“Set a limit to joking for it undermines chivalry and manliness.” – Sa’d b Waqqas
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day dedicated to the celebration of everything that is women. The earliest recorded observance was on May 3, 1908 and it has been held on different dates ever since. Nowadays, IWD is held on March 8th of every year and celebrated with an annual theme that is declared by the United Nations. In 2014 the theme was “Inspiring Change”. As per the IWD website, the focus of this year was to to challenge the status quo for women’s equality, and celebrate the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action.
The mission and objectives of IWD are commendable. However, some believe that such efforts to empower women and elevate their status in society could be directed elsewhere. Nevertheless, even if you believe days like IWD have no real impact, this does not diminish the symbolic meaning behind it. At the very least, if you have a pessimistic view of days or months dedicated to causes related to the empowerment of women or raising awareness of Black history, you can appreciate the noble intentions even if you think the effort is a waste of time and does not produce tangible advancements. But to take it up a notch from pessimism and engage in mockery would be to take such pessimism too far beyond what many would care to put up with. This is further amplified if you are in a public position where a sizable number of people look up to you. The damage from such action is greater still if it comes not from any public figure, but from a public figure that is also a teacher of the Islamic Tradition. Sadly, this is precisely what Ustadh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a prominent British Muslim Imam and instructor with AlMaghrib Institute engaged in.
To mark this year’s IWD Ustadh Abu Eesa took to his Twitter account (almost 20,000 followers) and Facebook page (over 41,000 followers) and put out a series of jokes about women and IWD that were in poor taste to say the least. It is worthy to note that according to his Twitter account, which he seems to manage personally, he identifies himself as a “comedian” among other things. If that is all Ustadh Abu Eesa is, he might get away with his jokes. But the fact that he also identifies himself as an “Imam”, a “scholar”, and has AlMaghrib Institute’s website address to sign off, makes getting away with the type of jokes he chose to share impossible.
Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and president of the Safe Nation Collaborative was appalled enough by Ustadh Abu Eesa’s IWD jokes and memes that she wrote a scathing article about it. To get a sense of how it might feel for a Muslim woman who had gone through domestic abuse then had to read some of Ustadh Abu Eesa’s sarcastic jokes and replies, you might want to read an account of what many Muslim women have to go through. That might give a sense of the bitterness Chaudry was feeling as she wrote her article Wa’Mutasima!
Ustadh Abu Eesa’s bio on AlMaghrib Institute’s website states that he is “famous for his ‘real talk’, straight-forward attitude, [and] extremely dark sense of humour.” With all due respect to Ustadh Abu Eesa, this does not sound like a description that should be part of a bio about an imam or a scholar. There is a strange trend that many teachers of the Islamic Tradition have adopted nowadays, which I can only assume is to relate better to the younger generation. Many of them are more interested in speaking slang and telling silly jokes in an effort to make religion “fun” and “entertaining”. Some of the most viewed videos on Islam in YouTube are excerpts from lectures in which the teacher is joking. Meanwhile the rest of the lecture is collecting dust on the metaphorical shelf in YouTube’s database.
For those who follow Ustadh Abu Eesa, the way he expresses himself over social media seems to resonate well with the younger crowd. As a preemptive measure for occasions such as we have today, he put up a personal disclaimer on his Facebook page back in April 30, 2013. It would seem to me that the desired effect from his disclaimer and his AlMaghrib Institute’s bio was to prepare people to be offended by Ustadh Abu Eesa and be OK with it. In fact, that is exactly what he states in his final point: prepare to be offended on this page regularly. In fact, just leave that feeling right at the door. And I apologize for not having offended some of you already. I will get round to you as well soon.
If an imam and a scholar does not present a higher ideal and a more rarified example for the masses, who are the masses going to look up to? One can be relevant and talk at everyone’s level without compromising the position they occupy. No bio or disclaimer can allow someone in the position of Ustadh Abu Eesa to regularly offend people and not choose his words carefully. Once he took the position of teaching the Islamic Tradition, Ustadh Abu Eesa relegated his right to speak for himself in the fashion that he does. He further enforced this by becoming a public figure. As one of the inheritors of Prophets, Ustadh Abu Eesa cannot afford to have a Michael Richards Laugh Factory incident. I think going forward from here on in, he will have to reassess his social media strategy.
