Seeking Islamic community in urban modernity

Fadilah Salawu

To simplify the Islamic worldview is to analyse a multi-layered, interconnected sphere, with tawheed, the Oneness of Allah ﷻ , as the nucleus. As we actualise our purpose and responsibilities as khulafa’ (vicegerents) on earth, the various levels form expanding layers. Once the greatness of the personal project of every Muslim and the Islamic religion as a whole is comprehended, the importance of creating frameworks to fulfil every aspect of this mission becomes a primary concern so that Muslims may flourish.

Community is emphasised greatly within the Qur’an and sunnah, with a range of obligations and rights afforded to and expected from any group of Muslims. All of these are meant to spread the essence of good character and a shared Muslim brotherly and sisterly bond. From returning the salaam, to the obligation for men to join the Friday prayer, the rights of the young, the elderly, neighbours, paying visits to the ill and one’s family, and commercial activity –  the etiquette of living in a community and dealing with others as Muslims is comprehensively covered.

For these responsibilities to be fulfilled, we naturally need structures that allow individuals to interact with their neighbours, such as mosques and public services. This also aids in the identification and protection of the vulnerable in society, such that all can enjoy Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood. Another expectation is that the places we live in offer us a fair work-life balance that allows us time to keep up relationships and dedicate time for our spiritual well being. Yet this is unfortunately far from the reality that most Muslims will experience today.

Alone in a crowd

In contrast to the ideal, holistic and fulfilling spiritual lifestyles that appear to have been most conducive to Muslim success historically, a common and seemingly ever-increasing model is the Western urban plan. Originating from the metropolises and capitals of the world, our cities are structured to facilitate maximum productivity in a capitalist system. These means are often unnatural and usurious, exploiting Allah’s creation in a way that disconnects us from our fitrah (natural disposition) and disrupts the harmony of the natural world.

It is not hard to find an array of reports on the harms that the nine-to-five work week and the concrete jungle environment  presents to mental health, interpersonal relations and physical wellbeing. A less addressed concern however, is the harm that these living dynamics present to our spiritual wellbeing and ability to realise the rights of the Creator, as well as those that our bodies have over us. Apart from this, contemporary cultures of individualism often fall short in terms of fulfilling the rights of fellow creation in a community.

These settings, contrary to offering the spiritual fulfilment that is necessary for the wellbeing of Muslims, produce isolating tendencies and are devastating to the psyche.

How are we meant to take time for prayers, for our families and to care for communities when we are conditioned to view these activities as secondary to workplace productivity? When we are being trained in individualism and disconnected from others, how are we supposed to connect authentically and engage in spiritual introspection?

How do we heed the warning of Allah ﷻ in Surah At-Takathur to avoid falling prey to the distracting desire to accumulate material possessions to an unnecessary degree? How do we realise the calls from Allah ﷻ  in the Qur’an to observe and appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the natural world when we are detached and deprived from it, surrounded by skyscrapers? When we are so detached from all that is natural, why care for nature when modern production is more efficient? Why care for others selflessly if it does not directly and immediately benefit us?

When all of these questions are answered, what arises as the logical endpoint of modern values takes the Muslim far from the place they should be at. More worrying still is the deeply consequential answer to the question that follows on from these. Why do we need to be good? What is the need for God when He does not fit in the equation for the machine of productivity and consumption? The gravity of this question no doubt makes abundantly clear the need to address the issue at hand as a matter of urgency.

Filling the void

Muslims and non-Muslims alike display a growing recognition of the lack of fulfilment modern urban living offers to our fitrah. As such, many movements have arisen attempting to fill those feelings of dissatisfaction and unease. Examples include veganism, that prioritises caring for animals and healthy eating; off-grid living, that attempts to reclaim personal and familial autonomy from the city and state; zero-waste living, that hopes to reduce the impact of mass consumption and subsequent waste and pollution; and even co-living communities, that attempt to replicate the atmosphere of a small village or natural community.

These movements undoubtedly contain some aspect of noble focus and higher value, but lack the unifying holisticism of Islamic principles and tawheed that make them cohesive solutions to modern societal failings. These movements are also criticised for falling into ‘greenwashing’ and oftentimes become commercialised to the point where they perpetuate the same unhealth and exploitation as the system they were born in response to, as in the case of veganism going mainstream.[1] Besides the potential capitalist insincerity, there is also the limited worldly perspective of these movements. Though the ideal of creating a better world is in line with our the Muslim responsibility to act as a khulafa’ on earth, the life of this world is not our end goal, and viewing it as such is counterproductive.

