Recently, the Muslim activist has become a punching bag for a wide variety of attacks, slurs, and statements which disregard and marginalize, at best, and vilify at worst, the concept of Islamic activism. From the idea that Islamic activism today is just the tattered remnant of political movements long since gone awry, to the suggestion that Islamic activism is nothing more than a footnote in the annals of the Islamic tradition – activism has taken a beating from various circles. Some suggest that being an activist is inherently anti-spiritual, while others blame activism for the problems of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these short-sighted conclusions are the product of faulty analysis of over fourteen centuries of Islamic history and an incomprehensive perspective that divorces Islamic spirituality from the secular realm–as many Eastern spiritual traditions have done.
One can easily glean from the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the legacy of our scholars that our primary purpose on this Earth is to worship Allah and die in a state knowing that our salvation is supported by sincere intentions and efforts. This world is nothing but a temporary abode and we should live as if we are “wayfarers or travelers on the way” as our Prophet (s) advised. However, to extrapolate this ultimate truth into a marginalization of activism is to forget that along his path, the Muslim traveler is obligated to strive to prevent injustice when he sees it. If he witnesses a crime during his travels, he is ordered to bear witness upon it even if it is against himself. The one who says that we are travelers in this world and so must not merge our exalted religion into secular lowness forgets that Allah rewards the one who removes a harmful object from the path when he comes across it. Preventing this harm is actually a duty for the Muslim! If this world is only a temporary place and we are travelers in it, the responsibility still remains to remove harm from the road of travel every day of our lives.
One of the major critiques launched against any form of Islamic activism, whether political or social in nature, is that it relegates the exalted religion of Islam to only dealing with the crude, impermanent world, in neglect of the spiritual facets of Islam. If such work limits the application of Islam in this manner, then every Messenger of God would have to be accused of such a deed – we seek forgiveness for such a thought. This flawed perspective ignores our prophetic heritage – from Prophet Joseph who volunteered to steer the treasury of Egypt for the sake of benefiting the people and preventing harm, to our beloved Messenger (s), whose entire life was filled with acts of social activism. Islam is not demeaned when its adherents strive to bring about social change. Rather, Islam is actualized. What use is a fire in the heart if it cannot bring warmth and light in the cold, dark night? Working to bring about a betterment of this world through justice while being grounded by deep spirituality has been the hallmark of the Islamic call from the earliest times.
The true criticism should lie in the lack of balance that some organizations have developed by not providing spiritual and educational support and development to their activists. However, to claim that Islamic activism in social or political issues demeans Islam is to limit the Law which Allah (swt) expanded, restrict the mission which Allah (swt) made comprehensive, and disregard the drops of blood and sweat which the Prophets shed in striving to bring social change and benefit for people. Indeed, even with regard to Islamic Law, Ibn al Qayyim wrote: “The goal of Shari’ah is to bring benefit to the servants of Allah in this life and in the Hereafter.”
If one interprets the Shari’ah as simply a legal code, one may not appreciate the beauty of this statement. However, if one understands the Shari’ah to be a light that guides the actions and decisions of a person, family, and society, one will understand that this benefit must be actualized in a comprehensive manner that includes striving and working for the betterment of the affairs of this world.