Mohamed D. Elshekh
Civic Engagement and Coalition Building in the American-Muslim Community: Lessons from the Establishment of Hilf al-Fudul
The Story of Hilf al-Fudul
The economic and social formations of pre-Islamic Arabia accentuate a community that, although thriving monetarily, lacked any moral code from which they could foster a stable society. Sixth-century Arabia’s political instability stemmed from incessant warfare between varying clans and empires across the peninsula; abetted by their traditional tribal
code of ethics, in which every individual from within the tribe was provided with unrelenting support during an altercation, even if he or she was guilty of an injustice.1 The Arab tribes, particularly the tribe of Quraysh, were accustomed to conventional pre-Islamic principles that demanded blood money compensations, ritual sacrifices, and intertribal killings.The betrayal of oaths and the abandonment of religious traditions (such as the cessation of fighting during the sacred months) were negligible offenses for the majority of people in that society.2 The successful implementation of their trade-route schemes to Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Abyssinia, ultimately leading to their unprecedented economic growth, meant that they were in no need of moral, legal, or political restraints.3 Their honor and pride were found in their geographical location as a cosmopolitan hub for religious groups throughout Arabia, as well as their strength economically across the peninsula. It was not until a group of nobles from among the Quraysh traveled to the neighboring lands of Abyssinia and Syria that they were confronted with a system of justice they saw as superior to the traditional laws of the desert.4
The Arab tribes before the advent of Islam were engaged in constant intertribal warfare. The ceaseless fighting and killing in Mecca slowly gave rise to widespread discontent for the tribal law. The calls for social justice and political reformations were exacerbated, particularly after one incident between a Yemeni merchant and an elite of one of the Arab tribes in the city of Mecca. The merchant, being a foreigner in Mecca with no immediate tribal affiliations, took part in a normal exchange of goods with one of the noblemen of the city. After which the nobleman, recognizing the merchant’s lack of protection in the area, refused to pay him after being given the goods. This prompted the merchant to call out to the Arab tribes of Mecca, demanding that they help him seek justice in this matter. The issue highlights a systemic problem with the social formations of pre-Islamic society – if
1 Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, (Islamic Texts Society, 1991), 31. 2 Ibid., 31.
3 Mahmood Ibrahim, Social and Economic Conditions of Pre-Islamic Mecca, (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 347.
4 Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, 31.
you did not have tribal protection within the city, you were left to fend for yourself. Foreigners and outsiders were offered no defense and could not possibly pit themselves against an entire clan.
However, in this situation, the response from the Quraysh was immediate. Unlike like countless individuals who were previously wronged as a result of the traditional tribal code, the Quraysh decided that this particular event would serve as a turning point for their society. Several clans from within the tribe of Quraysh banded together to form a pact in which they pledged to stand together against any form of oppression in Mecca – even if it was against a fellow clansman. The clans met in the house of ‘Abd Allah ibn Jud’an, one of the wealthiest men in the city, and discussed how they could transform their moral, social, and political systems. They vowed to eradicate any form of injustice within their city in hopes of reversing the ethical deterioration which had weakened the Qurayshi society for generations.5 The clans concluded their meeting with a symbolic pre-Islamic ritual at the Ka’ba. Water was poured over the Black Stone and into a vessel which each individual drank from to symbolize their newfound unity. Hilf al-Fudul, (the Alliance of the Virtuous) as the pact was known amongst the tribes of sixth-century Mecca, represents one of the most profound pre-Islamic allegiances in the midst of an ‘Age-of-Empires’ civilization.6
While it is true that the new pact was transformative for the sixth-century Arab living in the harsh desert environment, there is one factor which magnifies the importance of this event for the average Muslim living in the modern world. Muhammad (pbuh) was directly involved in the formalization of this covenant even before his designation as a Prophet, and, when recalling the incident, is quoted to have said, “I was present in the house of ‘Abd Allah ibn Jud’an at so excellent a pact that I would not exchange my part in it for a herd of red camels; and if now, in Islam, I were summoned unto it, I would gladly respond.”7
Lessons for the American-Muslim Community
What relevance does a medieval pact between Bedouin tribes in the desert have on the life of an average twenty-first century American-Muslim? How can their moral concerns regarding justice and political involvement, which grew out of the anarchic law of the desert, supplement our contemporary standards of righteousness in a modern society? Muhammad’s (pbuh) involvement in the pact provides an epistemological foundation for the importance of civic engagement and social justice across the Muslim ummah. Remember, this event took place even before Muhammad (pbuh) received any revelation from the Divine. His decision to take part in the moral and political formations of Hilf al Fudul, even before prophethood, indicate that the desire to bring justice to society is not only a matter outlined in scripture, but an affair codified in the fitra of every person. The enjoinment of good and forbiddance of evil are principles which exist in the essence of the
