Bonding with America…..
Akhlaq e Amrikiye-A Manual for the Survival of Muslims in America (5 of 7)
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Justice in the Age of the Speed of Light
What does justice mean in an age when the human condition is limited only by the speed of light and man’s capacity to absorb change? We live in extraordinary times when human culture is witnessing tectonic shifts. Technology literally creates billionaires overnight and churns out unimaginable poverty through job losses. Man has gone to the moon but millions of children in America go to bed hungry every night. The ravages of war, inflicted by modern armies, result in near-total destruction, spilling over masses of humanity as refugees across continental boundaries. Competition for resources among the major powers perpetually holds the world at the precipice of mutually destructive conflicts with the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) atomic clock hovering around 2 minutes to midnight. The earth cries out for attention as it is destroyed by greed while the portents of global warming are visible on the horizon. Add to it the unending mayhem across ethnic, religious and racial divides and you see a world steeped in instability and mayhem. If there was a sage who could preside over this divided world, he would indeed be hard pressed to balance off the competing passions and interests and govern with equity and justice.
The self-inflicted global convulsions have placed enormous stresses on the individual, the family, the community and the nation. America is no exception to this rule. The competition for survival in a cut throat economic environment takes its toll on human ethics. Physical and moral strains are endemic stretching human endurance to its limits. People find it necessary to cut corners and short change others to survive. As the traditional family structure collapses under the stress of economic necessity, divorce becomes commonplace. In California more than 1 in 2 marriages end up in divorce, taking their toll on the children and impoverishing millions of families.
The American Muslim community is not immune to these turbulent winds. As an example, until recent times, the divorce rate among Muslim families was low. It has now caught up to the national norms. In addition, Muslims have to face the added pressures brought on by Islamophobia. The tremendous wealth generated by the ongoing technological revolution has spun forth millionaires and billionaires. However, it has left in its wake millions of unemployed or under-employed people. Immigrants have been at the fore-front of technology creation. Consequently, they have taken a disproportionate share of the benefits of the technology revolution. Those who have lost out are Americans who used to work in blue-collar jobs which have been shipped overseas by the multinationals. In particular, the white blue-collar workers feel insecure as power slips from them into the hands of the minorities and the newcomers. A scape goat is needed; Islamophobia is the result.
While these upheavals present enormous challenges to the American Muslim community, they are also creative opportunities for developing ethical frameworks for a rapidly changing world. The community will have to redefine equity and justice for the individual, the family, the community, the billionaires and the newly poor, environmental custody, human rights and human abuse, racial prejudice and ethnic strife using the guidance of the Qur’an and the Seerah while staying in the paradigm of American legal framework.
Justice as viewed in different philosophical systems
Justice is the balance that governs the actions of men and women. It is the touchstone upon which men and women test their individual and collective efforts and decide whether those efforts are worthy of pursuit. Justice by itself cannot be measured. But as an attribute of the soul it imparts qualities of equity, equilibrium and proportion to human actions. It exists in the abstract until it is actualized through human volition and free will.
Justice is not merely a concept or an enunciation of principles. It includes the process of implementation and the body of codes, laws, rules and regulations that are used to ensure that justice is done. It embraces every sphere of life. It is indivisible and universal. It determines one’s relation to the self, to fellow human beings and to the world at large. Individuals and societies alike have viewed the pursuit of justice as a noble and worthy endeavor.
Justice can be defined in terms of attributes of human activity. In the positive sense it is those attributes of human activity that further the moral well-being of humankind. Conversely, it may also be defined as those attributes of human activity which prevent oppression, exploitation and inequity.
In ancient times justice was in the hands of a strongman. His will, his whims and his fancies determined the fate for those around him. Those who supported him became his cohorts. Those who opposed him were summarily killed. As societies evolved into tribes and groupings the notion of the “wise and knowing” king came into being. The king became an embodiment of wisdom and justice. If the ruler was indeed fair his subjects were happy. But if he got intoxicated with power, as frequently happened, there was oppression in the land.
