Allah says in the Quran:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُ بِالْعَدْلِ وَالْإِحْسَانِ وَإِيتَاءِ ذِي الْقُرْبَى وَيَنْهَى عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنْكَرِ وَالْبَغْيِ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَQuran 16:90
Initial Translation: ⟪Allah commands justice, excellence, and giving to close relatives and forbids from shamelessness, misdeeds, and transgression. He advises you so that you may be reminded.⟫
Numerous scholars emphasize the depth and breadth of this verse. It succinctly encompasses the essence of Islam, and Islam is an exposition of this verse.
Ibn Masud (RA) has been quoted saying, “The most comprehensive verse in the Quran is in Surah Nahl.” He was referring to this very verse. Another version of his statement is: “The most encompassing verse regarding good and evil.” (TT)
A hadith, although considered weak, describes this verse as “The most balanced and just verse of the Quran.” (FM)
Hasan al-Basri, after reciting this verse, commented, “Allah has summarized all that is good and evil in this verse. Indeed, the terms ⟪justice and excellence⟫ include all good deeds in the sight of Allah, and the terms ⟪immorality, evil, and transgression⟫ cover all sins in His view.” (HA)
A narration says that Ali (RA) encountered a group of people in discussion. When he asked them about their conversation, they replied that they were discussing “manliness.” To this, Ali (RA) responded, “Hasn’t Allah provided sufficient guidance in His book when He stated ⟪Allah commands ‘adl and ihsān⟫? Here, ‘Adl means justice, and ihsān signifies going beyond mere justice in performing good deeds. What more is needed beyond this?” (DM)
In another instance, Walīd ibn Mughīrah, a renowned poet from Makkah, approached the Prophet (SAW) requesting him to recite verses from the Quran. Among the verses the Prophet (SAW) chose was ⟪Allah commands justice, excellence, and giving to close relatives…⟫. So profound was its impact that Walīd was deeply moved, remarking, “The words indeed have a sweetness and a distinct charm. They are bountiful at the beginning and at the end. They are dominant, and nothing can surpass them. Truly, they overpower everything below them.”
This verse is a regular feature in the concluding remarks of Jumuah khutbahs, a tradition rooted in the practices of the Prophet’s (SAW) companions.
The term ‘Adl in this verse translates to insāf, which stands for justice. Its root is based on the act of leveling a scale, ensuring both sides are balanced.
Sometimes, the term denotes compensation, as in the Quranic verse ⟪And fear a Day when no soul will suffice for another soul at all, and no compensation will be accepted from it⟫. (2:123)
In the Quran, the term also signifies equality. An example is the verse where Allah says ⟪if you fear that you will not be just⟫ with multiple wives, ⟪then [marry only] one⟫. (4:3)
Moreover, the Quran uses the word in the context of shirk, implying an act of placing others on an equal pedestal with Allah. This can be seen in the verse ⟪Then those who disbelieve equate [others] with their Lord⟫. (6:1)
Essentially, ‘Adl represents justice, ensuring individuals get their deserved share, making sure what is given aligns with what should be given. Justice does not equate to equality, as in the modern interpretation of it. Instead, the ‘equality’ in justice refers to the equivalence of what is received to what is merited, not necessarily equivalence between two individuals.
Ihsān originates from the verb أَحْسَنَ, which can be interpreted as “he performed a good act” or “he perfected.” Hence, Ihsān carries two potential meanings: 1) Committing good actions and 2) Achieving perfection or excellence. Some also believe Ihsān implies “sincerity,” but this could be a derivative of excellence.
Fahshā is a synonym of fāhishah, denoting an egregiously shameful or vile sin. The term particularly associates with zinā (fornication) because of its shameless nature.
Munkar derives from the verb أَنْكَرَ, which means “he failed to recognize” or “he denounced.” This offers Munkar two interpretations: 1) Things that are unknown or 2) Acts that are condemned. The latter interpretation typically associates with sins or evils since they are condemned.
The exact entity doing the denouncing or exhibiting the “lack of knowledge” can be a subject for debate.
Baghi represents an act of transgression against another, infringing on their rights or causing undue harm that exceeds boundaries.
