Hilm: A Hallmark of Prophetic Leadership

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A man once lent the Prophet ﷺ some gold, with an agreement for to repay it on an agreed upon date. A few days prior, the man came up to the Prophet ﷺ, and in front of all the Companions, accosted him by saying - “O Muhammad, why are you not paying what is due? By Allah, I know your family well! You are all known for deferring your debts!” Umar (r), in response to this blatant disrespect, got up to respond.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Umar, we do not need this..Go with him, pay off his loan, and give him twenty additional sâ‘ (32 kg) of dates because you frightened him.” The man who originally lent the goal became Muslim on the spot. The man’s name was Zayd b. Su’na, and he was a Rabbi. He then explained to ‘Umar why he acted this way.

“There was not a single sign of prophethood except that I recognized it upon looking at Muhammad’s face—except for two that I had not yet seen from him: that his tolerance overcomes his anger, and that intense abuse only increases him in forbearance. I have now tested these, so know, O ‘Umar, that I accept Allah as [my] Lord, Islam as [my] religion, Muhammad as [my] Prophet, and that half my wealth—for I have much wealth—is a donation for the ummah of Muhammad.” [1]

This characteristic - forbearance (hilm) - is described as a prophetic trait in the Qur’an. Ibrahim (as) is described as halīm (11:75), as is his son (37:101)..

When the delegation of AbdulQays came to accept Islam, they rushed to meet the Prophet (s) the second they entered the city. Their leader, Ashajj, stayed behind to gather the delegations belongings and before coming to meet the Prophet (s). When he arrived, the Prophet ﷺ told him he had two characteristics that Allah loves - hilm (forbearance), and deliberateness [Refer to this episode of the Seerah podcast for a detailed explanation of this story].

So what exactly is forbearance? It sounds like one of those English words that only gets used by the Muslim community - like ‘circumambulation.’ Hilm carries meanings of patience and intelligence. In regards to leadership, it means having the intelligence to see the big picture or a broader vision while also having the patience to execute on it. In general, it also carries connotations of clemency, deliberateness, gentleness, calmness, and tranquility.

The Prophet ﷺ exemplified this characteristic on numerous occasions throughout his life. After being turned away from Ta’if, he was given the option to have the angels crush them under the mountains. Despite the emotion of the situation - being cursed at, physically abused, and chased out of the city - he instead hoped that their offspring would grow up with iman. There are other incidents such as when the bedouin urinated in the masjid, or when a man came and violently grabbed his clothing and demanded money. In all of these situations we find what Aisha (r) described:

“Never did the Messenger of Allah ﷺ strike anyone with his hand, neither a servant nor a woman, unless he was fighting in the cause of Allah. He never took revenge upon anyone for the wrong done to him, and would [only] carry out legal retributions for the sake of Allah when the injunctions of Allah were violated.”

Her description reinforces what Zayd b. Su’na tried to test for himself. People would insult the Prophet ﷺ, argue with him, try to provoke him, and even abuse him. He never flipped out. He never lost his cool. He was always in control of his emotions, and his response served a larger purpose.

On one occasion, the Prophet ﷺ silently smiled when Abu Bakr (ra), his most noble Companion, refrained from responding to a person who was insulting him. But when Abu Bakr (ra) eventually spoke up, the Prophet ﷺ became angry and left. He ﷺ later explained, “An angel was with you, responding on your behalf. But when you said back to him some of what he said, a devil arrived, and it is not for me to sit with devils.” The Prophet ﷺ taught thereby that when a person stoops to the level of those who insult them they allow the devil to steer their course. One of the core principles of Islamic spirituality is not to allow our emotions and actions to be hijacked by the devil to the point where our decision-making is driven by other than divine instruction. The Prophet ﷺ taught various methods such as seeking refuge in Allah from the devil, changing our physical positions to less confrontational ones, performing ablution, etc. to help us maintain composure when angry. In anger, we tend to respond in prideful, satanic ways that serve nothing and no one but our own egos. Righteous anger is necessary, but cannot be expressed when one is not appropriately composed. Therefore, the Prophet ﷺ overcame any attempts on the part of his enemies to provoke foulness, vulgarity, or anything not befitting his noble character (from Mohammad Elshinawy, see footnote at the end of article).

