On Islamic Activism

by Ghanim Khalil

As Muslims, we must remain aware of the changing norms of this world, especially those which seek to devalue the Islamic worldview. A vigilant Muslim will therefore seek to abide by Islam according to the standards developed by its experts (usually the ulama of the different branches of Islamic learning) spanning centuries back to the formations of Islamic thought and practice following the Prophetic age. A vigilant Muslim will see the world through the lens and instruments of Islam, not vice versa.

Today many Muslims are unfortunately disconnected from the Islamic worldview. They consciously or unconsciously have adopted contemporary ideological narratives and the lenses that come with them to critique Islam and Muslim societies (past and present) with little reference to or understanding of the Islamic worldview. This is highly problematic from the Islamic point of view, which will be highlighted shortly.

There is a false dichotomy produced by a false narrative about an ongoing conflict between two groups of Muslims: “the scholars” (mostly traditionally trained ulama) and “the activists” (who are Muslims but sometimes include their non-Muslim allies). The dichotomy and narrative is false because these two groups don’t exist as commonly described, as distinct and monolithic entities. The words “activist” and “scholar” are used more like labels than accurate social-religious identities. False dichotomies are produced by and thrive upon generalizations, misidentifications, and ignorance. They are perpetuated by those who have no respect for truth or suffer from compound ignorance (unaware of their ignorance).

A strong argument can be made that only those who act within the sanctuary of Islamic teachings can be beneficial “Muslim activists,” if the word activist is appropriately qualified to mean “those who do good” or “those who call to justice” in the context of “commanding the good and forbidding the evil” (Qur’an 3:104). There are various definitions of “activist,” but as Muslims we naturally expect the definition of “Muslim activist” to be someone who first and foremost believes and seeks to fulfill the teachings of Islam in their appropriate social spaces. Understanding the role of the “Muslim activist” requires a basic understanding of Islam from its sacred sources.

One of the names of the Qur’an is ‘Al-Balagh’ (The Sufficient Message), wherein human conflicts are addressed sufficiently, without recourse to doctrines or understandings contrary to its ethos or teachings. Al-Balagh was revealed to the blessed Ummi (unlettered, yet imbued with knowledge, wisdom, and Divine sanction) – the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) who was sent also to perfect human character (especially in terms of everyday manners or adab) so that people become expressions of ihsan (inner perfection and beauty).

In Islam, Ilm (knowledge) and iman (faith and connection to Allah) direct one’s potential to ihsan (the highest form of self-development in Islam) through self discipline and commitment to adab so that actions are clothed with the necessary baraka (the metaphysical presence Allah’s goodness). The baraka is what makes an action or process beneficial to humanity and the self. Without baraka there is no sound activism; meaning that only those actions produced with the purest sincerity, in accordance to ilm, iman, and ihsan, can produce the desired good so that it fulfills the purpose of the ayah “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11)

One’s activism therefore must be critiqued with the above Islamic standards, otherwise even well intentioned speech and action to change our condition will actually and gradually lay the foundations for the rise of Dajjal (the time of falsehood, deception, and darkness). This is so because ilm, iman, ihsan, and baraka will become valueless in the minds of many Muslims. In their place will be Muslims taking recourse in doctrines or understandings contrary to the ethos or teachings of Al-Balagh (the Qur’an which is sufficient) and the blessed Ummi ﷺ, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). They will not see the world through the lens and instruments of Islam but vice versa.

It is critical that Muslims engage the problems of the world today with the knowledge, wisdom, and worldview provided by Islam, in manners which are consistent with the ethics of Islam. This means that the serious “Muslim activist” will seek above all else the pleasure of Allah and follow the examples of those who addressed the problems of their societies with the utmost deference to the instructions and ethics of Islam. We are seeing less of this as Muslims who self identify as activists engage in speech which viciously defames members of the ulama who do not see it their way and/or don’t adopt their methods of change-making. The defamation is either downplayed by their supporters or justified as necessary to “call out” or “expose” ulama who they see as “sell outs” and “complicit” in the injustices of the time. The important wisdom behind adab ikhtilaf fil Islam (the well established ethics of disagreement in Islam) is almost entirely neglected and in some cases ridiculed by lead activists. Many do not feel an obligation to abide by Islamic teachings which forbid foul and demeaning language. The manner by which a Muslim is distinguished as such outwardly (via speech and action) has faded indicating the absence of ihsan.

Far from addressing the problems of society, such activists are laying the ground for the eventual delegitimization of the Islamic worldview, while utilizing a discourse that includes Islam but fails to abide by its ethos and principles.

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