In the Old Testament tradition justice was used as a tool to teach individuals what is right and what is wrong. In this pedagogical sense justice becomes synonymous with righteousness and is used as a means to inculcate qualities of uprightness and social harmony.
The Greeks pursued the subject with all their rational abilities. In Plato’s Republic, nomos or the mind was king. In this kingdom, reason was the embodiment of justice. It was the privilege of the rational elite to determine what was just and what was unjust. Plato gave scant attention to procedural justice or the imperative of laws. The judicial structure that he proposed was inherently undemocratic and non-egalitarian. It prescribed a hierarchical society in which the thinking elite was at the top while the common man was at the mercy of this elite.
It was left to Aristotle to propose a proper balance between the philosophy of justice and its implementation through laws. Where Plato exalted justice and overlooked the importance of law, Aristotle construed justice through the working of law. He was also deeply aware of the risks in leaving the implementation of justice to a “wise and noble” king. “He who commands that law should rule”, he wrote, “may thus be regarded as commanding that God and reason alone should rule. He who commands that a man should rule adds the character of the beast”.
In parts of South Asia justice took on a cosmic aura based on the existing social structure. Society was divided into four major castes and one’s position in life is determined by the caste that one is born into. The Buddha rejected the doctrine of karma as a justification for the caste system and its inherent exploitation. In the Buddhist tradition a person struggles through successive reincarnations towards a higher ethical self. The noble deeds of one lifetime reflect in a higher ethical status in the next life. The elevation of man through successively higher ethical states continues until he attains nirvana.
Medieval Europe made a separation between justice as applied to matters of conscience and justice as applied to human transactions. One of the giants of the era, Thomas Aquinas, proposed a dual approach to the implementation of justice. Laws that challenged the authority of the church were to be opposed. Laws that violated individual rights were “not binding on the conscience” but nonetheless were to be obeyed in the interests of social peace. It is this separation between the sacred and profane that governs the assumptions of modern man. These assumptions have left humankind impoverished in its soul, unsure of itself and its place in the cosmos. Man feels alone, alienated from the universe, wandering in the darkness of space, full of anxiety, without a friend and without an anchor.
Justice in the American Melting Pot
The foundation of justice in most parts of the United States is the English common law except in southwestern United States where, for historical reasons, it is the Spanish common law.
The American society is a composite of races, cultures, and religions. Indeed, it is the melting pot of nations who have come to these shores with their own histories, belief systems, expectations, prides and prejudices. Some came here for opportunity. Others were seeking escape from persecution and oppression. Yet others came in chains. In the process of consolidation of a continent sized nation, the Native Americans were brushed aside and marginalized. African Americans were kept in chains for two hundred years. Yet, despite the flaws in the implementation of its ideals in its brief and sometimes convulsive history America remains beacon of liberty and justice to which millions around the globe wish to migrate. This exceptionalism is embodied in the pledge of allegiance as “One nation under God, with liberty and justice for all”. The American Constitution and the Bill of Rights recognize the autonomy of individual cultures while promulgating an overarching framework of laws, rules and regulations applicable to all citizens.
Justice in the Shared Common Space
“Indeed, God commands you justice and Ehsan (Qur’an, 16:90)
The vision of the Qur’an is for a community of cultures. For the individual believer, the commands of prayer, charity, fasting zakat and Hajj apply. For the common social space shared by multiple cultures, the Qur’an prescribes justice and Ehsan as the modulators of mutual interaction.
The Bill of Rights of the American Constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship for the individual. For the shared common space across communities, it enjoins liberty and justice for all.
The correspondence of Islamic and American visions of justice has long been recognized. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were all familiar with Islamic teachings. Thomas Jefferson wrote:”…..neither Pagan, nor Mahomedan (sic) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” John Adams considered Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) to be a “sober inquirer after truth”, along with Confucius, Zoroaster and Socrates who pondered over the happiness of man and his dignity. On the entrance hall of Harvard University Law Library, the following passage from the Qur’an is inscribed, along with excepts from St. Augustine (d 430) and the Magna Carta (1217 CE), as sublime expressions of justice in human affairs:
”O you who believe!
