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What does "insaf" mean? What are the signs of possessing it as a virtue?
Sep 1, 2008

Insaf means accepting and confessing the truth, treating everyone with mercy and justice, observing others’ rights besides one’s own, behaving not according to one’s carnal self, desires, and fancies, but according to one’s conscience and reason together with universal human values and being very sensitive about observing all kinds of rights.1

Insaf is half of religion

The term insaf, which sometimes denotes righteousness, fairness, justice or never deviating from truth, is the term for not violating others’ rights while claiming your own, even wishing what you wish for yourself for others as well and giving priority to them if need be, and being balanced at doing the right thing by refraining from extreme behavior.

God’s Messenger counted insaf among the three basic components of good character. He stated that three things are originated by one’s faith: “Not giving up insaf despite the urges of the carnal self, promoting greeting, and spending in God’s way even during financial straits.” Another beautiful phrase-even though it is not a hadith-reflecting his views about right and justice is “insaf is half of religion.”

When we evaluate a matter in a certain fashion according to our own logic and reasoning, we might take our personal considerations as a basis and view the issue from the perspective of our carnal selves and corporeality. When doing that, we may be mostly mistaken, make wrong judgments and think ourselves to be definitely right. In such a case-even though our personal feelings, thoughts, inclinations and wishes are different-siding with the right as soon as we recognize the truth and taking a stance in spite of our ego is an expression of insaf. Being respectful toward the requirements of faith all the time, blending our morality with righteousness, always being in pursuit of truth, and, in spite of the pressure of carnal inclinations, listening to the voice of the conscience and championing the right is a requirement of having insaf.

A human being without insaf is cruel and ruthless; such people use every opportunity to have an ill opinion of others, ignore their tens of good deeds for a single evil one and always fail to cherish a good opinion. Even though the Islamic moral code counsels having insaf and holding a good opinion, a person without insaf takes unfairness and ill opinion as a basis. Therefore, they become trapped by one bad apple and conclude that the entire orchard is barren and putrid. As a matter of fact a damaged banknote in the state treasury does not lessen the reserves, but in the sight of one who lacks insaf-a bad trait which we can compare to the damaged note-the riches of being human can turn into an object of no value.

A single mistake should not nullify many good deeds

Actually, given that a good deed is counted tenfold and a misdeed only once in the sight of God, one mistake should not be allowed to evoke ill feelings toward a person in spite of his or her many good deeds. Believers who have insaf should always try to think positively and recognize someone’s good side; they should not totally condemn a person because of one mistake. They should even consider one of a person’s good deeds to compensate for all of his or her misdeeds. For instance, when a person devoted to a righteous cause considers one of his fellow friends, he should say, “Such and such person committed this misdeed, but I cannot overlook his loyalty to serving in the way of God,” and thereby be very faithful toward his companion and always do the decent thing and hold the truth dear. Nevertheless, an event narrated in the books of hadith underlines a very important point about this issue: A Companion of the Prophet who was not very conscious about drinks and could not break his addiction would sometimes get intoxicated and be rebuked by God’s Messenger each time. The same Companion was one day brought to the presence of God’s Messenger for the same offense. One of those present said, “O God, curse this man! He is being punished for the same offense for so many times but still does not behave himself.” On hearing this, God’s Messenger said, “Do not curse him. I swear by God that he loves God and His Messenger from the heart!” Then he told them to pray for him saying, “O God, grant mercy to him and forgive his faults.”

Given that this Companion’s sincerity is appreciated so much, we can better picture what it brings to a person to serve in the way of God and to strive for His name to be engraved in hearts. Thus, we can make a well-placed evaluation of the attitude we are to take in the face of that person’s faults and mistakes.

Commitment to the right and wishing to hold the truth dear

The worst example of lack of insaf in our time is seen in criticism which is based upon grudge, guile, and pride. In fact, true criticism, which means analyzing the good or bad sides of somebody or something, making a comparison between what is and what should be, is a means of walking toward the ideal.

Making constructive criticisms and being open to criticism is a scholarly principle. However, this should be done within a certain manner and form. After all, the person who criticizes should have insaf, he or she should speak not out of personal considerations but in the name of God’s good pleasure and have no intention other than goodness. The drive for criticism should arise from striving toward the right and a wish to clarify the truth. A critic with insaf should only hold the aim of unearthing the truth. Otherwise, criticism without insaf-which serves pride and beguilement-destroys the truth and leads to unfairness and wrong.

As you know, we can define a debate as the act of having an exchange of views in order to clarify a truth, brainstorming within certain rules and principles, cooperative thinking, mutual discussion, and presenting decently expressed personal considerations to collective reasoning. Unfortunately, in almost all the gatherings held under the name of debate in our time, we witness lack of insaf in the form of criticism. Today, almost everyone who joins the quarrels at the platforms of dispute, sophistry, and demagogy-what we can call verbal duels-has certain presumptions and the debaters usually strive to make the opposite side accept their own views rather than clarifying a truth. To the degree that they spend utmost effort in this matter-sometimes they engage in a play on words or play of logic, or resort to unbecoming acts like provoking their opponents or silencing and embarrassing them-they always remain closed to the truth. Rather than revealing truths, they turn their words into dialectics by opposing the expressions of thought and philosophy of the other side, and the debaters act with the intentions of defeating, humiliating, and silencing one another. In fact, such an argument can never be called a true debate; it seems to me like a quarrel between mentally disabled ones. Unfortunately, nowadays assemblies of debate have become grounds of dialectics.

The only remedy for this disease is not to give up insaf, always to do the decent thing, to hold the truth dear and never sacrifice it for the sake of anything else. Every party to a discussion should reproach their own ego and not favor themselves but the person or people they address. Let alone humiliating the other party, when a person who proves right makes the other self-conscious, he or she should be regarded as being disrespectful to human values.

