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Newsletter for February 2007


the Message Continues ... 6/66

Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12



                                             Defining Justice in Islam

                                                                  by Dr. Robert D. Crane

          Justice is perhaps the most universal value in all civilizations, which is why there is so much negative reaction to the failure of American policy-makers to include freedom and democracy within the concept of justice as a higher paradigm of thought. 

          Both Sunnis and Shi’a have a common foundation in their classical reliance on justice as central to their Islamic faith, and they have a common need to re-emphasize this in order to apply Islam as a constructive force in the world.

           Justice assumes the existence of a truth higher than man-made positivist law.  In fact, justice is merely an expression of this truth.  The recognition of a source of truth that transcends the material of the here and now raises the question of linkage between the immanent and the transcendent, between the lower and the higher levels of reality, between “contingent existence” and “Absolute Being.” 

          The major purpose of religion and of prophets as intermediaries between God and man is to raise our natural awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of reality.  Jesus the Christ, ‘alayhi as-salam, as the Prophet of Love, taught that as a manifestation of the divine he was an essential link.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  This statement of ultimate reality and of the means to access it is just as true today as it was when Jesus spoke it 2,000 years ago and is perhaps even more needed, now that we have entered the most militantly polytheistic period of human history.   

The study of justice in Islam is a distinct discipline.  Although it has never had a distinct name, just as many Islamic disciplines did not have a name until centuries after they existed in fact, the best term for the Islamic study of justice might be ‘Ilm al ‘Adl.  The direct English translation is simply “knowledge of justice,” which might connote a finished product with all the challenges in the past.  In fact, the classical study of justice is heuristic in the sense that it seeks knowledge about the sources, nature, and praxis of justice, with the challenges lying more in the present as a means to build on the best of the past in search of a better future. 

The simplest definition of ‘ilm al ‘adl is the search for transcendent justice as a source of wisdom to be manifested or embodied in a set of essential principles for a universal code of human responsibilities and rights.  Among these is the responsibility to respect freedom of religion.  Only when people observe their moral responsibilities can any rights become real. 

 In classical Islamic thought, ‘adl is an essential element of all higher religion.  The purpose of all religion is to empower the truth, which exists independently of human beings but requires religion in order to be translated into principles of compassionate justice.  The search for truth at the higher esoteric level is known in Jafari jurisprudence as ‘ilm al taqwa (knowledge of the One through love).  The search to make it manifest at the exoteric or outward level, in the sense of balance through the coherence of diversity known as tawhid, may be identified as the major object of ‘ilm al ‘adl. 

These two pursuits, the esoteric and the exoteric, as both the classical Islamic thinkers and their counterparts, Saint Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, defined them, have ultimate meaning only as they fulfill each other.  This is the essence of Islamic thought and of every world religion, as well as of the classical thought of the Founders that gave rise to the Great American Experiment.  

Justice is a normative phenomenon in that its applications must derive from higher norms or purposes.  Rules and regulations applied without guidance from their higher purposes can produce injustice.  In Islamic jurisprudence the guiding norms are known as the maqasid or purposes of Islamic law, or as the dururiyat or essentials, or as the kulliyat or universal principles.   

Justice itself is nothing more than the Will of God, as indicated in the Qur’anic ayah from Surah al An’am, 6:115, tama’at kalimatu Rabbika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The word of Your Lord is perfected and completed in truth and justice.”   Its nature and substance, however, must be sought out through deduction from the three sources of knowledge, namely, 1) haqq al yaqin, known as Revelation; 2) ‘ain al yaqin, known as natural law or the sunnatu Allahi; and some jurists would say also from 3) ‘ilm al yaqin, which is the human intellectual processing of the first two sources.  

In highly simplified explanation, the architectonics of justice in the Islamic shari’ah consist of a hierarchy of levels proceeding from the general to the specific, the highest known as maqasid; the intermediate or secondary level known as the hajiyat; and the tertiary level known as tahsiniyat, which might be compared to the specific courses of action in program planning. 

The number and even the meaning of the maqasid are flexible, ranging from a generally accepted five a thousand years ago to seven or more in later centuries.  Differences in interpretation depend in part on whether one is referring to the maqasid narrowly as law or more broadly as functional guidelines for public policy.  The strictest definitions are called maslaha al mu’tabara, the broader as istislah, and the broadest as istihsan. 

We may identify at least seven irreducibly highest principles.  In highest priority, these start with haqq al din, which for six hundred years until the present third millennium was ossified in the Sunni portion of the Muslim world to mean “protection of true belief,” but in recent decades has been expanded by the greatest modern scholars, following the lead of Shaykh Ibn Ashur in the first half of the twentieth century, to mean “freedom of religion.” 

