The Concept of justice is quite central to the Qur'an. The pre-Qur'anic Arab society was governed by oral customs and traditions. The tribal society had its own ways of dealing with situations requiring justice and normally no problems arose. In Meccan society too tribal norms were sufficient as long as no institution of private property had developed. But in pre-Islamic days the Meccan tribal society was far from being static. It was undergoing fast changes and hence tribal norms or oral customs and traditions were not sufficient to deal with emerging complex situation.

Mecca, as I have discussed in details in my book The origin and Development of Islam (Orient Longman, 1998) had developed into an international centre of high finance and inter-tribal corporations were coming into being, weakening tribal bonds on one hand, and, tribal norms, customs and traditions, on the other. Along with finance and commerce, institution of private property had developed and new problems, often severe in nature, of injustices, began to emerge in the society.

Accumulation of wealth and aggravation of poverty and misery, as in modern society, went hand in hand. Instances of starvation and hunger were spreading. All tribal norms and practices had broken down. There was no way for the weaker sections of society to get justice. There was no government or ruler to appeal to. No courts to approach and no tribal institutions for redressal of their grievances.

When instances of injustices, oppression and exploitation increased and violence and injustices multiplied, descendants of Hashim, Zuhrah and Taim in Mecca formed an alliance of virtuous Hilf al-Fudul for redressal of grievances of violence and injustices. Muhammad was then young and later when he became Prophet used to remember this alliance with pride. According to Sir William Muir, this confederacy "aroused an enthusiasm in the mind of Mahomet, which the exploits of the sacrilegious war failed to kindle." 1

Thus the Prophet (PBUH) was deeply concerned with justice from his very young age. He was observing the social and economic scene of Mecca and was deeply disturbed. He also was disturbed deeply by the religious scenario of Meccan society. He found nothing but superstitious practices and no real spiritual content. Also, tribal chiefs and the powerful in the society went unchallenged. He intensely felt about them and it burst forth in Meccan surahs like 104 and 107. Both are strongly denunciatory of accumulation of wealth and of neglecting the poor and needy.

Thus 'adl (justice) became a key word in the Qur'an and also one of the names of Allah i.e. 'Adil. Also, one who is muttaqi i.e. pious must be 'adil (5:8). A true worshipper of Allah has to be just as Allah is Just Himself. Justice, as we would see shortly, is an all comprehensive concept in the Qur'anic ethic. 'Adl, in Arabic carries sense of balance and absence of excess. Thus a balance has to be maintained in life as a whole, whether it is social, economic, conjugal or spiritual life. The concept of justice requires that there should not be excesses even in spiritual life as far as an average person is concerned. It is for this reason that Islam does not encourage ruhbaniyyah (renunciation of the world) as it would disturb balance between secular and spiritual life. The Prophet, though a spiritual person in orientation and deeply revered by the sufis for this reason, never renounced the world. He lived in the world and changed it. He successfully ushered in a great revolution based on the concept of justice in all fields of life. According to W. C. Smith, it was the greatest and most systematic revolution before the communist revolution in the world.

The concept of justice is so comprehensive in the Qur'an that no field has been left out where it is not applied including, as pointed out above, the filed of conjugal relations. The permission for polygamy was not granted unconditionally and most important and most emphatic condition laid down was justice for all wives. There are two verses on polygamy in the Qur'an 4:3 and 4:129 and both verses emphatically mention justice to the wives. While the 4:3 says if you fear you cannot do justice then marry only one and the other verse 4:129 says that you cannot do justice between wives even if you wish but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her in suspense.

Thus it would be seen that justice is an important and basic requirement even in conjugal relations. Defining the concept of justice for more than one wife the Islamic jurists maintain that the husband should not only pay equal maintenance for justice to be done but also spend equal time with each of them. But some Mu'tazilite jurists, referring to the verse 4:129 even maintained that equal maintenance and equal time are not enough, equal love for all wives would also be necessary in order for justice to be done. Otherwise ends of justice will not be met.

The Qur'anic concept of justice is also very critical of ostentatious use of wealth and accumulation of riches. The 'afw (what is more than basic need) should be given away for the needy in the society (see 2:219). To check ostentation Islam even forbade wearing of gold ornament and silk clothes for men and use of silver wares. Such ostentation throws economic balance overboard and causes grave economic injustices to the deprived sections of society.

However, in history of humanity including in the history of Islam such economic balance or economic justice could not be done except for a brief period of time. Unfortunately, as we would see Islamic history is also full of economic injustices and hence its history also remained full of violence and turmoil.

The Qur'an had repeatedly warned against accumulation of wealth (9:34 etc.) and Qur'an strongly expressed its sympathy for the weak (mustad'ifin) in 28:5 and yet history of Islam, like history of other religions, was dominated by the powerful (mustakbirin). It was, therefore, full of oppression and exploitation though of course there were short spells of justice and peace.

