This article was published in Wasat, no. 44 / Jun 2022 at here.
By Muhammad Haniff Hassan
Islam recognises the importance of social activism and works to change society for the better. Islam regards them as part of a da`wah work (sharing teachings of Islam to all) which is enjoined upon all Muslims. Thus, Muslims are encouraged to be involved in social activism as an extension of his responsibility to perform da`wah .
However, to be successful in the endeavour, Muslims must know that successful social activism depends on its human capital: the activists. They could be the professionals who are employed to run social organisations and their related programmes or the volunteers who commit their time, ideas and energy to social works. As such, the success of a Muslim’s involvement in a particular da`wah work is dependent on his or her capacity as its human capital.
Excellent human capital needs to be nurtured and developed because Man, in general, is not born to be an excellent activist. The issue is therefore: What makes an excellent Muslim activist? Answering this question is critical because it would help Muslim individuals and organisations to develop and cultivate certain traits or attributes in themselves or the activists under their charge.
This article seeks to propose six attributes that would make excellent Muslim activists and, as a result, contribute to the creation of excellent
Muslim socio-da`wah organisations. They are as follows:
- Having da`wah duty in mind
- Having commitment to collective da`wah (`amal jama`ii)
- Continuously improving one’s own self in the performance of good deeds
- Being a capable leader
- Being competent, skilled and expert in a particular field
- Having an open, inclusive and universal mind and attitude.
Before that, it must be emphasised that the six proposed attributes must be seen as an addition to the following three fundamental principles of a Muslim:
- Having the right `aqidah (Islamic creed)
- Observing the right practice of `ibadah (Islamic rituals)
- Embodying good akhlaq (Islamic morals/ethics)
First attribute – Having da`wah duty in mind
A Muslim’s commitment to social activism arises from the understanding that a good Muslim is not only a good/pious person (soleh) but also one who helps others to be good/pious (musleh). The latter becomes a key force behind a Muslim’s contribution to social works.
However, the primary function of Muslims when undertaking social activism is not only to address society’s social problems i.e. broken families, addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling and porn, teenage delinquencies, poverty, domestic violence and a high crime rate. These are important but they are also to be done with the da`wah duty in mind which must fulfill, at least, two criterias:
- That it seeks to bring people’s attention to the beauty of an Islamic way of life
- That it is done in accordance to the examples set by the Prophet who is the best da`ii (propagator) of Islam.
This mission should be held with an understanding that da`wah is:
- A duty that God has made obligatory upon every Muslims and that it should be performed to their best ability (see for examples the Qur’an, 3:104, 3:110, 12:108 and 16:125)
- An honourable task vested on all Prophets that Muslims should feel honoured to fulfil (see the Qur’an, 16:36 and 21:25)
- An important means to attain a place in Paradise and security from Hellfire (the Qur’an, 7:164 dan 36:20-26)
Therefore, an excellent Muslim would always strive to perform da`wah work in his or her every endevours and to live with the following motto:“I live for da`wah and da`wah lives because of me”.
Second attribute – Commitment to collective da`wah (`amal jama`ii)
In addition to commitment to da`wah work, Muslims must also acknowledge that the work should be done as a collective effort for a greater and more significant impact. This is done not only for rational reasons but also because it is a divine injunction as mentioned in the Qur’an, “Indeed, Allah loves those who fight in His cause in a row as though they are a [single] structure joined firmly.” (The Qur’an, 61:4)
The Qur’an narrates that even the Prophet’s da`wah was executed via a collective and organised work. Prophet Isa a.s. was supported by the Hawariyun (The Qur’an, 61:14), Prophet Musa was assisted by his brother Prophet Harun a.s (The Qur’an, 20:29-32) and 70 disciples (the Qur’an, 7:155) and Prophet Muhammad s.a.w worked with his companions (The Qur’an, 48:18).
As such, an excellent Muslim activist would always situate his or her contributions within organisational works. He or she would constantly look for organisations that are relevant to his or her area of contribution, instead of doing it alone. In an organisation, he or she functions well as a team member regardless of his or her stature in the organisation. He or she seeks to understand the organisation’s strategic and operational plan, its strengths and weaknesses and sees where his or her own strength can best contribute. He or she upholds discipline by observing organisational processes and protocols.
One should always seek to understand and appreciate the big picture or master plan and embed his or herself into it, rather than doing whatever that he or she thinks fit.
Indeed, working in an organisation brings together certain difficulties i.e. dealing with differences, adherence to seemingly petty processes and protocols and slower pace. However, the excellent Muslim activist finds strength in the divine mercy promised to believers who work together in the path of God, “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them (emphasis mine). Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (The Qur’an, 9:71), outweighs the discomfort and difficulties.
