What does the Quran say about social activism?

I’ve often wondered about people who work in charity, economic development, and social activism. Do they really believe they’re making a change? Having worked in those fields in Egypt, I know that in order to operate freely their work needs to be almost completely divorced from politics. What does it mean to work in development when you can’t acknowledge that the source of all the poverty, inequality, and repression is the corruption and tyranny of the government. Is it logical to conduct microcredit programs when the entire economic system is one that favours the rich and always will? Does it make sense to train NGOs on advocacy to change laws when the rule of law is hardly ever applied justly? Wouldn’t we better serve the cause of changing the current unjust circumstances if we focused our energies on changing the government rather than working with it? And even if through charity and development work we do manage to make life better for a few people, or even an entire village, it’s still just one village. Shouldn’t the goal be a lot broader? A lot more ambitious?

Injustice is so systemic now that it pervades every little part of society. In cases such as this, in order for lasting change to occur, it usually needs to be drastic, dramatic – revolutionary rather than evolutionary. I once spoke about a similar matter with an Egyptian anti-government activist. I was referring specifically to the growing trend of those who call themselves “social” or “community” activists. They are mainly ambitious, talented youth who have founded NGOs, training centers for youth and the poor, socially-conscious companies, etc. Many of them regularly give self-development and leadership seminars to encourage youth to make a positive change in their society. I asked this opposition activist if he sees this as a viable avenue to change. His opinion was negative. Trends like this, he said, help keep the government in power because they foster the attitude that one should just accept the current circumstances and work with them, rather than fight to change them, when in reality, change will never be sustainable unless it’s accompanied by a complete overhaul of the current systems and regimes.

I spoke about the same matter with a woman who had founded a successful NGO in Egypt, focused on microcredit, literacy classes, and other services for the poor. She had one numerous awards for her work and all this under the age of 30. Her opinion was, of course, the complete opposite. According to her, social activism and political activism go hand in hand. The political activists are there to raise awareness and make our voices heard. But that on it’s own is not sufficient. You need someone to do more than “just complain loudly”. In the end, if change finally does come but the people are still poor and uneducated, they may not be ready for this change, and may prove unable to deal with it. Social activists are there to work from the inside out to help change society step by step, so that when change finally does come, we’ll be ready for it.

I was thinking these thoughts when I went to attend Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s weekly lecture at Al-Azhar mosque. He was explaining the tafseer of Surat Al-Anaam (the chapter entitled “The Cattle”) and he recited this verse:

{وَكَذَلِكَ نُوَلِّي بَعْضَ الظَّالِمِينَ بَعْضًا بِمَا كَانُواْ يَكْسِبُونَ} [الأنعام:129]

{In this way, We make some evildoers have power over others through their misdeeds} (Al-Anaam, 129).

According to this verse of the Quran, if we live under an unjust leader, it is because we are an unjust society. it is not by mere coincidence, for in the end, we are the society that produced this leader. According to Sheikh Ali, this type of ayah refers to what is called “Sunnat Allah f el-Kawn” i.e. God’s traditions or customs regarding the universe. One of these customs is that if you are a people who act unjustly towards one another, you will become a society where injustice is the norm, and you will produce an unjust leader. According to this understanding, the correct way to deal with unjust leadership is to both fight the injustice and try to ameliorate the injustice of the society itself.

The above ayah can be coupled with the following ayah from Surat Ar-Raad (the chapter of The Thunder):

{نَّ اللَّهَ لا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّى يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنْفُسِهِمْ}

{Allah (God) does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves} (Ar-Raad, 11)

The understanding of these two verses, to me, gives an indication of the importance of working on both fronts to achieve change. While political activism is important to speak out against injustice and try to hold tyrants accountable for their misdeeds, it is equally as important to work on changing what is in ourselves as a society. Through development programs (such as microcredit, agricultural-management, school-improvement, etc.) perhaps people’s day to day grind can become just a little bit easier so that they have the time and energy to think about more than just how to put food on the table for their children.

{فلن تجد لسنة الله تبديلا ولن تجد لسنة الله تحويلا}

{But you will never find in the way of Allah any change, and you will never find in the way of Allah any alteration} (Fatir, 43)

-Dee

~ by youngmuslimworld on May 28, 2010.

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