Social Organisation : The Principle of Justice
We have, above, insisted on the responsibility of the individual, and it is a fact that the organisation of society rests on the degree of consciousness of those individuals who make it up. There is not a single element in Muslim worship, from prayer to pilgrimage to Makka, which does not emphasise and give priority to the dimension of the community. To practice one’s religion is to participate in the social order and, thus, there cannot be a religious conscience without social ethics and, nothing is more explicit in Islamic teaching. Yet, to say this is still not to say everything. One must again specify the modalities of social action as well as the place of reference to authority.
In the Islamic conception of human being, what characterises man is the fact of his being able to choose and, in so doing, to be responsible. On the moral plane, human liberty holds in itself the sense of a certain number of obligations. Any society must consequently offer to each individual the possibility of responding to the requirement of these obligations. Thus, it clearly appears that individual duties before God will be conveyed, on the social plane, by as many fundamental and intangible rights. Without making an exhaustive analysis of each of these rights, we can here identify seven which are essential. Any breach of one or the other of these rights requires that measures be taken towards reforming the social sphere:
a. The right to life and to a vital minimum. We have pointed out above five principles around which all Islamic obligations revolve. It is clear that the first condition for their applicability is respect for life. Each being must have the right, in any society, to the minimum of nourishment in order to be able to live. This should be emphasised is a question of living and not one of solely surviving. All the sources of Islam call the Muslim to live as a practising Muslim in dignity and in respect of himself and others. A social organisation which does not offer its members this minimum, constitutes an infringement of their dignity as created beings, of beings who have to give an account of their persons before the Creator. Being, by essence, responsible, is to necessarily have the means of the responsibility that one conveys. In the absence of this, innocent people are made “guilty.”.
b. The right of the family. Let us specify again that each person has the right to enjoy a family life and that, in this sense, by the intermediary of the politicians in charge, society must offer to all the possibility of living with the family in a sound environment. It is imperative if to be achieved that adequate local structures are conceived. To have eight people living in one room is not conducive to sound family life, but is rather akin to running a prison, representing little other than suffocation. This is also conducive to creating future rifts, tomorrows solitude and marginalisation.
c. The right to housing. The expression of this right ensues directly from what we have just said. Housing is the first condition of family life and Islam insists upon the sacredness of private space. A society must give to each one of its members a roof; this is a responsibility which is hugely incumbent upon it. A man without a residence is not a citizen, he is an excluded person and a victim. Dispossessing man from his humanity and making him pay for his essence is doubly unjust. Being before God requires being in oneself and at oneself, both in the literal and figurative senses.
d. The right to education. Education must be insisted upon as, a fortiori, in our times. Being able to read and write, finding in learning the paths of one’s identity and human dignity is essential. To be a Muslim, is clearly “to know,” and straightaway, almost naturally, to walk towards a greater knowledge. The Qur’an is a little more explicit on this question, for to know, according to it, is to draw nearer to reading the signs, as also to accede to a greater knowledge of the Creator:
Even so only those of His servants fear God who have knowledge, surely God is All-mighty, All-forgiving.[Qur’an, 35: 28]
It is this that the Prophet (peace be upon him) never ceased to confirm: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim”.(8) All types of knowledge are contained within this, but in the first instance, the imperative of basic education and learning does not suffer from lack of discussion. The first Qur’anic verse revealed is: “Read, in the name of your Lord Who created”. This is indeed the specificity of man which gives him prominence over the angel in the story of Creation.(9) A society which does not respond to this right looses its sense of its priority. Even more clearly, a society that produces absolute or functional illiteracy hampers the dignity of its members. Such a society is fundamentally inhuman.
e. The right to work. Man should be able to provide for his needs. In this sense, work, just as learning, is part of the inalienable rights of the social being, and each should find his place in the society where he lives. According to Islam, man is by virtue of his action and work.(10) It is clear then that a society that prevents a man from work is one which does not respond to the elementary social contract. We know the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him): “It is better for one of you to take his ropes, go to the mountain and carry a bundle of fire wood on his back and then sell it, than to beg of people, who will either give him or deny him charity”.(11)
Work is a religious claim which goes far beyond the strict framework of the practice of worship; rather it seems more like a duty. This shows how the fight against unemployment must be a political priority; not only is it imperative, but in the broader sense, it is also both religious and humanitarian.
f. The right for justice. Justice is the foundation of life in society besides being, for Islam, a major imperative of the modalities of action. We read in the Qur’an: “Indeed, God commands you justice”. This principle of justice applies to all, rich or poor, presidents or citizens, Muslims or non-Muslims. Eight verses from Sura al-Nisa’, “The Women”, were revealed to prove innocent a Jew and put the responsibility of action on a Muslim.(12) The verse associating the testimony of faith with the expression of justice makes the subject more explicit.
O believers, be you securers of justice, witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsmen, whether the man be rich or poor; God stands closest to either. Then follow not caprice, so as to swerve; for if you twist or turn, God is aware of the things you do.[Qur’an, 4: 135] (13)
Social organisation must imperatively guarantee respect to the rights of each individual, and this by the expression of a double preoccupation. It is certainly a question of seeing to it that judicial power applies the laws with equity for each member of the social corpus. But it is equally important that society responds to the whole requirements of organisation which are linked to the fulfilment of the rights that we have noted earlier. To think social justice is to determine a project, to fix priorities, and to elaborate a dynamic current which, in the name of the fundamental points of reference, orientate social, political and economic action.
