Rules for Religious Activism

Truth be told, I have never liked the term “activism” as applied to Islam or Muslims, not least because it is unclear and nebulous and cobbles together many disparate thoughts, activities and people under a single umbrella.

Nonetheless, since activism tends to refers to the efforts to promote or to direct social, political, economic or environmental change, Islam most certainly has some take on such matters; and hence has something of great significance to contribute to “activism”. And while it is true certain Muslim activists are still more influenced by Marxist style paradigms than the guidance offered by the shari‘ah and the Prophet’s seerah (Prophetic biography); and while it is also true that some activism has been made inherently anti-spiritual; nonetheless, there are many forms activism can take which can and do mirror Islam’s teachings: in both letter and spirit.

Islam’s vision of man and society has never been utopian, for the very nature of this world is one of imperfection. Rather, the social guidance Islam offers is mapped out against the contours of human reality.

That said, Islam does seek to foster certain virtues so as to nurture a just, ethical and civil social order that can help steer us through the darknesses that punctuate, and in some cases, suffocate the human experience. In such a society, each of its members – along with, and oftentimes, in spite of the state – has a personal responsibility; a duty, to promote virtue and prevent vice. Each individual is responsible for the well-being of their fellow ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’: helping them in poverty; comforting them in distress; relieving them in hardship; counselling them and, in the spirit of kindness, putting them right when they stray or err:

The believers, men and women, are allies to each other, they enjoin the good and forbid the evil. [Surah At-Taubah, 71]

You are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. You enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and you believe in God. [Surah Aal-‘Imran, 110]

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Nor is Islam’s concern limited just to the welfare of believers.

Have you observed, asks the Qur’an, him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor … and who refuses to give neighborly assistance. [Surah Al-Maa’oon, 1-7]

The poor and the orphans, here, are not referring to just Muslims; but to any and all orphans and poor. The same concern is also with economic injustices:

Woe to those who deal in fraud; those who, when others measure for them, exact in full, but when they measure or weigh for others, defraud them! [Surah Al-Mutaffifin, 1-3] 

As to the monstrous Arab practice of female infanticide, the Qur’an takes great exception to it:

When one of them receives tidings [of the birth] of a baby girl, his face darkens and he hides his grief. He then conceals himself from people, due to the bad news he has received, [asking himself]: ‘Shall he keep her and be ashamed, or bury her beneath the dust?’ Evil indeed is their judgement. [Surah An-Nahl, 58-59] 

All these injustices and evils – moral, social and economical – were challenged by Islam, which demanded that they be stood up to and be eliminated wherever possible. The Qurʾānic stance, in short, is simply this: evil must be opposed; wrongs must be righted.

As for the prophetic narratives, they make it explicitly clear that the duty of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa’l-nahi ‘ani’l-munkar) is actually an issue of faith.

‘Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – that is the weakest of faith.’ [Muslim, no.49]

The idea of activism, as such, doesn’t make an appearance in classical formulations of Islam. Perhaps the nearest thing to it in pre-modern writings on Islam is the Qurʾānic mandate to ‘enjoin good and forbid evil.’ Without suggesting that the two are identical (the core of the classical concept involved a personal duty to right wrongs committed by fellow believers; the core of the new activism is a much more systematic, organised propagation of Islamic and universal values within and outside Muslim communities), Muslim activism is still duty bound to reflect the Qurʾānic directives for changing and challenging the wrong. So along with courage, compassion and concern – courage to standup to immorality and injustice, and compassion and concern for human dignity and welfare – Islamic activism must be led by the prophetic guidelines and established juristic norms in respect to enjoining good or forbidding evil. How else will it qualify as being ‘Islamic’?

The body of scholarly literature on this subject stresses that those who enjoin good or forbid evil must do so by observing certain necessary traits – at the head of which are: Knowledge, Gentleness, Justice and Patience.

