When the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ arrived in Madinah, he began his message to the people with several instructions which included, “supporting the weak, helping the oppressed, and spreading peace.”21
It is a fundamental tenet of Islamic activism to always be on the side of the oppressed which involves advocating for those groups as allies. The Prophet Muhammad taught, “Beware the supplication of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and God.”22
If God listens to the oppressed, so must we all. In order to advocate effectively for those who have suffered injustice at the hands of others, one must begin by lending an ear and listening attentively to understand what has happened, and what their demands for justice and reconciliation are. The Qur’an states, “God does not love the public mention of evil, except by one who was wronged; Verily God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (Qur’an 4:148). In other words, publicly mentioning the faults of others is generally prohibited in Islam unless a person has suffered some injustice and oppression, in which case the society must listen to their demands for justice. The legacy of Islam demonstrates the comprehensive manner in which the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his followers strived to support all those who were oppressed or marginalized in society prior to the coming of Islam.
In seventh-century Arabia, during the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, one’s status and security in society were contingent on one’s tribal affiliation. Without a powerful clan for protection, there was no way to ensure that one’s rights would not be violated or trodden upon by the upper echelons of society. In this context, the emphasis placed by the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions on caring for orphans is of profound relevance to the subject of social justice. “God instructs you,” the Qur’an tells us, “that you stand firmly for justice towards orphans” (4:127). So critical to Islam’s message is support for orphans that rejecting it has been linked with the rejection of the faith: “Have you not seen the one who rejects faith? That is the one who repels the orphans” (Qur’an 107:1-2). The Qur’an refers to orphans no less than 23 times.
The Prophet ﷺ himself grew up an orphan, his father having passed away shortly before his birth, while his mother passed away when he was only six years old. The Qur’an reminds him that it was God who ensured his survival and shelter, “Did He not find you an orphan and grant you refuge?” (Qur’an 93:6). The Qur’an then instructs the Prophet to emulate and replicate God’s care towards him: “So therefore, do not treat the orphan with harshness” (Qur’an 93:9).
Why should caring for orphans figure so prominently in this faith? The orphan represented the most vulnerable member of society, most susceptible to exploitation, the one who had lost all means of physical, financial and emotional security in the fierce tribalistic milieu of seventh-century Arabia where everything hinged on patrilineal descent. It is easy to see how the Qur’anic concept of the orphan can be extended as an archetype, emblematic of those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and disenfranchised in any community, in any time and place.
The economic context of pre-industrial societies resulted in the proliferation of coercive labor institutions such as slavery and serfdom.23
Thus, slavery and forced labor was the most common form of labor transaction in ancient civilizations24
and was the norm in pre-Islamic Arabia. Islam targeted the eradication of the maltreatment of slaves as a critical form of social injustice.
First, Islam ordained freeing slaves as an integral part of the spiritual journey towards God:
What will make you understand the uphill climb? It is the freeing of a slave. Or feeding on a day of severe hunger the close orphan or the needy person lying in the dust. Then he will become one of those with faith, who urge one another to have patience and urge one another to show compassion and mercy. (Qur’an 90:12-17)
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ stated, “He who frees a slave, God will set free every limb of his body from Hell in reward for every limb of the slave’s body.”25
To this end, the early Muslim community set about freeing many of the slaves in society, much to the irritation of the Makkan elites, the chiefs of the various powerful tribes in the city. Slaves like Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ and ʿĀmir ibn Fuhayrah attained great prominence in Islam, both of whom were freed by the Prophet’s companion Abū Bakr. The Prophet Muhammad himself personally freed 63 slaves during his life, his wife Aisha freed 69 slaves, and his companions freed numerous slaves, most notably his companion ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿAwf who freed an astounding thirty-thousand.26
The exhortation to free slaves was not limited to those who were Muslim. The foremost compendium of Hadith, Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī
, contains a chapter on freeing idolater slaves wherein it is mentioned that the Prophet praised Ḥakīm ibn Ḥizām’s action of freeing 100 non-Muslim slaves during the pre-Islamic period.27
Islam also set about eliminating the mistreatment and abuse of slaves. The Prophet declared, “He who slaps his slave or beats him, the expiation for it is that he should set him free.”28
The Prophet ﷺ preached, “Your slaves are your brothers. God has placed them under your care, and he who has his brother under him should feed him with the same food he eats and clothe him with the same clothes he wears, and do not burden him beyond his capacity, and if you burden him then help him.”29
