Needs as a Basis for Islamic Social Work
Instead of concentrating on whether the Qurʾan or Hadith contain detailed information on social work, we can ask what needs people have. In this way, we can decide whether social work is necessary for solving social problems. Significantly, the Qurʾan and the Sunna do not ignore people’s needs. Quite the contrary: the Qurʾan directly relates information or solutions to everyday life and to the questions of its addressees, as in Q 2:217, 2:219 –220, and 8:1. Regardless of religious identity and insofar as the Qurʾan is understood as a universal book, a mercy for humankind, the question of knowing people’s needs remains. Bassiouni tries to identify these needs and focuses on them in his study as bases for a universal understanding of human rights and maqāṣid. He differentiates between objective-universal needs and subjective-historical need orientations (Bedürfnisorientierung). Since the latter is subjective and can be concretised in various fashions, he concentrates on universal-objective needs. For him, these needs represent indispensable and fundamental conditions of human existence (Bassiouni, 2014, 268–269). Bassiouni lists some basic human needs, quoting Abraham Maslow from a motivation psychological perspective. According to Maslow, people have physiological needs, such as the need for a stable food supply, for security, and for affiliation, love, and respect. In my view, this is crucial for social work, as well as for self-realisation (Bassiouni, 2014, 270–276; Maslow, 2014). Gasiet on the other hand, as Bassiouni recognises, categorises human needs into four categories: (1) Physiological needs, (2) need for interpersonal relationships, (3) need for respect, and (4) need for meaning (Sinngebung) (Bassiouni, 2014, 277; Gasiet, 1981). In contrast to Maslow, Gasiet does not place the different categories within a hierarchy; he sees them as interwoven (Bassiouni, 2014, 277). After further analysis of the concept of needs, such as the classification of needs in peace and conflict studies, Bassiouni concludes that these different approaches have a common ground and rather than contradicting each other, they are in accordance with each other. This mainly entails: the need for physiological health, for security, for affiliation, for respect, and for meaning (Sinngebung). These needs are so essential to human life that they can be seen as objects of protection for human rights as institution (Bassiouni, 2014, 294). In my view, these needs can also be seen as bases for social work: the bases for social work are empirically and objectively comprehensible human needs. Social work can address these needs, irrespective of the religious affiliation of possible addressees. In turn, this enables people to understand, regardless of their religious identity, social work’s necessity. Only then can we concretise social work as Islamic social work, with special reference to the Muslim tradition. It can also address a broader public than only Muslims, which is an important key in a multicultural society.
I would also suggest avoiding burdened technical terms for need, such as maṣlaḥa (interest) or ḥādja (need); rather, I suggest using Qurʾanic concepts like al-maʿrūf (the known). Al-maʿrūf is free of the conceptual chains of the Islamic law tradition; as we will see later, al-maʿrūf also allows for concretising needs and solving problems in daily life with a high degree of awareness of historicity and changes of circumstances. Furthermore, it allows contemporary concepts of social work to be linked to Islamic tradition and legitimises it through theological arguments without only justifying it theologically. As far as people’s needs are concerned, the Qurʾanic concept of al-maʿrūf seems to be the most fitting concept and offers a theologically acceptable solution to ethical problems. I will continue to discuss al-maʿrūf and its different categories by referring to Reinhart’s analysis of al-maʿrūf.
Al-maʿrūf in the Qurʾan
We have seen that, regardless of their religious identity, humans have needs, which should be met by the state or society itself. If we consider this as a basis for Islamic social work, it enables us to widen its scope and addressees. Islamic social work will then not only be related to and limited to Muslims. Theological arguments are not used for its substantiation (Begründungsdiskurs), but rather as a significant discourse of legitimation, since it is crucial in a multicultural society for most people to understand the importance of social work. In a second step, the theological justification can be put forward. The concept of al-maʿrūf, as we will see, allows circumstances to be considered, for which the Qurʾan has formulated solutions, and for the question of what al-maʿrūf means today to be addressed. This consciousness of changing circumstances and historicity of al-maʿrūf tolerates plurality and diversity, whether in the concept or in practical solutions to the same problems. It is true however that such dynamism can lead to uncertainty when tackling the question of what ‘Islamic social work’ actually is.
