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Islamic Social Ethics, Social Work and the Common Good: Learning from Western Contexts

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)


This chapter begins by looking at the changing landscape of social action and engagement, social capital and the role of faith groups and congregations in engaging socially. It then considers the ways in which Muslim communities are beginning to articulate a vision for social engagement based on the ideas of maṣlaḥa and maqāṣid. As we have seen in other chapters in this volume, these concepts have been regarded by many as an important theological foundation for social and ethical work in the public sphere. This chapter will dwell further on the origins of maṣlaḥa and look at different approaches towards it. While acknowledging the value of maṣlaḥa, the chapter will also assess some of its limitations and examine approaches that are being articulated by modern Muslim intellectuals to advance more egalitarian and inclusive social ethics. It will then suggest additional ways of grounding concerns around needs, social action and engagement in a way that can reflect a notion of the ‘common good’ – through the idea of human flourishing which is equated here to the Islamic notion of iḥsān, in order to move away from parochial outlooks and develop inclusive, universal visions that could nurture a more sophisticated conversation around our shared values and our shared future in Western contexts.


  • Maṣlaḥa
  • Maqāṣid
  • Iḥsan
  • Common good
  • Social capital
  • Islamic social ethics
  • Shared values
  • Western Muslims

Social Capital through Social Action

In the UK the term ‘social work’ has specific connotations, where a ‘social worker’ is seen to be a person that is usually mandated by the state to care for the needs of often vulnerable people in society: for example, children in the care system. In this chapter we will use the term ‘social work’ to mean social action and activity in an engagement for social and charitable good in society, rather than the type of state-supported social care mentioned above. Clearly, this is a very broad field of work that is also undergoing quite significant transformation under pressures of social change.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has had impacts on societies across the world that we are yet to fathom. Recent economic crises have also caused huge disruption in the way social welfare and activity takes place, with the state in Western societies having to cut back in many areas and a growing expectation that civil society, churches and religious congregations will step in. But even before this time, important transformations have been traced. Robert Putnam, in his famous work on social capital, highlights the decline in cooperative public association in American society. And the US doesn’t seem to be alone – one can identify such trends in other societies: decline in membership of political parties, decline in church attendance, voter apathy, etc. This is not to argue that public association is in a state of collapse, indeed data from Europe and the US does seem to show different results and part of the ‘decline’ may actually be a sign of how the nature of association is being transformed as we enter a more globalised, digital age. However, theories around social capital, including the works of prominent sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman, in addition to Putnam, put forward a compelling thesis of the importance of relationships and networks in society.

Social capital, as any other form of capital, has the potential to be used positively or negatively. This is further nuanced by the identification of three types of social capital: bonding, bridging and linking. Putnam reminds that these can be present in different quantities in any given situation. According to Putnam, “bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging capital provides a sociological WD-40” (Putnam, 2000, 23). Bonding social capital operates within a group, bridging social capital connects groups together and allows them to function harmoniously and linking capital is often seen as the force that networks people or institutions across different levels of society. Very strong bonding social capital may thus be good for the in-group (its internal solidarity) but risks being seen as divisive and isolationist unless balanced by strong bridging and linking social capital.

This brings us to the point of how faith relates to social capital. Vivien Lowndes identifies three different approaches in social capital literature: (1) that religion is irrelevant, (2) that it is detrimental and (3) that it is invaluable to social capital (Lowndes, 2004). Religion most definitely presents an ambivalent input to solidarity and social capital. On the one hand, we have seen fundamentalist and extreme conservative attitudes towards the ‘other’, the extreme and racist politics of movements such as the Ku Klux Klan, intolerant religious nationalism or the jihadist terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS. On the other hand, charitable giving, the foundation of schools and hospitals, various movements aimed at peace and reconciliation and even the inspiration behind state welfare in Europe, all or partly, stem from religious motivations. While some interpretations of Christianity may have played a role in maintaining apartheid, others were important in dismantling it and the Truth and Reconciliation process showed the immense healing potential of Christianity for a highly fragmented society. Examples could also be cited from other faith traditions, including the particularly well-known Sikh tradition of hospitality of the langar. Putnam’s US experience led him to conclude that:

Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America (…) as a rough rule of thumb, our evidence shows, nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context. (Putnam, 2000, 66)

In the UK, the Archbishop’s Commission on Urban Life and Faith coined the term ‘faithful capital’ (CULF, 2006). This was in recognition of the role that communities of faith play, particularly through the language (e. g. hope, mercy, love, forgiveness, hospitality) and practice (e. g. charity, encounter, nurturing) that they bring to the public arena and the contribution this makes to social capital. Baker and Skinner (2006) also talk of ‘religious capital’, which:

