Socio-Economic Justice and the Muslim World

Socio-Economic Justice and the Muslim World

Societies in the Muslim world are supposed to be homogenously developed and with equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. What is lacking?, explains Dr. Umer Chapra, Kind Faisal Prize recipient renowned scholar.

Policy Perspectives , Vlm. 5, No. 1

Socio-economic justice is one of the most important teachings of Islam. According to the Qur’an, the primary mission of all Messengers of God was to establish justice in this world (Al-Hadid 57: 25). All of the Qur’anic teachings are essentially directed towards enabling people to live with each other in peace and to fulfill their mutual obligations honestly and faithfully so as to ensure justice and general well-being (falah). Within the purview of this mission of the Messengers, the Qur’an predicts, and rightly so, that injustice leads ultimately to destruction (Ta-ha 20: 111).


The Qur’an is one of the two inviolable sources of Islamic teachings. The other is the Sunnah, which consists of the Prophet’s traditions. The Sunnah also speaks strongly in favor of justice and condemns injustice in very forceful and unambiguous terms. While the Qur’an predicts destruction to be the consequence of injustice, the Prophet, peace and blessing of God be upon him (pbuh), predicts darkness to be the consequence. Both essentially imply the same thing: failure to ensure human well-being will lead to darkness and destruction.


This intense and unequivocal stress by both the Qur’an and the Sunnah on justice has been reflected in the writings of all Muslim scholars throughout history. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) wrote that: “Injustice is absolutely not permissible, irrespective of whether it is to a Muslim or a non-Muslim or even to an unjust person.” Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) also forcefully stated that it is not possible for a country to develop without justice. On the basis of this, one can easily state that Islam and injustice cannot coexist. Injustice will prevail in a Muslim society when Islam is weak and, similarly, injustice will be weak when Islam is strong. The present-day reality in the Muslim world, unfortunately, is that Islam is weak and injustice is rampant.


The Muslim World


In “the Muslim world,” this paper includes all the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The total population of these countries is 1.3 billion. This is about 21 percent of the world population of 6.2 billion. Since this figure of 1.3 billion also includes non-Muslims, the number of Muslims in these countries would be less than 1.3 billion. However, there are also Muslims in non-Muslim countries, especially in India, China, and Central Asia where they live in large numbers. Moreover, the number of Muslims has been continually rising even in Europe, Canada, the United States and Africa. Therefore, if non-Muslims are excluded from the population of 1.3 billion in Muslim countries, and the number of Muslims in non-Muslim countries is then added, that constitutes the total Muslim population of the world. However, we do not have the precise figure for this total. There are a number of estimates ranging from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion.


Justice in the Muslim World


There are a number of indicators that show the extent to which justice prevails in a given country. One of these is whether all the people in it, irrespective of their race, religion, color, sex or wealth, are able to meet their basic needs and to have access to all the utilities that are needed to make life comfortable. It may be possible to know this partly from the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) adjusted GDP and its distribution among the people. The reason we have to take the PPP adjusted GDP is that the nominal GDP does not indicate the right picture. The PPP adjusted GDP of all the 57 Muslim countries adds up to only $3.9 trillion. This is only 8 percent of the PPP adjusted world GDP of 48.5 trillion. We can see from this that, while the Muslims constitute at least 21 percent of the world population, their share of PPP adjusted GDP is only 8 percent.


If this GDP were equitably distributed among all people, we could not complain. All that we could say is that, even though the Muslim world is poor relative to the rest of the world, there is at least justice in it. However, this is not the case. This can be known from the Gini index and the percentage of income or consumption enjoyed by the top and bottom 10 or 20 percent of the population. The paltry data that are available indicate that there are substantial inequalities of income, so much so that a small proportion of the population lives in excessive luxury while a substantially large proportion of the people are unable to satisfy even their basic needs. This condition does not reflect the teachings of Islam.


In addition to aggregate PPP adjusted GDP and its equitable distribution among the people, another indicator of justice is social equality. One of the admirable characteristics of a Muslim society is that when people stand for prayers in the mosques, there is perfect equality and absolutely no discrimination. The rich, the poor, the white, and the black all stand before God in the same rank. However, in present-day Muslim countries, this equality is not reflected in society. There is a great deal of social stratification in the Muslim world, including Pakistan. The general feeling of people living in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is that it has one of the most status-conscious and stratified societies in the world.

There are a number of socio-economic, political, and historical reasons for this injustice and inequality. It is not possible to go into a discussion of all of these here. However, two of the most important of these are lack of proper education and access to finance.


Education is one of the major factors that affect the income and status of a person. This is particularly important for the poor because they do not have any assets to invest and derive income from. The only way they can rise is through education. However, education also remains unprovided in the Muslim world to a great extent. The rate of illiteracy is 32 percent. This means that 426 million people are illiterate. This is undoubtedly very distressing.


