Strangers: An Ethical Framework of Gharabah | Part II

This article is the second of a two-part series. You can read Part I here.

Aseel Azab-Osman

Strangers Today

Orienting ourselves towards the world in the manner of strangers can help us recognise the specific forms of harm that are simultaneously produced by and producing our daily practices. I focus on examples of the modes of production and consumption characteristic of the capitalist world economy today, first because I find these relations to be the most invisible to our view — precisely because we are usually very much removed physically and spatially from them. 

Second, I think there is something peculiar and especially dangerous about these modern practices, in as much as causing harm is not simply a by-product of their operation, but is rather inherent to the logic of most, if not all, of these socio-economic practices. That is because sustaining the cycles of production and consumption at their current and expanding speed, global reach, and sheer magnitude is only possible through mechanisms that systematically neglect or oppose the welfare and benefits of certain human populations, animals, and environmental ecologies — all of God’s creations.  

Why is being attentive to harm such an urgent ethical matter for us Muslims, and why do I emphasise our responsibility to become better aware of it? Harm is a category that occupies a central position in Islamic legal and ethical discourses, particularly in the development of the concept of maqāṣid (objectives) of sharīʿa, based on inferential reasoning that “rules of Islamic jurisprudence are laid down to attract benefits and to eliminate hardship, in order to protect the five necessities of life recognized by Islam: religion (dīn), life (nafs), offspring/lineage (nasl), wealth/property (māl) and intellect (ʿaql)”.1

Generally defined as whatever causes injury/ailment, or prevents the attainment of benefits and welfare, harm is such an integral tenet in shar’ī thought that its prevention constitutes a legal maxim2: al-ḍarar yuzāl — harm should be removed.3 What generates wide recognition for this maxim and its applicability in Islamic jurisprudence, is that “it has its roots firmly in Qurʾānic injunctions and in the traditions of the Prophet”4, such as the famous ḥadīth lā ḍarar wa lā ḍirār”: no harm should be inflicted nor reciprocated. 

We can establish from this picture that the identification, measurement, and assessment of harm are all processes involved in the production of fiqh (jurisprudence). Therefore, knowledge of the present forms of socio-economic harm, the practices that enable them, and how and why these practices come about are necessary components both for determining legal rulings, as well as, for our purposes, defining our ethical responses to them. It is, once again, the first component of our proposed framework. 

Much has been written about the ways different global industries are based on harmful practices and perpetuate them. These studies identify harm being directed towards human populations, particularly working class and post-colonial populations, domestic animals for human consumption, and the larger ecologies of wild animals, plants, land, and other living organisms. Mohamed Ghilan, for instance, offers a detailed study of the different forms of harm inherent to practices in the food industry that inflict undue pain and suffering on animal populations, particularly those reared on mass-scale factory farms.5 Here, as in many industrial settings, cutting costs in order to maximise profits is achieved at the expense of humane treatment of animals, as well as safe conditions and fair compensation for workers.6

Others have pointed to the global garment industry, where once again accumulating more and more profit takes the shape of employing cheaply produced but toxic dyes, growing materials that deplete natural resources on which smaller communities rely for their livelihood, and offshoring production to the global south where primarily female labour is severely underpaid and overworked to produce non-durable items in very dangerous working conditions, often leading to mass accidents and deaths. Moreover, these items are deliberately designed to be non-durable so that they can be sold cheaply enough to generate a demand and produce profit, and also wear and tear quickly enough for consumers to need to replace them at a higher turnover rate. As one article notes, overproduction means that most items produced on a mass scale end up in landfill sites.7

Our age is not the first where humans have found it profitable to inflict harm on God’s creation. A study on animal welfare in premodern Islamic legal manuals identifies instances where Muslim jurists prescribe certain behaviours in human-animal relations such as “allowing animals to rest, not overloading them, and not harassing them [that] are related to the basic Islamic principle of preventing harm.”8 The difference, I argue, is that in premodern societies the self-interest of its members was, for the most part, aligned with their limited resources (in terms of ownership of animals and land, workers in their employment and slaves or servants in their care, and their surrounding environment). In contrast, modern technologies of production, by constantly developing new ways to produce more and at much faster rates, have contributed to a shift in our understanding of self-interest so it is no longer aligned with the overall welfare of all creation, and instead is fuelled the more we practice exploitation and harm.

