Oppression and tyranny are the worst companions for the hereafter.
—ʿALI IBN ABI TALIB (Jafri, Peak of Eloquence)
Islamic justice trajectories involve both social and political dimensions. Disagreement about leader selection in the early Muslim community resulted in deep intellectual and political divisions. Debates about political justice were at the center of these divisions. In the medieval period, the focus shifted toward social justice to deal with the declining social order. These political and social justice trajectories shaped political philosophies over centuries. Contemporary Islamists utilize the language of Islamic political and social justice,1 but social justice has become especially significant in Islamist political strategy.2
This chapter explains the philosophical foundations of Islamist justice theory developed by Sayyid Qutb and ʿAli Shariati, mainly focusing on conceptions of social justice. Qutb and Shariati do not merely use static religious resources to develop a political philosophy of justice; instead, they define social justice as praxis.3 Primarily inspired by Islam’s cosmological framework, Qutb and Shariati argue that only a free agency defined as God’s vicegerent can implement justice. Specifically, free human agency and the voluntary practice of benevolent/charitable acts are constitutive social justice principles. Qutb and Shariati revert to the spirit of the political justice proponents from the early period of Islam rather than using the conceptions of the medieval period to construct new social justice paradigms. However, the line between political justice and social justice is generally ambiguous in their writings.
Qutb and Shariati build their social justice theories as metanarratives4 within the universal truth-claim of Islam. Both employ highly flexible interpretations of Islam to inform their conceptions of social justice instead of a scriptural literalist position. This approach helps them avoid utopian narratives that fail to address the practical social problems. In one broad stroke, they recast Islam as the sole panacea to modern social ills, and, with that, they hope to undermine the appeal of the Western ideologies. Their method, practice-oriented and flexible interpretation of religious principles, helps them legitimize Islamist social justice policy over the Western models (a.k.a. “Islam is the solution”).
This chapter derives insights from Qutb and Shariati’s political philosophy to explain the political attitudes and behavior of pious Muslims. The analysis deliberately focuses on “Muslims” rather than on “Islam” in studying conceptions of social and political justice. This approach is different from the Western-centric, Orientalist approaches. Orientalists study Islam using the concept of “religion” as defined in the Western intellectual sense. As Shahab Ahmed argues, the history of church-state relations in the West resulted in a compartmentalized social order where religion as a universal truth-claim involving “private religious norms” exists in separation from the “public political norms” such as the secular truth-claims like capitalism, liberal democracy, or communism.5 However, there is no church in Islam. Hence, the institutionalization and compartmentalization of Islam as a religion will fail to understand Islam’s diffuse and distributive nature, which Ahmed describes as a “way of life” (din) that require the continuous participation of human agency in both public and private spheres. As Ahmed succinctly states, “When we organize the world in terms of the sacred/religion vs. secular/nonreligion binary, this just does not help us in—indeed actively obstructs us from—recognizing and grasping central ways in which Muslims have conceptualized being Muslim.”6 The importance of this statement cannot be overstated, as it should guide us in avoiding the essentialist approaches regarding such questions as “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” or “Does Islam establish social justice with zakat?”
As discussed below, Qutb and Shariati take Islam as a way of life without using the sacred and secular binary to build their social justice theories. Liberal justice theories are strictly secular and imply a consensus about minimally acceptable rights and secular distribution.7 In contrast, the Islamist conception avoids the religious/secular dichotomy, takes religion as a way of life, and, subsequently, uses divine principles to provide solutions to the worldly injustices through active engagement of free and conscientious individuals. Islamic democracy models follow similar reasoning.8 Islamic justice theory stems from a cosmological worldview that views man as the vicegerent of God on earth. Within this cosmology, man’s actions are part of and serve a balance between God and his creation. Political and social justice are manifestations of this balance.
The treatment of Qutbian and Shariatian texts in this chapter and the application of Islamist social justice theory to the analysis of Muslim political attitudes and behavior in other chapters of this volume also utilize a specific method in the study of the Muslim agency. This method is used by a prominent student of Islam, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Náim. In his seminal study dealing with global justice and human rights from an Islamic perspective, An-Náim states, “This emphasis on the agency of the human subject in determining what justice means for her, and striving for realizing her own conception, leads me to focus on Muslims as believers seeking justice, rather than speaking of Islam as a religion.”9 By promoting and applying this approach, this chapter shows that Islamist social justice is not merely a transcendental idea but rather a praxis carried by human agency’s free will. This chapter argues that contemporary Islamists merge conceptions of social and political justice within a single model of justice. Furthermore, in that model, the Muslim agency plays a critical role. The analysis shows how the fundamental ideas related to justice trajectories are utilized in the modern age, not only by Qutb and Shariati but also by other prominent Islamists, including Mawdudi, Al-Sạdr, Nursi, and al-Ghannūshī.
The chapter first discusses how Qutb and Shariati build their philosophy on the central tenet of Islamic faith, tawhid, or belief in God’s unity. Second, it proposes that both intellectuals put particular emphasis on human agency. They are deeply concerned about free will and freedom of conscience as fundamental prerequisites of Islamic social justice. Third, this chapter demonstrates that Qutb and Shariati employ the golden age, the early prophetic community, as an ideal social justice model rather than reverting to the social justice paradigm in the classical Islamic state. The former embodies the praxis of social justice and the ideal Muslim agency, as seen in the persona of different historical figures. Finally, the analysis puts Qutb and Shariati’s ideas in a comparative perspective by providing a short discussion about the justice theories of other Islamist scholars. Consequently, this chapter provides several insights about some contemporary issues in the Muslim experience, including the protest movements in the Arab world, the tactical use of “justice” as a dominant concept in the political party ideologies, and anti-imperialist attitudes in the Muslim periphery. The subsequent chapters provide empirical investigations of these insights in Muslim-majority societies.
