Justice, Society and Islam

By Dr Hisham A. Hellyer

The 20th century polymath of Makkah, Sayyid Muhammad bin ‘Alawi al-Maliki, who was known as the muhaddith al-hijaz (traditionist of the Hijaz) for his proficiency in ahadith (Prophetic narrations), suffered tremendously during his lifetime for his commitment to what he considered to be the normative Islamic tradition. One of his most senior students, and later khalifah in the ‘tariqa ‘ulama Makka’ (‘the [Sufi] Way of the Scholars of Makkah’), Shaykh Seraj Hasan Hendricks, was himself arrested for protesting against apartheid in his native South Africa.

There are many other examples of this kind of commitment to justice in Muslim society that emanate from men and women of strong spiritual concern – because that is reflective of a deep connection between justice and belief in the Islamic context. And in a very real way, the Muslim’s notion of justice is one that is neither an optional luxury nor an unattainable utopia. Rather, it is a natural effect of a Muslim’s recognition of his or her place in the cosmos.

When, for example, the great saint, Omar al-Mukhtar, of the Sanusi order of Sufis, waged a martial campaign against the fascist occupation of his country of Libya – may it be restored to beauty; or Imam Shamil of the 19th century Caucasus of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis; – they perceived their resistance as simply a regular and consistent consequence. The state of affairs was unjust – hence the Muslim had to respond to draw nearer to justice. If the Muslim did not, then he would be unfaithful to himself, as a Muslim.

“O’ you who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives! Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly—if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do!” (Surah al-Nisa’)

The ayah (verse) leaves little room for disagreement in this regard. But the notion of ‘justice’ in a comprehensive context is often-times used, abused, and instrumentalised for purely partisan and parochial purposes. Just as religion in general becomes a play thing for different political parties and different political establishments, so too is the notion of justice often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. And just as truth itself can become a victim in the political machinations of the day, so too can justice be reduced to merely a rhetorical tool and play-thing in the hands of the powerful or those who wish to grab power for their own sakes.

Yet, justice itself remains to be a core imperative within any normative understanding of the Islamic tradition. Tan Sri Professor S.M. Naquib al-Attas, the Malaysian philosopher and sage, reminds us of the centrality of justice in much of his work – and not simply as a recurring theme that occurs again and again. Rather, justice is at the bedrock of the very nature of our worldview as Muslims. As he notes:

“We have several times alluded to the concept that justice means a harmonious condition or state of affairs whereby everything is in its right and proper place – such as the cosmos; or similarly, a state of equilibrium, whether it refers to things or living beings. With respect to man, we say that justice means basically a condition and situation whereby he is in his right and proper place.”

Were that all that al-Attas notes about justice, it would be profound indeed, because of its holistic emphasis. He is not insisting that unjust acts be absent – rather, he is affirming that justice means that everything is in its ‘right place’, which is far more expansive than the mere absence of crime. But al-Attas goes further than this, which, indeed, gives an even wider and deeper notion of what justice means in the Islamic context:

“‘Place’ here refers not only to his total situation in relation to others, but also to his condition in relation to his self. So the concept of justice in Islam does not only refer to relational situations of harmony and equilibrium existing between one person and another, or between the society and state, or between the ruler and the ruled, or between the king and his subjects, but far more profoundly and fundamentally so it refers in a primary way to the harmonious and rightly-balanced relationship existing between the man and his self, and in a secondary way only to such as exists between him and another or others, between him and his fellow men and ruler and king and state and society.”

Here, al-Attas, just as all true inheritors of the Islamic tradition, makes it clear – a quietistic dualism cannot really work, consistently and faithfully. For those who would try to demand that an ‘external’ justice framework suffices in the Islamic worldview, al-Attas reminds that there is an internal framework which must also be upheld. Indeed, it is the fulfilment of that internal framework that makes the external truly possible. For human beings to be deeply human – i.e., to be exemplary upholders of the Prophetic mean – then their inward must exist in a harmonious and rightly-balanced place. If that happens, then, organically, naturally and spontaneously, they will spread justice through society. If they themselves are inwardly in a right place, then it becomes unfathomable for them to move through society, without also putting things in their ‘right place’.

That holistic and comprehensive look at justice, however, is rather rare in our times, including by those who use religion as a rallying cry at the level of political opposition, or at the level of the political establishment power itself. There might be only a precious few, such as Shaykh Emad Effat, one of the muftis at Dar al-Ifta’ al-Misriyyah, who was killed some years ago.

But there are others who continue to live that life of justice-bearing. Their example in so doing makes the normative tradition of this religion continually relevant, consistently germane, constantly appropriate – because they do it not out of partisan gain or advantage. But because they do it out of the commitment to fulfilling that imperative of justice – in an organic fashion.

When, for example, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a noted civil society organisation in Chicago led by the abled MacArthur Fellow, Rami Nashashibi, engages in its work to empower the disenfranchised, the downtrodden and the marginalised – that’s justice. When journalists risk life and limb in the Arab world to shed light on abuses – that’s justice. When Palestinian activists reject the demolition of their homes by occupying forces – that’s justice. When Libyans protest against extremism – that’s justice. When rights activists document exploitations and mistreatments – that’s justice.

Because all of these examples share that intrinsic imperative to put things in their right place – as part of a holistic way of looking at the world.

And we return to al-Attas for what that holistic way of looking at the world – the ‘Islamic worldview’ – ought to look like. In true Ghazalian fashion, befitting his heritage, he notes:

“The actualization of adab in individual selves composing society as a collective entity reflects the condition of justice; and justice itself is a reflection of wisdom, which is the light that is lit from the lamp of prophecy that enables the recipient to discover the right and proper place for a thing or a being to be.”

It’s because of that comprehensive view of looking at the world that the tasawwuf (Sufism) of old and contemporary has always been, remains, and will continue to be a force that rejects abuses wherever they are found – irrespective of whether it is by those who curry favour with power for power’s sakes, or those who wish to be the power themselves. In that worldview, the spiritual demands on a truly human being cannot be segmented out – they must be consistent, and justice is a basic element that cannot be separated due to material considerations.

Al-Attas then goes on to say:

“The condition of being in the proper place is what I have called justice; and adab is that cognitive action by which we actualize the condition of being in the proper place. So adab in the sense I am defining here, is also a reflection of wisdom; and with respect to society adab is the just order within it. Adab, concisely defined, is the spectacle of justice (‘adl ) as it is reflected by wisdom (hikmah).”

Few indeed are those that recognise those three concepts as being endemic to the very nature of what it means to be Muslim in this time as in any other time in our history. But justice as a concept does not know partisanship, nor populism, nor party-political preferences, nor the power of the establishment. It doesn’t admit of instrumentalisation by the power-establishment for the further fraudulent burnishing of politics; its considerations are based in wisdom. And if humans would be wiser, they would be just; and if they would be more just, they would be, in the final analysis, quite simply, human.


Dr Hisham A. Hellyer – Atlantic Council, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Centre for the Advanced Studies of Islam, Science and Civilisation.