Understanding Islam

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Principles of Islamic Ethics - An Introduction


What is Ethics?

Ethics has been defined as:

"The normative science of the conduct of human beings living in societies - a science which judges this conduct to be right or wrong, to be good or bad or in some similar way." (William Lillie, An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd edition, Methuen & Co. LTD., 1971, pg. 1 - 2)

Some key terms used in this definition are briefly explained for a better understanding of the concept.

'Normative Science' (as opposed to 'descriptive' or 'positive' sciences) in simple words, is a discipline, which describes or sets standards or rules for the field under consideration. For example, a 'normative grammar' of a language describes how its authors think that the language should be spoken or written. In other words, a normative science deals with 'how things ought to be' rather than 'how things really are'. 'Normative Sciences', primarily comprise of three fields:

  • 'Aesthetics' deals systematically with the standards by which we judge the beauty or the ugliness of objects of sense perception, commonly sights and sounds. Thus, setting the standards of beauty or ugliness is related to the field of 'aesthetics'.

  • 'Logic' deals systematically with the standards by which we judge the truthfulness or the falsehood of statements. Thus, setting any standards for 'true' and 'false' is related to the field of 'logic'.

  • 'Ethics' deals systematically with the standards by which we judge the right or wrong in human action. Thus, setting any standards of 'right' or 'wrong' behavior in a society is related to the field of 'ethics'.

'Conduct' is a collective name for voluntary actions. A voluntary action is an action that a man could have done differently if he had so chosen.

Our definition has limited the conduct with which we deal in ethics in two ways:

  • We deal with human actions and not with the actions of the lower animals;

  • We confine ourselves to the study of the conduct of human beings living in societies. Moralists sometimes go further and hold that the standards of ethics only apply to the relations of men with one another; the conduct studied in ethics is not only conduct done in a society, but conduct that affects some other member or members of that society. Although, it may be considered convenient to include, in a single normative science, all human activities, including those that appear to have no effects on other people or relations with them, yet common usage would certainly make a social activity like speaking the truth more directly the concern of ethics that a purely private activity with no marked effects like playing a guitar in one's private room or a religious activity like fasting. Of course, even such activities may have indirect social effects, however, as soon as such activities start having a social effect, they shall be included in the study of ethics. For instance, a man playing his guitar may start disturbing his neighbors. At this juncture, his apparently private activity would now be included in the scope of 'ethics'.

The subject of ethics essentially comprises issues fundamental to practical decision-making in case of all such actions, which bring one in an active or a passive interaction with other human beings. For this reason, the discipline, though long considered a branch of philosophy, is closely linked with many other fields of inquiry, including anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology. Ethics, however, remains distinct from such areas of study, as it deals with human conduct, as it ought to be, rather than as it actually is.

Ethics is generally divided into three major sub-disciplines. These are (1) meta-ethics, (2) normative ethics, and (3) applied ethics.

'Meta-ethics' centers on questions relating to the nature and origin of moral concepts and judgments. Philosophers in meta-ethics have taken markedly different positions on this matter. There also has been much disagreement over whether moral judgments are objective or subjective, absolute or relative.

'Normative ethics' is primarily concerned with establishing standards or norms for conduct and is commonly associated with general theories about how one ought to live. One of the central questions of modern normative ethics has to do with whether human actions are to be judged right or wrong solely according to their consequences. Traditionally, theories that judge actions by their consequences have been known as 'teleological', though the term 'consequentialist' has in large part supplanted it. Another class of theories in normative ethics, designated as 'deontological', judges actions by their conformance to some formal rule or principle (for example, the ethical system of the philosopher Immanuel Kant).

'Applied ethics' is the application of moral theories to practical moral problems. Such moral issues as racial and sexual equality, human rights, and justice have become prominent, as have questions about the value of human life raised by controversies over abortion and euthanasia[1]. Related to the latter are the ethical implications of various developments in regard to reproduction as, for example, in vitro fertilization[2], sperm banks, gene manipulation, and cloning[3]. Perhaps the most striking development in the study of ethics during the second half of the 20th century has been the growing interest among philosophers in applied ethics.