Sayyid Qutb: Law and Social Justice
The Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb is known as the ideologue of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and some violent transnational organizations. However, his ideas in Social Justice in Islam, Milestones, and his Koranic exegesis, In the Shade of the Quran, have deeper philosophical connotations. His work is an example of a sophisticated religious philosophy that puts individual freedom and sharia at the center of a proposed harmonious society where economic and political justice prevail.10 Another defining characteristic of his work is the criticism of Western societies, because, in his view, they neglect either the spiritual or the material side of humans.
Social Justice in Islam was published in 1949, in the aftermath of two devastating world wars and at the dawn of the Cold War. In response to the capitalist and communist systems as grand economic models, Qutb developed an Islamic theory, acknowledging man’s spiritual and material needs. His social justice theory builds on divine principles (e.g., tawhid) to address man’s spiritual side, but it also recognizes the material needs. As detailed below, the Qutbian social justice theory relies on the twin pillars of inner purification and the necessity of law. In an Islamic society, freedom of conscience, emancipation, and charitable acts play a central role in upholding these pillars.
Tawhid and Justice
The divine principle of tawhid plays a vital role in Qutb’s social justice theory. Tawhid can be translated as oneness [of God], unity, that God is One (al-ʿAḥad) and Single (al-Wāḥid), and it is patently the most important pillar of the Islamic faith. Qutb and Shariati employ this concept as a foundational principle of a harmonious society.11 From the same principle, they also derive the elements of justice theory, namely, equality, freedom, and human dignity.12
In Social Justice in Islam, Sayyid Qutb explains social justice in a grand theory of Islam that deals with God, the universe, life, and humanity.13 Qutb develops his theory in rather broad terms to encompass interactions among these elements. In this complex picture, tawhid (unity) connects everything, integrating diversity into a meaningful whole. As he states, “Because, then universe is a unity emanating from a single Will; because man is himself a part of the world, dependent upon and related to all the other parts; and because individuals are as atoms, dependent upon and related to all the other parts; and because they must have the same dependence upon, and relation to, one another.”14
This theory has important implications if considered in conjunction with Qutb’s analysis of Western civilization. He argues that a duality characterizes Christianity and modern Western civilization. Some manifestations of this binary framework include the distinction between the earth and heavens, religion and state, or the material and the spiritual. In contrast, tawhid makes Islam a unity and gives it an all-encompassing nature that combines the work and prayer or religion and state. It does not put the material at odds with the spiritual.15
Just as life, the universe and the world constitute a unity despite being composed of different things. Human personality is also a unity made of different desires (mud and spirit). In its servitude to God and through his prayers, humanity joins with God in unity. Qutb describes a harmony that does not favor the material over spiritual, society over the individual, or one generation over another. This harmony is related to a single goal, “namely, that the freedom of the individual and of society should be equally recognized without any mutual opposition and that the generations, one and all, should work together for the growth and progress of human life and for its orientation towards the Creator of life.”16
For Qutb, social justice is not limited to material needs or economic distribution as in communism nor merely to spiritual needs as in Christianity. Life consists of not only material desires; in Islam, it also consists of “mercy, love, help, and a mutual responsibility. . . . There are, then, these two great facts. The absolute, just, and coherent unity of existence, and the general mutual responsibility of individuals and societies. On these two facts, Islam bases its realization of social justice, having regard for the basic elements of the nature of man, yet not unmindful of human abilities.”17
In effect, Qutb refers to a kind of cosmic balance, a perfectly harmonious social order in which man is given no duty beyond his capacity. Neither the needs of man nor the welfare of society is neglected. In contrast to communism, Islamic justice does not require absolute economic equality because individuals differ in their material and spiritual endowments. However, Qutb acknowledges that desert (based on effort and hard work) and equality in opportunity are essential pillars of social justice.18 Islam demands that every individual gain competence by freeing himself from the constraints of material needs. In Qutb’s words, Islam “prescribes the claims of the poor upon the wealth of the rich, according to their needs, and according to the best interests of the society, so that social life may be balanced, just, and productive.”19 How can one establish this balance between individual and society? To answer this question, Qutb elaborates on social justice principles and assigns a central role to the human agency.