⟪Allah commands justice and excellence⟫
Scholars have had varying opinions on the exact meanings of these terms and why Allah specifically mentioned them.
There are four primary interpretations concerning ⟪justice⟫ and ⟪excellence⟫:
- First View: Ibn Abbas opined that ⟪’adl⟫ is to testify that there is no god except Allah, and ⟪ihsān⟫ is to fulfill the obligations of Allah’s religion like prayer and fasting. He believed that recognizing Allah as the sole benefactor and not attributing blessings to anyone else embodies true justice. In his view, ‘adl (justice) translates to tawhīd (the oneness of God). On the other hand, he understood ihsān as performing good deeds, emphasizing obligations since Allah ⟪commands⟫ them. A potential drawback of this interpretation is the overlapping definitions of ‘adl and ihsān; both pertain to giving Allah His due rights.
- Second View: Ali (RA) opined that ⟪’adl⟫ represents basic justice and ⟪ihsān⟫ signifies going beyond that basic requirement. Here, justice is the fundamental expectation, whereas ihsān means to give even more than what is expected. In terms of Allah’s rights, obligations are categorized under ⟪’adl⟫, while voluntary acts of worship fall under ⟪ihsān⟫. In human interactions, justice entails fulfilling rights, and excellence involves acts like forgiveness and kindness.
- Third View: Sufyān ibn ‘Uyainah suggested that ⟪’adl⟫ means one’s secret good deeds match those performed publicly, while ⟪ihsān⟫ implies doing more good in secret than in public. This interpretation stresses the importance of sincerity in actions and the avoidance of riyā (performing acts for others’ admiration), and it uses the ‘equality’ meaning of ‘adl. While this perspective offers valuable insight, it might be a stretch to use it as the primary interpretation of the verse.
- Fourth View: Razi associated ⟪’adl⟫ with the idea of balance, both in beliefs and actions. He cited different examples of how proper beliefs are balanced between extremes. For example, he mentioned how believing in one God is the balanced position between believing in no gods and believing in multiple gods and believing sinful believers will be temporarily punished is the balanced position between believing they will be eternally punished or never punished. Additionally, he argued that the Sharia given to this Ummah is more balanced compared to previous scriptures. However, “balance” can be subjective, as one can frame any belief as “moderate” by comparing it to extremes.
Additionally, some scholars opined defined ⟪ihsān⟫ to mean “sincerity”. Others defined ⟪ihsān⟫ as “worshipping Allah as if you see Him”, referring to the hadith of Jibril (AS). However, using the same term does not always imply the same concept across different texts.
⟪and giving to close relatives⟫
Some believe this refers specifically to ⟪giving⟫ charity ⟪to close relatives⟫.
Others interpret it as ⟪giving close relatives⟫ their due rights.
Ibn Atiyyah suggests that the phrase being non-specific indicates the broad range of rights that close relatives possess, encompassing all obligations and courtesies one owes them.
⟪and forbids from immorality, evil, and transgression⟫
There are varied interpretations regarding the meaning of fahshā, munkar, and baghi in this verse.
- First View: According to Ibn Isa, fahshā pertains to sins typically committed in secret due to their disgraceful nature, while munkar encompasses sins commonly committed openly, hence attracting condemnation. Baghi, he suggests, is about persistently committing a sin or oppressing others. This viewpoint aligns with the usual linguistic interpretations, where fahshā indicates hidden, shameful sins and munkar refers to publically rebuked actions. Baghi can be seen as exceeding the bounds, implying persistence in wrongdoing.
- Second View: Ibn Abbas relates fahshā to zina (adultery), munkar to shirk (associating partners with God), and baghi to acts of arrogance and oppression. He may have been using these sins as representative examples, meaning fahshā signifies blatantly shameful sins such as zina and munkar denotes sins like shirk and murder. This would make his interpretations of fahshā and munkar in line with Ibn Isa’s interpretation.
Others have mentioned that ⟪munkar⟫ could denote lying. Some also believe ⟪munkar⟫ alludes to matters not mentioned in the Quran or Sunnah, implying innovations in religious practices.