Next come three sets of pairs.  The first pair consists of haqq al haya and haqq al nasl, which mean the duties, respectively, to respect the human person and life itself and to respect the nuclear family and communities at every level that derive from the sacredness of the human person.  The first one, haqq al haya, includes the elaborate set of principles that define the limitations of just war.  The second one includes the principle of subsidiarity, which recognizes that legitimacy expands upwards from community or nation to state, and not the reverse. 

The second set consists of three responsibilities that deal with institutionalizing economic and political justice.  These are, respectively, haqq al mal and haqq al hurriya. Political justice is based on the principles of freedom through both subsidiarity and self-determination.  It must be said that, more often than not, this second pair of responsibilities throughout much of Islamdom has been observed in the breech.  And even when the principles are acknowledged, the derivative lower levels of institutionalized implementation have been ignored. 

The third pair of maqasid consists of haqq al karama, which is the duty to respect human dignity, especially in freedom of religion and gender equity, and the duty to respect knowledge, including the secondary level of implementation known as freedom of thought, publication, and assembly. 

The Contributions of Shi’a Islam 

Although the very concept of justice died out in much of the Sunni world, it survived among the Shi’i scholars over the centuries because justice, ‘adl, as a normative framework of thought among the Shi’a had always been the second of the five statements in the Islamic creed, second only to awareness and love of Allah, and immediately prior to the acceptance of prophecy as a means of divine communication by the Creator to sentient beings in the Created world.   

In the Shi’a school of thought, what might be known as ‘ilm al ‘adl encompasses all three of these highest purposes.  Within its purview are not merely what Ibn Ashur introduced as ‘Ilm Maqasid al Shari’ah but the still prior role of intermediation between the level of existence, within which the jurisprudential maqasid function, and the still higher level of intermediation between this and the Being of Allah.  In this intermediation, prophecy is one form of the more generic phenomenon known as walaya. 

Since Shi’a scholars over the centuries have focused equally on both fields of normative thought, the jurisprudential and the ontological cum epistemological, they have a responsibility to make their wisdom known.  Their challenge therefore now is to emphasize ‘ilm al ‘adl as it was developed in fact though not in form by Imam Jafar al Siddiq, ‘alayhi as-salam, into a distinct set of what one might call the primary maqasid (purposes), or kulliyat (universals), or dururiyat (essentials) in the Shi’a statement of Islamic belief, namely, taqwa, ‘adl, and walaya.  

The Shi’a concept of walaya or intermediation between the divine and the human through the spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad was first developed as a jurisprudential principle by the sixth Shi’a imam, Jafar al Sadiq, ‘alayhi as-salam, who founded the first of the six currently recognized schools of Islamic law.  Although it is rejected by the Sunni Muslims, walaya is directly related to the concept and role of justice because it emphasizes the higher awareness of the transcendent, which is basic to ‘ilm al ‘adl.   

Since all spiritually attuned persons in all religions experience God as light, it is natural to conceive that ultimate reality becomes manifest only like rays of light emanating outward from the One and diminishing in intensity as it moves outward from the center.  Most people live on the periphery or circumference of the circle, not near its center, which is God, and will continue to do so until they come into the presence of God at the end of this life.  In his Being as Al Rahman and his manifestation as Al Rahim, Allah has always provided guidance to the many through the few, which is what one may call intermediary guidance as expressed in the term walaya, of which prophecy or nubuwiya is one form. 

The two levels of guidance are not explained merely by the difference between Revelation or wahy and inspiration or ilham.  The latter is accessible to every person regardless of one’s “closeness” to Allah, but is not binding in any way on anyone else.  Revelation, which is the primary source of haqq al yaqin as one of the three sources of knowledge, is guidance that comes only through prophets, for which all Muslims believe there has been no further need since the final revelation in the Qur’an. 

The Shi’a believe that the Qur’an exists at two levels, one the exoteric in what one might call the ‘ulum al shari’ah, and the other in the batin through ta’wil or knowledge of the higher meanings that form the inner mystery of the shari’ah or Islamic jurisprudence as a tariqa or path to knowledge.  In His mercy, Allah provides an infallible guide to the inner meanings of the Qur’an in order to protect this Uncreated Truth for future generations.  The Shi’a believe that this intermediary guidance, which is just as essential as the revelation itself, has been provided by the spiritual successors of the last prophet. 

While rejecting the Shi’a credal principle of the Imamate, which is the fourth of the five in the Shi’a creed, the fifth being recognizing qadir or the absolute power and authority of God, the Sunnis would do well to learn the science of ‘ilm al ‘adl from the Shi’a, regardless of their differences over accepted sources of authority.  Working together and with scholars from other religions, the Sunni and Shi’a scholars can best contribute the wisdom of Islam as the principal Islamic contribution to a new, pluralistic, and global civilization.




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