Social Justice Series

The History of Social Justice – Social Justice Series

In this series, Shaykh Walead Mosaad speaks about defining social justice in the Islamic paradigm. This segment covers the history of social justice, from the times of the Ancient Greeks until today.

Social justice as we know it was first codified by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. He based his theory upon “a veil of ignorance,” from a position where no one one anything about anybody: not their age, economic stats, race, or even gender.

From this basis, he came up with two standards. Firstly, that each person should have equal rights to the most extensive privileges available to other people enjoying the same. Secondly, that inequalities should be arranged so that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position.

Some people criticised this, saying that while it sounded great in theory, in reality people do have positions of privileged, so it would not be possible to give everyone exactly the same social position. In addition, Rawls did not have a plan of action as to how to implement this. Nonetheless, his theory formed the blueprint for many groups.

Plato and Socrates also had similar conceptions of justice. According to them, justice was embodied in a just man. Knowledge and reflection were both the keys to justice. They also believed that justice was one of the cardinal virtues, which sustained and perfects the other three: temperance, wisdom, and courage.

The challenge with philosophical theories, is that few people follow philosophers as a way of life. Rather, philosophers were mostly talking amongst themselves. However, a large amount of people would follow the Prophets’ message.

St Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic theologian, took it a step further by saying that justice was Divine. He believed that justice was a habit, by which a person gave everyone their due through perpetual will.

About the Series

Social justice has been the focus in recent times of Muslim activists and communities. More often than not, the methods and objectives employed in Muslim social justice work has drawn from practices of other communities and traditions not necessarily rooted in Islamic principles. Does the Islamic tradition contain relevant principles that can be drawn upon to inform social justice work?