Spirituality

Sadaqah Jariyah: How To Make Your Dent In the Universe

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The Prophet (s) said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)." (Muslim) This is a hadith about legacy and leadership. What is the impact that you leave on the world? What change did you affect that will carry on well after your death? And how do you live your life in such a way that you accumulate good deeds after your death?

I often think about my family heritage. Some great grandfather or grandmother up the chain had to make the life altering decision to become Muslim, and then have it pass down for multiple generations. I don't know the names of those relatives, or even what century they lived in, but they made this impact on the faith of multiple generations.

Does leaving a sadaqah jariyah require a major life event like that? Or some huge project like building a masjid?

As much as this is a hadith about legacy and leadership, it's a hadith about effort.

Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.
— Seth Godin

The hadith itself teaches us what the dent looks like.

Leaving behind a charity requires significant sacrifice of time and money. That's actually the easy part. For a charity to outlast your life, you must also pay attention to sustainability. Many people are able to commit time and money, but very few are able to build something and then remove themselves from it to allow it to grow.

Leaving behind beneficial knowledge means you attained a high level of proficiency such that you're in a position to impart knowledge to others. Doing this requires a person to persist and excel in a field of study. It requires formulating a unique perspective. The knowledge you leave behind must be something that people value and are influenced by. This is a core tenet of developing your leadership capacity.

The righteous descendant who supplicates for you is perhaps the most challenging. One of the toughest leadership challenges a person faces is leading their family. How do you raise children in such a way that they have the God-consciousness to supplicate regularly throughout their lives? And what type of relationship must you have with your children such that they fondly remember you and miss you after your death? Those are not easy tasks by any stretch of the imagination.

An everlasting reward will not come without hard work. The real question to me is not what type of knowledge to leave behind, or how to set up a charity, or what the best parenting techniques are. Rather, the question is how do I build up the capacity within myself to be in a position to make those contributions?

Beyond cultivating characteristics like persistence and focus, there are three specific investments each person should be making.

First is education. Knowledge is a foundation of our faith. Education is less about the letters after your name, and more about your mindset and commitment. Is learning a habit for you? How often are you learning? What types of things are you learning? The more you learn, the more dots you connect, and the more insights you're able to develop that others won't see.

Second is experiences. Every experience we have shapes us in some way. The last time we taught in Sunday school, or worked a minimum wage job at the mall might have been over a decade ago - but the experience still affects us and plays a role in shaping who we are today. Find ways to try different jobs and projects. Volunteer for different activities. Go into things with an open mind and seek to find the benefit in different experiences.

Third is relationships. Family is emphasized heavily in our religion, as is good brotherhood and sisterhood. Relationships also require time and effort. Spend time with your family. Cultivate good friendships. Meet people with genuine curiosity and seek to learn from the experiences of others.

The intersection of these three - your education, experiences, and relationships - will always be unique to you. No one else on earth will have the same combination of these. These are what inform your perspective and build your capacity to lead and influence others.

This is how you leave your dent on the universe. It's not by people remembering your name. It is the small contributions you make that add value to the lives of others. This is the work that puts you on the path to leaving a legacy such that your actions continue to earn reward long after death.

Practically Implementing Prophetic Optimism

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When Ibrahim (as) famously left Hajar (as) with their baby son in the desert, she asked him if Allah commanded him to leave them. He said yes, so she said that she trusted Allah would take care of them. Her response to the situation illuminated a middle path between two extremes we commonly see.

One extreme is pessimism. A person may simply give up and lose hope. After scanning the horizon and seeing no food, water, or any sign of civilization, it would be easy to sit down and do nothing. People with a negative mindset will focus on all the things wrong in this situation - there's no food, we'll probably die here - and overwhelm themselves with hopelessness.

The other extreme is naive optimism. It is sitting there doing nothing while telling yourself everything will work out. Or perhaps to simply "envision" a better situation and hope it will arrive.

Hajar demonstrated what optimism looks like.

The action of her heart was to trust Allah and have faith that He would make a way out. The action of her limbs was to do everything in her control to remedy the situation. No food? Then she will run back and forth between mountains looking for something to give her child.

She set a precedent that embodies the prophetic tradition, "tie your camel, and then trust in Allah."

When it comes to the sunnah of the Prophet (s) we rarely talk about mindsets. The sunnah of optimism provides a playbook for dealing with the major and minor difficulties in our lives.

It's amazing to think that he was tested more than anyone else, and yet, his default demeanor was always smiling.

