Virtuous Activism: Friday Reflection for ISNA

By Maha Elgenaidi, founder and Chief Innovation Officer

January 22, 2021

This speech was delivered online to audiences at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on Friday, January 22nd, 2021. View the recording on YouTube

Bism Allah ar-Rahman ar-raheem.  In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. I begin with the prayer of Moses, “My lord, expand my heart for me, and ease my task for me, and untie the knot in my tongue that they may understand my speech.”

The title of my talk today is Virtuous Activism. I am using virtuous here to mean upright and conforming to high ethical and moral standards.  Activism could be anything which you do fi-sabil Allah or in the way of God, which can range from child rearing as a stay-at-home mom to working in a non-profit organization that is serving the welfare of human beings, to a profession that is your calling in this world where you are doing excellent work as an attorney, engineer, physician, teacher, social worker, or cashier.

Combining “virtuous” and “activism” therefore denotes blessed work, where the effort is likely divinely inspired, meaningful to you, and serving your intended purpose in manifold ways; in ways that you can’t see or imagine because Allah’s hands are in it; or, to put it another way, where Allah is working through you, bringing you much baraka, or blessings, in the peace and joy of your state of heart and mind and the rewards you will have in the hereafter. People doing blessed work or who are engaged in virtuous activism also feel much gratitude for what they do for a living and for the way they spend their time.

Virtuous activism should always be our goal as Muslims, especially now when so much is confronting us as Muslim Americans in growing Islamophobia and civil rights challenges concerning religious freedom, in the day-to-day struggles we have raising our children as Muslims, in building or maintaining our schools and mosques, and in serving our community’s particular needs for mental health and other social services.

But also as Americans, like all Americans, we’re confronted with challenges that stem from the pandemic and its impact on our health and the economy; and from continuing political polarization and very fragile race relations.

To be effective in meeting these challenges, and being the community that is demonstrably contributing to the healing of our nation through good works, we need more than strategic planning and business skills. As Muslim activists, we must also cultivate and exemplify excellent moral character. I have three suggestions based on my long years being active in the Muslim community as the founder and first executive director of an organization called ING, which stands for Islamic Networks Group. ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.

We’re also an organization founded on principles that guide every aspect of the work we do. These include working in service to others, working as partners and collaborators, and working to the highest standards of quality and with utmost integrity. Those principles permeate every aspect of our work, from the process we use to design our educational material, to our choice of speakers whom we choose to deliver it and to how we train them to present our material.

Following these principles, I’ve also studied with a number of religious scholars over the last twenty years and even went out and earned a graduate degree in religious studies to hone my understanding of religion and of the work I do.

But nothing beats the experiences of failures and successes over nearly three decades. So I will share with you keys to my own “virtuous activism,” activism that aspires to bring blessings for both the doer and the recipients, through work that is both meaningful and purposeful in the good that it produces.

My three keys to doing good works are worship, right intentions, and good character.

The key of worship calls us to be consistent in our worship and to work towards developing an intimate relationship with Allah SWT. I have seven tips in this area that I’ve grouped into four categories.

  1. Fulfilling ritual obligations by submission to God’s laws

In order to achieve the status of righteousness or closeness to God, we need to fortify ourselves through a number of practices. The first is to fulfill our religious and ritual obligations, that is, to understand that following God’s laws is the foundation of Islam and to put that understanding into practice by performing things like our daily prayers, by making a greater effort to perform them with kushu, with love and gentleness, and by performing additional prayers, particularly tahajjud prayers which are done before fajr or dawn, which is a time when the worshipper is closest to Allah.

  1. Building humility

The second practice is to build our humility, which we can do by increasing our dua, or supplication, which softens the heart, supports our faith, and humbles us before God.

Another source of humility is recitation of the Qur’an, particularly certain chapters such as Surah Yasin (chapter 36) or Kahf (Chapter 18) that are especially recommended for situations of tribulation.

Another avenue to build humility is to increase our voluntary fasting, which also serves to soften our heart and make us humbler, while bringing us closer to God.

  1. Getting closer to God

The third practice is to make concerted efforts to draw closer to God by increasing our dhikr, or remembrance of God, not only after our ritual prayers but throughout the day, and by daily reciting specific duas or supplications in collections known as wird (or litany), all of which bring us closer to God and increase our sense of trust and dependency upon Him. I recommend several that I can offer if you write to me at [email protected]. But also consult with your shaykh or local imam. I’ve also recommended the work of Dr./Shaykh Walead Mossad whose classes are online. I’ve referred several people to him, from my own study groups and family members, and they all praise him, so check out his work.

