In this tafakkur or ‘meditation’ upon the Quran, we explore the Islamic teachings on justice – its meaning, its place in our religion, how it permeates the entire Shari‘ah, and the dire consequences suffered by nations and societies when justice is ignored or thrown to the wind. In fact, as we’ll see, the current state of the Muslim world owes much to lack of justice. For as far as worldly affairs go, Allah’s help is with just societies, even if they are non-Muslim, more than it is with societies lacking in justice, even if they be Muslim. The meditation will also contrast notions of justice with that of equality, and touch upon the view of ‘Islamic Feminism’. Below is the Qur’anic verse around which the meditations will revolve:

O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:8]

Meditations Upon the Verse

1 – This verse comes a few verses after the verse in which Allah commands Muslims saying:

Let not hatred of a people that barred you from the Sacred Mosque cause you to commit aggression. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:2]

Here, believers are told to restrain themselves and not to retaliate, even against those who had barred them from visiting the Ka‘bah in Makkah, especially during the year known as the Year of Al-Hudaybiyya. Undeniably, this is a high level of restraint and tolerance to which Revelation elevated them. But the verse we are meditating upon demands an even higher standard. For the first verse [5:2] required reigning in feelings of revenge and retaliation; the second [5:8] requires maintaining justice towards one and all, even when there is enmity or animosity. The first verse demands passive self-restraint; the second, proactive establishment of justice towards even those who are hostile and belligerent to believers. Such is Islam’s bidding to justice.

2 – The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like the following:

Allah commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:58]

In another verse we are warned not to swerve from the demands of justice, be it for family, for financial, social or personal gain or out of mere desire:

O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and whether it be against rich or poor. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:135] And:

Then, if it returns, make peace between them fairly, and act justly. Surely Allah loves those who act justly. [Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:9]

Such is the virtue of justice, that those who act justly are admitted into maqam al-mahbubiyya – “the Station of Being Beloved to Allah” and, in the Hereafter, ‘will be with Allah, seated on thrones of light at the right hand of the All-Merciful.’1

3 – Before moving on, let us pause for a minute to consider what we mean by the word ‘justice’. The Arabic term for justice, ‘adl, pretty much conveys the sense of what it stands for in English. ‘Adl can mean: justice, fairness, rectitude, equivalence, equity, or balance.2 Another way of understanding justice is to contrast it with its opposite: injustice. Arabs say: bi didiha tatabayyanu al-ashya’ – ‘By their opposite are things best clarified.’ The Arabic word for injustice is: zulm, which Arab lexicographers define as: wad‘ al-shay’ fi ghayri mawdi‘ihi – ‘Putting something in other than its proper place.’3 Thus justice is to put a thing in its proper place. Which is to say, justice is to give each thing its due – at its due time, its due place, and in its due measure.

4 – Addressing people of faith (Eman), Allah says:

O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity.

Which is almost identical to His saying in another verse:

You who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:135]

The only difference between this ayah and ayah 5:8 is a slight shift in word order. In 4:135, the word qist (justice, equity) is placed towards the beginning of the verse; in 5:8, it is placed towards the end. The subtle distinction was explained by some scholars as follows:

There are two causes why someone will swerve from the dictates of justice and equity and fall into injustice and oppression. The first is a bias towards one’s self, one’s family, or one’s friends. The other is enmity towards someone. Verse 4:135 addresses the former; whereas 5:8 tackles the latter. Thus, after the order to be just, 4:135 specifies: “Even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and whether it be against rich or poor.” While 5:8 insists: “And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just.” The gist of 4:135 is that one never sides with one’s self, family, relatives of friends if it means being unjust. In other words, if they oppose justice, side with justice and oppose them. The gist of 5:8 is that one must never allow animosity or ill will against people to be a cause for behaving unjustly or violating their rights. In 4:135, “Be upright for justice” comes first so no one is led to think that by siding with self-interests, family or relatives, over justice, one is maintaining family ties and hence is being obedient to Allah: they certainly are not! In contrast, 5:8 begins with “Be upright for Allah” so that feelings of revenge and retaliation are guided and regulated by Allah’s command, so that no injustice is perpetrated; not even against an enemy.4

5 – Some of the ramifications of the above Qur’anic call for justice may be seen in the following hadiths:

Al-Numan ibn Bashir reported how he once gave a gift to just one of his children, but his wife said she would not accept this unless the Prophet was a witness to it. So he went to the Prophet to request him to witness it. The Prophet asked him: ‘Have you given gifts to all your children?’ Al-Numan replied that he hadn’t. So the Prophet said: ‘Fear Allah, and treat your children justly.’ He then added: ‘I do not bear witness to injustice.’5

So parents’ display of outward favoritism to one child over another is considered an injustice (zulm) and is thus detested in Islam, because of the psychological harms, resentment or ill feelings it often breeds. The Prophet said that Allah said:

