Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim
Through being on the board of our MSA, I’ve had access to knowledgeable people and unique experiences. The following is an attempt to share some of the lessons I’ve learned. While I do believe things are better learned the hard way, I also hope to make things easier by sharing what I wish I’d known earlier. I’ve learned all of the things written below from other people.
I’d like to begin by saying that leadership positions are not inherently virtuous, and that we shouldn’t think there is anything to gain from occupying them. There is much more risk than benefit associated with holding one of these positions. Those who are concerned with protecting themselves and their deen often rightfully stay away from leadership or publicity in general. As uneducated and inexperienced students, we should be doubly cautious of this. This may sound absolutist or extreme, but we currently stand at the opposite extreme.
I’ve attempted to pinpoint some of the biggest issues our community faces and the root causes of the mistakes I made. Other communities likely face similar challenges, but I am speaking exclusively from my experiences at Cal. There are many other things that I won’t realize until further reflection and education, so this is by no means an attempt at a comprehensive diagnosis of the community. But this is what I have learned from my mentors thus far, so I hope it’s of use.
Funny enough, you would be hard pressed to find a unified answer among members to the question: what is the MSA’s purpose?
Some believe it is political organizing and social justice, while others believe it is providing religious education and aiding the spiritual growth of members. The various answers don’t necessarily conflict, but they reflect the lack of a unified direction in which to devote our energy. The lack of direction allows for whoever is loudest to declare what the MSA’s priority should be, and this changes from year to year. It also creates room for unrealistic expectations of what the community should work on. As of now, the MSA thinks its purpose encompasses all of the following:
- Social justice activism
- Religious education
- Social events & fostering friendship
- Community outreach/charity
- Youth outreach & mentorship
- Interfaith & da’wah
Most established non-profit organizations do one of the above and are led by educated and trained individuals who get paid to work on it part- or full-time. The above efforts could be led by different groups of people within the community (which is the point of the committee system), but the current popular understanding of MSA is as a producer of events for people to attend, free of charge and without commitment. We are blessed to be able to provide programming without requiring membership fees or any other commitments, but to do this sustainably necessitates a larger volunteer base than the one we have. If the membership were transformed from a mass of attendees to a large team of contributors, then perhaps more could be achieved in the way of these goals. However, the goal should not be to expand organizing efforts and hold as many events as possible. I won’t say that the above goals aren’t worth focusing on, but I would attribute the current degree of chaos and high turnover rate to the lack of focus on a singular, well-thought out objective. Before the focus can be placed on expanding, it needs to be redirected towards building.
If I were to answer the aforementioned question, I would say that the organization’s main purpose is to train people. Most of us are only a couple of years removed from high school, so the expectation that anyone enters these positions qualified to perform their “duties” flawlessly both ignores the reality and misunderstands why MSAs were started in the first place. They are meant to train people to serve their communities and practice Islam on their own once they graduate. Recentering the idea that these are spaces meant for learning and personal development will both benefit more people and foster humility.
Once we have built a solid infrastructure focused on training people, then perhaps there will be room to look towards expansion. But I see no use in trying to organize more & bigger events when we are still untrained and lack a foundation in Islamic principles.
Identity Politics & Misguided Activism
The misconception that being Muslim is an “identity” (the same way being part of an ethnic group is) has led us to adopt the language of identity politics and let it guide our activism.
It is undeniable that Muslim students experience various forms of marginalization. However, we have reduced the fight against said marginalization to a fight against things we deem offensive. The vast majority of our actions are reactionary and defensive. Muslim students are much more likely to be concerned with Islamophobia than with a deteriorating understanding of basic Islamic creed among young Muslims. We never cease looking outwardly and analyzing how we’re being mistreated, but fail to look inwardly at our own shortcomings in practicing the deen. We see ourselves first and foremost as victims, and our understanding of justice is rooted exclusively in the dunya.
The idea that being Muslim is nothing more than an identity also prevents us from having conversations about what is permissible and discouraged in Islam, for fear that it will be offensive to someone’s personal interpretation of the faith. Different interpretations (not that it’s our job to interpret) aren’t identities, however. We have lost the action-based imperative that calling oneself a Muslim commands. As a result, the space fosters impermissible activities and ego boosting, and decisions are made based on what is popularly acceptable rather than what Islam calls for.
We’ve also allowed the language of identity politics to overtake Islamic principles. We repeat liberal platitudes without thinking twice. It would not be surprising in the slightest to see a brother attacked for making a totally neutral statement on women’s issues, simply because he is “taking up space.” We have also been overtaken by the epistemic premises of critical theory and poststructuralism. We try to be critical of everything, post-everything, and deconstruct to no end, without attempting to reconstruct or study what our tradition actually calls for. You will find no shortage of people who can criticize, but very few who can adequately conceptualize what we should be doing and how we should be thinking from an Islamic perspective.
On a community-wide level, we lack an understanding of the Islamic concept of leadership, which stands in such stark contrast to the Neoliberal, ego-based one. It’s difficult to summarize the issue of letting our egos direct our actions, but I’ve tried to list some of the ways in which it manifests:
- People’s actions are frequently motivated by the desire to leave a legacy or make a mark.
- Criticism is often perceived as a personal attack, and people allow their personal disagreements to spill over into community organizing.
- Instead of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, we assume the worst and perceive every disagreement or miscommunication as a personal affront.
- We judge people by the public image they purport, rather than their character & actions on a more private level.
- Related to the previous point: we elevate people who make a lot of public statements and frequently declare their allegiances, stances, and opinions.
Dunya & Akhira
“The akhira has become an intellectual construct and not something real that motivates and limits our actions.” — Imam Zaid Shakir
This statement sums up what I believe to be the most concerning issue facing our community. Because we lack a practical conception of the akhira (afterlife) as our endpoint, we see the dunya as our sole platform for pursuing justice and affirmation. We think that if we do not achieve some material end here, whether that be eradicating inequality or acquiring some status, then we have failed.
A key principle in our faith is that the end doesn’t justify the means. It can be disheartening to witness the state of our community and failed efforts to change it. But if we were to internalize the reality of the akhira, we wouldn’t despair. In the end, we will be judged for our actions, not their end results. We control our actions and intentions, and the results are in Allah’s hands. If we understand that the akhira is our final resting place and every word, step, and glance will be accounted for, we will be more cautious about how we try to achieve our goals. It’s not for the sake of Allah if you do things that are displeasing to Allah to achieve it.
I urge anyone who is serious about working for their akhira to be mindful of whether being in the MSA space is useful to this end. If you find that it is, I trust you and pray that Allah rewards you for your sincerity.
I won’t go on about this any further, but I would like to end by saying that we are only responsible for ourselves. If you find yourself distraught over another person’s actions, know that in Allah’s eyes they may be better than you and the fact that your faults have been kept private is only from His mercy.
Lastly, I urge you to never stop seeking knowledge. I’ve linked some resources below. Forgive me for the preceding incoherence and my prior mistakes.
- Dozens of incredible lectures on the Zaytuna College YouTube channel.
- SeekersHub: free online classes, articles, & podcasts.
- Yaqeen Institute: they’ve published several longform articles on major issues in Islam, can’t recommend them enough.
- A Google drive of texts on various areas of Islamic knowledge, including guides on how to go about reading them. Read the document in the main folder first. Make du’a for the folks who made this.