Islamic Ethics and Refugees: reflections on the responses of  Muslim-majority countries to the Syrian Refugee “Crisis”


This paper discusses the responses of two groups of Muslim-majority countries to the Syrian refugee crisis that has grown out of the Syrian conflict; the Gulf states, and three of Syria’s neighbouring countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon). Their treatment of Syrian refugees is considered on three factors; how open their borders have been to Syrians, whether or not they have provided access to education, healthcare and the work force, and finally, whether or not they provide residency to Syrians, or even go as far as the offer of eventual citizenship. The responses of these countries is then compared to Islamic ethical positions, drawn from the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as contemporary scholars. While there have been examples of good practice, on the whole, the discrepancy between the Islamic ethical ideal, and the practice of Muslim-majority countries, is significant. Islam is unambiguous when instructing its adherents on how they should interact with the vulnerable; teachings on this do not seem to be being applied as a rule.


1- Introduction


     a- Numbers

The world today contains more refugees than it ever has before. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, of which 22.5million are refugees. Of this 22.5 million, more than half are under the age of 18. They also report that today, nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced from their homes every minute.[1]

The World Economic Forum (WEF) reported in 2016, that 1 million refugees had arrived to Europe, most fleeing warzones in Africa and Asia.[2] While it is often refugee arrivals in Europe that we hear about most, by those discussing a “Refugee Crisis”, the only European country that is currently in the top 10 countries hosting refugees is Turkey (2.5million), which is bested worldwide only by Jordan’s 2.7million. Lebanon and Pakistan make up 3rd and 4th on this list, hosting 1.5 and 1.6million respectively. More than half of the world’s refugees come from 3 countries; Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Despite the attention received by Europe’s refugees, the WEF states that developing nations currently host 86% of the world’s refugees. Shockingly, 1 in every 200 children alive today are refugees. Another shocking statistic is offered up by the WEF; 4,690 refugees died while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2016, higher than 2015’s 3,777. Grimly, September the 3rd of this year marked the 2nd anniversary of the death of Aylan Kurdi that shocked the world.


     b- Definitions

Using the seminal 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who has left their home:

“…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country”.[3]

In cases within which a country’s conflict becomes some drastic, citizens of that country are granted prima facie refugee status. Once this is confirmed, citizens from that country are readily accepted as refugees without needing to provide as much proof of their situations as refugees from other countries. The UNHCR describes prima facie status as arising when:

“[s]ituations have […] arisen in which entire groups have been displaced under circumstances indicating that members of the group could be considered individually as refugees. In such situations the need to provide assistance is often extremely urgent and it may not be possible for purely practical reasons to carry out an individual determination of refugee status for each member of the group. Recourse has therefore been had to so-called “group determination” of refugee status, whereby each member of the group is regarded prima facie (i.e. in the absence of evidence to the contrary) as a refugee”.[4]

While the UN High Commissioner has not officially declared Syrians as having prima facie status, some argue that they are practicing policies which view Syrian refugees as such.[5] This highlights the dire situation of Syrian refugees.


    c- Global Response

The treatment of refugees has varied from country to country, and has also been dependent on the government of the day. We have seen in Canada an example of a country’s hostile policies towards them being improved with the election of liberal Justin Trudeau, while the U.S.A. has seen a significant regression towards refugee treatment with the election of Donald Trump. In Turkey, we have an example of a country that is doing much to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees, while Germany sees an opportunity to rectify its dwindling birth rate. Things have not seemed quite as positive in Lebanon where an overstretched state seems to be mixing toxically with historical wounds between Syrians and the Lebanese, resulting in multiple accounts of abuse, neglect and violence.[6]

In Europe, there have been many controversies related to refugee treatment. On the extremes, we’ve seen right-wing group Defend Europe obstructing those attempting to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean in their own boat, which carries banners displaying “YOU WILL NOT MAKE EUROPE YOUR HOME” and “NO WAY”. In a delightful twist of fate, Defend Europe’s boat broke down in the Mediterranean in August this year, and had to be rescued by an NGO boat, one of the very NGOs whom Defend Europe attempt to obstruct.[7] For the refugees who manage to arrive in Europe, many are preyed upon by criminal gangs, being forced into different forms of criminality including prostitution, while conditions in refugee camps range from the bearable, to the atrocious. Sexual abuse is rampant in most of these camps, with a report from Harvard University’s FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights grimly reporting that the average price of sexual transactions with a child being at £12.50. Children as young as 4 have been victims of rape.[8] Despite the significant focus of much of the world’s media on the experience of refugees in Europe, most Syrian refugees are being hosted in Muslim-majority countries.


