Things Muhammad Taught Me: Social Justice
By Hareem Mannan
For the next two weeks, I'm in Dallas doing a two-week intensive program run by Qalam Institute, an organization striving to inspire growth through a nurturing education built on a sacred foundation. The course, Seerah Intensive, an in-depth study of the life and characteristics of Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, is conducted by AbdulNasir Jangda (@AbdulNasirJ), an internationally renowned and classically trained Muslim American scholar.
Here are things that worry me: I worry about how black lives don't matter. I worry about how opportunities for women are significantly less than opportunities for men, about unequal wages, about sexism in the workplace and at home. I worry about the refugee crisis, about how hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are no different than you and I are suddenly homeless because of situations outside of their own control. I worry about the changing political landscape that incorporates fear mongering and islamophobia as a new reality, causing Muslims around the nation to live in fear of being the next hashtag- or worse, disappearing quietly in a world that celebrates their loss.
And in being active online, on Twitter especially, I found myself perpetually angry. Worse even, I almost believe that my self-righteous tweets from my comfortable sofa make me an activist and an agent of real change. But by the 16th or 17th keyboard-warrior-social-justice-hashtag, I quickly realized that I could not have been more wrong. Righteous indignation articulated in 140 characters to a handful of followers in an attempt to remain relevant purely for the sake of relevancy is, at the very least, fundamentally hypocritical. There is no real life effect to tweeting about a cause, receiving a hollow gratification in the online support I hope it will get, and then continuing to live my life the same way immediately after.
The last thing I expected to learn on day 1 at a program about a man who lived 1400 years ago was how (not) to tweet. But in learning about him, I realized that believing social justice was a modern phenomenon is not only narrow-minded on my part, but also, essentially, naive.
Centuries ago, a man changed the landscape of the world forever through the message he was divinely inspired to share. Muhammad. The most documented man in history, and arguably, these days especially, one of the most controversial. As Islam has become a hot topic in the media and an easy target for politicians and world powers, it's revered prophet, Muhammad, also becomes the center of a discussion about what it means to be a Muslim. Does it mean the same thing as it meant 1400 years ago? Can it?
The answer, in a word, is yes.
Before the message of Islam, Muhammad was known as a beacon of honesty, trust, and justice in his community. Not only did they actively seek him out to resolve local political and social issues, but these qualities made him such an integral part of his personality and character in his community (non-Muslim), that they referred to him as "al-Ameen", the Trustworthy one. Before Islam, he participated in Hilf-al-Fudool, a social justice pact that conditioned that the tribes, who normally had no sense of real justice, would both respect the principles of justice and intervene on behalf of the oppressed whenever and wherever they witnessed oppression.
After Islam, Muhammad would say that he would not trade his participation in this treaty for all the wealth in the world. Such was its alignment with the axioms of Islam.
In the early stages of Islam, many years later, a very interesting phenomenon occurred. The people who were drawn to Muhammad's message are popularly known to have been the stragglers of society, the poor, the needy, and the desolate. And the reality is, yes- Islam did attract the weak, because of its capacity to empower them in a way that allowed them to measure themselves not against each other, but against their own selves in a journey to get closer to God. But what many people don't realize is that Islam also attracted a great deal of the intelligent, up-and-coming, young professional population. These people were old enough to be able to understand his message, but at the same time, young enough to be able to recognize serious problems that plagued the pre-islamic Makkan community. And while it's easy to imagine Makkah as a lifeless desert that only found relevancy after Muhammad's life, this was in fact not the case. Makkah was the center of capitalism and business in Arabia. Because of this, according to Karen Armstrong:
"Many of the younger generation, who were disturbed by the aggressive capitalism of Mecca, came to him (Muhammad) for advice. Some of the young felt an urgent sense of personal peril, a torpor of depression from which they longed to wake, and a frightening sense of alienation from their parents. Any society divided against itself would be destroyed, because it was going against the very nature of things. This was a frightening period... there was an apocalyptic sense of impending catastrophe. Muhammad was convinced that unless the Quraysh reformed their attitudes and behavior, they too would fall prey to the anarchy that threatened to engulf their world."
As a 22-year old, this resonates very strongly with me. Young people who felt a deep sense of unease and unrest at the current state of their world were the first to flock to a religion that did not just preach justice, but also believed that God was Justice. God Himself says in the Quran,
"Oh you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves,your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor. God is a Better Protector to both than you. So follow not the whims of your heart, lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, God is Well Acquainted with what you do." (4:135)
We are, as Muslims, expressly forbidden in our religion to oppress others. We are also further forbidden to side with oppressors or aid them in any way. I repeat: all forms of injustice and oppression are forbidden in Islam. We are taught, also, to help the oppressor. How? By stopping him from oppressing others! And ironically, while the news blares headlines about the perils of Jihad, Muhammad quite literally says, "the best jihad is to speak a word of truth to a tyrannical ruler." As the world spins madly on, and injustices against others continue to culminate under hashtags, headlines, articles, and news pieces that point fingers at all different directions, targeting those who may or may not deserve the blame, other-ing entire populations of people, all the more setting flames to a fire that is already spreading quickly- many can't help but ask: where is God?
This is my favorite part. Because as Muslims we believe, without a doubt, that God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. (13:11) Gone are the hashtags, the pointing fingers, the righteous indignation. Now the blame is on... us. To sign petitions, show up at rallies, email our local congressmen, to stand up and pray for those who are oppressed- the responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders. No one else's.
Because I do worry about #blacklivesmatter. And I worry about opportunities for women, about the refugee crisis, systematic racism, about xenophobia, Islamophobia, and much, much more. But here's the thing I learned from a man who lived and taught 1400 years ago who changed the face of the world as we know it. Tweeting about it won't do much. But as soon as I overcome the hesitation within me to get up and actually do something about it, with the help of God, I can really do anything.
To follow the live progress of students who are taking the class, check out #QalamSI on Twitter!