However, one feels a little relief to see that primary school enrolment is currently around 89 percent. While this is commendable, experience shows that this may not necessarily lead to a significant reduction in inequalities of income because primary school qualification does not significantly enhance a person’s ability to earn. Secondary school education is also necessary, though not sufficient. However, enrolment in secondary schools is only 44 percent. Just one Western country, the United States, has more than three times as many universities as all the Muslim counties put together. According to a survey of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, none of the universities in the Muslim-majority states are included in the Top 500 at world level. Another distressing fact is that, while 74 percent of the population has access to safe water, only 62 percent has access to sanitation facilities. Medical facilities available for the poor living in slums or rural areas are also highly inadequate. All these shortcomings put the poor at a serious disadvantage. They are unable not only to fulfill their basic needs but also to improve their own condition as well as that of their children. This adversely affects their future prospects.


One factor that will tend to perpetuate this condition is that government schools, to which most poor students go, have very low quality education. Private schools, which offer better education, have become so expensive that they are beyond the reach of the poor. Since it is generally higher education that enables bright students to rise, the children of poor parents may not be able to improve their prospects beyond the existing level. This problem will be compounded if the general tendency of favoritism and nepotism now prevailing in the Muslim world continues unabated.


The other major factor that stands in the way of the poor improving their condition significantly is the non-availability of finance for the establishment of small and micro enterprises. Justice demands that the benefit of resources mobilized by banks from a broad spectrum of depositors should also go to a similarly broad spectrum of borrowers. However, this is not the case in almost all countries around the world. For example, in Pakistan, 64.88 percent of the resources were provided to the commercial banks in the year 2006 by depositors having deposits of less than 10 million rupees. These depositors, 26.57 million in number, constituted 99.93 percent of all depositors. However, only one third of the advances went to customers borrowing less than 10 million rupees. Those borrowing less than one million, 97.12 of total borrowers got even less, i.e. 20.85 percent of the total advances. In sharp contrast with this, depositors of more than 10 million rupees, who constituted only 0.07 percent of all depositors, provided only one third of all the deposits. But the advances they were able to obtain amounted to as high as two-thirds of the total (See the table). What this implies is that less than 1 percent of the borrowers were able to get around two thirds of the total advances. Consequently, one may expect that inequalities of income and wealth will continue to rise, rather than decline, in the future, if this trend persists.


Distribution of Commercial Bank
Deposits and Advances by Size in Pakistan





No. of

% of

(Million rupees)

% of

Distribution of Deposits

Less than Rs. 0.1 million





Rs. 0.1–1 million





Rs. 1 million–10 million





More than Rs. 10 million










Distribution of Advances

Less than Rs. 0.1 million





Rs. 0.1 million–1 million





Rs. 1 million–10 million





More than Rs. 10 million











Source: Derived from data given in State Bank of Pakistan, 2006, Statistical Bulletin.


Another indicator of socio-economic justice is the Human Development Index (HDI), which has been prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is not a comprehensive index because it is based on the restricted framework of development economics in the past when it gave emphasis to only a few economic variables. It includes only life expectancy at birth, literacy, and PPP adjusted per capita GNP. Only ten Muslim countries get a high score even on this restricted index. These are primarily oil-producing countries except Malaysia and Albania. Twenty-eight countries get a medium score, and 12 get a low score.


A more comprehensive index would include a number of other indicators like justice, family integrity, social harmony, equitable distribution of income and wealth, and mental peace. These are some of the essential requirements for human well-being in addition to the three which the UNDP Human Development Index takes into account. It would be even better if the Index were also to include reward for merit and hard work, minimization of crime, tension and anomaly, democracy, freedom of expression, and an honest and effective judiciary. Even though data are not available for all these variables, they are, nevertheless, important and any effort to collect data on these would be highly rewarding. If all of these variables are included in the Index, then it would not be surprising if the Muslim countries do not score high even on it, even though they may score better on some of these variables Family integrity is still higher in the Muslim world than, say, in Europe or America.


The revival of Islam in the Muslim world gives a hope that conditions indicated by the comprehensive index may tend to improve gradually as compared with the sad situation that exists at present as a result of the centuries of decline and degeneration. This hope may, however, not see the light of day if our education system does not improve. Unfortunately, instead of putting greater stress on the kind of character that Islam wishes to inculcate in Muslims, there is a movement in some countries to secularize the education system in the same way as in the West. The news media and the film industry are also following the Western path of corrupting morals.


In addition, families have also started disintegrating in the Muslim world as has happened in the West. The rate of divorce is gradually rising. Two of the major reasons for this are rising sexual promiscuity and deprivation of women of the rights that Islam has given to them. When women were not educated or independent, they had no other choice but to patiently bear the ill-treatment meted out to them by their husbands and in-laws. However, now, when they are becoming educated and independent, the rate of divorce may tend to rise even in the Muslim world if sexual promiscuity gains momentum and women continue to be deprived of the rights that Islam has given to them.


Factors Responsible for the Rise and Decline of a Society


This brings us to the crucial question of why it is that Muslims first rose to great heights and then started to decline until they reached their present low position. There is no doubt that a number of moral, psychological, social, economic, political, demographic, and historical factors are responsible for this. Development economics, until recently, took only economic factors into account and considered all other factors to be exogenous and, perhaps, even irrelevant. However, there are a number of scholars, including Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Gibbon (1737-1794) in the past, and Spengler (1926), Toynbee (1935), Schweitzer (1949), Sorokin (1981), North and Thomas (1973), Kennedy (1987), and several others more recently who have not followed this line of thinking. They have, instead, taken all these factors into account. This is because human well-being or misery is determined by not just economic but also non-economic factors. There seems to be no reason, therefore, to ignore these other factors and take into account only economic factors in our analysis.


