Justice and the Islamic Conceptual Matrix

Belief or faith is the foundation of the Islamic way of life and in the Islamic terminology this foundation is termed as “Iman”. “Iman” implies an implicit trust in Allah and His messengers; a “trust” which is unperturbed by doubts or confusions. When the prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) was asked,…

Written by


Published on

Belief or faith is the foundation of the Islamic way of life and in the Islamic terminology this foundation is termed as “Iman”. “Iman” implies an implicit trust in Allah and His messengers; a “trust” which is unperturbed by doubts or confusions. When the prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) was asked, “What is Iman?”, he replied as follows:
“Iman is belief in Allah, His angels, His messengers, His (revealed) books, in the day of judgement, in good or bad destiny (as ordained by Allah) and in resurrection.” (Quoted by Muslim).
On the basis of Iman, the whole edifice of the Islamic way of life is built. In analytic terms, the edifice consists of (a) the Islamic worldview and (b) the matrix of concepts and values emanating from this worldview. The concept of “justice” occupies a cardinal place in the conceptual frame. The relevance and applicability of “justice” extends to all aspects of life and the concept has ethical as well as legal implications. However, it needs to be emphasised that the concept, for its actualisation, primarily requires “commitment”. Such a “commitment” to justice is a natural corollary of “Iman”, since the later brings about a profound psychological transformation in the believer’s personality.
Organic Link with Faith
Justice is a popular term used by all ideologies and legal and political systems. However the Islamic meaning of justice is firmly linked with the Islamic faith. The Qur’an is explicit on this point:
“O believers! Be upholders of justice, and bearers of witness to truth for the sake of Allah, even though it may be against yourselves or against parents and kinsmen, or the rich or the poor, for Allah is more concerned with their well being than you are. Do not, then, follow your own desires lest you keep away from justice. If you twist or turn away from (the Truth), know that Allah is well aware of all that you do.” (Chap.4, V:135)
“O believers! Be upright bearers of witness for Allah, and do not let the enmity of any group move you to deviate from justice. (Always) act justly, that is nearer to piety. And fear Allah. Surely Allah is well aware of what you do.” (Chap.5, V:8)
Thus justice is a quality which emerges from truth faith and is an essential element of piety. This association of justice with righteousness and “fear of God” elevates justice to the elevated position of a sacred duty. “Justice” is not merely required for maintaining “social harmony” and ensuring “law and order”. Rather justice is a required attribute because it symbolises a person’s closeness to God and his sense of accountability before God.
Justice is the Purpose of Divine Law
Allah has sent His guidance and “the Law” so that justice may be established in the human society. The Qur’an says: “Indeed We sent Our messengers with clear signs, and sent down with them the Book and the Balance that people may uphold justice. And we sent down iron, wherein there is awesome power and many benefits for people; so that Allah may know who, without even having seen Him, helps Him and His messengers. Surely, Allah is Most Strong, Most Mighty”. (Chap. 57, V:25)
Thus the Islamic approach to justice is comprehensive. There are four aspects of the method suggested by Islam:
a)       A powerful motivation is created in the believer’s personality to uphold justice.
b)       In all matters where the requirements of justice might be obscure, a clear and explicit guidance is given in the form of “Divine law”. (In the above verse, the guidance implied in “the Book” and “the Balance” includes “the Law” given by God to regulate human affairs.)
c)       In principle, the human beings should abide by the “Divine law” motivated basically by their sense of accountability before God. However there may be individuals, who may (due to human weakness or due to ill intentions) not willingly submit to the law. Therefore proper legal and political authority is required to implement the Divine law in human society. (Accordingly, in the above verse, “iron” refers to “political power” used in a proper way, to ensure justice in the human society).
d)      Finally there may be matters on which “the Law” is silent. In these matters, the initiative sense of justice inherent in all human beings should be the guide.
Inherent sense of Justice
Instead of explicit instructions on all matters, major or minor; Islam lays considerable stress on the innate sense of justice present in the human personality. For instance, the people during a Hajj journey are prohibited from hunting animals for food. If a person violates this instruction, he must offer a suitable sacrifice to atone for the mistake. The Qur’an says:
“O Believers! Kill not game while in the Sacred Precincts or in the state of pilgrimage. If any of you does so intentionally, the compensation is an offering, brought to the Ka’aba, of a domestic animal equivalent to the one he killed. This is to be adjudged by two just men among you. Or the atonement is the feeding of the indigent; or its equivalent in fasts. (The atonement is prescribed) so that he may taste of the penalty of his deed. Allah forgives what is past; but if there is a repetition, Allah will punish him, for Allah is Exalted and Lord of retribution.” (Chap 5, V:95)
