Islamic Perspectives


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Social Projects and Muslims

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(June 2003)


Islam can be described as a spiritual, social, and educational project at the grandest of scales. The project is spiritual because the Qur`an describes the mission of the Prophet Muhammad as calling humanity to the one true transcendent God, purifying them and leading them from darkness to light (33:46, 57:9, 62:2). It is social because along with a relationship with the one true transcendent God, the social obligation to help one another is the corner stone of Islam (2:177, 2:261-274, 98:5). It is educational because teaching the book and the wisdom is also part of the Prophet’s mission (2:129, 151, 3:164, 62:2) and because knowledge is given such importance in the Qur`an (2:30-33, 20:114, 39:9, 96:3-5). The project is at the grandest of scales because the Prophet is “mercy to all peoples” (21:107) and “seal or last of the prophets” (33:40) that is, the project is directed to all of humanity for all times till the judgment day.

Islam and Social Projects

The social obligation that Islam places on believers requires not only helping one another with material assistance when needed but also with psychological assistance, e.g. by honoring weaker and poorer members of the society such as the orphans and by saying a kind word (2:263, 89:17)1. Furthermore, the Qur`an expects believers not only to perform such acts of charity themselves but also to exhort others to do the same (69:34, 89:15-18, 90:13-17, 107:3). In other words, the Qur`an expects believers to involve one another in collective efforts to alleviate want and suffering in the society. This value attached to collectivity leads to the recognition of the value of political, legal, and economic instruments for the pursuit of the social project. Various aspects of human individual and collective life, including political, legal, and economic aspects, are closely linked together and a balanced approach to them is considered a key to the success of the social project.

Yet Islam’s focus on the social project is not dependent on control of legal, political and economic instruments; for, such a control is not guaranteed to Muslims. For most of his life the Prophet Muhammad did not have such control in his society to any adequate degree and yet the social project was always at work.

The Muslim World

Now once again Muslims are without any significant control over political, legal or economic instruments, not only in non-Muslim countries but also in Muslim countries, where tyrannical dictators are almost at war with them. Yet the social project continues and is becoming more and more the focus of Islamic groups. Under the dictatorial regimes, who have almost abandoned their basic responsibilities in favor of the priorities determined by their need to stay in power, the infrastructure of many Muslim countries is in decay and bureaucracy is corrupt and ossified, incapable of providing significant services. Under such conditions, the Islamic groups have been obliged to step in and provide support and assistance wherever it is needed. The best example of this is provided by the Egyptian Islamic group, Ikhwan al-Muslimin. This group champions the rights of the socially marginalized, vehemently denounces the excesses of the ruling class and global imperialism, and has built a vast network of social projects. They can respond to social needs far more effectively than the regime in Egypt, as was demonstrated during the earthquake in Cairo in 1992. For two days, a totally paralysed government with its dictatorial head out of the country did absolutely nothing. Within hours, however, the Ikhwan and other Islamic groups were on the streets – with tents, blankets, food, and alternative housing.

For the progress of Islam and Muslims it is of vital importance that such focus on social services is increased by Islamic groups both in scope and professionalism.

North America

Although Muslims might have come to North America even before Columbus2, the continent has not been very hospitable to them3.

Probably the first significant Muslim immigration to North America occurred when some Andalusian Muslims came here to escape persecution following the fall of Granada in 1492. But in 1543 Charles V, king of Spain ordered their expulsion.

Later, there was another migration of Muslims to North America, albeit a forced one. Enslaved Africans brought to North America included Muslims, but their miserable status as slaves made it difficult for them to survive as Muslims.

Next signs of Muslim immigration appear in the later part of the nineteenth century. Estimates of Muslim population are easier for Canada than the USA, since the Canadian census has a question about religion. A very rough estimate about the population in the USA may be obtained by multiplying the Canadian estimate by 10.

