A subject to ponder over and over again
As a religion that emphasizes equilibrium and justice in all aspects of human life, Islam also accentuates the outward and public aspects of religion to complement the inward and private ones. According to Islam, religion is not only a matter of private conscience, although it certainly includes this dimension; it is also concerned with the public domain, with the social, economic, and even political lives of human beings. There is no division between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar in the Islamic perspective. Rather, all belongs to God and must therefore be regulated by Divine Law and moral injunctions that come from Him and are religious in nature.
The public aspects of Islam concern every part of the community qua community, stretching from the local social unit all the way to the ummah itself and even the whole of humanity and creation. There are no relations between human beings and between them and the rest of creation that do not possess a religious significance, starting with the relations between members of the most concrete community, the family, neighborhood, village, or tribe, and leading to greater and less palpable units such as a province or state (in
the traditional Islamic sense of the term), to dār al-islām , or the “Abode of Islam,” and Muslim minorities in non-Islamic lands, to the whole of humanity and finally to creation itself. Islamic injunctions therefore embrace non-Muslims, whose treatment is covered by Islamic Law. Human relations considered by Islam include social transactions and interactions ranging from duties and responsibilities to one’s neighbors and friends to those toward orphans and the destitute, stranger Muslims, and non-Muslims. Some of the teachings of Islam in this domain are general moral instructions, such
as being charitable or just in all situations and toward all people and also other creatures of God. Others are formulated in concrete laws that have governed Islamic social behavior over the centuries, including the personal laws concerning such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, which belong to the private as well the public domain.
One important public aspect of Islam concerns economic activity. In contrast to Christianity, which, in its early history, displayed a certain disdain for mercantile activity and in which there are no explicit economic injunctions as far as its revealed sources in the New Testament are concerned, the Quran and the .H adīth contain explicit economic teachings. These teachings form the foundation of what has come to be known more recently as Islamic economics, although it might be mentioned here that the economic views of St. Thomas Aquinas resemble Islamic teachings in many ways. There are Islamic injunctions relating to how transactions should be carried out, the hoarding of wealth as well as its distribution, religious taxation, endowment (awqāf) , economic treatment of the poor, the prohibition of usury, and many other injunctions that became formalized over the centuries in various Islamic institutions and laws.
The bazaar has always played an important religious role in Islamic society and continues to do so to this day. The guilds that have been responsible for the making of objects, from rugs to pottery, and the carrying out of projects of public economic significance, from the digging of underground waterways (qanāt) to the construction of roads and buildings, have always had a direct religious aspect and have been usually associated with the Sufi orders. According to the Islamic perspective, there is no such thing as economics considered in and of itself. What is called economics today has always been considered in Islam in relation to ethics, and religious injunctions have been promulgated to check and limit human greed, selfishness, and avarice, in an effort to prevent them from completely destroying the exercise of justice that is so strongly emphasized in Islam.
The public aspects of religion in Islam are also concerned with military and political life, which is not to say that every Muslim ruler or military leader has followed the Islamic injunctions fully. There is an elaborate code of conduct in war based primarily on the defense of dār al-islām rather than aggression, fair treatment of the enemy including prisoners of war, prohibition of killing innocent civilians, and the like. There is much talk today about jihād , usually translated “holy war.” Actually it means “exertion” in the path of God, and in its outward aspect it is meant to be defensive and not aggressive. Whatever misuse is made of this term by extremists in the Islamic world or Western commentators of the Islamic scene does not change the meaning of outward jihād in the traditional Islamic context as an exertion to preserve one’s religion or homeland from attack in the traditional Islamic context. As for inward jihād , it means to battle the negative tendencies within the soul, tendencies that prevent us from living a life of sanctity and reaching the perfection God has meant for us.
Islam is said to be the first civilization to have developed a fully codified international law that takes such matters as war and peace between nations into consideration. Likewise, there are extensive Islamic teachings concerning political rule, although, in contrast to the case of the social and economic activities, the Quran and .H adīth are less explicit about the actual form that government should take and much more explicit about the general nature of good government and just rulers. It was only later in Islamic history that the classical theories of Islamic government were developed, a subject to which we shall turn later.