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Getting Involved

Does Islam Encourage Civic Engagement?

For Muslims living in the West, questions concerning civic engagement with the broader society abound. Should we engage? If so, how should we engage? And what should be the basis of our engagement?

Fortunately for us, Allah the Exalted has not left us without guidance on this issue. A careful examination of the Qur’an and Sunnah provides a foundation for understanding how Muslims living in the West should engage.

A covenant to help the oppressed

One potential starting point for understanding these questions is Hilf Al-Fudul (The Covenant of Al-Fudul).  This covenant was signed during a tumultuous period in Pre-Islamic Arabia.  Makkan society was recovering from the Battle of Fijar.  The impact of the war had strained the moral fiber of Makkan society, leaving the weak vulnerable.

It is under this context that a stranger entered Makkah hoping to sell some merchandise.  A Makkan resident named Al-`Aas ibn Wa’il took the stranger’s merchandise and refused to pay him for it.

Feeling helpless, the stranger pleaded with the people in Makkah to help him, but he received no response.  The man frantically climbed atop a hill called Jabal Abu Qubais and implored the people of Makkah to assist him.

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His call was answered by Az-Zubayr ibn `Abdul Muttalib, who assembled the representatives of the clans of Quraish at the house of `Abdullah ibn Jud`an of Banu Taym.  At the assembly the tribal leaders agreed to assist and support anyone who had suffered oppression; regardless of tribal affiliation.

As a young man, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) accompanied his uncles to witness this covenant.  Years later, after he had been commissioned as a Prophet, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said the following about Hilf Al-Fudul:

“I was present when a covenant was agreed upon in the house of `Abdullah ibn Jud`an, and I would not accept red camels (high quality camels) in lieu of it.  Had I been asked to uphold it even in the days of Islam, I would have agreed.”

Cooperation with non-Muslims

From this, we learn that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was not against cooperating with non-Muslims in upholding those values that bring good to society.  This conclusion is further supported by the following verse:

{Help you one another in virtue, righteousness and piety; but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment.}  (Al-Ma’idah 5:2)

The Scholars note that Allah does not specify a particular group that should be cooperated with in this verse.  This suggests that the doors to cooperation are open and are not limited to Muslims; as long as the goal is something that Islam upholds as good and beneficial.

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Civic engagement obstacles

Although the evidence presented above seems to suggest that Muslims can and should be civically engaged in societies, translating this idea into practice can be difficult:

First, there are values that are viewed positively by Muslims that are not currently appreciated in the West; as well as practices that are currently being promoted in the West that are prohibited in Islam.

Additionally, the Muslim community in the West is diverse and has had diverse experiences, which makes it difficult for us to establish a consensus upon which issues should be prioritized.

How to solved these issues?

In spite of these challenges, it is possible to develop a framework for a Muslim civic engagement that addresses the concerns noted above. The foundations of such a framework are briefly discussed below.

First, justice should be the basis of Muslims’ civic engagement.  Allah says in the Qu’ran:

{O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, Allah is a better Protector to both. So follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.} (An-Nisaa’ 4: 135)

In another verse, Allah says:

{O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah and be just witnesses and let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety, and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.} (Al-Ma’idah 5:8)

Although there is much good in our societies, there is also injustice. Some examples include unjust wars, occupation and usurpation of land, the killing and maiming of civilians with drones, police brutality, discrimination, racial profiling, mortgage fraud, and environmental racism.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was clear on instructing the Muslims how to deal with injustice.  It is related by Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

Whosoever amongst you sees an evil, let him change it with his hands; and if he is not able, then with his tongue; and if he is not able, then let him hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.”(Authenticated by Al-Albani)

Protection of the weak

Second, the civic engagement of the Muslims must encourage protection of the weak and vulnerable in society. Although abundant levels of wealth exist in Western nations, remarkable levels of poverty also persist. The indigenous peoples of the U.S.A., Canada, and Australia often live on disadvantaged reservations that effectively isolate them from many societal amenities.

Elderly people often do not receive proper care; children are abandoned and homeless people roam the streets and alleyways. Concerning matters such as this, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

“Whoever is not merciful towards the young among us and who does not recognize the honor of the elderly among us, is not from us.” (At-Tirmidhi)

In a related narration, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said:

“A person who  strives to take care of the needs of the widow and the poor man is like one who struggles in the way of Allah (a mujahid), or like one who stands during the night to pray and fasts during the day.” (Al-Bukhari)

Piety and righteousness

Finally, our civic engagement should uphold piety and righteousness.  Allah says in the Qu’ran:

{Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. And it is they who are the successful.} (Aal `Imran 3:104)

At a time when disbelief in the divine is increasing in the West, Muslims have the unique opportunity to reignite the light of faith by introducing Westerners to the last revealed message.

Unfortunately, there are some in the Muslim community who downplay certain aspects of the Qu’ranic message due to fear of offending the people.  So rarely do you find Muslims in the West speaking about the evils of drugs, alcohol, gambling, fornication, and interest.

But Allah prohibited these things for a reason. And in refusing to highlight these noble Qu’ranic teachings we shortchange society by failing to provide divine solutions to its most pressing issues.

Admittedly, the issues noted above do not provide an exhaustive exposition of how Muslims should engage in the West.  However, by simply doing these three things we can have a profound impact.

Doing these things may not place us in the favor of all of the people, but it will increase our admiration among many, and increase the pleasure of our Lord.

Additionally, a civic engagement that stands up for justice, advocates for the weak, and upholds piety and righteousness will help us gain the respect and credibility that our community currently lacks, and will aid in the repudiation of those anti-Islamic forces that claim Muslims have nothing to offer Western society.