Strengthening Social Cohesion: 5 Lessons from Surah Al-Hujurat
February 23, 2023
Surah Al-Hujurat is a chapter in the Quran which focuses on issues pertaining to manners and etiquette in interpersonal relationships and social interactions. Let us look at what this chapter says and what it offers to highlight the significance of social cohesion.
Ustaz Ahmad Helmi bin Mohamad Hasbi graduated with Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Islamic Theology – Quranic Exegesis from Al-Azhar University in 2011 and obtained his Masters of Science (MSc) in Strategic Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU in 2020. Currently a Research Analyst at The International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, RSIS. He is also a counsellor and a member of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).
According to a 2021 (IPS) study on lived experiences in Singapore, there is generally little trust among Singaporeans for other people. The level of trust among Singaporeans has declined over time, according to surveys conducted in 2012 and 2020. Although the decline was small (3.1 percent), the trend may have a long-term impact on Singapore society.
Furthermore, there is evidence of rising deliberate falsehood and manipulation, which can fuel discord, especially in today’s environment where the population is diverse and highly interconnected with one another through the internet.
Therefore, there is a pressing need for societies to build trust and enhance social cohesiveness.
Strengthening social cohesion and building trust
Social cohesion etiquette refers to the manners and customs that govern interactions and relationships among individuals and groups within a community. It is the glue that holds a community together and is necessary for the well-being of people as well as society as a whole. Individuals must understand and practice etiquette in order to sustain this coherence. At the same time, trust is an important sign of a society’s cohesiveness.
Read: MuslimSG | The Importance of Social Cohesion in Islam
Living in an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Singapore requires individuals to be conscious of their actions and interactions with others. For Muslims, the Quran offers guidance on social etiquette through its teachings and principles. In particular, Surah Al-Hujurat, or the “Chapter of the Rooms,” provides valuable lessons on how to interact with others in a respectful and harmonious manner.
Background of Surah Al-Hujurat
Surah Al-Hujurat is the 49th chapter of the Quran and contains 18 verses. The chapter is referred to as one of the Medinan chapters, addressing socio-cultural issues following the Prophet’s migration to Madinah.
In his book, Tafsir al-Munir, Prof. Dr. Wahbah Zuhaili listed more than 25 events and circumstances that occurred during the Prophet’s lifetime, that provide the contexts for the revelation of verses across Surah Al-Hujurat. 
Throughout, this quranic chapter – also named as the Chapter of Akhlak and Adab (Moral and Etiquette) – provides divine guidance and instructions specifically for the Prophet s.a.w. and his companions r.a. It councils on matters pertaining to manners and etiquette on interpersonal relationships as well as social interactions.
In Islamic history, the period in which the Prophet s.a.w. and his companions r.a. lived is known as the best generation. However, the revelation of Surah Al-Hujurat demonstrated that societal issues were not uncommon during that time period. Regardless of the target group, the general guidance can be applied to a broader audience across time and space. Such is the timeless guidance of the Quran.
In other words, the essence of Surah Al-Hujurat is God’s instruction on how to promote harmony and peace in society. Here are some key lessons on how to foster social cohesion:
1. Treat others with respect
Regardless of one’s social status or background, Surah Al-Hujurat reminds us to treat others with respect and kindness. This is because all individuals are equal in the eyes of Allah s.w.t as reflected in the following verse:
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقۡنَٰكُم مِّن ذَكَرٖ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلۡنَٰكُمۡ شُعُوبٗا وَقَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوٓاْۚ إِنَّ أَكۡرَمَكُمۡ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتۡقَىٰكُمۡۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِير
O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:13)
Diversity and differences are part of God’s larger plan (sunnatullah) for this world. Despite these differences, they should not be a source of conflict, but rather an opportunity for us to learn from one another. It is a calling to treat others with dignity and respect. In reality, the juxtaposition in God’s eyes is based on one’s righteousness and piety or God-consciousness (taqwa), which can only be determined by Allah s.w.t.
Being cognisant of our actions and interactions with others is crucial, especially in an environment like Singapore where people of all races and religions cohabit. This entails demonstrating respect for other people’s customs and beliefs, being polite and considerate of them, and refraining from any kind of prejudice or discrimination.
For example, it is important to be mindful of the various religious holidays and practices, as well as to be respectful of how others choose to observe them. Additionally, individuals should be aware of their own biases and strive to challenge them.
This can be done by consciously working to break down stereotypes and prejudices as well as taking steps to build bridges and connections between different groups in society. By that, we will be able to promote greater understanding and acceptance of others.
In his commentary on the verse in question, Prof. Dr. Wahbah Zuhaili highlighted that it should serve as a guide for maintaining unity. He emphasised that if Muslims heed the command and set an exemplary image when interacting with people of other faiths, this will in turn reveal the true essence of Islam.
2. Verify and be discerning
The proliferation of today’s digital age has made it possible for us to access information and communicate with one another with just a few clicks on a device. Furthermore, we have seen that the internet plays a significant role in shaping the climate of opinions and framing community sentiments. Besides, social media has been used to spread misinformation and fake news which can cause harm to individuals and society.