Of all the scholars mentioned above, this paper concentrates primarily on Ibn Khaldun’s analysis. This is because he was concerned primarily with the Muslim civilization, which was already in the process of decline during his lifetime. The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) had come to an end around three quarters of a century before his birth, after the pillage, burning, and near destruction of Baghdad and its surrounding areas by the Mongols. In addition, the Circassian Mamluks (1382-1517), during whose period Ibn Khaldun spent nearly a third of his life, were corrupt and inefficient. They followed policies that could not but accelerate the decline. As a conscientious Muslim, he wanted to see a reversal of this process of decline.


Being a social scientist, he was well aware that such a reversal could not be brought about without analyzing first the factors that led to the rise of Muslims and then to their decline. He was, accordingly, interested in knowing not only what had happened, but also why things happened as they did. He wanted to establish a cause and effect relationship between the different historical events so as to be able to suggest a remedy for the malaise of his society. The Muqaddimah is a reflection of this desire. In it, he analyzes scientifically the factors that are responsible for the rise and fall of dynasties and civilizations. It goes to his credit that, instead of relying on just one variable, he took into account a number of variables including moral, psychological, political, social, demographic and historical.


Ibn Khaldun’s Model


The strength of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis lies in its multidisciplinary and dynamic character. It is multidisciplinary because it links all important socio‑economic and political variables in a circular and interdependent manner, each influencing the others and, in turn, being influenced by them.


These variables are:

  1. The sovereign or political authority;
  2. Beliefs and rules of behaviour, or the Shari’ah;
  3. People;
  4. Wealth or stock of resources;
  5. Development;
  6. Justice.

Since the operation of this cycle takes place in his model through a chain reaction over a long period of three generations or almost 120 years, a dimension of dynamism is automatically introduced into the analysis and helps explain how political, moral, institutional, social, economic, demographic, and historical factors interact with each other over time to lead to the development and decline, or the rise and fall, of a dynasty or civilization. One of the variables acts as the trigger mechanism. If the other sectors react in the same direction as the trigger mechanism, the decay will gain momentum through an interrelated chain reaction in such a way that it becomes difficult over time to distinguish the cause from the effect. If the other sectors do not react in the same direction, then the decay in one sector may not spread to the others and either the decaying sector may be reformed over time or the decline of the civilization may be much slower.


What this model implies is that, even though the rise and fall of a dynasty or civilization depends on a number of factors, the most important of these is the human being himself, who is the end and the means of development. All the other factors are important because of the influence they tend to have on his/her behaviour and well-being. Two of the most crucial of these other factors are development and justice. The human being will not work hard and do his best until his well-being is ensured. This necessitates wealth as well as development. However, development will not take place until there is justice. Justice demands that there be certain rules of behavior or moral values. These are provided by the Shari’ah. However, these rules of behaviour will not be effective unless they are enforced. This is where the concept of accountability in the Hereafter, which the Shari’ah as well as other religions provide, becomes important. Since all people may not necessarily live up to the dictates of moral values, the role of the government becomes important in preventing negative behavior and ensuring justice. Hence, the roles of the people, wealth, development, justice, Shari’ah and government are all interrelated in his model. None of these can be ignored. Nevertheless, socio-economic justice has a crucial position in the rise and fall of a society in Ibn Khaldun’s model.


Factors that Led to the Rise of Muslims


Let us now look at the factors that led to the rise of Muslim societies. A number of scholars, including Toynbee (1957), Hitti (1958), Hodgson (1977), Baeck (1994) and Lewis (1995) have argued that Islam served as the trigger mechanism in the rise of Muslim societies. This is because it is only the factor of Islam that is capable of answering the question of why a bedouin society, rising from scratch, was able to develop so rapidly against all odds. The primary characteristics of this bedouin society at that time were bitter internecine feuds, paucity of resources, a harsh climate and a difficult terrain. It did not possess any of the material assets that its powerful neighbours, the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires, had. Even though these empires had become nearly exhausted as a result of their prolonged and destructive wars with each other by the time Muhammad (pbuh) was born, they were, nevertheless, academically, economically, and militarily far more powerful at that time than Arabia. Hence, the question is: what did Islam do to bring about a transformation of this bedouin society in such a way that it did not only overcome its own handicaps but also brought about a revolutionary change in the societies that came under its influence? Without Islam, there would not have been, in the words of Toynbee, that “extraordinary deployment of latent spiritual forces by which Islam transfigured itself, and thereby transformed its mission, in the course of six centuries.”


What Islam did was to activate all the developmental factors in a positive direction. It gave maximum attention to the people, who constitute the primary force behind the rise or fall of a society. It tried to uplift them morally as well as materially, to make them better human beings, and to reform all the institutions that affected them. Its revolutionary worldview changed their outlook towards life by injecting a meaning and purpose into it. It gave them justice, dignity, equality, self-respect and a noble mission to live for. It provided sanctity to life, individual honor, and property. It created a balance between the material and the spiritual, considering both to be essential for human development and well-being. Accordingly, it gave a higher and more respectable status to the farmer, craftsman and merchant as compared with what they had enjoyed in the Mazdean or the then-prevailing Christian traditions. It replaced loyalty to the tribe with loyalty to God and, thereby, enlarged the individual’s horizon to that of the ummah, all of whom profess the same faith, and to that of mankind, all of whom are brothers unto each other by virtue of their being members of the same family of God. The institutional requirements for development emphasized by the Nobel Laureate Prof. Douglas North were satisfied. Schatzmiller is, therefore, correct in stating that “all the factors which enabled Europe to succeed were available to Islam much earlier.”


