The linguistics of justice (‘adl) in the Qur’an

The linguistics of justice (‘adl) in the Qur’an

Justice towards the self affects justice in society, and justice in society has its impact on justice to the self

The most common term for the word “justice” in Arabic is ‘adl, and related terms include qisṭ, istiqāmah, wasaṭ, naṣīb (share), and mīzān. The opposite meaning is injustice (jawr), and related terms are ẓulm (wrongdoing), ṭughyān (tyranny), and inḥirāf (deviation). These terms are used in the broadest sense to connote ethical and religious meanings. The Arabic word ‘adl (justice) comes from the root verb ‘a-d-l, which means to be equal to, just, straight, and temperate. These significations are contained in the following verses: “I am commanded to decide justly between you” (Q. 42:15); “And when you judge between people, judge with justice” (bi-al-‘adli) (Q. 4:58); “One who commands to justice” (bi-al-‘adli) (Q. 16:76); “Call two upright witnesses (‘adlin) from among you” (Q. 65:2).
A word that is synonymous with ‘adl is qisṭ: “My Lord commands to justice” (bi-al-qisṭ) (Q. 7:29). However, as Harvey explores, there is a subtle difference between these two terms for justice. The meaning of qisṭ refers primarily to its application concretely within the socio-economic domain, whereas ‘adl pertains primarily to the internal quality of the soul.The term ‘adl is used in the Qur’an in the following senses:
To act justly or equitably, to be fair in judgment, to be impartial in speech, or witness; to straighten someone to a state of moral uprightness, or from disbelief to faith, to offer a compensation in place of punishment for a sin, to deviate or turn away from the truth, or to set up something as equal to something else, which can have a positive connotation approximating the first of these, or a negative one referring to the sin of shirk, worshipping anything else alongside God.
The moral and spiritual connotations of justice (‘adl) in this passage echo partly al-Iṣfahānī’s definition of justice:
Justice [al-‘adl] is a term associated with equality [musāwāh]. It has various meanings, depending on the context. In the context of potential, it is an innate human desire for equality. In the context of action, it means dealing fairly with others. And in the context of the Divine, it describes the complete orderliness of God’s actions. In the pursuit of justice, man tries to be virtuous, but can only be perfectly virtuous if his outer actions stem from an inner noble disposition and character. Outwardly just actions do not necessarily make one a just human being. If the intention of the just action is for the sake of show, a worldly benefit, or fear of a Sultan’s punishment, it cannot be truly just.
Thus, for al-Iṣfahānī, justice (ʿadl) pertains to acting justly with others. Outer action is not enough; the person also needs to be upright in character. This is the internal condition of the soul; when in balance, the rational faculty predominates and justice as a cardinal virtue emerges. It is comprehensive: concerned with justice towards the self and others. The appropriate term for justice towards the self is ‘adl, and the appropriate term for justice in society is qisṭ. The litmus test for this moral virtue is the concrete social situation. These two levels of justice are not separate but complementary, for justice towards the self must affect justice in society, and justice in society must have its impact on justice to the self. The same applies to injustice. Injustice towards others will lead to the injustice of the soul. Every action has consequences for the purification or deprivation of the human soul. Just actions, according to al-Iṣfahānī, are not only justice towards others but also justice to God.
Justice generally means equality in the sense of equating one thing with another. In the abstract sense, it could mean equality before the law; “The Believers are indeed brothers” (Q. 49:10). When used in the sense of distributive justice, it is expressed in the concept of qisṭ (equity), mīzān (scale), and taqwῑm (straightening). The notion of balance is expressed in the word ta‘dῑl, and the notion of moderation in the word wasaṭ.
The opposite of justice (‘adl), is injustice (ẓulm), from the verb ẓalama, which the Qur’an uses to refer to the one wronged (Q. 22:39) and to be denied one’s due (Q. 21: 47). The noun takes on the following meanings in the Qur’an: injustice (Q. 20:111), wrongdoing (Q. 6:82), placing something in the wrong place or attributing wrong to a person (Q. 25:4).For al-Iṣfahānī, injustice, or ẓulm, is to “put something in its improper place.” He provides the analogy of a dot in the center of the circle as representing justice, and deviation from this center as injustice. He cites the verse: “O indeed, those who believe and debar others from the path of Allah have gone far astray” (Q. 4:167). Deviation from justice is jawr (injustice). A more comprehensive term is ẓulm (injustice). Injustice is to be removed from the center, near or far, as indicated in the two verses: “But the devil wishes to lead them far astray” (Q. 4:60); and “It is as if those were called from a distant place” (Q. 41:44).
Injustice (jawr) refers to stepping out of what is right and ending up at what is adjacent and wrong. This is why one’s neighbour is called jār, or the one adjacent to you. This is why justice and wrongdoing are often narrated by the Prophet as referring to neighbours and their rights. The deviation in the word jawr is deviation or straying from the Right Path (ṣirāt al-mustaqīm). Thus, there is a nuanced difference between jawr and ẓulm. Jawr is injustice related to straying and deviating from what is right, and ẓulm involves doing wrong by misleading others and concealing the truth from people, thereby oppressing them by keeping them in the dark. Thus, ẓulm has to do with darkness (ẓulma), and jawr has to do with deviation.
There are three kinds of injustice (ẓulm) described in the Qur’an. The first is between man and God; anyone who rejects faith in God is an aggressor (ẓālim): “Those who reject faith and do wrong, Allah will not forgive them” (Q. 4:167). The second is among men, which is the worst kind of injustice. “Those who unjustly eat up the property of the orphans eat fire into their own bodies’ (Q. 4:10). The third is between man and himself. “They harmed us not but they used to do injustice to themselves” (Q. 7: 160).

—The writer is a Bachelor’s student of Law at University of Kashmir. [email protected]


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