Clamouring for Justice, but which one?

Dr. Nik Roskiman Abdul Samad[1]

Clamouring for justice perhaps has become the norm of the day. From East to West, people demand justice from their respective governments which have admitted to giving their best to restore justice or to put it in place. But what is the real meaning of “justice”? Are we, and the governments, talking about the same justice, in all its form and functions? Or, perhaps, the form of justice from the perspective of the government differs from that of the peoples’? So, in all honesty, are both even online when it comes to justice? As nothing will come out of it if either one is offline.

Some think justice means purely “equality”.  Justice has never been to mean equality from the religious, cultural or philosophical viewpoints since the primordial days. It is wrongly taken to mean equality to those who feel they have not been treated justly for some reasons either due to gender, race, sets of behaviour or such like. The “unequal treatment” they have been receiving has undoubtedly led to the struggle for the emancipation of women, as known in terms of the “feminism” groups today which clamour for “equal” rights between men and women; while the LGBT groups demand for their rights of same-sex marriage and the like, as well as many other similar groups.

Classically, justice was regarded as one of the four cardinal virtues, and sometimes as the most important of the four, i.e., courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics identifies justice with ‘complete virtue’. For the West, justice takes on different meanings in different practical contexts, whether in the public or private domains. However, the principle of justice in Islam is unique and all-encompassing, for it covers all spheres of life, irrespective of public or private matters. Its maxim in relation to justice is to “put thing in its proper place”.  Though the phrase is simple and neat, the explanation is indeed deep. Tan Sri Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas 1, one of the renowned scholars and philosophers of this century, has shed very interesting insights on the concept of justice in several of his books, the latest one being On Justice and the Nature of Man. Justice in Islam is not just a matter of how individuals are treated, or giving what is due to others, i.e. one’s rights as in the Western cultures as propounded by scholars such as John Rawls and David Hume, but it is more than that.

As for “putting thing in its place”, this does not just apply to physical items like the decluttering queen, Marie Kondo’s  concept of KonMari where everything in a house should have its own space or place to make the home neat and tidy. “Things” in the idea of justice can be physical and also spiritual or metaphysical, and likewise “place” can be visible and also hierarchical.

As a small child, I remember a religious teacher giving an example on what the concept of justice meant. If one has two children, a boy and a girl, and in the midst of preparing for Hari Raya, one wants to do justice to both of them. What would one buy for the two children? Certainly, one wouldn’t buy two songkoks, or two tudungs, because the girl wouldn’t wear a songkok, while the boy wouldn’t wear a tudung. Hence, the songkok would be for the boy while the tudung for the girl. Such is called doing “justice”. Though they are not “equal”, one is putting thing in its proper place.

Some people also think that justice means levelling everyone to the same rank since, supposedly, “all men are equal”. Some even gave the Qur’anic quotation from the al-Hujurat chapter verse 13 to support their contention, “the most noble amongst you in the sight of Allah is the one who has the most piety”. I remember an anecdote when Prof. al-Attas gave a lecture abroad and during the Q&A session, a gentleman who came forward to the microphone said that he would not want to address the speaker as “Professor” or “Dr.” but rather “brother”, because according to him, all men were brothers and equal in Islam. Prof. al-Attas laughed and said that it was true all men were brothers and equal but not everyone was the same and of equal rank. There were people who were higher in rank than others and we must accord justice to everyone according to their hierarchical order. Only then could we be said to do justice. He then asked: “Do you call your father brother?” This drew laughter from the audience.

If we recall, we would not find any Companion of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) calling the Prophet by his name, “Muhammad”. Instead, they would call him either “O Prophet of Allah” or “O Messenger of Allah”. This is doing justice to the Prophet and it is a culmination of adab, as well.

Justice has to do with the innate nature of man or in Arabic “fitrah”. Man will be unable to execute justice if he does not know his true nature, his purpose of existence and his duties in the world. He must also know the right order and place of himself, his nature, his God, his surroundings and everything in this created world, and only then, by knowing the right places for the right things, would he be able to perform justice. Otherwise, it would be like a blind man groping in the dark.


[1] Senior Fellow, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM). He can be contacted via

Tan Sri Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Tan Sri Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. December 2000.