Where religion and civil society meet

The contribution that theological reasoning makes to civil society and human development initiatives is unique in its three dimensional approach.

The US-Islamic World Forum - held this weekend in Qatar - will once again explore the nature and possibilities of the power dynamics between these two entities, one a nation state, the other, ostensibly a religion. However "Islamic", or its place holder, "Muslim", has come to mean more of a region than anything more meaningful. As a region, "Islamic" would embrace the Christian, the atheist, the Jewish, the Marxist and the non-committed. Adding to the stickiness of the proposition is the prevalence of Islam in regions not designated "Islamic". Albania and Bosnia are soundly European. Spain was a Muslim country for 700 years. And yes, the US itself has been witnessing its second wave of indigenisation since the turn of the 20th century; the US ambassador to the Philippines converted in 1888 and continued to advocate the Muslim faith among New York's elite society until his death in 1916. Muslim "buffalo soldiers" fought with the Union army during the 1861-1865 American Civil War.

This weekend's conference will explore among other things, possibilities for strengthening civil society and non-governmental efforts to fill the "human development" gaps left by beleaguered or otherwise distracted governments. But what, if anything, has religion to do with this? Quality of life services are socially inclusive and universally perfected by international NGOs that transcend, in their technique, any religious affiliation. It is a shared knowledge, a common effort, and an inclusive pursuit.

So has the utility of religion in the equation been reduced to no more than one among several policy facilitators? Has religion been reduced to an opiate for steering masses with this particular fix? Here is a case for an expanded consideration that may not have been lost on all the organisers. Barbiturates and intoxicants are forbidden in Islam because of their propensity to cloud the mind, whereas Islam unflinchingly calls for the enhancement and sharpening of the rational faculty.

The contribution that theological reasoning makes to civil society and human development initiatives is unique in its three dimensional approach. Man is a whole as body, mind, and soul; not body alone. Being is material, spiritual and divine; not material alone. The effective value-add of theological reasoning to human development initiatives turns upon five themes: First, it brings sense to the confusion stemming from the displacement of the human condition in an alienating modernity.

Second, it assesses the ordering of material and circumstantial priorities in light of an authentic Islamic worldview. Third, it provides doctrinal grounding for fundamental human development objectives. Fourth, it can facilitate, advocate and encourage helpful and constructive behaviours for good global citizenship and environmental consciousness. Fifth, it can potentially contribute to the development of an integrated, engaged and participatory Muslim identity for the 21st century.

Returning to the motif of the opiate. The Muslim poet said: "Our wine is the wine of meaning; it is permissible and not unlawful." The difference between the wine of the world is that it dulls the senses and shackles you to the ground. But the wine of paradise sharpens the mind and lifts you out of the petty, the mundane, and the unidimensional. It gives life to the life of the mind, to the life of the spirit, and not merely to the life of body alone. It is 360 degrees, in three dimensions, it is whole, and it is vibrant.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi