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Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

The Qur'anic Concept of Justice


This discussion of the Qur'anic, rather than Islamic concept of justice is situated in the history of the Qur'an's compilation. Various aspects of the Qur'anic sciences are critically employed to elucidate a Qur'anic concept of divine justice based on "the most trustworthy handhold" (al-'urwtu 'l-wuthqa). This eternal pact between God and his creation is established on the divine law inherent in every human soul (fi'ra) which recognises the absolute authority of the One God. Justice is done when individuals are "just" and sincere to this inner nature, and their salvation rests in this. Thus the prophets and Qur'an are reminder (dhikr) of this initial revelation and the need to remain true to it. Dealing with equality and justice, it is important to refocus scholarly attention away from apologetic Islamic responses to issues of polygamy, the position of women, non-muslims and freedom of religion. A historical recontextualisation of the Qur'an may provide a more objective way of analysing these issues. Finally, after a discussion of various sins relating to social and economic justice, which are raised in the Qur'anic parables as examples of human disobediance and departures from Divine justice, the concept of scale (mizan) in reference to the final judgement of humanity's good and evil is elaborated.



1. Qur'an
2. Islam and Divine Justice
3. Equality and Justice
4. Economic Justice
5. Justice ('adl and qist)



  Justice is a concept that is usually related to, and connected with, the concept of equality in the eyes of law; it means that the law should treat equally people who adhere to its rules and norms, regardless of their social, political or economic status. This is the judicial connotation of the concept. However, the concept provokes, furthermore, a wider paradigm of human equality upon which justice is not, or should not be, limited to its judicial connotation. Yet because equality is a relative concept, defined mainly by cultural, societal and sometimes by political and religious norms, it is expected that the concept of justice is similarly relative. With the emergence of the modern awareness of Human Rights, cultural relativism is challenged and the question concerning human justice based on absolute equality between individuals and nations regardless of their differences is brought back to the attention of philosophers as well as theologians. My contribution in this paper will be limited to investigate the Qur'anic concept of justice rather than investigating the Islamic concept. Though the investigation of the Qur'anic concept is not an easy task to be entirely covered in such limited space and time, the study of the Islamic concept entails necessarily indulgence in almost all the Islamic disciplines, such as jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, mysticism, and above all Qur'anic exegesis. An introduction to the Qur'an and to Islam as expressed in the Qur'an is, nevertheless, needed to establish the ground for the discussion.

 1. Qur'an

Online version
of the Qur'an:

external linkIslam101 Web Site

external linkMuslim Student Association,
Oregon State University

external linkAbout Islam and Muslims Web Site


  The Qur'an is the word of God revealed to Prophet Mohammed during more than 20 years. There are so many vocabularies that refer to the Qur'an and signify it, the most popular one is the word "Qur'an". Wahy (revelation or inspiration) is another vocabulary, but I would rather explain it as denoting the 'channel' through which not only the Qur'an was revealed but previous scriptures were revealed as such. Etymologically, it means "mysterious communication" and its usage in pre-Islamic literature, as well as its usage in the Qur'an, demonstrates a mysterious communicative pattern in which two deferent grades of being are involved.  1 


  In the revelation of the Qur'anic three grades of being are involved, i.e., God the sender, the Archangel as mediator, and the Prophet as recipient, but the mysterious connotation of the process of communication is still obvious and emphasised. According to the Qur'an, God has chosen Prophet Mohammed to be His messenger in order to convey His message to the people, which indicates the double position, first recipient and then messenger to the people. Here comes the third vocabulary risala, but it is very obvious that risala conveys the "content" of the Qur'an as wahy conveys the channel of transmission. There are other numerous vocabularies, such as dhikr (reminder), bayan (explanation or eloquence), and huda (guidance) etc. However, they are adjectives rather than proper names, simply because they are all applicable to the previous scriptures, the Qur'an attests to this fact.

Nasr Abu Zayd:

The Textuality of the Qur'an.
external linkArticle

Linguistic Exposition of God in the Quran.
external linkArticle

Islam and Europe: Past and Present.
external linkArticle

Enlightment in Islamic Thought.
external linkArticle

The Modernization of Islam or The Islamization of Modernity.
external linkArticle


  Returning back to the proper name Qur'an, philologists suggest that it is derived either from qarana (to bring together or to collect) or from qar'a (to recite). Here I favour the second lexical meaning for several reasons. First is the very obvious fact that the Qur'an was originally transmitted to prophet Mohammed in oral form. It is explained everywhere in Islamic literature that the Holy Spirit initially conveyed/recited some verses to the prophet during each session of revelation, and the prophet used to recite them afterwards to his companions. These verses, or passages, were integrated into chapters and were partially committed to some sort of written form. It was after the Prophet's death that these chapters were collected and arranged and then written down in a book, al-Mushaf.


