Justice Plus: The Institutionalization of Forgiveness and Friendship in Muslim Society

God is just. As the Qur’an says, “[…] your Lord is never unjust to His servants.”1 He is the source of all good and all evil, and both exist because he permits it. He is the ultimate determiner of all things, and justice is the most basic, grounding principle of Muslim ethics. However, justice is cold and transactional, and no human being will be judged well if judged on pure justice alone, because every living person has erred, and will again, and there are none who if judged by God only by the true weight of their deeds would be allowed into paradise. In addition, justice does not build feelings of compassion or companionship, and while it may be the basis of a community, it does not serve to keep the Muslim community cohesive, bonded, and growing. It is not the only necessary component to an ethical society. Therefor, Islam institutionalized not only justice, but also the values of forgiveness and friendship in order to sustain a community and emulate God.

As mentioned in class, justice is the ground floor of ethics. It is neither doing extraordinarily good and generous things, nor is it committing a sin. It is the element that must be present for the rest of the house of ethics to be built on top of its tenants, and it is the necessary component for the formation of a community.2 The Qur’an particularly interested in justice because Islam is deeply interested in the socioeconomic and political equality of all people. In fact, as Rahman says, “the Qur’an holds that one major cause of the decay of society is the neglect into which they are cast by their prosperous members.”3 Justice, or the idea that people have a claim to equality and fairness, is also where society derives the concept of rights.4 The Qur’an institutionalizes justice in a variety of ways. First, it does provide for the institution of capital punishment. However pure justice, in the “eye for an eye” sense, is provided as a moral option for primitive, less developed societies, and for those societies with a higher capacity, repayment or forgiveness is encouraged.5 Second, it encourages economic redistribution in its pillars and laws, through the giving of money by the wealth to the poor to enhance equality. Almsgiving is a requirement in Islam, should you have the capacity, and it is considered important enough to be included in the five requirements of the faith. And third, in Islamic tradition the most powerful and society-shaping individuals are the jurists who determine what in the scripture is law and therefore, what is just in society. This in itself demonstrates the centrality of justice in Islamic community.

However, while justice might be fair, it is not merciful. Human society would not survive or flourish without mercy—as the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Carried to excess, justice, specifically retributive justice, can destroy a society.6 To avoid this, Islam needs forgiveness. The Qur’an first encourages this by establishing that God is forgiving, revealed it verses such as, “God shall pardon them the worst of their deeds, and reward them with wages for the best of their past deeds.”7 God could punish them and reward them in equal measure, and nobody could say that that is not just. But he doesn’t—rather, he wipes away the worst of your deeds, provided that you repent for them, and rewards you according to your best. If humans could do this, we would all be much kinder. Forgiveness is thus encouraged throughout the Qur’an. While capital punishment is allowed, forgiveness is preferred if it is within the individual or societies capacity. Prophets, the ultimate human role models, were extremely forgiving as a demonstration of near-perfect human morals. In addition, the largest institutional practice in Islam that is centered around forgiveness is the Hajj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.8 As a moment to reinvent and reorient one’s life, the Hajj puts a heavy emphasis on an almost confessional aspect of the ceremony, where worshippers climb Mount Mercy to ask God’s mercy for their transgressions.9 However, while a breach of God’s rights, a sin by another name, can be negotiated and forgiven by God, He will not forgive something on behalf of another person.10 This means that if you have wronged another human being, you must seek forgiveness not from God, but from them. Because of this, many Muslims seek forgiveness from those they have wronged before they go on their Hajj, as without this the journey of forgiveness and redemption may seem pointless.11 Practicing forgiveness preserves the community by allowing transgression without absolute punishment; it breeds compassion and humility.

And finally, while justice might start communities, friendship holds them together and sustains the bond between those of the Muslim faith. One of the core tenets of friendship is togetherness,12 which is institutionalized and encouraged throughout Muslim tradition. Praying together during the five daily prayers is considered stronger than praying alone, encouraging Muslims to attend mosque. Arabic is held as the one true language of Islam so that when practicers pray, they all speak together in the same voice. The Hajj, while allowed all year, is especially encouraged during the last month of the lunar calendar, so that hundreds of thousands of Muslims converge together to show their devotion. These institutions are designed to encourage Muslims to bond together, and to provide within the religion the human connect that people to desperately need. We are pack animals—if where we are does not provide us with companionship, if we are lonely in our community, we will find another. Some theologians have even theorized that paradise and hell aren’t places of mainly physical enjoyment, but that paradise is a place of eternal friendship, and hell a place of loneliness.13

Justice serves as the base of a community, while forgiveness and friendship serve as the glue that holds the individuals in that community together and provides for a truly moral society. Immoral societies are destroyed by God, as the ultimate goal of the human race is to create a moral society on earth.14 The vices that kill society are the antithesis of justice, forgiveness, and friendship—exploitation, oppression, and hatred.15 It is the institutionalization of these positive morals that makes Muslim society possible, and helped it flourish for so long. There is only one aspect of Muslim moral community that I take issue with, which is the idea of moral incrementalism. If you move slowly towards slavery, are people not in the meantime still enslaved? As you move slowly towards gender equality, are women not in the meantime still persecuted? If immorality is the downfall of civilizations, why didn’t society collapse long ago? The idea of tolerating certain immorality in favor of social order seems fundamentally set against God as the ultimate arbitrator, who will lead unrighteous civilizations to their demise. Justice is no help to those who need it, if it comes too late.

Endnotes

  1. Qur’an 41:46 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  2. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Above Justice: Forgiveness and Friendship.” Lecture, April 10, 2018.
  3.  Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) pg. 40
  4. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Justice and Gratitude.” Lecture, April 3, 2018.
  5.  Ibid.
  6.  Sachedina, A. (2001). Forgiveness Toward Humankind. In The Islamic roots of democratic pluralism (pp. 105). New York: Oxford University Press.
  7.  Qur’an 39:35 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  8. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Hajj and the Other Pillars of Islam.” Lecture, April 17, 2018.
  9.  Ibid.
  10. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Justice and Gratitude.” Lecture, April 3, 2018.
  11.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Hajj and the Other Pillars of Islam.” Lecture, April 17, 2018.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Mahallati, J. M. (n.d.). Beyond Cold Peace: A Theory for Applied Friendship in Society and Politics.
  14. Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) pg. 52
  15.  Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) pg. 54

Citations

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Hajj and the Other Pillars of Islam.” Lecture, April 17, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Above Justice: Forgiveness and Friendship.” Lecture, April 10, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Justice and Gratitude.” Lecture, April 3, 2018.

Mahallati, J. M. (n.d.). Beyond Cold Peace: A Theory for Applied Friendship in Society and Politics.

The Qur’an (Khalidi, Tarif)

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Sachedina, A. (2001). Forgiveness Toward Humankind. In The Islamic roots of democratic pluralism (pp. 102-131). New York: Oxford University Press.

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