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The Concept of Justice in Islam

by Charles Le Gai Eaton

Those who enquire about the basics of Islam are usually told about the “Five Pillars” of the religion. These relate to faith and to practice, but at a deeper level it might be said that there are two great pillars which support the whole edifice. These are Peace and Justice. They are clearly connected since there can be no enduring peace without justice. The very word °Isläm comes from the same verbal root as saläm meaning “peace” and, since the religion is based upon total submission to the will of God, Muslims believe that real peace is out of reach unless it is based upon this submission within the universal order. They believe equally that there can be no real justice except as an aspect of submission to the source of all that is just and well ordered. Although God in Himself is beyond comprehension or analysis, the Qur’an gives us hints as to His true nature through what are sometimes called “the 99 names” and one of these is al-ªAdl, “the Just”. Another of these names is al-Muqsiö, “the Dispenser of Justice” or “He who gives to each thing its due”.

The Qur°än praises those who always act “in the light of truth” and tells us: “Perfected are the words of your Lord in truth and justice”. It tells us also: “Behold, God enjoins justice and good actions and generosity to our fellows….”, and it commands us never to let hatred lead us into deviating from justice: “Be just! That is closest to God consciousness”. This, of course, applies to all believers who must fear divine justice if subjective factors or personal emotions lead them to deviate from the path of justice which is also the path of Islam, but it weighs heavily upon those who are required to adjudicate in disputes or to give judgement in criminal cases. There were cases in the early history of the religion when men whom the Ruler intended to appoint as judges fled from Court rather than assume this terrifying responsibility and we read of one who did accept the burden that his whole body trembled when he was called upon to give judgement, believing that a single mistake might carry with it the threat of damnation. The divine Judge stands over the human judge, observing all that he does, and human justice, even at its best, can never be more than a poor imitation of divine Justice. The Prophet Muhammad himself when he was called upon to adjudicate in civil actions warned the litigants that one of them might be more eloquent in putting his case than the other and thereby achieve an unjust settlement. “In such a case,” said Muhammad, “I will have given him a portion of hellfire”. This is clearly a grave matter indicating that those who seek justice must themselves practise it without deviation even to their own hurt. Under all and any circumstances a victory which is contrary to justice is a poisoned chalice.

Of special significance too is the relationship between justice and wisdom in the Arabic language. The words åukm, “judgement”, and åikmah, “wisdom” come from the same root, and al-Åakïm (the “All-Wise”) is another of the names of God in the Qur°än.

In the Christian tradition St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, among all human pursuits, “the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more full of joy” than any other human enterprise. The Muslim might amend this slightly by emphasising that one cannot “pursue” wisdom as one might a rare butterfly since it is a divine quality and out of reach of the human seeker as such. It is for us to lay ourselves open to this gracious gift by making ourselves fit and ready to receive it.

It is commonly said that Justice is or should be “blind”, in other words rigidly objective, but a Judge is required to possess the quality of insight in the most profound sense and can deserve no higher praise than to be described as “wise”, participating, as it were, in “the wisdom of Solomon”. Wisdom is as much a quality of character as an attribute of the mind. It has nothing to do with erudition which, however extensive, is necessarily limited in scope. A learned man can still be a fool when he steps outside the area of his expertise. The wise man is protected by his insight from folly – although not always from minor errors in the worldly context – because he possesses an inner yardstick by which to assess the situations he encounters. For the Muslim this yardstick is the Qur°än together with the example of the Prophet and their reflection in the human heart. There is no higher aim for the Muslim than the cultivation of what is described as a “sound heart”. From the sound heart comes sound judgement. The same is true of sound governance and, in Islam, this implies “ruling between” in accordance with wisdom rather than “ruling over”.

The Qur°än always emphasises that Muhammad, though endowed with the fullness of wisdom, was only “flesh and blood”, capable like other men of error except when inspired from above, but it was his mission not only to convey with meticulous accuracy the revelation which descended upon him but also to offer the supreme example of what it meant to follow in his personal and his public life the full implications of the revelation no less meticulously. When he was dying and came for the last time to the mosque in Medina he said to the assembled people: “If there is anyone among you whom I have caused to be flogged unjustly, here is my back. Strike in your turn. If I have damaged the reputation of any among you, let him do the same to mine. To any I may have injured, here is my purse… It is better to blush in this world than in the hereafter”. A man claimed a small debt and was promptly paid.

