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Islamic Ethics
Jan 1, 1998

In the Islamic tradition, the basis of society or its main cohesive influence is not the power of the state or other coercive authority, but the common submission of all, strong or weak, to the will of God. The word islam means peace attained through submission to the Divine will. God being the ‘embodiment of the highest moral ideal, the archetype of archetypes’, submission to Him in practice means submission to the ideal or perfection of human character in all its aspects. There is not, in this submission, any necessary contradiction between the quest for happiness and the quest for virtue. In the balanced quest for the happiness of the individual and of the collective whole and humanity, egoism and altruism find a harmonious synthesis. Orthodox Islamic tradition denies neither the happiness of the body nor of the spirit.

The norms and assumptions that have characterised belief and action in Islam have their initial inspiration in two fundamental sources. One is scriptural, embodying the message revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad (d.632), upon him be peace, and recorded in the Quran. The second is the exemplification of this message in the pattern or norm derived from the Prophet’s actions and precepts, collectively called the Sunna. Muslims regard the Qur’an as the ultimate closure in a series of revelations to humankind from God, and the Sunna as the historical projection of a divinely inspired and guided human life.

In one of the chapters of Qur’an, entitled al-Furqan (the Criterion: Chapter 25), revelation - addressed to all humankind -- becomes the point of reference for distinguishing right from wrong:

Blessed be He Who sent down the criterion (of right and wrong, i.e. this Qur’an) to His servant (Muhammad) that he may be a warner to mankind. He to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and Who has begotten no son and for Whom there is no partner in the dominion. He has created everything, and has measured it exactly according to its due measurement (25.1-2).

The same chapter goes on to give examples of past Prophets and Messengers (many referred to in the Bible also) and their role as mediators of God’s word to their respective societies.

The Sunna is a necessary source of knowledge for Muslims as Muhammad is described in the Qur’an as ‘a fine example’ and one who possesses ‘high moral excellence’:

In the Messenger of God (Muhammad) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes for (the Meeting with) God and the Last Day and remembers God much. (al-Ahzab, 33.21)

… you (0 Muhammad) are on an exalted standard of character. (al-Qalain, 68.4)

As the secondary source of knowledge, the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the written record or text of the Sunna) are to be relied upon on the authority of God’s saying in the Quran:

By the star when it goes down. Your companion (Muhammad) is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he speak from out of (his own) desire. It is no less than Inspiration sent down to him. (al-Najni, 53.1-4).

The necessary elements of the creed of Islam are defined in the Quran (al-Baqara, 2.177) as belief in God, the Angels, the Books (Scriptures), the Prophets, the Last Day, the qadar (destiny) or the faith that, good and bad, everything is originally from God-that is, God is the Creator of all men and their actions whether good or bad, and the genuine source of all good.

For the derivation of legal principles and rulings, Quran and Hadith are supported by ijma, the consensus of scholars on behalf of community, and by qiyas, reasoning by analogy, when no explicit and specific ruling can be found in the texts.

The human quality that encompasses the concept of ideal ethical value in the Qur’an is summed up in the term taqwa, which in its various forms occurs over two hundred times in the text. It represents, on the one hand, the moral grounding that underlies human action, while on the other, it signifies the ethical conscience which makes human beings aware of their responsibilities to God and society. Applied to the wider social context taqwa becomes the distinguishing mark of a truly moral community:

O humankind! We have created you out of male and female and constituted you into different groups and societies, so that you may come to know each other-the noblest of you, in the sight of God, are the ones possessing taqwa. God is the All-Knowing, the All-Aware. (al-Hujurat, 49.13)

The Quran affirms the different dimensions of human individual and social life-the material as well as the spiritual-but these aspects are not seen in conflictual terms, nor is it assumed that spiritual goals should predominate in a way that devalues material aspects of life. The Qur’an, affirming the complementarity of the two, asserts that human conduct and aspirations have relevance as acts of faith within the wider human, social and cultural contexts. It is in this sense that the idea that Islam embodies a total way of life can best be understood.

