Islam, Human Capabilities and Development: A perspective from Basilan, Mindanao

Islam is important to development because it is important to people. The Islamic discourse –often defined differently by different groups- guides how people develop. This article shows that for many people Islam guides the development or lack of development of their capability domains.

An understanding of Islam and development derived from the Yakan can guide development policy and practice in Mindanao as well as inform the larger Islam and development discussion. There are approximately 181,000 Yakan.  The Yakan live in Basilan, Mindanao which is an island off the Zamboanga Peninsula in western Mindanao.  Because the Yakan live on Basilan and -for the most part- hold an Islamic identity they often face discrimination due to their geographic proximity and ethnic congruence to members of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The following research came from asking the core question (asked of female and male; young and old; community and individual) what are the best experiences people had in their lives. From these experiences a capabilities type framework (click here the list of capability domains leading to flourishing) and five tipping points were posed for policy and development practice among the Yakan of Basilan. This article reviews one tipping point which is to recognize Islam in development practice and policy among the Yakan (specific recommendations are made at the end of the article).

To understand the social impact of ebb and flow conflict in Basilan click here.

To see the methodology –The Model Flourishing- used to develop this research click here.

Why Religion is Important for Development: The development world has been grappling with trends that show religion has not dissipated as people have sought development. Secularization theorists had proposed that as the world developed and embraced a more ‘rational’ way of life, the ideas of religion and god would disappear (Robinson, 1999). Deneulin and Bano state, “The fathers of sociology, Emile Durkeheim and Max Weber, both established an inverse relationship between modernization and religion: as societies modernize, they may be expected to rely less on the sacred to interpret events around them or seek solutions” (2009, 15).

What was expected was an increase in modernization -rationalization- which would decrease religious identity.  Instead, religion and religious identities have remained important or even gained salience (SIDA, 2009; Stewart 2009; Deneulin 2009; ISS-ICCO 2005). Also, the number of people who claim certain religious identities is on the rise (Stewart, 2009). The ISS-ICCO (2005) report concludes, “over the last 100 years, the share of the world’s population that is Muslim has risen from 12.5 percent to 20 percent” (Anheier et al 2003: 154-155). Jenkins predicts that in 2050, the ratio of Christians to Muslims will be three to two (with 34% of the world being Christian), but by then most Christians would live in Africa and Latin America (2002, 4).

Using a perspective of development that ignores religious identity can ignore a major motivation for change as well as not reveal issues such as social exclusion, discrimination and violence based on religion. Further, understanding religion can reveal keys to social inclusion, equality and peace-making.

The ability to have faith in Islam and the impact on the good life: Within the research participants created a list of ten capability domains they value for a good life (See Table 1).  The list was ranked using a survey within a larger population.  Every domain was ranked against every other domain.  The list was ranked with the question, ‘if missing which part of life has a greater impact to prevent you from having a good life?’ Participants ranked the domain to have faith in Allah as having greater impact on thier ability to have a good life as compared to other domains.  The high ranking of the ability to have faith in Allah reflects a perception that if this ability is missing, threatened or unhealthy it will be a corrosive disadvantage that impacts the entirety of the capability set (Wolff & de-Shalit, 2007, “7.3 Clustering of ‘High-Weight’ Functioning,” para. 9).
Table 1: What is essential for a flourishing society.


How the ability to have faith in Allah impacted people’s lives was described in detail through people’s naratives.

Islam is the root: The idea that Islam is an overarching discourse was often discussed. One male participant in the 15–29 age group described the importance of Islam using wording that suggests the stability and centrality of Islam.  He stated,

“Islam is the root.”

A root anchors as well as produces life. He added that,

“if the root is good, then the branches will also be good.”

He addressed how important Islam is to flourishing by pointing at the domains of a good life the study participants had developed:

“These are the leaves. That one [the ability to fear Allah] is the root.”

The “leaves” he pointed to are the ability to have a permanent job, to get a good education, to have peace and order, to have a happy family, to have good governance, to have health, to travel, to have a permanent house, to have technological development, to have transportation, and to help people. Thus, Islam nourishes all other domains, that is, Islam guides all other parts of life. Another participant in this discussion then stated,

“Islam is a way of life.”

