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Radical Political Activism

Enhancing the Polity

Although the Islamic polity as manifest in the Prophetic model and the Covenant of Medina fully supports a secular political framework, this does not imply Islam's support for reductionist materialism. Here, secularism means simply and strictly that the political constitution does not enforce religious values and practices, but is separate from them. That this secular constitution itself derives from the Prophetic model in Medina demonstrates that it is, in fact, a manifestation of a fundamental Islamic value, namely freedom of thought, belief, faith and practice. 

By the same token, however, Islam's focus on supporting khair (what is universally recognised as good) and countering munkar (what is universally recognised as evil), demonstrates that Islam's perspective of the religious impulse in society is not the promotion of a narrow parochial set of rules/values, but rather the support for the good and well-being of all, regardless of faith or creed. Far from implying a passive, static acceptance of modern societies in their current form despite their injustices and inequalities, the Qur’anic maqasid establishes a constructive ethical framework for radical social activism and political engagement to enhance and improve the social and political context, and to challenge prevailing injustices, while fighting to protect the principles of freedom of thought, belief and faith.

Many classical scholars presumed that the number of maqasid, or higher ethical principles/values, recognised by Islam is limited. Two leading scholars, Shi’a and Sunni respectively, departed from this oft-presumed notion. In fact, the first known monograph dedicated to maqasid was authored by a Shi’a jurist, Ibn Babawayh al-Saduq al-Qummi, in the fourth Islamic century. The book, entitled Ilal al-Sharai (The Reasons Behind the Rulings), explored the rational imperatives for core Islamic beliefs such as Tawhid (Divine Unity), Nabuwwa (Prophethood), Akhira (Life after death), and so on; as well as clarifying the numerous moral purposes behind Islamic practices including prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, caring for parents, etc. (Jasser Auda, Maqasid al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach, Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2008, p. 16)

From within the Sunni tradition, Ibn Taymiyya argued similarly that the maqasid should not be confined to a specific number, and it could be expanded indefinitely to include principles such as fulfilment of contracts, preservation of the ties of kinship, honouring the rights of one’s neighbour, the love of God, sincerity, trustworthiness, and moral purity, among many others. Thus, he argued that the maqasid should be seen as an open-ended matrix of interlocking values. Building on this work, more recently scholars such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi have pointed out based on the Qur’an and ahadith that it is necessary to include values such as social welfare and support (al-takaful)freedom, human dignity and human fraternity (Mohammed Hashim Kamali, “Al Maqasid Al-Shari’ah: The Objectives of Islamic Law”, Journal of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, April-June 1998, Vol. 3, No. 1).

Against this background, and in the same spirit, we explore here a further extension of the scope of the maqasid to encompass a set of holistically interlocking values and principles on ethical communities and just governance, which can be inferred largely unambiguously from the textual sources. The selection of these principles is motivated to address the kinds of challenges and problems faced by contemporary societies. These principles provide a clear but flexible arena of value-oriented guidelines which can inform progressive social activism in support of a radical Islamically-inspired politics – one which, however, is axiomatically peaceful and inherently protective of the secular public space.

One of the most significant, yet still under-used authentic historical documents on an Islamic polity is a letter of instruction written by the fourth rightly-guided caliph, and first Shi’a Imam, ‘Ali, expounding the principles of governance to his newly appointed deputy in Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar. After the death of the third rightly-guided caliph, Uthman, ‘Ali was spontaneously elected by an overwhelming majority to succeed him. The letter is a concise, but comprehensive, guide to justice in governance, and thus an invaluable source of insight into how the maqasid should be applied in a socio-political context.

First, a quick word on the historical authenticity of Imam Ali's letter to Malik al-Ashtar. According to Fehrist-i-Tusi (p.33), the letter was first copied during ‘Ali’s leadership by Asbagh bin Nabata. It was then reproduced widely and has been referred to by a number of leading scholars such as Nasr ibn Mazahim (148 A.H.), Jahiz Basari (255 A.H) Syed Razi (404 A.H.) Ibn-i-Abil Hidaid and Allama Mustafa Bek Najib (also see al-Masudi, Murooj-uz-Zahab, Vol. 2, p. 33). It is widely available in English language translations of the book Nahj ul-Balagha: Peak of Eloquence (London: Alif Publishing, 1985), a collection of ‘Ali’s sermons and sayings.

It is worth noting that although Nahj ul-Balagha is a staple Shi'a text that is virtually unknown today in traditional Sunni circles, the collection is largely considered historically authentic, though it is acknowledged that a few unreliable reports may have crept into the collection. Prominent classical Sunni scholars of this opinion included Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Salah al-Din Safadi.

The following discussion draws extensively on Imam Ali's letter, along with Qur’anic verses, as well as other traditions from both Sunni and Shi’a sources.


