A lot of the doubts in many different topics arise due to a conflation of justice with equality. Allah is Completely Just and Fair. One of His names is al-Adl. On the other hand, there is never a guarantee in the Quran or Sunnah of equality.
That means: Islam guarantees justice, but it does not guarantee equality.
Difference Between Justice and Equality
Justice (or fairness) is a minimum standard. It is to give someone what he deserves as a minimum or give him better. If someone worked for a time and his work was worth $100, justice would be to give him at least $100. On the other hand, if someone punched you, justice would be to punch him back in the same way or do something less than that (like forgive him).
Equality is to treat two things in the same way. If two people work, giving both of them $100 regardless of what they did or what they deserve would be equality. If two people punched you, punching both back equally would be equality.
An observation that can be made: Justice is in reference to one person inherently regardless of others, and equality is in comparison to other people.
Let us take the above examples and see situations where something can be just but not equal. This can be due to two reasons. The first reason is when the two people inherently deserve two different things and you give them exactly what they deserve.
If two people work and the first person works with an effort worth $100 and the second works with an effort worth $200, giving each of them the deserved amount would be just but unequal.
The second reason something can be just but unequal is if two people deserve the same thing but you decide to give one better than he deserves out of your own wish. As we defined before, justice means giving what someone deserves or better.
If two people punched you, you can decide to forgive one of them because you wish to but punch back the second one. In this scenario, you haven’t been unjust to anyone in reality, but you have been unequal. You chose in your free will to forgive one and not forgive the other. Forgiveness is in your hands. You can do so if you want.
Allah is Just, as mentioned plenty of times in the Quran and Sunnah. However, nowhere is it mentioned that Allah treats people equally.
Why Equality Became So Important
This obsession with equality is in large part modern. In the past, people inherently accepted that there are some good reasons for people to be treated unequally. However, due to the rise of liberalism and related ideologies, people have become very accustomed to the assumption that equality is necessary for justice.
The very foundation of liberalism is, after all, the claim that all humans are equal and thus deserve the exact same rights.
This ideology has led to some good results like combatting racism, and this would also be supported by Islam.
It has also led to some bad results like combatting the inequality between genders. Islam does treat the two genders differently in many matters, and this is not equal by definition. These matters include the fact that women cannot practice polygamy while men can, Muslim women cannot marry Christians or Jews but men can, women must cover their hair while men do not, or men must provide for their families while women do not.
Justice and Equality in Women’s Rights
If a person says: Islam is unfair to women.
We will ask: What is your evidence?
He might say: It gives men more rights than them. For example, men can marry four wives, but women can only marry one husband. This is unfair.
We will say: That shows Islam is unequal to men and women. It doesn’t show it is unfair or unjust. To show it is unfair, you need to show that women deserve a right to marry more than one husband and Islam denies them that. We do not grant that equality is necessary between men and women to be fair.
They do not have any recourse to prove women deserve that right nor any other right, because rights are axiomatic in liberalism. If they are a follower of some religion and appeal to that religion to say equality is their right, let them prove their religion is true.
Justice and Equality in Tests
If a person says: It is unfair that God tests different people differently.
We will ask: What is your evidence it is unfair?
He might say: Some people have it easy to accept Islam, and some people are born in another religion and have a hard journey before they can even come to Islam. Then, God punishes whoever disbelieves with Hellfire even though they have it harder! This is unfair.
We will say: This is inequality. You are yet to prove unfairness. To prove unfairness, you need to show that people deserve an easy test. We say God gives everyone a test they are capable of completing, then He only gives a deserved punishment for their disbelief.
It is explicit in the Quran that some people get easier tests than others, and this is from the decisions of Allah. He decides to give mercy to whomever He wills, and no one has the right to question it. What is enough to know is that He rewards and punishes people justly, and He only gives tests that each person is capable of completing.
Even if one person’s test is more difficult, he still has the ability to complete it, and if he refuses to complete it, he is liable for the deserved punishment.
Parable of the Workers
In a hadith of Sahih Bukhari, there is a parable given that excellently demonstrates the difference between justice and inequality.
The Prophet (SAW) said:
Your life in comparison to the lifetime of the past nations is like the period between the time of Asr and sunset.
Your example and the example of the Jews and Christians is that of a person who hired laborers and said to them, “Who will work for me till noon for one Qirat (a unit of payment)?’ The Jews did it.
He then said, “Who will work for me from noon till Asr for one Qirat?” The Christians did it.
Then you (Muslims) are working from the Asr till sunset for two Qirats each. They (the first two groups of laborers) said, “We did more labor but took less wages!”
He (Allah) said, “Have I wronged you in your rights?” They replied, “No.” Then, He said, “This is My Blessing which I give to whom I wish.” (Sahih Bukhari)
In this hadith, the Prophet mentions the great blessings given to this Ummah and how they get a lot of opportunity to gain rewards the previous nations may not have gotten.
This could be seen as inequality. But, as Allah simply responds to those who claim it is unfair, “Have I wronged you in anything?” and they have no wrong to complain about.
So, even if it is inequality, it is not injustice because all that each group deserved was given. Blessing and reward additional to the minimum that was deserved is within Allah’s prerogative to give to whomever He wants.
And Allah knows best.