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Justice — A Qur’anic Perspective
Islamic Values Series
“Justice is what love looks like in public”.
—Cornell West of Tikkun Olam
What connection lies between faith, religion and justice? Through history, during the age of empires, and even into modern times, religion has presented itself as an anathema to justice. As we have sought to extricate political influence from religious life, ie no longer using religion itself to legitimise the state as enforcer of God, we have begun the process of rehabilitating faith and religion as forces shaping human society. In our present-day secular world, do faith and religion have a role and a future? What core values can we draw from religion to help us maintain and build our societies? How do Qur’anic core essential values known as the shari’ah provide a framework for universal human rights and nation building? What forms the basis of political legitimacy? First of all let’s define our terms—we need to distinguish between faith and religion, we will spend the remainder of this essay defining and discussing what we mean by justice in Islam, and the role for religion in promoting compassionate and equitable societies via a set of core essential values and their contribution—the guiding principals of the shari’ah.
Faith, Religion and Islam
Faith is belief in the unseen, in transcendent reality, in the ghaib (what is beyond our senses). This part of human nature has provided purpose to human life since the first appearance of sentient life on earth. Faith exists in the absent, the hidden, the yet to become—like the bottom of a deep well, you know it exists though you cannot see it. Faith exists universally and eternally, therefore it has a future. You have faith that this day will turn to night, that the night will end, and the sun will rise again tomorrow. You have no absolute certitude, you believe tomorrow will come as today has. Faith provides the essence of religion. Religion provides a structured response to faith at the individual and community level, a pursuit of knowledge about higher truth, and the translation of that knowledge into moral practice. Many religious paths exist in the search for absolute truth, these take many forms of practise, and all are designed for the same purpose—to worship the Absolute in thought, word, and deed, whether we call it God, Gott, Dios, or Allah.
Put differently, the future of faith and religion hinges upon knowing the difference between essence and appearance, upon moving the intellectual focus from enforcing appearance toward cultivating essence. Many scholars distinguish between Christianity in the form of Christ’s teachings as essence and Christendom as what one sees. Christianity is both a faith and an ideal system of practice, whereas Christendom refers to the institutional and political impact of Christianity. Similarly with Islam and Islamdom. Fixation with appearance can and does strangulate essence—research suggests that the faith of Islam spread most rapidly when the Muslim empires were weak and slowly when they were strong. It spread most successfully in places like Indonesia where there were no Muslim empires—this underscores the distinction between essence and appearance. Essence, intent inspired by Divine guidance vs appearance, a non contextual fixation with imposing rules and an oppressive control over the behaviour of individuals.
Islam, an Arabic word meaning submission to God and derived from the word asalama—surrender, shares the root s-l-m root with salam, the word for peace. It has flourished as a faith in America and across the world today precisely because humanity faces so many struggles—they reach for Islam in response—just as Arabic society did 1444 years ago when the Angel Gabriel first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that he was to be a Prophet and Messenger of God. In the face of negative perceptions about our religion, Muslims in America have an opportunity to turn things around, with a focus on justice for humanity and a role for religion in human society—as a cure for, rather than a cause of, conflict, and as a source of freedom from, rather than a cause of, oppression and abuse.
Iqra, the first word revealed by God to The Prophet (pbuh), means recite or study, and shares its root with Qur’an, which literally means recitation. Because worship in Islam involves enjoining the inner with the outer—as in the process iqra, an action. The unlettered Muhammad received the Qur’anic revelations over a period of 23 years in 7th century Arabia, from the age of 40 until the year of his death. It’s said when he received the revelations while riding an animal, the animal would collapse under the weight of God’s message.
Muslims believe in the Qur’an as the direct word of God and His final revelation. Scientists have dated the Qur’an to the 7th century and the Qur’an itself, the most memorised and widely recited book in the world, remains the unchallenged pinnacle of classical Arabic literature. The text of the Qur’an itself remains unaltered since its revelation, yet each time we read it we come away with something different. It interacts with the reader, as though holding a mirror to the soul. This fixed text continues to reveal new meanings as humanity moves forward—it provides a universal message for all time. The essence of Islam exists in timeless form within the Qur’an.
