The following list of guidelines are in no particular order and are by no means comprehensive. They simply represent ideas and action items, that if implemented correctly would insha’Allah help to lift both the spirituality and bond of an MSA. I’m sure some may have different approaches than the suggestions below, but I hope this can act as a catalyst for more conversations on this topic.
1. Don’t complain if you don’t have a solution
We love to complain. Muslims, and the population at large love to get together and vent about their problems. Incredibly, I have seen people’s friendships even strengthened through a shared love of complaining.
From an Islamic perspective, complaining isn’t haram or necessarily discouraged in and of itself (see Prophet Yaqub crying to Allah about Yusuf and his disobedient sons for example), but there is a proper way to go about it. My focus here, however, is on the end-goal, and not on the act of complaining.
As a positive and contributing member of your MSA, there is a time and place to bring up your concerns. The objections you put forth need to have tangible, finite goals. More importantly, the manner in which it’s done is going to make a difference to whether or not your complaint is given consideration. Try to remember the following when giving your constructive feedback:
- Don’t be angry. If you’re irritated, take time to collect your thoughts and come back when you’ve calmed down. What I’ve found helps is writing out what you want to say and rereading it the next day. I’ve never done this except that I was thankful for not sending that message in my state of anger.
- Make sure you’re addressing a problem that directly affects you. For example, if you are a male, you shouldn’t be complaining about how this quarter the brothers had more social events funded by the MSA than the sisters. Let each group handle their particular qualms. Unless asked, do not make yourself a mediator. In conflict resolution, less is more.
- Start with the positives. Demonstrate that you have considered the topic from a broader perspective than just your perceived negatives. It also helps to make those you’re speaking to more receptive to what comes next.
- Follow the beautiful advice of the Prophet when he said, “What’s less and sufficient is better than what’s more and distracting.” Be succinct in your critiques and don’t repeat yourself. Let the core of the issue be known and move on.
- How we give advice makes all the difference. Provide a potential solution. This shows that you thought the problem through and are sincere in wanting the situation to improve.
The last point above is so important to the atmosphere you create in an MSA. This is the difference between an MSA that grows and excels and one that wallows in its self-created negativity. Last, reflect on the words of the Prophet when he was reported to have said,
“Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him say something good, or else remain silent.”
2. “And above every possessor of knowledge is someone more knowledgeable”
The above quote, taken from Surah Yusuf [12:76], should be written in gold and hung at every MSA event. It’s an ayah that helps to humble us as believers, especially those of us in MSAs where we may possess more knowledge than the average member – which unfortunately isn’t really that high of a standard to meet. For example, look at the story of Musa and Khidr. Musa believed he was the most knowledgeable man on earth due to his prophethood and yet even he was proved wrong. You’ll always find someone more adept than you in one category or another.
Attending a weekend seminar, or having memorized the Quran, does not make you a scholar. Nor does your fiqh summer intensive turn you into a shaykh. In the same way, reading Dr. Sherman Jackson’s work does not make you “woke,” all of a sudden. Even someone like Imam Al-Bukhari took 16 years to compile his Sahih work. Scholarship takes time. Learning takes time. College is not enough time.
How many of us get a taste of some ‘ilm and then think we have the authority to speak for Islam? We genuinely convince ourselves that the others in the MSA are jahil and ignorant of our vast scholarship – which – again, we have all of 0.0001% of.
Humble yourself and expect to hear perspectives and viewpoints you’ve never considered before. Prepare to be shocked at how accommodating the deen can be without having to compromise on a single agreed upon principle.
The easiest way to realize this is to imagine encountering yourself from a year ago. How would you judge yourself? How “ignorant,” were you back then? Remember this and realize that you’ll think the same of yourself a year from today.
3. It’s not haram to marry someone from your MSA
A few years ago, the MSA West president was complaining to a speaker for the MSAW Conference about how “Most of these people coming are just trying to find a spouse! No one comes for the knowledge anymore!” To which the speaker responded with, “And what’s wrong with that? Would you rather they meet them here, at a Muslim conference, or at a school party?”
It’s true that many attendees have one eye on a potential spouse while attending an Islamic event, but that doesn’t need to be shamed. I personally found my spouse through MSA, and three of my former roommates have done the same. It’s not haram to find someone through your MSA. In all honesty, it makes a lot of sense. Being in the same MSA probably indicates you share many of the same principles and values. The real issue is that we go about finding a spouse in the wrong way. Unfortunately, we have students attending Islamic events attempting to catch the eye of the opposite gender and engage in flirtatious behavior.
While it’s okay for you to want to marry someone from your MSA, it is not okay to flirt with them or gaze at them, and unless there is some group photo going on, there is no reason to take a photo with the opposite gender. Also, from what I have seen at the latest MSA conferences, the organizers themselves do not mandate the room to be separated by gender. We don’t need something so drastic as a big barrier put up in the hall, but simple seating separation would be a step in the right direction.