A natural reaction to praising a characteristic such as forbearance in the context of leadership is to worry about others taking advantage of us. The Prophet ﷺ showed righteous anger when the situation warranted, he spoke clearly and set boundaries when needed, and he established justice when required. The key is that he did those things with clear decision making, with purpose, and not out of emotion. The problem that we face is when we react out of a place of anger and ego, but shroud it in the guise of justice and fairness.

Hilm must be practiced. This requires looking at events through a different lens. When provoked, look at it as an opportunity to cultivate this characteristic. Mu’awiya (r) said, “No one has forbearance without it being put to the test (Adab al-Mufrad).”

We hope that by treating others with hilm, Allah will be merciful to us.

One of His beautiful names is Al-Halīm. Al Ghazali explained that Al-Halīm is “the One who observes the disobedience of the rebellious, and notices the opposition to the command, yet anger does not incite Him, nor wrath seize Him, nor do haste and recklessness move Him to rush to take vengeance, although He is utterly capable of doing that.”

“If God were to punish people [at once] for the wrong they have done, there would not be a single creature left on the surface of the earth. He gives them respite for a stated time and, whenever their time comes, God has been watching His servants (35:45).”

Allah (swt) has the right to exact justice, and yet He defers. He grants clemency, waiting for us to heed the call to repent and turn back to Him. Whenever the name Al-Halīm occurs in the Qur’an, it is always paired with another Name of Allah giving us additional context. It is mentioned alongside Al-Ghafūr - He not only delays, but also forgives and wipes away the sins. Al-Halīm is mentioned alongside Al-Shakūr showing us that not only does He overlook our sins, but He will also reward us with more than we deserve. It is mentioned alongside Al-’Alīm. He knows in detail every misdeed we have done, nothing escapes His knowledge, and in spite of this He is still withholding His anger and giving the opportunity to repent. And it is mentioned alongside Al-Ghanī, the One free of all needs. He does not need anything from us, or any favor from us, He is the one who forgives.

It is ironic that when we discuss having hilm for ourselves, we worry about people taking advantage of us. We should reflect on how many opportunities Allah, Al-Halīm, continues to give us that we squander.


[1] Please see “How the Prophet (s) Rose Above Enmity and Insult” by Shaykh Mohammad Elshinawy. This article contains many detailed accounts from the seerah displaying the hilm of the Prophet (s).

5 Leadership Lessons from the Quranic Story of Talut (Saul)


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After the time of Musa (as), the tribe of Bani Isra’il began to stray from the obedience of Allah and encountered some losses to neighboring enemies. They came to their prophet and asked for a king to lead them and fight the enemy.

[Prophet], consider the leaders of the Children of Israel who came after Moses, when they said to one of their prophets, ‘Set up a king for us and we shall fight in God’s cause.’ He said, ‘But could it be that you would not fight, if it were ordained for you?’ They said, ‘How could we not fight in God’s cause when we and our children have been driven out of our homeland?’ Yet when they were commanded to fight, all but a few of them turned away: God has full knowledge of those who do wrong. (2:246)

1) Stop Looking for Motivation

These were people who were fully motivated - they and their families were driven out of their homeland. Yet, when the command came to fight, they did not follow through.

We fool ourselves by thinking we need to be motivated or inspired before doing something. We sit around waiting for inspiration to strike instead of taking action. This causes us to seek out motivation through various means (like Instagram).

The reality is we need discipline more than motivation. Success comes from the discipline that enables you to take action precisely at the moments you don’t feel like it.

Their prophet said to them, ‘God has now appointed Talut to be your king,’ but they said, ‘How can he be king over us when we have a greater right to rule than he? He does not even have great wealth.’ He said, ‘God has chosen him over you, and has given him great knowledge and stature. God grants His authority to whoever He pleases: God is magnanimous, all-knowing.’ (2:247)

2) Sometimes Good Followership Beats Good Leadership

We mythologize the characteristics of good leaders and hold them to practically impossible standards. Modern politics of leadership are no different than what is laid out in this ayah. We don’t want to follow people who aren’t like us or do not hold the status we deem appropriate. This is what creates “politics” in our communities.

