You think the Corporate World is exploitative, judgemental, and egotistical? Try Islamic Organisations.
HOL’ UP?! No he didn’t just say that… Err yes I did. Oxymoronic right? Juxtaposing the stereotypical corporate tendency to suck every piece of goodness from you and applying that to an Islamic organisational context. Yet this is reality, I know this because my whole family throughout their lives have worked building the Islamic global and local community. Although Islamic organisations play a role in society, I think ultimately we need to start thinking about khidmah differently.
I was born into a family environment that was ‘plugged in’ to anything Islamic. On a day-to-day basis for the last twenty or so years I grew up calling some of the Muslim world’s most revered and respected scholars, activists and artists my uncles and aunts. They were at my birthdays, they helped me with essays and some… changed my nappies. Interestingly, I’ve been in a great position to sit, watch and listen as countless Islamic organisations walk in and out of our door. Sit, watch and listen backstage as event organisers do their thing. Sit, watch and listen as the scholars talk away from the crowds and cameras. I’ve seen the harsh reality behind the glitz and glamour of our ‘celebrity scholar’ environment. And it isn’t what you think it is. Ultimately friends, my diagnosis is that there are three types of people in Islamic Organisations that need addressing:
The ‘Big Dog’ Event Organiser – You know who this guy is, you’ve all seen him. There is one of these in every city across the world. The ‘big’ shot with a blackberry in one hand and his perfectly placed tasbih on the other. The Massimo Dutti wearing maverick BUT donning a Tarimi scarf to add a bit of Sufi to his swagger. The ‘I’m-talking-to-you-but-looking-elsewhere-to-see-if-there-is-anyone-else-more-important-I-could-be-socializing-with’ kinda guy. The namedropper, “oh I was with Sheikh x the other day and we were discus—“ BLA BLA BLA. The wife seeker! The guy who loves being ‘the guy to know’, who loves taking charge of a situation/event that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with him. But, loves the attention. The authority gives him relevancy… relevancy gives him security. But it’s his clinging to the celebrity lifestyle that consumes him; he loses sight of the Islamic morals he fights for. Then it gets good to him… He starts to think ‘why am I working for an organisation when I could just… set up my own? Then I’ll be the real big dog…”. Fast-forward and you have what I like to call these shotgun organisations that organise an event or two and then whither away into nothingness due to this ‘top dog’ overestimating his own abilities.
This is where I think our generation has failed. We’re not as dynamic, legit and passionate as our elders were. Whereas the previous generation, what Ziauddin Sardar calls a ‘transition generation’, were united under their assimilation struggle and finding their place in western society we are not. Their hard work has enabled us, the new generation, to wallow in our own comfort. Now, any contemporary community work is to feed egos first and community second. The goodness has been sapped out of it.
The Mureeds – Ok, these pious gangsters are an enigma. I love you. But some things need to be said. When did being part of a tariqah turn into some cool clique no one told me about? It’s like some sick ‘Mean Girls’ high school drama that makes you feel left out if you’re not part of the movement. You feel like a gimp when you sit in and they’re reminiscing amongst themselves “Remember that one time, at Sufi camp…”. ALAS, they traipse into the place with their flowy thobe, skull cap and shampoo’d glossy beard. Looking like a Shukr Clothing Store catalogue. Yeah they be looking fly! But tassawuf is in the heart brah! Not the cloth.
When did scholars become owned by these guys too? This is a major problem and I see it worldwide. Our scholars are being monopolized by the same group of people instead of exposing them to new environments where there is a greater need. The organisational formula with regards to our scholars is samey and monotonous, it’s the same mureeds, same venues and same mawlids. Our mistake is thinking that this inertia is coming from the scholars themselves, but speak to any one of them and they will tell you they hate it all the same. We need to be more strategic about how we engage with our communities and even non-muslims, inclusive as supposed to exclusive. We’re not in high school.
That being said at times it feels like we are. Like any cut-throat environment it’s all about ‘who you know’. You get access to the Sheikh if you happen to know Faraz, who knows Rashid who’s actually a second cousin of Ahmed who went to Tarim with Yahya who was a roommate of Faisal that bought a camel off Abdallah. But oh hold the phone, if you’re not part of the ‘in’ crowd… I’m afraid you’ll have to sit there and wait outside the room with the ‘normal’ people. Ewww, the normal people. Ok slight exaggeration and I know that’s not exactly what they’re thinking but nonetheless that’s how the rejected person feels like. Like any group he’s been excluded from, it’s all the same.
