This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. It is specifically part of the roundtable discussion that is responding to Dakake’s opening essay for the project. See Nguyen’s opening essay for a parallel line of inquiry.
Many of Islam’s leading principles are premised on the idea of the responsibility, individual or collective, of the faithful to be useful members of society and be good to their fellow humans, which is also why Islam places greater emphasis on the notion of obligation (wājib) as compared to right (ḥaqq). The primacy of wājib over ḥaqq in Islam has even led some Orientalists to the conclusion that Islam hardly recognizes any rights for the individual. This is, however, no more than a specious conclusion as Islamic law clearly recognizes rights and liberties attached to the individual person such as ownership, privacy, movement, inheritance, guardianship and many others. The primacy of wājib over ḥaqq is premised on the notion of what one owes to others, rather than on one’s own claims or rights over them. We shall presently elaborate on this while also looking at the related concepts of iḥsān (benevolence), jiwār (neighborliness), khayr (good), and also taṣawwuf (mysticism).
“There is also a consensus among Muslim scholars that bidding good and forbidding evil should be carried out by all societies, for the Qur’an refers to the scope of this duty as extending to “the whole of humankind,” which includes both the Muslim umma and all other communities (cf. 3:110).“
A parallel concept to wājib in shari‘a terminology is farḍ: When an obligation is founded on decisive evidence, it is farḍ, but when its supportive evidence is not free of all doubt, it is designated as wājib. There are two types of farḍ: personal obligation (farḍ ‘ayn) and collective obligation (farḍ kifā’ī). The former consists mainly of matters of worship (‘ibādāt) whereas the latter consists of collective duties that fall on the community as a whole.
A prime example of a collective obligation that occurs in several places in the Qur’an (3:104; 3:110; 16:90; 32:70) is that of “bidding good and forbidding evil (amr bi’l-ma‘rūf wa nahya ‘an al-munkar,” also known as ḥisba for short, a collective obligation which falls mainly on the Muslim community. As a collective obligation, ḥisba is practiced by at least some members of Muslim community, if not all. As for the question of whether ḥisba is what Muslims must do among themselves, or if it should also include all human beings, the correct answer is the latter ‒ as is inferred from the Qur’an (3:110) where the Muslim community (umma) is mentioned side by side with humankind. Muslims must therefore call to all that is good and to forbid all that is wrong, not only among themselves, but among all fellow humans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This is because the principal guideline given elsewhere for Muslims, specifically, is to be “good and fair (tabarrū wa-tuqsiṭū)” to non-Muslims who have not been aggressive toward them (Qur’an 60:8). There is also a consensus among Muslim scholars that bidding good and forbidding evil should be carried out by all societies, for the Qur’an refers to the scope of this duty as extending to “the whole of humankind,” which includes both the Muslim umma and all other communities (cf. 3:110).
Furthermore, as a religion (dīn), Islam consists of three parts: faith (īmān), practice (islām), and benevolence (iḥsān). Iḥsān literally means “excellence” and “beauty” in one’s character and one’s spiritual state. Iḥsān and its derivatives occur 190 times in the Qur’an, often in reference to God Most High who loves beauty and also expects the faithful person to be a muḥsin, one who persists in iḥsān. Over time, the practice of Islam became manifest through the shari‘a, whereas faith (īmān) became institutionalized through scholastic theology (kalām) and other forms of doctrinal teachings, and iḥsān manifested its presence through ethics, good manners (akhlaq, adab) and mysticism (Sufism). Mysticism nurtures gratitude to God, abstenance from evil, freedom from egotism, and ultimately eternal salvation. The perfect human is one who beautifies not only the outer, but also the inner self. In other words, both the faith and practice of Islam should be beautiful. In a hadith, it is stated that “God has prescribed iḥsān in all things.” It is for the faithful, therefore, to discern the good and ethical course of action in every circumstance and practice it. Iḥsān can also be understood to mean that Muslims owe it to their fellow human beings to be good to them and act toward them in beautiful ways. Iḥsān as such is not even confined to religion, and applies to all activities a Muslim does. It is certainly important for present-day Muslims to practice iḥsān in their interaction with fellow humans, with both Muslims and non-Muslims in all countries as neighbours, compatriots and fellow humans that need to work together to address common challenges they all face, such as the climate change, environmental issues and the Covid pandemic. In another hadith, the Prophet Muhammad addressed the faithful saying: “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak something good or else remain silent.”
“As for the question of whether charity, be it zakāh or ṣadaqa, is to be given to Muslims only or may also be given to non-Muslims, the correct answer is the latter, for religion is not a bar to charity.” The focus of traditional mystical practice, or taṣawwuf, is to attain iḥsān through the purification of the heart and personal character so as to achieve holistic purity (tazkiya, zuhd – purity and asceticism respectively). The master Sufi, Rumi, conveyed the message of love for all human beings beyond the boundaries of race and religion. Iḥsān may also consist of material help, some of which is obligatory, such as the zakāh charity, and others which are supererogatory (ṣadaqa), as well as the charitable endowment (waqf). The waqf is supererogatory to begin with, but once it is made, the endower (wāqif) is bound by it and loses all control over the endowed assets. Muslims have throughout history used waqf for public welfare activities such as building mosques, bridges, hospitals, etc., that benefited both Muslims and non-Muslims; and they continue to do so throughout the Muslim world. As for the question of whether charity, be it zakāh or ṣadaqa, is to be given to Muslims only or may also be given to non-Muslims, the correct answer is the latter, for religion is not a bar to charity. This is because the Qur’an does not specify the recepient’s religion as a condition for charity. There is also the precedent of the second Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644) on record, that when passing through the market of Medina, the Caliph saw an elderly Jew begging. He assigned him a share in the Bayt al-Māl (the public treasury funded by zakāh) saying that it was unfair that he contributed to the Bayt al-Māl during his youth and should now have to be begging. Records also show that the Prophet sent some sacrificial meat to a Jewish household of Medina in the neighbourhood. Furthermore, the scriptural sources of Islam recognize two levels of fraternity: al-ikhā’ al-dīnī (fraternity in faith) and al-ikhā’ al-insānī (human fraternity); hence religion is not a bar to giving charity and extending iḥsān to the non-Muslims.
