Islamic perspective

Islam's concepts of ethics


Every religion lays great emphasis on ethical aspects of human conduct in its own unique way. Generally there is great commonality between different religions as far as moral and ethical questions are concerned. In fact to mould a moral character is the most fundamental function of religion.

All other functions are subsidiary to it. But it is also true that each religion has unique way of doing it and every religion puts differing emphasis on different aspects of human morality. Islam is also unique in this respect. It has its own ethical values and moral concepts, which are universal as well as specific to Islam. This paper will throw light on Islamic ethic.

Islam has unique morality of its own. It puts great deal of emphasis, for example, on equality and justice and emphasises dignity of all human beings. We will deal with these issues in the course of this paper. However, there are also universal moral values, which Islam lays emphasis on. The Qur'an gives us the concept of what it calls `amal salih' which, translated into English, would mean 'good deeds'.

But this translation does not adequately convey the meaning. The key word here is 'salih'. The root of the word is 'slh' from which are derived many words with the meaning to be good, to repair, to mend, to improve, to be righteous, to be efficient, to be suitable, peace and friendliness, reconciliation etc.

Thus it will be seen that 'amal salih' leads to a society which is reformed, good, efficient, suitable (to humanity), improved and above all which is peaceful and friendly to all human beings. The Qur'an uses the word 'amal salih' repeatedly. For a moral conduct, according to the Qur'an, 'amal salih' is very necessary. In the chapter 103 the Qur'an says, "By the time! Surely man is in loss, except those who believe and do good work ('amal salih'), and exhort one another to Truth and exhort one another to patience."

Thus the key ethical concepts here in this chapter are 1) 'amal salih'; 2) to be truthful and 3) to observe patience. One can say that these are key elements of Islamic ethic. Man is surely in loss but those who perform good deeds are truthful and patient would not be. Thus for 'amal salih' truth and patience are highly necessary. One can say that this is most comprehensive statement of the Qur'anic ethic.

To be steadfast and patience

Here important question is why so much emphasis on 'patience'? Why truth and patience are made integral to each other? Because to be truthful is most arduous and challenging. One has to face great problems in order to be truthful. One will have to face opposition, even intrigues, from vested interests. It is, therefore, necessary, to be steadfast and patient and face all these challenges with fortitude and courage. All this requires great deal of patience. Hence the Qur'an lays so much emphasis on being steadfast and patient to follow the path of truth. Only a man of great patience can be truthful.

Truth is a universal value in all religions. Some religions like Hinduism also maintain that truth (Satyam) is God. The Qur'an also elevates truth (Haq) to the status of being God. Allah has been described as Haq in the Qur'an. No human being can claim to be Truth in absolute sense. Mansur al-Hallaj, the famous sufi saint who claimed to be ana'l haq (I am the Truth) was hanged because it meant claiming to be God. Thus truth has great significance in the Islamic ethical system.

Here it should be remembered that truth is not mere conformity with observable facts as in empirical sciences. Truth in moral sciences, especially in religion, has moral or ideological dimension also which is not necessarily verifiable. It is this aspect of moral or religious truth, which separates religion from science. However, it should also be born in mind that truth should not be contrary to observable facts also. All one can say is that truth, in moral and religious discourse, is not mere conformity with fact. It is more than mere conformity with fact.

In Islamic system of morality, as in some other religions too, it is establishment of a moral society that is very fundamental. The emphasis of Islamic teachings is not personal salvation but establishment of a society that is just and free of zulm (oppression). Here we will like to deal with this aspect of Islamic ethic in greater detail, as it is most central to Islam. The Qur'an lays great emphasis on 'adl' (justice). It is the central value in the Islamic ethic. The Qur'an says that "Be just; it is closest to being pious." (5:8).

Thus in Islam there is no concept of piety without being just. The opposite of 'adl' is 'zulm' (oppression). Zulm is derived from the root 'zlm' that has several shades of meaning i.e. to do wrong, injustice, darkness, iniquity, oppression etc. The Qur'an often uses it in the sense of wrong doing and oppression.

Establishing just society

Islam basically lays emphasis on establishing a just society free of all forms of oppression. The Prophet also says that a society can live with unbelief (kufr) but not with oppression (zulm). Thus Islamic ethic conceives of a society which will be free of all forms of exploitation and oppression. Islam basically is a non-violent religion. It does not approve of violence at all. The most basic attribute of Allah is mercy and compassion of which we will talk more little later.

