america's islamic radio

Listen Up!

Long Islander Kevin Shakil launches America’s Islamic Radio, the first station of its kind, with hopes to amplify the voice of Muslims in the U.S.

It was a normal sunny afternoon over seven years ago when Long Island native, Kevin Shakil, was on his way home from high school. He was behind the wheel of his 2003 BMW X5, when suddenly another vehicle ran a red light at 110 miles per hour. The impact from the hit Shakil experienced was nearly fatal, as he and his car ended up facing the complete opposite direction of where he was driving.

“I had a dog tag of Allah’s name hanging in the windshield, and I lost it about six months before the car accident,” Shakil says. “Firefighters opened the door saying, ‘Are you still alive?’ When I got home from the hospital, I found the Allah dog tag right in the seat.”

What Shakil thought he lost was actually with him the whole time—hiding in the seat of his beamer—even in that near death experience that left the firefighters wondering how he made it out breathing.

“That opened my eyes—Islam is true. Allah is true,” Shakil says. “I started learning about the religion and fell in love with it.”

Although Shakil grew up in a Muslim household with his Pakistani father and Uruguayan mother, he looked at his religion in an entirely new way following that terrible 2011 crash. He fell so deeply in love with Islam at that moment in his life, that today he shares the deen with anyone who will listen.

He does that through America’s Islamic Radio, a station he launched this past summer on Mixlr, an online platform providing users with an opportunity to broadcast live audio.

The idea first took hold three years ago when Shakil and his wife, Asia, had a conversation during a car ride. She expressed a desire to have a radio station for Muslims, playing Quran, nasheed, and talkshows discussing topics relevant to the American Muslim community. A revert to Islam from Catholicism herself, she thought a radio station special for Muslims would be a cool alternative to the many music stations that already dominated the airtime. Shakil shrugged off the idea, thinking it simply was not feasible for their community to claim such a thing as their own.

“I spoke to a lot of influential Muslim people, and they were just like, ‘No, it’s a waste of time. Don’t even think about it,’” he says.

But in July 2018, Shakil bumped into one of his future partners, Luis Mendez, a prominent figure in the Hispanic community. Mendez has his own web-based radio station running out of Mineola, N.Y., and he encouraged Shakil that starting one centered on Muslims was worth a shot.

With help from Mendez and another friend Jorge Guzman Jr. (two non-Muslims who interestingly enough believed in the Muslim radio station idea more than many Muslims, as Shakil points out), Shakil went live with America’s Islamic Radio the following month starting with an audio stream of the Holy Quran.

“The day that I actually launched on August 18, 2018 when I hit the play button for the Quran to start playing, I just broke down in tears,” Shakil says. “Let’s say this radio station doesn’t kick off at all, let’s say it all fails…at least the Quran is playing. Those are the words of Allah.”

Shakil hopes his radio station will serve as an ongoing charity for him, a sadaqah jariyah. That after he passes away, the Quran will continue to play on this Mixlr app, and eventually on other platforms as well once the audience grows.

In addition to the holy recitation being broadcast of the famous voices in Makkah and Madinah, Shakil and his team are working on talkshows that address various topics relevant to the Islamic community for both Muslim and non-Muslim listeners. These include Quranic exegesis explained by learned local scholars, mental health in the Islamic community, current events on both the local and global levels, interviews with prominent figures in the community, and much more.

“I want to give Muslims a voice in today’s society and tell non-Muslims, ‘Hey, we are here. We are Americans as well. We are just like you,’” Shakil says.

America’s Islamic Radio then serves two purposes: 1) to provide a voice for the American Muslim community on a platform different than the public has seen before, and 2) to educate listeners about Islam and American Muslims.

Shakil says with every day, he receives feedback. He acknowledges right now, he and his team are testing the waters. But so far, so good.

“Anytime I tell anybody about America’s Islamic Radio, you see the pride in their eyes. They’re just like, ‘Whoa! We have a radio station now? That’s so cool, how can I help? How can I be a part of it?’” he says.

Getting involved is simple. Firstly, become a follower of America’s Islamic Radio on the Mixlr application. After downloading the app itself, all one has to do is search “America,” and the station comes up. Click follow, and then of course, share and encourage others to do the same.

The question must be asked, however, why radio? In a world where sadly traditional media is dying out, why choose this method of broadcast?

“Nobody has done it before,” Shakil answers, referring to a specific station for American Muslims.

While that may be true, Shakil does have plans to set up cameras in his Mineola recording studio and broadcast the radio talkshows live on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. The recordings will then always be available online for any listeners who couldn’t tune in at a certain time. In a world of Netflix, accessible content 24/7, and personal instant gratification, this is a necessary route one would be foolish to ignore.

Already, America’s Islamic Radio has some shows loyal listeners can catch up with, including sit-down interviews with prominent public figures like New York State Senator Jose Peralta and nasheed artist from the United Kingdom, Omar Esa.

As the station is in its early stages at the time of writing, exact programming schedules are still being finalized. Prerecorded shows are slowly being churned out for listeners to get a taste of what America’s Islamic Radio is all about—and at a larger scale, what American Muslims are all about.

“We have a voice. We’re here. We’re the fastest growing religion in the world,” Shakil says. “It’s okay to be an American, and it’s okay to be Muslim. They go hand in hand.”

The two identities, contrary to the current rhetoric spewed by many existing media outlets and public officials, are not mutually exclusive, and it’s how over three million people across the United States identify, including Shakil himself.

Who would have thought that near death car crash back in 2011 would result in such a love for Islam and desire to share it with others? The event in Shakil’s teenage years is a perfect example of something good coming out of an otherwise outwardly terrible event. As the hadith mentions, “How wonderful is the case of a believer? There is good for him in everything.”

And what can be a better result of an event than conviction in one’s faith and in one’s Lord? Simple—taking that conviction and turning it into something from which the entire community can benefit. That’s exactly what America’s Islamic Radio is.

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A version of this article was published in the January/February 2019 issue of Islamic Horizons

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Girls of the Crescent

Demanding to Be Seen

When two fourth grade Michigan girls walked into their library hoping to research Muslim female role models for a project, they were disappointed by what they found—or didn’t find.