Principle of Life

"Do not take any human being's life (the life) which Allah has declared to be sacred - otherwise than in (the pursuit of) justice: this has He enjoined upon you so that you might use your intellect." (Qur'an 6:32)

This verse makes clear that life is sacred, and that no life may be taken unless it is done so to uphold and protect justice. Therefore, it is prohibited to take life in a way that leads to injustice, or take an innocent life unjustly. In a well-known verse, the Qur'an makes clear that the life of an individual is equivalent to the life of the whole of humanity:

"For that cause We declared for the Children of Israel that whosoever kills a human being for other than murder or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (5:32)


Principle of the Dignity of Personhood 

"Now indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam." (Qur'an 6:151)

This verse confirms that all human beings are, in their innate essence, endowed with honour and dignity, and should be respected as such.

This dignity derives from the human being's unique bearing of the 'trust'. In this sense, the humanness of all people, which is to be respected and fostered as an end in itself, derives from the 'trust' of vicegerency which has been conferred on all human beings as their goal and potential: 

"Lo! We offered the trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And humankind assumed it." (Qur'an 33:72)


Principle of Justice 

"O you have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of any one lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is the closest to being God-conscious." (Qur'an 5:8)

"O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do." (4:135)

The Qur'an employs two concepts related to justice, adl and ihsan, which are not identical in meaning, even though they both tend to signify 'balance.' Adl means "to be equal, neither more nor less," as explained by Fyzee, who elaborates: "... in a court of Justice the claims of the two parties must be considered evenly, without undue stress being laid upon one side or the other." Abu'l Kalam Azad, a translator of the Qur'an, has explained this concept similarly: "What is justice but the avoiding of excess? There should be neither too much nor too little; hence the use of scales as the emblems of justice."

The term ihsan means "restoring the balance by making up a loss or deficiency." This concept deals with the method of maintaining the balance that is signified by adl. The result is that justice involves the act of compensating for deficiencies, or removing excess, to maintain the 'balance' of 'adl.' 

Principle of Knowledge and Truth 

The acquirement of knowledge, and the seeking of truth is both a right and a responsibility of human beings. It is for this reason that Islam has stressed the centrality of knowledge to Islam, and the direct link between improving one's knowledge and improving faith.

"Allah will raise to high ranks those that have faith and knowledge amongst you." (Qur'an 58:9)

"Say: Lord, increase me in knowledge." (20:113)

The Prophet also made nuermous famous pronouncements concerning knowledge, whose historical authenticity is not disputed: 

"The Prophets leave knowledge as their inheritance. The learned ones inherit this great fortune." 

"Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave." 

"Seek knowledge even if it be unto China." 

"It is mandatory to seek knowledge for every Muslim, male or female."

These injunctions should not be taken solely as a generic carte blanche justifying the idea of institutional 'education,' which of course is one important way of fulfilling them at least in part. They can be clearly be seen, especially in the context of the Qur'an's repeated promulgation of the need to reflect and study on the inner self and the natural world, as requiring the Prophet's followers to see the continual and incessant desire to increase their understanding of life and the world in all dimensions as integral to faith, and fundamental to the 'Way of Surrender.'


Principle of Universal Love

Love and compassion toward all human beings, whatever their faith or non-faith, as well as all living creatures, is an axiomatic Islamic principle that recurs repeatedly in the Qur'an and hadith. Taken collectively, these numerous references to love begin with the concept of the creation of the universe itself as an act of Divine Love, with the highest form of surrender to the Divine being an act of love, and the love of all of humanity and all of creation as itself the best act of love that, in itself, constitutes love of the Divine.

In the words of the Qur'an:

"Surely those who accept the truth when it comes to them and do good deeds of righteousness - unto them the All-Merciful shall assign love." (19:96)

As Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of the Islamic Studies department at George Washington University writes in the foreword to the authoritative book, Love in the Qur'an,

"... the formula of consecration in Islam is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem usually translated as 'in the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.' It is this formula with which every chapter of the Noble Quran save one commences and also with which Muslims begin all their activities that are legitimate according to His Laws. Moreover, He has revealed that His Rahmah embraces all things and Islamic metaphysics teaches us that it was through the 'Breath of the Compassionate' (nafas al-Rahman) that all of creation was existentiated. Now, can there be compassion (compassion) without love? Obviously not. Therefore, it can be said that love permeates the world and runs through the arteries of creation. It is through His Rahmah, which includes love, that the world and human beings, who occupy the center of the circle of cosmic reality, were created and the Word of God, the Noble Quran, was revealed and it is through love that we can fulfill the role He has envisaged for us here on earth to return finally to Him."

Love in the Qur'an is a widely celebrated PhD thesis at al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the Muslim world's most respected institutions of traditional Sunni Islamic scholarship, which can be read for free online, and is certainly worth studying in detail.

On the one hand, the Qur'an is clear that God's compassion and benevolence extend to the entirety of creation:

"Say: ‘Limitless is your Lord in His mercy….’" (6:147)

"…but My mercy encompasses all things…." (7:156)

Here, we should note that the terms usually translated as 'compassion' (Rahman) and 'mercy' (Raheem), derive from the same root, Raham, which literally means 'womb'.

