Ellie Tiley: Justice, Forgiveness, and Friendship

Justice, Forgiveness, and Friendship

To examine how friendship relates to justice and forgiveness, it is necessary to define what friendship is. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics defines friendship as an integral component of happiness and “a mode of ethics superior to justice.”[1] Forgiveness must be the foundation for friendship because a relationship based on justice would simply be a neutral acquaintance that benefits neither party. As a friend to all humanity, God cannot function on the level of plain justice. He must act according to justice-plus, which means that he treats humans with mercy more often than he punishes humans. The Qur’an suggests that if God treated people with justice and gave each person exactly what he or she deserves, then no one would survive.[2]

It can be difficult to define friendship because there are many different types, so the Arabic language dedicates sixty separate words to describe the nuanced variations of friendship.[3] Comparatively, I have difficulty coming up with over ten words for friend even as a native English speaker. Since language evolves to fit the needs of a culture, this exemplifies how important friendship is to Islamic society. Analogously, Finnish has twice as many words for snow as English does. This makes perfect sense because the people living in Finland need to describe many more types of snow than people in America do. If a concept, such as snow or friendship, is integral to a specific society, the language develops an expanded vocabulary able to express minute differences within that concept.

It is particularly telling that many of the Arabic words for friend are used to describe God, including wali, habib, sahib, rafiq, sharfiq, namim, and nadim. God’s relationship with humans is the perfect example of friendship because it is based on justice-plus, and humanity should endeavor to mimic this human-divine relationship in everyday friendships. As Fazlur Rahman notes, the Qur’an instructs people to work together and be friendly on the basis of their shared subservience to God.[4] Since God treats us according to justice-plus, then we must also treat each other above the plane of exact justice and revenge. Even though the Qur’an says that revenge is the lowest level of morality, God will not punish someone for acting according to justice. However, that person will only receive plain judgment in the Hereafter instead of justice-plus.[5]

No one wants to be subjugated to plain justice because we know that our faults will outweigh our good deeds. If we all want to be treated on the plane of justice-plus, why do we simultaneously love to treat others with plain justice and revenge? Treating others the way you want to be treated seems like such a simple suggestion, but it is clearly easier said than done. Abdulaziz Sachedina remarks that, “While Biblical and Koranic law prescribe only ‘an eye for an eye,’ the human tendency has been to exact meaningless revenge.”[6] What is so appealing about treating others poorly when you know that you would never want to be treated that way? It may in part be because it is so much easier to impart justice than treat someone with mercy. Getting revenge against someone who has wronged us often feels like something we deserve, or have a right to. Therefore, forgiving others sometimes feels like punishing ourselves because we are denying ourselves retribution. Revenge is seen as a right and is socially accepted in nearly all cultures. To change how humans interact with each other and promote forgiveness, society as a whole needs to reorient moral norms to make mercy the expected response and revenge the baser reaction.

If forgiveness is a virtue, then the friendship that derives from forgiveness must also be seen as virtuous. Sura 9 in the Qur’an supports this premise in its comparison of moral and non-moral individuals. Verse 67 says, “Hypocrites, male and female, are all alike; they command what is forbidden and forbid what is virtuous.” This is then juxtaposed by verse 71, “The believers, male and female, are friends to one another. They command to virtue and forbid vice.”[7] These two verses have similar structures, which make the reader take note of what separates the hypocrites from the believers. Even before commenting on virtues and vices, verse 71 says that believers are most importantly friends. This implies that friendship, and the forgiveness that it entails, is one of the most definitive symbols of faith.

The close association between Heaven and justice-plus in the form of friendship arises quite frequently in Sura 9. Verse 73 warns humanity, “if they turn away, God will torment them with a torment most painful in this life and in the hereafter. On Earth they shall have neither friend nor champion.” This implies that loneliness is the definition of torment and of Hell. Verse 116 later goes on to say that “Apart from God, you have neither friend nor champion.”[8] Here we see again the reference to divine-human friendship. By comparing the similarities in these two verses, we see the same two words, friend and champion, are repeated. In the first verse, fellow humans are our friends and champions, but those words then also describe God in the second verse. God is making a definitive connection between the kind of relationship he has with us and the kinds of relationships we should attempt to create on Earth between each other.

[1] Friendship as a Better Paradigm for International and Interfaith Relations: A Qur’anic Perspective, 4

[2] Mahallati, Muhammad. “Good, Evil, Sin, and Righteousness (II).” Lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, March 10, 2016.

[3] Mahallati Muhammad. “Reading Ethics in the Qur’an: Friendship and Forgiveness.” Lecture, Obelrin College, Oberlin, OH, March 31, 2016.

[4] Rahman, Fazlur, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 63.

[5] Mahallati, Muhammad. “The Qur’anic Eschatology and the Last Judgment.” Lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, March 15, 2016.

[6] Sachedina, Abdulaziz, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 104.

[7] Qur’an 9: 67-71 translated by Tarif Khalidi

[8] Qur’an 9: 73-116 translated by Tarif Khalidi