True optimism provides the resolve to deal with difficulty.

When we look back at the most difficult moments of our lives, we actually cherish them. Those hardships, failures, and scars are what made us into who we are today. They made us stronger and provided lessons so invaluable we'd never trade them for anything.

This is easy in hindsight, but harder to do in the moment - "Patience is at the first strike of calamity."

The prophetic example shows us how to cultivate a mindset of optimism.

He (saw) warned against giving up on people. "Whoever says the people are destroyed, he is the most destroyed amongst them (Muslim)." And Allah (swt) says in the Qur'an, "Do not lose heart or despair, and you will be superior if you are [true] believers (3:139)."

Despair is easy to feel almost by default. Every time we turn on our phones we are bombarded with headlines, photos, and videos of injustices that make it seem as if the world is going down the tubes. The lens of the believer necessitates understanding that our faith in Allah means knowing Allah is the source of all that is good, and He will never decree something in which the evil outweighs the good - even if that good is reserved for the akhirah.

The Prophet (s), even in the most dire circumstances, would look for excuses to be optimistic. When the Muslims set out for umrah, and were blocked by the Quraysh, the situation was tense. Negotiators kept coming but no agreement could be reached. Finally, the Quraysh sent Suhayl b. Amr, and the Prophet (s) took this as a good sign. The name Suhayl has a connotation of ease, and so the Prophet (s) announced to his companions that this was a good sign. Eventually, the treaty of Hudaybiyah was agreed upon - a victory in and of itself, even if it was unclear at the time as to how.

He even engineered the environment around him to be one that instills optimism. When he met someone from a place called the 'Valley of Misguidance', he renamed it the 'Valley of Guidance'. This shows us that the way we refer to things even has a subconscious effect on us. What is the subconscious effect, for example, of referring to one's spouse as "the old ball and chain" over and over again? When his (saw) grandson was born, Ali (ra) named him Harb (war). The Prophet (s) changed his name to Hasan (good).

He encouraged his companions to always be of those spreading good to others. He instructed them, "give glad tidings, and do not scare people away. Make things easy, do not make things difficult."

The most important optimism is the optimism in Allah. The Prophet (s) relates to us that Allah said, "I am as my servant expects me and I am with him as he remembers me." If you believe that Allah intends to make your life difficult, or that He is vengeful toward you (audhubillah), then that is what you will get. If you believe that Allah loves His creation, and intends what is best for them, and wants to forgive them - then you will find Allah (swt) as such.

When we inevitably encounter difficulty in our lives, we must tackle those problems head on and work our hardest to deal with them. We remind ourselves in those moments, that ultimately things will work out for the best, because we know that what Allah decrees for us is good and He will give us the strength and ability to make it through what we are dealing with.

"Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us (2:186)."

 

 

A Crisis of Compassion

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I remember helping organize an Islamic class once and being the over-zealous volunteer guy. By that I mean that I was doing my best to convince everyone I saw to attend. When people would offer up frank excuses like 'we don’t have a free weekend', or 'it’s too hard to attend with the kids,' I would get frustrated. These people don’t understand that you have to sacrifice to learn! How short-sighted can they be?! And then, as you can guess, I had kids of my own. And I became exactly that person who skipped Islamic classes because it was too hard to free up the time, or it was too difficult to attend with the kids.

This is an empathy gap, albeit a (hopefully) well-intentioned one. You can want what is best for someone (in your eyes), but if you do not truly understand their situation, it’s kind of useless.

Our national discourse around the issues of poverty, race, immigration, refugees, and healthcare also shows a significant empathy gap. In some cases though it is a malicious one (whether knowingly or unknowingly). It has actually gone well beyond a gap and is now in full blown crisis mode. We’ve lost our ability to talk about each other and to each other from a basic level of compassion and shared humanity.

Closing this gap is not as simple as “imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes.” In some cases the entire paradigm by which we view the world needs to be changed. There’s an ayah about the poor in particular that highlights this.

And when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided’ (36:47). 

This is reflective of the discourse we hear now. Why should I have to subsidize lower income people? Why should they get handouts? Why don’t they work harder? Go get a job. Stop having kids. They should have made better choices in life. Have some self-control. They’re lazy. This is a deeply problematic world view.

The reality is these statements simply mask our own selfishness. In fact, we’ll even go so far as to assert that helping them is actually bad for them because it enables irresponsible behavior.

