Skip to main content

The maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa Approach as Theological Basis for Islamic Social Work: A Critical Analysis and an Alternative Proposal

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


Since social work protects the interests and benefits of people, one of the first conceptual terms which might guarantee the theological foundation of Islamic social work is maṣlaḥa. In modern times, maṣlaḥa is used interchangeably with the overall objectives (maqāṣid) of Sharʿia. The use of maṣlaḥa in its broader sense of maqāṣid enables scholars to link their understanding of social work to the Islamic tradition of sciences, especially to Islamic legal thinking. However, if we look back at the Islamic tradition of legal thinking, we discover a totally different approach to maṣlaḥa and especially maqāṣid: it becomes a source of knowledge, whereas in the tradition of the classical ʾuṣūl, it was a tool for legal hermeneutics. Although the search for the theological foundation of Islamic social work in the realm of Islamic legal theory and Islamic law is comprehensible, the lack of critical reflection on the discrepancy of the modern understanding of maṣlaḥa and maqāṣid, in contrast to the classical understanding, leads to theological dead ends and contradictions. Some scholars have already drawn attention to this but have remained vague concerning a solution to this specific problem. This paper will highlight and compare the specifics of the classical approach of maṣlaḥa in classical Islamic legal thinking and the modern maqāṣid approach. Additionally, I will highlight the Qurʾanic concept of maʿrūf in the three-fold division of K. Reinhart, and reflect on it as a possible theological basis for modern Islamic social work attempts.


  • Islamic social work
  • Objectives of the Sharʿia
  • Public interest
  • Maṣlaḥa
  • Maqāṣid
  • Maʿrūf

Publication of this article has been made possible through the generous support of the Academy for Islam in Research and Society (AIWG) at Frankfurt University.


As far as Islamic social work is concerned, there is a need for it to have an Islamic theological foundation. Since social work protects the interests and benefits of people, one of the first conceptual terms which might guarantee the theological foundation of Islamic social work is maṣlaḥa. Maṣlaḥa seems to be the common link between various understandings of Islamic social work and their core concept. In modern times, maṣlaḥa is used interchangeably with the overall objectives of Sharʿia, e. g. the maqāṣid. The use of maṣlaḥa in its broader sense of maqāṣid – which is also called maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approach – enables scholars to link their understanding of social work to the Islamic tradition of sciences, especially to Islamic legal thinking. However, if we look back at the Islamic tradition of legal thinking, we discover a totally different approach to maṣlaḥa and especially maqāṣid, because of a particular understanding of knowledge (ʿilm) and epistemology. In modern times, maqāṣid has become a source of knowledge, whereas in the tradition of the classical ʾuṣūl, it was a tool for legal hermeneutics. That said, although the search for a theological foundation for Islamic social work in the realm of Islamic legal theory (ʾuṣūl al-fiqh) and Islamic law is comprehensible, a lack of critical reflection on the discrepancy between the modern understanding of maṣlaḥa and maqāṣid, in contrast to the classical understanding between the fifth/eleventh and eighth/fourteenth century, leads to theological dead ends and contradictions, to which some scholars drew attention, but remained vague concerning the solution to this specific problem. This paper will highlight and compare the specifics of the classical approach of maṣlaḥa in classical Islamic legal thinking and the modern maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approach. Additionally, I will highlight the Qurʾanic concept of maʿrūf in the three-fold division of K. Reinhart and the “need-centred” approach of M. Bassiouni, to reflect on it as a possible theological basis for modern social work attempts.

Maṣlaḥa as Theological Basis for Islamic Social Work?