There is so much emphasis on how to be a good leader that we often forget how to be a good follower. We have to find a way to make ourselves part of helping a good effort even if it comes without a title or authority.

When someone is given authority over us, we tend to dislike it and seek out a person’s faults. As long as a leader is sufficiently good enough, we should look for ways to tie ourselves to the broader mission and find ways to be supportive.

Someone once came to Ali (rA) and asked him why there was so much strife during his rule while the rule of Abu Bakr and Umar was relatively smoother. Ali replied by telling the man that Abu Bakr and Umar ruled over people like him (Ali), while he has to rule over people like this man. Even the best leaders need strong followers to support them.

Learning how to lead well ultimately starts with knowing how to follow well.

When Talut set out with his forces, he said to them, ‘God will test you with a river. Anyone who drinks from it will not belong with me, but anyone who refrains from tasting it will belong with me; if he scoops up just one handful [he will be excused].’ But they all drank [deep] from it, except for a few. (2:249)

3) We Look at the Wrong Resume

When a king is leading forces to war, there are some obvious qualifications that immediately come to mind. You need people that are strong, well-armed, experienced in battle, large in number, and so on.

Talut’s army keeps getting smaller and smaller. Some turned away when ordered to fight. Another group turned away by refusing to accept his leadership. And then those who are left are ordered to not drink from a river while out on an expedition?

What does drinking from a river have to do with how well someone can perform on the battlefield? What does this have to do with someone’s qualifications and ability?

What we value is often not the same as what Allah values.

At the core of leadership is subduing your ego. The more I question why Allah has commanded me to do something, the more I am entrapped by my own ego. The more I belittle what our faith directs us to in favor of what society leads us to, the more I am enamored with my own intellect instead of submitting to Allah.

The river was a small test. Do you have the discipline to carry out this small command of Allah? If a person cannot pass this seemingly insignificant test, how will they respond to a larger trial with more significant consequences?

When he crossed it with those who had kept faith, they said, ‘We have no strength today against Goliath and his warriors.’ But those who knew that they were going to meet their Lord said, ‘How often a small force has defeated a large army with God’s permission! God is with those who are steadfast.’ And when they met Goliath and his warriors, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour patience on us, make us stand firm, and help us against the disbelievers,’ (2:249-250)

4) Nothing Comes Easy

Even after passing all the prior tests, some people in the group lost faith when seeing the size of the opposing army.

It’s easy for us to talk about how we would act in a particular situation. Even with leadership, we consider ourselves to be heroes. We think that if someone would just put us in charge, we’d show them how to do things the right way and get results.

The truth is, we have no idea how we would react in a given situation or circumstance. What we think we bring to the table is largely irrelevant when compared to the aid of Allah (swt).

The believers mentioned in this ayah prayed to Allah not only for the end outcome of victory but asked for help with doing the hard work needed to attain victory.

and so with God’s permission they defeated them. Dawud (David) killed Goliath, and God gave him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased. (2:251)

5) Trust the Process

A man came and asked the Prophet (s) if he should tie his camel to secure it or relegate his trust in Allah to protect the camel. The Prophet (s) famously told him to do both. That is the process.

We are fascinated by the underdog tale. Young David slays the giant beast Goliath. We use this story as inspiration and motivation. We tell ourselves that even though the odds are against us, we can still come out on top.

This is a dangerous lesson taken at face value. Many people are deluded into shortcutting the process of hard work by thinking their inspiration and passion will let them overcome any difficulty.

The real lesson is that a relentless amount of hard work must be coupled with unrelenting faith and trust in Allah (swt) to truly succeed.

Dawud (as) excelled in obeying Allah and following Talut before he was given the blessings of kingship and prophethood.

See also: Khutbah - The Politics of Leadership by Yasir Fahmy

Unapologetically Telling The Truth Is A Terrible Thing to Admire

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Why do we value “unapologetically telling the truth like it is” so highly? When did this become an actual thing that we lionize and aspire to? Why do we celebrate those who do this?

What’s the point of telling it like it is, even if people hate it? And what does it say about us as a community if this is how sincerity and authenticity is expressed? When did it become some type of significant accomplishment that is lauded by others?

There’s obviously an immediate benefit. You gain notoriety, fans, social media engagement, and maybe even just enough of a following to leverage a career (or presidency) out of it.

I have noticed a trend lately, particularly in discourse about Islamic issues online, where people are being heralded and promoted for telling it like it is.

This culture appears to be an overreaction to another problem (as most extremes often are) - speaking about issues without any principles, or watering down and politicizing them. When something in regards to the religion is watered down, the perception is that this is done from a position of weakness.

By speaking the unapologetic truth harshly, a person may feel they are taking on a task for the community that others are not. They are giving voice to a perspective that may otherwise be silent. They are providing objective and accurate intellectual analysis without any emotion or sugar-coating.

Validation follows. Others encourage them for speaking up and saying the things they are unafraid to say. This makes the person feel they are taking on an important task on behalf of the ummah, and continue to do so. Then they get more fans and comments, and the cycle continues.

This validation loop, particularly online when it is in the form of likes and comments, makes it challenging to engage criticisms of this approach objectively. After all, everyone is telling you this is incredible - why should you listen to the few uptight people who are so focused on tone instead of the unapologetic truth bomb you are dropping on people?

This justification comes from prioritizing the utility of giving a correct point of view over how it is delivered - especially when this point of view is drowned out by all the people with the wrong understanding.

When given real feedback on tone or etiquette, people who pride themselves on being unapologetic or authentic will respond by deflecting this advice. Focus on the intellectual merits of the argument they’ll argue. Or they will deflect it by pointing to some type of bad character on the part of people who hold the opposing viewpoint as them. Don’t worry about my bad attitude, worry about that other person’s character instead. For people who pride themselves on being objective or intellectual, these are all profoundly childish responses.

What is billed as being authentic or unapologetic is really a mask for laziness and ego.

The Qur’an lays out a model that we’ll refer to as the ‘high-competency’ approach:

By an act of mercy from God, you [Prophet] were gentle in your dealings with them—had you been harsh, or hard-hearted, they would have dispersed and left you—so pardon them and ask forgiveness for them. Consult with them about matters, then, when you have decided on a course of action, put your trust in God: God loves those who put their trust in Him (3:159).

Where in this ayah does it appear that the approach of telling the cold hard truth would fall?

Telling the unapologetic truth without regard for how people take it is the easy way out. Anyone can do that. The problem is that it does not work. It causes people to get turned off. Those who lionize this approach will counter by saying, “so what?” They put the blame on the people who can’t handle the message instead of taking responsibility for how they deliver it.

That’s why it’s lazy. It’s a low competency form of delivering a message. The only people who celebrate it are ones that already agree with it. It does not accomplish the ultimate task of winning hearts and minds or changing someone’s viewpoint.

Instead, it puts the focus on the person giving the message - how courageous, authentic, and direct they are. This makes the communication inherently ego driven because the intended audience is now ignored. The actual content of a person’s message also gets lost as they start to craft their identity around speaking forcefully instead of effectively. They show no concern for the recipient of the message, only in themselves.

The task of winning hearts and minds, or changing someone’s ideological worldview, is not done through a hot take on Facebook. It is done as the ayah above indicates - with kindness in dealings with them.

Giving hot takes on social media builds fans and followings, not relationships. The ultimate irony is that unapologetically speaking the truth actually prevents people from developing the relationships to affect positive change in the community because no one wants to be around them.

“How well you take criticism depends less on the message and more on your relationship with the messenger. It's surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth when it comes from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.” -Adam Grant

It requires the hard work of building relationships with people and building community. True leaders understand that this requires years of investment into people - not all of which will be documented on social media. Success means playing the long game.

It means going to a tyrant like Fir’awn, and still speaking kindly because the ultimate intent is different than to just tell it like it is.

It means that when the young man walks into the masjid of the Prophet (s) and asks permission to commit zina (adultery), that the Prophet (s) takes him and teaches him kindly. He could have easily reminded him about the jurisprudential rulings about adultery, and the prescribed punishment - no doubt that would be unapologetically speaking the truth. But it would not have achieved the intended outcome, so the Prophet (s) had to take the approach that would actually produce results.

But wait, what about all the times in the life of the Prophet (s) when harshness was used? Didn't he speak the truth clearly? Yes. There are always going to be situations where this is called for strategically as a tool intended for a specific result. The problem we are highlighting is not of speaking the truth clearly, but one of expressing it in a harsh way such that people are turned off. And worse, people who respond to the harshness with cheerleading and zealousness instead of genuine care and concern for the one who is wrong to gain some sense of rectification.

There is something deeper at play here than ego or taking the easy way out. Authenticity.

Authenticity is the buzzword we use to express sincerity. When I tell it like it is, I am being authentic and sincere. Not fake. Not a sell-out.

Authenticity presents a paradox: Do you do what’s effective, or do you do what is true to yourself? We might reach a certain level of success and influence by being a certain way. The challenge is getting to the next level. If that means suddenly changing how I communicate or speaking with what I term to be watered down political jargon, then no thanks. This is the mindset that allows us to morally justify our unapologetic approach, and actually double down on it when told to act otherwise.

Authenticity is a barrier to personal growth. We use this idea of it representing sincerity as an excuse to keep from changing. We have to shift from delivering the information people need to know (low-level) to creating the conditions of increasing learning (high-level).

This requires putting in the work to change our approach and character.

The Prophet (s) said that the two characteristics that led the most people into Paradise were consciousness of Allah and good character (Tirmidhi).

Never lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is good character. At times this will include a stern or harsh response when appropriately warranted and strategically delivered.

Low competency individuals are drawn to telling it like it is. High competency individuals are attracted to painting the vision of how things could be - and building the bridge to help and serve people in getting there.


3 Prophetic Leadership Lessons from the CEO of AlBaik

What does it sound like when the CEO of a company operates from an Islamic framework?

I was surprised to hear Rami Abu Ghazaleh, CEO of AlBaik (yes, that AlBaik), share his approach to running his company.

There are quite a few gems in this video, and I will highlight three of them here.

1. It's Never About You

Typically, we expect a CEO to lionize their own narrative. They'll share the difficulties they faced, highlight their underlying passion and resilience, and then (with a token dose of humility) show how they ultimately succeeded.

The CEO is always the hero of his or her story. This level of narcissism serves them well - as I highlighted previously in How Bad Leaders Rise to the Top and Why We Keep Following Them.

We find that the Prophet (s) never made things about himself. Humility was one of his hallmark characteristics. This is shown through his focus on others and dedication to the message.

Rami tells the story of literally everyone else except himself. In a moment when others could justifiably talk about their own accomplishments and hurdles, he turns the spotlight to his parents, his brother, his team, and his customers.

As Islamic organizations try to copy business practices in the name of professionalism, these character traits often get overlooked. I have even seen the website for one major Islamic organization describing its own history by continually mentioning the CEO by name, lionizing his narrative,  and completely neglecting literally everyone else who contributed to its success.

What we build is for others, not ourselves. It is only after understanding this that we can genuinely embrace servant leadership - as the Prophet (s) said, "The leader of a people is their servant."

2. Amanah is Everything

Talking about motivators is popular. People are obsessed with finding their "why" - as the viral Simon Sinek talk popularized, "People don't care about what you do, they care about why you do it."

We strive to do the things we are passionate about. If we don't love it, we don't want to do it.

Rami shares a different passion, and a different motivator - amanah. It is the realization that whatever you are given is a trust from The Creator. This creates purpose far more potent than passion.