When we want government assistance though, we lobby for tax cuts. We don’t consider it a handout or think someone else is subsidizing it. The end result (getting government money) is the same. The one that applies to us we frame positively. The one that applies to someone else we frame negatively.

That is the essence of dehumanization. We feel disgust at someone else, and that in turn shuts off our ability to empathize with them.

This shows that perception of “otherness” is like a dial in our minds that can be turned on. That would be troubling enough, if the research also didn’t make two predictions about dehumanization’s power to make the world a more hostile place (Vox, The Dark Psychology of Dehumanization, Explained).

The Vox article actually calls dehumanization a mental loophole that enables us to harm others. Racism is a manifestation of that. Islamophobic rhetoric resulting in hate crimes is another.

And it is precisely because of this that mass killings carried out by white shooters are more compassionately attributed to mental illness, or a poor soul in need of help. Is the criminal “one of us”? Or “one of them” (and therefore fundamentally flawed, and thus disposable)? [see: Brock Turner]

The rhetoric toward the poor in particular has been deeply ingrained in the American way of thinking since its inception.

“I am for doing good to the poor, but...I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed...that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” -Benjamin Franklin

Marc Lamont Hill points out that there is a societal divide that is “characterized by the demonization and privatization of public services, including schools, the military, prisons, and even policing …. by an almost complete abandonment of the welfare state; by a nearly religious reverence for marketed solutions to public problems; by the growth of a consumer culture that repeatedly emphasizes the satisfaction of the self over the needs of the community …. by the acceptance of massive global inequality; …. by the loss of faith in the very notion of community…” (Nobody).

Thus, the discourse we see. They don’t want to work. People on welfare are just having illegitimate children. They’re thugs. They’re predisposed to violence. Why should *I* help them? 

“Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted?” Why should I pay a higher insurance premium just to subsidize the sick or the people who can’t afford healthcare?

We justify it further by reading our own interpretations into someone’s situation. We want to beat people over the heads for their bad decisions and project evil intent on them. This is what leads people to say ludicrous things like ‘the poor will have to choose between an iPhone and healthcare’.

https://twitter.com/lucekel/status/839171557574455296

It’s as if just because someone else is poor, we can dictate how they should spend their money. Or that we are somehow in authority to dictate what they deserve or don’t deserve.

https://twitter.com/johnlegend/status/839222982618669056

But what really makes us deserving of something and not someone else? Why is it okay to say someone on food stamps shouldn’t be allowed to buy Coke, but somehow I can do whatever I want?

This is not just a lack of compassion, but it is flat out arrogance.

Satan said, ‘I am better than him: You made me from fire, and him from clay’ (38:76).  

This is why we have to always orient our world-view to what our faith says, not the popular discourse of the time. Our faith teaches us that whatever we have is a blessing from Allah (swt), and He could have just as easily decreed a drastically different situation for us.

It’s what the story of Adam and Satan boils down to. Satan simply thought he was better than Adam and refused to obey Allah (swt). And what made him better? Being made from fire instead of clay? Is that something he had any control over?

We can look objectively and say absolutely not. I didn’t do anything to choose the land I was born in, my skin color, or who my parents are. I could just as easily have been born into a family feeling from war as refugees. It’s basic compassion. Applying it is a bit more complicated.

When it comes to poverty, we say that there are things you can control. If you work hard, you can lift yourself up. We look at people less fortunate, and in so many words essentially tell them - “well just do what I did, and you’ll be fortunate like me.”

There’s an element of truth to this. The larger reality is that we tend to idealize our own narrative. We don’t talk about ‘luck’ or qadr because we’re too invested in our own autobiography. We want to show how we made it, how hard we worked, and what we had to overcome. Maybe you went to college, worked 3 jobs to put yourself through school, and somehow came out on top. But what about someone who started out doing the same thing and had to drop out of school to look after a sick family member? Or take in a relative’s child as their own?

That nitty gritty reality is a lot harder to deal with than telling someone a platitude like “just work harder” or “make better decisions.”

We’ve bought into the myth that anyone who works hard can lift themselves out of whatever situation they’re in. This reinforces that myth that the poor are lazy.

Many argue the problem is really income inequality, which leaves minimum wage earners struggling to afford basic needs, and therefore reliant on public assistance. Viewing people as morally responsible for their own situations "obviously ignores the systemic inequalities in the economy and polity that make people poor in the first place," ... "The kind of income inequality that is in the system puts especially women of color at the lowest end of the earning spectrum, which is a sentence of abject poverty." Even though welfare recipients are in the labor force, Mink explains, they aren't earning enough money to support a family and provide food security for their children while at the same time pay bills, such as rent and utilities (Mashable).

