History teaches one critical lesson: Only those who contribute are valued. Only they have leverage, are influential, and have power. Their religion or ethnicity doesn’t matter. What matters is their contribution to society on a local or global scale. The world works on one overarching principle: What’s in it for me? WiiFM. That’s how it was and that’s how it is. Our belief and personal acts of worship add value to us individually because if we work for the pleasure of Allahﷻ, He will reward us in the Aakhira and put Baraka in our work in this life. But as far as the world is concerned, it doesn’t matter what you believe. If you contribute to society, you are valued. When you stop contributing, it doesn’t matter what you did in the past, you are discarded. Allahﷻ told us about our role in society. He said:
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ ٱلْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِٱللَّهِ
A’al Imraan 3: 110 You are the best community ever raised for humanity—you encourage good, forbid evil, and believe in Allah.
Allahﷻ is not talking about ethnicity. He is talking about action. We are the best if we do what we were created for. To help us understand, let me ask you to list the top three universities, hospitals, libraries, research laboratories, factories, or things you use daily and without which life would be impossible or terribly inconvenient. You may like to start with your cell phone. Then ask, “Which of these is made by a Muslim company or is in a Muslim country?” My question is, “If the world wakes up tomorrow and all Muslims and signs of Muslims and Islam including all contributions of present-day Muslims have vanished from the earth, what will be lost for the others?’ Who will mourn our passing? Will anyone shout, “Bring back the Muslims?” What is our contribution to the world today?
We are net consumers. Not contributors in any field. Contributors are valued. Consumers are used. That is why nobody cares about us.
In 1631 the foundation of a building was laid in India. It was completed in 1653. In 1636 the foundation of another building was laid in America. Both buildings exist. The first building was built by a man whose personal wealth was equal to 25% of world GDP of the time. The second building was founded by a Puritan priest. The first one has two occupants. Both dead. The second one continues to contribute leaders to every walk of life in the world and to influence society in profound and lasting ways. It has an endowment of $50.7 and the biggest library in the world. That’s the story of the Taj Mahal and Harvard University. There is a difference between building structures and building people. Impact on society and life comes only from people. Not from structures.
That is why I want us to think about the way forward. What must change with us? What must we focus on from today? The Abbasi Khilafa ended in 1258 and the Umayyad Khilafa in Al-Andalus ended in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Muslims from Spain. After that there were three great Muslim empires in India, Iran, and Europe – Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman. But apart from building magnificent palaces, masajid and forts, and supporting art and music, and fighting wars they left no mark of their passing except ruins. This is why others have the world and we have the tombs. Allahﷻ told us what to do.
وَعَدَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ مِنكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا۟ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ كَمَا ٱسْتَخْلَفَ ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ وَلَيُمَكِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ دِينَهُمُ ٱلَّذِى ٱرْتَضَىٰ لَهُمْ وَلَيُبَدِّلَنَّهُم مِّنۢ بَعْدِ خَوْفِهِمْ أَمْنًا يَعْبُدُونَنِى لَا يُشْرِكُونَ بِى شَيْـًٔا وَمَن كَفَرَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْفَـٰسِقُونَ
Noor 24: 55 Allah has promised those of you who believe and do good that He will certainly make them successors in the land, as He did with those before them; and will surely establish for them their faith which He has chosen for them; and will indeed change their fear into security—˹provided that˺ they worship Me, associating nothing with Me. But whoever disbelieves after this ˹promise˺, it is they who will be the rebellious.
We understand from this Ayah that success comes from Allahﷻ alone and that is dependent on our obedience to Him. Let’s get that sorted first. Then it means starting out with grassroots social work in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. It means knowing our neighbors, helping them, and participating in neighborhood and town projects. It means being genuinely concerned about others, not only Muslims, but others who are different from us in every way but are still our neighbors. Why is there a Jewish Family Service, Welcoming Alliance for Refugee Ministry, Catholic Charities, Parish Cupboard but no equivalent Muslim organization? Sure, we support some of these with some annual donations. But that is not the point I am making, is it? If you want to know where we stand as a community on this index, simply see how many of us turn up for our interfaith programs. How many come for the Hunger Walk or the Town Cleanup or even how many of us know the names of our neighbors, including those who pray with us daily? How many of us vote? You can only change a system from within which means to participate. Today, perhaps the biggest problem we have is that we are misunderstood by others and face Islamophobia and hostile media. The surest and most powerful cure for that is to let people meet us and see real, live Muslims every day in our daily transactions with them. This is the whole philosophy of interfaith work and the reason it is so important. It is only when people meet face to face and get to talk and ask questions and clarify doubts, that misunderstandings get resolved. The idea is to give others a template to compare against when they hear negative things about Muslims. You want them to say, ‘Now wait a minute! I have a Muslim friend (hopefully many Muslim friends) and she is not like that at all. I am going to ask her about what you are saying. And if you like, let’s go meet her. Meet a real, living Muslim instead of listening to propaganda.’ This is what the Sahaba did. They didn’t live in their enclaves. They went out into the world and traded with people and made friends but maintained their own standards and principles. That is what changed society and brought people to Islam. We must stop being isolationist and showcase Islam.
