Religious leaders play crucial roles in our social lives. They not only perform a decisive community function, uniting together those who belong to a shared faith group, but they also give guidance, on personal, ethical, social and even political levels. The religious leader uses his or her knowledge of the faith to communicate the religious world-view to the community of believers and, accordingly, address problems that exist in the world from the perspective of this same world-view. Iman Sheikh Imran Hosein has used his religious training to remain remarkably active in the social sphere. He not only one is a religious scholar, but actively applies a vision of Islam to pertinent social, ethical and political questions. For this reason, he is an exemplary case of a religious leader who believes that the religious way of life is entirely inseparable from issues of social justice and social service.
Sheikh Imran Hosein was born in 1942 on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobogo, his ancestors being indentured laborers from India. His background includes studies at universities all over the world, from international relations to economics to Islamic theology. He has also had an active life in politics. For example, Hosein was a Foreign Service Officer for Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also the Director of Islamic Studies in New York City and was a prayer leader for Muslim communities in the United Nations in New York. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Hosein felt that living as a Muslim in the United States was no longer possible, because of the U.S.’s aggressive foreign policy against the Muslim world. He therefore left to live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he currently resides, and my contact with him was through an e-mail interview.
Hosein was a Muslim by descent. His late father, although not having a religious training, was deeply interested in Islam and had a library of Islamic books. Hosein’s interest in Islam thus was sparked at an early age, leading him to study in Karachi, Pakistan at a university there, where he ultimately graduated. Hosein’s life as a religious leader in a sense emerged from his commitments to Islam. Wishing to live an Islamic way of life meant immersing oneself in Islam and in this process one receives the respected titles of Imam and Sheikh by the community.
As a Muslim, Hosein emphasizes the Tawhid or oneness of God and that Mohammed is his final prophet as the foundations of Islam. Accordingly, the Qu’ran as delivered to Mohammed by Allah is the utmost authority in Islamic tradition. In addition to the Qu’ran, there are also hadiths which recount Mohammed’s own life and how he lived which are crucial to helping Muslims understand how to live an Islamic way of life. However, as Hosein also stresses, the Qu’ran is the ultimate authority, and all hadith must be read in light of the Qu’ran so as to detect their legitimacy.
Hosein continually emphasizes that Islam is a religion that fights against all forms of social oppression. Accordingly, Islam is a deeply socially conscious religion, attempting to realize social justice in a world that is fundamentally unjust. One of the key reasons that Islam is so demonized in the Western world, Hosein says, is that because it is precisely a force of social justice, whereas the West is concerned only with phenomena such as capitalism and consumerism. Islam appears hostile to the West because Islam emphasizes oppression, while the capitalist system is by definition meant to be oppressive. For example, Hosein has very strong feelings about social justice.
He mentions his daughter, who works as a domestic servant in Indonesia. Hosein considers such low-paying jobs to be a form of slavery, in so far as those who hire these domestic servants would never work for the same wages. Accordingly, they are violating a code of social justice and exploiting others. In this regard, for Hosein, countries such as the United States are deeply non-religious, more interested in promoting a specific exploitative economic ideology such as capitalism while pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. If there are religious people in the United States, these are ultimately hypocrites to the extent that they are supporting an inhumane government.
For this reason, social work and religion are entirely compatible, as religion helps clarify where issues of social injustice lie and how they should be opposed. As Hosein mentions, one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam is the zakat, or giving 2.5% of one’s savings to those in need: this makes Islam a socially just and active religion by definition. Social workers should therefore actively engage those they work with on religious levels because the traditional religions also have ethical principles. For this same reason, Hosein also rejects the trendy separation of religion and spirituality as a failure of traditional Western religious institutions to address their communities. The biggest challenge to practicing one’s religious beliefs in the United States, as Hosein notes, is simply the aggressive capitalist system, whose foreign policy is violent and its ethical concerns non-existent.
Hosein’s thoughts are especially compelling because they emphasize the social duty of religious leaders. Religion is not only about the after life, but an ethical code about how to live in this world. From this perspective, Hosein advocates a strong relationship between religion and social justice and social work: religion is about community, as is social work. At the same time, Hosein presents many intriguing diagnoses of what is wrong with the current world. The aggressive capitalist system, the exploitation of individuals, demonstrates the essentially non-religious essence of the West. At the same time, Hosein is also very critical of Muslim leaders who also collaborate in this capitalist system throughout the world, thereby neglecting the fundamental link in Islam, and other religions such as Christianity which Hosein mentioned, between faith and social justice.