The Qur’ānic concern for justice reiterates one of the fundamental demands (as ‘righteousness’) made by God upon man in revelations to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The fact that the Qur’ān often refers to terms such as ‘adl (equitable, just), ihsān (beneficence) and ma‘rūf (a generally accepted good) without defining them, suggests a relation to justice prior to the Qur’ānic revelations, thereby re-affirming its importance and reminding its readers of the continuity with earlier revelations. Moreover, this pre- and extra-Qur’ānic reference to justice can also be inferred from the fact that mankind is endowed with a universal and objective moral nature or fitra (incipient or dispositional moral and spiritual awareness). It is fitra that forms the objective basis for the equal treatment of all human beings, linking natural law, human nature, and the divine command to build a just society. Perhaps the quintessential articulation of the importance of justice in the Qur’ān is found in 4: 135:
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.
The call to justice is complemented by numerous admonitions against injustice in the Qur’ān.
‘Adl, a noun, comes from the verb ‘adala, which means, among other things, to straighten or modify; to depart or deflect from one (presumably wrong) path to the other (presumably right one) [cf. Q1: 17 on ‘the Straight Path,’ al-sirāt al-mustaqīm, and the literal meaning of sharī‘ah as ‘the way or path’ to water]; to equalize; and to balance, weigh, or be in equilibrium. Among the numerous suggestive synonyms we cite nasīb and qist, rightful share; qistās and mīzān, scale; and taqwīm, straightening. Other synonyms imply the classical Greek virtue sōphrosynē: temperance, harmony, self-mastery, and with respect to action: balance, proportionality and judiciousness, or the Aristotelian principle of the (Golden) Mean between extremes. The semantically rich metaphorical image of ‘the scale’ (mīzān) is used in the Qur’ān with reference to divine justice on the Day of Judgment (yawm ad-Din).
Divine justice by definition perfect, eternal and ideal, we are urged to make every effort to approximate and reflect this metaphysical fact (a capacity owing to fitra), reward or punishment in the next life allotted in accordance with the sincerity and strength of our endeavors to instantiate this divine (ideal) model, one reason for the association of justice with ihsān, beneficence or moral excellence, that is, doing the utmost good. The imperative of justice is both an individual and collective obligation for Muslims, so that while we may distinguish between personal and political virtues, they are necessarily tied together. Mohammad Hashim Kemali provides a succinct summary:
Justice is generally understood to mean ‘putting everything in its rightful place,’ and in the context of Sharī‘ah as ‘giving everyone his or her entitlement.’ Islam’s unqualified commitment to impartial justice is manifested in numerous places in the Qur’ān. We also note the Qur’ānic conception of justice is neither rigid nor rule-bound but open to a variety of considerations. This can be seen in various places in the text of such concepts as ma‘rūf (decent, fair, customary) and ihsān (equity, the doing of good) next to ‘adl (justice). The Qur’ān and Sunnah also integrate intuitive insight (firāsah) and considerations of a just policy (siyāsah shar‘iyyah) into its vision of justice. Moreover, Sharī‘ah validates ijtihād bi’l-ra’y (opinion-based legal judgement) as a basis of adjudication in the absence of a clear text. When the judge adjudicates on the basis of ijtihād, he relies not only on his understanding of Sharī‘ah but also his conscience, insight and experience. This is equivalent to saying that equity and fairness constitute important ingredients of both ijtihād and ‘adl in Islam. Mohammad Hashim Kemali, Shari‘ah Law: An Introduction (Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2008): 199-200.
The Prophet Muhammad appears to have had a keen sense of justice, publicizing widespread inequity and oppression in and around Mecca: a new if not stricter standard of justice was needed to address questions of fairness and exploitation not beholden to tribal status and the privileges of wealth. Whatever dimensions of justice were part of the bedouin ethic of muruwwa in the Jahiliyya, they precipitously declined in the time and place of Muhammad, hence the Meccan revelations regarding the treatment of orphans and the plight of the poor. The Qur’ān evidences the urgency of addressing issues that fall under the rubric of socio-economic or distributive justice, rebuking those who have greedily consumed their inheritance while loving wealth ‘with a passion’ (89: 19-20). Moreover, the enshrinement of zakāt (alms-giving) as the third pillar of practice in Islam makes this duty integral to Muslim identity, effectively institutionalizing a ‘right’ for the needy and deprived to a share in the community’s wealth: no longer would the provision of basic material needs be at the whim or discretion of tribal chiefs. In addition to this compulsory obligation, Muslims of sufficient means are expected to practice voluntary charitable giving (sadaqah). The Qur’ān’s ill-understood opposition to usury (ribā) further illustrates the attempt to deal with problems of distributive justice (as Rosen remarks, the term 'more accurately refers to any form of unjust enrichment').