It is estimated that in 1901 there were about 300 Muslims in Canada and the number increased to about 1500 by 1911. This growth was arrested by the First World War when Muslims were considered enemy aliens. Still there was some organized Muslim activity by 1938 when the first Canadian mosque was built in Edmonton. In the USA such activity naturally started earlier. Albanian Muslims built a mosque in 1915 in Maine, while Polish-speaking Tatars built one in 1928 in Brooklyn, which still remains in use.

It was only after 1962 when the “White Canada” policy, in force since 1891, was officially abandoned that levels of Muslim population began to show a healthy growth. According to 1981 census there were 98160 Muslims in Canada, 1991 census registered 253260, and the most recent census of 2001 showed 579600, about 2% of the population.

Organized Muslim activity in the 1960’s and 1970’s focused largely on establishing prayer facilities in universities or in mosques and Islamic centers. In addition to providing facilities for daily and/or weekly Friday prayers, these organizations provided some religious education to children during the weekends and some social services such as financial help or counseling. Indeed, providing social services and education is part of the declared objective of many of these mosques and centers. For example, the Islamic Centre of Quebec, established in 1965 as the first mosque or center in Quebec, is “dedicated to meeting the spiritual, social and educational needs of Muslims in Quebec”. By the 1980’s full-time schools began to be established, numbering about two dozen schools in Canada by the end of the century. Many specialized social services organizations also began to be established. In 1999 Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA) of the USA and Canada was founded that was subsequently split into two separate non-profit corporations, one for the USA and one for Canada. ISSA describes its mission as linking “Muslim social service providers in the United States and Canada” and supporting them “through education, training and services”. “ISSA offers training to Muslim communities enabling them to meet a range of social service needs. These trainings are taught from an Islamic perspective” and concern pre- and post-marital counseling, Islamic parenting, spiritual counseling, hospice and palliative care, imam training, domestic abuse, substance abuse, grief counseling, fundraising etc.

Including non-Muslims in social projects

Islam encourages Muslims to extend social projects to include non-Muslims. The Qur`an states: “God does not forbid you, with regard to those who do not fight you for your Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just". Some of the very early Muslims used to distribute part of their zakat al fitr (the charity paid at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan) to Christian monks, based on their understanding of this verse. Caliph ‘Umar instructed the Muslim administrator in Basrah to “seek out any People of the Book (Jews and Christians) in your area who have grown old and weak, and are unable to earn money, and establish stipends for them from the treasury to provide for their needs.”

Collaboration with non-Muslims

The Qur`an commands Muslims to collaborate among themselves and with non-Muslims for just ends: "Collaborate in virtue and righteousness and do not collaborate in sin and transgression” (5:2). The context shows that the command is not restricted to collaboration among Muslims only.

One of the good consequences of the evil Anglo-American military aggression against Iraq was that it brought Muslims and non-Muslims in Canada together. Christian churches such as the Catholic Church and socialist groups joined with Muslims in voicing opposition to the illegal war. The channels of communication thus opened could be further used in the interest of a just world order. In addition, Muslims and non-Muslims can collaborate to tackle such problems as homelessness, poverty, and drug abuse. At the very least they can learn from one another. Some non-Muslim groups have much longer experience for social work in Canada and so Muslims can learn from them. Likewise, as many clergymen and chaplains have noted, Muslims have been remarkably successful in programs of drug and prison rehabilitation, and so non-Muslims can learn from them.


Notes

1The Prophet is reported to have said: "Charity is due on every joint of a person’s body, every day the sun rises. Administering justice between two persons is charity. Assisting a man ride his beast, or helping him load his luggage upon it, is charity. A good word is charity. Every step that you take towards prayer is charity. And removing a harmful thing from the pathway is charity.” (Bukhari and Muslim).

2It is reported that among the belongings of Columbus was a book by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi which mentions that eight Arabs sailed from Lisbon and landed in South America, long before 1492.

3This has changed in recent decades, although some of the earlier lack of hospitability seems to have returned once again in the form of racial and ethnic profiling of Muslims, especially in the USA.

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