But Islam approves of violence (in a highly controlled sense, of course) only to remove zulm, the structures of oppression.. Thus the Qur'an says, "And how could you refuse to fight in the cause of Allah and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, O our Sustainer! Lead us forth (to freedom) out of this land whose people are oppressors, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, a protector, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, one who will bring us succour!". (4:75)

Thus the Qur'an's emphasis is on fighting against injustice, against oppression. Everyone has the right to live in peace in ones own country. If someone tries to throw them out just because they have their own inner conviction, they cannot be thrown out of their homeland. And if someone tries to do that, one has to stand up to that and fight against this injustice. Islam does not permit violence in matters of preaching of religion.

It believes, as is obvious from the above verse also, in full freedom of conscience. In fact if this freedom is violated that Islam permits use of regulated force. As for preaching of religion it has to be done only through 'goodly exhortation and wisdom' (16:125). There is no question of use of violence for that purpose. If someone does that it is against the Divine injunction. It is zulm.

There is much misunderstanding about inter-connection between Islam and violence which needs to be clarified here since we are dealing with the question of Islamic ethic here. Islam does not approve of violence except in certain extraordinary circumstances. The word Islam has been derived from the root 'slm' which means to escape danger, to be free from fault, to deliver or hand over, to commit oneself to the will of God, to lay down arms, to establish peace. Thus the best meaning of the word Islam will be to establish or promote peace in harmony with the Will of Allah.

Thus a Muslim is not a true Muslim if he commits acts of violence either for spread of Islam or for purposes of achieving power be it in the name of Islam. His primary duty is to establish peace so that justice prevails and humanity prospers. The Prophet has also said that the best form of jihad is to say truth in the face of a tyrant ruler. Tyranny could be both physical and psychological.

The Qur'an says that no human life can be taken except in keeping with law. Thus we find in the Qur'an that "whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he had killed entire humanity. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved lives of all men." (5:32) The Qur'an, it will be seen is against violence against humanity. It could be resorted to only for a just cause that too after great deliberation and if all other doors are closed.

It is true the Qur'an has permitted retaliatory violence (for qisas). But the Qur'anic statements should also be seen at various levels. At the level of the Arabian society, with its customs, norms and traditions, permitting qisas (retaliatory violence) was necessary. The Qur'an had to deal with a given society.

Retaliation; is human, to forgive is divine

But at the higher moral level retaliation is not a good moral practice. It may be necessary in a society which is not highly morally developed. But in a morally developed society the virtue of pardon is the highest virtue. There is great moral worth in the act of pardon. One of Allah's attributes is that He pardons. He is 'Ghaffar' i.e. He is the forgiver. Forgiving is the great moral virtue.

Retaliation may be human but forgiving is divine. Retaliation amounts to giving vent to ones anger but forgiving amounts to suppressing ones rage and suppressing ones anger or rage is described as great virtue by the Qur'an. Those who suppress their anger are called 'kazim al-ghayz'. On moral level the Qur'an deals with this issue in the verse 3:133. The verse reads, "Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men. And Allah loves doers of good (to others).

This verse (3:133) deals with the moral aspect whereas the verse dealing with the question of qisas deals with the prevailing practice. The Qur'an's intention is not to perpetuate the practice of retaliation but to build a human character on the basis of restraining anger and forgiving.

To absolutise the verse on retaliation and to maintain that it is the ultimate divine will is to do injury to the spirit of the Qur'an which is to cultivate higher morality among human beings. It is the verse 3:133 which represents this higher morality. This is further reinforced by Allah's own attributes of being Merciful and Compassionate on the one hand, and repeated assertion by the Qur'an of the concept of 'ihsan' (doing good to others). Thus it will be seen that the Islamic scripture does not morally approve even retaliatory violence which has at least some justification.

Thus the question of violence has to be dealt with great caution as far as the Islamic tradition is concerned. At the level of the value Qur'an upholds non-violence and exhorts Muslims to use wisdom and benevolence (hikmah and ihsan) while dealing with others. Whatever violence has taken place in the Islamic history it is Muslims and the then Arab society and their norms that could be held responsible and not the teachings of the Qur'an.

