Social Development in Islam

Table of contents for the topic Social Development in Islam
  1. Human and Social Development in Islam

Human and Social Development in Islam

Panoramic view of the Alhambra Complex in Garanda, Spain.

What exactly do we mean by human and social development?

This question will be answered differently if we were to ask a diverse set of people.

Even though most people may agree that human development entails having more “freedom”, “equality”, “justice”, and access to opportunities for “self-fulfillment”, “happiness”, and “flourishing”, different societies may interpret these values very differently depending on their worldview. This is because concepts of development and progress ultimately stem out of a society’s belief and value systems and are measured according to them. The worldview of a community or culture dictates how that society perceives reality and consciously or subconsciously shapes that society’s normative principles of ethics, morals, development, and progress.

Just like the right ideal can galvanize people towards progress, a wrong ideal can derail the efforts of humans and societies. The dominant secular (neoclassical economics-based) worldview has done just that through its myopic formulation of human development in terms of material wealth and by ignoring the role of spirituality or character development in defining human development. This narrow formulation of human development, accompanied by the rise of market-based capitalism and the estrangement of God from human life, has significantly damaged the human psyche and society, as well as the environment.

The Islamic worldview in contrast has principally spiritual end-goals of human development and defines life to be purposeful. The purpose of human life is clarified by God in the Quran to be “nothing except for the worship of God”1. A primary distinction between the Islamic and non-Islamic worldviews is that the former incorporates a belief in the impermanence of this worldly life (al-dunyā) and the existence of an eternal afterlife, al-ākhira. The Quran says in this regard, “And this worldly life is not but diversion and amusement. And indeed, the home of the Hereafter—that is the [eternal] life, if only they knew.”2. The real measure of human progress and actions thus is to be seen in the light of the Quranic verse, “And that to your Lord is the finality”3.

It is illuminating to see a Quranic negative example related to human development in order to understand what should not be mistaken as human development. The Quran narrates the story of Qārūn, an affluent contemporary of Prophet Moses [as],

So Qārūn came out before his people in his adornment; those who desired the worldly life said, "Oh, would that we had like what was given to Qārūn; indeed, he is one of great fortune." But those who had been given knowledge said, "Woe to you! The reward of God is better for he who believes and does righteousness; And none are granted it except the patient."

 The Quran, verses 28:79–80.

God clearly establishes through these verses the true Islamic knowledge of development by defining the belief in God and righteous actions to be better and deserving of everlasting reward. Islamic development does not conflate needs with objectives and goals. While economic well-being is a need of all people, it is not the ultimate goal of human efforts. Islamic development is not about material accumulation or the freedom to consume. It entails the development of an ethical innate character (akhlāq) through the process of the purification of human souls (tazkiya), which is manifested externally through the correspondence of human actions with divine guidelines and internally through the rectification and purification of intrinsic human character traits.  

We can therefore begin to describe the ends (i.e., objectives) of the Islamic conception of development by describing seven interrelated overlapping concepts. In contrast to the secular worldview, human development entails freeing oneself of base desires and recognizing one’s servanthood before God (ʿubūdīya) and attaining a God-consciousness that can rein in selfish indulgences and actions that are harmful for oneself and society (taqwā). By attaining a high standard of ethical character (akhlāq) through the purification of human souls (tazkiya), human beings can deserve to be the vicegerents of God on earth through their attempts to perfect their servanthood before God (ʿubūdīya). 

Although new concepts such as sustainable development and human-development have recently been proposed, the true barrier in the Islamic worldview that can check human transgressions is God-consciousness (taqwā), which literally means guarding oneself against God’s displeasure. God describes in the Quran that the most noble person before God is the one with the most taqwā. By adorning oneself with these attributes, one will be able to scale the heights of excellence (iḥsān) and civilization (ʿumrān) and achieve true felicity, happiness, and welfare in this life and in the hereafter (saʿāda).

By subscribing to these notions of development, human beings can rise above the inhumane pursuit of selfish interests and create sound and harmonious societies while also earning the pleasure of God and escaping the illusion of those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think that they are doing well in work.”4

To read more on the seven overlapping ends of Islamic development, read our paper:  “The Ends of Development in Islam: Seven Overlapping Concepts”, J. Qadir, A. Zaman, Journal of Islamic Banking and Finance, Volume 35, No 3, 2018. http://islamicbanking.asia/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/July-Sept-2018.pdf
[Longer version]: “The Islamic Worldview and Development Ideals”, J. Qadir, Journal of Islamic Banking and Finance, Volume 35, Number 1, Jan–Mar 2018, pp 33–44. https://tinyurl.com/islamicdevelopment