Towards Sacred Activism: A Religious Guide for the Muslim Activist

Activism has become a huge part of countries around the world but especially in the West. It seems there is a voice for every issue now crying out for equality or justice. There is no doubt that organized activism is one of the best ways to bring about a positive social change in society. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of causes out there that one can choose to represent in society. The problem, however, is that not all of them are compatible with Islam, particularly some of the popular ones. This is where there is a conundrum for the Muslim activist.

One of the most influential and prominent forms of activism in the West is that of LGBTQ. However, this type of lifestyle is explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an and prophetic statements. In addition, there is a consensus on its prohibition among Muslim scholars in mainstream Islam. Therefore, it should be a no-brainer that as Muslims we cannot get behind this issue and pretend it is just like any other social justice issue.

As Muslims, our fundamental understanding of right and wrong comes from the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic statements, actions, and tacit approvals). If it is considered wrong/evil by Allah or His Messenger, then we must not get behind anything that will normalize such evil. Rather, we must oppose it even if the whole world thinks it’s good. Similarly, if Allah or His Messenger consider something good, then we must also consider it as such and get behind it even if the whole world thinks it’s wrong. We are told in the Qur’an:

And if you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of Allah . They follow not except assumption, and they are not but falsifying [Qur’an 6:116].

Allah also tells his Prophet (pbuh) and in extension the believers in the Qur’an:

And follow what is revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and be patient until Allah will judge [Qur’an 10:109].

Activism has definitely become more popular among young Muslims in the West due to Islamophobia. Today, Muslims are more aware and involved in social and political issues. They have quoted verses from the Qur’an and blessed prophetic statements (hadiths) to back up their activism in fighting for justice for the oppressed. For example, Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah [Qur’an 3:110].

Traditionally, this verse and others like it with similar wording have been interpreted by Muslim scholars to mean enjoining all that which Allah and His Messenger have commanded and forbidding all that which Allah and His Messenger have prohibited. Even with this interpretation, there are many modern issues which can fall under it, such as, racism, bullying, poverty, exploitation, torture, corruption, etc., because all such things are forbidden in Islam and we should speak out against them and try to eradicate them from our society. The problem arises, however, when a Muslim activist uses such verses to include issues which are clearly contradictory to Islam. For example, LGBTQ normalization, legalization of sex work, abortion rights after the soul has entered into the fetus, etc. would all be considered wrong in Islam and not permissible for Muslims to advocate for them.

In recent times, some Muslim activists in the West have attracted national spotlight for their efforts. Unfortunately, some of them have even advocated for LGBTQ issues like same sex marriage. Those among the mainstream who have advocated for such things use the argument that all minorities must have each others back and that they’re only supporting them so that all minorities, including Muslims, are treated fairly. So in reality, they proclaim, they are advocating for Muslim rights. This has led to lots of debate and confusion among Muslims as to how to go about such issues. Should we support many popular modern movements in the field of “social justice” that clearly contradict our faith principles with the caveat that it will bring us as Muslim minorities benefit as well? What about working with groups who advocate for such forbidden issues but we restrict our work with them on issues we both find problematic (poverty, corruption, racism, islamophobia, etc.)? Can we be partners with such groups?

Imam Dawud Walid, an imam in the Metropolitan Detroit area and Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), has attempted to answer these questions in his latest book entitled Towards Sacred Activism. It’s a small 75 page booklet that concisely addresses Muslim activists in the West and provides guidance on how to do social justice activism from an Islamic perspective. He provides some excellent advice and I will try to summarize to the best of my ability. I highly recommend purchasing it if you want to get involved in social justice work from an Islamic perspective.

He points out in his book that social justice work, for a Muslim, should be done to enhance the good in our society and interrupt injustice based upon the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunnah. The first and foremost motivation and reason a Muslim should do this work, he says, is for the pleasure of Allah and everything else is secondary. In order to understand the guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah, and what pleases or displeases Allah, it requires religious literacy, hence, Muslim activists should be learned enough in their faith tradition so that they do not fall into promoting that which the Qur’an and Sunnah have forbidden or preventing that which the Qur’an and Sunnah have commanded. He argues that before taking on any modern issue, the Muslim activist should get in touch with Muslim scholars and educate himself/herself on the issue from an Islamic perspective. He admits that there is some sort of gap between Muslim scholars and Muslim activists and that they both live in their own bubbles not really fully engaging with the other side. He states:

“There should be more religious leaders who are in tune with grassroots, social justice activism, just as there should be more activists who have some background in the traditional Islamic sciences. Yet, the reality on the ground is that these two groups are not in regular conversation with each other” (Pgs. 73-74).

He provides five guidelines to keep in mind before delving into social justice work with other groups:

  1. Be upfront, resolute and kind in telling religious leaders and advocates where you stand on this issue based upon normative Islamic beliefs and that it is acceptable for them to disagree. Just as you are not trying to impose your beliefs upon them, you should respectfully tell them that you have the right to not agree with all of their positions but can work together with them where causes align.
  2. Be involved in coalitions calling for social justice that align with the shari’ah (Islamic law), regardless of LGBTQ groups being part of those coalitions.
  3. Attempt to be clear, within yourself, about phrases and nomenclature, that will not be used in campaigns and public rallies that violate the shari’ah. Not everything has to be verbally recognized in the name of intersectionality.
  4. Do not collaborate or encourage any initiative that advances what is clearly forbidden in Islam, falsely in the name of allyship.
  5. Be prepared to hear Islam itself, not just Muslims, being called homophobic and patriarchal because of issues such as the opinion on homosexuality. Remember that soft anti-Islam sentiments exist within the Left in relation to how it sees traditional Islamic theology and jurisprudence conflicting with Liberalism.

Walid differentiates between coalitions and alliances. He views coalitions in a way that allows more flexibility with them. He says coalitions differ from alliances in the following ways:

  • Coalition is a collaboration which is usually temporary in nature and is based upon a narrow focus of issue(s)
  • Coalition partners do not have to share the same belief systems and methodologies in order to cooperate upon limited common goals
  • Coalition partners can be in partnership on some issues while simultaneously be in opposition to each other on other matters

To justify working with such groups in a narrow sense, he uses the verse, “And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression” [Qur’an 5:2]. He also uses the incident of Hilf al-Fudul, a pact which took place before Islam which the idolater leaders of Mecca agreed to implement to establish fair commercial dealings in Mecca and which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) supported even well after his prophethood. Walid states, “Hilf al-Fudul, however, in no way meant that he [the prophet] would have sanctioned Muslims to affirm, much less propagate, the heresy of Quraysh’s idolatry, the burying of female babies alive and other un-Islamic aspects of their lifestyle as a condition of being in such a coalition” (pg. 56).

Finally, Walid clarifies that as Muslims we must not get involved or support vigilante violence, mayhem, threatening, bullying, etc. against those from the LGBTQ community. We must and can disagree with their lifestyle but not resort to such behavior. In addition, he supports doing social justice work that brings about Islamic based justice in society irrespective of who benefits from it (poverty, homelessness, healthcare reform, immigration reform, etc.). So if you help a LGBTQ person come out of poverty, get affordable healthcare, etc., this does not oppose Islamic ethics or values argues Walid.

There are a lot more gems that he shares based on his experience and I highly encourage those who are interested in getting involved in social justice from an Islamic perspective to buy and read it.

I would also recommend the talk linked below delivered by Sh. Yasir Qadhi at a CAIR event in which he discusses these issues.


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