Sunday 20th Apr 2014
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Contribution of Islam to Social Work

Service To Society


Islamic values and practices have profoundly influenced Indian social tradition. Certain writers consider the process of Islamisation an important modernising influence on the Indian social tradition. Has it also influenced social work and its practice in India?
Social work profession deals with individuals, singly and collectively. Its main concerns are “the creation of those conditions within the society, and the development of those capacities within the individual, that increase the probability of a more satisfying way of life for the members of that society” (Bisno, 1952). For its applicability and effectiveness, it is heavily dependent upon the social organisation and cultural ethos, including faith and religion. Given this, the possibility of Islam having an impact on social work practice is strong.
Islamic tradition is determined by mainly three sources: (a) the Holy Qur’an, (b) Sunnah – sayings and practice of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him), and (c) Fiqh or Ijtihad – interpretation given by the knowledgeable on emergent or disputed issues. In a way, these also determine the worldview of Muslims.
From an Islamic perspective, the world is a collection of multifarious but inter-connected realities which have and continue to come into existence through the Will of God. In Islam, racial groupings, caste grades, or social classes have no place. All people have been created alike and, irrespective of their lineage, they stand in one row. In principle, the whole world is based on equity and justice. Further, the believer has eiman (faith in Islam) which, in turn, brings several social obligations. Given this perspective, it would be highly relevant to study Islamic values and practices in relation of those of social work.
While a value-base is necessary for all professions, it is crucial for social work (Gutierrez, 1999). It gives form and substance to professional ethos. It provides a direction and focus, and lends professional authority for multi-layered social work practice. At one and the same time, the value-base of social work provides for stability and change in social organisation and functioning (Dominilli, 2005). Moreover, paying attention to social work mission, practitioner-client relationship or intervention methods – all are found to be linked or even dependent upon societal values. Indeed, the value-base of social work is informed by numerous historical-cultural forces, including religious ideologies.
By the very fact of his or her existence, every individual is unique, has worth and dignity and has common human as well as individual needs. Individual behaviour is the outcome of interaction between the biological organism and its surrounding physical and social environment. Man is amoral and asocial at birth, and interaction with the social environment develops in him social and ethical perceptions, attitudes and behaviour patterns. Further, human suffering in all forms is undesirable and should be prevented. As far as possible, individuals should be involved and should participate in the intervention programme meant for the self-betterment or development. This is what is going to have an enduring impact and to ensure sustainability.
From an Islamic perspective, man is neither a pre-destined being (the Qur’an 75:36) nor has he been allowed a free reign to lead an aimless life (23:115). Every individual has been endowed with dispositions and capabilities, accompanied by a sort of inner direction and innate guidance (91:7-8). A bundle of instincts, urges and desires, all individuals have human dignity and self-esteem. They have an inalienable right to life, right to livelihood, right to livelihood, right to privacy, right to have family and right to religious affiliation. While they are to make efforts at their own to resolve their problems and achieve prosperity and salvation, they may not be, in the hour of exigency, left to fend for themselves. It would be thus seen that the Islamic view of man has a noticeable similarity with the values social work attaches with the individual.
Social work rejects the doctrine of laissez faire. The rich or the powerful are not necessarily ‘fit’, and the poor or the weak are not necessarily ‘unfit’. Social work stoutly stands for socialised individualism which is largely instilled in individuals through the group process. It is a common observation that most of the engagement, awareness-generation and education of and individual come from group interaction. Through this, rugged persons are moulded into socialised individuals. What is the position of Islam with regard to these value-assumptions?
As is known, Islam places a premium on group living. All adult males are expected to perform their prayers in congregation five times a day. Usually this is done in a mosque where the prayer is led by an imam. Besides, the Qur’an lays emphasis on interpersonal tolerance, “… those who control their wrath and are forgiving towards mankind, Allah loves them” (3:134). The sacred book ordains, “Help one another unto righteous and pious duty” (5:2). It also underlines (49:11) mutual respect, “O ye who believe! Let not a folk judge the other… nor insult by nicknames”.
Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) has directed his followers, “Behave towards other people as you like them to behave towards you.” The stance of the Messenger is equally clear in respect of cordial interpersonal relations, “As my Lord has commanded me to perform my religious duties, in the same way He has ordered me to be friendly with the people.” Islamic tradition, likewise, abounds with references that enrich precepts commonly associated with group process and group living.
A community is viewed as a complex of social unity in which individuals and groups have shared interests and values, customs and activities. It may also be thought of as a network of interconnected, interrelated and interdependent groups. Individuals and group living in a community have ‘a core of common attributes’, and an under-pinning of mutual understanding, camaraderie, equity and justice.
Communities are characterised by value-structures that transcend their form, size or location. In a community, individuals and groups cooperate and collaborate with each other for the fulfilment of their common needs. By doing so, on the one hand, they promote we-feeling among themselves and, on the other, they reinforce community’s cohesion and identity.
Islam attaches great value to concerned and conscientious community living. On the annual festival of Eid, all the believers in the community are expected to foregather and offer prayer in one congregation. This ritual apart, the Qur’an ordains individuals and groups to shun vanity (in the land), to enjoin kindness towards others, and to eliminate inequity (31:13).
The Prophet (may Allah bless and greet him) said: He who sleeps satiated while his neighbour goes hungry is not dear to Allah. A Muslim has been a revered companion of the Prophet. He cites the Prophet as directing his people to gladly accept an invitation to lunch or dinner from the neighbour, as it promotes understanding and solidarity.
