Justice and Its Relationship to Knowledge – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Justice and Its Relationship to Knowledge

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

The modern era has witnessed three significant developments that have created unprecedented challenges to the Muslim community: (1) public education, mass media, and mass literacy, (2) the disintegration of Islamic polities, and (3) the formation of learning institutes based on Western concepts, values, and processes. The first development has resulted in the masses acquiring access to classical Islamic texts without possessing the tools and skills to understand them properly. The second development has resulted in the loss of state patronage of Islamic institutions of learning. The third development has resulted in the intelligentsia of Muslim societies adopting Western and secular models.

The result of these three developments is a dissonance in Muslim spiritual development and intellectual unity. In this excerpt from “Islam and Secularism”, Sayyid Naquib al-Attas explains how the rise of injustice and oppression in Muslim societies is a result of a loss of wisdom which he traces to the loss of knowledge. In his work, the remedy he proposes to this problem is the Islamization of knowledge.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. (

[Justice in Islam is Primarily a State of Being within Man Himself]

“In Islam – because for it religion encompasses life in its entirety – all virtue is religious; it has to do with the freedom of the rational soul, which freedom means the power to do justice to itself; and this in turn refers to exercise of its rule and supremacy and guidance and maintenance over the animal soul and body. The power to do justice to itself alludes to its constant affirmation and fulfillment of the Covenant it has sealed with God. Justice in Islam is not a concept referring to a state of affairs which can operate only within a two-person-relation or dual-party-relation situation, such as: between one man and another; or between the society and the state; or between the ruler and the ruled; or between the king and his subjects.

To the question: “Can one be unjust to one’s self?” other religions or philosophies have not given a consistently clear-cut answer. Indeed in Western civilization, for example, though it is true that a man who commits suicide may be considered as committing an unjust act; but this is considered as such insofar only because his suicide deprives the state of the services of a useful citizen, so that his injustice is not to himself, but to the state and society. We have several times alluded to the concept that justice means a harmonious condition or state of affairs whereby every thing is in its right and proper place – such as the cosmos; or similarly, a state of equilibrium, whether it refers to things or living beings.

With respect to man, we say that justice means basically a condition and situation whereby he is in his right and proper place. ‘Place’ here refers not only to his total situation in relation to others, but also to his condition in relation to his self. So the concept of justice in Islam does not only refer to relational situations of harmony and equilibrium  existing between one person and another, or between the society and state, or between the ruler and the ruled, or between the king and his subjects, but far more profoundly and fundamentally so it refers in a primary way to the harmonious and rightly-balanced relationship existing between the man and his self, and in a secondary way only to such as exists between him and another or others, between him and his fellow men and ruler and king and state and society.

[Can Man be Unjust to Himself?]

Thus to the question: “Can one be unjust to one’s self?” we answer in the affirmative, and add further that justice and injustice indeed begins and ends with the self. The Holy Qur’an repeatedly stresses the point that man, when he does wrong, is being unjust (zalim) to himself, and that injustice (zulm) is a condition wrought by man upon his self.

To understand this we have to refer once again to the soul’s Covenant with God and to the belief that man has a dual nature in respect of his two souls and body. The real man can only in fact be his rational soul. If in his existence as a human being he allows his animal or carnal soul to get the better of him and consequently commits acts prohibited by God and displeasing to Him, or if he denies belief in God altogether then he has thereby repudiated his own of God’s Lordship which he as rational soul has covenanted with God. He does violence to his own Covenant, his individual contract with God.

So just as in the case of one who violates his own contract brings calamity upon himself, in the same way he who does wrong or evil who disobeys or denies God, violates the contract his soul soul has made with God, thereby being unjust to his soul. He has also thereby ‘lied’ – kadhaba, another apt Quranic expression – against his own self (soul). It is important in the light of this brief explanation to understand why the belief in the resurrection of bodies is fundamental in Islam, for the soul reconstituted with its former body will not be able to deny what its body had done, for its very eyes, tongues, hands and feet or limbs – the organs of ethical and moral conduct – will testify against its acts of injustice to itself. (FN 82)

Though in Islam injustice ostensibly applies between man and God, and between man and man and between man and his self, in reality, however, injustice is ultimately applicable – even in the two former cases – to man’s self alone; in the Islamic world view and spiritual vision, whether a man disbelieves or disobeys God, or whether he does wrong to another, it is really to his own self that he does wrong. Injustice, being the opposite of justice, is the putting of a thing in a place not its own; it is to misplace a thing; it is to misuse or to wrong; it is to exceed or fall short of the mean or limit; it is to suffer loss; it is deviation from the right course; it is disbelief of what is true, or lying about what is true knowing it to be true.

Thus when a man does an act of injustice it means that he has wronged his own soul, for he has put his soul in a place not its own; he has misused it; he has made it to exceed or fall short of its real nature; he has caused to deviate from what is right and to repudiate the truth and to suffer loss. All that he has thus done – in one way or another – entails a violation of his Covenant with God.

[Justice Implies Knowledge of the Right and Proper Place for a Thing or a Being to Be]

It is clear from what we say about injustice that justice implies knowledge of the right and proper place for a thing or a being to be; of right as against wrong; of the mean or limit; of spiritual gain as against loss; of truth as against falsehood. This is why knowledge (al-‘ilm; ma’arifah: ‘ilm) occupies a most important position in Islam, where in the Holy Qur’an alone we find more than eight hundred references to knowledge.

And even in the case of knowledge, man has to do justice to it, that is, to know its limit of usefulness and not to exceed or fall short of it; to know its various orders of priority in relation to its usefulness to one’s self; to know where to stop and to know what can be gained what cannot, what is true knowledge and what is learned guess and theory – in sum, to put every datum of knowledge in its right place in relation to the knowing one in such ways that what is known produces harmony in the one who knows. To know how to put what knowledge in which place is wisdom (hikmah). Otherwise, knowledge without order and seeking it without discipline does lead to confusion and hence to injustice to one’s self.

(FN 82: Analogically, the legal concept of habeas corpus (you must have the body) as a fundamental procedure of justice is perhaps only a mere imperfect reflection of the awesome and irrefutable Procedure to come. That the soul is capable of denial of acts of injustice is implied in al-A’raf (7):172-173; and in these Verses must be seen clear evidence of the soul’s capacity (wus’) to exercise a power (quwwah) of inclination towards right or wrong resulting in its acquisition or earning (kasaba, iktasaba) of good or evil. In the Islamic concept of justice and injustice outline above, the fact that the witness to a man’s actions, good or bad, is his own self is of greater significance. See also al-Nur (24):24.

(p 72 to 74 “Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future” by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas)

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