Precious Gems in Our Community

Published October 10, 2015

By Ayeshah Ali

Altruism is like a human cell. It exists naturally in all of us in a dramatically subtle form that makes it easy for us to forget its existence. Cells are the basic building blocks of living things, including human beings, and they are microscopic and number in the trillions in the body so that we would not even be aware of it if we lost one, or even hundreds of them. Yet, the human cell has ability to unify itself with other cells in numerous combinations and complex arrangements. When the human cell applies itself towards this end by the will of Allah (SWT), it exhibits a tremendous amount of potential, capable of creating a complete human body, essentially delivering an impact of its ability in a truly magnified form that is much larger than itself.

The altruistic nature of an individual is also of a subtle form, easy to be overlooked and underutilized. Each one of us has shown our altruistic side to others at some point in our lives and continue to do so, if not regularly or very consciously. Now imagine if we gathered this disposition in us into collective form and channeled it in a more organized and proactive way. Imagine the possibilities; imagine the impact it could create on society around us. We only need to look at the stories of individuals in our communities who have a heightened consciousness about utilizing and developing their altruistic tendencies to grasp the unlimited potential.

The American Muslim community began the process of organizing themselves to serve others during our parents’ and grandparents’ time, laying out foundational elements that would serve as the stepping stones for the next generation. By the grace of Allah (SWT), the next generation took the reins and made huge leaps and bounds since then, dramatically transforming the landscape from a few select opportunities into a diverse and flourishing composition of humanitarianism and voluntarism. Through the efforts of dedicated Muslim individuals, today we have organizations that are thriving, and as they strengthen, they are able to deliver ever more service to the greater community.

Progress has been in many areas, including the organizations that help the needy, those that empower and train the youth, others dedicated to countering the negative narrative about Islam, and those individuals and groups that reach out to communities beyond our own such as our neighbors of different faiths and beliefs. Collectively, these efforts have created a source of goodness, caring, and service that grows within our communities and reaches out to touch others. Thousands of individuals contribute to this dynamic environment and each one has his or her unique story. Presented here are a number of brief profiles that highlight the many different faces of service and volunteerism.

ICNA Relief-USA Women’s Shelter Network

The personal story of Malika MacDonald is a difficult one, yet enlightening. Her journey through abuse, poverty, and struggle for self-esteem eventually led to her current esteemed role of the National Director for ICNA Relief USA Women’s Shelter Network. She has served to help numerous other women in similar circumstances, suffering from emotionally and/or physically destructive relationships and experiences. Her commitment to give back to society is infused with her ability to understand and closely relate to their situations. She described her path in her recent article, “Sex, Drugs and the Redemptive Power of Islam-A Ramadan Lesson,” and highlights her motivation to help women: “My work allows me the opportunity to, in shaa’ Allah, inspire and foster hope where there is none. Similar to that of a caterpillar becoming a magnificent butterfly, I get to witness all of the transformational stages women go through during their own metamorphosis. But their healing is easier when the rest of us obey His decree.”

Helping Hand for Relief and Development / ICNA Relief

In the distinguished league of those dedicated to the needy and less fortunate are Irfan Khurshid of Helping Hand Relief and Development and Dr. Mohsin Ansari, ICNA Relief CEO and Medical Director. Irfan Khurshid has been a very visible figure, steadfast in his relief work and providing assistance in some of the most devastating natural disasters, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the one in Nepal in April of this year. He has witnessed unimaginable destruction, and the fear and desperation that follow. His compassion and determination to bring relief to those affected have earned him recognition as a person thoroughly dedicated to help and serve people.

Dr. Mohsin Ansari served as ICNA Relief Medical Director for many years and recently resigned his post due to health issues. Under his watch, ICNA Relief USA served 112,000 needy people in 2014 alone. ICNA Relief’s disaster program has provided relief in 34 disasters since 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. With 21 halal food pantries, 13 women’s shelters, a Back-2-School Giveaway program, and 5 free health clinics that served more than 6,000 patients last year, Dr. Ansari has made it his life’s mission to serve those in need.