That early Muslim scholar and sage, Sufyan al-Thawri explained: ‘Enjoining good and forbidding evil should not be undertaken save by a person who possess three qualities: gentleness (rifq) in commanding and forbidding, justice (‘adl) in what is commanded or forbidden, and knowledge (‘ilm) of what is commanded or forbidden.’1

Ibn Taymiyyah states: ‘Therefore these three are essential: knowledge, gentleness and patience. Knowledge precedes commanding and forbidding, gentleness accompanies it, and patience follows – although all three go hand in hand in the matter.’2

Ibn Qudamah wrote: ‘In general there are three traits required of one who commands or forbids:

  1. Knowledge of the appropriate circumstances for censuring wrong, and their limits, so as to keep within the limits of the shari‘ah.
  2. Godfearingness, without which one may have knowledge of something but not act according to it due to some personal interest.
  3. Good character, which is the basis of being able to exercise self-control; for when anger is aroused, mere knowledge and godfearingness are seldom enough to suppress it if sound character is absent … As for gentleness in commanding good and forbidding evil, it is an obligation.

God, Exalted is He, said:

Speak to him with gentle words. [Surah Ta-Ha, 44]

It is narrated that Abu’l-Darda’ once came across a man who had committed a sin for which people were reviling him. He said to them: “Don’t you see that if you had found him in a well wouldn’t you try to rescue him?’” They replied: Yes. He then said: “So do not revile him; instead thank God that He has saved you.” They asked: But shouldn’t we hate him? He replied: “Rather hate his action.”’3

Whether one intends by activism, da‘wah, demonstrations, petitioning, campaigning, lobbying, boycotting or aiding the poor and the needy, the centrality of knowledge (in most cases) cannot be ignored. In other words, activism need not be led by religious scholars, but it should at least be steered by their wise counsel and guidance. But this brings us to the sticky subject of scholarly integrity. The ummah long ago (its scholars included) divided religious scholars into three groups: government scholars (‘ulema al-dawlah), populist scholars (‘ulema al-‘ammah) and righteous religious scholars (‘ulema al-millah).

“Government scholars” are not necessarily scholars employed by the state. Instead, it applies to those scholars whose intended aim is to be royalist and defend official state policies regardless of truth, justice and the shari‘ah. Their goal is not God, as much as it is to placate the palace. They are different from those government appointed scholars whose lives are a testimony to their God-fearingness and piety, but whose perceptions and outlook, when it comes to fatwas on larger political matters, are skewered by false government briefing, misinformation and propaganda. The personal integrity of such scholars is unquestionable; their political fatwas less so.

“Populist scholars” are at the other end of the spectrum. They are scholars whose chief purpose is being popular among the masses. Their fatwas are always anti-government merely for the sake of being so. Again, God, justice, and the greater public welfare isn’t their main goal, as much as it is keeping the hysteria of the masses happy, courting the crowd, and pandering to the public’s praise. These people, as with the above, have also betrayed their scholarly credentials.

As for the “righteous religious scholars”, their goal is God’s good pleasure. They issue fatwas out of piety, in light of the shari‘ah and with trying to conceptualize the actual situation. Their fatwas are based on knowledge, justice and on scrupulousness. God’s pleasure is their aim: whether the fatwa agrees with the monarchy or the masses; the president or the public.

As for activism driven principally by emotion, zealotry, ignorance, anger, vengeance, abusing the scholars, and actors hidden from the public eye, or puppeteers pulling the strings of the herd from on high – this shall never bode well for Muslims; at least not in the long run. One suspects that only the devil and Islam’s avowed enemies will rub their hands in glee at such a precarious situation.

One final word about activism. As we seek to change our outer world, we must strive to rectify our inner world too: the two are inextricably linked and intertwined. Thus for activism to bear the desired fruits, there must be active sincerity of the soul, active obedience to the One, and active intention for self-improvement. Bottom line for any change is:

Never does God change the condition of a people, unless they change what is in themselves. [ Surah Ar-Ra’d, 11]


1. Cited in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:256.

2. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:137.

3. Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 140.

9 / View Comments

9 responses to “Rules for Religious Activism”

  1. Selma says:

    One of the most beautiful articles i’ve ever read

  2. Abu Ibn Adam says:

    Just my responses:

    1. “Comment about Marxist style paradigms than the guidance offered by the
    shari’ah and the Prophet’s seerah (Prophetic biography)” – Can you be
    more specific ? A lot of subjective ? Do you mean demonstrations ?
    Do you mean open dawah ? Can you be specific of a particular
    example and its pitfall, otherwise, this article doesnt really
    say much. So Imam Rabbani of India letters to the Moghul Emperor
    admonishing him – How different is that from people emailing
    their anger or frustration, if the letter was written in a
    respectful way ? Karl Marx was very critical of religion and
    did read about Islam so how do we know that he did not take
    some ideas from the initial Muslim community before Medina ?