Human Agency and Social Justice
For Qutb, three principles form the foundation of social justice in Islam: absolute freedom of conscience, the complete equality of all men, the firm mutual responsibility in society (or solidarity).20 All three require the active involvement of human agency. Social justice depends on the fulfillment of man’s spiritual and material needs. There should be an inner conviction about the value of social justice (as in Christianity) on the spiritual side. On the material side, an individual should be willing to pay the cost and be ready to defend social justice (as in socialism).21
Inner conviction and desire for social justice will be possible to the extent that man obtains profound freedom of conscience, “by freeing the human conscience from servitude to anyone except Allah and from submission to any save Him.”22 Here, the idea of tawhid, the concept of rizq (provision), and the particular psychology at the intersection of these notions is significant. First, the unquestionable oneness of God, who holds a monopoly as the sole provider (ar-Razzāq), leads to a direct relationship between God and his servant. In Islam, the emphasis is on servitude to God and on banning any distractions that will lead to servitude to any other creature/notion. Second, the belief that provision is in God’s monopoly results in a feeling of security that keeps man free of fear and anxiety. Since exclusive servitude will require the belief that any other creature is incapable of cutting or preventing any part of the provision, this makes individuals free from the anxiety of earning a livelihood. While this mechanism is not automatic and, according to Qutb, does not rule out causality or the role of material transactions, it nonetheless “strengthens the human heart and human conscience; it sets the poor man who is anxious over his livelihood on a level with a man who thinks that his provision is in his own hand, to be won with all his strength and resource.”23 He acknowledges that conscience is not immune to social forces because it may fall prey to the consequences of holding particular values like materialism. However, when Islam intervenes, it will reduce the effect of material values, put these values in the proper place, and equip man with dignity.24
The second foundational principle of social justice, equality, will be possible to the extent that man can obtain the freedom of conscience. When man frees himself from fear of livelihood and poverty and engages in exclusive servitude to God, he will gain his dignity and honor. This condition will lead to full equality between the poor and the wealthy.25 As a foundational principle of justice, equality originates from the God-given nobility and the unity of humanity sharing one origin and similar experiences. Qutb cites a famous hadith of Prophet Muhammad: “All people are equal as the teeth of a comb.”26 To sum up, Qutb defines equality within the all-encompassing nature of Islam that deals with material and spiritual life. It is established with freedom of conscience from “all artificial values, from all outward appearances, from all material necessities.”27
The third principle of the Qutbian justice system is the mutual responsibility, a principle that requires solidarity within the umma. While Islam helps an individual obtain freedom and equality in the perfect sense, it also places some restraints concerning mutual responsibility. As Qutb succinctly states, “Society has its interests, human nature has its claims, and a value also attaches to the lofty aims of religion. So, Islam sets the principle of individual responsibility over [against] that of individual freedom; and besides that it sets the principle of social responsibility, which makes demands alike on the individual and on society.”28
The human agency plays a vital role in realizing this principle. Every individual has a duty toward social welfare and safety and for helping the poor and the orphans. Every individual also has the responsibility to prevent the vice because the whole community will be harmed if evil takes root. Society, in turn, has a responsibility to help its poor and destitute members. In effect, “the whole Islamic community is one body, and it feels all things in common; whatever happens to one of its members, the remainder of its members are also affected.”29
Qutb’s theory of social justice starts from the idea of tawhid and locates the human agency within a divinely inspired integrated order that combines the earth and the heavens, and the material and the spiritual. Man’s relation to God, universe, world, society, and other individuals gains its meaning within a cosmological unity that integrates diversity in these different realms. Man, as the agent of social justice, emerges from this unity-oriented worldview. Freedom of conscience and absolute equality breeds the feeling of mutual responsibility and solidarity that makes social justice possible. However, Qutb is aware that social justice cannot always be possible even when man is free. Practical implementation of social justice is neither easy nor automatic. How can, then, an Islamic society establish social justice by free human agency situated within a “unity” worldview?
Social Justice as Praxis
Qutb is aware that human nature is selfish and inclined to the love of material wealth. However, establishing an Islamic just society will require a comprehensive justice model above and beyond material wealth distribution. At a minimum, legal measures are necessary for implementing social justice, but more important is the purification of the soul to overcome human ills like selfishness, greed, and the love of money.30 Educating individuals in freedom of conscience helps them work toward the good of society and motivates voluntary behavior in protection of the law. This is unquestionably the critical first step in the implementation of Islamic social justice.
Qutb presents examples of zakat and charity to demonstrate how the praxis of social justice works in Islam. In Islamic law, distributing a fixed rate of wealth (zakat) is obligatory, and the state can enforce its collection. However, more important is the institution of charity imposed without a fixed rate. Engaging in charity is left to the discretion of believers. For Qutb, charitable act is the essential foundation of social justice policy. The charitable act matters a great deal because “it is the outward sign of charity and brotherly feeling, to both of which Islam attaches a supreme importance; it is an attempt to establish the mutual ties of mankind and social solidarity by means of an individual perception of what is necessary and a personal concept of charity.”31
Charity is not only about helping the poor or distributing material wealth; for Qutb,32 any act of kindness toward humanity, society, animals, or the environment is considered an act of charity. Human agency’s engagement in this act is the foundation of the inner purification of conscience and the belief in solidarity. The psychological mechanism highlighted here stems from the notion of sacrifice. Since human nature is conducive to selfishness and love of money, the charitable act works its way toward purifying human conscience by helping the man give up what is dear to him and what has a powerful grip on him.
Reaching spiritual purification through charitable acts is a necessary but not sufficient condition for implementing social justice. The existing political and economic system should also be compatible with the ideals of Islamic social justice. For political governance, Qutb introduces his political theory of Islam involving three principles: “justice on the part of the rulers, obedience on the part of the ruled, and consultation between ruler and ruled.”33 Rulers should implement and maintain complete equality among citizens regardless of origin, race, and religion. In exchange, the ruled should be obedient to the ruler, but this is not unconditional. Obedience should not be about a ruler’s privileges or his outstanding qualities. Rather, a ruler is obeyed only because he obeys God and follows Islamic law. Qutb argues that it is necessary to get rid of a ruler who abandons the law.34 He believes that “no ruler may oppress the souls or the bodies of Muslims, nor dare he infringe upon their sanctities nor touch their wealth.”35 If this happens, this leader should be held accountable as he loses his qualification for being a leader. Finally, there should be consultation between the ruler and the ruled. While it is not clear what Qutb exactly has in mind as a political model, his ideas are reminiscent of those scholars’ views who propose that Islam can play a positive role in the founding of the pluralistic institutions.36
In economic governance, Qutb invokes the well-known maxim of “there should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm (lā ḍarar wa lā ḍirār).”37 Within this general maxim, both law and inner conviction are necessary for implementing social welfare. This general framework, however, does not ensure that distributive justice and charitable act will occur. Therefore, Qutb introduces additional principles that ensure the compatibility between an Islamic economic system and social justice. Islam accepts private ownership and wealth; however, this does not come with irresponsible economic freedom. There are certain restrictions on the disposal of wealth because “property belongs to society and is merely administered by an individual, so that if he leaves no issue, the property reverts to its original ownership by the community.”38 This is different from communism because Islam firmly established the property right. The property owner serves as the steward of property and is required to use it for the good of society after meeting his or her needs. This restriction is necessary because Islam forbids lavish spending and prohibits wastefulness, as seen in the capitalistic systems. Such lifestyles, according to Qutb, destroy society and create great injustices.39
Qutb believes that man is the vicegerent of God and needs to fulfill his spiritual and intellectual capacity to realize his God-given nobility. If man spends his whole life pursuing his basic material needs, he cannot fully realize this capacity. Through institutions like zakat and charity, a portion of wealth is given to the poor to remove the fear of provision and allow every individual to satisfy their spiritual needs and fulfill their intellectual capacities.40 Only then will individual emancipation, human dignity, and ultimate justice be possible.
