Peace and Justice. Discussion with Daniel Premkumar. May 7, 2014

Q: There’s so much talk these days about justice and peace. What is the Islamic approach to these issues?

A: There are different perspectives and approaches to the question of establishing peace and justice. My approach is based on the Quran. Justice and peace are referred to in several Quranic verses. According to one verse, it is God’s greatest concern to see peace in this world (10:25)

In discussing the issue of peace and justice, it is important to remember that God has given human beings free-will. According to God’s Creation Plan, we have freedom of choice. And so, God will never impose justice in this world. Instead, it is people who can choose whether to follow justice or not. God wants to see if you choose, on your own free will, to abide by justice or not.

This is a basic principle you need to bear in mind while discussing the question of peace and justice in Islam.

Then, there is another principle that we need to bear in mind. In several verses of the Quran we are told about the method of establishing justice in this world. So, God not only gave us the principle of justice, but He also, at the same time, gave us the proper method of establishing justice.

To understand this method, you need to recognize that it is simply impossible to establish ideal peace and justice in this world in terms of society as a whole or the whole world. At the same time, it is indeed possible to establish ideal peace and ideal justice in your own personal life.

In Islam, then, there are two different fields of justice—personal justice, or justice practiced by the individual in her or his personal life, and social justice. As an individual, you can or should follow justice as your personal ideal in your own life. But as far as the society is concerned, you have to take into account the practical situation. You have to be practical or pragmatic.

The possibility of establishing justice at the social level depends particularly on the existing conditions of a given society. If the members of that society are suitably prepared to accept social justice, willing to adopt it as an ideal, it is good, and then there’s a good possibility of social justice being turned into a reality. But if the members of the society are not suitably prepared, if they are not willing to accept or conform to this ideal, you need first to work on suitably preparing them, rather than forcibly imposing laws on them that they are not willing to adhere to.

So, in personal life, it is your own decision whether or not you want to abide by the principle of justice. You are the master of your personal life. But the issue is different when it comes to society. You are not the master of society. You can adopt, if you like, justice in your personal life, but you cannot forcibly get this to happen in society. For that, you need to work on preparing, on educating, the members of society, making them aware of the need to accept justice at the societal level. If you don’t do this necessary preparation, and, instead, you try to forcibly impose laws on people in the hope that this will produce social justice, it is doomed to end in utter failure. It is putting the cart before the horse.

It is clear from the life of the Prophet of Islam—and this I’ve tried to explain in my book The Prophet of Peace—that if you want social justice, you can’t start off from the implementation of laws, through the coercive power of the state, in the absence of society being appropriately prepared for these laws. This will only lead to greater evils, to violence, to hatred and confrontation. Instead, you need to start from the stage of preparing individuals to willingly accept the laws, to willingly accept social justice, to develop an inner commitment to the value of social justice.

If a society as a whole is not prepared for social justice, if its members do not want to abide by the principle of social justice, then trying to establish social justice by force or legal fiat is bound to create resistance, even violence, bloodshed and war. This is against Islamic teachings.

According to Islamic teachings, you cannot establish justice in this way. Instead, you must prepare people suitably first, educate them and raise their awareness, and only then can peace and justice be established in society. If the society is unprepared for this, you need to wait till it becomes suitably prepared, till people’s mindsets have been suitably transformed. If you try to forcibly impose a scheme of justice on members of a society when they are not suitably prepared for it, it is doomed to fail.

There’s a well-known dictum: “Violence begins from the mind”. That’s definitely true, but it’s not only violence that begins in the mind. In fact, everything begins from the mind. So, if there’s no justice in people’s minds, if members of a society aren’t willing or prepared to accept social justice, you can’t expect the force of the army or the forcible imposition of any legal scheme to be able to establish justice in a genuine and meaningful manner.

Q: But what do you have to say about the intentional exclusion of millions of people, down the centuries and even in our times? They’ve been stigmatized. They’ve been excluded from land, from, from power, from dignity. How does one address such issues?