The most important thing that Islam helped accomplish through its spiritually-oriented worldview was the realization of socio-economic justice par excellence. Cahen has rightly acknowledged this by stating that “the underlying tendency of the Qur’anic legislation was to favour the underprivileged.” The status as well as the well-being of the weak and the downtrodden improved in a revolutionary manner that it is hard to imagine. This brought about social solidarity of the kind that turned Muslims into a strong impenetrable wall (al-Qur’an, As-Saf 61: 4), something that would have been hard to realize even if an enormous amount of wealth had been spent for this purpose (al-Qur’an, Al-Anfal 8: 63). This was accomplished through moral and institutional reform that made the individual conscious of his obligations towards his fellow human beings. The government, of course, played a crucial role in this. It did everything it could to ensure the prevalence of law and order as well as justice. It established a judicial system in which the law applied equally to the high and the low. It is, therefore, not possible to over-emphasize the role that socio-economic justice played in the rise of Muslims.


Factors Responsible for the Decline of Muslims


What triggered the decline of Muslims after reaching such lofty heights of achievement in all walks of life? The trigger mechanism was, according to Ibn Khaldun, introduction of political illegitimacy when caliph Mu‘awiyah, initiated hereditary succession by appointing his son, Yazid, to the caliphate (khilafah) in 679. This was in clear violation of Islamic teachings with respect to statecraft. Nevertheless, political authority did not deteriorate into despotism immediately after the abolition of the khilafah. The Shari‘ah continued to be a source of inspiration for the people and the government remained under pressure to ensure socio-economic justice. Unfortunately, the governments became more and more absolute and arbitrary with the passage of time. Accountability of the rulers and the political elite, equality before law, and freedom of expression began to decline in clear violation of the Shari’ah. Justice and development became the worst victims. The people suffered and their incentive to work, produce and innovate was adversely affected. The virus of political illegitimacy gradually infected all other aspects of the society and the economy through circular causation. The worst to be affected were socio-economic justice and development. Consequently, the Muslim world started losing the momentum of development that had been trigged by Islam and declined to the extent that it could not prevent its colonization by European powers.


The Role of the Human Being


Even though the removal of khilafah and the setting in of authoritarian rule served as the trigger mechanism of Muslim decline, the Muqaddimah makes the human being the center of analysis. This is because, as stated earlier, the human being is the end as well as the means of development. If he is right, all socio-economic and political institutions tend to work properly. However, if he is not right, nothing may work properly. The rise and fall of societies is, therefore, closely dependent on his well-being or misery. This is exactly a reflection of the Qur’anic teaching that: “إن الله لا يغير ما بقوم حتى يغيروا ما بأنفسهم (God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own inner selves) (Ar-Ra’d 13: 11).


This takes us to the reform of the human being. What does it require? This is where justice plays a crucial role — justice in all spheres of human life, including the family, the society, the economy, and the polity. Justice demands that the human being should be provided with all the facilities that are needed to realize his maximum potential so as to enable him to serve himself and his society to the optimum extent. Some of the most indispensable requisites for his reform are proper upbringing, training and education, combined with a proper moral, social, economic and political environment, along with effectively enforced incentives and deterrents to ensure socio-economic justice.


These requisites for reform do not exist in the Muslim world at present. As we saw earlier, there are 426 million illiterate people. A great deal of injustice has been done to them by not teaching them even to read and write. Literacy is, however, not enough to make a person able to contribute adequately to his own development as well as to that of his family and society. It is also necessary to provide him proper moral as well as technical education so that he not only becomes a better Muslim but is also able to earn enough in keeping with his needs and potential and fulfill his obligations towards others.


Even worse, Muslim women have been deprived of the rights given to them by Islam. In the classical Islamic period, female members of the society were also provided with education and seem to have enjoyed a respectable status. They are well represented in the bibliographical literature devoted to the Prophet’s companions. According to Ruth Roded, a scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, roughly 10 to 15 percent of the entries in these bibliographies are of women. After reading the biographies of thousands of women in 40 bibliographical collections dating from the 9th century, she draws the conclusion that they were not secluded or marginalized. While studying awqaf (charitable endowments) in Ottoman Aleppo, she finds that 41 percent of the endowments were established by women and that women’s endowments differed little from those of men.


As a result of the educational and research facilities available in the past, Muslims were able to make substantial intellectual contributions to the world. According to George Sarton in his Introduction to the History of Science, Muslims made path-breaking contributions to mathematics, science, medicine, philosophy and literature for four hundred years from the middle of the 8th century to the middle of the 12th century. They, therefore, enjoyed supremacy in these fields. Even after losing the top place, they continued to make substantial contributions for two more centuries from the middle of the 12th to the middle of the 14th century. After that, we hardly see the name of any Muslim in the list of scientists making path-breaking contributions.


