Here is an article that I wrote a while back on the basis for social activism within the Muslim tradition, which eventually got published in the Philippines and Iran.
Farid Esack, a South African Muslim of Pakistani heritage, presents a modern version of the Muslim faith throughout his book titled On Being a Muslim. As it becomes evident during the course of the text, the author’s life experiences have contributed significantly to the interpretation set forth. Specifically, Esack recalls on numerous occasions his time spent living under the racist South African regime, as well as his international travels. Interweaving personal anecdotes with general discussions of theology, the text seeks to offer a progressive representation of Islam that embraces tradition yet makes it relevant to modern issues. Over the span of seven chapters Esack outlines, in a relatively concise manner, the most pressing of these problems confronting modern Muslims around the world. What is interesting about the book’s arrangement is that each of chapter builds upon the concepts analyzed previously, working from inward to external renewal. I would argue that the organization of the text in such a manner contributes to the author’s central
Throughout his writing, Esack repeatedly addresses the concept of tawhid, or monotheism, in Islam. More precisely,
“Belief in the existence and unity of Allah, the Transcendent, is central to the life of a Muslim and the Qur’an places much emphasis on cultivating a relationship with Allah as a living and caring God to whom all humankind will return and to whom we all accountable.”
Therefore, according to the author, this tenet should be interpreted in a broader sense than is traditionally acknowledged by the Muslim umma, or community. In the book’s preface Esack contextualizes his attempts to introduce an alternative to what he refers to as “dehumanizing fundamentalism and fossilized traditionalism,” which serves as a middle path.2 In order to facilitate its development among Muslims, it is necessary to reinterpret all aspects of the religion, ranging from the Qur’an to cultural practices. With that said, I will examine Farid Esack’s argument for tawhid as being the central concept of Islam. Additionally, I will discuss the ways in which this tenet has facilitated the emergence of new Muslim identities and practices that encourage individuals to be socially engaged in modern societies.
The Comprehensiveness of Tawhid
Introduced briefly above, the centrality of tawhid in Islam has and continues to be an important article of faith for individuals practicing the religion. Although the concept typically is translated as “monotheism” by scholars, Esack argues in favor of a more comprehensive definition. The author, by emphasizing the idea of unity as part of tawhid, establishes a theological foundation for his subsequent arguments. Much of Esack’s initial presentation of this idea derives from his first chapter titled “On Being with Allah,” which helps in showing its connection with other, worldlier topics. Attempting to convey to his audience the sense of bewilderment and anxiety that stems from contemplating tawhid, Esack relates an anecdote from hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. He begins by stating plainly his feelings before leaving South Africa:
“I approached Mecca with a mixture of
feelings. Social conditioning: the many tales
of experiences of ‘hearts overflowing’ told by
returning pilgrims compelling me to just ‘feel
the greatness of the moment;’ my secular disposition
militating against this and beckoning
me to be calm; the nafs al-lawwamah (berating
self ) mockingly chiding: ‘Are you not ashamed
of defiling the sacred soil of Mecca with your
This quote provides not only an excellent summary of the inner turmoil Esack experiences because of this particular situation, but also addresses a more universal theme: the desire for a close relationship with God.
In particular, as the author continues his narration, he mentions on several occasions that he had come to view God as being indifferent to both personal and global suffering. For example, when visiting the Ka’bah in hopes of God presenting him with a clear consciousness, “the silence that greeted me was deafening in its loudness. There was no glimmer of the emergence of a new being consumed by the flame. I sat there, drained and frightened,” offers Esack.4 From this comment it becomes evident that the author seeks to expose a disconnect between individuals’ desires and what God presents to them. Although the benefits of the hajj did not manifest immediately and left Esack deeply shaken spiritually to the point of requiring friends to ensure physical survival, several remarkable incidents occurred eventually. The most significant of these events included the establishment of a social activist group named the Call of Islam, which provided individuals with a Muslim organization committed to ending South African racism and sexism.5
Progressing from this initial belief, the chapter also comments extensively on the inter- relatedness of God and His creation. To deviate from use of On Being a Muslim, I wish to present personal experiences from my time residing in Cairo, seeing as they pertain to the author’s sentiments. Prior to leaving the United States, my encounters with Islam had been meetings with pious individuals, who were predominately white converts to the religion. From these interactions I had crafted the mental image of Islam as a tranquil, moral, and welcoming faith, but quickly found the opposite while abroad. This is not to say that all Egyptian Muslims lacked in their piety or loyalty to Islam; I was afforded the opportunity to share an apartment with three Egyptian students who taught me a great deal. Rather, as Esack acknowledges in his writing, I observed what I consider “cultural Islam,” specifically the social rituals that have developed over the centuries and attached themselves to the religion. An example of this quality that I encountered repeatedly was the inclusion of specific Arabic phrases, like ma’shallah (God is pleased) or al-hamduia’Allah (if God wills), in everyday conversations without much thought. It appeared that my Egyptian and other Arab friends employed this language only because it was something that had been instilled as proper social custom during childhood.
