black and white photo of swing set with chains on playground

First, Remove the Chains from Your Heart

“No, we are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. There is a huge difference.”

—via @bilqeesquick (Instagram)

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How can I help? so many ask.

Start by understanding what boat you’re really in. But that’s only possible if you first understand the storms of your own heart and soul—and the hidden chains keeping you bound to whatever is most important to you on the shores of this world.

If you find that there is something that is continuously more important than consistently standing up against dhulm (wrongdoing, abuse, and oppression), even in your own home and amongst your own people—even if they’re family, respected elders, or celebrated scholars—ask yourself, “Why?”

The Dhulm Embedded in Us

Most of us are so deeply embedded into systems of dhulm that we don’t even see it. Sometimes this blindness is because the dhulm is so much a part of our culture and lifestyle that we dismiss its manifestations by saying things like, “That’s family for you” or “That’s just how we [insert your ethnic group] are.” Or we actively support the dhulm because it’s being inflicted by our parents, respected elders, or men we consider scholars.

Other times our blindness is because these very systems of dhulm benefit us somehow, as I discussed a while ago in the blog, “Wronging Others For the Sake of Justice”:

What system of dhulm (wrongdoing and oppression) are you supporting in your life?

This might sound like an odd question because usually when we think of dhulm, we think of standing up against it to confront someone else. But how often do we confront our own souls? And here, I’m not simply speaking about the dhulm we do by falling into sin and wrongdoing and then repenting immediately thereafter. I’m speaking about the sin and wrongdoing we do to ourselves—and others—by being open supporters of dhulm when it benefits us in some way, or at the very least when it doesn’t disrupt our comfortable lives.

Today, our hearts are hurting so much because dhulm has become so widespread that we witness the most horrific crimes against humanity as a matter of course, and it’s hard to fathom how anyone could do this to others, and repeatedly. I too am feeling that level of shock and helplessness. What is going on with this world? It is unimaginable.

But we aren’t as helpless—or innocent—as we think.

Dhulm cannot get to this level unless it is first supported on smaller levels.

None of us is completely without fault or blame in this.

The ‘Media Circus’ Is in Town

Whenever the dhulm of racist oppression reaches the level of national and international attention (as it has right now), so many people, especially in the non-Black community, begin asking how they can help fight racism and oppression. They ask what they can do.

I admit, at times this question can be emotionally exhausting. This is because each time it’s asked, it feels like I’m about to be taken on a merry-go-round ride that will spin for only as long as the “carnival” (i.e. media circus) is in town. And then like the media circus itself, this “carnival ride” will be dutifully abandoned—until next season.

So, yes, sometimes I feel exhausted because, generally speaking, these questions arise only when the media is forcing people to look at themselves. Otherwise, people are completely content living with themselves—and with the dhulm that stares back at them in the mirror each day. If the media isn’t pointing its camera on our blotches of dhulm, we don’t mind it so much. We might even like it.

So, once the camera’s turned off, so is our concern.

Nevertheless, I fight this exhaustion.

When I feel it overwhelming my heart and limbs, I get my rest and spiritual nourishment, and then I wake up another day, praying for strength. I don’t have the right to give in to the exhaustion, I tell myself, even as I cannot help feeling it.

The fight against dhulm never ends, and it never ceases to be exhausting. And I remind myself that, with each “media circus,” we get a few more dedicated “soldiers,” even as most were truly only along for the merry-go-round ride.

How Can You Help?

If you are truly sincere about helping in the battle against oppression in this world (and only Allah knows the hearts of His servants), I’ll say this:

Whatever you do, understand that truly standing up against oppression has two battlegrounds. your internal world, and your external world. There is no standing up for justice in the truest sense without both of these aspects working together, and simultaneously—at all times.

This is true for all social justice work, anti-racism or otherwise, and it is true irrespective of your “work experience” and ethnic background.

If a single one of us—whether Black or non-Black, privileged or underprivileged—subtracts any one of these two components in our fight against oppression, then our efforts are false, insincere, or steeped in harmful self-deception. There really is no exception to this rule. Not a single one. This rule applies to every ethnic group, even amongst those who are underprivileged and oppressed, but it applies most especially to those who are benefiting from the system of oppression, even if they wish to live in self-denial about this.

So be very, very careful and constantly do a self-analysis regarding where you really stand in your fight against oppression, not only where you claim to stand (to yourself and the world).

