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The Muslim Tradition of Service in Contemporary Times

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Editor's note: Culture, politics and religion are hot topics for pundits to debate on the evening news and in major newspapers. These topics are also increasingly discussed within community and charity organizations seeking ways to encourage diversity within their volunteer programs. The Muslim community is one particular faith group with a long and rich history of voluntary service. Its tradition dates back centuries, originating as far away from the United States as India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Today, the legacy of those diverse roots has become an integral part of civil society development in North America.  

This article describes the evolution of volunteerism in the Islamic community in America, told through the perspective of Shelina Gwaduri, a long-time international aid activist. As she explains the strong impact of her faith on her personal life and professional career, she hopes to “convey to the reader the growing opportunities that currently exist to engage with more faith-based and, in particular, Muslim communities, in any organization’s activities.” As more countries around the world open their doors to immigrants, migrants and refugees – and become home to some of the largest ethnic communities—Gwaduri argues convincingly that volunteer-involving organizations should do the same.

Many countries around the world have sizeable immigrant populations, with the United States receiving the largest diaspora of people from diverse homelands. Virtually all Americans have immigrant roots; consequently, we should be sensitized and knowledgeable in working with different ethnic and culturally unique groups.

However, the diverse Muslim community is frequently misunderstood and over-generalized. Followers of Islam are a very large and settled group living in the U.S. with over four million residing in cities and towns across the country. As do many other cultures, the Muslim community has a rich and deep history of service; in fact, one of the main pillars and fundamentals of the Shia-Ismaili Muslim community is giving back and community service. But this history and tradition of service is not often visible or leveraged within the rest of American life. 

In this article, I describe how this Shia-Ismaili Muslim tradition of volunteering stretched and spread from various centuries and geographies. Leading up to today, I focus on Muslims living in America who continue to serve the Islamic institutions/community and the societies in which they live, work and call home. As a practitioner of volunteer management myself, I also share my experiences of volunteering both within my community and outside, and delve a bit deeper into how organizations, volunteer managers and civic service clubs can integrate the Muslim community and other minority groups into their volunteer program and other activities. Finally, I conclude by providing practical suggestions for volunteer managers who seek to recruit volunteers from the Muslim faith—a recruiting “toolkit” that includes possible Web sites, organizations and types of events. In my years as a volunteer, one of the most enriching experiences I have had is to be included and part of a rich, diverse group of citizens that reflect the true fabric of society.

History of Shia-Imami Ismaili Muslims

The Shia-Imami Ismaili Muslims belong to the Shia branch of Islam and live in 25 countries around the world but primarily in Central and South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and finally Europe, Australia and North America (www.ismaili.org). Though I will not be going through an in-depth history the Shia-Ismaili community, I will touch upon the characteristics of this sect and its history of voluntary service that is one of the strong pillars of the faith. 

The Shia-Ismaili volunteer corps has a long and rich history that is entwined from the Holy Prophet Muhammed and the history of the Ismaili Institution of the Imamat.  Throughout the Ismaili tradition, the role of the volunteers was to serve the academic institutions, community organizations and religious institutions. This service (or what is called seva) was to be given freely, with devotion and without expectation of payment. Here is a summary of the belief system, from The Ismaili Web site:

In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual wellbeing of the individual and the quality of his or her life, the Imam's guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismaili Muslims, settled in the industrialised world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programmes. In recent years, Ismaili Muslims, who went to the U.S. and Canada, often as refugees from Asia and Africa, have readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of urban and rural centres across the continent. As in the developing world, the Ismaili Muslim Community's settlement and the establishment of community institutions in the developed world have been characterised by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis on education and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.

It is this commitment to man's dignity and the relief of humanity that inspires the Ismaili Imamat's philanthropic institutions. Giving of one's competence, sharing one's time, material or intellectual wherewithal with those among whom one lives, for the relief of hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which shapes the social conscience of the Ismaili Muslim community.

The history of Muslim volunteers and the duties they were asked to serve changed over time depending on what events the community faced. However, one thing remained consistent: the devotion to serve with compassion and professionalism. Volunteers were expected to show exceptional discipline and humility, and to serve as role models for the next group of incoming volunteers.