In Ismail ibn Kathir's Tafsir, he refers to a Sahih (sound) narration in Tirmidhi, where the Prophet said:

"Allah the Exalted said: 'I Am Ar-Rahman. I created the Raham (womb, i.e. family relations) and derived a name for it from My Name. Hence, whoever keeps it, I will keep ties to him, and whoever severs it, I will sever ties with him.'"

The root of the Divine Names Rahman and Raheem - Raham - thus indicates a form of deep, unconditional love which protects and nurtures that which is created with one's whole existence. Thus, the terms 'compassion' and 'mercy', while not incorrect, are quite narrow, and in fact pertain to different facets of God's unconditional and ontological Love for all things.

On the other hand, numerous verses qualify this conception of Divine unconditional Love encompassing the entirety of creation, by recognising that within the realm of the created - specifically within the realm of human choice - further reception of Divine Love becomes conditional on human moral conduct.

Those who accept the Divine Reality when knowledge of it comes to them and do good are those "He loves and who love Him," (5:54) explains the Qur'an. God loves "the doers of justice" (5:42; 8:60; 9:49), "those who purify themselves" (9:108), "the pious" (3:76; 9:4 & 7), "those who do good (to others)" (5:13, 5:93; 3:134, 148; 2:195), "those who trust (Him)" (4:35), "the patient" (3:146), and "those who repent very much and purify themselves." (2:222)

The Qur'an is clear that 'sin' or 'evil' is action or behaviour that blocks one off from the reception of Divine Love: "God does not love any ungrateful (or unbeliever) sinner" (2:276), "God does not love the unjust" (3:57&1140), "surely, God does not love him who is proud, boastful" (4:36) and "surely God does not love him who is treacherous, sinful." (4:107) 

However, there nevertheless remains within the texts an emphasis on the unconditional aspect. The Qur'an thus describes the Prophet as a manifestation of unconditional Divine Love and Mercy:

"We have not sent you except as a mercy to the worlds." (21:107) 

A wide range of hadith further elaborate on the Prophetic practice of love and compassion to all, equating the reception of Divine Love and Mercy with compassionate action to all "on earth".

"Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One above the heavens will have mercy upon you." (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, 1924)

It should be noted again here that the translated term, 'Mercy', is in fact a reference to Raheem, which can be more accurately understood as a form of unconditional love.

The Prophet also enjoined not just love of Muslims, but love of all people, regardless of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim: 

"None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself." (Sahih Bukhari 13) 

Sheikh An-Nawawi points out that this refers to "brotherhood in general, such that it includes the disbeliever and the Muslim." (Sharh Arba'een An-Nawawwi, 13)

Other Prophetic traditions back this up, underscoring the centrality of love for all humankind to Islam, which is thus a key pillar of true faith, without which one's faith is not real:

"None of you have faith until he loves for the people what he loves for himself, and until he loves a person only for the sake of Allah the Exalted." (Musnad Ahmad, 13463)

"The servant does not reach the reality of faith until he loves for the people what he loves for himself of goodness." (Sahih ibn Hibban, 238)

"The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of humankind." (Daraqutni)


Principle of the Right to Sustenance 

Every living creature depends for its sustenance upon Allah. However, if the society chooses an unjust system which negates Allah and which favours an elite minority, it is inevitable, by the fact of human freedom, that injustice shall be perpetrated, and that many people will be denied their right. The Qur'an, however, has made it clear that all creatures have the right to sustenance, and that no other being has the right to monopolise resources or food for their own selves at the expense of others: 

"Say, Who is there to forbid the beauty which Allah has brought forth for His creatures, and the good things from among the means of sustenance?" (7:32)


Principle of Community-Oriented Governance

In one of his most well-known sermons after being selected by the community to be the fourth caliph, ‘Ali confirmed firstly the conditional nature of his appointment on popular election, and secondly the burdensome nature of khilafah (trusteeship) as a pledge of responsibility to oppose oppression and inequality:

“Behold, by Him who split the grain (to grow) and created living beings, if people had not come to me and supporters had not exhausted the argument and if there had been no pledge of Allah with the learned to the effect that they should not acquiesce in the gluttony of the oppressor and the hunger of the oppressed I would have cast the rope of Caliphate on its own shoulders, and would have given the last one the same treatment as to the first one. Then you would have seen that in my view this world of yours is no better than the sneezing of a goat.” (Ali ibn Abu Talib, Nahj ul-Balagha, Sermon 3) 

Community leadership is thus consensual, and ethically-determined to meet the needs of the people. Beyond that, power has no intrinsic value.