  The second reason is the fact that the Qur'an, in spite of being committed to written form, had never been dealt with as a written text in the daily life of the early Muslim community. It had to wait till the print age in order to be considered as such. Even now with the Qur'an being a printed text, what is important for every Muslim is the memorisation of the Qur'an by heart and the capability of reciting it according to the classical principles of recitation tajwid.


  Lastly, the artistic characteristics of the Qur'anic language that affect the daily life of Muslims is mainly related to its verbal recitation and chanting. One of its major artistic effects is that generated by its poetic language when recited privately or collectively. That is why the recitation of the Qur'an is very important practice in the community as well as in the individual life. In almost every occasion passages of the Qur'an are recited: in marriage, funeral and at the inauguration of festivals or celebrations not to mention rituals, regular prayers or other religious occasions.  2 


  Islamic thought has developed various disciplines to study the Qur'an, which present all together a multidisciplinary approach. Known as "the sciences of the Qur'an" ('ulum al-Qur'an), some of them concentrate on the historical formation of the Qur'anic text, others are devoted to its structure, while the rest try to investigate its peculiarities. As for analyzing its meaning and content commentators, theologians as well as jurists have to efficiently master these sciences of the Qur'an in order to be able to employ them as apparatus, without which studying the Qur'an is not possible. The present paper cannot ignore the importance of such disciplines, for a detailed study of which the writer has devoted an entire book.  3  But in the modern context, however, a critical employment of these classical disciplines is essential. Such a critical employment is based on looking at what they signify rather than being satisfied with what they only convey. In this paper, this critical employment of some of the Qur'anic sciences will be noticed without further elaboration on methodological explanation.

 2. Islam and Divine Justice

»The religion God has established for you is the same religion as that which He enjoined on Noah, as it is also the same We enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus.«


  According to the Qur'an, Islam is not a new religion brought down to Muhammad to preach for the Arabs, but it is the same basic essential message preached by all the prophets since the creation of the world. »The religion God has established for you is the same religion as that which He enjoined on Noah, as it is also the same We enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus.« (42:13)  4  »We have revealed to you the same We sent to Noah and the Messengers after him; We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes to Jesus Job Jonah Aaron and Solomon and to David We gave the Psalms.« (4:163-164) It is, therefore, understandable, that all prophets are considered Muslims by definition in the Qur'an (see 6:163; 7:143; 10:72,84,90; 27:31,38,42,91; 39:12; 46:15 etc.).


  In accordance with the lexical meaning of the word, Islam is the absolute self-submission to God, the Lord of the universe. The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes, »whoever submits his whole self to God and is a doer of good he will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear nor shall they grieve« (2:112). See also 4:125 and 31:22, where Islam is identified as al-'urwtu 'l-wuthqa, »the most trustworthy hand-hold«. This is a metaphoric expression that conveys an eternal convention made between God and man. In this convention God »drew forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants, and He made them testify concerning themselves. He asked: 'Am I not your Lord?' and they responded: 'Yes we do testify!'« (7:172). This pact made between God and his creation, before being physically brought to existence, is the inherent self-awareness as well as self-testimony not only of the existence of God but of His absolute authority as such.


  This self-awareness constitutes the fi'ra, or the divine law inherent in every individual soul. According to that law, every individual is to set his face steadily and truly to the standard religion established by God. This inherent law will be, on the other hand, the basis for self-testimony, self-judgment in the life-after, for those who will not recognize their inner nature in this life. This pact will be then the measure of evaluation, so, at least every individual would not say when it comes: »of this pact we were never mindful« (7:172).


  Islam is then the standard religion, fi'ra, based on the eternal contract in which every human soul testifies that God is the only Lord. Recognition of that self-inherent eternal contract during the lifetime of every man means that his soul is saved, which indirectly implies that man's soul is saved by him being sincere and "just" to his inherit nature. Unsaved souls are those who have not been able to do "justice" to them selves; they fail to recognize their own inner fi'ra, so, it is their own responsibility.

Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari:

Divine Justice.
external linkArticle

Islam, Freedom, and Justice.
external linkArticle


  The story of Adam and Eve in the Qur'an indicates that it was the responsibility of both Adam and Eve that led to their expulsion from Heaven, though Adam was highly honored to the extent that the angels were ordered to bow down in his respect. But he forgot the convention God made with him to avoid eating from a certain tree (20:115). For such doing injustice to themselves they said, »our Lord, we have done injustice to our own souls: if Thou forgive us not and bestow not upon us Thy mercy we shall certainly be lost.« (7:23) Then »Adam received from his Lord words and his Lord turned toward him; for He is Oft-Returning Most Merciful.« (2:37) Judgment is then not based on arbitrary authority, but it is the outcome of every individual's self-awareness or unawareness of his own inherent soul. The story of Adam and Eve as portrayed in the Qur'anic narrative is sets this example.


