What Do We Owe Others: To Struggle Together

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.

In The Book of Pious Abstention (Kitāb al-Waraʿ) Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE) is asked what to do if one is in a mosque during Ramadan and a person comes around with (burning) incense from a “disliked” source. In other words, the incense was acquired via an unlawful action, such as being purchased with extorted funds. In his response, the Imam points out that the only benefit to incense is enjoying its scent. So as long as you can smell the incense, even if you are not near the censer, then you are benefitting from the (morally tainted) product. Given this, his advice to the questioner is: “If you can get away discreetly, then leave!” [1]

This scenario leaves us with many questions. Why leave “discreetly”? Why not announce one’s objection to the problematic incense to other people present and perhaps even encourage them to unite in rejecting it as well? Does the discretion stem from the desire to balance personal moral purity with the wish to avoid disturbing other worshippers? Maybe it is because this is happening “during Ramadan,” when arguing is forbidden. Or is there a hint of menace lurking behind the scene? Most of the narratives presented in Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal’s book are set in an empire where infrastructure and public services are tainted by unlawful government appropriation and corruption. Would an objection to the fragrant offering be seen as an insult to a powerful patron? Certainly, Imam Aḥmad was not afraid to stand up for his convictions on other occasions, notably when he was compelled to appear before the Abbasid Caliph al-Maʾmūn’s inquisition on the nature of the Qur’an. But, then again, he may not have considered unethically-sourced incense to imperil the faith like a state-imposed theological doctrine he considered to be a grave error. Even in that more serious case, it is fair to say that Aḥmad did not seek out a fight with the caliph, and his typical counsel to others was to refrain from confronting rulers, since the outcome was usually senseless violence, not positive change.

What is our obligation when we see something wrong? When does an individual duty to shun corruption, and whatever enables corruption, create an obligation to connect with others to take action? In her introduction to the Islamic Moral Theology Project, Maria Dakake mentions the Islamic legal distinction between individual and communal obligations (far ʿayn vs. far kifāya) and asks “What meaning does this ideal conception of mutual individual and communal responsibility have today?”

Significantly, the distinction between personal and communal obligations is not a dichotomy. The burden of any responsibility can shift more than once between individuals and the community.

Significantly, the distinction between personal and communal obligations is not a dichotomy. The burden of any responsibility can shift more than once between individuals and the community. Consider, for example, a scenario where a group of migrant families are camped on the outskirts of a town. The migrants do not have sufficient food, and the children are starving. A wealthy Muslim woman steps forward and takes on the obligation of feeding not only the children, but the whole family. This is sufficient to discharge the obligation for the rest of the Muslim community. Or perhaps, there is a mosque in the town, and members organize to bring meals to the camp. This too would discharge the community’s obligation. If no one had stepped forward to feed the starving children, however, then the whole community would be sinful.

In his study of collective obligations in pre-modern Islamic jurisprudence, Adnan Zulfiqar notes that the traditional list of obligations is limited. In addition, most duties require knowledge of a specific need and proximity to the need in order for the obligation to be triggered. In contrast, modern Muslims, he notes, tend to use the language of a “collective obligation” more loosely to mean a “moral duty” in general (I tend to do this). Given that an unfulfilled far kifāya places the Muslim community in a state of sinfulness, perhaps we should be more precise with our language. Aside from the potentially demoralizing impact of the proliferation of unfulfilled communal obligations upon people, we should be cautious about declaring religious obligations, when that authority belongs to God.

When we try to apply religious principles to complex social needs, we often fall into atomistic or dichotomous thinking. In addition to the specific duties which legal scholars identify as “communal obligation” (far kifāya), there is the broad divine order to “command what is good (al-ma ʿrūf) and to proscribe what is wrong.” In her essay, Maria Dakake asks if this latter principle might “have value and meaning for Muslims living in either Muslim-majority or minority communities today?”

If we return to our previous scenario, what if, instead of the wealthy woman, or the mosque food bank meeting the family’s needs, the town comes up with a solution? Say the town council, comprised of Muslims and non-Muslims, decides to bring the migrants into the civic center, and, using municipal funds, feeds the families while they help them apply for refugee status. From an Islamic legal perspective, the town has not technically performed a far kifāya, because a religious obligation requires a religious intention. However, because they have eliminated the need, there is no longer a religious obligation upon the Muslim community.

The question arises, if the outcome is the same – the hungry people are fed and the Muslim community is relieved of a state of sinfulness – does it matter that this was a political, not religious action? In fact, for the Muslims involved, it could have been simultaneously a moral, political and religious action, if their intention was to “preserve life,” or “command the good and prohibit wrong,” just as their non-Muslim allies might deem their participation in the shared work in terms of “human rights,” “justice” or tikkun olam (the Jewish principle of seeking to “repair the world.”

When I teach an introductory course on Islamic Ethics, over the course of many weeks students are presented with texts, methods and practices essential for ethical analysis and construction. By the end of the class, their many-pocketed robes or tool belts are stuffed with Qur’anic verses, hadith, legal rulings and juridical principles, virtues, values, moral principles, reason, compassion, taxonomies and categorical distinctions. In the last few weeks of the course the students give presentations on topical issues. The issues they address include: weighing the medical benefits of animal testing against the emotional and physical pain of animals; considering the need for communal safety and accountability in the context of the dehumanizing practices of the penal system; and assessing the merit of travel for knowledge, livelihood and connection, when the environmental impact of combustion and consumption is so detrimental. As students move through research case studies from medicine, environmental science, business, disability studies, and charity work, it starts to seem impossible that any one of us could manage all our ethical obligations.