    2. “The idea of activism, as such, doesn’t make an appearance in classical
    formulations of Islam.”

    – Thats because in most of classical formulations of Islam, were formulated in times when
    Muslims were in position of rule. You can’t really compare and comparing with the
    pre-medina Muslims is difficult, as the revelations are now complete. Our situaion
    today is a mixture of Makkan periods, pre-Medina and post Medina, transposed with
    modernity. As a scholar, why don’t you give clear parameters? Have you done
    activism or is it just mere observations which will always be subjective?

    3. “Populist scholars” – Again why do you assume they are not God centric? So
    people like Imam Ahmad were “Populist scholars” ? The defintions of
    government scholars (‘ulema al-dawlah), populist scholars (‘ulema al-‘ammah)
    and righteous religious scholars (‘ulema al-millah) is very subjective and
    most of the time, we will only know who was probably right a few hundred
    years later. Today in Syria – Shaykh Ramadan Bouti – Where would he
    come in your definition ? Point is “ulema”, can get it wrong as well.
    Again define “Populist” – If the poeple are dying for freedom, jobs,
    food, education and health – how is that Populist and is that wrong?
    By your defintion, the anti-colonial movements in the 20th century
    are wrong because it was “Populist” because the none of the European
    colonial powers stopped the Muslims from praying, eating halal and
    so on. But today’s neo-colonial puppet installed rulers are fine
    as well, because some of them are Ahle Bayt or dictatorship is
    better than civil strife? Thank Allah, Islamic History has shown
    a different picture from what you have painted.

    “In other words, activism need not be led by religious scholars,”
    Sorry, where did you get that from ? By what defintion and why not?
    If you preach from the pulpit, then you should reach out from the
    pulpit. Papacy is not our tradition. There countless Ulema from
    our tradition historically who were activists led. Led battles,
    repriminded rulers through letters, counsels, led demonstrations,
    planned to bring down corrupt rulers – Now is that
    “Marxist style paradigms”. No – That was the spirit of the

    Today’s Ulema are in crisis. Colonial occupation for 100s
    of years have destroyed their infrastructure thus their
    indepedance. Modernity and secularlism have massively
    challenged them as they struggle to contextualise texts
    with demand of today’s societies. Their traditional position
    of being vanguard of the Sacred Texts has been replaced by
    Sheikh Google and Sheikh Wikipedia. The masses are more
    literate and no longer opium of the masses. There is crisis of
    their thought processes, critical thinking, lazy, traditionally
    supported by waqfs now they are fending for themselves.
    Some are in denial, some cant be bothered, some are
    accepting and doing things. “Activism can be reflected
    the current state of Ulema” – That is, if there is
    ignorance, then the ignorant needs education.

    What we need today, is our Ulema to get off their backsides, as well as
    preaching, giving counsel but leading by example. When was the last time
    we saw a Muslim scholar in an apron in a soup kitchen giving out free
    food ? Part of the problem is Ulema are NOT doing their jobs and
    have made the religion into a “priesthood” – Just preaching and content
    with that role, hence you have the activists you have taken up that
    role. Most of the companions (ra) were multi-tasking, what are our
    Ulema doing today besides teaching which itself is important and
    noble. Our tradition is not academia for sake. You quoted Ibn Taymiyyah
    but we only appreciate his greatness now after 100s of years of
    ignoring his scholarship and activism.

    Please give evidence and examples of following in detail as you
    have mentioned it hence,

    – “steered by their wise counsel and guidance” – Give an example from
    today’s activism – We can give you 100s of example from the past but
    that could fit into your defintions of “Marxist style paradigms”.

    – “activism driven principally by emotion, zealotry, ignorance, anger, vengeance”
    Anyone with sense of justice, which is primordial in every human, with have some
    of these attributes, but where are the Ulema doing the counsel ? They are neither
    at demonstrations, nor doing any intelectual debates, so what do you expect ?

