Modern Muslim Activism: Returning to the Sacred

A Book Review of Towards Sacred Activism by Imam Dawud Walid

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)

Activism is a loaded word. It is a label that ranges from being a commodity used for profit by companies to one that elicits groans at sincere intentions but for the wrong causes. Amidst online discussion of Islamophobia, performative activism, cancel culture, and identity politics, the role of American Muslims comes to light — of what is right and wrong, and the role American Muslims play in establishing justice. what our role in establishing justice is. In response, Imam Dawud Walid offers his booklet Towards Sacred Activism as a corrective, 

A call for us to reach back to sound our interpretative traditions based upon the Book of Allah, the Prophetic tradition and those matters which the early community of Muslims, and subsequent scholars, have agreed upon per consensus to address social justice issues in our current socio-political context..also a challenge for us to not only rethink current secular notions within activist circles per positions and methods of advocating and organizing and such, but to also encourage us to bring forth our own nomenclature in tackling issues worthy of being taken on. [1]

To these ends, Imam Dawud spends four chapters discussing defining justice, prerequisites for engaging in social justice activism, and the required etiquettes prior to looking at practical issues. As he explains, before we even  begin identifying what activism should advocate for and what it looks like, we must understand al-Adl (one of the names of Allah, the Just). [2] This leads to activism rooted in the sacred — it refutes false idols and ideologies, and in its stead imparts us with knowledge from and of the transcendent, All-Knowing, All-Powerful Creator. This knowledge can be obtained by seeking out teachers and the suhba (companionship) of sincere individuals. Seeking sacred knowledge is obligatory as a part of one’s fard al-ayn [3], and knowing what falls under good and evil is  a prerequisite to enjoining good and forbidding evil [4]. One cannot purport to rally against incorrect and harmful material only to substitute it with wrong, whether it be in substance or in conduct. As Muslims are honored by Islam, it is a responsibility upon us to dignify the truth with the best of our ability in every aspect.

The second half of the book covers practical matters. For example, Imam Dawud distinguishes between coalitions and alliances: coalitions are temporary and for the sake of a narrow cause. Parties of a coalition can come from different belief systems and ideological frameworks to cooperate for a common goal, whereas alliances entail “affinity”, a more ideological cooperation, and furthering the interests of each other. [5] He refers to the following verse and the incident of Hilf al-Fudul to argue a precedent of working in coalitions:

“And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression” (Qur’an 5:2)

There is no absolute allyship with anyone other than Muslims, and there should be no “inclination to quid pro quo at any cost in the name of being in coalitions,” however, Imam Dawud clarifies that we can still work with people who are non-Muslim regarding issues “of the common good of society.” [6] Many social issues like poverty, detention of children at the border, increasing levels of abortion, domestic violence, and so on are are issues that all of us should at the very least be concerned about and make du’a for. We can work with non-Muslims, pool resources, and advocate for these causes for the betterment of our communities.  

With all due respect to Imam Dawud and his work (may Allah accept it), my main critique is the book’s brevity and lack of specific counsel to young eager activists, particularly regarding interactions/alliances with progressive circles. For example, one major area is engagement with the LGBT+ community. Progressive sexual ethics and modern discourse on gender identity and orientation is increasingly a point of contention with the Muslim community and anathema to Islamic morality. Yet many allies at pro-Palestine engagements are associated with groups/organizations that promote progressive stances on homosexuality, transgenderism, and abortion. It can be difficult to maintain focus and order on a specific issue where a tit-for-tat is assumed in matters of social justice.

In this regard, Imam Dawud has a list of brief suggestions for engagement with the community. He warns against the condoning and facilitating of the immoral like the wife of Lut (as), but also the duty to be involved in coalitions calling for justice align with the Shari’ah. The latter can include anti-hate crime efforts for every community (including the LGBTQ+ community). [7]

However, what do these boundaries look like? Perhaps it’s for specific locales to determine, which would render my critique moot as Imam Dawud is addressing activists in general. On the other hand, there are several controversies within the Muslim community at the national scale — from the opposing amicus curae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court on the issue of redefining sex to include self-identified gender and sexual orientation in Title VIII; both the cancellation in some circles of Muslim leaders allegedly endorsing LGBTQ+ political rights due to mere cooperation on a non-related issue [8], and turning a blind eye in other circles of leaders who outright endorse related causes clearly anathema to the faith; and clashes between organizations with severe theological differences. One common justification used to transgress principles is to avoid  “push people away”. This is a valid concern that Imam Dawud’s section on etiquettes addresses, recommending that one give others the benefit of the doubt and to remain righteous without being harsh. Still, this advice does not quite address this common problem.

Given that no single book can address or solve everything, I highly recommend this as a part of any group engaged in social justice whether it be a youth organization, Muslim Student Association (MSA),or book club. It provides a strong starting point particularly in a context where abandoning Islamic values and positioning “Muslim” as only an identity seems like a prerequisite to social change. Many activists think using an Islamic framework is impossible, or rather not strong or radical enough, to engender change. Even a simple perusal through the seerah, and the biographies of lions like Imam Shamil (ra) or Malcolm X, is enough to discredit this assumption.

If the change we are trying to create is to build an ideal society, and the society is one that is built on Islamic values, then it must be through Islam that we change and are changed. This is the crux of our activism, and what is lacking now. Ustadha Leenah Safi puts simply, “…today we see Muslims too shallowly engaging Islam to be transformed by it, let alone for them to then transform society through it.” [9] To that end, this book is an attempt to bridge the gap between scholarship and activism, to bring activism up to the level of an Islamic ethos.

Works Cited: 

[1] Walid, D. (2018). Towards sacred activism. Al-Madina Institute. pp. 25
[2] Id. at pp. 28.
[3] Id. at pp. 41.
[4] Id. at pp. 40.
[5] Id. at 51.
[6] Id. at 56.
[7] Id. at 65.
[8] Shaikh, A. (2019) Were Muslim Groups Duped Into Supporting an LGBTQ Rights Petition at the US Supreme Court?, Muslim Matters.
[9] Walid, D. (2018). Towards sacred activism. Al-Madina Institute. pp. 19

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Support Muslim-owned publishers by purchasing the book here. This is not a sponsored post.


About the Author: Farhana K. is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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