The Islamic System of Social Responsibility

By Sayyid Qutb


      Whenever the role of religion is mentioned in the context of social responsibility, one’s mind instantly turns to terms such as kindness, charity, benevolence, and at the most, zakat. My contention is that these terms and the concepts which they embody, fail to express the nature of the role which Islam plays in this realm.



      Social responsibility in Islam constitutes a complete system. The constituents of that system. The Islamic scheme of social responsibility concepts of kindness, charity, benevolence and zakat, are all merely the however, covers a much wider sphere than the above-mentioned terms are likely to convey. In fact, they constitute merely a few of the means through which Islam seeks to implement its scheme of social responsibility. It is obvious, however, that the means employed by a system should be distinguished from the system itself.

      The Islamic system of social responsibility does not merely aim at providing financial assistance. In this respect its whole concept is different from what is generally understood by expressions such as social insurance or social responsibility in other societies. For, financial assistance is just one among the numerous forms of assistance which Islam seeks to provide. Moreover, even financial and other kinds of assistance as enjoined by Islam, are just some of the means which are employed for the realisation of that system. They do not throw full light on the essence of that system as such.

      Let us have then, a glimpse of the system of social responsibility as envisaged by Islam. In the first instance, it should be borne in mind that the Islamic system of social responsibility embraces the whole life of man. It is concerned with the soul and conscience of the individual, in fact, with the whole of his personality and his entire social conduct. It is concerned at the same time with the establishment of the institution of family and its proper functioning. It is concerned, moreover, with the entire gamut of social relationships: with man’s activities vis-à-vis the state, with the manner in which he carries on his financial transactions and with all the other multifarious activities in the economic sector of human life. This makes it quite evident that the concepts of kindness, benevolence, charity and even zakat are far too restricted in their scope to express adequately the Islamic ideal of social responsibility which Islam was once able in the past to put into practice with remarkable success.



      The first concern of the Islamic system of social responsibility is an individual’s relationship with his own self. Islam instills in man a sense of responsibility to God for purifying his soul; for keeping himself in check from being driven away by low desires and passions. Man is charged by God with the duty to stand as sentinel over one’s own self whenever there is the danger of it being driven away from the right path. In this connection, Islam has clearly propounded that the soul of man is equally responsive to good and evil, and that it is for every human being to choose between good and evil, and that he alone will bear the responsibility for that choice ‘what is wrong and what is right’. He is indeed successful who purifies it (the soul) and he is indeed a failure who corrupts it. (XLI: 8-10).

      Islam makes it obligatory upon everyone to provide enjoyment to himself to an extent as would not corrupt him, and to grant himself his due both of work and rest, so that he may not exhaust or weaken himself. ‘The search for success in this world is to go hand-in-hand with search for success in the world to come.’ Says the Holy Qur’aan; ‘Seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion in the world.’ (XXVIII: 77). One must always remember the advice of the Prophet; ‘Verily (even) they body has a right against thee’.

      Along with the freedom of choice goes individual responsibility. A man is responsible for whatever he does – for whatever good or evil, whatever virtue or vice he earns for himself. In the words of the Holy Qur’aan: ‘Every soul is a pledge for its deed’ (LXXIV: 39) and ‘Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another’s load’. (VI: 165).



      Imbued with these feelings, a man stands as a watchman over his soul. He is responsible for guiding it, if it goes astray as well as to ensure for it its legitimate rights, for calling it into account whenever it commits an error. A man is also accountable for whatever negligence he might commit in weaning his soul away from waywardness. Thus, we might say, Islam postulates two personalities within each individual, so that the task of maintaining a moral discipline on oneself might be pursued with greater energy and vigilance.

