Abbas Aly Interview


ICIT: As-salaamu Alaikum. Today we are speaking with Abbas Aly. He is one among a number of people who are actively working with organizations in Sydney, Australia. Brother Abbas, please tell us a bit about how you got involved in these efforts.

Abbas Aly: Well, in my case, it's pretty easy actually. I came to Australia in 1974 at the age of six. I was taking on a wonderful journey by my parents who, when they arrived here in Australia in 1974, I was the only Muslim kid. I was the only person with brown-colored skin. There were no Islamic institutions.

So mom and dad turned their house and they had this little, very small three-bedroom house into an Islamic community center for people to attend. And from 1974 to 1987, that home became a place for people of all backgrounds and cultures to come. I remember one day we had over 160 people attend this house.

And as children, we were very excited because we had to clear our bedrooms for days. And, you know as a child, you enjoy that. People would come in and your house would be full of people. Mom and dad were very instrumental in the way our community grew in Sydney. Up there, I was privileged enough to see the mosques being built.

I recently went to one of the mosques in Sydney. To take a friend who had come from overseas to have a look. And one of the people at the mosque came up to me and said, “oh, we'll take you for a tour.” I said, “don't worry. I've seen this mosque-built brick by brick.” Cause my dad used to take me there to the construction site when it was being constructed to see it. We went there for prayers.

And so I didn't have a choice, to be very honest with you. I was sort of, putting it mildly, brainwashed or railroaded into this. And my mom and dad, their belief in their faith was remarkable. The other thing that I would say is that when mom and dad came to Australia from Africa, they had a lot of foresight.

My mother bought every Islamic book in English. I asked her “what made you decide that?” Because in 1970s, none of the lecturers was presenting in English. She says, we were going to a country where English was the language. So we had to have books in English for our kids.

And it was a remarkable insight from a person. I don't have that insight. I have not seen many people with that sort of insight. And my mother really was very instrumental in the way my sister and I developed. It was just like your left and right hand working together. That was the way you did community work. It was as simple as that.

ICIT: Thank you. That's very clear and interesting. So how does the waqf component support these organizations’ initiatives? How did that fall into place?

Abbas Aly: It's an interesting story you touch on. So mom and dad weren't very financially well off, right? They were having difficult times. And then, I think it was around about 1988, 89, or let's say 87 to 89. In that period, there was some real financial constraints on them. And my family was going through a really difficult time.

I had a prayer book that was given to me. In itself, there is an interesting story behind that book. But in that book, I wrote a message. It was like a deal with God. Like, God, if you would help my family through this, and I get the opportunity to serve and to contribute, then I would like to build a mosque. And in 2004 when Imam Hassan center was built, at the opening ceremony it was an honor for me to be the last speaker. And while everyone was celebrating the building of a new mosque, I explained to them that it meant a lot more to me because it was a commitment or a promise to God that I was able to fulfill.

So that's the way it came and my life in business was changed. In 1993, a person in the United States who is a close family member to me, gave me the funding to start a business. He helped me out. I was working at that time and he convinced me to leave my work and to start a business in information technology (IT), which is my background.

And God made it possible to have the funds to do these projects including the Imam Hassan center. That was the second project I'd worked on by then. Before that I had worked on the Imam Husain Islamic center project. And I was privileged there by the Sheikh who came to see me.

He was one of the people who had a lot of foresight. He knew I was just starting my business. I didn't have significant funds to contribute but for some reason he felt that I could assist in some way.

My mom would say people look for miracles, like the sky changing into green, right? She said there are miracles happening every day right in front of them and they miss it. And here is a Sheikh who saw a young man who didn't have funds in that capacity, but brought him on board. And from the moment I signed up to help, God decided to turn my business around completely.

I don't know what He did. I'm not a believer in that you make your own luck. I am truly a believer that we are provided for by God in a journey. So I truly believe that involving myself in that first project and apart from what my mom and dad were doing, really blessed my business and made it flourish and then I was able to do what I was able to do.

