My name is Safaa Zarzour**. I am an educator, and an attorney and a community activist in the Chicagoland area.
For over 2 decades now, I have been involved in community building. I was a teacher and then a principal of one of the largest Islamic schools in the nation, the Universal School.
For over a decade, I was the founder and the chairman of Care Chicago, one of the largest chapters of the care family, a civil right organization in America.
I also was the former secular general of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Islamic organization in the nation.
As a teacher, I always love and admire teachers. Throughout history I found that people who have really made an impact on the world have been teachers, so when I learned about Hocaefendi, I learned that he was a teacher and he continues to be a teacher. In fact, I think that is the only thing he likes to be called, “a teacher”.
And then, I learned about his life, about his humbleness and about his devotion to the work that he does, devotion to the people around him. I really have deep admiration for him, deep admiration to what he does, what he has been able to accomplish of building this network of people that identify with each other only through their service to their community, and only through the good work they do in whatever area. They only focus on serving people. They don’t care about anything else. They don’t care about titles, they don’t care about recognition, they care about serving. And that is something that I clearly have known and what I know about Hocaefendi having read, when I read about him. That is what he cares about. He cares about serving people, about making a difference about building, about bringing people together quietly, without any self-recognition, any expectation of someone praising him. He even doesn’t like to be in public places, he doesn’t like recognition. He likes to quietly just be in worship and service.
The Hizmet, to me, represents the essence and the heart of what Islam is. And that is service, education, being positive and being helpful. I have known brothers and sisters from the Hizmet for a long time. Their practice of Islam is very middle of the road, mainstream. There is no extreme in it. No extreme to the right, no extreme to the left. It is just middle of the road practicing of Islam, its five pillars and commitment to the social justice, and uplifting human beings.
And so, our world is in need of the Hizmet Movement in every culture, in every place where Muslims exist. Because it provides a good model of what in a group and an association of Muslim should look like.
So, when we talk about interfaith dialogue, I am always struck by the position of a lot of Muslims towards interfaith dialogue. Because, to me, the first interfaith dialogue for Muslims is enshrined in the Quran by Allah Subhanahu wa ta'ala.
When the Christians of Najran came to the Prophet (pbuh), he received them. In his own masjid, he received them as his guests and he spoke with them. The Quran is clear about, talking to him about, “Choose the best ways as a means to discuss with them.” So, it is not an issue that is foreign to us.
Yet, somehow, over the years, Muslims have managed not only to make interfaith dialogue as a foreign subject but even as a subject that is somehow suspect that anybody engaged in it somehow is either weak in their iman (faith) or somehow selling out.
There is always a suspicion about anybody who wants to engage in interfaith. In reality, it is at the heart of our faith, because the Quran says that ‘we have given Karama to all of the children of Adam.’ He didn’t say to Muslims. The prophet (pbuh) asks us “mercy to mankind, not mercy only to Muslims.” So, the idea becomes especially that, Quran has more than one third of it, talking about other people of other faiths, particularly the people who share with us the scripture and the divine origin of their faith, and have encouraged us to always be in dialogue with them and talk to them. So, to me, interfaith today is returning to what Islam asks us to do in the first place. Islam asks us to do in the first place because there is no other way for our world to exist in peace and to prosper without it.
We know the Qur’an said “If he wishes, he would have made it in one nation or one ummah, and he didn’t. As a result, we must reach out especially to people who do have moral fabric that originated from Allah Subhanahu wa ta'ala, have care about the world, about its well-being.
So, coming together with them, discussing with them, trying to find what is common between us and how we can altogether work to build a better world and more peaceful world. That, to me, is at the heart of Islam, that is the essence of what Islam is.
We as Muslims should embrace that, not run away from it. We need to embrace that and support it and be involved in it. I appreciate that Hizmet has very early on understood that and practiced it in a very beautiful way.
If I have to describe the efforts of Hizmet in the field of education, as an educator again who has been involved in the running of one Islamic school, I can tell you that the effort is nothing short of a miracle on many levels.
One on how fast those institutions have been established, normally they require a lot of finance, a lot of effort. The resources that are marshaled in the use of Hizmet through a lot of people who many times are volunteers or semi volunteers working on very little salary but putting in a tremendous amount of time.
When I went to Turkey in 2011 had the pleasure of visiting Fatih University talking to some faculty members, I was at "oh!" when I heard that the institution is only a decade or less than a decade old. But, it was a first rate institution in every respect.
I am someone who has studied, done my bachelor, master and juris doctorate degree in the United States. I am familiar with universities. I worked as an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School and am familiar with what educational institutions are, and how hard it is to put them together. To see the establishment of Fatih and then listen that it was only a decade old, yet had every element of what a first rate higher education institution should look like. I also visited a couple of the high schools and spoke directly to the teachers and the students to hear the teachers talk about the fact that the school and the children are their family and the fact that some of them leave at 11 at night to go home, to hear the students say that this is their family and the other students in their school are the people they go to when they have issues and problems, the other people they go for support when they face any issues.
In addition to that, receiving a first rate education that enables them to compete at the highest level to go the best universities not only in Turkey but also in the worldwide.
To see all of that as an educator, I really cannot describe it in any other terms that it is a miracle. And it is what we need as Muslims. We need a lot of education, a lot of first-rate institutions that do two things. One, raise that generation of Muslims who focus on production, positive energy, on giving back, serving, learning something for the sake of Allah, and doing something useful with it, benefit humanity. That is really the vision and the philosophy of Hizmet. So, as an educator, I wish those schools would be in 210 countries not only 168 countries and that they would be thousands and thousands of them, because they are very important.
As a Muslim, it always has impacted me a lot to hear a simple Hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) about that if you are in the affairs of your brother, whether you are able to accomplish what they need from you or not, it is better for you then to do a itiqaf in the Masjid of the Prophet (pbuh) for two months.
And it always struck me, the value of service, the value of helping people who need help whether it is because of disaster or whether it is because of poverty and the circumstances they are in. To me, it is really direct translation of Islam.
On a ritualistic and theological level, Islam is aqidah, ibadah, but on a practical level day to day Islam is service, Islam is helping others, Islam is stepping up on someone else in need because of a disaster of their circumstances.
And to see Kimse Yok Mu… When we visited the headquarters, we were told about the name. The name is very unique. It was really the translation of the answer or the echo of someone who was trapped during the earthquake in Turkey and who cried out “Is anybody there?” and that to be taken as a name of the organization in itself tells you the whole story. It is the answer to the thousands and perhaps the millions of people around the world who keep saying that is there anybody there, does anybody care that I am poor and can not afford to put my kids to education. To see that work, I am not surprised. It is the natural translation of what the Hizmet stands for, and it is another avenue to show this beautiful face of Islam that we don’t usually see around the world.
So, to have an organization that goes to 160 or 100 or so countries around the world and help people on the ground, and everybody knows that it is a Muslim charity that originates from a great country like Turkey through the Hizmet, it is a great thing. And we need a lot more like it.
**Profile: Safaa Zarzour is an attorney and activist. He is the Principal of Zarzour Law Offices. He is also the Chief Operating Officer of Zakat Foundation of America. He previously served as the Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Adjunct professor at Loyola Law School teaching courses in Education and Islamic Law.
*Produced by Spectra Media exclusively for Irmak TV, Atlas of Thoughts (Fikir Atlasi) connects the scholars, politicians, jurists, religious figures, journalists, and academics reflecting on Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement with the audience. Each episode features a person from a different segment of the society with diverse experiences regarding the Hizmet activities and its volunteers. If you are interested to hear about the Hizmet and Mr. Gulen from these people’s perspectives, do not miss this show!