Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide


September 01, 2019 at 10:43 pm

Note: The following essay is an introduction I wrote in late 2017 to Imam Dawud Walid’s valuable book, “Towards Sacred Activism.” I am posting it here in hopes that it might bring some clarity on a pressing contemporary issue. It is Allah who facilitates all success.


This work by Imam Dawud Walid, Towards Sacred Activism, is a very valuable addition to the ever growing library of English Islamic literature. The title itself, however, seems to hint at an oxymoron. After all, activism, as usually understood, implies a passionate, engulfing engagement with the world, while the sacred implies that which is of or related to God, who is, in many critical aspects, distinct from the world. This seeming contradiction only exists when we view the world through the dichotomized lens provided us by the modern West. As more and more Muslims adopt that lens as part of their effort to both understand and engage the modern world, the gap between the religious scholar, viewed by many as the principal defender and preserver of the sacred in the world, and the activist, grows wider.

It is in this western conceptual universe that the tension between the religious scholar and the worldly activist exists. This tension is itself an extension of that existing between the spiritual and the corporeal, the sacred and the secular, the religious and the profane, which has defined European societies since the onset of modernity. Moving beyond that dichotomy requires moving into another conceptual realm. That alternative realm is defined by revelation not reason. Saying this is not to deny the role that reason plays in aiding our understanding of not just religion, but our very world. Revelation, however, provides the parameters within which reason operates. To deny the existence and importance of those parameters is to nullify the logic of religion itself and to elevate humans to a place reserved for God. When this happens, Divine Oneness and Unity, which is informed by revelation (Tawhid), is replaced by human multiplicity and confusion (Takthir), which is informed by reason. Within such a situation, activism, no matter how well-intended, cannot be sacred.

Acknowledging the centrality of God in human affairs is essential for the realization of a sacred activism. This acknowledgement allows us to understand that nothing occurs independent of the knowledge, will and power of God. This is important for the activist to understand because he or she, as well as his or her actions, are a manifestation of the Divine Will in the world. This realization is one of the first steps towards a sacred activism for it bequeaths unto its possessor a Tawhidi consciousness as well as a sense of purpose which motivates one to seek to understand the Divine Wisdom governing all that we do. The comprehensiveness of that consciousness, when it is fully developed, is captured in the Wird of Imam Nawawi when he states, “With the Name of Allah, with Allah, from Allah, to Allah, [relying] upon Allah, and in Allah; there is no strength or power except with Allah.”

This consciousness is essential for cultivating a sense of responsibility before God. That sense of responsibility, in turn, translates into a willingness to conform to the Divine Law. This is the next step in moving towards a sacred activism. The important legal point here, which Imam Dawud discusses in this work, is that every action the believer undertakes must be informed by knowledge of the Divine Law. Thus, before an activist engages in a particular action, he must endeavor to learn the legal ruling relating to it in terms of its permissibility or impermissibility along with its lawful and unlawful aspects.

For example, it would not be permissible for a Muslim to become involved in a campaign to defend the legality of pornography, were a serious effort to ban it to appear, because viewing pornography is impermissible. For a believer, First Amendment arguments here would be irrelevant owing to the impermissibility of the act in question. From a different perspective, if a Muslim were to participate in a march for a permissible cause, he or she could not join members of the Black Bloc or another violence-prone group in smashing store windows along the march route, because destruction of someone else’s property is forbidden in Islam.

Hence, every activist must be a scholar in the realm of her activism as she must be conversant with the legal rulings associated with a particular action she may become involved with. This idea of the activist as scholar is something that immediately challenges the scholar/activist dichotomy. In reality, this dichotomy is fallacious owing to the existence of a third option, the activist who is herself a scholar. Such a person combines the “worldliness” of activism with the “spirituality” of the scholar.

