Reviewing the Starting Points for Islamic Ethics
Humans are made in the image of God, and that image includes moral and intellectual capability. According to Sura 33:72 (common term for the basic 114 units of the Qur’an, the basic scripture of Islam), God offered the “trust” to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains. They were afraid and refused it. Only humans were willing to accept it. In other words, morality is a uniquely human attribute and thus morality is central to Islam. In contrast, angels can’t sin and thus don’t make moral choices. Moral action does not always come easily, as Satan and evil spirits (jinn) are always tempting people to do evil.According to Islam, people do have the ability to choose good and to avoid evil.
The principles of Islamic ethics
The Qur’an has a strong ethical thrust. For example, it contains condemnation of the people of Mecca for their oppression of the poor (Sura 107:3) and the orphans (Sura 17:34; 93:9), and for cheating in commerce (Sura 17:35). The following list offers six basic principles of Islamic ethics:
- Every action has moral significance. Perhaps the phrase most often cited by Muslim ethicists comes from Sura 3:104, where Muslims are told that they’re a people who should call all to do what is good and right and forbid what is wrong or dishonorable. This principle of calling to “do good and forbid evil” is a guiding light. Specific “rules” are important, but insight is required to apply the rules (or the general principal of “doing good” in specific cases).
- Moral actions are those which result in justice (´adl, Sura 4:58). In concrete circumstances, an action may involve both good and evil consequences and then one must choose that action which will maximize the good and minimize the evil, resulting in the greatest degree of justice, according to the prominent fourteenth century legal scholar, Ibn Taymiyya.
- Faith and works are both required. Sura 2:25 says, “To those who believe and do acts of righteousness give the good news that they will go to paradise.” The moral choices one makes are serious as they play a role in determining one’s ultimate fate — to heaven or to hell.
- Intentions are as important as deeds (as is true also in acts of worship) Sincerity is crucial. The trio of “heart, tongue, and deed” is frequently mentioned. Everyone agrees that it’s not enough to advocate moral actions (the action of the tongue) but then act differently. An action done just for external compliance, says Islam, isn’t nearly as good as one that comes from the heart. Something that comes from the heart will be accompanied by words and actions. If circumstances prevent accomplishment of the action, then commitment of the heart is still regarded as good.
- When it comes to doing what is morally right, having the proper character (consisting of virtues such as wisdom, concern for justice, modesty, and the avoidance of vices such as lust, greed, and anger) is as important as following a set of rules. In most situations people act instinctively, in accord with their basic character, rather than by consulting a set of rules. The great twelfth-century theologian al-Ghazali wrote extensively on the importance of cultivating virtue and avoiding inclination to vice. Sura 5:105 says, “Believers, guard your own souls. The person who has gone astray cannot hurt you if you are rightly guided.”
- Extremes should be avoided; follow the middle path, the way of balance. One shouldn’t be arrogant or exalt oneself in the eyes of others. Sura 31:18–19 says, “Do not be disdainful of other people, nor walk in arrogance in the earth. God does not love any person who boasts arrogantly. Be moderate in your pace and lower your voice. The most unpleasant of voices is the ass’s.”
Tapping texts for illustration
According to tradition, Muhammad said, “None among you is a believer until he wishes for his brothers and sisters what he wishes for himself.” This is similar to the Golden Rule, versions of which occur in Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism, and most other faiths.
On the other hand, Islam has no Ten Commandments, although several Qur’anic texts do summarize basic moral requirements. Sura 23, 3–11 says, “Believers are those . . . who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who abstain from sex except with their wives, or whom their right hands possess. Thus they’re free from blame, but those whose desires exceed those limits are transgressors. Believers faithfully observe their trusts and covenants and keep their prayers. They will be the heirs, who will inherit Paradise, where they will dwell.” Sura 70:22–35 has a similar list of good and bad deeds.
Muhammad gave a summary of some of the moral duties of a Muslim in his farewell sermon on the pilgrimage to Mecca in 632. Along with worship and other obligations, he included the following moral instructions:
- Return any property belonging to others.
- Don’t hurt anyone.
- Don’t charge interest on money loaned to others.
- Husbands should treat their wives well, as they are partners together.
- Don’t make friends with people of bad character.
- Don’t commit adultery.