Imperialism and the age of empires distorted religion to promote geopolitical ends. Instead of being the intended reason for peace and a source of comfort, religion became a cause of conflict and also a source oppression. Over the past two decades in particular, we have watched extremists commit mass murder in the name of God and religion. In the minds of many in the west, the word Islam has become a dirty word, synonymous with extremism. Muslims, more than anyone else, have borne the brunt of the religious fundamentalism fuelling extremism and terrorism. Within the Muslim community many Muslims have begun to reach for and promote an alternative to the dominating spiritually bereft and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Most Muslims want an Islam without extremes, free from hate and violent persecution, and based upon promotion of universal human rights necessary for freedom, including and especially equality between the sexes. The push back from the fundamentalists at this growing movement of Muslims taking back their religion from extremists reveals the narcissism behind the extremism. Rehabilitating religion inevitably will entail addressing the suffering that lies beneath the narcissism driving extremism and terror. European states have intensified their secular control of religion, in an oppressive and discriminatory response to the threat of extremist fundamentalism and terrorism. In some ways the Muslims community feels as though at an impasse with itself, and also wedged between a rock and a hard place.
Muslims in American stand at a crossroads. As we come to terms the American end to the war in Afghanistan, and its complete military withdrawal in that country, as we face the ugly truths revealed, as we address the continued devastation of the war on terror that still exists in the MENA region and Central Asia, as we grapple with the unfortunate reality that the war on terror triggered a viral spread of terrorism and fuelled fundamentalism—how do Muslims change the American and overall western perception of Muslims and Islam? Through the Qur’an.
Changing the perception of Islam in the west will require education about the common essence of all Abrahamic religions, as well as credible demonstration of this essence in practice. Muslims, Christians, Jews and others must join in solidarity to rehabilitate the role of religion in the world, in both essence and practice, by providing a new paradigm of faith-based, compassionate justice for public policy guidance at all levels of governance and on the world stage, as well as a resource for people to turn to in the struggles of their existence and to guide their daily lives. In this essay we will present Islam as a blueprint for justice in a contemporary cultural framework—one Americans can relate to and understand.
So, what do we mean by justice in Islam? ‘Adl, the Arabic word for justice, comes from the root ‘a-d-l and suggests balance, equitability, impartiality, to straighten, counterbalance, to turn into the right direction. Justice, the English word has its origins in the Latin word iustus—meaning upright, equitable, perfect, complete. Justice also has its roots in the Old French word juste—meaning righteous and sincere. In fact, in English the word just has multiple meanings, one of those connotes precision and exactness without deviation, ie place just this much flour in the bowl. Justice denotes moral soundness and conformity to truth. Ultimately, justice means equality, in the sense of equating two things. In God’s eyes we have the same status. In the abstract when we speak of justice we mean equality before the law: The Believers are indeed brothers (Q. 49:10). In Islam, justice flows from love.
The Qu’ran uses several different words to describe the various nuances of love. In Surah Maryam, for example, we see the word wudd, rather than hubb, the usual word for love: The Merciful to all will give love to those who believe and do righteous deeds (Q.19:96). Wudd—derived from the word watad, meaning nail—denotes the love of a parent for a child, or the love between spouses, a visceral love—fixed and constant. A well known hadith qudsī speaks of this love of God for the one who believes and does righteous deeds: when I love him, I am the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the foot with which he walks (Qudsī). God, the singularity, causes the love people have for their fellow humans from within and without. We have created man and We know what his inner soul is whispering. We are closer to him than his jugular vein (Q. 50:16).
