Equality in Islamic Law - An Overview

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Human equality, without distinction of race, color or language, is an intrinsic principle of Islam. This principle, despite its importance and obviousness, was not respected by ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt, Persia, and Rome. People were divided into different social strata. Some had privileges and a superiority of rank while others had just the opposite due to their lower social status. 

In ancient societies, discrimination was based on sex, color, wealth, power, and the status of being free or being a slave. The class of political leaders (the aristocracy, nobility) and religious leaders (the clergy) constituted the privileged class. Some societies, like that of India, included even a caste of untouchables. It was forbidden for individuals to leave their caste for another, even if their skills allowed them to do so. 

During the modern era, the French Revolution of 1789 raised the banner of freedom. Experience teaches us that principles and mottos are not enough, unless there is something that defines the content of those principles, facilitates their implementation and imposes sanctions for their violation. 

We find all of this in Islamic law with regard to the principle of human equality. It is an innate equality presupposed by Islamic law. Its parameters are known and its methods of application are clear. Punishment for transgressions against the principle of human equality occur both in this world and in the Hereafter. 

The essential equality between all people is due to their common human origin. This is an equality in honor and dignity based on firm clear principles. Allah says: “O humanity! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bore you).” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 1] 

All of humanity is derived from a single person. Prophet Muhammad explained this as being the basis for equality when he said: “Allah freed you from the bigotry prevailing at the time of paganism and the boasting about one’s ancestors. People are divided into pious believers and damned sinners. All people are children of Adam and Adam comes from dust. People should therefore cease to boast about their ancestors who are merely the fuel of the Hellfire, or else they will be more despicable with God than the dung beetle which rolls dung with its nose.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī and Sunan Abī Dāwūd

This is the basic principle of Islamic equality, as defined by the Qur’an and Sunnah. 

The circumstances and conditions in which people live vary with place and time, which brings a diversity in ethnic groups, skin colors and languages. People differ in other ways. Some are rich and some are poor. Some are strong and some are weak. Some are educated and others are ignorant. There are socio-economic differences between people. Faced with this diversity, societies have come up with various standards to classify people. 

It is necessary to set a sound criterion to distinguish between people, because absolute parity between people exists only for the human entity in the broadest sense. The problem arises when we want to establish this criterion. Indeed, it must be such that it does not contravene in itself the principle of equality, and that it makes classification a means of development and progress, not an excuse for injustice and discrimination. 

This is what exists in Islamic law, since it has rejected all of the classification criteria people have generally used throughout history, such as power, social status, economic situation, socio-economic class, race, and skin color. 

All of these criteria were used by ancient societies, to the extent that some ancient philosophers have denied the very principle of equality, like Plato who claimed that some people had been created to rule and dominate while others were created to be governed and to work for the benefit of others. 

Islam brought a ranking criterion where all people are equal, regardless of their ethnic origin, skin color or social status. It is the criterion of piety. Allah says: “O people! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Indeed, God is Knower, Aware.” [Sūrah al-Hujūrāt: 13] 

This classification criterion defines a goal that can be reached by anyone. It does not divide people in classes, one above the other. It is rather a criterion that encourages self-improvement and individual upliftment. 

Piety is Allah’s criterion for human superiority in the Hereafter, but it also serves in this world as a real and practical criterion for measuring worth. Indeed, the goodness that people exhibit in their daily lives not only makes them better individuals in themselves, but also more beneficial members of the societies in which they live. They enjoy a distinction over those who bring no benefit to themselves or to others. 

With this true criterion which improves people and society, the Islamic religion abolished all factitious criteria, many of which have been identified by the Qur’an. Allah blames those who use false criteria to discriminate against people: “They said: Shall we put faith in you, when the lowest (of the people) follow you?” [Sūrah al-Shu`arā’: 111] 

This verse of the Qur’an speaks about people who justified their disbelief by the fact that those who believed in the Messenger were of supposedly lower status. Likewise, the Qur’an tells us: “They say: Shall we believe as the foolish believe?” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 13] 

The nobles of Mecca and those who considered themselves as leaders of their people asked the Prophet to abandon the poor, destitute and lower-status people who had gathered around him and believed in him, like ‘Ammār b. Yāsir and Bilāl. They claimed it under the pretext that they wanted to listen to the Prophet but not in a house where such people would be the object of the Messenger’s attention. 

In response to their request, Allah revealed the following words: “Do not repel those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, seeking His countenance. You are not accountable for them in aught, nor are they accountable for you in aught, that you should repel them and be of the wrong-doers.” [Sūrah al-An`ām: 52] 

The Prophet showed us what equality means. Indeed, when people of influence came to intercede with him to exempt a noble woman from the sentence she had to undergo for stealing, he refused and recalled that it is forbidden to intercede to waive a sentence imposed by Allah, because this would contradict the principle of equality. It would encourage exempting influential individuals from punishment while imposing it upon people who were weak and of lower status. 