The Qur’an famously describes the Muslim community as “those whose affairs are a matter of consultation (shura)... (42:38).” Classical scholars for the most part recognized that on this basis, mutual consultation, is an obligation to be applied by the community in all its affairs. This implies a direct, open and perpetual process of dialogue and intellectual exchange amongst all different members of a community. In his letter to al-Ashtar, ‘Ali elaborates on how this might play out in the form of regular consultations between the leader and the people:

“Meet the oppressed and the lowly periodically in an open conference and, conscious of the Divine presence there, have a heart-to-heart talk with them, and let none from your armed guard or civil officers be by your side, so that the representatives of the poor might state their grievances fearlessly and without reserve... Whatever you can give to them, give it ungrudgingly, and whatever you cannot afford to give, make that clear to them in utmost sincerity.” (Imam Ali, Nahj ul-Balgha, ‘Letter to Malik al-Ashtar’)

Thus, the direction of this mutual consultation is precisely to build that leader’s capacity to pursue policies not over the people, but rather in direct response to the people, and on behalf of their needs and requests – and if unable to do so, to be obliged to explain this to the people. ‘Ali further refers to the centrality of the community in governance, and warns strongly against the dangers of over-centralization of power, as well as the associated influence of ‘lobbies’ on a community leader.

“Let the dearest of your affairs be those which are middlemost in rightfulness, most inclusive in justice and most comprehensive in (establishing) the contentment of the subjects. For the discontent of the common people invalidates the contentment of favorites, and the discontent of favorites is pardoned at (the achievement of) the contentment of the masses. Moreover, none of the subjects is more burdensome upon the ruler in ease and less of a help to him in trial than his favorites. (None are) more disgusted by equity, more importunate in demands, less grateful upon bestowal, slower to pardon (the ruler upon his) withholding (favor) and more deficient in patience at the misfortunes of time than the favorites. Whereas the support of religion, the solidarity of Muslims and preparedness in the face of the enemy lie only with the common people of the community, so let your inclination and affection be toward them.”

This highlights the Islamic desirability of mechanisms and institutions – such as checks and balances, the separation of powers, localisation/devolution – to ensure community-orientation.


Principle of Human Equality

A famous Prophetic statement establishes the principle of racial equality absolutely:

“No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, and no non-Arab is superior to an Arab. No black is superior to a brown or red, and no red superior to any black. If there is any superiority in anyone it is due to his quality of Taqwa (God-consciousness).” (Musnad Ahmad, no. 22978)    

In his letter, ‘Ali further establishes the equality of all people regardless of their religious faith, and unequivocally affirms that the concept of ‘brotherhood’ within a multi-religious community extends to non-Muslims:

“Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not like a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in faith or your brothers in humanity.” (Ali, Nahj ul-Balgha, ‘Letter to Malik al-Ashtar’)

Numerous Qur'anic verses also establish the principle of gender equality, unambiguously: 

"I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other (3:195)"

"Whoever does deeds of righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise, and not the least injustice will be done to them." (4:124)

"For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for truthful men and women, for patient men and women, for humble men and women, for charitable men and women, for fasting men and women, for chaste men and women, and for men and women who remember God often – for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward." (33:35)


Principle of RelIGIOUS FREEDOM

Similarly, numerous Qur’anic verses establish the acceptance of religious pluralism, and the illegitimacy of religious coercion:

“It may be that those who reject, wish ardently that they had bowed in surrender (islam). Leave them alone, to enjoy (the good things of this life) and to please themselves: let hopes distract them: soon will knowledge come to them.” (15:3)

And similarly:

“If it had been your Lord’s will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will you then compel humankind, against their will, to believe? No soul can believe, except by the will of God, and He will place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not reflect.” (10:99-100)

Numerous verses indicate that religious diversity is a given, and that the attitude of Muslims toward non-Muslims of all persuasions should be fundamentally libertarian in nature:

“Say : O you that reject Faith!  I worship not that which you worship, nor will you worship that which I worship.  And I will not worship that which you have been wont to worship, nor will you worship that which I worship.  To you be your Way, and to me mine.” (109:1-6)

During the Prophet’s lifetime, he was aware of people who routinely apostatised from and returned to Islam, yet this implied no worldly penalties – only spiritual deprivation:

“Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in rejection, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way.” (4:137)


Principle of Unity in Humanity

Another famous statement of Ali was as follows:

"People are either your brothers in faith, or your brothers in humanity." (Letter to Malik Ashtar, Nahj ul-Balagha)

Many Muslims wrongly think that they are forbidden from developing brotherly ties and friendship with non-Muslims, in contradiction to the explicit textual evidence cited above, due the following Qur'anic verses:

"O you who believe! Do not take Jews and Christians as your protecting friends (auliya). They are patrons of their own people. He among you who will turn to them for patronage is one of them. Verily Allah guides not a people unjust." (5: 51)

"Let not the believers take the disbelievers as protecting friends (auliya) instead of the believers, and whoever does that will never be helped by God in any way, except if you indeed fear a danger from them. And God warns you against Himself (His Punishment), and to God is the final return." (3:28)

Here, the term auliya is often translated as "friends", although it derives from the root, wali, which largely implies guardian, guide, or patron.