With all that said, there are fortunately resources out there to help you out. MSAs should be open to the idea that members of their club may end up together, but to help facilitate that, they should educate everyone on proper Islamic guidelines for gender interaction. This way people can meet a potential spouse while maintaining the baraka a future marriage may hold.
4. Social justice doesn’t take priority over your salvation
There is a common mantra that gets repeated at MSA meetings, “Social justice is rooted in Islam!” This is usually said by those whose interests are more aligned with social activism and is, unfortunately, also a front for many Muslims to cover their insecure foundations of faith. If they’re working so hard for (insert cause name) on campus, then they must be religious, right?
There’s no doubt that Islam is a religion that promotes social justice and has done so since its inception more than 1,400 years ago. Just look at most Meccan suar (plural of surah) and their frequent mention of the orphans not receiving their rights, the evils of cheating in business, and the horror of female infanticide. However, a major point lost in these discussions is that social activism in Islam needs to be rooted in… well, Islam. It’s not “Islamic” to jump on the ideological bandwagon of whatever is passing through university campuses these days without first considering the ethics and underlying principles of such movements.
Today, ideas like secularism and liberalism are vying for space in the hearts of millions of students. The issue with ideologies like these is that they are not anchored to any objective standard. Our morality as Muslims is tied to Allah and His Messenger. In contrast, the ideas often fomented on college campuses are the result of people attempting to achieve justice in the world devoid of God. As Muslims, we understand that the ultimate source of justice is God, and so to remove God from the equation, in order to adopt secular definitions, would forfeit the principled stances God gave us, and render us impotent of creating actual change. As Malcolm X put it “a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”
In recent years, MSAs nationwide have been passing Divestment Resolutions against companies working with Israel. While this is an amazing achievement, is it really a victory if half of the students at the final hearing miss Fajr the next day (and half is being generous)? There’s a prevalent culture across campuses that promotes learning about social justice movements over learning the religion. One result of this is MSA students pursuing gender progressive ideals that are incompatible with Islam, but since deen wasn’t made a priority, we have a group of “social justice warriors” wandering aimlessly without basic Islamic knowledge to guide them.
I’ve heard countless students ask if their peers have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I can’t remember a single time someone asked, “have you read a translation of the Quran from cover to cover?” We seem to be woke about everything except about what Allah wants us to be woke about. If you focus on your religion, social justice will necessarily come out of that, but if you focus on social justice, there’s no guarantee that religion will come out of that.
5. Worry about yourself first
Allah tells us in Surah Al-Baqarah of one of the great sins of the Children of Israel. Allah rhetorically asks them,
“Do you command people to righteousness and forget yourselves, while you read the Scripture? Do you not understand?”
This ayah should scare MSA leadership. We love to sit and criticize the members of our club for not praying enough, not coming to the halaqa or whatever else we like to say to “show concern for the ummah” (read: serve our ego), but we readily forget to focus on ourselves. We’ll give a khatira (short reminder) telling others that slander and gossiping is haram, but then we’ll stay up late with our roommates talking trash about the members who we perceive as “not doing enough,” for the club.
One of the biggest regrets of my college years was not focusing more on my own development and relationship with Allah. I spent countless hours worrying about the others in my club to the detriment of my own spirituality. Focus on yourself, and if you’re sincere, the light of Allah will shine on those around you. Keep drawing closer to Allah with your daily worship. Remember, on the Day of Judgement you’ll only be saying one thing; “Nafsi, Nafsi.” “Me. Me.”
Also important to note, notice how Allah says the Children of Israel were at fault for two reasons. The first was for not implementing what they taught, and the second was for doing so while reading their scripture. Ironically, many of us in MSA leadership probably don’t have a proper relationship with the Quran. We’ll read article after article about the Quran, and many more articles on current social/political issues, but not many of us can say we read the Quran – in any language – on a daily basis. We need to keep our priorities straight if we want to successfully lead our MSAs with Allah’s guidance.
6. “Commanding the good and forbidding the evil” has prerequisites you probably don’t fulfill
The Quran reiterates in a number of places that a Muslim has a duty to “command the good and forbid the evil.” In one particular instance, Allah tells us about Luqman the Wise, who was advising his son on good character. While speaking to his son, Luqman says,
“My dear son, establish the prayer, and command the good and forbid the evil and be patient and perseverant over what befalls you. No doubt, [all] that requires the greatest determination.”
This ayah and many others highlight the importance of correcting the wrongs around us, but there are prerequisites which Imam Al-Ghazali beautifully outlines, that if we followed, would probably disqualify many of us from the role of haram police on campus. He says that the person doing the correcting must be:
- Legally responsible (mukallaf)
- A Muslim
- Upright in character (‘adil)
- An authority to correct the wrong (this is where most of us would be disqualified)
- Able to actually cause change (in other words, will your advice or actions truly affect the one you’re dealing with?)