“We went to our local library, Rochester Hills Public Library, with Muslim females in mind,” says the now 14-year-old Mena Nasiri. “But we couldn’t find any books.”

It became clear Muslim women were in dire need of more representation. Mena and her older sister Zena, now 15, knew that for a fact—but what were two young elementary school-aged girls to do?

The issue floated around in the brains of the Nasiri sisters for years. Finally in early 2018, the gears began to turn, and they came up with an idea.

“In February of this year, we read the book ‘The Lines We Cross,’ which has a female Muslim main character, and we felt such a connection with her,” Zena says. “It was so great seeing ourselves represented…we wanted other [Muslim girls] to feel that.”

The two then began their nonprofit foundation, Girls of the Crescent, an organization dedicated to collecting and then donating books about Muslim women—both fiction and nonfiction—to libraries.

In their first book drive, the girls collected roughly 200 books with the help of their school district’s PTA. They then moved onto working with their public library—the same one they walked into years prior during their search for books on Muslim female role models.

“Everyone that we’ve asked to help us and everyone that we’ve donated to, they’ve been really positive,” Mena says. “They’ve been really excited to see two young people trying to make an impact in the community. The librarians especially have even ordered their own copies of our books alongside us donating to them.”

Zena adds locals in the neighborhood and even authors sent books to them too.

The Nasiri sisters always loved reading and were a part of their library growing up. For them, it was natural to turn to the physical library space for a research project instead the virtual world of the Internet. Thus, they focused their organization’s efforts on a place with which they felt a special connection.

“The library is a really communal place,” Mena says. “A lot of younger kids also go, so we thought it would have a better outreach.”

Rochester Hills Public Library Youth Services Manager, Betsy Raczkowski, said she recently touched base with the girls’ mother who has brought her daughters to the library since they were babies.

“They saw their library as the perfect place to reach people,” Raczkowski says. “I’m insanely proud of them—instead of waiting, they took charge.”

The Nasiri sisters wanted to ensure young Muslim girls would be able to see themselves on the library shelves when they walked in, instead of feeling invisible like they did as fourth graders.

“Seeing yourself represented in a book enhances not only the reading experience, but it helps people feel included in society,” Zena says. “We didn’t feel like we belonged because we didn’t see Muslim main characters in books.”

In their Michigan area, Girls of the Crescent donated books to numerous libraries, both public and within school districts.

“We want to spread out and maybe go to other states and possibly even other countries,” Zena says. “We want to reach as many people as we possibly can and have the biggest impact that we can.”

Being featured on actress and comedian Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls this past summer helped give the Nasiri sisters great exposure. Their Instagram, @girlsofthecrescent, is also slowly building a following, and that’s where many authors reach out to them, the girls say.

For now, the sisters are focusing on getting proper representation in their local Michigan community and triumphing through the school year. They’re even working on their own book to add to their Girls of the Crescent collections—a nonfiction reader about important Muslim females.

“There’s a lot of amazing [Muslim women] that need to get more recognition,” Mena says.

One day, a fourth grade Muslim girl working on that same research project will be able to find this upcoming title (and hopefully, many others) on her library bookshelf. She’ll feel validated, represented, and recognized in her society—feelings Zena and Mena Nasiri longed for years ago and are currently turning into realities for the next generation of Muslim youth in America.

To learn more about Girls of the Crescent and help bring literary diversity to your local library, visit their website here

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A version of this article was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons

Makkah

A Sincere Service

Hajj group leaders hold the hands of hujjaj year after year during their journey of a lifetime.

Hajj—they call it a journey of a lifetime. With the potential to have every sin committed throughout life forgiven, the moniker is quite appropriate.

When embarking on this journey that has such high stakes like an opportunity for rebirth, one doesn’t want to take it lightly. With numerous rituals to fulfill and rules to follow, all while being in a foreign land with millions of people, most travelers would opt for a guide. That’s where the Hajj group comes in.

Groups are responsible for providing travel packages for the public, taking care of visas, accommodations, flights, meals, and on-the-ground transportation among numerous other tasks. Oftentimes, they partner with larger travel agencies to get the items on the to-do list checked off before and during the days of Hajj. But aside from the logistics, the operators of these groups become the points of reference for all those who signed up with them. They are the leaders, the guides, the veterans who know what they’re doing. The rest of us rely upon them to complete our pilgrimage.

“The biggest thing you keep in mind as an imam is that people are looking to you for guidance,” says Imam Tahir Anwar, a scholar who has accompanied the Hajj group El-Madina Travel of New York for the last 15 years. “They’re looking up to you to make sure their Hajj is done correctly, so you have that responsibility and amana.”

Sacred Hajj, a group started in the Chicago area in 2009, also aims to do exactly that.

“We made [our group] about service, to take someone on this amazing journey and guide them properly,” says Hafiz Sayeed Shariff, one of Sacred Hajj’s three directors. “That was our driving force behind starting something like this.”

The guidance, contrary to what one might think, does not start during the days of Hajj. It doesn’t even start in Makkah or at the airport when waiting to board the flight to Saudi Arabia.

“As Americans, we take the Hajj for granted. We go for two weeks, max maybe three weeks,” says Hafiz Azam Hashmi, another director for Sacred Hajj. “In order for us to really benefit from this journey, it requires preparation.”

This preparation can be done through transparent communication from the group to its hujjaj. In addition to providing resources about the spiritual aspects, rites, and history of Hajj, the group must relay some real talk about the heat, physical challenges, crowds, delays, and more that will potentially occur no matter the amount of money one may put down on a package.

“You’re the guest of Allah. There is no entitlement,” says Tauqeer Zaidi, the director of travel at Qalam Hajj.

If these factors are understood prior to travel, it makes for a smoother ride because everyone is on the same page. When and if a trial arises, the leaders of the group communicate what is going on and then do what they can to tackle the problem, thus hopefully keeping their hujjaj calm.

“You make [the hujjaj] realize [the trial is] not to the extremity of what it seems like,” Zaidi says. “Whatever you’re facing, it’s been faced before.”

Hafiz Sayeed says Allah’s control over all things is one of the most important lessons he learned through his involvement with Sacred Hajj. In his “rookie” year as a group leader 10 years ago, he dealt with “a lot of anxiety, a lot of not knowing, and wanting everything to go perfectly.” While that nervousness still remains, it has subsided significantly with experience.