Justice, love manifested, concerns itself with both an inward quality of the soul and an outward quality of virtue. Love means treating oneself justly, and also everything and everyone else around us. A discussion of justice necessarily entails a discussion of injustice—in the Qu’ran the greatest injustice one does is denying herself God. Denial of God constitutes an injustice to the individual who denies God, and not God Himself, because God is the source of truth, love and justice—and as such, judgement of our souls belongs to Him alone. In Islam, love underlies the search for and dispensation of justice, and justice cannot exist without truth. The Message of your Lord is completed and perfected in truth and in justice (Q. 6:115). In classical Islamic thought, as developed from the tenth to thirteenth century, peace emanates from justice—the expression of truth and love in a communal context. Justice is what love looks like in public. Love demands truth. Justice, then, exists as an expression of truth, which originates from the Being of God.
Students of comparative legal systems differ on whether there is an essence to any particular religion and to any given legal system, or whether each religion is an accumulation of human practices and every legal system is a composite of accidentals developed in response to changing exigencies. By far the best example of a religion that has very self-consciously developed a sense of its own essence and sharply distinguished this from any perverted interpretation and practice, Islam places an extreme emphasis on being just. This includes rulings pertaining to families, communities and nations as a whole. We can point to seven direct and clear commands of justice from both the Qur’an and the Sunnah (secondary source knowledge about The Prophet) for the benefit of all humans.
1. Do not favour anyone above the truth.
Believers uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if that witness is against yourself, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether a person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desires so that you do not act unjustly. If you distort the truth, God is fully aware of what you do.(Q.4:135)
Believers, be steadfast in your devotion to God, equitably bearing witness to the truth. Never let hatred for any people lead you to deviate from being just to them. Be just, for that is closer to being mindful of God. Always be mindful of God. God is well aware of what you do. (Q.5:08)
2. Fulfill your trusts.
Verily, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due… Verily, Allah is ever Hearing and Seeing. (Q.4:58)
3. Judge fairly amongst others.
So reconcile between them in justice and fairness. Verily, Allah loves those who are just. (Q.49:9)
4. Be just towards your dependents.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said:
Verily, the most beloved of people to Allah on the Day of Resurrection and the nearest to Him will be the just leader. (Tirmidhi)
He also said:
Be just with your children. Be just with your sons. (Abu Dawud)
5. Do not oppress others.
Allah has said:
Oh my worshipers, I have forbidden oppression for myself and have made it forbidden among you, so do not oppress one another. Sahih Muslim
6. Do not harm innocent people.
God does not forbid you from dealing kindly and equitably with those who did not fight you because of your faith and did not drive you out of your homes. God loves those who are equitable. (Q.60:8)
7. Do not mock others.
Believers, no men shall ridicule others, for they may be better than them. Nor shall any women ridicule other women, for they may be better than them. Nor shall you slander one another, nor shall you call each other names. How bad it is to be called disobedient after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are unjust. (Q.49:11)
Roots of Justice
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) emphasized the importance of seeking truth and justice, and he posited the motivation for this search in the constant Qur’anic emphasis on love, as Robert Dickson Crane has developed in his book The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective. In Islamic thought, humans have an innate nature toward goodness, called fitra. Inclined to this higher purpose, humans seek to promote life and revile the taking of it. When we conflate justice with revenge we become blind to and detached from love. Crane points out that the concept of justice in Islam became distorted by imperialism—the injustice of imperialism forced a re-tooling of the concept of Islamic justice to serve the empire or state. Terror and tyranny have arisen because societies have turned away from the values taught by all the Prophets. Humanity has rejected God in favour of ego and it has led to literal hell fire on earth—as we right this book wildfires burn out of control on parts of the planet, and one in 95 humans on the planet faces forcible displacement. A favourite prayer of Prophet Muhammad, of his grandson Imam Ali, and of millions of Muslims ever afterwards, was O God, I ask you for your love, and for the love of those who love you, and for the love of everything that can bring me closer to your love.