A: You rightly point out that there are such problems. But there are two aspects to this. Firstly, the presence of problems. And secondly, the appropriate method of solving these problems. I agree that there are problems, in terms of injustice and inequality. But that said, we must also ask, “What is the appropriate method of solving them?”

In this regard, I would say that we have to follow the natural method of solving these problems, the method that is in accordance with the Creation Plan of God, the method that is in conformity with nature. It is simply impossible for us to undo the Creation Plan of God, to undo nature. We do need to work for justice, but only by following the law of nature, the natural method, because we are not in a position to create a world that runs on laws of our own making.

We have not created this world. This world was created by God. And God has set some laws, some principles, on the basis of which things function. We need to follow God-made laws or principles, the laws or principles of nature, in addressing issues of injustice, as also in every other matter. If we do not do so, and, instead, we try to use methods of our own invention, our efforts will all be in vain.

A very important law or principle of nature is that only gradual change is possible in this world. In this world, radical change is impossible. All those who have talked about and have struggled to achieve radical change in this world have miserably failed. History shows that only gradual change is possible.

Gradual change means that you need to properly analyze the existing situation, survey the potentials and opportunities that exist, the nature of the existing challenges and then make plans for gradual transformation through peaceful means. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long process. If instead of doing this you go about trying to forcibly impose or implement your scheme of ideal justice, you are definitely going to fail.

So, I do say that yes, it is true that there are inequalities and injustices. And these do need to change. But the right method to change them is that which is in accordance with the laws of nature, with Divine laws and principles.

There’s another point that needs to be considered here. The situation that you have pointed out is not really an evil. Instead, it is a challenge, a spur to competition. Challenge is integral to human life. That is the way God has created human life. Challenges motivate us. They spur us on to do things, to improve, to discover, to make efforts, to persevere, and so on. So, they aren’t necessarily an evil.

Take, for instance, the case of Dr. Abdul Kalam, a former President of India. He was born in a very poor family. This posed a challenge to him. It spurred him on to do hard work. And that is how he rose to become the President of India.

So, to sum up what I’ve been saying, social justice can only be established gradually, by people’s minds being transformed and by inculcating the spirit of hard work. If you try to bring about social justice by force or by imposing a legal scheme on a society whose members are not ready or willing to accept it, it will prove to be a deadly failure, and may even result in violence and war. So, only gradual change will do. This is the Islamic approach.

Q: I think there can be a few exceptions, like Dr. Abdul Kalam, of people born in poor families rising like that. Maybe they are just one in a million. What I was referring to is structural oppression, structural evil—caste oppression, poverty, patriarchy, class and so on. There are so many structural or systemic challenges like these that continue to exclude and oppress millions of people. Should these millions just be allowed to live as they do, denied of their rights? How do we address their issues?

A: You are right, but the question is that we simply cannot change the laws of nature that govern social processes. This is something way beyond our capacity. Nature always opts for a course of gradual change. It does not accept efforts to impose radical change. Every single thing in this world follows the way of gradual, not radical, change. You know about the many thinkers and activists throughout history who dreamt of radical change—people like Marx—who miserably failed in their efforts. Marxists were able to grab political power, but everywhere they finally failed in bringing about the social justice they dreamt that they could bring about using radical means. Why was this? It was because nature accepts only gradual, not radical, change.

So, I would say, “Don’t repeat the blunder committed by Marxists and others who utterly failed by using radical means. Their method only brought in greater evil—hate and bloodshed on a huge scale.”

Let me cite a case to illustrate the power and efficacy of gradual change. You know America dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the Second World War. The Japanese did a very wise thing then. They decided not to retaliate, not to react by taking to a radical course of action. They adopted the peaceful path of gradual change, and slowly, in a few years, Japan turned into an economic ‘superpower’, and now it virtually rules the US market. In this way, it scored a symbolic victory, indicating the power of the path of gradual, as opposed to radical, change, the efficacy of the gradualist approach to establishing peace and justice.

