Alejandra Diaz: The Qur’an as a framework for institutionalizing justice and forgiveness

Institutions such as the waqf and religious obligations such as the hajj are examples of how the Qur’an helps institutionalize charity and friendship.  But most importantly, the Qur’an, especially when read through the context of 8th century Arabia, provides a frame work for the creation of social institutions or present solutions to social ills. Many of the fundamental principles of Islam, such as ideas on charity, are meant to guide believers into bettering or creating a better society. This is especially true when one considered how many Quranic verses put emphasizes on the importance of one’s relationships with both God and others.

The Qur’an is a text that aimed to protect those in need and fix social ills. Rahman states “Through its more specific social reforms, the Qur’ān aimed at strengthening the weaker segments of the community: the poor, the orphans, women, slaves, those chronically in debt.”[i] To understand how and why the Qur’an addresses these groups in particular one must understand that while the text is still very relevant today, many of its statements were highly shaped by the history and context at the time of its revelation to the Prophet. The importance of historical context to understand the Qur’an can be understood through the example of orphans. The Qur’an states, “Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess.”[ii] Without any context, this verse does not seem related to orphans, instead it appears to justify polygamy. But when read through its proper historical context, one can see how this verse aims to help protect orphans. At the time the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, orphans were big issue. War was common in the Arabian Peninsula and as a result, many children were left orphan.[iii]  With no institution to protect and aid orphans, the Qur’an was an important force of social change and protection for them.  The previous verse suggest marriage because it would introduce orphans back into a family unit and as a result ensure their safety and wellbeing.[iv] Concern for orphans can further be seen in verse 4:2 from the Quran. Which states “And give to the orphans their properties and do not substitute the defective [of your own] for the good [of theirs]. And do not consume their properties into your own. Indeed, that is ever a great sin.”[v] Here the Qur’an intends to protect the property of orphans, ensuring that those with greed do not steal any of the property that not only rightfully belongs to orphans, but which could potentially help them survive.

The Qur’an has also institutionalized friendship and forgiveness by emphasizing them as virtues and framing them as concepts that are foundational to becoming a good practicing Muslim.  This is the same reasoning presented by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany in their Islamic Charter. In it they state, “Muslims, male or female alike, share the same task in life: To recognize God, to serve Him, and to obey His commands. This will also help to assure quality, freedom, justice, compassion, and prosperity on earth.”[vi] One can find evidence for this reasoning in the following qur’anic verse which states, “The believers are those who spend in charity during ease and hardship and who restrain their anger and pardon the people, for Allah loves the doers of good.” [vii] This verse encourages people to act better, to help others and forgive others because they are acts of goodness valued by God. These values are further instituted through the empathize the Qur’an places on one’s actions especially pertain to interhuman relations and one’s relationship with God. We are told that God will not intercede in the affairs of humans. If we do wrong to another human, he will not forgive us. We must seek forgiveness from the one we have wronged.[viii] The act of forgiving others is further emphasized in the following verse of the Qur’an, “Those are the ones who have exchanged guidance for error and forgiveness for punishment. How patient they are in pursuit of the Fire!”[ix] Much like a system of Justice, the Qur’an provides one with rules or suggestions to follow. It also warns us of the consequences of our actions, which we will face on the day of Judgement. One can see these values being emphasized in the process of the Hajj. At the start of the Hajj, one removes their clothing and replaces them with two pieces of unsewn cloth. This is important because as Eaton states, “No one, from now on, can tell whether he is a king or a servant His status is forgotten, as is his place of origin.”[x] This erasure of identity removes am important source of conflict: one’s ego. Arrogance leads us to make mistakes. It is the birth of evil. [xi] Therefore, by removing our ego, the hajj emphasizes one’s sameness to others. Distinctions of class and nationality, which may have divided us, dissolve and bring emphasis at our connection as fellow humans.  Furthermore, as a rehearsal of Judgement Day, the Hajj reminds one of the actions which are condomed by God.[xii] Acts, which as previously mentioned, relate to the manner we treat others and encourage us to be just and forgiving.

By observing the concepts and ideas introduced by the Qur’an, one can see how the Quran has institutionalized peace, justice and forgiveness. Various core practices and beliefs of Islam imply that to be a practicing Muslim one must be forgiving and just. This becomes especially clear when one considers important pillars of faith such as the Hajj. Furthermore, by viewing the Qur’an through its historical context, one gains a better understanding of how many of its verses aim to solve the social ills that plagued the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the texts revelation to the Prophet Muhammad.

[i] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Quran (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 31.

[ii] Qur’an 4:3

[iii] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, February 8, 2018)

[iv] Paul Wheatley, The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands, Seventh to Tenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 10.

[v] Qur’an 4:2

[vi] “Islamic Charta (“The Islamic Charter”).” Islamic Studies 42, no. 3 (2003): 517-24., 519.

[vii] Qur’an 3:134

[viii]  M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 10, 2018)

[ix] Qur’an 2:175

[x] Gai Eaton, “The Hajj,” in William Chittick ed. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, 13.

[xi] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 5, 2018)

[xii] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 17, 2018)