What is wrong with this world?

If you are like me, then the answer is: a lot. Poverty, social inequality, dredging of natural resources, environmental degradation, plastic pollution in the coasts and oceans, political instability, moral decadence, and conflicts between communities color the columns of newspapers. If you’re like me, it’s natural to think that there must be steps of change that need to be taken, either by oneself or by a larger entity somewhere. One might see that these changes need to be deep-rooted – or in politically charged language, fundamental (foundation) and radical (radix). Others, on the other hand, may see that this change can still be achieved incrementally, by turning the tide a little at a time or repairing the damage step by step. Many raise their hands in defense of the environment, others to promote the rights of the marginalized, others to improve the morale of the nation. From the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, or from the organic farming movement to Green Peace’s protests against corporate resource extraction, change is encouraged in every walk of life and in every spectrum of depth.

Or, you can be like those who see that there are no problems in the world. After all, we can witness an age where technological advancements surpass what has been achieved in the past few centuries. Artificial intelligence, new drugs to treat cancer, declining mortality rates and an ever-increasing human development index, environmentally friendly technologies, and increasingly efficient resource utilization paint a picture of a completely different future utopia. Nothing needs to change, just improve and adapt to the challenges of the times. Humans have transcended several forms of civilization to the point where humanity is moving towards perfection.  The problems that have arisen recently are merely the excesses of the success of civilization, which touches only a handful of the population, and is seen as a sacrifice for the greater good.

Different perspectives on the world give different meanings to life.  Where and how a person is raised, the extent to which he or she comes into contact with the bitterness of society, what inspirational books he or she reads, and what kind of social environment ignites his or her spirit, will largely determine the values embedded in a person. Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics for his welfare economy theory, was part of the educated middle class in India who was exposed to various forms of social inequality before he decided to explore the conception of justice. Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to restore Kenya’s forests through community empowerment, was inspired by the education reform movement in her childhood and her intense interaction with the environment. Many things drive a person to become an agent for a movement of change. Religion is one of them.

Then the question is: to what extent is Islam as rahmatan li’l aalamin able to mobilize individuals to make social change? And what kind of change is expected by Islam? From the outset, I would like to say that this paper does not intend to revisit the glory days of Islamic civilization centuries ago. It is not in my capacity to understand the context of what kind of changes took place back then. As a social researcher[2], my interest and understanding is in the present, the complexity of the problem and the reflexive consciousness that is awakening as humanity realizes that development has turned its back on our environment and social order. My question is, where is the spirit of Islam in this constellation of collective consciousness? Does Islam, as a worldview, encompass all the solutions to these concerns? Does it, for example, encourage its followers to be environmental stewards, or social justice warriors, or populist economic advocates? And if so, why have these values never materialized into an overarching value system for its followers? Or am I wrong?

The proposition that I offer in this paper is that the ‘spirit of Islam’ manifests in different forms because the Islamic worldview, in fact, can also be interpreted differently (and perhaps partially). What I mean by the spirit, or perhaps ghirah, of Islam, is not the rules that emerge as textually written in the Qur’an; but the internalization of those rules in the body of a Muslim that drives him to make changes. Let me illustrate. In the Qur’an, Muslims are commanded not to create destruction on earth (QS Al-A’raf: 56). Textually, this verse is a clear prohibition, which if violated, the consequence is sin. All Muslims, I am sure, know that. But how many of us internalize it as a spirit to care for the environment. Anecdotally, I have found a few environmental movements that originated from Islamic boarding schools or mosques – but not many I guess. The rest of us are probably still doing business as usual.

Movement and social change: a sociological analysis

Before I go deeper into this Islamic spirit, let me briefly review what a social movement is and how it manifests. Anthony Giddens in his book The Constitution of Society (1984) explains two perspectives on society and change: structure and agency. These two entities have been the subject of endless debates in sociology. The structural approach of functionalism as carried by Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, or the structural conflict brought by Karl Marx and Max Weber, both emphasize the role of the structure of society in determining the behavior of members of society in it. Each individual is shaped by the values, education system, work spirit and outlook on life that are recognized in society. While structural functionalism holds that the existing order of society evolves for the better through collective changes, conflict structuralism holds that the key to improvement in society is fundamental changes, which emerge through conflict – thesis and antithesis giving rise to synthesis. In both, there is no room for change agents at the individual level.

