World Refugee Day: The Case for Revisiting Islamic-based Teachings on Refugees

23/06/2015 16:09 BST | Updated 22/06/2016 10:59 BST

June 20th marked World Refugee Day. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) came out with the sobering statistic that "one in every 122 people on the planet is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum". A large portion of these are coming from Muslim countries. The question then to ask is why isn't the Muslim world providing more support to them, prompting a further question as to 'What is the treatment of refugees from an Islamic perspective"? There is surprisingly very little work that has been done on this basis, the most notable recently being done by Islamic Relief.

The lack of work is not because of a lack of treatment within the faith teachings or principles on the subject. In fact an examination of Islamic precepts reveals the falsity of such allegations, especially with regard to refugees and asylum. The lack of mechanisms is more to do with the lack of understanding on these issues and lack of scholarly work on the role of Islam in issues of asylum and refugees.

In Islam, asylum is a right of anyone seeking protection. In studies of asylum in the Arab- Islamic tradition, scholars argue that asylum "is an integral part of the islamic [sic] conception of human rights". Islam's most important scripture, the Qur'an, speaks explicitly about the issue of asylum seekers and refugees: "And if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he will be secure" (Surah 9:6)

In particular, there are two major incidents in the early days of Islam which bear testimony to Islam's response to a climate of hostility and persecution through migration. The first is the emigration in 615AD to Abyssinia by a small group of Muslims who found asylum under the rule and protection of the Christian King. The second is in 662 AD, when Prophet Muhammad fled persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in Medina. This hijrah, or migration, came to symbolize the movement of Muslims from lands of oppression to those of Islam. It is a term that along with its derivatives is mentioned 27 times in the Qur'an.

Thus the concept of asylum within Islam is based on a spiritual principle imposed by the will of God, which means that there are moral, religious and legal obligations (especially with reference to the Qur'an and Hadith) as well. Hence from an Islamic view point, the exacting rules of human conduct are recognised as positive divine law, which that for a believer - whether an individual or a ruler - asylum is "a right and a duty". Consequently a refusal to grant asylum will not only entail dishonor and contempt but also the violation of an oath. In other words, since asylum is mentioned in the Qur'an, it becomes a sacred duty, the breach of which "constitutes a challenge to the will of God. The result is that asylum constitutes both a subjective right for the individual and an obligation of the community"

Islam obliges host societies to give asylum-seekers a generous reception, for which the hosts will be rewarded as it is said in the Qur'an: "He that flees his homeland in the way of God, shall find numerous places of refuge in the land and abundant resources" (4:100). Islamic law or Shariah also affirms the practice of providing sanctuary to persecuted persons and the sacredness of some places, such as the Kaaba in Mecca. However, asylum according to Shariah law is not confined only to sacred places - it is also granted to certain urban areas such as homes and designated communal places under the protection of Islam. At the heart of this obligation to protect asylum seekers is the verse in the Qur'an:

"... the men who stayed in their own city ... love those who have sought refuge with them; they do not covet what they are given, but rather prize them above themselves, though they are in want." (Surah 59:9)

In particular, once asylum is granted protection, assistance offered to forced migrants cannot be resented, and hosting communities are obliged to privilege the needs of forced migrants above those of their own, even where they themselves are in need of protection and assistance.

However, despite its significance in Islam, hijrah is rarely invoked by Muslim states today. In fact from a shariah perspective, there is no comprehensive legal system for the protection of refugees or displaced people at least according to current understandings of protection. Hence this tends to nullify the obligation of Islamic states to provide asylum according to the shariah.

Wider thinking on this issue and the promotion of 'Islamic understandings' of refugees and how they are to be treated could encourage Muslim states to widen their acceptance and protection of Muslim refugees. This is the obligation for the future to avoid the figures of refugees increasing