This union of the worldly and spiritual is beautifully illustrated in the Qur’an. We read, “It is not righteousness to orient your faces East or West [in prayer]. Rather righteousness is to believe in God, Doomsday, the Angels, the Scriptures and the Prophets. [It is to] spend wealth, despite the love for it, for the relative, the orphan, the poor, wayfarers, beggars and for the liberation of slaves. [It is to] establish regular prayer, pay the poor due and to faithfully fulfill covenants having convened them… (2:177).”

This verse begins by mentioning the “spiritual,” here represented by prayer and the basic tenants of faith. It immediately moves on to mention some of the most important realms of social action. As the family is the foundation of society, social action begins close to home with spending for the wellbeing of relatives and then orphans. From there the verse mentions care for the poor, wayfarers, beggars and for the liberation of slaves. It then calls our attention back to the spiritual by reminding us of the incumbency of establishing regular prayer. We are then moved back to the realm of social action when we are reminded of the right society has over our wealth through the institution of Zakat as well as the importance of fulfilling all of our covenants and contracts.

Let us return here to the “liberation of slaves” mentioned in the above verse, focusing on the idea of liberation. From black liberation to now white liberation, from women’s liberation to gay liberation, from Palestinian liberation to Catalonian liberation, to the actual liberation of slaves, whose numbers are increasing globally, liberation is a theme that informs the social justice agenda of many contemporary activists.

We should note that liberation movements are unique in that they tend to become inseparable from the quest for political power. This is so because the effects of liberation have a better chance to have an enduring impact in a society if they are institutionalized by public policy. This politicizing of social movements renders many of them prey to vicious, oftentimes zero-sum struggles solely focused on worldly goals. In the ensuing scrum there is little room for the sacred. A Muslim who is caught up in these struggles may find that he or she is amenable to spiritual burnout, which itself is a function of losing touch with God.

It is here that the need for sacred activism becomes most acute. To elaborate, when activism is solely focused on worldly concerns and when the methodologies and philosophies informing that activism do not account for the existence of God, who is, after all, the ultimate dispenser of justice, that activism can become the source of despair and frustration. For example, if I am a Marxist or atheist and do not believe in God or the Hereafter, I have to get justice in this world for there is no other realm available for its attainment. Hence, the quest for justice becomes a bitter and intense struggle because if I do not get it here I do not get it at all. Furthermore, when God is not in the equation the activist can lose sight of the fact there is a limit to the efficacy of his or her actions. This is something that can deepen his frustration and desperation, hastening either burnout or a resort to ever more extreme methods.

The believer must struggle to attain justice in the world, however, if she doesn’t achieve it in this world she knows it will be forthcoming in the Hereafter. Therefore, she can relax and not become bitter or be led to resort to desperate, Islamically unacceptable means in prosecuting her worldly causes. She also knows that if justice is attained for herself or others, it is a gift decreed by God and not an effect she has brought about through her independent actions and initiative. If she has a Tawhidi approach to life and the world she understands this with great clarity and there is no room for desperation in her affair, because her affair is God’s affair. God reminds the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him) of this when He says, in the immediate aftermath of the calamity at Uhud, “You have nothing to do with the outcome of the affair… (3:128).” This so because, “…victory only comes from God, the Mighty, the Wise (3:126).”

Being distant from despair is one of the fruits of a sacred activism and it is an indication of sound faith. Jacob reminds his sons, when he dispatches them back to Egypt to search for their missing brothers, that despairing of Allah’s Mercy is an indication of a lack of faith. He counsels them, “O my sons! Return and enquire about Yusuf and his brother, and never despair of God’s Mercy. Verily no one despairs of God’s Mercy except a disbelieving folk (12:87).”

A sacred activism must also involve a conscious effort on the part of the activist to save his or her soul. Most activists display a keen eagerness to work to eradicate various forms of oppression occurring in the world, which can be extremely laudable. In the process they should never forget the salvation of their souls and take every step possible to avoid oppressing it. The Qur’an mentions, “…among them are those who oppress their souls (35:32).” A sacred activist understands his or her personal salvation takes priority over saving others. While recognizing that any form of oppression is a form of darkness to be lifted from the world, the sacred activist also knows that idolatry is the greatest darkness of all. We are informed unambiguously in the Qur’an, “Indeed idolatry is the great oppression (31:13).” He therefore strives assiduously to live a life defined by Tawhid.