According to Imam Ibn Kathir, this verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud, which was damaging for the fledgling Muslim community. One Muslim from Madinah said, "I am going to live with Jews so I shall be safe in case another attack comes on Madinah." And another person said, "I am going to live with Christians so I shall be safe in case another attack comes on Madinah." Thus, Ibn Kathir concludes that this verse was revealed to remind the Muslims that they should seek protection from one another, not from others. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 68)

As for the second verse cited here, apart from the fact that the term 'disbelievers' does not equate to "non-Muslims" but categorises 'those who reject the truth despite knowledge of it coming to them', commentators recognise that the verse applied specifically in the context of war being conducted against believers by 'disbelievers.'

This is obvious from other Qur'anic verses which makes shows that the prohibition on 'friendship' applies only to those disbelievers who at war with Muslims:

"Allah does not forbid you, with regard to those who do not fight you on account of your religion nor drive you out of your homes, to treat them with goodness (birr) and to be just to them; truly Allah loves those who are just. Indeed, Allah (only) forbids you with regard to those who fight you on account of religion and drive you out of your homes, and assist (others) in driving you out, that you turn to them (in friendship); and whoever turns to them (in friendship) they are wrongdoers." (60:8-9)

The term birr here is the same used to describe a Muslim's obligatory relationship of love and duty with their parents, underscoring the importance of adopting such an approach with those who are at peace with Muslims. 

Thus, the Qur'an explicitly urged Muslims at the time to recognise that God may bring about "love" between those who fight against the Muslims:

"It may be that Allah will bring about love between you and those of them with whom you are now at enmity; and Allah is All-Powerful; and Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful." (60:7)


Principle of Political Freedom

During ‘Ali’s caliphate, which was established by a popular consensus in the Muslim community of the time, a group of religious and political dissidents known as the Kharijites (khawarij) had grown in power. Although they were highly disruptive, not only opposing ‘Ali’s leadership, but also slandering him in public and accusing him of kufr (disbelief), ‘Ali never challenged their complete freedom to express their religious and political views, including their opposition to his leadership.

The Kharijites are widely regarded as being so extreme that they were not part of the fold of Islam. They regularly heckled the fourth caliph, disrupting his public addresses. In response, ‘Ali simply engaged with them critically, and usually eloquently refuted them in reasoned public debate. In other words, despite their views and pronunciations on Islam being considered quite heretical, they had complete freedom to associate and publicise their dissent as long as they did so peacefully. Only when the Kharijites attempted to launch a military coup did ‘Ali respond in kind with force. His use of force, however, was entirely defensive, and was not an attempt to limit their rights to political dissent, freedom of expression and freedom of association (Murtada Mutahhari, Polarization Around the Character of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Tehran: World Organization for Islamic Services, 1985). 

This attitude was consistent throughout the Prophet’s own model of governance, as well as throughout the caliphates of the rightly-guided caliphs.


Principle of Evidence-Based PolicY

In his letter to al-Ashtar, ‘Ali exhorts him to:

“Study much with men of knowledge ('ulama') and converse much with sages (hukama') concerning the consolidation of that which causes the state of your land to prosper and the establishment of that by which the people before you remained strong.”

This is a direct encouragement to study society, history, economy and ecology to understand the basis of ensuring prosperity for the people. Rather than simply assuming in legalese fashion that Islamic texts, and the texts alone, should be approached as an automatic manual of answers, ‘Ali’s advice is entirely the opposite: to consult with what Prof. Tariq Ramadan has called ulama al-waki – 'scholars of context' conversant with a variety of relevant social and natural sciences – in order to formulate best-practices to be tested against the experiences of past communities.


Principle of Equality of Access in Ownership of Productive Resources

Extreme concentrations of wealth linked to massive social structural inequalities, both within and between countries, is a growing feature of the international system. Qur‘anic precepts do not condemn private enterprise, but they do establish that wealth distribution and circulation is desirable:

"... so that this (wealth) may not circulate solely among the rich from among you." (59:7)

This and other teachings indicate that from an Islamic perspective, the accumulation or ownership of wealth is not a goal-in-itself, but simply a means of production for satisfying human needs:   

"And there are those who bury gold and silver and spend it not in the Way of God: announce unto them a most grievous penalty – On the Day when heat will be produced out of that (wealth) in the fire of Hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs. This is the (treasure) which you buried for yourselves: taste you, then the (treasure) you buried." (9:34)  

Additionally, natural resources like running water (rivers), lakes, oil, sources of minerals, sources of raw materials, forests, or similar resources, (e.g., mountains, etc.), cannot be owned by any individual, or owned by the state. No one can be permitted to develop a concentrated monopoly over these primary sources of wealth. Instead, everyone is equally entitled to derive benefit from them. These goods belong to the whole community, who manage it through consultation and representation. (Mehr Muhammad Khan, Islamic and other economic systems (Lahore: Islamic Book Service, 1989, pp. 7-8)

This does not obviate all forms of private ownership, but the Qur'an is very clear that there should be equality in such ownership. Ultimately property is held in trust for God, and thus is subject to accountability:

"And do not eat up your property among yourselves for vanities, nor use it as bait for the judges, with intent that you may eat up wrongfully and knowingly a little of (other) people‘s property." (2:188)   

It is widely recognised within Muslim scholarship that the sole basis of property rights in Islam is labour – it is through work that private property rights are acquired. One cannot lay claim to land unless one cultivates it oneself. Private ownership of land which is not self cultivated is unjustified.

