To return to the rhetorical questions posed earlier, potentially Islamic perspectives can go further than merely being accepted by the profession, but more radically still, could help to transform social work itself. A counterpoint to this development could question the cultural or national applicability of this suggestion or whether this might serve to push other perspectives to the periphery. An additional warning is the danger of idealistically falling into the fallacy of believing that the unfamiliar must be superior to the known, that it is others who hold truths that are denied to us or that the balance of power conforms to a polarised hierarchy of superior or inferior positions (Razack, 2009). Instead, in weighing the relative merits of new approaches and ideas, a critical approach must remain to the fore. Nevertheless social work as a socially organic and responsive profession needs to be adaptive to societal and cultural changes, particularly when the views of Muslims are marginalised by socio-cultural reasons, other than numerical or demographic significance (MCB, 2015).
Fortuitously, the social work professional imperialism that Midgley (1981) warned of is dissipating in influence as other nations develop indigenous or authenticised expertise (Ling, 2007). Thus no longer does social work pedagogy flow unidirectionally from the West to the East, the Global North to the South, but new knowledge is now also flowing back (Ashencaen Crabtree & Williams, 2012). Those nations which formerly occupied the position of learner are now are leaders within their own right and willing to share their practice wisdom with us (Baba et al., 2011).
Revitalisation of professional social work is then both much needed and wanted. This is particularly so in the light of so-called ‘new challenges’ to use a well-worn cliché, by which is often meant newly perceived dangers and pitfalls or novel approaches to dealing with entrenched problems and difficulties.
Semantic subtleties apart, the rhetorical question remains: how can Islamic perspectives play their part in a renaissance of professional revitalisation? In terms of the incorporation of some of the values, perspectives and worldviews shared by so many Muslims across the world, we must retain clear recognition of the complexity of social work morphologies and the overarching aim to bridge, if possible, diverse nations and multiple archipelagos of practice, as promoted by the IFSW.
A useful beginning is therefore to reacquaint ourselves with some key Islamic concepts and principles, to review everyday practices relating to these; to both problematise and subject such concepts to a pedagogic process of reflection (Fook, 2007). The exercise might then be not only to transform social work practice by incorporating Islamic concepts, but equally, how these concepts can be rethought, reframed and re-offered in a dialectic that forms a transformative critical praxis.
The Concept of ʾUmma
ʾUmma refers to the community of Muslim believers in Islam. It acts as an articulation of transcultural faith in the context of a global religion, developed within a historical, geopolitical context where Islam was one new religion competing with many others (Waines, 2003). ʾUmma defines the identity and the conceptual and spiritual space for Muslims, the transglobal ‘we’ that in principle unites the Muslim world linking Turkey to Indonesia, the Sudan to Syria, and Yemenis to Malaysians.
ʾUmma separates the ‘us’ from the ‘them’, providing a sense of global identity with fellow Muslims and empathy for them. The so-called collateral damage of the two Gulf Wars reminded the Muslim world that imperialism still exists (Ashencaen Crabtree & Williams, 2012). Even more brutally, the terrible fate of traumatised Palestinians affects all Muslims globally through a sense of a unified ʾumma, in addition to any normal humanitarian sympathy for suffering. However, rhetoric should not obscure harsh realities whereby the holism of ʾumma has clearly and abjectly failed in terms of the appalling carnage inflicted on fellow Muslims by the Islamic State (ISIS, Daesh) (Cockburn, 2015) and the current war of attrition inflicted on the Yemen by Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, ʾumma is potent as well as poignant; however, in its sense of distinction, it also carries the inevitable risk of a reduced identity with fellow humans of other backgrounds and beliefs. The Christian New Testament story of the Good Samaritan who takes pains to help an injured individual from another religious group and one moreover, that despises Samaritans, offers an example of why over-identification with one’s own group acts as a weakness as well as a strength.
Social work also deals with these dichotomies of identity, of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ variety; and where the boundaries that separate social workers from others are often clearly demarcated. Here we may think in terms of the professional observation of territories and status: social work practitioners are often quick to mark out their professional turf, seen as explicitly differing from that of other professionals; and this is especially necessary in medical contexts, where a plethora of different professional groups can encroach or crowd out the unique social work remit. Strong distinctions can be made between the status of qualified and unqualified social workers even when similar work is undertaken. The quest to establish professional regulations in many countries is another means of drawing boundaries, stemming from situations where graduates from social work and diverse disciplines have been regarded as virtually on a par (Baba et al., 2011), or where social work has locally suffered from not publicly holding professional kudos (Parker et al., 2012). A significant separation is also observed between social work practitioners and social work academics, where the former are viewed as actually doing the job and the latter merely adding commentary.
The guarding of professional distinctions is likely to be of less significance to service users and clients seeking help and where the expertise and esoteric knowledge of the professional inevitably carries an aura of separation from the lived experiences and knowledge of the service user. The power differentials of professional social workers can be used both efficaciously or to reinforce control and manipulation. The recognition of the need to bridge the divide in the professional-laity dyad is acknowledged (Smith, 2008) and beyond the theorised there have been concerted attempts to overturn this in practice settings, particularly through movements like that of Radical Social Work. However, state control over social work services, its pronouncements and diktats, can too easily undermine professional trust in both the systems they operate in and the consumers of those systems – service users themselves – feeding into a perverse cycle of distrust and misunderstanding that distorts the so-called helping relationship (Parker & Ashencaen Crabtree, 2018).