(…) should not simply be seen as a ‘bankable commodity’ that can be stored, counted or controlled. Rather it is being continuously created within a society increasingly interested in and shaped by the values of faith and spirituality. The influence of faith on wider society is in some ways an unexpected turn of events – after all, the largely secular social and political fields of thought assumed (along the lines of secularisation theory in the 1960s and 1970s) that religion would cease to have any significant public impact in the 21st century. It is becoming ever more apparent that this is not, in fact, the case. (26)

Because of the congregational nature of religious structures, there seem to be clear motivations for bonding social capital at the very least. However, if we also consider aspects of Christian teaching, around welcoming the stranger and the down-trodden (Bretherton, 2006; Morisy, 2003), it is little surprise that churches play a prominent role in social action – for example, campaigns to welcome refugee groups and asylum seekers. Beyond the impact on social capital through social action, places of worship can also provide a valuable mechanism for generating social solidarity and a sense of the common good. Particularly in larger cities, many religious congregations are increasingly multi-ethnic spaces, and they also provide a potential for interaction across boundaries of class and wealth, and, crucially, across generations.

The main focus of this chapter is to consider how social capital and, more importantly, notions of the common good are applied in the context of Muslim communities. Many mosques demonstrate social capital in the way that congregations are drawn from across varying ages and social backgrounds. Beyond mosques, Muslim community development and other Muslim charitable activities are often organised through a plethora of community organisations that also show this type of cross-linking in the way they work and the voluntary resources they manage to attract in order to sustain activities.

Islam has a strong tradition of social justice, social action and encouragement for people to participate in public life. In addition to its more esoteric and spiritual teachings, the Qurʾan describes one of the roles of believers as people who “encourage the good and discourage the wrong.” (Q 3:110)Footnote 1 Furthermore, a strong emphasis on community life and mutual support has ensured that notions such as zakā (a religious obligation to pay 2.5% of one’s wealth in charity) and ṣadaqa (voluntary charity) have been popularly upheld among Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad emphasised, “He who is satisfied while his neighbour starves is not a believer” (Al-Albānī: Silsilat, 1995, 149). Such teachings perhaps aimed to create, from the ground up, a community which views social engagement, solidarity, charity – and personal sacrifice for these aims – as religious and human obligations.

A maqāṣid-Based Approach and Its Possible Limitations

The notion of public or common good (maṣlaḥa ʿāmma) is related to an important concept in Islamic legal thought. The idea of maṣlaḥa (benefit or interest) is something we will explore in some detail throughout this chapter to see how it is used by those engaged in social initiatives, as well as by scholars and intellectuals, to provide a framework for thinking, not just about social engagement and action, but about how the purpose of Islam is understood.

In the constellation of Muslim networks in Europe, there is a wide range of organisations ranging from very small informal groups, with very little income, to medium-sized mosques and educational institutions. The vast majority are still quite small organisations but there are a few examples of quite significant infrastructures – mainly relief focused NGOs with an international reach, such as Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid and Penny Appeal (originating in the UK). In 2019, Islamic Relief (the largest of these) raised £130 million from across the world, over 70% of that coming from five western countries (USA, UK, Canada, Sweden and Germany) (Islamic Relief, 2020). Within the work of such organisations, the frameworks of maṣlaḥa, and more so, maqāṣid (objective, often closely related with maṣlaḥa) has begun to emerge as a way of grounding their theory of social engagement within an Islamic paradigm, even if in the context of wider human development and social work objectives.

Islamic Relief cite maqāṣid in a range of their publications, for example on human development, saying that, “the understanding of the maqāṣid has enabled Islam as a faith to remain contextually relevant and illuminating in each new age and circumstance.” (Islamic Relief, 2014a, 13) Similarly, a publication on migrant rights talks of how, “a framework of forced migrant rights would need to reflect the five “purposes” (or maqaṣid) of Shariʿa (Islamic law)” (Islamic Relief, 2014b, 12). A publication on forced and early marriages mentions that, “in situations that are not directly addressed in the Qur’an, such as a specific minimum age for marriage, the principle of maṣlaḥa mursala, or ‘unrestricted public interest’ must apply.” (Islamic Relief, 2018, 10) The latter passage is trying to argue for introducing a minimum age for marriage where the scripture is seen to be silent on this. There are numerous examples of other NGOs that have started to frame their visions and programmes around the language of maqāṣid and maṣlaḥa in order to ground their work in some form of Islamic social theory of change.

The maqāṣid-cum-maṣāliḥ approach discussed by Mohammad Hashim Kamali (1999), among others, has been an important prism for Muslim thinkers to allow, especially for Muslims living in minority contexts, a way for changes in the modern era to speak to their lived experiences of Islam – e. g. fatāwa (legal opinions) allowing Muslims to take out interest-bearing loans or mortgages to purchase homes. For the numerous Muslim scholars that endorsed these views, the argument was that something they considered to be prohibited (haram) should be regarded as allowed (halal), based on necessity and the higher priorities of settling, having stability and saving money. We begin to see here a sense of prioritisation of different, often competing, values.