In the Qur’an Jews and Christians are referred to as ‘People of the Book. While recognizing the particularity of the Muslim community and its preeminent status, the Qur’an encourages a wider respect for difference and otherness in human society, while favouring common moral goals over mutually divisive and antagonistic attitudes:

We sent Jesus, son of Mary confirming the Torah that had come before him, and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirmation of the Torah that had come before it, a guidance and an admonition for the pious. Let the people of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed therein. And whosoever does not judge by what God has revealed (then) such (people) are the rebellious to God. And We sent down to you (0 Muhammad) the Book (this Quran) in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it and muhayminan (trustworthy in excellence and in witness) over it (old Scriptures). So judge between them by what God has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging away from the truth that has come to you, We have prescribed law and a clear way. If God willed, He would have made you one nation, but that (He) may test you; so strive as in a race in good deeds. The return of you (all) is to God; then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ. (al-Ma ‘ida, 5.46-8)

For Muslims, the message of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet’s life remain inseparably related through all of history as paradigms for moral and ethical behaviour. They formed the basis for Muslim thinkers subsequently to develop legal tools for embodying moral imperatives. The elaboration of legal sciences led to a codification of norms and statutes that gave form to the concept of law in Islam, generally referred to as the Shari’a. Muslim conquest and expansion resulted in contact with cultures whose intellectual heritage was in time selectively appropriated by Muslims, then refined and further developed. The integration of the intellectual and philosophical legacies of ancient Greece, India and Persia among others, created conditions and a tradition of intellectual activity that would lead to the cosmopolitan and pluralist character of an emerging Islamic civilisation. Christian and Jewish scholars, who had already encountered the above legacies in varying degrees, played a crucial mediating role as ‘translators, particularly since they were also aware that the moral disposition of Muslims, like their own, was shaped by common monotheistic conceptions based on Divine command and revelation. The term adab has come to be used to denote the wide-ranging moral, ethical, intellectual and literary discourse that emerged.

The integration of the philosophical legacy of antiquity in the Islamic world was a major enabling factor in the use of philosophical tradition among Muslim intellectuals. It gave rise to figures such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al-Ghazali and others, who became well-known to medieval Europe as philosophers, commentators and exponents of the classical tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle. The Muslim philosophical tradition of ethics is therefore doubly significant: for its value in continuing and enhancing classical Greek philosophy and for its commitment to synthesising Islam and philosophical thinking.

Al-Farabi (d. 950) argued for harmony between the ideals of religious virtue and the goals of a true polity The greater the wisdom and virtue of the rulers and the citizens, the greater the possibility of attaining the true goal of philosophy and religion-contentment in this and the next world.

Ibn Sina (d. 1037) developed the argument that the Prophet embodies the totality of virtuous action and thought, the best of which is reflected in the attainment of moral virtue. The establishment of justice, in Ibn Sina’s view, is the basis for all human good. The combination of philosophy arid religion enables harmonious living in both this world and in the hereafter.

Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) stressed the importance of conformity to the religious law, but even more the inner spiritual dimension. In his ‘The Incoherence of The Philosophers’, he tried to show that the philosophers were self contradictory and anti-scriptural, and that, in some cases, they ended up affirming heretical beliefs. He stressed the importance of sabr (perseverance in hardship, patient endurance and resignation to God’s decrees), tawakkul (absolute trust in God) and dhikr (constant remembrance of God).

The various Muslim philosophers in their extension and occasional revision of earlier classical notions linked ethics to theoretical knowledge, which was to be acquired by rational means. Since human beings were rational, the virtues and qualities that they embraced and practised were seen as furthering the ultimate goal of individuals and community. This goal was the attainment of happiness.

The practice and influence of the diverse ethical heritage in Islam has continued in varying degrees among Muslims in the contemporary world. There is growing self-consciousness about identification with that past heritage and a recognition of the need to adapt to changing circumstances and a globalization of human society. They must take into account the diversity and pluralism that has marked the Muslims of the past as well as the present.

As Nanji has pointed out, because the modern conception of religion familiar to people in the West assumes a formal separation between specifically religious and perceived secular activity, certain aspects of contemporary Muslim discourse, which does not accept such a separation, appear strange and often retrogressive. Nanji went on to argue that, in the pursuit of a vision that will guide Muslims in decisions and choices about present and future ethical matters, the most important challenge may be not simply to formulate a continuity and dialogue with their own past ethical underpinning but, like the Muslims of the past, to remain open to the possibilities and challenges of new ethical and moral discoveries.

References and Further Reading 

  • Dar, BA. (1960) Qur’anic Ethics, Institute of IslamicCulture, Lahore.
  • Johnstone, P. ‘Islamic Ethics’ in MacQuarry, J. & Childress, J. (eds) New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, Westminster Press, London. pp.314-6.
  • Nanji, A. (1993) ‘Islamic Ethics’, in Singer, P. (ed.) A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell, Oxford, pp.106-20.