Social Activism in Islam

In the past few years, Muslims’ protest has been voiced loudly worldwide on a number of contentious issues. Muslims believe that instances of injustices must be countered by public demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, corporate boycotts, and political action.

This is true enough, but Muslims’ duty to act against injustice is not limited to issues that directly affect them as individuals or even to issues that touch the Muslim community at large. Rather, the Islamic concept of social activism is much wider and encompasses all aspects of society, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

The role of Muslims in effecting social change can be understood through looking at what the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah say about faith and action.
The Islamic concept of social activism i encompasses all aspects of society, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.
Certainly, Islam was not meant to be experienced passively. That is, Muslims’ belief in the unity of God and the final prophethood of Muhammad ought to propel them into action. This inseparable relationship between faith and action is evident in a number of Qur’anic verses.

[I swear by the declining day, that humans are in loss, except those who have faith and do righteous deeds and counsel one another to follow the truth and counsel one another to be steadfast.] (Al-`Asr 103:1-3)

This is but one illustration of the interconnection between faith and action. In short, Muslims are urged not only to believe, but also to do good deeds.

More specifically, a significant part of the Islamic way of life involves acting as agents for positive social change. In several Qur’anic verses, Muslims are reminded to encourage what is just and resist what is not.

[Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is just and forbidding what is wrong; They are the ones to attain felicity.] (Aal `Imran 3:104)

It is worthy pointing out that this obligation is not borne by men alone, but incumbent upon men and women alike.

[The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: They enjoin what is just, forbid what is evil, observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them, will Allah pour His Mercy: For Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.] (At-Tawbah 9:71)

This duty towards affecting necessary social change is made more explicit in the saying of Prophet Muhammad:

Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest of faith. (Muslim)

Enjoining what is just and forbidding what is wrong encompass a number of obligations within both the Muslim and non-Muslim community. This includes working on community projects that support the less fortunate, lobbying the government for fair minimum wages, supporting laws that help the disabled integrate into society, and the list goes on.

More importantly, the list will differ depending on whether one lives in France, Lebanon, Canada, or China, because just as struggles for justice change from one decade to the next, they also are very much location dependant.

Not only do faith and action go hand in hand, they also are very much interdependent. Muslims manifest their faith in the One God through their daily actions and work, and if this work is done with the proper intention, may strengthen the faith.

Underlying this relationship is the understanding that worship in Islam is not limited to prayers and fasting, but extends to seeking knowledge and sharing it, caring for the environment, stocking the shelves of the local food bank, and other ostensible “worldly” activities.

Prophet Muhammad highlighted the importance of touching the lives of others by indicating that one of the most excellent actions is, to gladden the heart of a Muslim.

Concerning the environment, Prophet Muhammad taught that “A Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field, from which people, birds, and animals can eat, is committing an act of charity” (Muslim).

This is not to say that Muslims must be ardent environmentalists and volunteer 25 hours per week at an orphanage. Instead, they must honestly assess their own talents and skills and then use them for the betterment of society.

This may mean working quietly behind scenes on charitable community projects or, conversely, it may mean running for public office. All individuals have been granted particular strengths by God, and it is up to them to discover them and then use them to the best of their ability in enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong.

It is undeniable that a significant element of any faith, Islam included, is experienced in a deeply personal, private, and spiritual sense. It is part of Muslims’ duty to take hold of their personal convictions and put them into action in order to benefit others.

And, clearly, it is impossible to do so from the sidelines or periphery of society. The natural result of what Islam advocates then, is for Muslims to be full participants in whatever society they choose to call home.

Mihad Fahmy

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