So, social justice is a long-drawn process. You cannot change society overnight. You have to start from humble beginnings, and then slowly, gradually, it begins to grow. The case of Dr. Abdul Kalam that I cited earlier on is symbolic of this: if he can do it, anyone can. If Japan could overcome its destruction gradually and emerge victorious, then other countries, too, can do the same.

The point, then, is that gradual change is the only workable method. Radical change, on the other hand, is simply not workable, as history very clearly shows.

I think this principle is also referred to in the Bible. According to the Bible, Jesus says that one should give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. It indicates that one should try to bring about change through gradual, not radical, means. It tells us, “Don’t engage in confrontation with Caesar”. From this we learn that when you try to establish justice, don’t begin with confrontation with Caesar. Avoid confrontation with Caesar. In other words, try to achieve justice gradually, and at the same time avoid confrontation.

This is the gist of the gradual method of social change, of working gradually to bring about social justice.

Q: People talk about ‘just peace’, about how genuine peace cannot be had unless there’s justice. What are your views about this?

A: I do not at all agree with this approach. If you ask, for instance, the Arabs who are fighting against Israel, they will say that they are fighting for justice. I have spoken with many Arabs about this. I asked them, “Why have you adopted this gun culture? Why are you fighting? Don’t you want peace? Isn’t peace your concern?” And they all reply, “We want justice. First give us justice, and then we will agree to peace.”

This formula of a ‘just peace’, of peace with justice, is unnatural. It is against the laws of nature. If you bracket peace with justice and insist that you will agree to peace only when you secure justice, you will get neither. Peace and justice are two different things.

The real formula, according to Islam, is that, first of all, you have to establish peace at any cost. And then, when there is peace, you will find that it opens the doors to all kinds of opportunities. By availing these opportunities, you can secure justice, among other things. Justice is a result of our own efforts once we agree to peace.

People are obsessed with the concept of justice, but they fail to understand that justice can be had only when, after agreeing to accept peace, they make efforts to peacefully use the opportunities afforded by peace to gradually bring about justice through their own efforts. It is impossible to get justice as a gift. This is what the example of Dr. Abdul Kalam tells us.

Peace cannot directly or automatically give you justice. You need to make efforts for it. Peace creates opportunities, and then you need to make efforts, availing of existing opportunities in a peaceful manner, to obtain justice.

This is the Quranic formula for establishing justice, the formula in conformity with the laws of nature, with the Creation Plan of God. It is reflected in the life of the Prophet, too. In the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, which the Prophet entered into with his opponents from the town of Makkah, he agreed to peace despite the existence of injustice. He accepted the terms and conditions laid down by his opponents. And when peace was established, he and his companions were able to work for justice.

In other words, it is impossible to achieve justice before agreeing to establish peace. It is like putting the cart before the horse.

Q: When I was studying in the seminary, I had the good fortune to learn about Islam from a Christian priest who had written much on the subject. And so, I began to respect Islam when I was young, and I still do. But I know so many people, supposedly well-educated, who have deep-rooted prejudice against Islam simply because they did not have the privilege to study about Islam. I think most non-Muslims share this predicament. So, I feel that it is a great challenge for people like you to drive out this darkness. You know what I mean—for instance, this widespread misunderstanding that Islam promotes terror, that it mistreats women, and so on. That’s a very widespread notion, it seems, among people of other faiths. It’s a challenge, not only for Muslims, but for everyone who has goodwill for Islam.

What do you feel?

A: According to my experience, there are two distinct issues. One are misunderstandings. And the other are genuine problems, caused by Muslims’ misinterpretation of Islam. For instance, there is a general perception among many people of other faiths that there is no respectable place for women in Islam. This is an example of a misunderstanding. Now, it is true that there are individual cases of Muslim women not being given the honourable place that they deserve according to Islam, but these cases should not be used to generalize for all Muslim women. Take the case of my own house, for instance. Women have always been the boss of this house. First it was my late wife, and now it is my daughter. There’s certainly no gender discrimination in our family.