As Witnesses to Allah

Our Creator obligates us to stand up against dhulm (wrongdoing, abuse, and oppression) wherever we find it, even if it’s in our own homes and against our own selves, and against our own family and elders. In the famous, oft-referenced ayah (divine verse) on this subject, Allah, the All-Wise, Most Just, says what has been translated to mean,

“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, your parents, your kin, and whether it be [against] rich or poor. For Allah can best protect both. So, follow not the lusts [of your hearts], lest you may avoid justice. And if you distort [justice] or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do” (An-Nisaa, 4:135).

When Muslims quote this ayah, they tend to focus on only the part about standing out “firmly for justice.” In this hyper focus, we skip the most important part of this ayah, without which all of our efforts in “justice work” are null and void: “…as witnesses to Allah…”

When this part is skipped—as it usually is in our homes and communities all over the world—oppression spreads like wildfire to the rest of the world, even in areas that claim to be fighting oppression.

Some of the worst dhulm occurs from those who’ve convinced themselves they’re good people and thus become agents for the very dhulm they imagine themselves to be fighting. Be careful.

And keep in mind, this particular point is more a self-check than one intended to inspire us to start pointing fingers at others. As the very subject itself should make us realize, being a witness to Allah begins in the unseen world of our own hearts.

So, fear Him before you make a single claim about what (or whom) you’re fighting for, and before you move in any direction of what you believe to be standing up against dhulm.

The Two Battlegrounds of Dhulm

Our internal battleground against dhulm is the world of our own hearts, souls, and private lives (i.e. our most intimate space, wherein even our own parents and family are outsiders). This is the root of our fight.

Our external battleground against dhulm is the world outside our own hearts, souls, and private lives—even if that external world extends only as far as our own family and friends. This external battleground is the “fruit” of our internal one. In other words, this is the “fruit” that our family, community, and/or wider world (including social media) see or “taste” as a result of our fight.

Needless to say, families and communities steeped in cultures of abuse and oppression have zillions of silent sufferers tasting the bitter fruit of their internal work. But those who are benefiting from (or supporting) the abuse do not see or taste the bitter fruit—because they are watering it and planting its seeds.

Fruitless Trees and Bitter Fruit

Some of us have either no fruit or only bitter fruit on our tree of justice (even in our own homes). This is because dhulm isn’t a serious concern of ours—even in our private relationship with Allah.

Here, even in our most heartfelt prayers cried in solitude to our Merciful Creator, we care only about seeking more and more comfort and “success” in our worldly life, such as amassing wealth and achieving this and that for our own selves or our families. But we don’t care much about what anyone else is going through—unless it directly disturbs or threatens our comfort and privilege somehow.

Those with fruitless or bitter trees of justice are generally silent in the face of oppression for the most part. The main exception to this is when they suddenly “grow a backbone” when they feel inspired to stand up and speak against how the oppressed are “incorrectly” or “unjustly” reacting to their oppression. Otherwise they have absolutely no interest in fighting anything that’s really wrong with the world.

Unfortunately, this group makes up the majority of the human population—including the Muslim community. Their ostensible “fight for justice” is really just a fight to protect their own privilege, worldly comforts, and blissful ignorance. More than anything, they don’t appreciate having their worldly comfort disturbed or their privilege threatened, hence most of their anger is directed at those who either make them look bad in front of their oppressors or who challenge a part of the oppressive system that they wish to stay in place.

For the majority of the world—including Muslims—dhulm isn’t something they mind so much, unless it directly affects them. This is why they are generally completely silent in the face of widespread, obvious oppression, yet they (oddly) feel a sudden rush of “religious obligation” to “change an evil with their tongue or hands” only when they witness the “inappropriate response” of the oppressed to their oppression.

What Fruit Is on Your Tree of Justice?

When both our internal and external world of battling dhulm coincide, we achieve a beautiful balance that produces the only “tree of justice” that produces meaningful fruit in this world. This is a tree that isn’t part bare, part bitter, and part sweet. It is only sweet.

In other words, the people who plant the true “tree of justice” in this world aren’t “selectively righteous.” They don’t fight against dhulm only when it harms them or their people in some way, but then openly or quietly support dhulm whenever it benefits them or their people in some way.

It’s easy to self-justify when you fixate on the good you do, while ignoring the dhulm you do, support, or benefit from. But remember this: Doing good isn’t hard. Everybody loves to do good. So, if you sincerely desire to be amongst the “blessed few” who achieve success on their “tree of justice,” ask yourself this: Do you also avoid wrongdoing? Even when it feels good or produces “good” for you in this world?

On this, I suggest reflecting on this quote by Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) that I read some time ago: “All people love to do the good; the hypocrites and the sinners do good, but it is only the muttaqoon (i.e. the people of taqwaa) who avoid the bad.”