In conclusion, Qutb embeds his social justice theory within the divine principle of tawhid, builds it on freedom of conscience and equality, and maintains it through inner conviction and law. He presents a detailed account of political and economic governance and specific laws for sustaining the ideal just society in Islam. In this complex picture, social justice is not merely about economic redistribution but rather about human dignity, freedom, and Islamic law to protect these qualities. Law has a unique role in this system because obedience to the law does not restrict freedom. In contrast, it allows the individual to be free and governed because of the law’s compatibility with human nature (fiṭrā).41
Is Qutbian social justice a utopia or a realistic praxis? To answer this question, we need to study the role of the prophetic community in Qutb’s writings. Qutb anchors his theory in the praxis of social justice during the golden age. The political theory accompanying Islam’s just order, according to Qutb, was in place even after the death of the Prophet during the reign of Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿAli. However, due to ʿUthmān’s weak rule and Umayyad family’s lack of understanding of the Islamic spirit and their tendency toward greed and corruption, Islamic political theory was separated from the spirit of Islam. He mostly blames Muʿāwiya for corrupting Islam’s true spirit and bringing a governance model not compatible with Islamic social justice. “The greatest crime of Muʿāwiya, therefore, was that he destroyed the spirit of Islam at the very beginning of his reign by a complete suppression of its moral elements.”42 This was the result of some unfortunate decisions of community leaders who failed to select ʿAli as the caliph. These developments ended the social justice implementation that was so well established during the time of Prophet Muhammad.
However, this historical transformation does not point to an ever-deteriorating linear process. Qutb believes that Islam’s spirit and the praxis of justice have always remained alive. He uses such examples as ʿAli against ʿUthmān and Muʿāwiya, rebellions against the Umayyads, and the later example of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz to show that ideal models of Islamic social justice continued to exist in different periods. The best embodiment of praxis of justice, in effect, appears to be the second caliph, ʿUmar, who had the inner conviction and established the justice through charity and perfect implementation of sharia. Qutb provides many examples demonstrating how ʿUmar had helped the poor, distributed all of his wealth in charity, put public interest above his personal gain, and always applied the law equally regardless of race, religion, or origin. A similar treatment can be traced for his account of Abū Bakr and ʿAli, but, in general, he cites many stories about ʿUmar to demonstrate the perfect praxis of social justice.43
The golden age is not meant to serve as a distant ideal. Taking a revivalist position, Qutb aims to educate a vanguard generation that will practice social justice.44 His emphasis on ʿUmar is hardly a coincidence as it allows him to integrate inner conviction and the perfect application of sharia, according to the spirit of Islam. For Shariati, however, the law is an entity that should be viewed with suspicion as it sometimes serves the goals of despots. Henceforth, Shariati focuses on Islam’s spirit and chooses to present the noble struggle of ʿAli, not ʿUmar, as an example demonstrating the ultimate praxis of social justice.
ʿAli Shariati: Rebellion and Social Justice
Marx, Fanon, and Shia scholars shaped ʿAli Shariati’s interpretation of Islam and world history. Primarily inspired by Marx’s historical materialism, Shariati provides a dialectical account of Islam, history, and class struggle. According to Ervand Abrahamian, Shariati rejects institutionalized Marxism of communist/socialist parties and accepts Marx as “predominantly a social scientist revealing how rulers exploited the ruled, how the laws of ‘historical determinism’—not ‘economic determinism’—functioned, and how the superstructure of any country, particularly its dominant ideology and political institutions, interacted with its socioeconomic infrastructure.”45 With this selective and critical reading of Marxism and Western philosophy, Shariati presents Islam as a revolutionary ideology, reminiscent of liberation theology. One can trace the resemblance of his thought system to that of Qutb, especially in the role of tawhid and human agency in social justice.