Even if social workers sometimes feel beleaguered, isolated and stigmatised in their own particular context, tapping into collectivities of support which reinforce a sense of vocation and purpose is not merely inspiring, but essential for professional resilience. Thus an ʾumma could also relate to the globally dispersed, but universal body of social workers in all their diverse array and practices. This concept offers a potential framework by which the definitional universality of social work, as provided by the IFSW Global Definitions, can be realised by recognising that, apart from abstract adherence to a vision, social work is fundamentally embodied in the daily practices and agentic actions of individual social workers as a united mosaic of a social work ʾumma.
The Principle of zakāt
This differs from the other concepts discussed here in constituting one of the five sacred pillars of Islam that all Muslim believers must submit to. Zakāt refers to undertaking the obligatory taxation of believers in the form of alms (charity) to the poor and needy. Zakāt has been viewed as similar to other forms of charitable giving across the Abrahamic triumvirate of Judaism and Christianity. However, zakāt is subtly but crucially different. In the old English ballad of Lazarus and Devesus, often better known as a melody by the composer Vaughan Williams, the tale provides an unambiguous moral, Christian lesson on the importance of charity. In the ballad the rich and feasting Devesus is appealed to by the beggar Lazarus seeking some scraps of food. Instead, Devesus sends his men out to harass and whip Lazarus from his door – an action that is signified as indisputably cruel and wrong. To drive the moral home, the two men die the same night and Devesus is unsurprisingly consigned to hellfire and devilish torment, while Lazarus is received into heaven. The ballad lays out the uncompromising Christian argument that to save one’s soul, one should sacrifice a few of one’s worldly goods to help the needy.
The difference between zakāt and Christian charity is that the receiver of alms in the Islamic perspective purges the giver of the toxic corruption of their wealth and that wellbeing is thus something shared holistically and in kind throughout the community (Dean & Khan, 1997). The somewhat one-sided Christian notion of charity is turned on its head in this conceptualisation of zakāt, where it is conceivably a charitable act to receive wealth rather than just to bestow it.
A zakāt-focused view of social work repositions the community, not just individual service users, as central to social work concerns, where, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, the community has been squeezed out of the professional equation. This is of course a neo-liberal ideology and one famously encapsulated by the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in 1987, whose doctrine was thus memorably stated: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” (Keay, 1987) Repudiating that view by re-centring the community as a living, organic entity by which one measures the social and cultural wellbeing of people, to employ Bourdieusian theorisation (Bourdieu, 1986), carries echoes of the socialist ethos of the former Radical Social Work movement of the 1970s (Ferguson & Woodward, 2009). By repositioning social work as an integral part of the living community, as being accessible, approachable and engaged, this locates social work as a community asset and more easily yields support where it is needed. It also serves to purge social services of some of its worst pretentions and mendacities in alluding to resource gatekeeping as equality of service and political neutrality as professional objectivity.
A highly controversial notion to include in any conceivable juxtaposition with that of social work is that of ʿizza; with this in mind and with all caveats and qualifications, I argue that there are some interesting analogies to be drawn, as will be explained further. ʿIzza refers to honour or respect but is a concept more likely to be interpreted through a cultural rather than a religious lens. ʿIzza is not a religious principle and Islam as a faith does not condone an ʿizza-type response. Moreover, attitudes and behaviour that resemble ʿizza extend beyond the Muslim world to other societies as well. Yet despite these qualifications, ʿizza does carry cultural legitimacy in many Muslim communities. It has been transported to non-Muslim societies under conditions of migration, where, in this regard, owing to the challenges of maintaining cultural identities and status in non-Muslim dominated societies, it may remain a tenacious and toxic element of social control of certain community members in migrant enclaves; where the rationalisation of religious and cultural values is often used to perpetuate its existence (Ashencaen Crabtree et al., 2016). Thus ʿizza is by no means an obsolete and obscure social manifestation, but is the present cause of the deaths of thousands of people every year (Irfan & Cowburn, 2004), as in, for example, the case of Banaz Mahmod (Fu̇u̇se Films, 2013).
ʿIzza is embodied within the porous boundaries of the personal and public self (Goffman, 1990) in which ‘honour’ is extrinsically enacted rather than intrinsically experienced. ʿIzza is consequently agentic in being related to action within the social and familiar sphere and is initiated or enacted where there is conflict arising from questionable public reputation. In this sense, it is somewhat like the old culture-bound phenomenon of amok, known in historical Southeast Asia, where a situation of self-perceived mortification becomes overwhelming to the degree that within that culture psychological pain is released in an explosion of gratuitous violence by the individual (Spores, 1988; Ashencaen Crabtree, 2012). Amok, which inspired the English phrase ‘to run amok’ (denoting uncontrolled fury, chaos and confusion), is no longer a noticeable phenomenon, beyond the notoriously common tragedies of murderous shooting sprees of innocent bystanders in the US.