Currently transnational corporations based in the US, Britain, Europe, Japan, China and Russia control approximately 90 per cent of the world‘s productive resources – a condition that is illegitimate from a Qur‘anic perspective. By emphasising ownership as a function of labour, Islam envisaged a dynamic role for the worker as an entrepreneur who not only uses his tools of production to earn wages, but who may also be innovative in how tools and technologies of production are used and developed. Islam thus envisages production as a more localised and decentralised affair, with productive ownership distributed evenly among working producers themselves. This conditionality of property ownership is indicated by Prophet‘s statement that:

"You do not have any right to your properties, except the part you consume or give to charity. The charity part remains forever." (Cited in Mehr Muhammad Khan, Islamic and other economic systems, Islamic Book Service, Lahore, 1989, pp. 7-8) 

We can therefore conclude that 1) a property that is not being privately developed cannot belong to anybody except the community; 2) the only things one can exercise private ownership over are that which one actually uses and consumes; and 3) what ones gives away as charity remains with that person spiritually forever (in this world and in the next world).

This Prophetic tradition elaborates on a principle enunciated in the Qur‘an, that those in need in a community have a right over the property of one with greater wealth:

"And those in whose wealth is a recognised right for the (needy) who asks and him who is prevented (for some reason from asking)." (70:24-25)

It is in this context that Islam proposes not simply charity, but collective charitable-taxes such as zakat and khums, designed to facilitate this.  

Principle of Sustainable Development for Social Welfare

A number of Imam Ali‘s statements profoundly identify a direct link between a political administration overtly concerned with amassing revenue by taxing the population, resulting inequalities leading to mass deprivation, and environmental destruction. He admonishes that the leader‘s collection of taxes is not for its own sake, but precisely for the purpose of productive re-investment back into infrastructure development for the whole society:

"Your concern with developing the land should be greater than your concern for collecting taxes, for the latter can only be obtained by developing; whereas he who seeks revenue without development destroys the country and the people." (Imam Ali, Nahj ul-Balagha, Letter to Malik Ashtar)

Thus, economic development is for the benefit of the entire population rather than a narrow minority. Yet any such development efforts should be in parity with the community‘s natural environment, otherwise it would lead inevitably to environmental degradation. Ali told a man who had reclaimed and developed abandoned land:

"Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer." (Nahj ul-Balagha

In this way, Ali pointed to an irrevocable connection between the destruction of the environment, and the abuse of land to meet the interests of a powerful minority, leading to entrenched social inequalities:   

"So if your subjects complain of burden, of blight, of the cutting off of irrigation water, of lack of rain, or of the transformation of the earth through its being inundated by a flood or ruined by drought, lighten (their burden) to the extent you wish their affairs to be rectified. And let not anything by which you have lightened their burden weigh heavily against you [i.e. upset you], for it is a store which they will return to you by bringing about prosperity in your land and embellishing your rule…. Truly the destruction of the earth only results from the destitution of its inhabitants, and its inhabitants become destitute only when rulers concern themselves with amassing (wealth), when they have misgivings about the endurance (of their own rule) and when they profit little from warning examples." (Nahj ul-Balagha)

This extraordinary observation articulates a systems approach that emphasises the embeddedness of the economy in society, and the embeddedness of human social systems in the natural environment – illustrating that all these systems are inextricably interconnected.  

Principle of Cosmological and Ecological Balance  

The Qur‘an repeatedly clarifies that the entire universe, from the cosmos, to all life on earth, exists by way of a natural balance that should not be altered:  

 "The All Merciful has taught the Qur‘an. He created man and taught him the Explanation. The sun and the moon to a reckoning, and the stars and the trees bow themselves; and heaven - He raised it up and set the Balance." (55: 1-7)

"And the earth We have spread out; set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance." (15:19)  

"He created man and taught him clear expression. The sun and the moon both run with precision. The stars and the trees bow down in prostration. He erected heaven and established the balance, so that you would not transgress the balance. Give just weight do not skimp the balance. He laid out the earth for all living creatures." (55:3-9)  

The Qur‘an also describes the natural order as a single, living, sentient system in a constant state of reflection on the Divine Reality:

"Do you not see that it is God Whose praises all beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds (of the air) with wings outspread? Each one knows its own (mode of) prayer and praise. And God knows well all that they do." (24:41)   

Further, every life-form is described as part of a community, a social order, that is comparable to that of human life:

"There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you…" (6:38)

This conveys not merely a sense of wonder at nature, but a deep-seated respect for its autonomy, and for all life.