Today, the Ismaili volunteer corps continues. It has led many in the Ismaili community to not only continue serving with pride in their community but also to serve with humanity and commitment. Charity organizations are becoming increasingly attractive to Ismaili members as a way of giving back to different causes and in cities.

A Family’s Tradition of Service

While growing up in Canada, I watched with amazement and curiosity at the generosity of time, resources and talent my parents and members of our Shia-Ismaili community voluntarily gave to newcomers to the country—those who needed mentoring or help finding jobs or even members who lost their loved ones and required some assistance. This service wasn’t demanded or expected of us, but you couldn’t help but want to be a part of this cadre of unique volunteers who selflessly gave back and expected nothing in return. It was a part of our tradition, which had started from the rural parts of Africa, Asia and even the Middle East and spread to cities like Edmonton, Toronto, Los Angeles and Sydney. 


A Muslim family celebrates traditions (Note: This is not the author's family).

My parents’ commitment to our religious communities transcended into our hometowns’ community centers and charity organizations and made an even deeper impact and impression on me. On occasion I would even ask my mother what propelled her to commit large parts of her time to others. She replied with a compelling story of how she immigrated to the Canada after being forced to leave Uganda and a brutal dictator. The Canadian Red Cross and its volunteers supported her and hundreds of other Ugandan refugees by providing clothes, shelter and training courses. Thirty years later, my mother still speaks with passion and emotion about the impact these volunteers had on her, and how their actions contributed to her efforts to become a Red Cross volunteer years later. Looking back, I think this may have been one of the initial factors that shaped my perspective on voluntary service, particularly as I finished my graduate degree and moved overseas.

Wearing Two Hats: A Personal Journey

As a Shia-Ismaili Muslim living in America, I often wore two hats: an ambassador of our Muslim faith and an active Pakistani-Uganda-Canadian diaspora member —quite the hybrid. As you can imagine, I had many questions from my peers and professors while earning a BA in Political Science from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, and an MA in Comparative International Studies from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. These questions included whether or not I needed to wear conservative attire; if I had to marry within my religion; and, even more surprising, if my religion prevented me for assisting those outside of the Muslim faith. I was always willing and in fact very eager to share my background and upbringing to those asking and intrigued.

The passion to volunteer within my community followed me throughout my academic career and into my professional career. Immediately after graduate school, when the time came to choose a career path, I decided to take some time off and volunteer abroad for two reasons: first, I needed international field experience to complement my international career; and second, I knew I wanted to experience different parts of world.  I started my international career as a volunteer with Cuso International, an international development organization that works to reduce poverty and inequality through the efforts of skilled volunteers.

Through Cuso, I soon found myself overseas in the central Asian country of Mongolia, volunteering with an international aid agency. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience that expanded my knowledge of Mongolia’s rich and complicated history.  What made this experience even more enriching was the work I did, supporting local non-profit organizations to strengthen their volunteer systems! And although I could easily transfer some of the experiences and knowledge I had from living in the West, there were still some nuances and understanding of the culture that everyone needed to have. For example, the word “volunteering” did not easily translate in Mongolia; the word brought up negatives connotations of community service (or rather forced labor) during the Soviet period.

As a Muslim volunteering in some of the most remote and underserved communities, I was continuously looked at as an “interesting” person.  Many of the locals could not understand why a Western-educated American would volunteer in a developing country instead of choosing to work and earn money. What was the fascination with international development? After almost one year living in Mongolia, I’d like to think I convinced many that international volunteering was a “good thing” and not a set back in one’s career.

A Volunteer Who Carried Faith and Culture With Her

Beyond my time in Mongolia, I encountered unique volunteer experiences through Cuso that spanned several continents and cultures, including Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. For nearly two years, I witnessed the goodness of humanity and the impact volunteers made in these communities. The memories of bridge building among different cultures, tribes and faiths have continued to create a long-lasting impression on me, and I refer to these memories often when speaking to groups here in the U.S.

Two particular stories stand out for me and serve as a reminder of the impact that not only volunteers make but specifically the impact of volunteers who carry their faith and culture with them.

