Enacting Justice through Overcoming the Self – An Islamic Perspective

Raahim Zafar

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents or [near] relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So, follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”[Quran 4:135]

Justice is at the core of Islam. Justice on the social level, fulfilling the rights of others, fairly righting wrongs and so on are essential components of the society that Islam encourages. But justice doesn’t begin on the global level or the social level. Justice begins with the self. Justice begins with the individual.

The Quranic verse above, which is printed on the entrance wall to Harvard Law School, gives us the first step to exploring what Islam says about justice. The verse commands believing Muslims to never forsake being fair- even if it is against someone who is closely related to you.

A friend of mine was reflecting on this verse not too long ago. He had been sat in the car with his dad over winter and they almost crashed into a small group of women and children who had been crossing the road at night whilst wearing dark clothing. His dad hadn’t seen them, possibly because he has difficulty seeing in one eye, but my friend says that even he didn’t see them until they were quite close up. Thankfully he alerted his dad, and nothing happened apart from a beeping of the horn and some angry glares exchanged between pedestrians and passenger.

Later he told his mum about this incident and his mum said something to the effect of, “if something had happened you would have had to support dad.” He found this very uncomfortable. We assume the best about what his mother meant – emotional support perhaps – but one implication is of course lying, or, at the very least, concealing the truth of what had happened, or altering it (e.g. “I didn’t see them either until it was too late and my eyesight is okay”) so that his father didn’t get into as much trouble. This goes against the command of two parts of the verse – not having double standards for family and not distorting testimony – and goes against the essence of justice. Just imagine if the situation had been reversed – no doubt everyone in my friend’s family would have wanted an honest testimony from both the driver and the passenger.

The second section from this verse which particularly interests me is something that is a recurrent theme in the Quran: “opposing personal inclination” (also translated as: desire, want, caprice etc.). Islam teaches that the human being’s metaphysical composition includes the lower animalistic self and the higher angelic self, and the human being has the freedom and choice to choose one and overcome the other. Personal inclination/desire (Arabic: hawa) is something that is negatively referred to throughout the Quran and it is implied both here and in other verses that hawa is an obstacle to achieving a fair society and is diametrically opposed to ‘justice.’

The Prophet-King David is told: “O David, indeed We have made you a representative upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah.” (38:26) Relating this back to the first verse and my friend’s hypothetical familial dilemma, it is only part of our nature to be affectionate and want to favour those who we are close to – be that through ties of blood or friendship – but if it involves favouritism, nepotism or stamping on the rights of others, then it is contrary to what Islam teaches.

Parents are however only the second group mentioned in the verse after commanding justice against the self. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that Islam teaches us that justice begins on an individual level- through conquering the self. In Islam there are rules and laws, forbidden things and permissible things, encouraged acts and discouraged acts… all of these serve a purpose, whether it is for the individual or the society. Legal punishments on the other hand, are only for those acts which affect the society at large and involve the rights of other human beings because those acts bring about societal disruption such as murder and theft.

As for the individual level, there are no punishments in this world for those acts. Forbidden acts, however, in themselves lead to negative consequences, “whoever does good it is for his own self and whoever does evil it is [to the detriment of] their own self” (41:46). However, the self is the only thing over which we have full charge and full control. We cannot fairly be held responsible for the actions of others but we are totally accountable for our own actions. The Quran mentions being just towards oneself first because our individual nature is such that we make excuses for ourselves and avoid taking ourselves to account as we seek to avoid painful consequences. For this reason, we may lie to ourselves, we may deceive ourselves and avoid addressing the root issue of our problem. Oftentimes we find ourselves in moral indignation about what someone else did, but rarely are we so livid about our own vices. And so, the Quran recognises this, that we only truly have the ability and sovereignty to reform ourselves as it says, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves”(13:11).

If we do not reform what is in us and overcome ourselves, there is always the risk that we will be vulnerable to falling to temptations of injustice and to usurping the rights of others for our own personal gain. I end with the words of Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), who puts concisely into a few words what I have spent a thousand trying to say:

“Justice is to put everything in its rightful place.”

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