Abu Dharr said once asked the Prophet (s) to appoint him to a position of authority. He (saw) put his hand on the shoulder of Abu Dharr and said, "you are weak, and it is a trust, and on the Day of Resurrection it will be a source of humiliation and regret, except for the one who takes it and fulfills all obligations and does all duties required (Muslim).”

Understanding and fulfilling the amanah one is entrusted with is the basis of trust.

3. Abundance Mindset

Rami shares how they refused to raise prices when food costs went up to do right by their customers. They gave employees raises and bonuses when finances were tight, and most others would have done a round of layoffs.

The Prophet (s) said, "None of you will have faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

It is easy to say we would want a raise instead of being laid off. It is far more difficult to implement while in a position of leadership.

When people are short-sighted or focused on money, they will inevitably operate from a scarcity mindset.

Trust is built on giving more than you take, and when you do, you will be showered with blessings (barakah) from Allah (swt).


Sadaqah Jariyah: What Humility in Your Work Really Means

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This is the fourth post in the Sadaqah Jariyah series, catch up on the previous installments here.

Have you ever read a long internet comment pontificating about advanced Islamic issues by an unqualified person that ends with something like, "but I'm not a scholar or anything so don't take my word for it"?

The person saying this may genuinely want to portray a sense of humility. Instead, it (rightfully) comes across as false modesty.

Have you ever complimented someone after a khutbah or a speech, only to have them say "No, no, it was actually terrible." Same thing. They are trying to be humble, but all they've accomplished is making the person delivering the compliment feel bad.

The ultimate irony is this - even while being overtly self-deprecating, they're still talking about themselves. That's ego.

The entire point of a sadaqah jariyah is leaving behind something that outlasts you. That means it's not about you. Or as Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda says, "Nobody cares."

There is a monumental challenge with this. The more successful your efforts are (in whatever capacity you contribute), the more ego becomes a factor. It's easy to be humble when you're first getting started. It's much more difficult when you've established a multi-million dollar charity, have taught thousands of students, or attained national recognition in the form of media and speaking invites.

The more successful you become, the more critical it is to get over yourself.

This is a core leadership principle for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"For us, it's easy. We're looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We're looking for people — and I've said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that. A sense of humor is a huge thing with us. You've got to be able to laugh. You've got to be able to take a dig, give a dig — that sort of thing. And [you have to] feel comfortable in your own skin that you don't have all the answers. [We want] people who are participatory. The guys in the film room can tell me what they think of how we played last night if they want to. [Former Assistant GM] Sean Marks would sit in on our coaches' meetings when we're arguing about how to play the pick-and-roll or who we're going to play or who we're going to sit." [Business Insider]

Part of getting over yourself is being open to feedback.

This seems like an obvious point. In practice, some people are prone to hide from feedback when it comes to Islamic work. When criticized even slightly, they will retort with something along the lines of "either get involved or shut up." There might be some truth to this - but our focus here is on humility for the worker.

You have to be open to being edited. The deeper we get in our own work, the harder it is to look at it objectively. We are emotionally invested in our projects, so we take feedback personally.

A person operating from a premise of humility knows how to listen, filter, and respond to feedback. A person working from a premise of ego will dismiss input and cut out people who give it - even if they are from their inner circle.

In reality, we all need feedback. Even Steph Curry has a shooting coach. We have to embrace that process to produce work with ihsan. Without it, you'll never know if you are creating something of meaning.

Some people resist this when it comes to Islamic work. They'll argue that something is fee sabeelillah, and therefore people need to lay off. The opposite is true. You have to be willing to pause and put in extra work to get it right. And you have to be okay with knowing others may have something valuable to add that we didn't think of.

The nature of this type of work means you will be exposed to difficulty in dealing with others and their thoughts about your work. It's a small price to pay to establish something meaningful enough to outlive you.

As the Prophet (s) said, "The believer who mixes with the people and endures their harm has a greater reward than one who does not mix the people nor endures their harm."



The Innovator's Dilemma: Masjid Edition

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This article is the 4th in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

Why would we invest in mail-order DVD’s when that would hurt our retail business?