  This basic concept of fi'ra, which is established on the eternal convention al-'urwatu l'wuthqa, is the solid ground for the absolute Divine Justice and the absolute responsibility of every human for his eternal destination. The experience of Adam's forgetting his Lord convention establishes the need for a Divine reminder, which are the words Adam received from God. So, God's mercy does not leave man alone with his own self-recognition which might fail him; He helps man to remember that eternal pact by sending prophets with messages. That was exactly what God said to Adam, »Get down all of you from here; and if as is sure there comes to you guidance from Me whosoever follows My guidance on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs they shall be Companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein.« (2:38-9) All prophets, including Prophet Muhammad himself, are, accordingly, representatives of 'reminders'; the Qur'an is simply called dhikr, reminder, (a name mentioned 52 times in the Qur'an) and Muhammad is only mudhakkir (88:21). Revelation represents God's mercy indicating His Divine Justice and man's responsibility when being unjust to himself. The concept of self-injustice, zulm al-nafs is always associated in the Qur'an with confirming the Divine justice and strongly negating any sense of injustice to be attributed to God (e.g. 2:57; 3:117; 7:9160-62,177; 9:36,70; 10:44; 16:33,118; 18:49; 29:40; 30:9).

»Is there any possibility for the atheists and the polytheists to enjoy justice in any Muslim community? The answer should be evidently yes, according to the Qur'an at least, simply because the Divine Justice implied in the concept of fi'ra constituted on the 'eternal pact' allows no injustice in the whole universe.«


  Following the prophets by accepting their messages is, in fact, a matter of recognizing the self-inherent pact and following the standard religion of God, whether it is Judaism, Sabianism, Christianity or Islam. Differences between religions are only differences between their laws, i.e., their legal dimensions, which are temporal and subject to change in time and place while their essential dimension of faith is the same. This essential dimension is to believe in God and the Last Day and to do righteousness. »Those who believe (in the Qur'an), those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), the Sabians and the Christians, any who believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.« (5:69)


  Human beings are categorized in the Qur'an, from the above-mentioned Islamic view, into four major categories. The first category is those who deny the existence of God and the life-after and claim that there is only this life and nothing else after death. Those are the atheists (al-kafir'n). The second category is those who believe in God but claim association with Him. Those are the polytheists (al-mushrik'n). Third, those who believe in God and the life-after, but they do not obey His law; those are the disobedient people (al-fasiq'n). The fourth category is those who believe in God and the life-after and live according to the revealed law, those are the faithful people (al-mu'min'n). Now the question is: is there any possibility for the atheists and the polytheists to enjoy justice in any Muslim community? The answer should be evidently yes, according to the Qur'an at least, simply because the Divine Justice implied in the concept of fi'ra constituted on the 'eternal pact' allows no injustice in the whole universe.

 3. Equality and Justice

»The position of women expressed in the Qur'an, in general, is relatively and historically speaking progressive. It could be easily reinterpreted according to what it reveals by its historical and contextual significance in order to unfold its implication and, therefore, to foster the basic principle of equality inherit in the concept of justice.«


  There are certain issues that seem to be in contradiction with the concept of justice from modern view at least. Issues like polygamy, the position of women as well as non-Muslims, and freedom of religion are continuously provoked in any discussion about the Qur'an and Islam. There are so many apologetic responses by Muslim trying to tackle such issues, but the historical explanation as well as textual re-contextualization of the Qur'an might provide an objective way of analyzing the above mentioned issues. Polygamy, historically speaking, was a popular practice in human societies before Islam, so it is a great mistake and gross academic error to think of polygamy as part of the Islamic revelation, stipulated by the Qur'an. It is true that the issue is addressed in the Qur'an, but it is more important to measure the Islamic discourse according to the pre-Islamic measures, that is to say to 're-contextualize' the Qur'anic message. The Qur'anic verse taken as to have stipulated polygamy is basically addressing the issue of orphans, who needed protection and custody after loosing their parent(s) in the battle of Uhud (3 AH / 625 CE), when Muslims were seriously defeated and 10% of the army – in total 700 warriors – were killed leaving behind their children. The historical context, as well as the textual context, reveals that the permission given was to marry an orphan' mother (widow) or a female orphan, in case of fear of failing to provide protection properly, especially if any of them inherited some fortune. »If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, you are allowed to marry women of your choice, two or three or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one. [...] That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice.« (4:3)


  Within this historical and textual context justice is the focal concern of the Qur'an in this chapter, not only in this verse but also in all the verses to follow. It is again repeated in relation to wives: »You will ever never be able to be fair and just as between wives even if it is your ardent desire« (4:129), which imply strong discouragement for marrying more than one wife. The real problem is that the social pre-Islamic traditions have prevailed and dominated Muslim societies as well as Islamic jurisprudence. The name of the chapter is misleading, because Muslims realized the subject matter rather than the content of the chapter when they decided to name it al-Nisa' (women). If the content were taken into consideration, it would have been named "Justice" (al-'Adl).


