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Social change in Islam
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

During the time of the Prophet of Islam there were so many evils in the social life of Arabia. The Prophet wanted to reform all those evils according to the Islamic scheme but the method he opted was not a revolutionary one. Rather, it was what may be called, an evolutionary method.
An example of this evolutionary method can be seen in the case of slavery. At that time slavery was widespread everywhere in the world including Arabia. It even enjoyed the status of a highly established institution but the Prophet avoided a path that would seek to abolish slavery right in the beginning stage of his movement for reform. Instead, he adopted a gradual process of trying to remove the evils by way of education, teaching and explaining by peaceful means. God revealed verses in the Qur'an that enjoined the Prophet to persuade people to be kind to their slaves.

These verses sought to change the very view of slaves in the eyes of slaveholders. The Qur'an referred to slaves not as slaves but as human beings no different from their "masters," equal to all other men and deserving of respect, dignity and treatment that is but the right of all human beings.

In those days, slaves were a most common commodity traded in the marketplace. So had slavery been immediately abolished, it was bound to create innumerable problems. It would have been as if a war were being waged with such chaos as would be the result of abolishing the ownership of all homes at a time when everyone owned their own house.

So Islam launched a two-fold movement. On one front, it continuously discouraged the making of new slaves. On the other front it also continuously ingrained into the mindset of society that freeing a slave was an incomparable virtue, even to the extent that one was encouraged to purchase new slaves solely for the purpose of freeing them. So the Prophet and his companions began to purchase slaves from their masters and set them free.

This example clearly illustrates the Islamic method for removing social evils. This was the very method that was adopted by the Prophet to remove all the prevalent social evils in Arabian society.

Aisha (RA), the wife of the Prophet, has explained the rationale behind this evolutionary or gradual method. According to Al-Bukhari, she says that in the early days of Islam only such verses were revealed that sought to change a person's heart and mind, not verses that laid down divine law. Only when the Qur'an had successfully inculcated in the believers an innate acceptance of the evil nature of alcohol and adultery were the two explicitly prohibited. Describing this Qur'anic prohibition, Aisha (RA) says, had such a ban been revealed right in the very beginning, the people would have immediately cried out, "Never shall we leave alcohol nor shall we ever leave adultery."

Gradual change is but the Natural way of change. Islam was able to establish an evil-free society for the first time in history only because it employed this natural method of gradual change. We cannot find an example of such comprehensive success in transforming society on the part of any reform movement in the history of social reform.

In other words, the Islamic scheme for social reform can be called a results-oriented method as opposed to a dogmatic method. Islam seeks to bring about change in a manner that takes into consideration the possible consequences of any action instead of simply imposing its laws without any regard to the results.

Study of the Prophet's life reveals the distinction that he made between his ideas and how he put them into practice. Although he was the greatest of idealists and loved perfection, when dealing with people he kept reality firmly in sight and remained ever practical. The Prophet's life is laden with examples such as those leading unto the prohibition of alcohol and adultery.

The Prophet's effort was always such that people accept the mores of Islam by their own choice rather than be forced to accept it at the command of some political power. One of the aspects behind the wisdom of the Prophet's method is that when people relinquish a certain social evil of their own accord then there is no negative psychology that results. If a certain standard is imposed upon society, however, the social evil in question may seem to have been removed but some other problem is sure to take its place.

Judging by the standard of results achieved, reform by persuasion is true reform while reform by force is simply upheaval rather than real change in any positive sense of the word.

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