The word shari’a(h) means path to water, water being the critical element of human life. The concept of a correct path of conduct to God underlies Islamic justice—shari’ah. In revisiting the objectives of the shari’ah we find we have a frame work for building compassionate societies. They provide a sophisticated methodology for understanding the Qur’an and evaluating the ahadith (sayings of prophet Mohammad), so that the rules and regulations or ahkam can be applied justly according to their purpose. In the entirely manmade Western positivist law, any law exists only to the extent of its enforcement. In Islam, if the law has to be enforced it has failed—the focus of Islamic law being primarily educational, a set of guidelines for action.
Note the distinction between shari’ah the divine ideal and Islamic jurisprudence, the human attempt to capture the divine ideal. We use the terms interchangeably here, however wanted to point out this crucial distinction. Any human attempt to capture divine ideals necessarily falls short, and also changes as dynamics in the larger society change. Only the core essence, in the form of the Divine ideals, remains.
In his book, Crane delineates these Divine ideals in the following eight guidelines, known as maqasid al shari’ah. In Arabic maqasid means purpose or objective, so we may see the maqasid shari’ah as Divine guidelines. We use the term al-haqq to denote human rights, however the Qur’anic term carries a deeper meaning in that al-haqq represents established fact—a truth, so in the context of human rights it refers to a proven and undeniable obligation due every person. In the Lisan al-Arab, lexicographer Ibn Manzur described al-haqq as the opposite of falsehood. To use vernacular language, we can also think of these as global ethics.
haqq al din—religious freedom
haqq al nafs—the sacredness of human life and the individual
haqq al nasl—the sanctity of marriage, family and community
haqq al mahid—respect for the environment
haqq al mal—respect for the universal right to economic opportunity and right to own property
haqq al hurriyah—respect for the universal right of self-determination or political freedom
haqq al karama—respect for human dignity, especially equality between the sexes
haqq al ‘ilm—respect for the right to free speech, publication, association.
In Islam, humans rights have their roots in the Qur’an—as God’s creatures, each of us has an entitlement to these human rights, regardless of whether or not we choose religion. Essentially, rights come from Allah, so no one can remove them. A hierarchy of rights exists in three categories of rights—necessities, needs, and ease/facility. Certain norms—such as certainty, transparency, equity, equality, consistency, freedom, and self-determination—govern rights, which each have some corresponding duties—mandatory abstinences and practises.
God, through the human person, in a bottom-up form of governance, provides the source of sovereignty. The state does not exist to enforce obedience in a top-down system of coercion. With respect to haqq al nasl, the most egregious violation of human community has come from the abuse of state sovereignty. American foreign policy provides several examples. Crane notes that Islamic countries only partially honour these principles or not at all, then reminds us of the words of Thomas Jefferson: no people can remain free unless they are properly educated, that proper education consists of teaching and learning virtue, and … no people can remain virtuous unless both the private and public lives of the individual are infused with awareness and love of Divine Providence [God].
The Qur’an teaches in Surat al Isra’, We have honoured the children of Adam. (Q. 17:70), and both the American Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights echo this Qur’anic verse. Human rights come from God—they exist as a universal standard and extend to future generations. The Prophet (pbuh) advised: Do not hate each other, do not envy each other, do not turn away from each other, but rather be servants of God as brothers. Maqasid al shari’ah provides the path for the development of such a society by focussing on freedom and growth thru human rights for all. We have a choice—to face evil with force, ie by fighting it, or to promote good based on God’s mercy as more powerful than the forces of bad. Put another way—we can choose ego or we can choose justice.
Human Rights and Political Legitimacy
The state exists only to provide and guarantee the human rights as outlined in the maqasid al shari’ah. Hence, the primary role of government involves ensuring and securing every citizen’s ability to enjoy these God given human rights. How can God hold any human being responsible for her deeds on earth at the Day of Judgment, who lacked these basic rights so necessary for our individual ability to choose freely? God does not contradict himself! Remember that God gave us this life as a test—he gave us free will to choose between the guidance He sent to us and all other alternatives. Lack of freedom creates oppressive circumstances, in particular fear, and these drive us into subsistence mode, limiting our ability to freely choose. Love, ie treating human beings with dignity and kindness, can transform—as Victor Hugo tried to show us in his great work Les Miserables.
