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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
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
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. q