Tawhid and Justice
Tawhid plays a central role in Shariati’s social justice theory. In a lecture titled Worldview of Tawhid,46 Shariati puts the tawhidi worldview (monotheism) at odds with shirk worldview (polytheism) using a dialectical framework. For Shariati, tawhid directly relates to the social and political order and the historical struggles of the oppressed masses against tyranny (ẓulm). Shirk, on the other hand, is a worldview that involves a multiplicity of gods, which results in duality, or multiplicity, in the physical world. In contrast, in the tawhidi worldview, the physical and social world is perceived as unity or harmony. Just as tawhid does not accept duality between the body and spirit or contradiction between man and nature, tawhidi worldview does not accept class differences, divisions between the rulers and the oppressed, or racial and economic contradictions in the social realm:
One further consequence of the worldview of tawhid is the negation of the dependence of man on any social force, and the linking of him, in exclusivity and in all his dimensions, to the consciousness and will that rule over being. Tawhid bestows upon men independence and dignity. Submission to Him alone—the supreme norm of all being impels man to revolt against all lying powers, all humiliating fetters of fear and greed.47
Shirk, however, justifies these contradictions. The difference between tawhid and shirk is reminiscent of the distinction between materialistic and religious visions, as seen in the Qutbian philosophy. In effect, Shariati argues that humanity has always been divided into two opposing poles. Throughout history, “the pole that represented corruption, crime, exploitation, ignorance, slavery, racism, imaginary virtues, and impediments to human progress, has always been at odds with justice, human consciousness, growth, and those who struggle to unite humanity.”48
Shariati metaphorically uses the story of Cain and Abel to depict various manifestations of this duality. Abel, as a herdsman, represents a phase in human history during which livelihood depended on nature, hunting, and gathering. On the other hand, Cain was a farmer and represented a phase in which private property and monopoly became the economic norms. He argues, “All men are of ‘Abelian’ character because resources are equally at everyone’s disposal. Individualism, individual ownership, monopoly, ‘mine,’ and ‘yours’ have not yet developed in man. On the other hand, Cain exemplifies an order in which a person fences a piece of land, tags his name to it and begins to exploit and enslave others.”49
Shariati’s reading of Abel and Cain’s story has some very significant implications about Islamic conceptions of justice. With this polarity, social polytheism replaces the monotheistic world vision. Monotheism unites the material and spiritual in man and creates a harmonious order and a just society. In contrast, polytheism’s divine order creates an inherent duality in man and leads to a hierarchical social system. This system creates the subjective polytheistic religion, disguised as true religion only to justify objective inequalities.50 That is, “social objectivity creates religious subjectivity in order that the latter can manifest itself as the creator of the former.”51
Human Agency and Justice
Human agency and freedom are crucial components of Shariati’s justice theory. Rebellion against the oppressors to institute justice and equality becomes possible when man acts freely as the vicegerent of God.52 God created man from mud and breathed his soul into him, making him two-dimensional.53 Man swings between the lowliness of mud and lofty ideals emanating from the spirit of the Lord. Man is free to choose either pole, and hence becomes responsible. Shariati states, “Possession of will and freedom creates responsibility. And so, from the Islamic point of view, man is the only creature who is responsible not only for his own fate, but he also has a mission to fulfill the Divine Purpose in the world. Thus, he is a trustee in the universe.”54
Man needs a religion that will protect him from one-dimensionality, either tilting toward the materialistic or the ascetic side. Only Islam is capable of providing two-dimensionality. Consequently, man can struggle to bring justice to the world because of having responsibility and freedom. Just as man is defined with freedom of conscience and only serves God in Qutb’s theory, human beings are free to make conscientious choices as vicegerents of God, according to Shariati’s view.55
However, man is confined to four prisons preventing him from realizing his potential: nature, history, society, and self. Modern men can realize this potential only if they can avoid these deterministic prisons. Through learning and science, man can get out of the first three; however, it is more difficult to get out of the prison of self. To support this argument, Shariati distinguishes ensan and bashar, two terms used to describe different qualities of human beings. Bashar is the biological creature; it is a “being,” whereas ensan is “becoming,” an extraordinary creature with unique properties and significant potential. In Shariati’s words:
Ensan has three characteristics: a) he is self-conscious, b) he can make choices; and, c) he can create. All of man’s other characteristics derive their origin from these three. We are, therefore, Ensan relative to the degree of our consciousness and our creativities. Accordingly, when the characteristics of an ideal Ensan is clarified, we must try to identify the factors that hinder man in his becoming, and by removing them we can pursue our inherent and instinctive movement in the process of becoming an Ensan.56
Shariati argues that Western civilization can release man from his three prisons (nature, history, and society) by using scientific knowledge and providing material needs.57 Saving man from the prison of self, however, is quite challenging. As human beings gain material comfort, they end up with futility and rebellion, which directs man to asceticism and subjectivity. Hence, ideologies like existentialism or hippie movements had significant appeal in the West. The question is, then, how can man, as a free and responsible agent, make a difference? For Shariati, this is possible only with a lofty goal that can help man negate his self. Like Qutb, Shariati believes that ithar (benevolence, selflessness, altruism) can help bashar transform into becoming ensan. With love and benevolence, argues Shariati, man can become the agent of change, a responsible individual struggling for equality and justice:
Thus, every man can free himself from the last prison—which is frightening and contains invisible walls—through the power of ithar. It is a love which, beyond rationality and logic, invites us to negate and rebel against ourselves in order to work towards a goal or for the sake of others. It is in this stage that a free man is born, and this is the most exalting level of becoming an Ensan. . . . We humans have been invited to this nature with a duty and a responsibility to devise a plot. What plot? A scheme in which man, God, and love are involved to initiate a new creation and a new Ensan. This is what I mean by human responsibility.58
Social Justice as Praxis
The tawhidi worldview corresponds to a just society free from transgression and oppression. In this society, prosperity comes from spiritual values, not materialistic values. Shariati aims to rejuvenate the role of religion in instituting justice in this society: “If religion does not work before death, it certainly will not work after it.”59 Instead of prescribing a utopian order, Shariati proposes a model—directly inspired by divine principles—with full equality and freedom.60 Freedom is foundational to justice and it becomes possible as individuals obtain basic material needs. If an individual has to struggle for these needs, he cannot engage in intellectual activities and emancipate to complete his transformation from bashar to ensan.61
Shariati demonstrates the importance of praxis in social justice by bringing examples from the early period of Islam. Just as Qutb, and many modernists, he invokes the golden age and looks for an actual example of social justice as a replicable model. In his account, particular figures are ideal embodiments of ensan striving to establish an Islamic just order. Figures like Muhammad, ʿUmar, and Abu-Dhar al-Ghifārīy engage in the historical dialectic of tawhid and always oppose social polytheism, oppression, and inequalities.62