  If we add to this the image of marriage presented in the Qur'an, the whole misunderstanding will be removed. The marriage relation is considered one of God's Signs like the creation of Heaven and Earth. »And among His Signs is this that He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may dwell in tranquillity with them and He has put love and mercy between you; verily in that are Signs for those who reflect. And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know.« (30-21-22, see also 16:72) The position of women expressed in the Qur'an, in general, is relatively and historically speaking progressive. It could be easily reinterpreted according to what it reveals by its historical and contextual significance in order to unfold its implication and, therefore, to foster the basic principle of equality inherit in the concept of justice.


  Moving from the specific position of to the other more controversial issue of Human Rights, it should be indicated that, having in mind the above explained Qur'anic concept of Divine justice, the principle of equality is one of the major, essential, and basic teachings of Islam. It is clearly stated in the Qur'an at the beginning of the chapter called "Women" that God created all man-kind "»from a single soul and created its mate from the same soul and spread from both of them too many men and women« (4:1). Humankind, thus created of male and female, has been made tribes and nations in order to come to know each other (49:13). This equality is not then a matter of choice; it is constituted through the Divine honor bestowed on man. »We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours above a great part of Our Creation.« (17:70)

Nasr Abu Zayd:

Islam and Human Rights.
external linkArticle

"The Concept of Human Rights, the Process of Modernization and the Politics of Western Domination".
In: Politik und Gesellschaft 4 (1998).
external linkArticle

Mohammed Arkoune:
Democracy: A Challenge to Islamic Thought.
external linkArticle

Chandra Muzaffar:
Islam: Justice and Politics.
external linkArticle


  As has been explained above, Islam is the standard religion manifested in all scriptures and revealed to all the prophets. If the basic elements of faith are to believe in one God and in the life-after, it does not matter if the believer is a Jew, a Christian, a Sabian or belongs to any other religion. In such definition of Islam freedom of belief is guaranteed. There is no compulsion in religion. The freedom to convert to another faith after accepting Islam, even to convert back to polytheism or atheism, is left to man's essential free choice. It is very logical: if freedom of belief is guaranteed and secured against enforcement, the individual's right to change his or her religion is protected. However, it is also expected in a religious text like the Qur'an that such an act will be subject to punishment in the life after. There is no immediate worldly-penalty mentioned for such an act in the Qur'an. Such a penalty as prosecution or execution was later introduced by jurists and institutionalized as part of the faith. Again quoting the Qur'an will prove that. »Say [Mohammed], the truth comes down from God: Let him who wills, believes, and let him who will, reject: for the wrong doers We have prepared a fire.« (18:29) »He who will turn back from his faith, soon will God bring about (other) people whom He will love and they will love him.« (5:54) »Those who reject faith after they accepted it, and then go in adding to their defiance of faith, never will their repentance be accepted; for they are those who have gone astray.« (3:90 and 4:137)


  This equality between all human, regardless of any differences is essentially guaranteed unless a state of war is initiated against Muslims. In such a case war conditions as historically practiced are the rules. These war condition are mostly situated in chapter nine of the Qur'an called "Immunity", Bara'a or al-Tawba. It is opened by declaration of war against the pagans of Mecca, so these conditions should be understood as only exceptional historical practical teachings, because even during a state of war protection is guaranteed for those who ask for it. »If one amongst the pagans ask you (Mohammed) for asylum, grant it to him, so he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure.« (9:6). The whole notion of Jihad, which etymologically does not mean "sacred war", was developed as religious duty in the context of the Arab expansion after the Prophet's death.

»This equality between all human, regardless of any differences is essentially guaranteed unless a state of war is initiated against Muslims.«


  There is misunderstanding of so many Qur'anic concepts caused by the de-contextualization of these verses due to the present arrangement of the Qur'anic chapters and verses. Truly it is mentioned in the Qur'an that polytheists should be slain whenever they are found (2:191). But considering only one contextual level, namely the internal narrative and linguistic context of the chapter itself, it is obviously meant as "threat". The context reveals fighting as the only mean to remove oppression and retain justice. No transgression is allowed with regard to the Sacred House, al-Ka'ba, and the sacred months. »Fight in the cause of God those who fight you but do not transgress limits; for God loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease God is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevail justice and faith in God; but if they cease let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.« (2:190-193)


  The behavior of the Prophet when Mecca was conquered, ten years after Muslims were forced to leave it, is a substantial proof against the literal understanding. The Prophet simply gave the people of Mecca his forgiveness and prayed for them to be forgiven by God. During the great venture of Islam, no single report of committing any collective killing by Muslim conquerors was recorded. This means that the early Muslims did not consider that those verses convey an obligatory religious duty. And after all, Muslims are commanded not only to do justice to those who do not wage ware against them, but they are also ordered to sustain relationship of good terms with them. »God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just. God only forbids you with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith and drive you out of your homes and support (others) in driving you out from turning to them (for friendship and protection).« (9:6)


  The same method of re-contextualization could be applied to the position of non-Muslims. The stipulation of jizya (the extra tax imposed on non-Muslims), for example, is not basically initiated by the Qur'an; it was also common political and economic practice in all empires, the Roman as well as the Persian. It was not even considered extra tax, for providing protection to minorities as Muslim jurists interpret it, it was used as sign of humiliation and enforcing absolute submission (9:29). Fortunately, Muslim jurists in general did not consider Jizya doctrine as sign of humiliation but were eager to look at it as some sort of extra taxis to be paid in return for not being involved in any military service. They, therefore, released from its imposition women, children, sick and handicapped persons and priests. They even went further to consider the right of the poor and the needy among non-Muslim to have share of the stipulated alma, zakat, paid by Muslims alone. This is brings us to deal with the dimension of social justice in the early Qur'an revelation.

