Accumulating responsive practices (amal-al-salihat) to exemplify social justice commitments
Having just had the longest night of the year and the shortage day, we are now turning the corner towards Spring and then Summer.
Winter has a way of making life seem bleaker than what it is. The rain, cold and miserable conditions seem to blunt our senses and perceptions.
We know that winter tends to hit hardest during in July and August, and we pity our fellow citizens in this city who live in shacks and informal settlements exposed to the rain, disease and health challenge.
We wonder how people cope in these conditions. And, we double up in our warm blankets and electrified homes, counting our blessings.
It is in conditions like these that we easily lapse into cynicism. Every government action is viewed as a disaster. The impending power load shedding is regarded as an apocalyptic sign of worse things to come.
Some of our words of critique are laced with veiled racism against an ‘incompetent black government’.
We seem to be victim of our own discourses, perceptions, and blunt criticisms.
We struggle to insert ourselves into this unfolding story of our national socio-political life, ending up as victims, not co-creating citizens.
In fact, we tend to paint ourselves out of the picture. We give up on our agency to do things, to constructively contribute to social upliftment, development and progress.
In this khutba I wish to address why this response, of not taking responsibility for our own agency, of viewing the world in a cynical light, of proceeding with our head in the sand, is inappropriate and in fact unIslamic.
It is contrary to the Qur’anic view of productive living and creative engagement.
But, there is a context. As South Africans we seemed to have dropped the ball with regard to our commitment to bigger normative commitments to social justice and equality.
We seemed to have lost our moral compass just at the moment when our country has become deeply divided between the old and new rich and 80% of our country’s people who live in impoverished circumstances.
Considerations of social justice (’adl) must deal with a profound challenge: the complex misalignments between our country’s dire situation of inequality and poverty on the one hand and our lack of ethical commitment to its eradication on the other.
In general terms, the more we suffer as a country the less we seem to be committed to socially just practices to eradicate the sources of our suffering.
It seems that we have resorted to individualism, meritocratic self improvement, and acquisitiveness (gaining access to material goods in anticipation of its disappearance).
What has emerged over the recent years is a breakdown in commitment to community, knowledge of the other, and radical challenges to gender, racial inequality and other forms of human degradation.
Commitment to ’adl has receded. The prophetic idea that we wish for others what we wish for ourselves has been lost.
Consequently, we have become strangers to each other, our neighbours, communities, and those in lesser privileged positions. Our individual improvement is regarded in isolation of community or broader improvement.
What has clearly not emerged in this country – in light of what the so-called Spear painting controversy symbolizes - is a unifying language and inclusive orientations that are able to call in our collective and individual creative energies to build a socially responsive platform.
But, what is the Qur’anic imperative with regard to our commitments to social justice, community upliftment, and development?
How should we bear witness to this imperative?
Allah, the sublime, challenges us in Surah Nisa, Verse 135 with the following exhortation:
O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor
In this verse Allah establishes the primacy of social justice in Islam. In other words, the normative commitments and everyday practices of Muslims must be founded on a commitment to social justice. This is unambiguous.
We are exhorted to live our lives not simply for ourselves, not simply to satisfy the wants and desires of our own children, parents, or those close to us.
The Qur’an demands constant alertness to the plight of others, those in positions of distress, the weak and vulnerable, and those suffering from disease / illness.
The ayaat exhorts us to develop a sensibility that moves us beyond our comfort zones, to challenge prevailing ideas, corrosive and corrupt practices, to speak out against injustices, big and small.
The Quranic imperative is for us to establish an alternative language and imagination that allow us to recognize the need of the day and move us to making a contribution to the alleviation of suffering.
We are exhorted to move to a situation where we can meaningfully contribute to constructive processes of building our societies.
Our contributions ought to cultivate space for small gestures, a life lived on the basis of small acts of kindness to our fellow humans, a smile, a greeting, good neighbourliness.
What would follow are bigger systematic commitments such as doing relief work in disaster areas, involvement in welfare and development activities, and getting involved in educational and empowerment activities.