The most apparent manifestation of this opposition is in the struggle of tawhid against shirk, ʿAli against Muʿāwiya, red Shiism (the religion of martyrdom) against black Shiism (the religion of mourning), working class against the capitalists, and the oppressed against the despots as exemplified in the struggle of Abu-Dhar, a close companion of Muhammad known for his egalitarian views. This duality puts one’s preference for piety, ethics, equality, and justice against corruption, tyranny, exploitation, and aristocracy.63
In The Reflections of a Concerned Muslim on the Plight of Oppressed People, Shariati describes Prophet Muhammad as this simple person who is one of the poor and weak, someone who rebels against the aristocrats and struggles to empower the slaves, the poor, and the ordinary masses.64 This shepherd (Muhammad), argues Shariati, established a just and equitable society ruled by one of the weak and poor; however, oppressive rulers eventually destroyed it.65 This process started with the denial of ʿAli’s right to be the successor of the Prophet. Meccan aristocrats, especially the Umayyad family, transformed this prophetic society and replaced its just order with inequalities and a simple pious life with luxurious lifestyles. The isolation of ʿAli, “the embodiment of spirit of this Revolution,” after the death of the Prophet, according to Shariati, is a sign that “justice is separated from religion.”66 Shariati describes this stage as an “inclination of Islam to the right,” where the masses leave the scene to the aristocrats and clergymen.67 ʿAli emerges as the ultimate leader that is capable of reinstituting the just system of the Prophet. He represents the agent fighting for the weak against the tyrants to restore the order of tawhid:
He [ʿAli] did not draw his sword to defend himself, his family, his race, nor to defend big powers. It was done to rescue us at all stages. . . . He is a leader of the working class and those who suffer. He is the expressing power who struggles for the well-being of the community. Sincerity, loyalty, patience, steadfastness, and the concepts of revolution and justice were the main features of his daily messages to the masses.68
In And Once Again Abu-Dhar, Shariati presents the story of Abu-Dhar to demonstrate how ordinary people can struggle against injustices. Above all, Abu-Dhar desired to return to the piety of the Prophet’s age, and, to that end, he engaged in a one-person rebellion against the Umayyad aristocracy. His struggle was to oppose class discrimination and fight the kinz (accumulation of wealth) to establish justice. Abu-Dhar always reminds his followers of the Prophet’s simplistic, egalitarian, ethical, and pious life.
To sum up, Shariati favors a system conforming to the principles of the tawhidi worldview. The empowered and emancipated man transformed from bashar to ensan is at the center of this just social order. With absolute freedom, ensan struggles to establish equality, a just social order where class differences are minimal and luxurious lifestyles or aristocratic rules do not distort the unity of society. Neither economic greed nor tyranny prevails in this society. It is the active human agency that builds this system through a struggle shaped by divine instructions, free will, and benevolence.
The Foundations of Justice Theory in Islamist Ideology
Any theory of Islamic social justice should acknowledge a critical division that emerged in Islam’s early period. This cleavage results from a conflict between those holding a pious worldview and those who desire power. The former favored a puritanical approach cherishing the ideal prophetic community and its just order. The latter inclined toward the grab of political power, class differences, and status quo.69 This duality first emerged in the debate concerning ʿAli’s right to the caliphate, and it crystallized during the reign of ‘Uthman and Muʿāwiya. Further incarnations of this duality were seen at the height of the Umayyad rule (692–750) and in the reign of later Islamic empires. Shariati and Qutb use the prophetic community as an actual representation of their social justice model, yet they differ in interpreting this early schism.
For Qutb, the prophetic model and spirit of Islam was in place until the reign of ʿUthmān and came to an end due to some random events preventing ʿAli from assuming the caliphate. Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿAli are the ideal embodiments of Muslim agency implementing social justice according to Islam’s true spirit. Muʿāwiya was responsible for replacing the egalitarian order with a social order involving economic inequalities and political hierarchy. Within this historical account, Qutb especially praises ʿUmar for several reasons. First, ʿUmar sees wealth as the property of the umma and does not use it for personal gain or to reward his supporters. Instead, economic distribution during his reign is just, egalitarian, and helps social welfare. Furthermore, ʿUmar is a leader who follows sharia. He is a leader who has inner conviction, responsibility, and respect for the law because of fear of God and charitable acts.70
For Shariati, the same schism emerged much earlier when ʿAli was denied his right to be the caliph. While the prophetic community in its ideal form continued under the reign of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar, the first seeds of corruption transforming tawhid-oriented society into a social polyarchy were also sown at that time and culminated during the reign of ʿUthmān. In this picture, ʿAli emerges as the perfect embodiment of man (that is, ensan), tending toward humanity’s spiritual side, an active fighter in the name of justice and a leader in the struggle of the oppressed masses against social inequalities. Unlike Qutb, Shariati is highly suspicious of law and sees it as an instrument legitimizing the class differences and tyranny. Therefore, the essential first cleavage marks the struggle of the oppressed masses against the despots. It also reflects the eternal struggle between the tawhidi worldview and shirk and the egalitarian just society versus social inequalities. Another important figure in Shariati’s vision is Abu-Dhar, who carries a heroic one-man struggle to protect the prophetic egalitarian society against the Umayyad rule. Just like ʿAli, he is an agent participating in the eternal struggle between tawhid and shirk, who also continually engages in benevolent acts to free himself from the prison of self.71
One significant difference between the Western liberal and the Islamist theories of justice is the premise about the ownership and the disposal of private property. The Islamist view diverges radically from the former in that all wealth and resources belong to God, and the benefits should apply to all humanity. This difference has important implications for economic distribution. First, while Qutb believes that the right to private property is legitimate in Islam, the disposal of property is constrained by “responsibility toward society.” An individual is not free to waste his wealth with a luxurious lifestyle because all wealth (mulk) belongs to God, and it should be used for the welfare of humanity. According to Qutb, the use of public treasure (Bayt al-Māl) for social welfare during the prophetic age stands in sharp contrast to the corruption and exploitation of these public funds toward personal and political gains under the rule of ʿUthmān and Muʿāwiya.
Shariati presents a slightly different argument than Qutb. For him, class differences and inequalities result from kinz and they are the foundation of a polytheist worldview. Abel represents an economic order where resources and wealth belong to everyone. Cain represents a system involving the practice of kinz, exploitation, and inequalities. Shariati depicts the prophetic community as Abelian, wherein public treasure belongs to the umma and is used for the common good. Public treasure should not be used for personal gain, as seen during the reign of ʿUthmān and Muʿāwiya. ʿAli and Abu-Dhar, in this account, are role models who struggle to establish the prophetic practices in economic justice.