Transcendetnal norms of the Qur'an

It is highly necessary to make this distinction in order to properly understand the essence of the Islamic ethic. Certain concessions to the situation should not be mixed up with the transcendental ethical norms given by the Qur'an. In this connection it should also be borne in mind that the Qur'an's repeated advocacy to fight (qatilu) is not to give permanence to violence or the glorify it but in the situation the Qur'an was dealing with, there was absolutely no other alternative but to fight. Inter tribal wars went on for years.

Violence, in other words, was very much in the air. Also, there were powerful vested interests who were out to destroy Islam in its infancy and to eliminate the Prophet physically. Any moral discourse would not have influenced such people. The only alternative was to first defeat or subdue such elements and then to build new moral human from out of the believers. It was very difficult task indeed.

If there has been bloodshed, and there has been, in the history of Islam the problem lies with the type of the society rather than the quality of the religious teachings. Most of us read into religion what suits our interests. In other words, we often instrumentalise religion for our own purposes. There is abundant proof in history if we care to examine it carefully. Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity laid great deal of stress on compassion, non-violence and love and yet these religions put together could not build a society based on these values. Society still is full of violence, conflict and clash of interests.

However, there is one more aspect we have to deal with to clear Islam of the charge that it promotes violence. It can be said that the Buddhist, Jain or the Christian scriptures do not permit or talk of violence where as the Islamic scripture does. But here one has to keep in mind the historical and social situation those scriptures were dealing with and the Islamic scripture was called upon to deal with.

Passive spiritual force

Here one has to refer to the Meccan context also. In Meccan verses there is absolutely no mention of meeting violence with violence. Therefore some of the religious thinkers like Mehmoud Mohammad Taha of Sudan have laid emphasis on the Meccan Islam. The Muslims were a persecuted minority in Mecca and they bore with great patience all the persecution let loose on them. Islam in Mecca was a great spiritual force. Those who lay emphasis on Meccan Islam would argue that had Muslims not migrated to Madina Islam would have remained a passive spiritual force like Buddhism or Christianity.

There is great deal of truth in this argument. But there are some problems, if not flaws, in it. Firstly, even in Meccan stage Islam was not a religion of individual salvation. Right from the beginning Islam laid great emphasis on building community. The concept of ummah was a collective concept. The concept of the community was always at the heart of the Islamic movement. In tribal society in which Islam arose in Mecca, individual is always subordinate to the collectivity. If Islam had laid emphasis on individual spiritual salvation the Meccan tribal lords would have hardly bothered to oppose it.

However, Islam had a social agenda. It aimed at reforming not only the individual but also the whole society. It knew that the roots of exploitation and oppression lay in social structure, not only in individual avarice. So it aimed at transforming the society along with the individual. If the Meccan verses are examined carefully the transformatory agenda of Islam becomes very clear. It forcefully attacks accumulation of wealth and exhorts the believers to spend their wealth on the poor, needy and orphans and widows. The rich of Mecca were neglecting them. Thus, the Islamic agenda even at the Meccan stage was to set up a society which was based on socio-economic justice. Look at this powerful denunciation of accumulation of wealth in one of the Meccan chapters (104):

  • Woe to every slanderer, defamer!
  • Who amasses wealth and counts it
  • He thinks that his wealth will make him abide.
  • Nay, he will certainly be hurled into the crushing disaster;
  • And what will make thee realise what the crushing disaster is?
  • It is the Fire kindled by Allah,
  • Which rises over the hearts.
  • Surely it is closed on them,
  • In extended columns.

More such chapters and verses could be cited from the Meccan verses. Thus it becomes clear that Islam was attacking the very roots of social and economic exploitation and trying to lay foundation for a just society. The Meccan lords were, therefore, determined to throw out such a movement lock, stock and barrel.

They, therefore, severely persecuted Muslims and forced them to migrate. When the Prophet migrated to Madina he seriously busied himself in laying the foundation of a just society. In doing so he became threat not only to the Jews of Madina whom he had given full religious freedom in his covenant with them (known as Mithaq-e-Madina) but also continued to remain a threat for the Meccan vested interests.

