Friday, December 23, 2011

Being a Civic Muslim - Zaher Sahloul

Being a Civic Muslim -

By Dr. Zaher Sahloul

In a recent meeting with members from the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, one editor commented that the paper receives very few letters from Muslim readers, while other groups are much more active in voicing their opinion on issues. He went to say that because of the absence of the Muslim voice, or words, the editorial coverage of certain events or news could tend to be skewed towards a certain ideological slant.
A 2009 landmark Gallup study titled "Muslim Americans, a National Portrait", found that only 51% of young Muslim Americans are registered to vote, which is one of the lowest percentages among young Americans surveyed. Muslim youth are less likely to volunteer, register to vote and participate in public life. This is dangerous.

The study presents our community with some difficult challenges: How can we energize our youth and our community so they become more civically engaged? Before that, what does it mean to be civically engaged and is civic engagement an Islamic priority or is it a mere luxury?

Civic engagement can be defined as working to make a difference in our communities in order to improve the quality of life for all citizens, through both political and non-political processes. A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and considers the social problems to be at least partly his or her own; and move to address them and change the life for the better with other people or groups.

Someone may ask, "Is that part of Islam?" or "What is the correlation of being Muslim and being civically engaged?"

The Holy Quran speaks about the "best community" that is "created for mankind" ("You are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind," Quran- 3:110). In order to be the best, that community has to serve and benefit mankind. The Quran also teaches us to change our society and not to ignore social ills and warns us of the consequences if we don't act ("Beware of a tribulation that shall not affect those who are oppressed only.")

Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, Allah will continue to assist the servant as long as the servant is assisting his brother. So involvement of people in helping others is called Civic engagement. "Civic" is derived from the word "city". So civically engaged individuals are the ones who are involved in the life of his or her city.

Historically, Islam was a civic religion and was synonymous with city life. Prophet Muhammad migrated from the city of Mecca to the city of Medina. Islamic civilization is associated with great cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Istanbul, Granada, Sarajevo, Timbuktu, Tashkent, Bukhara and many others.
One of the early Surahs (chapters) in the Quran is Chapter 90, Surah Al- Balad (the City), which starts with, "I swear by this city, and you are living in this city." The Surah then speaks about are the prerequisites of faith (He did not overcome the hurdles, and what are these hurdles, freeing of a slave, or feeding an orphan or needy in a difficult time. Then he joined those who believe and practiced patience and practiced mercy).
Before the revelation, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was one of the main signatories of a treaty that was cosigned by many of the leaders in Mecca to promote justice and to protect the travelers, the needy, and the oppressed.

After the revelation, the Prophet worked hard to empower the powerless in the community. He knew his community very well and he understood the powerbase and the dynamics of the society. He understood that there were many injustices committed in society by certain clans or families that controlled the decision making while the poor, the slaves and the women had no say.

He organized the community from the grassroots level. He raised leaders from all ethnic communities; he made them work together toward shared vision, developed consensus and promoted shura or consultation about certain priorities. All of the close companions of our Prophet became great leaders in politics, scholarship, military and administration. He built alliances with other tribes and groups, Muslim and non-Muslim. He used the media (poetry) and made sure that the voices of the disenfranchised, women, slaves, minorities were equal to anyone else.

He empowered the whole community and changed the society around them by promoting social justice, equality and brotherhood. Women were empowered. The poor were given their share of the wealth voluntarily by the rich. The problems of the society were addressed whether they were alcoholism, violence and revenge, oppression of women and slaves, misdistribution of wealth or concentration of power within certain families or tribes.

By the time the Prophet passed away, the whole of Arabia had a paradigm shift in all aspects of life and embraced the new message of change wholeheartedly.

So the next time you read a skewed article or Op-Ed in your local newspaper about an event or a topic that concerns you, don't just blame the reporter or the editorial board.

“Don't wait for something big to occur. Start where you are, with what you have, and that will always leads you into something greater".

Pick up your laptop and write a letter to the editor. Be polite and firm and don't hesitate if your written English is not meticulous. Even if your letter is not published, it is definitely read by editors. This is one way we can be civically engaged and be better Muslims.