Sometimes a lot of experience can result in routine and loss of that initial excitement, like seeing the same tourist attraction multiple times. But visiting the Haramayn is different, Zaidi says.

Before his close friend and teacher Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda recruited Zaidi for Qalam Hajj, he organized multiple Umrah trips for his local Bostonians. To ensure he does not take his opportunities to visit the Muslim holy sites for granted, Zaidi attends the lectures his group organizes for the hujjaj, acting upon the advice given to him by Mufti Hussain Kamani, a scholar for Qalam Hajj.

“You’ll have a handful of individuals who see the Kaba for the first time, and they’ll just be bawling and…mind you, this could be upwards the twentieth time that you’re seeing it [as a group leader],” Zaidi says. “But you have to vicariously live through them, and put their ibadah first over anything of your own. That does in a sense renew it, and it does make it special all over again.”

Hafiz Azam sites the same scene as one of the most rewarding of the trip.

“We’re directing the group to that spot where they can then look up [at the Kaba] and cast their first gaze. We also get a moment to reflect and see everyone’s reaction, the tears, the duas, the focus—I love that moment,” Hafiz Azam says. “For me, that sets the tone for the rest of the journey. I really feed off that.”

A moment to feed off is certainly needed. If the hujjaj are tired, the group leaders are exhausted. They’re in constant communication with agencies providing transportation, they’re fetching meals and drinks, they’re teaching the rites of Hajj to their groups, and they’re everyone’s go-to people if something goes wrong logistically or medically all while simultaneously trying to complete their own worship.

During his journey, Dr. Abdul-Bari Syed, another director for Sacred Hajj, carried the largest backpack of the herd to hold medicine needed to treat anyone who became ill due to various factors like heat, dehydration, and exhaustion among others.

“Last year, I saw women get IVs put into them due to dehydration right in front of me,” Zaidi says. “It’s getting more and more difficult every year. When you’re young, and you have the health and the ability, you should make Hajj.”

Instead of going in old age to wipe the slate clean prior to death, these groups emphasize taking advantage of your youth and setting yourself up for a successful future.

“Go when you’re young,” says Hafiz Sayeed. “That’s when you want to set your life on track and straighten yourself out. We are all people who make mistakes and we are going to mess up again, but at least you have something to hold on to.”

If people have the financial ability and health, they should make an intention and go. As age increases, so do responsibilities with marriage, children, and the home.

“A lot of times we want to accomplish certain things in life before we go for Hajj, and I think that’s a flawed concept,” Imam Tahir says. “The way we should look at it is, ‘Let me go for Hajj so that my needs and wants are fulfilled.’”

A common message the groups emphasize is Allah’s mercy during this journey. Couples struggling to conceive began expecting their first child after Hajj. Single individuals who made dua at the Kaba for a righteous spouse married soon after their return home.

“It brings me to tears thinking of Allah’s mercy on Hajj,” Zaidi says.

Every cent spent becomes worth it. People fear the financial burden that comes with the journey, but Imam Tahir explains Hajj was always meant to be physically and financially grueling.

“As expensive as Hajj is, every penny you spend on it is considered sadaqah,” he says. “Although you’re fulfilling an obligation, you’re doing a good deed while you’re performing that obligation. It’s a win-win situation.”

And to be in that situation of Hajj is surreal, it’s a blessing, and it’s an invitation from Allah. In the Mina tents, at Mount Arafah, under the desert sky in Muzdalifah, opposite the Jamaraat, and during Tawaf with millions from around the world to fulfill this obligation—all of it is due to Allah’s allowing of those people to be there.

“Twenty years ago, I would have never dreamed of this. It was never part of my plan,” Imam Tahir says. “Allah facilitated it for me and kept me going on Hajj and allowed me to do this. And I pray to Allah to continue to facilitate this for me for as long as I live.”

The leaders of these Hajj groups bring the utmost sincerity, holding the hands of the hujjaj until they see their pilgrimage complete. It’s a service no pilgrim can ever forget.

“If [our hujjaj] remember us with khayr and make dua for us, that’s a huge reward that we are a part of their Hajj memory,” Hafiz Azam says.

Imam Tahir adds, “For people to remember you because of Hajj and for you to be associated with Hajj and ultimately, Bayt Allah, the House of Allah—there’s nothing more powerful than that.”

When you accompany a person on Hajj—this journey of a lifetime—to sincerely provide a service for the sake of Allah, it seems only appropriate for you to be remembered in their duas for a lifetime as well.

JazakAllahu Khayr to all those who work tirelessly to make the pilgrimage proper and possible for us all. May Allah reward you and your families for your sacrifices and allow you to continue this great work. Ameen.

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A version of this article was published in the July/August 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons. 

teaching while muslim

Filling in the Gaps: Working Towards Inclusive Education

When a Rutgers University student finally found a seat on the campus’s usually overcrowded bus, she witnessed the Caucasian man next to her shoot her a dirty look and abandon his seat.

“That experience really shaped my perception of how Muslims are treated in the country because before that, I had never gotten anything so overtly Islamophobic,” says Nagla Bedir, now a high school social studies teacher in N.J.

That day was the first of Bedir’s hijab wearing journey. Prior to her donning the headscarf, the former pre-med student was often mistaken as Latina and wasn’t as much of a target for Islamophobic behaviors.

“It was really powerful for me because my whole world changed. I went from ‘normal’ looking to othered in a day,” Bedir says. “I came to the conclusion that the only solution to that ignorance, the only way to fight that ignorance, is through education. I changed my career path and became a teacher.”

While Bedir chose a field in education during her university years, her friend Luma Hasan knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was 7-years-old.

The two young educators met two years ago at a conference called “Urban Teaching Matters” in New Brunswick, N.J. Through their conversations and shared experiences, they realized they needed to create a safe space for Muslim educators in the public school system.

“I have never met a Muslim teacher who has never experienced any kind of Islamophobia or racism at school whether from teachers or their boss,” Hasan says. “It’s really normalized, and it’s really hard to do anything about it.”

