Islamic social justice
If one can point to an overarching characteristic of our time, concern with justice would surely be near the top of the list. Never in the history of man has there been such a quest for justice, a quest pursued by both individuals and groups in all walks of life and around the world. In this quest, religions have played a vital role, while at the same time, religious movements are continually misunderstood and mis-characterized by opposing groups. The Muslim movements which the Western media refer to as representative of a dangerous Islamic fundamentalism with militant overtones is one example where a misunderstanding has resulted in widespread fear and prohibited what could potentially be a useful partnership. It is not an exaggeration to say that upon hearing the words “Muslim Brotherhood,” many otherwise educated Westerners tend to think only of a terrorist organization, and it is not inconceivable to think that some Muslims may in fact look at the World Council of Churches as yet another example of Western imperialism. The truth is that although Islamic fundamentalism or perhaps more appropriately “revivalism” does have its extremists, a major focal point of some Muslim movements is an attempt to balance the scales of social justice in much the same way that the Christians of the West—through the World Council of Churches—are attempting to rectify situations of poverty, abuse of human rights and other social issues. This is not to dismiss the violence inherent in some Islamic fundamentalist movements, merely to show that the terrorist-like activities of these movements are emphatically not the movements’ main program of action, and are, for instance in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, more a reaction to events of the time that many organizations, including the Brotherhood, responded to in a violent manner.

Kinds of Justice

There are various kinds of justice, and emphasis on certain kinds of justice varies from society to society. One kind of justice can be called positive justice, and is part of a worldview that centers around rational man; an assumption that men are capable of determining their individual or collective interests and can therefore establish rules by which justice is to be served. As social change occurs, the rules are re-evaluated and adjusted accordingly. A second kind of justice assumes that men are incapable of rising above personal failings and therefore justice relies on revelation sources. This can be called Divine justice, and is the basis for the ancient Hebrew, Christian and Islamic worldview, in which the concept of justice is related to the interaction between God’s will and mankind’s destiny, although elements of positive justice finally enter into all three traditions at various times. In all of these religious traditions, there is and always has been a preeminent concern with justice. In Christianity, this synthesis of Divine and positive justice is called the Eternal Law by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and is called shar’ia by Muslims.

This justice can be discussed in terms of several more specific areas, including theology, ethics, and legalities, but what is of increasing current concern is the way in which these religious traditions deal with questions of social justice. The topic most often spoken of is human rights, an issue of major importance in international relations as states fight for sovereignty within their borders, yet also fight to be recognized as equals at the bargaining tables of international diplomacy—not the least of which are the various councils of the United Nations. An understanding of how religions succeed in dispensing social justice is crucial to developing an understanding of how these religions are affecting political processes in the international arena. This essay therefore provides a brief study of Islamic social justice ideas, by first giving a brief introduction to the theological source for social justice, providing some historical background on several prominent Islamic movements concerned with social issues and pointing to some specific actions, and in conclusion, addressing what might be called the relative religious success of Muslim social action.

Social Justice in Islam

The theological basis for social justice in Islam differs from Christianity in one important sense, in that concern with social issues is an essential part of the ritualization of Islam, through the “Pillars of the Faith” laid down by Muhammed. The Five Pillars constitute a set of rules which must be obeyed by every Muslim—for Islam is a remarkably coherent religion, despite its various permutations—to the best of his ability, in order for that person to claim with any truth that he is in fact a Muslim (one who submits to God). One such “rule” is the second pillar, which involves the payment of zakat, a percentage of annual revenue which is to be used for the benefit of the poor and various works of charity. This money is usually given to a local authority, who then distributes the money according to its various programs. One area in which there is some disparity in Islam is in what varying Muslims recognize as the local authorities, which can take the form of certain social movements, or mosques; the money is also given directly to the poor in some areas. Inasmuch as Christianity came out of Judaism, so in many respects did Islam, and there is overwhelming evidence for the Judaic character of this term zakat, in which the acquiring of merit for oneself is indissoluble from the act of giving away a proportion of one’s wealth for the poor. Islam disapproves of people in need...and zakat provides the state with adequate means of maintaining the welfare of all in the community (umma).