We should not have any difficulty in considering that the pursuit of this social reform is fundamental. It is part of the condition of intervention in the social sphere. Furthermore, this teaching is manifest in the gradual Revelations of the Qur’an which lasted 23 years. Any reflection on the Shari[a must take root in the source of this temporality (14), otherwise one betrays what it came to defend.
g. The right to solidarity. It is not possible to apprehend the Islamic religious universe without finding oneself straightway in face of a conception which places the duty of solidarity at the heart of the living expression of faith. Being before God is tantamount to showing solidarity. The third pillar of Islam, the social purifying tax (zakat), is placed exactly at the axis of the religious and social practice. As duty before God, it responds to the right of human beings. The Qur’an is clear when it refers to sincere believers:
… and the beggar and the outcast had a share in their wealth.[Qur’an, 51:19]
The Qur’anic injunction resonates here with force:
You will not attain piety until you expend of what you love…[Qur’an, 3:92]
The responsibility of each person lies in actively participating in social life. In this, the obligation to pay zakat is but a part of a broader social solidarity. Engagement on personal and familial levels must be accompanied by care towards one’s neighbours, life in the neighbourhood as well as towards national and international preoccupations. Certainly, Islam has devised an institutional support for fighting against poverty (by the intermediary of zakat), but it seems clear that the solution is not firstly of a structural nature. It is rather a question of conscience and ethics. The strength of this fraternity and human solidarity is the living source of the fight against social injustice, poverty and misery. Whosoever has faith carries the duty of this engagement; whosoever has faith knows the right to claim it.
The seven rights mentioned above do not cover all the elements that concern the individual and social spheres. However, they give a sufficiently clear idea about what the founding orientations of a Muslim society should be. At the source and heart of reflection one finds, with the acknowledgement of the Creating God, finalities which all revolve around the idea of justice. This justice is basic and primal and all human activity, in all its steps, must maintain this determination. In order to achieve this, it is appropriate to analyse situations rather than apply rules absolutely. This because the context may turn the most legitimate or most logical rules into unjust or obsolete ones, and, thus, betray in practice what they should defend in spirit.
One would be right in pointing out, upon reading the preceding lines, that the picture so described is indeed ideal, but unfortunately nothing that concerns men or their intentions is this marvellous. One would also be right to add that the observation of contemporary Muslim societies -something hardly meticulous- systematically contradicts each point so far put forward. One would also be right that the general orientations of Islam do not have a great deal to do with the daily lot of Muslims at the end of this XXth century. Nor is it a question of heaping on the West a load of blames and insults, making “the enemy” guilty of all our own shortcomings. This would be to lie, and indeed to lie on two accounts. On the one hand by refusing to assume our own responsibilities, and on the other by demonising, in caricature and without any discernment, a “West” that we do not exactly know.
To think the ideal without preoccupying ourselves with the kind of reality that surrounds us is dangerous. Equally dangerous, is the attitude of some Muslims who think that it is enough to “return to Islam” in order that things be sorted out with one strike. In truth, the danger is twofold:
– the first is that it tends to present things in too simplistic and crude a manner. We convince ourselves that poverty will be resolved by the imposition of zakat, that the economy will be cleansed by the prohibition of interest (riba) and that society will be united because “the believers are brothers of one another.” We are then content with some well-intended speeches, and as far as the rest is concerned we would have to rely on God. As if “reliance on God” means a lack of intelligence or competence in action; as if the Qur’anic Revelation has not distinguished between orientation and state, between where we should go and where we are; between the actualised foundation of a social project and the well-intended expression of its form. There is no place for such an attitude and “God’s tradition” (sunnat Allah) throughout the history of humanity shows(14) us that things are more complicated than this, and that the success of a human project is guaranteed, in the light of faith, to whoever knows how to develop the characteristics of his human nature. In other words, drawing near to the Divine recommendations is tantamount to multiplying the qualities of one’s humanity. But this does not mean emptying oneself in order to annihilate it in a fatalism which combines mysticism and passivity. This no matter how good our intentions are.
– The second danger is of a sensibly different nature, but it is nevertheless no less widespread. In fact, we can read today from the pens of certain [ulama’ and Muslim intellectuals discourses which transform the profoundness of Islamic teachings in these orientations and objectives (maqasid) into a literal application of rules called Islamic only because they formally refer to the Qur’an and the Sunna. Without taking the time to consider the context, the state of society, the modalities of application of laws and regulations, we demand an immediate application of certain measures which are often measures of constraint, as if to be a good Muslim today one must be less free. This formalism has consequences which are properly dramatic, for by wanting to plaster a facade of Islam on the problems of contemporary societies we do not go back to the cause of fracture and we, thus, prevent ourselves from finding solutions. The situation, therefore, cannot be improved; and by becoming worse, we intervene in a more coercive manner so as to ”apply Islam”. Good intention, whether real or presumed, is thus rendered into a daily nightmare, this especially so when making a society more Islamic means prohibiting further, censuring permanently, reprimanding, imprisoning and punishing without respite. It, therefore, remains for us to ask ourselves how come a message which, at the source of the original permission, has put so much trust in men for the treatment of their affairs and, which has counted on their responsibility, ends up becoming the tool of a generalised suspicion to which only a totalitarian and police regime can uphold. Formalism here kills the essence of the message which it pretends to defend. It is indeed this betrayal that we find in the discourses of heads of states who -from Libya to Iraq or the Gulf states- tell us that they want to apply the Islamic shari[a, and who in order to maintain themselves are equipped with an arson of the most repressive laws against their people. Whether military presidents, kings or princes, they candidly confuse the project of social reform, which is the real application of the shari[a today, with the application of a penal code from which they will, at worse, only acquire greater power. It is a display of “Islamisation” used as a cover by dictators and from which many people suffer. (15)