      What Islam seeks to achieve through this is to awaken the individual’s conscience an sensitivity and develop the whole of his personality. For freedom and responsibility are mutually compatible and necessary and the two bases of a full-fledged personality. What we have said above is apparently a means of insuring the well-being of the individual. In reality, however, it constitutes social responsibility in the broadest sense of the term, for the manner in which Islam seeks to develop a man’s personality prepares him for appropriate conduct in his social life. This development of the individual has its automatic effects on social life and ultimately it proves instrumental in the implementation of the ideal of social responsibility as envisaged by Islam. However, Islam does not stop at this step. Having developed the personality and awakened the conscience of the individual, Islam urges him to take another step forward, i.e., full participation in the life of the community. It urges the individual to contribute to general social welfare in all possible manners and to make all kinds of sacrifices for that purpose, to co-operate with others and consider oneself to be the keeper of one’s brother.



      This having been achieved, man becomes prepared for stepping to the next stage of the task. After having taken care of the soul of the individual, Islam takes care of the family and establishes I on the firm foundations of mutual responsibility so that all its members have an equitable share of assets and liabilities, of rights and duties. The family is the first pillar in the structure of a society. Hence, if its structure has been raised on the foundation of mutual responsibility, this will ensure a solid foundation so that it proves to be strong enough to bear all kinds of strains and stresses. Mutual responsibility at the level of family life will also lighten the burden of the state since a substantial portion of the burden of responsibilities will be shouldered by the family.

      Social responsibility at the level of family life does not merely have a financial significance. It embraces all the facets of human life. It includes taking care of the children, their upbringing and preparing them – physically, intellectually and spiritually – to face the problems of life squarely. On the other hand, it includes care of the parents in the advanced stages of their life. This means much more than merely bearing the expenses of their living. To balance the account against these duties which Islam has laid down in respect of one’s parents, etc., is a person’s right of inheritance.



      The role of the family in the larger framework of the society can hardly be over-emphasised. One cannot help acknowledging its importance despite the sustained efforts which have been made by some of the materialistic systems, such as Communism, to put an end to this institution. This campaign against the institution of family seeks its justification in the plea that it nurtures feelings of self-aggrandisement whereas Communism is said to be opposed to private property and stands for state ownership in the so-called interest of all the individuals. The family rests, however, on some of the most deep rooted urges of the human nature. It is in response to these urges that Islam grants the family its central position in the structure of the society. It is the nest in and around which is produced a set of morals and manners, particularly those relating to manners, nurtured by the family, which pull human life out of the level of animal libertinism.

      Moreover, the family satisfies some of the most profound biological and psychological needs of man – needs which remain unsatisfied in a society which permits a licentious intermingling between the sexes. The idea that a woman should be tied in matrimonial relationship with one man alone is biologically sound and is conducive to the reproduction of healthy children. From the psychological point of view, too, the family is indispensable. For, the tender feelings of love and compassion and the spirit of co-operation and mutual sacrifice find in the family the most congenial atmosphere for their growth. Furthermore, no other institution provides a better opportunity for the development of an individual’s personality than the family. Experiences with regard to bringing up children in nurseries, according to Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, have shown that the children who had been brought up in crèches and nurseries had distorted and split personalities. It has also been proved by experience that the child who is brought up in nurseries with other children is deficient in respect of the feelings of love and compassion.



      Hence, when Islam laid down the family as the basis of its social system and made mutual responsibility the fundamental principle of family life, it gave its system of mutual responsibility a correct basis. This step is not only in consonance with the urges of human nature, but also capable of providing man with the best conceivable framework for the realization of his potential for goodness and perfection.

      Side by side with obligations and responsibilities of a non-material nature there arise rights and duties of a financial nature as well. For, Islam imposes upon the well-to-do member of the family the responsibility to support those of his relatives who cannot meet their expenses from their own resources. At the same time, Islam lays down a system of inheritance among blood relatives. Even though there are certain disagreements among the jurists on points of detail, they do not concern us here. What is relevant for the present discussion is that Islam does lay down social responsibility on the level of family life, and equates its members in their rights and duties in conformity with the principle of justice which is the basis of the Islamic social system.