Viewing islam as a way of life implies it is not simply a part of life but rather how life is lived.

Figure 1 and 2 show that the majority of people interviewed view Islam as influencing their lives and shaping their behavior.

The question was asked how much does Islam influence your life? Of the respondents, 86% said Islam influenced their lives all of the time, 5% said most of the time, 4% said some of the time, 2% reported not that often, and 3% said rarely to not at all.


When asked how important is it for you to keep the obligations of Islam Eighty-seven percent of respondents said it was important to keep the obligations of Islam all of the time (see Figure 2), 8% said most of the time, 4 % indicated some of the time, and 1% said not that often. No respondents chose “rarely to not at all” in response to this question.


Understand That, in Islam, Live Now for What Follows After Death: A guiding force for participants in this research was living now for what follows after death. The study participants understand life as moving past the present existence into a post death existence. To express that Islam affects one’s daily actions, a male in the 15–29 age group said,

“We should have faith in Allah. We should do our obligations to Him.”

He uses “we” to group himself with other Muslims (Yakan) in the room and suggests a focus on actions to reflect belief. He added,

“No matter how long we stay in this world, we will still end up with Him.”

His statement expresses a level of nonpermanence. In addition, the two different locations—“in this world” and “with Him” draw a cause-and-effect relationship, namely that doing obligations leads to being with Allah. Ultimately, though, the person doing the obligations has no control over whether he or she will end up with Allah. As one woman in the 50 or older group put it,

“It is ultimately up to Allah who will be with him.”

People trust Allah, because He knows people’s motivation and actions. However, this woman also explained that the “obligations of Islam” are to follow the “pillars of Islam.” People trust in the perfect wisdom of Allah, so they must follow the obligations of Islam.

The idea that the afterlife effects how people live now is substantial for understanding behavior and behavior change. Figure 3 shows that almost all participants said they make decisions based on the goal of going to paradise.

When asked do you make choices in your daily life so that when you die you will go to paradise (the hereafter)? Ninety-nine percent of respondents reported making daily choices so they will go to paradise when they die (see Figure 3), 1% said they do not make choices in their life based whether they will go to paradise.


Islam is Connected to various human development domains: Since people live their lives with the hope of the afterlife and view Islam as connected to all parts of life it has a substantial impact on human development domains.

Participants connected Islam to the domains of ability to work, to have good health, to be educated, to love and help others, to have peace and to be guided in how gender interactions should take place.  Firstly, explored is Islam and the ability to work.

Islam’s connection to the ability to work. One male in the 15–29 age group said,

“According to our prophet Mohammad, while you are in this world, you have to find a way to survive.”

By mentioning Mohammad, he is alerting the listeners that this message has a higher level of importance. He uses “survive” in meaning it is important for people to work and be paid for the work they do. Another male participant in the 30–49 age group added that,

“though there is a better life in the hereafter, I believe that we also need to have betterment here in this world.”

His belief in the afterlife is evident; however, he suggests there is more to life than the afterlife. He suggests that people have the ability to make their current life better. He added,

“People like us need jobs where we can get our source.”

By saying “people like us” he is referring to his self-identity as a Muslim and a Yakan.

Another participant in discussing work stated,

“If you don’t also have this livelihood, you would not also know how to serve Allah.”

Thus, having a job provides people with the means to be able to learn how to have fear of and faith in Allah. A male participant in the 30–49 age group followed up with this comment:

“Even the prophet started with a business. He traded his goat in Sham [Syria].”

That the prophet was a businessperson gives the ability to work an even higher level of importance. However, it is important to not just be any kind of businessman. The man added,

“He [the prophet] was being trusted, and people like him for being honest. In other words, once you do business, you should be honest.”

Thus, hard and honest work is a part of following Islam.