Al-maʿrūf is, as K. Reinhart describes, a Medinese word: It occurs in the Surahs, which were revealed after the Hijra of the Prophet Muḥammad. We can translate al-maʿrūf as the known, which is quite vague, and, as Reinhart already pointed out, is kept intentionally vague by the Qurʾan (Reinhart, 2017, 59–60). Reinhart says:
The first thing to notice is precisely that the Qur’ān does not need to spell out what and how everything is to be done. The Qur’ān assumes that some part of the good enjoined by the Qur’ān is known without revelational stipulation. It is ordinary knowledge to which the Qur’ān refers. “You know what to do and how to do it”, says the Qur’ān. (Reinhart, 2017, 61)
Thus, the Qurʾan – or God, theologically speaking – trusts in humans that they are able to know which is the best option in a particular situation, which may even have become common practice in society. The Qurʾan does not criticise the practice of pre-Islamic Arabia, but rather, at some point, confirms practices which solve people’s problems and correspond to a need. In doing so, the Qurʾan considers different sources of knowledge (Reinhart, 2017, 61). The opposite of maʿrūf is munkar, that which is rejected by the society, because it is known to be reprehensible (Reinhart, 2017, 64).
At first glance, one may expect maʿrūf to be linked to the concept of ʿurf (custom), but this is a fallacy. ʿUrf is a concept of the later ʾuṣūl al-fiqh which indicates customs known and practiced under the prophet’s and later generations (Reinhart, 2017, 64). As Reinhart points out:
[I]t seems to me that this fettering of maʿrūf to custom is a mistake. Maʿrūf is something “known” but not necessarily practiced (as ʿurf is practiced); it might be something recently known or discovered, or something known only upon reflection. ʿUrf knowledge includes various forms of expertise (butchers testifying on butchers’ practices, for instance) but maʿrūf is a broader category.Footnote 2 (Reinhart, 2017, 63)
The equation of maʿrūf and ʿurf would seem to undermine the power of maʿrūf. However, Reinhart sees three different categories of al-maʿrūf as distinct from ʿurf in the Qurʾanic context. The first use of al-maʿrūf is known through the Qurʾanic concept of ordering the known and forbidding the reprehensible (al-ʾamr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-n-nahy ʿan al-munkar). For Reinhart, and also according to the tafsīr-literature, al-maʿrūf stands for the good: al-ʾamr bi-l-maʿrūf then means to command the good. The action which according to the Qurʾan should be ordered is unspecified, but known to be good (Reinhart, 2017, 64).
The second type of al-maʿrūf is, according to Reinhart, in the realm of public or candid behaviour: “To use well-known, unambiguous statements, not unclear or secret (sirr) commitments.” (Reinhart, 2017, 64) In these cases, the Qurʾan also trusts humans to know how to behave in difficult situations. It does not determine this behaviour but rather counts on humans’ ability to independently know what should be done and what is adequate. The Qurʾan only recalls this duty.
The third category of al-maʿrūf, still following Reinhart’s argumentation, is a more specific category of the second; it refers to knowledge and behaviour covered by “in kindly fashion”, to know what to say in “scenarios of social stress and [with] the potential for divisiveness” (Reinhart, 2017, 65). Reinhart lists some of these situations and mentions what is important for us in the realm of social work: the need for support. For him, al-maʿrūf in this third meaning:
It is precisely the ability to respond dynamically and appositely to a situation that reveals the person gifted at such interactions. There are no rules for being a sympathetic responder, a talented gift-giver, a wise counsellor, a healing member of a family when death or divorce have sundered it. (Reinhart, 2017, 66)
Reinhart also points out, and I fully agree with him, that not everybody is or can be excellent in these fields of life mentioned. It takes a special talent or even training to be sensitive enough to know exactly how to behave or what to say; but the important point here is that the Qurʾan trusts its addressees to know what to say and what to do. This is – in my view – where Islamic social work can have its starting point: with concepts of maʿrūf-behaviour for specific situations, which require special skills. These special skills should not be sought in the Qurʾan, because the Qurʾan is vague concerning maʿrūf and good behaviour. As Reinhart shows us, terms for good behaviour like khayr and ṣāliḥ are often vague (Reinhart, 2017, 58–59), except for a description of birr in Q 2:177, where we have a list of different actions which in sum lead to birr, e. g. piety. We can conclude that the Qurʾan has an open texture (Reinhart, 2017, 67) and allows Muslims to include different concepts and diverse sources of knowledge for reflecting on good and adequate behaviour in daily life. Unlike the maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approach, al-maʿrūf allows already established practices to be considered and does not lead to a dichotomy of permitted and prohibited. Rather, it enables reflection on adequacy in different circumstances and advocates for each maʿrūf being determined by its own historical context. That is why al-maʿrūf remains as dynamic as it was during the lifetime of the Prophet, and more precisely at the time of the Qurʾan’s revelation.
