The Many Faces of Community Care
In 2013, I did something I never imagined I would do. I had just finished a semester of a virtual Sirah class and felt inspired to step out of my comfort zone to teach what I had learned. I got permission from my teacher to share her notes and messaged a few of my neighbors and close friends. It was about ten of us in my basement on a weekly basis with our toddlers running around.
That simple intention blossomed into the Blessed Orchard: a women’s halaqa that has served over hundreds of Muslim women in the last decade. Our focus is on traditional knowledge, spirituality, service, and community. I wanted to provide a safe space where we could grow together as believers with our kids in tow. Caring for my community has been a part of my life since.
I once heard a Muslim scholar say, “When you help carry the burden of others, God lightens your load.” I have seen this come into fruition through this work. As Muslims, we belong to a communal faith and are meant to be together and raise each other up.
On the authority of Abu Hamzah Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) — the servant of the Messenger of Allah (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) — that the Prophet (PBUH) said: None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself. [Al-Bukhari] [Muslim] —Hadith 13, 40 Hadith an-Nawawi
It is not just about stepping out of our comfort zones: it is about stepping up to care for the community, whether it is local, global, or virtual.
My first inspiration for getting involved and serving my community was a Chicago volunteer named Hazel Gómez I interviewed for a local newspaper in 2010, who showed me the meaning of community care. A Puerto Rican and Mexican Muslim convert of nearly twenty years, Gómez served communities even before Islam.
“It’s a value that was instilled in me since I was a child,” recalls Gómez, a faith-driven community organizer in Detroit, Michigan, and mother of three boys. “I was raised by my grandparents, and their home was a hub for community care. They were housing a refugee from Guatemala, and my grandma cooked and fed the homeless and our neighbors. This concept of watching out for others was taught and shown, and we learned how not to be selfish. She would always pack me a second lunch just in case any other student might need it. Thirty years later, I had a former classmate reach out to me saying how much he appreciated that extra lunch. We shared whatever blessings we had—plain and simple.”
Gómez believes this kind of constant giving has been a means of self-care for herself as well. Taking care of others has helped her develop a gratitude mindset and know that she is not alone. Just as she is there for others, others are there for her.
“The Arabic word ‘ummah’ [community] is a type of nurturing we do for one another,” Gómez says. “It can be as simple as conversing with a neighbor or visiting the elderly or inviting a friend to share a meal. Look around and see how you can help hold some of the heaviness that people are experiencing. This may be within the mosque or outside it, as not everyone comes to houses of worship or belongs to a faith tradition. Every human deserves our care, just like Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] was sent to all of mankind.”
Having this same understanding is what drives Farhan Ahmed, founder and president of Chi-Care, to serve 1,000+ homeless individuals on a weekly basis in Chicago, Illinois. He believes those in need should be served and cared for without bias.
“Did the Prophet [PBUH] ask who you are and then give?” questions Ahmed, who lives in Glendale Heights, Illinois, with his wife and two children. “No. He just gave to whomever was in need. We have to take care of every one of God’s creations, not just our own. The miskeen [poor] did not choose to be poor. If we have the opportunity to serve, just serve. It’s not up to us who is a recipient or not.”
The initial intent back in March 2020 (yes, at the beginning of the pandemic) was to feed about fifty people a month. Ahmed and his co-founder Asif Iqbal quickly learned that the need was much greater, and it was not just for food. They found the homeless needing hygiene products, seasonal items, clothes, tents, propane, mobile showers, and medical care, which meant they needed more help, financial support, and volunteers. Despite the struggles and demand, the team has not missed a single Sunday of being there for this “forgotten” community.
“It’s like going to therapy,” Ahmed compares. “We don’t just distribute the food and items; we talk to the people and learn their stories. This humbles us. They are living a completely different life but are right in our backyards. How can we neglect them?”
Ahmed states that in Surah Maun, which literally means “petty things” like pottery, salt, sugar, etc., we are reminded to feed those in need and not refuse the request for maun or what may seem like “small needs” to us. If we have been blessed to give, then we should give from whatever we have, whether it is our time, resources, energy, or emotions. “It is not just about doing our prayers, but serving others is part of our worship too.”
To go even further, youth activist Mahmoud Desouky believes community care prevents an individual from hypocrisy.
“You can’t do good for the community if you are not bettering yourself,” says Desouky, who is a junior at Rutgers University.
While interning for Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Desouky worked closely with immigrants seeking visas and green cards and was moved by their stories. “It led me closer to my faith and made me thankful for the blessings I have. My parents are immigrants, and we come from humble beginnings but are living comfortably. My problems are minimal compared to others. To show my gratitude to Allah, I must secure my connection to Him and then be a voice for the rights of those struggling so they can live a good life too.”
Desouky also believes in the impact youth can make. As a mentor, Desouky shows young Muslims how to use their strengths and skills to help others and be influential leaders in their communities.
“It’s crucial to put our abilities to work,” Desouky notes. “The best time to start caring for our communities is as youths because the future is in our hands.”
Through empowering youth and team sports, behavioral health therapist Asma Farooq Shaikh founded an unconventional form of community care. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Shaikh turned to athletics as an outlet to refuel and make her voice and confidence come alive. However, when asked to conform to wearing shorts for her high school basketball team uniform, she refused to compromise her faith. She made the intention that if she ever had a daughter, she would never let her experience that same kind of discrimination and instead would find faith-centered athletic communities.
Fast forward to 2014. Shaikh became a mentor for her daughter and many other young Muslim teen girls through the Blessed Bonds (BB) Fit program.
“Through the BB Fit community, my most passionate roles fused: mothering, coaching, and serving our community and thus God,” shares Shaikh, who lives in Lisle, Illinois, with her husband and three kids. “I initially didn’t realize how impactful BB Fit was for our female Muslim youth until the girls kept coming back year after year and sharing how important BB Fit had been for them—not only for their physical health but more importantly for their social, emotional, mental, and, most importantly, spiritual health. Furthermore, the BB Fit moms witnessed the impact of this faith-based athletic program and asked if there can be something similar for them.”
In 2017, Shaikh then launched the ChiTown Muslimah Athletics (CTM) in the western suburbs of Chicago. According to Shaikh, CTM provides a safe space for Muslim women to focus on the core values of faith, strength, perseverance, and cultivating healthy sisterhood in a non-judgmental learning environment.
“We practice to our best what our Beloved Prophet [PBUH] modeled,” Shaikh says. “When women leave practices and games, they are able to be healthier and happier versions of themselves in their personal and professional lives. We have testimonials from husbands who have shared that their wives have rebooted their fitness journeys and are on endorphin highs post CTM games. We have children witnessing their mothers invest in their health and wellness in their thirties, forties, and fifties and learning healthy lifestyles within an Islamic [realm].”
All of CTM’s athletic events have female-only athletes, referees, and spectators, starting and closing each with du’a. The schedule is built around prayer times, and they are mindful of dressing modestly and language.
“We celebrate and uplift our sisters, especially community contributors and women starting their journeys in hijab,” shares Shaikh. “All collected funds go back to programming with a percentage given to a charity. We pray Allah continues to see our sincere efforts as a [means] to serve Him.”
CTM is definitely making an impact in community care, as we see in the following testimonial from a Muslim convert member named Ashley Madryk:
“I [initially] found it very hard to find my place as part of a new community. I really felt like I didn’t fit in or belong. I felt different, and it was hard navigating a new religion when I couldn’t find my place. CTM feels like I found my community, my home with sisters who are Muslim but also passionate about sports. The intersection of athletics and sports, which is my true love, with my faith, which is my identity, meshed perfectly with my soul and heart. I am so grateful.”
Tayyaba Syed is a multiple award-winning author, journalist, and Islamic studies teacher. She conducts literary and faith-based presentations for all ages, serves on the board of directors for a women’s nonprofit called Rabata, and is an elected member of her local school district’s board of education in Illinois, where she lives with her husband and three children. Learn more at www.tayyabasyed.com.