In helping to found a charity startup, I found myself wrestling with new spiritual questions I was unprepared for. I was pulled to relearn the gift of ‘Islām’. The five of us launched our product with explosive success. It felt awesome at first, the crowds were cheering us on; we effortlessly surpassed all expectations. But then, very quickly, I felt empty. A very personal story was now being ‘commercially hijacked’ – I felt powerless to reclaim it. Refreshing the page and seeing an additional thousand pounds raised for orphans in Gaza was no longer fulfilling. It would only reinforce the urgent questions I was secretly asking myself.
An attentive believer understands the gifts of Allāh upon him are innumerable. He is urgently curious to unravel these gifts inviting himself closer to his Lord. Although the most glorious gift Allāh presents us with is enlightening belief in His Oneness, I argue that we have lost the deeper meanings of what this represents. Ibn Rajab recounts, ‘the believer is travelling a spiritual journey back to his Lord until he finds Him’. In this article, I unpack this comment, and interrogate the spiritual crisis we risk by not striving to know this divine journey. I suggest that by not making this ‘gift of guidance’ the organising principle in our outer lives, and in all our social activism, we are left spiritually confused and embarrassingly distracted. We become stuck in a frustrating relationship with ‘Club Islām’, rather than delighting in an empowering journey back to Allāh. I conclude that we have misunderstood the gift of Islām, and suggest that crying for Gaza means crying for ourselves first and foremost.
Making a positive social change in this World is an Islamic imperative, yet we are commanded to do it purely for Allāh and the Hereafter. Negotiating this blurry disjuncture in practical terms is the interest of this paper. I organise the discussion around Allāh’s words declaring the life of a believer as energetically revolving around Himself.
‘Say (Oh Muḥammed (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam)), verily my prayers, my sacrifices, my life and my death are all for Allāh, the Lord of all that exists’. 
What is spiritually instructive about this verse is its beginning and its end. We are reminded that our ‘prayers’ are directed to a ‘Lord of all that exists’. In that is great comfort to the attentive believer. It untangles the spiritual crisis that we as humans struggle with internally, constantly panicking that the world is not going the way we want. It informs the believer that his most intimate prayers, and all worldly events are well embraced in a delightful and mesmerising journey back to his Lord. I argue that visualising this dynamic is central to a believer in unlocking an appreciation for Islām – the perfection of Allāh’s favour upon us.
What makes me nervous about social activism is when it is not couched within the vision outlined by Ibn Rajab – that of an empowering journey to the Hereafter – and gets clogged up solely in the awfully rigid laws of this world. Our priorities become distorted and our energies misguided. This spiritual crisis plays out most embarrassingly in our witr prayers during this holy month of Ramaḍān. The crowd passionately roars with a glorious āmīn at the mention of our suffering family in Gaza, which although I find deeply moving, I find equally problematic. When the Imām supplicates Allāh to forgive our sins, purify our hearts and enter us into eternal gardens, the murmurs of amens from the same crowd are met with scant emotion. This is deeply disconcerting and requires urgent revision I suggest. The silence of the ummah to act meaningfully to help Gazans, Syrians or the Burmese is less a result of repression than of us misunderstanding our collective conversation with Allāh.
It is the culmination of these facts that made me realise we do not appreciate the gift of guidance. Raising money to rebuild the lives of orphans should be a deeply spiritual project. But it was not any longer for me. I needed to reclaim it from the mainstream space that seemed to celebrate numbers – it cheapened my very personal story and is not what I set my project to be about. Raising money is not any people’s most urgent need, although we must do it. Satisfying a people’s material need is great, but risks us morally crowding out our duty to attend to something much deeper.