But donning a thobe and wearing a turban doesn’t make you pious my brotherrrrrr. Adaab does. Isn’t that the first thing we learn? Like turning up in numbers to a post-event dinner uninvited, be it a house or a restaurant. It has to stop. It puts people in difficult situations. Either an organisation is paying a bill it cannot afford, or someones house is unfairly overrun with people. While this takes place the countless volunteers and the helpers (unpaid, of course) who are the logistical backbone of the event are back at the venue hall cleaning up our kebabish takeaway bags. What about their dinner? What about their time with the scholars? So now one man is picking up a tab for £500, which could have been spent on a plane ticket to bring another scholar to benefit from. Which could have been spent paying for the travel stipends for our well-deserved volunteers. Yet, it is examples like this that show the vast chasm that lies between knowledge and hikmah.
The Scholars – Our leaders, the bastions of morality and knowledge. The people we look up to guide us through the tumultuous times. Our leaders are indeed invaluable but let me just say it plain and clear, they’re just men/women. They make mistakes. Lapses in judgement. Distasteful comments. This is where the heartbreak is, whereas majority of people leave an event and go home feeling inspired, I’ve seen life as it continues backstage and felt the heartbreak in witnessing that the same leaders are making the same mistakes we all do.
It isn’t pious men conducting their inter-organisational relationships with lutf (kindness), akhlaaq (morality) and responsibility. It’s a cut throat dog eat dog world all clambering for a piece of the accolade pie. This corporate-esque environment pitting Islamic organisations against each other is forcing our scholars and leaders to conduct themselves in a way that contradicts all their on-stage teachings. What use is it then? I couldn’t help but ask myself as a youngster, if the organisations that are promoting prophetic character, ihsaan and adaab are not themselves practising it behind the scenes, what is the point advertising it on stage?
I read somewhere ‘Never meet your heroes’. At that age it was meaningless. Yet, over the last few years it makes complete sense and shattered my childish admiration for people I held in such high regards. But, whose fault is that? It’s no ones but my own. I myself raised them to that faultless pedigree in my selfish pursuit of an authoritative figure to provide my life with guidance and support. Yet, I ignored their intrinsic humanity and thus fallibility. Now I’m older, a little less naïve but I love them nonetheless. Why? Because now I love them for their flaws, and observing how they battle themselves against it. The late Sheikh Ramadan Al-Bhutti (Allah have mercy on him) said he doesn’t let people kiss his hand, when asked why he replied with a trembling voice “They don’t know what resides in my nufs”, tears pouring down his face, “when they all crowd to kiss my hand every attempt to do so is a constant reminder of my deficiencies as a human being”. That kind of character is worth admiring.
So… next time you go to that Islamic event organised by a seemingly innocent Islamic organisation, know that it’s not all at pious, polite and cordial. It is in fact backbiting, two-faced and exploitative as our organisations seek to get one up on each other. As I’ve said, I believe it be the cause of ego, cults and poor leadership. But don’t confuse my comments to be a criticism on them as people, because that would be wrong. I genuinely believe they all have incredible intentions and are very good people; the problem is they are all fighting for the same funding, same scholars, same topics and same audience. Thus, like any capitalistic product market the competitive economic environment is causing our leaders to play the capitalist game. An organisation cannot operate with integrity towards other organisations when they have salaries of their own to pay. Ultimately, it boils down to economics first and ideals second.
So my conclusion is that Islamic organisations are dead, alive in the sense they are everywhere, but dead morally. Organisations are too vulnerable financially and socially. My question to you then, is how about we start thinking about doing things different? Wrestle ourselves away from Islamic organisation structure and start thinking about khidmah differently.
I don’t want to go to another event that regurgitates hadith and sunnah without seeing it implemented and practised in the wider community. We need follow through, a community that doesn’t just listen but acts. I want to see and feel Islam, not just hear it from someone on a stage…
Who knows? Inshallah khair. We have some ideas… But people make ideas happen. So as Steve Jobs puts it:
“Calling all the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do”.
Where are ya’ll? Let’s make it happen.
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