2- Response of Islamic Countries


     a- Legislative Foundations 

The scope of this paper focuses on the response of Islamic countries, a term which is in itself problematic. Some have written rather of “Muslim Majority Countries”, a term that they believe is more accurate, due to discrepancies that are often found between “Islamic Countries” and Islam. Ahmed and Gouda approached the idea of measuring how Islamic a country is by attempting to analyse its constitution. Using the Al-Azhar Islamic Constitution (1977) as a basis, the authors measured the number of times certain Islamic clauses, that they derived from the Al-Azhar document, were contained in the constitutions of the countries within the Organisation of Islamic Conference’s 57 members. Significantly, of the 30 clauses that were used to measure how Islamic a constitution was, none of them referred to the rights of refugees or migrants.[9] According to this conceptualisation of how Islamic a country is, this issue was not relevant. Indeed, a report by Islamic Relief noted that Islamic states rarely evoke the phenomenon of the Hijrah when dealing with, and perhaps more crucially, legislating on refugee rights.[10] However, Jureidini and Reda highlight that 11 Muslim-majority countries have ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen and Turkey), with Jordan and Iraq having issued their own refugee protection clauses that conform to the convention.[11] As well as this, The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the countries of the OIC in 1990 does address migration and refugees directly:


“Every man shall have the right, within the framework of sharia, to free movement and to select his place of residence whether inside or outside his country and, if persecuted, is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall ensure his protection until he reaches safety”.[12]


Despite the commitments entailed in clauses such as this, Jureidini and Reda are among the scholars who have highlighted that such commitments are seldom honoured. More recently, The European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR) held a session in 2015 aimed at “address(ing) Muslims in Europe stressing coexistence and positive integration and highlighting their duties towards the Syrian refugee brethren in terms of sponsoring their families and children” (ECRR 2015:3).[13] The ECFR drew from the Qur’an to highlight the need for Muslims to support refugees, regardless of their faith, or lack thereof.


     b- Practices

The following section will give a brief overview to some of the practises of certain blocks of Muslim-majority countries as well as some of the controversies and criticisms that have been levelled against them.


          i. The Gulf Countries

Jureidini and Reda give a sound overview of the responses of the Gulf countries, and some of the criticisms they have received. The authors of that study note the significant increase in attention at this issue in September 2015. On the 3rd of the month, a fellow of the Brookings Institute tweeted a map of the Middle East depicting the region as containing countries bearing a huge burden in terms of refugees taken in (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt), while making the controversial claim that the Gulf states (barring Oman and Bahrain) as having not taken in a single refugee. On that very day, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa tweeted, “Shameful that GCC countries are not taking Syrian refugees”. These claims were followed up by similar ones from the Washington Post and Amnesty International, with the latter noting that the GCC countries had signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as mentioning that half a million Syrians were living in Saudi Arabia. HRW’s Deputy Director for MENA soon followed up with a criticism that “giving money and insecure jobs” isn’t enough. Saudi Arabia responded to the criticisms by claiming that in fact 2.5million Syrians were living there, most having arrived after the conflict had begun. It went further, claiming that they were not dealt with as refugees and placed in camps, rather they were freely living in the society, with rights such as free health care, access to the work force, and education. The UAE defended itself by stating it had taken in over 100,000 Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, meaning it had more than 242,000 Syrian residents. A study by De BelAir, cited in Jureidini and Reda, noted the difficulty in verifying the claims of GCC countries due to the lack of publicly available data, however, the study supported the idea that the GCC countries had in fact taken in tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Syrians since the beginning of the conflict;

“Besides being major donors to Syrian refugees in Syria and in neighbouring countries, Gulf States 1) have continued attracting Syrian workers, and may have facilitated family reunions; 2) have enforced social protection and residency facilitation measures for Syrian residents, those who entered before 2011 and could not return, and those who entered since 2011, because of the conflict”.[14]

Some have cited a figure as high as $4billion that has been donated by the GCC for Syrian refugees, while others have claimed only a fraction of such pledges as having been handed over. Criticisms have been levelled towards the GCC states on the back of financial pledges; it has been argued that rather than dealing with the problem within their borders, they would rather finance the dealing “upstream”, and from afar.