The Prophet thus transformed the status of existing slaves, elevating them to servants who had rights over their former masters. Even referring to them as ‘slaves’ was prohibited: “None of you should say: My slave, for all of you are the slaves of God. Rather, you should say 'My young man.'”30
Moreover, Islam condemned the enslavement of free persons as an abominable act, as the Prophet ﷺ stated he would personally prosecute such a person on the Day of Judgment.31
The Prophet also said that the person who enslaves a free person would not have their prayers accepted by God.32
The companions understood this as a universal principle affirming the freedom of all humankind from any kind of exploitation or abuse. When the Muslim ruler ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb was told that a Christian peasant had been abused in Egypt, he angrily turned to the governor of Egypt and asked him, “Since when did you treat people as slaves, when their mothers bore them as free souls?”33
Indeed, the influential Muslim intellectual Muhammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935 CE) postulated that the gradual abolition of slavery was the final goal of Islam, and if Muslim rulers had been true to the Islamic code of ethics, slavery would have died out centuries ago.34
While many rulers continued the institution of slavery into the modern era for political and economic interests before eventually ceding to European pressure, the Tunisian ruler Ahmad Bey issued an abolition decree in 1846, arguing that freedom was the aspiration of Islam, with the support of the two highest religious authorities—the Ḥanafī Shaykh al-Islam Muhammad Bayram IV and Mālikī Mufti Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-Riyāḥi.35
Islam’s campaign against slavery represents an ethic of combating all forms of exploitation, subjugation, abuse, and should continue in modern times through advocacy for factory workers in deplorable conditions, as well as rescuing victims of human trafficking, child labor, and forced marriages.
Persons with disabilities36
Recently, there has been a growth in public awareness and sensitivity towards those with physical and mental disabilities. Historically, those with disabilities were often stigmatized and marginalized; in Islamic society, however, some of the greatest legacies were established by famous individuals with disabilities, which established an important precedent of respect and dignity for all.
One of the illustrious companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was ʿAbd Allāh ibn Umm Maktūm, a man who also happened to be fully blind. He holds a very unique distinction in Islam, being one of two people assigned by the Prophet to perform the daily calls to prayer, the other being the aforementioned Bilāl Ibn Rabāḥ.37
On one occasion in the early period of Islam when the Prophet ﷺ was preaching about the teachings of Islam to the chiefs of Makkah, ʿAbd Allāh came and interrupted the gathering with a request, which caused the Prophet to frown momentarily. Even this very slight expression of displeasure (invisible to ʿAbd Allāh) was considered a lapse in judgment and the opening verses of the 80th chapter of the Qur’an were then revealed which corrected the Prophet and reminded him that only God knows who will benefit the most from hearing the message. From this story, we can derive the importance of ensuring that those with disabilities are equally welcomed at all gatherings, provided equal and equitable access to educators and educational opportunities, and not discriminated against in any manner.
One of the famous reciters of the Qur’an was ʿĪsá al-Zarqī, better known as Qālūn (d. 220 AH/835 CE). He was the leading reciter in the city of Madinah during his lifetime. His style of recitation is the norm today in Qatar, Libya, and Tunisia. A lesser-known fact about Qalun, however, is that he was in fact a person who was deaf, and yet was able to master the art of recitation, with all its subtle phonetic nuances; it is said that through lip-reading he was able to correct his students’ errors.38
In addition to physical disabilities, Islam provided a precedent for treating with dignity and compassion those with mental health and learning challenges. On one occasion, a woman with an unspecified condition that affected her cognition approached the Prophet ﷺ to request his assistance. The Prophet immediately prioritized her request, he addressed her with a customary honorific title (which signifies both respect and comfort), and asked her to select any public place in the city at her convenience so that he could arrange to meet her and assist her. When he met with her, he patiently stood with her at the roadside until her requests were all satisfied.39
This story is particularly significant and authoritative for Muslims because the Prophet Muhammad represents the moral example to be emulated and his actions and teachings constitute the basis of the Islamic ethical framework. Thus, this specific incident can be used by Muslims to derive many lessons. For instance, it demonstrates that it is an Islamic goal to ensure that mental health counseling services are available, and that such services must be arranged according to the terms of those who utilize them, in a manner that is convenient and accessible for them. It demonstrates the importance of creating a safe space where people are not stigmatized, but rather addressed with terms of respect and equal dignity so that they feel comfortable accessing their needs in public.