This concept is in accordance with the evolution of Islamic law and the term sunna, which can be roughly translated as convention and tradition. This is significant because al-maʿrūf and Sunna, both terms were the locus of ethical discussion of human acts. In the literature on the origins and evolution of Islamic law, Islamic law is mostly seen as having been radically combined with the legal culture of Arabia and its neighbours. This does not mean that Islamic law consists only of copies of existing norms and standards. Rather, the Qurʾan adopts norms, instructions, and rulings for just behaviour and acts, with a specific interest in criticising and changing unjust conventions (Zellentin, 2013; Kurnaz, 2018, 122–127). However, in doing so, the Qurʾan remains vague in many of its juristic statements, except for rulings on divorce, marriage, and succession. This is a clear hint of its approach of only intervening where necessary. Fazlur Rahman has already analysed the Qurʾan’s ethical principles, to understand how and when the Qurʾan intervened. He also examines how we can intervene today, according to the message and not to the exact wording of the Qurʾan (Rahman, 1982, 20–21), which the classical approach to Islamic law still demands today. Qurʾan and Sunna remained intertwined, each with its own local specificities; for example, Sunna was used until the mid-third century after the Hijra, both for the general practice of Muslims and the tradition of Muḥammad. Al-Shāfiʿī’s (d. 204/820) and his colleagues’ attempts lead to a narrow understanding of Sunna, in the tradition of Muḥammad and no one else. Since the end of the third century, local traditions were kept up until the traditionalist approach triumphed in Islamic legal theory, only allowing rational argumentation within a narrow scope, as far as can be judged from books of legal theory (Kurnaz, 2018, 122–127). The case of practical law has not yet been sufficiently analysed to conclude that it was as rigid as legal theory supposes. We can see, for example, that the Ḥanafī jurist al-Sarakhsī (d. 483/1090) used different hermeneutical tools to actualise Islamic law and find solutions which fit given circumstances, such as his argument of al-maqṣūd (Kurnaz, 2019, 125–149). The first two and a half centuries of Islamic law tried to maintain the Qurʾanic tradition of regarding more than religious sources as references. It gave freedom to the human mind, to distinguish between good and bad, and find solutions to problems in different fields of life. The principal question then is which conduct, behaviour, or training is the most maʿrūf for solving problems, by concentrating on society’s needs and not what the Qurʾan would have said if analysed exhaustively.
I am nonetheless aware of the risks of such an argument. Questions which may arise are: How can we deal with al-maʿrūf in a society which is in direct contradiction with the Qurʾan? Is it possible to have an Islamic social work concept? What is then, if not by reference to the Qurʾan, the quality of being ‘Islamic’? To me, it seems that Muslim scholars rarely asked what ‘Islamic’ meant and that references to the Qurʾan guaranteed to it to be ‘Islamic’. The core point is that human actions should not contradict Qurʾanic principles – even if discovering Qurʾanic principles is problematic and can be as subjective as the maqāṣid-approaches I criticised. An awareness of fallibility and a high degree of reflection is essential when suggesting reasoned solutions. The attribute of being ‘Islamic’ can therefore originate in closeness to Muslim traditions, in various Muslim conducts and behaviours. Cultural sensitivity, which is partly interwoven with religious convictions shared by the Muslim community, can be a basis for discovering what ‘Islamic’ means. In this respect, maʿrūf allows consideration of cultural and religious sensitivity, which may also include other cultural sensitivities, allows reflection on them and helps to find new ways. Significantly, the Qurʾan and its maʿrūf-concept can be read as emancipatory; they allow, for example, Islamic social work to be compatible with a plural society. To follow the concept of al-maʿrūf, no theory should determine what Islamic social work is, but rather practice itself should demonstrate what can be classified as Islamic.