      Let us move, now, from the family to the community as a whole. Here, too, we shall see that the system of mutual responsibility is confined to financial assistance, etc. Islam establishes the nexus of mutual responsibility between the individual and the community and vice versa, imposing upon both the parties rights and responsibilities in an equitable manner. The Islamic system of mutual social responsibility attempts to harmonise the seemingly conflicting interests of the individual and the community by trying to give both their due.



      The Islamic concept of mutual social responsibility, vis-à-vis the community, is not confined to financial matters alone, but covers the entire field of social relationships. It is concerned with warding off evil and indecency and corruption from the society and protecting it against the corrupt practices of the rulers as well as the ruled. Each and every individual is expected to play his part in this endeavour to save the society against the inroads of evil influences. ‘whosoever observes an evil, should remove it by hand; if he is not capable of that, then he should do the same by his heart (i.e. at least hate that evil) – and that is the weakest kind of faith’.

      An instance from the life of the first Caliph Abu Bakr illustrates the Islamic standpoint. A few Muslims interpreted the Qur’aanic verse: ‘O you who believe! Ye have charge of your own soul. He who erreth cannot injure you if you are rightly guided’ (V:105), as signifying the permission to be docile in the face of evil and corruption. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr warned them and said: ‘You recite this verse and misapply it. I have heard the Holy Prophet say: ‘If people observe an evil and do not change it, it will not be long before God will embrace all (i.e., even those who docilely tolerate evils) in His punishment’.

      Obligation towards the community. This is followed by building a social structure on the basis of goodness and excellence which ensures mutual responsibility between the individual and the community – a social structure which should ensure protection from all kinds of excesses and injustices, whether from the rulers or from the ruled.



      Said in the verse quoted above is merely to emphasise individual responsibility and to show that passive adherence to an error, provided it has no positive effects on the society, is a matter which concerns that person alone who chooses to follow that error. As for the rest, they are obliged to endeavour for the rectification of that person’s behaviour and for directing him toward goodness. Thereafter, if the misguided person does not accept true guidance, then he alone will have to bear the consequences of his error, and its consequences will extend to none else.

      Islam also lays down that it is the duty of every individual to be fair in his trade and occupation, for the fruit of his labour goes to the community. The Holy Prophet has said: ‘If anyone of you performs a task, it pleases God that he should perform it well’. At the same time, Islam lays down that every individual has claim to em- ent and it is the duty of the community or the state, as the representative of community, to provide him with the same. Hence, the of social responsibility in Islam is not merely a system of.

      This is the correct interpretation of the above-mentioned Qur’aanic verses and fits in with the over-all aims of Islam. In fact what has been silence and charity. It is primarily a system of training people and making them productive so that every person becomes self-sufficient. A same to the Prophet asking him for help. He was, however, capable of labour. The Prophet did not help him by offering him money, but offered for him an axe so that he might cut down the trees of the forest to sell the wood and thus make his living by the sweat of his brow. The Prophet also asked him to come back to him so that he might be know how he was faring. Thus, we find that the Prophet provided him with a means for the use of his labour in a productive manner: selected him to a profitable job and tried to keep himself informed to the extent of his endeavour. This incident establishes principle of the right of an individual to gainful employment provided it for work as well as his right to the tools that he requires in his. The state is responsible for all this. It is obvious that this is to the principle of mutual social responsibility between the individual and the community.

      It is with a view to translate the principle of social responsibility terms of practice that Islam prohibited interest – a prohibition cannot be appreciated without its proper context – the principle mutual social responsibility in Islam.



