Islamic ethics include all aspects of human beauty and perfection and take the human soul to the zenith of virtues. They have an exceptional essence, for they are unshakably founded upon rights and justice. This is because the peace of humanity can be ensured only if rights and justice are observed.
So what are rights and justice?
The most general definition is “to treat everybody and everything according to its due; to judge truthfully; and to behave toward all in a balanced and moderate manner.”
On this definition, to give somebody more than his rightful due is to violate the rights of others, while to give him less than his rightful due is to usurp his rights, that is, to violate justice. People of sincere faith are extremely careful to avoid such a crime. That is, a believer feels compelled to give each human being whatever is rightfully due.
Islam demands justice at every stage of life and in all kinds of situations. Pursuing a life that is pleasing to Allah requires us to observe the balance of rights and justice, for justice occupies a central place among the divine orders and prohibitions. Thus a believer must first act justly toward his Creator, then toward other creatures, and finally toward him- or herself.
Accordingly, every believer must observe justice when measuring goods, when judging people, when writing records, and when testifying in court. Additionally, we must pay proper attention to what is due to Allah in our ritual prayers and devotions. We must observe their due form, because that is a right belonging to our Lord. His servants are responsible for them to Him.
The faithful person who organizes life according to this consciousness and the measures of rights and justice reaches the state of ahsan al-taqwîm, “the finest design.” This is because the observance of rights and justice are among the divine attributes. The Beautiful Name al-`Adl, “the Just,”indicates that Allah the Almighty is the absolute owner of right and justice, and even that He is right and justice themselves. This exalted Name is always manifesting in this world, but it will be manifest in all its majesty at the divine judgment in the Hereafter. Allah declares in the Noble Qur’an:
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. (Anbiya’; 21/47).
We should never forget that Allah the Almighty, who orders His servants to observe rights and justice, always supports those who are subjected to injustice. Those who think that they can get away with whatever they do in this worldly life cannot escape kneeling down and trying to explain themselves before Allah the Almighty, the judge over all judges.
We can say that humanity, of all beings, bears the heaviest responsibility regarding rights and justice. The human being is the noblest of creatures and all other beings are placed at our disposal. Consequently, we carry the responsibility for their rights and welfare. This is why humanity is obliged not only to protect its own rights but also the rights of all. We are answerable for the rights of plants, animals, and inanimate things as well as our own.
Among the Friends of Allah we find excellent examples of careful observance of the rights of all. In one account, Bâyazid al-Bistâmî, one of Allah’s Friends, rested under a tree and ate a meal, then continued on a journey. After some miles he noticed an ant on his traveling bag. “O my Lord,” he exclaimed, “I have separated this ant from its homeland!” He went back to the tree where he had eaten, and left the ant.
The poet Firdawsî has this beautiful couplet in his Shahnâma: “Don’t trouble the ant hauling a grain of wheat! It too lives its life – and life is sweet.”
On the Day of Judgment, all other creatures will be resurrected along with humankind, and will claim the rights that were violated during their lives in this world. This is why it is forbidden to make an animal suffer, to fatigue it unduly, or even to cut the branch of a tree without need. We are allowed to kill harmful animals out of necessity, but even when killing a harmful animal we should not cause unnecessary pain. For example, when trying to protect oneself from a snake, it is proper to dispatch it with a single stroke.
In summary, every person of faith must grasp the true meaning of rights and responsibilities and be extremely careful in establishing justice. For a believer, just conduct in all dealings is among the greatest of virtues. Yet for those who mount the staircase of maturity, there is a virtue even higher than this: forgiveness in justice.
The virtue of forgiveness in justice
Those of sincere faith who reach a broader horizon of vision prefer to respond with forgiveness and mercy instead of demanding justice in their personal affairs. This is because they hope that Allah may treat them in the Hereafter with forgiveness, mercy, kindness, and beneficence instead of justice. Allah praises such good character traits:
If you punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith you were afflicted. But if you endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.(Nahl, 16/126).
Is not our main objective to receive Allah’s kind and generous treatment? This is why virtuous and good servants do not retaliate when they suffer from cruelty and harshness; they do not prefer to punish. They prefer to be patient for the sake of Allah, and overcome their anger. Such servants always take the road of tolerance, and aim at receiving divine mercy themselves through constantly showing mercy to Allah’s other servants.