Classical Maṣlaḥa: A Brief Outline

Contemporary scholars, irrespective of their research field, concentrate specifically on the classical term maṣlaḥa, which can roughly be translated as interest of and benefit for people. Thus, every ruling in the realm of Islamic law secures an interest for humans or avoids anything harmful, which is called mafsada in Arabic. Briefly, since in Muslim tradition the field of Islamic law was (and in my view, still is) the realm of reflection on human actions in general, scholars discussed which needs should be protected within that realm. In this way, theological and methodological grounds for concepts which secure people’s needs are placed in a legal theoretical framework, the so-called ʾuṣūl al-fiqh. This is also the case for maṣlaḥa. The starting point for the evolution of the term maṣlaḥa is the notion that not everything in the Qurʾan and Sunna gives an answer on whether an action is religiously valid or not. In addition, the use of analogy is limited to cases mentioned in the Qurʾan and Sunna. With the evolution of Islamic law, the need for a technique which covers cases that are not overtly mentioned in the sources arose. The first technique, highly disputed in the beginning but subsequently broadly accepted by Sunni Muslims, was that of analogy. The reason behind this was the semi-victory of the so-called traditionalists’ epistemology,Footnote 1 which forced the rationalists to limit their methods to avoid contradictions with religious, textual sources. Hence rationalistic methods could only be used by scholars when the sources were silent on a case and analogy was not applicable. Analogy, on the other hand, is a method which enables scholars to link a legal question directly to the sources and to find solutions. For example, the Qurʾan is silent on the consumption of whisky, but we know that the consumption of wine is prohibited according to Q 5:90. Both of these actions have the same ratio legis: to be drunk. Since whiskey – like wine – has the capacity to make someone drunk, its consumption is also prohibited. Such cases of analogy, however, are rare. Analogy was therefore not nor could it be the solution to new legal and ethical problems. Nevertheless, analogical reasoning gained acceptance in Sunni circles at least from the third century after the Hijra onwards. Before that, Muslim jurists more often took into account human experience and local traditions in solving legal problems. We will return to this point subsequently, during the discussion of the term al-maʿrūf. The above-mentioned epistemology – consulting textual sources in each case as far as possible – forced scholars to find hermeneutical tools to solve problems according to the wording of the Qurʾan and Sunna, even if there was no direct link to them. Particularly from the fifth/eleventh century onwards, maṣlaḥa-scholars concentrated on the term maṣlaḥa – a terminus ad quem for its technical use – to find the hermeneutical tool, as mentioned, which fitted into their epistemology.

Obviously, it is impossible to describe the classical maṣāliḥ (sing. maṣlaḥa) approach in all its details, because most ʾuṣūl-scholars have differing methods concerning the use of maṣlaḥa to solve legal problems (Opwis, 2010; for a brief description of the evolution see Kurnaz, 2014, 85–149). Nevertheless, there is a common ground on which most scholars rely: the following classification of maṣāliḥ, which can be traced back to al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) and, following him, al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) (Kurnaz, 2014, 88–91). Since al-Ghazālī’s approach is more common to the scientific community, more systematic, and because it has been influential for many scholars, I will summarise his classification of maṣlaḥa. This can form the basis for a valid derivation of a ruling, to clarify the validity of an act.

  1. 1.

    Accepted interests (al-maṣāliḥ al-muʿtabara): these are interests which are accepted either by the Qurʾan and/or Sunna, such as the protection of wealth through the punishment of theft.

  2. 2.

    Invalid interests (al-maṣāliḥ al-mulghā): these are interests which are, according to the Qurʾan and Sunna, invalid; although humans see some benefits in them, such as the idea of equal distribution of inheritance, since the Qurʾan says that in some instances daughters get half the amount sons inherit.

  3. 3.

    Unattested interests (al-maṣāliḥ al-mursala): neither the Qurʾan nor Sunna provide direct information on the validity of a certain maṣlaḥa, thus it is unattested through the authoritative sources. Scholars then have to elaborate which of those maṣāliḥ – the most frequent in daily life – can be regarded as acceptable interests and are thus theologically justified as the basis of an action.

