(Originally published on Issue 63 Sep/Oct 2018)
An 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 just doing 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 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 fairness in Islamic traditions
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”. Fair parents base their value system on real character and effort rather than outer traits such as personality, intelligence, and physical appearance. In this way, children develop a worldview that is rooted in care and compassion, rather than in power and control.
This extends to the educational sphere. Fair teachers find good qualities in each of their students, clarify their own expectations and grade accordingly. They also are sensitive to which of their students are putting in real effort. They carefully consider their students’ backgrounds, whether it comes to financial status, emotional support, giftedness, or some or all these aspects. A fair classroom or school environment reduces behavioural problems in children and adolescents and promotes enthusiasm for learning.
Moreover, fair leaders or managers communicate their expectations clearly, give everyone a voice, apply their own expectations to themselves, and know how to recognise true merit in their employees. An unfair workplace is a toxic environment, one that leads to feelings of loneliness, grudges, and misery; such settings prompt the workers to fulfil no more than what is expected of them.
Hence, our well-being – whether in the family circle, educational institution, workplace, or on a national scale – lies in more than just benefits; it lies in being respected and having a sense of belonging. This is what fair treatment can offer.
Building a character of fairness
Quality is something that is a firm part of the soul and, as a result, its corresponding actions are carried out automatically, without thinking. For example, an act of generosity does not necessarily make a person generous. A person is generous when he or she gives with joy – without feeling it to be a burden, without expecting praise, and without boasting about it afterwards. Some qualities are harder to attain, but the more a person strives, the more God helps that person embed the quality within the soul, thus making it easier to carry out the corresponding action.
Below are some general practices that can help anyone plant the seeds of fairness:
- Emptying ourselves by placing the ego aside. Being in control of our emotions and ego allows us not only to see the truth of the opposing side but also to be ready to sacrifice our own interests for the betterment of the other. We become more attentive by being in the present moment, and this allows us to catch the fleeting moment when reality clashes with our biases.
- Adopting a new attitude toward discomfort. In other words, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, because we tend to be comfortable with our own worldview.
- Being concerned with what is right rather than with appearing right. Instead of searching for the answer that makes us feel good, we should search for the right answer. As a result, we won’t prefer an immoral person from our own group to a moral person from another group; rather, we will recognise morality despite the other side, and we will recognise immorality in our own group and condemn it.
- Being aware of cognitive biases. There are many types of bias, such as confirmation bias, which is when we only listen to information that confirms our preconceptions; the ostrich effect, which is the decision to ignore negative information by burying one’s head in the sand, like an ostrich; and saliency bias, which is when we focus on the most easily recognisable features of a person or concept. Prophet Muhammad(s) said, “Someone who is biased or allows people to be biased in their favour has removed the rope of faith from his neck”. And in another tradition, he says, “Being biased is when a person considers bad people from his group to be better than good people from another group. It is not biased when a person loves his own people; however, it is biased when a person helps his own people and oppresses others”.
Fairness in interfaith dialogue
Being fair is especially important when it comes to interfaith dialogue. Fair people acknowledge the realities of what they witness when meeting brothers and sisters of other faiths; witnessing common beliefs and practices gives them a sense of joy, without feeling they are relinquishing their faith in the process. Fair people also admire the good actions of people of other faiths and strive to rid themselves of any pre-existing stereotypes that only serve to hinder their relationships. Also, fair people do not use dialogue to confirm their negative beliefs about the other or check for the wrongs of others. Rather than looking for confirmation for their previously held beliefs and listening to what they want to hear, they search for the truth with an open mind. Ultimately, this quality can uncover novel ideas and intuitions in each discussion, which, in turn, will enable the faithful to journey together toward God. All in all, in the process of dialogue, fair people yearn for God and His representatives to be known to humanity, and they work together to sincerely live according to the core beliefs of the Abrahamic faiths.
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: