Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Quran as a Constitution

The Quran establishes justice as the foundation for community. Islam, like other Abrahamic religions, is very utopian and has a strong focus on creating an ideal society. Like Judaism, Islam goes about accomplishing this with a comprehensive legal code that covers both the mundane and spiritual equally. As a result, Quranic justice is institutionalized not in only in its eschatology, but also in the smallest interactions between people.

O you who have believed, when you contract a debt for a specified term, write it down. And let a scribe write [it] between you in justice. Let no scribe refuse to write as Allah has taught him. So let him write and let the one who has the obligation dictate. And let him fear Allah, his Lord, and not leave anything out of it.” (2:282)[i] This verse from the second Surah acts on two levels. It provides logical advice about how to organize business dealings, but also imbues the interaction with a call to justice. The Quran likens the act of writing down a promise to establishing a covenant between two people. The relationship that has just been formed is now a mutual obligation and this obligation forms the core of justice. If the obligation is met, justice has been created. If it is shirked, justice has been violated. This presents justice as stemming from what we owe to one another and not an abstract impersonal concept. The last part of the verse “And let [the one who has the obligation] fear Allah, his Lord, and not leave anything out of it” explicitly links the fulfillment of obligation to submission to God. By reneging on his obligation, the debtor is crossing God as well. The implication is that our personal relationships are conduits for interacting with the Divine.

The Quran links justice to belief and places it in opposition to kufr (unbelief). What we owe to each other and how individuals should treat one another are explicitly described as prophetic relationships. In the tenth Surah, it says “And for every nation is a messenger. So when their messenger comes, it will be judged between them in justice, and they will not be wronged” (10:47)[ii] The verse anthropomorphizes society; each nation acts as a unified holy prophet. But unlike prophets who spread their message through preaching, societies must spread theirs through interpersonal interactions.

However, the Quran is careful to not overemphasize justice. Islam often contrasts itself with kufr (active unbelief). Yet the opposite, in Islamic thought, of kufr is not belief in Islamic thought. Instead kufr is only balanced by positive actions stemming from human relationships. Gratitude is outlined as the opposite of unbelief; Justice cannot sustain the world alone.[iii] Justice itself is part of a larger set of practices that undergird Islamic society. If the Quran is thought of as a legal document, justice encompasses all the protections and duties granted to individuals. These rights are universal in constitutions around the world, but are really only basic rights. They by no means guarantee that society develops in a positive way.

The Quran stands out among legal documents in that it attempts to institutionalize healthy interactions within the framework of justice. For example, the Quran places special emphasis on humans being gracious to each other as a way of being thankful to God. Being gracious is a form of respect and so the Quran creates the right of human dignity by proscribing a specific set of actions.  Similarly the importance of contracts is reiterated throughout the Quran. Instead of enumerating the benefits of rule of law, the Quran describes contracts as symbolic of trust, of the primordial contract with God.[iv] It thereby establishes the contract law as above simple legalese and as part of the very human-Divine relationship.

The Quran is meant to be all encompassing. It lays out a constitution on how to govern daily life, but seeks to uplift the mundane to the level of holiness. It does this remind Muslims of the centrality of God in every action. The result is institutionalized justice, gratitude, and trust within the context of spiritual development.

[i] “Surah 2” Rodwell, J.M., and D.S. Margoliouth. The Koran. Pub., 2012

[ii] “Surah 10” ibid.

[iii] Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture notes, April 5th, 2018

[iv] ibid.


Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture notes. 2018

Rodwell, J.M., and D.S. Margoliouth. The Koran. Pub., 2012


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