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5 Principles of Righteous Action and Activism

{Say, ‘Take action! Allah will see your action – as will His Messenger and the believers – and then you will be returned to Him Who knows what is hidden and what is seen, and He will tell you what you have been doing.} (At-Tawbah 9:105)

{O Messengers! Eat good things and do good deeds: I am well aware of what you do. This Community of yours is one community and I am your Lord, so be mindful of me.} (Al-Mu’minun 23:51-52)

Islam emphasizes right beliefs and right actions. Being an action-oriented religion, Islam encourages its followers to be active and work hard, all within the framework of right and good deeds.

So, whatever we do must be prompted by consciousness of Allah and inspired by the conviction that Allah watches everything; on the Day of Judgment all our deeds will be presented before Him for His final judgment.

In Islam there is no sharp division between the secular work and religious work. All work is religious if it is done with the awareness of Allah, observing the rules of Allah and for the benefit of His creation.

Activism till Last Breath

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

If the end of the world approaches and one of you has a seedling (or plant) in his hand, if he can plant it before the end comes let him do it.” (Ahmad)

This hadith gives us a clear perspective on Islamic attitude towards action and activism. In a very simple and profound way, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) paves the way to righteous activism.

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The Prophet did not say “If the end approaches, give up everything, go to the mosque and just pray. Give up all worldly business.” Rather, he gave us a new perspective about work and action.

Value of Good Deeds

The first point emphasized in this hadith is that good deeds have their intrinsic value. They are important and should always be committed to.

Of course this does not mean that all actions are of the same value, or we should not prioritize. Islam has given us clear rules of what is obligatory, what is recommended, what is forbidden and what is discouraged. Shari’ah teaches us priorities and we must keep this in mind in all circumstances.

Seize Opportunities

Second, the hadith emphasizes that we should take advantage of all the opportunities we have to do good and valuable things.

Also none of us knows when the end of the world will be. One may think that end is near, but it may not be. Only Allah knows when the end will be. So whatever time we have we should keep doing right things and good deeds.

Obsession with Prompt Results

Third, the hadith tells us that doing a good deed itself is important, whether we are able to see the results or not. We should not be too obsessed with prompt results. Some results are achieved immediately and some later, but our ultimate objective should be to please Allah and gain His acceptance in the Hereafter.

We are not indifferent to results but, at the same time, we are not obsessed with the desire to see immediate achievement in everything.

This principle saves us from the mistaken view that ‘ends justify the means.’ In Islam the rule is that ends must be right and means must be right. If the means are not halal or appropriate, they should not be used.

Principles of righteous activism

There are many important Islamic principles regarding actions that our scholars have emphasized. Let me summarize the basic Islamic philosophy of action in the following points:

1. Deeds Must Be Righteous

In order to know what is righteous, Allah has given us two main sources: the Naql (The revelation: the Qur’an and the Sunnah) and ‘Aql (mind and reason).

The deeds must be in accordance with the divine revelation and Prophetic guidance. They must be also reasonable. Everything must be done with wisdom (hikmah) and in line with the basic objectives (maqasid) of Islam. Scholars have summed up the objectives of Islam in the protection and promotion of religion, life, mind, property and family.

2. Comprehensiveness of Righteous Action

Righteous actions include all kind of actions: devotional, moral, social, economic, political, etc. Righteous actions are those that are beneficial, good and useful; and righteous actions are also those that remove harm, evil and injustice.

3. Benefits should Outweigh Harm

We must consider when taking any action that the benefits should outweigh the potential harm.

Avoiding harm has priority over potential benefit. The meaning is that when taking any action, we should carefully assess whether there is more harm or benefit.

If there is more harm than benefit, and/or if the harm is more certain than the benefit then we must not take that action.

4. Repelling Greater Harm with Lesser Harm

A harm of lesser intensity is acceptable if it wards off a greater harm. Also, the benefit of the larger public is more important than the benefit of an individual. Actually an individual harm may be tolerable if it can save the general public from harm.

5. Sincerity and Excellence

Whatever actions are taken they should be marked by sincerity (ikhlas) and in an excellent manner (itqan).

The actions should be taken with knowledge, wisdom, planning and care. In Islam there is no place for rash, radical or extreme actions.

Allah says in the Qur’an that He appointed Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as His Messenger to do the following:

{It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom – although they were before in clear error.} (Al-Jumu’ah 62: 2)

The commentators of the Qur’an say that the word ‘wisdom’ (hikmah) here means the Sunnah. Whatever the Prophet said, did and approved was full of wisdom. Wisdom is in the Sunnahand Sunnah also teaches how to take wise actions. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) lived, and practiced Islam in the wisest manner. He always emphasized that which was good, balanced and appropriate. Allah says,

{And thus We have made you a middle nation to be witnesses over mankind, and (for) the Messenger to be a witness over you…} (Al-Baqarah 2:143)