As pointed out above, pre-Islamic society of Mecca and Madina was full of violence, injustices and exploitation. Powerful vested interests had come into existence and it was not easy to establish justice in that society. Whatever violence and bloodshed we see during the life time of the Prophet was due to his untiring efforts to establish a just society where there would be no exploitation and oppression.

The Qur'an also denounced economic exploitation and dishonest trade practices. It greatly emphasised honesty in weights and measures and denounced weighing less. Thus the Qur'an says, "And give full measure when you measure out, and weigh with a true balance. This is fair and better in the end." (17:35) This should not be understood mechanically but symbolically.

The word used in this verse qistas is quite meaningful as it means justice. Thus the whole economic system should be based on justice whether it is trade system or system of economic production. What the Qur'an implies is exchange of commodities should be just and iriba' any excess in exchange giving less and demanding more of the same commodity is a grave injustice. In fact riba' is excess in hand to hand exchange of commodities. Qur'an strongly denounces the practice of riba'. Riba' literally means unjust growth and any unjust growth is strongly denounced. Thus all unfair practices which lead to enrichment of few at the cost of toil of others are unjust and condemned by the Qur'an.

The Qur'an wanted to establish a society free of all forms of exploitation, a society based on equality and human dignity and human dignity included dignity of both the genders. Justice is of course difficult to define and hence, as we would see later, there were debates on the concept of justice in early Islamic society. It is important to note that the Qur'an was being revealed there was no production but exchange of commodities and that too except in Mecca the whole economy was based on primitive exchange.

Yet, the Qur'an gives us highest form of moral consciousness and a very comprehensive concept of justice. For comprehensive justice one needs fulfilment of several other conditions ? like freedom of conscience and freedom of conscience is possible only when one accepts human dignity and human dignity is possible only when racial, tribal and national discriminations are rejected. Thus we see there are so many dependent conditions to be established before we can have comprehensive concept of justice.

It is amazing that in a primitive society like the one which prevailed in Arabia before Islam we have such a refined system of morality through the Qur'an which emphasises all these pre-requisites of freedom of conscience (2:251), human dignity (17:70) and exhortation not to discriminate between people of different races, nations and tribes (49:13). Thus the Qur'an does not confine itself to the use of word 'adl (justice) but also talks about all associated attributes required to establish social justice. The Prophet repeatedly emphasised that an Arab is in no way is superior to a non-Arab. The Arabs were of course very proud of their arabness but the Prophet never hesitated for a moment to attack this false Arab pride. There were many people of non-Arab origins; in the then Meccan and Madinese societies who were mostly of lowly origin like slaves and to accord them equal dignity was to deeply hurt the Arab pride. But the Qur'anic teachings and the Prophet were quite emphatic about human dignity, hurt or no hurt to Arab pride. Justice cannot be established without rigorously following universal norms.

But the Arabs who embraced Islam did not put these norms into practice. The first four caliphs themselves found the situation so difficult and complex. Always people embrace any religion for different reasons. Some embrace it because it appeals to their hearts and minds and they make all possible sacrifices for the purpose. It is their inner conviction which motivate them. Several Meccans initially embraced Islam with their heart and soul and with deep conviction and made great sacrifices to uphold their convictions.

After Islam became a force, all sorts of people as usual started embracing it. After conquest of Mecca its worst enemies embraced it as there was no other way left and they could gain a lot by embracing it. What they could not gain by opposing it, now they desired to gain by adopting it, especially the Umayyads. Also, there were many Bedouin tribes who had resisted and made common cause with those Qurayshites of Mecca who fought against the Prophet of Islam. They also had no other way but to accept Islam.

But these Bedouins were not comfortable with any form of government. After the death of the Prophet a systematic government was sought to be established in Madina and the Bedouins who had always lived in desert and loved freedom would not like to submit to any authority based in urban areas. They felt no need for it. Thus though they embraced Islam but refused to submit to any authority and pay zakat. And when the first Caliph demanded zakat they renounced Islam and rebelled against the central authority. It is known as war of riddah in history of Islam.

This was first major challenge to an attempt to set up a just society in the Arabian Peninsula. To administer justice one needs a central authority, at least in a society, which is not an advanced democratic society. Also, there was need to check concentration of power and wealth as both make it extremely difficult to make justice available to each and every individual in the society. During the Prophet's time there was neither concentration of power not of wealth and prophet could be reached easily by any member of the society and hence it was easier to dispense direct justice.

After his death, Islam began to expand due to conquests and apart from Bedouins, large number of non-Arabs, especially Persians and others, entered into the fold of Islam with their own old value systems. The Arab, non-Arab conflict erupted on one hand, and the mawali (pl. of mawla client) of Arab tribes, of inferior social and economic status began to demand equality as the Qur'anic teachings. This led to a very complex situation and administration of justice became increasingly difficult.

