The following is the content of the Islamic presentation on the concept of fairness by Shahnaze Safieddine. This is part of an ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Shi‘as held at the Focolare Centre of Unity in Welwyn Garden City
n employer and employee discuss a monthly payment rate, and the employee agrees to the proposed salary. Some months later, the employer discovers that her employee’s salary is less than the average market rate. What should the employer do? Would offering a higher salary be an act of justice or an act of fairness? It’s in our nature to want to be treated fairly. We see it most in children who often complain to their parents and teachers about being treated unfairly. We also see a need and demand for fairness in the workplace, higher institutions, and even the economic and political spheres. Unfair treatment unleashes feelings of agitation, resentment, and loneliness in the victim, which in turn may lead to broken relationships and, hence, broken communities. Thus, understanding what it means to be fair and how it differs from justice will heighten our awareness and help us to improve on one of the most important qualities that solidify our relationships.
Fairness in Islamic tradition Sometimes we assume that the words ‘justice’ (adalah) and ‘fairness’ (insaf) are synonymous because we often use them interchangeably. But in the Qur’an and hadith corpus, ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ are not the same, though they are closely related. Fairness is a step ahead of justice, as being fair requires one to be just, while being just does not necessarily require one to be fair. Insaf (fairness) comes from the root word nisf, meaning ‘half’. Insaf, then, has two sides: one is your side and one is the other. To put into context, when there is a disagreement between you and another person, or between your group and another person or group, to be munsif (fair) would be to stand in the middle and look at both sides. You are expected to distance yourself from yourself and your group and judge between yourself and the other with detachment. Doing so can be challenging because we tend to be attached to ourselves, and to detach requires concentration and effort. Once we have managed to view the case entirely from the perspective of the
September / October 2018
other and arrive at an accurate conclusion, we have attained the quality of fairness. Justice requires observing people’s rights by giving them exactly what they deserve. Fairness involves not only observing others’ rights but also going out of our way to make sure they are treated as we want to be treated if we were in the same situation. In other words, fairness is an act of nobility. Referring to the example above, if the employer chooses to continue to pay the salary that was agreed upon with his employee, her actions are considered just - that is, one that is within the boundaries of established laws. If, on the other hand, she decides to raise the employee’s salary - not because she’s compelled to do so but rather out of consideration of the market rate or out of empathy for the employer’s living conditions - her actions would be considered fair, a quality that involves empathising with others, especially if the other is in a desperate or detrimental situation. In other words, we search for an excuse for the wrongdoer. It is important to bear in mind that while struggling to accurately perceive the other side to attain fairness, we shouldn’t demand others to be fair. People are continually learning and developing while making mistakes and striving to amend them. Imam al-Sadiq(a) said, “It is not fair to demand others to treat you with fairness”.
The benefits of Islamic t r a d i t i o n s
Prophet Muhammad(s) said, “Whoever is charitable toward a poor person and fair toward people in spite of himself is the true believer”. Imam Ali(a) also says that fairness is the best of characteristics which brings harmony among hearts and make relationships lasting.
The effects of fairness Fairness demands that we consider the circumstances before making a decision. Imam Ali(a) said, “Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you; they were born for a different time”.
This issue is bi-monthly