The final question to be discussed is what the ‘Islamic’ in Islamic social work consists of: it is ambivalent, as what makes Islamic social work specific and what “added value” (Brodard, 2022, 40) it represents may be queried. However, depending on the specific standards and requirements of the respective country, there are varying degrees of pressure within welfare systems placed on Islamic social work to secularise itself (Schmid, 2022, 113–114). The discrepancy between an ambition to demonstrate the specificities of Islamic social work and the requirement to become secularised carries a high potential for tensions, if not outright conflict. The attribute ‘Islamic’ can be applied to different elements of Islamic social work: providers, beneficiaries and underlying thought. From a strictly secular point of view, the attribution as Islamic may have both a demarcation function and a normative character:
To constitute something as “Islamic” is thus necessarily an act of authorization, legitimation and inclusion: we are authorizing and legitimating that Islamic thing as being constituted by the normative value “Islam,” and are including it with other things that we are similarly authorizing and legitimating in normative terms. (Ahmed, 2016, 107)
Such acts represent a great challenge, not least in view of the diversity and contradictions of phenomena and positions subsumed under Islamic social work. This can also lead to disputes about whether something is ‘sufficiently’ or ‘appropriately’ Islamic.
Labelling a certain approach as Islamic social work is firstly the expression of a continuing presence of religion in both individual and social life. However, it can also be the expression of an attempt to “Islamise knowledge” (Al-Faruqi, 1988), in order to promote a collective identity and possibly oppose secularism. Placing ‘Islamic’ values, methodologies and practices in the foreground increases the risk of a conflict with mainstream social work. This approach, which has rather been developed by authors from outside the Western world (Albrithen, 2019; Ragab, 2016) can be understood as a postcolonial emancipatory endeavour. The debate shows that it is a question which goes beyond social work to encompass other disciplines. The question of demarcation and closer definition, however, does not only relate to the attribute ‘Islamic’, but also to the scope of social work. Some of the authors of this volume link Islamic social work to neighbouring domains, such as chaplaincy (Brodard, 2022) or religious education (Schröer & Ürek, 2022, 223), that face similar challenges. However, chaplaincy comprises prayer, Qurʾan recitation and exchanges about questions of faith; religious education refers to contextualising religious knowledge practice, which clearly legitimates its ‘Islamic’ character. Consequently, a comparison of social work with these two domains tends to exacerbate the profile issue.
Several contributors refer to the issue of the ‘Islamic’ in social work. While pleading for an open concept of Islamic social work, Kurnaz sees a clear limitation here: “It is true however that such dynamism can lead to uncertainty when tackling the question of what ‘Islamic social work’ actually is.” (2022, 145) Cheruvallil-Contractor, Halford and Phiri emphasise how “religious identities are continually evolving in response to religious and cultural norms” (2022, 93). Hussain identifies the risk that “the pursuit of a specific ‘Islamic’ framework for social actions” (2022, 132) can turn into “a highly parochialist view” (Hussain, 2022, 132), based on public relations and competition. Schröer and Ürek also point out that “there are currently no homogeneous answers to the question as to what exactly the adjective Islamic means in the term Islamic social work” (2022, 221). On the other hand, assuming something like a “Muslim collective consciousness” (Abdullah, 2022, 234) or a “common belief system and shared familiarity in Muslim culture and tradition” (Abdullah, 2022, 242) when speaking about Islamic social work can be seen as an attempt to provide a unifying normative basis, but risks overlooking the diversity of Islamic practices and faith convictions. While all contributions in this volume are careful to differentiate and to be sensitive to this diversity, there is still a danger of essentialising.