The Standards of Determining 'Ethical' and 'Unethical'

Philosophers are not in agreement regarding the standards of judgment of 'right' and 'wrong' behavior. There have been a number of theories proposed by moral philosophers regarding the determination of standards of judging 'right' from 'wrong'. Some of the major theories are:

  • No Standards or Relative Ethics: Relative ethics maintains that there are no moral rules that apply to all men as such. There are forms of ethical relativity, which would admit of standards for all the members of a limited group, but would not hold these standards true for those not belonging to that group. However, there are other more extreme forms of ethical relativity in which what is right for any man is a purely individual matter. Thus, according to this point of view, there is no question of any standard at all.

  • The Standard as Intuition[4]: Intuitive ethics maintains that 'good' actions are those, which are believed to be 'good' through the intuition of the individual passing the judgment.

  • The Standard as Law: Legal ethics maintains that 'good' actions are those, which are stated to be 'good' by the law. The word 'law' according to this school includes all such laws that are passed by a higher authority, including God - as in the Law of God, or Law of Moses (pbuh). Thus, Christian or Judaic ethics, which maintains that all that has been prescribed in the divine law is 'good' and all that has been prohibited is 'bad', can be considered as a part of this school.

  • The Standard as Pleasure: This theory holds that pleasantness is the only quality because of which an experience is 'good' or valuable. A good action I san action, which leads to a pleasant experience as its consequence, and the right action at any moment is the one which will lead to more pleasant experiences or to greater pleasure than any other action. It should be remembered that this school does not merely hold that one of the consequences of 'good' is pleasure. It, on the contrary, holds that the only thing, which makes an action 'good' is the consequent pleasure that may result from it.

  • The Standard as Determined by Evolution: According to this school, the conduct to which we apply the name 'good' is relatively more evolved conduct, and the conduct to which we apply the name 'bad' is relatively less evolved. The particular moral code accepted by any community at any period of history depends on the natural selection of that community, in accordance with its circumstances.

  • The Standard as Perfection: According to this theory, 'good' action is one, which contributes in making the self 'perfect' and helps in removing all human shortcomings from it.

  • The Standard as Value: According to this school, 'good' actions are those, which produce 'good' or valuable consequences.

Why Be Ethical?

It can be easily derived from the above varying points of views regarding the standards of ethical and unethical behavior that the motivating force for opting for good behavior and for avoiding bad behavior would naturally be quite different in these schools. For instance, according to the proponents of relative ethics, the motivating force is generally the inclination and the innumerable internal as well as external factors leading to the decision of the individual under consideration. While in the case of intuitive ethics, it is the psychological condition of the individual, which in turn depends on his financial, social and educational background. In the case of the standard as law, the motivating factor for ethical behavior is generally the avoidance of punishment attached with 'bad' behavior or reaping the rewards attached with doing 'good'. In the case of the standard as pleasure, the reason for being ethical is the pleasure that is expected from being ethical. In case of the evolution school of ethics, the prime motivator is to conform to and to contribute in the evolution process of the individual as well as the group with which the individual is attached. In case of the standard as perfection, the prime motivator is the consequent spiritual and moral perfection that is expected from the conformity with 'good' action. Finally, in the standard as value school, the motivating factor for doing 'good' is the expectation of the good or the valuable consequences.

The Ethical Philosophy of Islam

Having understood the concept of ethics and seen the different schools of moral philosophy, it is now time to focus on the ethical philosophy of Islam. We shall begin with an introduction to the standard of judgment regarding ethical and unethical behavior as given by Islam and the motivating force that, according to the tenets of Islam, should play the major role in opting for 'good' and avoiding 'bad'. Finally, we shall see the distinction between ethical philosophy of Islam and other ethical philosophies.