Societies lacking basic human rights and restricting individual and collective freedom will have oppressive conditions similar to those that led the second Khalifah Omar to exempt thieves from being punished—he felt he had failed to uphold his duty to provide the right opportunity to earn an honest living and feed oneself and one’s family. Any government—especially one that claims to follow the teachings of the Qur’an—failing to ensure its citizens these basic rights thereby loses its legitimacy, its reason to exist. The state exists only to provide and guarantee these human rights to its citizens. Human rights drive political legitimacy. When we look at the famous revolutions in history, we can see they involve the downfall of absolute monarchies who had failed their duty to provide for the people living under their rule—the monarchs lost their legitimacy in their eyes of the people because they took for themselves at the expense of the people.
God bestowed upon us three great privileges. First, the ability to recognize where we are and to wonder about why we are here and where we are going. Second, the ability to choose in reaching for answers. Third, Divine revelation sent to help guide us to Him, culminating in the Qur’an. A very profound manifestation of love, and hence, of God, exists in choice, the freedom to choose. This profound realisation underscores the immense gift the Creator has given us, all also the enormous responsibility—this life exists as a test for each of us, and for humanity as a whole. Choosing God over ego at the communal level means treating His creation with justice and compassion.
Justice and Balance
Justice has no meaning without balance, without the capacity to choose between good and bad. Oppression and subjugation necessarily remove choice and justice cannot prevail in such an ecosystem. Balance and justice go hand in hand. Every world religion embodies a paradigm of balance among order, justice, and freedom—essential for the maintenance and stability of any society. This paradigm of balance teaches that order, justice, and freedom exist interdependently—think of this paradigm as an alternative to the dark triad on a collective scale. Freedom without justice results in anarchy. Order without justice produces no order, only disorder and injustice, its principal cause. Enforcement of justice without order and freedom embodies a pursuit in which order, justice, and freedom become snares of the ignorant. When we have chosen ego, we have chosen against justice.
Justice manifests itself as the essential derivative of love, ‘ishq, coming from beyond the human intellect—in the form of the intellectual essence known as human rights. “Ishq, derived from the word ‘ashiqah, meaning vine, denotes a passionate and pure love that takes root in the human heart and expunges everything other than God. At a deeper level for every individual, justice exists as an equilibrium between batin, the inner or esoteric, and zahir, the outer or exoteric. Justice exists at the intersection of intentions and deeds, hence the paramount importance of choice—freedom to choose. We necessarily deny God when we suppress the freedom of another.
We must make a distinction between freedom and liberty here—this has roots in the spiritually-based Scottish Enlightenment, the opposite of the European continental secularist Enlightenment. In his great work Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas David Hackett Fischer illustrates this fundamental distinction in thought, symbol, and action. In this paradigm freedom implies positive action to pursue higher values as the essence of justice, as distinct from mere liberty, the rejection of restraints on freedom of action.
To illustrate, let’s look at the Preamble to the American Constitution. It lists and prioritizes five purposes—justice comes first, followed by domestic order, the common defense, prosperity, and lastly comes liberty, the result of the first four. Without consensus on the proper nature of order, and of justice and freedom as essential parts of a single whole, rather than as independent pursuits, no civilization can exist. Religion in all of its traditionalist manifestations, including the monotheistic, and especially Islam, serves two goals— the spiritual well-being or happiness of every person and the maintenance of consensus on the responsibilities and rights necessary to live in an ordered society.
The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of the basic power to choose between the pursuit of transcendent justice and the pursuit of material power as an ultimate goal in life. Surat al Shura emphasizes mizan, the concept of balance, central to all classical Islamic thought in every aspect of both personal and social life. It is God Who has bestowed revelation from on high, setting forth the truth, and [thus giving man] a balance [wherewith to weigh right and wrong] (Q.42:17). This verse of the Qur’an teaches Divine revelation through the various prophets in human history as instruments of a balance by which we can weigh all issues of conscience, placed by God in our hands. So, justice in Islam refers to maintaining and restoring harmony as opposed to exacting oppressive or violent retribution. Islam builds on the essence of Christianity, love—justice as a derivative of love embodies the essence of Islam. Justice is love in public summarises this essence.