5 Ibid., 31-32.
6 Ibrahim, Social and Economic Conditions of Pre-Islamic Mecca, 355.
7 Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, 32.
human spirit and require immediate action by the community.8 Combatting systemic injustices inflicted on different communities, regardless of their tribe, nationality, class, race, or religion is the cardinal lesson which is to be derived from the story of Hilf al-Fudul.
There seems to be considerable overlaps between the pre-Islamic society of Mecca and the socio-political problems which characterize the United States, today. Sixth century Arabia, as previously mentioned, was an economic juggernaut due to the highly effective trade dealings which were instituted by the Qurayshi elders. Unfortunately, the sixth century Arab communities also suffered from a lack of accepted moral principles from which they could grow together as one united community. This description, many could argue, is representative of the modern United States. Despite being the most powerful country in the modern world, the notion of the U.S. being a global force for good has yet to be completely accepted by communities both foreign and domestic. Hilf al-Fudul was the ingredient which led to the slow, moral reformation among the pre-Islamic Arabs. Similarly, it must be the American-Muslim community, with the help of the wider American population, which initiates the political and moral change desired in the United States.
Current polling in the United States indicates that, by and large, the civic engagement of the American-Muslim community has been steadily rising, especially in recent years.9 The American-Muslim community has gradually internalized the moral teachings of Hilf al Fudul – and this is especially clear when the social leanings of American-Muslims are considered. Muslims in the United States overwhelmingly support the political empowerment of minority groups and have increasingly expressed support for various disenfranchised communities.10 This social and political solidarity is likely a byproduct of the uptick in Islamophobic cases against American-Muslims since the early-2000s – and particularly as of late.11 Similar to the common purpose embraced by the signatories of Hilf al-Fudul, (to abolish societal and political injustices wherever they may arise in Mecca) the countless minority groups in America have, in like manner, established an informal amalgamation of communities focused on combatting bigotry. However, standing against discrimination and inequality should not arise out of political convenience. Like the tribes of sixth-century Arabia showed, it should emerge out of a human desire to put an end to all forms of evil regardless of the victim’s identity. Like the Yemeni merchant in the story of Hilf al-Fudul who suffered as a result of his foreign identity, American-Muslims, among other minority groups, are mistreated because their identity is viewed as alien. The systemic inequalities American-Muslims experience in the United States range from FBI surveillance
8 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, (Amana Publications, 2006), 471. – (9:112). 9 “Breaking: Emgage Announces Historic Muslim Voter Turnout in 2018 Midterm Election”, Emgageusa.org, May 20, 2019, https://www.emgageusa.org/breaking-emgage-announces-historic-muslim voter-turnout-in-2018-midterm-elections/
10 “American Muslims’ Political and Social Views”, PewForum.org, Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life, July 26, 2017, https://www.pewforum.org/2017/07/26/political-and-social-views/ 11 “Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults Against American Muslims in U.S. Surpass 2001 Level” pewresearch.org, Fact Tank: News in Numbers, November 15, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact tank/2017/11/15/assaults-against-muslims-in-u-s-surpass-2001-level/
of mosques and Islamic schools12 to the development of Islamophobic legislation in states across the country.13 Similar forms of systemic oppression are experienced by countless minority groups in the United States. What Hilf al-Fudul teaches us is that systemic reform, as the pre-Islamic Arabs of the sixth century showed, can only be achieved through community cooperation. Thus, American-Muslims should want to engage civically not because they wish to simply put an end to their own problems, but because they have a deep commitment to opposing all forms of oppression.