Do stand firmly for justice as witnesses before God
And let not the enmity of any people take you away from justice.
Be just! That is closer to God-consciousness.
And be mindful of God.
Lo! God is well aware of what you do.” (Qur’an, 5:9)
A Definition of Akhlaq e Amrikeye
It should be clear from the aforesaid discussions that justice is the common foundation of Islamic as well as American jurisprudence. This observation enables us to advance a simple and concrete definition for Akhlaq e Amrikeye, the ethics for American Muslims:
Akhlaq e Amrikeye is the ethical code of conduct that results from a rigorous application of the guidance of the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet within the framework of the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the American legal system.
This is the ijtihad (lit: rigorous exercise to apply divine commandments to human life) for the American Muslim, the moving principle of his existential ethical life. In this intellectual exercise, he need not start from ground zero. He stands on the shoulders of giants. Hee has access to and he can build upon the principles of fiqh developed by the great mujtahideen as well as their processes, methodologies and their conclusions. In addition, he can mine and adopt the relevant and applicable traits of akhlaq developed over centuries of scholarly work and use the wisdom of historical experience as a guide.
An Illustrative Example: The Rights of Women
Woman is the co-equal of man, partner in the moral regency bestowed upon humankind. The rights of both men and women derive from the Creator. And each is responsible before Him for his/her deeds.
Certain aspects of the relationships between men and women deserve closer examination.
- Men and women have like nature and are created by God.
The similar nature of men and women confirms the similarity of their attributes: (1) Men and women are endowed with the Spirit and are partners in the Trust accepted by humankind (2) Men and women have a Nafs (soul) which is the seat of cognition, of right and wrong, of knowledge and love. (2) They are born free, and are endowed with choice in the discharge of their Trusteeship. (3) They are endowed with speech, intelligence, rational thought and judgment.
- Men and women alike are heirs to the moral regency bestowed upon humankind.
The spiritual view offered by the Qur’an has no concept of “original sin” in it. Both Adam and Eve erred but when they repented together, Divine love turned to them in forgiveness and promised them guidance. This spiritual view emancipates woman from the dogma that she was the instigator in committing the “original sin”. Man and woman have like nature, an equal tendency to err and to seek forgiveness. Each is judged according to what each one earns: “To men is due what they earn, to women what they earn”, Qur’an (4:32)
- Women’s rights are natural and are bestowed by the Divine.
The Qur’an declares: “O humankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, Who created you from a single Nafs, created of like nature your spouses, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women. Be conscious of your Creator through Whom you demand your mutual rights, and revere the wombs (that bore you), for God ever watches over you” Qur’an (4:1)
The rights of both men and women are bestowed at birth by the Creator. They cannot be compromised or taken away by social decrees or political manipulation. These rights include participation as co-equals in the moral regency on earth. Women have a right to justice in the sight of God and in the sight of man. They have a right to earn what is just and a right to own what they earn. They have a right to honor, respect and protection in peace and in war. They have a right to education, knowledge and a right to participate in civil society. In the exercise of all of these rights there is no difference between men and women.
Marriage is a social and spiritual covenant which bestows mutual rights and responsibilities upon men and women. Men and women are joint heirs to the grace of life, partners for mutual comfort and companionship. Both men and women are children of Adam and are created “from a single soul”. Neither one is superior or inferior to the other.
- Application within the American Legal Framework
Justice is the touchstone for righteous action. This vision, embodied in the Qur’an, is also shared by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States.
The guidance of the Qur’an is ecumenical; it fosters a culture of cultures. This ecumenical approach was sanctified by the Seerah of the Prophet who entered into mutual covenants of co-existence and cooperation with the Christians and Jewish tribes of Madina. In America, Islam will discover its existential self, imparting to other cultures what is noble and discarding cultural practices that are odious. That is the hope for the future.