Sufyān ibn ‘Uyaina extends his analysis, suggesting that ⟪immorality, evil, and transgression⟫ describe when someone’s public good deeds outnumber their private ones, indicating riyā (showing off).
Baghi being “oppression” or “violation of rights” is supported by another verse where Allah says ⟪Say, “My Lord has only forbidden fawāhish – what is apparent of them and what is concealed – and sin, and baghi without right⟫ (7:33) This verse also mentions the prohibition of three things. The first (fahshā and fawāhish respectively) and third (baghi) are analogous words in both verses, while the second is called munkar and ithm (sin) respectively.
⟪He advises you so that you may be reminded⟫
There are three possibilities about what Allah is reminding of.
- He is reminding people of the covenant He took from them. Allah says ⟪And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.”⟫ (7:172)
- He is reminding them of the message of the previous prophets.
- He is reminding them of what they already know is good and evil in their fitrah.
Allah instructs us to uphold justice, ensuring everyone receives their rightful due – be it Allah, humans, or animals. He also emphasizes the importance of excellence in all actions and interactions, especially when it comes to fulfilling the rights of relatives.
Conversely, Allah strictly prohibits acts viewed as shameless, like zina, which our innate human nature (fitrah) recognizes as wrong and seeks to conceal. He warns against all forms of wrongdoing, whether through actions or words, and cautions against introducing unfounded practices into His religion. Furthermore, Allah denounces any form of oppression or violation of another’s rights. Through these directives, He effectively condemns all forms of evil, emphasizing the need to avoid disgraceful actions, wrongdoings, and any infringement on others’ rights.
This guidance serves as a reminder of the sacred covenant made with Allah before our life began, the consistent message relayed through numerous prophets, and the truths inherently known in our hearts.
Why does Allah mention ⟪giving to close relatives⟫ after mentioning justice and excellence already?
While it is clear that providing for close relatives is included within justice and excellence, Allah reiterates this command to highlight their specific rights.
In contemporary times, the significance of supporting family is sometimes downplayed or even dismissed. Some believe aiding strangers exhibits greater moral integrity than assisting relatives. However, Allah consistently emphasizes the importance of close relatives throughout the Quran.
For example, Allah instructs, ⟪And give the relative his right, and [also] the poor and the traveler, and do not spend wastefully⟫ (17:26). Here, relatives are prioritized, followed by the needy and travelers. Thus, while assisting strangers, such as travelers, is commendable, it does not eclipse the essential duty to one’s family.
An English adage says, “Blood is thicker than water.” Some challenge this by asserting that friendships, built on choice, hold greater value than familial bonds, which are not chosen. This perspective reeks of atheism. As believers, we understand that while friends choose to associate with us, our relatives were chosen by the all-knowing Creator. Which choice should hold greater reverence? Without a doubt, Allah’s choice.
Highlighting the disparity between modern views and divine directives, there is a hadith where a companion freed a slave she had. When the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) found out, he said she would have gained more reward by donating the slave to her needy relatives. (Sahih Bukhari) This illustrates that even extremely virtuous acts, like emancipating slaves, are secondary to fulfilling familial obligations.
Why are the commands listed before the prohibitions?
Allah often places commands before prohibitions in the Quran. For instance, Allah states ⟪You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong⟫ (3:110), ⟪The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They enjoin what is wrong and forbid what is right⟫ (9:67), and ⟪Those who follow the Messenger […] who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil⟫ (7:157).
However, there are exceptions, as in ⟪Say, [O Muhammad], “Indeed, I have been forbidden to worship those you call upon besides Allah once the clear proofs have come to me from my Lord, and I have been commanded to submit to the Lord of the worlds.”⟫ (40:66)
The general trend suggests that prohibitions are prioritized when the discourse centers on tawhīd (the oneness of God) and shirk (associating partners with God). This is because shirk is the gravest sin. True worship of God is only achievable once shirk is forsaken. This notion is reflected in the shahādah, which states, “There is no god except Allah,” first negating all other deities before confirming Allah.
