Recognising the Spirituality of Refugees

June 20th 2013 is World Refugee Day as designated by the UN.  Many places have identified this week as World Refugee Week as well.   As someone who has worked with refugees and internally displaced people from conflicts and natural disasters, I have been always struck by the very cold nature that many humanitarian agencies took to dealing with refugees.  I don’t necessarily mean this in a derogatory manner – far from it.  Many of the humanitarian agencies today are highly professional in the way they approach the refugee crisis, and that is just it.  Whilst being professional, in my mind, I feel that they lack the cognizance of spirituality in dealing with what is a very traumatic spiritual experience for people, being forced from your houses and often losing everything of material value to you.   It is something that you do not want to wish upon someone, to be forced out of their houses often just with the clothes on your backs and to lose loved ones and possessions overnight, often to be turned into a pauper.  Not only is it a very traumatic experience but it is a very spiritually-testing experience.  Being made a refugee (in another country) or being displaced (in your own country) tests the limit of faith and patience.  People are emotionally tired and spiritually scarred after facing such an ordeal, often making them vulnerable to abuse as well.  It is this experience that many humanitarian organizations do not recognize, mainly because faith and spirituality in the development and humanitarian world is the elephant in the room.  Sometimes this is done for good reasons.  Being made a refugee makes people vulnerable and as has been documented before, this vulnerability and spiritual weakness has been exploited by faith-based organizations.  There are numerous stories of people being handed aid with a bible and so on.  Thus many agencies have decided to steer clear of faith.

Hence I have always been fascinated by the role of faith and spirituality in addressing refugees which resulted in an initial study on the subject.  Since then, my interest has been peaked even more.  I know the concept of a safe space and sacred space has existed for a long time within Christian teachings.  The stories of the lives of the Prophets Abraham and Moses (upon whom be peace) are also testimony to the fact that migration and seeking refuge are part and parcel of spiritual development.  However, being a Muslim, I was intrigued to try and study this from an Islamic perspective.  I was also motivated by the fact that a lot of my work in the past has been dealing with Muslim refugees and we were often not able to provide adequate spiritual comfort to our constituents.  Bearing in mind now that refugees from Syria could number close to 3 million or so and that since 2007, Muslims have constituted the largest refugee populations worldwide with nearly half of the world’s refugees coming from Muslim countries whilst a significant amount of the total Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) worldwide being displaced in the Muslim world (Zaat 2007).

From the Muslim perspective, there are many mechanisms not only for the protection of vulnerable people but also for their care and support.  The concept of migration or hijrah is central within the teachings of Islam and its history, especially in the case of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) who fled persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in Medina in 662 AD.  This hijrah, or migration, came to symbolize the movement of Muslims from lands of oppression to those of Islam.  Moreover, the hospitable treatment of Muhammad by the people of Medina embodies the Islamic model of refugee protection contained in the Qur’an. Thus individuals not only have the right both to seek and to be granted asylum in any Muslim state; it is the duty of Muslims to accept and protect refugees for as long as they seek protection.

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)

It also requires the faithful to comply with agreements and treaties on the rights of refugees [5:1].  It provides a set of instructions in dealing with refugees and migrants, praising those who go to the assistance of people in distress and requiring the faithful to protect refugees [9:100 and 117]. It recognizes the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons, entitling them to certain rights and to humane treatment [8:72-75, 16:41]. It condemns people whose actions prompt mass migration and views them as lacking faith in God’s words [2:84-86].

The concept of ‘aman’, which is intrinsic in Shari’ah, encompasses the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and the duties incumbent upon their hosts. Aman also refers to the refuge and safeguard offered to non-Muslims, even if they are in conflict with Muslims, and requires that host populations facilitate the voluntary return of refugees to their places of origin when considered safe. Such refuge remains inviolate even if the person who is being offered protection is in a conflict against Muslims [9:6] and thus Islamic scholars of jurisprudence believe that aman creates an irrevocable bond.

Despite all that has been said above, principles in Islamic law regarding refugee assistance and protection remain largely ignored in academic and political discourse and certainly from an operational perspective remain unused.

This I would gather must be the same across the board for other faiths.  There are teachings and practices from faith which can be used to deal effectively with refugees.  Yet they are not being effectively utilized or understood.  This is perhaps where faith-based humanitarian and development organizations can and should play a bigger role.  They need to be given the space and encouragement to be engaged in this.  Whilst they may be problematic in some circumstances, they can also be a panacea during times of refugee crisis as they offer a sympathetic space for reflection, contemplation and often prayer.  As we commemorate World Refugee Day, we  need to revisit the role that faith and faith-based organizations play in dealing with refugees.


•    Abu-Salieh, S. A. (Spring 1996) ‘The Islamic Conception of Migration’.  International Migration Review. 30(1): 37-57
•    An-Na’im, A. (1990) Towards and Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press
•    Arnaout, G. M. (1987) Asylum in the Arab-Islamic Tradition. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Institute of Humanitarian Law, Geneva
•    Eickelman, D. F., and Piscatori, J. (eds). (1990). Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. New York: Routledge
•    Islam, Human Rights and Displacement – FMR Supplement, 2009
•    Nida Kirmani, Ajaz Ahmed Khan and Victoria Palmer, Does Faith Matter?: An Examination of Islamic Relief’s Work with  Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons , Islamic Relief, March 2008
•    Zaat, Kirsten (2007) ‘The Protection of Forced Migrants in Islamic Law’. UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research

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One thought on “Recognising the Spirituality of Refugees

  1. Thanks for your thoughts about refugees and spirituality/religion. I believe that you’re right – it’s definitely not something that we often think of. With all of the refugee news stories, controversy, and political strategies happening in Canada and the U.S. it’s very easy to view the issue solely as a economic or socio-political one while ignoring that refugees are people who come from diverse backgrounds and have certain faith practices which can actually enhance our country. I loved reading what you had to say here.

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