Ethics in Islam
The concept of akhlaq
The famous ethicist Ibn Miskawayh defines character (khuluq, pl. akhlaq) as “a state of the soul which moves it toward action without any need for reflection or deliberation. This state can be divided into two: The first is that which is natural, and is a part of one’s true disposition, such as a human who laughs excessively at any small thing that amuses him, or feels sadness and sorrow in response to any small matter that afflicts him. The second is that which is borne of training and habituation, and though it may originally be a product of reflection and deliberation eventually becomes a character trait.”
The Shaykh Abu Hamid al-Ghazali says, “Character is a term for a firmly entrenched form in the soul from which actions emanate with ease and facility, without need for reflection or deliberation. Inasmuch as this form in the soul produces beautiful and praiseworthy actions by the measures of reason and the shari’a, it is called a good character; and inasmuch as it produces repugnant actions, it is called a bad character. We have specified that it be a firmly entrenched form, for he who spends of his wealth rarely, and for a specific need of his, cannot be called generous unless this quality is firmly established within him. And we have further stipulated that actions proceed from him with ease and without deliberation because he who spends of his wealth or remains silent during anger only after some effort and deliberation, it cannot be said of him that he possesses a generous or patient character.
So, there are four matters to consider: first, a beautiful or repugnant action; second, the ability to perform them; third, knowledge of them; fourth, an entity in the soul which inclines a person to either excellence or repugnance, and facilitates that for him.
Clearly, character does not refer to actions, because perhaps a person is of a generous character but cannot spend either due to a lack of money or some other hindrance, or alternatively perhaps he is of a miserly character, and though he spends he only does so for a reason or to show off.
Nor does it refer to the ability or power to perform such actions. This is because power is connected to both giving and withholding, and every person is born with the capacity to give and withhold, but that doesn’t mean that they are either generous or miserly in character.
Nor does it refer to knowledge, for knowledge is connected to all beautiful and repugnant things in the same manner.
As such, it refers to the fourth, i.e., the form in the soul through which the soul is equipped to give and withhold. Character, therefore, refers to this form.”
The concept of akhlaq in the Qur’an and sunna
The word akhlaq appears in the Qur’an in the verse that says of the Prophet “Indeed, you are of lofty character” (al-Qalam: 4). As well, it appears in numerous hadiths affirming the necessity and importance of ethics in Islam. An example is the hadith: “The most beloved of you to Allah is the best of you in character,”
There is also the hadith, “The best of you are the best in character.” And on the authority of Abu Tha’laba al-Khushani, that the Prophet said, “The most beloved to me, and the nearest to me, are those of you who are the best in character. And the most detested to me, and the farthest from me, are those who are of the worst character: those who chatter among themselves, are braggarts, and are long-winded.”
On the authority of Abu Salih who said that Abu Hurayra said that the Prophet said, “I have been sent down only to complete the best of manners.” To “complete” here means to add to something already present. As such, this saying of the Prophet directs us to the fact that ethics are shared between people. For this reason, he also said, “The best of you in the period of jahiliyya (pre Islamic era) are the best of you in Islam if you come to understand.”
The Prophet would smile at the mention of Ibn Jud’an, so A’isha asked the Prophet, “O Prophet of Allah, during the period of jahiliyya, Ibn Jud’an would keep good relations with his family and feed the poor. Is that to his benefit?” The Prophet said, “It does not benefit, for he never once said, ‘My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’” Through this, the Prophet points us to the fact that ethics were already present, and it is incumbent on us to respect them even when they emanate from those who are not sincere. They have a strong impact on creation, that was understood and regarded by the Prophet himself.