But Hasan and Bedir are doing something about it. Together, the pair founded that much-needed safe space and called it Teaching While Muslim.

“We gave ourselves a platform to amplify our own voices and the voices of our Muslim educators, our Muslim parents, and our Muslim students,” Bedir says.

Teaching While Muslim is a multi-faceted project. It’s a platform that tackles issues Muslims face in the public school system. It’s a network for Muslim educators, as well as an organization providing professional development, training in bias, intersectionality and social justice to institutions, through workshops.

Both Bedir and Hasan have many intersecting identities—being Muslim, being Arab-American (Egyptian and Palestinian respectively), and identifying as women to name a few. Both of them also recall their teachers dismissing these identities when growing up.

“Our teachers didn’t care about our identity,” Bedir says. “They didn’t necessarily care about us on that human level.”

This is not an uncommon phenomenon, unfortunately. For some young girls, not only will a teacher dismiss her Muslim identity, but will mock her for it.

Today in their classrooms, these two Social Studies teachers make sure their students know they are deeply cared for and can have an absolutely open relationship to ask questions and get answers.

“I think a lot of teachers are not willing to be vulnerable with their students because they don’t think it’s necessary or they don’t feel comfortable,” Hasan says. “It’s obviously a difficult place to get to, but it really changes the dynamic of your classroom.”

In a previous school year, Hasan relates the story of one student who submitted an assignment that explained how Muslims cannot assimilate to Western culture because the differing mindsets of the two civilizations make it impossible to do so.

“I didn’t want to pull this kid aside and have a conversation with him in September when he didn’t know anything about me, and I didn’t want to shut him down in the beginning of the school year,” Hasan says. “By the end of the school year, he had really altered his mindset about what he thought about Muslim people and Arab people and he was willing to talk to me about it more openly. He was really able to humanize us.”

Bedir remembers a similar situation in a summer program she taught that saw many international students in her classroom. At the end of the three-week course, one of her students from China spoke in front of all the kids, teachers, and parents explaining how he used to believe Muslims were terrorists, but by interacting with Bedir, he changed his mind.

“I’m not shy, I’m not timid, I’m not the stereotypical submissive, oppressed Muslim woman,” Bedir says. “I defy those stereotypes.”

While she herself doesn’t fit the media concocted mold of what it means to be Muslim, Bedir says she can’t speak for all Muslim educators because everyone has different experiences.

“The Muslim teacher experience is going to be very different if you’re an African American Muslim or if you’re a Latino Muslim or if you’re an Arab Muslim,” Bedir says. “Some of the comments might be the same, but it’s also going to be really, really different because you have other layers.”

Hasan, too, is a walking example that Muslim women are no monolith.

“I don’t fit the description of what my students think a Muslim woman is supposed to look like according to what they see on T.V.,” she says. “I don’t wear hijab…it’s an interesting experience walking around and being an example [showing] Muslim women are not a monolith. It doesn’t make you less Muslim if you don’t fit into a stereotype, and it doesn’t make you Muslim if you do fit into it.”

This kind of diversity within the Muslim community is just one of the things Teaching While Muslim would like people to understand. The organization also works to better the curriculums in American schools to emphasize the contributions made by all people.

“Our curriculums across the board are really Eurocentric, really whitewashed, really Christian-based. Kids in general don’t get a lot of exposure to contributions of Muslim people, contributions of people of color, and every single marginalized group,” Hasan says. “We don’t want to [only] include these people as an afterthought, and I think that’s predominantly what ends up happening.”

So far, the feedback for Teaching While Muslim has been quite positive. The organization is receiving requests for more workshops and visits to help educate teachers and administrators about fighting implicit biases, discrimination, and institutionalized racism.

“It’s something we felt like there was a need for, and we kind of took a leap of faith in feeling that way. All of us are in our little bubbles, and you don’t really know how everybody else feels,” Bedir says. “There clearly was a major gap. If people didn’t feel like it was something that was missing, then people wouldn’t be reaching out.”

Teaching While Muslim clearly did fill in a missing hole, as Bedir and Hasan explained the changed mindsets in two of their students. They are doing their part to eradicate the dangerous ignorance, so that hopefully in the future, marginalized groups won’t have to face as many adversities at the hands of their peers on the bus and elsewhere.

Their educating practices are bridging the divide that exists in our curriculums, in our behaviors, and in our thinking.

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This article was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch.

Run, Rahaf, Run!

It’s mid-January, and a runner from Michigan readies herself to add a significant checkmark to her list of accomplishments. Rahaf Khatib, a Syrian American hijabi runner, already has four of the six major marathons under her belt—Berlin, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Just a few days ago, she got the green light to participate in No. 5, London.

The preparation for this upcoming race in April will require much more than Khatib’s normal training routine. It will be physically strenuous, mentally challenging, and this time, perhaps emotionally overwhelming as she raises money for a charity that hits very close to home.

This past Thanksgiving, Khatib’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“This is not how I imagined to be running London, but SubhanAllah, this is how it worked out,” says the mother of three. “Ever since my dad’s diagnosis of brain cancer, I [thought], ‘What if I can do something? What if I can help in some way?’”

And so, Khatib decided to run for a charity that supports brain cancer research. With London Marathon 2018 right around the corner, Khatib is fundraising diligently in an effort to help her father and those suffering from the same illness. To help her reach her goal, click here.

“It’s hard to see your parent sick and struggling. My father is really proud of me, what I’ve accomplished, and what I’m doing,” Khatib says. “[Running London is] one more thing he can witness.”

Since her running career began in 2012, Khatib’s father witnessed her build up an impressive list of accomplishments. She transformed from a mother who enjoyed physical fitness and didn’t know what a 10K was to an avid runner who completed nine full marathons (that’s 26.2 miles each), over 15 half marathons (13.1 miles), and several other 10K races (6.2 miles). In addition, this Damascus born super athlete finished two sprint triathlons and even a few 30 mile biking events.

It all started when her son’s gym teacher approached her to run in a 10K six years ago.

“I thought it was a great idea because I’m the type that likes to challenge myself, and I found that fitness and going to the gym wasn’t fulfilling enough for me,” she says. “I did my best at the time as an amateur runner in April 2012 and actually crossed the finish line. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on running.”

