By Junaid Jahangir, New Age Islam
13 October 2020
Social justice activism revolves around equality in terms of economic opportunities, gender, LGBTQ inclusion and race. With rising inequality under capitalist economic systems, institutional discrimination on the basis of race or colour and police brutality against minorities, public discourse over the last decade has increasingly begun to comprise of language that was once confined to academic spaces that dealt with critical race theory, queer theory and the like.
It is not uncommon now to hear about language that comprises of phrases like “check your privilege,” “not doing emotional labour,” or “we are asking you.” Sometimes, the language used is strong and this includes phrases like “sit the F down,” or adjective like “trashy.” While a lot of this language developed or got popularized in western spaces, usually such cultural shifts permeate national and religious boundaries.
Youth who rebel against parental, traditional or religious authorities are often the first ones to adopt such changes apart from academics who have invested time and energy in crafting this new language on social change. Some are engaging with this public discourse and connecting it with Islam. The narrative of Islam is then recast through the lens of social justice. As such, the Prophet is viewed as someone who preached social justice against the oppression of the privileged Meccans. He is also viewed as a feminist by some and a radical LGBTQ inclusivist by others.
However, how reasonable is it to superimpose post-modern sensibilities, ideas and theories on to the past?
The marriage of social justice activism jargon with Islam is not a new phenomenon. When Muslims encountered Hellenistic philosophical works, they introduced Falsafa in Islam. The works of Andalusian polymath and jurist, Ibn Rushd, are a testament to how he tried to show the compatibility of Aristotelian works with Islam.
Likewise, when Muslims encountered science, they started reading the Qur’an through a scientific lens. I recall the popularity of the works of the French Muslim convert, Maurice Bucaille, and how Muslims started claiming that whatever science finds was present in the Qur’an 1400 years ago. Such arguments are reminiscent of Hindus who read back such discoveries in the ancient Vedas.
Engaging with foreign influences is a natural part of the growth of a philosophy, ideology or religion that offers an outlook on life. Current Muslim youth are no exceptions to this process of imbibing the influence of social justice activism. In British India, Muslims responded to the intellectual challenge offered by a foreign power in their own way.
One approach was taken by the Deoband Ulema, where they defended traditional Islam against any foreign influence. This approach ossifies Islam and therefore any change on the doctrines of jihad, Takfir (excommunication), triple talaq (divorce) or child marriages have been strongly resisted. The other approach came from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at Aligarh, whose works recast Islam in the light of science. His works show how he emphasized natural or scientific explanations for the miracles of the Prophets.
In contrast to these polar opposite approaches of uncritically defending the tradition or accepting western influences, there was a third approach. This was presumably taken by Maulana Shibli Nomani at Nadwa. This approach is about learning science but keeping one’s heritage and tradition simultaneously. In other words, Shibli broke binary thinking by emphasizing critical engagement with foreign influences.
This approach by Shibli continues with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan in India and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi in Pakistan. I am a proponent of this approach. So, when it comes to post-modern sensibilities, ideas and theories, I try to engage with them critically instead of hopping on the latest bandwagon in the name of social justice. My work on same-sex unions in Islam does not rest on such theories but rather on a critical engagement with the Islamic textual heritage.
As Muslims, our values rest on Sabr (patience), Shukr (gratitude), Ajazi (humility), Ehteram (respect), Ihsan (excellent conduct) and Futuwwa (spiritual chivalry – to do what is right without any expectation). Therefore, any western approach to social justice that defies such values and does not call upon people with wisdom and in the best of manners (verse 16:125) would be antithetical to such Islamic values.
Sometimes social justice calls rest on a Marxian approach, a point made by Nabeel Abdul Rashid, a finalist in Britain’s Got Talent, in his comedy act routine, when he referred to Marxists who infiltrated Black Lives Matter and destroyed buildings.
However, in contrast to such approaches that call for dismantling and excluding, the Islamic approach rests on building and including. Indeed, while Marx remains the opium of the intellectuals and has become relevant again given the excesses of capitalism, Muslims will have to resist the urge to uncritically yield to such post-modern sensibilities that cause divisiveness by inflicting humiliation instead of drawing people together.
In this regard, I am reminded of Rabbi Gershom Barnard’s excellent essay from 2003. He wrote:
“However, my ultimate commitment is not to inclusiveness, to egalitarianism, to participation, to pluralism, or to any of those good things. It is to God and to Torah, which I understand as traditional Judaism. … However, given who I am, I do value inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and pluralism, and that is the way that is.”
What I draw from this statement is that it is his belief in Judaism that leads him to support egalitarianism and not because he supports egalitarianism uncritically. I believe that is why I cannot support social justice uncritically and without any concordance with the Islamic values and texts.
Viewed as such, just as in the case of Hellenistic philosophy and science or scientism, social justice approach and constructs will only be accepted if they are compatible with the Islamic values and ethos.
Junaid Jahangir is an Assistant Professor of Economics at MacEwan University. He is the co-author of Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. With Dr. Hussein Abdullatif, a paediatric endocrinologist in Alabama, he has co-authored several academic papers on the issue of same-sex unions in Islam.
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