Harvard Law School, one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind in the world, has posted a verse of the Holy Qura’an at the entrance of its faculty library, describing the verse as one of the greatest expressions of justice in history. Verse 135 of Surah Al Nisa (The Women) has been posted at a wall facing the faculty’s main entrance, dedicated to the best phrases articulating justice: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and 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”.
Justice is multi-dimensional. Broadly defined, the vertical dimension of justice between humankind and God is the theological sense of justice while all forms of justice between human beings constitute forms of social justice. This would include everything from macro-level political and economic dimensions to micro-level interpersonal interactions between family members, friends, neighbors, and so on. The Qur’anic term which best explains social justice is the Arabic term qisṭ (fairness) which entails a sense of equality and justice in distribution and a shared social project to ensure that all members of society receive their fair share. The political aspect of justice entails fair governance of people according to mutual consultation (Qur’an 42:38). There are many sayings of the Prophet (SAW) ﷺ that praise the virtues of the just ruler and assign a place in paradise for one who rules with justice. The Prophet declared that the most noble struggle is to speak a truthful word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler. This latter sentiment is a powerful motivation for political activists calling for human rights. When the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) ﷺ heard about an incident in Abyssinia where an elderly woman was pushed, he declared, “How would God sanctify a nation that does not protect its underprivileged from its powerful?” Thus, the prosperity and wellbeing of an entire nation are at stake when its members fail to protect those underprivileged from those in power. In many ways, Islam is fundamentally a faith of action. According to the Qur’an, an essential characteristic of believers is their participation in “enjoining good and forbidding evil” (Qur’an 3:110, 9:71). The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (SAW) said, “Whoever witnesses something evil, let him change it with his hand, and if he is unable then with his tongue, and if he is unable then with his heart, but that is the weakest form of faith.” In this sense, Islam does not permit one to be a bystander to any form of injustice; one is morally obligated to do everything in one’s power to eradicate oppression. Of course, this duty is accompanied by the requirement for wisdom to ensure that one’s attempt to remove an evil does not backfire and lead to a greater evil.
Activism encompasses both collective and individual efforts. In Islamic terminology, the term farḍ kifāyah describes a collective obligation which the community as a whole participates in, and the term farḍ ʿayn describes an individual obligation that must be fulfilled by each and every person. Thus Islam calls upon human beings to work individually and collectively to eradicate injustice. The Qur’an also speaks about humankind having the position of khilāfah (custodianship) in various passages (Qur’an 6:165, 27:62). One famous interpretation of this is that humanity as a whole has been given the role of being God’s appointed custodian, deputy, viceroy, or vicegerent (Arabic: khalīfa) on earth, tasked with the mission of promoting virtue in accordance with the Divine plan As Ramon Harvey notes, “If the basic idea of the khalīfa within the Qur’an is the human steward charged with a duty to live according to the moral scale that God has set within creation, then in the social sphere this implies upholding justice, establishing his law, and rectifying worldly corruption.” Throughout time, as human beings have drifted from their divinely ordained mission of striving for justice, God has sent prophets in every epoch for the purpose of re-establishing justice. “We have sent Our Messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Scripture and the Scales of balance so that humanity may uphold justice (qisṭ)” (Qur’an 57:25). Allah commands that you should render back the trusts to those to whom they are due; and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice. Verily, how excellent is the teaching which He (Allah) gives you! Truly, Allah is Ever All-Hearer, All-Seer.: (An-Nisa, Chapter 4, verse 58) This spiritual worldview of custodianship is integral to the Muslim notion of social justice.
Showkat Rashid Wani is Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir