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On Divine Justice

Justice is a crucial part of the Qur’anic message. In fact, it constitutes such an important component of the Qur’anic worldview that, Esack reminds us, justice is one of the reasons as to why God created the universe (Q. 45:22):[1] so that every human being, via the Day of Reckoning, will receive exactly what s/he sows and thus no soul shall be oppressed. Justice, therefore, is a distinctly divine quality. God can never act unjustly. This is the natural state of the universe and humankind is obligated to act in a fair, equitable manner with others and to avoid partaking in oppression, as this would run contrary to the nature of God.[2] Moreover, humankind is commanded to establish an enduring, ethically based order on Earth,[3] thereby mirroring the divine justice of the Heavens. Action is thus located at the very heart of Islamic theology, for true faith is belief wedded to action. The Arabic word for faith in the Qur’an—iman— entails not only believing in God, but also observing righteous conduct, such as treating others in a just manner, giving charity and performing prayers.[4] The overwhelming emphasis on action in Esack’s Islamic discourse—as we have just seen with regard to praxis—bears remarkable resemblance, yet again, to Islamist approaches to the text, in which Qur’anic reading is not an abstract, intellectual exercise but a solemn act of submission, of translating the Qur’an’s teachings into one’s daily life. Indeed, it is only through action, through putting the divine word into practice, that the text’s meaning is unlocked to the reader. As Murad, the Islamist writer whom we met earlier, cautions: ‘Do not forget that the real key to understanding the Qur’an is the practical application of its meaning.’[5]

The Qur’an does not only mandate the believers to act justly, argues Esack, but expresses a preferential option for the oppressed and explicitly sides with them. Just as justice is a core theme, so is its antithesis: oppression (zulm), a ubiquitous term in the Qur’an. In fact, the linguistic root of zulm appears in various forms on almost every page of the text.[6] Upon making a clear distinction between the opposing states of justice and oppression, Esack writes, the Qur’an takes an unqualified stance with those who are being wronged—the downtrodden (al-mustad‘afun)—over those responsible for such oppression (al-mustakbirun) and who have therefore transgressed the bounds of just conduct (Q. 7:136-137; 28:5).62 It is important to note here that within a theology of liberation, God does not side with those who are oppressed but who, nonetheless, have faith and do righteous works. Rather, divine solidarity with the oppressed is unconditional, unqualified: God stands with the downtrodden precisely because they have been wronged and exploited.[7] The question of their belief or righteousness is irrelevant. This notion of God as exerting a preferential option for the oppressed became common currency amongst South African Muslims during the anti-apartheid struggle. Specifically, verses five and six of Surat al-Qasas (The Chapter of the Story; Chapter 28) became the most significant Quranic passages quoted time and again by activist Muslims of all ideological strands.[8] Referring to the ancient Israelites suffering under the yoke of Pharaoh’s oppression, the verses read:

It is Our Will to bestow Our grace upon the downtrodden of the Earth, and to make them the leaders and to make them the inheritors of the Earth. And to establish them securely on the Earth, and to let Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts experience through them (the Children of Israel) the very thing against which they sought to protect themselves.

The commitment of God to the oppressed, then, is sacralised in a solemn covenant: that injustice, soon, will be dismantled through a radical reconfiguration of the existing status quo, wherein those who were at the very bottom of society will inherit the Earth.[9]

  • [1] (Maitland, South Africa: Call of Islam, 1989), 77.
  • [2] Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 18.
  • [3] Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, 37.
  • [4] Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon:White Cloud Press, 1999), 37.
  • [5] Murad, as quoted in von Denffer, 180. 5 Izutsu, 164.
  • [6] 62 Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 98.
  • [7] Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll,New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 48.
  • [8] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 101. Q. 2:193 and 4:75—both callingon believers to struggle against oppression—also became popular Qur’anic passages inSouth African anti-apartheid Muslim circles. See Palombo, 44.
  • [9] Esack is not the only Muslim, of course, to have been inspired by the story ofMoses and the Israelites. For an analysis of how Sayyid Qutb interprets this story, seeAnthony H. Johns, ‘Let my people go! Sayyid Qutb and the Vocation of Moses’, Islamand Christian-Muslim Relations 1:2 (1990): 143-70.
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