Serving Society- Faatimah Knight

In addition to the dedicated volunteers and activists who work with charitable organizations to serve the needy, others work to address social justice causes.Knowing all too well the feeling of being targeted as a minority, Faatimah Knight understood the suffering of the victims, their families, and the larger African-American community, after the June shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Following this brutal hate crime, Sr. Faatimah, an alumna of Zaytuna College, wanted to help. What started as a modest attempt to raise some money to send flowers to the church turned into a wider campaign to raise funds to help rebuild the eight churches that were destroyed by fires following the Charleston shooting.

Sr. Faatimah spoke to NBC news, stating, “We wanted to show that as a Muslim community, their pain did not go unnoticed by us—that we did, in fact, feel deeply for their loss.” She noted that“The Muslim community and the Black community are connected in integral ways; one cannot tell the story of one in America without telling the story of the other.”She further commented, “We must always keep in mind that the Muslim community and the black community are not different communities. We are profoundly integrated in many ways, in our overlapping identities and in our relationship to this great and complicated country. We are connected to Black churches through our extended families, our friends and teachers, and our intertwined histories and convergent present.”

Serving Society – Azra Baig

A resident of South Brunswick and a nurse by profession, Azra Baig is extensively involved with her local community, serving as member of the PTO at her daughters’ schools, as volunteer nurse at health-focused events, volunteering at the South Brunswick Municipal Alliance, an organization dedicated to fighting substance abuse among the youth, and serving as a member of the Board of Education in South Brunswick. Being the only female and the only hijabi member on the panel, Sr. Azra brings a unique vision and viewpoint to the discussions and policy decisions that are entrusted to the Board.

She also serves regularly at a Trenton area soup kitchen as part of Muslims Against Hunger. She has initiated a new program, organizing events to prepare bags of food for the needy and visiting urban areas where homelessness is common, to deliver packaged meals directly to the people. Sr. Azra also has membership with the Human Relations Commission, a township agency that helps foster goodwill among the diverse groups residing in the community. As part of this endeavor, she organized an event at her township library to present information on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France in early January. Her goal was to help offset the misinformation and misrepresentation that was being generated about Islam and Muslims. She also started a campaign called “Cards of Condolences” after the attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan in December of 2014. She collected over 2000 cards from the members of the community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to send to the victims and their families.

Her thoughts on volunteerism are clear and concise: “It is important for everyone to volunteer in whatever capacity they are able to in order to help one another, your neighbors, and your community. It is critical to give back to your community utilizing your time, resources, and knowledge. And especially as Muslims, we all are ambassadors of our faith, living examples of our faith, and need to use our disposition to start positive dialogue and informative conversations with our fellow community members.” She refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to complete her thought, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve….you don’t need a college degree to serve…you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

WhyIslam-Asim Khan, Jr.

WhyIslam is an outreach project of ICNA.Asim Khan, Jr.talks about its objectives and successes:
“The project’s foremost aim is to provide accurate information about Islam primarily to non-Muslims. In doing so, it hopes to dispel common stereotypes and persistent misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. WhyIslam realizes that Islamophobia is a characteristic more frequently expressed by those who have little or no exposure to Muslims or Islam. WhyIslam has implemented campaigns recently to promote interaction of Muslims with their non-Muslim colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers. One of the many successful multi-faceted approaches of WhyIslam’s outreach campaign is the social media front which it operates. WhyIslam’s Facebook page has over 300,000 followers and the posts by the WhyIslam social media team are meant to be engaging. Some of our posts have gotten over a million views and over 10,000 comments. The fruits of this effort are manifested by the private messages we receive from people who are ready to accept Islam or want to learn more seriously about Islam and perhaps visit a local mosque. Recently, we had a gentleman named Patrick send us the following private message on Facebook: ‘I thought I would storm to this page and start trolling but I just could not. You answered so many questions I had about the Islamic faith. Maybe you guys are not so bad. ISIS is bad but not all Muslims are ISIS.’Messages like these keep the volunteers’ enthusiasm high and reminds us that we are only doing this because we want to please our Creator.”