And these people of taqwaa (i.e. those whose lives are defined by daily protecting their souls from spiritual harm in this world and in the Hereafter) are few—very, very few.

No, they are not perfect people, and they are not sinless people. Rather, they are striving people.

The muttaqoon are those whose lives are defined by fighting dhulm, even within themselves. Thus, they immediately self-correct when they realize they have fallen into dhulm, whether against themselves or someone else. They are those whose tongues constantly and sincerely recite some variance of these prayerful supplication, “O my Lord, I have wronged my soul, so forgive me!”

So, if you are sincere in your own efforts at fighting against dhulm, whether it manifests as racist oppression or something, then focus on striving and praying to be amongst these sincere and steadfast people instead of merely claiming to be. Then, even as you walk the path of striving to be amongst the people of taqwaa, understand that being amongst those standing up for justice isn’t a static state. You can be amongst them one day (or minute) and amongst the wrongdoers or oppressors in the next. Be careful.

Pray To Be Amongst the Few

Those people of taqwaa who have sweet fruit on their trees of justice—whether small clusters on a single tree (i.e. in their homes and amongst family and friends), or numerous sweet trees on a field of plentiful fruit (i.e. extending to the wider community and world)—are the minority of the world. These people comprise the small band of sincere, God-fearing people whom Allah describes in the Qur’an when He says what has been translated to mean,

“Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong. Those will be the successful” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:104).

Beg Allah to be amongst them.

And when you perceive that your prayer has been answered, then beg Allah to remain amongst them—and to remain ever vigilant and self-aware regarding when (not if) you fall into error, wrongdoing, or self-deception. Because no amongst of fighting against dhulm protects you from falling into dhulm yourself.

In other words, even on your best day, you will always be flawed, imperfect, potentially sinful human being.

Therefore, in striving and praying to be amongst this small group to true believers standing up for justice, it is important not to fall into self-deception. You are not amongst these people simply because you want to be, because you work alongside them, or even because you yourself are involved in social justice work.

You become amongst these people because Allah has written down your name in His Book of Decrees, in the Preserved Tablet above the heavens, that you are amongst them. So, ultimately, your true status remains a matter of the ghayb (unseen) until you meet Him.

This is your case whether you are Black or non-Black, or privileged or underprivileged. So, dear soul, carefully heed this advice from your All-Wise Creator as you strive to stand up for justice in this world, “…So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He knows best who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him” (An-Najm, 53:32).

Of the many lessons we can learn from this divine wisdom is this: As we strive and struggle on the path of justice and fighting abuse and oppression in this world, we must focus on doing the work, not on claiming our successful status in a path of work that is never done.

Remove the Chains from Your Heart

In closing, I offer this final piece of advice to my non-Black sisters and brothers in faith, especially those in the United States of America who are from communities of Muslim immigrants (whether directly or their descendants): You cannot help others until you know and help yourselves. In other words, as you strive to support your Black brothers and sisters in faith and humanity, help your own people help themselves.

And in my view, after supplicating to Allah alone for assistance, the first place to start is understanding the cultural chains on your heart. We as Black Americans have spent generations studying and understanding ours so that we can successfully fight our external enemy, while also focusing on programs of self-correction amongst ourselves. It’s time for you to do the same in your own communities.

What do I mean? I’ll share this reflection I wrote in my journal after reading some very disturbing sentiments from some Muslim leaders in the Arab and Desi American Muslim community, wherein they sought to support a system of dhulm that criminalized the very marital status of Muslim Americans whose private marriage choices conflicted with their desire to gain acceptance amongst our White oppressors:

Our people came here with involuntary chains on our bodies, and your people came here with voluntary chains on your hearts. Our circumstances are not the same. While your legacy is “follow the laws of the land,” ours is “challenge the laws of the land.” If this wasn’t our legacy, we’d still have chains on our bodies today. And till today, the chains remain on your hearts.

So, no, we are not in the same boat. We are in the same storm. And for too long you have rushed away from the storm by clamoring on the walls of our oppressors’ boat in hopes they’ll let you on the deck. This, so you can proudly stand next to them and look down on all those “lowly Black people” in the lifeboats barely protecting them from the storm.

It is only the chains on your hearts that keep you from seeing which boat you’re really in during this storm.

Focus on removing those chains. Then we can talk about next steps.

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. She recently launched her “Choosing To Love Alone” series via UZuniversity.com to support struggling believers seeking to nourish their emotional and spiritual health.

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