In 2009, I was working in Western Mongolia in the Bayan Olgii province near the Kazakhstan border, a very remote, poor and underdeveloped community. It was geographically very far from the capital city and the absence of developed roads made getting goods and products from nearby cities even more challenging. Upon arrival in the city, I was immediately confronted with some of the area’s problems, and the area’s desperation, isolation and hopelessness was felt in every conversation. I organized a meeting with the local Imam who was at first very intrigued to meet a fellow Muslim and asked many questions about my up bringing. I eventually steered the conversation back to why I was visiting the city, and questioned how the Imam can play a role in terms of youth development and providing support to the local citizens. 

The Imam’s responses were not forthcoming and he was not too pleased with my questions. I left slightly disappointed at the lack of information but I did not give up. I continued to meet other organizations and groups to assess the current humanitarian challenges. I was very surprised several days later when I received a call from the Imam, asking me to meet with him and other leaders of the community center to discuss ways to engage youth groups in community development. It was an interesting culture shift that occurred where the Imam—who initially disregarded my presence and questions—was now asking me to lead certain discussions. 

I encountered another powerful situation while living in Kenya and working as a volunteer during the 2008 post-election violence. It was a terrifying time for all living in Kenya, and something I hope that country never has to go through again. There were situations where my organization was unable to continue its operations because security was so precarious that we were required to stay indoors. When calmness and security were gradually being restored, a few of the community leaders—including those who initially were not open to having volunteers outside of the “black Kenyan community” rebuild part of their communities—were now eager and receptive to seeing how I could support them. They now asked me to lead youth dialogues about peace and security in the slums. And based on my experiences growing up in the West, they asked me to provide examples of how diversity in community building is critical. It was again a turning point in my own volunteer journey, and it reinforced my own belief that diversity is strength - whether it’s in peace building, community development, or even event planning. 

Encouraging International Volunteer Experiences

My international volunteering continued to another six countries in Africa and Asia. Each opportunity brought very unique experiences, which I continued to drawn from and apply in my current role.  When I ended my two-plus years as a volunteer with Cuso International, I returned back to the U.S. and began working for organizations where volunteers were the focal point. I worked as a volunteer manager and fundraiser with the Aga Khan Development Network to support its vast 3,500-plus volunteer base across the country, work that validated the impact of volunteers as bridge builders and ambassadors in their community.

When Cuso International decided to open a Washington, D.C. office to recruit U.S.  citizens to volunteer aboard, I rejoined the organization.  Since 2012, I’ve been working as Cuso’s Program Officer for U.S. Partnerships and the lead for Diaspora Engagement.  I am continuously amazed at the endless opportunities for those seeking to become involved in volunteer organizations and civic engagement. Our Web site explains “why diaspora volunteering?”:

At Cuso International we recognize that the migration of many skilled professionals out of developing countries can be an obstacle to a nation’s development. The resulting "brain drain" often means that countries are left with skill shortages in essential sectors such as health and education. Linking diaspora communities to their countries of origin through volunteering, resource sharing and skills transfer can offer much needed expertise; helping to counter the effects of out-migration of skilled human resources experienced by so many disadvantaged countries.

What makes my position even more fulfilling is that I now have the opportunity to speak to various groups, universities, organizations and even parts of the U.S. Governments on the value of volunteerism and the impact that culturally diverse volunteers make in programming. As I often tell my audience, I am a prime example of this. And I emphasize that people today no longer work or volunteer in an insular society.  They are now part of a worldwide society and economy with people coming from different continents being met in their boardrooms and group discussions.

For this reason, nonprofit organizations need to not only diversify their volunteer organizations but also encourage and promote diversity as a tool to create further dialogue within the communities these organizations serve. This statement became real for me when I was a college student living in the southern part of the U.S. on September 11, 2001 and was almost immediately confronted with questions, assumptions and anger from many around me due to my Muslim faith. However, many of the organizations I was already part of and volunteering with used this as an opportunity to learn more about our faith and not generalize or stereotype. To this day I will never forget being asked to speak about diversity and strength at the first 9-11 anniversary program at my university. Had it not been for those three community organizations that I volunteered with at the time, I do not think I would have had the support and attendance that I had. As I looked out at the media outlets covering the program, I saw the sizeable diversity in the audience. That picture of diversity will always be etched in my memory, knowing that each one in the audience that day brought our community closer and continues to make our cities and work rich and rewarding.  

