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A Muslim Perspective on Social Action

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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In the essays Rituals and Celebrations  and Care of the Earth  the concept of  worship in Islam was discussed in detail. I personally, like many other Muslims, share the opinion that worship is not limited to ritual actions or formulaic chants. So much so that all a Muslim says, or does, can be construed as worship, devotion or service to God - not only formal, set prayers.

Worship through social action
In this context, one prophetic saying which I find truly inspirational translates roughly as follows: ‘Faith has some seventy plus branches - the highest or most lofty of them is to proclaim and truly believe in the Oneness of God, and the lowest is to remove a harmful object from the road (path which others take). Shyness, or modesty is also a branch of faith.’
To take this as a starting point, all that falls under the category of caring for this world, from the small, micro-level of looking after one’s personal environment, removing litter or dangerous items (as mentioned in the above quotation) to reducing pollution and so on and so forth, would be considered as an act of devotion or worship if offered with the correct intention. A short but thought-provoking story is often told to illustrate this point.

Once, a trader needed to stop and rest, so he hammered a peg into the ground and tethered his camel after unloading all the merchandise. The next day, he set off again, leaving the peg in the ground in order to save another traveller the effort of replacing it should they need to anchor anything. A little later, another person was walking by and tripped over the same peg. He promptly removed it, with the intention of preventing harm to any future passers-by. The idea is that both attempted to ‘do the right thing’ but with totally opposite consequences; and that in both cases the reward they earned depended on the goodness of their intentions, not the final outcome of their actions.

Putting it into practice

Thus, ‘Allah will relieve anyone who relieves a believer of one of the afflictions of this world, of one of the afflictions of the Day of Rising. Allah will give ease in this world and the Next to anyone who eases the hardship of another. Allah will veil anyone who veils (the faults, or sins of) another Muslim in this world and the Next. Allah will help His slave as long as His slave is helping his brother.’ This might be helping an infirm neighbour or friend with daily chores, transport and so on, refraining from malicious gossip, even just ‘being there’ at times of need. A Muslim believes all are examples of  practical social action that elicit reward and blessings in the Hereafter, in addition to positive outcomes in this world.

Many other sayings highlight numerous other aspects of social action ‘whenever you cook a stew or broth, add extra liquid in order that you may share your food equally with your needy neighbour’. ‘Greeting one another kindly is a charity, helping another onto his mount is a charity, a smile in the face of your brother is a charity’.

This is obviously in addition to the compulsory percentage of zakah paid on annual unspent savings.
Kindness, justice and mercy are also prominent themes that run through Islamic teachings on social action. For example, the complete prohibition (generally) on usury and financial exploitation (Qur’an 2:275); respect, goodwill and care for the elderly, infirm and very young (Qur’an 6:151); also the importance of moderation and contentedness with what one has: ‘Look at those who are lower than you and do not look at those who are higher than you. That is more likely to prevent you underestimating the blessing of Allah on you.’

To return to justice and link it with truth-telling, ‘He who cheats is not one of us’. This may be illustrated by the furious reaction of the Prophet when observing a trader who hid grain that was damp (and therefore prone to decay) amongst a heap of better-quality produce in order to sell it at a higher price.

Being a good neighbour
Networking and maintaining positive social relations are also important as when responding appropriately during occasions of joy or those that require condolences. Close familial ties and visiting the sick matter: ‘A Muslim owes another Muslim six duties ... To greet him when he meets him, to accept when he gives him an invitation, to give him good counsel (advice) when he asks for guidance, to wish mercy on him when he sneezes and says, “Praise be to Allah”, to visit him when he is ill, and to join the funeral procession when he dies.’

I will conclude with a saying I think is particularly pertinent given the current financial climate. It is reported that the Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘The worst food is the food of a wedding feast which is denied to those who come to it and which those who are invited to it refuse to attend. Anyone who does not respond to an invitation has rebelled against Allah and His Messenger.’ In a variant also: ‘The worst food is the food of a wedding feast to which the rich are invited and from which the poor are left out.’