Social Stratification and Islam

The term social stratification is used for structured social inequality. It involves hierarchy of social groups. Members of a particular stratum have common identity and maintain identical lifestyle.

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The term social stratification is used for structured social inequality. It involves hierarchy of social groups. Members of a particular stratum have common identity and maintain identical lifestyle. They face unequal distribution of rewards in society among members of various social groups. Social stratification may be distinguished from social inequality. Social inequality simply refers to the existence of socially created inequalities while social stratification is a particular form of social inequality. It refers to the presence of social groups which are ranked one above the other.
Here we should not confuse social inequality with natural inequality. Natural inequality is the inequality caused by biological challenges though the natural inequality may provide a base for social inequality.
Of course no society can function without groups situated on different social locations. But the problem lies with the rigid nature of society to the chances of social mobility and exploitation facilitated by social inequalities and social disabilities attached with the group of a particular social location.
Different thinkers see the society according to their experiences and observations. Karl Marx and Max Weber are the two well known social scientists whose works on social stratification are much recognised and familiar in academic circles. Marx felt matter as the only base of social stratification and he stratified society on the basis of the relationship with the forces of production. Those who own forces form a class and those who do not form the other. But Weber realised three different dimensions of social stratification. He used three parameters; these are wealth, prestige and power. He explained wealth talking about opportunities in life. The people who enjoy similar opportunities in life form similar social stratum. Weber attached prestige with the caste hierarchy of India and power with the political achievement of social groups.
Besides these dynamics gender has become an important basis of social stratification. Gender differences provided ground for social stratification, though it is natural. Many disabilities have been attached with the weaker gender; and they have been institutionalised and thus got the legitimacy of society.
Islam does not consider stratification based on gender as social stratification or social inequality rather a natural inequality. The Qur’an says, “Men are the protector and maintainer of women because God has given them the more strength than the other and because they support them from their means.” (4/34)
At another place the Qur’an says, “And get two witness out of your own men, and if there are not two men then a man and two women such as to choose for witness, so that if one of them errs the other can remind her.” (2/282)
The Islamic text adds that such natural inequalities are not to humiliate women but to keep the world system on. Both the sexes are required to work together in a mutual way. This is the widely accepted truth that in the process of any work one of the involved units must be passive otherwise work will never be complete. Women are assigned the passive role in this world which is just their role. Passive role of anyone does not bear any stamp of humiliation. And the passive role of women is in fact their active role in their particular area of work where men play very little role.
Social stratification based on prestige does not get any space in Islamic traditions. Indian caste system provides an example of such kind of stratification. In pre-Islamic era people were proud of belonging to a particular genealogy. Their negative and positive status was determined by their genetic relations with a prestigious or non-prestigious tribe. Islam removed the very concept of prestige and status built upon genealogy. The Qur’an says, “O mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you and God has full knowledge and well acquainted.” (3/49)
The institution of slavery provides an example of social stratification in the pre-Islamic period. It was in practice before Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) brought the Message of Islam.
Marx saw slaves as a class and regarded them as the property-less while he viewed the owners of the slaves as the propertied. But if we see we will find a mixed nature of class and status group in slavery system. The slaves form a separate class because they do not own sources of production. They also form a separate prestige group because of the attachment of several socially legitimated and legal disabilities to their status. Such as a slave owner can sell them in open market except in some prescribed cases. He may compel them to earn money for the master. Consequently, in the early Islamic period, slaves could not possess property and were supposed to hand over each and every thing they had. “If a man purchased a wealthy slave then his wealth is for that man who purchased” (Muslim/21/80).
Moreover a slave cannot marry without the permission of his master and his master cannot be compelled to grant permission. A hadith narrates: “Do not marry a slave without the permission of its master”. (Tirmizi/9/21)
Slaves were also deprived of the spoils of war. “Slaves and women will not be given the spoils of war”. (Muslim/15/141)
They cannot adopt the lifestyle of free men. It is reported in a hadith that “a lady slave cannot adopt the lifestyle of a free lady.” (Muatta/54/44)
Slaves were also deprived from the right to carry out trade or business without the permission of his master.
Legally slaves were regarded as inferior beings. Their evidences were rarely valid in a court of law. While dealing with blood feud the Qur’an separated slaves from free men. It says “qisas is prescribed for you in case of murder; the free for the free, the slave for the slave and the female for the female.” (2/178) At another pace while talking about marriage the Qur’an says, “And wed not idolatresses until they believe and assuredly a believing slave girl is better than an idolatress although she pleases you and wed not your women to idolaters until they believe and assuredly a believing slave is better than an idolater although he pleases you.” (2/221)
Of course, as the Islamic text reveals, that the position of slaves was not equal to free men in society in the early period of Islam. Dr. Sir Mohammad Iqbal writes that Islam did not favour slavery as it was prevalent in the pre-Islamic period. It took measures to exterminate the system. Islam tolerated the institution of slavery because it emerged as a reformer. It does not suit a reformer to annul the existing system completely and Islam did the same. At that time the concept of paid labour was non-existent. Slave labour was the only source of production which could not be abolished immediately. Though Islam tolerated slavery for the time being but it took measures for the better living and working conditions of slaves. It opened ways to social mobility by encouraging people to set the slaves free.
Of course Islam has ranking of social groups that is essential for each human society. Stratification based on sex differences is true but should be revisited through an unbiased perspective. We should go further through the functional abilities attached with it and that should be our sincere endeavour. We should enrich ourselves, our societies with the elements that support the smooth and harmonious functioning.