Third attribute – Continuously improve one’s self in the performance of good deeds
This attribute could be found in the Qur’anic verse that says, “And for all are degrees [i.e., positions resulting] from what they have done. And your Lord is not unaware of what they do.” (The Qur’an, 6:132)
One of the meanings of the verse is that God allocates different stations for Muslims to strive to attain His pleasure in this world and in the Afterlife. The stations are described as “darajat” which implies horizontal hierarchy; where the higher one is placed, the better. Thus, Muslims must keep improving one’s good deed quantitatively and qualitatively in his life to go higher in station and, as a result, be closer to God.
This is the trait that the Prophet s.a.w instilled in his companions, the first and best generation of Muslims. One example of it could be found in the story of Umar Al-Khattab r.a. who strived to constantly improve his good deeds by benchmarking them to his best friend Abu Bakr r.a as reported in hadiths:
- When the Prophet s.a.w. made a public appeal for donations to support a military mission, Umar said, “At that time I had some money. I said, ‘Today I shall surpass Abu Bakr, if I am to ever surpass him on any day.’ I therefore brought half of my wealth. The Messenger of Allah s.a.w asked, ‘What have you left for your family?’ I replied, ‘The same amount.’ Abu Bakr r.a brought all that he had with him. The Messenger of Allah s.a.w asked him, ‘What have you left for your family?’ He replied, ‘I have left Allah and His Messenger for them.’ Thereupon I said, ‘I shall never surpass him in anything.’” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi and Abu Daud)
- Abu Bakr and Umar r.a. have heard the Messenger of Allah s.a.w praising the way Ibn Mas`ud r.a. recited the Quran, saying: “A person who wants to recite the Qur’an as tenderly as it was revealed should recite it in the same way as Ibn Um `Abd does.” Umar r.a hurriedly went to Ibn Mas`ud’s house at night to convey these glad tidings to him only to be told that Abu Bakr r.a. has already preceded him. Umar r.a. then said, “If he really did, then he usually does precede us in everything that is good. Whenever we compete against each other in goodness, Abu Bakr always wins!” (Narrated by Ahmad and Ibn Majah. See article Competition in Good Deeds, at islamweb.net)
Improvement involves various aspects such as knowledge, skills and conducts. However, one aspect that should be given greater importance is improvement in `ibadah (rituals and devotional acts such as praying, fasting, zikr and reciting the Qur’an) as exemplified by the Prophet and his companions. They were very busy in performing da`wah works to people but were also intense in their personal `ibadah. It was reported in a hadith that the Prophet’s leg was found swollen by his wife Aishah r.a. due to the regular performance of prolonged night prayers. The Prophet’s companions were also known as, “ruhban fi al-lail wa fursan fi al-nahar (monks in the night and knights in the day)”.
The importance of continuous improvement in `ibadah also arises from the fact that da`wah works are full of trials and tribulations as elucidated in stories of the Prophets in the Qur’an. This requires spiritual strength that, for Muslims, could be found in a strong connection with God via one’s individual `ibadah.
This attribute is best expressed in Muslim traditions, “He whose two days are equal is a loser”. Thus, Muslim activists must strive to live a life of constant improvement, where today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today.
Fourth – Being capable leader
An excellent Muslim activist must be a capable leader. This is based on the understanding that Islam enjoins Muslims to delevop in themselves leadership qualities and to be ready to lead when the need arises. The theological basis to this is the Qur’anic verse that says, “And those who say, Our Lord, grant us from among our wives and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us a leader [i.e., example] for the righteous.” (The Qur’an, 25:74).
Muslims are encouraged to recite this verse as a regular prayer (du`a) to God. In the said prayer, Muslims are to pray that God makes them capable leaders. Surely, this does not happen by a sheer miracle. Instead, it should be understood as a divine command for Muslims to acquire knowldge and skills that would enable them to lead others effectively.
Admittedly, there are hadiths that forbids Muslims from seeking leadership. One of them is, “Do not ask for a position of authority, for if you are granted this position as a result of your asking for it, you will be left alone (without God’s help to discharge the responsibilities, and if you are granted it without making any request for it, you will be helped (by God in the discharge of your duties).” (Narrated by Muslim).
First of all, the hadith and its like should not be understood to absolutely forbid a Muslim from offering himself for a leadership position. There are rich debates among classical and contemporary `ulama on the actual meaning of such a prohibition. However, the constraint of space does not permit presenting them here. It is sufficient to say that the need for Muslims to develop leadership qualities in them and to be ready for leadership does not necessarily corelate with seeking leadership positions, what more being “power hungry”. A Muslim may have proven leadership qualities but is humble from offering himself for a position of authority, although he may not reject it when offered or avoid it when the pressing need arises. In contrast, a person may be too forthcoming for power, despite lacking leadership abilities.
