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5/26/2018 Reflections from the MSA – Sarah Bellal – Medium

Sarah Bellal Follow

May 22 · 7 min read

Re ections from the MSA

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 bene t 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 re ection 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 nd a uni ed 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 con ict, but
they re ect the lack of a uni ed direction in which to devote our
energy. The lack of direction allows for whoever is loudest to declare 1/6
5/26/2018 Reflections from the MSA – Sarah Bellal – Medium

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-pro t 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 e orts could be led by di erent 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
e orts 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 quali ed to perform their “duties”
awlessly both ignores the reality and misunderstands why MSAs were
started in the rst 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 2/6
5/26/2018 Reflections from the MSA – Sarah Bellal – Medium

personal development will both bene t more people and foster


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 ght against said
marginalization to a ght against things we deem o ensive. 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 rst 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 o ensive to someone’s
personal interpretation of the faith. Di erent 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 3/6
5/26/2018 Reflections from the MSA – Sarah Bellal – Medium

attempting to reconstruct or study what our tradition actually calls for.

You will nd 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.

Ego-Driven Activism
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 di cult 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

• Instead of giving each other the bene t of the doubt, we assume

the worst and perceive every disagreement or miscommunication
as a personal a ront.

• 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 a rmation. 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. 4/6
5/26/2018 Reflections from the MSA – Sarah Bellal – Medium

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
e orts 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 nal 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
nd that it is, I trust you and pray that Allah rewards you for your

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 nd 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


• 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 rst. Make du’a for the folks who
made this. 5/6
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