Jureidini and Reda put forward the case that despite the negative attention received, GCC states have provided refuge for Syrians, “without any fanfare as a humanitarian gesture”. The authors do note that integration into GCC society, while being effective in some regards, was similar to the situation of all non-Nationals within these countries, “jobs remain insecure, residence is temporary with no chance of citizenship and can be revoked at any time”.[15]

On one hand, it might seem that the claims made against GCC countries have been political at times, perhaps tinged with a degree of Orientalism. Any resident within the GCC can testify to the influx of Syrians into society, without the creation of refugee camps or ghettos, rather, points of contact with them often being at their places of work; doctors, waiters, and drivers. On the other, it might be seen as being telling that given the choice of looking Westward towards Europe, and South-eastwards towards the GCC, many Syrians have chosen to seek refuge in the West, despite the cultural, language, and climatic differences. Promise of the possibility of gaining  citizenship, and a sense of permanency, is likely to factor in heavily.


          ii. The Neighbours (Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan)

Seemingly less controversial has been the response of Syria’s neighbours to the refugee crisis. In terms of numbers, they have shouldered the lion’s share. UNHCR figures show that Turkey has taken in 3,320,814, Lebanon 1,001,051, and Jordan 655,056.[16] Despite these significant numbers, it would be wrong to say these countries have offered an open-door policy to Syrians throughout the conflict, or to suggest that their treatment of Syrians who they have allowed in has always been sound. Next, the situation of Syrian refugees within three countries is briefly examined. Three measures of assessment are looked at;

  1. Whether the country has allowed refugees in.
  2. How accessible it has made access to healthcare, education, and the workforce, and
  3. Whether the country offers the chance of permanent residency or citizenship.


  1. Open Door?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 2015 that Turkey had been turning away Syrian refugees from its border, some in dire condition, others visibly in the later stages of pregnancy.[17] Despite Turkey’s Open Door policy with Syrian refugees, one that has been championed by its President, it has taken measures to curtail or restrict refugee crossing, including building a wall along the border[18], though this could as easily be seen as measure to curtail illegal crossing by armed fighters who use Turkey’s porous border to navigate between the two countries. Despite certain anomalies, Turkey seems to have been true to its promise of an Open-Door policy, and the numbers testify to this. While praise of Turkey’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis is due, and often absent from public discourses, critics of the government there point to issues such as the EU-Turkey deal on Syrian Refugees as an example of Turkey using the crisis to its advantage, while supporters of Turkey would readily reply that this is a practical approach, perhaps tinged with a little opportunistic pragmatism.[19]

As far as Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population, despite the official 1 million number given by the UNHCR, this is only those who are registered with the UN body. Unofficial Syrians in Lebanon are believed to number around the half million mark. While Lebanon decided to lift a $200 annual registration fee that had been placed upon all Syrians in the country, this only applied to those who had registered before 2015. In May of 2015 the UNHCR ceased registering Syrians, at the behest of the Lebanese government. This move effectively ended an open policy towards Syrians fleeing the conflict.[20]

While Lebanon’s 1 million is eclipsed by Turkey’s 3million, it’s important to note the relative sizes of each country. There have been widespread reports of Syrian refugees being harassed by nationals, with a political element of this rearing in its head, both in the form of Pro-Assad sentiments, as well as historical grievances towards Syrians stemming from Syria’s occupation of Lebanon during after the Lebanese Civil War. Many Lebanese stood up and were counted, protesting the ill-treatment with a petition of protest, calling for morals rather than toxic fear of “the other”.[21] 

Jordan had initially offered an open-door policy to Syrians fleeing the conflict, with many thousands settling there within the first few months of the conflict.[22] However, as time progressed, and the burden began being felt by Jordanians, the government began adopting stricter measures. The Syrian experience in Jordan has not been overly positive, with many restricted to the camps that were built close to border areas.[23]


  1. Healthcare, Education, and Work.

Syrians in Turkey have access to free governmental healthcare, owing to a governmental decree from 2013, however, more recent initiatives have seen the emergence of “Refugee Health Centres”, staffed by Syrian healthcare professionals.[24] Framed as an integrative initiative, critics might say this is a pragmatic approach to deal with the burden on Turkey’s healthcare at best, or a move towards separating the healthcare received by Nationals and refugees at worst. Turkey’s “Foreigners Under Protection” policy granted access to free healthcare and primary and secondary education for Syrian refugees.[25] Notably, Syrians in Turkey are able to access University education, so long as they have achieved a required degree of language proficiency.[26] Despite the positive moves taken by Turkey’s government, child labour has proven to be a huge issue, with one report citing that 90% of child labourers in Turkey working 6 or 7 days per week, for more than 8 hours per day.[27]

