IMPROVING THE WORLD in which we live is an Islamic imperative, God says in the Qur’an, “You are the best of communities brought forth for mankind.” (3:110) Abu Su’ud describes this verse in his commentary: this means the best people for others. This is an unambiguous expression which states that the good [mentioned here] lies in benefit provided to the people. This is also understood from the expression, “brought forth for mankind”-namely, brought forth to benefit them and advance their best interests.1
Our Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “God will continue to assist the servant, as long as the servant is assisting his brother.”2 We can thereby understand that divine aid and succor will accrue to this community as long as we are providing the same to fellow members of the human family.
Historical basis for involvement
In today’s socio-political environment, concern and benefit can be understood as civic involvement. The word “civic” is derived from the word “city.” Hence, civic involvement refers to the meaningful ways in which a private citizen is best involved in the life of his or her city. Despite its appearance in a largely agrarian context, if we consider the nature of the dominant means of economic production at the time of its emergence, Islam is best associated with the city. Our Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, is identified with the city. God mentions in the Qur’an, “I swear by this city, and you are a free man of this city.” (90:1-2)
The Prophet’s migration was from Mecca to Medina, from one city to another. Islamic learning and culture is associated with great cities-Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Isfahan, Samarqand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Qayrawan, Fez, Cordova, Seville, Granada, Istanbul, Sarajevo, Zabid, Timbuktu, Delhi, and many others.
It was the involvement of Muslims in the lives of these cities, many of which were established before the arrival of Islam, which defined them in their historical contexts. As Muslims, our involvement in the life of our cities should similarly leave a lasting and positive mark on them. Surely we have much to offer in that regard. It is not without purpose that God has placed us in significant numbers in and around the great metropolises of America. Now is the time for our constructive involvement in the lives of these cities to commence.
Such involvement is especially critical in these times of political transformation and the redefinition of both the role and scope of government here in America. As the two major political parties become increasingly responsive to special interest groups, particularly those associated with big business, large unions, and wealthy individuals, their role as facilitators of democratic and civic involvement is being eroded. This shift in responsiveness is leading to what is referred to as a dealignment of those parties. This dealignment causes private citizens to search for new institutions to serve as their primary means of political involvement, which consequently results in the proliferation of smaller, grassroots civic organizations. The collective weight of these organizations and their facilitation of direct citizen involvement in local politics is viewed by some as the reinventing of American democracy.3
Position of Muslims and Contributions
The potential contributions of Muslims and the benevolent influence of Islam in this process are tremendous for a number of reasons. In terms of addressing issues associated with poverty, the social welfare policy of both governmental and non-profit organizations has centered on what has been referred to as “a deficit model that focuses on the deficiencies of individuals and communities, rather than building upon the individual, associational, and institutional assets and networks that already exist.” This deficit model systematically weakens citizens and communities, as the power of governmental and private agencies ascends. As government retreats from the obligations assumed by the welfare state, the aforementioned organizations are threatened. Hence, the existence of this ineffective model is also threatened. As a result, an opening exists for Muslims to provide an alternative model of civic involvement and activism.
The unique position of Muslims is rooted in the dichotomous nature of our community wherein less affluent, largely minority converts and recent immigrants live in inner-cities, while more affluent and established immigrants reside in suburbs. This dichotomy creates a situation in which the Muslims of inner-cities have a tremendous potential of social capital, or the ability to draw on developed internal communal support systems and networks with other organizations, such as churches, schools, neighborhood associations, local politicians, and small interest groups. On the other hand, Muslims living in the suburbs have tremendous intellectual and financial capital. If we could constructively bring these two reservoirs of capital together, we could develop a demonstrable model that could initiate a revolution in American civic participation. That revolution lies in our potential to reverse one of the most damaging implications of suburban sprawl-the depletion of intellectual and material resources from the inner-city.
Rudimentary efforts undertaken by Muslims to counter this trend have already begun. Organizations such as the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago combine the material and intellectual resources of suburban Muslims with the organizational expertise and networking potential of inner-city Muslims to create a dynamic synthe- sis that is having an ever greater impact on the life of both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. In Los Angeles, the Umma Community Clinic demonstrates how the vision and focused action of suburban university students can create a major center that provides one of the few venues where poor residents of the South Central Los Angeles community can receive free basic medical care and referrals for more advanced treatment. In the Washington, DC area, The Zakat Project initiated by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) builds bridges of goodwill and helps to initiate avenues of communication and coordination between the wealthy Muslims of suburban northern Virginia and the poorer communities of inner-city Washington, DC. In Richardson, Texas, the Islamic Association of North Texas (IANT) provided the funding to renovate one of the oldest mosques of inner-city Dallas. In Santa Clara, a suburb in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, the Rahima Foundation works in collaboration with Masjid Warithuddin of inner-city Oakland to help feed three hundred families a month.
If we can expand and develop these efforts, a new and unprecedented model of civic involvement can emerge. This development is in no way limited to the social service sector. Mobilized social capital would inevitably engender deeper models of citizen involvement that involve greater forms of self-governance and enhanced collaboration with other economic, social, and political actors.
However, for these developments to occur, we need a revitalized type of Muslim-one who is instilled with a bold and God-conscious vision. This is why the Agenda to Change Our Condition is so important. If implemented, it will engender Muslims with a healthier relationship with God, and a healthier relationship with God will lead to a healthier relationship with our neighbors. That enhanced relationship will in turn lead to a change in our collective condition, God willing.
May blessings and peace be upon the
Messenger of Allah, as long
as those who remember
him continue to
do so …