One of the most fundamental aspects of Islam’s social justice message has been its emphasis on racial equality. The Qur’an has a famous passage that states:
O Humankind, verily we created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed, the most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most pious. Verily, God is all-Knowing, all-Aware. (Qur’an 49:13)
This verse is universally cited by Muslims as endorsing racial equality because it mentions that belonging to different ethnic identities is not a matter that confers superiority, but rather is intended to enhance human interactions and harmony. Meanwhile, it is only virtue and piety that make one more honorable in the sight of God, not one’s skin color or ethnicity.
In his most famous sermon delivered during the pilgrimage towards the end of his life, the Prophet ﷺ declared:
O People, your Lord is One, and your father (Ādam) is one. Verily, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab over an Arab. There is no superiority of a white over a black nor a black over a white. Only piety causes one to excel.40
Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ’s story has become one of the most iconic examples of Islam’s campaign against racism. He was an Abyssinian slave in Mecca who embraced Islam and was freed by Abū Bakr, and became one of the most prominent companions of the Prophet ﷺ, given the honor of regularly making the call to prayer (in addition to ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Umm Maktum). In fact, when the Prophet ﷺ returned to Makkah eight years after being expelled from the city, he requested Bilāl to climb on to the roof of the Holy Ka’ba and make the call to prayer, thus simultaneously establishing Islam’s message of monotheism and racial equality. The Makkan elites who opposed Islam were horrified at this sight and began making derogatory racist remarks, and the Qur’anic verse on racial equality (49:13) was revealed to refute them.41
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Islam to the civil rights movement in the United States. Malcolm X was particularly inspired by his experience during the Hajj pilgrimage where he witnessed people of all ethnic backgrounds united in worship without any distinction between them. He wrote in his letters, “America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem...I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”42
Other faith communities
Truth cannot be arrived at through compulsion or coercion, and hence the Qur’an stipulates that people should arrive at their own convictions willingly: “There is no compulsion in faith; truth is clear from error” (Qur’an 2:256) and “Had your Lord willed, all people on earth could have believed; so how then could you try to force people to arrive at faith?” (Qur’an 10:99).
From its outset, Islam called upon its followers to express kindness and compassion towards all people: “Be compassionate with all those on earth, and the One above Heaven will bestow His Compassion upon you,” the Prophet ﷺadvised.43
As custodians of God on Earth, establishing justice for all people is of utmost importance, and hence it is those who stand for justice who receive Divine aid regardless of their ideological affiliation. A famous tradition amongst Muslim scholars states, “God will support a just nation, even if it be a nation that rejects faith, and He will not support an unjust nation even if it be a nation of believers.”44
Believers who do not act upon their belief by establishing justice are failing to live up to the dictates of their religion. True faith requires that believers manifest their commitment to God by upholding justice for all people.
Islam’s message of social justice was not limited to supporting the rights of Muslims alone. The Prophet ﷺ affirmed his commitment to a pledge known as Ḥilf al-Fuḍūl
, an agreement by some of the clans of Makkah to protect anyone who was oppressed, regardless of their identity or background. The Prophet’s affirmation of this pledge demonstrated the duty Muslims have to protect anyone who is oppressed and that Muslims should have no qualms entering into alliances with other religious communities in order to fulfill this duty. As the Qur’an states, “And cooperate in moral virtue and piety, and do not cooperate in sin or transgression” (Qur’an 5:2). Religious identity should not be a consideration when deciding whether to support someone in need. In one tradition, the Prophet ﷺ related that God says, “I do not reject the supplications of the oppressed, even if it be from one who rejects faith.”45
In the previously mentioned story of the Christian peasant in Egypt during the time of the Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb lies one of the most powerful examples of social justice for all people. Umar decreed for the Egyptian Christian peasant to exact full retribution upon the Arab Muslim nobleman who had abused him, disregarding any favoritism based on class, ethnicity, or religion.