    – “abusing the scholars, and actors hidden from the public eye, or puppeteers
    pulling the strings of the herd from on high ” Any examples? Again, we have seen
    Ulema in the past who have rivaled with each other and even today to get attention
    of the ruler, in order to establish either their careers, so called long term
    community based education reformation policies, hoping that a a few generation,
    the evil ruler would fade away, which has never worked, hence why these
    Quranic principles you have mentioned are universal and timeless, irrespective
    of who is in charge, so Muslims never get complacent and lazy.

    – Why not give positive examples of todays activism which is by
    “steered by their wise counsel and guidance”

    Your article is a poor attempt to critise those engaged in activism,
    Yes there are those who are ignorant of the religion, but thats
    the natural course of life for anyone. If one is ignorant, what
    does that say about the one that teaches them ?

    • Abu Aaliyah says:

      Abu Ibn Adam: Perhaps you need to re-read the article again and then trim down your comments for me to effectively reply.

      You begin by querying what I mean by “marxist style paradigms”, only to proceed to offer your own view of what I could mean. So why ask the question.

      As for the division of scholars into three types, please re-read carefully. I make it clear that it depends a lot on the intention than it does the actual position (of being or non being government employed).

      Beyond these few words, your comment/question/critique/frustration was somewhat of a jumbled mess. So please forgive me for not responding with anything better or useful.

  3. Hassen says:

    BaraakAllahu feek for this article. There were some interesting points to ponder over and a few that I would appreciate some clarification on.

    However, I’d like to better understand your belief that “The idea of activism, as such, doesn’t make an appearance in classical formulations of Islam.”

    About half way in, you mentioned that there is a difference between the Islamic injunction to ‘Enjoin the Right and Forbid the Wrong’ and “new activism”, but I don’t see a strong argument for this claim in the article.

    You stated that “the core of the classical concept [of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong] involved a personal duty to right wrongs committed by fellow believers; the core of the new activism is a much more systematic, organised propagation of Islamic and universal values within and outside Muslim communities.”

    – First of all, I might be wrong on this, but is righting wrongs only directed to “fellow believers?”
    *I’m don’t have a strong foundation in the Shariah so I might be wrong, but this sounds unusual. Why would it be limited to believers only, especially when you provide several evidences prior indicating otherwise?

    – But even disregarding this point, you don’t contrast similar aspects of classical ‘Enjoining the Right and Forbidding the Wrong’ with “New Activism.” You just mention different aspects of each, describing the latter as more organized, and implemented in both Muslim and non-Muslim lands, and describing the former as being directed to believers (which I would like to confirm). That doesn’t necessarily distinguish it from ‘Enjoining the Right and Forbidding the Wrong.

    In my opinion, your article simply points to the fact that the timeless Quranic injunction of ‘Enjoining the Right and Forbidding the Wrong’ has continued to develop until today (where it is more structured and applied all over the world). It doesn’t mean that “activism” is distinct from ‘Enjoining the Right and Forbidding the Wrong’, although we can say that activism is a more broad umbrella term that can apply to all different philosophies and beliefs- wallahu a’lam.

    • Abu Aaliyah says:

      Jazakallahu khayran for your comments and desire for more clarification.

      You are right when you feel that today’s activism is an extension of the Quranic duty to command and forbid. In fact, I wrote that piece (an the following one) on the back of the riots and demonstrations about the Anti-Prophet film. My point was precisely that: let activism reflect the duty of commanding and forbidding, with its attendant rules and courtesies.

      Again, you are right when you say that commanding and forbidding isn’t just between fellow believers, but camn extend outwards too. That is why I said “the core” concept involved doing so; i.e. it was mostly done between Muslims, not that it was never done to others.

      The most obvious difference between the two is that in pre-modern times the duty of commanding and forbidding, by non-state actors, usually was in the moral sphere; not the political. The socio-political sphere was often left to state authority and sometimes scholars – but not the general public. Today’s activism is usually related to the socio-political sphere and involves the masses. This the scale, dope and focus is markedly different.

      Muslim jurists (as well as activists themselves) haven’t yet defined the term “activism”, so there will always be some leeway. I like your idea of it being a “broad umbrella”.

  4. Abu Aaliyah says:

    It should have read: … Thus the scale, scope and focus.

  5. Amad says:

    Jazakallahkhair for the amazing article mashalalh.

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