Crises come to communities in many different ways: natural disasters, disease outbreaks, infrastructure breakdowns, armed conflicts, terroristic threats and civil unrest. They can be violent, peaceful, contained, rapidly spreading, of short duration, long-term, manageable or seemingly intractable. Responses can be on a local, national, international, or even individual basis. Some communities are better equipped to deal with a crisis than others, and the main reason does not appear to be related to financial resources.
In 2015, I interviewed Sister Zakia Amin about the Islamic response to a community crisis. Sister Zakia reverted to Islam in 1976. She is a principal of the oldest continuously operating Islamic School in the United States, teacher and community activist. A native of Baltimore, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia, earning a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Secondary Mathematics Education. She taught high school mathematics in the public school system for six years until 1979, when she decided to work full-time in Islamic education. She returned to Baltimore and has been teaching at the Islamic Community School for the last 35 years and has served as principal since 2005.
The Islamic Community School is a unique institution comprised entirely of volunteer teachers. There are about 35-40 students, depending on the year, and serves grades 1st-12th. Community service to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is nurtured at a young age. Each class is required to conduct a community service project every year in order to “instill in the children a sense of responsibility in their community and allow them to adopt a selfless nature.” Past projects include such things as giving canned goods to a homeless shelter, painting a local masjid and selling handmade jewellery boxes and donating the proceeds to Islamic Relief.
I first learned of Sister Zakia through a Muslim homeschool ListServ, where she sent out a request for help following the death of a young African American man in police custody:
As-salaamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wabarakatu to all of the Muslim brothers in the Baltimore area. The Islamic Community School … will be reopening on Thursday April 30, 2015 for classes. The school is located right at ground zero of the unrest in Baltimore, one block from North and Pennsylvania Avenues. We need Muslim men to volunteer for security at the school from 7:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. everyday Monday to Friday, until the unrest in Baltimore City ceases.
CALLING ALL MUSLIM MEN! COME AND DO YOUR DUTY! VOLUNTEER 1 OR MORE HOURS A DAY, INSHAA’ALLAH. CALL SISTER ZAKIA AT … TO LET HER KNOW WHAT DAYS AND TIMES YOU WILL BE COMING TO SECURE THE MUSLIM WOMEN AND CHILDREN AS THEY TEACH AND LEARN AT AN ISLAMIC SCHOOL.
Sister Zakia is also treasurer of the Muslim Social Services Agency (MSSA), an organisation her husband Imam Hassan Amin founded and is now the executive director. Like its Islamic Community School, the MSSA is well known in the community and provides numerous services. For example, each autumn, MSSA holds an event, ‘Resources for a Better Tomorrow,’ that provides a hot meal, food, hygiene items, blankets and school supplies free of charge to inner-city residents. Health screenings are conducted and referrals are given for education, employment, housing and drug rehabilitation. On a monthly basis, MSSA provides between 100-150 homeless men, women and children with a healthy lunch and hygiene items. Many of the clients return each month to receive these services. The organisation also distributes funds to those who find themselves facing eviction and utility cut-offs, as well as for purchasing food, appliances, furniture, medical supplies and public transportation passes. MSSA provides career training and gives classes on responsible fatherhood and in the past, have offered emergency preparedness and disaster relief training, among other things.
As mentioned above, the school where Sister Zakia works is located a block and a half from the centre of the spring unrest in Baltimore. When the trouble broke out, children were still in the school. Smoke could be seen from the nearby CVS, a pharmacy that is used by members of the community, which was vandalised and burned down. The next day, Sister Zakia and Imam Hassan (they have been married 40 years and have 4 children, masha Allah) went to Home Depot and asked the store to donate items to help with the clean up. They were able to secure over $400 worth of brooms, dustpans, trash bags, gloves, hand sanitiser and water. Employees of Home Depot brought the supplies to the area and, according to Sister Zakia, “We joined the citizens of Baltimore in cleaning up the area at about 7:15 this morning.”
“That’s what we do anyway,” Sister Zakia responded when I mentioned how quickly she and other Muslims she works with were able to respond to the civil unrest in their community. They knew what was needed, where to go to get what was needed, and how to efficiently distribute the goods and services to those who needed them. The relationships and logistics had already been in place for a long time – and therein lies success when responding to a community crisis.
Islam teaches us that we have responsibilities to the rest of Allah’s (SWT) creation. With respect to humans, our parents, family members, spouses, children, Muslim friends, Muslims at-large, non-Muslims, neighbours, captives, teachers, children, people who are ill, poor, needy, etc., all have rights over us; in other words, we have a specific relationship with different categories of people that requires us to act in a certain way. There are numerous ahadith with respect to one’s neighbour, for example:
Abdullah bin Amr had a sheep slaughtered for his family, so when he came he said: “Have you given some to our neighbour, the Jew? Have you given some to our neighbour, the Jew?’ I heard the Messenger of Allah saying: ‘Jibril continued to advise me about (treating) the neighbours so (kindly and politely), that I thought he would order me (from Allah) to make them heirs.” (Tirmidhi)
There are even degrees of relationship within the category of neighbours:
‘Aishah (RA) said, “O Allah’s Messenger (SAW)! I have two neighbours and would like to know to which of them I should give presents.” He replied, “To the one whose door is nearer to you.” (Bukhari)
Sister Zakia, Iman Hassan and the other Muslims who responded so effectively to the community crisis understood their Islamic responsibilities and acted upon them. Since the unrest, MSSA has “adopted for the long-haul” three senior citizen apartment buildings providing them with much needed supplies with the help of donations from the community and other Muslim organisations. Less than two months later, MSSA held its first of many insha Allah, “Peace Fest” in order to “begin the healing of negative attitudes between the citizens and the police officers” – a relationship which has a lengthy and inglorious history in the city.
From an Islamic perspective, Sister Zakia sees their local Muslim response as a duty of being Muslim. “To accept Islam, accept the fact from Allah (SWT) that we are His vicegerents on earth, we have a duty to care for humans, plants and animals.” And to help us execute that duty, Sister Zakia reminds us where we need to turn: “Islam is the solution to any of society’s ills – racism, poverty, unemployment, homelessness – Islam is the solution.”
Islam is the solution to any of society’s ills – racism, poverty, unemployment, homelessness – Islam is the solution.
– Sister Zakia Amin.
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent being Zak and His Good Intentions (2014) and The Great Race to Sycamore Street (2013). She is currently working on sequels. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.