 4. Economic Justice

»The Meccan revelation lays emphasis on doing justice and being just dealing with the orphans, the needy and the poor. It should be obviously understandable that in the socio-economic context of Mecca during the seventh century the cry for economic justice, and, accordingly, social justice was a priority demand.«


  The Meccan revelation lays emphasis on doing justice and being just dealing with the orphans, the needy and the poor. It should be obviously understandable that in the socio-economic context of Mecca during the seventh century the cry for economic justice, and, accordingly, social justice was a priority demand. Though the vocabulary 'adl that connotes "justice" is not used, the concept is obviously implied. One of these passages is addressed to Prophet Mohammed with special reference to his childhood. He was an orphan himself; his father died before he was born and his mother passed away when he was six. The painful experience of his childhood, though he was in the custody of his grandfather, represents an example of the unjust socio-economic situation in Mecca. Life became just fine for the Prophet after being married to his noble wealthy wife Khadija. The Qur'an tells Mohammed, who once thought that his Lord abandoned him during the short period during which the process of "revelation" stopped, that his Lord did not abandon him, neither did he stop communicating with him via the Holy Spirit. He was told to be patient and to expect to receive more of God's blessings in the future till he was satisfied. In this context the Qur'an reminds Mohammed of his childhood as a poor orphan fellow, »did He not find you an orphan and gave you shelter (and care)? And He found you wandering and He gave you guidance. And He found you in need and made you rich. Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness, nor repulse the beggar.« (93:6-10).

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan:
Social Justice in Islam.
external linkArticle

A. Rashid Samnakay:
Social Justice in Islam.
external linkArticle


  In one of the earliest chapters, second revealed, the people of Mecca are compared to an ancient nation who were punished because they excluded any indigent person from interring into their gardens, meaning they intentionally deprived poor people from their gardens' fruit. The Qur'an relates to them, »let not a single indigent person break in upon you into the (garden) this day.« (68:24) Again, this is repeated in the fourth revealed chapter. When the sinners will be questioned by the people of Paradise, »what led you into Hell-Fire?« the Qur'an tells us that they will say: »we were not of those who prayed; nor were we of those who fed the indigent.« (47:42-44) There is another early chapter in which ill treatment of the needy and the orphan is considered sign of disbelief. »Have you [Mohammed] seen this one who denies the Day of Judgment? Such is the one who harshly repulses the orphan and encourages not the feeding of the indigent.« (107:1-3)


  In the 10th revealed chapter, the Qur'an rebukes the self-centered person whether wealthy or poor. If such an ego-centered person is wealthy, the Qur'an tells us, he says proudly and arrogantly, »my Lord has honored me«, while his reaction in case he is poor is to complain. He says in despair, »My Lord has humiliated me!« (89:15-16) In both cases man acts as if he or she is the only human on earth; he or she has no awareness whatsoever of other human being who need his attention and consideration, especially when he or she is rich. The Qur'an explicitly implies that being rich is not a privilege bestowed by God on chosen elite; and being poor is no sign of God's humiliation. On the contrary, richness and poverty are meant to test humans. Such self-interested attitudes of men equals absolute failure in the test. The real crime of self-interested people is that they do not give to the orphans, nor do they encourage one another to feed the poor. They, in fact, devour inheritance all with greed and love wealth with inordinate love! (89:17-20)


  The Qur'anic parables presenting the model of the rich, arrogant, unjust example of a human being are found in almost all the Qur'anic narratives. In one of those parables the rich man is so full of himself thinking that he gets what he deserves and there is more waiting for him in the life-after, if there is a life-after. Instead of being grateful to his Lord and sharing some of what God provided to him with others, he says to his companion in the course of a mutual argument: »More wealth have I than you and more honor and power.« (18:34) He is portrayed walking into his garden »in a state of being unjust to his soul«. It is important to point out that that the image of the rich arrogant person is presented here as being unjust to his soul, which means that his unjustified behavior contradicts his inner nature; he disobeys the eternal pact of God. »He said, 'I deem not that this will ever perish. Nor do I deem that the Day of Judgment will (ever) come, even if I am brought back to my Lord I shall surely find (there) something better in exchange.'« (18:35-36)


  The opposite example in this parable is the "just" human being who recognizes the fact that whatever he enjoys is provided by God and he, therefore, should be grateful and just. His response to the insolent companion is, »Do you deny Him, Who created you out of dust then out of a sperm-drop then fashioned you into a man? For me, He is God my Lord and none shall I associate with my Lord. Why do you not as you enter into your garden say: 'God's Will (be done)! There is no power but with Allah!' If you do see me less than you do in wealth and sons, it may be that my Lord will give me something better than your garden.« (18:37-40) The punishment of such arrogance that amounts to heresy is that »his fruits and enjoyment were encompassed with ruin. And he had no one to help him against God nor was he able to deliver himself.« (18:42-43) This is the parable presented in so many narratives emphasizing the fact that the punishment God justly applies on individuals or nations is basically caused by themselves.