Instead of scaring people with our “forbidding of evil”, we should heed the words of our Prophet when he was reported to have said, “Make things easy, don’t make things difficult. Give good news, don’t push people away.”
This isn’t to excuse open sinning from taking place in your club, but these cases are a lot less in number than the times MSA leadership decides that they need to use their “authority,” as board members to “criticize” (i.e. humiliate) someone. Create a welcoming community to the extent that those who are struggling with major sins will feel comfortable and choose to stick around MSA long enough to change on their own. Remember, the MSA is supposed to be a hospital for the spiritually ill, not a social club for the religious elite.
7. Your MSA members need an “Islamic Awareness Week” more than the general school population
Many MSAs around the nation have a week dedicated to teaching the non-Muslim school population about their religion. In this beautiful da’wah effort, topics such as “What is Shariah?”, “Why do women wear the hijab?”, “What do Muslims believe in?” are all topics covered in great detail. If the marketing was done well enough, hundreds of non-Muslim students would have benefitted from the speakers and scholars the MSA brought in.
There is nothing wrong with an Islamic Awareness Week (IAW), but I’d argue that many of the topics taught to the non-Muslims need to be taught to your members first and foremost. Many times, topics like “Why do women wear the hijab,” are taught during IAW, but never addressed to the Muslims themselves. How many non-Muslims now understand the basic concepts of something like Shariah while the Muslim who missed the lecture due to a time conflict is left in their ignorance? I have personally been asked to give lectures at Mosque Open House events on topics that were never covered in a typical MSA meeting or halaqa.
While I don’t want to take away from the importance of spreading the message of Islam, we should not forget the members of the MSA who have more of a right to learn about their faith than the non-Muslims. Many Muslims can graduate and leave their MSA without knowing the basics of their faith (and I personally know many cases). Make sure if you’re going to have a certain lecture at your IAW, that you have a special session of that topic just for your MSA.
8. Get a mentor or become one
Put this at the top of your priority list. If your school is one of the few that has a religious chaplain working there, go pray two rakat to thank Allah for this enormous blessing. If you are the same gender as them, they become close friends with them. Allow this chaplain’s experiences and knowledge to guide you through your university life and help you to mature as a Muslim. Attend their classes, go to their counseling sessions, honor them, and get them gifts every now and then. They are an undoubted blessing for you.
For those of us who aren’t blessed with university chaplains, the next best thing you can do is find a student-mentor for yourself. If there is a student in your club who you feel is implementing Islamic ethics in their life and is praying all their prayers, try and attach yourself to them. By surrounding yourself with them – and their potential friend group of like-minded people – you help to create a positive environment for yourself. Most of the students who go through a rough patch in college are those who get stuck with the wrong friends. As the Prophet ﷺ taught us:
“The individual is upon the religion of the one they have a close companionship with, so look into who you have a close companionship with.”
And finally, if you are in an MSA where there aren’t any ethical role models to look up to, then Allah is placing the responsibility on you to grow yourself and become a role model for future members of the club. Allah beautifully says in Surah Al-Hadid, “Those who gave and fought before the triumph are not like others: they are greater in rank than those who gave and fought afterward. But God has promised a good reward to all of them: God is fully aware of all that you do.” [57:10] In other words, there’s a greater reward in struggling and setting up a fledgling MSA than there is in participating in a well-established one. This is definitely the toughest position to be in, but Allah does not place a burden on a soul which it cannot bear.
Take pride in that your Master has chosen you to be a potential leader for your club. Maybe you can reach out to alumni who can help steer your decision making. Remember to make lots of du’a and istikhara, so that you can maximize the blessings Allah puts into your time and efforts. Make du’a that Allah guides you and bestows on you the knowledge that you need to succeed. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said, “If you are alone on top of a mountain and Allah sees that you are worthy of guidance, He will send you a teacher.”
9. Know your principles and stick to them
This point is actually addressing two separate issues present in our MSAs. Most of us don’t know what our principles are and, in the case that we do, we don’t stick to them. Allah speaks of this phenomenon in a surah that we recite every day, Surah Al-Fatiha. When we ask Him for guidance we say, “Guide us to the straight, upright path. The path of those You have blessed, not of those who have incurred anger, nor of those who are lost.” [1:6-7]. Scholars describe the first group of misguided people as those who had the knowledge and didn’t act on it. The second group is those who acted but without knowledge.
A prime example of this is how MSAs have been dealing with the LGBT alliance issue on campuses across the nation. One group argues for full support and alliance to anything LGBT related because “Islam is a religion of social justice and we must stick up for minorities everywhere!” On the other side are those who know the limits of where our support for LGBT rights lies but will compromise on those limits for the sake of “being inclusive.” Both sides lack integrity at their extreme ends. (For a balanced conversation on this particular topic, see the Yaqeen Institute paper).