The issue of ethics are therefore fundamental to the make-up of mankind, regardless of whether or not it is accompanied by faith. The Prophet (peace be upon him) urged us towards these values. This is why we find in the famous hadith of Gabriel that, “A man came forward [towards the Prophet] and sat at his knees, and asked, ‘O Prophet of God, what is Islam?’ He responded, ‘That you not associate anything with God; that you establish prayer; that you give the zakat; and that you fast in Ramadan.’ He said, ‘You have spoken the truth. O Prophet of God, what is faith (iman)?’ The Prophet responded, ‘That you believe in God, His angels, His scriptures, the meeting with Him, His Prophets, the resurrection [on the Day of Judgement], and fate.’ He said, ‘You have spoken the truth. O Prophet of God, What is excellence (ihsan)?’ He responded, ‘That you fear Allah as if you see Him. For if you do not see Him, He sees you.’ He said, ‘You have spoken the truth.’ ... The Prophet later said, ‘That was Gabriel. He wanted to teach you when you don’t ask yourselves.’”
When asked about Islam and faith, the Prophet spoke of their constituent parts respectively. However, when asked about ihsan, he spoke with respect to ethics. Based upon this, Muslims divided their disciplines of learning. They made fiqh the science of Islam, while aqida studies matters of faith, and Sufism studies excellence (ihsan).
But, did the scholars put forth principles of ethics? Or are they many and not amenable to being set out in precise terms the way Islam and faith are? The understanding of akhlaq in Islam is taken from the understanding of God’s beautiful names. Allah has described himself in the Qur’an by 152 different qualities, and the Prophet (peace be upon him) described Him in a hadith by 164 qualities. After discarding repetitions, we arrive at a number of 220 qualities. Thereafter, in a hadith on the authority of Abu Hurayra, the Prophet said, “Allah has 99 names – a hundred less one. Whosoever exhausts them, Allah admits him into Paradise.” This hadith comes in 3 different versions, each of which differs by 34 names, which is how we arrive at the 164 that the Prophet used to describe Allah the Exalted.
By, “he who exhausts him” is meant “he who shapes himself after them”
The beautiful names of God may indicate:
1. His Beauty, such as “The Compassionate” or “The Merciful”
2. His Perfection, such as “The Creator” or “The Originator”
3. His Glory, such as “The Vengeful” or “The Proud”. This category is not to be used as models, for they are the sole prerogative of God.
A hadith related by ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud indicates that there are Names and Qualities of God we do not know about. He related that the Prophet would invoke Allah using the following words “O Allah, I am Your servant, son of Your servant and of your female-servant. My forelock is in Your Hand. Your Judgement with regards to me is Just. I ask You by every name of Yours, either that You have named yourself, or revealed to us in your Book, or taught one of your creation, or kept solely in Your Knowledge, that you make the Qur’an the spring of my heart, the light of my eyes, the solace for my sadness, and the solution to my worries.”
Categories of Ethics
Ethics can be divided into two categories:
1. Theoretical ethics: This refers to a specific genre made up of the principles of conduct (suluk). It consists of fundamental principles and general rules extracted from them. A person is able to follow them in all sorts of places and different eras.
2. Practical ethics: This refers to the set of principles of conduct, through regard for which a person is able to reach his ultimate goal, and attain all happiness and goodness.
Ethics are an indispensable part of life which depict for us the good life and the means to it, and aid us in arriving at a balance between private individual demands and the necessities of life in a society.
Ethics between Man and Society
The wisdom of God in creating man is that he made the individual unable to fulfill the requirements of his life by himself, and similarly unable to build the earth without cooperation and harmonious living with others. This is what is meant by the philosophers and intellectuals by their repeated invocation of the saying, “Man is by nature a social being.” In order for man to have natural resources, the principles of proper conduct must guide his behavior. In all of his conduct, he must base himself on laws of social ethics, and take regard of others in every matter he undertakes.
If matters proceed in this manner, social membership will belong to individuals, and virtue will be realized, especially if every member of a society is placed in a place that is appropriate to him and his capabilities. In contrast, if chaos takes over, and there is an absence of ethics specifying how people ought to deal with themselves and with others, corruption will enter into the society and eventually lead it to collapse.
Based upon these givens, and the mercy of God towards mankind who are His representatives on earth, Allah has sent prophets and messengers in order to spread guidance and values springing from the religion. The last of these is Islam, about the bearer of whose message, the Prophet (peace be upon him), God said, “You are of the highest of character” (al-Qalam: 4).