It is only in this demonstrable way that we are practically responding to Allah’s warning in Surah Ma’un, 107, verse 1:
Hast thou ever considered the kind of person who gives a lie to the moral law (din)?
The surah goes on to explain that this is the person who turns the orphan away, who feels no urge for the needy, who only wants to be seen and praised, and denies any kindness or assistance to his or her fellow people.
People who opt to take a different route, those who honour Allah’s moral law, espouse a view of the world and themselves in stark opposition to those who deny Allah’s moral law.
They are attuned to the needs of others and responsive to the complexity of the times.
They are never cowered by cynicism and social withdrawal. In other words, they paint themselves into the picture.
They are positively invigorated by the idea of serving others, understanding that their lives are enriched by their commitment to serving Allah.
These people establish their ’amal-al-salihaat or relevant social practices with consistency, over time, the use of energy and resources, and through the thoughtful dispense of sadaqah and zakaat.
It is through these type of practices that new imaginative possibilities come into view.
As their activities accumulate they open up a discourse of hope based on meaningful engagement in social change.
The point is that it is only consistent socially responsive activities that will call a new way of doing things into beings.
This ’amal-al-salihat takes us out of our comfort zones, creating greater connection and possibilities for dialogue, greater engagement with different communities, greater social relevance.
Involving children, friends, family neighbours in these activities would translate into expanding ‘circles of goodness,’ that call in our pragmatic sensibilities.
When done consistently we can take our social justice practices on as a joy, life enhancing, and as personally meaningful.
It seems to me we have to work at the level of affect, emotion, persuasion. We have to develop camaraderie around these types of activity.
This is meant to counteract other kinds of activity that more easily generate excitement and distraction, such as watching television, sport, leisure and fitness activities, and youth socializing activities.
It seems that social activities and practices amenable to social justice require greater persuasion, leverage, and example setting.
It is the responsibility of institutions like mosques, madrassas, schools, and other organizations to actively persuade people to become involved in such work.
What is required is constant persuasion, developing an ideological approach that translates into an ethics of care, i.e. the idea that our ethical commitments extend beyond our selves.
The Claremont Main Road Masjid is one example of an institution that has developed a language of care and social justice over many years.
The masjid is involved in a range of exemplifying practices based on words matching action: social development work at an orphanage in Gugulethu, social justice work in Khayelitsha, social welfare work in Blikkiesdorp, and literacy work in Langa and Delft.
Together, these engagements accumulate into an example of social justice practices that meaningfully address the social justice deficit.
CMRM is an example of a Muslim institution that persuades its musallees and members to become socially relevant, to make a positive contribution to development in this city.
The mosque’s social justice activities are based on a buildup of ideological commitment over many years, resource leveraging, time and energy spent in various sites of the city, education and skills transfer, and constant dialogue and learning about human adaptation.
We are constantly in search of the most appropriate ways of unlocking our and others’ human potential.
This is a productive response to Allah’s, warning about an enduring human contradiction in Surah Saff, Verse 2,
O ye who believe! Why say ye that which ye do not?
Social justice commitments require that we develop a productive connection between words and actions; ideas and practices, thoughts and activities. Both are indispensable.
And, it is in the interaction of imagining new possibilities and inventing new ways of doing social justice work that we will bear witness to justice in this city, as the Quran requires.
But more than that, we have to get engaged in everyday practices that bring a new way of adaptation into being.
We have to develop the sensibilities that can take us beyond cynicism and the idea that this country is going to the dogs. We have to go to a place of productive engagement.
This is one key way of standing up firmly for justice as witness bearers to Allah.
This is practice - orientated response is the primary raison d’être (rationale) of Islam. It is a response that takes us beyond our narcissistic and often destructive individualism, into a place of becoming more properly human.
Becoming human, in turn, is based on the idea that our humanity resides in the humanity of others, and it is through connections with others’ humanity that we give ourselves a chance of becoming fully human.