Ability to have good health and Islam. The teachings of Islam and the Qur’ān encourage good health according to the findings of the research. As one man in the 30–49 age group said,

“In Islam, we are also taught how to be healthy…. According to hadith, you eat while you are hungry and stop when you are already full.”

He added,

“Those teachings are very enlightening. The only problem is people are ignorant. That is why it is hard for them to offer prayer due to poor health.”

Poor health negatively affects people’s ability to offer prayer thus affecting their connection to Allah.

Islam and the ability to be educated in both western and Islamic education. People also expressed for a person to have a good life, he or she needs both an Islamic and Western education. During a focus group discussion participants in all age groups discussed these two kinds of education, respectively, using the words “Western” and “Islamic”; “English” and “Arabic”; “formal” and “nonformal”; and “secular” and “religious.” “What we want in the future,” said one of the participants, a woman in the 50 and above age group,

“is that our children and our grandchildren will be able to study Islamic and Western education.”

Her statement reflects the group’s desire to have access to opportunity for family members. Participants also reported that it is important to learn a Arabic. “Our hope,” said a woman in the 30–49 age group, “is that our children will be able to study both Arabic and English.” Reasons cited for learning both languages are the ability to read the Qur’ān and to work overseas (in Arabic speaking nations).

One man in the 15–29 age group explained how Allah is connected to education:

“I could say that a person can only experience good life if he/she has knowledge, because once you have knowledge, you will know [what is right and what is not]”

Thus, knowledge means being able to discern right from wrong. He added,

“If you study, especially in Islamic, and you apply the teachings of Allah and his messenger, you would really say life is so good!”

Therefore, from his perspective people need an education to know right from wrong, and an Islamic education in particular teaches people how to live well.  It is also to note that the ability to practice Islam is such a strong domain that if there is a perceived threat by another domain Islam will be chosen.

Historically when people did a capabilities calculation Islam beat education. Education is a prime example of how if religious identity is ignored it will effect other domains.  The education system has changed to have a number of Yakan teachers.  Further, there has been a shift to view both religious and secular education as important.  Historically this was not the case. When discussing the history of the Yakan one Man (30-49) state,

“There is also a difficulty in the part of the women,” the man explained, “because women that [shortly after Marcos] time were not really allowed to study because of the fear that they will just be married to the Christians. That case is just okay with the men; they can marry to Christian women.”

The women avoided being educated out of fear that they would have to marry a Christian which would necessitate conversion. Yakan women -and men-, then, valued the women’s ability tot remain Muslim over their ability to be educated.  This reflects the need to create systems that are win-win rather than win-lose -in perception and reality.

Loving and helping one another and Islam. Another ability closely tied to faith in Allah is loving and helping one another. A male participant in the 30–49 age group expressed that loving and helping others is important because, in Islam, doing so is an obligation— a high priority: “Loving one another is really obligatory.” He added,

“Our prophet said [that] one’s faith will never be completed if you will never love one another.”

The respondent makes clear the point that, to be faithful, Muslims must love others—both people they know and those they do not. “One of the manifestations of showing love,” he said,

“is when two people meet each other in a way. Then that’s the time that you have to greet each other. Even if you don’t know that person, you also have to show your love to all.”

Changing gender roles in Islam. Study participants discussed the ability to help one another in the context of shifting gender roles in Islam. Like most religions, in Islam, certain roles are assigned to a particular gender as part of religious practice. The view is that traditionally, women primarily have been responsible for household chores. One male participant in the 30–49 age group described how these roles are changing: Men now take part in cleaning and doing laundry. He explained this change, in part,

“because, in Islam, you are told to help one another. So the first thing help comes in is between husband and wife, so Islam teaches you to learn domestic works. They thought before that, washing the laundry is only a work of the women. But, now, men are doing it also.”

The men, he added, look to the prophet as an example:

“They are following the practices of the prophet Mohammad, how he lived a simple life. He did not actually teach people. People just saw him doing the chores like cooking, cleaning the laundry, and helping his wife.”

He added,

“That is what we actually do in tabligh: All of us [men] are obliged to cook, because we have an assigned schedule for cooking, so by that, you will really be forced to cook…. Many of my companions do not know how to do the laundry, but know how to cook.”

