem to be influenced by his intellectualism.  Tariq Ramadan writes:

Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message. Muslims are expected to be “witnesses to their message before people”, which means speaking in a decent way, preventing cheating and corruption, and respecting the environment. [9]

Muslims are obsessed with knowledge and knowing. We love books, classes, lectures, debates, pamphlets, websites, forums, podcasts and blogs that make us feel knowledgeable. The assumption is that correct knowledge leads to better practice.  The problem is that true knowledge is not just limited to thought or reason. But knowing how to act sometimes takes practice and constant strength training.

If you want to really know how to play basketball, you can’t just read a bunch of books. You have to get on the court, practice making shots, until your hand-eye coordination has figured out how to make that perfect arch to land the shot. At first, you must be very conscious of each action,  how to dribble, how to pass, rebound,  and with time things come natural. So, while Socrates believed that knowledge was the key to virtue, virtue actually comes from something you practice over and over again until you get it right. Of course, knowledge is essential, but one has to inculcate that knowledge so that we embody it. Action is essential in applying that knowledge. This is why Muslims perform salat, fast, go on hajj and are reminded to constantly perform remembrance. These actions reinforce the declaration of faith. And we do all of those things to achieve one important goal, pleasing our Lord.

You must be aware of the goal you are aiming, so that when you miss the shot you understand what you did wrong. If you have no knowledge of your goal and are unreflective, then you will keep making that same bad shot over and over. I admit, I slipped back into the sports metaphor and, honestly, I was never good at basketball. I’m a sore sport, but I have trained and gotten in shape for different reasons. Over the years, I have some modicum of self-discipline because of my deep commitment to self-development. I believe in setting goals. As Muslims, we should be aware of what our true goal is, and that is to be successful in this life and the hereafter. Outside of Imam Ghazali’s account of his spiritual crisis, I haven’t found too many detailed stories of how individual Muslims conquered their own shortcomings. So, I turn to my own cultural context to see who has developed systems of personal development, especially focusing on moral development.


Benjamin Franklin comes to mind not because I live in Philadelphia and there are statues of him everywhere, but rather because he created a self improvement program long before the self-help craze of the late 20th century.  Franklin’s list of virtues and his efforts to gain mastery over them are an interesting case study. Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he considered to be the most important and they are as follows:

1 . Temperance. Eat not to .  not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought.Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
11 . Tranquillity.Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The thing that made Franklin so important in this area was his effort at tracking his progress on these virtues, with the aim of mastering each one.  I think it is important to note how self-reflexive he was in this process. This was all about personal accountability. At the end of the day, he’d do an inventory of his actions. If he violated one of the virtues, he checked it off. Initially, he had a lot of check marks. But over time, the check marks became fewer and fewer. Eventually he gave up the keeping a daily log, but he continued the path of self-improvement throughout his life. For some, this may seem a bit OCD. But for others, it may be a useful tool in taking inventory of ourselves. There are even people today who have a similar chart on their iPhones. You can download the chart and some people have incorporated similar charts in self-help programs.

Now this takes us to the self-help industry. According to wikipedia,  “the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, is said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry [5]. Samuel Smiles coined the term “self-help” in 1882, in his book, Self-Help [4] While there are many controversies surrounding the self-help industry, and many valid critiques including the psycho-babble and placebo effect of some of the more dubious methods such as subliminal programming, there is great merit to self-improvement. People can transform themselves. One of the most powerful self-help programs, is Alcoholics Anonymous.  The thing that I find very telling of their success can be found in the  original Twelve Steps:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. [6]

First, the admit that they don’t have control over the urges, they turn to a higher power for help, they take a serious inventory of their own shortcoming, repent and try to make amends to those whom they hurt. Importantly, through the constant process of prayer and correcting wrongs, AA members can have a spiritual awakening. In many ways this is a process of repentance that can be found in Islam: leaving the wrong action, making sincere repentance to our Lord for sinning against ourselves and Him, and asking forgiveness of another person if we harmed him or her. Repentance is a great blessing in Islam, it is an opportunity to experience Allah’s Grace and Mercy. Many people have achieved spiritual awakenings after a fall from grace.