Justice in Pakistan and the Muslim World


It is strange that, in spite of the great stress on justice in Islam, justice did not become a cornerstone of Pakistan’s development policy. One of the reasons for this may perhaps be that one of our own great economists, Dr. Mehbubul Haq, who became the Minster of Planning in Pakistan, felt that justice was a luxury we could not afford. This was in harmony with the then-prevalent view in Development Economics. In step with this philosophy, he wrote that “the under-developed countries must consciously accept a philosophy of growth and shelve for the distant future all ideas of equitable distribution and welfare state. It should be recognized that these are luxuries that only developed countries can afford.”


This philosophy set the direction of development policies in Pakistan and sowed the seeds of future turmoil in our society. Unless the workers and the common people get their due as a result of their work and creativity, they are not going to work hard. Without justice, the Islamic goal of creating human brotherhood will remain an empty slogan. It is, therefore, necessary to create a society where there is socio-economic justice to enable people to get not only proper reward for their work but also all their other rights.


To promote justice, it is necessary to have a system that ensures that the poor and needy are also adequately taken care of. For this purpose, Islam has established a very effective institution. This is the institution of ‘zakat.’ Unfortunately, all Muslims do not pay the zakat. Initially, the governments did not realize the contribution that zakat could make in fostering socio-economic justice and development. It can be used to fulfill the needs of the poor and handicapped, and also provide them education and seed capital to start small enterprises and, thereby, stand on their own feet. President Ziaul Haq tried to revive this institution. However, it has not yet started playing the crucial role that it is expected to play in a Muslim society.


Some people allege that zakat may not be able to play a great role because the modern welfare states are spending far more than what zakat would contribute. It is unfair to compare state spending with private sector zakat collections. These should be compared only with private sector contributions to charity in other countries. A study team led by Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University found that private giving in developed countries in the second half of the 1990s varied from around 1 percent of GDP in the US to less than 0.1 percent in Italy. In contrast with this, zakat is at the compulsory rate of 2.5 percent of net worth. There are different estimates of how much revenue it may be able to generate. These range from as much as 1.8 to 4.3 percent of GDP. Zakat would be in addition to what the Islamic welfare state is itself expected to spend out of its budgetary resources. If properly collected and distributed, zakat can serve as an important instrument for relieving hardship, removing poverty, and expanding self-employment opportunities. This should help reduce unemployment and inequalities of income and wealth in Muslim countries.


One indispensable part of justice is the security of life, property and honor for every individual. The Prophet (pbuh) declared in the sermon he delivered during his farewell pilgrimage that “your life, your property and your honor are as sacred as this Day of the Hajj, in this month of yours, in this city of yours.” However, security of life continues to remain an unrealized dream in a number of Muslim countries. There are countries where it is difficult for a person to invest. If he invests and his business prospers, some big shot may come and forcefully become a sleeping partner to share the profit without making any contribution to the business. He may even take over the business at a very low price. Security of life continues to remain a problem. There is also the danger of being kidnapped for money along with the threat of being killed if you fail to pay the ransom. Violence takes place all around and people feel insecure. This naturally affects investment decisions. Unless there is security of life as well as property, people do not feel comfortable about investing.


Honest fulfillment of all socio-economic and political obligations is a very important teaching of Islam. However, this teaching also remains unfulfilled in most Muslim societies. Justice demands that workers be paid their due reward for whatever they have done. Our laborers are not able to get enough even to meet their basic needs. When businesses are asked about why this is the case, their reply is that if they pay more they will not be able to earn enough profit. This is not right because they do make a lot of money. If one asks them what their assets were ten years ago and compares them with what they have now, one finds a substantial increase. Despite this, if they state that they cannot afford to give their laborers enough to be able to meet even their basic needs, they are being unjust and unrealistic.


Prevention of cruelty to everyone in any form is obligatory. According to Ibn Taymiyyah and many other scholars, injustice is not allowed to anyone or anything. The use of the word ‘anything’ implies that injustice to animals, birds, insects, and the environment is as prohibited as it is to human beings. With respect to human beings, injustice is not allowed to any one, irrespective of whether he is a Muslim, a non-Muslim, or even an unjust person.


Justice: The Role of Moral Values, Government and the Hereafter


Justice necessitates a code of behavior. This is provided in some form or the other by almost all religions. They require their followers to be honest, to fulfill all their obligations, and not to cheat or commit fraud. It is not possible to have justice without strictly observing these rules of behaviour.


However, these rules cannot become effective until people know what they are and then observe them faithfully. Therefore, everyone needs to be educated about these rules. This is not being done. Even mosques are not providing this education, let alone schools and colleges. It is necessary that the imams emphasize in their khutbahs (sermons) virtues like honesty, integrity, sincerity, punctuality, conscientsiousness, hard work, efficiency, doing work in the best possible manner, and fulfillment of all contractual and social obligations as required by Islam. Rarely does one hear a khutbah in which it is said that if you go to office late and do not work efficiently but still take your full salary, then you are cheating. The Qur’an says: “Remind, for reminder can be beneficial” (Al-A’la 87: 9). People need to be educated and constantly reminded of these values.