In broader contexts that encompass various actions, Allah typically cites the command for good deeds before the prohibition of bad ones. This might suggest that engaging in righteous acts paves the way for avoiding sinful ones, beyond the context of shirk. Supporting this idea, Allah declares ⟪And establish prayer. Indeed, prayer prohibits immorality and wrongdoing.⟫ (29:45).
Why is the sequence ⟪justice, excellence, and giving to close relatives⟫ chosen?
Justice is emphasized first because it forms the foundation for all ethical conduct. Justice ensures everyone receives their due. Without establishing justice first, there can be no talk of excellence; the latter implies going above and beyond what is merely just or fair.
Giving to close relatives is highlighted last as it is an example of both justice and excellence. Typically, general things are introduced before specific examples. This mirrors Allah’s pattern in the verse ⟪And [mention, O Muhammad], when We took from the prophets their covenant and from you and from Noah and Abraham and Moses and Jesus, the son of Mary; and We took from them a solemn covenant.⟫ Here, the broad category of “prophets” precedes the particular examples of Nuh, Ibrahim, and Musa (AS).
Why is the sequence ⟪immorality, evil, and transgression⟫ chosen?
Fahshā (immorality) is mentioned foremost because such acts are inherently recognized as disgraceful. These are typically major sins, hence they are more intuitively avoided.
Munkar (misdeeds) is positioned next, representing deeds that are outwardly discernible as wrong, even if not associated with the inherent shame accompanying fahshā.
Transgression, placed last, represents those wrongs that might be more tempting, as they often benefit the wrongdoer. This makes them challenging to resist.
Another perspective is that fahshā and munkar predominantly concern obligations to Allah, which hold higher importance. In contrast, transgression often pertains to duties owed to fellow humans.
Why does Allah say ⟪commands⟫ if ⟪excellence⟫ might not be obligatory?
If we follow Ibn Abbas’s interpretation that ⟪excellence⟫ signifies obligations, such as prayer, the phrase aligns perfectly.
However, if we lean towards other interpretations where ⟪excellence⟫ suggests going beyond mere justice, then the “command” in this verse could encompass not just obligations but also strong recommendations.
There are many verses in the Quran that emphasize the importance of justice:
- ⟪O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives.⟫ (4:135)
- ⟪be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.⟫ (5:8)
- ⟪Say, [O Muhammad], “My Lord has ordered justice”⟫ (7:29)
- ⟪And give full measure when you measure, and weigh with an even balance. That is the best [way] and best in result.⟫ (17:35)
Not only does Allah emphasize that humans should establish justice, He emphasizes that He Himself will establish justice:
- ⟪And We place the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection, so no soul will be treated unjustly at all. And if there is [even] the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it forth. And sufficient are We as accountant.⟫ (21:47)
- ⟪And the weighing [of deeds] that Day will be the truth. So those whose scales are heavy – it is they who will be the successful.⟫
- ⟪And your Lord does injustice to no one.⟫ (18:49)
- ⟪The word will not be changed with Me, and never will I be unjust to the servants.⟫ (50:29)
Combining the two, Allah says ⟪And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance, so that you do not transgress within the balance. And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance.⟫ (55:7-9)
Many verses in the Quran establish the importance of ihsān:
- ⟪And do good; indeed, Allah loves the doers of good.⟫ (2:195)
- ⟪Is the reward for ihsān [anything] but ihsān?⟫ (55:60)
- ⟪And be patient, for indeed, Allah does not allow to be lost the reward of those who do good.⟫ (11:115)
The Prophet (SAW) said, “Allah has prescribed ihsān in everything. So, when you kill, kill in a perfect way, and when you slaughter, slaughter in a perfect way. Everyone should sharpen his knife and let the animal die in comfort.” (Sahih Muslim)
Usually translated as “immorality,” fahshā is also emphatically prohibited in the Quran:
- ⟪And when they commit an immorality, they say, “We found our fathers doing it, and Allah has ordered us to do it.” Say, “Indeed, Allah does not order immorality. Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?”⟫ (7:28)
- ⟪Say, “My Lord has only forbidden immoralities – what is apparent of them and what is concealed – and sin, and oppression without right⟫ (7:33)
- ⟪O you who have believed, do not follow the footsteps of Satan. And whoever follows the footsteps of Satan – indeed, he enjoins immorality and wrongdoing.⟫ (24:21)
Fahshā refers to deeds which naturally invoke feelings of shame in humans due to their innate nature or fitrah. A commonality in these sins is their often pleasurable nature and being between two individuals. These acts, like zina, nudity, adultery, sodomy, and incest, are often concealed, reflecting the inherent unease associated with them.