Al-Ghazālī especially systematised the realm of unattested interests, which was an urgent need since the Qurʾan and Sunna were silent on them. It is important to keep in mind that this ‘urgency’ only existed because the traditionalist epistemology forced scholars back to the sources, since they are, according to their own understanding, not able to grasp good and bad without referring to these religious sources. This very epistemology states that humans are unable to grasp good and bad without the information in the textual sources, since good and bad do not exist as such. Only a minor group of Sunni scholars states that humans do have the ability to grasp good and bad, but they have to ensure themselves through verifying with Qurʾanic and Sunnaic information. Thus, al-Ghazālī was forced to classify unattested interests so as not to contradict the Qurʾan and Sunna. According to him, maṣlaḥa falls into three different categories: necessities (ḍarūriyyāt), needs (ḥājiyyāt), and improvements (taḥsīniyyāt). While scholars did not define needs and improvements – they only described them as interests to consider, otherwise society could be harmed, but would still exist – necessities are defined very strictly: necessities are interests which should be protected, otherwise society cannot exist, and not only Muslim society. Necessities, again, consist of five elements: the protection of (1) life, (2) reason, (3) religion, (4) descendance and (5) wealth. Al-Ghazālī did not choose these categories arbitrarily, quite the reverse. He directly derived them from punishments (ḥudūd), mentioned in the Qurʾan and Sunna, such as the punishment for murder (Q 4:92–93), for drunkenness (Q 5:90–91), for changing religion (for which there is no Qurʾanic source, only mentions in Hadith!), for adultery (Q 24:2), and theft (Q 5:38). The reasoning behind this is that al-Ghazālī concentrates on punishments to be sure that Qurʾan and Sunna directly protect the above-mentioned interests; it is not for him to say which interests should necessarily be protected. He can therefore argue that he did not invent these categories, but rather the Qurʾan did: this line of argumentation fits with the above-mentioned traditionalist epistemology.

Although, if we follow al-Ghazālī, the Qurʾan indirectly refers to all of the five necessities, which are not transparent in their meaning: we cannot be sure what is really meant by the protection of religion and reason, for example. On the other hand, for example, why should the punishment for drinking alcohol indicate one of the subordinate goals of Islamic law, the protection of reason? It could also be a means to ensure humans act responsibly or to protect from criminal incapacity. Furthermore, the greater reason behind it is not clear: is it the ability to think critically, for mental health, or common sense? (Bassiouni, 2014, 192).

Most scholars state that they have to at least consider the necessities to find solutions to problems in daily life. Others, like Ibrāhīm b. Mūsā al-Shāṭibī (d. 790/1388), go further, saying that every maṣlaḥa should be considered as long as it does not directly contradict the wording of authoritative sources. The only exception to classical epistemology seems to be the Ḥanbalī scholar Najm ad-Dīn aṭ-Ṭūfī (d. 716/1316), whose theory is, incidentally, not as radical as it may seem. The use of the maṣāliḥ on the other hand is complex, like qiyās al-munāsaba, in short, it is a process of analogical reasoning by considering a person’s interest, which suits the overall objectives of the Sharʿia. This type of reasoning, however, will not be discussed in detail here (Opwis, 2010).

Contemporary Maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa Approach

In contemporary studies, as Opwis already pointed out, scholars decided to develop maṣāliḥ as an independent source of law and called them more often maqāṣid:

What they all have in common despite their variety, and what distinguishes them from pre-modern authors, is their focus on the maqāṣid instead of maṣlaḥa. In the pre-modern period, most jurists focused on maṣlaḥa as a tool to derive legal rulings and as a criterion or standard by which to judge the correctness of rulings. (Opwis, 2017, 16)

