What Mandela Reminded Us About Justice

"I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying"
Nelson Mandela

For a generation that grew up during the years of Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment, his release from prison was a watershed moment. He toured the United States soon after his release, and to this day I still remember an interview he gave before a live audience. He was widely cheered, until he expressed his support for the freedom of the Palestinian people, for which he had spoken for strongly in the past. A smattering of boos rained out, but undeterred and unfazed, he continued to speak in favor of their freedom.

Mandela did not just speak for the freedom of South Africans. He spoke for all those who were marginalized and oppressed, even when it was unpopular to do so. Even when he and his people were in the weakest position of all, he remained an advocate for the oppressed throughout the world. His world view was never myopic, because he realized that oppression in any part of the world was a problem for the entire world.

When the Prophet ﷺ spoke of his involvement, before Prophethood, in the Hilf-ul-Fudul, an alliance of tribes instituted to safeguard justice for those who had no advocate, he stated that he would join it again if he was called to it after Islam. Regardless of tribe, race or religion, he ﷺ defended anyone who was wronged.

In our current times, we as Muslims have fallen prey to the same tribal myopia that the Prophet came to eradicate. We speak of universal justice, but our intended meaning, and emotional investment, is in seeking justice for our own people alone. That may be a natural inclination, but the Prophetic message came to rarify that inclination into something more virtuous and egalitarian.

We rush to speak for own rights or the rights of our “brothers” elsewhere, yet we share a collective apathy towards the impoverished and oppressed near our doorstep. We neglect the weak if they are not like us. Conversely, in Abu Bakr’s inaugural address as Caliph, he prioritized the weak, without cultural or tribal specification, saying:

“The weak amongst you is strong in my sight. I will surely try to remove his pain and suffering. And the strong amongst you is weak to me. I will-Allah willing-realize the right from him fully.”

As Khalifa to Rasullallah ﷺ, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) stressed that redressing the wrongs of the oppressed would be central to his agenda. Part of our role as viceregents (khilafa) in this world is to uphold justice, even to our enemies, because that exercise of justice and advocating for others is “nearer to true devotion” (Qur’an 5:8). The more we do that, the purer our faith becomes, for when we stand for justice beyond our own interests, we are standing for the principle of justice itself, without ego or immediate self-interest, and hence only for the sake of Allah alone.

Nelson Mandela will always be remembered fondly as icon, regardless of any personal shortcomings, because he spoke on the behalf of others. He spoke and would not be silent, and he spoke for those who were silenced. That cause was his, and as long as we claim to be believers, it must always be ours.