Overall, the Islamist justice theory of both Qutb and Shariati is informed by the events during the beginning period of Islam and the first political divisions over the succession question. The struggle between historical figures longing for social justice and those who prefer a hierarchical political order and social inequalities is at the heart of the social justice theory. Both intellectuals also develop a philosophical account of social justice by justifying freedom of conscience and free will as scriptural principles that lay at the foundation of a just society.
Two conditions give way to a just, harmonious society: the tawhid principle and charity or benevolence (ʾiḥsān). Since Shariati and Qutb view Islam as a way of life and do not separate religion from worldly affairs, it is only natural to expect a foundational role for divine instructions in their social justice theory. For Qutb, tawhid leads to freedom of conscience through servitude to the one and only God. According to this belief, God is the sole provider (ar-Razzāq), and man does not have to be a servant of others. Consequently, according to Islam, an individual living his life will be free from the fear of livelihood, strengthen his heart and soul, and earn his dignity. This process also requires that society be governed according to the political and economic theory of Islam. This is necessary because only implementing sharia can ensure the distribution of public wealth toward establishing an egalitarian, just order where human emancipation can occur.
For Shariati, tawhid represents the unity worldview, justice, and equality, whereas shirk represents class differences and inequalities in the social realm. Within this dialectic of tawhid, free will is the most important quality that will establish unity for Islam’s two-dimensional man. In the social polytheist order, man faces a constant struggle and sway between its mud-nature and spiritual side. In Islam, man can end this struggle and form his internal unity as vicegerent of God because he has free will and can resist the tyranny. Just as Qutb, Shariati believes that man can gain freedom when he meets his basic needs and makes a comfortable living.
While the tawhid principle provides a scriptural framework for explaining man’s desire for freedom, equality, and justice, it is not sufficient to create a self that is the agent of justice in daily life. Voluntary acts are necessary, too. To address this issue, Qutb and Shariati use the scriptural instruction about charity and benevolence. In Qutb’s theory, sharia is not sufficient for the implementation of social justice. Social justice also requires an inner conviction so that individuals choose to follow the law voluntarily. The best method for overcoming selfish human nature’s limitations and creating selflessness (an indication of inner conviction) is the charitable act. Charity is not only about helping the poor or needy; it is an act that involves kindness and good deeds for humanity, nature, or society. Thus, charitable behavior engenders purification of the soul, strengthens inner conviction, and induces a feeling of responsibility and solidarity.
On the other hand, in Shariati’s theory, the continuous struggle for justice is necessary but not sufficient to bring about the free will in man. To free man from the prison of self, Shariati argues that man needs religion and love. A passion for good actions and caring for others can be achieved only through the negation of the self. Only with ithar (benevolence, selflessness, altruism) can man negate himself and work toward lofty goals.
Consequently, the Qutbian and Shariatian Islamist justice theory depends on three pillars. First, individuals should have a strong belief in tawhid with all of its implications for the unity of the individual and society (or classless society for Shariati). Second, they should engage in the praxis of Islamic social justice, that is, the practice of benevolence and charity toward humanity, nature, and the universe. And third, individuals should gain freedom of conscience and realize their free will through conviction in tawhid and engagement in the praxis of justice. While the first pillar informs justice theory generally, the second pillar shapes social justice and the third has implications for the political justice paradigm.
Qutb and Shariati developed sophisticated political philosophies that directly address social and political justice as constitutive elements of Islamic society. They have had a significant influence since the 1970s on Islamist intellectuals and movements across Muslim-majority societies. While other Islamist scholars also assign a central role to justice, they do not put justice at the center of their inquiry or develop a complete theory of justice like Qutb and Shariati. For example, Mawdudi had drastically shaped Qutb’s ideas about tawhid and the blueprint of Islamic society. He introduced the concept of theodemocracy to offer a native governance model based on sharia and popular sovereignty.72 While justice and benevolence are central values in Mawdudi’s thought, he is far from being a revolutionary, unlike Shariati.73 Although he emphasized justice as a central virtue of Islamic society, he did not present a complete theory of justice like Qutb.
Another scholar who deserves mentioning is Muhammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, who criticized capitalism and socialism and developed a novel Islamic economic theory. Al-Ṣadr views justice as an essential Islamic principle like tawhid and usually defines it as economic justice. His account of economic justice is embedded within the broader conception of justice that is integral to Islamic society. The most notable contribution of al-Ṣadr to justice theory is his strong advocacy for democracy. Like other scholars, he bases this support on the Islamic foundation of popular sovereignty stemming from man’s vicegerent status. He believes that man’s vicegerent status gives all members of umma the power and the right to govern their political affairs within a democratic system.74 This is similar to the idea of a free individual proposed by Qutb and Shariati.
Two other scholars who left significant marks in the Islamist landscape, Rāshid al-Ghannūshī and Said Nursi, are worth mentioning. The Tunisian intellectual and party leader al-Ghannūshī views justice as the end goal of an Islamic political system. Like Qutb and Shariati, man’s vicegerent status is the starting point for al-Ghannūshī, who derives principles of dignity, agency, and responsibility from this position to develop an Islamic democracy model compatible with the notion of Islamic justice.75 This model relies on the active participation of Muslims through bayʿa and active engagement in interpreting and making Islamic law. Al-Ghannūshī’s most significant contribution is his political theology of popular sovereignty that suggests umma’s participation in the political process and interpretation of sharia.76 The end goal of his sophisticated theory is the creation of a virtuous and just society.77
Said Nursi of Turkey (1876–1960), a prominent scholar and activist with a lasting legacy on the Turkish Islamist landscape, is best known for his spiritual guidance for the Nurcu groups, especially the Gülen Community.78 During the early years of his life, which he dubs as the period of “Old Said,” he participated in the democratic struggle against the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II, by joining the Committee on Union and Progress, the main opposition group.79 This was part of his quest for democracy and justice against the declining Ottoman state and the Western incursion.