Thus, the Prophet stated:

"A good deed done to an animal is as good as doing good to a human being; while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being." (Miskhat al-Musabih

He also said:

"All creatures are like a family of God and He loves the most those who are the most beneficient to His family." (Shu'ab al-Imam

In this context, numerous verses of the Qur‘an, suggest that environmental and social corruption are a consequence of human action that disrupts the self-regulating dynamic of natural balance:   

"Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, so that they may return." (30:41)   


"And do not cause corruption in the earth, when it has been set in order." (7:56)   

"And do not seek to cause corruption in the earth. Allâh does not love the corrupters." (28:77)

In other words, the Qur'an suggests a doctrine of ecological and social karma, where acts of injustice and excess inevitably tilt the balance of the natural and social order, result in the destruction of both.  

Principle of Respect for Animal Life  

While eating meat is permissible within Islam, a large body of evidence indicates that meat-eating is ultimately undesirable. The Prophet frequently warned his sahaba (Companions) that it is better to avoid meat:

"The lord of all foods for the people of this world and the next is meat." (related by Ibn Majah) 

Umar also warned them: "Be careful of meat for it has harm like the harm found in wine", and Ali corroborated this: "Do not make your stomach a graveyard for animals.." (Cited in A. A. Ahmed, 'Diet and Digestion Medicine of the Prophet', The Foundation, October-December 1994, No. 8)  

Moreover, the Qur‘an indicates that meat obtained through the brutal treatment of animals, whether purposeful or accidental, is prohibited:   

"Forbidden to you (for food) are meat of dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which has been invoked the name of other than Allah; and the dead through beating; that which has been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which has been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; unless ye are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (forbidden) also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows: that is impiety." (5.3)   

Thus, the Prophet specified that when slaughtering an animal for food, every effort must be taken to ensure that the process is as painless as possible:

"Allah, Who is Blessed and Exalted, has prescribed benevolence toward everything and has ordained that everything be done in the right way; so when you must kill a living being, do it in the proper way - when you slaughter an animal, use the best method and sharpen your knife so as to cause as little pain as possible." (Sahih Muslim, 2:156; Al-Taaj fi Jaami al-Usul, Vol. 3, p. 110, Cairo Edition; Al-Faruo min-al-Kafi, p. 2)  

Moreover, the Prophet forbade all living creatures to be slaughtered while tied up and bound – as well as forbidding animals to be slaughtered in the immediate presence of other animals, which would cause them trauma. These prohibitions, of course, raise awkward questions about the legitimacy of all contemporary prevailing methods of slaughter, modern factory farming, and so on, whether they are ostensibly 'halal' or not. (Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri, Animal Welfare in Islam, Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 2007)  

Likewise, hunting any animals for any purpose other than limited consumption, such as sport or pleasure, is expressly prohibited. Ibn Mas‘ud said:   

"We were traveling with the Prophet when he left [us for a while]; we saw a bird with its two chicks and we took the chicks. [Their mother] started spreading its wings [in protest]. When the Prophet came [and saw what happened] he said: 'Who caused her to become bereaved [by taking away] her two children ? Return her two children to her!'" (Abu Dawud in the chapter on Jihad no. 2675)  

On the same note, Abdullah Ibn 'Amr reported:

"The Prophet said: 'No human being kills a sparrow or [something] larger, without right, except that God will ask him about it (hold him responsible) on the Day of Judgment.' It was said: 'O Prophet of God! What is its right?' He said: 'Its right is that you slaughter it and eat it, not that you decapitate it and through it!'" (Al-Nasa’i, 7/ 207; and by Al-Hakim

In general, any kind of cruelty is prohibited. Hitting animals, hurting them, marking them with poisonous substances, pitting them against one another in sport, compelling tired or weak animals to work, is all prohibited. (Sahih Muslim, 2117; Abu Dawud, 2556; Abu Dawud, 2548)  

Principle of Environmental Conservation

In general, the Qur‘an and the Prophetic model greatly discourage any form of overconsumption, instead exhorting people to consume no more than what they actually need. Violating this principle leads to injustice and environmental corruption, according to the Qur'an:

"Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; He loves not the excessive." (7:31)

"And do not follow the bidding of the excessive, who cause corruption in the earth and do not work good." (26: 151-152)  

A concrete example is with regard to water wastage. The Prophet said:

"Don‘t waste water even if you are on a running river."

The Prophet also said, "Muslims share alike in three things—water, herbage, and fire" - that is, everyone has the right to clean water, a clean natural environment, and adequate heating. He therefore considered it a sin to withhold water from the thirsty:

"No one can refuse surplus water without sinning against Allah and against man." (Miskhat al-Masabih)  

Unsurprisingly, then, the Prophet prohibited pollution of water resources. Urinating in water or discharging wastewater into a water stream, a pond or river is simply forbidden. (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Al-Hakam and Al-Bayhaqi

This obviously raises awkward questions about large-scale practices of industrial waste disposal which contribute to environmental degradation. It also clarifies that waste materials should be disposed of in a way that does not disturb or disrupt public safety. The Prophet also said:

"Beware of the two [acts that bring] curses: relieving oneself in the path of people, or in the shade [i.e. where they usually rest]." 