When we fail to consider the temporary nature of this world, we are forgetting Allah’s ﷻ wisdom in the guidelines He has revealed to us. This leads us to belittle divine revelation as we seek solutions to problems in ways that transgress or ignore the guidance and instruction that Allah has already made clear for society.

The pillars of a healthy community

Through the guidance of the practice and teaching of our Prophet ﷺ, we find a clear illustration of the sunnah values that should be prioritised for the spiritual and physical health of populations. An example is the various ahadith in which we learn about the rights of the neighbours: being greeted, enquired after, and looked after in times of need; materially and emotionally.

“Whoever believes in Allah and the Day of Judgement should either speak good words or keep silent; whoever believes in Allah and the Day of Judgement should treat his neighbour with kindness; and whoever believes in Allah and the Day of Judgement should show hospitality to his guest.”[2]

We can gain further insight from the values of the closest companions of the Prophet ﷺ. Principles of selflessness and protection of the most vulnerable in society are seen in the character of Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, and the story of his dedication to anonymously serving an elderly blind lady daily amidst his other responsibilities as a political leader. This example offers a powerful reminder that amidst the administration, planning, and social theory that may seem most important in developing healthy Muslim communities, the rudimentary principle is the humble service of others.

Resisting the tide of individualism

Perhaps the biggest aim in re-envisioning the flourishing of stable and well-founded Muslim communities is reversing the effects of the individualistic era in which we find ourselves.

In Surah Baqarah, Allah ﷻ makes clear the essence of faith and good character. It is not found only in private ritual worship, but also through a combination of belief, attitude and actions dedicated to the greater community.

لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَٰكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَى الزَّكَاةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُوا ۖ وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ ۗ أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ

Righteousness is not in turning your faces towards the east or the west. Rather, the righteous are those who believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Books, and the prophets; who give charity out of their cherished wealth to relatives, orphans, the poor, needy travellers, beggars, and for freeing captives; who establish prayer, pay alms-tax, and keep the pledges they make; and who are patient in times of suffering, adversity, and in ˹the heat of˺ battle. It is they who are true in faith, and it is they who are mindful of Allah

Al Qur’an 2:177

In the perfect words of Allah ﷻ, much can be uncovered about the focus and actions of those who have taqwa and imaan – it manifests as a harmony of a mindfulness of one’s self, of the surrounding world and fellow creation, and of Allah and His law. Allah makes clear that ritual acts of worship alone by no means suffice as true righteousness when they are void of supplement by caring for others and having good character.

The Prophet ﷺ states: 

“Faith has over seventy branches, the most excellent of which is the declaration that there is no god but God, and the humblest of which is the removal of what is injurious from the road. And modesty is a branch of faith”.

Sahih Muslim 1:60

Sincere altruism and instinctive concern for those in our communities is thus a testament to faith.

No doubt, this excellence, taqwa and community concern is what is lacking from the modern model. Taking the promise of Allah ﷻ as true, it is safe to say that communities will not flourish if they lack the spiritual direction offered in the Qur’an and sunnah.

Further principles for development

Inspecting the very first theme to be revealed in the Qur’an:

 ‘Read! In the name of your Lord who created’

Al-Qur’an 96:1-2

as well as the hadith: ‘Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim’[3], we can derive that acquiring and sharing beneficial knowledge should be the cornerstone of Muslims’ development. Taking note from the great scientists and thinkers of Islamic history[4], it is worth considering modern education systems and libraries in our societies. Are they funded and prioritised? Do they care for the needs of learners? Modern manifestations of the response to this Islamic imperative would manifest in efforts to promote high-quality Islamically-centred education as an alternative to spiritually deficient and morally objectionable secular institutions, and also reviving the personal onus to be well-read and dedicate our time to active and conscious learning in spite of swathes of distraction and mindless entertainment at our fingertips.

Children are particular stakeholders in the revival of the intentional community, considering that they will be the inheritors of the structures we leave behind. Children are incredibly affected by the lifestyles that dominate modernity and their spiritual, physical and psychological development must be a priority when considering how to uplift communities. Ensuring that they have access to the wisdom of elders, including attention and time with their parents, requires being considerate of work-life balance. Their moral, cultural and academic education is dependent on the aforementioned high-quality Islamic education, and their spiritual connectedness to Allah and to others depends on them growing up in stable communities.