The modern cohort of scholars advocating such an objective (maqāṣid) focused outlook is quite broad – from people such as Tahir ibn Ashur (d. 1973), at the more open end of the group, to Said Ramadan al-Bouti (d. 2013) who proposed a more restricted usage and conditions. Scholars such as Jasser Auda and Mohammad Hashim Kamali have used maqāṣid as a reformist tool, to open spaces for challenging aspects of contemporary Muslim thought, using legal tools that are recognised by traditional scholars and communities (Auda, 2007, 8).

As the discourse permeates to lay people, many have adopted the maqāṣid and maṣāliḥ paradigms in an attempt to remain authentically religious and use them, even if in tokenistic ways at times, to navigate their way around the complexities of living an ‘Islamic’ life in modern settings – whether in the fields of charitable activity, mediation, economics, law, politics, etc. Furthermore, maqāṣid is also used as a pseudo-rationalist basis for addressing contemporary problems, as we have seen above.

In searching for the origins of a purposive or objective orientated approach to Islamic practice, one can find examples in the life of Muhammad, his companions and the first generation. We also know from the life of Imam al-Shafi (d. 820) that upon migration he changed his fatāwa in recognition of the time and space (contextual) factors of human life, and this has always been a part of Muslim tradition, though perhaps less emphasised in the modern era with the rise of globalisation. Muslim tradition also gave consideration to ʿurf (customs of people) in the legal process of some early schools of jurisprudence; however, the term maqāṣid was not in use during this era.

According to Kamali it was only in the fourth century of Islam (tenth Century CE), that:

(…) the term maqaṣid was used in the juristic writings of Abu ʿAbd Allah al-Tirmidhi al-Hakim (d. 320/932) and recurrent references to it appeared in the works of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) who was probably the first to classify the maqāṣid al-Shariʿa into the three categories of essential, complementary and desirable (daruriyyat, hajiyyat, tahsiniyyat) which has gained general acceptance ever since. (Kamali, 1999, 199)

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), one of the students of al-Juwayni, talks of the:

Maṣlaḥa, which we are concerned about here, mean[ing] the protection of the objectives of Shariʿa, namely the preservation of religion, life, offspring, reason, and property. Anything that furthers these five objectives is maṣlaḥa, and anything that runs contrary to them is mafsada (corruption). (Al-Ghazzali, 2018)

Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi (d. 1210), similar to al-Ghazali, was an early pioneer in the discourse. Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) further stated that, “Shariʿa is based on wisdom and consideration of people’s interests (maṣlaḥa) both in this world and the world to come. It is all about justice, mercy, and welfare.” (Al-Jawziyya, 1993).

We can see that these ideas evolved over time. According to Opwis, al-Qarafi (d. 1285) and Al-Tufi (d. 1316) devised alternative models of maṣlaḥa that “increased the potential for adapting existing laws to new circumstances over the model of al-Ghazali and al-Razi” (Opwis, 2005, 195). Al-Qarafi added a sixth objective (dignity, ‘ird) to the maqāṣid and al-Tufi even argued that a ruling based on maṣlaḥa (outside the realm of ritual worship) could be given priority over a ruling based on scripture and that the maṣlaḥa could be discernible by human intellect.

Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328) asserted that the objectives could not be confined to a specific number and should rather be an open-ended list of values, and Al-Shatibi (d. 1388) further elaborated the ideas of maṣlaḥa in his time, developing it into a more comprehensive framework for legal theory. He also argued for an inductive method (istiqrāʾ) to ascertain maṣāliḥ from the body of scripture (meaning that this could be attained in the absence of a specific text). In modern times, Ibn Ashur has pushed for the scope of the maqāṣid to include the preservation of social order as well as promotion of wellbeing, freedom and righteousness (ṣalaḥa) of the community (Ibn Ashur, 2006). Kamali has proposed that freedom of expression, human development and scientific research and development be added (Kamali, 1999), Khalid Abou el Fadl has argued for individual and human rights (El Fadl, 2003), as have others also made their contributions.

In reality there are therefore multiple approaches to the study of maṣāliḥ, and multiple schools of maqāṣid, and this complexity and debate is often lost as the discourse gets translated to grassroots communities, welfare and charitable organisations. From the examples we have seen above, the promotion and uptake is all too often of the earlier conceptions of maṣlaḥa with a more conservative focus, articulating the preservation of the five essential elements (religion, life, intellect, lineage and property) of Shariʿa as its hierarchical ‘objectives’ (maqāṣid) in a somewhat simplified public discourse. The discourse of al-Tufi, al-Shatibi and Ibn Ashur gets lost in transmission. An example of this is that Said Ramadan al-Bouti, based in Syria, was able to argue that women should not enter the workplace alongside men. His reasoning was that the need to earn an income, which would resonate with the objective around preservation of property, is trumped (in his view) by the potential harm of interaction between men and women, undermining the objective of preserving family and progeny.