Within thirty years the first Islamic State in history had grown unbelievably large and unwieldy and comprising bewilderingly large number of ethnic groups. This state had already incorporated into it parts of Roman and Sassanid empires. Apart from bringing large number of ethnic groups and nationalities with their own cultures and value systems, it also led to concentration of power and wealth in few hands. Thus the third and fourth Caliphs had to face very complex situation. There was turmoil all around, non-Arab Muslims clamouring for justice and equal partnership in governance. And when power went into the hands of Umayyads, they threw all Islamic norms to the wind and denied partnership in governance not only to non-Arabs but also to non-Umayyad Arabs. Naturally the cause of justice suffered greatly. They had to suppress others ruthlessly. Thus Umayyads resorted to tyranny and the first victim was grandson of the Holy Prophet Imam Husain himself who was killed in Karbala along with 72 members of his family and friends. This is one of the greatest tragedies of early Islam. And one of the governors of the Umayyad rulers Hajjaj bin Yusuf became notorious for his tyranny.

Unfortunately the Qur'anic ideal of justice and just rule was not practised by Muslim rulers whose lust for power knew no bounds. Islamic rule became dynastic and hierarchical and Islamic Empire huge and unwieldy. It was not possible to stick to Islamic norms when you are governing such a huge empire with a mix of such different ethnic groups and nationalities. Thus power became primary and justice incidental.



The entire political scenario has changed in the contemporary world. Now there are nation states, not empires and human rights and democracy have become central for just governance. The Muslim countries are divided into nation states but many conditions for just governance are missing. Firstly, there is no democracy in most of the Muslim countries and no respect for human rights. Human rights are very central to Islam too. The concept of human dignity (17:70) is central to Qur'an and concept of human dignity central to human rights. But in non-democratic or authoritarian regimes one cannot expect human rights to be respected.

Also, there is serious problem with rights of women in Islamic world today. Most of the Muslim societies have yet to emerge from feudal or semi-feudal age at least as far as social values and ethos are concerned. External modernisation in the Muslim world (modern communication technology, roads, buildings, automation, computers and so on) has still not impacted deeply on inner attitudes, social ethos and values. Democracy, human rights, women's rights etc. are part of what can be called inner modernisation as against apparent or external modernisation.

As we have pointed out above, the Qur'anic concept of justice is very comprehensive embracing aspects like economic, social, political and gender-related. There should have been great appreciation of Qur'anic concept of justice at least in the modern age but the course of governance is extremely convoluted in the Muslim world and even women are not getting desired justice.

The Shari'ah laws as formulated during early centuries of Islam relating to women's rights are static and 'Ulama resist any change. Justice, as pointed out above, has to reflect the changing aspirations of people and hence what was thought to be justice during medieval ages would appear to be unjust today, particularly so in case of women. The concept of justice should not remain static but should reflect aspirations of women today. Today they cannot be satisfied with secondary status, much less as mere obedient wives and daughters. The Qur'an does not project wives to be obedient and secondary to their husbands. They have personality and dignity of their own.

Today we need new theology of justice whether it is gender justice, political justice or economic justice. The institution of zakat has to be recast. It should not be treated merely as charity to be dispensed to the poor. Zakat was very important ingredient of bait al-mal and greatly contributed to economic justice in the society. Today zakat is also a static, if not a dead institution. Zakat can play very dynamic role in Muslim societies, at least those which are poorer countries.

Firstly, zakat should be taken out honestly by the rich or those who are under that category (nisab). It should not be directly given to the poor which, is quite counter-productive. The Pakistani experiment of directly deducting zakat amount from bank account led to great complication and corruption as the empirical studies have shown. The zakat should be given to a voluntary board constituted by local residents of unquestionable integrity and this board should use zakat fund for interest free loans to small traders, vendors, small peasants and others so that they can stand on their own feet. It should also be used for scholarship-cum-loans for able students to pursue higher education.

Also, as proposed by many thinkers and scholars Islamic jurisprudence should no longer be the monopoly of conventional Islamic jurists. Modern jurists fully equipped with knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence should assist parliament to bring about changes in Shari'ah laws within the frame-work of the Qur'an. There should be no monopoly of traditional jurists on framing Islamic laws. Due to their training their minds are rigidly conditioned and for them justice is secondary and traditions are primary. This trend has to be reversed.

Also, there is great need for opening new centres of Islamic learning which would combine modern learning with traditional learning and would help create modern mindset. Also, students of such universities or Islamic seminaries should be required to do Ph.D. in modern social or natural sciences, which would greatly enhance their understanding of modern or contemporary problems. Unfortunately there are no such Islamic seminaries in Muslim countries combining higher learning in Islam with higher learning in modern social and natural sciences. This combination has become very essential to make them appreciate modern aspects of social, economic, legal and gender justice. To begin with at least one such international university be set up in one Islamic country on experimental basis. This will help create new breed of modern 'Ulama.

The Muslims should understand that Islam's centre concern is justice and this concern should be restored. This concern should be reflected in all fields particularly in socio-economic and legal field as well as in gender relations.

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