Still a believer is not to be content with cyclical sinning. We are all taught the three stations of faith: submission ( Ihsan إسلام), belief (Iman إمان), and finally perfecting faith (Ihsan إحسان). Only through self-improvement and refining can an individual achieve Ihsan. Ihsan is the highest state of faith, where we live our lives knowing God can see us, even though we cannot see Him. This type of consciousness keeps us on our best behavior. But to have this consciousness at all times, we have to go through spiritual and moral development. In Islam, the method of spiritual development is called Purification of the heart, some calling it Tazkiyyah and others calling it Tasawwuf. Without going into the controversies surrounding Sufi/Salafi polemics, let us just note that the term tazkiyya has Quranic roots meaning to purify. Tasawwuf is a term that came later and is often associated with institutional developments in mystical brotherhoods. Still, the purpose was the same, to purify and improve the moral and spiritual standing of the adherent.

There are a great many virtues listed in the Quran.  As pointed out earlier, many Muslims have created a laundry list of Islamic virtues.  There is no shortage of literature on traits that Muslims should exemplify. And these are are beautiful and useful in improving ourselves.  Muslim scholars are also concerned with what keeps Muslims from improving their station. Scholars, such as ibn Jawziyya and Imam Ghazali, have listed out several impediments to that refining process through tazkiyya or tasawwuf:

  • Neglect or forgetfulness
  • Submitting to one’s own passions (Nafs or Hawa)
  • Shaytan
  • Bad company or evil environment
  • Arrogance or self-delusion
  • Love of the material world
  • Despair

Or they can be found in the four poisons of the heart.

  • Excessive Talking
  • Unrestrained glances
  • Too much food
  • Keeping Bad Company [3]

Sometimes that list of Muslim virtues is so long that an individual can feel very overwhelmed.  Or we may think that avoiding one of the poisons  or overcoming one of the impediments will cure us from a spiritual or emotional ailment. The list approach may blind us from looking at what is really wrong with ourselves. This is why I felt that it may be appropriate to try to consider some patterns that can give us a big picture approach. The Quran tells us:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. [33:35]

This verse from Surah Ahzab is  a good place to start in trying to find key virtues: belief, obedience, truthfulness, patience, humility, charity, abstinence and moderation, chastity, and mindfulness of God. I also began searching in the Quran to find the names of people who God is pleased with and who are successful. The  most common names I found are:

مؤمنون Mu’minun- Those who believe

صابرون Sabirun- Those who are steadfast/patient

صالحون Salihun- Those who are righteous

مخلصون Mukhlisun- Those who are sincere

محصنون muhsinun- Those who are good-doers

متقون Mutaqun- Those who have taqwa (scrupulousness)

خشعون Khashi’un- Those who are humble

Who wouldn’t want to be among those whom the Creator is pleased with? Who wouldn’t want to be forgiven and receive a great reward from our Lord? I believe in the coherence of the Quran and the importance of coherence in our lives. This is why I think that it is important that we look beyond the laundry list approach and focus on the key virtues outlined in the Quran. These virtues can be guiding lights in determining our course of action, leading us to live richer, fuller and happier lives. This is why it is important to explore each of these terms, to consider how they can guide us not just to a moralistic life, but a virtuous life. Some of the explorations may lead to dead ends, but with patience, dialogue, and careful consideration, they may lead to something fruitful. I hope you join me in this journey, as my aim is to explore virtue in Islam in search of an ethical system.

References:
[1] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/franklin-virtue.html
[2] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/station_of_muraqabah.htm
[3] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/four_poisons_of_the_heart.htm
[4] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1882smiles.html
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program
[7]http://personal.ecu.edu/mccartyr/ancient/athens/Socrates.htm
[8]http://philosophy.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi143/stoaeth.htm
[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/23/ethics-citizenship-islam

AmericanEast

Habib's Cafe
Hat tip to Tariq Nelson for pointing out the DVD release of AmericanEast, a film about Arab Americans. Because touches upon Islam in America, it should be of interest to all Muslim Americans. However Arabs and South Asians are viewed, it effects all of us. At the same time, this film clearly is about Arab Americans and recent immigrants and their struggles in America. Within the media, most people think Muslim equals immigrant. As Tariq Nelson notes, trying combat the stereotype that Islam is a foreign religion is like fighting an uphill battle.

