Justice in the Islamic Tradition
When Socrates famously asked, “What is justice?”, he was able to elicit many responses from his interlocutors and to direct the discussion in myriad directions. Is justice related to the treatment of friends and enemies? Does it revolve around issues of war and peace? Is it confined to relations between the strong and weak? Does it involve utilitarian calculations? Is it a gift of revelation or the fruit of reason? Does it involve questions of morality? Does it concern the individual, the individual and society, the soul—or does it transcend relationships and stand alone as an abstract ideal? The conversation has been long and winding, and it continues to this day.
How has this conversation proceeded among Muslims, and how does the Muslim conversation merge with the contemporary conversation about justice raging in the West?
To begin, two Arabic words are usually translated as justice: ¢adl and qisţ. Although these two terms have nuances that allow us to differentiate between them in some contexts, they are usually viewed as synonyms, a practice we’ll also follow here.
Muslim scholars define justice most fully as “executing governance on the basis of the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger, not on the basis of pure opinion.”1 Imam al-Shāfi¢ī, a pioneering Muslim legal scholar, states, “Justice is following [God’s] revealed edicts.”2 This obvious connection between justice and the divine law is one of the ways Muslims understand justice. However, other ways of understanding the term are not so immediately attached to the law. For example, most Qur’anic usages of justice involve impartiality and equity in human relations. For example, the Qur’an enjoins believers to be staunch advocates for justice:
O you who believe! Be those standing firm for justice, witnesses for God; even if it be against
yourselves, your parents, or your relatives––regardless of [any party] beingm rich or poor, God more
rightly knows their case [than you do]. Do not follow your vain desire, leading you to swerve from justice.
If you swerve or turn away from the truth, God is well-informed concerning all that you do. (4:135)
This verse leaves no room for considerations of blood relations or socioeconomic status when standing for justice. Considerations of religion, from a strictly theological perspective, are likewise irrelevant. If one chooses to swerve from the truth by showing partiality, “God more rightly knows their case.” If you hide the truth in this world, it will be manifest in the hereafter, and you will be held accountable for your sin.
A related verse emphasizes this demand for impartiality from another perspective, while highlighting the relationship between God-consciousness and justice. God says:
O you who believe! Be those standing firm for God, witnesses for justice, and do not allow
the hatred of a people to prevent you from being just. Be just, for that is closer to
God-consciousness. Fear God. Verily, God knows well all that you do. (5:8)
The methods proposed by Kant and Rawls to arrive at their
abstract ideal of justice are too abstruse to produce a shared
value system, which has led to political instability and social
Muslim religious life is subsumed under two great objectives: adhering to the commandments of God, based upon the injunction to “be those standing firm for God,” and demonstrating compassion to His creation, beginning with our fellow humans, in accordance with being “witnesses for justice.” The believers are then enjoined to disregard potentially damaging emotional responses––in this case, responding to the temptation to treat unjustly those you may hate or who hate you––a quite demanding standard of justice.
This demand for impartiality is especially binding on rulers and judges. Consider, for example, the following verse: “Verily, God commands you to convey all trusts to their rightful possessors, and when you judge between [or rule over] people, to do so with justice” (4:58). The influential Qur’anic exegete Imam al-Qurţubī mentions that this order applies to anyone in a position of authority in any realm of human relations.3 Al-Burūsawī and others specifically define justice in this context as “fairness and equity.”4
The responsibility to uphold justice as fairness is binding on all members of a Muslim society, not just on judges and rulers. In a well-known hadith, the Prophet ﷺ stated:
I am human. You bring your disputes to me. One of you is more persuasive than another, and I [may]
rule in his favor on the basis of what I hear from him. Therefore, for the one I have ruled in favor of
concerning something rightfully belonging to his brother, let him not take it. Rather, I have portioned
off for him a piece of hellfire.5
This hadith emphasizes the importance of truthfulness for claimants, thereby assisting judges in arriving at a proper verdict. Likewise, rulers are to be assisted in upholding the rule of law. When Abū Bakr g succeeded the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ as leader of the Muslim community, he famously said, “If I do well, assist me, and if I err, correct me.”6 This collective societal responsibility helps to create an environment that encourages justice. Even the prophets f were enjoined to adhere to the same laws as ordinary believers. The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ stated, “Indeed, God has ordained the believers the same commandments He has ordained for the messengers.”7
Considering the sources of justice leads us to the concept of natural law, or the idea that justice conforms, in the words of Sophocles, to the “unwritten, everlasting prescriptions of the gods.”8 A Muslim jurist who bases his or her rulings on divine revelation or on principles derived from revelation is merely writing down or codifying what was previously unwritten. Revelation thus constitutes the first moral foundation for justice from the Islamic perspective.