He thus emphasised the necessity of clean public walkways:

"Faith is some seventy branches, the highest of which is 'there is no god but God', and the least is removing obstacles from the path of people..." (Sahih Muslim

It is obvious that clearing the path means the removal of material obstacles or solid waste, but the objective of the injunction is for people to cooperate in ensuring that their mutual public space is clean and safe. By the same token, the Prophet enjoined that the natural order should be actively protected and nurtured:

"He who cuts a lote-tree, God will send him to Hellfire." (Sahih al-Tirmidhi, no. 5239) 

Not only is the wanton destruction of the environment through practices such as deforestation prohibited, the Prophet encouraged people to actively engage in greening the land as much as possible:

"Whosoever brings dead land to life, for him is a reward in it, and whatever any creature seeking food eats of it shall be reckoned as charity from him." 

On another occasion, Jaber reported that the Prophet said:

"No Muslim, who plants a shoot, except that whatever is eaten or stolen from it, or anyone obtains the least thing from it, is considered [like paying] almsgiving on his behalf until the Day of Judgment." (Sahih Muslim)   

In Medina, the Prophet also established a historic precedent when he confirmed that areas of religious worship and sanctity should simultaneously be considered natural reserves. He established several hima zones – protected areas of wildlife and natural resources where development, habitation, or extensive grazing are proscribed. These areas are considered public property or common lands. In the Prophet‘s own words:

"I declare Medina to be sacred throughout the area between its two mountain paths, so that leaves may not be eaten off except for fodder. The game in Medina is not to be molested not its fresh herbage cut." (Iyad Abumoghli, 'Sustainable Development in Islamic Law', United Nations Development Programme, April 2007)  



Conventional assumptions about 'Shari’ah Law' and the 'Islamic State' as often articulated by modern political Islamists are largely unjustified from close, holistic analysis of Islamic texts and their real import. The current direction of Muslim scholarship has overemphasised outward legal forms over substance, and privileged texts to the expense of the real-world context of historical, societal and environmental conditions - ironically contradicting exhortations within Qur'anic texts to go beyond the texts.

It is this approach which has inhibited a recognition of the extent to which the texts, seen in the correct light without the adulteration of historically-specific Muslim legal rulings and political theories, point to a Qur’anic maqasid and a Prophetic model which are profoundly peaceful, pluralistic and inclusive.

Rather than leading to simple political stagnation or quietism, to the contrary, this re-excavation of the higher ethical principles by which the Islamic polity was constituted in its most original forms, implies a vibrant and confident social activism in support of an open-ended and dynamic radical politics for the continued progressive transformation of our societies, in which social and political measures to uphold the values of justice, love and compassion are vigorously pursued, and in which the freedom of all faiths and none is sanctified.

The principles derived here – which, it is tentatively suggested, could be seen as manifesting a textually-justified extension of the maqasid al-Shariah – establish a matrix of higher values that forms the basis for positive engagement and radical activism motivated by protecting and enhancing the secular public spaces of our societies, within a framework defined by universal shared values of the public good (khair).

The direction of this engagement is to actively protect these spaces from undue distortion from regressive political, ideological (including religious) or economic forces designed to centralise power amongst the few; and to actively enhance these spaces through constructive and critical engagement with existing institutions, social and political groups, diverse cultures, and different communities, to cultivate social change toward accountability and transparency.

Overall, this re-assessment of the real essence of the Islamic polity provides us with Islamically-mandated tools to fully participate as citizens across multiple different societies; to work for ideas, laws, institutions, norms and values which uphold the Qur'anic maqasid, such as protecting human rights, civil liberties and political freedoms; defending social unity in diversity, through recognition of shared values amidst cultural and religious pluralism; combating hate, discrimination, xenophobia and bigotry; supporting gender equality; championing socio-economic equality of opportunity, egalitarianism, and justice; defending the poor, the disadvantaged, the vulnerable; challenging corporate oligarchy and campaigning for the expansion of the demos; calling for the accountability of the powerful to the public; promoting institutions and social policies that support material and psychological well-being for all; pioneering open philosophical and scientific inquiry, and the responsible advancement of knowledge in general; cultivating harmony between human societies and the environment; seeking peaceful mechanisms for conflict resolution; fostering the highest standards in conscientiousness, mindfulness, and ethical personal conduct.

This calls not for disengagement, but concerted engagement to effect social transformation for the betterment of the lives of all, in a manner reflective of the Divine Names - The Loving (Al-Wadud), Compassionate (Ar-Rahman), The Benevolent (Ar-Raheem), The Just (Al-Adl), The Peace (As-Salam), The Repeatedly Forgiving (Al-Ghaffar), The Generous (Al-Karim), Al-Haqq (The Reality), to name just a few.