Standard of Judgment of 'Good' and 'Bad'

According to Islam, man has not come into existence on his own and neither is he a product of natural forces that had somehow, by pure chance, combined to produce life. On the contrary, man is a creation of an All Wise, and a Most Merciful Creator. God gave man life and with that also gave man the freedom and the authority to do good or to indulge into evil. This authority and this freedom was given to man for the basic purpose of testing him, as to how he uses his authority and freedom. As a part of this test, God also gave man the basic knowledge of 'good' and 'bad' at the time of his inception. Thus, according to Islam, every individual has been bestowed a clear standard of judgment of 'good' and 'evil' by God. The Qur'an, in Surah Al-Shams (91: 7 - 10) has presented this knowledge of the human soul as an evidence of the fact that soon, man shall indeed face separate consequences of his 'good' and 'bad' deeds. The Qur'an says:

The human soul - the way He molded it and inspired it with knowledge of its evil and its good - bears witness to the fact that indeed he, who cleanses it [of all impiety] shall be successful while he, who corrupts it shall face doom.

Thus, according to the Ethical philosophy of Islam, the knowledge of good and evil or in other words the standard of distinguishing good from evil is a part of the sapiential sense[5] of man. This sapiential sense includes, besides many other concepts, moral concepts like justice, truthfulness, honesty, helping the weak, freedom in one's personal matters etc. It is quite possible though, that there is a difference in the application of these concepts in practical life situations, yet the concepts themselves have never been questioned and are, and have mostly remained, universally accepted. It is for this reason that ethical values like justice, honesty, trustworthiness and truthfulness etc. have never even been questioned philosophically, even if there is a considerable practical deviation from these values or a huge difference in the practical application of these values.

It is precisely for the stated reason that man, on the Day of Judgment, shall have no excuse for any voluntary and conscious deviation from these values in his life, even if he has remained ignorant of the teachings of any prophet. Every person, irrespective of whether he is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, an atheist or an agnostic, knows that defrauding others is wrong. He defrauds others not due to any misconception about the 'goodness' or the 'badness' of defrauding others, but to gain some immediate and quick material gains from such an act. The same is the case of all other basic moral values. The excuse of ignorance, in the case of these basic moral and ethical values, shall therefore not save an individual from punishment on the Day of Judgment, as, in reality, there has never been ignorance in this sphere.

The Nature and Scope of the Islamic Shari`ah vis a vis Ethical Issues

The Qur'an has indeed reminded - not introduced - man of a number of basic moral and ethical values. The Qur'an has, for instance, mentioned wrongfully depriving others of their rights and bribing authorities for this purpose to be a great sin, as a direct corollary of the basic values of justice, honesty and refraining from defrauding others. However, this reference of the Qur'an is not to introduce man to the fact that such an act is sinful, but to remind him that he himself is fully aware of it being a sinful act. In Al-Baqarah 2: 188, the Qur'an says:

Do not devour one another's wealth through unjust means, nor bribe the authorities in order that you may wrongfully usurp the possession of others - while you are well aware [of its being a sinful act].

Most of the references to ethical principles or their applications to practical life situations, in the Qur'an are of the same nature. They are not mentioned as a first-time introduction for man, but as an obvious reality of which man is already aware.

However, there is another category of directives in the Qur'an, which relates primarily to the application of universal ethical principles. For instance, the Qur'an has mentioned the etiquette of interaction between unrelated men and women in a mutually interactive environment. This directive of the Qur'an is based primarily on the value of Hayaa[6]. However, in this particular case, the Qur'an has not stopped merely at reminding man of keeping the value of Hayaa in mind while interacting with the opposite sex, but has also prescribed a code that should be observed while such an interaction takes place. The same is the case, for instance, in the prohibition of Riba. The prohibition of Riba, according to the Qur'an is based on the universal principle of justice. Nevertheless, the Qur'an has not stopped merely at reminding man of keeping the value of justice in perspective, while economically transacting with others, but has gone further to prohibit a transaction that, in its view, was based on such an injustice.

These and other similar cases are examples where the Qur'an has not merely mentioned an ethical principle but has actually applied an ethical principle to a practical life situation and has prescribed or prohibited a certain act. However, a close analysis of all such situations shows that the Qur'an has done this only in cases where:

  • In the absence of such divine prescription or prohibition, there could have been a significant difference of opinion and, subsequently, a significant deviation in human application of these ethical values to practical life situations. People could have gone to extremes in such applications; and

  • Deviations in such applications affect the moral and spiritual cleansing of individuals, which, in turn, affects the success or failure in the hereafter.