Strengthening our Institutions and Building Coalitions
In the United States, mosques and civil rights groups have long been at the heart of political mobilization and civic engagement for American-Muslims. Especially within particular ethnic communities, the mosques and civil rights organizations serve as the center for civic outreach and political project planning.14 This reality is not exclusive to the Muslim community. For example, studies within the Christian community have shown that increased church involvement has led to more civic engagement among churchgoers.15 The church’s (and by extension the mosque’s) ability to foster “a group consciousness that empowers political participation”, should be an indicator of the importance these institutions have on American public life.16 American-Muslims, as they are still a growing minority within the United States, must invest in strengthening these institutions if they wish to transform the civic and political discourse for the better. Prioritizing the development of local mosques and Muslim civil rights groups is a crucial element in the discussion of civic engagement in Muslim communities. America-Muslims should then aim to build coalitions with other institutions that represent disenfranchised communities. In sixth-century Arabia, it was the conglomeration of clans which facilitated the establishment of Hilf al-Fudul. Likewise, in twenty-first century America, it must be community cooperation, coalition building, and political participation that, like Hilf al-Fudul, fight for a moral, tolerant, and united community.
The theological justifications for Muslim engagement within the community are numerous, but one particular hadith accurately grasps the importance of civic engagement, especially in contemporary America. Muhammad (pbuh), while addressing the public concerning the significance of social justice said:
People! You may have had claims against me. If I have whipped anybody’s back, let him retaliate on this, my back. If I have condemned or censured anybody’s honor, here
12 Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson, When the FBI Knocks: Racialized State Surveillance of Muslims, (Critical Sociology, 2019), 871.
13 Southern Poverty Law Center, Tracking Anti-Muslim Legislation Across the U.S. – Tracking Anti-Muslim Legislation Across the U.S. | Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org)
14 Amaney Jamal, The Political Participation and Engagement of Muslim Americans: Mosque Involvement and Group Consciousness, (American Politics Research, 2005), 537.
15 Ibid., 522.
16 Ibid., 522.
is my honor to take revenge upon. If I have taken anybody’s property, here is my property, let him take it. In fact, dearest to me is the one who take his claim from me if he has a right thereto or forgives me.17
Muhammad, in complete harmony with the lessons promoted in the pact of Hilf al-Fudul, stresses the importance of holding those in power responsible for their actions. The Prophet even goes as far as to authorize retaliation against himself if someone feels he (pbuh) has transgressed their rights. In the story of Hilf al-Fudul, it was a powerful nobleman of the city who instigated the injustice which led to the formalization of the pact. Similarly, in the United States, social and political transformations can only take shape when the community hold those in power, whether they be individuals or groups, responsible for their actions. That means continuously participating at every level of the American political system and strengthening the faith-based institutions which advocate on our behalf. How can the ummah, expect change domestically (or even globally), if their political and social participations are lacking? How can the moral principles of Hilf al Fudul be fulfilled if the very community to whom the pact addresses theologically is absent politically?
The aim of this paper is to not only unravel the moral transformation of the pre Islamic Arabs, but, in similar fashion, inspire the American-Muslim community to continue strengthening their presence in the political sphere in hopes of shaping the social, political, and moral discourse in the United States. Understanding the society of Mecca before the advent of the Islamic tradition can help demonstrate the necessary steps American-Muslims in the modern world should take if they wish to transform their own situation similar to the transformation experienced by the Quraysh. Positive transformation begins only when, as the Qur’an explains, the community looks within themselves and takes the first steps toward progress. As Allah teaches in the Qur’an:
“Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves.”18
17 Afzal Iqbal, The Prophet’s Diplomacy: The Art of Negotiation as Conceived and Developed by the Prophet of Islam, (Claude Stark & Co., 1975), 54.
18 Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, 589. – (13:11).