However, even if people are educated about these values, they may not necessarily act upon them. The Qur’an and the Sunnah can give values but they cannot by themselves enforce them. These values are, therefore, of little value if they are not enforced. Who is going to enforce them? This is where the government has to play a crucial role. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “God restrains through the sultan more than what he restrains through the Qur’an” بالقرآن) إن الله ليزع بالسلطان أكثر مما يزع ).


It is the duty of the government to enforce these values. It can do this by using incentives and deterrents. If people are not rewarded for their hard and consciencious work as well as their creativity, they will be discouraged. If no one ever gets punished for cheating and dishonesty, then the vice tends to spread and become locked-in through the operation of path dependence and self-reinforcing mechanisms. To give just one example, sometimes I have asked our businessmen why they cheat. Their reply is: “What can we do? When everyone else is cheating and we do not, we will have to charge a higher price. In this case, we will not be able to compete and will, therefore, lose our customers.” In an atmosphere of general dishonesty, it becomes difficult for even consciencious people to resist the herd effect.


This raises the question of when will a government fulfill its responsibilities conscienciously. The answer is: when it is accountable before the people. When there is no accountability, there is no pressure on government officials to fulfill their responsibilities. However, if they are accountable before the people and the people can remove them, then there is pressure on them to do the best they can. It is democracy that ensures such accountability. So democracy is essential to ensure the effective performance of responsibilities by the governments.


Democracy is one of the essential elements of Islamic teachings. None of the first four caliphs came to power by force or heredity. They were elected by the people. Elections at that time were not possible in the way we have them now. What was possible was for a number of people to collect at a particular place of assembly, and elect a person to be the khalifah. Thereafter, all the other people paid allegiance to him voluntarily through the bay‘ah,whichis a social contract. The ruler promises to fulfill his obligations towards the people by ensuring their well-being with the honest use of all human and material resources at his disposal. In return, the people assure him of their help and obedience. This was the method used at that time. Nowadays, the best method is, of course, elections.


This does not mean that the way elections take place now can be fully approved. There is a great role of wealth and power in modern-day elections and this has to be reduced as much as possible. There is a dire need for reform in democracy as it is practiced now. However, in spite of its drawbacks, democracy is still the best form of government, and it is in keeping with the teachings of Islam.


However, if we depend too much on the government’s coercive power, we will end up raising the transactions costs. It is necessary to complement the government’s role by some other mechanism to reduce its burden. Islam and other major religions have another built-in incentive or deterrent in their fundamental set of beliefs, and that is the concept of the Day of Judgment: If the individual fulfills his responsibilities honestly, he will also get a generous reward in the Hereafter, and if he cheats and, for example, takes bribes, he may be able to escape punishment in this world, but he cannot escape it in the Hereafter. This is because God knows everything he does. This helps create a deterrent in the inner consciousness of the individual to motivate him to perform his obligations on his own volition.


Democracy and Justice in the Muslim World


Let us now look at the present-day Muslim world. Of the 57 Muslim countries that are members of the OIC, only 13, or 23 percent, have democracy, while 44 do not. Out of these 44, 31 have ‘pseudo-democracy,’ 5 have absolute monarchy, 3 have dictatorship, and 5 are in transition. However, even the 13 countries, which do have democracy, have it only in a formal sense. They hold elections and the democratic structures provide an alternance of power. Powerful vested interests, nevertheless, get elected and re-elected. The poor and disadvantaged are in most cases not free to vote as they wish and are poorly represented in the echelons of power.


As a result of this lack of democracy, there are constraints on the freedom of the press. Only 4 Muslim countries are free in this respect. Countries that have freedom of the press, but where television is controlled by the state and is, therefore, not free, are placed among the partly free. By this definition, 14 countries are partly free, while 39 are not free. The absence of freedom of the press contributes to poor governance, lack of transparency, unhealthy policies and corruption.


The state of corruption can be gauged against the Corruption Perception Index (2007) that Transparency International has developed and according to which 180 countries have been ranked. The index ranges from 10 (least corrupt) to 0 (most corrupt) points. A score of 5 indicates a borderline country. Only 4 Muslim countries are above this borderline, and even they do not have a high score — 6.0 is the highest, and 5.0, the lowest, is just on the borderline. 49 Muslim countries are below the borderline and no data are available for the rest. Most probably, the countries for which data are not available are also below the borderline. This, in spite of the fact that the Qur’an emphatically prohibits wrongful acquisition of wealth and the taking of bribes (Al-Baqarah 2: 188 and An-Nisa 4: 29).


There is another impact of lack of democracy on socio-economic justice. Corruption combined with lack of freedom of expression tends to corrupt the courts as well. Consequently, the power elite do not generally get punished. This makes it difficult to root out the evil. If only the poor get punished, then there is a rise in discontent and a decline in social solidarity. There is a close relationship between weak governance, which lack of accountability brings about, and corruption, injustice and slow growth. Weak governance, corruption and slow growth are all closely related.