HRW reported that half of Lebanon’s 500,00 school aged children were not accessing formal education, finding that lack of residency status was a crucial barrier to this. Legislation introduced in 2015 that made many Syrians ineligible for Lebanese residency resulted in tens of thousands being unable to attend school, seek employment, access healthcare, as well as register marriages and births. Syrians not registered with the UNHCR need instead to seek sponsorship from Lebanese nationals (“pledge of responsibility”); HRW found that some nationals were charging refugees as much as $1,000 for this privilege.[28] Unsurprisingly, an Oxfam survey of Syrians in Lebanon found that 77% of households were in debt. This same survey, from 2013, found that only 25% of Syrian school-aged children were in education; this number is now undoubtedly more regrettable.[29]

Jordan has opened 98 schools to double-shifts, with nationals being taught in the mornings, and refugees in the evenings. Despite these efforts, tens of thousands of Syrians remain without access to education. Access to government health care was ceased in November 2014, leaving many Syrians languishing.  Perhaps most crucially, Syria’s refugees in Jordan are not afforded the right to work. While often being cited as a burden on Jordan’s economy, Syrian refugees have contributed to it greatly, by way of personal wealth brought into the country, an increase in foreign aid, as well as their informal contributions to the economy.[30]


  1. Residency and Citizenship

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan famously stated that certain Syrian refugees would be eligible for Turkish citizenship[31]. Reports on the numbers that would be eligible have ranged from 7,000[32] to 50,000[33]. While this move is undoubtedly to be welcome, even the greater number of the 2 would represent a mere 1.6% of Syrians currently in Turkey. On a more positive note, Turkish issuance of resident documents for Syrians has been relatively free-flowing.[34]

The situation has not been as straight-forward for Syrians in Jordan or Lebanon. While Jordanian law contains provisions against refoulement of refugees, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report stated that:

“In practice, Jordan avoids the official recognition of refugees under its domestic laws and prefers to refer to Syrian refugees as ‘visitors’, ‘irregular guests’, ‘Arab brothers’ or simply ‘guests’,32 which has no legal meaning under domestic laws… Syrians entering the country as asylum seekers or who are registered as refugees with UNHCR are not given residency”.[35]

The Lebanese experience for Syrian refugees has been just as troubling. In January 2015, Lebanon ended its open door policy with Syrians, which had allowed them to enter the country without a visa, as well as ready access to Lebanese residency. Only 2 out of 40 Syrians interviewed by HRW in a 2016 were able to renew their Lebanese residencies.[36] This change in policy has led to a sizeable community of “illegal” Syrians in Lebanon, putting them at risk of many forms of abuse.[37]


  1. Islamic Ethical Positions

Jureidini and Reda refer to the global refugee crisis as an “overwhelmingly Muslim phenomenon”, citing figures such as 65% of the world’s refugees as coming from Muslim countries, as well as 40% of displaced peoples being hosted in MENA.[38] Studying the situation of refugees in Muslim countries, as well as the policies adopted by Muslim-majority countries, and you would be forgiven that Islam is ambiguous and obscure in its teachings towards refugees. Studying Islamic theory and you will find just the opposite of that. Sussex based Professor Tahir Zaman writes that:

“Matters pertaining to protection and assistance are referred to 396 times in the Qur’an; 170 in relation to the needs of vulnerable people; 20 make specific reference to hijra (flight) and amān (asylum); 12 mention sanctuary; 68 verses refer to zakāt and charity; more than 100 other ahadīth deal with persecution and oppression”.[39]

Furthermore, he cites Abd al-Rahim (2008), in saying that, “it has been suggested that within the Islamic tradition, asylum is a moral and legal right”.[40]


Within the Islamic tradition are many parables, rulings, and teachings, that were they applied, they might have greatly alleviated the suffering faced by refugees, and perhaps went as far as eradicating the “refugee crisis”, rendering it instead, a refugee situation or happening. This section will focus on a number Islamic teachings, drawn from the Qur’an, Hadith, and Islamic scholars, that provide guidance as to how Muslims might have responded to the crisis differently.


     a- Safety

What is arguably the most significant verse from the Qur’an relating to this discussion can be found in Chapter 9, titled Surah At-Tawbah (Repentance), verse number 6:

And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who do not know [41]


