A Case for Activism – From The Quran

A country man went to the Grand Mosque in Mecca with a burning prayer he needed to be answered. He wanted wealth, lots of it; he is Nigerian after all. Like the desert-dwelling Bedouins at the time of the Prophet (SAW), he lacked etiquettes of being in holy sites. He repeats loudly “Oh God! All I ask for is Money! Money!! Money!!!”. Imagine sitting and attempting to meditate beside this fellow.

It happens that there was another Nigerian in that situation (beside the country man); unable to get some quiet so many miles from the rawkus of his business. The rich Nigerian turns to the poor Nigerian and says “Hushhhhh! here you go”, handing over a ten thousand dollars “please leave now so we can have some peace with God”. The poor man’s prayer was granted. God works in mysterious ways.

This is an urban legend in North Nigeria (best told in Hausa); its authenticity is dubious or perhaps there is just some embellishment. It is told for the joke in it. But I have come to see a new and deeper meaning in it.

Purpose of Worship (in Islam)

Why do Muslims worship God? Why should Muslims worship God? Many Muslims don’t ponder this question. This was evident in a recent discussion that led me to writing this. Perhaps it is because most Muslims are born into the religion (certainly this is no excuse). Another reason could be that most Muslims mistakenly think the answer is found in a popular Quran verse which says:

“I have only created jinns and men that they may serve me” – Q51:56

But this verse (51:56) does not answer our question but answers another question “What is the purpose of creation?” (of course this verse implies that every action, excluding prohibitions, could be an act of worship).

The best reason I‘ve heard (apart from those who I think misunderstand the above verse) is that Muslims should worship simply for want of rewards and fear of punishment. This view is popular among extremists (within Muslims and the Islamophobes).

 “O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.” – Rabi’ah Al Adawiyya

Such reward-punishment understandings explains the mental barrier among many Muslims from appreciating the famous prayer of the exemplary woman Rabi’ah Al Adawiyya (Quoted above). Rabia’h is making the point that God should be worshiped for his own sake, for being all the *99 names* He is, for gratitude (of having access to his 99 aspects). This is the best answer I have come across.

The first chapter of the Quran (Surah Al Fatiha), nicknamed The Essence of the Quran, supports the point that worship should be gratitude. The first verse starts with “Thanks/Praise be to God”. It is logical that the first verse instructs to worship. The first verse of the Quran compendium instructs Muslims to Glorify/Show-gratitude to God; this is the instruction to Worship. Thus Worship = Showing Gratitude.

Gratitude = Action

“And thank Allah for the hands He blessed you with, by extending them to acts of goodness” – Uthman Bin Fodiyo (Minhaj Al Abidin)

The question now is “How do we show gratitude?”

“Gratitude is the prime of moral value of the Quran and the foundation of its ethics and morality” – Ziauddeen Sardar

The answer is that we show gratitude by action. Ziaudeen Sardar puts it very when he said “Both gratitude and ingratitude manifest itself by working to improve the lives of others and enhancing the environment we inhabit”.

So when we carry out acts that are normally classified as worship (prayers, zakat etc) we do that to show gratitude. An interesting point is that all these acts of worship have a situation when it is permissible not to carry them out; subject to a deficiency (This I shall indulge in another post insha Allah).


“The end of prophesy is a sanction against our intrinsic inclination to look perpetually for a messiah so we can place all our burdens and responsibilities on his shoulders. It suggests, in particular, that it our own responsibility to stand up to tyranny and oppression” – Ziauddeen Sardar

Activism is strongly associated with rebellion. It is so because the activism that gets our attention is when it is outwardly carried out on political/military spheres. But in essence this is no different from limiting the definition of Jihad to military occupations. Activism is primarily internal but depending on the circumstance, it may spill in to the political/military sphere. In fact Activism IS Jihad. This means that a leader could be an activist too, in its fundamental form. Leadership and activism are not antithetical.

But you might say that the Quran instructs believers to “Pay heed unto God, pay heed unto the Apostle and to those from among you who have been entrusted with authority” (Q4:59, Muhammad Asad). Fazlur Rahman elaborates that the leaders referred to here are those that have been duly elected or appointed authority. Certainly, fraudulently elected leaders are not worth paying “heed unto”. This verse does not give even the right leaders complete autonomy as it continues by saying that the leaders should be judged according to the Quran principles (also evident in the Prophet’s life). If people rebel against “honest” leaders then there will be “corruption on earth”.

So what is the criterion on which rebellion is sanctioned in the Quran? (note that rebellion here means Activism that has culminated in political/military sphere)

That criterion is what the Quran calls Fasad fil ‘ard (Corruption on the earth). Fazlur Rahman elucidates on this as “any state of affairs that leads to lawlessness – political, moral or social – when national or international affairs are out of control”

But you might ask how do we decide whether a leadership is really supporting “corruption on the earth”, especially given media tools that can be used as negative propaganda? This calls for transparency (which the Quran also instructs on). Uthman Bin Fodiyo says its permissible for a leader to make public some of their good deeds for the education and guidance of the followership (in Minhaj Al ‘abidin). Bear in mind that this permission comes from a work which generally condemns public piety even those that “let their acts of piety be known so that others would imitate them”. Uthman Bin Fodiyo is emphasizing transparency.

Back to The Urban Legend

Now back to the urban legend we started this post with. You can see the rich Nigerian being an activist in helping grant the prayers of the country-man. It is the rich Nigerian’s expression of gratitude.

A popular hadith (tradition on the Prophet) reports that the Prophet said the supplication of the oppressed will not be rejected [Ibn Majah 1:557]. So next time you hear the poor expressing their frustration/oppression (in prayers or curses), make/re-affirm your resolve to change their situation. We should all hope to express gratitude to God by aiding in granting their supplication.

And if all this is not persuasion enough to be an Activist that shows gratitude to God, here’s a Quran verse 4:75:

“And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?  Men, women and children, whose cry is “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect and raise for us from thee one who will help” – Q4:75 Abdallah Yusuf Ali”


1 Comment

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One response to “A Case for Activism – From The Quran

  1. Auwal Anwar

    This is very good Bilal. I have always been amused by fake ulamas who try to help in hoodwinking us by telling us to accept any kind of leadership as ‘leadership comes from God’. This is a very good answer.

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