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Islam, Liberty, and Justice

OurIndonesia – Which is more important in the Islamic point of view: liberty or justice? This question is significant in terms of the current dilemma Muslims are in. Liberty and justice appear to clash with each other. In fact, the Muslim countries are unable to balance liberty and justice, if the haven’t indeed already lost both.

Ideally, both principles should be upheld by the state. Instead Muslims are often forced to opt for one or the other even though the consequences are not beneficial. It is common to hear Islamists criticizing capitalism as being opposed to liberty and proposing that socialism is an alternative system providing utopian justice. Islam (theoretically) is thought to provide a middle ground between capitalism and socialism guaranteeing both liberty and justice.

Thaha Husein, the Egyptian Muslim thinker, in his book Al-fitnah Al-kubra,proposes that capitalism does serve as a basis for liberty but not for justice. On the other hand, contrary to the utopian beliefs, socialist experiments historically deny liberty and produce highly repressive systems.

Moreover, Husein does not see Islamic ideology as a system that automatically guarantees liberty and justice since there have been many dialectical variations between the principles of liberty and justice in Islamic history.

Hence, even though Islam has always been idealised as a perfect (kâmil) and comprehensive (syâmil) system, the historical facts do not support this assertion. Globally, the Muslim society is commonly marked by the absence of liberty, a condition which leads to the absence of justice. On the contrary: where liberty has been experienced, justice has not. Consequently there is frustration, protest and misery and a call for a return to secular authoritarianism.

Initial Balance

In the early history of Islam, the principle of liberty and justice were the two most important pillars of society which Muslims sought to uphold enthusiastically. For example, the wise Caliphs such as Abu Bakr and Umar, always stressed the importance of criticizing their measures and thus an awareness of the importance of the principles of liberty and justice. In that period, liberty and justice were integral part (juz-un lâ yatajazza) of Muslim belief and the essence of the period’s historical importance. (Azzam, 1964: 103)

It was with pride that in that early period; the rulers accepted criticism whenever they deviated (i’wijâj) from public accountability. Indeed, the Muslim community is required to keep their rulers straight (taqwîm) through the traditional control mechanism established in the Qur’an and by prophetic tradition.

That mechanism is known as syûrâ or dialogue mechanism and is not an indigenous Islamic characteristic, but a pre-Islamic Arabic tradition. According to sociologist Robert N. Bellah, those values are very modern for that period (al-qâbiliyyah).

Nevertheless, this mechanism of checks and balances have not been used for a very long time now. For example, the contemporary Muslim thinker, Abied El-Jabiri, criticizes the lack of the current institutionalization of liberty and justice as originally codified in the Medina charter (mîtsâq al-madînah (El-Jabiri, 1992: 86. Thus we see that ideas influencing the Muslim’s political imagination today date back to ancient times.

The Dialectic of Liberty and Justice

In describing the relation in Islam between liberty and justice, the Muslim thinker Hassan Hanafi in his column in the Azzaman daily (20/9/2002) has proposed an interesting idea. In observing Islamic revivalist movement over the last two centuries, Hanafi concluded that within the revivalist camp, thought and movement, liberty and justice are both contradictory concepts (fikratâni li al-takâmul wa al-tanâqud ma‘an). Since Al-Afghani period, liberty and justice have had a dialectical relationship. At times liberty dominates, and at other times, justice subordinates liberty.

Ironically, the dialectic has lead to a disasterous situation in which has liberty has vanished and in which justice has never been realized. Hanafi describes the lack of liberty and justice in the Muslim world, as being analagous to society having both legs amputated (faqd al-sâqain). The Muslim world has failed to live up to the enthusiastic aims of the revivalist movement.

This Hanafi’s thesis can be further elaborated upon by looking at the Muslim world’s development since the spread of modern imperialism. When the Muslim community was first constrained by the twin forces of European imperialism and local despotism, al Afghani advanced two key agendas: independence from imperialism, and freedom from despotism.

Liberty became the central aim because it is only through liberty that justice can be achieved. Here Umar bin Khattab’s remark on liberty serves as an important inspiration: “Why oppress humans, when they were born free?”

It is easy to conclude that during European imperialism, the call for freedom became a basic Islamic doctrine. The Muslim community’s consciousness seemed to believe that in a brighter past Islam had protected the principles of liberty. They believed that the earlier expansion of Islam from the East and West, from China to Spain, was related with the protection of liberty (Azzam 106) — thus the term “Islamic liberation’s nature” (al-thâbi’ al-taharruriy) as used by M. Emarah.

What about justice? The demand for justice is also a key contemporary issue. In Islam, though justice is an essential motivation behind religious belief it is not always sought after (Boisard, 1980: 142). For example, in calling for economic justice and a farmer’s revolution, Al Afghani once said: “Those farmers are naïve! Everyday they hoe the earth, but they are not ready to hoe at the hearts of the rulers who oppress them.”

Similarly, Sayyid Quthb, the famous Ikhwanul Muslimin’s thinker, also emphasized Islamic justice in his masterpiece: “Al-‘Adalah Al-Ijtimaiyyah fi Al-Islam” (social justice in an Islamic perspective).

Unfortunately, liberty and justice as complimentary principles have not become important pillars for development in Muslim countries since independence. Boisard has even written that historically speaking “Islam” had always been used to support oppression and tyranny. The Muslim community always defend themselves by arguing that the reason for this problematic history is that the communities do not actually respect Islamic norms (Boisard, 1980: 150).

Sharing the “Cake” of Liberty

Currently the Indonesian Muslim community enjoys a climate of relative liberty. Having differing opinions, gathering together for dialogue and discussion, is the national reformation’s sweetest fruit. There is a consensus, at least in elite circles, that this climate of relative religious liberty should be protected from despotism and authoritarianism. Liberty and democracy should be sought so as to repair the nation and provide hope for justice.

Ironically, some Islamic groups appear to “hate” this climate of liberty and democracy, claiming that democracy is a kafir system. Yet, this relative condition of liberty and democracy, which is not experienced by many other Muslim countries, is a precondition for growth and development of civil society. Therefore, positive perceptions towards liberty and democracy should be nurtured for the sake of the nation’s benefit. It is unethical for those who do not work for liberty to take the most advantage of it.

The government should utilize this momentum for achieving justice through seeing it as one of the Pancasila principles. Much evidence indicates that liberty without justice leads to the emergence of authoritative regimes. The Arabic saying that “justice is the supreme foundation” (al-‘adl asâs al-mulk) isrelevant here, as is the saying: “no state without ruler, no ruler without funds, no funds without welfare, and no welfare without justice.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.