This verse resoundingly demands that Muslims protect polytheists should they be seeking protection. The significance of this commandment is amplified when the status of polytheists within the Islamic narrative is considered. Polytheism is considered the most grievous sin within Islam, perhaps the only sin that is not forgivable by God ("Verily, Allah forgives not the sin of setting up partners in worship with Him, but He forgives whom He wills sins other than that. And whoever sets up partners in worship with Allah, has indeed strayed far from the path".[42] If the polytheist is afforded the right of protection, and all that entails, as well as an eventual deliverance to their place of safety, that right is also to be given to the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian, and the Atheist. Indeed, the medieval theologian Ibn al Arabi taught that granting of asylum is obligatory for anyone fleeing injustice, disease, persecution, inequality, or financial difficulties.[43] The significance of this verse, and it’s highlighting of how Muslim communities are falling way short of it, should not be understated.

Within this focus is another concept of importance; that of aman (safety). Directly referenced in the aforementioned verse, safety is a right for all, regardless of their faith. Islamic Relief’s paper on refugees and Islam, notes that it is the duty of hosts of guarantee the safety of their guests.[44]


     b- Equality

Not only does Islam command Muslims to welcome those seeking refuge, but they must be treated with care and siblinghood. The hijrah (migration) of the Prophet serves as the very beginning of Islamic history, in the sense of the measuring of years. This is one of the most fundamental chapters in the life of Islam. On arriving to Medina, the Prophet told his followers, “The rights of migrants are the same as those of their hosts,”. He famously united the migrants and their hosts in brotherhood, with half of the hosts possessions being granted to the migrant from their pairing; their homes, finances, and hearts were opened to each other. This was an unequivocal embodiment of Qur’anic commandments towards caring for the one seeking refuge.

It is precisely this spirit that President Erdogan of Turkey is calling for in a speech cited by Zaman:

“We are the grandchildren of a muhajirūn generation, but at the same time we are the grandchildren of an ansār generation [...] my siblings in Reyhanlı should serve as ansār to the muhajirūn who fled from the brutality of al-Assad. They should fulfil the same duty, they should also open their homes exactly like it happened at the time [of the Prophet]; and they should not see them [the refugees] as a criminal element against themselves”.[45]

The Prophet’s move went beyond ensuring good treatment; it called for an unequivocal, quantifiable, equality.

The area of slavery within Islam is perhaps the most misunderstood issue from the tradition. While a discussion on this falls out of the remit of this paper, scholars such as Jonathan AC Brown have shed light on this area with a high degree of scholarship.[46] On being told of somebody mistreating a slave, the Prophet scolded him:

“Abu Dharr, you are a person who still has (the remnants) of Ignorance in him They (your servants and slaves) are your brothers. Allah has put them in your care, so feed them with what you eat, clothe them with what you wear. and do not burden them beyond their capacities; but if you burden them (with an unbearable burden), then help them (by sharing their extra burden)”.[47]

Within this commandment is a reflection of the reality that the concept of slavery within Islam is wholly different to that of Chattel slavery. While Muslim scholars resoundingly welcome the abolishment of slavery, the rights that they have been afforded within this hadith should also serve as an indication of any individual who is placed within the care of a Muslim. The equality commanded is again unequivocal; the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the tasks placed upon you, must all be equal in quality and demand. Islam commands these rights for slaves; are these rights being granted to refugees today by Muslim societies?


     c- Justice

The centrality of justice within Islam is clear; “God commands justice and fair dealing...”[48]; “We sent Our Messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the Measure in order to establish justice among the people…”[49]; “O you who believe!  Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor...”[50]; “We have revealed to you the scripture with the truth that you may judge between people by what God has taught you”.[51]

The status of the Syrian refugee crisis is riddled with injustice, from the source of the conflict, through to its fallout. Denial of entry to countries of safety, which has led to the perilous Mediterranean crossing, denial of basic rights such as access to education, healthcare, and livelihood, denial of residency or citizenship, which all play a significant role in ensuing labour and sexual exploitation, all represent grave injustices being carried out. Muslims as individuals, as communities, and certainly as states, should be striving to eradicate all these ills with a sense of urgency that does not seem to be forthcoming. To put it simply, there are numerous aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis that reflect deep injustice facing refugees. Were Muslim societies to apply any one of the above mentioned verses, they would not tolerate the status quo that has cemented.