»What Allah has bestowed on His Messenger (and taken away) from the people of the townships, belongs to Allah, to His Messenger and to kindred and orphans, the needy and the wayfarer; in order that it may not (merely) make a circuit between the wealthy among you. So take what the Messenger gives you, and refrain from what he prohibits you. And fear Allah: for Allah is strict in Punishment.«



  So far it could be said that the Qur'an is not unique in this respect, condemnation of any ill-treatment of the poor, the needy, the helpless or the handicapped is to be found in all scriptures; it is an essential component of any religious piety. This is absolutely true. Nevertheless, the Qur'an has more to add; it stipulates as a religious duty the rights of the poor to have their own share from what belong to the rich people, thus creating probably the first social welfare system in the history of human communities. It was mentioned early in the Meccan revelation that the believers should recognize that in their wealth and possession there is "certain right" for the needy and the unprivileged (51:9). But in an early Madinan chapter alms (Arabic zakat or sadaqat) was stipulated as one of the basic five pillars of Islam, third to the vocalization of shihada formula (testifying that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet) and praying.


  The stipulation of alms as compulsory duty defines the beneficiaries as follows: the poor and the needy and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of God; and for the wayfarer (9:60). Here, there is no sign or insinuation whatsoever that non-Muslim are excluded; there is no religious discrimination in this social welfare system. In the same chapter the Qur'an goes further to severely condemn the accumulation of wealth. »Those who accumulate gold and silver and spend it not in the way of God ... heat will be produced out of that (wealth) in the fire of hell and with it their foreheads, flanks, and backs will be branded.« They will be addressed, »this is the (treasure) you accumulated for yourselves, taste you the (treasures) you accumulated!« (9:34-35) More than that, the Qur'an clearly indicates that one of its objective is to justly distributes wealth. So alms was stipulated »in order that wealth may not (merely) be circulated between the wealth among you« (59:7).

»The great opposition of the Qur'an and its harsh criticism of the practice of usury, riba, stands alongside alms' stipulation as a basic ground for attaining socio-economic system of justice.«


  Does the stipulation of alms establish by itself a system of economic justice? It certainly does, especially if we think about the social context of its stipulation, and if we add the other measures introduced in the Qur'an to sustain the major objective of justice. The great opposition of the Qur'an and its harsh criticism of the practice of usury, riba, stands alongside alms' stipulation as a basic ground for attaining socio-economic system of justice. The two issues alms and usury are remarkably connected to each other and compared with each other in the Qur'an. The image of the charity givers, who carefully and in a very decent manner spend helping the needy without exposing them to any kind of embarrassment, is compared with the image of those who practice usury, the later is that of a blood-sucker (2:273-280).


  Now, so many Islamic banks have been established all over the world during the last three decades, claiming the re-institutionalization of free usury economic system. But, the dealing in these banks, as a deep thorough study published recently reveals, is as much as the same dealing within the existent banking system based on interest. The problem, according to the author of this study, is that the jurists almost totally ignored the nature and circumstances within which usury was forbidden; they also ignored totally its purpose.  5  Thus by ignoring the context of the Qur'anic position, the modern debate about riba focuses only on whether or not the rationale for the prohibition, which is injustice, is to be considered rather than following the legal form in which riba came to be formally conceptualized in Islamic law. In such allocation of the issue different concepts of justice and injustice emerged in the discussion, simply because the point of departure for all parties is the same, in which both the moral and the legal aspects of riba are void of their contextual background. The basic question is, therefore, limited to whether or not the banking interest rate on loans and deposits is riba or not. While the modernists excluded it from the concept of riba the revivalists insisted on its inclusion.  6  It became thus a formal legal issue and, consequently, became a false issue of islamization void of the central Qur'anic concept of justice.

 5. Justice ('adl and qist)

Nasr Abu Zaid:
"The Reform of Islamic thought comes from abroad".
Interview conducted by Fathi Amer.
In: Al-Arabi, 7, 14 and 21 November 1999.
external linkInterview

Maurice Roumani /
Nasr Abu-Zaid:
"Die Schriften sind nicht wichtig ... auf die Interpretation kommt es an."
In: SEF News 5 (1999).
external linkInterview


  Etymologically, the root is used in the Qur'an in all its variations and forms, as noun, singular and plural, and as an adjective, as well as a verb in all the forms. In its singular forms, both the noun and the adjective do not exactly convey the same meaning. The noun means always justice. As an adjective it means rectilinear, just, or well balanced; it thus applies both to beings and to things. The corner stone of the Qur'anic concept of justice is to be found in the passages where justice is presented as Divine stipulation ordained by God. The example to be analyzed is chapter 16:90, where justice is associated with ihsan, which means doing the utmost possible good and fine human behavior towards the self as well as towards others.