For instance, violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) have exploited social media to spread messages that portray their violence as a religious duty supplemented by their misconstrued understanding of the Quran and hadith to support their claims.
IS have also used these platforms to spread segregationist ideology and false information about other religious groups, portraying them as enemies of Islam and thus, legitimising their violent actions.
In addition, it is important to exercise caution when relying on influencers for religious information on social media. In today’s digital age, the words and actions of social media influencers with a large following can have a significant impact on many people.
It becomes especially concerning when inaccurate religious beliefs or divisive narratives targeting people of other faiths are disseminated publicly. While everyone has the right to their own opinions and religious practices, influencers must understand that their perspective may be misinterpreted by impressionable followers. They should exercise discretion when sharing comments or opinions that may be deemed inappropriate in a multi-religious setting.
Thus, it is extremely crucial for us to verify information, remain prudent and responsible, and exercise discernment following the principle of honesty espoused by Islam.
Surah Al-Hujurat encourages Muslims to be discerning and to seek clarification before spreading news or information. Verse 6 of the chapter reminds us to remain calm and not to react hastily to something we receive. Similarly, it is important to verify information before sharing it in order to maintain social cohesion. Allah s.w.t. says in the following verse:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓا۟ إِن جَآءَكُمْ فَاسِقٌ بِنَبَإٍ فَتَبَيَّنُوٓا۟ أَن تُصِيبُوا۟ قَوْمًا بِجَهَـٰلَةٍ فَتُصْبِحُوا۟ عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلْتُمْ نَـٰدِمِينَ
Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first, in case you wrong others unwittingly and later regret what you have done
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:6)
Although the verse uses the term fasiq – فاسق, which theologically means transgressing a major sin, scholars of tafsir view that fasiq in this verse refers to kazib – كاذب, which means misleading or being dishonest.
This verse from Surah Al-Hujurat reminds us not to spontaneously accept news from someone who is known to be dishonest. Scholars such as Ibn Kathir went even further and deduced from the verse to deny affirming a report or news before verifying the status of the source (whether or not that person is known to be dishonest). This is even more relevant in the context of our world today where news is quickly spread without verification.
3. Be humble
The surah also emphasises the importance of humility, another important aspect of social cohesion. As Muslims, we must strive to be humble and avoid arrogance and pride. Humility can be cultivated by being willing to learn from others and to accept their perspectives, even if they differ from our own. One who possesses a sense of humility will also realise one’s inadequacy and be honest with oneself.
Allah s.w.t. says in Surah Al-Hujurat:
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ يُنَادُونَكَ مِن وَرَآءِ ٱلْحُجُرَٰتِ أَكْثَرُهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ. وَلَوْ أَنَّهُمْ صَبَرُوا۟ حَتَّىٰ تَخْرُجَ إِلَيْهِمْ لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَّهُمْ ۚ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
Indeed, most of those who call out (loudly) to you (O Prophet) from outside (your) private quarters have no understanding (of manners). Had they been patient until you could come out to them, it would have certainly been better for them. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:4-5)
And the verse:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا يَسْخَرْ قَوْمٌ مِّن قَوْمٍ عَسَىٰٓ أَن يَكُونُوا۟ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَلَا نِسَآءٌ مِّن نِّسَآءٍ عَسَىٰٓ أَن يَكُنَّ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُنَّ ۖ وَلَا تَلْمِزُوٓا۟ أَنفُسَكُمْ وَلَا تَنَابَزُوا۟ بِٱلْأَلْقَـٰبِ ۖ بِئْسَ ٱلِٱسْمُ ٱلْفُسُوقُ بَعْدَ ٱلْإِيمَـٰنِ ۚ وَمَن لَّمْ يَتُبْ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمُونَ
O believers! Do not let some (men) ridicule others, they may be better than them, nor let (some) women ridicule other women, they may be better than them. Do not defame one another, nor call each other by offensive nicknames. How evil it is to act rebelliously after having faith! And whoever does not repent, it is they who are the (true) wrongdoers.
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:11)
4. Reconcile and be just
Another important aspect of social cohesion that can be gleaned from Surah Al-Hujurat is the importance of reconciliation and justice. For instance, verse 9 of the surah encourages Muslims to seek reconciliation with others and to resolve conflicts in a peaceful and just manner. This will allow individuals and communities to move on from conflicts, rebuild relationships and progress harmoniously as a society.
Allah s.w.t. says in Surah Al-Hujurat:
وَإِن طَآئِفَتَانِ مِنَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ٱقْتَتَلُوا۟ فَأَصْلِحُوا۟ بَيْنَهُمَا ۖ فَإِن بَغَتْ إِحْدَىٰهُمَا عَلَى ٱلْأُخْرَىٰ فَقَـٰتِلُوا۟ ٱلَّتِى تَبْغِى حَتَّىٰ تَفِىٓءَ إِلَىٰٓ أَمْرِ ٱللَّهِ ۚ فَإِن فَآءَتْ فَأَصْلِحُوا۟ بَيْنَهُمَا بِٱلْعَدْلِ وَأَقْسِطُوٓا۟ ۖ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُقْسِطِينَ
And if two groups of believers fight each other, then make peace between them. But if one of them transgresses against the other, then fight against the transgressing group until they (are willing to) submit to the rule of Allah. If they do so, then make peace between both (groups) in all fairness and act justly. Surely Allah loves those who uphold justice.