Ethics in Islam thus refer to principles and fundamentals ordered for human behaviour, and specified by revelation, to organize the life of man in a manner that allows him to realize the purpose of creation in this world in a complete and perfect manner.
This Islamic system of ethics is distinguished by two features. The first is its divine character, that is the Will of God; and the second is its human character, that is there is an effort and role for specifying this system from the practical direction.
It is a system which is complete only when the theoretical and practical meet. It is not simply a part of the general Islamic system. Rather, it is the very essence of Islam, its spirit, in force in all domains. That is to say, the Islamic system in general is based on the philosophy of ethics at its most fundamental. Rather, ethics are the very essence of the divine messages.
“Ethics are necessary for the continuation and cohesiveness of social life, and they contribute towards the progress and flourishing of civilization. Islamic ethics are distinctive in that they perfect the process of building sociality by fixing human relationships on the basis of belief and sincerity. They also push towards perfection in the fields of work, crafts and knowledge. Each of these is necessary for a truly happy human life.”
Indeed, throughout his whole life, a man may never feel the need for certain matters of knowledge. It may never occur to him. However, we will never be able to put aside his concerns for ethical matters, even for an instant. This is because humanity is always in need of fundamental principles in order to order his relationships with God and with the rest of creation.
The superiority of Islamic ethics
There is no doubt that reason is one of the most important faculties of knowledge, and that the senses are a means to it. However, these are insufficient in and of themselves to distinguish completely and correctly between the good and the evil, the beautiful and the repulsive. This is due to a number of reasons.
The first is the limitations of the mind. There are some matters that are difficult for the mind to grasp. Instead, people resort to speculating and guessing, and knowledge of these matters grows progressively due to experience. But it is not properly known from the first instant.
The second is the limitations of the senses. These are the mind’s means for grasping things, but are open to error. The third is the difference in people’s capacities for reasoning and arriving at the truth of things. For, some minds judge a thing to be beautiful, while others judge it to be repulsive. Indeed, it is possible for a thing to be thought of as repulsive among many people, though it is not in reality, and vice versa. To further the point, it is even possible for one’s judgement of a thing to change.
Secular ethics, which specify their standards to be different theories and philosophies, remain relativistic – relative to the claims or rebuttals of individuals. The solution is to resort to principles of character derived from religion. For religion, “in that it comprises beliefs and principles, commands and prohibitions, desires and values, lofty examples and general principles for behaviour, certainly plays an important role in the lives of believers. It is a central source for ethical obligation. That which distinguishes ethical principles extended from religion, on the one hand, from those taken from the individual and society, one the other, is: their generality, humanity, sacredness, everlastingness and permanency over generations. Their sacredness is a result of their divine source, that is revelation from God.”
So, the Qur’an in this matter preserves and continues that which preceded it and may be distinguished by its wide orbit which includes the essence of ethics. This is what had become separated apart in the teachings of the clergy and the philosophers, both deontologists and utilitarians. They were far apart from each other both in terms of time and place, and perhaps some of them left no trace behind so that their teachings may be preserved. It may be said that this is the greatest characteristic of the Qur’an, if not the most valuable characteristic altogether.
The purity and steadfastness of this ethical teaching becomes apparent through its forms; the methods it takes to present its lessons, different from those of previous teachings; its unified structure which does not admit of any inconsistency; and its manner of dealing with differences and variety within the framework of complete harmony. This is because it began to disagree with previous laws whenever they took to excess, and re-established equilibrium where they would tend towards one side or the other, and directed towards a singular goal, infusing it with a unified spirit, such that the truth become to be attributed to it in all morals and ethics.
Among the greatest characteristics of this teaching was the innovation. It is not satisfactory, in reality, to say with regards to the ethics of the Qur’an that we have preserved the heritage of our forebears and support. Rather, when confronted with different opinions, we must add that Qur’anic ethics supply these opinions with a sacred basis.
