I wish to discuss a few of the principles which ought to animate our engagement with wider society and our fellow citizens; and how, in the time honoured tradition of Abrahamic monotheism, we are called upon to hold a mirror up to society and help steer it away from self-harm.
One Qur’anic verse is particularly telling on this point, for it says: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] Thus this ‘community of the middle way’, distant from all types of extremism; this ‘best part of everything,’ has been tasked with the burden of being witnesses over mankind: witnesses to the truth of God’s Prophets and to the monotheistic message they each came with, and witnesses to the truth that a life lived in hedonistic pursuits will not bring about human happiness.
Muslims are called to witness that: Indeed We have created man in hardship [90:4]; that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments. We must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown them out with drink, drugs and distractions, monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.
To be a witness is to be actively engaged. Isolationist policies that some Muslims have chosen stifle such witnessing. And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God, does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’, states the Qur’an [41:33] In another verse, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is told to declare: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to God, clear-sightedly, I and those who follow me.’ [12:108] Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation and to monotheism’s lights being veiled from reaching others. The call need not be verbal: ‘actions speak louder than words’, and doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk undeniably has its place and can help win arguments. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and sacrifice tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects.
Let us also recall that the uncompromising monotheism of God’s Prophets, peace be upon them, didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civilisation or civic life. We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness, exiled there, or taken refuge there for a while. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city-centred.
Prophetic cries from the wilderness there have been. But Prophets offer us something practicable and liveable; something people may actualise in their urban worlds which would help them to be recognisably human and spiritual. Along with an unflinching monotheism, the history of the great monotheistic epics were rooted in impassioned protests against corruption, tyranny, social iniquity or ‘the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings as in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.’ Historical records show that what we now refer to as the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith. Such is the energy of the monotheistic call and the prophetically-inspired voices of dissent. Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than a monotheistic religion of sacred discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
So what are we Muslims to be or to do here in the West; in the place where most of us call home? What is it that we can offer? We can’t be mere armchair critics of society, that’s for sure; nor can we continue to moan from the fringes. We could, I suppose, settle as comfortably as possible into the consumerist culture and live our lives mostly for material pursuits. But that would be to shirk away from the commitment we have made to Abrahamic monotheism, to la ilaha il’Allah, and ignore the demands it makes on us in terms of working for a more just, compassionate and ethical society.
We could, as some of us do, wallow in self pity and a culture of blame, accusing others for our woes and predicament, unable to move beyond past grievances. But that is to be ignorant of faith and the sense of personal responsibility, empowerment, hope and optimism that the monotheistic belief injects into individuals. ‘Monotheism makes a difference to what we believe and do,’ and to the way we see our lives unfold and our responses to it. It is impossible to be moved by the prophetic call and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: worship God alone, and take responsibility. For the world will not get better of its own accord.
We could opt for a browbeaten facsimile of monotheism, having nothing to say about our ever-growing social ills or the downwards spiral of spiritual decadence; content to pander to corporate agendas and the money markets; desperate to confine religion to the home, vexed whenever it enters the public space; servile to the monoculture; and in homage to the modern liberal state. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop, says that ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’ Theology aside, the above applies equally to Muslim liberals as it does Christian ones; those who see the Qur’an as little more than a social manifesto which wholeheartedly endorses the liberal orthodoxies of our age. A privatisation of religion, no doubt; but a publicisation of a shameless defeatism too.
As explained before, Islam’s monotheism calls upon us to be witnesses; it equally calls upon us to be healers too: We send the Messengers only to bring good news and to warn. So those who believe and set things aright, no fear shall come upon them and nor shall they grieve. [6:48] This setting things aright; this healing, rings out in the next passage too: Have you seen him who denies the religion? Such is he who repels the orphan and who does not urge others to feed the poor. [107:1-2] This monotheistic spirit of healing has been eloquently expressed by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes: ‘We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.’
Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.
In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.
Abdul Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’
As to the rather tiresome question of whether or not Muslims can truly be at home in the West, then this is answered by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Western Muslims with a resounding “yes”. Millions of Muslims who live in the West continue to demonstrate that they are, with different degrees of accommodation, at home with the realities of life in the West. Those bread and butter issues which concern Western Muslims are concerns for everyone else too. Their specific challenge, however, is how to remain conscientious believers whilst being responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus we need a theory to shore up the practice, and that theory must have at its centre the idea of Muslims being: shuhada ‘ala’l-nas – “witnesses over mankind”.
The hubris of the secular humanist system has placed undue strain upon life on earth. The urgent need from Muslims, therefore, is dignified dissent from the monoculture. But these prophetically-inspired voices of dissent must be infused with great wisdom, sacrifice, service and humility.
 Sardar, Reading the Qur’an (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 111.
 Hazleton, The First Muslim: the Story of Muhammad (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 102.
 Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 175.
 Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.
 To Heal a Fractured World, 5
 Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.