The maqāṣid based approach – designed to remind the jurist of the purpose of any given ruling and offer a sense of priority – has been used by some scholars to open up interpretive spaces in the process of deducing fiqh (law), and the application of Shariʿa, while maintaining a strong connection with tradition. However, some critics of the maqāṣid approach see this as too liberal, whilst others view it as too restricted in its ability to address issues and hence too conservative, as the defining framework is still one that gives primacy to a legal approach to addressing human problems, as opposed to more widespread ethical (and other) considerations. What makes this even more difficult is that in the current time, fiqh has attained a sense of rigidity in the lay and public discourse due to its association with being ‘God’s law’, neglecting the idea that fiqh has always been a human interpretation and application of the law. The project of promoting the maqāṣid has arguably been an important endeavour that was, and remains, needed in the absence of other, more rigorous tools for ethical approaches to Islamic practice.

The original caution, as the ideas of maqāṣid were being initially articulated, probably came out of a desire to stress religious certainty over ambiguity and human subjectivity at a time when intense debates were occurring in the Muslim world around the use of reason: for example, the argumentation between the Ash’ari and Mu’tazili schools of ʿaqida (creed). Early Islamic philosophy was heavily indebted to Greek foundations and tools and was thus profoundly influenced by it. The prolific activities of Muslim philosophers was initially very influential on Islamic thought across the board and one of the preoccupations of the theologians was thus to ‘protect’ the distinctive nature of Islamic thought and root its evolution in the certainty, comfort and familiarity of the ‘divine scripture’. Yet even a very cursory assessment of the discipline of maṣlaḥa shows that in reality the new sets of terms did little to remove human subjectivity as they arose over the centuries, from those premodern times into the modern era. Notions such as ‘good’, ‘public interest’, ‘universal, ‘purpose’, even ‘justice’ are highly subjective and require constant definition and interpretation. This is why it is entirely possible to argue both conservatively and liberally for a range of issues around gender equality, human rights and sexual orientation using a maqāṣid-cum-maṣāliḥ based approach. It should be stressed that such ambiguity is not in itself a bad thing, in fact it is one of the strengths of the discipline, but we need to be clear that the presumption that this removes reasoning (and therefore supposed arbitrary human judgement) and introduces a sense of religious certainty (and therefore supposed authenticity) is based on arguable foundations.

Going beyond this, I believe there is a key problem in the ‘DNA’ of the maqāṣid discourse – the expression of the maqāṣid is not from revelation per se but is derived from the ḥadd punishments in early Islam. When al-Ghazali and other early scholars were seeking the objectives of the Shariʿa, which are not simply and categorically laid out in the text, they looked for the strongest signals in the text for the boundaries of Islam, and what better place to look than the things that were categorically prohibited – murder, adultery, theft, slander, abandonment of one’s intellectual faculties by use of intoxicants, apostasy, etc. The ḥadd is the limit and early scholars looked at the harshest punishments and deducted from there what they saw to be five key objectives of the Shariʿa – preservation of life, religion, intellect, progeny, property. That would seem fair as an intellectual exercise to ascertain the limits of Islam, but the problem lies in the way that maqāṣid were then used in a more generalised manner to try to inspire Muslim behaviour. These five objectives, and others as they were added, were originally about preserving and protecting; so, by definition, they were designed to limit behaviour, to set the boundaries. Crucially, they are not based on a vision of what people should do, rather what they should not do.

As we have seen above, there are, and were, different approaches to maṣlaḥa and Jasser Auda, one of the contemporary thought leaders in the field of maqāṣid studies, speaks eloquently of how there is a transformation that is taking place in modern scholarship from an emphasis on ‘protection’ and ‘preservation’ to ‘development’ and ‘rights’ (Auda, 2007, 21). This is an important observation and marks a point to watch in terms of future development and stratification of the discipline. In order for this to be realised we need to emphasise, that there are distinct ‘schools’ or approaches to maqāṣid-cum-maṣāliḥ. Johnston (2007) identifies at least three different maqāṣid based approaches (in the context of human rights discourse): traditionalists, progressive conservatives and progressive post-modernists. Thus, the discourse is not of a singular approach as is often perceived at the level of grassroots organisations and activists. Once this vista is opened, people can then opt to choose one approach over another, in keeping with their aspirations and ambitions.