How was the Qur’an able to have such a miraculous impact? Its style was extremely simple, in that it chose to express its principles with particularly impactful language – language that is always located halfway between the abstract and ambiguous, on the one hand, and the empirical and formalistic, on the other hand.
From the perspective of clarity of content, we find that the clarity of each principle impedes chaos and following one’s whims. However, at the same time, the lack of specificity of the content leaves to each individual the freedom to choose the form of speech that is the best example, in accordance with his experience. Similarly, he is able to choose between the form that is best suited to a pressing need and other ethical demands. So, there are two issues: formation and compatibility. It is necessary, through careful effort, to distance oneself from excessive laxity and exaggeration.
This is how the Qur’anic shari’a was able to accomplish such perfection, unlike any other text, in realizing harmony between two seemingly opposite sides: kindness in resoluteness, advancement in steadfastness, and diversity in unity.
Obligation is a fundamental concern of any ethical school, for if there is no obligation, there cannot be responsibility toward any ethical system or law. But what is the source of this ethical obligation? Is it the human conscience, as some philosophers say? Or social pressure as others say? Or is it reason?
Scholars have spoken of these three sources at length, in particular with respect to their relativity and their limitations. The reality is that it is impossible for either individual conscience or reason or a given society to set up ethical laws and demand their imposition on all consciences, minds and societies.
Despite the efforts of those who mock the values, as well as those who are blindly devoted to ethics, to say that there is no firm standard by which to specify what is good or bad, and that the matter is relative to particular societies, we may respond by saying that what they claim is a form of the philosophies of corruption, and a dissolution of ethics, which has an extremely negative impact on societies and individuals.
It is therefore necessary to refer to a higher legislative authority to settle such disagreements, one that is capable of being comprehensive as well as applicable in every place and time, and to all people in general. This authority cannot be found except in the very Creator of existence, time, place, and people, He Who sees all and knows about all He creates. As the Qur’an informs us, “Should He not know,- He that created? and He is the One that understands the finest mysteries (and) is well-acquainted (with them)” (al-Mulk: 14).
So the source of ethical obligation in Islam is the divine commands of which Allah informs us in the Holy Qur’an and through the Prophet (peace be upon him).
However, the Qur’an takes great care to link every teaching and ruling of the shari’a with the ethical value that forms its basis. So, for example, when it invites us to make every effort towards reconciliation amongst our families, even when it is not in our interests, Allah supports His call by saying “And reconciliation is better” (al-Nisa’: 128). Similarly, when the Qur’an invites us to engage in commerce by weighing fairly, He says, “Give full measure when ye measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight: that is the most fitting and the most advantageous in the final determination.” (al-Isra: 35). Also, when he sets out the principles of modesty which demand from men that they lower their gazes in the presence of women and guard themselves from impropriety, He goes on to explain, “That is purer for them” (al-Nur: 30). And after He commands us to clarify the reasoning before promulgating a legal ruling, He explains that it is so “lest ye smite some folk in ignorance and afterward repent of what ye did.” (al-Hujurat: 6).
There are also numerous examples of the Qur’an guiding us towards spirituality and ethical values. These include the following verse: “Say: "Not equal are things that are bad and things that are good, even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle thee” (al-Ma’ida: 100); and “But the raiment of righteousness,- that is the best” (al-A’raf: 26); and “he to whom wisdom is granted receiveth indeed a benefit overflowing” (al-Baqara: 269). Indeed, the fundamental principle on which the shari’a is based is “Allah never commands what is shameful” (al-A’raf: 28); and “Allah commands justice and the doing of good” (al-Nahl: 90).
Therefore, the primary source of obligation in Islam is the divine revelation as found in the Qur’an and sunna. After that, there are other things that the shari’a takes account of, such as the societal responsibility to protect these ethics and morals. This is why Allah has commanded us to “command the good, and forbid the evil.” As well, the shari’a takes account of reason and human conscience (or the senses) in specifying the good and the evil. This is the reason that the wisdoms behind rulings, as well as ethical commands, were related in the Qur’an
Features of ethical obligation
1. Action must be something one is capable of doing
Allah says, “On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear.” (al-Baqara: 286); “Allah puts no burden on any person beyond what He has given him.” (al-Talaq:7); “So fear Allah as much as ye can” (al-Taghabun: 16). In terms of ethical obligation slam takes account of human capability, and does not entrust them with anything beyond their capacity. As such, obligation is conditional on the capacity of the legal agent.
