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(Sura 4: verses 135 - 136) - On Justice

 Added Oct 24, 2003

Verses 135 and 136 of the fourth chapter (Sura al-Nisa) in the qur'an read as follows:

4:135  O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.

4:136  O ye who believe! Believe in God and His Apostle, and the scripture which He hath sent to His Apostle and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth God, His angels, His Books, His Apostles, and the Day of Judgment, hath gone far, far astray.

The qur'an uses many different modes of address in it's verses. Some are addressed specifically to the people of the book (Jews and Christians), others to humankind in its totality, some to the desert arabs, others to the believing women, and so on. These verses are addressed specifically to those who believe, although, of course, in a general sense, all the qur'an's verses are meant to be reflected upon by all readers.

Verse 135 and 136 are not addressed to mankind (al-nas) as a whole, or to the people of the book, or any other general grouping, but rather to those Muslims who profess to believe, who profess to be striving towards "iman" (faith). This verse and the next are setting down requirements, duties, and behaviours expected of those who strive to be believers. These then, are among the marks, the characteristics, the distinguishing traits, the qualities of one who has iman. (The concept of iman has been covered elsewhere on this website, but for the sake of completeness the information is repeated [with a few modifications related to these verses] here)

What is iman? Although translated as faith or belief, iman is not faith in the commonly held sense of the word.

In a well known verse the Qur'an says: "Say not that You have iman, rather say that you are Muslim, for iman has not yet entered your hearts." (Qur'an 49:14)

Here it is defining being a Muslim and having iman as two separate overlapping circles. First there is the wide circle of being a Muslim, and inside that circle is the circle of iman-a smaller less inclusive circle. A circle within a circle - the relationship is like the heart within the Body, the interior within the exterior, the esoteric and the exoteric, the secret hidden within the breast. But at the same time iman (an interior state of the heart and mind, has an external aspect. It must have an external aspect as pointed out in the command issued in this verse... "stand out firmly for justice..." The interior belief must manifest itself in certain external behaviours. These behaviours do not have to do with the rituals of the religion (fasting, prayer, hajj etc.) but with a nobility of behaviour, a quality of behaviour. We are told by Ali (the Prophet's son-in-law and closest companion):

"Be not mislead by their prayers and fasting...rather, try them when it comes to telling the truth and fulfilling trusts." This is a statement that beautifully clarifies the concept of iman. We are told that outward ritualistic piety is not sufficient, but to look instead at other qualities - qualities that emerge from the proper inner application of the rituals and the changes that this works on the essential substance and character of a person. These qualities are part of the fruit and outward manifestation of iman. If a person does not have this elevated mode of behaviour then his prayers and fasting are not having the appropriate effect. Iman has not entered his heart. (The heart being a reference to the centre through which all the varied streams of a person's consciousness pass.)

Iman then is a potential waiting to unfold, a potential dependent on the interior state of a person's "heart" and the strength of it's connection with higher realities. It's result, and the test of it's veracity, is the actualization of the iman in the character, nobility, and behaviour of a person. The iman, if it has entered the heart, will naturally manifest in certain external ways, and "those who believe" are commanded to bring these qualities to bear on external circumstances.

Stand out for justice
"Giving judgement is such a tremendous affair in which there is no place for "hopefully", "perhaps", or "may be" (Prophetic hadith). This is because whoever has judged has decreed and a decree is something that is done by God or an apostle of God, by the permission of God, or in accordance with principles set down in revelation. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. When someone decrees they must carefully balance the worldly circumstances against what has come down in revelation and what has been demonstrated through the examples of the prophets. In the qur'an, Pharoah attempts to decree but his decree is rejected by his own magicians who recognize that it is not Pharoah's place to issue decrees since his decrees emanate from his own ego and his own desire, and thus they are deprived of the quality of justice. So, judgement without reference to higher realities and subduing of the ego, can result in a type of tyranny.

This is not to say that judgements are not to be issued, but that there is a strong possibility of a very easy slippage into tyranny, since a skewed judgement or a biased judgement is nothing other than a type of tyranny. Any favoritism, any partiality, any egotism is a destroyer of justice and spells the beginning of tyranny. So judgement and justice is a tremendous affair, requiring absolute impartiality and a deep knowledge. This in turn requires a personality and character free of corruption and one that is strongly rooted in spiritual realities. This is why this verse is addressed to those with iman or who are striving towards iman.

The intent of this verse is to eliminate all partiality, all favoritism in one's actions. Put aside ego (partiality to your own opinions). Put aside favoritism to your blood alliances, to your tribal alliances, don't be swayed by wealth or any worldly considerations. When you judge you have to stand as a witness before God - for it is before Him that you are ultimately accountable.

Imam Ali has described just behaviour in his letter to the governor of Egypt, Malik (al-Ashtar). In it he points out that favorites are often more a burden than a help and that annoying a favorite is a small price to pay to achieve justice. Having favorites results immediately in a distortion of perception, a throwing aside of equality, and a skewing of justice. Those who have your ear - those favorites - can distort if not destroy, your judgement. This includes our own self (ego), especially in regards to our animal nature, our desires and passions, and lusts which, if favoured by us, can veil us from perceiving what is most just. So in seeking justice, we are advised to take God as our favorite and stand as a witness before Him since by doing so all favoritism to men or to individual desires falls away. If we fail to do so, the verse reminds us that God Himself will take note of that refusal ("God is well-acquainted with all that ye do").