Recap—What is Justice in Islam?
Islamic justice flows from the Qur’an, Divine guidance which provides humanity with a compassionate way to live our lives—the shari’ah. In Arabic, the word shari’ah means the path to water—a source and a saviour of, and a guide to, life. We find food in water, we cleanse ourselves with water, we navigate our journeys by the water. The shari’ah provide guidance to human societies for all time. We can apply these Divine guidelines to any societal cultural context. Justice in Islam means the path that promotes harmony, not the path that exacts revenge, and not the path that enforces piety. Derived from love, Islamic justice demands equity and balance in the form of universal human rights. Freedom of religion has great importance from a Qur’anic perspective of justice—again, the state does not exist to enforce God or religion or morality. Justice, order and freedom co-exist like the three strands of plaited hair—to enable a society to function in a free and democratic manner.
In the Islamic paradigm of justice, freedom doesn’t exist without the provision of basic human rights, and the state exists only to provide, promote, maintain and protect these rights. Islamic justice includes communities, the environment, the right to own property. The sovereignty of God exists through the human being, because we have a choice, so Islamic justice applies at the individual level—Islam considers the inner experience of justice, and this guides a person’s relationship with herself and God. Islamic justice, the shari’ah, provides an approach to society and to existence, and not merely a set of draconian rules and their enforcement.
Paradigm Management and the Perception of Islam
The perception of Islam in America can be changed only if Muslims think big through what we might call paradigm management, and only if Muslims present an American paradigm. Policy making in America consists of balancing special interests in the pursuit of power and this balancing takes place in pursuit of agendas formed largely in the think-tanks and in the media. Academia primarily shape these agendas. Muslims usually start at the wrong end of the policy process by lobbying against something after the policies have been set and can no longer be changed.
Imagine paradigmatic management as a polar spectrum, with power and justice at opposite ends. Neo Conservatives exemplify the power paradigm, which measures everything in terms of the unilateral imposition of American power, in the form of the military industrial cult as well as economic might, to prevent chaos in the world and to preserve hegemony. This requires a fear-based and reactionary approach to real or perceived threats to global stability. The war on terror and the failed occupation of Afghanistan illustrate this approach. Note how the war on terror began as a war against terrorism and metamorphosed into a war against terror, terror being whatever the political machinery perceived as threat.
At the other end lies the justice paradigm. A paradigm that offers balance, one rooted in compassion and universal human rights, one stressing freedom, honouring truth, upholding order and promoting growth and stability. What if Muslims could present justice as an alternative to the power paradigm—eradicating war and heralding a productive peace that appeals to the interest of the United States and the world? What if Muslims could prove peace as more profitable than the military industrial cult to the average American? What if we could demonstrate how faith and religion and justice can create balanced, flourishing, and healthy societies which respect the environment? Maybe then, peace and Muslims will have a chance in America.
Muslims can change the perception of Islam in the United States, and indeed of all religions, only by rehabilitating the essence and practice of religion not as the cause of injustice, but as the only cure for it. We can return to Divine guidance in promoting flourishing pluralistic societies focussed on harmony and essence and not forcing compliance to appearance. In politics, visionary leaders can overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles and barriers of special interests only if and to the extent that Muslims, Christians, and Jews cooperate in solidarity to turn the essential vision of all religions into reality, Insha’Allah.
*this essay written by Safi Kaskas and Rukhsana Sukhan and inspired by the work and teaching of the late Robert Crane; I had the great privilege to witness, in person via the magic of Zoom, the teaching of Dr. Crane prior to his death, Hamdullilah for this. This essay is part of a series of essays on Islamic Values we are developing, based on the lectures of Dr. Kaskas. Any kudos for this work goes to Dr. Kaskas and any fault is mine.
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