Justice in the Embrace of Wisdom and Compassion

by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

 Part 1

Justice: A Moral Imperative

  That the execution and practice of justice in Islam is a moral imperative is unquestionable. The Quranic verse, “When you judge, then judge in equity between them, for Allah loves those who judge in equity” (5:46) clearly informs us of both the importance of justice and the station that a just person enjoys in Islam viz. to be counted amongst the beloved of Allah.

There are many more texts to reinforce the imperative nature of justice:

“And be fair, for Allah loves those who are fair and just.” (49:9)

“Allah commands justice and excellence in conduct, freely giving to kinsfolk; and He forbids lewdness and abomination and rebelliousness. He instructs you so that you may take heed.” (16:90)

From the Prophetic sources we have the following:

“There are seven types who will enjoy standing in the shade of Allah on a day that there will be no shade except that provided by Allah…” and amongst those will be, as the Tradition states “…a just ruler”. (Muslim).

Against oppression and unfairness we have the following sacred Tradition (Hadith Qudsi – a hadith in which Allah speaks in the first person): “O my slaves, I have prohibited oppression upon myself, and I have prohibited it amongst yourselves so do not oppress one another…” (Muslim).

To further imprint the imperative nature of justice the Prophet (SAW) in a rare moment of invoking retribution upon another said: “O Allah, he who takes charge of an affair of the affairs of my community (ummah) and treats them severely, be severe towards him. But he who takes charge of an affair of the affairs of my community and acts graciously towards them, be gracious towards him.” (Muslim)

These however, were not only words uttered by the Prophet. They found visible expression in his daily life. Amongst a number of hadiths - to be mentioned later - it might be worth noting at this point what the Prophet did on a day when he was gravely ill and close to his death. He managed to go out to his Companions and included in his speech the following words: “O people, if there is anyone whose back I whipped then here is my back so requite yourselves…and if there is anyone whose character I violated, then here I am, requite yourselves…and if there is anyone from whom I took money, then here is my money so take what is due to you. Do not fear rancour on my part, for rancour is not of me.”

The Prophet never whipped anyone in his life, nor insulted anyone, nor unjustly took anyone’s money. The lesson here for us is quite clear.

Nevertheless, to obtain a deeper and more profound understanding of this imperative we need to elaborate on two important virtues in the quest to realize the Islamic ideal of justice viz. wisdom and compassion.


Wisdom: our lost camel

  The Prophet said: “Wisdom is the lost camel of the believer.” The camel in Arabian culture is a highly valued animal. Enormous efforts, and certainly not without anguish, were spent in trying to retrieve a lost camel. The effect of this hadith therefore, in addition to underscoring the importance of wisdom, is to create a sense of yearning in us for it.

Wisdom, as we generally understand it, and as our dictionaries indicate to us, is the ability to make correct or good use of knowledge. It is also normally the product of experience, intelligence, and sound thinking and reasoning. It also manifests itself in sound advise, insightful guidance, and admirable conduct. It is also the mark of a mature person.

Towards a realization of wisdom four important qualities may be extrapolated from our Prophetic standard: insight, foresight, patience, and sensitivity towards others. Let us look at these in greater detail.

As an example of the Prophet’s (SAW) insight – if we understand by that the ability to not only see, but also to choose the best option in the resolution of a problem from a diversity of possibilities – then the creation of the “Treaty of Madinah” provides an excellent case. When the Prophet (SAW) emigrated to Madinah its inhabitants were not only Muslim. Along with a few polytheists, there was a sizeable Jewish population. The city of Madinah, as the newly established “Abode of Islam”, was bound to be the target of a belligerent foe in Makkah. Right from its inception, the city was under threat. Given the fact that the Muslims were still greatly outnumbered at the time, any form of dissent, opposition, or revolt within Madinah could quite irreversibly have damaged any chance the fledgling community had of establishing and consolidating itself.  In the face of a real external threat, and the uncertainties posed by the large non-Muslim community within, the Prophet was faced with a number of options. He could have asked them to leave, weakened them through any of a number of forms of subjugation available to him – political, economic etc., or even simply choose to ignore and later deal with them as events unfolded. Instead he opted for the principle of inclusivity in which the rights of all the inhabitants were officially documented in the famous “Treaty of Madinah”. All were guaranteed equal rights and, for as long as they respected the terms of the treaty, full protection by the law.

Two clauses from this treaty may suffice to illustrate the point. The one is the clause stating:

“The Jews who may follow us will have our support equally, without suppression, nor do we intend to combine and turn against them.”

The other one states:

“The Jews of Banu Awf form a nation with the believers. The Jews shall have their own religion, and the Muslims shall have their own religion.”

Where in the history of humanity, more than fourteen hundred years ago, do we find humanitarian principles articulated at this level? But our purpose here is to illustrate the point of insight. While the treaty was certainly a principled one it paid dividends during the “Battle of the Trench” which was, for the most part, fought along lines of intrigue and deception of the enemy. The Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir was the only tribe to betray the Muslims during this battle. Justifiably the Prophet set out to discipline them, but yet maintained a state of peace with all the other tribes. Through political insight, anchored in a principled set of beliefs, the Prophet secured the integrity of Madinah.