Furthermore, outside of the university setting while navigating the clogged Cairene streets, I met a number of Muslims in the city’s bazaars and neighborhoods. Similar to the ideological fall-out documented by Esack during his hajj as a result of the apparent absence of God, my adventures in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili drove me towards unsavory opinions of Islam. Situated near the city’s holiest Muslim sites, including al-Azhar University and mosque, this open-air market served as Cairo’s economic center through the mid-twentieth century. In recent decades with the rise of global tourism, however, the area resembles an American mall more than a traditional Middle Eastern bazaar, with merchants beckoning individuals “to have a look, my friend.” Despite my high tolerance
for haggling, thanks to obnoxious boardwalk merchants back home, I found myself growing sick each time I visited the Khan, which made my trips as quick as possible. I believe this response and others like it stem from the unrealistic conception of Muslims that I fabricated prior to living in Cairo. While these experiences debased my idealism, I, like Esack, sought out the consolation of pious friends who I owe much of my current perceptions of al-diin (Arabic for “religion”).
Whereas other students investigating Islam in Egypt gradually became critical and at times, openly hostile, towards Muslims, my “spiritual consciousness” drifted in the other
direction. Unfortunately, I cannot provide a single moment where this revelation occurred; rather it developed through a series of conversations and relationships. The first of these resulted from living with three Egyptian students, one of which I cite as embodying piety. This roommate, named Abd al-Hamid, and I frequently sat up for hours and discussed various questions concerning Islam, such as the nature of God, morality. Amidst the confusion that sometimes arose because of language differences, it was evident that each of us sought intimacy with God and recognized the inherent conflicts with peers that would arise periodically. Another relationship that contributed to a simultaneously inward and outward approach to Islam, like the one advocated by the author, stems from talks with a female graduate student. The details of how we exactly met, I am unable to recall presently, but nonetheless, our exchanges encouraged me to meld my social activist impulses with Muslim theology. Ethar, a twenty-two year old Egyptian female, attended the university in hopes of obtaining a master’s degree in journalism, specifically focusing upon the portrayal of Muslim females in the country’s media. Over the course of the semester, Ethar and I would forgo class in order to engage in these discussions that ranged in a topics from the Five Pillars to marriage customs. Being a new convert with a limited mastery of the Qur’an and hadith, I was humbled by the insight provided by this woman, yet never felt belittled because of it. Each time we concluded talking I emerged desiring deeper understandings of the religion, specifically its relevance to modern social problems.
Where Do We Go From Here: Renewing Islam through Social Engagement
Through the provision of a thorough explanation of tawhid by employing relevant accounts from both the author’s and my life, it is my attention to direct attention to the realworld application of a comprehensive definition of tawhid as prescribed by Farid Esack. Building upon this foundation, Esack first outlines a methodology to liberate individuals, and therefore, permitting them to positively affect the world around them. The author connects this path towards freedom to tawhid by asserting, “The first characteristic of truly liberating speech and behavior is that these emerge from firm roots…For me, this means I listen to the voice deep within myself; the voice which is an echo of the Spirit of Allah blown into all humankind at the time of creation.”6 Another component of achieving liberation requires the individual to aspire to goals that transcend passive existence.
Esack bluntly states that in order to accomplish this state, Muslims will encounter strife, but emphasizes the need to find inspiration from inherent beliefs and moral values. For instance, relating this topic to the racism officially endorsed by the apartheid South African government, the author argues that the basis for such actions are rooted in individual insecurities. To defend this assertion Esack cites a sura from the Qur’an that recounts the story of Adam, who became distinguished among all of creation by embodying the Spirit of Allah and free will.7 Consequently, our recognition of this fact and its applicability to humankind should motivate Muslims to fight for greater social equality, whether it is manifested in legislature or personal actions.
Contributing to the growing gap between God and His children is the kufr, or ingratitude
shown by mankind towards God’s many gifts. Although this is traditionally understood
as ignorance of the individual’s dependency upon God for survival, Esack asserts that also
“we have to be aware of the many fine qualities that we have been imbued with.”8 The inability to acknowledge God-given strengths and weaknesses, as a result, prevents humans from achieving their full potential in life. Just as man is dependent upon God for sustenance, he is also reliant upon other humans for a meaningful existence. More importantly, this ignorance inhibits the emergence of relationships between individuals that are mutually beneficial and free of pretense. For an example of this, one has to look no further than the causes for social injustices, be it sexual, racial, or economic biases. Within each of these manifestations of hatred, ignorance of the tawhid of creation supplies a foundation.
As Esack has emphasized in this particular section and elsewhere in his book, Muslims, in an effort to cultivate greater social engagement, must begin by questioning what has been passed off as tradition or fact. The formulation of a personal relationship with God through analysis of holy texts and consciousness of one’s behaviors, thus, is necessary if the individual is to contribute to humankind with any success. I have committed to myself to Esack’s methodology and can attest to its benefits. In the broadest sense, the text encouraged a renewed connection with God that focused less upon praying for the fulfillment of momentary desires, such as getting an A on an assignment. Lately, my prayers, or du’ua, have been devoted towards asking for forgiveness and strength in abstaining from acts that are considered haraam, or forbidden under Islamic law. While these small changes in my behavior may appear insignificant, I believe they exemplify the steps outlined by Farid Esack in struggling towards social egalitarianism.
1 Farid Esack, On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today (Oneworld Publications: Oxford, 1999), 9.
2 Ibid, 2.
3 Ibid, 13.
4 Ibid, 15.
5 Ibid, 17.
6 Ibid, 43.
7 Ibid, 55.
8 Ibid, 56.