Kant, to take one modern example, while affirming natural law, rejects revelation as a foundation for justice and argues that justice must have its foundation in the rational choices of autonomous human beings. In his view, revelation, which privileges God by rendering the divine above the laws governing human actions, undermines human autonomy. This is so because conforming to that law, especially according to Muslim understanding, is motivated by a desire for paradise or the pursuit of God’s favor or the security provided by a community of similarly oriented individuals or avoiding the torment of hell or other objectives that rob us of true autonomy. Kant refers to this sort of motivation as “heteronomy.” Hence, he proposes a theory of justice based on an objective foundation, discoverable by reason, embodied in his categorical imperative.9 A full articulation of Kant’s categorical imperative would be lengthy and complicated. Michael J. Sandel ably summarizes the idea in its two iterations:
The first version Kant calls the formula of the universal law: “Act only on the maxim whereby you can
at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” By “maxim,” Kant means a rule or principle
that gives the reason for your action. He is saying, in effect, that we should act only on principles
that we could universalize without contradiction….
The moral force of the categorical imperative becomes clearer in Kant’s second formulation of it, the
formula of humanity as an end. Kant introduces the second version of the categorical imperative as
follows: We can’t base the moral law on any particular interests, purposes, or ends, because then it
would be only relative to the persons whose ends they were. “But suppose there was something whose
existence has in itself an absolute value,” as an end in itself. “Then in it, and in it alone, would
there be the ground for a possible categorical imperative.”10
John Rawls, an influential modern justice theorist, likewise rejects revelation or any other consideration that would remove the “veil of ignorance.” That veil is a denuded, primordial, abstract state of consciousness that would lead humans to agree on a shared, rationally defined, objective standard of justice. Rawls describes his veil in this passage:
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society,
his class or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural
assets and abilities, his intelligence, his strength, and the like. I shall even assume that
the parties do not know their conceptions of good or their special psychological propensities.
The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.11
Both Kant and Rawls would argue that revelation could never lead to a universal morality, as a particular revelation privileges a specific community of believers, thereby being unjust to those who reject it. However, the methods proposed by Kant and Rawls to arrive at their abstract ideal of justice are too abstruse to produce a shared value system, which has contributed to the political instability and social fragmentation we are currently witnessing here in the West. I would propose that a firmer foundation for a common conception of justice and morality could be found in the shared values of the Abrahamic religions, which historically produced stable polities in medieval Spain, as well other places in the premodern world.12
Muslims go further than merely embracing religion as a private concern. They argue that religion, while being subjectively affirmed by individual humans, has been instituted by God to protect five objective universals (al-kulliyyāt al-khams): religion itself, life, the intellect, family, and property.13 Some add honor as a sixth universal.14 Religion, owing to its theocentric nature, might be the only universal many modern people find controversial in this set of universals. Islam, however, acknowledges a non-theocentric foundation for justice. This source is a universal human nature or an innate disposition (fiţrah) that allows humans to agree upon certain acceptable and unacceptable actions. These actions can be known independently from revelation, which can be seen as affirming them. These twin sources of justice––revelation and human nature––are summarized in the following verse:
These are the ones who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find inscribed with them
in the Torah and the Gospel. He commands for them what is right (al-ma¢rūf) and forbids for them what is
wrong (al-munkar). He makes lawful for them the wholesome (al-ţayyibāt) and prohibits for them impurities
(al-khabā’ith). He relieves of the burden of oaths and strictures previously placed upon them. Therefore,
those who believe in him reverence him, assist him, and follow the light sent down to him. They are the
ones who succeed. (7:157)
Most of the exegetes opine that what is right, in the context of this verse, is what is declared lawful by revelation, while what is wrong is what revelation declares to be unlawful. This is the first foundation of justice, emphasized by Imam al-Shāfi¢ī and others. Many exegetes posit that the wholesome and impurities, which are mentioned subsequently in the verse, comprise respectively those things human nature finds agreeable, good, and pleasurable and those things it finds repulsive, bad, and despicable. Human nature, therefore, is the second moral foundation of justice for Muslims.
The renowned theologian and exegete, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, comments on the wholesome and impurities after rejecting an interpretation that would render them synonymous with what is right and what is wrong:
Rather, it is necessary to interpret what is intended by al-ţayyibāt as agreeable, beneficial things
according to human nature. This is because engaging with them brings delight [which is a benefit],
and the ruling in beneficial things is lawfulness. This verse indicates that the ruling in everything
the soul finds agreeable and good, and human nature finds delightful, is lawfulness—unless there is a
detailed countervailing proof….