But there are certain issues that have arisen because of wrong interpretations of Islam. I feel that the fundamental reason for widespread negative views about Islam among people of other faiths is the fact that present-day Muslims have taken to violence in many parts of the world. What is the root cause of this? It is the political interpretation of Islam, by modern Islamist ideologues, by people such as Sayyid Qutb in the Arab world and Abul Ala Maududi, of the Jamaat-e Islami, in South Asia.

This misinterpretation of Islam is the basis for the violence that’s taking place today in many places in the name of Islam. It is premised on the erroneous notion that Islam is a political system, which needs to be imposed, if necessary by force. When advocates of this view want to impose or enforce their political system somewhere, they find that some people hold political power there already. And so they feel driven to unseat these people from power. This leads to violence, to war.

This, it must be clear, is not Islamic thinking. The Prophet of Islam never tried to unseat political rulers. But this is what the so-called Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan, tried to do. This is in total contrast to the method the Prophet used. The Prophet always strove to change people’s minds, and when people’s minds were changed, a system came into being.

This is the approach to change that needs to be adopted. Trying to impose a political system by force and thinking that through the coercive power of the state you can change people’s minds—which is what these radical Muslim groups are trying to do—is putting the cart before the horse. It is based on a wrong interpretation of Islam, as I said.

It is fundamentally this that has given rise to these widespread misconceptions about Islam and terrorism that you refer to.

Q: What message do you have for people of other faiths who harbor many prejudices against Islam?

A: People often form an image of Islam by looking at Muslims—at Muslims’ attitudes and behaviour. They see, on TV or in the newspapers, what some Muslims are doing somewhere—violent crimes—and they form their understandings about Islam on the basis of that. But this is not proper.

Islam and Muslims, people need to remember, are two very different things. Islam is an ideology, and Muslims are people who claim to follow that ideology. Here it must be stressed that you need to judge or gauge Muslims according to the teachings of Islam, and not vice versa. So, for instance, Muslim groups have adopted violence on a large scale, even suicide-bombing. But this is not Islam. This is un-Islamic, even though those Muslims who are involved in such actions may claim otherwise. The fact is that this is unlawful in Islam. In Islam, no non-state actor is allowed to use arms. Use of arms is the prerogative only of the state.

Muslim groups in different countries are engaged in violence, often in the name of demanding justice. Now, what is the solution? I have always maintained that in all these places where there is this violence happening, first of all these non-state groups that have acquired arms have to be disarmed if there is to be peace. According to Islam, it is totally unlawful for non-state actors to acquire and use arms. Once non-state actors who are engaged in violence in different countries are disarmed, it will be the beginning of peace. Without this, there can be no peace.

So, as I was saying, it is important that people of other faiths distinguish very clearly between Muslims, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, and not make the blunder of conflating or confusing the two. They must recognize that even if some Muslims misuse the name of Islam in order to seek legitimacy for their violence, this is based on a twisted and wrong interpretation of Islam. For instance, the 9/11 attacks. These were done by some Muslims. It wasn’t an Islamic phenomenon. It is haram or forbidden in Islam to do something like that, attacking buildings and killing people in that way. Islam, rightly interpreted, does not give anyone the right to do such a thing.

According to a verse in the Quran, “God calls to the home of peace.” (10:25) So, God invites us to establish a peaceful society. This is one of the most important teachings of Islam. However, contrary to what God advises, Muslim groups are engaged, actively or passively, in terrorism. This is a fact. They are flagrantly violating Islamic principles. We cannot deny this phenomenon of terrorism being engaged in by Muslims. But, as I said, we need to distinguish between Muslims and Islam and be careful that we do not conflate the two.