  It is remarkable in this verse that the order to do justice and to do the best is not addressed to any addressee not to man nor to the believers, as is the case in other verses, which signify an overall comprehensive, or rather cosmological, ordinance. The absence of a specified grammatical object gives the verb "ordain" a scope of semantic infinity. Ordaining justice and ihsan is followed in the verse by forbidding fahisha', shameful deeds, munkar, all unaccepted behavior, and baghy, exceeding the limits by being unjust in dealings with others. More detailed examples are provided to explain fahsha, munkar and baghy in 17:26-30, which summarize the entire Qur'anic concept of justice and unjust actions, from being self-unjust in associating other with God to doing self-justice by being moderate in personal expenditure. The correlation given between justice and ihsan in 16:90 is to find its full significance in the definition given to ihsan by the Prophet where he says, it is to serve God as if you were (physically) able to see Him. But realize if you cannot see Him, He sees you.  7  Such a prophetic explanation obviously places ihsan on the highest grade of God's service, even higher than the ordinary rank of faith. If ihsan and 'adl are so associated, the position of ihsan should semantically be attributed to 'adl. (For ihsan and its variation see also 2:178,229; 9:100; 55:60; etc.)


  For another Qur'anic example, where the command of doing justice is associated with forbidding all wrongdoing, I quote: »When they commit that is shameful they say, 'We found our fathers doing so' and 'God commanded us thus'. Say [Mohammed], 'God never commands what is shameful: how dare you say of God what you know not?' Say: 'My Lord has commanded justice; and that you set your whole selves (to him) at every time and place of prayer and call upon him making your devotion sincere as in his sight: such as he created you in the beginning so shall you return.'« (7:28-29) In this passage the vocabulary used to connote justice is qist, which is a synonym of 'adl, and just like 'adl it is the command of God, not what the sinners, or the polytheists claim in trying to justify their misbehavior. Another verse in the same chapter says, »the things that my Lord has indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds, whether open or secret, sins and trespasses against truth or reason, assigning of partners to Allah, for which he has given no authority, and saying things about God, of which you have no knowledge.« (7:33)


  It has been already fully explained that justice is a Divine concept as the destination of man in the life-after is not pre-decided randomly by God; it is, indeed, decided by man himself according to his success of realizing and recognizing the eternal pact made between him and God. Such a realization and recognition is, according to the Qura'n, nothing but the realization and recognition of his own inner nature (fi'ra). This Divine justice is permeating the whole universe from top to bottom, because it is only He, God, who is firmly standing on justice (qa'im bi'l qist) »God, His angels, and those endued with knowledge, testify that there is no god but Him standing firm on justice. There is no god but He the Exalted in Power the Wise.« (3:18)

»Justice is the scale that keeps everything in balance with the exception of man, who has the freedom to disobey, thus, bringing the imbalance in this world. [...] And it is to all of us, all human nations, to keep the balance or to cause an imbalance. In all cases, it is we who determine our destination here on Earth or in the life-after. This is the Qur'anic concept of justice.«


  Qayyum is one of the most beautiful names, and it is an emphatic form of the verbal noun qa'im (standing), meaning that God is the absolute sustainer of existence as mentioned in the well known "throne verse" ('ayat 'l kursi) (2:255). Standing firm on justice, qa'm bi'l qist, signifies then one of God's attributes, which allowed rational theologians, the Mu'tazila, to consider "Divine Justice" one of their major five principle. It is placed in their system second to the Divine Unity (tawhid), even though they argumentatively base the later on the former.  8  The scope of God's 'adl and qist in the Qur'an is conveyed by the clear statement repeated that He gave everything He created its full and best quality. It is according to His Divine Knowledge and His Divine Wisdom that perfection, qist and 'adl, is manifested in the whole universe from top to bottom (15:16-25).


  If the whole universe is created in the best and most perfect order, man also is created in the most perfect image, God's image as Muslim sufis maintain. He is, therefore expected to act according to his image reflecting God's attributes.  9  If man is always closely watched by God's agents to have all his deeds, bad as well as good, recorded, it is God watching his own image. If man acts in a way that does not confirm the image, punishment in the life-after is not only justified but will also be applied to man's deformed image. »O man! what has seduced thee from thy Lord Most Beneficent, Who created you, fashioned you in due proportion and gave you a just bias. In whatever Form He wills does He put thee together. Nay! but you do Reject Right and Judgment! But verily over you (are appointed angels) to protect you, Kind and honorable writing down (your deeds.) They know (and understand) all that you do. As for the Righteous they will be in Bliss. And the Wicked they will be in the Fire, which they will enter on the Day of Judgment. And they will not be Able to keep away therefrom. And what will explain to thee what the Day of Judgment is? Again what will explain to thee what the Day of Judgment is? (It will be) the Day when no soul shall have power (to do) ought for another: for the Command that Day will be (wholly) with Allah.« (82:6-19)