Until now this introduction has focused on the need for the activist to be more “scholarly” or “spiritual.” Everything we have mentioned above, however, is also relevant for the scholar in that a scholar is not immune from being more “worldly” than “spiritual.” Indeed a particular scholar may be just as divorced from a Tawhidi worldview as a particular activist. Having said that, our discussion would not be complete if we failed to explicitly mention that every scholar must be an activist. The most basic level of the scholar’s activism is the level of implementation. A scholar must act upon his or her knowledge. Hence, knowledge and action must be complimentary and therefore inseparable. The gravity of not acting on one’s knowledge is expressed by Ibn Ruslan in his didactic poem, al-Zubad. He mentions, “The scholar with knowledge whose acts are idle, will be punished before worshippers of idols (Al-Zubad, verse 8).”

At a societal level religious scholars must be exemplars leading the wider community in addressing issues involving various injustices. Failure to do so leads to calamitous consequences. Among those consequences is losing Divine Assistance in our affairs as well as our sustenance. A well-known Hadith relates, “Allah will assist the servant as long as the servant is assisting his brother (Muslim, 2699).” In another narration we read, “Seek me among the downtrodden. Verily you are given your substance as well as Divine Aid owing to your treatment of your downtrodden (Tirmidhi, 1702, Nasa’i, 3181).” The downtrodden and the oppressed are beloved to the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him) and he dedicated himself to their service. The scholar who is a prophetic heir should also possess that love. The scholar must set the tone for the entire community in keeping this prophetic ethos alive in the Muslim community.

Our Lord informs us in a Divine Hadith (Hadith Qudsi), “O my servants! I have made oppression forbidden for myself and I have forbidden it amongst you. Therefore, do not oppress one another (Muslim, 2577).” This Hadith mentions a Divine Characteristic and then enjoins the believers to adopt it. The scholar must be an exemplar in that regard for she is most conversant with the Divine Characteristics and must be foremost among the believers in adorning herself with them. Doing so is one of the greatest ways to actualize a consciousness of our spirituality.

The scholar must also educate the community and work to gradually wean it away from the prevailing materialistic and increasingly atheistic worldview informing much of our activism, philosophically and methodologically. Doing this involves mining the treasure troves of our tradition in order to begin transmitting ideas rooted in a more spiritual worldview. That spiritual worldview must be rooted in the language of the Qur’an, for it is impossible to convey a spiritual, Qur’anic message via a language whose roots are planted deep in the materialistic soil of modernity or postmodernity. Furthermore, after adopting a materialistic worldview it becomes impossible to hold on to an Islamic one. Izutzu reminds us of this when discussing the linguistic foundation of the Islamic worldview. He writes,

“The whole matter is based on the fundamental idea that each linguistic system–Arabic is one, and Qur’anic Arabic is another– represents a group of coordinated concepts which, together, reflect a particular Weltanschauung (Worldview), commonly shared by, and peculiar to, the speakers of the language in question. Thus Qur’anic Arabic corresponds, in its connotative aspect, to what we may rightly call the Qur’anic worldview, which itself is simply a segment of that wider world-view mirrored by the classical Arabic language (Toshihiko Izutzu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an, 250).”

There is much more to be written on this critically important topic. Hopefully these few pages will encourage the reader to examine the ways in which Imam Dawud expands on some of the themes we have mentioned here. May Allah bless our activists, who in many instances are putting their lives, careers and families at risk for the sake of the various causes they espouse, to benefit from our scholars; and may He bless our scholars, particularly those who live their lives in full recognition of the weightiness involved in being “heirs of the Prophets,” to appreciate our activists. Ultimately may He bless us to move into the realm where this false scholar/activist dichotomy no longer exists.