The ahadith of the Prophet ﷺ that recommend swimming, archery[5] and horse riding[6] highlights that there are lessons to be taken on the particular value of these activities. Firstly, the mandate of physical activity and an element of apprenticeship, where the young spend time learning from the old. It also encourages active citizens who are encouraged to have discipline and skills that benefit the community. This can be mirrored in the modern day by community swimming pools, and the parallel of Muslims engaging and excelling in martial arts and recreational archery, maintaining the sunnah of focus on self-defence, discipline and bodily wellness.

“Eat together and do not eat separately, for the blessing is in being together”[7] is another simple yet profound principle to be implemented from the guidance of Allah ﷻ and His Messenger ﷺ for our times. We cannot begin to compare processed microwave meals eaten alone in front of a device screen to wholesome meals and quality time with family and community. The bonds that can be created over the blessing of shared food, as well as the psychological and health wonders[8] of shared meals, points us in the direction of mending families and communities one practical and barakah-filled step at a time.

The concept of zuhd, detachment from materialism for spiritual benefit, is another Islamic principle that is a direct response to modern distraction. It allows us to focus on priorities of ibadah without the fitan of vanity and individualism, and aids us in becoming more selfless and giving, a quality of great internal benefit (tazkiyat al-nafs) and external benefit, creating brave and enlightened defenders of the faith.

Besides the worldly benefits of adopting values from Allah’s law is the beauty of the long-term returns each action has in the akhirah. Taking care of relationships with family and friends leads to both an enjoyable and functional family dynamic as well as the pleasure of Allah in the hereafter.[9] 

Conclusion: The Ideal Balance

While taking care not to fall into extremes of despair, complete tolerance of oppressive systems, or complete self-isolation, Muslims are obliged to be conscious of the societies in which they find themselves. Their struggle then becomes to respond appropriately, within the limits of Allah ﷻ ’s law and that of their setting to create positive change in their lives and those of their communities. To heal individuals, and thereafter communities, the solution does not have to be extravagant. In fact, it is the opposite – a return to natural relationships with Creator and creation, simple and harmonious with the world around us.

While the overhaul of the nine-to-five lifestyle and the spiritual, social and cultural revival of cities and communities is not an overnight process, the Muslim mind should be constantly critically analysing the world it finds itself in, perpetually seek ihsan and strive to live as closely as possible closeness to the ideals set forth by Allah ﷻ and His Messenger ﷺ.

Through practical steps on an individual level, Muslims ought never to lose hope in the achievable dream of spaces that allow Muslims to be strong of mind and body, grounded in faith, and connected with healthy relationships to Allah’s creations. Taking examples from the righteous Muslims before us, we must yearn and strive against the soulless nowaday, for settings that allow us to fulfil our responsibilities to appreciate Allah’s creation and to uphold good ties with others. We must strive to become more humble and grateful servants of Allah, useful to ourselves and others, and fulfilling our duties as khulafa on this planet to worship Allah. May Allah make us all dedicated pioneers in achieving these noble goals and reviving the glory of a truly Islamic lifestyle to the benefit of the ummah for His sake.

Fadilah Salawu is a law student and writer based in Dublin. Her passions include traditional Islamic studies, holistic tarbiyyah and academia, as well as public speaking, language, culture, literature and journalism. She also pens reflections, essays, and creative pieces on her blog.

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[1] Richard, G, “Why the vegan diet is not always green”, BBC News, (2020)

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari 6136

[3] Sunan Ibn Majah 224

[4] Al Naqib, A. “Ibn Sina on Education”, Muslim Heritage (2009)

[5] Musnad Ahmad 323 (Hasan), Sunan Abi Dawud, Riyad as-Salihin 1335

[6] Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1637

[7] Sunan Ibn Majah 3287

[8] Musick, S. “The value of sit down family meals for emotional health”, Eating Disorder Hope (2020)

[9] Sunan al-Tirmidhi 1924: “The merciful are shown mercy by Ar-Rahman. Be merciful on the earth, and you will be shown mercy from Who is above the heavens. The womb is named after Ar-Rahman, so whoever connects it, Allah connects him, and whoever severs it, Allah severs him.”

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