2. Ease and lifting difficulty
The second feature of ethical obligation is the consideration of ease and avoiding difficulty. For Islamic ethics are not only in keeping with the capacities and capabilities of people; they are in fact meant to be easier than even that. As Allah says, “Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties.” (al-Baqara: 185); and “Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty” (al-Ma’ida: 6). And it is related by Abu Hurayra that the Prophet said, “You were only sent to make things easy; you were not sent to make things difficult.”
Similarly, Islam has lightened the burden on legal agents who find some of the rulings difficult. This may take the form of complete leniency, or partial leniency. Sometimes, it means permission to delay an action until when is capable of doing it, and sometimes it means outright replacing it with another, less cumbersome, action. This is from the Mercy of God, and His Compassion towards them.
3. The different ranks of rulings
Islam has ordered ethical responsibilities in a particular manner. The most obligatory is the individual obligation, then the communal obligation, then the mandatory, then the emphasized sunna, then the non-emphasized sunna, then the supererogatory, and finally the extra perfections.
Similarly, it has ordered the prohibitions, or evils, into: the major sins, the minor sins, the disliked, and that which it is preferred to avoid.
From another perspective, Islam divides obligations into specific and non-specific, and temporary and permanent. It has also set out a space between the good and evil, though it is neither: this is the permissible, one side of which borders the good, and the other side of which borders the evil. And he has commanded people to orient themselves towards the good and keep away from the evil.
Two important matters follow from this discussion of ethical obligation: ethical responsibility, and desert.
1. Ethical responsibility: Ethical responsibility means that a person assumes the burden of the outcome of the actions he commits to, or agrees to, or chooses, whether these actions are positive or negative.
God has made responsibility conditional upon the acceptance of a trust, as related in the Qur’an: “Lo! We offered the trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. Lo! he hath proved a tyrant and a fool.” (al-Ahzab: 72). So the Qur’an connects human responsibility on the freedom to choose. So, the one who is compelled or forced does not bear responsibility for that which he is forced to do. For this reason, human responsibility does not go beyond the realm of an agent’s freedom.
One of the most beautiful parables in the Qur’an demonstrates this, i.e., the comparison between he who is deprived of the freedom to choose and the servants of God whom He has made free. “Allah sets forth the Parable (of two men: one) a slave under the dominion of another; He has no power of any sort; and (the other) a man on whom We have bestowed goodly favours from Ourselves, and he spends thereof (freely), privately and publicly: are the two equal? (By no means;) praise be to Allah. But most of them understand not. Allah sets forth (another) Parable of two men: one of them dumb, with no power of any sort; a wearisome burden is he to his master; whichever way be directs him, he brings no good: is such a man equal with one who commands Justice, and is on a Straight Way?” (al-Nahl: 75-76).
He then follows this up by saying, “It is He Who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when ye knew nothing; and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affections: that ye may give thanks (to Allah)” (al-Nahl: 78), in order to emphasize that man is given awareness so that he is able to be a free and responsible person with reason and will. As Ghazali said, “He is a messenger from the interior, and the Prophets are also messengers from the exterior.” And so, if a person’s freedom diminishes, his ethical responsibility diminishes in equal measure.
The noble shari’a has affirmed personal responsibility based on Qur’anic texts. This constitutes a challenge to previous regimes which partook in collective punishment. Among these Qur’anic texts are clear verses which establish individual responsibilities, and consist of a unity of thought which begins with the act of knowing, includes civic responsibilities, and ends with ethical responsibility.
