The concept of justice

05 Apr 2012


LAST month in Vienna there was a seminar on multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Among other issues a discussion was held on the concept of justice. What is justice, it was asked, and participants gave their opinions.

Among the participants were professors of philosophy, sociology, political science, as well as theologians and rights activists. It was an interesting discussion but there was no consensus as usual as to what justice is. I, too, gave my opinion and said that Plato had recorded for us the discussion Socrates had with his young disciples on justice and when no one could give a satisfactory definition, he (Socrates) concluded that justice is what the powerful think justice is and we have the famous saying ‘might is right’.

There has been no change till today in this definition of justice by Socrates as justice plays itself out on the world stage. Even in the 21st century it is the mighty who decide what justice is. America is the most powerful nation in the world today and if America decides justice lies in invading Iraq or Afghanistan, the whole world endorses it as a just action. Even the UN Security Council endorses it almost unanimously.

Some whimpers of protest are naturally ignored. Our modern and civilised world has not gone a centimetre ahead of the classical definition and yet justice seems to be a most important value in the world today. But do we then have to live with Socrates’ definition even today when we claim we have progressed so much? Weaker sections can only dream of getting justice; or will they ever get justice?

In Islam, justice is a most fundamental value; it connotes one of Allah’s names also. Allah’s name is Aadil (Just). The Quran repeatedly emphasises justice and even goes to the extent of saying justice is closest to piety (taqwa) and so “do justice”, it commands, as it is closest (aqrab) to piety. But many of our theologians think piety lies in offering prayers and fasting alone whether it results in just conduct or not. They say all Islamic laws are most just but then differ, like others, on the definition of justice.

Take for example, the question of justice and multiple wives. The Quran permits polygamy but verse 4:3 emphatically says, “If you fear you cannot do justice, then (marry) only one”. It is a different thing that for our jurists the number (four wives) is more important than justice which the Quran actually emphasises. Generally when a man takes more than one wife the only inquiry made is whether he has less than four wives and not whether he would be able to do justice between them.

Also, if at all inquiry on this line is made, the question arises what is just treatment amongst wives? Generally it is thought giving equal maintenance and allotting equal time to all wives constitutes ‘justice’. But there is no unanimity on this concept. The Mu’tazila theologians (who are considered rationalists) maintain that equal maintenance and equal time cannot constitute justice and going by verse 4:129 equal love is also necessary which is not humanly possible.

In doing justice, the context also plays a role. It could be social, political, economic and also depends on the kind of social structure one has. For example, in a tribal society equal retaliation is considered meeting justice. The Quran calls it qisas (retaliation in equal measure) and since Arab society was tribal in structure it declared al-hayat fi’al-qisas) i.e. life consists of retaliation (in equal measure). Many theologians ignore the context and declare it as an eternal principle of justice. If we ignore the context, justice may become injustice. Today, when human rights and dignity are of great importance, such tribal retaliation would be unjust.

We should not be under the impression that the Quran pronounces retaliation as an eternal principle of justice. Not at all. Many Islamic scholars assert that it was in the context of that tribal society, and as an accepted (ma’ruf) principle that the Quran had approved of it; otherwise it considered pardoning as a higher principle and instructed believers not to insist on qisas. Most Islamic countries have since abolished the law of retaliation and adopted other forms of punishment more in keeping with the principles of human dignity today. Thus it will be seen that context plays a very important role in dispensing justice.

It is for this reason that while principles and values remain unchanged, the law must constantly evolve so as to be as close to these eternal principles and values as possible. Many tribal societies of yore have changed into modern democratic societies today and so laws framed for tribal societies cannot remain static and if one insists, as many theologians often do, they will result in injustice violating the very fundamental principles of the Quran. And this is what is causing widespread gender injustice in many Muslim societies today.

Principles and values are much more fundamental than the laws framed in the past when the concept of justice was very different from what it is today. In the past weaker sections of society were treated very differently to meet the ends of justice but today it would be considered undignified and against the principle of human rights and human dignity. Today if we want to do gender justice many old laws will have to be re-examined as they have become unjust by today’s standards of justice.

Thus the concept of justice evolves with time, though the most powerful may think even today that what they believe is justice is, in fact, justice.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.