The issue of ensuring that the supply chain for food, cosmetics and other consumer goods is both halal and non-harmful weighs heavily on young adults, as does the challenge of not polluting land, water and air by using and disposing of those goods. Like Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, they want to avoid benefiting from things that are unlawful, and they want to enjoy only goods that have been produced without harm to others; but this seems much more difficult to do in the twenty-first century. Imam Aḥmad could exit a mosque to avoid enjoying the scent of unlawfully-acquired incense, but can my students and I find food, clothes, and phones that have been produced without harming human or non-human others?

If, for example, there are organizations, religious or otherwise, who are sufficiently addressing the issue of animal testing, we should give them some support, sign onto their advocacy, check our purchases for their cruelty-free labels, and move on to other, insufficiently addressed issues.

In our classroom, as the issues add up, some students look glum, others begin creating color-coded charts in an attempt to get organized. Some students state their intention to make changes in their personal life, others ask their professor if there is “someone in the Muslim community” who can create a task list and assign responsibilities to different groups. In response, I turn to the wisdom, if not the law, of far kifāya. If, for example, there are organizations, religious or otherwise, who are sufficiently addressing the issue of animal testing, we should give them some support, sign onto their advocacy, check our purchases for their cruelty-free labels, and move on to other, insufficiently addressed issues.

Our knowledge, our abilities and our time is limited. The Qur’an says, “Fear God as much as you are able (64:16).” We have to accept our limitations. “God will not hold one morally accountable for what they cannot manage (2:286).” Too often people paraphrase this verse as, “God will not give you more than what you can bear.” This is a false and damaging distortion of the verse. Individuals often face circumstances they could never bear on their own. And none of us can bear dealing with all the moral evils in the world. Rather, our moral accountability does not exceed our capacities. God knows, and we know too, if we are doing the best we can. But certainly we are not making a sincere effort if we shun collective action in principle and practice.

We might consider the Qur’anic meaning of the word maʿrūf, mentioned in the principle of “commanding the good (al-maʿrūf )” and in many other verses of the Qur’an dealing with moral obligation. The root of this word (ʿ-r-f) means “to recognize,” “to know,” “to discover.” From the same root, and often its synonym, is the term ʿurf, meaning “good custom” or “beneficent action.” While in English “custom” can be used in the sense of a personal habit, in Islamic discourse, ‘urf is something recognized by the community, and in Islamic law, it is a binding norm, so long as it is not in conflict with revelation. Similarly, al-maʿrūf is something identified by the community as good, kind, fair.

Promoting al-maʿrūf leads to taʿarruf, getting to know one another, which the Qur’an mentions as the Divine purpose for creating diverse human beings (49:13).

Sometimes my students wonder why God made it so difficult to live ethically in this world. I suggest that perhaps the wisdom of ethical obligations is not to succeed in rectifying the earth, but to grow our individual and collective capacities as we struggle with each other’s differing opinions and points of view about how to move towards rectification of what Muslims call “this lower world,” the dunyā.

Promoting al-maʿrūf leads to taʿarruf, getting to know one another, which the Qur’an mentions as the Divine purpose for creating diverse human beings (49:13). Legal anthropologist Lawrence Rosen observed that “the vision of the Quran and of the Prophet is one that gives unusual stress to the role of the socially constructed person as the locus of moral and religious responsibility.”[2] And he argues that “the shariʿa was never intended as a settled body of doctrine but as a socially-oriented, chaos-reducing, locality-reinforcing means of producing morality and civility.”[3] I believe that what we owe to each other, above all, is to be in relationship, to struggle together when possible, and in doing so, manifest community.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson is a Canadian scholar of Islamic Studies and a Muslim community leader. She earned a PhD in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 1999. From 1998 to 2012 she was Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary (CT) where she developed and directed the first accredited program for Muslim chaplains in North America. Since 2012, she has been the London & Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Theology at Huron University College in London, Canada. Her writings focus primarily Qur’an Studies, Islamic theological ethics and interfaith relations. From 2001-2010 Dr. Mattson served as Vice-President, then as President of the Islamic Society of North America (USA). In 2018, Dr. Mattson founded the research and educational initiative, the Hurma Project, to prevent and respond to violations of trust and spiritual abuse in Muslim Spaces: https://hurmaproject.com.


Ibn Ḥanbal, Aḥmad. Kitāb al-Waraʿ. Ed. by Zaynab Ibrāhīm al-Qārūt. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 1983.

Rosen, Lawrence.  The Anthropology of Justice:  Law as Culture in Islamic Society. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Zulfiqar, Adnan. “Collective Duties (Farḍ Kifāya) in Islamic Law: The Moral Community, State Authority and Ethical Speculation in the Premodern Period.” PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2018.

[1] Ibn Ḥanbal, p. 37.

[2] Rosen, p. 185.

[3] Rosen, p. 186.