The Social Message of Islam

Before thinking further about Muslim social commitment, we should set out the three great principles from which they may draw the inspiration to live in accordance with their convictions. I think the meaning of this “inspiration” is clear enough: it shows the way, but says nothing about the choices, strategies, and priorities to be applied to social action in a given society. It is for the citizens, in the midst of their own realities, to make their choices, work out the stages, and propose realistic and reasonable reforms in each of the societies in which they live.

If there is one area where a basic respect for the universal principles of Islam requires vigilance at every moment, it is the social sphere. At every level, that of religious ritual (al-ibadat) and also the broader plane of daily life, Islam is the bearer of a teaching entirely directed toward the collective and social dimension, to the extent that one could say that there is no true religious practice without a personal investment in the human community; the serenity of our solitude before the Creator can exist only if it is nourished daily by our relations with our fellows. So we understand that if each individual bears a responsibility before God, there is, by extension, a vital requirement addressed to the group, or rather to society, at the heart of which the destiny of each person’s destiny is decided. It is therefore necessary that people be offered the conditions that will best allow them to respond to their spiritual, moral, and human aspirations. In part I we recalled that humans are above all responsible beings—before God, but also before human beings and among their fellows. All human beings must seek to live and to nourish and give meaning to what constitutes their humanity: to acquire knowledge in order to draw closer to the truth; to express their values forcefully in order to achieve good; to listen and participate in order better to respect themselves and to be respected. The Prophet’s call to seek for knowledge (“The pursuit of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman”); the Qur’anic requirement to work for good both for oneself and for society (“You command good and forbid evil”); and finally the numerous commandments to observe moderation in all aspects of life, and gentleness, that are found in the Qur’an and the Sunna (“Speak to them in the best way,” “Do not forget to observe generosity, kindness, and gentleness toward each other”) all point clearly in this direction. So it is impossible to think about a society without beginning with individuals, who must take upon themselves the effort to reform their being. This is the meaning of the much-repeated verse “God does not change the condition of a people unless they themselves change that which is in their inner selves.”

The transition from the singular “people” to the plural “individuals” who constitute the people happens without any hesitation in the sense of the injunction. The social dimension finds direction at the spring of the consciousness of each individual who is alone yet strengthened through the effort of the collective. For those who have faith, this understanding is brought about through a constant concern for balance: “Seek instead, by means of what God has granted thee, [the good of] the life to come, without forgetting, withal, thine own [rightful] share in this world, and do good[unto others] as God has doe good unto thee; and seek not to spread corruption on earth: for, verily, god does not love the spreaders of corruption!”

So society should allow all persons not to neglect their “rightful portion in the life of this world.” Human needs echo the words: society must think of itself as a function of individuals and should provide for them the opportunity to meet fully the needs of their humanity. For their part, as we have said, individuals should know and accept their responsibilities. At the heart of the message of Islam, there is no part of Muslim ritual, from prayer to the pilgrimage to Mecca, that does not emphasize—even prioritize—the collective dimension. To practice one’s religion is to participate in the social endeavor, and so there can be no religious consciousness without a social ethic. The first inspires and directs the second. This concept certainly shapes the mind of Muslims in the West. Being responsible before God for one’s own person and to respect creation as a whole, one should offer to all people on the social level the means to fulfill their responsibilities and to protect their rights. So the social message of Islam is born in all people’s consciousness of their obligations to make it possible on the collective level to organize structurally the protection of the rights of all. Without going into an exhaustive analysis of each of these rights, we may here point to seven for which respect is essential:

1. The right to life and the minimum necessary to sustain it. In part I, we have referred to five principles around which all the Islamic injunctions revolve, and it is clear that the first condition needed for them to be applied is respect for life. Every being must have the right, in any society, to the minimum amount of food necessary to live. And we are speaking of living, not surviving. All the Islamic sources call human beings in general and Muslims in particular to live like human beings, in dignity and respect for themselves and for others. A social organization that does not provide its members with this minimum undermines their integrity as created beings who have to give account of themselves before the Creator. To be by nature responsible means that one should have the means by which to carry out the responsibility one bears; otherwise, the innocent become “guilty” and we are blaming the victim. The situation of the those from the Fourth World (the poor) in Western societies, following the example of the millions of Americans and Europeans who live below the poverty line, are like permanent tribunals condemning systems guilty of sacrificing lives and human consciences.

2. The right to family. Each person has the right to enjoy a family life, and so society, through responsible policies, should make it possible for all people to live with their families in a healthy environment that includes : (1) psychological preparation to assume the responsibility (e.g., opportunities to meet a suitable spouse, premarital counseling, a support system, role models), (2) caring for children (their physical/ mental wellbeing), (3) and ways to keep preserve the family during turmoil. The right to family is inseparable from the right to housing, the right to work, and the right to education. We complain about parents who do not know how to bring up their children, who, as we say, “give up on it,” when they have not been given the means to live and simply be recognized as a mother or father.

