Citizenship and civic participation

The term citizenship is at the same time a formal status – the belonging of an individual to a state on the basis of a set of rights and duties – and also a state of mind. Citizenship is not only about attaining rights, but more about participation in the political and civil process. To talk of citizenship is to discuss rights, duties, participation and identity, because citizenship was always seen as a pragmatic function rather than as a political end in itself; not something to be attained but to be done, and practised. It is about being involved rather than isolated.

Muslim leaders and scholars have argued that the challenges that Muslims may face while living in a non-Muslim society like Britain are not an argument for social exclusion; indeed if anything they are greater reasons to be involved and engaged. They point to the fact that the Prophet (pbuh) lived for thirteen years in Mecca in a society that on the whole rejected his teachings, his views on morality, his behaviour and his conduct. Yet this did not deter him from trying to influence all the prominent avenues of power in his society. Examples of this are too many to count, but to cite a few: he would meet whenever possible with the influential members of the Quraish, and he would go to the Ka’bah (the centre of political as well as religious life at the time) to speak to people around him.

Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of social engagement is in the pact known as Hilf al-Fudul (‘the virtuous pact’). When the Prophet was about twenty years old a trader from Yemen came to Makkah and was wronged by one of the Quraish, Al-’As ibn Wa’il, who bought goods from him and refused to give the agreed price. In those days people would be protected only through their family/clan or an appointed protector and, knowing that the trader had no protection, Ibn Wa’il felt that he would get away with this. The trader went to the Ka’bah and pleaded for help.

In response to this a group of people met in the house of ‘Abdullah ibn Jud’an. Those present formed a pact to protect the innocent and downtrodden. Some of the biographers of the Prophet (pbuh) narrate that those present went to the Ka’bah and, after washing their hands in a bowl, raised their right hands and made a pledge. Muhammad, along with Abu Bakr, was party to this pledge. Later on in life, he is reported to have said: “I attended in ‘Abdullah ibn Jud’an’s home the formation of a covenant which I would not exchange for any material gain. If now after Islam I am called upon to honour it, I would certainly do so.”[1]

This incident shows clearly how Muhammad was keen take a stand against the injustices in his society that needed attention. Beyond this, it also shows that he was willing to take a moral stand alongside others, despite their different faith or values, for a common cause. Further, we may note that the cause in this case did not affect one of his ‘own’, but another human being whom he did not even know.

Some have argued that this all happened before Prophethood was declared and does not form a part of the exemplary life or teachings of the Prophet (pbuh); however, his clear praise of the pact later in life, and his restatement of his commitment to it, shows that this is an erroneous view.

We can also find other examples of how Muhammad benefited from the help of other people, or was prepared to work with them, regardless of their religious or moral backgrounds. When the small band of his followers in Makkah faced severe treatment at the hands of the Quraish, it was to the Christian Negus of Abyssinia that the Prophet sent those who were able to leave, as we have already seen. When the Prophet was secretly leaving Makkah for Madinah at the time of the migration (hijrah), it was a non-Muslim guide that he employed and confided in to show them the way. During the time of famine in Makkah, when the Muslims were boycotted and placed under strict sanctions, it was people like Al-Mut’im bin ‘Adiy, who was not a Muslim, who would secretly smuggle food to the Muslims and who were instrumental in bringing the boycott to an end. It was also the same Mut’im who granted the Prophet protection after the demise of Abu Talib.

Participation, and our sense of justice, must go beyond the parochial ends envisioned by the Islamists’ call to Islamic political hegemony (‘Islamic’, that is, as they would see it – by now their idiosyncratic and un-normative approach should be clear). The Qur’an exhorts believers to stand up for justice, even if it be against their own kin. Furthermore it asks people to find common ground and work together for good causes. The example of the Prophet Yusuf, that we have also seen before, shows how he took up a place in a non-Muslim government because in that was scope for him to promote good and prevent harm, not just for himself but for the whole of that society.

Islam envisages that harmonious relations be the norm between people, as the etymology of the word powerfully suggests. The Qur’an shows that humanity as such deserves great respect and has been honoured: “We have honoured the children of Adam (Qur’an, 17: 70). It also shows that differences of faith, ethnicity, nationality, and so on, are all part of the divine intent and that these differences are not to cause conflict between peoples:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, (not that you may despise each other)…” (Qur’an, 49: 13).

Difference in the sight of God is natural and part of His plan: “If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people…” (Qur’an, 11:118).


[1] Salahi, Adil, Muhammad Man and Prophet: A Complete Study of the Life of the Prophet of Islam. Leicester, The Islamic Foundation, 2002, pp. 40-41.

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