Islam and Social Justice (Part 1)

Meaning of “Social Justice”

While the concept of social justice can be traced through Ancient and Renaissance philosophy, such as Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza and Tom Paine, the term “social justice” only became used explicitly from the 1840s.[5]

To put it in Rawls’ words, “Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.”[6] It is generally used to refer to “a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.”[7]

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In other words, social justice means to give every individual what he/she deserves; to distribute all benefits in society to individuals in a fair way; to supply or provide for the basic needs of human beings in a way that preserves their dignity and honor; and to guarantee equality of opportunities which means that every individual has an equal chance to climb up the social ladder.

Social Justice as viewed by the UN

The United Nations’ 2006 document Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations, states that “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth…”[8]

The same document reports, “From the comprehensive global perspective shaped by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, neglect of the pursuit of social justice in all its dimensions translates into de facto acceptance of a future marred by violence, repression and chaos.”[9]

The report concludes, “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.”[10]

All the above is fair enough and accepted as it shows awareness of the nature, significance as well as the need for social justice and the need for setting strategies and mechanisms as well as defining the tools for establishing social justice in the modern age. There is no harm in all this.

However, the same UN document offers a concise history:

“[T]he notion of social justice is relatively new. None of history’s great philosophers—not Plato or Aristotle, or Confucius or Averroes, or even Rousseau or Kant—saw the need to consider justice or the redress of injustices from a social perspective. The concept first surfaced in Western thought and political language in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine. It emerged as an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity. Following the revolutions that shook Europe in the mid-1800s, social justice became a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists…. By the mid-twentieth century, the concept of social justice had become central to the ideologies and programmes of virtually all the leftist and centrist political parties around the world…”[11]

It is apparent that the above UN account intentionally confuses the concept of social justice with the term itself. It has been mentioned earlier that the concept of social justice was there many years before it took a linguistic term to denote it. This is one thing. The other important thing is that the report mentioned Plato, Aristotle and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) among the philosophers who did not pay attention to that conception, a matter which needs further verification and it will be given a few remarks in the following lines.

As is mentioned above, Islam laid down foundations to regulate relationships among all individuals of the society and foremost among these bases is social justice. This social justice of Islam has become a prime example and role model to be emulated in the Muslim state after it had been just a mere long awaited hope. The chief concern of Islam is the human being, the creature that is honored by Allah Almighty irrespective of faith, race or color.

Hence, the Shari`ah with which Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent is the real date of birth of justice as there has been no social justice or anything like it in any society or civilization before the advent of Islam.

To prove this, let us take a look at the concept as well as practice of social justice in the ancient known cultures and civilizations.

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About Dr. Ali Al-Halawani
Dr. Ali Al-Halawani is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Translation Studies. He is an author, translator, and writer based in Canada. To date, Al-Halawani authored over 400 original articles on Islam and Muslims, most of which can be accessed on www.aboutislam.net and other famous websites. He has recently started to self-publish his articles and new books, which are available on Amazon and Kindle. You can reach him at [email protected]