If premodern livelihood depended on respecting natural cycles of growth and restoration, and limited resources and mobility supported socio-economic practices that were in harmony with the welfare and reasonable treatment of workers, animals and the surrounding environment, the constellation of technologies associated with modernity, by contrast, unleashed restrictions on mobility and access to resources. Consequently, production could be reorganised on mass scale and at higher speeds, supporting the accumulation of massive wealth, profits, and comforts, which in turn became the defining characteristics of human interest in the modern era. 

Despite the ubiquity of harm in modern socio-economic practices, many of us remain unaware of it. That is because the complex nature of social organisation, the division of labour, the urban expansion that supports our current existence, and the speed with which modern life operates all keep us at a distance from most sites of production. Imagine a model of livelihood where small communities lived and worked in close proximity to each other and where their commodities were being produced and consumed, where neighbours knew each other and could easily observe each other’s business practices.

Now imagine our moment, where many of the basic life processes like food cultivation and processing, garment production, waste disposal etc. are either happening in large factories, far away areas, or even overseas, where the only thing that represents these complex socio-economic relations in our sight is the commodity we buy in the supermarket or, perhaps now more frequently, online. This distance that affords us to make quick consumer decisions, to buy things on the go, to not worry about basic life processes so that we can get on with our work or other responsibilities — it is this exact distance that hides the relations of harm we regularly, and often unknowingly, support or benefit from. 

Here is where I find behaving as strangers to be useful in both revealing these hidden practices, and in thinking about how to ethically respond to them. A stranger is slow; they do not buy the first thing they see on the shelf, and do not click the ‘buy now’ button in the blink of an eye. They deliberately pause to ask what is behind the commodity they are viewing or holding in their hand. They behave as if they are buying an item for the first time, every time. Because they are strangers, and therefore have neither knowledge, familiarity, nor custom to fall back onto, they take the time to learn about things around them. They wish to see things deeply and clearly, and so they try to identify the invisible relations hidden within a familiar-looking environment. Strangers, because they are not accustomed to their surroundings, despite how familiar and natural they may seem, are always questioning the nature of their reality. 

Just as these practices allow us to better understand our social environment and the forms of harms we might not be attentive to, they can also guide more thoughtful, reflective, ethical consumption. This includes making slow decisions after much research and contemplation on what ethical businesses or sources are available, buying durable items that will last longer, prioritising mending items over replacing them, finding non-harmful ways to dispose of waste in their vicinity, looking out for the disempowered in their community, frequently checking on their working conditions, using their connections to advise and admonish employers to take better care of their employees, and improving their business practices to alleviate forms of harm. All of these are every day ethical practices that are the result of resolute, deliberate slowness and attention to ourselves, our impact on others, and our surroundings. 

How these harm-removing practices will look depends on the subjective position of each individual and the resources and power communities possess. As Ingrid Mattson notes, ethical responses range from developing and consuming alternative ethical sources to engaging “broader policy discussions about these issues and promote legislation regulating the [industries] at large.”9 These efforts will have to engage juristic rules related to the subsidiary legal maxims requiring the removal of harm. Some of these include the injunctions that the harm is not to be removed by another harm; that, if necessary, a larger harm may be removed by a lesser harm; that a personal harm can be incurred if it prevents a public harm; and if an action will bring about both harm and benefit, that the prevention of harm be prioritised.10 These maxims can help guide communities as they make decisions about what alternative practices they can develop and source, what forms of harm are inevitable and what can they do to limit their contribution to it if they can’t entirely eliminate it, and what forms of comfort they are willing to forego in order to remove some of the harm we practice. 

Conclusion: Returning 

In his article on the pursuit of happiness, Khaled Abou El-Fadl states that Muslim theologians have always conceived of a process where a Muslim’s reflection and deliberation would lead to the “realisation of the importance of goodness, [so that] the seeking of knowledge […] would lead to a comprehension of the moral good.”11 I have argued that to be a stranger is not just a label nor a description of how others treat Muslims as outcasts. To be a stranger is to embody the practice of our Prophet ﷺ, with clear characteristics and behaviours that I outlined. It is to approach our very livelihood with slow, deliberate, and reflective distance, and to take seriously our duty of khilāfah by constantly learning about what practices inflict harm and what we can do to lift it. This duty, in its essence, is the same as when it was first revealed. 

However, just as the jāhiliyyah of each age manifests differently, so must our duty to transform ourselves and society meet the complexity and magnitude of this injustice. While I have illustrated the use of this framework with the example of socio-economic practices, I imagine it to be necessary and applicable to all our relations and practices, private and public, and all forms of harm, whether they be material, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.