O my servants, l have forbidden injustice for Myself and have made it forbidden among you, so do not do injustice to one another.6

There is also the hadith:

Beware the spplication of the oppressed, even if they are unbelievers, for there is no veil between it [their supplication] and Allah. 7

6 – Justice, as the saying goes, must be blind. There can’t be any favoritism, tribalism or partisanship, except to the truth. Justice, as we have seen, must be sided with; be it to friend or foe. And just as the Quran forbids injustice towards hostile non-Muslims, it forbids it even more towards Muslim brethren who may be open sinners or innovators. Ibn Taymiyyah remarked:

The leading scholars of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, and the people of knowledge and faith, have in them knowledge, justice and compassion. They know the truth that accords with the Prophetic guidance. They act justly toward those who depart from it [orthodoxy], even if they have been wronged; just as Allah, exalted is He, says: O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. They show mercy to others; desiring for them goodness, guidance and knowledge. They do not intend harm for them at the outset. But if they do have to bring them to book, it is only to clarify their error, ignorance or wrong doing. Their intent in this is to clarify truth, show mercy to others, enjoin good and forbid evil, so that religion is purely for Allah and the Divine Word is made supreme. 8

So our da‘wah must be corrective – in other words, our teaching and outreach must entail clarifying and defending revealed truths against doubts, distortions, fabrications and baseless interpretations. This must only be undertaken with righteous intentions, seasoned knowledge, justice, balance and proportionality, courage, compassion and mercy, and seeking the welfare of people. Anything else will entail ignorance, injustice and the following of false desires.

7 – Expounding on the essence and inherent nature of Islam’s Religious Law or Shari‘ah, Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim reveals that justice is its essential feature. He explains:

Indeed, [Allah] transcendent is He, has clarified in the Shari’ah He has legislated that its purpose is: to establish justice and equity among His servants. So any means through which justice and equity are obtained is part of the Shari’ah, and can never be in opposition to it. 9

Elsewhere he writes:

The Shari‘ah is based and built upon wisdom and [securing] public welfare, in both this life and the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue that departs from justice to injustice, mercy to its opposite, public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly cannot be part of the Shari‘ah, even if claimed to be so. 10

8 – In speaking of justice, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secularized. Their discourse is often scarred by failing to grasp the Qur’anic essence of justice – to put a thing in its rightful place; to give things their due. This requires knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, to give them their due. Ibn Al-Qayyim continues,

Hence, knowledge and justice are the root of every good, whereas injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil. 11

 But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a scripturally-based or well-studied approach, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This, though, isn’t quite the story of Islam. For sure, the two do overlap in some areas. But the Quran is couched in the language of justice, not equality. To describe Islam as ‘egalitarian’, or to claim it advocates ‘equality’, is to indulge in excessive reductionism; besides, the two concepts (egalitarianism and equality) are not very meaningful. For while some verses of the Quran have an egalitarian temper to them, 12 other verses insist on difference, distinction and disparity in Allah’s creation. In speaking of the disbelievers who have transgressed against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Quran asks this rhetorical question:

Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [Surat Al-Sajdah, 2:18] And:

Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the winners. [Surat Al-Hashr, 59:20]

Emphasizing quality rather than quantity the Quran states:

Say: ‘Evil things and good things are not equal, even though the abundance of the evil may please you.’ [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:100]

Say: ‘Are they equal, those who know and those who do not?’ [Surat Al-Zumar, 39:9]

Then there are verses treating of gender roles, functions and natures:

And the male is not like the female. [Surat Al-Imran, 3:36] And:

Men are protectors of women because of what Allah has given the one more than the other, and because of what they expend of their wealth. So virtuous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [their husband’s] absence what Allah has guarded. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:34]

And lastly, because men are legally obligated in Islam to spend of their wealth to maintain family and household, while women have no such financial burden, there is this verse:

Allah thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:11]

All this is just to say that the Quran speaks of justice and equity, not the vague social construct of equality.

To be continued…

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  1. Muslim, no.4493.
  1. Cf. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 2:1972-75.
  1. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537; under the entry, z-l-m.
  1. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 3:68-9, including as part of his commentary the treatment of Abu Hayyan Al-Andalusi, Tafsir al-Bahr al-Muhit (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1993), 3:454-55.
  1. Bukhari, no.2587; Muslim, no.1623.
  1. Muslim, no.2577.
  1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.12510. Rated hasan by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.767.
  1. Al-Istighathah fi’l-Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 2005), 251.
  1. Al-Turuq Al-Hukmiyyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2007), 31.
  1. I‘lam Al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.
  1. Madarij Al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 4:556.
  1. See: Quran 4:1 on the origin of humankind from a single soul; 3:195, 16:97, 33:35 on the spiritual and moral equality of both sexes; 4:32 on men not having a right to take the money women earn; and 17:70 on each human being’s intrinsic dignity, regardless of creed or color.

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