Another problem that Muslims need to address is the gross underdevelopment of thought in such areas, when trying to look back and use existing and established paradigms that are recognised, familiar and therefore seen as ‘authentic’. The tools may well be valid ones, but if they are not suitable nor appropriate for the job, then they will not yield the perceived benefit. While Islam does have a firm notion of fiqh (law) and Shariʿa, not every situation is a legal one that demands a legal response, particularly when we are thinking about social work and action. Thus, rather than abdicate responsibility to a scholar to provide ‘a fatwa’, citizens need to be empowered to think for themselves and find their own answers to their specific realities, for which they may well have more intimate knowledge than a ‘scholar’ who is distant to the issue – often distant even in physical terms, living thousands of miles away. Soon after the formative period of Islam, as the intellectual tradition began to settle, the codification of the legal corpus came to dominate Islamic disciplines. Over time the philosophical and ethical branches of knowledge became less emphasised and, in some contexts, devalued entirely.

A revival of these branches of knowledge is thus an imperative in order to rebalance the ‘legalistic outlook’ that currently dominates Muslim thinking. These are clearly huge challenges that will not be resolved quickly or easily. Still, this is a task to which many intellectuals have already been addressing their energies.

From a Parochialist View towards a Common and Shared Vision of Society

Having looked at the origins of maqāṣid based discourse, let us briefly mention some of the ways contemporary Muslim scholarship has tried to develop a shared vision of the public good. An interesting approach to circumvent excessive legalism and literalism is found in the works of a range of different thinkers who, over the last century, have been at pains to emphasise the tawḥīdic integrity of the Qurʾan – i. e. that the Qurʾan must be read as a whole for it to be really understood, and that a piecemeal approach to using a single verse (or even a small cluster of verses) to derive a law departs from the ethos of the tradition. One can hear echoes of al-Shatibi in this. Examples of such individuals include Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930), Nasr Abu Zayd (d. 2010), Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), Riffat Hassan and Amina Wadud.

Rahman (1984) presented a particularly interesting tool for deriving the ethical principles that one should work with. His double movement theory of hermeneutics involves looking at the text to take into account the social specificities at the time of early Islam and to extract general ethical principles from those. One can then apply the derived general principles to a given situation today, again taking into account the social conditions (of our time), to reach new specific responses. This is a way of bridging the contextual distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Most of these thinkers, particularly Rahman and Abu Zayd emphasised the role of reason in modern interpretation. To continue an example for comparison, this approach may say that the relatively small amounts of interest charged by (most) mortgage lenders (in an economic environment where inflation is a reality) does not actually constitute usury (ribā) in the way that the Qurʾan defines the term – something linked to severe exploitation of the weak and even bondage of people, were they to default on a loan – so there is no need for a discussion of whether a mortgage is allowed or prohibited. Without understanding the deeper ethical considerations of both ancient times and our time one cannot simply transfer rulings from one society to another, one time to another, without critical analysis.

Muslim intellectuals who advocate for such an outlook of ‘reform and renewal’ (iṣlāḥ wa tajdīd), which is often rooted in a concern for human rights and a serious consideration of tradition, are thus keen to emphasise that “the commitment to human rights does not signify a lack of commitment to God but is instead a necessary part of celebrating human diversity, honouring God’s vicegerents, achieving mercy, and pursuing the ultimate goal of justice.” (El Fadl, 2003) An important arena of development amongst reformers is the growing body of Islamic feminist critique of patriarchy in Muslim history. These scholars have argued for a rereading of Islamic sources to create a more equal understanding of gender roles in Islam. Wadud, for example, argues that while Muslims have conventionally rejected priesthood, in the name of eradicating any barriers between humanity and God, the default position is that men have often become an intermediary between God and women. It is only by rebalancing this relationship so that men and women have equal access to God, that a true and deep sense of tawḥīd (monotheism) can be really envisioned and practiced (Wadud, 1999). In a similar vein, see Mernissi (1992), Mir-Hosseini (2000), Hassan (2001) and Barlas (2002).

The Musawah (Equality) movement, which began in Malaysia, is an example of a very practical initiative, led by female academics and activists, that was inspired by such ideas and aims to bring about reforms in Muslim family laws and the social space. Where traditional thinkers see mainly the mandates and limits set by the text, reformist thinkers tend to see the text as indicating a direction of travel – a hermeneutic trajectory – that is to be unpacked, honed and developed by every generation in an exciting project of discovery, using our own mature sense of the context as well as the ethical principles and values of Islam in doing this. This is the only way in which we can truly speak of revelation as having deep relevance for the future, as otherwise its value is mainly historical. Such an approach led Abdolkarim Soroush (Soroush, 2000) and Abdullahi an-Naʿim (An-Naʿim, 1990), for example, to argue that the Human Rights paradigm represents a reservoir of human wisdom that the Shariʿa needs to take into consideration, if it is to speak seriously to the human condition of our time.

Going back to the concerns of the early theologians, perhaps our time calls for a recognition that ambiguity and subjectivity are strengths to be embraced, not eliminated – ultimately Muslims have to ask: is the Qurʾanic narrative creating a detailed prescription, a blueprint, for human life or is it proposing a framework for how we may want to think about life and our place in the universe and inviting us to interpret how this can be best actualised for each time and place?