After the Turkish Republic was founded, he took a different approach and started to write commentaries of the Koran to preserve Islam. His main goals were to counter the positivist and antireligious ideology of the Western-minded, secular elite by training individuals in “faith,” which he viewed as the quintessential factor for protecting religion in the modern age. Although Nursi does not offer a complete Islamic justice theory, his writings and actions reflect the weight Nursi assigned to this concept.80 Nursi’s theory of justice relies on the idea of interrelationships among God, cosmos, and man. It is different from Qutb and Shariati’s political philosophies in its political implications and lack of concrete prescriptions for an Islamic political system. He argues that a Muslim can obtain conscience only by conceiving the purpose of faith and God’s creation. Only through understanding the true faith can individuals create a virtuous and just community. His main contention is to empower the faithful through strengthening the faith that will help emancipate the individual to fight positivism and the bureaucratic structures (i.e., the secular Western Turkish state). Like Shariati and Qutb, Nursi’s justice theory is grounded in the emancipation and empowerment of the self by strengthening faith through the reinterpretation of the scripture and religion. He is mainly concerned with establishing a just society via this individualistic path of self-direction and emancipation.81 At the same time, his actual praxis exemplifies a life fought for faith and democracy.
Overall, this review of Islamist justice theories demonstrates significant similarities among the philosophies of various scholars. In general, Islamist political philosophy grounds the justice theory within a cosmological worldview related to the principle of tawhid and the purpose of man’s creation. The totality of existence connects man to nature, the universe, and the creator within a balanced order. Conceptions of justice stem from, or mirror, this cosmic balance. Islamist scholars believe that individuals have free will and choice and that, as God’s vicegerents, they can be emancipated within this cosmology. This individualistic foundation is one legacy of the political justice trajectory that is compatible with democratic ideals.
On the flip side, Islamist justice theories differ in their scope and focus. For example, al-Ṣadr is mainly concerned with economic justice, though he endorses the struggle for democratic institutions. Nursi’s main goal is to initiate a bottom-up process to empower the individual through faith for creating a just society. Mawdudi aims to develop a blueprint for an Islamic social and political system that is not exactly compatible with liberal democratic norms. While each of these scholars puts a premium on the notion of justice, unlike Qutb and Shariati, none of them provides a complete theory of justice connecting the cosmological, individual, and systemic aspects of justice.
Conclusion and Implications
The discussion of Qutb and Shariati’s political philosophies, along with the ideas of other Islamist scholars, reveals that Islamist justice theory is markedly different from the Western theories of justice. In Western justice theories, the unequivocal principle is property rights and freedom to dispose of this property. The main puzzle is about finding an agreeable formula concerning the distribution of wealth. The answers to the puzzle range from utilitarian worldviews to communitarian solutions or to finding a procedural consensus that is acceptable to all individuals regardless of their real-life conditions.82 According to Islamist social justice theories, property belongs to God, who has given this property to all humanity. The puzzle in Islamist thought concerns how to establish a just order according to God’s will. Since Islam, as a way of life, does not separate religion and the worldly affairs, or the spiritual and the material, the starting point for Islamist justice theory is the criticism of the materialistic worldview. While distributive justice is an important end goal, the main problematic in Islamist justice theory is to establish a just society through voluntary behavior. This does not necessarily require a utopian vision but necessitates a constant struggle against oppression through freedom, for Shariati, and inner purification of the soul accompanied by the flawless implementation of Islamic law, according to Qutb.
Since all property ultimately belongs to God, man is not free to use it for his own selfish needs. Its disposal should help social welfare and public interest, which requires voluntary and selfless action, according to sharia. Shariati is highly skeptical of religious law and believes it serves the interests of the oppressors, whereas, for Qutb, the law can free man and bring justice, but its implementation requires inner conviction. It is imperative to free man from his shackles, help him obtain his conscience, and act with free will to voluntarily engage in selfless behavior that benefits society or humanity.
Benevolence is the key in Islamist justice theory. However, neither Qutb nor Shariati propose that belief in tawhid is sufficient to create benevolent acts. The strong and wealthy can escape from selfish behavior by engaging in a variety of beautiful acts, such as charity, protecting animal rights, keeping the environment clean, helping the immigrants, or raising responsible children. Benevolence allows the rich and powerful to escape the prison of self and creates motivation toward solidarity in society. On the flip side, it will help the needy meet their basic needs and avoid the fear of livelihood. Only then, Qutb’s free conscience and Shariati’s free will should become a reality and result in the praxis of social justice.
Islamist justice theory provides insights for understanding several pressing issues that have been the subject of many inquiries among the scholars of Muslim politics. For example, the extraordinary uprisings in the Arab region are best remembered for the chant “bread, freedom, and human dignity,” representing the calls for social and political justice. Islamic social justice principles might have played a vital role in motivating these protesters. A more interesting example is Turkey’s Gezi Park protests in 2013. A broad coalition of civil movements, student organizations, and labor unions organized these protests, but the Islamist groups were also active in these demonstrations. They provided a religious justification for the protests representing the Islamist opposition against an arguably Islamist government. As I demonstrate in Chapter 6, the ideologies of these groups include the central tenets of the Islamist social justice theory, especially of Shariati’s ideas. Furthermore, some elements of the Islamist social justice theory are evident in the party programs and policies of Islamist parties. It is hardly coincidental that many Islamist parties use the word justice in their names or emphasize this concept in their party programs. This preference represents their mobilization strategy of prioritizing economic and political justice.