The Islamic position is particularly significant in regards to refugees and injustice on two accounts, both of which are highlighted in the following verse from the Qur’an: “And (as for) those who believed and fled and struggled hard in Allah's way, and those who gave shelter and helped, these are the believers truly; they shall have forgiveness and honourable provision”.[52] Within this verse is a recognition of the special status given to those who flee their homes, as well as those who give shelter to those fleeing injustice; the status of both groups is elevated, deemed worthy of forgiveness and reward.


     d- Women and Children 

Women and children are recognised within the Islamic ethical framework as being especially in need of care by the wider society. According to the UNHCR, 47.6% of Syria’s refugees are children; that makes for around a staggering 2,560,000 children.[53] Women and children combined make up a total of 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.[54] Islamic Relief highlight the special attention that should be given to women and children in times of need, in part due to their extra vulnerability.[55] The sexual exploitation of both women and children from amongst Syrian refugees has been on a wide scale. This ranges from “survival sex”, through to rape.[56] While the use of sexual violence as part of the Syrian conflict has been well documented[57], what is perhaps even more tragic is this form of abuse following refugees to neighbouring countries, as well as refugee camps and asylum centres further afield in Europe.[58]

The situation of Syrian child and women refugees in many instances violates the above-listed Islamic positions on safety, equality and justice. For any one of these positions alone, Muslim societies should be doing more to protect these particularly vulnerable groups. Islamic Relief’s document on Islam and refugees puts forward the idea that many scholars have interpreted the Shariah is advocating for positive-discrimination in helping groups such as women and children. Indeed, the Qur’an frequently declares the importance of protecting the rights of vulnerable children, particularly orphans: “They ask you, [O Muhammad], what they should spend. Say, "Whatever you spend of good is [to be] for parents and relatives and orphans and the needy and the traveller. And whatever you do of good - indeed, Allah is Knowing of it".[59]


     e- The Brother, the Neighbour, and the Stranger

Islamic ethics is riddled with an overarching theme of compassion, hospitality, and care for the other. At times it arrives from the stated rights of fellow Muslims. Tahir Zaman writes: “A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim—he does not wrong him nor does he forsake him when he is in need; whosoever is fulfilling the needs of his brother, Allah is fulfilling his needs; whosoever removes distress from a believer, Allah removes from him a distress from a distressful aspect of the Day of Resurrection; and whoever conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah will conceal his faults on the Day of Resurrection”.[60]

From among the hadith are many examples calling for treatment of fellow believers that is steeped in love: “Do not hate each other, do not envy each other, do not turn away from each other, but rather be servants of Allah as brothers. It is not lawful for a Muslim to boycott his brother for more than three days”[61]; “The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever”.[62]

Tahir Zaman cites the Iranian Philosopher AbdoKarim Soroush, when he wrote on the language of Islam: it is the language of duties, not rights [...which] imply respecting the rights of others at the expense of oneself. What is at issue here is not my rights which are to be respected by my neighbours, but their rights which I am supposed to respect”.[63]

The Qur’an states: “Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good—to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, and the companion by your side, the way-farer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: for God loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious”.[64]  This verse highlights the duty to do good to the neighbours who are near, the neighbours who are strangers, as well as the way-farers. It is said by some that the Qur’an at times provides the general principle, with the Sunnah clarifying, demonstrating, or embodying the principle.

How might one do good to their neighbours? The Prophetic example offers the following:

"O Abu Dharr! Whenever you prepare a broth, put plenty of water in it, and give some of it to your neighbours"; “He is not a believer who eats his fill whilst his neighbour beside him goes hungry" In another hadith, the Prophet lists a good neighbour as being seemingly second only to the martyr, one of the highest positions held within the Islamic narrative; (On someone whom God loves, the Prophet lists the following, after describing a martyr)  “A man who has a bad neighbour who annoys and disturbs him, but he bears it with patience and forbearance until Allah ends the matter either during his lifetime or upon the death of either of them.” As well as the rights of the neighbour, the stranger is afforded rights within the Islamic framework, as exemplified in the previously listed verses from the Qur’an that talk about the importance of caring for travellers or way-farers. Fittingly, zakat is eligible to these groups.


  1. Conclusion

The negative treatment of Syria’s refugees by Muslim individuals, communities, and majority-states, is deeply regrettable.  It is an issue that highlights the discrepancy between Islamic teachings and the practice of Muslims. While the refugee crisis has seen many Muslims, and sections of Muslim society, rise to the challenge with a sense of duty, love, and drive, the difference between the responses of Muslim-majority countries on the whole, and the Islamic ethical ideal, is enormous.

