Activism Should Mirror Prophetic Etiquettes

Part 1 | Part 2

Take to pardoning, enjoin goodness and avoid the ignorant. (Surah al-‘Araf 7:199)

There has been a surge in social justice activism among American Muslims in the Obama era. This may be due to a maturing of the American Muslim community being involved in more social justice work on the domestic front, not almost exclusively focused on issues abroad. Perhaps another reason conjoined with community maturation is the general renewal of populist and activist spirits in the broader society which American Muslims are a part of. Brothers and sisters in varying areas are involved in grassroots organizing efforts and political protests ranging from aiding affected residents in Flint, Michigan due to the poisoned water crisis and #BlackLivesMatter to the vaccine justice movement and beyond.

With Muslims joining into these movements, the majority of them being noble in causes, there have naturally been influences on Muslims who joined these movements led by people of other faiths or no religious parameters at all. Influences, including not simply taking on the talking points and framework of the leaders of these movements, but also taking on the dispositions of their leaders and general members is a reality among many Muslim activists. These factors, along with the influence of social media that seems to have taken away many persons’ filters, have led us to some nasty episodes in recent years of infighting within Muslim activist circles.

Giving one another the benefit of the doubt and keeping space in the hearts to pardon each other’s shortcomings are Prophetic characteristics. What happens too often are disagreements lacking Prophetic etiquettes (al-adab) between Muslims, pardoning (al-‘awf) being one of them. Az-Zamakhshari (may Allah have mercy upon him) said that pardoning is the opposite of struggling against something (al-jahd). Instead of waging and organizing a social media jihad when initially disagreeing with positions, giving brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt should come first.

Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (may Allah be pleased with him) stated in Shu’ab al-Imam by al-Bayhaqi :

If news reaches you about your brother that you dislike, seek to make 1 to 70 excuses for him. If you cannot find an excuse then say ‘There may be an excuse though I don’t know it.’

Instead of jumping to conclusions about what motivates people to take certain positions or align themselves with certain politicians, contacting them to ascertain why they are doing what they are doing is better. Trying to meet in person if possible is better than over the phone, and talking over the phone is better than communicating over e-mail or text messages. When possible, the discussions between brothers and sisters should be done in private before in public. Imam ash-Shafi’i (may Allah have mercy upon him) said regarding this, “Whoever advises his brother in private improves him, but whoever advises him in public shames him.” The call-out culture response which is popular among activists today definitely should not be the first and preferred way for us to deal with each other.

Once ascertaining positions which differ and there are strong proofs regarding better courses of action, enjoining what is better is the next step. This, however, should be done with gentleness (ar-rifq), not harshness, and with mild-mannered wording (qawlan layyina) as Allah (Mighty & Sublime) told Musa (peace be upon him) and Harun (peace be upon him) the type of speech to have when they approached Fir’awn. The opposite of this, for example, is public name calling of brothers and sisters such as “Uncle Tom,” “House Muslims,” and “Sell-outs” due to disagreements.

This does not mean that all disagreements should be pushed to aside and that they cannot go public at some point. Scholars from the Salaf had robust disputations which were known to the public, but they did so with the utmost respect. Al-Layth (may Allah have mercy upon him) disputed with Imam Malik (may Allah have mercy upon him) and Ash-Shafi’i disagreed with Muhammad ash-Shaybani (may Allah have mercy upon him) for instance, but their disagreements were based in brotherhood and did not involve trading insults. In other words, they critiqued ideas, not attack persons’ characters and honor.

At this point if persons in the community begin to attack others and mediation is refused and/or ignorant attacks continue, engaging them in debates should simply be avoided. Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (may Allah ennoble his face) said, “Do not debate with an argumentative ignoramus, for certainly people may err in distinguishing between the two of you.” The continued engagement with community members who will not desist in attacks may cause a mirroring of their ignorant characteristics and most likely get into debating based upon egos, not centering what is pleasing to Allah (Mighty & Sublime).

As differing positions on issues within the community including whether Muslims should attend or boycott the annual White House Iftar Dinner during the upcoming month of Ramadan will continue, hopefully these differences of opinion can be approached within parameters of excellence (al-ihsan) which embodies Prophetic etiquettes.

To be continued in Part 2...