The above verse leaves the determination of the exact amount of atonement to the sense of justice of two “just men”. The concept of “natural justice” prevalent in contemporary legal systems is similar to this instruction.
The human ability to recognise “just” individuals is relied upon, in laying down the above instruction. In all important matters, the people entrusted with responsibility should be “just”. The Qur’an says:
“O Believers! When death approaches any of you, (take) witnesses among yourselves when making be quest – two just men of your own (brotherhood) or others from outside; if you are journeying through the earth, and the calamity of death befalls you.” (Chap 5, V:106)
Witnesses to a will are thus required to be “just” individuals. Similarly the witnesses and the scribes involved in a loan transaction should discharge their duties justly. (The Qur’an Chap 2, V: 282)
Justice in personal affairs
The term “justice” is often used as a narrow legal term and thus its scope is restricted to collective matters. However Islam requires the believers to be just in their personal life and in their family life, as well. The permission of polygamy is an example. While the circumstances which may warrant more than one wives, may be of numerous types; the context in which the Qur’an grants permission of polygamy, is associated with justice to orphans. The Qur’an instructs the believers about orphans thus:
“To orphans, restore their property (when they reach their age). Do not substitute (your) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own; for this is indeed a great sin”. (Chap 4, V:2)
After these instructions aimed at safeguarding the property of orphans, the limited permission of polygamy is given: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with more than one wives) then only one, or that which your right hand possess. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice”. (Chap 4, V:3)
The permission of polygamy is itself subject to justice among the wives. If a person is unable (or unwilling) to do justice, he may not avail of this permission.
Just use of Authority
Each individual has some quantum of authority; the sphere may be large or small. While a ruler may exercise authority over the collective affairs of a whole country, the head of a family has similar authority within the family. All those who have some authority (narrow or wide) should use it in a “just” manner. The prophet Dawood (peace upon him) was also a ruler. He was instructed by Allah in the proper use of authority. The Qur’an informs us that Allah commanded the prophet Dawood thus:
“O Dawood! We did indeed make you a vicegerent on earth; so judge between men in truth (and justice). And do not follow the lust (of your heart); for it will mislead you from the path of Allah. Indeed, for those who wander astray from the part of Allah, is a grievous chastisement; because they forget the day of account”. (Chap 38, V:26)
A similar commandment is given by Allah to all believers. The Qur’an says:
“Allah commands you to render back the trusts to whom they are due. And when you judge between people, then judge with justice. Verily, how excellent is the teaching which He gives you! For Allah is He who hears and observes all things.” (Chap 4, V:58)
The later part of the above verse instructs all believers, to “judge between people with justice”. This advice is given to rulers as well as to ordinary people (who may also be called upon to “judge between people” within their own sphere of authority, however limited it may be).
In the first part of the above verse, common people are taught to choose their rulers in a “just” manner (whenever they are called upon to make such a choice). Their “opinion” (or “vote” in today’s terminology) is a trust, which must be rendered back to “whom it is due”. In making their “choice” (or casting their “vote”), the common people “judge between people” (i.e., among various possible individuals eligible for that particular position). They must do this act of judging in a “just” manner.
The above verse also teaches rulers to make appointments and nominate people for various responsible positions with “justice”.
Related Concepts
The Qur’anic terms for justice are adl and qist; in the conceptual matrix of Islam, they are therefore placed together, supplementing one another. Instruction for qist is given in chapter 7 of the Qur’an: “Proclaim thus: “My Lord has commanded justice and that you set your whole-selves (to Him) at every time and place of prayer. And call upon Him, making your devotion sincere. Such as He created you in the beginning, so shall you return (to Him)”. (Chap 7, V:29)
There is a subtle hint in the above verse to the relationship of the concept of justice with that of Tauheed (belief in the oneness of God). A person who is inclined towards justice will also accept Tauheed and would offer his sincere devotion to God alone. Thus in the Islamic conceptual frame, the concept of “justice” is directly linked to that of “Tauheed”. This is clarified by examining the opposite concepts. The antonym of adl or qist (i.e. justice) is zulm (i.e. injustice or transgression); while the antonym of “tauheed” (belief in one God) is shirk (i.e. association of partners with God). The Qur’an says:
“Indeed “shirk” is the highest injustice”. (Chap 31, V:13). Thus in the Islamic conceptual frame; “shirk” and “injustice” occupy adjacent places.
Duty of the Muslim community
In the address before Friday prayer, the following instruction of the Qur’an is usually recited:
“Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and kindness to kith and kin. And He forbids all indecent deeds, and evil and transgression. He instructs you so that you may receive admonition”. (Chap 16, V:9)
This is the duty of the Muslim community. It must make all efforts to discharge it sincerely!