This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and Social Action.
Faith-based social action is something that past and present UK governments have consistently supported, both rhetorically and, at times, with financial aid. The motivations that faith-based organisations have for engaging in social action are, however, rarely explored and are often misunderstood. In this article, community worker and social entrepreneur Husna Ahmad explains her own reasons for engaging in faith based social action from a Muslim perspective.
I believe that faith is a very powerful phenomenon. Whilst one must not forget the lessons of history, which show religion being the trigger for so much bloodshed and destruction – destruction that continues even today – we must recognize that faith has been used throughout history to transform nations and societies by instilling intrinsic values and morals in humankind. Every one of the world’s great traditions contains a core moral and ethical underpinning that life should be just and fair.
Those of us living in the West could easily be compared to the world depicted in the film Elysium by the 1 billion people who go hungry every day in the developing world. This movie is set in the year 2154; Elysium imagines a world where the wealthy elite have abandoned an overcrowded Earth for a better life aboard a luxury space station.
While Earth is characterized by crime-riddled and poverty-stricken slums, the super-rich live in an exclusive gated community in space complete with a cure for all illnesses and robots that enforce strict anti-immigration laws. Does this not sound eerily familiar? Whilst apartheid has been removed from South Africa, we have economic and ethnic apartheid in so many parts of the world.
The United Kingdom is ever growing in diversity, with high proportions of people identified as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Christian, meaning issues of social inclusion are increasingly important. The data from the 2011 census show that Muslims are the second largest religious group in England and Wales, with 2.7 million currently residing in the country (4.8% of the population).
“In Islam, Muslims believe that man has been given a responsibility by Allah on this earth and that man will be accountable to Allah for his actions and the trust placed in him.”
One would have thought that with the increase in the Muslim population in the UK there would be more interaction and therefore more understanding and acceptance into British society. However, anti-Muslim prejudice is common and Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin continue to have among the highest rates of unemployment and lowest rates of educational attainment in the UK.
In this article I would like to discuss the importance of faith-based social action and how faith action can give rise to a sense of public spiritedness that can help overcome social exclusion and injustice. I will focus on the two main drivers for faith action from the Islamic perspective, theological and social.
In today’s volatile international and national environment it is very important that people do not give up on themselves, on their communities and on humanity. Faith is a rope that we all need to hold onto, to ensure our perspective on life remains clear. I am full of hope and optimism for the future: I have never been a cynic as I have complete trust in God’s mercy and compassion. I always see the cup half full rather than half empty; in fact this keeps me sane and centred. Having worked in the voluntary sector with multi- faith communities for the past decade and seeing the poverty, discrimination and injustice that face so many, it is my faith which keeps the smile on my face –a simple smile can be charity.
In Islam, Muslims believe that man has been given a responsibility by Allah on this earth and that man will be accountable to Allah for his actions and the trust placed in him. I believe very strongly in the role that faith has in determining one’s ‘public spirit’. What makes faith communities so special is their common understanding of the importance of caring and sharing, respect for the elderly and each other, altruism and compassion for those less fortunate. I believe that it is an elusive thing – this public spirit – but has so much to offer any society where it can be nurtured and sustained. Action for justice and equality can so easily enter the domain of public spirit through faith. A hadith of the Prophet Muhammad clearly calls for this sense of public spirit.
Feed the hungry and visit a sick person, and free a captive if he be unjustly confined. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non Muslim.
A significant majority across our faith communities seek to build a fair and inclusive society. This is illustrated through the culture of giving to the poor and needy which is common to all faiths. For example in Christian tradition there is the tithe, in Judaism we see the Tzedakah and in Islam the zakat. The Poor Laws of 1598, despite being much hated, were based on the Christian duty to help the destitute and vulnerable; and continued in the UK for 400 years until 1948 when they were abolished by the National Assistance Act.
One question which is often raised in the voluntary and faith sectors in the UK is what is the Government’s duty to its people and how involved should the churches and mosques in involved in assisting people. Where is the line drawn? I do not know the answer to this question and I am already seeing the cracks in our welfare state. Perhaps the answer is to find a happy medium?
Britain’s welfare state and its underpinning ideas of assisting the vulnerable clearly resonates with the Islamic concept of Bayt al-mal, which is an Arabic term that is translated as ‘House of money’ or ‘House of Wealth’. Historically, it was a financial institution responsible for the administration of taxes in Islamic states, particularly in the early Islamic Caliphate. It served as a royal treasury for the caliphs and sultans, managing personal finances and government expenditures. Further, it administered distributions of zakah revenues for public works. The taxes (including zakat and jizya) collected in the treasury of an Islamic government were used to provide income for the needy, including the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, and the disabled. According to the Islamic jurist Al-Ghazali (Algazel, 1058–1111), the government was also expected to stockpile food supplies in every region in case a disaster or famine occurred.
Social and cultural drivers
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.
Surah al-Hujurat (49:13)
The good neighbour looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and therefore brothers.