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:9)
It can be understood that Surah Al-Hujurat advocates Muslims to be the first to offer forgiveness and to seek reconciliation with others when strife surfaces.
Undoubtedly, in life, conflicts and disagreements may arise due to cultural or religious differences. When that happens, it is useful to take the initiative in resolving conflicts and fostering a sense of unity among the community.
In a hadith reported by Imam Muslim, the Prophet s.a.w. said:
مَا نقصت صَدَقَة من مَال شَيْئا وَمَا زَادَ اللَّهُ عَبْدًا بِعَفْوٍ إِلَّا عِزًّا وَمَا تَوَاضَعَ أَحَدٌ لِلَّهِ إِلَّا رَفَعَهُ اللَّهُ
Sadaqah does not reduce one’s wealth; God increases the honour of one who forgives another; and no one will humble himself for God’s sake except that Allah raises his status.
5. Cultivate moral values
As mentioned above, chapter 49 of the Quran is also known as the chapter of Al-Akhlaq wa Al-Adab (Moral and Etiquette). Just as the name implies, if one contemplates and acts upon the recommendations in the surah, one will certainly highlight a positive outlook within a society. Case in point, Surah Al-Hujurat talks about the importance of avoiding divisive language and behaviour.
The chapter reminds Muslims to avoid using language that is divisive or inflammatory, as it can lead to disputes and division. Similarly, in physical or social media interactions, we should not make negative assumptions and gossip about others.
Read: MuslimSG | 4 Lessons on Adab in Advocacy
In our effort to preserve social cohesion, it is essential to uphold admirable moral values. We must aim to avoid making derogatory comments about other races or religions, and instead, promote understanding and acceptance of different cultures.
Cultivating moral values is part of the Prophetic mission. In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. indicated: “Verily, Allah s.w.t. has sent me with the perfection of noble morals and completion of good deeds.” Praiseworthy morals will not only be highly regarded by society but will also be deemed meritorious in the eyes of Allah s.w.t. The Prophet s.a.w. said:
أَكْمَلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِيمَانًا أَحْسَنُهُمْ خُلُقًا
The best among you are those who have the best manners and character
“Have we done enough to defend the country against the threat of violent extremism?”. This is a question that was raised to me in an engagement session I participated in with a group of students. The session discussed issues of religious extremism, and online radicalisation, as well as the root causes of social divides.
Read: MuslimSG | How Does Social Media Influence Online Radicalisation?
There is no doubt that the Singapore government takes the threat of extremism seriously as evidenced by the various robust policies in place. While the strategies may appear adequate on paper, they will be insufficient if the larger community is at odds with one another or if societal distrust develops.
Furthermore, Singapore takes a “not if, but when” approach to counter-terrorism. Thus, in my response, I emphasised the importance of strengthening our social resilience and working to improve trust as a community. As a byproduct, we can rely on one another as a cohesive society in the face of adversity.
In conclusion, Surah Al-Hujurat provides important lessons for proper behaviour and etiquette in society. For Muslims, we must heed the principles revealed in Surah Al-Hujurat. By following these principles, we can work towards building a more inclusive and harmonious society for all.
 Mathews Mathew; Kay Key Teo; Melvin Tay; and Alicia Wang, Lived Experiences in Singapore: Key Findings from the World Value Survey, IPS Exchange, Number 18. July 2021, Institute of Policy Studies. https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/ips-exchange-series-18.pdf
 Trust levels in 2012 indicated 37.5 per cent as compared to 2020, which was 34.6 per cent.
 Yuen Sin, “Parliament: Ministers, MPs give examples of deliberate falsehoods in Singapore and beyond”, The Straits Times, January 10, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/singapolitics/ministers-mps-give-examples-of-deliberate-falsehoods-in-singapore-and-beyond
 Wahbah Zuhaili, Tafsir Al-Munir – Jilid 13 (Bahasa Indonesia translation), 2016, Surah Al-Hujurat, pg. 445, Gema Insani.
 Wahbah Zuhaili, Tafsir Al-Munir – Jilid 13 (Bahasa Indonesia translation), 2016, Surah Al-Hujurat, pg. 479, Gema Insani
 Surah Al-Hujurat: Verse 4-5 & verse 11
 Sahih Muslim, The Book of Virtue, Enjoining Good Manners, and Joining of the Ties of Kinship, Chapter: It Is Recommended to Forgive And Be Humble, Hadith 2588, Sunnah.com. https://sunnah.com/muslim:2588
 Surah Al-Hujurat: Verse 11
 Surah Al-Hujurat: Verse 2, 6, 7, & 9-15
 Surah Al-Hujurat: Verse 12
 Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Participation in the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Rome, Italy, 29 June 2021.