It is time to articulate a Muslim approach to justice and liberation

The secularised framework of decolonisation has failed to bring true liberation to the oppressed. The Muslim community must come up with its own approach.

The Quran is seen during a service, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, at the Islamic Center of East Lansing in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
The Quran is used during a service at the Islamic Center of East Lansing in East Lansing, Michigan [File: Al Goldis/AP]

Millions of non-Palestinians have marched through the streets of the Americas, Europe and other continents demonstrating against Israel’s war on Gaza. Thousands of students throughout the world have also voiced their anger at the brutal occupation and mass killing. Recent outbursts of dissent against politicians at public events throughout the United States and other places also show the amount of disdain the world is feeling.

These voices and protests against the war have certainly changed global public opinion, and Israel has lost whatever semblance of a good image it previously had. And yet those who are in a position to stop the killing in Gaza remain stubbornly attached to the claim: “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

So what can or should be done to cause a major change or shift in policy? What can the Muslim community do for its part? Civic action and standing up against oppression are no doubt necessary to engage in. But they are short-term tactics and far from a comprehensive strategy.

What I propose is a serious look into a long-term approach towards liberation that is based on ayaat (verses) of the Quran that give us, Muslims, clear guidance.

The first important guidance to consider is that the Quran does not condone the art of the artist if it has no bearing on society and community affairs. Surah Ash-Shu’ara in verses 225-226 speaks about poets who “wander in all valleys” of the imagination and “say what they do not do”. In today’s context, the equivalent of such poets or artists in general are the “ivory tower” academics, whose art and intellectual effort do not come to terms with reality and civic engagement.

The Quran makes an exception and “commends” those poets who believe, do good deeds and thus translate their art into real action. They also remember Allah plenty and thus live with the Real and seek vindication when the oppressed are wronged.

The second guidance we find in the Quran is the idea of establishing and promoting academic engagement even in the face of civic struggle. Verse 122 at the end of Surah Taubah (9) says:

“It is not proper for believers to go out and fight (in the path of Allah) all together. If only a group from each group (stay behind) and exert themselves to understand the religion (through studying and research) so that they may advise their people (who go out and fight) as they return to them, so that they (the activists) may be well advised and take precautions.”

This is an obvious call for a dual duty of the Muslim community that reflects division of communal labour and activity. One department can be in charge of preserving peace and justice in the land, and the other can engage in learning and research – that is, writing, researching and formulating policy through educational institutions, think tanks and NGOs. These researchers and academics would then advise policymakers and lawmakers to reform and change laws that are subject to ijtihad and politics (siyasah).

As we call for Muslims to join in direct action in the short term, the Quran calls us to fund and support academic and research institutions for the sake of Muslim longevity. This is a model that has yet to be tested and tried in our modern global community. But there is historical precedent for it.

The great Indian freedom fighter Mawlana Mahmud Hasan was imprisoned in Malta during World War I by the British for resisting their occupation in India. Yet while he was in prison, he continued engaging in his academic writings. Following his release after the war, he continued his revolutionary work at the Islamic Institute of Darul Uloom Deoband in both the political and intellectual realms, seeing them as mirror images of each other.

Due to his work, he was honoured with the title “Shaykh al-Hind”, a recognition for his incessant efforts at resisting British imperialism and oppression in the Indian subcontinent. The effects of his work, both in the realms of political activism and intellectual engagement are still felt today through the institutions and movements he was integral to. His followers did not see academic engagement as being entirely separate from direct action to liberate the oppressed.

Mawlana Mahmud Hasan’s efforts were contextual to his time and the unique circumstances of early 20th century British imperialism. The modern sociopolitical context requires new efforts that are similarly rooted in authentically Islamic content.

The secularised language of decolonisation has proven to be a failure at actual and total liberation. Even as colonised countries have thrown off the yoke of imperialism in name, much of the world remains economically, socially, and culturally within the grasp of imperial powers.

The need of the hour is to formulate new notions of sovereignty and articulate what an authentically Muslim form of justice would look like in the modern world. Muslims must not shy away from being creative in how they explore new possibilities of political and social theory at the local, national and international levels, even (and especially) in contrast to prevailing Western notions of modernity, sovereignty and justice.

Muslim activism that is still rooted in the framework of Western imperial ideology and political theory is not sufficient. We must authentically articulate our approach on a theoretical and practical level.

If modern Muslims are to once again lead the world community in resisting oppression and standing up for justice, there is no alternative to a twofold approach that recognises the political and the intellectual struggles that are necessary prerequisites to the manifestation of true liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.