When someone works 60+ hours a week and still can’t make a living wage, it is not the time to tell them to work harder. It is time to recognize that social mobility does not exist without the infrastructure there to support it. Or rather it exists for some, but not others.

And that’s what people mean when they say systemic poverty. Or systemic racism.

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If I wasn't in the rap game I'd probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game Because the streets is a short stop Either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot Sh**, it's hard being young from the slums Eating 5 cent gums, not knowing where your meal's coming from -Notorious B.I.G. 

What are you supposed to do if you live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a grocery store or a bank? Or you have a job that doesn’t provide sick leave? Or you’re forced to choose between working and child-care? Or that you work 12 hours a day but still can’t pay for the gas you need to drive to work? Or that no matter how hard you work to save and earn, your margin of life is so thin that one dead car battery can ruin your life? Poverty is often death by a thousand cuts.

This type of stress is something people are forced to live with on a daily basis. We don’t even recognize the cognitive load poverty puts on the brain when we spout of platitudes like “well you should have gone to college.” We don’t realize it, because we don’t know what it is like to live day to day fighting a system designed to make you fail.

Empathy means understanding what someone is going through from their eyes. It means actually internalizing the reality that if you were in the same situation, at best, you’d do the exact same thing as the person you’re criticizing. And it means actually caring because you know that the poor are too busy working to advocate for themselves.

In what is perhaps one of the most famous ayāt (verses) of the Qur'ān about the Prophet Muhammad (saw), he is described directly by Allah (swt) as such:

A Messenger has come to you from among yourselves. Your suffering distresses him: he is deeply concerned for you and full of kindness and mercy towards the believers (9:128). 

When we think of mercy we think of the basics. Being kind to people, respecting our elders, helping our neighbors, and feeding the hungry. The depth of character conveyed in the ayah above goes many levels beyond that. He was able to model the empathy needed to tackle these challenges head on.

Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘Son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me.’ ‘My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ ‘Did you not know that one of My servants was sick and you didn’t visit him? If you had visited him you would have found Me there.’ Then Allah will say, ‘Son of Adam, I needed food but you did not feed Me.’ ‘My Lord, How could I feed You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ ‘Did you not know that one of My servants was hungry but you did not feed him? If you had fed him you would have found its reward with Me.’ ‘Son of Adam, I was thirsty, but you did not give Me something to drink.’ ‘My Lord, How could I give a drink when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ ‘Did you not know that one of My servants was thirsty but you did not give him a drink? If you had given him a drink, you would have found its reward with Me.’ (Bukhari)


Recommended Reading

Transparency in Leadership: Musa and Harun

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After returning from the mountain having left Harun (as) in charge for the 40 day period, Musa (as) finds the people worshipping a calf. This was clearly against what he commanded them with before leaving. He immediately turns to the one he left in charge to inquire about what happened. When someone is in a leadership position, their status does not preclude them from accountability and transparency. The questions Musa (as) asks are also important. Despite grabbing Harun's beard, he does not immediately jump to a conclusion. He asks intelligent questions to gauge what happened while giving Harun (as) a chance to respond.

See the explanation from Sh. Yahya Ibrahim below:

http://twitter.com/yahya_ibrahim/status/243297826174545920

http://twitter.com/yahya_ibrahim/status/243299050751942656

http://twitter.com/yahya_ibrahim/status/243299535072423936

 

The Dilemma of The Dark Knight Rises and Ramadan

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Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of the relevant “Dark Knight” Batman movies, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. But it’s been an interesting fight nonetheless. Should Muslims go see The Dark Knight Rises, the final Batman movie of the recent wildly popular trilogy, even though it opens right at the start of Ramadan? Or should they refrain from watching it altogether until after the month ends? Like most impassioned and useless debates, people whose opinions don’t matter have formed very strong arguments on both sides.

On one hand you have people who are huge fans of Batman that can’t envision not seeing it. It’s only a couple of hours, what’s the harm?

On the other hand, you have those urging people not to waste time watching movies. Every second in this 30 days is precious, don’t burn 3 hours at a movie.

As someone who doesn’t fall into either category, I simply want to offer some perspective on this issue.