Not only did Khatib become a familiar face at the races in her home state, but she made national news on more than one occasion. The first was during her campaign to be on the cover of Runner’s World Magazine. She beat out thousands and thousands of entrants and became a top ten finalist to be on the cover. The contest was based on garnering votes from people all over the world, and Rahaf did great thanks to the help of her Instagram page, @runlikeahijabi, which at the time of writing has 15.3 thousand followers and counting.

But Khatib faced a dilemma. Runner’s World wanted to have her on the cover while posing with a man that chooses to run in a speedo. Needless to say, she turned down the offer.

Little did Khatib know, a different publication had its eyes set on her. A few months following the fallout with Runner’s World, Women’s Running Magazine wanted her as one of its top 20 game changers in the sport and its cover girl for October 2016.

“SubhanAllah going from one magazine to the other,” Khatib says. “God works in mysterious ways. He took away something from you, but then He gave you something even better. I’m one of the first hijabis ever to be on a magazine [cover], period.”

From grocery store stands to your crammed social media feed to your Muslim friend’s Snapchat story—Rahaf Khatib donning her hijab and running gear on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine was everywhere. The milestone was yet another accomplishment added to her already lengthy list.

“It’s not very common to see a hijabi running in mostly a predominantly white sport,” Khatib says. “Most people run for numbers. They chase time, a pace, goals. For me, running is so much more than that. I feel like I run for social change.”

While Khatib says she gets funny looks from fellow runners, she understands her peers are naturally inquisitive and curious. She gets it—she looks different. With her long tights, long sleeves, skirt, athletic hijab, and cap all incorporated into one ensemble, how could she not?

More than the negative remarks (those usually rear their ugly heads on Twitter), however, Khatib says she gets compliments. At one of her workouts in the gym, she sported a long top from Sukoon, a modest activewear apparel line. A fellow gym goer expressed her love for the covering shirt. On another occasion during the Bayshore Marathon in upper Michigan in May one year, the weather was particularly hot, humid, and rainy. Khatib dressed as she usually does and heard one man hilariously comment, “Well, aren’t you dressed for the rain!”

“That’s the dawah part of it; it kind of comes automatically,” Khatib says. “Every opportunity I get, I feel like it’s from God.”

Khatib says lots of Muslims are teaching Quran and explaining Islamic jurisprudence as their methods of dawah—and rightfully so. But for her, the spreading of her faith takes on a different form.

“It just came to me. How can I refuse it?” she says. “Even if I can change one person’s mind about Muslims, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much.”

Gracing the cover of a worldwide magazine in hijab, crossing countless finish lines in epic fashion, raising $16,000 during the Boston Marathon for Syrian refugees in her home state, being well on her way to fulfilling every marathoner’s dream of running the six majors, all while crushing Islamophobic stereotypes of Muslim women…

Yes, Rahaf Khatib has accomplished so much. Masha’Allah.

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A version of this article was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons. Featured image credit: @runlikeahijabi

Asma Hanif

Wholeheartedly: A Profile of Asma Hanif, Founder of Baltimore’s Muslimat Al-Nisaa Shelter

After occupying a top floor unit in an abandoned Baltimore building for nearly a year, Asma Hanif got a bitter taste of what it’s like to be homeless.

People living with addiction health issues frequented the building to acquire drugs and other substances, while Hanif and her young children would go about their day-to-day activities floors above with no lock on their door. While this was a dangerous circumstance, Hanif says her only issue with the men downstairs engaging in substance dealings came when she had to maneuver over them upon entering and exiting the building.

“It was only by Allah that no harm came to myself or my children—that’s the part that’s so amazing. It was only by Allah,” Hanif says. “They were drug addicts, but they never harmed us. When 9/11 happened, they came to me and they said, ‘You let us know if anybody bothers you.’”

Born in Virginia and raised in North Carolina, Hanif was the daughter of two Black parents who lived in the the United States during a time when racial tension was far more prevalent than it is even today. She called the projects her home, and she witnessed the blatant mistreatment of people who shared her skin color throughout her life.

Knowing the challenges faced by Black Americans, Hanif’s mother encouraged her to go to nursing school. “When I was growing up, my my mother told me, ‘Go to school to be a nurse because when people are hurting, they don’t care what color you are,’” Hanif recalls. “That was my goal.”

That was the first of three occurrences in her life that Hanif credits for her pursuing her line of work today. The second came in ninth grade, when her grandmother battled a cancer that resulted in her demise.

Hanif’s grandmother worked for a wealthy physician as a maid, a position Hanif says was considered by society to be unimportant and replaceable. When her grandmother felt something in her stomach the size of a pea, she went to the physician only to have her concerns dismissed as nothing.

“That ended up growing into the cancer that killed her,” Hanif says. “This broke my heart because it emphasized the point that she didn’t matter. She was a discard to society. When she died, all [the physician] would do is get someone else.”

It was at that time Hanif’s future career goals became more defined. “I decided that I wanted to grow up and take care of people like my grandmother—people who no one cared about,” she says.

Some years after her grandmother’s death, Hanif enrolled in Howard University with a scholarship. She then went to nursing school, as her mother advised and soon became Muslim.

“I accepted Islam at the age of 19, but my values, my efforts, and my willingness to help others was instilled in me by my Christian parents,” Hanif says. “Islam was basically the means by which I actualized what my mother and my father taught me.”

During her schooling, Hanif noticed Muslim women were treated with a similar disregard to her grandmother when they came in to receive care. Promises of female doctors and examiners were not always honored, and for a Muslim woman, this can often feel like a total violation. Hanif then realized she had to start her own practice if she wanted to guarantee a comfortable environment for female Muslim patients.

Upon graduating, Hanif opened her private clinic. She had many Muslim women come to her for examinations, and as soon as they got into the room alone with Hanif, they revealed they were victims of domestic violence. Hanif says there was at least one victim per week, sometimes two or three. She continued to call the women back in so they could escape from their abusive homes.

“I realized I was just putting a band-aid on a major problem,” Hanif says.

This was the third occurrence of three that led Hanif to where she is today: running a shelter exclusively for homeless Muslim women called Muslimat Al-Nisaa in Baltimore.