Fight for defence of Islam

The Meccan vested interests were determined to thwart any attempt to set up a just society even in Medina as successful experiment in Madina could pose serious challenge to their own interests. They were lording over an exploitative system. Thus they went in full force and attacked Madina . The Prophet was again faced with a violent situation and had to defend himself and urge his followers to fight for defence of Madina and for defence of Islam.

The Jews and hypocrites betrayed him and thus he had to face internal strife also. He had to mobilise forces to fight the Jews with whom he had no religious quarrel. The Jews, who otherwise free to practice their own religion, felt threatened that they could no longer dominate the Madinese market. The migrants from Mecca too were expert traders and were now posing challenge to the dominance of the Jews.

The Prophet of Islam had hardly any choice. In an attempt to set up a just society based on high ethical standards, integrity of character and spiritual values he had to take on most powerful vested interests out to wreck his movement. Thus violence appears in the history of Islam not out of choice but out of compulsion. It is certainly not prescriptive violence but imposed one.

Now as for the instances of Meccan model of Islam we do come across them in history, particularly in Sufi Islam. Sufi Islam is essentially build around the theory of individual salvation. A Sufi saint is engaged more in individual character building and spiritual practices and hence his whole emphasis on 'ibadat' (prayers). The Prophet of Islam, it is interesting to note, was a perfect synthesis of a Sufi and an activist engaged in building a just society. That is why the Sufis consider the Holy Prophet as their Master from whom they derive their spiritual practices.

But in later history of Islam we find either the Sufis or the activists or the 'Ulama (theologians) who theorised on the basis of the Qur'an and available reports of the Prophet's sayings and practices. The problem with the 'Ulama was that they froze Islam in its first century and lost track of its fundamental vision. Thus they could not keep pace with the changing society or new challenges emerging from different historical situations. The Prophet combined in himself both the Meccan and the Medinese Islam and thus he became a perfect model to follow.

Islam is not associated with power

However, for those who came after him the Meccan Islam lost all relevance and they became more involved with building up a political community. The overemphasis in history of Islam on building up a political community created several problems and Islam became politicised rather than spiritualised. Hence its critics usually maintain that Islam is integrally associated with power.

However, it would be a serious mistake to associate Islam with power. Islam, like any other religion, has strong spiritual and ethical base. Its basic emphasis on ethical foundations of individual action cannot be ignored. The 'ibadat' (which include praying, fasting, giving alms and performing hajj - pilgrimage) are very central to Islam. It is these 'ibadat' which, according to the Qur'an, lead to inner peace (sakinat al-qalb). Thus the Qur'an says "He it is who sent down inner peace into the hearts of the believers that they might add faith to their faith." (48:4). Inner peace and spiritual solace are the very foundation stones of an ethical conduct.

Here we would like to point out that compassion like in Buddhism, is very central to Islam also. The key word for this is 'rehmah'. This word has been derived from its root 'rhm' which in its root meaning means womb of the mother. And one of the ethical concept of Islam is 'sila-i-rahmi' i.e. maintaining close relationship with those connected with ones mother's womb i.e. close relatives.

Since mother nurtures and sustains life, she is more compassionate than man. Thus compassion and mother's womb are derived from the same root in Arabic. God is most compassionate (arham al-rahimin) as he is the creator and sustainer of all life. His Mercy and Compassion envelop everything in this universe (7:156). Thus a Muslim who worships Allah has to display compassion by all his actions. True worship does not mean merely physically bowing down before Allah.

It means bowing down to His attributes and to imbibe these attributes in ones life. Thus a true Muslim is compassionate to all forms of life and he is committed to remove suffering from this earth. In other words, a Muslim is quite sensitive to sufferings of all living beings and he should never be a cause of suffering of others. The Prophet is reported to have said that a good Muslim is one at whose hands others are safe.

The Islamic prayers ('ibadat') sensitivise Muslims to the suffering of others. The salat makes him sensitive to equality of all human beings since all Muslims, irrespective of their social status have to stand in one line to pray; fasting during the month of Ramadan makes him sensitive to others' hunger and thirst and zakah makes him conscious of others' financial needs. And we need these prime virtues in human beings to make them righteous and conscious of their duties to other human beings. The Qur'an also lays great stress on spiritual freedom and accepts different ways of worship. Spiritual freedom is very basis of a free human person responsible to himself as well as to whole humanity.

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