The Ability to Have Peace Is Connected to Islam. One man in the 50 and above age group who, for most of his life, had worked as a lupon—a mediator who brings disputing groups together to discuss peaceful solutions—talked about the connection between the ability to have faith in Allah and to have peace. The Qur’ān, he pointed out, guided his actions when settling disputes and how to handle “leadership”:

“Since I experienced a lot of things, I took every step I did from the Qur’ān. There are bases with regards to leadership and conflicts. Everything has basis.”

Later, when reflecting on what he had taken away from being a lupon, he said,

“The biggest lesson for me is more than anything I can get in this world: I am really after the reward of Allah. Because, settling people to peace gets bigger rewards more than praying, fasting, schooling, and or fighting for the sake of Allah.”

Thus, honoring Allah and ultimately receiving rewards from Him for bringing about peace motivates a person’s actions. Another male (15-29) that connected having peace and Allah simply stated, “Religion is, like us Islam, Islam is peace, Islam is a way of life.” To say “Islam is peace” and “Islam is a way of life” is to say that to be a Muslim is to live in peace.

Finally, survey respondents were asked to rank what kind of development organization they would like to have work with them. The below ranking shows a preference with an Islamic NGO followed by a Christian NGO and finally a secular NGO.

Participants were asked if an NGO were doing a project in your community would you rather that NGO be secular (not work from a certain religion), Islamic or Christian? Overall, participants said they preferred an Islamic NGO to a Christian or secular one (see Figure 4). Their second preference: a Christian NGO over a secular NGO, which was not preferred.



The above finding lead the the following recommendations:

2.1       Government and nongovernment entities need to partner with Islamic civil society groups -including a focus on increasing capacity- to lead toward greater social change areas with high Islamic identity.

2.2       Government and non-government entities should monitor the perceived impact policies and projects have on the ability to have faith in Allah.  Perceived positive impact could increase the success of the project and increase other capability domains.  Perceived negative impact could lead towards a downturn in the project and decrease other capability domains.

2.3       Within Islam there are theological understandings that have major social implications. For example the ability to work, to have good health, to be educated and to love and help others are all promoted as theological concepts. Further, gender relationships and keeping peace also are a part of the Islamic discourse. INGO, bilateral, and multilaterals need to understand this theological and social crossovers for scalable social change.

2.4       Research institutions need to conduct research to connect Islamic theology with local ideas of a ‘good life’ from within a Yakan perspective. There could be specific value in exploring concepts like salam in connecting to ideas of the good life. This research could be used to further contextualize capability theory –human beings and doings- for Islamic populations.

2.5       Research institutions in partnership with local organizations should create an islamic discourse that promotes peace and development.  This discourse should be spread to compete with discourses that promote violence.

About the Author: Dr Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience in International Development working and living in South East Asia and the Pacific.  He worked in Mindanao for eight years which is also where he completed his doctoral research.  This article is derived from research done in partnership with Sirat (a local NGO in Mindanao) and the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

If you would like to talk to him about innovative ways for a partnering towards a flourishing society click here.   Other articles on Mindanao include Flourishing is…? The Good Life in Conflict: A perspective from South East Asia. Mistaken Identity and the Discourse of TerrorA Tipping Point in Terror: “Those Who Tell the Stories Rule Society”The Respect Principle –Fertile or Corrosive- Key to Peace in Mindanao“If Peace is Missing we Can’t Do Anything but Hide.” Peace a Priority in Mindanao, and The Gendered Results of Conflict: “We live in Hell” vs. We were “Revolutionaries”.

Note on the methodology:  The above research used Grounded Theory.  The research was conducted between 2012 and 2014.  Focus Group Discussions, Key Informant Interviews, and Nominal Group Technique and surveys were triangulated.  The above quantitative data is not generalizable. Light random sampling was used (compared to random sampling) because of various concerns during the time of the data collection. Although not generalizable the data is usable to show the importance of Islam to human capabilities and development.


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