One possibility would be to see the sense of ‘Islamic’ determined by the ‘Muslim-ness’ of the protagonists, through what they do and articulate “as a potential site or locus for expression and articulation of being Muslim” (Ahmed, 2016, 538). However, Islamic social work does not necessarily signify “community social work” (Schmid & Sheikhzadegan, 2022, 7) in a narrow sense and can also mean the use of Islamic religious ideas and spiritual concepts (Ashencaen Crabtree, 2022; Abdullah, 2022). In this sense, Islamic social work is determined by “special reference to the Muslim tradition” (Kurnaz, 2022, 144) and Muslim protagonists engaging with it. Traces of this can be found both within Muslim communities and in more secular settings, e. g. in partnerships between different organisations or in the social commitments of individuals in civil society. A Muslim motivation and meaning that is constitutive for the actions of Muslim protagonists does not necessarily have to lead to a proprium of Islamic social work, as has likewise been argued in the context of Christian charity (Haslinger, 2009, 192–197). The services and activities provided by Islamic social work would in many cases, or perhaps even most, correspond to those of other providers. Muslim social work is therefore not ‘social work plus’. Here again, the concept of the generalisation of values can be utilised, as it enables a combination of “general content on one hand, and specific roots and binding forces on the other” (Schmid, 2022, 102). Universal principles of social work and specific cultural or religiously shaped legitimations and resources can therefore go together, simply because universal principles remain dependent on particular foundations and underpinnings:
(…) through this process of generalization, people who feel bound to a tradition find new ways to articulate it by engaging with social change or the representatives of other traditions. If this occurs on both sides of a process of engagement involving different value traditions it may lead to a new and authentic sense of commonality. (Joas, 2013, 181)
Traditional ties are the starting point of a process that requires exchange with the social context as well as with other traditions. In this way, commonalities can be discovered without having to reach a complete consensus. Instead, this exchange leads to a “mutual modification of our own traditions as well as finding stimuli for their renewal” (Joas, 2013, 181). The different theological and ethical contributions in this volume can be seen as an expression of such a process of change and renewal.
In addition to this more structural argument, a look at the individual can help to further differentiate the question of the ‘Islamic’ in social work. In Sahin’s concept of “relational autonomy” people are viewed as “socially embedded beings with intersecting identity markers of gender, ethnicity, class and religion” (Sahin, 2022, 184). Such intersectionality requires prudence in attributing the label “Muslim”, as there is a risk of homogenisation, instead of focusing on “multiple realities and layered identities” (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2022, 84) – not only on an individual level, but also in the collective practice of Islamic social work. Therefore, Cheruvallil-Contractor, Halford and Phiri argue that individual narratives, instead of collective ones, should stand in the foreground, and that: “This does not require new classifications within social work” (2022, 94). Similarly, caution is needed when talking about Muslim service users. In this sense, Afrouz and Crisp emphasise “a complex array of factors including personal attitudes and perspectives, family and community obligations, and perceptions as to the acceptability of wearing hijab” (2022, 211). The complexity and diversity of identities must be underlined, as opposed to the widespread, one-sided attributions in the style of a “singular-affiliation view” (Sen, 2006, 25) that trap people into a “solitarist understanding of identity” (Sen, 2006, 79):
Muslims, like all other people in the world, have many different pursuits, and not all of their priorities and values need be placed within their singular identity of being Islamic. (Sen, 2006, 14)
In this sense, it would also be wrong to consider Islamic social work to be devoid of any characteristics other than being Islamic. As several contributions of this volume have shown, the social context and the respective welfare system constitute key formative factors for Islamic social work. It would therefore make more sense to ascribe other attributes to it, depending on the particular case. As already emphasised in the introduction to this volume: “The minimal condition for social work to be characterised as Islamic is that at least the underlying social thought has a connection to Islam.” (Schmid & Sheikhzadegan, 2022, 11) However, this one element can be complemented by others with very different frames of reference: for instance, social work can be both Islamic and society-critical, political, humanistic, human rights-based, gender-sensitive, etc. The category ‘Islamic’ then becomes more inclusive and cannot be dismissed anymore as “only a motley crew of similarities which we cannot tie together” (Ahmed, 2016, 242).
Another observation that can be made is that Christian social work is more rarely spoken of (Mahler, 2018; Scales & Kelly, 2016). If ‘general’ social work allows for a plural spectrum of possibilities and is open to cultural, religious and spiritual diversity, it may be possible to dispense with the addition of the attribute ‘Islamic’. This would make ‘Islamic’ a provisional attribute, which would mainly make sense in the context of integration debates. Once this has become a self-evident and recognised part of a larger whole, this attribute may be dropped. A cautious use of the attribute ‘Islamic’, mindful of its different nuances of meaning, attributions and discursive contexts is necessary.
Such considerations represent permanent challenges that cannot be easily resolved. It will be a matter of finding ways to address these challenges, characterised by the visibility of specific profiles on the one hand, and communicability within a wider framework of plural society on the other. As many of the authors of this volume emphasise: Islamic social work is both a practice and a discipline in the making. In that respect, this exploration ends with the invitation to further exploration.