Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Saara Sabbagh

Seeking the Creator through Conscious Living

An inclusive place based on the principles of mercy and compassion, providing individuals with space for 'seeking the creator through conscious living.' That, in a nutshell, is ‘Benevolence’ – a social organisation that Saara Sabbagh set up in Melbourne in 2008. Parveen Muhammed meets the Islamic community leader who decided to 'be the change you want to see in the world.’

Sabbagh, who is of Syrian origin, arrived in Melbourne at the age of six, and has been a social worker since the age of 16. In her early 20's, she travelled to Syria and studied under eminent female Islamic scholars, who left a lasting impression on her. This spiritual influence, combined with her calling to be a community worker, brought about her desire to create a space for the Muslim community in Australia to build their own spiritual foundation within the Islamic tradition.

In 2008, together with five other like-minded women, Sabbagh established ‘Benevolence’ as a not-for-profit community organisation. The idea behind Benevolence, she explained, is that 'anyone who walks in is welcome and is allowed to own their own spiritual journey.' Five years later, the women were able to set up their own space at Benevolence House at Doncaster in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs – a space inspired by Sabbagh’s friendship with long-term IofC workers Rob and Cheryl Wood, and her many visits to Armagh, the Asia-Pacific Centre for IofC that hosts many visitors and activities for peace.

Saara SabbaghSabbagh notes that the Muslim community in Australia is diverse, made up of many ethnic groups. While there are mosques that cater for the different groups, the more recent generation of Australian Muslims want a communal space that is not defined by their ethnic background. Benevolence seeks to help understand what it means to be an 'Australian Muslim'. It provides the space for the community and young people especially to discuss issues and help them consolidate their ethnic identity, Australian identity and faith identity. Benevolence also caters to the needs of Islamic converts of different backgrounds, including indigenous Australians and white Australian Muslims. Seeking a new identity, Sabbagh states, does not mean that the differences of culture and ethnicity are dismissed; rather their value is recognized. However, it is the characteristics of compassion, mercy and kindness – ‘the very essence of being a human being' – that are more important, and that need to be harnessed in the community. She highlights that 'beauty lies in our diversity' and that irrespective of what culture we come from, it is 'Islamic values that permeate within them all'. 'Ultimately when you look at any practice the majority of it is based on family, kindness and love,' says Sabbagh, adding that, 'We don’t have to become a “melting pot” and dismiss our different sources of identity, but rather recognise that we do indeed manage to merge them all together and do it well.’

As a woman in a position of leadership, it has not been an easy journey for Sabbagh, who has faced many hurdles within the community as well as in wider society. This, she observes, is unfortunately a common occurrence with any women in authority, irrespective of the community they come from. 'Having great mentors and role models in the Syrian scholars, and knowing who you are as a person in your own tradition, helped me to overcome setbacks.' says Sabbagh. She believes the environment has evolved over the last 10 years to better enable women to come forward. Furthermore, Sabbagh emphasises the great importance of women taking on roles of leadership in faith communities to overcome existing prejudices against women. She highlights that, in contrast to general belief about the Islamic tradition, 'Female scholars, activists and leaders have always played a role in the history of Islam. The wives of the Prophet played a pivotal role in shaping society, and women have always been there alongside male companions. Sadly, this often goes unacknowledged.’

Benevolence focuses on two aspects: providing for the spiritual nourishment of the individual; and contributing to a better understanding of Islam in the wider community. The individual's needs are catered to through the organisation of weekly classes and discussions. 'These are not “feel-good” sessions, but ones that make you think, question and change,' Sabbagh says. Through these sessions, she has seen participants become more connected to God, more self-reflective and more family-oriented, as well as becoming more knowledgeable about Islamic practices and Prophetic traditions.

The work Benevolence has done in the wider community has involved sessions to demystify Islam and create opportunities to ask questions. 'We cannot ignore the fact that Islam seems problematic at the moment worldwide and the wider community is seeking to learn. We cannot bury our heads but have to create the space for people to ask these questions', reflects Sabbagh. Benevolence also works with schools to host interactive sessions aimed at the younger generation, giving them a basic understanding of Islam and break existing misconceptions.

Sabbagh is happiest when seeing people connecting back with their faith, understanding the purpose of life, and leading a more fulfilled life. Future plans include moving to larger premises to cater to a bigger crowd and to start a community school where values will be taught at a young age. - By Parveen Muhammad   

Photos courtesy of Benevolence Australia