ʿIzza is primarily enacted by the powerful upon the powerless and marginalised in the immediate community, typically those embodying patriarchy, exerting absolute control over female relatives (daughters, sisters, nieces, wives etc.), or those perceived to be in some way deviant, such as relatives who fail to conform to heteronormative standards of behaviour (Ashencaen Crabtree et al., 2016; Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010). Notoriously, therefore, it has often been blamed as the motivation behind serious domestic violence, predominantly towards female relatives, and is commonly described as ‘honour-based violence’ where it is believed that the public stain of dishonour is thus wiped out in the eyes of others (Ashencaen Crabtree et al., 2016). It should be pointed that the term almost seems to excuse the cruelty and gravity of the crime in its implications of moral righteousness, and thus preferable nomenclatures include ‘shame killings’ or simply and starkly ‘femicide’ (Dias & Proudman, 2014).
Social work would, in theory, completely reject the rationale and enactment of ʿizza, and its value base would seem to lie at a polar extreme to such violent manifestations of toxicity. Yet in some senses, an ʿizza-type response is not unknown in the profession. Social work codes of practice, like ʿizza, act as public declarations of professional conformity and adherence that are punishable, if transgressed by individual social workers. Violence within the profession may not be physical, but it does involve retribution in the form of reputational discrediting, jeopardised job security, livelihood precarity, loss of status and likely expulsion from the profession. It accordingly offers violence in the form of moral opprobrium, public disgrace and professional rejection.
However, professional ʿizza can also be enacted through media exposure of the serious abuse or death of some unfortunate individual in receipt of social work care. Irrespective that their harm came at the hands of those normally outside of the profession, it is often the profession that is held to account, such as in the atrocious case of the abused and murdered infant, ‘Baby P’ (Jones, 2014). In the UK, such exposés are likely to result in individual practitioners being publicly named and tried by the media. As Foucault (1977) might note in his analysis of discipline and punishment, the scapegoat social worker will be punished and vilified through this ritualised enactment of social condemnation, which serves to exonerate the corporate body, who can thereby wash its hands of the crime, through the sacrificial cleaning of the stain and thus a restoration of honour.
The risk of such a fate inevitably acts as an effective deterrent against social workers moving into high risk areas of practice, specifically Child Protection, where there is a significant staff shortage in the UK (Pile, 2009). A destructive, punitive ʿizza-type response therefore needs to be challenged by regulatory bodies in order to protect practitioners from automatic blame and responsibility, not only as a matter of rational fairness but in order to protect the integrity of social work practice. Mistakes are undoubtedly made by social workers and terrible things do happen, regardless of good social work intervention or exceptionally rarely at the hands of actual social workers, whose stigmatised, scapegoat role (Burke & Parker, 2007) becomes the lightning rod for a public display of social revulsion and repudiation.
Al-insān al-kāmil (The Complete Human)
This concept moves us away from the dramaturgical, as Goffman (1990) would frame ʿizza, in being a donned, externalised display, in this case of aggressive subservience to social norms. Instead, we are returned to the inner domain of the individual conscience. Al-insān al-kāmil in Arabic refers to perfection or excellence and relates to individual agency in demonstrating inner faith through enacted deeds. Viewed additionally as the promotion of human dignity, it is integrally tied to a spiritual quest in keeping with the holism of Islam.
Despite contention and localised variations in custom, the accepted principles and rituals act as a guide for individuals to follow the ‘straight’ path. This is one that promotes aspiration to the ideal and complete human, al-insān al-kāmil, and, in conformity with the other monotheistic religions, seeks to lead believers to eternal life (Ashencaen Crabtree et al., 2016, 30–41).
The concept in its wider sense is one that that most social work practitioners would find immediately recognisable in its exhortations towards acknowledgement of self as a moral agent in the world with a duty and (hopefully) a commitment towards social responsibility. It fits well with social work principles linked to professional codes, which are in turn ideally internalised by the individual as not only being aspects intrinsic to the social work identity but implicitly personal as well. At its least, al-insān al-kāmil provides moral guidance, which resonates with social work (and those of allied professions) by harnessing the almost visceral, emotional motivation of practitioners to help others.
Al-insān al-kāmil reminds us that we are engaged in a private pilgrimage towards, if not the good, goodness as a locus of identity (this for the profession can equally be viewed in religious, spiritual or humanitarian, secular terms). The principle can inspire and propel each practitioner to strive towards the best in the profession by connecting them to an authentic and courageous mission to root out that which is disruptive, dysfunctional, harmful and plain wrong, in order to seek out that which is its virtuous, diametrical, binary opposite. Heterogeneity and diversity are recognised, but the fundamental principles towards authentic goodness and the need for moral courage are in keeping with the notion of the human condition as moral in a spiritual or humanitarian sense. Thus articulated and internalised, it could be used to rearm practitioners in their commitment to the social work mission of service to humanity (Beckett & Maynard, 2005), as a compelling call to uphold as the first professional priority: justice and equality.