Attempting to deal with the issue from afar, financing initiatives to keep it “upstream”, as the Gulf countries have done to an extent (as well as Western European countries), goes against the Islamic ideal of brotherhood, as well as falling short of Islamic ideas on responsibility and khilafa. Closer to Syria, certain Turkish initiatives have been exemplary, such as readiness on the whole to let refugees in, and grant them residency. The Syrian experience in Turkey has been far from perfect, though, with exploitative child-labour issues being arguably the most negative reflection of this. Initial open-door and open-arms policies in Lebanon and Jordan soon slowed, and then began reversing, under the weight of financial need, according to their respective governments. At times, Syrian refugees have been unknowingly used as pawns in political games, while on the ground, different forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation have been extensive.

Whether it is by way of the Islamic principles of safety, equality, or justice, there is no ambiguity over the extent at which Islam promotes the protection of refugees. While aspects of the Qur’anic teachings could be opened to interpretation, the Prophetic example oozes with mercy, delivered with frankness; “None of you are believers until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” was exemplified uncompromisingly in the Prophetic commandment to the migrants to Mecca and their hosts, a brotherhood forged in quantifiable equality. This level of equality towards refugees has not been practiced on a wide-scale within any of the countries that are hosting Syrians around the world; even the best fall well-short of this example. While the spirit of Islam might flash up in certain regions, or within certain contexts, in the treatment of Syrian refugees, it has not been seen in a consistent or continuous way.

There is a need to apply Islamic teachings in a context-appropriate way. Is it really as simple as dividing everything in half between refugees and their hosts? This might prove to be problematic within the contemporary world. However, the principle guiding this Prophetic act can be drawn from to devise context appropriate ways of resolving the Syrian refugee crisis. In an increasingly complex world, the ability to directly apply a Prophetic example on anything, let alone a refugee crisis, becomes increasingly difficult. This reality makes it all the more imperative that those who wish to see Islam used as a real force for good in the world, work with scholars of all aspects of refugee crises (economics, sociology, psychology, and so on), to understand what the best approaches to take will be. Muslims believe Islam is a message for all time, a universal message of universal relevance. Accordingly, it’s principles should be a guiding light for societies and the challenges they face today.

If the issue is one of applying Islam in a better, more informed, more up to date way, then the onus is on the scholars to provide the way forward. If, however the issue is something more odious, that of a refusal to part with what’s “mine”, in order to uplift “the other”, the solution to the Syrian refuge crisis, lays instead in promoting social values, such as compassion, generosity, and altruism, within individuals and communities. It would be fair to suggest that both tracks of pursuit are needed to solve the Syrian Refugee Crisis, from an Islamic perspective. The spirit of Islamic ethics on treatment of “the other” is unequivocal, especially when interacting with another who is vulnerable, marginalised, persecuted, or in need of assistance. Islam’s uncompromising call to a love characterised by mercy and selflessness has all too often been absent in the treatment of Syrian refugees.


Tamim Mobayed


Tamim Mobayed, is an Irish born of Syrian origin, holds a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in Psychology (from Queen’s University Belfast). He is currently studying to obtain an MA in Islamic Studies, with a focus on Islamic Ethics, from Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, while concurrently studying for an M.Phil. in Psychology from Queen’s in Belfast. He also holds certificates in Person-Centered Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.


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[3] UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137,. Retrieved from:

[4] UNHCR (2015). Guidelines on International Protection No. 11: Prima facie recognition of refugee status. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved from

[5] Janmyr, M. (2017). UNHCR and the Syrian refugee response: negotiating status and registration in Lebanon. The International Journal of Human Rights. 1-17.

[6] Sherlock, R. (2017). In Lebanon Syrian Refugees Met With Harassment and Hostility. National Public Radio. Retrieved at:

[7] York, C. (2017). Defend Europe Ship, The C-Star, Breaks Down In Mediterranean, NGO Sent To Rescue. The Huffington Post. Retrieved at:

[8] Digidiki, V. & Bhabha, J. (2015). Emergency Within an Emergency: The growing epidemic of sexual exploitation and abuse of migrant children in Greece. FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights- Harvard University. Retrieved at:

[9] Ahmed, D. I. & Gouda, M. (2014). Measuring Constitutional Islamization: the Islamic constitutions index. Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, 38:1

[10] Islamic Relief. (2012). Islam and Refugees. High Commissioners Dialogue on Protection Challenges Theme: Faith and Protection. 12-13th of December 2012.