The wisdom behind an exclusive space for Muslim women is that Hanif can freely establish an Islamic environment comfortable for the demographic, as this type of accommodation does not exist elsewhere. One Muslim woman even told her she was denied services from a Catholic shelter that falsely stated Islam allows men to beat their wives so unless she left Islam, she could not benefit from their services.

Early on in her endeavor with the shelter, Hanif was able to finance Muslimat Al-Nisaa through her work as a nurse practitioner. However, as time went on and more women needed her help, she had to turn to the Muslim community for donations, as she could no longer both work and manage the shelter. Today, the non-profit runs solely on donations and houses only half the women it can hold due to numerous financial strains resulting from a lack of adequate funds. Hanif herself inhabits the home because she is unable to simultaneously afford her own dwelling and care for the women in the shelter.

“That’s the saddest thing for my heart,” Hanif says. “That someone will contact me and I have to put them on a waiting list until the money comes in.”

Over the years, Hanif has grown tired of asking her Muslim community for help. She often finds herself brushed off or untrusted. There are people who donate money, but not nearly enough comes in to sustain the shelter at its full potential. While she doesn’t turn to non-Muslims for financial assistance, if there are some willing to donate to the shelter because they think it’s a good cause, she will gratefully accept. Hanif believes it’s the Muslim community’s responsibility to “step up to the plate” and care for their needy, but she admits it’s a big struggle to come by sufficient donations.

Instead, Muslimat Al-Nisaa receives unwanted items like torn clothing, broken household goods, and unhealthy canned foods.

“They offered something that’s not really a sacrifice on their part. They think if they do this, they’re helping, but they’re not helping,” Hanif says. “If we get all these clothes and canned foods, then what you end up having is the best dressed, well-fed, homeless person. Nothing is more of a need than a roof over your head.”

This is the biggest problem the women in the shelter face—the lack of support from their community. However, Hanif says some of the women themselves may not realize this because she doesn’t let them see the struggles she faces in garnering donations. For example, when she mans a booth at an Muslim convention, she won’t let the women in the shelter come along so they won’t see the people who ignore her table or those who part with just a single dollar. Sometimes some of the women think it is Hanif’s decision to refrain from raising the heat a little higher or not keeping a landline in the home, but in actuality, the funds are simply not there.

“I would rather for the Muslim women in the house to be angry with me than to become disheartened with the community,” she says. “If nothing else, Allah will make it right on the Day of Judgment.”

Hanif says she wants the women in the shelter to be able to associate happily with the Muslim community upon their exit from the shelter after they become self-sufficient. If they have a sour taste in their mouth from the community at large, Hanif worries they’ll separate themselves from their fellow Muslims or eventually leave the religion all together. That’s why she is willing to take the blame for the lack of amenities in the shelter. She knows Islam emphasizes caring for the needy, even though some Muslims don’t practice it very well.

One naturally wonders, why even continue such a thankless, tiresome, and draining lifestyle?

To that question, Hanif answers, “I don’t want to answer to my Lord when He says to me, ‘Asma, one of my servants came to you for help, and you turned her away.’ That’s the reason why I do this—because I don’t want to have that conversation with my Lord.”

A certain kind of heart is needed to put oneself last only to lift up others. That heart belongs to Hanif, a woman who saw the struggles of growing up in the projects, being homeless, caring for her brother with HIV then losing him, in addition to losing her grandmother and mother, and still wholeheartedly looking after women who are victims of domestic violence.

“The heart that I have is the heart Allah gave me. I don’t want those hardened hearts that…can turn away and not care. I don’t want that heart,” Hanif says. “I have no control over it, I was born with this heart.”

If more people had hearts like that of Asma Hanif, maybe those women she houses would find themselves free of domestic violence. If more people had her heart, maybe Muslimat Al-Nisaa would have enough money to turn up the heat and install a landline phone. If more people had her heart, it’s guaranteed the world would be a better place.

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Readers interesting in learning more and making a donation, can visit this link.

Featured photograph by Muslimat Al-Nisaa official photographer Antar Hanif.

This article was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch.

N.Y. Muslims’ Businesses Solve Everyday Problems for the Ummah

New Yorkers Fahad Tirmizi of WuduGear and Dr. Mohamed Issa of NoorVitamins serve the ummah with their unique and innovative business endeavors, benefiting the lives of Muslims everywhere.

Wudugear
Credit: WuduGear Facebook Page

While on his cellphone store showroom floor catering to customers, Long Island native Fahad Tirmizi found himself having to answer another call—his daily prayers.

He excused himself from the floor, punched in the code on the lock, and made his way through the Employees Only door to begin his routine.

It went like this: go to office, remove socks, remove shoes, wear flip flops, walk to bathroom, make wudu, put foot in sink, go back to office, dry feet—and finally—pray. The post prayer routine consisted of ensuring his feet were absolutely dry before wearing his socks and shoes and returning to the sales floor.

This is a struggle many Muslims face in the workplace. Aside from the awkward encounter that ensues when a non-Muslim sees a Muslim with a foot in the sink, the entire process of only preparing for the prayer can be quite time consuming.

Tirmizi came across potential solutions, but they all fell short. When he finally developed a sock that was lighter, more affordable, and more comfortable than its counterparts while still meeting Shariah requirements for masah (wiping over), he knew he found his answer.

“I thought it was the most useful thing in the world,” Tirmizi says.

This sock works on two technologies. The first is a waterproof layer that, despite its impermeability, is still breathable. This material is then flanked by a comfortable inner material against the skin and a durable outer material that withstands the elements. The second technology, a patented lamination, seamlessly combines all three layers to create a waterproof sock that can be wiped over instead of removed when performing wudu.

“We did a lot of the legwork on our own, talking to scholars about what the requirements are and making sure quality wasn’t sacrificed by meeting those criteria,” Tirmizi says. “We also didn’t want to sacrifice comfort.”

After consulting one of his teachers about possibly expanding the endeavor to beyond family and friends, Tirmizi received a green light. WuduGear.com officially launched.

With his team made up of his wife, brother Samad, and others, Tirmizi opens shop at Muslim conventions around North America explaining to consumers why scholars are unanimous that wiping over regular thin socks is impermissible and how WuduGear’s Shariah compliant waterproof socks help revive the sunnah of masah.