Young Muslims- Brothers

Ghayoor Arshad speaks of his involvement with his Muslim brothers through Young Muslims.He describes an organization that empowers the youth and helps and supports them as they grow in their iman:
“Young Muslims’ goal as an organization is to provide Muslim youth across America with genuine brotherhood and a deep connection with Islam that spans across the various facets of their lives. In the sense that we don’t try to distinguish Islam from the secular world in the hearts and minds of our members, but we hope to have them navigate their lives with an overlying Islamic perspective. To achieve this goal, YM’s main initiative is the NeighborNet, which is a simple weekly halaqa (Islamic discussion), followed by an activity of sorts, whether it’s playing sports or grabbing some dinner. This humble weekly meeting often serves as the crux that supports the “Islamic sanity” of many of our members. The NeighborNet serves as a place of welcoming and brotherhood that allows Muslim youth to break down the dualistic wall that separates their Islamic and secular halves. YM focuses on the internal balance in the average Muslim youth in an attempt to secure Islamic values that will aid them in their struggle with their Islamic identity amidst our demanding society. Instead of looking towards celebrities and pop culture for morals and ideals, YM gives Muslim youth an alternative in the form of upstanding Muslims that have achieved success in this society by following Islamic values.

Personally, YM has given me almost everything I can call an asset in my character. By attending weekly meetings without fail for nearly a decade, I was able to forge a connection with Allah that ushered in a new era in my life. Rather than constantly looking towards media and pop culture for purpose or meaning in life, I was able to find peace in my prayer, and happiness in doing work for the sake of Allah. In this society in which one’s “crew” and “posse” define them in their success and respect, YM gave me a second family in the form of lifelong friends that share my passion for this Deen and imparting this very feeling with the Muslim youth in our area. All of this was achieved not through a curriculum or books or some type of schooling, but simply by establishing Islamic brotherhood amongst friends and learning from each others’ character and manners. Just as many of our members, the reason I tried my very best to be at our weekly YM meetings every single week was because, for the first time in my life, I was looking forward to meeting with Islamically-motivated youth from whom I could learn the Deen simply by spending time with them. Whether it was playing sports or grabbing dinner, I could feel my iman climbing in the company of my Muslim brothers. And that, that is the goal of Young Muslims.”

Young Muslims- Sisters

Kainat Hamid, 22, is a Dallas resident and the coordinator for her local NeighborNet, a circle of Muslim friends who connect regularly for purposes of Islamic discussion and sisterly bonding. She has been involved with her NeighborNet since the age of 14 and feels it has become an integral part of her life, a source of support, strength, and motivation as she faces her daily struggles and pursues life’s opportunities.

Sr. Kainat states, “I think Young Muslims is a unique organization because it provides an outlet for the Muslim youth to create spiritual bonds with each other and Allah (SWT) as they strive through the everyday challenges of living in the American society. It gives us the opportunity to build strong brotherhood and sisterhood bonds as we come together weekly for the sake of Allah’s pleasure through halaqas, volunteering, fun outings, dawah opportunities, conferences, and more. What do the youth need most while living in this society? We need good companionship and YM is an organization that provides just that. Specifically for young sisters, YM gives us the opportunity to do so much more than what society has limited us to doing. We are able to put ourselves out there, do dawah work, give halaqas, and lead the community. In my YM NeighborNet we work to teach the young girls the necessary skills to succeed in this life and the Hereafter. Last year we held a conference titled Empowering Women: Freedom in Islam where we discussed the skills Muslim women need to learn in order to succeed — the rights of Muslim women, the history of successful Muslim Sahabiyat, self-defense tips, and balancing deen and dunya as working Muslim women. Something else really special about YM is that it provides opportunities. A non-profit organization cannot work efficiently without its dedicated volunteers and that is what YM provides opportunities for. It creates and molds leaders and Muslim workers. The Muslim ummah desperately needs the youth to step up and take charge and YM gives the youth the opportunity to make a difference and volunteer their youth for the sake of Allah. Whatever opportunity we find ourselves in…just remember…Allah SWT placed us there. It is through His mercy we do the volunteer work that we do. He has chosen us to do work for His sake. As a result, we should take volunteerism seriously, the same as paid time and, in reality, we are getting paid. The only difference is that our pay will be given to us in the Hereafter in the form of a currency that truly matters.”

Final Thought

These examples of Muslims active in volunteerism and service truly highlight not just the benefits of helping others but also the scope of positive influence we can generate simply by demonstrating creativity and determination, coupled with love and concern for the individuals and communities around us. After all, our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a perfect example of a human being whose life was dedicated to serving his Creator and His purpose. We need to embody those very attributes that will help facilitate us to serve in the same manner, in shaa’ Allah.

Ayeshah AliAuthor Ayeshah Ali is the assistant editor of The Message magazine.

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