That’s the question Blockbuster asked itself when Netflix appeared on the block.

It’s easy to see in hindsight they should have invested in the ‘new’ business instead of holding on to the existing one. At the moment it appeared to be a rational decision made by super qualified people. They were doing everything right and had no reason to believe Netflix was a real threat.

This is a glimpse into what Clayton Christensen calls the Innovator’s Dilemma (not to be confused with the dilemma of bid'ah). An organization can be doing everything right, and yet, they’ll still lose their stature and leadership.

Do you cater to your existing audience, or adopt a new way of doing things to address future needs instead?

This is the same dilemma facing our local Islamic centers.

Masjids have reached a certain level of success by doing things a particular kind of way. Funds were collected and managed with a goal of establishing institutions - build masjids, full-time Islamic schools, gyms, Sunday schools, hire an imam, and then maybe a youth director.

This model works. And depending on how you see things, the argument can be made that it is currently working and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Accepting that premise, however, is precisely what opens the institution of the modern masjid up to the threat of disruption. When things are working by your definition, there is no longer an incentive to see how other small organizations are attracting congregants the masjid can’t reach. There’s no incentive to listen to people who feel marginalized by the community. And there is no incentive to invest in the human resources needed to build for the future. From their perspective, the masjid is still overcrowded on Fridays, Sunday school is beyond capacity, and funds are still rolling in. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Changing this model by going from 1 imam to a resident scholar + imam + sister’s religious director + youth director + full-time admin is seen as over a 500% increase in bottom line expense. What’s the ROI (return on investment) for that? [Please refer to Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be for a more detailed analysis on measure masjid ROI]

The world is changing rapidly. As our community centers have struggled to keep up with this change, we see people shifting to getting their spirituality online, third spaces, or other initiatives outside the masjid space.

Ignoring those changes is a sign of weak leadership. It is a failure to recognize the need to adapt and an inability to articulate a clear vision for the future. What can the masjid provide to provide spiritual guidance? How can it cultivate bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood for community members? How will it attract and engage those who are disconnected (regardless of age)? And how will it continue to do that 20 years from now with all the rapid changes we will experience in society?

This is the lens by which we must critically examine “how things have always been done.” We must find a way to honor the past while simultaneously investing in the future.

Of course, everyone thinks they’re investing in the future. There is a gap in how board or shura members see themselves, and how everyone else sees them. This gap occurs when the vision and mission of an organization get lost. Organizations drift away from the future vision and begin to focus on self-preservation. They’ll spend time doing things like rewriting the constitution and by-laws and overemphasizing their structure and procedures.

This is good management practice. The problem with sound management practice is that it is incentivized to preserve the status quo - just with more efficiency.

Focusing on the vision fosters true leadership. It enables strategic decision making to achieve the desired future outcomes.

When that strategic vision can be tied to future outcomes that the community has bought into - that is when you create momentum and practically engage in the practice of community building.


Sadaqah Jariyah: Who's Your Audience?

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This is the third post in the Sadaqah Jariyah series, catch up on the previous installments here.

It was a Friday night masjid program geared toward college students and young professionals. There were multiple speakers from the community, myself included. I was asked to share a few points on what major to pick in college, and some tips about finding a job.

After salah, one of the board members took the mic to make the announcement.

"After the sunnah prayers we will begin the youth program. Since this is for the youth, please, we want all the children age 8-12 to come sit in the front row."


Why would someone see a program for college students and immediately think that 8 year olds should be in the front row?

I've never understood this fascination with turning everything into a youth program. It's trying to score points with the community with hype while completely ignoring the actual content of a program.

When it comes to leaving a sadaqah jariyah, we try to cast our net far and wide. When we promote something - whether it be a class, book, lecture series, fundraising dinner, volunteer opportunity, or anything else - we want it to be for everyone.

At the heart of this is our focus on the wrong measures of success. We assume that more people means more reward. Therefore, this program is for all Muslims. All Muslims can benefit from this thing that I'm sharing.

