Through civic engagement, humankind has refined agricultural practices, reformed education, rebuilt communities after natural disasters, and strengthened civil society. In countries around the world, Ismaili Muslims have made their own mark on history through community involvement, voluntary service, youth education and political engagement.

“The idea of the public square is one that thinks of a framework safeguarded by the rule of law, enriched by pluralism of culture and politics, and fed by commitments of ethics. That is what civil discourse and civil society aims at with communities, institutions and individuals participating collaboratively in this exercise.”
– Dr Amyn Sajoo, editor of Muslim Heritage Series, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

If history has taught us anything, it is that human aspirations are boundless, limited only by his own imagination. Through civic engagement, humankind has refined agricultural practices, reformed education, rebuilt communities after natural disasters, and strengthened civil society with inspired solutions.

Today, there is a wide spectrum of political systems in the world, with varying degrees of civic participation. In countries around the world, Ismaili Muslims have made their own mark on history through community involvement, voluntary service, youth education and political engagement.

Understanding civic participation

Historic evidence shows that early Islamic empires encouraged civic participation within the principles of ethics and social justice. Hazrat Ali's example is seen as an epitome of justice, equality and good governance over his subjects. His famous letter to Malik Ashtar, his Governor-designate to Egypt, describes the principles of good governance. “Maintain justice in administration and impose it on your own self and seek the consent of the people,” said Hazrat Ali in the letter, “for the discontent of the masses sterilises the contentment of the privileged few and the discontent of the few loses itself in the contentment of the many.”

In 2002, the United Nations Development Programme published extracts from Hazrat Ali's sayings in its first Arab Human Development Report, which urged countries to emulate his philosophy and stance towards establishing good governance and the acquisition, consolidation and effective use of knowledge.

While the mode of civic participation has changed, the essence of people working together towards a common goal has not. John Nuraney, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia, explains the two prongs of political civic participation: “First, it is incumbent on all of us to exercise our franchise and vote,” he says. “Democracy is non-existent without suffrage.”

Second, Nuraney states that the role of people in politics is completely indispensable. For instance, one can participate on the political front initially by supporting a political party, then getting involved in the organisation and eventually running for political office if one desires. “Compassion, pluralism and tolerance are basic Canadian values,” he says. “If ever there is evidence of infringement of these values, awareness can be made through civic action.”

Community and political involvement

Sada Cumber, former US special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) believes that Ismailis have much to contribute when it comes to civic participation. “Active civic participation by members of a society is a consistent way to improve the quality of governance,” says Cumber. “This is something that the Ismaili community has known and practiced for a very long time––and it is something I encourage individuals to do in any country or community in which they put down roots.”

Cumber's nephew, Husein Cumber, a former deputy chief of staff at the US Department of Transportation notes that the link between civic action and government reaction is sound. He believes that working in government is a great way to take civic action, where one can affect policy internally. Besides, involvement of individuals from different backgrounds in government allows for more diverse and encompassing representation.

“Our relationship with the government is an important facet of civic action,” he says, “because it can enhance community development and improve the effectiveness of policies.”

Youth education

Channelling the passion of youth into action creates a strong sense of community that involves all members. Civic action can equip youth with essential skills and inspiration.

Twelve-year-old Sarosh from Texas participated in the Junior Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference in Washington during the week in which Barack Obama was elected President. The 2009 conference featured several high-profile speakers including former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, former US Vice President Al Gore, and Eric Weihenmeyer, the first blind man to climb Mount Everest. Sarosh particularly enjoyed Wiehenmeyer's presentation because it highlighted themes of love, risk, and discovery – motivators that can break down barriers.

Even at her young age, the seed of civic engagement has already been planted in Sarosh's psyche. She knows that voters have the power to decide the future of a country. “Even a single vote can make the biggest difference,” she says.

In Canada, Ismailis have harnessed the community spirit to inspire young people to effect change in their own communities through programmes like CIVIC – Challenging Ismaili Volunteers In Communities – where youth develop community projects by region. In Edmonton, Ismaili youth built sheds for Habitat for Humanity using funds they raised while cleaning up vandalism in the inner city. In Vancouver, trees were planted, and their fruits are donated to shelters in the city core. The values at the core of these endeavours derive from Islamic traditions. The hands-on projects create sustainable solutions to issues in one's own neighbourhood.

Voluntary service

Voluntary service is also a means to gift one's time and knowledge for the benefit of the wider community. Al-Nur Pradhan, an accountant with the City of Edmonton in Canada, highlights the impact of volunteer-driven events such as such as the World Partnership Walk, the Ismaili community's annual Canada Day breakfast in Edmonton, or volunteering at soup kitchens. Participation in communal activities promotes social cohesion across ethnic and socio-economic boundaries.

Acts of “civic unity”, explains Pradhan, can spread positive messages by demonstrating cooperative action. “When communities get involved in civic participation, it shows that we can work together and serve not only our own communities, but other communities as well,” he says.

The heart of it all

Civic participation is a great human tradition that moulds a society through the concerted efforts of its people. From volunteering at school councils and parent-teacher associations to joining the boards of local government and non-governmental organisations, civic participation takes many different forms. It can also involve fundraising for local institutions, getting involved in the electoral process or participating in discussions that affect community-level issues. Whatever the form of engagement, the results are rewarding and can constructively impact the future of society.

A recent Muslim Public Affairs Council survey of young American professionals and students showed that 94 per cent felt they should be politically engaged. As a growing number of Muslims find different ways to get involved, they can do so comfortable in the knowledge that they are continuing a longstanding tradition, founded on values and ethics that are at the heart of Islam.