To speak of theological justifications for something in Islam is in itself misleading, as theology was never the pre-eminent force that it has been in Christianity until very recently. Islamic lawyers have historically had much more importance than Islamic theologians in virtually every Muslim community, including the two main divisions of Islam, the Sunni and the Shii. The Shii are the main minority (constituting about 15% of the world’s population of Muslims, as opposed to 85% Sunni), and among other differences, can be characterized by a messianic appeal to an ideal of justice, and a rejection of the established authorities. The Shii still, even with their hostility to authorities, do not spend much time in theological reflection. Rather than looking purely to lawyers as do the Sunni, the Shii also look to infallible imams, or religious leaders. The Sunni have no infallible leaders calling upon them to perform certain actions, but in their communities also is the absolute rule of zakat, and across the Islamic world concern for the needy is of tantamount importance.

We can look to Muhammed for the initial concern with social issues, as Muhammed was in essence a reformer, certainly in terms of religious ideals. In fact, he could be called a social reformer. He instituted legislation that improved the status of women, pushed for the emancipation of slaves, and prohibited things that he saw as unjust and immoral, including infanticide. Here we see the beginnings of the Islamic concern with human rights, which are also borne out in the holy text of Islam, the Qur’an. The Qur’an is liberally sprinkled with various references to justice, including this one, perhaps the most important Qur’anic references to justice:
God commands justice and good-doing.... (Q. XV, 92)
...and when you judge among men, you should judge with justice. (Q. IV, 61)7
We see a real attempt in Islam to practically apply the concept of social justice in the work of Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Taymiya and Najm al-Din al-Tawfi, who both talked about the benefits of social justice to all Islam, in the spiritual jihad for the hearts and souls of the world. “Social justice,” Taymiya argued, would “ultimately improve social conditions” and thus “enhance the power of Islam.” Taymiya lived in the late 1200s, in what he perceived as a time of decadence, and thus much of his concern with social justice was on the level of returning Islam to its former powerful status. His writings were preceded by several others, but Taymiya’s writings, along with contemporary Najm al-Tawfi’s, are really the predecessor to modern Islamic concerns with social justice. Najm al-Din al-Tawfi put public interest ahead of all other sources for law—a form of positive justice—which tended to promote the general welfare of the Muslim people. Several writers continued to follow this tradition, and in modern times, the Islamic conception of justice has continued along these lines, metamorphosing from the early abstract idea of Divine justice to an idea of social justice as being central to Islamic theology, and more importantly, to the daily life of Muslims around the world. Partially as a result of increased contact with Western values and legal systems, Muslims have become more aware of their laws, and in consequence, have set social justice concepts at the apex of their interactions. This is again a reflection of spiritual jihad, but here the battle is for the hearts and souls of fellow Muslims.

Muslim Groups

More and more concerned with the plight of other Muslims, the Islamic world-wide community looks to ideas of social justice to bolster the status of Islam. In response to public concern about Islam’s status in the lives of Muslims battered by modernity, several Muslim groups were formed to specifically address questions of social justice, the most prominent of which are the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimoon) in Egypt, and the Islamic Society (Jamaat-i-Islami) in Pakistan. There are many other Islamic movements, some more militant than others. These two organizations are important because they were both founded largely in response to the West, and are thus looked at as anti-Western and therefore dangerous, and also because they have both become very widespread. They are both primarily concerned with a form of gradual adaptation, rather than revolutionary tactics, such as the Islamic revival groups al-Jihad (Egypt), Hizbullah (Lebanon), and the Islamic Republican Party (Iran). Although the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood for political violence is not without justification, it is not the primary motive of the society.

One aspect of the success of a movement is simply how widespread the movement becomes, and in both the Muslim Brotherhood and in Jamaat-i-Islami we have organizations which have world-wide appeal for Muslims. The Brotherhood has inspired movements with similar aims and goals in the Sudan, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf and Africa; the Jamaat-i-Islami now has affiliated organizations in India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Both organizations have sympathizers in many countries, not the least of which are the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Great Britain.

In both of these movements, one can sense not an ingrained hostility towards the West per se, but certainly a feeling of being entrapped by encircling Western cultural values, secular nationalism, and Western imperialism. Often ignored by popular media personalities reporting on Islam is the fact that these movements have similar feelings—a general rejection—towards the irreligious values of Marxism and its materialist tendencies. The point of both of these organizations is to point out to Muslims feeling overwhelmed by Marxist or Western values that neither alternative is viable, and that Islam is in itself a complete answer to the challenges of modernity. Each movement is an attempt to come to terms with the realities of modern life and modify Islamic standards in order to fit Muslim societies into an increasingly globally interdependent world, but they differ in what core beliefs constitute an adherence to Islam while still insuring social justice and a place in the circle of modern nation-states.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, but did not achieve real prominence until shortly after World War II. The Brotherhood began to reproach young men who were attracted to foreign economic systems, and told them that Islam was in fact ideally formulated for economic survival in modern times. Islam, the Brotherhood asserted, recognizes private ownership and indeed “the right of disposition and the transfer of property,” provided that public interest and the general welfare of the Muslim community takes precedence. Islam also urges believers to exploit natural resources, as long as the good of the general Muslim community is of tantamount importance in such dealings. Central to the belief structure of the Muslim Brotherhood is the concept of “just standards” upon which society must be based. As long as this concept is underlying any change, industrialization and related activities of modernization can be accommodated. A belief in free enterprise with a large role for the state in economics is a core belief; the Brotherhood further states that all public utilities should be nationalized, and various other measures should be taken in order to ensure a balance between freedom and equality, with equality being the pinnacle of social justice. The understanding of equality being literally equated with justice is a key difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami.


The Jamaat-i-Islami was founded in Pakistan in 1941 by Abul Ala Mawdudi, and similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, finds the majority of its most stringent adherents in the educated young men of the middle class. The movement advocates the “Islamisation” of politics and society, stating that religion and politics are indivisible. Economically, these Muslims stress individual ownership more than the Brotherhood, and reject state ownership, particularly of land. The movement’s concern with social justice is not merely with distributive justice, as is the Brotherhood’s. The assertion here is that Islam is by nature just, and the establishment of a truly Islamic state serves the purpose of social justice. Thus the Jamaat-i-Islami strove to create in Pakistan an Islamic republic, but were defeated in this by the framers of the constitutions of Pakistan. They are still concerned with the ideal of an Islamic nation-state, and look to Iran for inspiration.
Both organizations are involved on a daily basis with combating social inequality on a massive scale. Despite the Western media’s claims, not all Muslim movements are oriented towards terrorist activities, and a brief examination of the activities of these two groups certainly bears this out. Before discussing specific activities, an area of general concern should be mentioned. One issue of social concern in the West has been racism, particularly the case of South African apartheid, which has of course recently changed for the better. It is worth pointing out—since racism is of such concern in the West—that Islam itself is against racism (although individuals still harbor personal prejudices), and thus has no “Programs to Combat Racism,” as does the World Council of Churches. Islam sought to accord the individual a higher level of esteem and self-respect, recognizing no distinction among believers–such as race, class or color–save their membership in Islam (Q. XLIX, 10).

Women’s Rights

An additional area of concern in Western minds is women’s rights. Here again, Islam and members of the Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami are actually far more progressive than many people are willing to admit. In the eyes of Islam, women are the equals of men. Islam resisted the early tribal notion that a girl child was a disaster, and raised her status. What must be understood is that Muhammed, while indeed a social reformer, had to work within the limits of his time, and accomplished quite a bit towards elevating women, although he was too wise a man to go to extremes at the time. In modern Islam, even the spokesman and general guide of the Brotherhood (Hasan al-Hudaybi) admitted that women can pursue almost anything a man can, and of his own daughters he took pride in the fact that the elder is now a doctor and practices professionally. The second is a graduate of the Faculty of Science and is now a teacher.

These religious organizations must be more than ideologically progressive, however, and must be benefiting their fellow man at some level; they must be succeeding to some extent, or the movements would have long ago died out. The Muslim Brotherhood would have ended with its suppression by Gamal Abd al-Nasir in the mid-1950s, and the Jamaat-i-Islami would have ended with the creation of Pakistan. But, as we know, both movements have continued and in fact seem to be growing in the midst of what appears to be a worldwide religious revivalism. What maintains the momentum of these movements is their pro-active role in the daily lives of Muslims around the world.

In the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood was very active at a grass-roots level, as mainstream-based popular support for the Brotherhood and its activities began to emerge, and the organization built and supported Islamic medical clinics and various social welfare organizations. Even prior to the 1980s, the Brotherhood was involved in studying farm exploitation and labor organizations with an eye towards correcting abuses, helping students make a more profitable use of their studies, and forming a variety of small committees to help people in all walks of life deal with day-to-day concerns. The Jamaat-Islami is also involved with educational programs, medical centers and general assistance to Muslims in need in almost every area in which the movement is based.

The two largest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, have specific ways of dealing with social issues, and these ways meet with varying success in purely physical terms. More importantly, they also meet with varying religious success. In order to survive, all religions must appear to be continuing to successfully assist humankind in its disparate crises. In the case of Islam, the religion is fighting battles on several fronts; the leaders of the fundamentalist groups see the temptations of the West diverting some Muslims from Islam, but they are also confronted with the basic questions of social justice we have outlined here. In fighting this multi-faceted battle, some Muslims have come to the conclusion that the battle against the West should in fact become more pronounced, and thus engage in terrorist activities. This is emphatically not the same battle that is being fought by many Muslims against social inequalities and the two should not be lumped together, as is the media’s wont in the West. This is not to deny the militancy and extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood, but only to say that the whole picture must be shown.


The success of Islamic social justice is difficult to measure, as is any religious activity, but the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood in helping war-torn families in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and the Jamaat-i-Islami members trying to feed the masses in India, are images that should also be beamed out from CNN’s satellites, and not just the terrorist actions of al-Jihad. The Islamic fundamentalist movement is often portrayed as being part of a lower-class, uneducated response to modernity, but in fact the Muslim Brotherhood’s membership in the 1990s reflects doctors, engineers, pharmacists, dentists and lawyers, and the movement is achieving renewed success as it dominates professional associations in Egypt and elsewhere.

The Jamaat-i-Islami is also attracting more and more of the emerging middle class of India to its organization, which is furthering its financial status and thus its ability to render assistance. The Islamic world is trying to come to grips with another world, and in the pain of that wrestling match, questions of social justice are being addressed on both sides, in a humane and just manner.
The West must put aside its fears and try to understand both the violence of Islamic revivalism in some cases, and the other side, the social justice side, realizing that there are those Muslims willing to fight the tide of poverty, hunger, and disease that is sweeping both East and West, both North and South.

Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Ahmad, Mumtaz. Islamic Fundamentalism in South-Asia: The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat, in Fundamentalisms Observed,1:457-530, Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  2. As-Sadr, Muhammed Baqir. Contemporary Man and The Social Problem, Yasin T. Al-Jibouri, trans. Iran: World Organization for Islamic Services, 1986.
  3. Baldick, Julian. Early Islam, in The Worlds Religions: Islam, ed. Peter Clarke. London: Routledge, 1990, 7-22.
  4. _____________. Islam: The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  5. Hawwa, Saeed. The Muslim Brotherhood, Abdul Karim Shaikh, trans. Kuwait: Al faisal Islamic Press, 1985.
  6. Heper, Martin, and Raphael Israeli, eds. Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East. London: Croom Helm, 1984.
  7. Hunter, Shireen T., ed. The Politics of Islamic Revivalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
  8. Khadduri, Majid. The Islamic Conception of Justice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
  9. Mernissi, Fatima. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Mary Jo Lakeland, trans. London: Virago Press, 1993.
  10. Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  11. Nash, Manning. Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia and Indonesia, in Fundamentalisms Observed,1:691-739, Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  12. Rouner, Leroy S., ed. Human Rights and the Worlds Religions. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
  13. Sachedina, Abdulaziz A. Activist Shi’ism in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, in Fundamentalisms Observed,1:403-456, Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  14. Voll, Jon O. Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan, in Fundamentalisms Observed,1:345-402, Marty, Martin E. & R. Scott Appleby, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.