Among the verses that set out the act of knowing as a personal responsibilities are: “ Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another's load.” (al-An’am: 164); and “if any will see, it will be for (the good of) his own soul; if any will be blind, it will be to his own (harm)” (al-An’am: 104). The first verse is a clear reference to the acquisition of ethical values, and the second to the acquisition of knowledge. The word used for seeing, ibsar, connotes also knowledge and behavior, and the word for being blind, ‘ama, means being ignorant of the primordial truths, like knowledge of God, His angels, books, and prophets; and behavior in accordance with that knowledge.
So, the Qur’an has ordered things such that the act of knowing comes first. Believing in Islam is itself a sort of knowledge, followed by action. And so, some jurists have included knowledge as a stage of legal obligation.
As for the verses that impose metaphysical responsibility on the individual, these are many. They include, “So on that Day no power shall they have over each other, for profit or harm: and We shall say to the wrong-doers, "Taste ye the Penalty of the Fire,- the which ye were wont to deny!” (al-Saba: 42). In modern social science, this is known as an individual undertaking to set out his behaviour in accordance with his conscience. This does not negate responsibility in the life of this world, even though the true and superior responsibility is that which pertains to the next life.
2. Ethical Desert: Ethical desert is a natural consequence of ethical responsibility. It is necessary for the maintenance of justice among people. If there is desert for every ethical behavior, there will be a commitment to ethics and virtue.
There are many types of desert:
i. Divine: As Allah says, “That man can have nothing but what he strives for; That (the fruit of) his striving will soon come in sight: Then will he be rewarded with a reward complete.” (al-Najm: 39-41); and “That Day will every soul be requited for what it earned; no injustice will there be that Day, for Allah is Swift in taking account. ” (al-Ghafir: 17)
ii. Psychological, sentimental, or mental: This is the pain and stress felt by he who acts in an evil manner. As Allah says, “But he who turneth away from remembrance of Me, his will be a narrow life” (Ta ha: 124). This feeling is from the sentiments or conscience which censure a person for the sins he has committed.
iii. Legal: This is the punishment administered to the person of poor character. In Islam, the penal system consists of two types of punishments
• The hudud: These are clearly specified in the shari’a, such as the amputation of the hand of a thief
• The discretionary punishments: These are left to the judicial system to decide upon.
iv. Social censure: This is the lack of trust in a corrupt or evil person that results from his behaviour and character. As a result of this, his testimony is not accepted, and he often fails to find respect or acceptance among people. This is of course extremely difficult on the human soul.
The comprehensiveness of ethics in Islam
The feature of comprehensiveness becomes readily and undoubtedly apparent in the ethics of the Qur’an. This is not only because the commands of the Qur’an are directed towards humanity as a whole, such as the sayings of Allah, “Say: ‘O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah’” (al-A’raf: 158) and “Blessed is He who sent down the criterion to His servant, that it may be an admonition to all creatures” (al-Furqan: 1).”
Rather, the principle of justice, or public virtue, must be applied by every individual in a consistent manner, no matter whether it is applied upon oneself or upon others. As the Qur’an says, “Do ye enjoin right conduct on the people, and forget (To practise it) yourselves” (al-Baqara: 44); and “do not even aim at getting anything which is bad, in order that out of it ye may give away something, when ye yourselves would not receive it except with closed eyes” (al-Baqara: 267); and “Woe to those that deal in fraud,- Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, But when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due. ” (al-Mutaffifin: 1-3).
Similarly there is no regard for whether it is applied upon one’s close relatives or others; or upon the rich or the poor: “O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor” (al-Nisa’: 135).
Nor is there any regard for those who are outside of a particular group or within it: “And among them there is he who, if thou trust him with a piece of gold, will not return it to thee unless thou keep standing over him. That is because they say: We have no duty to the Gentiles. They speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. Nay, but (the chosen of Allah is) he who fulfilleth his pledge and wardeth off (evil); for lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil).” (Aal Imran: 75-76).
Nor is there any regard for discriminating between friends or enemies: “And let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety” (al-Ma’ida: 8).