A significant set of questions therefore, to be embraced rather than side-stepped, is about the use of reason and how human reason should work in the presence of something that is understood to be revelation. For without reason we cannot even come to the conclusion that reason is not to be used, thus creating a self-defeating argument! We also need to emphasise that fiqh is not divine law, it is man-made, as it is the endeavour of the scholarly mind (usually male) to find solutions to human situations and challenges through the application of what is understood to be divine guidance and principles. Thus, while the Qurʾan and Sunnah may be perceived to be divine in origin, the Shariʿa is a mixture of divine elements reformulated through human understanding and the fiqh is even more invested with human effort. Once we unburden ourselves from the anxiety of carrying the weight of divine principles and certainty, the scholarly endeavour can then move with its humanity as the driving force.

In his work on humanism and Islam, Ebrahim Moosa (2011) discusses the role of critical Muslim thinkers and scholars in learning from a wide range of sources. It was because they were open to learning from the Graeco-Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese and other sources of knowledge that the translation movement at the time of the Abbasid ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-Hikma) was able to be so creative. This era led to a vast step-up in Islamic thought that had an impact on a wide range of scholarly disciplines including philosophy, science, mathematics, art and literature. Above all, one sees the tremendous role that reason played in Muslim thought at that time, paving the way for influencing European thought.

As we can see, the use of reason is not simply a matter of the impact of modernity on Islam. Some ancient Muslim thinkers advanced the idea that there are two forms of revelation – the type that one can read as the ‘word of God’ (scripture), and the type that one can ‘read’ from the natural world all around us. The epistemological work of Ibn Sina (d. 1037) on the latter influenced the Andalusian Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185), who borrowed from Ibn Sina and wrote his own version of a fictional work, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, which tells the story of a boy that grew up on a remote island without human contact and how he came to develop knowledge of the truth (of God) through reason and observation alone. This work was translated into Latin by Edward Pococke in 1671 (under the title, Philosophus Autodidactus) and then into English by Simon Ockley in 1708 (entitled The Improvement of Human Reason). The text had a profound impact on, for example, Locke (d. 1704) who was a student of Pococke and his ideas around the tabula rasa, as well as on the theories of empiricism that developed in Western thought.

If we go back even further into the origins of Islam, we can get a glimpse into some of the ways Islam could be framed as having a more inclusive and universalist outlook. A vivid example that is often cited is in the pact known as Hilf al-Fudul (‘the virtuous pact’). In his youth, Muhammad was party to a coalition that stood up to support a Yemeni trader who, without tribal protection in Makkah, was defenceless and faced injustice. Later on in life, Muhammad is reported to have described how he was still bound by the pact and that he would not exchange his role in it for any material gain (Lings, 1991). This incident shows clearly how Muhammad was keen to take a stand against the injustices in his society for a cause that did not affect one of his ‘own’, but another human being whom he did not even know.

We can also find many examples of how Muhammad himself benefited from the support of other people, or was prepared to work with them, regardless of their religious or moral backgrounds. When a small band of his followers in Makkah faced severe treatment at the hands of the Quraish, it was to the Christian Negus of Abyssinia, Ashama bin Abjar, that the Prophet sent those who were able to leave. When Muhammad was secretly leaving Makkah for Medina at the time of the migration (Hijra), it was a non-Muslim guide, Abdallah ibn Urayqit, that he trusted to show the way. During the time of famine in Makkah, when the Muslims were placed under strict sanctions, it was Mutim bin Adiy, who had not embraced the faith of Islam, who would secretly smuggle food to the Muslims and who was instrumental in bringing the boycott to an end. It was also the same Mutim who granted the Prophet protection after the death of his uncle, Abu Talib. It was Waraqah ibn Naufal, a Christian monk and cousin of Khadija (wife of Muhammad) who first explained the nature of revelation to them both, effectively becoming the first to practice exegesis (tafsīr) of the Qurʾan. One could argue that without such intimate trust, support and collaboration, Islam would never have survived as a religion.

After Hijra, Muslim, pagan and Jewish tribes came together as a single umma (community) asserting that “Conditions must be fair and equitable to all (…). The Jews of Banu Auf are one umma with the believers (Muslims) (…).” (Mithaq ul-Madinah, the Pact of Medina) Yet the common discourse today amongst Muslims is to view the word umma as an exclusively Muslim notion, in an almost tribal manner. A similar sentiment was used by Mawlana Hussain Ahmed Madani of the Deoband movement in the early twentieth century, when he argued against the division of India and suggested that as long as the rights of Muslims were secure, it would be preferable that they reside in harmony with Hindus as a single nation, sharing a single patriotic tie of nationhood. In 1938 he authored the famous Urdu tract, Mutahidah Qaumiyat aur Islam (translated as ‘Composite Nationalism and Islam’), to explain this.