Here is a brief outline of this approach: every solution which is derived from sources should consider the maqāṣid or, at least, should not contradict them. Therefore, even some Qurʾanic verses are understood differently in their wording, for example the punishment for theft: it is seen as a suggestion of taking the thief into custody, not as a suggestion of amputating the hand. Maqāṣid thus became an independent source, derived, again, from the Qurʾan and Sunna, because of the link to classical methodology, which is important for most of these scholars. Modern authors criticise the classical ʾuṣūl al-fiqh but try to use the concept on maqāṣid for modern times. The contemporary understanding of maqāṣid differs fundamentally from the classical understanding. Maqāṣid has now become a source for different disciplines such as Islamic Finance, Medicine, Bio-Ethics, and political discussions on human rights, also for hermeneutical discussions on how to understand the Qurʾan and Sunna, as well as for our purpose: social work. Contemporary contributors to maqāṣid, like aṭ-Ṭāhir b. ʿĀshūr (d. 1973), Aḥmad ar-Raysūnī, and Jasser Auda (2008), mainly criticise the limitation of essential necessities to five. They say that there are more interests and necessities to be regarded than those mentioned in the classical sources. We therefore have different approaches to maqāṣid, like reinterpretation. Take Khaled Abou El-Faḍl for example, who tries to find freedom of religion in the Qurʾan; and those who seek extension, like Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935), who expanded on the maqāṣid in his study al-Waḥy al-Muḥammadī (For a detailed analysis see Ibrahim, 2006, 157–198). Most scholars concentrate on extending the maqāṣid in such a fashion that human rights are also included. For example, aṭ-Ṭāhir b. ʿĀshūr is a scholar who sticks to the classical maqāṣid but sees them as a general category for humankind and divides maṣlaḥa into general and specific. Specific maqāṣid are those which we have already seen in al-Ghazālī’s studies in a more extended fashion (Ibn ʿĀshūr, 2011). European authors also follow the trend of extension. Tariq Ramadan, for example, says that each maqṣad can be gained through reasoning and reading the two books of God: the Qurʾan and the universe. The universe for him is, like we know from different scholars, like a book which guides us to the truth. Ramadan tries to systematise the maqāṣid anew, where he sets the protection of religion and the interest of humans on top. He divides the overall maqāṣid into three categories: protection of life, of nature, and of peace. These maqāṣid, according to Ramadan, refer again to the protection or preservation of maqāṣid such as dignity, knowledge, creativity, equality and freedom (Ramadan, 2009, 136–144).

Critique of the Maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa Approach

These maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approaches, which widen maṣlaḥa in so far that they become an independent source of law, show some methodological and theological discrepancies. The main problem of contemporary maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approaches, however, is that we do not know how most authors derive their maqāṣid; they do not describe how they arrived at them nor why they propose them in their writings. All these approaches must tackle the question of avoiding arbitrariness in finding maqāṣid – although they know that their own historical and social circumstances determine what should be seen as maqṣad. Referring to the Qurʾan does not avoid arbitrariness completely, as Opwis points out:

Largely absent from contemporary discussions are questions about who determines the universals and the particulars derived from the sources. It comes as no surprise that, when comparing different interpretations of the purposes of the law, we find very diverse results. Duderija and Attia, for example, both identify “affection” (mawadda), “compassion” (raḥma), and “repose” (sakīna) as divine objectives in the realm of the family. But Duderija interprets these purposes as evidence for a gender-egalitarian Islamic family law, whereas Attia employs them to assert traditional gender hierarchies. (Opwis, 2017, 30)

At first sight, the above-mentioned necessities according to the maqāṣid seem to form theologically justified bases for Islamic social work, because it is easy to argue that Islamic social work can be understood as a concrete realisation of protection of life; the protection of life is generally undetermined, as it is held in general terms. However, the problem with this type of reasoning is that it is impossible to argue in favour of any maṣlaḥa or concept without going back to the authoritative texts and re-interpreting them. The backbone of maṣlaḥa and later theories is the epistemological standpoint that humans cannot, at least not with certainty, know what is good and bad: only the sources can determine this. For every maṣlaḥa, scholars should therefore refer to the sources to determine whether something is good or bad. The maṣlaḥa-concept was developed according to a specific epistemology, in which knowledge through transmission, as a category of so-called acquired knowledge (al-ʿilm al-muktasab), is held as certainty (qaṭʿ, yaqīn). In addition, knowledge through the senses is regarded as necessary knowledge (al-ʿilm al-ḍarūrī), which cannot be falsified. Nowadays, we know however that both these categories cannot be considered certain or necessary knowledge. It is thus highly problematic to consider maqāṣid/maṣāliḥ for social work or other disciplines, due to the epistemological discrepancies. In addition, maqāṣid and maṣāliḥ lack awareness of historical determination. Most maṣāliḥ and maqāṣid, with few exceptions, historically arose in certain circumstances and cannot be seen as universal. The ahistorical reading of the sources also has further theological impacts. As Opwis notes: “Positive man-made laws, which had become part of Islamic legal identity are, thus, incorporated into the realm of the divine law and are given theoretical justification by the concept of maṣlaḥa.” (Opwis, 2010, 80)