[11] Jureidini, R. & Reda, L. (2017). The Convergence of Migrants and Refugees: Western and Islamic perspectives. Sociology of Islam. 5:2-3.

[12] OIC. (1990). The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. The Organization of Islamic Conference.

[13] ECFR (2015) in Ibid (2017).

[14] De BelAir (2015) in Ibid (2017)

[15] Ibid (2017) pp. 16.

[16] UNHCR (2017). Syrian Regional Refugee Response. The United High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved at:

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[19] Collett, E. (2016). The Paradox of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved at:

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[21] Sherlock, R. (2017). In Lebanon Syrian Refugees Met With Harassment and Hostility. National Public Radio. Retrieved at:

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[24] Daily Sabah (2017). Turkish Government to Set Up New Refugee Healthcare Centres, Employ Syrian Medical Staff. Daily Sabah. Retrieved at:

[25] Asik, G. A. (2017). Turkey Badly Needs a Long-term Plan for Syrian Refugees. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved at:

[26] UNHCR (UKN). Syrian Refugees In Turkey: frequently asked question. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved at:

[27] Asik, G. A. (2017). Turkey Badly Needs a Long-term Plan for Syrian Refugees. Harvard Business Review.

[28] HRW (2017). Lebanon: New Refugee Policy a Step Forward. Human Rights Watch.

[29] OXFAM. (2013). Survey on the Livelihood of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. OXFAM. Retrieved at:

[30] Dubaneh, D. (2016). Jordan and the Refugee Crisis: Missteps and missed opportunities. International Policy Digest. Retrieved at:

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[33] Daily Sabah. (2017). Turkey Processing Citizenship for 50,000 Syrians. Daily Sabah. Retrieved at:

[34] UNHCR (UKN). Syrian Refugees In Turkey: frequently asked question. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

[35] ILO. (2015). Access to Work for Syrian Refugees in Jordan: a discussion paper on labour and refugee policy laws. The International Labour Organization. Pp.12 Retrieved at:

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[37] HRW. (2016). Lebanon: Residency Rules Put Syrians at Risk – year after adoption, requirements heighten exploitation, abuse. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved at:

[38] Ibid (2017).

[39] Zaman, T. (2016). Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria. New York: Springer Publishing.

[40] Abd al-Rahim (2008) in Ibid (Zaman, T. (2016)).

[41] Qur’an- 9:6

[42] Qur’an - 4:116

[43] Eickelman & Piscatori (1990) in Islamic Relief. (2012). Islam and Refugees. High Commissioners Dialogue on Protection Challenges Theme: Faith and Protection. 12-13th of December 2012.

[44] Islamic Relief. (2012). Islam and Refugees. High Commissioners Dialogue on Protection Challenges Theme: Faith and Protection. 12-13th of December 2012.

[45] Erdogan, R. T. (2013) in Zaman, T. (2016). Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria. New York: Springer Publishing.

[46] Brown, J. A. C. (2017). Slavery and Islam: what is slavery? Al Yaqeen Institute. Retrieved from:

[47] Sahih Muslim – 4092

[48] Qur’an - 16:90

[49] Qur’an - 57:25

[50] Qur’an - 4:135

[51] Qur’an - 4:105

[52] Qur’an 8:74

[53] UNHCR (2017). Syrian Regional Refugee Response. The United High Commissioner for Refugees.

[54] Harvard (UNK). Harvard-Belfer on Syria. Harvard Kennedy School for Science and International Affairs. Retrieved from:

[55] Islamic Relief. (2012). Islam and Refugees. High Commissioners Dialogue on Protection Challenges Theme: Faith and Protection. 12-13th of December 2012.

[56] Harvard (UNK). Harvard-Belfer on Syria. Harvard Kennedy School for Science and International Affairs.

[57] Forestier, M. (2014). “You want freedom? This is your freedom”: Rape as a tactic of the Assad regime. The London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from:

[58] Digidiki, V. & Bhabha, J. (2015). Emergency Within an Emergency: The growing epidemic of sexual exploitation and abuse of migrant children in Greece. FXB Center for Health and Human Rights- Harvard University

[59] Qur’an – 2:215

[60] Ibid

[61] Sahih Al Bukhari - 5718

[62] Sahih Al Bukhari - 5665

[63] AbdoKarim Soroush (2000) in Ibid pp. 62.

[64] Qur’an – 4:36

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