Islam totally forbids discrimination on the basis of colour, caste, creed or position. The concept of brotherhood or fraternity permeates all Islamic rituals, customs and community living. Flowing from this is the concept of ‘justice’ – an inseparable part of social work values. In Islam, this concept comes up repeatedly and forcefully. “When you judge between people,” lays down the Holy Qur’an, “you should judge with a sense of justice” (4:58).
That justice is the bedrock on which social order and civil society rests is unequivocally reiterated by the sacred book, “Believers! Adhere to justice and bear witness before Allah, even though it be against yourselves, your parents or your relatives” (4:135). Assuredly, these concepts have influenced not only social work values but also jurisprudence globally.
The approach underlying social work practice has undergone marked changes in response to changed social conditions. In modern times, the elitist paradigm of social welfare faces several philosophical and operational reservations. While residual provisions that target socially excluded needy individuals and groups are retained, much emphasis is, at present, laid on their capacity-building and empowerment. Due importance is given to those social values, usages and practices that do not conflict with the basic tenets of social justice. Secondly, social work practice aims to have both social stability and social change, in consonance with the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. Towards this, it adopts essentially an evolutionary approach. Thirdly, apart from its value-base, social work practice draws upon a distinctive set of methods, techniques and fields of practice. Lastly, more often than not, social work practice is required to deal with a multilayered context, and to adopt multiple methods to have and efficacious intervention. It would be hence interesting and appropriate to examine as to what extent Islam has influenced social work methods and prioritised its practice areas.
There is no denying the fact that, at the time when Islam was manifested, the concept and practice of social work, as is understood in modern times, did not exist. However, the religious ideology did set out many approaches and practices which clearly overlap with this ‘helping profession’.
Islam recognises that there would be many individuals who face a plethora of problems which they cannot overcome or circumvent unaided. They need to be helped by the knowledgeable and experienced persons. In spite of the concepts of equity and justice, a section of the population would remain under-privileged or even marginalised. They certainly deserve the attention and generosity of well-to-do and prosperous persons: In their wealth, there is a share for those who ask for help and those who are under-privileged (Qur’an 51:19). All the believers are called upon to give away to the needy and indigent khairat (alms), sadqua (khairat for the well-being of loved ones), fitrah (thanks-giving alms for Ramadhan), and zakat is one of the five mandates which every Muslim is expected to carry out. Here, a clarification needs to be offered, lest it is taken that Islamic philanthropy encourages begging or breeds ‘social parasites’. Islam lays down as who are eligible to receive khairat, fitrah and zakat, and who are not. It also prescribes the purposes for which these doles can be or cannot be used. For example, none of these can be utilised for building or furnishing a mosque. Furthermore, the Prophet is reported as saying: If the giver would know how much sawab or good is there in giving away, he would never refuse a beggar and, if the beggar would know how much bad or harm is there in begging, he would never stretch his hand for alms.
Islam has also conceptualised, and has put in place the system of ‘public assistance’ to the socially handicapped and under-privileged. In accordance with their needs, they would be provided assistance from Bait-ul-Mal or public exchequer. During early caliphates, Bait-ul-Mal would also accept zakat to be subsequently disbursed among the deserving and destitute.
As is known, 1400 years ago, when Islam was manifested in Arabia, the peninsula was inhabited mainly by tribes, many of them nomadic. Almost perpetually, these tribes would be in conflict with each other on issues big and small (Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless and greet him, himself was constrained to engage in quite a few battles). This apart, from the very beginning, Islam attracted persons and groups from distant lands who widely differed in their racial, ethnic and lingual attributes. Given this diversity, appropriate strategies had to be worked out and implemented to evolve and strengthen a unified and coherent group identity and community feeling among the believers. In this regard, the Qur’an mandates: Cooperate with one another for virtue and heedfulness, and do not cooperate with one another for the purpose of vice and aggression (5:2).
Towards this, the modality evolved was post-prayer meetings, especially after Friday noon prayer. Among other things, the congregation in the mosque would take up and discuss issues of group and community concerns, and necessary action would be initiated. The tradition continues to this day all over the Islamic world, though the focus and concerns of such meetings have undergone a perceptible change.
Islam also recognises social intervention fields. To illustrate, older persons have been given a special place. The elderly have, in the prime of their life, contributed to society’s growth and development and, in the evening of their life, they cannot be left to fate and to face hardship and privation. While some of them would need economic or financial assistance, others may require just psychosocial support. What is the position of Islam on the issue? “We have enjoined on man kindness to parents” (Qur’an, 29:8). Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) calls upon the believers to respect the elderly and to be kind to the young. Imam al-Sadiq, a renowned Islamic thinker, proclaims: Respect for an aged person is part of the respect for Allah. Needless to state, geriatric-care has, in modern times, emerged as a major area of social work practice.
On the other hand, Islam comes down heavily on individual and group vices. Pay attention to the habit of gambling. Since pre-historic time, it has wrecked and ruined persons, families and even kingdoms. Islam is totally opposed to practice. There is great sin in gambling, says the Qur’an (2:219). Islam declares intoxicating and habit-forming substances (cannabis, opiates, etc.) as makrooh or abominable, which all should avoid and detest.

Furthermore, it comes down heavily on the drinking habit. Alcohol use is pronounced as a gunah-e-kabirah, that is, a major sin (2:219), and the user would never be forgiven. It may be noted that both substance abuse and alcoholism are, in modern times, a priority of welfare workers in most societies.

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