Additionally, maqāṣid based argumentation leads to a dichotomy of thinking: either an action is allowed (ʾiz) or invalid in the classical realm of actions, being obligatory (wājib), recommended (mandūb), permissible (mubāḥ), disapproved of (makrūh), or forbidden (ḥarām). There is no room for circumstantial changes, in which different solutions to the same problem can co-exist once an action is classed as invalid or even forbidden. This can lead to a lack of historical awareness and consciousness of circumstances. What is needed is a theologically argued basis which allows awareness of the historical dimension of the maṣāliḥ and the sources from which they come. Since the midst of the twentieth century, scholars have concentrated more on historical readings of the Qurʾan and Sunna, such as Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (d. 2010), Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), and particularly Ömer Özsoy, in Germany. If we look at the evolution of Islamic law in the first two centuries after the Hijra, we discover that Iraqi scholars in particular argue strictly in favour of historical circumstances: even the Qurʾan sees historical circumstances as a given factor. The term which the Qurʾan frequently uses for actions already established in society prior to its revelation is al-maʿrūf. Al-maʿrūf provides a theological justification for concepts like social work, with a high awareness of historicity of actual solutions and problems. Before discussing al-maʿrūf further, I want to draw attention to the needs-based methodology of Mahmoud Bassiouni, who used his argument in a discussion on the universality of maqāṣid and its relevance to human rights.

Al-maʿrūf and Human Needs as a Key Concept for Islamic Social Work

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.


We have seen that the Muslim tradition of legal theory tried to find solutions to cases not mentioned in Qurʾan and Sunna, through concepts like maṣlaḥa and, in modern times, through maqāṣid ash-sharīʿa. This is a concept which examined the epistemological boundaries of a traditionalist attitude towards religious sources: only the sources can show what is good and bad. In modern times, scholars have interpreted maṣlaḥa as the objectives of the Sharʿia (maqāṣid ash-sharīʿa) and made it an independent source. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of epistemological reflection on the maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa approach. This leads to theological and methodological dead-ends in argumentation and also results in thinking in dichotomies of validity and invalidity. There is a risk of universalising maṣāliḥ, which were only seen as maṣāliḥ by scholars due to historical, social or other circumstances. With the focus on Islamic legal theoretical treatise and books, the Qurʾanic ethical concept of al-maʿrūf has often been forgotten. It is a concept which considered the historical and social circumstances in which known, good actions were developed to solve legal and ethical problems relating to different sources of knowledge, especially human experience. This seems to be the reason why ethical concepts like maʿrūf and iḥsān are only explored vaguely in the Qurʾan. So, if we recognise a need to be solved or addressed which is not necessarily recognised in theological argumentation but rather by empirical data, then maʿrūf can allow the good and known conduct to be integrated into society, or new solutions based on human experience to be developed. Social work, for example, can then become Islamic social work, because maʿrūf also enables actions to be questioned, not only regarding their adequacy to human experience, but also to Muslim tradition and principles.

Referring to Islamic principles can be risky, as they can seem very vague and we do not necessarily have objective criteria to uncover them. Yet, if we read the Qurʾan historico-critically, we have better chances of coming closer to the principles the Qurʾan had during the time of its revelation. This fits into the evolution of Islamic law, which is still a field of discussion today concerning ethical questions – whether this should change is a different problem which cannot be tackled here. It showed an awareness of local traditions and the maʿrūf, but shifted during the third century after the Hijra, in favour of a text-centred model of reflecting and arguing, instead of a human experience-centred one. Hence, looking back to the very early evolution of Islamic law and the time of the Qurʾan’s revelation, al-maʿrūf seems to be a concept which emancipates from the wording of the Qurʾan and Sunna. It allows questions to be considered in accordance with Muslim tradition and for the Prophet’s and the Qurʾan’s message to be seen with more flexibility and dynamism. The question of what the Qurʾan says can be avoided, eliminating the disadvantages mentioned in relation to the maqāṣid-approach: al-maʿruf offers a more flexible, more practically relevant approach to social work rather than being only theoretical. Furthermore, looking for ethical concepts in Hadith, where we can find brief statements by the Prophet Muḥammad establishing al-maʿrūf as the backbone of ethical discussions, the maʿrūf can be discovered as it was during his lifetime and then actualised.

