Rarely do I stop at convention booths unless I am buying something interesting but at the annual ICNA Convention in Baltimore this past year, something about the non-profit Nasrul Ilm caught my eye and I stopped to chat with what I came to find out are two very passionate, tireless, and enthusiastic humanitarians. The valuable work that they do and their dedication to their cause inspired me to write about their efforts in order to help them get some exposure and in turn further impact the communities they serve. I chatted with Samira Rahman, Vice President of Nasrul Ilm America‘s New York chapter, to get a full view of the organization, its mission and accomplishments.
1. How did this organization come into existence?
Nasrul Ilm America was inspired by the efforts of the late Shaykh Hassan Cissé (RA), a renowned Islamic scholar and humanitarian from Senegal, West Africa. His legacy of service to humanity has helped countless women, men, and children in the United States and abroad. Our mission is to promote the principle of service to humanity through education, humanitarianism, and cultural exchange – three areas of focus that typified the core of Shaykh Hassan Cissé’s works throughout the world.
Our organization’s name, Nasrul Ilm America, was given to us by Shaykh Hassan Cissé shortly before his death. It is derived from the name that his grandfather, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse – one of the most influential religious leaders on the African continent in the twentieth century – gave to his global spiritual community, Jamiat Nasrul Ilm, which loosely translates to, “the community of beneficial knowledge.”
In the Islamic tradition, knowledge, or ilm, is not simply information. Rather, knowledge is predicated on action. In other words, to possess real knowledge implies that a person act on that knowledge. Sound knowledge is, in turn, considered a prerequisite for correct action. Nasrul Ilm America is informed by this holistic understanding of what constitutes knowledge. We believe, therefore, that the true “benefit” of knowledge is to assist humanity beyond just the dissemination of facts.
As a leader of the community of beneficial knowledge, Shaykh Hassan Cissé worked tirelessly to feed people, provide them with access to medical care, and facilitate moral and Islamic education, as well as secular education, for scores of students from around the world.
Following Shaykh Hassan’s model–itself patterned from the model of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (SAW)– Nasrul Ilm America is an organization that is dedicated to the core principle of service to humanity.
2. Who does Nasrul Ilm America try to reach with their funds? What is their primary focus?
Nasrul Ilm America works both domestically and internationally. In the United States, Nasrul Ilm America‘s flagship humanitarian initiative is the Midnight Run, where we provide food, clothing, and toiletries to hundreds of homeless people in New York City, Atlanta, and Detroit. In each city, we provide goods with kindness, compassion, and consideration for the women and men we serve. The clothing we distribute is not shabby, but rather is of the quality that we ourselves would wear. The food we supply is halal, healthy, and wholesome, just as we would want for ourselves. Moreover, we invite those we serve to select the specific items that they desire. It is our view that this kind of service constitutes one of the best ways to demonstrate the care for humanity that Muslims should embody.
Nasrul Ilm America also oversees two main humanitarian initiatives in Senegal, West Africa: Help for Humanity Rice Distribution and the African American Islamic Institute (AAII) Qur’an School Renovation Project. Help for Humanity was inspired by the efforts of Shaykh Hassan Cissé. Each month for countless decades, Shaykh Hassan spent out of his own wealth to provide rice to under-resourced families in Senegal. His efforts sustained hundreds of families throughout the country. Help for Humanity was started by a group of African American Muslim students who witnessed Shaykh Hassan’s tireless efforts firsthand during their time in Senegal. Since 2012, Help for Humanity has strived to uphold Shaykh Hassan’s legacy by addressing the problem of hunger, one family at a time. It has distributed more than ten tons (or 23,000 lbs) of rice to hungry children, parents, and adults in Senegal. The majority of people on Help for Humanity’s core team have spent considerable time over the last three decades in Kaolack. We have seen firsthand how families eagerly gather around a plate of food and instinctively invite a hungry neighbor to join them. We have seen firsthand how mothers stretch food meant for their immediate family because they cannot eat knowing their relatives go hungry. We have seen the powerful ways in which members of the Kaolack community embody the Prophetic spirit, rallying together to support one another in the midst of poverty. As we pursued Islamic education during our time in Kaolack, we wanted to pay it forward to the community that so generously supported our own personal and spiritual growth. Through the rice distribution initiative, we cultivated long-lasting, trusting partnerships with the Kaolack community to help address the problem of hunger. We have launched a fundraising campaign this past Ramadan to provide rice to 100 families for an entire year.