  1. Joining a community of believers

The fourth practice is to connect, directly or online via the many videos and livestreams available, with scholars or teachers directly connected to our religious tradition who help us navigate day-to-day living, especially during difficult times, and who provide the spiritual support that we need to remain strong. It is also critical to surround ourselves virtually with a community of believers, who will provide us with the right friendships and worldview that will support our spiritual state. This community doesn’t have to be composed of Muslim believers; it could be believers in any tradition, people who follow their dharma or religious practices.

My second key to good works is to be someone who is always mindful of your intentions behind every action you take by constantly questioning your motivations. Ask yourself: are you doing something for the good of the person, the community, the team, the project you’re working on, or are you acting based on one of the vices we all sometimes have, such as jealousy or envy, vanity, anger, fear, love of power, seeking reputation, wanting to claim credit, etc.?

Constantly questioning your motives and making sure you have the right intentions is probably the hardest aspect of staying on the straight path or sirat al-mustaqim; the path that leads to salvation in this world and the next.

It’s often difficult because it requires self-awareness, facing yourself and harsh realities, taqwa or vigilance, self-motivation to do the right thing, and right judgement, to know right from wrong at every moment and for every situation. But with constant practice, you develop a natural instinct for it. It helps immensely and is probably not possible without the first key to good works, which is consistent worship.

The good news lies in the rewards you reap from this practice of choosing right over wrong, especially if you consistently correct yourself when you initially act with the wrong intentions. And because we’re all interdependent, the butterfly effect, the idea that small things one does can impact the world in big ways, adds to our baraka when we do the right thing.

My third and final tip for good works is to practice good behavior, to embody all the virtues you know you should possess.  Shaykh Hamza has translated and commented extensively on Imam Al-Mawlud’s Matharat Al-Qulub which is translated as Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart.  This is just one of many accessible texts on the subject of developing virtuous character.

The list of virtues is long, and I am sure if we were to ask Muslim leaders what they thought were the most important virtues for our community right now, they would come up with different lists based on their varied experiences.

I am going to share with you what I think are the top five virtues that are needed in our community right now based on my long experience working within the Muslim American community, in the hope that it benefits people listening to this talk.

I believe that if more of us were to embody these virtues, it would transform our community into one that is more respected and influential because we would be a community that is contributing in more substantial ways to the welfare of all Americans, which is a virtue in and of itself.

In my view, success for Muslim Americans is defined not by how many doctors and engineers or wealthy people we have but rather by our contributions to the welfare of all Americans in the neighborhoods, towns, and cities where we live.

So it might surprise you to know that the five virtues I hope we develop more of are not directly related to making contributions. In fact, three are personal, and two are inter-personal.

The personal virtues are developing pride in who we are as a community, having the courage to improve, and putting our trust in God.

The interpersonal virtues are developing friendliness and much more cooperation among Muslim organizations and likewise developing friendliness and more cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims. I actually think the latter, that is, developing good relationships with non-Muslims, is much easier and sometimes takes precedence over the former, developing good relationships among Muslims, because Muslim activists, particularly Muslim women, have been burned working with other Muslims. We won’t get into gender issues today, but I hope we can in the future.

Let’s go through these five virtues one by one: 

One, developing pride for who we are as a community is essential for our growth. It’s akin to a person having self-esteem. Without it, we lack confidence and therefore are unable to produce much because we’re not whole, and I think that’s a reason why our community is fragmented into pieces: we don’t have a unifying vision or a voice that speaks for all, which is a problem for a community that is very few in numbers relative to the size of the American population, and under siege due to the Islamophobia that, while it may decrease under the current administration, is still pervasive.

Developing pride requires that we know who we are as a community, and I am not sure we’ve actually figured that out because it keeps changing on us. We were once all immigrants, then many of us became converts or reverts from different ethnic communities (I am one of those, by the way, someone who grew up secular and became religious much later in life), and now we’re mostly Black Americans with roots in enslaved African Americans.

Also, whereas we once were a much smaller community with few mosques, we’ve now much larger in number, with different generations and with far more complex Muslim identities than we’ve been able to incorporate in our institutions.

