Social Responsibility as Explained in the Qur'an
by Dr. Ali S. Asani
Ali Asani (AKH 73-84) was the recipient of one of His Highness the Aga Khan's personal scholarships while studying at Harvard. Since finishing his doctorate in 1984, he has pursued an academic career at his alma mater where he is currently Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages & Cultures. Ali chose to speak about Islam and Social Responsibility at the Boston alumni dinner in November 1999.
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteous is the one who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets and gives away wealth out of love for Him (God) to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and sets slaves free... 2:1777
The above verse from the Holy Qur'an makes a fundamental observation on the nature of religiosity. In trying to explain to mankind what it means to be religious, to truly follow the sirat al-mustaqim, Allah makes it clear that piety basically comprises two dimensions. The first, which we may call 'ibadat, consists of worship and prayer, obligations to God, and the acknowledgement of the status of a human being as an 'abd (servant) of the Almighty. The other usually termed as Mu'amalat, is social or communal in nature for it stresses the obligation of the believer to the surrounding society, in particular its disadvantaged segment. Religiosity in Islam, then, does not distinguish between or separate the sacred and the secular. A person cannot be truly religious without fulfilling the responsibilities enjoined on him/her in both dimensions ‑ towards the Almighty and towards society. To call oneself religious and just pray and worship God, oblivious of the needs of the less fortunate, is to have only partially fulfilled one's responsibility. Indeed, mere prayer without concern for fellow human beings is hypocrisy.
The Holy Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes the dual nature of humankind's obligations. For example, every verse that commands men and women to pray to God also urges them to pay zakat, the obligatory charitable contribution that every Muslim must pay to provide for those who are poor and in need. The social dimension of the pillar of zakat is clear: those who possess wealth should concern themselves with those who lack it ‑ "to have is to share". Moreover, zakat, as its Arabic root signifies, has a purifying aspect as well, for it cleanses the giver of greed and excessive materialism, promoting, at the same time, the general level of well-being and happiness in society. Looked at from another angle, the ummah (community) has a right and stake in whatever a Muslim owns ‑ a notion radically different from Western conceptions about individual ownership of wealth.
The Holy Qur'an also provides specific guidance on the manner in which these societal obligations are to be fulfilled. Those who wish to do good by performing charitable actions are warned:Believers! do not nullify your charitable deed by posing as munificent or by painfully embarrassing others, as do those who expend their wealth just to be seen of men, with no faith in God and the Last Day. 2:264
This verse cautions against doing good works for egotistical and self‑centered reasons, such as earning praise from one's fellows or improving one's status in society. Such works are of no merit before God. Not surprisingly, the Qur'an distinguishes in many verses between those who spend openly in the way of Allah, that is in full public eye, from those who spend in secret (e.g., surah 35:29‑30). The above Qur'anic verse is also emphatic that charitable actions are to be done without placing recipients under any obligation, embarrassment or humiliation. According to surah 2:263, "a kindly word and a forgiving attitude are better than a charitable action which brings hurt in its train. " In this regard the position of Hazrat Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) is instructive. In a letter to the Governor of Egypt, Hazrat Ali reminds him of his duties towards those of little means for they are a responsibility for which he has to render account before Allah. Be humble before them, Ali urges him, and do not ignore them out of haughtiness and pride, a luxurious life should not keep you away from them". Furthermore, he advises his Governor to make special efforts in identifying social outcasts who, on account of their unsightly appearance and extremely low position in society, are not even in a position to come forward and ask for assistance. To look after the affairs of such people, Hazrat Ali recommends the appointment of God‑fearing, humble and trusted leaders, for, among all the subjects of the land, they are the most deserving of equitable treatment.
The extensive humanitarian and social welfare activities of the Aga Khan Development Network are, thus, an expression, in our contemporary world, of concerns that are fundamental and integral to the faith of Islam. It would be appropriate here to mention an excerpt from the convocation address His Highness the Aga Khan gave at the University of Peshawar on November 30, 1967:
"It would be traumatic if those pillars of the Islamic way of life ‑ social justice, equality, humility, and generosity, enjoined upon us all were to lose their force or wide application in our young society. It must never be said generations hence that in our greed for the material goods of the rich West we have forsaken our responsibilities to the poor, to the orphaned, to the traveller, to the single woman."
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