Andrew Seligson: Justice, Forgiveness, and Friendship in the Qur’an

The Qur’an presents us with unique ways of re-articulating notions of justice, forgiveness, and friendship both within our personal lives as well as in the public sphere of politics. In this essay, I will discuss the Qur’anic concepts of justice, forgiveness, and friendship separately, and then show how they are part of a unified and holistic framework to be applied within the lives of all Muslims.

Justice is a tremendously important concept in the Qur’an. Whether in this life or on the Day of Judgment, justice will occur on the basis of one’s own deeds and intentions behind those deeds. As we discussed in class, the goal of Muslim life is to create the ideal social order in which all people are seen as equals under the eyes of a transcendent and merciful God. Therefore, while God is ultimately the judge and sole arbiter of justice, there is a reason why Sharia law was given to the Prophet Muhammad; namely, to establish this ideal social order through the prophet: “In Islam, sin is usually defined as an act of disobedience to God’s will, comprising both commands and prohibitions . . . For Sunni theologians an act is evil not in itself but because it conflicts with God’s law”.[1] However, as scholar of Islam Mohammad Jafar Mahallati notes: “Justice, nevertheless, is the beginning of morality and the ground level of most normative structures, not their ceiling. . . on what theoretical, ethical, and scriptural perspectives can the communal and faith based relations advance above the moral ground floor of justice and into the justice-plus realm of forgiveness, magnanimity, and shared-life and friendship”.[2]  In other words, creating the ideal moral society is not just creating a society founded on justice, but justice plus many other components such as forgiveness and generosity.

Forgiveness is also a tremendously important concept in the Qur’an.  When Adam committed the first sin and was exiled paradise, God could have severed all ties with him and Eve. However, God had forgiveness for him and Eve:

“Satan seduced them away from it, and caused them to leave their earlier abode. We said: Go down, an enemy to each! On earth you will find habitation and a certain term of life. And Adam obeyed the words of his Lord, and his Lord pardoned him. He is ever ready to pardon; he is compassionate to each”.[3]


Similarly, when we depart from God into sin, it is because God has mercy on us that we do not spiral into a life of loneliness, misery, and ultimately hellfire. God has sent us prophets and holy scripture so that we can remember him. While we discussed in class that the word for human being is the “intimate” creature, or the creature who seeks friendship, another interpretation was the one who “forgets” (and must therefore remember). I would argue that these two concepts are inevitably intertwined. To remember God is to simultaneously recall the duty to creating friendships and intimacy horizontally and vertically. On the Day of Judgment, we ought not have the hubris and believe that it is just because of our good deeds that we are allowed into paradise. Rather, it is because God has sent us prophets, scriptures, friends, and loved ones to help guide us.

This leads me to the Qur’anic notion of friendship. While justice is of course a key concept in the Qur’an, we must remember that justice is only the ground floor in terms of morality. Rather, as Aristotle continually notes in the Nicomachean Ethics, a society of justice is in need of friendship, but a society of friendship is not in need of justice. There are notable overlaps between Aristotle and Qur’anic ethics. For example, in Surah 49, it states: “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of him. Behold, God is all-knowing and all-aware”[4]. As the Qur’an wisely reminds us, it is not because we are all one and the same that we can be friends, but because we are separate individuals, tribes, and cultures. As Mahallati in addition to Philpott and Powers note in their work on peacemaking, we are in sore need of ideas that engender plurality and unity simultaneously:

Religious leaders become effective peace-builders only when they are able to rise above this ethical and pastoral parochialism. . . Concepts of transcendence, charity, justice, reconciliation, and human dignity are consistent with and reinforce the pluralist goal of engendering unity while respecting diversity. . . .[One must avoid the tendency] to become too nationalistic and see the world exclusively from the prism of one’s own particular ethnic or national group.[5]

Just as the Prophet Muhammad was able to rise above the tribal conditions of his time to come to a universal vision for peace and friendship, so must we begin to see beyond our own cultural and national vision to see the humanity and decency of the Other.

In conclusion, when we choose to forgive and forge friendships in our own lives, we engage in a kind of Jihad, or striving in the cause of God. We must always remember that our deeds have infinite importance because we made a covenant with God long ago to build the ideal society. However, we must also remember to be forgiving of ourselves and others when we fall short so that we don’t fall into the trap of moral irony or self-righteousness.


[1] Chawkat Moucarry, “Forgiveness in Theology,” in the Search for Forgiveness: Pardon and Punishment in Islam and Christianity“, 82

[2] Jafar Mahallati, “Friendship as a Better Paradigm for International and Interfaith Relations.” in A Quranic Perspective, 2

[3] Surah 2:34-35

[4] Surah 49: Al Hujurat: 13

[5] Daniel Philpott and Gerard F. Powers, “Religion and Peacebuilding” in Strategies of Peace Transforming Conflict in a Violent World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 332.