It wasn’t long ago that ISNA’s convention was the one and only convention we all attended; now we have up to a dozen national conferences to choose from. On the one hand, we say alhamdullillah, we’ve grown. But on the other hand, we’ve grown into fragmented parts that are each different from the other. What we have in common is our religion but what will unify us is a culture of an American Islam that hasn’t yet developed, and that’s why we face the vice of discrimination in our own ranks. We’re not a whole community that is proud of itself because we’re essentially made up of parts that discriminate against one another: Arabs against people from the sub-continent, and vice versa, hijabis versus non-hijabis, Shia against Sunnis, Syrians against Palestinians. indigenous against immigrants, progressives against conservatives, and so forth. We need to develop a Muslim American culture and corresponding institutions and leadership that are inclusive of all our fragmented parts, to make them into one whole in terms of vision, identity, and then the pride which will naturally follow.

In order to develop such a unified and whole community, Muslims involved in mosques and non-profits must develop the courage and self-confidence to improve their institutions by speaking up when they see something wrong. Many of our organizations are run by authoritarian leaders who want to remain in power and are exclusive in whom they work with and whom they won’t work with. How many mosques have we seen that are run by people who made all of a certain class or group of people join the mosque so as to make sure they win elections? Or mosque presidents who intimidate board members to vote a particular way? We will never improve and develop institutions that are truly reflective of our beautiful deen until we throw aside vices such as these among those who run them. And the only way we will do it is for people to have courage to speak up against wrongs when they see them inside our institutions in order to replace the problem leaders with sound and virtuous ones.

Putting our trust in God means that we don’t operate from a place of scarcity because God’s bounty is unlimited, that we don’t act from the belief that what one has is another’s loss. Recognizing and accepting that God is in control of all things, that God doesn’t burden anyone with more than they can handle, and that your bounty has been written for you and there’s nothing you or anyone can do to change it helps appreciate what you and others have.

If we develop these three personal virtues, if we truly have a unified Muslim community in which we can all take pride, developing friendliness and cooperation among Muslim organizations should be a natural consequence.

Having Muslim organizations work together harmoniously should have been the natural consequence when 9/11 happened and the community was facing a serious threat of internment and an avalanche of hate crimes. Crises are supposed to bring us together, and 9/11 did for a split second, but then we went about again competing with each other for Muslim dollars, and “who was there first,” and “who can do it better,” etc.

This competition quite frankly escalated when foundations came knocking while George W. Bush was President and then under President Obama, and I don’t see it changing in the near future, because the same people who can’t work together are still there, and that’s why someone like me remains outside of most Muslim spaces in order to avoid toxicity and maintain my single-minded focus on the greater mission of Muslims. That’s also why I focus on my first priority, which is to serve both the Muslim American community and America at large. I’ve spoken to many people about this, and it’s an area that needs serious reflection on how Muslim nonprofit organizations deliver services to the Muslim community, from the local mosques and nonprofits all the way to the national organizations. This sounds like an urgent call to action, and it is, and it’s directly related to everything that I said earlier about what we need for Virtuous Activism: we need people who understand their role in relation to Allah SWT, who check their intentions and who put into practice all the virtues that we know we need to put into practice in order to exemplify what we’re called to do as Muslims, in line with our prophetic traditions and our religious practices.

And it’s only when we have that friendliness and cooperation among ourselves that we will have a firm basis for developing friendliness and cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims that isn’t self-serving but rather serves all Americans. If we can’t relate and cooperate in friendship among ourselves, it’s difficult to represent and serve anyone but ourselves in the relationship with those outside our community.

So it’s on the basis of these virtues, deeply rooted in our tradition, that we can move forward and meet the challenges of the present moment, and in particular the challenges that spring from continuing Islamophobia and from the current pandemic with its consequences for both our health and our economic well-being. If we root ourselves deeply in the virtues that our tradition upholds, in the love that God has for us and for all human beings, we cannot miss becoming the community that God needs us to be in this country and in this time.

Thank you.

Maha Elgenaidi is the founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Islamic Networks Group (, a peace-building organization providing face-to-face education and engagement opportunities that foster understanding of Muslims and other misunderstood groups to promote harmony among all people. Maha received an M.A. in religious studies from Stanford University and B.A in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. She has taught classes on Islam in the modern world at Santa Clara University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and the “Dorothy Irene Height Community Award” from the Silicon Valley Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A former Santa Clara County Human Relations Commissioner for 6 years, Maha is currently an advisor to the California Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training on Hate Crimes and Cultural Diversity.