The Prophet also explained that if this practice became widespread in a society, that society would be doomed to disappear. Indeed, he asserted: “What brought ruin to those who lived before you was that when the noble amongst them stole, they were left unpunished, whereas if the poor committed theft, the sentence was carried out.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim

The Messenger blamed one of his Companions for having insulted another of his Companions because of his skin color. When Abū Dhārr al-Ghifārī insulted Bilāl for his black skin, the Prophet became angry and said to him: “You are a man possessing a characteristic of the pre-Islamic pagan times.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim

The Prophet said this to Abū Dhārr al-Ghifārī, even though he was a Companion who followed the Prophet assiduously, loved him and received his teachings. 

During his last pilgrimage, the Prophet delivered a sermon where he proclaimed: “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or vice versa, nor of a white person over a black person or vice versa, except on the basis of piety.” 

Islamic law applies the principle of equality in its legal rulings in a way that elevates humanity and ensures the realization of people’s needs in life. 

According to Islam, women, like men, are responsible for adhering to religious commandments and avoiding what is prohibited. They receive the same reward for doing so. Allah says: “Whosoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer, verily We shall give them a good life, and We shall pay them a recompense in proportion to the best of what they used to do.” [Sūrah al-Nahl: 97] 

It is a woman’s right to work if she needs to work, or if it is needed for her to work, as in the case of some jobs wherein women are needed, in compliance with Islamic mores. She enjoys full legal capacity and has full financial responsibility and autonomy. These are as described by the Messenger when he says: “Women are the full sisters of men.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī and Sunan Abī Dāwūd] 

In addition to the equality that exists between men and women on the basis of their shared human identity, and the rights and obligations of each which foster harmony within the family structure, Islam calls upon men to take care of women and to live with them in a good manner. Allah says: “Live with them in kindness.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 19] Islam also call to the man, telling him not to be quick to hate his wife, even assuming that she did something wrong. Allah says: “But live with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 19] 

This complementary equality is in the interest of the woman and the man, as well as the family, and by extension, the whole of society. 

People might bring up that in Islam, it is permissible for the man to have up to four wives if he has the financial means, as long as he treats his wives with fairness and equality. However, this limited polygamy allows for the protection of women, so that they do not have to be alone in life, with no one responsible for their maintenance and interests. It also closes the door to the exploitation of women, to the desire to make them instruments of pleasure and entertainment, without men having to assume responsibility for them and without having to make any commitment to them. 

This is indeed the situation of a woman who accepts being in an illicit relationship. She ends up the loser every time because she receives from her “boyfriend” no commitment, even if the “boyfriend” is technically not engaging in polygamy when he cheats on his wife or his other girlfriends with her. 

Mutual assistance and complementary rights and duties between the ruler and ruled are among the fundamental principles of Islam. On various occasions, the Prophet, who is the best of the created beings, taught his Companions the principle of equality. For example, one day when he was trying to line up his Companions on the battlefield, he used a small stick to nudge a man who was standing out of the rank. When the man complained to him, the Messenger discovered that the man’s stomach was bruised, so he gave the man the right to retaliate in kind, exposing his stomach to the man so he could strike him. Instead, the man instead rushed to kiss the spot on the Prophet’s skin. [Sunan Abī Dāwūd

The Companions of the Prophet perfectly embraced this principle of equality, since Abū Bakr said to the people when he became the first Caliph in Islam: “If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.” 

This equality does not go against the obedience that we owe to those in power, who are the guardians of the Muslims’ interests. Indeed, if the governed deserve equality in terms of rights and obligations, the governing authority has the right to be obeyed, whether we like it or not and regardless of our personal circumstances. 

This right is based on Islamic law, which has granted equality. Allah says: “O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you (in truth) believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 59] 

In Islam, people are equal in their origins. Human dignity is due to the fact that all people are the children of Adam. Allah says: “Verily We have honored the children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them [to eat], and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 70] 

It is not permissible for a Muslim to make use of the property of the non-Muslims living in Muslim lands, whether they are visitors, residents or citizens, except with their consent. Their honor and property are protected in Muslim society. 

Thomas Walker Arnold said: “In the first centuries of Arab rule, the various Christian churches enjoyed toleration and freedom of religious life such as had been unknown for generations under the Byzantine Government.” 

Non-Muslim subjects can live safely in Muslim society, without fear for their lives, property or honor. They benefit from charity and solidarity. ‘Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb, as Caliph, applied this policy. For example, when he saw an old non-Muslim citizen in need and unable to earn his living, he granted him a pension from the public treasury. 

All this stems from the general principles of equality between all people and their proper application. Those principles are inspired by the following words of the Qur’an: “Allah does not forbid you, regarding those who warred not against you on account of religion nor drove you out from your homes, that you should show them kindness and deal justly with them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.” [Sūrah al-Mumtahanah: 8]. 

These are but a few examples of the application of the Islamic principle of equality, selected for discussion because they refer to important matters that concern people today, like discrimination based on color or race, the issue of women and their rights in Muslim society, the question of equality between the governed and those in power, and the issue of fairness and equality in behavior toward non-Muslims. These principles of equality were not known in human societies before the advent of Islam.


Sheikh `Abd Allah b. ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-Turkī, Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs

Source: en.islamtoday.net (July 26, 2015)