As we have mentioned, for the sake of this principle Abu Bakr (r.a) forgave the person who slandered our mother A’ishah and kept giving him alms (Bukhari, Maghazi, 34; Muslim, Tawbah, 56), encouraged by this Qur’anic verse:
Let not those among you who are endued with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want, and those who have left their homes in Allah’s cause: let them forgive and overlook. Do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? (….Nûr, 24/22)
And this is why wise people behave according to the guidance of this verse:
The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and you there was enmity (will become) like an intimate friend.(Fussilat, 41/34).
One of the great examples of this morality in the Holy Qur’an is the case of the prophet Joseph (pbuh) who suffered a terrible injustice committed by his brothers. Without letting them know his true identity, this great prophet generously offered hospitality and gifts to his brothers when they came to him asking help. Having received all this, they became aware that their benefactor was Joseph. and bore witness to the truth:
They said: “By Allah! indeed has Allah preferred you above us, and we certainly have been guilty of sin!” (Yûsuf, 12/91).
Prophet Joseph (pbuh) displayed a great spirit of forgiveness and strengthened his virtue by saying:
This day let no reproach be (cast) on you: Allah will forgive you, and He is the most merciful of those who show mercy!(Yûsuf, 12/92).
Moreover, Joseph blames the Devil, not his brothers, when he says
…Satan had sown enmity between me and my brothers…(Yûsuf, 12/100).
“I was sold as a slave. Thanks to you, the Egyptians also came to know that I am the son of a prophet!” It is Joseph’s compliment to his brothers that most displays his virtue. He not only forgave them – he also veiled the cruelty and injustice they had showed him in the past.. This led the erring brothers to frank admiration of the brother they had betrayed.
Based on the high morality of Prophet Joseph, we can say that preferring mercy over justice and forgiving the guilty manifests a whole different level of restoration and guidance. But in order to merit such treatment, the guilty person must be sorry and regretful for his crimes, and understand his faults. We should never forget this. For if the guilty person receives forgiveness even though he does not feel regretful, then forgiving him ceases to be virtuous and becomes a sign of weakness and inability instead.
Whether mercy and forgiveness function successfully depends upon the condition and character of the guilty person. Forgiving an impious and cruel person may encourage that person to continue his course of behavior. If the guilty person is unlikely to amend his conduct when forgiven, then those he has treated unjustly will naturally demand his punishment.
We may forgive the guilty when our personal rights are transgressed. However, public crimes that involve the rights of other people require the full establishment of justice, otherwise impunity will encourage further crimes. All of society may be damaged by such people’s cruelty.
Our guide of life, the Messenger of Allah, used to forgive outrageous behavior against his person. Yet he was never tolerant of injustice done to others. He would pursue issues until the people wronged had their rights restored.
This is our measure in observing rights and justice. Only people who practice justice in this fashion will practice it correctly. And if we treat people justly in the first place, we may expect them to treat us justly in return. Whatever peace and happiness are achievable in human life depend on keeping the scales of rights and justice in balance.
Worldly justice is indispensable in securing the order and harmony of societies. However, justice has other implications in the arena of consciousness and feeling that human beings enter in the presence of their Lord. Divine justice follows its own rules.
Struggling with the concept of divine justice has led many astray. We observe that in this world, all people do not have the same opportunities. Some of them are rich, some are poor; some have disabilities at birth, some are healthy; and some live long while others have shorter lives. Since all these things are determined by Allah the Almighty, the disparities might appear to contradict divine justice. Such is the conclusion of rough reasoning and the ignorant heart. However, from the window of faith and wisdom, we may discern something else. Justice is based on the deserving of something.
Justice is involved only if something is deserved!
People were not created because we deserved to be created. The creation of humanity out of nothing is a great divine gift for which there is no proper gratitude. How magnificent a gift it is to appear in the realm of existence from the realm of nonexistence, and within the realm of existence to be created as a human being, the noblest of all creatures, rather than as serpent or a centipede, a stone or a piece of soil or a weed or a leaf. This and many other provisions are simply given to us, free of charge. What price did we pay in order to receive such bounty?
Given this extraordinary situation, to demand “justice” from Allah with a skeptical attitude because of temporary deprivations is to doom oneself to destruction. We are owed nothing. Justice requires deserving something, which means having an intrinsic right to it, earning it by work, or paying a price for it. But what kind of price did we pay for the privilege of being created? What work could entitle us to be human? Nothing, nothing.
Allah the almighty has willed that life shall have two stages, a worldly stage and a second stage in the Hereafter. In the first stage, Allah most clearly manifests himself through the attribute of the Gracious, while in the second, He most clearly manifests himself through the attribute of the Just. It is in the Name of the Gracious that Allah created the universe and human beings, not in the Name of the Just.
