Quran’s Concept of Social Justice

This Thaqlain Guide is created from Nazmina Dhanji’s lecture at SICM Mahfil Ali (linked here) and is dedicated In memory of Ali Hussain Sayani.

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Justice is innate. Everyone wants fair treatment, and everyone appreciates equality. Even the most oppressive tyrant would like to believe that he is just. Thieves may rob people, but they would still want a fair share of the lootings because they have an innate sense of justice.

What’s Social Justice?

The concept that everyone deserves to have equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities in society is called social justice. Almost all political movements are one way or the other about social justice.

“Justice” in Arabic

In Arabic, the three main words used for “justice” are Insaf, Qist, and Adl. The word Insaf is derived from Nisf – which means half and signifies “equality” – is not used by the Quran to denote justice.

“Justice” in the Quran

The Holy Quran mentions the word justice about 27 times. The Quran uses the more comprehensive words, Qist and Adl, for justice. These words are interchangeably translated in English as justice, equality or fairness. But the Quranic usage of these words indicates that they’re actually quite different.

Qist versus Adl

The word Qist is used in the Quran for practical things and procedures, such as weights and measures. Allah uses it to talk about dealings with people. When He talks about orphans, He talks about dealing with Qist. When He talks about anything that requires meticulous procedures, he talks about Qist.

On the other hand, Adl is used in a much more general sense, such as when commanded to speak justly and to judge fairly. So while Qist is procedural justice, Adl is substantive justice. (Mizan is yet another word used in the Quran. However, it refers to the general balance and the perfect sync in God’s creation.)

Now, when it comes to divine justice, Allah uses both words for Himself. He uses the word, Muqsit to call himself Just, and He also uses the word Aadil. The fact that these are two separate names shows us that these are two separate things that merit two separate positions.

Quranic Verses on Procedural Justice

In Surah Al-Anbiya verse 47, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says:

وَنَضَعُ المَوازينَ القِسطَ لِيَومِ القِيامَةِ فَلا تُظلَمُ نَفسٌ شَيئًا

“We shall set up the scales of justice on the Day of Resurrection, and no soul will be wronged in the least.”

وَإِن كانَ مِثقالَ حَبَّةٍ مِن خَردَلٍ أَتَينا بِها

“Even if it be the weight of a mustard seed, We shall produce it…”

The verse says that on the day of judgment, people will not be treated unjustly by as much as the thread that you find inside a date stone. So, Qist is about ensuring that there’s no injustice at any step of the process. It’s highly meticulous.

Man is God’s Vicegerent

Since man is created as Khalifatullah, there’s a responsibility on its shoulders to be reflective of its Creator’s attributes. Allah has addressed mankind in the Quran and given it this hefty mandate:

قَد أَرسَلنا رُسُلَنا بِالبَيِّناتِ وَأَنزَلنا مَعَهُمُ الكِتابَ وَالميزانَ لِيَقومَ النّاسُ بِالقِسطِ

“Certainly We sent Our apostles with manifest proofs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that mankind may maintain justice” [Quran 57:25]

The verse doesn’t say: so the messengers can uphold justice, the prophets can uphold justice, or the leaders, or the judges, or anybody else, but so mankind, the ”people”, can uphold justice. It spells out that the point of revelation is to activate something inside each individual in society.

Establishing Justice is Every Muslim’s Duty

The Qur’anic commandments are very specific and very emphatic when it comes to justice.

In verse 135 of Surah Nisa, Allah says:

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ بِالقِسطِ

“O you who have faith! Uphold justice…”

Kunu Qawwameena Bil Qist is translated as “uphold justice”, but that does absolutely no justice to the Arabic. The word Qawwam belongs to a category of adjectives used to describe any action or a person who does an action repeatedly, every day, almost as a profession. For example, a person who makes bread (Khubz) as a profession is called Khabbaz. And a person who washes (Ghusl) as a profession is called Ghassal. The word Qawwam represents a similar linguistic pattern.

Therefore, Kunu Qawwameena Bil Qist means to be constant, persistent maintainers of justice. To adhere to the principles of justice on all occasions and in all walks of life.