ICIT: Thank you so very much. Quite insightful. So let's fast forward to the present.

Abbas Aly: Yep.

ICIT: For the organizations that you've touched on, what kinds of obstacles have they run into, and how do you try to pitch in and help navigate through them?

Abbas Aly: Your questions are very interesting. They are making me think in a different way, which is what I really like. Firstly, I take absolute pleasure in the obstacles. Again, I'll refer to my mother a little bit more in this because she was very influential in my life.

My mother used to say that if you're doing Islamic work and you are not facing problems, then it's not Islamic work. I remember one day when we were going through the court case of getting permission to build the Imam Hassan center and people cut pig's heads and they put it on the building and there was quite a lot of media attack.

The media came to sit with us and we were able to talk with them and the whole media changed sides. They completely took our side.

I remember one day coming back and it was a pretty tough day. And my mom looked at me and she says, “how are you, how do you feel?” And I said, it's been a difficult day. She said, “come sit down.” And she's talking to me.

She says, “you know, Rasul-Allah (SAW) when he was in Taif and people threw rocks on him and he was bleeding and the angels came down and, you know the story, right?” And she says, who the hell are you to complain about these little things? If he went through that, what's your problem?

And only a mother could say that. When I went through these problems, I appeared on every television show. And people understood. We had just gone through 9/11 events. We were regular people looking for some place of our own to pray. So, that's one thing I do enjoy the challenge.

The biggest problem I find in Muslim community organizations is a lack of confidence, more than anything else. In the Qu’ran it says, if you have a good intention and you want to go and to do something, and even if you're going in the wrong direction, God will always fix it. Right? And I truly believe in that.

I think this has been a problem in the Muslim community. They know it's in the Qur’an, but they don't have the courage to trust it. They don't have the courage to stand on the top of the building and jump knowing that there is a safety net from God.

And I'm not saying to jump off building for this is only a figure of speech. You have to understand that God is with you if you are trying to go the right way. The lack of confidence holds people back.

We try to make sure that people feel welcomed. It doesn't matter on your status, but for some people it seems like some kind of inferiority complex exists. When I look back at my mom and dad, they didn't have money. So the question would be to ask how did they become leaders of the community with no money? Would that be possible today? It's very hard.

Our beliefs are no longer worshiping God. It is we are concerned about our individual financial position and that is a critical failure that is existing in our community. We, on the one hand take that approach. And on the other hand, we don't run our Islamic centers as a business, and I get in trouble for saying this. But when I say as a business, I don't mean a profit and loss business. When I say business, what I mean is this. If I want to employ a person to perform a task in my business, I will find the best IT network engineer for example, right?

In the Islamic centers today, take for example the person doing the cleaning is a beautiful person. His iman is better than all of us. Right? But they'll say, well you know, it's okay. He can be the on the committee. Right? Although he doesn't have the skill sets possibly to do that particular job. It's like saying when you want heart surgery, well, let the cleaner do the heart surgery.

It doesn't mean the cleaner is the bad person. What I'm saying is he's not fit for that particular role. And this adds to the mistakes we are making. The reason we face a lot more problems is we don't have the talent. For certain roles correctly identified, we don't have the talent filling those roles. But we do actually have the talent in our community to reach out to people, to go and get young people to be more involved. But we don't do it.

I'm aware of people in our communities who sit on positions for 30 years. And they never leave. They sit there forever. I mean, what can you bring to the table after 30 years that you haven't done already? Right? You have disconnected from the youth. Now you're too old, right? The most important people in our community are those newly married, young couples.

They're the ones who are raising the next generation. They're the ones we need to be connected with. We need to assist and bring them forward. But we don’t. You know, once I'm in my position, I'll never leave. Some of the Islamic centers I'm involved with have a time limit and people need to leave and bring new people on board.

