Faith and Civil Action


(Hussain Sheefar’s speech during the EMN Public meeting in Sarajevo with Ahmet Alibasic, Malika Hamidi and Pr. Tariq Ramadan)

I visited Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, recently to attend a conference on faith based organisations and civil actions. Organised by the Centre for Advanced Studies,, NAHLAA and theEuropean Muslim Network in association with the International University of Sarajevo – it was a unique opportunity to share our experiences on this topic. Here is a summary of my contribution:

One of the most important challenges of the day is how we make our faith or our deen relevant to contemporary society. Recently we saw some of the Far Right groups gain support in the European elections and various Muslim organisations tried to mobilise the Muslim electorate to participate in the elections.

So we have to ask at this very important juncture: what is the role of faith based organisations in civil action? In secular societies like Britain faith based organisations are asked to keep out of public life and to maintain ones faith only in a narrow spiritual and private sphere.

However, Islamic references are full of not only encouragement but making it obligatory on Muslims to be engaged in civil life. For example one famous hadith narrated by Imam Nawawi is simple but very revealing of the Islamic stance on this very important topic. Prophet Muhammad says, Religion is sincere advice. He was asked To whom, should this advice be given? He replied To Allah and His book, and His messenger, and to the leader of the Muslims and the common people (Muslim).

The spirit of this hadith is that Muslims, with their faith should offer their opinions, suggestions and critical viewpoints and in doing so they are performing an Islamic duty. A duty like the religious fasting or prayer? Yes.

So instead of seeing civil actions as different from Ibaadah (worship), we should see it as being a core part of our worship. In one hadith we learn that even a smile is charity, hence engaging with others in this way forms part of ones own piety. Civil actions could be positive action that you do or a negative action you try to eradicate and a smile to another person or taking something off the street is part of that positive civil action.

Another very important concept that is recurrent in the Quran and the many ahadith of the Prophet is enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong. In one of many verses for example the Muslim community is given the status of being the middle community for carrying out this action and in another verse we are told we are the best community for doing the same.

Another reason to be involved in civil action is to make our faith relevant to our society. As opposed to being only concerned with the soul and life hereafter- we have to practically show that our faith, our values, our spirituality demands that we be concerned for others and to see a better society.

In my view this kind of engagement in civil society would help prevent extremism and apathy among the young, as they will see that mosques, church congregations, mosque attendees, trade unions and associations are involved in civil action.

Our faith has to help deal with problems of our time or it becomes defunct extinct. Here I will highlight two organisations: Citizens Organisng Foundation and the Muslim Council of Britain.

Citizens Organising Foundation started with various faith organisations as well as secular organisations coming together for a popular cause. This includes for example dealing with minimum wage to fighting for mosque property to engaging with mayors and MPs. The Muslim Council of Britain a Muslim umbrella body with over 300 organisations affiliated to it engages with government and other civic groups giving the Muslim perspective.

These organisations know it is not easy to be working in a largely secular European society where traditionally faith-based organisations have been seen suspiciously. Secondly, these organisations have limited access to media and can often misrepresent themselves or unable to impart their message to the masses or the targeted audience. Thirdly, these organisations are not always at par with authorities in power. For instance the MCB recently had to choose between the relationship with the government or change its stance on the Palestinian issue.

Another problem with faith based organisations getting involved in civil action is often theological differences. Within the Muslim community we often experience differences due to different understandings of how we should pursue our civil engagement: from those who find the process theologically unacceptable to those who wish to pursue different strategies.

Finally, with the general election on the horizon in Britain and various challenges faced by our respective faiths in order for faith based organisations to be effective they need to have a clear vision of what they wish to achieve in the public sphere. We have to move away from the narrow vision of merely engaging for mosque property or the headscarf to real comprehensive desire to see the best in every action of our society. Secondly, we have to be seen to be sincere in our purpose for civic engagement.

This sincerity is our ethical and spiritual contribution to this sphere: the prophet taught us to give charity and not ask for them to be good as a result. In other words, we do not seek a religious conversion as a result of any humanitarian effort we undertake. At a time when we have seen people in the highest authority in the land misuse public property for often what we might call petty cash bringing sincerity of purpose and trust is our contribution.

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