I feel today, as Muslims, we are more attached to “Club Islām” than actual guidance predicated on real belief. We have our priorities perilously wrong. What stirs our emotions are scenes of fellow Muslims suffering in this world – as it should – and we race to empty out our pockets giving. But perhaps what should affect us more is witnessing our families and nation drowning in spiritual heedlessness. The fashionable culture of raising millions in emergency relief for our brothers ‘back home’ has distracted us from our much more urgent religious duties – both to them and ourselves. There is little credence given to the thought that the Palestinians have gone through a lot, but their justice is with Allāh and we pray for their felicity in the next life – though not discounting the need for people to lead better lives in this dunya. Giving money has become an easy escape for us in the West to appease our conscience, and has thus distracted us from asking ourselves the harder questions.
Our collective salvation can only be accessed by deeply appreciating the value of Islām as a way of life, making it the organising principle around which our social activism revolves. This realisation must inform our every emotion. Any activism makes no sense outside of this philosophy. Allāh consistently teaches us that collective change can only come with private change; a change ‘within’ ourselves. It is therefore unsettling to a reflective believer when he is more intensely moved by a worldly injustice than the opportunity of divine forgiveness and guidance. He has tragically misunderstood the gift of Islām.
Our challenge is to locate the intersectionality between spirituality and our socio-political realities. Allāh says that ‘He will not punish them whilst they seek forgiveness.’ A believer finds refreshing comfort, as well as spiritual instruction, in this. Whatever hardship may befall his brothers, the more urgent question for him is the frequency of our collective conversation with Allāh – the ‘Lord of all that exists’. Understanding this intersectionality is central to our successful journey towards Allāh as activists in painfully confusing times.
However, despite the many platitudes and reminders about the ākhira, we still do not get it. A point that has always stuck with me is that among the companions you had millionaires, like ʿUthmān (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu), and those less well off, like ʿAlī (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu). Yet, this world was diligently given its place. But nowadays it seems like when we talk about helping the ummah we only think of it in worldly terms, whether it is charity, medical aid or education. The salaf were never so short-sighted. The worldly success we achieved under ʿUmar was a by-product of understanding the true gift of Islām, but that material success has now become our means and our goal. Some scholars rightly want to make sure that we take care of the ‘means’ and that we lead balanced lives – but really we are leading very unbalanced lives already and we are not in any danger of neglecting the dunya! I can imagine if Abū Bakr today would tell someone he had given away all his wealth and only left his family with ‘Allāh and His messenger’, people would say “that’s good mashallāh, but come on! Allāh asks us to utilise the means…” It is a panoramic insight to faith that they relished in, which we need to rediscover.
A believer realises that any social change can only come about by the ‘Lord of society’. Allāh describes us as the best of nations for the very reason we are social activists – we enjoin the good and forbid the wrong. It is an institution which characterises this ummah; yet I feel it is a discourse that has been hijacked by ‘Club Islām’ and needs to be reclaimed and couched in a more spiritually informed context. Until the crowds in East London Mosque roar “āmīn” in the hope of Allāh’s paradise, no amount of activism will bear meaningful results. A believer is certain of that. The Gazans will not be helped principally by our charity, but through this revised spiritual culture that puts Islām at the centre of our works.
My worry also is that those of us who do understand the worldly and material advantages of such an empowering spiritual journey to Allāh, may fall into the traps of seeking that journey again partly for that worldly gain… and thus lose the spirit via the circular internal discussion that creates an illusion of sincerity that we as humans pull ourselves into.
This is why I conclude that crying for Gaza makes sense only when we cry, just as passionately, for ourselves. The money and worldly delights we extend to them are plasters on a big wound. It is of course obligatory and satisfying to make a material difference to someone’s life, sure, but the ultimate fear I have for the activist is allowing this satisfaction to crowd out the far more pertinent question of where Allāh fits in his or her sphere of activism. It is a culture and set of rules we need to rewrite together and be honest about. The eyes will forever weep for our beloved Gaza, but we must ask ourselves hard questions the next time we pat ourselves on the back for beating last year’s charity target.
 Al-Qur’ān 6:162
Ismael Abdela is an Anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics. He spent some years studying Islamic Sciences in Qaseem, Saudi Arabia. He is now a keen social entrepreneur. Ismael likes to write about spiritual reflections, social commentary and tafsīr. He is particularly interested in putting religion in conversation with the social sciences.