Islamic ethics do not leave out any portion of human life, be it spiritual or material, religious or worldly, rational or sentimental, individual or communal. In all cases, there is an exemplary framework for sublime behaviour. What ethicists have routinely divided up into religion, philosophy, custom and society all come together in the ethical system of Islam in an orderly, complete and perfect manner.
1. There is that which is concerned with the individual from different perspectives:
i. Physically speaking, the body has needs and necessities. Allah addresses this by saying, “Eeat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters.” (al-A’raf: 31). And the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said, “Your body has a right over you.”
ii. Rationally, the individual has talents and horizons. The Qur’an says: “Say: "Behold all that is in the heavens and on earth"; but neither Signs nor Warners profit those who believe not.” (Yunus: 101); and “Say: ‘I do admonish you on one point: that ye do stand up before Allah,- (It may be) in pairs, or (it may be) singly,- and reflect (within yourselves): your Companion is not possessed: he is no less than a warner to you, in face of a terrible Penalty.’” (Saba’: 46).
iii. Spiritually, there are passions, desires and impulses. The Qur’an says, “Truly, he succeeds that purifies it, And he fails that corrupts it!” (al-Shams: 9-10).
2. There is that which is concerned with the family from different perspectives:
i. The relationship between spouses: “Live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” (al-Nisa’: 19)
ii. The relationship between relatives and intimates: “Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin” (al-Nahl: 90).
3. There is that which is concerned with society from different perspectives:
i. In terms of manners, etiquette and protocol: “O ye who believe! enter not houses other than your own, until ye have asked permission and saluted those in them: that is best for you, in order that ye may heed (what is seemly).” (al-Nur: 27).
ii. In commercial transactions and legal matters: “lah doth command you to render back your Trusts to those to whom they are due; And when ye judge between man and man, that ye judge with justice” (al-Nisa’: 58).
We may go on and spell out all the fields taken up by the Islamic ethical system, and the path it sketches out to be followed in every minor and major matter of the lived reality of its adherents.
And so, the concept of ethics in Islam brings together all that had been divided by religious sects and philosophical schools, both realist and idealist, in terms of their way of looking at ethics and their explanation of the source of ethical obligation. Not all of what these groups say is false, nor is all of it true. The deficiency of each viewpoint is that they have looked at the subject from one perspective and neglected it from another perspective. This is unavoidable for human cognition, which is incapable of taking up an issue in a manner that encompasses all times and places, all types and personalities, all circumstances and perspectives. This comprehensive viewpoint requires an All-knowing and Wise God.
If we turn our attention to the Torah, for example, we find that it is concerned to set out fundamental principles for legislating behaviour: do not kill, do not steal, etc. We see that the leading consideration here is to specify rights, and to seek justice and equality. Then, if we turn to the New Testament, it sets out ethical principles in addition to affirming what had come before in the Torah and supplementing it. The most important features here are tolerance, mercy and good conduct. Finally, when we come to the shari’a of the Qur’an, we find an affirmation of both of these predecessors in a single consistent system: “Allah commands justice, and the doing of good” (al-Nahl: 90). In its manner of affirming both, the Qur’an grants to each its proper place in the balance of values.
“And the recompense of evil is punishment like it, but whoever forgives and amends, he shall have his reward from Allah; surely He does not love the unjust” (al-Shura: 40). Then, we also add to this new area, formulating etiquettes for interpersonal interaction, sketching out a framework for generous behaviour for lofty societies. This includes the etiquette of greetings, permissions, address, meetings, etc. These have been spelt out in detail in the Qur’anic chapters al-Nur and al-Mujadala.
The cultivation of morals
Man is capable of acquiring the characteristics and habits he is brought up with. Indeed, the importance and benefit of ethics are what make it capable of development and evolution, and open the way for education and training. For it is by continuous training and some amount of time that we are able to ground the ingredients of good character in the personality of an individual such that it becomes a habit and natural disposition.
There are a few matters that are necessary for the proper cultivation and refinement of ethics.