      Islam acknowledges the right of owning property: the property of a person has earned through legitimate means. Along with the of private property, however, Islam lays down another principle the principle that all property is ultimately the property of God in of which He has appointed the community as His vice-regent. It is evident from such Qur’aanic Verses as: “… and spend of that of, He hath made you the trustees” (LVII:7), and “… bestow on them of the wealth of Allaah” (XXIV:33). This limits absolutes of the right of private property. The community and its tentative the state, are entitled to place certain limitations on property if and when that right is exercised in a manner which against the interest of the community.

      eds, it is incumbent upon its owner to loan out those resources used they are not in use, without seeking any profit for himself. This in according with the two above mentioned principles, Islam pro- is in conformity with the Islamic principle of social responsibility. Inhibits interest s an illegitimate means of earnings. For, money does not breed money. It is human labour which make it productive. Now, since property is essentially that of the community, and its owner is, in a way like an employee who is entrusted with making it bear fruit, hence when some members of the community are in need of resources which they want to put to productive use, or for the satisfaction of their essential.

      The system of social responsibility cannot be truly established as long as the extortionate system of interest is intact and monetary resources are tightly in the grip of their owners who are loathe to allow anyone else to put them to productive use unless they are rewarded for the permission to use them in terms of a fixed percentage of profit. On the contrary, the purpose of Islam is to make financial resources available to all those who are capable of putting them in good use so that the entire community might profit by its utilisation. This is one of the first pillars for the realisation of the system of social responsibility.



      Let us now come to zakaat and charity. I chose to mention them in the end with a purpose to show that these constitute among the numerous bases of the system of social responsibility in Islam, rather than its only basis. It is preceded by the implementation of other Islamic injunctions such as the provision of employment, of graceful loan, and of loans of monetary resources for profitable utilisation without interest. It is also preceded by the establishment of a system of mutual obligation – financial and otherwise, and awakened sense of individual and collec-rect to consider zakat an act of personal benevolence.



      As for zakat, it is well-defined and precisely fixed financial duty which has not been left to the intuition or estimates or individuals. It is a duty which the state will collect from individuals, and if any person obdurately refuses to do so, it may even use force. Thus, it is not correct to consider zakat an act of personal benevolence.

      This should shatter the humiliating image of zakat which some people entertain in their minds – the image of a hand stretched out and begging and the other benevolently stretched out with the dole. This is a distorted picture of zakat, a picture envisioned either by those who have no appreciation of Islamic teachings or by those who know the teaching of Islam and still try to misrepresent it out of mischief.

      As for sadaqah (charity), that too is imagined to be an act of personal benevolence which places upon the recipient a humiliating load of personal obligation. This picture too is out-and-out false. What is termed charity is, according to the Islamic viewpoint, a loan which a man advances to God for which he will be rewarded by God Himself. Thus, it is especially a transition between an individual and God, rather than merely an act of pity on his part towards his fellow-being. According to the Islamic viewpoint, the one who ultimately makes the profit, the one who is the real gainer, is he who spends his wealth for the sake of God. Whatever he does is in his own interest, before it is in the interest of anyone else, which leaves no basis for assuming an air of beneficent superiority. In the words of the Qur’aan: ‘And whatsoever good things ye spend it is for yourselves when ye spend not save in search of Allah’s countenance; and whatever good things ye spend will be repaid to you in full (II:272). Again in the words of the Holy Qur’aan: ‘Who is that will lend unto Allaah a goodly loan, so that He may give it increase manifold?’ (II:245).

      As for the recipient, he is merely an intermediary through whom the donor advances a loan to God and becomes entitled to His reward.



      This, in brief, is the true picture of the system of social responsibility in Islam. I have presented its outlines so that we may have a glimpse of that imposing system which seeks to embrace the whole of human life in its sweep. In fact, it is a system which seeks to educate the individual as well as the society; a system which seeks to found the family and preserve it against internal as well as external strains and stresses; a system which regulates the relationship among the members of the community as well as between the individual and the community; a system which orients the individual to increasing production and lays down norms to govern all aspects of man’s economic activity.

      Thus, the Islamic system of social responsibility is a full-fledged system, and not merely a complex of certain moral virtues such as kindness, benevolence, etc., as many people tend to think. In the past Islam succeeded in transforming these ideals into concrete facts of life. That constitutes one of the proudest achievements of history, an achievement which is unexcelled in human history and beckons the Muslims to strive in that direction.







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