Anything the soul finds vile, and human nature finds filthy, engaging it is a source of pain [which involves harm], and the ruling for harmful things is unlawfulness.15
From this, we can understand that there are two “laws behind the laws”: revelation and the law of human nature, or fiţrah. While the former is the ultimate arbiter for Muslims, the latter by itself leads to a set of universally recognized and morally acceptable actions. The universality of these actions is rooted in the innate disposition humans have been fashioned upon. We read in the Qur’an:
Orient your face towards the true religion in accord with your innate disposition. [This is] the nature
(fiţrah) of God upon which He has fashioned humanity. Let there be no alteration in the creation of God.
That is the upright religion; however, most people realize it not. (30:30)
Muslims view fiţrah as a disposition shared with all human beings, moving it beyond immediate religious considerations. If we accept this, we accept that certain universally accessible and widely understandable actions (such as compassion for infants and the defense of the helpless) can rightfully serve as the source of a social order wherein people may differ religiously, even philosophically, while possessing sufficient shared values to allow for the formation of a viable political community. That community is grounded in a common sense of justice that keeps its members loyal to the polity and committed to its perpetuity.
The believer understands that, despite the joy to be found in
the world—amidst its trials, tribulations, tests, and travails—
the world remains a transitory way station on our journey to the
Some would argue that such actions are not “natural,” in that they do not conform to a preexisting propensity to undertake them. We witness, for example, bystanders idly watching as a helpless person perishes. The Qur’anic response is that humans have been created in the very best of forms, and those forms naturally orient us toward good. It is nurture that distorts or covers up this natural inclination toward good. We read in the Qur’an, “We have created the human in the best of forms; then we reduce him to the lowest of the low” (95:4–5). Al-Burūsawī states, concerning this debasement:
Then We made him among the people of hellfire, which is the vilest and lowest of all things, because
of his failure to conform to the requirements of the forms We created him upon. Had he acted upon the
requirement of these attributes, he would be in the highest reaches of paradise.16
The North African exegete Ţāhir b. ¢Āshūr expounds more fully on this verse and its
The verse informs us that the human is naturally disposed toward good and that in his nature is a
disposition to provide benefit and good to himself, as well as hating what he thinks is false or a
source of ruin. [He is also disposed toward] loving goodness and excellent actions. Thus, you see
him pleased by justice and fairness. He advocates what brings good to others, relieves the distressed,
acts with goodness, and protects the oppressed.17
The implication of this is that the theocentric foundation of justice, which is voluntarily accepted by Muslims, and the natural foundation, which can arguably be accepted by all humans, lead to two complementary moral foundations of justice. Translating these foundations into functional legal institutions was one of the great objectives of the premodern Muslim legal project. Historically, it gave birth to the likes of the Ottoman millet system and provided the foundation for flourishing pluralistic cultural and political communities throughout the Muslim realm. Admittedly, those institutions and communities were not perfect, neither in theory nor in practice. They do, however, provide contemporary Muslims with a rich foundation from which they can begin to address the challenges currently threatening humanity’s harmonious coexistence.
Islamic teachings, as we have endeavored to show, provide foundations for a just polity, one that can accommodate both Muslims and members of other faith communities. Most in the West, however, are ignorant of those teachings. An example of that ignorance, in the context of a discussion of justice, can be found in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics. Rand posits that justice is “that one must never seek or grant the unearned or the underserved, neither in matter nor in spirit (which is the virtue of justice).”18 Justice is only expressed in the spirit of honest trade, based on the mutual satisfaction of the rational actors undertaking a particular transaction. She says:
The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal
and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice.
A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat
men as masters or slaves but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary,
unforced, uncoerced exchange—an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent
This principle of mutual satisfaction for the rational actors undertaking a transaction is a key Muslim principle governing fairness in trade. We read in the Qur’an:
O you who believe! Do not falsely consume the wealth of one another. Rather, let there be free trade between you based on mutual pleasure, and neither commit suicide [nor kill each other]. Verily, God is most merciful unto you. (4:29)
This verse affirms two things critical to Rand’s idea of justice, as embodied in fair trade. First of all, it condemns undeserved gain (“Do not falsely consume the wealth of one another”), and then it declares that the pleasure of all parties involved in a transaction must be secured. Rand also mentions that the principle of fair trade governs the “mystical”20 realm as well as the material. In that regard, we read in the Qur’an, “O you who believe! Shall I direct you to a transaction that will save you from a painful punishment?” (61:10). Another verse declares, “Verily, God has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth; for this [transaction], they will have paradise” (9:111). The only difference between the transaction mentioned in these verses and the transactions Rand describes is that Islam allows for transactions between humans and God, humans and their souls, and humans and their fellow humans.