The Qur'an has only made applications of universal ethical principles in cases where both the conditions mentioned above are satisfied.

Thus, to summarize, the ethical teachings of Islam may be classified into two categories:

  1. Where the Qur'an has reminded man of the basic ethical values with the implication that if man consciously deviates from such values, he shall then have no excuse to defend himself from facing the consequences of such deviation.

  2. Where the Qur'an has applied the basic ethical principles on practical life situations and has prescribed or prohibited a particular code of conduct.

An exhaustive explanation and enumeration of issues in Islamic ethics should consist of both these categories.

The Answer to the Question 'Why Be Ethical?' in the Islamic Perspective

In one of the preceding sections, we had seen that the various schools of moral philosophers have given their own answers to the question that why should a person choose to behave in a manner that is considered to be in keeping with the ethical norms and standards of his society. In this section, we shall see what is the answer to this question from the Islamic perspective.

Before we consider the answer to the said question in the Islamic perspective, it seems necessary to clarify that in a number of situations, the question of deviating from an ethical principle does not even arise. Let us take 'honesty', as a case in point. There are a number of situations in one's life where there is absolutely no reason to deviate from honesty. For instance, if someone, under normal circumstances, asks me my name, I am not likely to deviate from the principle of 'honesty'. I would, in most of the cases, tell him my name very 'honestly'. It is only under circumstances where a high - material, physical or emotional - price is likely to be paid or a great benefit likely to be sacrificed that one needs a good reason to adhere to 'honesty'. The same would hold true for all ethical principles. It is only under circumstances where adherence to ethical or moral values is likely to be followed by a loss that this adherence needs a reason.

The reason for such adherence, from the Islamic perspective is simply that it is a direct requirement of the articles of faith of Islam to adhere to such ethical or moral principles, irrespective of the volume of cost that has to be borne or that of the benefit that may be lost. The declaration of Imaan (faith) not followed by good deeds, in the eyes of Islam, is either hypocrisy or ignorance[7].

A person who truly believes in the Islamic articles of faith (Tawheed[8], Risalah[9] and Aakhirah[10]) cannot be unmindful of the practical requirements of these articles of faith. Ignorance of the practical requirements of these articles of faith, translates into ignorance of the articles of faith themselves. Furthermore, being unmindful of fulfilling these requirements practically refutes the very existence of true Imaan in one's heart.

The Difference Between Islamic and Other Ethical Philosophies

It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that the Islamic Ethical philosophy differs from the other philosophies on two basic accounts:

  1. The origin or the motivating factor in adherence to ethical principles under the Islamic ethical philosophy is primarily the articles of faith of Islam. In other words, ethical behavior, under the Islamic ethical philosophy is a requisite of the articles of Islamic faith. An attitude of deviation from ethical principles is a practical negation of ascription to the very elements of Islamic faith.

  2. The practical application of ethical principles of the Shari`ah, with the basic universal ethical principles themselves, are a part of the basic code of ethical conduct in Islam. Thus, refraining from Riba is as much a part of the Islamic code of ethics as dealing with others in a just manner.

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[1]  Mercy killing.

[2]  Like producing test tube babies

[3]  All these concepts are related to the field of bio ethics.

[4]  'Intuition' is the immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process.

[5]  Sapiential sense refers to the necessary sense that every normal human being possesses. Derived from homo sapiens, the term was first coined by Roy Abraham Varghese in his book "Great Thinkers on Great Questions".

[6]  Hayaa is one of the basic values that Islam wants to inculcate among its adherents. Due to the lack of an accurate synonymous in the English language, I have used the Arabic word, which, over here, implies 'the suppression of sexual interaction within certain prescribed limits and the avoidance of instigating sexual attraction or being instigated by a sexual attraction beyond those limits".

[7]  That is the person is either lying about his imaan or is ignorant of what imaan really means.

[8]  Belief in one God.

[9]  Prophethood.

[10]  Day of Judgment.