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Justice: The Role of Moral Values, Government & 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, conscientiousness, 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.

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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”.

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 conscientious 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 conscientious people to resist the herd effect.

This raises the question of when will a government fulfill its responsibilities conscientiously. 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, which is 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.

M. Umer Chapra


Source: Essays on Muslims and the Challenges of Globalisation, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. Republished with permission.