How does socio-economic justice get affected by this? Corruption leads to ineffective use of public resources for development with justice. A substantial part of resources goes to corruption. The rich become richer and the poor become poorer. There are some Muslim countries where as much as 50 percent of a project cost goes to kickbacks. This reduces the rate of economic growth, hurts need fulfillment and employment, and raises inequality of incomes and wealth. This is but natural. Ineffective use of its resources by the government leads to reduced investment by the private sector. If a businessman wishes to do something, he has to pay a bribe. This leads to a rise in the transactions costs and a decline in investment and employment opportunities. The consequence is accentuation of inequalities of income and wealth.


Legal justice also suffers because the courts also get corrupted: when the government gets corrupted, the courts also get corrupted. If only the poor are punished, there is a rise in discontent and a decline in social solidarity. There is, therefore, substantial need for reforms.


The Way Ahead


Nevertheless, there is no room for pessimism. Changes are taking place in the Muslim world. These need to be accelerated. The question is: where to start? Should we try to overthrow the illegitimate governments that are the source of the problem? The answer is, emphatically, No. We should adopt the method that the Prophet (pbuh) had himself adopted. He did not try to remove Abu Jahal and Abu Sufyan and the other leaders of his society from their positions. He did not even speak about it. This is because he knew that once he raised this issue, they would redouble their efforts to suppress Islam. So his method was to bring about socio-economic reform. He tried to uplift the socio-economic condition of the people and to bring about an improvement in their lives. He concentrated on this through education, moral and socio-economic reform, and provision of financial facilities to the poor to fulfill their needs and to be able to stand on their own feet. Zakat was used to a great extent for this purpose.
This is what we need to do: emphasize education and moral and socio-economic uplift, and provide financial facilities to the poor for self-employment. Once the socio-economic condition of the poor improves, then the power structures will automatically collapse. This happened in the early Muslim society, when the Prophet (pbuh) brought about socio-economic uplift. After the collapse of the authoritarian power structures, it became possible to improve the condition of the people even more. General prosperity spread in the early Muslim society. It is reported that in certain periods of Muslim history, the rich went out to distribute zakat but could not find anyone to accept it because the condition of the poor had substantially improved.


This does not mean that political reform should be postponed. It should be pursued, but through peaceful means. Use of violence is not justified because modern governments have sophisticated means for suppressing revolt and for torturing and impoverishing those involved. Any effort to overthrow prevailing governments by resort to violence may lead to enormous losses in terms of both life and property. It may also destabilize the societies, slow down development and reform, and accentuate the existing problems.


The best way to bring about political reform is, therefore, through peaceful struggle. It is not right to say that peaceful struggle cannot be successful. Peaceful struggle is succeeding and authoritarian governments are falling everywhere. In 1974, only 39 or one-in-four of all the countries around the world were democratic. Today 115 countries, that is, one-in-two, use open elections to choose their political leadership. Peaceful struggle is the best way to bring about change in the government.


Can the Western World Help?


This raises the question of whether the Western world can help. They can if they wish to. They can help by not supporting the dictators and putting pressure on them to bring about democracy. They can also help by monitoring elections so as to ensure that there is no rigging. They can also help by promoting socio-economic uplift. If socio-economic uplift is ensured, then the power structures will automatically collapse some time or the other.


The Western world cannot, however, help by doing what the United States did in Iraq: attacking a country, ruining its infrastructure and economy, killing and impoverishing people, and destroying their means of livelihood. This is the worst way to bring about democracy. Everyone knows by now that this violent and undemocratic method was not adopted to bring about democracy. It was adopted to provide security to Israel and to have full control over the oil resources of Iraq and, subsequently, the entire Gulf region. This ill-conceived and ruthless attack by the US has not only destroyed and destabilized Iraq, but also created hatred for the US in the entire Muslim world. So the best way in which the West can help is not by attacking countries, but by trying to help in socio-economic uplift, ensuring democracy, and putting pressure on authoritarian governments to bring about change.


When we talk of help in ensuring democracy, we do not mean just the monitoring of elections. We mean support to a number of institutions, including a free press; an independent and honest judiciary; socio-economic justice; healthy monetary, fiscal and commercial policies; proper laws and their effective enforcement, and so on. All of these are necessary to make democracy successful. Therefore, it is in the long-run interest of the West to promote these aspects in Muslim countries.


Can Islam Play an Important Role?


We now come to the question of whether Islam can play a useful and catalytic role. The answer is yes. Islam stands for democracy and the well-being of the people. And it can help create desirable moral qualities, like honesty, integrity, punctuality, devotion to duty, diligence, frugality, and faithful fulfillment of all socio-economic obligations. All of these are needed for development. Islam embodies these values and has even the charisma to create them in people. It is now generally realized that there can be no economic development without moral development. Unless people fulfill their contracts, unless they work hard and conscientiously, and unless fraud and corruption are reduced, there can be no development. What can help in this is moral development along with institutional reforms and the ability of the people to obtain proper rewards for the work they do. Islam can also help curb conspicuous consumption and raise saving and investment. Another major contribution it can make is the promotion of family and social solidarity. We need to bear in mind that lip service will not be effective.


Secularism will do the opposite of this. It will lead to more and more conspicuous consumption and, thereby, promote dishonesty and corruption. This is because one of the major causes of these ills is living beyond the available means. When people spend too much, they have to somehow obtain the money needed for this purpose. The normal way to get it is through dishonesty and corruption. Thus, the more conspicuous consumption there is, the greater will be the motivation for these ills.