But that is some of the reasons, I think, where we have a problem. I'm not sure if that answers the question exactly that you asked me.

ICIT: Yes, it does.

Abbas Aly: If you talk about the Prophet's life there is an example where the Christian community comes to visit him and they couldn't identify him because he did not differentiate himself with his clothing. That doesn't apply today. There is a clear differential. They're the scholars and we’re not the scholars.

The Prophet never did that. Yes, we respect our scholars. Don't get me wrong. And when they speak, of course, they need to dress in the right way. But the idea of eliteness was never part of Islam.

ICIT: These are points well stated. And I very much appreciate the fact that you're taking time to share them.

Are there questions I should have asked but did not?

Abbas Aly: I think one of the biggest questions to ask is how do we bring about the next generation of youth? Now God will always take care of that. So I understand that, and I'm never in doubt of that happening, but it's also our duty to build infrastructure, build frameworks for our youth to come through.

There's a twofold problem. One is the problem I mentioned before was that the elderly never, with all respect, they'd never leave and take a more mentor role. They never want to give up that trustee. It's like, till I die, I will hold this position. So that's one problem. The other problem is the youth problem. And I remember speaking about this in the UK once and there was a panel and I was the youngest one there, and I thought it was quite hilarious. Anyway, the youth were quite aggressively asking questions. And all my elderly, respected, community members were answering.

Yes. We need to get more youth involvement. Yes. We need youth leadership, and so on. I'm looking at them and I'm thinking you've been sitting here for 30 years. There's a very simple process. You could resign right now. That was one view.

The other was when I was asked to speak to the youth and I said, with all respect, I disagree with my elder respected members here. I said, when you are an accountant and you are just starting and you're 23 years old, you put your head down and you work for six months, really hard. And on the beginning of the seventh month, do you walk up to the managing director of the company and say, I'm the youth? Now you need to step down and let me take over? And then I said, is that what you do in your job? They go, no, that's not what we do. I said, but isn't that what you are asking to do?

You don't come to our Islamic centers. You don't want to participate because no one listens to the youth, but that's what you want. I said, you need to put an effort to be identified. You need to come forward to be identified. So we see you are the future. Yes. We need to give you roles, but only when we see your commitment. The youth do make a lot of complaints, but I don't see them attending anything to make a difference. So it's a two-sided problem and I think we need to really work on both sides. We need to get our older trustees and our older community leaders to step down, nicely, and become mentors.

And the other side is we need to see the youth actually understand it's not a walk in because I've now done medicine, or I've done law. I know everything. No, it doesn't work like that. You need to come and work here, earn the respect of the community, build the respect, and get people to trust you. Then you can make a difference.

And I leave you with one important thing. Then again, I refer to my mother on this one, and you can see the influence she played on my life. She says, it's funny in the Qur’an, Allah always says, for example, in Surah al-’Asr, Allah says, I swear, by the time. In Surah al-Shams, it's a reference to the sun. And He says, I swear by the sun, it's again, a form of time, right?

There is no where that God says, I swear by the money. It is not there. And the person who gave me the funds to start my business, I remember as my business progressed and he told me, when Allah gives you money, it's not your money. You are just the financial controller for the money. And you have got a responsibility to do that.

So the youth today need to understand it's not about how much money you have. It's your intention and your commitment to deliver a project or to be involved in a project. And to understand and to know that thirdly, and most importantly, you are not aware of the whole community.

Get to know your elders, ask them what their needs are, befriend them, see them, go and visit them. You know, it's like a political effort where you go through a process of knowing your constituents. If we do these three things, we will be able to have more input from our younger, successful people.

So those three things I would say our community is missing, and we don't unfortunately have the scholars with the kind of mentorship who are able to guide. So we need people who are capable and willing to help.

ICIT: Brother Abbas, JazakhAllahu khair for your expertise, passion, time, and thoughts. We admire and appreciate the work that you and others are doing.

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