We can never predict how much communities can do to successfully influence national and transnational policies, or if most of the harm we have so far incurred is fully reversible. The general eschatological (signs of the end of time) discourse points towards increased corruption and the proliferation of sins and harm leading to the Day of Judgment. My understanding, however, is that the potential failure of our actions to attain the desired outcomes in this world does not negate the responsibility to perform them. In this light, I understand God’s reassurance that an individual is only held accountable for their capabilities.12 I see their ethical obligation to address harm to be according to what subjective privileges they have at their disposal, be those of class, knowledge, access to finance and policy resources, or political freedom. The impossibility of total repair and redress of harm is irrelevant to our ethical obligations, because the grammar of Islamic eschatology — and Islamic practice in general — is that of intentions, not outcomes. Within this discursive logic, the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said: 

إِنْ قَامَتِ السَّاعَةُ وَفِي يَدِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَسِيلَةٌ، فَإِنِ اسْتَطَاعَ أَنْ لَا تَقُومَ حَتَّى يَغْرِسَهَا فَلْيَغْرِسْهَا

If the Final Hour comes while you have a shoot of a plant in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.13 

And it is within this grammar that we may understand the following orientation towards ethical practice:

وَإِذْ قَالَتْ أُمَّةٌ مِنْهُمْ لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا ۙ اللَّهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ أَوْ مُعَذِّبُهُمْ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا ۖ قَالُوا مَعْذِرَةً إِلَىٰ رَبِّكُمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ  *فَلَمَّا نَسُوا مَا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ أَنْجَيْنَا الَّذِينَ يَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ السُّوءِ وَأَخَذْنَا الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا بِعَذَابٍ بَئِيسٍ بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ

When a group of them said, “Why do you exhort a people whom Allah is going to destroy or chastise with a severe punishment?” They said, “To absolve ourselves before your Lord, and in order that they may fear Allah.” So, when they forgot the advice they were given, We saved those who used to forbid evil and seized those who transgressed with a bitter punishment, because they had been disobeying.

Al-A’raf:164-165

Aseel Azab Osman is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at Duke University. Her research interests include Islamic ethics, deconstructing the ‘secular’ and political thought.

Notes:

  1. Zakariyah, Luqman. Legal Maxims in Islamic Criminal Law: Theory and Applications. Vol. 9, Brill, 2015, 158.
  2. Zakariyah defines legal maxims as “legal rules, the majority of which are universal, expressed in concise phraseology, depicting the nature and objectives of Islamic Law and encompassing general rules in cases that fall under their subject matter”, 40.
  3.  Ibid, 162.
  4.  Ibid, 159.
  5. Ghilan, Mohamed. “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan.” Al-Madina, 16 May 2016, www.almadina.org/studio/articles/the-halal-bubble-and-the-sunnah-imperative-to-go-vegan.
  6. Mattson, Ingrid. “Eating in the Name of God.” Islamic Horizons, March/April 2010, https://isna.net/islamic-horizons/.
  7.  “It’s Not That You Don’t Care, It’s That You Don’t Know.” TŪNIQ, 15 July 2019, https://tuniqoasis.com/blogs/the-oasis-journal/its-not-that-you-dont-care-its-that-you-dont-know.
  8. Kızılkaya, Necmettin. “They Are Communities Like You the Rationale for Animal Rights and Welfare in Islamic Civilization.” Journal of Humanity and Society (Insan & Toplum), vol. 11, no. 2, 2021, pp. 1–18., https://doi.org/10.12658/m0610, 14.
  9. Mattson, 24.
  10. Zakariyah identifies these sub-maxims in his study: a) harm should be prevented as much as possible” [aḍ-ḍarar yudfaʿ bi-qadr al-imkān], b) greater harm should be prevented by committing a lesser injury” [aḍ-ḍarar al-ashadd yuzāl bi-ḍ-ḍarar al-akhaff], c) personal injury should be incurred to prevent general injury” [yutaḥammal aḍ-ḍarar al-khāṣṣ li-dafʿ ḍarar ʿāmm], and d) preventing evil is better than attracting benefits” [darʾ al-mafāsid awlā min jalb al-maṣāliḥ] (Chapter 6).
  11. Abou El-Fadl, Khaled. “The Pursuit of Happiness: Islamic Ethics for the Modern World.” ABC Religion and Ethics, 4 Sept. 2018, www.abc.net.au/religion/the-pursuit-of-happiness-islamic-ethics-for-the-modern-world/10214278.
  12. Al-Baqarah:286.
  13. Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Book 1, Hadith 479.

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