To understand the role of Islam in society one must first realize that Islam is a universal religion in which all Muslims are brothers, regardless of differences in homeland, race, color, or rank. This brotherhood does not divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, for Muslims must be friendly toward non-Muslims so long as they are friendly, so long as they do not attack Islam. Islam has retained its unity and universal characteristics in the midst of such diverse cultures as those of Arabia, Greece, Rome, and Iran in ancient times, and later in the cultures of Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Central Asia, India, China, and Southeast Asia. Once more the universalism of Islam is being shown as it comes into contact with the new culture of the West.
In this interplay between Islam and the various cultures of the world it should be remembered that Islam has no master organization which requires conformity or organizes missionary programs. The interplay is a spontaneous movement on the part of individual Muslims who seek to follow the straight path of Islam. These Muslims recognize no distinction between the religious and the secular; they try to follow in their social life the rules revealed to them in the Qur'an and the Sunnah and interpreted in Islamic law. For Islam, the present world is but a transitory existence to be followed by the Eternal World which is better by far, "And verily the latter portion will be better for thee than the former" (Surah XCIII, 4). This does not mean that we must neglect this world; on the contrary, Islam warns us against neglecting it, for the Qur'an says, "But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion of the world, and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the earth; lo! Allah loveth not corrupters" (Surah XXVIII, 77). Islam recognizes the importance of life in the community in this world, but it warns the Muslim against considering this world as the end of existence. Moral and religious values must be seen to be higher than material values.
The importance of social justice is constantly emphasized in Islam through the obligation of zakat and the distribution of gifts at the times of the great festivals. In the older Islamic countries this has been the origin of waqfs for all kinds of service to the community. The teachings concerning zakat stress the principle that the ownership of wealth is a privilege, not a right, and one which imposes obligations to the community. In the Traditions the Prophet exhorts us to give our servants the same food we eat and the same clothes we wear.
In Islam the merit of a person depends upon his deeds, not upon his words, nor his ancestors, nor his rank in the community. The Qur'an says, "there is nothing for the person but what he has done" (Surah LIII, 39) and again, "The highest among you is the most pious" (Surah XLIX, 13). The only recognized difference in rank in Islam is that which is merited by religious devotion and insight. Such recognition is accorded on the basis of deeds, not on the basis of office. Islam has no ordained clergy, no religious hierarchy with authority over their fellow Muslims. The ulama, the Shaikh, Mullah, Imam, Ahund, Mufti, Mujtahid, Hatib, all are only men like the others in the Muslim community, men who perform special services and are respected and elevated only on the basis of the Quranic principle that the highest is the most pious.
Slavery was customary at the time that Islam was revealed, but Islam prepared the grounds for its elimination. It encourages the emancipation of slaves by giving them the possibility of purchasing their freedom, it urges that part of zakat be given to slaves to help them free themselves, and it offers the possibility of atonement for certain sins, such as having sexual intercourse during fasting days, by releasing slaves.
Women are given equality with men, in principle, for the Qur'an says, "Whoever, male or female, who is a believer, performs good actions, they will enter into Paradise" (Surah IV, 124), and again, "Men have reward for what they do, and women have reward for what they do" (Surah IV, 32). But we cannot deny that in general men are superior to women and consequently men have authority over women. The Qur'an says, "Men have authority over women" (Surah IV, 14).
With the rise of nationalism in the modern world, the relation of nationalism to Islam has become a problem which is frequently discussed. Many people think that since Islam is universal it must be against nationalism, but this is not the case. Universalism can begin with national loyalty, for nationalism is simply the result of the organization of a group of people in one political body, regardless of their differences in religion. Islam does not prohibit such political organizations so long as they do not jeopardize the essentials of Islamic teachings. Nationalism can unite or divide, and when it is guided by the universal principles of Islam it can lead men to unity rather than to divisions. In this regard it should be noted that the demand for the Caliphate, in the political sense, has greatly lessened in modern times. Pan-Islamism in our day is not a movement for one super-government over all Muslims, but for cooperation between Islamic nations.
Jihad, holy war, has sometimes been misunderstood as meaning that Muslims must declare war on non-Muslims until they accept Islam. This mistake arises from a misreading of the Qur'an without knowing the context of the verses and the circumstances in which they were revealed. The verses which call for war against unbelievers were revealed when pagans were still putting obstacles in the way of the activities of Muhammad even after opportunities for reconciliation had been given. War in Islam is only legitimate when it is declared in defense of religion, property, and prestige. The Qur'an says, ‘Fight in the way of God those who wage war on you, and do not commit aggression. God does not like aggressors" (Surah II, 190).
Islam does not approve of hostility toward other religions. Rather, it proclaims freedom of religion and forbids coercion in religion. During his lifetime, Muhammad himself was very kind toward his neighbors and friends of other beliefs, Jews as well as Christians. He even married a Jewish woman, Safijah, and a Christian slave, Marie, who was given him by the ruler of Egypt. When the Emperor of Abyssinia died, Muhammad prayed for him in recognition of his help given to the Muslims who took refuge there in the early days of Islam.
Islamic society has been greatly influenced, and the spread of Islam has been aided, by the educational opportunities offered through the mosques and religious leaders. The Prophet encouraged education by appointing many of his Companions as teachers in Arabia when Islam spread throughout the country. It was ruled that a poor man could marry a woman with a dowry of teaching her a chapter of the Qur'an. As Islam spread to other lands, centers of study grew up at Baghdad, Kufa, and many other cities of the Muslim world. The system of education was simple, without organized program or ceremony. Any pupil could approach a teacher and stay with him as long as he' continued to learn; then he might go on to other teachers, or receive a license to be a teacher himself. In the family the parents educated their children. The teachers did not form a special class but were at the same time landowners, merchants, or government officials. This system continues today in most Muslim countries.
In addition, there have been in most countries the madrasas associated with the mosques, and special schools of higher learning. The oldest Islamic university is the Al Azhar in Cairo, founded in the fourth century (tenth century A.D.). Other centers for higher Islamic studies today are found at Fez in Morocco, at Zaitouna University in Tunisia, at Medina, at Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, at Baghdad and Karbala in Iraq, at Tehran in Iran, at Lahore in Pakistan, at Lucknow and at Alighar and Usmania Universities in India, and at Jogjakarta in Indonesia. In some of these centers the Islamic studies are associated with government-supported universities; there are also government universities in other countries which offer special courses in Islam, as is the case on Taiwan. Instruction in Islam is given in local languages at the lower levels, but for higher studies a good knowledge of Arabic is necessary and mastery of Persian and Turkish is required for any extensive research.
Since art and music flourish in times of peace and prosperity, there was little time for them in the early days of the Prophet. Muhammad, however, approved of the music known in his day. He forbade the art which was prevalent in his time, consisting chiefly of human figures, since it was symbolic of idols and would have spread paganism. Because of that, the literal-minded jurists deduced that Islam opposed art and music, which is not correct. The better deduction would have been that we must be careful of the consequences of any kind of art. Art for art's sake is unknown in Islam. As long as art is useful as a means of heightening religion and morality, it is permitted; but if it leads to immorality, it is forbidden.
Mohammad Rasjidi , in K.W. Morgan, ed.,
Islam: the Straight Path,
New York, Ronald Press, 1958