Why is justice so important in Islam? The core article of faith is the oneness of God, reflected in the unity of His creation in its totality. This unity is reflected in harmony and balance. Injustice destroys harmony and upsets balance thereby provoking disorder. The Muslim is commanded to give primacy to prayer throughout his life and, in all that he does, to remember God. It is true that people can maintain prayer and remembrance under all conditions, even in the midst of chaos, but the fact remains that spiritual life prospers and flourishes when it has a stable base, a firm platform from which the ascent to the knowledge of God and the love of God can, as it were, take off. A disordered society compounded of danger and distractions, unjust and troubled, provides no such security. The man who has to watch his back all the time is diverted from the remembrance of God as is the one who has suffered injustice and must struggle to eliminate feelings of anger and resentment. Moreover injustice fractures the brotherhood and sisterhood of the believers which is an essential element in an Islamic society. Above and beyond this is the simple fact that He who is called “the Just” commands justice both in society and in every aspect of human relations. Since, in Islam, all things are inter-connected – this is an aspect of unity – it might even be said that every act of injustice jars on the cosmos as a whole like a discordant note in a piece of music.

Islam is a very realistic religion and the Qur°än itself recognises the reality of human weakness. Those who are injured are permitted to take retaliation but they are reminded at every turn that it is better to forgive and to seek reconciliation. Muslims are commanded to return good for evil, thus breaking the vicious circle of animosity; “to do good to those who have injured us” in the words of one of the classical commentators on the Qur°än, but this requires human qualities which are by no means universal although they were characteristic of Muhammad. In his dealings with the pagans who tried by every means to destroy him and his community he exemplified the rule of forgiveness and reconciliation, forgiving even the most vicious of his enemies when he finally re-entered Mecca in triumph, providing them with gifts so that their hard hearts might be softened and peace prevail after the years of conflict. Justice might have required their punishment, but there is no contradiction here since there is more than one way to achieve balance which, after all, is the ultimate objective of justice. Islam describes itself as “the middle way”, a religion of moderation in everything except the love and worship of God. Muhammad condemned extremism with the greatest severity and today’s Muslims have a greater need to be reminded of this than ever before as they do of his saying that “anger burns up good deeds just as fire burns up dry wood”.

Extremism and anger are both of them ugly in their manifestations. In one of his inspired sayings (these are quite separate from the revealed text of the Qur°än) the Prophet said: “God is beautiful; He loves beauty”. It is significant that the Arabic word åasan means both “good” and “beautiful”. The connection is clear since a good action or, for that matter, a good character has a quality of beauty which, in its turn, is related to the idea of harmony, just proportion and therefore of justice as such. It is worth noting that the English word “fair” means both just and beautiful. The Arabic verb ªadala, from the same root as ªadl (Justice), is usually translated as “to proportion”, “to create in symmetry” or “to be equitable”. Here again we have the idea of harmony which is dependent upon justice.

Muslim thinkers have always been interested in the science of numbers and their significance, and each letter of the Arabic alphabet has a particular number attached to it. Words derived from the root ‘DL, including ªadl, occur 28 times in the Qur°än, and, as it happens, there are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. These are related to the 28 “mansions of the moon” which determine the Muslim calendar. This may seem somewhat esoteric but, in the Islamic perspective, there are no chance coincidences and, for Muslims, it is further proof of the universal harmony which is the pattern of creation and a sign that everything makes sense when it is closely examined.

In the Qur°än, which is for all Muslims the directly revealed Word of God, He says: “We sent down the Book and the Balance so that mankind might uphold justice”. Here again the idea of balance occurs, linked directly with the revelation itself. The “scales of justice” are set up and our actions are to be weighed in perfect equity. Regarding the Last Judgement, we read in the Qur°än: “That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds, and whoso does an atom’s weight of good will see it then and whoso does an atom’s weight of ill will see it then”.

Actions which may appear to us completely trivial are cast into the balance, but good and ill are not alike in weight. The Qur°än tells us also that a good action, however small in itself, will be rewarded many times its own weight whereas the crimes or sins we may have committed will weigh no more and no less than what they are as such. It might even be said that the scales are themselves weighted in favour of the good and since God is the source of all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is harmonious, this is in the nature of things. So far as human justice is concerned, the Prophet counselled all those who are obliged to sit in judgement over their fellows to “avert penalties by doubts” and this is clearly in accordance with the requirement of the British legal system that guilt must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.