Recruiting Volunteers of the Muslim Faith

Having shared my personal experiences, let me share some practical suggestions for reaching out specifically to the Muslim community.

Major Organizations

There are a number of organizations that already serve as resources to Muslims and can serve as entry points for volunteer resources managers who would like to understand the Muslim community better:

  1. PartnershipsInAction, an initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (www.akfusa.org). The Foundation and its volunteers organize events across the nation to help create a more peaceful and prosperous future for people around the world, especially innovative projects development programming in Africa and Asia. Annual fundraising events include walk-a-thons and golf tournaments.
  2. Islamic Society of North America (www.isna.net).  The Society has served Muslims on the continent for over 40 years. They support bridge building within the Muslim community and with people of all faiths, and organize development and humanitarian projects around the world.
  3. Islamic Relief (www.islamic-relief.com).  An international relief and development charity that works to alleviate poverty and hunger in 30 countries worldwide, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender. It also provides emergency response to natural disasters.  

My own organization, Cuso International (http://cusointernational.org), also offers useful information.

Recruiting Tips

Readers of e-Volunteerism are undoubtedly already familiar with the techniques of recruiting new volunteers “different from” the core group already involved in their organizations. Many of these methods will apply to inviting Muslims to participate as well.

For example, make sure your recruitment message reaches neighborhoods where you know Muslims are living or working. This means placing notices at mosques, Arab and Indian community centers, and even Middle Eastern restaurants. Different Muslim organizations will have resources to target their community members, including newsletters and notice boards. You might connect with English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) programs or a local refugee center for guidance or support.  And you might consider speaking to a local university’s Middle East Studies Department.   

If you think that some of potential Muslim volunteers are likely to be new arrivals in your country, you might need to find a translator to add some words in Arabic or other language (but do not write an entire message in another language if no one in your organization can respond to an inquiry in that language!).

Also, be strategic and wise about the pictures you incorporate in your marketing materials. For example, showing women in short skirts might offend some religious prospects. It’s a good idea to ask any of the contacts above for advice on which volunteer assignments are appropriate for observant women or men¾and when they should be recruited and placed separately. Mosques have different leadership, some more conservative and others more liberal. It also depends greatly on whether the service will happen in a small town or large city, as this affects prevalent attitudes.

Approaching Local Mosques

Many volunteer resources managers routinely collaborate with churches and synagogues, but not as many understand how to approach a mosque. 

The religious leader in a mosque is the Imam, but he is normally not the first person to contact regarding volunteer opportunities. Most organized mosques have committees or departments for community service or outreach, which organize service activities; these committee chairpersons are the most logical contact individuals. Some mosques have e-newsletters and bulletin boards that list possible service opportunities. It would be best to look first at each mosque’s Web site, as some mosques are more organized than others. No two mosques are the same (which can be said about houses of worship in any religion) because they work under Imams who have different ways of practicing Islam.

If you cannot find information about a mosque’s service projects, then certainly speak to the Imam. It might be helpful to save the trip and contact him by phone or e-mail first.

Avoid making contact during major holidays, especially Ramadan.  The date varies each year, following the Islamic lunar calendar; in 2013 Ramadan arrives in early July.

Otherwise you can communicate volunteer opportunities any time. If you are recruiting for humanitarian relief work, people might be especially receptive immediately after a natural disaster in another Muslim majority country.

Recruiting Muslim Youth

Youth are volunteering in large numbers today. In many American states, service is a school requirement and colleges and universities accept applicants not only for their academic qualifications, but also for extracurricular activities that often include community service. For Muslim youth it is part of religious practices to volunteer and perform acts of kindness. I would say attracting them would be relatively easy but focus on those youths who have settled in your country for a few years and not the recent immigrants. The latter will already be going through an adjustment process.

Conclusion

Since most organizations do not ask people about their religion when they apply to volunteer, you may not know whether there are already any Muslims in your volunteer corps (not everyone wears a burqa or other traditional clothing).

But if you want to reach out to your local Muslim community, it might be really useful to find out if any current volunteers can be advisors and points of contact for you. Go public with your wish to recruit from faith communities (Muslim or otherwise) and ask if someone already active with you can be a source of help personally or has friends and colleagues of the Muslim faith who might help.