شُهَداءَ لِلَّهِ

“And (be) witnesses for the sake of Allah”

So not only is a person supposed to maintain justice but be very aware of the accountability attached to it. Firstly, for his own actions and secondly, to be a witness over the actions of others.

Say No to Nepotism

Favoritism, partisanship, and nepotism – the Quran tells the believers to shun all kinds of prejudices:

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ بِالقِسطِ شُهَداءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَو عَلىٰ أَنفُسِكُم أَوِ الوالِدَينِ وَالأَقرَبينَ

“O you who have faith! Be maintainers of justice and witnesses for the sake of Allah, even if it should be against yourselves or [your] parents and near relatives” [Quran 4:135]

This is noteworthy. Because whenever the Quran mentions parents, it is about being very kind to them, praying for them, and being good to them. But when it comes to establishing justice, Allah says to maintain it even if you have to go against your parents.

This is because most people’s judgment falters when their family ties are at stake. When people’s loyalties are questioned, their sense of right and wrong gets skewed. But Allah wants believers to maintain justice even in times like these. The weight of this verse can only be felt by those who practice it.

Say No to Discrimination

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ بِالقِسطِ شُهَداءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَو عَلىٰ أَنفُسِكُم أَوِ الوالِدَينِ وَالأَقرَبينَ ۚ إِن يَكُن غَنِيًّا أَو فَقيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَولىٰ بِهِما

“O you who have faith! Be maintainers of justice and witnesses for the sake of Allah, even if it should be against yourselves or [your] parents and near relatives, and whether it be [someone] rich or poor, for Allah has a greater right over them.” [Quran 4:135]

Quran says to maintain justice without giving any regard to social class, wealth or status. The rich and poor have been treated unequally before the law since time unknown. Even today, the response times are hardly the same for people of different backgrounds. High-profile cases are given priority. Many victims suffer because they cannot afford decent legal representation.

The Black Lives Matter movement opened the public’s eyes to the discrimination that prevails today in the West. Justice is different when a person lives in a posh neighbourhood compared to when a person is homeless. But Allah commands us to be fair regardless of these things.

The Holy Prophet was a role model for these concepts of justice taught by the Quran. He used to sit with the outcasts, the poor, the homeless, and the slaves – those whom no one would give importance to. He would socialise with them and dine with them. He showed that class does not matter.

Say No to Unfair Trial

What leads people to be unjust? Many times it is personal biases, hostilities, and grudges. Many times, people’s phobias get in the way of administering justice properly.

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ لِلَّهِ شُهَداءَ بِالقِسطِ ۖ وَلا يَجرِمَنَّكُم شَنَآنُ قَومٍ عَلىٰ أَلّا تَعدِلُوا ۚ اعدِلوا هُوَ أَقرَبُ لِلتَّقوىٰ ۖ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبيرٌ بِما تَعمَلونَ

“O you who have faith! Be maintainers, as witnesses for the sake of Allah, of justice, and ill-feeling for a people should never lead you to be unfair. Be fair; that is nearer to Godwariness, and be wary of Allah. Allah is indeed well aware of what you do.” [Quran 5:8]

A linguistic analysis reveals that the tone of this verse is very emphatic. There’s a triple emphasis on being fair: Maintain justice. Do not be unjust. Be just!

Uprooting Injustice is Essential to Maintaining Justice

Understanding Adl and Qist is tantamount to understanding the Quranic idea of justice. Where the former denotes the establishment of justice, the latter is all about eradicating injustices and saying no to all those factors that account for injustices in society. In fact, without the Qist side of things, Adl seems like a lost dream.

What does that mean? It essentially means that the Quran’s idea of justice is not a passive one; it revolves around active participation and political engagement. It demands legislation to eradicate social injustices. It requires opposing injustices that prevail in society – if need be.

In Nahj al-Balagha, Imam Ali’s sermons and letters on equitable procedures and processes are reflective of his struggle to establish justice in Islamic society. He was not so concerned about the outcome because, in a world where there is free will, a fair outcome is not necessarily guaranteed. But still, it is imperative to advocate for justice.

The examples of the Holy Prophet and his progeny are before us. They are the paragons of social justice and fairness. They fought injustices all their lives and were killed because of their relentless opposition to unjust rulers.

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