A close look at the teachings of Islam reveals that the normative basis of human relations is meant to be a universal appeal to peace, cooperation and mutual learning: “O people, We have created you from male and female and made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Aware.” (Q 49:13) Yet the risk is that in the pursuit of a specific ‘Islamic’ framework for social actions, Muslim activists and institutions may be inadvertently closing themselves into a highly parochialist view and thus diluting this important universal aspect of Islam. This would in turn mean that a pursuit of the ‘common good’ is rendered into an exercise in public relations at best, or a competition at worst, rather than a genuine cooperation towards a common and shared vision of society.

Human Needs and Beyond

To seek the common good, we need a vision that looks forward to the horizon and aims far beyond a sense of ‘protection’ and ‘preservation’; to go beyond the notions of existence and survival and ask what we need to flourish and thrive? Abraham Maslow’s (d. 1970) hierarchy of needs (Tosi et al., 2000) for human motivation give us some useful insights into some of the complex needs and challenges that face human beings. Though normally used in corporate settings, it may help to describe the needs of groups, communities and populations on a priority basis and thus allow the community to chart out an issue-based agenda for its future development. According to Maslow the following levels of needs motivate people:

  1. 1.

    Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily needs, etc.

  2. 2.

    Safety/security: self-protection, shelter, order.

  3. 3.

    Belonging and Love: affiliation with others, being accepted.

  4. 4.

    Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

  5. 5.

    Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore.

  6. 6.

    Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty.

  7. 7.

    Self-actualisation: to find self-fulfilment and realise one’s potential.

  8. 8.

    Transcendence: to help others find self-fulfilment and realise their potential.

The first four are called deficiency needs and the second four are identified as growth needs. As this is a hierarchy, it is suggested that the growth needs are not felt to be important or applicable until the deficiency needs are met (at least partially). Maslow initially listed five needs then later subdivided some to form the final list. I have suggested in the past how there are interesting parallels between such a way of thinking about human needs and Islamic frames of reference. Auda (2007) also draws a parallel between Maslow’s scheme of needs and the discourse elaborated by al-Shatibi in his work.

Maslow’s eight steps represent an important and interesting way for us to consider how human needs evolve, beginning with the fundamental requirements of life and ending in self-actualisation and transcendence. A classical approach to maṣlaḥa could map onto this dharuriyyāt (necessities), leading to hājiyyāt (needs), leading to taḥsiniyyāt (embellishments), but actually this would not be quite accurate because the order deployed by Maslow does not work in the same way (diminishing in importance). Rather, this leads me to the point below, discussing how we can develop a more aspirational vision in order to fulfil the potential of human beings.

If we started with a blank slate today and asked, “What do we want to see in terms of values and ethics in our modern cosmopolitan environments?”, we may suggest notions such as life, love, happiness and wellbeing, fraternity, care for the environment, freedom, opportunity and prosperity, equality, etc. These are similar to the maqāṣid in some ways depending on which approach you take, but also quite significantly different. Furthermore, if we are to think about how we elevate our vision for social work and action from one of ‘community services’ to the ‘common good’, I would suggest that in addition to any considerations around maqāṣid-cum-maṣāliḥ, we also look at human flourishing – what is the basis of human flourishing, how do we reach our potentials and help others to reach theirs? This can be related quite neatly to the Islamic notion of iḥsān (excellence) in the context of the social sphere. Iḥsān is referred to in a number of scriptural sources, including the famous ‘Hadith of Gabriel’ and is embraced by Muslims universally. It is also important to point out that the task of those engaged in social action is not the same as the scholars’ who are expected to derive fatwa or perform ijtihad, and thus a legal construct is not required for work that is ethical and social in its nature.

The pursuit of those engaged in social work is to tangibly benefit those around them and this cannot be done without finding some element of common ground and common purpose. Al-maʿrūf (good, or common good) as suggested in Kurnaz’s contribution in this volume would be a valuable basis to seek common ground, especially as the term implies the things that are customarily and widely accepted by a society, and thus helps to root things in our contexts. As we saw earlier, an important teaching in Islam is the encouragement of good (maʿrūf) and the discouragement of wrong (munkar) (Q 3:104; and a number of other places). Munkar is the opposite of maʿrūf and means that which is commonly rejected – a point that becomes more relevant below. I would also add to this – the aforementioned notion of ṣadaqa (charity). Charity goes beyond the idea of human need or fixing a deficiency in society. The Qurʾanic view of charity is that we perform it for our own spiritual benefit – “we feed you only for the face of God, we do not seek reward or thanks from you (…).” (Q 76:9) Charity is also shown to neighbours and fellow humans regardless of faith. If we look to zakā (as a form of charity), although more specific than ṣadaqa, one of the allowed purposes for dispensing zakat is taʾlīf al-qulūb (bringing hearts together) (Q 9:60); we may say ‘reconciliation’ in our modern terminology. And finally, we could also add ʿadl (justice), which often goes alongside iḥsān (excellence) in Islamic discourse, and how this nurtures a vision of confronting social ills. Ibn Ibn Taymiya (1991) famously said, “God upholds the just state even if it disbelieves, but does not uphold the unjust state even if it believes.” Alluding to the idea that justice sits at a macro level above religious specificity and wins the pleasure and support of God (over faith which is steeped in injustice).

