Muslim civic engagement: Helping others, away from the media spotlight

Quietly helping

“That will be ten gold pieces, sir,” the merchant said to his customer.

“You know, I do not feel like paying you. Have a pleasant day.”

The merchant simply stood there, unable to believe what his customer just told him.

“Pardon me, sir, but did you say you are not going to pay me?”

“That’s exactly what I said,” said the corrupt customer. “I am one of the most powerful men here. No one will do anything to me, and you, being a stranger, can do nothing about it. Have a pleasant day.”

The merchant pleaded with the man, but he was not successful. The merchant then went to a gathering of the nobles of the city, seeking their help to combat this injustice. They scoffed at his plea for aid. Yet, one of the nobles had an idea, seeking a good laugh.

“I know someone who can help you,” said the nobleman.

“Really?” said the merchant.

“Absolutely,” said the man half-chuckling. “Talk to that man there. His name is Muhammad. He’ll help you.”

The merchant went to the Prophet (pbuh) and told him of his plight. The Prophet immediately agreed to help him, and they both set off to the customer’s home. That customer was none other than Amr ibn Hisham, the Prophet’s most bitter enemy. The Prophet knocked on his door, and Amr opened the door, pale with fear.

The Prophet (pbuh) asked, “Do you owe this man money?”

“Yes,” said Amr ibn Hisham, frozen with fear.

“Give it to him,” said the Prophet (pbuh).

“Yes,” and with that Amr ran into his home and gave the merchant the money he owed him. Meanwhile, a group of the nobleman were watching the encounter between the Prophet (pbuh) and Abu Jahl, as Amr ibn Hisham was called. They could not believe what had just transpired before their eyes. After the Prophet (pbuh) and the merchant left, the noblemen swarmed around Abu Jahl and said, “How did that just happen?” They expected Abu Jahl to forcefully rebuke the Prophet’s request.

“You did not see it?” asked Abu Jahl, not believing their question.

“See what?” they asked him.

“You did not see that male camel, with fangs as big as my head, about to eat me if I did not comply with Muhammad’s request?”

The most important part of that story is not God’s miracle which saved the Prophet (pbuh). The most important part of the story, rather, is the fact that the Prophet agreed to help the stranger against one of the most noble men of all Mecca, and his most bitter of enemies at that. Yet, that did not matter to the Prophet (pbuh). That man was viciously wronged by Abu Jahl, and the Prophet (pbuh) felt it obligatory to help him, even though he did not know him. And what’s more, the Prophet (pbuh) asked nothing in return. He did not even ask the man to become one of his followers. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, had no agendas; there were no strings attached.

Within the last four weeks, our country was twice attacked by wind and water, sisters of a most devastating kind. Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast and left nothing but death and despair in her wake. Now, Rita has come and gone, and more pain, more death, more devastation is all that is left.

And the Muslims came to help those who were left in their wake.

On September 4, 2005, a coalition of major Muslim organizations announced their pledge to raise $10 million for the relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. According to a press release issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):

“The coalition also announced the formation of a Muslim Hurricane Relief Task Force (MHRTF) to coordinate the aid effort. MHRTF members include (in alphabetical order) Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North American (ICNA), Islamic Relief, ISNA, Kind Hearts, Life for Relief and Development, Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), Muslim American Society (MAS), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and Muslim Ummah of North American (MUNA).”

More than $2 million has already been dispatched by Islamic charities, and Muslim relief workers are currently working on the ground in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Before the hurricanes hit, on June 1, CAIR launched an initiative called “Muslims Care,” which is designed to “promote volunteerism in the American Muslim Community.” It is intended to be an annual campaign, and each month from June to August will have a different theme. Nihad Awad, executive director for CAIR, described the program as “translating our love of Allah into good actions,” and by this “we strengthen our faith.” Awad continued, “Islam is a religion of deeds, and we need to put our faith into action by working to make the world a better place by making a life for ourselves by what we give.”

I do not doubt the sincerity of the efforts of Muslim leaders and Muslim organizations in their offers of aid to hurricane victims. It is a very heartening development, and I hope and pray that such efforts continue, especially after the memories of and media attention paid to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have long faded. Yet, there is something very important against which Muslims must heavily guard themselves. The aid given to the victims of Katrina and Rita must have no strings attached; there must be no agenda behind it. I heard someone tell me that we should help the non-Muslims in the Gulf Coast because of the weak position in which Muslims have found themselves after September 11. And I am sure many people are saying, “It’s good for da’wah, too.”

This is extremely disturbing. I am not against calling others to the path of God, but our motivation to help others should not be to convert them. The realm of belief is God’s and God’s alone. Our motivation to help others should be for the very sake of helping others and thus fulfilling our mission the “best nation set up for humanity” (3:110). That verse is qualified; it has an asterisk. We are not the best nation because we are Muslims, but rather “[because] you enjoin that which is good, you forbid that which is evil, and you believe in God” (3:110).

“Enjoining good” and “forbidding evil” are terms which – I believe – God intentionally made vague, so that they encompass different things for different times. We must be behind whatever “good” and stand against whatever “evil” there exists on earth, first starting with those around us and expanding out in concentric circles. Not only is the racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs “evil,” for example, but “evil” as well is the racial profiling of African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. Not only is helping to build Islamic schools and mosques “good,” but “good” also is helping to build housing for the homeless, poor, and less fortunate. If we fail to “enjoin what is good” and “forbid what is evil,” then we are no longer the “best nation set up for humanity.”

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told us, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Many Muslims, including the author at one point, understood the word “brother” to mean other Muslims. Imam Nawawi, however, commented in his compilation of 40 Hadith that, “the brotherhood referenced is that of humanity.” We will never believe until we love for our fellow human beings, Americans or otherwise, what we love for ourselves. The Prophet (pbuh) also told us that if we retire to bed full, while our neighbor is hungry, then we have not truly believed. “Neighbor” here, I believe, encompasses much more than the person next door. It should mean all those who are hungry, irrespective of their faith or religion.

If American Muslims are helping their fellow Americans to be “media-friendly”; if American Muslims are seizing the unfortunate opportunity of the hurricanes to get some “good press”; if American Muslims are doing what they are doing to be “seen of men,” then there is a major problem. In fact, we risk being dragged on our faces to Hell-fire.

Remember the hadith of the Prophet (pbuh): The first three people brought before God on the Day of Judgement will be one who spent his money in the path of God, one who fought bravely for God, and the other who taught people religious knowledge. Each was dragged on their faces to Hell because they did their deeds to be called “generous,” “brave,” and “knowledgeable” respectively.

I am not saying, at all, that this is the motivation behind the aid of American Muslims to their fellow Americans. I witnessed, in fact, the work done by Islamic Relief in the Gulf Coast, and I was thoroughly impressed. Nevertheless, let us always remember: we feed the hungry, provide for the poor, shelter the homeless, and support the destitute because the Lord told us to do so, and “no reward do [we] ask of you for it: [our] reward is only from the Lord of the Worlds” (26:127). Otherwise, not only will our actions will be rejected by our fellow Americans, but more importantly, our actions may ultimately be rejected by the Lord God Himself. No outcome could be more disastrous than that.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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