Back to Giddens. In his argument, structures and agents (individuals) build on each other, through a process he calls structuration. On the one hand, structure shapes the individuals in society. The individual has no choice that is not shaped by the existing value system. On the other hand, the individual can become an agent who reproduces social structures or makes changes in society. Structure and agent are no longer seen as separate entities, but as a duality. This theory has inspired (or justified) many academics and activists to advocate for social change brought about by individual agents. For example, instead of being antipathetic to corporations, Yanuar Nugroho, in his book Democratization of Business Power (2003), advocates building change in business power through the democratic power of people as consumers and stakeholders.

Bill Friedland (1994), a social researcher working in agriculture and food studies, elaborated further on the implications of Anthony Giddens’ agency. Everyone, basically, can make changes within a certain spectrum. Friedland constructs the spectrum in three dimensions: individual vs collective agency, spontaneous vs organized, and accepting vs resisting existing hegemony. For example, choosing to become a consumer of organic products, according to him, is something that is individual, spontaneous and relatively does not oppose the existing hegemony. The environmental action movement to plant trees, on the other hand, is collective and organized (to a certain extent), but still accepting. On the other hand, the action brought by the Indonesian Farmers Union is collective, organized, and opposes the growing hegemony of neoliberalism.

In his study of agricultural transformation movements, Eric Holt-Gimenez (2011) explains that there are four forms of change driven by various social movements in the world, depending on the spectrum of levels of change produced relative to the existing system. Conservative groups tend not to make changes. As I wrote at the beginning of this paper, they are the ones who think that things are as they are without the need for change. The reformist group makes changes from within with the rules set by the system.  As in the structural functionalist viewpoint, the reformist group sees that the problems that arise within the system need to be corrected just as the body is treated for disease. Curative treatments such as providing donations to those in need characterize this group.

The progressive group seeks to bring about a movement of fundamental change without too much disruption to the existing system. Often the result of the movement’s actions are changes that occur outside the intervention of the system’s tools, but without destroying the order of the system, even though the existing system may be disrupted to some extent in the end. For example, the organic movement emerged as an independent movement from the existing conventional agricultural system. In small numbers, organic farming clearly does not threaten the governance and commerce of conventional agriculture. However, as organic grows, the system must respond by changing the existing governance and trade structures.

Finally, there is the radical group, which sees that change must be built from the roots. The existing system must first be destroyed before a new system can be built that is clean, fair or environmentally oriented.  Protests against free trade, for example, do not offer incremental improvements, but demand an entirely new economic system, whatever form it takes. It is natural that radical groups are on the one hand seen by the government or authorities as a threat to the existing system, but on the other hand are seen by the general public as providing no real solutions to problems. However, it is not uncommon for the viewpoints/ideologies put forward by radical groups to become an antithesis that leads to the creation of a synthesis for a better system. For example, Scandinavian countries learned from the dialectical struggle between democracy and communism through a socialist government system that provides more benefits to the masses through social protection programs.

I think I can stop talking about politics here. Let’s get back to talking about Islam.

Where does the spirit of Islamic change lie?

If we return to the question of Islam and the spirit of social change, I would like to raise the discourse that Islam today does not seem to provide enough spirit to drive social change, or is too ambiguous to be held as a stable worldview. It is not uncommon for Islam to be the vehicle, if not the spirit, of contradictory economic systems, or to provide only curative solutions to a fundamental spirit. In the Holt-Gimenez model of change, where can we place the spirit of Islam? Islam can maintain the status quo because the benefits to society are perceived to be more pronounced in the current system than the harms. This may be a common view among Muslims, either because it is the way it is, or because we as Muslims have not been able to see that the problem exists (see the introduction in the second paragraph). I am not talking about Islamic movements in this context.

Islam can also be among the reformist groups that seek to improve the system from within, through existing arrangements and tools. Islamic banking, for example, in my superficial view is the spirit of Islam in its curative and reformist form. Furthermore, infaq and shodaqoh distribution programs, or the distribution of sacrificial meat, or routine mosque programs, which are run in a business-as-usual format, might be another example. I am not saying that these schemes are not useful. They are not. I have faith that every form of our contribution to others, especially those that are run on the basis of shari’a obligations, must have an important value in society. Some studies I have conducted (Dwiartama & Suheri, 2016) show that programs such as qurban meat distribution and shodaqoh play an important role as a community’s social safety net and build strong social capital in the community. However, we might agree that to build a strong civilization of the ummah, we need more than that.