In the present age, at least in the West, the notion of justice and, in particular, of rights has taken on a colouring that is specifically modern. People are unwilling to accept that misfortunes are a part of life and not necessarily the fault of someone else or of the system. Earlier generations in the West were taught the virtue of resignation, as are Muslims still to this day. The cry “It’s so unfair!” is heard now on every side and the subjective conviction that one has suffered injustice or that one’s rights have been infringed is a source of bitterness and unhappiness. The Muslim, while he must uphold justice so far as he can, has no right to such self-indulgence or to suppose that he can be judge in his own case. To complain against destiny is, in effect, to enter a complaint against Him who holds all destinies in His hand and whose justice is beyond questioning. Here certain Qur°änic verses are particularly apposite: “And surely We will try you with something of fear and hunger and the loss of wealth and lives and crops. But give good news to the steadfast who say, when misfortune strikes them: ‘Truly we belong to God and truly to Him we return’. These are they upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. Such are the rightly guided”. Life’s vicissitudes test our metal and reveal what we truly are in ourselves. The notion of “fair shares” can be dangerous since few people today are ready to accept that what life has given them is indeed fair. In the Islamic perspective ultimate justice puts everything in its appropriate place, whether high or low, and this is to be accepted since there is no place from which the ascent to the Creator - “seeking the Face of his Lord Most High” - may not be undertaken. This, rather than wealth or good fortune, is the priority of the Muslim who aims to fulfil the purpose of his life.

Clearly the question of balance arises once again: on the one hand the obligation to strive for justice in this world, on the other to accept the injustices which are woven into our earthly life in a spirit of resignation. Circumstances dictate which of these alternatives is appropriate. The story is told of a merchant in Muslim Spain who, when told that his ship had sunk with all his goods aboard, looked down for a moment before exclaiming: “Praise be to God!”. Later a man came to tell him that the ship had been saved. Once again he looked down before exclaiming: “Praise be to God!”. He was asked why he had looked down. “I wanted,” he said, “to be sure that my heart was untroubled”. Equanimity is a basic virtue in Islam. Here, perhaps, there is a clue to the reconciliation of the alternatives with which we are so often faced – to take up arms against the injustice we have suffered or to accept it with resignation. The right choice can only be made if we detach ourselves from our emotions and from all subjectivism.

This, of course, is an ideal not easily attainable but what matters is that the ideal stands clear of personal entanglements, is respected and is seen as the goal for which the good man should aim. History recounts that, during one of the battles in defence of the Muslim community in Medina, the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, engaged in combat with one of the pagans, brought his enemy to his knees and was about to strike the killing blow when the man spat in his face. Ali sheathed his sword, knowing that to strike out of personal anger rather than as an act of dispassionate justice would be a sin.

So justice is a basic principle of Islam since it has its roots in God Himself. To the secular jurist who sees it as an end in itself this may seem an alien concept but Islam is a God-centred Faith which never permits anything to be detached from its divine source, al-Åaqq, one of the “99 Names”, which means “The Truth” but can also be translated as “The Real”, ultimate Reality itself. There is therefore a principle which over-masters justice and this is Raåmah, Mercy. According to another of the Prophet’s inspired sayings: “When God completed the creation He wrote the following, which is with Him above His Throne - My Mercy takes precedence over my Wrath”. Justice is, in a sense, a manifestation of Wrath unless it is tempered by Mercy. All but one of the chapters of the Qur°än opens with the words: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Dispenser of Mercy”, and, among Muslims, these same words initiate all human actions. It is said that the instrument of creation was the “breath of the Merciful” and therefore that existence itself is a mercy for which we have a duty to be grateful. Indeed, ingratitude and unbelief are almost synonymous in the Islamic perspective.

Believers are warned again and again that if they hope for mercy from their Lord – as all must – then they have to show mercy to their fellows and to “every creature that has a living heart” including the beasts and the birds. “God gives a reward for gentleness which He will never give for harshness”, said the Prophet. It is clear that, for the Muslim, there is a powerful restraint upon justice if justice is understood merely as a weighing of relevant facts and that is why the human judge, fallible and himself in need of mercy, trembles when he gives judgement.

In Islam mercy always has the last word.


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