The second main humanitarian initiative Nasrul Ilm America oversees in Senegal is the African American Islamic Institute (AAII) Qur’an School Renovation Project. This is an internationally respected educational institution established by Shaykh Hassan Cissé (RA) in Medina Baye, Kaolack, Senegal. Students travel from throughout the world to learn to read, write, and memorize verses of the Holy Qu’ran, with the ultimate goal of becoming Hafiz, or committing the entire Qu’ran to memory. The school currently serves 1,800 students throughout Africa, the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. This diverse, international student body contributes to an incredibly rich and unique learning community. Many of the students come from under-resourced communities and make tremendous sacrifices to attain knowledge. Their relentless commitment to Islamic education contributes to an academically rigorous learning environment. Many of the young women and men who graduate from the AIII Qu’ran school go on to pursue advanced Islamic studies, while others open Qu’ran schools in their home countries to serve students in their local communities. The AAII Qur’an School Renovation Project is our effort to not only continue this legacy for future generations, but also develop, and expand on what Shaykh Hassan Cissé started. Through this initiative, our aim is to provide the financial revenue needed to maintain a clean, healthy, and resource-rich learning environment. Over the past several years, Nasrul Ilm America has raised thousands of dollars to help renovate the AAII Qu’ran School. Through these fundraising efforts, we have helped repair the school’s roof, painted classrooms, and supported other efforts. Currently, we are aiming to help finance the hiring of more teachers, assure every classroom is fully furnished,that materials for teachers are available, and all students have school supplies, uniforms, and transportation to and from school.
3. What, other than raise money, does Nasrul Ilm do?
In addition to raising money to support our humanitarian efforts in the United States and Senegal, we organize educational events and facilitate cross-cultural exchange. Each year, we organize the Shaykh Hassan Cissé Ziyarah during which we commemorate the legacy of the world-renowned Islamic scholar and decorated humanitarian. Planned annually in honor of his tremendous work for the causes of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world, the Shaykh Hassan Cissé Ziyarah is an opportunity to inspire our community to action. The Ziyarah brings together a wide community for a rare night of lecture and testimony.
4. Why not join another organization, like Islamic Relief, rather than have your own organization?
Nasrul Ilm America was started by a group of Muslim students who were inspired by the incredible humanitarian efforts of Shaykh Hassan Cissé. We wanted to continue supporting the specific efforts that he began, as well as build upon his principles of charity by creating new initiatives to serve humanity. Though there are many esteemed Muslim relief organizations, we started our own organization in order to create long-term partnerships with those we serve. For example, we have spent considerable time in Medina Baye, Senegal. We not only observed the challenges and issues that residents faced in the town, but we also benefited immensely from the education and life experiences we received there. As such, we wanted to give back specifically to the community that so generously supported our own personal and spiritual growth. Islamic Relief does not currently operate an office in Senegal, so it would not have been possible to work with them to serve this community.
Alhamdulilah (Thanks to God), after organizing the Midnight Run independently since 2008, we received a small grant from Islamic Relief to expand our initiative in 2016. We hope to continue building partnerships with Islamic Relief and other organizations in the future insha’Allah (God willing) so that we may strengthen our efforts.
5. What do you want the world to know about the population you are trying to help through Nasrul Ilm?
Approximately 47.6% of people in Senegal live in poverty. In rural areas, such as Kaolack where Help for Humanity works, one out of every four households experiences food insecurity, which means that they do not consistently have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. 14.4% of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. By distributing rice and other basic food items to families each month, Help for Humanity directly addresses this issue. Our ongoing efforts have helped families feed themselves and maintain healthy, active lives.
An individual who experiences poverty cannot afford to meet his or her basic needs, which includes food and clothing. Nasrul Ilm America’s Midnight Run initiative directly addresses these two immediate needs of homeless and impoverished populations in three major urban centers in the United States – New York City, Detroit, and Atlanta. According to the Center for Economic Opportunity, 21.4% of New York City’s population was living in poverty in 2012. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger 2014 survey, one in every six New York City residents lives in food insecure households, meaning they are unable to afford an adequate source of food consistently throughout the year. Nearly one in four children in New York City live in a food insecure household. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are more than 60,000 homeless people living in New York City as of March 2015, and this number is steadily climbing. According to the 2014 US Census, Detroit is the poorest big city in the country, with 39.3 percent living below a poverty line, with Kids Count in Michigan (2016) reporting that 58% of Detroit’s children live in poverty. The statistics are similarly dire in Atlanta. Action Ministries reports that more than 10,000 people in metro Atlanta experience homelessness on any given night and 48 percent of all the children in Atlanta in poverty live in families with annual incomes of less than $15,000 a year. Given the sizeable and growing populations of hungry, homeless, and/or impoverished people in New York City, Detroit, and Atlanta, there is an urgent need to provide these individuals and families with basic necessities to survive. The Midnight Run initiative directly addresses this need by providing food, clothing, and toiletries to these people in these three major urban centers.
6. Where can we go to contribute or volunteer?
Ramadan may be over but we at MissMuslim really hope you consider maintaining its beautiful spirit of charity and support such a generous, crucial organization by sharing and telling all your friends about it or making a contribution if you can!