The larger question is to address the purpose of Ramadan, and what one hopes to get out of the month. Both sides contain a certain level of inconsistency in their advocacy. Those who are in favor of watching it need to acknowledge that at its base level, spending time going to the movies and being in that environment does go against the spirit of Ramadan. And while some will argue over the halal/haram of the issue, the following question is sufficient: Is this the best use of time during this precious month where every second needs to be maximized?

At the same time, I feel there’s an unfair assumption being made. Those against seeing the movie use the time argument above, but without context. Someone can choose to not go see The Dark Knight Rises, but still engage in wasting massive amounts of time. There’s television, Netflix, YouTube, magazines, fiction books, the news (depending on which news you read), and, the big one, sports. What’s worse, watching The Dark Knight Rises, or compulsively checking ESPN.com every few hours for new articles on a daily basis?

And this is where we get back to the central question about Ramadan. Ramadan is not a 30 day vacuum. I don’t see the benefit in someone being “righteous” enough to not watch the movie during Ramadan, but as soon as Ramadan is over they go back to seeing a new movie every weekend. By the same token, I don’t see the validity in chastising someone because they think you shouldn’t see a movie.

Move past the movie question to the more fundamental question of why.  If you’re opposed to seeing it in Ramadan, WHY are you staying away from it?  What does it mean for you and your relationship with Allah? Is the why to maximize our Ramadan time for worship (time management)? Then what that means is that we can use this month as boot camp to cut down on those things outside the month and increase in worship more than last year. Is the why because what you’re watching/listening to/involved in intrinsically evil (sinning)? Then what that means is maybe we shouldn’t be doing that stuff at all, and we can use the month to purge it now and forever.

But if you can’t answer the ‘why’ behind following certain rules, then there’s a bigger problem under the surface.

If we feel that Ramadan is a vacuum and that certain things are somehow allowed only outside of it, what does that do to someone’s understanding and appreciation of the month? If anything, that just turns the supposedly holiest time of the year into a robotic lifestyle change that’s more of a 30 day chore than anything else. With such an understanding, is it any wonder then that we see little change in ourselves during the month?

But, instead, we understand that Ramadan is about a time of reflection for the sake of change, not just full of things that you *can’t* do, but that you DO do (extra worship) and don’t do (eat) in order to become a better servant of God, how much more does that play a role into improving one’s faith?

There’s an important question of why on the other side of this debate as well. Why is it that people get agitated when they’re told not to watch a movie during Ramadan? Why get defensive? If there is some guilt there, then you need to explore why that’s the case. If you’re comfortable with your decision to watch The Dark Knight Rises, then why is there such a need to go to great lengths to justify it to those around you? Instead of labeling others as being out of touch, or pretentious, or self-righteous, have good thoughts for those giving you advice the same way you want them to have good thoughts for you.

During Ramadan we push ourselves to the spiritual limit in 30 days. We do as much as we can, and we hope to maximize the time that we have. We read as much Qur’an as possible, make as much du‘ā’ as possible, and pray as many extra prayers as we can. One of the overlooked goals though, is that of creating sustainable habits during this month.

Let’s reframe the argument. Do you see a difference between: a) Not watching Dark Knight during Ramadan, and then watching it the day after Eid, and b) Not reading the Qur’an all year, but reading it twice during the 30 days and then closing it again?

If I know, for example, that I keep up with too many TV shows, then the point is not to go cold turkey in Ramadan and then go right back. It should be to scale down in such a way that I can keep myself at that level until the following Ramadan. If I know I’m not spending enough time reading Qur’an, then my goal is not necessarily to finish it 10 times and then shut the book. My personal goal would be to create a system of reading regularly such that I can continue it after the month is over.

Don’t confuse this with not being ambitious with your personal ‘ibādah. Do as much as you can, but remember that the change has to continue after the month is over.

Let those who are going to watch it go watch it. Let those who aren’t, leave it. Either way, it’s not something that needs to cause us to look down on other people. Unfortunately, the judgmental comments are plenty from both sides. Self-righteousness manifests itself both in “how dare you watch a movie during Ramadan” and “you extremists don’t understand how to have fun, it’s just a movie.”

Part of Ramadan is also getting back to the basics. Prayer. Qur’an. How about encouraging and helping each other to have a good Ramadan instead of drawing battle lines before the month even begins? If we’re going to do that, at least let it be over something worthwhile like the abhorrent, unsubstantiated, and illegitimate position of using calculations in place of moon-sighting.