By Akbar Ganji
Justice and Equality
The Quran’s God is a just one and does not do injustice to anyone: “And your Lord is not ever unjust to [His] servants” (Fussilat, 46); “And your Lord does injustice to no one” (Al-Kahf, 49), and, “Indeed, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom’s weight” (An-Nisa, 40). God’s goal in sending the Prophet has been spreading justice: “We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice” (Al-Hadid, 25).
Prophet Muhammad also limited his mission to spreading justice, and said, “I have been commanded to do justice among you” (Ash-Shura, 15); “My Lord has ordered justice” (Al-A’raf, 29); “Indeed, Allah orders justice” (An-Nahl, 90); “O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth” (Sad, 26), and, “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice” (An-Nisa, 135).
The Quran has expanded the concept of justice in many ways: Witnesses (in a trial) must be fair (Al-Baqarah, 182; Al-Ma’ida, 95). There should be justice in trials (Al-An’am, 152; Al-Nissaa, 58), and people should speak justly and neutrally (Al-An’am, 152), and the entire life must be devoted to justice (Al-Ma’ida, 8). Even enemies must be treated fairly: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness” (Al-Ma’ida, 8).
Economically, the Quran is against poverty. It is said that there is a link between poverty and infidelity. Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites and the 4th Caliph wrote in Nahj al-Balagha [the Peak of Eloquence], a collection of his sermons, letters, exegesis, and narrations that “poverty is a worse death [than the physical death] (Hekmat, 163). The Quran says, “Satan threatens you with poverty” (Al-Baqarah, 268), and has many verses regarding helping the impoverished, such as, “Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you” (At-Takathur, 1), and, “And those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah - give them tidings of a painful punishment” (At-Tawba, 34).
Naturally, the people and intellectual elites of any era did not have the same understanding and interpretation of justice as the contemporary one, but there is nothing that prohibits them from doing so in our era. For example, Muslims can easily interpret the Quranic justice in terms of the capabilities theory of the Indian economist Amartya Sen and the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
Freedom and Tolerance
According to the Quranic teachings no one should be forced to believe in Islam: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion” (Al-Baqara, 256). Rawls considers acceptance of burdens of judgment and liberty of conscience as the two criteria for reasonableness of a comprehensive doctrine (Justice as Fairness, p. 191). The following verse from the Quran and several after it recognize liberty of conscience: “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed - all of them entirely. Then [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” (Yunus, 99).
The Quran allows people to freely choose between guidance and straying: “And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve’” ( Al-Kahf, 29).
The Prophet is not the attorney for or guardian of the people to pressure them to the righteous path (Yunus, 99; Az-Zumar, 41); he does not control them: “So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller” (Al-Ghashiya, 21-22). The Prophet does not have the right to bully people and do injustice to them (Qaf, 45). His mission is to show them the righteous paths, not compelling a specific path. After this is done, people can choose their own path:
“Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Al-Kafirun, 1-6).
Rawls spoke about political and comprehensive tolerance. The Quran’s comprehensive religious tolerance - including all of its constraints - endorses of Rawls’ political tolerance. Rawls refers to this as the reasoning from conjecture.
The Prophet’s First Treaty: a Path to Just Cooperation
Two-third of the Quran’s verses was revealed during the time Prophet Muhammad was living in Mecca. This type of verses expressed ethical ideals and was in search of justice. They lacked religious jurisprudence that, according to the human rights of our era, can be considered as violent and against liberalism.
After Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet signed off on a treaty that governed peaceful co-existence of the immigrants, his supporters, and the Jews. According to Muslim historian Muhammad ibn Ishaq the Prophet “signed a treaty with the Jews, recognizing their religion and ownership of their properties, setting some conditions for them, but also accepting some conditions [in return]” ( Al-Nabawiyya Al-sira, volume I, p. 501). The treaty stated the following about the Jews:
“Every Jewish person who follows us will be assisted, and will be equal to other Muslims. No injustice will be done to him and no help will be given to his enemy. . . All Jewish tribes will form a common front with Muslims in warfare. Also, the Jewish tribe of Bani Ouf constitutes the same community with Muslims. Jews and Muslims each have their own religion. They each have their own friends, allies, and slaves. Unless someone engages in inflicting injustice and committing sin, in which case he will have done injury to himself and his lineage alone. The same regulations that have been specified for Bani Ouf will apply to the Jews of Bani Najjar; and the same will be applicable to all Jewish tribes. No Jew will leave their assembly except by the permission of Muhammad; nobody’s blood shall be spilled and trampled upon. He whoever kills another is alone responsible [for the deed] as are his family; except in cases in which he [the perpetrator] is himself a victim of injustice and that God is satisfied with the deed. Muslims and Jews will have their own shares of expenses during times of war. Jews and Muslims will assist each other against the aggressors and their relationships are based upon good will and compassion; they are set apart from sin. Nobody is to harm an ally; all will rise together to help the oppressed.”