The problem with this is that it is generic. In an age where everything from our Instagram feeds, Netflix watch next suggestions, and Amazon shopping habits come with super-personalized recommendations - there is no incentive or motivation to take part in something that's made for everyone.

When something is for everyone, it is now seen as a flag for low quality. It indicates that things must have been watered down. More importantly, something that is for everyone will never leverage your unique contribution.

If you want people to pay attention to your work, it needs to be clear who the core audience is. It is perfectly acceptable to have programs tailored toward young working professionals, or young moms, or teenagers, or even the elderly. They will get far more value out of one program that caters to them then they will from attending a multitude of generic ones where they struggle to glean a small nugget that applies to their lives.

Eventually your work may cross over and have a wider reach. It must start out, however, with a specific group in mind.

Sadaqah Jariyah: How To Make Your Dent In the Universe


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.

Masjid Inreach vs. Outreach


This article is the 3rd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

“Why in the world would you still have an Urdu khutbah in Toronto? You’re going to lose the next generation” was my question/argument to an Imam I was having dinner with from Canada.

“We have a large percentage of people who don’t speak English that attend the masjid, someone has to serve them” was the reply.

It was at this moment that the light bulb went off. Attracting the crowd that doesn’t come to the masjid, and serving the people who do come to the masjid aren’t at odds with one another - both are important. This may seem simple and obvious, but it is difficult to implement strategically for most communities.

That strategy depends on where your community is in its growth stage.

A new masjid will focus on outreach by default. It has to put effort into attracting new congregants and establishing a base.

Once established, there needs to be a hand-in-hand strategy of deepening the engagement of existing members, while also doing the outreach to increase the number of members.

That in-reach must be intentional. While it will involve things like weekly classes - these programs are a means, and not the goal. Whoever is tasked with the spiritual leadership, or shepherding, of the community must develop a vision for what that development (tarbiyyyah) process looks like over time and how to achieve it. Success for this must be measured on continued incremental progress, and not numbers. We tend to discount activities that don’t draw a large number of people and label them unsuccessful. These smaller, focused, and longer-term efforts are needed to develop new khateebs, teachers, and community leaders from within the masjid itself.

Outreach efforts will be at a larger scale and involve activities that may be less about ‘learning’. This includes more social events, family get togethers, and family night types of programs. These will favor things like enrichment and relationship building more heavily than learning or academics.

Conflict arises when people aren’t able to differentiate the two. People who are more inclined to formal study or academics will inevitably discount outreach efforts as not serious, or “edutainment.” We belittle them, not realizing that outreach efforts are the funnel that produce the people who end up attending the in-reach programs. Likewise, people who are more involved in activism or interfaith efforts will tend to discount in-reach efforts as ineffective because they don’t see immediate numbers or impact. Those in-reach efforts are the long game that is needed to continue community development.

We need to stop looking at these activities as "either/or", and more of a "both/and".

The modern mistake being made with both in-reach and outreach efforts is the over-reliance on social media. These activities, when done correctly, rely heavily on consistent personal interactions and building of relationships. When the modern masjid is expected to serve as a community center, or hub, people must meet to build community.

Social media is taken as a shortcut to achieve this. Some organizations feel that by live-streaming, podcasting, uploading, and being ever present on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat that they are automatically relevant, and doing their part to be accessible. These are great tools when used to serve a larger vision. They are an ineffective and a waste of effort if they only serve the end goal of “being on social media”.

Being on social media doesn’t automatically mean your impact is multiplied. There must be an actual vision and goal of the work being promoted. The pre-requisite to that is high capacity leadership already in place - meaning not everyone is going to be able to do this. An online presence must be strategic and not a dumping ground. What is the purpose of posting every khutbah? Or live streaming every class?

For many communities, social media is a great tool to do in-reach (NOT outreach) by letting community members stay up to date on local activities. And for a few, this online presence will translate into national or international impact because the work being done is already of such high quality that it attracts that regular audience from other locations.

Recognize what stage your community is in, develop a vision to grow it, and execute strategically on that vision.

See also: Don’t Let The Youth Run Your Social Media