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Islamic Historical Figures Helped Me to Understand How Islam Empowers Activism

By Suhaila Amen

April 27, 2018

Starts At Home

My parents taught me the beauty of Islam and its core values.  The stories of prominent Islamic historical figures helped me to understand how Islam empowers activism, justice, strong ethics and principles.  Both mom and dad were actively involved in social, educational, religious, and humanitarian organizations.  It was only natural that their children followed suit.

The consummate activists and advocates for the under-resourced and under-represented, they taught us the importance and human value in service work.  They pushed us to be cognizant of our blessings, understanding that being grateful and humble went hand in hand and that if we lost sight of one or the other, we were losing the point.

“Be mindful in your activism,” mom said

Mom and dad taught us that our Creator asks of us to help others and to be mindful of our shared humanity.  It was explained that activism and advocacy work was more than standing against injustice or supporting a cause.  It was about making a difference.

We were taught to never seek recognition or accolades in our efforts to help others, that our reward was far greater and from God.  Treating others with respect and compassion was key.  We would only strive to please God.

“Indeed, the men who practice charity and the women who practice charity and [they who] have loaned Allah a goodly loan – it will be multiplied for them, and they will have a noble reward.” – Holy Quran, Chapter 57 (The Iron), Verse 17.

We learned by example and no example was better than our parents.  Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God).

Patriarchy Is Alive And Well

For quite some time, I was one of a handful of women serving in a leadership capacity within the Arab and Muslim American community.  It was never easy to be one of the only women at the table, especially when I was 20+ years younger than everyone there.  In fact, it was taxing, on the mind and spirit.

The journey in activism was a long one, strengthening my tenacity, faith, and fortitude.  I struggled to forge past the patriarchy and disparagement.  At times, going head-to-head with men who openly belittled me; their misogynistic and narcissistic behaviors on full display, without remorse.

Still, I learned to encourage myself and not allow anyone to marginalize me.  Coaching myself daily, I would rise above their words and actions, continuing to do what was necessary to advance efforts and positively impact the community.

Moments of Brokenness

Nothing in life is perfect.  Consuming yourself in work has its ramifications and I was burning both ends of the candle of life.

There were moments that would break my spirit.  People only saw the strong woman, fighting injustice and taking hard stances against personal interests and agendas, yet my emotions consumed me, at times.

During quiet moments, I would break down and cry when no one was looking.  Having to deal with egos and attitudes weighed heavily on my soul and the insults and  inappropriate behaviours hurt my heart.

Neglecting Real Issues

Frustrated by leadership’s lack of momentum, failure to understand a changing society, and blatant refusal to discuss pertinent issues impacting our youth, I was floored noticing how neglectful people were of the real issues.

Substance abuse, promiscuity, domestic violence, criminal behavior, mental illness, and prostitution were serious concerns, though some thought it wasn’t our place to start these conversations.

There will always be those who focus on the social aspect of service work; the events, fundraisers, and networking opportunities.  For me, though the sociability was fun, it was the human appeal and impact, the ability to change lives and help others succeed, that was my driving force.  Seeing my brothers and sisters find success, rise above adversity, and accomplish goals, was my fulfillment and reward.

“The most worthwhile thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others.” Robert Baden-Powell

Listen To Youth

Mentoring and Finding Purpose

Mentoring young women and men was a vital aspect of my life.  Listening to untarnished aspirations, helping youth to actualize tangible goals, and most importantly, providing them with love, support and encouragement, was enriching for me.

The power of giving back is immense and the return is extraordinary.  I was blessed with phenomenal mentors who taught me how to navigate the world of service work and patriarchy.  These astounding individuals helped me harness my passion and potential and find my purpose.

Facing adversity empowered me to push back against the negativity and patriarchal narrative.  Each day I reminded myself that all I needed was the love of my family and to please my Creator.  As I faced more obstacles, I pushed harder to focus my efforts.  I never gave up on my commitment to help the under resourced.

I Was Now the Student

Youth leadership and engaging young people to look beyond their boundaries and dream beyond limitations became something I put all my energy into.  To me, these topics were more important than anything else on my plate.  I knew I couldn’t change perceptions of the elders, so I focused my attention on the change makers, our youth.

