From Principle to Practice: Justice in Islam
By Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia
People often question whether Islam is a tolerant religion, whether it tolerates diversity of thought among its adherents and in its interaction with different worldviews. This question is easily answered when one considers that Allah created diversity, it is an expression of His ultimate creative power; He is the Ultimate Creator. This fact must be brought to the foreground.
Universal application of Allah’s Lordship
All worlds and all things are under the sovereignty of Allah; even the devil is under His Lordship. The mere fact that He has created something (even the Devil) gives a sense of His lordship over everything. Of course, there are levels of Mercy – but we must acknowledge the Universal Mercy of Allah through which everything exists. For this, perspective is essential in understanding Islam.
Medieval painters believed that if you had a scene with mountains in the distance and a house in front of you, the mountains should be drawn very large and the house very small, in order to accurately depict their absolute sizes. It was only when they discovered that perspective in painting did not minimize reality, that perspective was measured according to the focal point of the painting. Then, they began painting the house larger and the mountains smaller in the background. (Muslim painters did not adopt the use of perspective until later still).
Likewise in Islam, there is a background or backdrop and a perspective or focal point. Allah’s universal lordship is the background and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the perspective. Without Muhammad (pbuh), there is no perspective with which to understand and practice Islam. However, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) must also be understood against the backdrop of Allah’s universal lordship. In this picture of Islam, the two cannot be separated. The truths in Islam can be understood in the light of these two principles. Applying them outside of this would be to take them out of context (perspective).
In the animals and plants, even in the dirt and soil, He created diversity (Surah Al-Fatir). When He created such diversity in plants and animals, it is not surprising to see that it exists in humans. His lordship is over all this. In Surah an-Nas, the final chapter of the Qur’an, Allah states that He is the Lord of all mankind. In the time of the Prophet (pbuh), the disbelievers (kafirs) of Makkah said that they owned their gods; Muhammad (pbuh) taught them that no one owns God, He owns all. Everything you see in Islam must be in front of this backdrop. Accept Allah as He is, not as you want Him to be.
There are some universal truths about human beings. These truths must be appreciated by Muslims if they are to engage in dialogue with others. For example, Allah tells us that man is created from haste. We all want quick and instant results all the time. This is haste.
Also, when Allah created humans, angels predicted humans would cause corruption and bloodshed. Allah did not deny them this observation, but responded by telling them, “I know that which you do not.” All humans, Muslims and non-Muslims, have proven the angels to be absolutely correct in their observations. The truth is that all humans can and do fall below expected human standards and hence, the corruption and bloodshed. When someone falls below such standards, the actions they commit are not reflective of any faith, but of their failure to maintain those human standards. No religion has been or is immune from breeding humans who judge people in haste and who have no second thoughts about bloodshed. This is the saga of humans – religious or otherwise.
It is essential for Muslims to introduce Muhammad (pbuh) into the American picture. It is only through Muhammad (pbuh) that we know Allah and the other prophets (peace be upon them all). One of his (pbuh) primary duties was to establish justice, in accordance with Divine revelation, in the spiritual and interpersonal dimensions of our lives. In the spiritual realm, he (pbuh) came to show the universal application of Allah’s lordship, to eliminate shirk (associating partners with Allah) because shirk is injustice, and to replace it with tawheed or awareness of Allah. In the social and political realm, he (pbuh) enjoined people to be just, a justice that extended to everyone in the society. For example, when he (pbuh) told people to feed the poor, he (pbuh) did not mean feed only the poor Muslims (there were only 15 or so Muslims at that time in Makkah), he (pbuh) meant feed the hungry of humankind. Islam came to eradicate injustice on all levels. Justice is not discriminate; it is indiscriminate. Muslims were champions of justice, wherever Muslims went, justice traveled with them. Piety makes no sense if you are unjust, even if you are only unjust to animals.