Historically, questions of political justice were first broached in the Khārijite opposition to the Umayyad caliphate. The Khārijites invoked the doctrine of qadar (power; free will, thus the corollary proposition that each individual is responsible for his or her acts) against the Umayyad rulers’ attempt to legitimize their rule through the principles of ijma‘ (consensus, agreement) and bay‘ah (oath of allegiance), fortified with the theological doctrine of jabr (lit., compulsion; predestination; here in the sense that Umayyad rule was seen as ordained by God). The ‘absolute justice of God’ was one of the five tenets of Mu‘tazilite kalām (theology), unremarkable as such until we learn that it was bound up with debates over the nature of evil and injustice, including the metaphysical and ethical scope of man’s free agency. The Mu‘tazilites even took to referring to themselves as ‘The People of Justice and Unity.’ The pursuit and realization of justice for the Mu‘tazilah was both determined and constrained by the powers of reason (‘aql).
‘The Father of Arab Philosophy’ and Islam’s first significant philosopher, Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d. c. 866) held justice to be the central virtue owing to its balancing and coordinating functions vis-à-vis other (principally classical Greek) virtues, thereby demonstrating the integration of Peripatetic and Neoplatonic ideas into a distinctively Islamic philosophy. Islam’s first truly systematic philosopher, al-Fārābī (c. 870-950), envisioned the ideal Islamic polity portioning such goods as security, wealth, honor and dignity according to a desert principle of distributive justice. Rational justice, formulated in terms of a social contract theory inspired by Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics, as well as the Islamic sciences generally, was the center point of Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna) (979-1037) political scheme to secure the common welfare from a pool of basic resources. For Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198), justice is the sum and highest of all virtues of man as a citizen of the polity. Furthermore, it inheres in the fulfillment of role responsibilities and duties in a social division of labor structured according to the standards and strictures of philosophy (falsafah). While some virtues, like wisdom and courage, are class-specific, justice is pertinent to all citizens, provided they perform the vocation for which they are fitted ‘by nature.’
Justice in jurisprudential terms entails in the first instance equal treatment of all before the law (fiqh). With the sharī‘ah as lodestar (i.e., God’s Will in ideal and abstract form), both ethics and law in Islam approach justice through the doctrinal formula of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ (al-amr bi’l-ma‘rūf wa’l-nahy ‘an al-munkar). In short, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), as the human endeavor to understand and interpret God’s Will, is a system of ethico-legal obligation formulated in imperative or obligatory (amr) and prohibitive (nahy) terms, with all human actions exhaustively classified as mandatory (fard or wājib), encouraged (mustahabb or mandūb), permissible (halāl or mubāh), discouraged (makrūh), or forbidden (harām). Procedural justice in Islam tends toward a communalist conception of personalism rather than corporatist and administrative principles insofar as trust is placed in the ‘just judge’ or ‘just witness,’ trumping the judicial system as such. In other words, the status and personal qualities of juridical actors are paramount and this might be charitably described as one of the implications of a religious formulation of virtue jurisprudence.
The Islamic modernism or ‘reformism’ of a Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) or a Muhammad Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935) devotes more attention to issues of individual freedom and national self-determination than institutional and public policy questions regarding the mechanics of distributive justice. Exemplified in the works of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Nahdah’s (renaissance; rebirth) second generation of Muslim intellectuals (i.e. after World War II) brought back to the political and economic foreground pressing questions of distributive justice, albeit in a manner that lacked the complete historical compass and ethical range of earlier philosophical and jurisprudential discussions. Most recently, Muslim scholars have persuasively argued for the relevance of Islamic conceptions of justice and jurisprudence to the ideals and values intrinsic to international human rights, such rights being the primary means for realizing and exploring principles of international justice. The Islamist social organization and political party Hizbullāh in Lebanon, and what might be called its Sunni counterpart Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, have made the pursuit of social justice a religious obligation central to their welfare work and political platforms. In Turkey, we find the (post-?) Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party) proclaiming (in its political program) a commitment to laws “based on [the] fundamentals of universal justice and human rights.”
Further Reading: Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2001); Mashood A. Baderin, International Human Rights and Islamic Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Sohail H. Hashmi, ed., Islamic Political Ethics: Civil Society, Pluralism, and Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983 ed.); Majid Khadduri, The Islamic Conception of Justice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984); M. Ali Lakhani, Reza Shah-Kazemi and Leonard Lewinsohn, The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam: The Teachings of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom/North Vancouver, BC: Sacred Web Publ., 2006); Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 4th ed., 2007); Rudolph Peters, Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Lawrence Rosen, The Justice of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and, Amr G.E. Sabet, Islam and the Political: Theory, Governance and International Relations (London: Pluto Press, 2008).
A different version of the above is found in Juan E. Campo, ed., Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Facts on File/Checkmark Books, 2009): 416-418.