Imam Ali writes, "See that justice is done towards God and justice is done towards the people by yourself, your own family and those who are close to you among your subjects. For if you do not do so, you have worked wrong. And as for him who wrongs the servants of God, God is his adversary, not to speak of His servants. God renders null and void the argument of whosoever contends with Him. Such a one will be God's enemy until he desists or repents."

"Let the dearest of your affairs be those which are the middlemost in rightfulness (this is because justice involves a fine balance - it is a weighing in the scales to determine the most appropriate action), most inclusive in justice, and most comprehensive in (establishing) the contentedness of the subjects. For the discontent of the common people invalidates the contentedness of favorites, and the discontent of favorites is pardoned at (the achievement of) the contentedness of the masses. Moreover, none of the subjects is more burdensome upon the ruler in ease and less of a help to him in trial than his favorites. (None are) more disgusted by equity, more importunate in demands, less grateful upon bestowal, slower to pardon (the ruler upon his) withholding (favor) and more deficient in patience at the misfortunes of time than the favorites." (excerpted from Imam Ali's letter of advice to Malik al-Ashtar)

So verse 135 deals with not letting ego, passion, and favoritism impair judgement. As to how we deal with those around us when they slip, falter, or show less than ideal Islamic qualities, Imam Ali says:

"(people) ...are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation. Error catches them unaware, deficiencies overcome them, (evil deeds) are commited by them intentionally and by mistake. So grant them your pardon and your forgiveness.... Let the farthest of your subjects from you and the most hateful to you be he who most seeks out the faults of men. For men possess faults, which the ruler more than anyone else should conceal. So do not uncover those of them which are hidden from you, for it is only incumbent upon you to remedy what appears before you. God will judge what is hidden from you. So veil imperfection to the extent you are able; God will veil that of yourself which you would like to have veiled from your subjects. Loose from men the knot of every resentment, sever from yourself the cause of every animosity, and ignore all that which does not become your station. Never hasten to believe the slanderer, for the slanderer is a deceiver, even if he seems to be a sincere advisor." (Imam Ali - letter to Malik al-Ashtar))

4:136  O ye who believe! Believe in God and His Apostle, and the scripture which He hath sent to His Apostle and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth God, His angels, His Books, His Apostles, and the Day of Judgment, hath gone far, far astray.

Again, this verse repeats the address to those who believe and it gives a particular configuration, direction, and structure to the belief. It tells us, "you who have iman - structure your iman in this way. Understand the nature of this structure." It tells us that any who deny this structure have misunderstood the nature of reality. And it reminds us of the seriousness of this misunderstanding by reminding us of the day of judgement - which is when the nature and structure of reality will be laid bare for all to perceive. The day of judgement is not mentioned in the sentence which tells us what to believe, but in the statement which tells us what not to deny.

Look at the sequence here.

First there is God, who is the source and the sustainer of everything in existence. Then there are the angels, who are the forces, the medium through which God communicates with and guides mankind. There has to be an intermediary created force of some type (whether it is the angels or whether it is some other intermediary form of manifestation) because direct contact between the Uncreated (God in His essence) and the created will result in the anhilation of the creatures. Our own createdness and continued existence requires this distancing. Moses asked to witness God directly. God asked Moses to look at a mountain. When God manifested himself to the mountain it was utterly annihilated, turned to dust, to nothingness. So the created beings cannot witness God's essence directly but only in a veiled form, through the intermediary of other created forces.

What is it that the angels communicate but the books of guidance, which are the books of existence in compressed verbal form. The Qur'an is the book given to mankind but the Qur'an itself speaks of the Mother of the Book (Qur'an 43:4 - "And verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in dignity), full of wisdom.") The Qur'an we have is a gateway to the Mother of the Book. The books are gateways to knowledge and understanding - they are guides to help mankind unfold its potential. Notice that the books are mentioned before the Apostles. This is to make clear that the Apostles themselves are receivers of the books, and not their authors. The books have in a sense a higher place than the Apostles since the apostles themselves are followers of the books. This is why we are told to refer anything the apostles say back to the books to determine the veracity of the reported statements.

The Apostles are the recipients and exemplars of God's books through the medium of the angels. They are elevated because of their inherent ability to receive revelation. They have reached upwards towards God and God has sent his guidance down to mankind through them. This is why it is said that they are a mercy to all mankind. Their reaching (their purification of their own natures) and his sending brings these astonishing books as a gift to all mankind. These books are doorways which turn man's eyes in two directions. Towards the horizons of this world and it's limitless wonders and towards the horizons of his own hidden nature (his self) which holds secrets and depths and the capability to extend his understanding  beyond the material world to the other levels of existence to which we are all inexorably moving. In other words it is a book about what man truly is and what existence truly is and about our final destination. The Apostles are personal witnesses to the reality of what is written about in the books.

And we are asked to believe in the books that have been sent down before to the other Apostles - so we are asked to make a connection between our scripture and the previous scriptures - this is part of belief, part of iman. The Qur'an is establishing a continuity of religion throughout history - it is telling us that the source is one and that the communication from God occurs throughout history. It is asking us to attest to this fact, to acknowledge it as part of our basic belief.

We are cautioned not to deny any of the above and also not to deny the day of judgement which is when what we are, what our reality is, is made manifest and in turn the nature of reality is made manifest to us. So then, our own nature (what we made of ourselves) and , our proper place in reality becomes clear to us. We come to know our appropriate place (good or bad) in the scheme of things.

- Irshaad Hussain

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