It will require hard work, tears before Allahﷻ in the night, constant learning, the ability to work across differences and seek unity, and loads of patience. It will require putting others ahead of yourself, going out of your way to help people, the courage to stand up for the oppressed, to give a voice to the voiceless and visibility to those who are ignored. Ask how many times have we raised funds for Black Lives Matter causes or gone in protests when the oppressed were not Muslim? Believe me, it is not a one-way street. If we want others to stand up for us, we must stand up for others. The harsh reality is that we don’t. Justice will not be established until those who are not affected by injustice are willing to stand up for those who are. When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable. We all know the Ayah:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُونُوا۟ قَوَّٰمِينَ بِٱلْقِسْطِ شُهَدَآءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ ٱلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ وَٱلْأَقْرَبِينَ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَٱللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا۟ ٱلْهَوَىٰٓ أَن تَعْدِلُوا۟ وَإِن تَلْوُۥٓا۟ أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا۟ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
Nisa 4: 135 O believers! Stand firm for justice as witnesses for Allah even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or close relatives. Be they rich or poor, Allah is best to ensure their interests. So do not let your desires cause you to deviate ˹from justice˺. If you distort testimony or refuse to give it, then ˹know that˺ Allah is certainly All-Aware of what you do.
It will need an iron control on our emotions because it is intellect and not emotion, that is necessary to solve problems. It will require the ability to think clearly, communicate powerfully and write inspiringly. For this you must read widely and deeply. Let me ask you, “What books have you read in the last twelve months?”
For our youth it means you need to study law, political science, sociology, mass communication, media studies, and history. It means learning more than one language, developing social skills and manners, learning to negotiate, strict discipline, and total commitment to the goal. It means to stop living in our echo chambers and participate. It means making the tough choice after getting a great education, not to take a plush job in Microsoft but to enter politics. It means that the community must chip in and say, ‘We will support our son or daughter and pay them what they gave up by not taking that job, because to have one of our people in the Senate is more important than to have them in Microsoft.’ Allahﷻ made the laws of this world and one of them is, ‘Result is proportionate to investment.’ We need to put our money where our mouths are and get out of the magic mindset where we want things to happen for us magically. It means setting up a fund to send our youth into politics. It is legal, it is essential, and it will be a Sadaqa Jaariya for those who participate in it.
It means attending Senate and House sessions as a spectator with at least as much interest as you attend Superbowl. It means attending local court sessions and looking forward to Jury duty. It means volunteering at your local Police and Fire stations, and Mayor’s offices. It means volunteering in your local schools and getting elected to School Boards and City Offices. It means writing for your local newspaper. Or even better, starting another newspaper. All this takes time, consistent effort, and funding according to a plan. We need to put our money where our mouths are. It is a long-haul strategy and so the sooner we start the sooner we will see success.
It will need the ability to work with people who are different from us but who share our concerns and problems. It requires tolerance, openness, inclusiveness, and the ability to work across boundaries. It requires great confidence in our religion and culture and the ability to teach others about it in a non-defensive, non-apologetic, and respectful manner. It means to remember that Islam doesn’t need to be changed. We need to change ourselves and live by it. Islam is a way of life that is totally relevant today.
It means setting up Islamic schools of a global standard where children of all communities will be welcome and will study a global curriculum in an Islamic atmosphere, practicing Islamic ethics and values. That is the most powerful way to showcase what Islam means in real life. Rasoolullahﷺ was a teenager when he went with his uncle, Abu Talib to the meeting where the treaty of Al-Hilf-ul-Fudhool was made. It was a treaty between the leaders of Makkah all of whom were not Muslim and Rasoolullahﷺ was not a signatory. Yet the importance of justice is such that he held himself to the treaty just because justice was so dear to him. Islam doesn’t distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim in the matter of justice. Justice is to give everyone their rights, no matter who they might be. To this we must hold ourselves accountable. It means educating ourselves on issues of injustice, racism, oppression and rights violations in all aspects and learning strategies to combat them. The truth is that we Muslims are not the first and are not even the most oppressed of people. But let us work to ensure that we are the last.
We are very good at firefighting and mobilizing disaster relief. But not when it comes to investment in initiatives that operate on the principle of NEVER AGAIN. Firefighting is necessary but fire prevention is much better. From entry to the corridors of power is a thirty-year journey. That’s two generations. That means, if you want to save your children from slavery, you must start now.
The truth is that the world is saying to us, “Put up or shut up. Stop talking about Islam. Show us Islam.” The time is now. Ask, “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?”