“Islamic teachings also emphasize good neighborliness, which is not confined to those in one’s physical neighborhood, or living adjacent to one’s household, but also includes those who share joint ownership of land, partnership in business, fellow travellers, one’s relatives and so forth – all are considered ‘neighbors’.”
Islamic teachings also emphasize good neighborliness, which is not confined to those in one’s physical neighborhood, or living adjacent to one’s household, but also includes those who share joint ownership of land, partnership in business, fellow travellers, one’s relatives and so forth – all are considered “neighbors”. Moreover, the physical neighborhood itself extends, according to a hadith, to forty houses on all sides, Muslims and non-Muslims alike ‒ and juristic details abound on what may or may not mark the end of a neighborhood, such as a street or a water canal running between, etc. This same hadith entitles all neighbors to respectful treatment, protection from harm and annoyance, happy encounter, greetings of peace, and gift-giving. According to Qur’an 4:36 one’s parents and relatives, neighbors who are relatives and those who are non-relatives, are all entitled to iḥsān. In one hadith the Prophet has said that the “[Archangel] Gabriel emphasized the rights of the neighbor so much to me that I almost thought he was going to make him an heir.” In another hadith the Prophet declared: “By God he has no faith, by God he has no faith, by God he has no faith!” His companions asked him: “Who is this O Messenger of God?” The Prophet replied: One whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil.” A neighbor may be anyone: Muslim or non-Muslim, pious or sinner, urbanite or bedouin, benevolent or malicious, relative or stranger, high class or low, distant or near – all are entitled to safety and iḥsān. On the rights of neighbors, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) also writes that one should greet his neighbor with “Salām (Peace)” (for non-Muslims it may be the the customary equivalent of “Salām”), visit him when ill, console him when afflicted with calamity and share his happiness in good fortune, ignore his minor failings, avoid staring at one’s female neighbors, protect his house when he is traveling or absent, be kind to his children, and guide him if he is ignorant, be it in religion or other practical matters.
“Both the theoretical guidelines and actual history of Islam are consistent on extending fairness and iḥsān to non-Muslims and maintenance good relations with them so long as they are not oppressive to the Muslims.”
When the Prophet migrated to Medina there were Jewish tribes there, as well as two other major tibes of Aws and Khazraj that soon embraced Islam and became known as the Anṣār (Helpers), joining the Muhājirūn (Emigrants) who migrated from Mecca to Medina. Within the first year of his arrival, the Prophet drew up a treaty that became known as Dustūr al-Madīna (Constitution of Medina) that regulated relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.This 47 clause document granted to the Jewish population of Medina freedom of religion, and went so far as to declare them as part of the newly formed umma. The Medinan Jews also retained their Bayt al-Midras (a synagogue and educational institute). There are also the many treaties that the Prophet and later his Companions made with Christian groups that recognize their autonomy in their own affairs.
During the second caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s time, a group of Muslims had usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jewish man, and had constructed a mosque on the site. Learning of the incident, the caliph ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jewish man. In a similar incident, an Umayyad ruler had occupied a church in order to enlarge a mosque. Later when the case was brought before the caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz (d. 720), he ordered to demolish part of the mosque and restore the church. Both the theoretical guidelines and actual history of Islam are consistent on extending fairness and iḥsān to non-Muslims and maintenance good relations with them so long as they are not oppressive to the Muslims.
“The current realities of human life, including globalization with its vastly improved and efficient electronic communication networks, digitization and Big Data, etc., are also bound to change the traditional concepts of neighborhood.”
The current realities of human life, including globalization with its vastly improved and efficient electronic communication networks, digitization and Big Data, etc., are also bound to change the traditional concepts of neighborhood. It seems that all people are now neighbors in the cyberspace, social media, and other modes of contact. We are all affected by major events in any part of the world, and thus we are neighbors virtually if not in person; and from the Islamic perspective, we owe to one another the treatment that al-Ghazali has articulated. It is especially pertinent to remind ourselves of these Islamic teachings during our present time of affliction and disease. The current pandemic – Covid 19 ‒ claims lives in vast numbers and in all parts of the world, regardless of race and religion, and we all need to be helpful and protective of one another in the true spirit of fraternity and iḥsān.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Founding CEO of IAIS Malaysia, graduated from Kabul University, and then earned a PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the University of London in 1976. He served as Professor of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University Malaysia (1985-2004), then Dean of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) from 2004-2006. He was Asst. Professor at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies; Visiting Professor at Capital University, Ohio; and the Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin. He was a member of the Constitution Review Commission of Afghanistan (2003), and a UN shariah expert on the constitutions of Iraq, the Maldives and Somalia (2004-2005). He has published over 260 academic articles and 46 books. His works have been translated into foreign languages. He received the Isma’il al-Faruqi Award for Academic Excellence twice, in 1995 and 1997. He features in the book The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World from 2009, to 2022). He received the King Abdullah II International Award 2010 in recognition of his intellectual contributions towards serving Islam and Muslims.