The treaty was against Mecca’s non-believers, which explains why it contained so much about union for war and peace: Everyone was supposed to help everyone else against the invaders of Medina; Muslims and Jews had the right to call on people to make peace with the enemy, unless the war was over religion, and Jews were not allowed to shelter the non-believers of Mecca, who were the Muslims’ enemy. According to the treaty, the Prophet was the arbiter of disputes between Muslims, and between them and the Jews.
Although the treaty had many clauses about justice, but social justice in that era did not mean equality of all, particularly men and women. In fact, we cannot even call communities of that era a society in the modern sense. There was tribal authority, but it was due to patronage and family relations, not the existence of a government which, as we understand it today, did not exist. Thus, “equal and free citizens,” a product of the modern era, was meaningless. Thus, Rawlsian concepts of fairness and free and equal citizens could not exist in that era. Thus, the treaty between the Prophet and the Jews was one of tribal communities, and possibly a good example of what Rawls names as decency (The Law of Peoples, p. 67).
Commitment to the Elite’s Rationality of the Era
The Quran calls on everyone to follow wisdom and science. In 49 verses wisdom-related words have been used. For example, “Then will you not reason? Here you are - those who have argued about that of which you have [some] knowledge, but why do you argue about that of which you have no knowledge?” (Al-i-Imran, 65-66), and, “And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge” (Al-Isra, 36). Interpreting the latter verse, the medieval Muslim scholar, Abu al-Qasim Mahmud ibn Umar al-Zamakhshari, who was of Iranian origin, wrote in al-Kashshaaf[revealer], his book of interpreting the Quran, “The meaning of this expression is to warn the addressee against saying what one does not fully know, and doing that which is unknown. This clear principle includes all forms of imitation, because imitation entails unknowing following of edicts about the truth and falsity of which the imitator has no knowledge.”
On many occasions, the Quran has demanded reasoning for those who claim to be truthful: “Say, ‘Produce your proof, if you should be truthful’” (Al-Baqara, 111), and, “Say, ‘Produce your proof, if you should be truthful’” (An-Naml, 64). Interpreting the latter verse, Zamakhshari states, “This Quranic expression, more than any other reason, vitiates the position of the advocates of imitation, and establishes that any statement for the truth of which we lack reasonable support, is false and unjustified” (ibid.).
A Path for Constructing a Liberal Islam
In this article first I explained my reading of Rawls’ political liberalism. Then I described Rawls’ views about Islam as presented in his “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” article, where in a famous footnote he conjectures that Taha and An-Naim’s idea of Sharia reformation is a perfect example of endorsing the political conception of justice from a comprehensive Islamic perspective. Finally, I discussed the evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah that supports constructing a liberal Islam based on Rawls’ views as plausible. There I showed that Quranic verses endorse the reality of pluralism, the inherent dignity of human beings, equality and justice, and finally tolerance and freedom. I also elaborated upon The Prophet’s first treaty as an example of decent social cooperation and co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims in early Islamic era.
To the extent that I understand Islam, there is a simple way of removing violence from contemporary Islam and making it compatible with political liberalism: The vast majority of non-worshiping Islamic laws are of ratifying type, i.e. they are the product of the culture and lore of the people of the Arabian Peninsula before the Prophet. The mission of the Prophet was not to destroy the infrastructure of the society, including its culture. He modified many of the existing laws and then ratified them.
As the Quran puts it, the Prophet is a model for all Muslims. He ratified the customs of the elites of his own era. Many Muslim scholars have misunderstood what the Quran says about this issue, interpreting it as meaning that Muslims must do what the Prophet did in his life in his own era. In fact, the Prophet taught the people to ratify the customs of the elites of their own era, not the era of the Prophet.
Rawlsian political liberalism is not the sole liberalism of our era, nor is it the custom of all the thinkers. But, it has been accepted by a large number of thinkers. At the same time, liberal interpretation of the Quran is more compatible with its spirit than any other. Thus, I believe that ratifying Rawlsian political liberalism is exactly tantamount to acting according to the Prophet’s teachings.
The Prophet is a model for the Muslims by ratifying the reasonable customs of his own era. He is not a model for terrifying people and spreading Islamophobia, which brings nothing for Muslims but losses and harms. As discussed, there are many verses in the Quran that, subject to new and modern interpretations, are completely compatible with John Rawls’ liberalism. This means that there are secular and liberal interpretations of the Islamic teachings that are more compatible with the true spirit of the, as compared to the Islam of fundamentalists.