Martin Luther King Jr
King’s poignant message is that we all have a social responsibility to ensure the welfare of our neighbours and our communities. This is a message which is instilled in people of faith. I feel very blessed to know so many people of other faiths who show respect for my religion and are genuine friends. I think this is one of the perks of living in a ‘multicultural society’ as it gives you the chance to meet the ‘other’ and interact as equals. I believe that minority faith communities and the Christian host community should show a united front against inherent wrongdoings that threaten the fundamental values underpinning the world we live in.
“Much of the work that Muslims in the voluntary sector do today is because we believe that Britain is our home and we are proud of it”
I believe that an essential driver for faith action from the Muslim perspective is to combat the discrimination and misrepresentation of Muslims. Much of the work that Muslims in the voluntary sector do today is because we believe that Britain is our home and we are proud of it and want to make a positive contribution as active citizens in our society. What concerns me is that foreign policy, terrorism and immigration are overshadowing all the positive efforts of law-abiding Muslims and their friends from other faith communities.
The future of multiculturalism and Britishness is often debated within Parliament, particularly with reference to Muslim communities in the UK who have faced a significant backlash due to misconceived ideas that Muslims do not wish to engage with the wider communities. A multicultural state should not be viewed as a threat to current ways of life. Faith-based communities should not have to make compromises but we should be understood in order to enable improved inter-faith relations.
In May 2013, the House of Commons held a debate in response to David Cameron’s claims in 2011 that multiculturalism has failed. It appeared that nobody on the panel opposed the idea of moving towards multiculturalism, and all were largely content that progress was being made. Success of multiculturalism in the UK was congratulated in light of the huge diversity of race. The debate was attended by Abdullah Al Andalusi, an Islamic activist and public speaker, who questioned the supposed success:
The hidden reality of multiculturalism in the West is that it is not actually multicultural, but actually suppresses cultures.
In saying this, Abdullah Al Andalusi suggests that the common understanding of what it means to be multicultural does little to bring about freedom of belief. He defined the differentiating aspects of cultures to be the ‘values, perspectives, traditions, worldviews and beliefs’, and these influence the actions and practices which are more commonly and superficially associated with particular faiths.
A common criticism of modern multiculturalism is that it fails to appreciate the real issues surrounding different cultures. It is stated that society acknowledges and embraces only clothing, cuisine and music. Alibhai-Brown called this limited multicultural accommodation the ‘3S’ model – saris, samosas, and steel drums. This model fails to appreciate the real values of religious beliefs and runs the risk of trivialisation or ‘Disneyfication’ of cultural differences. This suggests that multiculturalism only truly exists insofar as it is compatible with British culture, and that our system falls more in line with the idea of assimilation. People attach centrality to their faith and secularist government structures and bodies fail to appreciate or accommodate this. Sometimes individuals may feel pressured into compromising aspects of their religious identities in order to be accepted as part of the mainstream.
In order to build a future that is mutually beneficial to all British citizens, whatever their religious affiliations, we must reach a compromise which allows for what are considered to be the fundamental principles of culture and faith to be protected. This compromise must come from both sides, awareness and acceptance of Islam need not be accompanied by fear and caution, a solution to greater social inclusion of Muslims need not involve suppression of British values. The concept of multiculturalism must move away from the view that secularity can be created via suppression. It needs to be redefined in order for people to view it as a way to a future that liberates individual belief and diversity in the population.
In conclusion, I believe that Britain has a blueprint for the social integration of Muslims despite the silly debates which are brought up from time to time on the veil and Muslim women. On the whole it is a country where Muslims can participate through faith action to build peaceful communities and participate in the economic development of the UK through the labour market and businesses.
Husna Ahmad OBE is the Managing Director of Green Pearl Consulting and the Secretary General of the World Muslim Leadership Forum. She is the Islamic Programmes Adviser to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. She was the Group CEO of the Muslim-inspired multi faith charity Faith Regen Foundation from 2006 until March 2013. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire by HM the Queen in 2010 for services to disadvantaged communities.
See http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html; Religion in England and Wales 2011
 Abdullah al- Andalusi, ‘Review of My Panel Debate on Multiculturalism – Held in the UK Houses of Parliament’, Abdullah al-Andalusi, 10 May 2013, http://abdullahalandalusi.com/2013/05/10/review-on-my-panel-debate-on-multiculturalism-in-the-uk-houses-of-parliament/.
 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, After Multiculturalism (London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2000).
 Will Kymlicka, Multiculturalism: Success, Failure, and the Future (Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2012).
 Tariq Modood and Fauzia Ahmad, ‘British Muslim Perspectives on Multiculturalism’, Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 2 (2007): 187.
The image of the Qur’an included courtesy of Habib M’Henny and has been released into the public domain. The image of Martin Luther King Jr. is included courtesy of the New York World-Telegram & Sun and is not subject to copyright restrictions.