Life is very central to a Muslim’s existence. Under severe duress, a Muslim may be allowed to conceal his faith if he feels his life will be taken from him. Allah gives life and only He has the right to decide when to take it.
It is through Allah’s universal lordship that we read in the Qur’an concepts like: Killing one person is like killing the whole of humanity; saving one person is like saving all of humanity (Surah al-Maidah). The ayah, or verse, comes after narrating the story of Abel and Cain – the first two humans who encountered a violent struggle. Abel – or Habeel – came out victorious – even though he died. Cain – or Qabeel – came out as a proverbial villain – even though he survived. According to Islamic principles, Abel was the first martyr on Earth. But it wasn’t through warfare.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: If you defend yourself, protecting your life, and die, you are a martyr. If you die defending life, honor, wealth and property, you die a martyr. In these scenarios, there is a holy war or jihad – against oppression and injustice. This is on an individual level. The office of Jihad in Islam is nothing except an extension of this principle on a state level.
Critics of Islam say if Muhammad (pbuh) and his message deal with Allah’s universal lordship, how come he (pbuh) engaged in war? Isa – Jesus – (pbuh) did not attack others. When the principle of Jihad is put into perspective, it is not too difficult to appreciate it. But before the perspective, let’s have some background.
In the first 13 years of his mission, Muhammad (pbuh) had to overcome immense hurdles and social pressures. 13 years of struggle and persecution in Makkah brought him but fewer than a hundred followers. Muslims had to migrate to another town called Madinah (Yathrib) in order to practice their faith. This was a migration from death to life. The total number of Muslims in Madinah at the time of the first holy war in Islam (Badr) may have been around 500 at best. 313 of them participated in the battle. Everyone else in Arabia was openly hostile and antagonistic towards the Muslims, even the Jewish tribes in Madinah. For thirteen years, Muhammad (pbuh) was not given permission to defend himself. It was in this context that permission for jihad was granted. Muslims had no money, armor or resources and were being violently persecuted throughout this period. Jihad came, after 13 years of such persecution, as permission for the Muslims to defend themselves. Jihad is a defense strategy.
Muslims do not need to apologize or deny the basis for jihad, but we do need to give it its proper perspective. Jihad is assault based on defense, not on aggression. Defense to uphold justice, not injustice. It is all from the point of view of defense, even if it is a very aggressive campaign. If jihad were an offensive military strategy, rather than a defensive one, Muslims would never have spared so many lives, protected so much property or freed so many people during their campaigns. It is important to realize that Muslims have ruled as a minority and this could not be possible if they were oppressive to the people they ruled over. Besides, is this office of Jihad any different from what we call the Department of Defense – which actually engages in building a huge nuclear arsenal and fights wars overseas?
The rewards of death in jihad, or martyrdom, are there to motivate soldiers. This is no different than what generals would say to their soldiers prior to a battle. Muslims do not fight in jihad because we want to die, but fight in order to gain life or freedom from injustice. The Prophet (pbuh) used to warn people not to pray for death in jihad. Death is not something you yearn for. Suicide has no place in Islam, it is an unforgivable sin that is almost as bad as shirk.
Lastly, it is important to remember that jihad has nothing to do with terrorism. In fact, Islamic civilization was the first to compile laws against terrorism. Terrorism is to take civilian life in non-war situations, no matter what your reason. Even in war situations, Islam strongly condemns the loss of innocent (i.e. civilian) lives, euphemistically termed “collateral damage” in modern times.
Islamic governments were extremely anti-terror and that was why people were safe to travel everywhere. You can even give zakat (a required form of charity for Muslims) to a traveler so he can return home, even if the traveler is rich in the country from which s/he came. Muslims have always wanted safety and security in their countries.
In conclusion, against the backdrop of Allah’s universal lordship – which creates diversity – and through the perspective of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mission to promote and maintain justice in all aspects of life, we must appreciate that Islam stands for a universal diversity which is established upon the principles of respecting life and justice for all.