In working with the younger generation, I learned more about myself and the needs of my community than any meeting I ever sat in or elected official I shook hands with.  These shining stars were filled with so much potential and I prayed each day that they would find their success and stood on the side, beaming with pride, when they did.

Their commitment and tenacity was astounding and I found myself in a reverse situation; I was no longer the teacher and was now the student.

This is what God asks of us; to build strong foundations based on core values while enriching, reinforcing and motivating others to live their fullest potential.

Youth Take the Lead

Today, the younger generation have begun to carve out their own space and are talking about these issues.  Health and community leaders are beginning to change the way they see conditions and understand that a myriad of issues impact certain scenarios.  It is slowly moving forward, Alhamdulillah (thanks to God).

When we were the “youth” in the community, activism and volunteer efforts were limited.  Opportunities grew, steadily, as the community developed in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  Now, efforts have tripled and organizations have grown, exponentially, creating opportunities that are vast and far reaching for people to be involved in.

Seeing young people become more involved in advocacy and activism is heartening.  There is so much to be discussed, addressed, and implemented and these bright, young, leaders are at the forefront of these efforts.

May God be with them always and guide them on a path that brings blessings to all. Ameen

Dispelling My Own Misconceptions

In coming to Beirut, I thought I would face more patriarchy than in the U.S.  Boy, was I wrong!  I work in an organization with a reasonably equal gender parity.  Women I work with are prominent, connected, and inspiring.

I felt the impact of patriarchy while living and working in the U.S. more than while working in Beirut, Lebanon.  I never thought I would say that.  Nothing is perfect, though dispelling the myth of patriarchy in the Lebanese workforce was a nice surprise.

Given the lack of economic stability in the nation, some people are content with whatever employment opportunities are available, as the job market is saturated and the population continues to increase.  I can’t say I blame them for taking what they can get.  It’s beautiful to witness the advancement of women in various professional sectors in Beirut, as they rise above adversity and take creative ideas and create remarkable opportunities.

Rock Star Women

The women of the UAB are rock stars and achievers.  I am in awe of their efforts to internationalize the organization and create spaces for women to progress, advance and expand their careers, even with limited resources.

Going above and beyond the call of duty, these fabulous ladies are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, resident bad-a$$es and are highly educated and intelligent leaders in the sectors of finance, economics, and banking.

There are women like Dina Kaddouh, who is responsible for the North African region at UAB, who advocated for women’s empowerment events in 2009.  She worked to coordinate the first women’s summit in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, partnering with Saudi leaders, to discuss women’s advancement in the economics and banking sector.

On top of balancing an extraordinary work load and extracurricular events, they live in a third world nation that does not afford them the luxuries of other first world countries, and they continue to rise above.

It is an honour to work them and I am sure I will learn a great deal while here.

It’s about the Next Life

For 30+ hours a week, I volunteered personal and free time to serve health, social, humanitarian, educational, political, and religious organizations.  Compensation and accolades are not why I choose to help others or work on particular causes.

I care about my community, their well-being and advancement.  I am building for my Akhira (afterlife).

Oftentimes, people would ask me, “Why do you volunteer so much?  Don’t you get paid for your activism and community work?”

Don’t you see, I am paid; in good deeds and reward from God.

This world is not the one I am worried about.  Those life lessons mom and dad taught me early on have resonated and manifested in different aspects of my existence.


I will forever be grateful for my global work in activism and advocacy efforts.  I do hope that if you are interested in service work, that you will realize that it is far more rewarding when you do the work without seeking praise, recognition, or a photo op.  Be a part of movements that matter to you and support causes you believe in.

Put your heart into your work and find what feeds your passion.  When you find your purpose being fulfilled, your soul will continue to receive its sustenance and will find pleasure in the smallest acts of selflessness and servitude.

Most importantly, surround yourself with good people, d.  I cannot stress this enough.  There is a great deal of negativity in the world.  Choose to befriend people of quality character, purpose, and who will inspire and elevate you.  Be a difference maker and learn how to take the goodness in your heart and put it back into the world.

May your efforts be rewarded and may you always be surrounded by those who elevate, uplift, inspire and motivate you. Ameen