  It is important here to analyze, in conclusion, the image of "scale" (mizan), which symbolizes the multi-semantic levels of justice expressed in the Qur'an. There is, first of all, the repeated order of God to avoid committing fraud measures in dealing; a chapter is named al-Mutafifun, (those who deal in fraud), in which they are severely condemned and threatened of great tutor in the life-after. »Woe to those that deal in fraud, those who when they have to receive by measure from men they have the exact full measure. But when they have to give by measure or weight to men they give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account? On a Mighty Day, a Day when (all) mankind will stand before the Lord of the Worlds?« (83:1-6) In 26:181-183, Shau'aib, the prophet of Median, is arguing his people to weigh with scales true and upright. There are more examples (in 13:35; 55:9; 6:152; 7:85; 11:84-85), where the concept of justice in measures and weigh is metaphorically alluding to the cosmological concept.


  The metaphoric image of "scale" is also employed to convey justice on the Day of Judgment. Deeds, which are recorded by God's agents at the spot in this life, will be scaled and measured in the life-after, good deeds vs. bad deeds. »We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least. And if there be (no more than) the weight of a mustard seed We will bring it (to account): and enough are We to take account.« (21:47) »Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy they will attain salvation. But those whose balance is light will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell will they abide.« (23:102-3 see 7:8-9; and 101:6-8)


  The image of mizan symbolizes, furthermore, the Divine measures embodied everywhere. It is, first, embodied in the creation of Earth, which is »spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.« It is also embodied in the way God sends down subsistence from His treasury to man on Earth: »There is not a thing but its (sources and) treasures (inexhaustible) are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures.« (15:19,22) In chapter 55 mizan is related in a poetic style to raising high of the sky in order that people may not transgress due balance (55:7-8), which is followed by the order to establish weigh with justice and not to fall short in the balance. The implication in such a poetic style is that mizan does not symbolize only justice on earth, but it could also symbolize Divine Justice manifested in everything. This implication is explicitly unfolded in the portraying the Book of Revelation as mizan. »We sent aforetime our apostles with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong) that men may stand forth in justice.« (57:25) The Divine Justice is thus manifested in the whole universe and expressed in the book of revelation.

Nasr Abu Zayd
is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Leiden, Netherlands.


  Justice is the scale that keeps everything in balance with the exception of man, who has the freedom to disobey, thus, bringing the imbalance in this world. Back to the story of Adam and Eve, the imbalance caused by their act of disobedience was re-balanced by the Word of God revealed. This is exactly the mission of the prophets; it is now the Word of God we all have. And it is to all of us, all human nations, to keep the balance or to cause an imbalance. In all cases, it is we who determine our destination here on Earth or in the life-after. This is the Qur'anic concept of justice.



Cf. Toshihiko Izutsu (1962): "Revelation as a Linguistic Concept in Islam". In: Studies in Medieval Thought (The Japanese Society of Medieval Philosophy) 5, 122-167. 


Cf. William A. Graham (1993): Beyond the written words: oral aspects of scripture in the history of religion. Cambridge, especially part 3. 


Cf. Nasr Abu Zayd (1990): Mafhum Al-Nass: Dirasah fi 'Ulum Al-Qur'an (The Concept of the Text. A study in the Sciences of the Qur'an). Cairo. 


Reference to Qur'anic citations are indicated always in this paper by chapter's number according to Cairo edition followed by the verse or verses' number. 


Abdullah Saeed (1996): Islamic Banking and Interest: a study of the Prohibition of Riba and its Contemporary Interpretation. Leiden, 40. 


More detailed discussion is provided in ibid., 3rd chapter. 


It is reported as an answer to a question raised by some stranger, no one of the Prophet's companions could recognize, but whose identification was revealed by the Prophet afterward. The stranger, who was in fact the Archangel Gerbil disguised in human image, asked the Prophet series of questions, among them, the question about what is faith (iman) and that about ihsan


Cf. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1998): Al-Ittijah al-'Aqli fi al-Tafsir: ditasa fi qadiyyat al-magaz fi'l Qur'an 'ind'l Mu'tazilah (The Rational Trend in Exegesis: a study of the problem of metaphor in the Qur'an by the Mu'tazilites). Beirut, 4th ed., 40-42. 


Cf. Nasr Abu Zayd (1998): Falsafat al-Ta'wil: dirasa fi ta'wil al-Qur'an ind Muhiyi al-Din Ibn 'Arabi (Philosophy of Hermeneutics: a study of Muhiyi al-Din Ibn 'Arabi's Hermeneutics of the Qur'an). Beirut, 4th print, 177-193. 

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