Secularism will also adversely affect family solidarity by promoting sexual promiscuity as it has done in most secular societies.


However, there is a need for reform in the understanding of Islam itself to remove the rust that has become deposited on it over the centuries of decline. There are so many things that are essentially un-Islamic but have become a part of the Islamic panorama. Dr. Murad Hoffmann, a dedicated German Muslim, has rightly emphasized: “I know of nothing better to propose than to urge the Muslim world to become ‘fundamentalist’ in the original sense of the word — to go back to the real foundations of our Islamic creed, and to analyze the factors that were instrumental for the Madina, Andalus and Abbasid experiments.” In this reform, we need to put greater emphasis on the human being and the institutions that affect his behaviour and well-being so as to be able to realize the maqasid al-Shari‘ah (objectives of the Shari’ah). The Shari’ah aims at promoting brotherhood, justice, honesty, integrity, punctuality, diligence, fulfillment of all socio-economic obligations, and a number of other good qualities. In sharp contrast with this, there is nowadays greater emphasis on appearances rather than substance. Appearances are also important but substance is more important.


This brings us to the final question: the relevance of socio-economic justice in the Muslim world to globalization. Socio-economic justice in the Muslim world will help accelerate development in the Muslim world and reduce the prevailing unrest. This will promote greater trade and greater mutual dependence of Muslim countries and the rest of the world. The greater the mutual dependence, the lesser will be the motivation for conflict. The whole world will consequently be better off.


By way of conclusion, I wish to emphasize that the future of Muslims is bright. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were really bad for them when they became so weak that it became possible for Western countries to colonize them. However, almost all Muslim countries have gained independence by now and the revival of Islam is also taking place in these countries. This should lead to an improvement in the quality of Muslims. Education is spreading, illiteracy is declining, and economic growth is rising. The governments are also gradually becoming more and more accountable before the people. All this should help Muslims fulfill the real mission of Islam, which is to be a blessing for mankind by promoting peace, moral uplift, brotherhood, justice, and universal well-being in the true sense. I see a bright light at the end of the tunnel.




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Sahih Muslim (1955), Vol. 4, p. 1966, No. 56, Kitāb al-Birr wa al-Silah wa al-Adab, Bab Tahrim al-Zulm, from Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah. The Prophet (pbuh) has used the word zulumat in this hadith, which is the plural of zulmah or darkness, and signifies several layers of darkness, leading ultimately to ‘pitch’ or ‘absolute’ darkness, as is also evident from the Qur’an in An-Nur 24: 40.

Ibn Taymiyyah, 1961-63, Vol. 5, p. 127.

Ibn Khaldun, n.d., p. 287.

Based on data given in World Bank, 2004, p. 253.

Based on data given in World Bank, 2004, p. 253.

Saleem, 2006.

All the above data on literacy, education, safe water, and sanitation facilities are from Islamic Development Bank, 2005, pp. 13-15.

Based on data given in UNDP, 2007, pp. 229-432.

For a more detailed picture of Ibn Khaldun’s model, see Chapra, 2000, pp. 145-172. See also Spengler, 1964, pp. 268-306; Boulakia, 1971, pp. 1105-1118; and Mirakhor, 1987, pp. 245-76.

The words used by Ibn Khaldun throughout the Muqaddimah are mu’dhin and mufdi, which mean “inviting” or “leading” towards something. However, the expression “trigger mechanism” has been adopted here since it is used more commonly in English to convey the same meaning.

Toynbee, abridgement by Somervell, 1957, Vol. 2, p. 30. Baeck emphasizes that “it was with Islam that they [the Arabs] became a world power and the guiding light of a large part of the Mediterranean. In the transition from the antiquity to the emergence of the Latin West in the twelfth century, Islam was at its apogee and played an eminent role as a maker of Mediterranean culture and history.” (Baeck, 1994, p. 995)

North and Thomas, 1973, pp. 2-3; and North, 1990, pp. 3-10.

Schatzmiller, 1994, p. 405.

Cohen, 1970, p. 452; see also pp. 511-538.

Roded, 1994, p. 29.

Roded, 1994, p. vii.

Sarton, (1927-48), Vol. 1 and Book 1 of Vol. 2.

Haq, 1963, p. 30.

The Economist, July 31, 2004, p. 46.

Kahf, 1989, and Ahmed, 2004, p. 69.

Reported from Ali Bakrah by al-Mundhiri (d. 1258), 1986, on the authority of al-Bukhari and Muslim, Vol. 3, p. 503, No. 1.
عن أبي بكرة رضي الله تعالى عنه أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال في خطبة حجة الوداع إن دماكم ، وأموالكم وأعراضكم حرام عليكم كحرمة يومكم هذا في شهركم هذا في بلدكم هذا ۔۔۔ “.رواه البخاري ومسلم وغيرهما (ألمنذري مجلد 3 ص (503

Cited by al-Mawardi (d.1058), 1955, p. 121.

Based on data given in

Based on data given in “Freedom of the Press, 2004,”

Kaufmann, Kraay and Zoido-Labaton, 1999; Knack and Keefer, 1995, pp. 207-227; and Mauro, 1995, pp. 681-712.

Hofmann, 1966, p. 86; see also pp. 76-87.

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