In addition, we could avoid the problem of overestimating man-made solutions as part of divine law. If we consider that the Qurʾanic concept of al-maʿrūf accepts how society generally functions, we have to concentrate on what is known and good in everyday life practice – no theology, apart from social practice, should show how Muslims could contribute to the society to solve ethical problems. This does not advocate anything goes, but rather a practice in social work which solves the needs and necessities of society, and, as mentioned above, can be theologically valid without going back to the Qurʾan and Sunna or the maqāṣid ash-sharīʿa. This is to say that every solution should be reflected on, in relation to changing circumstances, as well as time and space; al-maʿrūf can change, and therefore social practice should, too: there is room for ambiguity. The remaining question is always: what is most beneficial for society, considering people’s needs and avoiding harm, since harm and benefit are highly circumstantial according to Islamic law?


  1. 1.

    Although Hallaq speaks about a “Great Synthesis” and not a victory, it seems to me, and also for him, if it was a victory of the traditionalists, because rationalist methods were limited according to the traditionalists’ approach to always go back to the sources (Hallaq, 2005, 124–125).

  2. 2.

    Hawting (2006, 316) differentiates also between ʿurf and maʿrūf and relates ʿurf to the discourse of Islamic law.


  • Auda, J. (2008). Maqasid al-sharia as philosophy of Islamic law. International Institute of Islamic Thought.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bassiouni, M. (2014). Menschenrechte zwischen Universalität und islamischer Legitimität. Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gasiet, S. (1981). Menschliche Bedürfnisse. Eine theoretische Synthese. Campus Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hallaq, W. (2005). The origins and evolution of Islamic law. Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hawting, G. R. (2006). Tradition and custom. In J. D. Mc Auliffe (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān (Vol. 5, pp. 316–318). Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ibn ʿĀshūr, M. a.-Ṭ. (2011). Maqāṣid ash-sharī ʿa al-islāmiyya. Dār al-kitāb al-lubnānī.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ibrahim, Y. S. (2006). Rashīd Riḍā and Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿa. Studia Islamica, 102(103), 157–198.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kurnaz, S. (2014). Der Diskurs über maqāṣid ash-sharīʿa. Eine begriffshistorische Untersuchung. In J. B. Abdeljelil & S. Kurnaz (Eds.), Maqāṣid ash-Sharī ʿa. Die Maximen des islamischen Rechts (pp. 85–144). Eb-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kurnaz, S. (2018). Göttliches Recht im Wandel der Zeiten aus muslimischer Sicht. In N. Karlbarczyk, T. Güzelmansur, & T. Specker (Eds.), Gibt Gott Gesetze. Ius divinum aus christlicher und muslimischer Perspektive (pp. 96–134). Verlag Friedrich Pustet.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kurnaz, S. (2019). Al-Maqṣūd als Deutungs- und Entscheidungsgrundlage in as-Sarakhsīs (d. 483/1090) Kitāb al-Mabsūṭ. In H. Elliesie, I. Schneider, & B. Uçar (Eds.), Islamische Normen in der Moderne zwischen Text und Kontext (pp. 125–149). Peter Lang.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maslow, A. H. (2014). Motivation und Persönlichkeit. Rowohlt.

    Google Scholar 

  • Opwis, F. (2010). Maṣlaḥa and the purpose of the law. Islamic discourse on legal change from the 4th/10th to 8th/14th century. Brill.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Opwis, F. (2017). New trends in Islamic legal theory: Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿa as a new source of law? Die Welt des Islam, 57(1), 7–32.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Rahman, F. (1982). Islam and modernity. Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ramadan, T. (2009). Radical reform. Islamic ethics and liberation. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reinhart, A. K. (2017). What we know about Maʿrūf. Journal of Islamic Ethics, 1, 51–82.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Zellentin, H. (2013). The Qurʾān’s legal culture. The Didascalia Apostolorum as a Point of Departure. Mohr Siebeck.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Serdar Kurnaz .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the chapter's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2022 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Kurnaz, S. (2022). The maqāṣid-cum-maṣlaḥa Approach as Theological Basis for Islamic Social Work: A Critical Analysis and an Alternative Proposal. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

Download citation