Combined – ʿadl, iḥsān, maʿrūf and ṣadaqa – these could help to create a vision of Islamic social ethics and allow for social work and social action to be framed beyond parochial and communitarian needs and give those involved in such work an aspiration for the common good. It is important to note that the definitions of munkar and maʿrūf are not tightly or exhaustively specified by the Qurʾan or the Sunnah. They thus remain subjective and open to interpretation and evolving consensus in any given society. This is important for a time when there is so much debate (often quite heated) around ‘the values of Islam’ and how compatible or incompatible they may be with ‘Western values’. Without essentialising either, the point is that a gradual, consensual approach to thinking about what constitutes maʿrūf and munkar in our modern times could be immensely helpful in evolving new ideas and framings of Islam around important elements of contemporary debate such as equality, freedom, liberty, human rights. Perhaps this could be one tool, for Muslims, for reaching new settlements and common agreement in Western settings around our shared values, if we can find mechanisms for having the discussion in a mature, mutually respectful and inclusive framework.


We have considered the way in which maṣlaḥa and maqāṣid have emerged in Muslim discourse and the important mechanism and means they have provided for an object-orientated way to think about Islam. The basic purpose of this would be to help the jurist to seek the ratio legis and not to apply or derive judgements from scripture in a literal manner. However, there are (perhaps unavoidable) tensions inherent in this project, due to the origins of maṣlaḥa (being derived from the ḥadd) as well as the desire of early theologians and fuqahāʾ to ‘protect’ the branches of Islamic learning from excessive influence of rationalist and Greek thought, by attempting to remove some of the elements of human subjectivity and reason in the process of working with tools such as maṣlaḥa. However, we have tried to show that the science of maqāṣid evolved with time and different approaches to it arose; furthermore, the removal of some elements of subjectivity was merely substituted by others.

While maqāṣid-cum-maṣāliḥ have been invaluable tools for some Muslim scholars of uṣūl (principles) of fiqh to open up spaces of debate, bring subtle changes, argue for reform, and generally allow Muslims to root their practices more contextually, it may not be the right tool in every situation and cannot be seen as a panacea for the Muslim condition. It definitely is not a substitute for the huge intellectual endeavour of nurturing critical thinking, revitalising the spirit of Islam and the Shariʿa and allowing them to engage more profoundly and meaningfully with the modern world and the diverse contexts that Muslims find themselves in today. Thus, constructing Muslim social work along the framework of maqāṣid should be done with its inherent limitations in mind – the chief among these being that a paradigm originally designed to protect the limits of Shariʿa is perhaps not the most optimal tool to propel people towards an aspirational vision, especially if they are operating in a multi-faith, secular context. Furthermore, the construct comes from the discipline of law and thus (naturally) its tendency is to nurture a legal approach to what is in actual fact a set of circumstances more rooted in ethical and social bases.

As we saw, the issue of social capital is an important consideration when looking at the way that communities and societies develop macro and micro level interaction. As Muslim communities settle in European, American and other Western contexts and their basic survival needs, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, are slowly met so that they can gradually turn their vision to higher purposes in thinking about making contributions to the common good, aspiring to work for the whole of society rather than their parochial interest, it is important to find the right basis to construct this on. Alternative frameworks beyond the law (fiqh) need to be used for social action and welfare purposes. Bearing this in mind, we have suggested that constructing new outlooks utilising the notions of justice (ʿadl), human flourishing (iḥsān), common good (maʿrūf) and charity (ṣadaqa) could create a more inclusive and appropriate vision for the future. These are ideas that are deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition and seem well suited to be aspirational needs of social work for the common good. But far beyond this, they could potentially help us to have the type of constructive conversation, that is currently lacking, of how we arrive at new Islamic social ethics and develop a consensus around shared values as Muslim citizens settle in different parts of the West. In this way, the presence of Muslims in Western settings, as difficult as it may seem to some, could actually present an important opportunity for learning about new ways of understanding Islam as it is applied and interpreted afresh.


  1. 1.

    All translations of the Qurʾan are the author’s own


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Hussain, D. (2022). Islamic Social Ethics, Social Work and the Common Good: Learning from Western Contexts. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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