The Islamic Etiquette of Activism
We are living in troubling times. It, justifiably, feels like hate is everywhere you look. Systems of oppression that were baked into our society's very fiber and swept under the rug for decades are now beginning to light. As these crimes are uncovered, we see more people calling for justice and accountability.
2020, in particular, has been a year in which the inequality and innate oppression of our culture have reached a boiling point, and people have taken to the streets and refused to acknowledge anything less than justice. As has always been the case, ordinary citizens' responsibility is to stand up for justice for those who are less fortunate than themselves. Thankfully, many Muslims have answered the call and have stood at the front lines of these movements. As Muslims, we understand our obligation in Islam to enjoin in good and forbid evil (Quran 3:110). Muslims bring a particular strength in their background by understanding justice, as explained and exemplified through our Prophets’ stories.
Muslims have the potential to propose unique frameworks and strategies for justice in their communities and as part of global justice movements. When we enter these struggles and movements, we must adhere to the Islamic etiquette given to us by our Prophet (SAW). The Prophetic tradition tells us that we must stand up for justice, regardless of the circumstances. When it comes to the work of justice, Islam has given us a clear picture of what true justice looks like and the methodologies required to achieve that justice.
"The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions, and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In the first hadith in Sahih Bukhari, our Prophet (SAW) describes the importance of our intentions when it comes to initiating a task. It is a fundamental concept in Islam to be intentional. By setting our intention, Allah rewards us for accomplishing what we had intended, even if we could not achieve our mission. This hadith reaffirms the need to understand why we are committed to an action before we do it.
As an activist, this idea is essential because it's easy to get lost in our work. It is crucial that we begin every step, including the fight for justice, with the right intentions and continually renew them. People do not typically notice a lot of the work that we do, and it might make a person feel like maybe his or her work doesn't make a difference. By setting our intentions early in doing this work for the pleasure of our Lord, we understand that He alone will reward us accordingly and that his justice is the supreme justice.
وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِكَ
"And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from you." (Quran 3:159)
In Surah Ali-Imran, the Prophet (SAW) is taught the importance of how to address people when we call them to the truth. This applies to every interaction we have with any other individual and, by extension, our activism. It can be frustrating to understand why people do not support seemingly straightforward issues of right and wrong. This can lead to activists being annoyed with people around them, ostracizing them, or even leading some to demean others. Advocacy is meant to call people in, not call people out.
Additionally, this verse discusses how the Prophet (SAW) dealt with some of his companions who had made a mistake. Allah (SWT) himself states in this verse that the companions themselves would have responded poorly to harsh criticism. We must use this quranic wisdom when calling people to the truth we preach. The Prophet's empathy and social skills drew people to listen and be present for the message. We must develop communication and outreach strategies built on the approach of the Prophet.
"The seeking of knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim" (Sunan Ibn Majah)
From the first revelation, "Read" (96:1), seeking knowledge has been stressed to us as Muslims. It is highlighted throughout the Quran and numerous hadith.
Education is essential for us to be able to advocate effectively. This verse, one word, has commanded us to a lifelong pursuit of education. We will only oppress ourselves when we stop seeking further knowledge. This does not necessarily mean that we need to achieve a particular academic degree. It means that we must be willing to keep up with current events and understand historical contexts and the depth of the issues we advocate for. Monitoring is a crucial part of understanding the cause of justice holistically and studying each of the moving parts. Each set of current events helps us draw and envision the greater picture.
"None of you will truly believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
The "Golden Rule" is the idea that we must do unto others what we want to be done to ourselves. This concept exists in almost every religion, tradition, and culture around the world. The Prophetic tradition makes this idea of selflessness a fundamental component of the faith. A Muslim's faith is incomplete without internalizing this saying.
When we advocate, most of us start by opposing injustices that impact us most closely. However, justice for yourself only is not justice. The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Intersectionality is a fundamental part of activism. The oppression facing your community is rooted in the same system of oppression facing other communities. Our fight against Islamophobia is against the same system of oppression that affects other faith groups.
"Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?" The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "By preventing him from oppressing others." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
A big test for us is seeing our own community or even family, making the mistakes that we are fighting against. It is important that in this hadith, the prophet's companions asked how they can support any oppressor. It is our responsibility to prevent those who are close to us from committing acts of oppression. This can come in different forms, such as holding family members accountable for things they say out of ignorance or making sure our community is educated.
"Palestine in the Islamic Consciousness", an AMP Community event in Seattle, Washington. (February 2020).
A man said, "O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?" The Prophet, peace, and blessings be upon him, said, "Tie her and trust in Allah." (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2517)
In times of hardship, we trust in Allah to protect us. Our Prophetic tradition teaches us that trust in Allah is a matter of faith, action, and practicality. Examples of this can be found in the stories of the Prophets and believers all over the Quran. We live in a world that if you do not fight for your rights, they will be taken from you. We have an obligation to fight for the justice we wish to see. Simultaneously, we must remember to put our trust in Allah to achieve the results we want. It is only through the will of God that we will be successful.
The challenges ahead of us are still significant. Some might (wrongly) assume that because the election cycle has ended and because a new President has been elected means that our work is done. No matter what, our work continues. The systemic issues that plague this country and the world are rooted in power structures that will not be decided by an election. As our brother, Malcolm X, said, "Power never takes a back step - only in the face of more power." So we must work together and collectively build our power, regardless of political leadership, to see the change we wish to see in the world.
The teachings of the Prophet (SAW) were meant to be a guide for all humanity. Allah states in the Holy Quran, "And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds (21:107)." Islam is an equalizer. In the eyes of Allah, the only thing that differentiates one person from another is their actions, and Allah will judge us all, equally, on the Day of Judgement. Any system that privileges one human over another is unjust in the eyes of Allah. By focusing on our values and behaving with Islamic etiquette in our activism, we will change the future and build a more just society, one step at a time.