Needless to say, there was a massive backlash to Ustadh Abu Eesa’s IWD jokes. More fuel was added to the fire by those who quoted him out of context, and even further embellished his jokes to make him seem even more awful. Now there is a petition to fire Shaykh Abu Eesa from AlMaghrib Institute and a dedicated #FireAbuEesa hashtag that was launched by Chaudry. While Ustadh Abu Eesa brought this on himself, I think this movement to have him fired for telling a few jokes in poor taste is a bit extreme. I fail to see how being offended by someone’s opinions warrants a petition to have their source of livelihood cut off, thus not only punishing them, but also their family and other dependents. I am not sure whether AlMaghrib Institute represents a major source of income for Ustadh Abu Eesa, and that is not the point. I also get the sensitivity with the position he holds as a teacher of the Islamic Tradition. It is just the principle of the action being taken with this petition and hashtag that I find problematic.
I also fail to see the relevance of bringing up Imam Suhaib Webb to the discussion in Chaudry’s article. One can easily give examples of alternative ways to act. But bringing people into a confrontation they had nothing to do with engenders enmity between them and those involved, and it also brings in those who side with them as well. Putting Imam Suhaib against Ustadh Abu Eesa is not in the spirit of Islamic conduct. Unfortunately, Chaudry did not stop at that. Her article finished with a footnote in which she expressed her thankfulness for the mercy of American Muslim scholars and a wonderment about “what is in the water in the UK“. So we now have turned bad jokes told by one teacher into an international conflict in which American Muslim scholars are somehow a cut above British Muslim scholars. Her article at the time I write this has been shared close to 41,000 times on Facebook and tweeted 2,100 times and has 87 comments, many of which are more offensive than anything Ustadh Abu Eesa said or will ever say. Suddenly I am getting flashbacks of the East Coast vs. West Coast, 2Pac vs. Biggie days. In escalating this matter, Chaudry’s article generated more venomous comments from Muslims against fellow Muslims than one would have expected.
In response to the #FireAbuEesa campaign, Ustadh Abu Eesa came back with another Facebook post in which he was quite defiant and condescending to those reacting against him. I could be wrong, but I have yet to come across anything from the Beloved ﷺ in which this is how he would respond to his companions and critics. I think the meaning and execution of “real talk” and “straightforward attitude” need to be pondered upon by Ustadh Abu Eesa. One can be real and straightforward without being combative and condescending. Whatever happened to applying the Hadith of the Beloved ﷺ in which he said, “Gentleness is not applied to anything except that it beautifies it, and harshness is not applied to anything except that it makes it ugly”?
This whole thing has escalated way out of hand, and both Ustadh Abu Eesa and his critics have crossed the lines of proper Islamic conduct. Frankly, all I see are egos battling it out on social media. This is bad enough if it is done in private between non-public figures. But as Chaudry and Ustadh Abu Eesa use their public platforms, they exert an immense level of negativity that is spilling over onto their readers. One only has to read a few comments to see the madness taking place below their posts. The behaviour of commenting readers is a clear display of how the writer’s state of being can be transferred to their readers. This is why being a public figure comes with a type of responsibility that one cannot simply avoid taking on with disclaimers. Moreover, if this public position is that of a teacher of the Islamic Tradition, or that of a Muslim activist, it is no longer a luxury to claim you only represent yourself. This is not about being fake with people. It is about making sure their perception of the meanings you are attempting to relate is as accurate as possible, and not offend people’s sensibilities just because you can. The most depressing thing about writing this is that people who publicly represent Islam are the main characters in this drama.
p.s. For all those who feel the need to say something about this issue, especially those after Ustadh Abu Eesa’s blood, you might want to take a moment before you say anything and reflect on the following verses from Surah Fussilat in the Quran (41:33-36)