3. The right to housing. This right follows directly from the one before. Housing is the first prerequisite for family life, and Islam insists heavily on the sanctity of private space. A society should provide each of its members with a roof; it is a prime responsibility. It is essential to think of adequate local structures: living five or eight to a room is not establishing a household—it is constructing a prison, arranging a suffocation, creating future ruptures and tomorrows full of isolation and marginalization. The state in which suburbs, cities and inner cities are kept, or rather abandoned is truly unacceptable. A man without a home is not a citizen; he is an outcast and a victim. Speeches change nothing. To deprive peopleof the conditions necessary for their humanity and then make them pay for their vagrancy is doubly unjust. To be before God requires that one be in oneself, at home, literally as well as figuratively.

4. The right to education. Strong emphasis must be laid on this point, particularly in our time. To be able to read and write, and to find through education the ways to identity and human dignity, is essential. To be Muslim is clearly “to know” and thenright away, almost naturally, to make one’s way toward greater knowledge. The Qur’an could not be more explicit about this: to know is to gain access to the reading of the signs and to a greater knowledge of the Creator, as we have said in part I. This is what the Prophet continually affirmed: “The pursuit of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman.” This means all fields of knowledge, and so it goes without saying that education and basic instruction are imperative. The first verse of the Qur’an to be revealed is “Read, in the name of your Lord who created.” This is what is specific to humankind to the extent that it gives people preeminence over the angels in the roll call of creation. A society that does not meet this right has lost its sense of priorities; to put it more clearly, a society that produces illiteracy, whether absolute or functional, scorns the dignity of its members and is fundamentally inhuman. A Muslim in the West cannot help being conscious of the dysfunctionality of an education system that, while being increasingly selective, produces throughout the West more and more functionally illiterate people.

5. The right to work. People must be able to provide for their needs. For this reason, work, like education, is one of the inalienable rights of a social being, and all people should be able to find their place in the society in which they live. According to Islam, humans are by virtue of their action and work. It is clear, then, that a society that prevents people from working is one that does not respond to the elementary social contract. We know the saying of the Prophet: “It is better for one of you to take his ropes, go to the mountain and carry a bundle of fire wood on his back and then sell it, than to beg of people, who will either give him or deny him charity!” Work is a sacred command that goes beyond cultural custom; but it appears to be a burdensome duty. The struggle against all kinds of unemployment should be a political priority. It is imperative; it is humane.

6. The right to justice. Justice is the foundation of life in society after being, in Islam, the strongest determinant for courses of action: “Certainly, God commands justice,” we read in the Qur’an. This principle of justice applies to all—rich and poor, presidents and populace, Muslims and non-Muslims. Eight verses of Surat al-Nisa (Women) were revealed to exonerate a Jew and cast the responsibility for the event on a Muslim. The verse that associates bearing witness to the faith with doing justice makes the idea explicit: “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned is rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desire, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!” It is essential that the social structure guarantee respect for the rights of each person, and this must be expressed in two ways: obviously, judicial power must apply the laws fairly to every member of society, but it is equally important that society be stretch itself to meet all the organizational requirements necessary for the provision of the rights we have already mentioned. Thinking of social justice means deciding on a project, setting priorities, and building a dynamic that will guide social, political, and economic action on the basis of fundamental principles. A poor man in the West does not benefit from the same justice as a rich man; a black man in the United States is found guilty much more quickly than a white man—and this is not acceptable.

7. The right to solidarity. One cannot have a sense of the Islamic religious world without directly encountering a concept that makes the duty of solidarity central to a living expression of the faith. To be before God is to be in solidarity. The third pillar of Islam, the purifying social tax (zakat), is situated at the center of the vertical and horizontal axes of religious and social practice: one’s duty before God is to respond to the right of human beings. The Qur’an is clear in referring to sincere believers: “And [would assign] in all that they possessed a due share unto such as might ask [for help] or such as might suffer privation” The Qur’anic injunction resounds forcefully: “You will not attain piety until you expend of what you love.” It is the responsibility of each person to participate actively in the life of society. The obligation to give zakat is only one aspect of a much wider conception of social solidarity. Commitment on the personal and family level, which seems to be self-generating, should be accompanied by attention to one’s neighbors, the life of the community, and national and international concerns. Of course, Islam has thought of an institutionalized way to fight poverty (through zakat), but it is apparent that the solution is not to be found primarily in structures: it is a matter of awareness and morality. The strength of this awareness of human fraternity and solidarity is the living source of the struggle against social injustice, poverty, and misery. Whoever is a bearer of faith bears the duty to undertake this commitment; whoever is a bearer of faith knows the right to claim it.

The various rights referred to do not cover all the factors involved in the individual and social arenas, but they give a clear enough idea of the basic directions that social action should take. At the source and heart of our reflection, we find, with the knowledge of the creator God, some ultimate considerations all of which center on the notion of justice. The “way of faithfulness” on the social level is a path that should take us daily a little closer to the ideal of justice, which is essential and foremost, and the whole of human activity, in all its parts, must hold to it steadfastly. To achieve this, it is best to analyze situations one by one and not to apply absolute rules; for the context can make the most legitimate or the most logical law unjust or feeble so that it betrays in fact what it meant in spirit to defend.

( Reprinted from )

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