Both extremes have a simple cure that can help bring balance to our approach to future controversial topics. For the ignorant group, learn the basics of your religion. Learn basic aqeedah, fiqh, seerah, and Quran to help guide your decisions in life. Regardless of whether or not you ever participate in MSA leadership, these topics are the minimum any Muslim should study in order to live a life in accordance with Allah’s laws and guidance.
For those who have the knowledge and don’t act on it, your solution is two-fold. First, fear Allah as much as you can. Never forget that He knows the exact motivations behind your decisions. Second, don’t let yourself be bullied by others, especially those acting out of ignorance. Keeping in line with the above scenario, someone might accuse you of being a bigot for not marching “in solidarity” in a gay rights parade for example, but you can easily claim the same of them. Just ask a non-Muslim marching in the parade, “Why are you calling my Prophet a liar? He said he was the last and final messenger sent by God. Since you don’t believe that, then you must be calling him a liar! Why are you being so bigoted?”
Notice the absurdity of both sides of this conversation. Sometimes we compromise our faith in the name of “not imposing our values,” but we allow others to impose their values on us with little to no resistance. Learn your principles and stick to them! We have the Truth, so why do we allow ourselves not to live by it?
10. You have a few precious years to cultivate conviction in yourself and in your members
The beautiful thing about MSA is that it can take a student who didn’t pray and was skeptical about their deen and help them to become a future leader of the Muslim community who never misses their five daily prayers. By the love and mercy of Allah, this transformation can take place in the short two to five years that a student might be in college. While ultimate guidance is in the hands of Allah alone, MSAs can still take the means to help cultivate as much conviction as they can for their members. Many Muslims pray and attend all the events they can while in the MSA environment, but how many of those same Muslims stop praying consistently once they’re alone in the workforce?
One of the top goals of an MSA should be to create Muslims who will wake up for Fajr on their own once they leave their MSA bubble. To do so, we should be careful that our events are balanced in the topics they cover. If there’s going to a weekly halaqa on “Islam and Social Justice,” then there should also be a class on “Basics of Faith.” Learning the intricacies of Islamic law pale in comparison to the importance of knowing the proofs for God and how to worship Him. Don’t assume everyone in your club already learned these things in Sunday school (See #7 above). For those from smaller communities or less religious families, MSA may actually be their first real exposure to an Islamic education.
Also important to note, make sure you spend the time educating yourself before working on others. What’s the point of helping someone else’s confidence in the religion if you still have significant doubts you haven’t addressed within yourself?
11. Not getting credit for your work is (sometimes) a good thing
I would like to start this point with the exception. If someone is unjustly taking credit for your work, that is an issue that needs to be sorted. But what if you put in a lot of effort and no one ever thanks you? What if you’re never recognized for all the behind scenes labor you put in?
Consider some of the most often recited suar of the Quran, Surah Kahf and Surah Yaseen. Within these suar are some of the most recognizable stories told in the revelation which include:
- People of the cave
- People of the garden
- Musa and the young boy
- Musa and the knowledgeable man
- Dhul Qurnain
- The three messengers and the man from a faraway town
Notice how aside from Musa, we don’t know the true identity of the remaining characters. The people of the cave are unnamed and possibly unaccounted for, the people of the garden are unknown, the young boy with Musa is unidentified, the knowledgeable man with Musa is only known as Khidr through narrations, there is unending debate over the real name of Dhul Qurnain, and we don’t know the name of any of the people mentioned in Surah Yasin and yet three are messengers of Allah! But you know the flip side of this? Their identity is known exclusively to Allah and they have the blessing and reward of being mentioned in His Book until the end of time.
Sometimes not being recognized for your work is the actual reward. This can help to keep you sincere with Allah and to protect your ego. In the age of social media, not showing off your deeds is becoming increasingly important – and difficult. The salaf (early generation of Muslims) used to be very careful that their deeds remained hidden from the masses. Nowadays we seem to have the opposite problem, with students being quick to post any khair they do online for all to see.
Reflect on the words of the Prophet when he was reported to have said, “No doubt, Allah loves the servant who is God-conscious, self-sufficient and hidden” [emphasis mine]. Continue to put forth your services to the best of your abilities and know with certainty that you will receive full credit with your Master even if the entire world doesn’t acknowledge your acts.
As an aside, if you’d like to cultivate sincerity in your worship, start with qiyam al-layl. Stand in prayer in the dead of the night when no one but Allah is a witness.
As mentioned earlier, these are just possible guidelines for running an MSA. Each MSA has its own flavor and may require further tinkering to steer it in the right direction. Insha’Allah this list helps those looking for some guidance to start working on themselves and MSA members in a way that would have a lasting positive impact on the Muslim community going forward.