Very few films in the West are going to show the nuanced lives of Muslim American men and women, who manage to balance their religious traditions and American culture. I haven’t seen the film, but often films about Arab or South Asians immigrants in the West depict Islam in a negative light. They often feature a story arch where a character liberates themselves by distancing themselves from their faith and practice. In very few stories have I seen Islam as being depicted as something that gives meaning, richness, or even frees a character. To me, that shows that many writers and filmmakers aren’t able to capture the spirit that has moved hundreds of thousands of Americans to convert to Islam. Nor are they able to articulate, with any creative license, the passion of a Muslim coming into a deeper spiritual awakening. Since I haven’t viewed the film, I’m not going to make any pre-judgments. Instead, I am going to look at this film as a step in the right direction.

Here’s a synopsis from the film website:

“AmericanEast” is a timely, poignant drama about Arab-Americans living in post-9/11 Los Angeles. The story examines long-held misunderstandings about Arabic and Islamic culture, and puts a human face on a segment of the U.S. population whom most Americans know nothing about, but who today are of particular interest to them, either from curiosity or suspicion. The story highlights the pressures under which many Arab-Americans now live by focusing on the points-of-view of three main characters.

I.

Mustafa (Sayed Badreya) is a widowed Egyptian immigrant and the owner of Habibe’s Café, a popular hang-out for Los Angelenos with Middle Eastern backgrounds. He is devoted to providing his children with a moral upbringing despite the pressures of contemporary American urban life. He also finds himself cast in the role of protector to his unwed sister Salweh, for whom, by family and tribal custom, he is responsible for finding a traditional suitor. But his respect for tradition comes up against his own aspirations to adapt to the American Dream when he decides to open a new restaurant with a Jewish partner – his friend Sam (Tony Shalhoub). This “unholy alliance” is unpopular amongst the habitués of his café and the insular Arab community in which Mustafa resides. It is one of several personal points of tension that gradually build against the backdrop of larger, national events affecting the Arab-American community and lead to the explosive denouement of the story.

II.

Salwah, Mustafa’s sister (Sarah Shahi), must also reconcile her traditional values and familial obligations with new American realities. Although she is grateful to Mustafa for bringing her to America when she was young, and allowing her to pursue an education, conflict arises between them when Mustafa insists upon fulfilling his duty of finding her a traditional, arranged-marriage partner from Egypt. The arrival of this arranged suitor, her older cousin Saber (Al Faris), throws her life into turmoil and makes her question her own beliefs and faith. Secretly, she is attracted to an American, Dr. John Westerman (Tim Guinee), a young and attractive non-Muslim. Any caution she feels toward him, however, is thrown to the wind by the abrupt arrival of Saber and a possible impending marriage that she does not want. She becomes sorely tempted to experience intimacy with the young doctor outside of marriage, a taboo. While she undergoes this internal conflict, her suitor Saber is staying as a guest at the home she shares with Mustafa and his children, and the incompatibility between this traditional man, her future “husband,” and Mustafa’s Americanized family is another source of irritation adding to the mounting tensions underlying the story.

III.

Mustafa’s friend Omar (Kais Nashif) is a struggling actor and Habibi’s Cafe regular, a young Egyptian man who supports his dream of becoming a movie star by working as a part-time cab driver for Mustafa’s ragged, one-car taxi company. Because of his Middle Eastern looks and accent, however, he is constantly cast in the role of a terrorist in American TV shows that portray only a shallow understanding of Arabs and their culture. When an opportunity for a non-racially-designated role arrives, Omar feels his chance for success — to be seen as an actor first and not a Muslim — has finally arrived. It is the break he has been waiting for on many levels: a chance at the financial freedom necessary to marry and support his pregnant American girlfriend Kate (Amanda Detmer), and a chance for him, and his future child, to be embraced as an American, in the same way that he has embraced America.
But misunderstandings and prejudices related to his Arabic background conspire against him once again and his opportunity is lost, pushing Omar to make a drastic, unreasoned decision that sets off a chain of events leading to a violent conclusion that affects the lives and conflicts of all the other characters – an explosive reminder of the simmering pressures under which Muslims live in the United States today. Will their American Dreams be shattered by a climate of distrust and suspicion, or will their hopes and aspirations be embraced by their fellow Americans?

You can check out the trailer here.