It is without a doubt that justice is one of the most foundational aspects of Islam. When I think of Islam, I think of the fact that it is a religion that was revealed to our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), someone who fought resolutely throughout his life against tribal injustice and steadily worked to introduce reforms to improve the material conditions of women.
In the Qur’an, the words qist and adl give us an understanding of what justice means within the context of Islam. Qisṭ refers primarily to its application within the socio-economic domain, whereas ‘adl refers to an essential quality of fairness, equality, and divine justice that can be emulated and practiced in our interactions and behaviours. The Qur’an thus offers an understanding of justice that is directed towards society as well as the self and others, one that is systemic and societal as well as personal.
This duality makes perfect sense to me: in order to change and improve society, it is important that we also work to improve ourselves, and even as we work on changing our own behaviours, it is important that we do not close our eyes to the injustices of our society and the world around us. In fact, often times when we look closely enough to the suffering and injustices that we face, we see that it is linked to the suffering of others. We do not struggle in a vacuum or in isolation. We struggle under the same system that benefits from us being isolated and passive, accepting of our lot.
Throughout his life, the prophet exhibited this duality. He not only embodied justice through his fairness, kindness and just behaviours even to his enemies, but he also stood resolutely against injustice in his own community. He was not a passive bystander by any means and actively participated in speaking up to power and standing for the oppressed. His approach was also significant since he moved away from punitive methods of settling conflict and harm in favour of consultation and reform. This reformist and non-punitive approach to justice is reflected in a submission to our series by Ryaihanny Sahrom about why Prison Abolition is a Muslim Issue.
I have constantly sought comfort in remembering the Prophet’s (PBUH) behaviour. He was a person who had to struggle his whole life within a society that had a predatory, capitalist economic system. In its place, he had instituted within Islam a more socialist ethos of wealth redistribution and the belief that the well-being of all was a collective responsibility. When it came to the condition of women, even his own sahabah were at times resistant to the reforms that he wanted to enforce, indicating just how radical his vision was and how fierce his commitment was to justice. He was constantly moving against the tide of opinion and behaviours and practices that society was uncomfortable in addressing and questioning. It is not an easy task. Similarly, I am inspired by the pieces by ‘A and Anisah in their commitment to speaking up about female genital cutting in the community as well as the “hijab issue” respectively. ‘A’s vulnerability in sharing the mean-spirited comments that she has received due to the passion she has in challenging harmful practices moved me deeply. Here is a young woman who has chosen to speak up, even at personal cost, and I am moved too to know that she has found an accepting community who can support and do this work with her.
I take comfort too in the following verses in Surah Al-Nisa:
O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Follow not the lust (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that ye do.
– Surah Al Nisa’ (4), Aayah 135
I see in this the call for a commitment and dedication to justice so pure and devoted to the universal value of a human life and their rights, that it is imperative to disregard hierarchy in any form—whether within the family, within socio-economic standing, or within society. It is a beautiful reflection of the concept of Tawheed, where all are equal before God. Hierarchy in itself, I believe, is vulnerable to perpetuation of injustice.
I have learned from the Islamic conception of Justice that in order to live in this world, we must engage with our community and its political realities. My faith is not simply about a transactional relationship with God where I do good deeds with the sole desire to enter heaven. Instead, I see my faith as giving me guidance on how to live in a difficult and painful world, it gives me guidance on a path of struggle, of jihad, against the many injustices that are perpetrated against vulnerable communities.
There’s been a strange thing I’ve been doing after my daily prayers. As I sit on the mat and supplicate, my usual requests for contentment, safety, and direction for myself and my loved ones have steadily been replaced by larger requests that are no longer individual in nature. To me, in a period of such intense suffering as this pandemic had brought, it felt insufficient and empty to request for only myself and my loved ones.
When I was young the concept of prayer has always been about requesting for myself and for others, but these requests are always somewhat personal and largely individual in nature. There is of course strong encouragement to pray for others, but they were still largely individual requests—I pray that my grandmother will get better, I’ll pray for my friend’s recovery, I’ll pray for my family’s security, I’ll pray for late relatives. We don’t really ask for bigger things that are more structural in nature. Can I pray for universal healthcare? Can I pray for a world without fascist leaders? I have been doing that these days, even if it feels strange and impossible. Why be stingy in your requests the one who can make all things possible?
It sounds strange, but I ask for the collapse of our current system that sacrifices the lives of the poor and marginalised, and pray for a world where all can have an opportunity to thrive. I pray for the end of the pandemic, that humanity survives climate crisis, and that we can bring forth a way of organising ourselves and our society that prioritises universal access to basic necessities and human rights.
As we ride out a pandemic that has seen mostly the poor and marginalised bearing the brunt of political failures, where vaccines are hoarded by richer nations and lacking in poorer ones, where the disease of racism has resulted in attacks against South Asians in Singapore, I think it is as good a time as ever that we take a deep look into how committed we are to journey of justice. To survive this pandemic as a global family, to survive climate change, to survive the persistence of poverty, and bigotry in all its forms, I cannot imagine a journey more imperative than the journey towards justice.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu