These days we see them popping up everywhere – Islamic centers, community centers, youth groups, or organizations of all kinds. Don't get me wrong, the more the merrier! Anything that promotes the pure Islam and sheds a positive light in the modern world is a good thing.
The problem arises when we have too many rules or laws that do not serve noble purposes. Yes, it is difficult to agree on what a noble purpose is – Islam is a vibrant and vast religion, with many sects and with many ways of interpretation amongst its own followers. But Alhamdulillah, the Holy Book and the last Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) are only one for all of us. Both have guided followers of Islam to promote good, forbid evil, and worship Allah. If we can use this guidance as our foundation for any group or organization we create, then we appeal not only to Muslims, but also to people of all faiths who will in turn see the beauty of Islam. After all, we do believe that Islam is a faith for all of humanity and that the Holy Qur'an is "guidance for all of mankind", don't we?
When we see our centers, organizations, and groups getting sidetracked, getting very detailed and specific in their ways, we need to take a step back and make sure that we are not losing sight of the end goal. We need to make sure that we are not leaving people out or benefiting only a certain race, culture group, or sect. If we believe that Islam and its teachings are for all of humankind, then we need to talk the talk and walk the walk. Let us try and learn from our Holy Prophet who, in a famous story, visited an old Jewish lady when she fell ill, even though she used to throw trash on him. Our dear leaders did not share these experiences and stories with us simply so that we could say Subhan'Allah at them. These actions all had reasons and lessons to learn from.
The more explicit our bylaws or constitutions become, in terms of what community we serve, the more we see our visions getting smaller. For example, many Shia centers' constitutions might say "we exist to serve the Ja'fari Shia community", and so on and so forth. Reading, hearing, and encountering things such as these, one cannot help but wonder what our Imams (peace be upon them) did when they sat in the courtyard of the mosque and preached the beautiful morals, ethics, and values of Islam. Did they only allow certain people to drink from the waterfall of knowledge that Islam offers?
I was once involved in a situation that arose in a community regarding women being on the director's board. It doesn't seem to be an issue, right? As I heard people in the halls discussing the newest "hot topic", I was able to define a few viewpoints: 1) It is a great idea and very necessary as women are a part of the community too, 2) It is a great idea but the constitution says it is not allowed, and 3) It is a very bad idea, we're not ready for this big of a change, and it really isn't necessary – we are doing just fine.
This is simply an example of what happens when we exclude people on conditions such as gender, race, sect, and ethnicity. Many women who agreed with viewpoint number one were extremely discouraged in helping the community in any way. Islam advocates for all Muslims to promote good, forbid evil, and serve Allah – which is what all of our centers' main goal is, right? Wasn't Lady Zainab (peace be upon her) a front runner in speaking the truth and leading Islamic education for women? In today's world we see more of a need for things that may not have been as necessary before. We see more of a need for the youth to be involved in our organizations so they can counter the questions they are bombarded with about Islam as a result of high media coverage – whereas before, it was okay if they had a "funny" name in public school because other kids their age weren't aware of what a Muslim was anyway. Today, everything requires an explanation – who is going to explain it?
We need to make sure that we are not losing sight of the end goal. We need to make sure that on that day when we will be held accountable, we can say that we did not let our pride and egos stop us from opening our doors to all of humankind to see the beauty of Islam through our centers, organizations, and actions. We need to be able to say that we spent our time doing good Islamic work: helping the poor, fixing our Islamic schools, educating our communities on proper ways to deal with child-rearing, with banking, and with encouraging businesses to be fair in their trade.
Let's think about when Allah will hold us accountable for how much we have opened our doors and shared our treasure of knowledge and resources. Let's look at it this way: would we make one of His beloved Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), God forbid, get approval before joining our group? Would we try to make sure they are exactly like us, agreed on every open-ended Islamic issue with us, and only then grant them entrance? Yes, it is very important that we protect ourselves with regulations in case of times of cunningness when we might be the target. But it is more important that we do not busy ourselves with so much fear that we no longer trust the success of our sincere efforts to be safe in the hands of Allah.