1. The company of the righteous: What trains a person best is the company of righteous people. Man is passionate for customs and fashions. Just as he follows those around him in clothing, for examples, he will follow those around him in deed, and model himself after their mannerisms and ethics. As the Prophet said, “A man is on the religion of his close friends, so look carefully whom you befriend.” Ibn Ata’ Allah says, “Do not spend time with he whose state does not invigorate you, and whose words do not guide you towards Allah. ... Instead, spend time with knowledgeable old people, who inspire you because their aspirations are connected to Allah. Do not resort to any but them, and do not entrust your affairs to any but then. Their words will point you towards Allah due to their knowledge of Him. Keeping the company of the righteous is a great step on the path towards Allah. And keeping company with the evil, it is extremely blameworthy due to the regression from high levels of piety that it entails.”
2. Struggling with the self: “And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord's (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from lower desires. Their abode will be the Garden.” (al-Nazi’at: 40-41). And it is related from the Prophet that he said to his companions, while returning from battle, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” They asked him, “What is the greater jihad, Messenger of Allah?” He said, “struggling against the self.” Al-Hasan used to say, “Your enemy is not he whom if you kill him, you are relieved of him. Rather, your enemy is your own self, between your two sides.” Dhun-Nun al-Misri once said, “Be only in a state of opposition with your soul, and at a distance from the devil.”
3. Expanding one’s horizons: If one’s circle of thinking is narrow, this leads quickly to lowly morals. He becomes like the person who sees no good except in himself, and sees none in creation deserving of goodness but him. The cure for this is to expand one’s horizons so that he may come to realize his true value to his society – that he is neither a vital organ of the body, nor the center around which everything else revolves. Rather, he is like all the others in his society merely a drop in the ocean. The truth is that narrow-mindedness is a source of numerous vices, to the point that it may lead one to consider oppression to be justice and vice versa. It is not possible for a person to rid himself of this prejudice until he loves the truth more than his own opinion and his own community, and he is enamoured with the idea of setting out to search for the truth. If this thinking expands, and he arrives at a correct judgement and follows it, his morals too will advance.
4. Studying the lives of the righteous: This is because their lives will appear in front of the reader, and inspire him to follow them. No community or nation is devoid of such righteous people. And no one can read about their life stories without feeling a new spirit enter him, impelling him to the best of deeds. Much of what has pushed people to great actions and feats has been the stories they have read of great people, or stories of events related to them. We may add to these, parables and wisdom tales, for these have deep meanings which are efficacious for the soul, and dwell deeply in the mind.
One of the best things that has been said about this is from al-Ghazali:
“Know that some people who have taken to excessive idleness have found it burdensome to struggle against the self, and discipline it, and involve themselves in purifying the soul and cultivating good morals. And so, they do not allow themselves to advance due to their incapacity and deficiencies. So they claim that character is incapable of change.
They argue this in two ways. First, they say that character is the interior form just as one’s body is the exterior form. The latter is not capable of change, for the short person is incapable of making himself tall, and the tall person is not capable of making himself short. Nor can the ugly person make himself beautiful. And so, similarly, for the person who is spiritually repulsive, or evil.
Secondly, they say that good character curbs lewd desires and anger. We have experienced this through struggling against the soul, and we know that these are in fact a result of one’s temperament and disposition and so cannot be separated from a person. Involving oneself in such a struggle is simply futile, and a waste of time, for what is desired is itself impossible.
We say that if morals are not capable of change, there would be no point to the many advices and admonitions, such as the Prophet’s express command, “Beautify your morals.” How can this be denied to people while we admit it as a possibility for animals. Both falcons and dogs may be domesticated. And a recalcitrant horse may be made obedient. These are all examples of changes in character.
Beautiful morals are indeed open doors from the heart to paradise and closeness to the All-Merciful. And poor morals are diseases of the heart, and poisons for the soul. This is a disease that forfeits the eternal life of the hereafter, and not simply the bodily life of this world. Doctors stress the setting down of principles for curing bodies, and since the life of the hereafter is more precious to the believer, there should be even more care to setting down the principles for curing the diseases of the soul. This sort of healing must be learned and practiced by all people of understanding.