Islam, furthermore, can also manifest in progressive groups by offering something different, counterintuitive to the existing system, for social change. This example is rarer, but once it exists it has a greater impact and inspires more people. Pondok Pesantren Al-Ittifaq in Ciwidey that teaches farming communities an unconventional form of economy, or Yayasan Bumi Langit that teaches its guests to live in harmony with nature (Dwiartama, 2019), are two of the few change movements that carry the breath of Islam. The growing waste bank movement in the city of Bandung is also more or less driven by activists with an Islamic spirit; whether based on Islamic values or because it happens to be driven by a Muslim (further research clearly needs to be done).

Finally, Islam can also manifest as something radical. We have seen this more and more: fundamentalist Islamic groups, or puritans, or Islamic defense groups. Regardless of the right/wrong interpretation of the people in these groups about Islam (as often discussed in various media by many religious figures), it must be recognized that what drives them to chant takbir is the spirit of Islam. Radicalism in this case is often demonized by those in power (as with any radical movement that has the potential to threaten the existence of the existing order), although radicalism can be beneficial (and needs to be distinguished from terrorism, for example).

Furthermore, if we trace Bill Friedland’s categorization of agencies, we can also sort out which of the individuals with the spirit of Islam move individually (e.g. devout Muslims who contribute to the community in their neighborhood), spontaneously collectively (e.g. the movement to defend Islam 212), organized collectively (e.g. mosques, pesantren, and recitation groups), and accept the system or reject the system (e.g. between Darut Tauhid Eco-pesantren and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia).

The point I want to emphasize is that the spirit of Islam comes in many forms. What accounts for this? Is it because the spirit of Islam is amorphous and able to insert itself into every existing ideology and worldview? Or is it because Islam is so vast and complex that it can be internalized differently, depending on the context and background of the people? Or is it because the spirit of Islam that is transmitted in the circles of the ummah is not matched by the alignment of the logical sequence of problems that exist in society?


I am intrigued to close this paper by reflecting on why I have not found many environmental protection movements that are driven by the spirit of Islam. I clearly see how the organic movement can be compatible with noble Islamic values such as the nobility of farming and protecting the environment. I also saw how small economic empowerment movements such as that of Mohammad Yunus grew as an embodiment of the values of communality in Islam. I even met the coordinator of the Indonesian Farmers Union (SPI), one of the most radical and violent farmer organizations against neoliberalism, in his koko and kopiah. Islam, for them, is a language for fighting against injustice, resisting tyranny, or living in harmony with nature. Whether these individual change-makers are simply ‘utilizing’ Islam for their collective benefit, or whether the spirit of Islam that they transmit is indeed the main driver for their movement, I do not know and certainly requires further investigation. However, it is interesting to examine how this Islamic spirit was developed, regardless of how partial or comprehensive Islamic values and rules were the driving force. In the end, I envision an image in which the issues of modern society today, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, can be answered by movements for change that not only carry the spirit of Islam, but also an approach and logic based on Islamic views as well. The end of this paper is an open question: how can the spirit of Islam and Islamic logic manifest in new social movements that lead to positive change? Wallahu ‘alam.


Dwiartama, A. (forthcoming). Food, Agriculture and Islam. SALMAN Journal

Dwiartama, A. & Suheri, T. (2016). Youth, identity, and community resilience: an ethnographic record on a social transformation in the periurban of Bandung. AKATIGA Journal of Social Analysis 20(1-2): 197-215.

Giddens, A. (1984). The construction of society. Cambridge: Polity.

Friedland, W. (1994). Agency and the Agrifood System. In Wright, W. & Middendorf, G. (Eds). The Fight Over Food: Producers, Consumers, and Activists Challenge the Global Food System. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Holt Giménez, E., & Shattuck, A. (2011). Food crises, food regimes and food movements: rumblings of reform or tides of transformation. The Journal of peasant studies, 38(1), 109-144.

Nugroho, Y. (2003). Democratizing Business Power. Business Watch Indonesia.

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