As an instance of his foresight in leadership we turn to the “Battle of Muta”. Khalid ibn Walid was the general of the Muslim army. He saw that the Muslim forces were completely outnumbered by the Romans. In a clever ruse of military manoeuvring he managed to withdraw the Muslim army without any loss of life. He stalled the Roman attack by giving them the impression that they were far more numerous than they actually were. Nevertheless, when they returned to Madinah they were greeted with shouts of “Furrar” i.e. “You deserters”. The Prophet (SAW) intervened and contradicted them by saying that they were in fact, and contrary to their claims, “Kurrar” or “men of advancement”. Against their simplistic and unfair allegations of desertion he explained to them the possible advantages that could be gained by recognizing one’s weaknesses and then regrouping to consolidate one’s strengths. This is precisely what happened three years later. A strengthened and rejuvenated Muslim army demolished the Romans.

Examples of the Prophet’s sabr, or patience, under the most trying conditions are numerous. This virtue is manifest in the character of the Prophet (SAW) from the day he received the first revelation. If patience, or endurance, is that unique ability to live in the long term coupled with the conviction that it is not always the habit of success to hasten in one’s direction, then the “Treaty of Hudaibiya” is an instructive example. How many of our most sincere attempts at doing good have not whittled into oblivion through haste? Against the Prophet’s better judgement we are often prone to ignore his statement that “haste is inspired by Satan.” 

During the seventh year of the Hijra the Prophet and his Companions were prevented from performing their Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage). After days of a tiresome and difficult journey they arrived at a place called Hudaibiya on the outskirts of Makkah just a few kilometres from the Kaba. Here they were informed that they would not be permitted to enter. After some negotiations ensued between the two parties a treaty, heavily weighted in favour of the Makkans, was concluded. The terms of the treaty were to last for ten years. A concession was made though that the Prophet and his Companions could perform an Umrah the following year. It was a deeply disgruntled group of Companions who conceded to the terms of the treaty. So upset were they that when the Prophet (SAW) ordered them to slaughter a sheep and cut their hair in recompense for a prevented Umrah, they initially failed to comply with the order. This was an instance of the human element, naturally stripped of all prophetic forbearance, which dominated at that moment.

One of the terms of the treaty stated that the Banu Bakr, a polytheistic tribe in Makkah who allied themselves to the Muslims in the treaty, had to be respected and treated fairly and without prejudice. If they were not then the Muslims would be obliged to come to their assistance. Hardly two years elapsed after the conclusion of the treaty, when Quraysh, in a fit of aggression, turned onto Banu Bakr. The patience of Quraysh had collapsed. That of the Prophet triumphed. True to his word he came to the assistance of Banu Bakr and opened the gates of Makkah to Islam. We shall return to this momentous event, known as the “Fathu Makkah” later on.

Sensitivity means to understand, acknowledge, and allow for the needs and legitimate expectations of another.

Once again in the Sunnah (the Prophetic Norm) we have a repository replete with examples. Probably one most familiar to many of us is the story of the A’arabi (Bedouin) who engaged his wife in sexual intercourse during the day of a particular Ramadaan when he was supposed to be fasting. The Prophet explained to him that the penalty, in order of priority, was either to free a slave, to fast for two consecutive months, or to feed sixty poor people. The A’rabi replied that he did not own a slave, that he was too weak to fast for a period of two consecutive months, and that he did not possess an amount of food with which he could feed sixty people. The Prophet (SAW) then supplied him with some dates and ordered him to distribute them amongst the poor. A while later he returned to the Prophet and said that he could find none poorer than himself in Madinah. The Prophet smiled and told him to feed his own family with the dates. There can be little doubt that this is a classic illustration of recognizing and being sensitive to the genuine needs of another.


Insight, foresight, patience, and sensitivity may be counted amongst the key elements that marked the Prophetic spirit of wisdom. We need to add though that this level of wisdom can only be attained through a life devoted to contemplation and reflection (fikr) - in other words, a life in which the Intellect is restored to its rightful place at the centre of our affairs. We know from the life of the Prophet that he was a contemplative even before his prophethood. He even made a special point of detaching himself from society. For five years before the revelation he spent every month of Ramadaan in the cave of Hira. The Quran too, is filled with exhortations encouraging us to think and reflect deeply: “Will they not then ponder upon the Quran?”(4:67), “Will they not then understand?” (36:67) etc.

Important to mention here too, as Imam al-Ghazali so ceaselessly reminds us, is that a requirement of the proper functioning of the intellect is to subdue the passional self - the passional “self” being nothing other than the reckless instrument of our hawa. If it is that we wish to align ourselves in equilibrium – as a balanced community (ummatan wasatan) - with the Truth…with the sacred and divine…then we need to take charge of our hawa. Justice, as the following verse implies, depends on it: “And stand steadfast as you are commanded, nor follow their vain desires (hawa); but say: “I believe in the Book that Allah has revealed; and I am commanded to judge justly between you.” (42:15)

And blessed is the wise we might say, for “he to whom wisdom is granted receives indeed a benefit overflowing.’ (2:269)

Part 2

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