The Prophet trained his companions for leadeship roles. He showed them how to be good leaders through his conduct and interaction with them and assigned to those who are capable among them to suitable leadership roles such as being a military commander (i.e. appointment of Usamah bin Zaid to lead the military campaign against the Romans in Sham, or preaching Islam and collecting zakat in far-distant territories like how Mu`az bin Jabal was sent to Yemen and Mus`ab bin Umair to Yathrib before hijrah. He also chose companions to deputise him in managing the affairs of Madinah when he was away as seen in the appointment of Abdullah bin Um Maktum.
In this regard, three things then become important as part of the Muslim activist’s personal development:
- Imparting knowledge of leadership from an Islamic perspective because knowledge helps to shape behaviour as much as practical experience
- Involvement in organisational works because leadership does not happen when one sets him or herself to be the “lone ranger”
- Exposure to various leadership role to gain practical experience
Fifth – Being competent, skilled and expert
One has to be competent to be an excellent person. It is more so for Muslim activists because the Prophet s.a.w has said, “Allah loves skilled/expert/competent person.” (Narrated by Al-Tabarani), and “Allah loves to see his servant who does a job with itqan (meticulously).” (Narrated by Al-Tabarani).
It must be noted, however, that being competent is not about merely having a great number of skills and knowledge but more pertinently having those that are relevant to contemporary context.
The areas of competency that should be given attention are: Knowledge of contemporary ideas whether of a religous nature or otherwise along with technology, skills and traits.
To attain this attribute, a Muslim activist must constantly be aware of his or her environment. In contemporary times, this requires proficiency in the infocomm technology because it is the most efficient way to access infomation which makes a person more aware of current and future developments. Muslim should also be adaptive to the changes in his or her surrounding environment that has a potential impact on his or her current ideas, skillls, traits and way of doing things. Competency calls for one to be dynamic and adaptable in his or her thoughts such that they correspond to the changes. Thus, being competent calls for the constant maintenance and upgrading of one’s knowledge and skills in line with the idea of life-long learning.
Sixth – Having an open, inclusive and universal mind and attitude
Da`wah’s primary objective is none other than what God, Himself, has decreed upon his Prophet Muhammad s.a.w in His revelation, “And We have not sent you, [O Muḥammad], except as a mercy to the universe.” (The Qur’an, 21:107).
The verse sets two key principles for da’wah: a) to bring mercy, and b) doing so to all of God’s creations.
God’s creations include all mankind which is not limited to a person’s specific race and locality and beyond in the form of animal and environmental conservation.
“Think global, act local” is a contemporary mantra that is applicable to Muslims in order to be excellent activists. Emphasis is needed in this regard because, in Singapore’s context, Islam remains closely associated with Malays which makes up 80% of the Muslim population. This not only affects how non-Muslims perceive Islam but, unfortunately, also acts as a flawed indicator of how Islam should be practised i.e. the Malay way. The latter would influence a Muslim activist in many ways i.e. how he or she presents Islam, performs da`wah works, understands da`wah subjects, identifies opportunities and, as a result, inhibits his or her effectiveness.
This becomes more critical in contemporary times where the world has become a “global village” due to infocomm technological advancements and Singapore has become more cosmopolitan. The Muslim community in Singapore has become more diverse than before, if the population of Muslim expats and migrant workers are to be included.
This attribute must be manifested at four levels. The first level concerns the Muslims’ openness to connect with non-Muslims as partners in social activism or as beneficiaries of social services. The second level is about Singapore Muslim activists’ openness to be more inclusive towards non-Malay and non-Singaporean Muslims in service outreach. The third level concerns Muslim activists’ reaching out to groups who are still minimally reached out to by Muslim activists, such as people with special needs. The fourth level concerns how Muslims translate Islam’s mercy mission to animals and environment which remains a neglected field.
Thus, a motto for an excellent Muslim activist in Singapore should be “beyond Malays, Muslims, Singaporeans and Man”.
It is not enough for Muslims to be pious/good. In fact, in order to be good, Islam requires one to also strive also others to be pious/good persons too.
The act of inviting others to be pious/good is called da`wah and social activism is one important area for da`wah works.
In order to be good da`wah activists, it is not enough, to only profess the right `aqidah, `ibadah and akhlaq. To attain excellence, Muslim activists should also be instilled with six additional attributes suggested in the first and second part of the article which is 1) having da`wah duty in mind, 2) having commitment to collective da`wah (amal jama`ii), 3) continuously improving one’s individual self in performing good deeds, 4) being a capable leader, 5) being competent, skilled and expert, and 6) Having an open, inclusive and universal mind and attitude.
Acquiring these attributes requires initiative on the part of an individual Muslim as part of his or her personal development. At organisational level, it requires a systematic activist development and training programme. It is hoped that the article has contibuted in providing clarity and direction for Muslim individual and organisations.