Rand agrees with Nathaniel Branden that human self-interest arises in large part from a desire to attain pleasure and ward off pain.21 We have mentioned how part of the innate disposition of the human, as affirmed by the Qur’an, plays a key role in the Qur’anic foundation of justice. This disposition leads us, among other things, to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, as we have previously pointed out.22 This principle of warding off harm and the pain it involves is one of the most fundamental Islamic legal maxims: “Harm is to be removed.”23
If the pleasure-pain principle is operative in all human beings in general, it has a specific application in the life of the believer. He or she is pursuing the ultimate pleasure of paradise, while simultaneously warding off the painful punishments of hell. It is interesting to note that after affirming pleasure as the basis of trade, the same verse enjoins humans not to kill themselves, thereby affirming the greatest worldly self-interest: the preservation of life itself. The Qur’anic affirmation of mutual pleasure in trade and the pursuit of self-interest runs counter to the nature of mystical systems, as Rand describes them, and would lead one to seriously question her understanding of religion.
Rand’s description of the “mystic,” or the person of faith, is of a human reduced to denying the pursuit of pleasure, robbed of self-esteem, abandoning rational faculties, and doomed to an unfulfilled life of suffering.24 The Islamic vision of the human is of a creature ennobled by God (17:70), possessing self-esteem (63:7), pursuing strength,25 recognizing self-interest, crowned by intellect, and reminded to not forget one’s share of the world (28:77). These qualities, however, are balanced by humility (28:83), compassion for the weak (4:75), and acknowledgment of the rights of others (51:19). The believer understands that, despite the joy to be found in the world—amidst its trials, tribulations, tests, and travails—the world remains a transitory way station on our journey to the hereafter. Hence, Islam advocates neither a stark renunciation of the world nor its selfish embrace. It seeks to strike a balance between the two.
In our religious life, balance is maintained when we avoid the extremes of atheism (rejecting the reality of God altogether) and of being so engaged in worship that we fail to fulfill our obligations to our fellow humans.
This is another illustration of what God meant when He declared, “Thus have We made you a middle community” (2:143). Muslim exegetes describe this middle community as “a just community.”26 Balancing between opposites is one of the greatest forms of justice, for it allows for the success and prosperity of believers in this world and in the next and facilitates their role as peacemakers and reformers in society. This arises from their consciousness of the many balances to be maintained in all of their relationships, including their relationship with the natural world. Understanding the centrality of this balancing in both Islamic physics and metaphysics is critical in understanding the Muslim concept of justice at a deeper level. These twin applications of the balance are found in the Qur’anic chapter The Merciful (Al-Raĥmān). We read:
The Merciful. He has taught the Qur’an, created humankind, and taught clear expression. The sun and moon follow a determined course. The stars and trees prostrate themselves. He has raised the sky aloft and established the balance, that you not disrupt the balance. Therefore, establish weights and measures with justice, and do not fall short in [maintaining] the balance. (55:1–8)
These verses can be seen as describing the justice that permeates both the heavenly and earthly realms, ensuring their orderly function. It is God who has established this order. This idea of a divinely supported just order is supported by another verse, which declares, “God bears witness that, surely, there is no God but Him; the Angels likewise bear witness, as do those possessing knowledge, that He is the One upholding justice. There is no God but Him, the mighty, the wise” (3:18). One of the implications of this balance is “an intermediary position between negligence and excess.”27
In understanding that it is God who has ultimately established the foundations of justice in creation, we can understand another definition of justice––namely, placing everything in its proper place, for the places God has selected for things are those places conducive to maintaining the balance that preserves the order existing between them. In maintaining the balance, we uphold justice. Those proper places are known through revelation and an enlightened intellect, which together provide the foundation for wisdom. In On Justice and the Nature of Man, Naquib al-Attas summarizes this meaning of justice, stating:
This human act of justice is putting things in their proper places. To put a thing in its proper place involves prior knowledge of the nature of the thing and its association with other known things in the system of relations already present in the soul (i.e., the intellect). It also involves the soul’s recognition of its proper place. Such recognition comes about through wisdom, which identifies its proper place and suggests to the soul to act accordingly. If the soul heeds the prompting of wisdom and acts accordingly, then its act is an act of justice. Justice is therefore a reflection of wisdom, and right action, which is an act of justice, is also a reflection of wisdom.28
Attas squarely situates a Muslim understanding of justice in the realm of virtue. Attas also outlines a program that cultivates justice-nurturing virtues in human beings. The program is accessible to any human being who accepts the primacy of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice as cardinal virtues, which is why it can inform (and has informed) a moral order, based on a shared sense of justice, that produces a stable and prosperous social and political order.