All of the wealth acquired by creatures is a gift provided by Allah. Allah is not obliged to provide His creatures with identical gifts. In fact, if any two creatures were equal in all respects, then the existence of one of them would be pointless and absurd. Allah’s attribute of perfection al-Muta`âli, “Exalted over all,” that which transcends even imagination, does not permit the pointless and absurd. Allah the almighty has created all things and ordered them with a precise equilibrium. Allah is indeed free from all faults.
Accordingly, nobody may ask: “What kind of fault did I commit, that I am short?” “Why was I born to ignorant parents instead of educated ones?” “Why was I born poor instead of rich?” All these different situations arise through differences in the manifestation of divine kindness. We may learn this truth from an event of the Age of Felicity.
Tha`labah asked Allah’s Messenger for a prayer to become rich. The Prophet (pbuh) replied, “O Tha`labah! A little wealth, and thankfulness, is better than a lot of wealth and ingratitude.” Then he remarked, “O Tha`labah! Is not my condition of life a good example for you?”
But Tha`labah did not grasp the meaning of this guidance: he insisted on becoming rich. His powerful desire blinded him to the Prophet’s warning. So Allah’s Messenger prayed that Tha`labah might become rich.. And he became rich – but he fell into ingratitude and discontent. Toward the end of his life, he was deeply regretful. He said on his deathbed, “Would that I listened to the advice of the Prophet (pbuh) !” He was terribly sorry that he had followed a desire that had turned his long life into a prison.
This is why one should always keep in mind the Qur’anic verse:
Then you shall be questioned that Day about the joy (you indulged in!).(Takâthur, 102/08).
To be content with that which Allah bestows upon us is both a responsibility and a sign of maturity, for the inequality of the divine bounties is not injustice. Allah the almighty may create one servant in perfect health while creating another with some disability. He may create one with high intellectual capabilities while creating another with less . He may desire some creature to be a snake and make it crawl on the earth, while he may desire another creature to be a bird and make it fly in the air. These differences do not constitute grounds for creatures to object to their own existence.
Animals have just enough intelligence and feeling to maintain their lives, and they are all happy with what they are. They do not have any worry beyond filling their stomachs and satisfying their natural desires. They do not ask why they were not created as human beings! And just as an animal or a plant may not reasonably ask “Why was not I created human?”, so people who suffer from some kind of privation, whether disability, illness, or poverty, may not reasonably accuse Allah of injustice.
Moreover, whether small or great wealth would have been better for a person will only be determined at the measuring-scales in the Hereafter. Smaller resources mean smaller responsibilities, while greater resources mean greater responsibilities.
Whoever cannot grasp the wisdom and mysteries of predestination is best off simply submitting to Allah’s discretion. We recall Abu Talhah (r.a) and his wife, Umm Sulaym , two Companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Abu Talhah’s son, who was seriously ill, died while Abu Talhah was away from home. Umm Sulaym (r.ha) bathed and shrouded the child’s body. When Abu Talhah came home, he asked his wife how their son was doing. Umm Sulaym replied, “His pain is over. I think he feels relieved.”
When Abu Talhah (r.a) was about go out next morning, the intelligent and pious Umm Sulaym said:
“O Abu Talhah! Look at what our neighbor did! When I asked her to give back the property that I lent her, she did not want to return it!”
“How improper that is!” Abu Talhah said.
Then Umm Sulaym said, “O Abu Talhah! Your son was a trust given to you by Allah. He has taken him back.” Abu Talhah was shocked at first, and kept silent for a while. Then he recited: “We belong to Allah, and to Allah we are constantly returning.” (See, Bukhârî, Janâ’iz 42, Aqîqah 1; Muslim, Adab 23, Fadâ’il as-Sahâba 107).
What a fine example of the awareness that all of Allah’s bounties in this world of tests are a trust given to us for but a short time! Such an attitude of contentment and surrender is appropriate both when Allah gives us bounties and when He takes them back.
Indeed, being able to say, following the example of Prophet Abraham (pbuh), “I have surrendered myself to the Lord of the Worlds” despite all the shifting difficulties of our testing, is one of the major signs of being a praiseworthy servant
O my Lord! May you bestow upon us lives guided by a sincere state of surrender to You! May You make us upholders of rights and justice! May You bestow upon us Your forgiveness and mercy together with rights and justice, and treat us with your forgiveness on the Day of Judgment!
. See, Tabarî, Jâmi’u’l-Bayân, XIV, 370-372.