Sitting On the Sidelines: Let's Give Back

Originally published in January 2014

This coming weekend, over 100 million Americans will huddle around their televisions to watch the Super Bowl. In any team sport, from youth leagues to the pros, one thing always apparent is that not everyone plays. Backups watch the starters play, ever hopeful to get in to the game. These players sit on the sidelines because they are not as talented, though their desire to play and help their team is unquestioned. It is exceedingly rare to find a talented, healthy player not in the game, unless he or she is lazy and unable to grasp the playbook, lacks passion, or feigns or milks an injury.

In our Muslim communities, however, the reverse is often true. Many of us, blessed with unique and diverse talents, sit on the sidelines willingly, even as our institutions, organizations and masaajid cry out to us for help. (Yes, some of us are excluded by their local teams, but there are always other franchises to explore; it's a big league.) A shortage of volunteerism, which brings any hope of communal progress to a halt, has been built on our excuses. We’re too busy even when we’re not, we’re not qualified even though we are, and so on.

A remedy to this malaise may be in understanding a benefit of volunteerism differently. Our scholars teach us:

الشكر من جنس النعمة
Thankfulness is categorical (lit. from the genus of) to the blessing

Allah has blessed each of us in distinctive ways. To be truly thankful to Allah, we must give back and share that same blessing. For a millionaire, the thankfulness for that blessing in wealth is by sharing that wealth, for Allah’s sake and the benefit of others. If that millionaire spends time teaching, while a commendable and rewarding act, but gives no charity, he or she is not demonstrating thankfulness for the blessing of that wealth. Similarly, a haafidh (memorizer) of the Qur’an cannot just give charity alone, but must teach or help others in Qur’anic study, to be truly thankful.

If we struggle with committing to volunteer, our greatest motivation can be that a voluntary act that draws from our specific talents can fulfill the spiritual obligation of thanking Allah for those talents. To give of ourselves is to thank God. Therefore if we do have wealth, we spend it in charity to honor that blessing. The needs of our community, however, go far beyond monetary capital, lest we think our charity suffices. Our community needs human capital—hashtag activism and donating online isn't enough. That is why, when Umar (رضي الله عنه) asked his companions what they would wish for, and they wished for wealth to spend in the path of Allah, he said, “I wish I had this house full of men like Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah.”1 Abu Ubaidah (رضي الله عنه) was one of the ten Companions assured of paradise and hailed as the "trustee of the ummah" by the Prophet ﷺ. Umar recognized that the prosperity and fate of the ummah was predicated on the qualities and talents of its men and women. So whatever talent you've been blessed with—education, business acumen, artistic talents, organization, communication skills, just to name a few—find an opportunity where you can share that blessing. Yes, the charity of wealth is highly meritorious and essential, but it's our intellectual, creative and personal touch that gives our institutions and community the soul, vision and the tools to succeed, while refining our hearts in the process.

Find a cause that makes you excited and fits your skill set. In doing that, we can be properly thankful for what Allah has blessed us with, and be productive members of the ummah. So this weekend, spare a thought for those players sitting on the sidelines, and ask why you and I continue to sit on the couch, observing, and not doing. Better yet, get off the couch and get into the real game. Our team needs it, and more importantly, so do we.

1. Bishr Ibn Musa narrated that ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab was sitting with a group of companions and he asked, “Let each one make a wish!" Someone said, “I wish if this house was filled with gold and I would happily spend it in Allah’s path.” ‘Umar asked the people again, “Make a wish!” Someone else said, ”I wish that if this house was filled with pearls, chrysolites, and with every kind of precious gems that I would happlily spend in charity on Allah’s path.” ‘Umar asked again, “Make a wish!” They replied, “O Amirul Muminin, we truly do not know what to wish for.”‘Umar then said, “I wish that this house was filled with men like Abu ‘Ubaidah Ibn Al-Jarrah” (Hilyatul Awliya).