The proper ordering of things demands justice in interpersonal relations. The Muslim understands, however, that justice must reign in two other relationships. These are the relationship between humans and their Lord and between oneself and one’s soul. All three realms are indicated in the following hadith: “Be mindful of God wherever you are; follow up any misdeed you commit with a good deed, [which will] wipe it out; and deal with people on the basis of good character.”29
Mindfulness of God (taqwā) is the foundation of justice in our relationship with God, for taqwā is defined as a state of consciousness involving a willing implementation of God’s commandments and an avoidance of His prohibitions. This mindfulness keeps the commandments and prohibitions in their proper places, for when we sin, it is as if we have moved something unlawful into the realm of lawfulness. Conversely, when we fail to act on a commandment, it is as if we have placed it in the realm of forbidden things. When we engage in this “misplacing” of things, we become the source of our religious injunctions. We are in effect worshipping our whims and opinions, having assumed for ourselves a role reserved for God. We are engaging in the greatest sin: idolatry. This is the epitome of injustice in our relationship with God. We read in the Qur’an, “Surely, idolatry is the greatest oppression” (31:13).
Justice in our relationship with God also involves maintaining balance. In our religious life, balance is maintained when we avoid the extremes of atheism (rejecting the reality of God altogether) and of being so engaged in worship that we fail to fulfill our obligations to our fellow humans. The latter course of action, while not nearly as egregious as the first, is still condemnable. The Prophet ﷺ declared, “God will assist the servant as long as the servant is assisting his brother.”30 Similarly, “Are you given divine assistance as well as your sustenance for anything other than [your good treatment of] the downtrodden?”31 These and similar narrations emphasize that God turns away from those who turn away from the weak and oppressed. Balance is maintained by ensuring our service to God is not so consuming that it negates our serving humanity.
We also have an obligation to be just with our own souls. One of the greatest injustices in this regard is to burden our souls with a mountain of sin by not repenting for our misdeeds. In the hadith under discussion, the Prophet ﷺ encourages us to expiate our sins with a good deed whose reward far outweighs the demerit accruing from a sinful act. Thus, those who refuse to repent are described as oppressors or tyrants, for they expose their souls to the torment of hell owing to their heedlessness. The Qur’an states, “Whosoever fails to repent, they are the oppressors” (49:11).
The third injunction in the hadith, “and deal with people on the basis of good character,” is in the realm of social justice. This area instructs us how we should interact with others in society. Our interactions should be just, for good character is one of the fountainheads of justice. Much of what we have discussed earlier in this essay is applicable in this realm. We must emphasize here that no social justice in any affair involves injustice in our relationship with God or with our soul. Advocacy for sinful actions cannot be termed social justice, no matter how passionate or popular such advocacy may be.
For the Muslim, social justice is not confined to our interactions with other humans. We read in the Qur’an, “There is not a beast on the earth nor a bird flying with its two wings, except that they are communities like you” (6:38). While most Qur’anic exegetes focus on these non-human communities and their relationship with God, such as their worship and praise of God, their being the recipients of divine mercy, their sustenance being insured by God, their receiving divine guidance, and their instinctive submission to their Lord, others mention that they are communities deserving of proper ethical considerations from humans.32 This demand to be just in our treatment of non-human communities is underscored by the fact that animals own the right of retributive justice. It is related that Junādah b. Jarrād g came to the Prophet ﷺ with a camel he had branded on its snout. The Prophet ﷺ said, “O Junādah! Could you not find a place other than the face to brand her? Do you not know that retribution lies before you?”33
Much more can be said on this subject. We will end our discussion here by returning to our opening set of questions. Reflecting on the preceding discussion, we can say that an Islamic view of justice involves relations between friends and enemies and between the strong and the weak, and in some contexts is a utilitarian calculation. It is the gift of revelation, yet it benefits from reason. It accommodates morality. It addresses the soul, the individual, and society. In that it originates with God, it exists as a transcendental ideal. Yet it is an ideal that humans are enjoined to actualize in our lives.
One way of doing this is by adorning ourselves with the names and attributes of God, to the extent humanly possible. One of those names is “the Just.”34 So when we are just, we are godly.
Reprint from: Renovatio, March 4, 2020. https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/things-in-their-proper-places