Yet, societal values can shift and potentially dull this natural sense of modesty. This is evident in modern times where fahshā is sometimes displayed openly.
The liberal moral perspective argues that actions are deemed acceptable as long as they don’t harm others. Consequently, some liberal thinkers or those brought up in liberal settings strive to dispel the innate shame associated with fahshā. They often attribute such feelings of shame solely to societal conditioning.
While societal norms can shape specifics, like the precise definition of modesty (awrah), the broader notion of fahshā is innate to humans and is not merely a societal construct. This universality is evident in how nearly every society has some concept of awrah, even if the specifics differ.
Although clarity on these specific boundaries requires Allah’s guidance, the existence of a boundary or awrah is intrinsically understood by individuals. This is reflected in Allah’s statement that ⟪He forbids fahshā⟫, which assumes that people can already recognize the term ⟪fahshā⟫.
Munkar, as noted, translates to “that which is rebuked.” This encompasses things rebuked by Allah, by society, or even by an individual himself.
Munkar is distinct from fahshā in the nature of its recognition. While fahshā often evokes a deep sense of shame, munkar is identified as wrong more through thought and understanding.
For instance, shirk, gambling, and swearing are all considered munkar. People can understand that these are wrong actions, but they might not induce the visceral shame that acts like zina or incest do.
However, both fahshā and munkar are temptations of Shaitan, as Allah says ⟪And whoever follows the footsteps of Satan – indeed, he enjoins fahshā and munkar.⟫ (24:21)
In essence, baghi refers to the violation of others’ rights. It primarily concerns the rights bestowed upon humans.
Acts like cheating, stealing, and robbing fall under baghi. Such actions infringe upon the God-given rights people possess regarding life, dignity, and property.
It can be reasoned that baghi might be a subset of munkar. If so, it is singled out to underscore the significance of preserving human rights. Just as Allah emphasizes ⟪giving to relatives⟫ in the realm of commands, He emphasizes ⟪baghi⟫ in the prohibitions. This highlights that doing good to others is not as important as not transgressing their rights. That is why Allah only emphasized doing good to the relatives but did not limit the emphasis of transgression.
Understanding the Origin of Good and Evil
This verse serves as a pivotal reference when exploring the origins of good and evil.
It suggests that concepts like justice, excellence, shamelessness, misdeeds, and transgression are innate to humans, recognizable even before the divine law is revealed. If these were unfamiliar prior to the law, the verse would not hold any meaning. It does not make sense to “command justice” if no one knows what justice means.
As a result, there is difference of opinion on where this recognition comes from. Some scholars held the view that good and evil only refer to commands of God, nothing innate. So, justice does not exist as a concept before Allah’s commands. Hence, they said this recognition of words like justice only comes from Allah creating a fitrah in people’s hearts.
Others argued that this verse indicates justice is an inherent concept in the knowledge and wisdom of Allah that is not necessarily linked to His commands. So, justice exists even before Allah’s commands, and the fitrah is a tool to recognize some of this justice imperfectly. That is why Allah says ⟪Allah does command shamelessness⟫ (7:28), which would not make sense unless shamelessness was different from Allah’s prohibitions.
Qatadah said about this verse, “There is no virtuous character trait that the people of the pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyyah) practiced, honored, and held in reverence except that Allah commanded it. And there is no bad character trait they used to blame each other for, except that Allah forbade it. He only forbade the petty and blameworthy character traits.” (TT)
⟪Allah commands justice, excellence, and giving to close relatives and forbids from shamelessness, misdeeds, and transgression. He advises you so that you may be reminded.⟫
TT: Tafsir Tabari
FM: Fadhāil al-Quran by Mustaghfiri
HA: Hilyat al-Awliyā
DM: Durr al-Manthūr by Suyūti