At one ISNA convention, a man came up to Tirmizi and offered feedback. He had many pins in his foot due to a surgery and experienced difficulty removing his socks for wudu.

“[The man] said, ‘You have no idea how much you helped me!’” Tirmizi recalls. “He thought our product especially helped him from some suffering, and he actually gave me a hug.”

It’s moments like this that Tirmizi considers especially fulfilling—interacting with so many Muslims and knowing he can leave an impact on their lives.

“I would attribute our success to two main things,” Tirmizi says. “1) The help of Allah and duas of scholars, and 2) the sincere intention when we started the company of what we were trying to achieve. We simply wanted to make wudu easier.”

NoorVitamins

noor vitamins
Credit: NoorVitamins Facebook Page

When New York based pharmacist Dr. Mohamed Issa and his fellow Muslim health professionals looked for halal vitamins to recommend to their same-faith patients, they realized the options were few and far between.

“Almost nine times out of ten, we found many of the ingredients were sourced from pork and/or alcohol,” Dr. Issa says. “They obviously weren’t permissible from a halal standard.”

This predicament turned into an opportunity for Dr. Issa, who in 2010, decided with his colleagues to formulate a halal alternative to major brand supplements. NoorVitamins thus launched with four products: multivitamin, prenatal, children’s chewable, and calcium with vitamin D.

Dr. Issa, the chief executive officer of Noor Pharmaceuticals (which makes NoorVitamins), says Muslims who regularly took supplements appreciated the new option. However, there were skeptics who witnessed too many Muslim companies come and go.

Fast forward eight years, and NoorVitamins is still around—with a presence that is stronger now than ever before.

“We now are the No. 1 halal vitamin brand worldwide,” Dr. Issa says, with his products lining the shelves in multiple countries. “But more importantly, [approximately] thirty to forty percent of our customers are not Muslim. They buy our brand because of its high quality nature.”

NoorVitamins expanded its line of products over the years to thirteen and counting, six of which are patented and trademarked, so they cannot be replicated by any competitor. Each of the products contains ingredients only from all-natural sources and is manufactured in NoorVitamins’ own FDA-approved facilities.

“Everything from the ingredient sources to the manufacturing and packaging process and the formulation development [we do] ourselves,” says Dr. Issa.

The executive team’s involvement guarantees the high quality nature NoorVitamins prides itself on, and at the same time, Dr. Issa says it requires much persistence, consistency, and commitment.

“With every challenge, there’s an opportunity to elevate expectations of ourselves and our priorities,” he says.

One such priority is giving back. In Ramadan, the company runs a campaign called #NoorishTheHungry, in which it donates a meal to the needy for each bottle purchased.

“Every time we try to give, Allah blesses us with more,” Dr. Issa says. “We really believe the more you give, the more you get.”

NoorVitamins runs in an Islamically compliant way, from steering clear of interest to ensuring the products sold deliver what they promise. All this contributes to the “real value” Dr. Issa says his company placed at its core. He defines this “real value” as presenting consumers with a product that is the best of its kind, that also meets halal standards Muslim consumers look for. This is in contrast to what Dr. Issa calls “affinity value,” in which a business relies on followers of the faith to buy something simply because it’s coming from a Muslim company.

For Dr. Mohamed Issa, what began as a project to satisfy the needs of his Muslim community successfully expanded into a business benefiting people of all backgrounds.

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A version of this article was published in the March/April 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons.

Living Islam in Letter and Spirit

“Whoever does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.” This is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ my Islamic school required my classmates and I to memorize growing up. Showing mercy isn’t the easiest thing to do at times; it may not even be expected of someone by society’s standards. Nevertheless, it is a gesture of beautiful forgiveness and a habit of the Prophet ﷺ and a characteristic my school tried to ingrain in its students.

We see this habit of forgiveness on full display at many times during the life of the Prophet ﷺ. After losing his beloved wife Khadija and his protective uncle Abu Talib, he traveled to a town neighboring Makkah called Ta’if. There, he hoped to spread the message of Islam to a new audience. Upon his arrival, however, the people tormented him to such a degree that his entire body bled. They kicked him out of the town and showed him zero mercy. All the while, he had done nothing wrong.

When he came to a safe place, the Prophet ﷺ called out to Allah and made a powerful supplication, citing his own weakness as the reason the people reacted so harshly. The Prophet ﷺ professed his desire of only pleasing His Lord. In this du’a, we witness the extraordinary humbleness with which the Prophet ﷺ lived. Because the people caused him such harm, Allah gave permission to the angels to destroy the town if the Prophet ﷺ wished. Instead of seeking revenge, the Prophet ﷺ let the people be, in case even one of their offspring accepted Islam. In Ta’if today, Muslims fill the population.

This is but one example of the immense forgiveness the Prophet ﷺ had in his heart. Had anyone else been in his situation, it is hard to imagine the reaction would match. But there are some rare gems who still walk on this earth, practicing that same forgiveness the Prophet ﷺ made such a huge part of his life. Dr. Abdul-Munim Sombat Jitmoud is one such person.

This is the man whose hug went viral. On April 19, 2015, Jitmoud’s son, pizza deliveryman Salahuddin, was about to make his last stop of the night. Upon entering the Kentucky apartment complex, the 22-year-old was robbed and stabbed to death. During the court hearing in November 2017, Jitmoud shocked everyone by turning to the man involved in his son’s murder, Trey Relford, and telling him that he forgave him. He even referred to him as his “nephew.”

“I want him to start a new chapter of life,” Jitmoud said. “When he spends time in confinement, think about Allah. Then try to do righteous deeds when you come out and keep good friends. This is what I whispered to him.”

Jitmoud said according to court protocol he wasn’t allowed to look at, talk to, or even be near Relford. He thought the judge would stop him, but she herself had tears in her eyes during the emotional moment. The family planned to verbalize their forgiveness for Relford in court, but the subsequent embrace and genuine words of advice—that Jitmoud said was Allah’s plan. Jitmoud’s past thirty-plus years of experience from being an Islamic school principal and educator came out during the hearing. He consoled many people in his office before, so handing over a tissue, comforting, and embracing a remorseful Relford came very naturally.

“It took us two years and seven months to come to this. I know I have a lot of pain and stress and despair and nightmares because of Salahuddin being murdered,” Jitmoud said. “But when I met the scholar, the learned Muslim, they said Salahuddin received the honor from Allah as a shaheed (martyr). People came to me, they saw the news and said, ‘Your son is shaheed.’ They didn’t even know me, but they saw me in the clip of the news. These things brought comfort to my mind and to my sons.”

After the hearing, Jitmoud explained why he showed mercy to a man who caused his family such heartache. He said, “God said in the Holy Qur’an…Allah, Almighty God, is the Most Forgiving and the Most Merciful. Now I say, my nephew, God is going to forgive you because He promised…provided I forgive you first. So I did forgive you. Now, it’s God’s turn to forgive you.”

The concern Jitmoud had for the wellbeing of a man who played a part in the murder of his son is extremely moving. It is the current day example of the forgiveness and care we learned from the Prophet ﷺ after he departed Ta’if with so much heartache.

“Everyone needs Islam so badly, including ourselves. Hidaya (guidance) from Allah is so crucial,” Jitmoud said. “It is our duty after RasulAllah ﷺ passed away that we carry the torch of taking the message forward in every possible way. Allah created us all, and everyone has a right to the perfect deen of Allah. It becomes your job and my job to convey the best we can with the help of Allah.”

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A version of this article was published in the January/February 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons. This is the original article above.

How Wonderful is the Case of the Believer

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” — Rumi

When I was in college, I developed a fondness for the renowned Persian poet, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. It was a relationship that had me quite confused at the start, but when I decided to give him another chance, I fell in love with his words. And although he stole many hearts with a mere translation of his work (he’s the No. 1 best-selling poet in America, after all), I find particular passages and verses speak directly to me.

Like the line quoted above, for example.

We all suffer our own struggles and fight our own battles. Me? I failed plenty of times. Things I thought would work out simply didn’t. Even though I knew it was all for the best, I couldn’t help but feel sort of defeated. Mentally and emotionally, life sure can take a toll on a young Muslim woman sometimes.

But it’s sort of amazing, too. At a moment in my life when I felt like I was thrown off an emotional rollercoaster without warning, at a moment when I stayed in bed for two days trying to sleep off everything I was thinking and feeling while avoiding face-to-face interaction with the people in my own home, at a moment when that emotional wound formed—that was the moment I felt a connection with Allah, subhana wa ta’ala. I felt the Light enter me.

That made all the struggle, confusion, and stress worth it. I mean, how could it not?

You know how you avoid talking to certain people about some things because they just wouldn’t understand? Explaining all the details and backstory ends up being a wasted effort. But it’s never like that with Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala. No one understands us and what we’re going through the way He does. No one can guide us toward the best like He can. He’s right there with you, and He always has been. Simply sitting in your room and pouring your heart out to Him may be the exact conversation you need to have.

Everything we do while walking through this life as travelers is supposed to be for the pleasure of Allah, subhana wa ta’ala. That’s something we hear in every Islamic lecture we attend. Although it’s a message oft-repeated, it’s obviously not easy to remember whenever life throws lows in your direction. When you’re at home with the flu and the rest of your friends decide to hang out, that kind of stinks. The first thought that enters your head isn’t, “Ooh, maybe this illness is a purification for my sins!”

But what if it is?

Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri and Abu Huraira: The Prophet ﷺ said,

“No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim—even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn—but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.”

[Sahih Bukhari]

Pairing the above saying of RasulAllah ﷺ (one of my personal favorites) with those verses from the Qur’an that ensure Allah won’t test us with a burden beyond our capabilities is kind of an amazing mix of motivation. It’s like, “HEY, I know this is really hard right now, but guess who guarantees you’ll make it through? Yeah, that’s right—GOD.”

So that pain you feel—the one I felt—that wound, think of it as a means to become closer to Allah, subhana wa ta’ala. A reason to have Him re-enter your life. That pain, then, becomes a good kind of pain—perhaps even a great kind. A kind we all need to experience now and again to keep our relationship with Allah subhana wa ta’ala passionate, real, and heartfelt.

As I go through my struggle today, I remind myself of the ones from my past. A knowledgeable teacher, friend, and confidant once told me, “Insha’Allah, there is khayr in everything.”

Even in the wounds.

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I stumbled across this in my Google Drive today, and it’s something I wrote in Fall 2014 for a project that fell through. I thought I’d post it here instead, because although it’s 2.5 years old, it still holds reminders I need to keep in mind and perhaps can help someone going through a difficulty.

#Blessed: Vacuum

This post is a part of a series called #Blessed, an effort to recognize a blessing in every day.

It was 64 degrees today in New Jersey, and it’s January. It feels incredible to step outside in the middle of the winter without a coat, although it is rather strange.

My cousin and I took advantage of this weirdly warm weather. We lined up our cars in my parents’ driveway, rolled out my dad’s beloved Sanyo vacuum from Saudi and began to clean the inside of our vehicles.

This particular vacuum is short and stout. It’s red with an off-white danda, and I’m pretty sure my parents requested my uncle to lug it back to the United States on his way home from Umrah. When I went to Umrah for the first time in 2015, I recall my mom asking my dad whether they were going to get another vacuum since they always have to ask others to get it for them. They didn’t get a chance to hit up the particular store.

We plugged in the vacuum to the outlet on the exterior of the house and got to work on our cars. It was so satisfying to see and hear the tiny leaves, crumbs, and pebbles being sucked up by the hose of the vacuum. All that was left was a clean interior that we didn’t even want to step on with the soles of our apparently very filthy shoes.

Vacuums seem like a silly thing to get happy about (unless you’re my almost 3-year-old nephew—he loves household appliances), but they certainly get the job done. My car floors were covered in crumbs and dead leaves before I graced the mats with the vacuum hose. Not only was it satisfying and a funny way to spend quality time with my cousin, but it reminded me of a hadith my dad always quotes:

“Cleanliness is half of faith.”

Alhamdulillah, if a vacuum can help me act in some unique way upon a hadith, how can it not be a blessing?