As Said Nursi suggests, the attitudes at a decent scholarly debate based on the principle of insaf are to be evaluated as follows: if a person asserts a certain opinion, proves right, and becomes happy about it, that person lacks insaf because what matters is not proving right but discovering the right. A person who is happy about both proving right and the opposite site being wrong loses. That is, the person who proves right does not learn anything new or benefit from the debate. Moreover he or she may be taken by pride and suffer further loss. However, if the opposite side proves to be right-without any possibility of loss-the person benefits by learning something new and is freed from pride as well. So a righteous person with insaf rejects his or her own ego for the sake of the truth; even if he or she sees the truth in the hands of the opponent, he or she accepts it anyway with good consent and supports the other.

Do we really have insaf?

On the other hand, concerning the followers of other faiths or philosophies one sometimes cannot help but say, “I wish these people had some insaf, and they would look at the Qur’an and the Prophet’s message accordingly! Insaf might open their eyes as well and be a means for them to draw different conclusions. I wish they could be freed from their biases for a moment and could consider Islam with insaf.” With such reflections in mind, we invite people to hold insaf. But are we taking into account what falls to our part while expecting insaf from them? I wonder to what degree we have been able to present the right and truth to them. Have we been able to be credible and inspire trust? Have we been able to represent the truth properly so as to invoke insaf in them?

Muslims have moved to many different countries of the world and their population has reached a considerable level in certain places but their influence has not been proportionate to their number, because they have worked for others mostly with worldly concerns. As masters do not care for their slaves, they did not listen to Muslims’ words; they usually used Muslims like slaves and sought ways of disposing of them when they had profited from them. In this respect, even though Muslims have gone to many different lands, we cannot consider the message of Islam to have reached the people of those lands. Particularly at a time when materialism and naturalism prevail, people who are accustomed to looking at things and events with a materialist perspective cannot be said to have met the logic of Islam and the Qur’an. Therefore-with the exception of the body of tyrants who dye the world in blood and oppress the weak-the people from whom we expect insaf can in many respects be regarded as equivalent to the people of the Interregnum Period.2 Then isn’t it we who should have insaf in the first place? For not having been able to go to all corners of the world and present a credible type of behavior, stance, and example, for not being able to represent the truths of the Qur’an-which are truly beautiful by objective criteria-shouldn’t we first question ourselves? If people are saying, ”What we are being told is so good, but we haven’t seen any community with these truths ingrained in their life. We haven’t witnessed any people who have been adorned with those laudable virtues. We have found no paragons of virtue who live with meticulous sensitivity. Where are the people who are completely closed to sins and are determined to remain so? Where are the living examples of true believers? We cannot believe without seeing them!”, if they are saying this and they voice this on Judgment Day, how can we give an answer before God? In this respect, when we talk about insaf and call others to be fair, we should not forget that we need a vision to trigger the feeling of insaf within ourselves.

An example from the Prophet to evoke the feeling of insaf

Did not those who saw the Pride of Humanity say, “We haven’t witnessed any lies from you so far”? Did they not admit the truth in saying, “We never doubted your being a truthful and trustworthy person”?... Truly, the noble and virtuous stance of God’s Messenger in a way became a reference for his addressees to pay attention to the Qur’an, listen to the message of Islam, and listen to the truthful Prophet. The unique example of the perfect guide evoked the feeling of insaf in consciences.

Today as well, what has an influence on hearts and brings people to insaf is “representation.” Few people say, “I found the truth after I heard such and such words.” But there are many people who say, “I embraced faith after seeing this sincere example of such and such true believer.” Likewise, the words which become a means for others’ faith are always fruits of what the heart voices and what our actions reflect. For conveying the message finds its true value through genuine representation.

The case of an American professor is one of hundreds of examples proving the power of proper representation: This person, who was an expert on the history of religion, visited Urfa, southeastern Turkey. He was attending a charity meeting of a group of chivalrous souls. As they were all seated around a table, he briefly spoke with the person beside him. In the conversation, the professor mentioned that he had just returned from Southeast Asia. On hearing this, his poor neighbor whispered humbly, “I support a school in Cambodia.” The professor described that devoted man with the following words: “He looked poor. He was modest; however-surprisingly-he was giving nearly all his surplus income for a school he will probably never see in this life. Cambodian children were being educated thanks to the sacrifices including his own and he was happy beyond expression.” The professor said that he did not need any further proof about the sincerity of those devoted ones.

That professor and others like him are not unaware of the Qur’an; however, what makes an impact on them is representation. Again, there is someone I know who read books on Islam for almost ten years with no significant change in his life. One day, he visited one of our friends and heard that sincere person saying God’s name with his every act; he was such a devout believer that even though he spoke very little, his acts, his looks, and the way he prostrates himself in prayer reflect the Almighty. The condition of that devoted person affected his guest very much, who then saw that the principles he had read about in books were built on a sound basis and that things fit in their place; he was then able to say, “These acts derive from such and such essential disciplines.”

In this respect as we invite representatives of different understandings to insaf, the necessity of a degree of exemplary representation to evoke insaf in them should not be ignored. Showing the truth through exemplary representation to the people whom we expect to be righteous is a requirement of holding insaf. We can even say that the sole duty of the volunteers who have dispersed to every corner of the world today is an exemplary representation to evoke the feeling of insaf by the language of love.


  1. In Islam, people have a responsibility to their Creator, and to all people including themselves, and the entire creation.
  2. After Jesus, people failed to keep up his original message from God and deified him instead. From then on until the Prophet Muhammad came-the Interregnum Period-there was no undistorted religion for people to follow. Therefore, God will not hold them responsible in the day of Judgment.