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ETHICS. In contemporary Anglo-American discussion, ethics has to do with the study of practical justification. It focuses on describing and evaluating the reasons persons and groups give for judgments they make about right and wrong or good and evil, particularly as those terms relate to human acts, attitudes, and beliefs.

If we proceed from this understanding to a discussion of Islamic tradition, we first note that there is no single analogue for ethics in that tradition. Instead there are several genres of discourse, each with a special set of concerns and roles to play in the development of Islam and each related to the set of interests we associate with ethics.

Among the classical intellectual traditions, for example, `ilm al-akhlaq, the “science of virtue,” focuses on concerns about the character of persons. The nature of courage, the practice of wisdom and tolerance, and discussions about the cultivation of such desirable traits are the focus here. Those who write in this vein catalog and describe the predominant ways of acting, feeling, and thinking associated with the ideal of a good person; perhaps the most accessible example of the genre is the Nasirean Ethics attributed to the Shi’i scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274 CE).

A related form of discourse is indicated by the term adab, “letters,” used to indicate a variety of types of writing. The unifying theme of adab is reflection on the noble ideals that ought to inform the practice of statecraft, medicine, business, and other activities important to society. One prominent form of this genre has a writer presenting wise advice to those who would practice a particular craft. Thus the celebrated Seljuk vizier Nizam al-mulk (d. 1092) presents advice to rulers in his Siyasat namah or “Rules for Kings.” Similarly, a late eighth- or early ninth-century text attributed to one al-Ruhawi exhorts physicians on the “Way of Behaving Appropriate to Physicians” (Adab al-tabib). Other adab writers work in an essay or narrative format, fulfilling the role of pundit for a more general audience: thus al-Jahiz (d. 868) could write on topics from homosexuality to theological discourse or could provide both entertainment and moral education in collections of stories about famous misers, gluttons, and the like.

One could continue to detail the ways in which various modes of discourse in classical Islam address questions of ethics; for example, the historical writing of al-Tabari (d. 923) or Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) might be considered a form of moral discourse. Among the classical disciplines, however, three stand out as essential for any discussion of ethics in Islamic tradition: falsafah (philosophy), kalam (dialectical theology), and filth (jurisprudence).

Falsafah, as developed by writers like al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), takes aspects of the Greek philosophical tradition and develops them in relation to Islamic themes. For example, al-Farabi understands philosophy as a quest for personal excellence, particularly in terms of intellect and moral character. Such a quest is available to anyone who has the requisite intelligence together with enough worldly goods to allow time for contemplation. One tension between falsafah and Islamic tradition becomes immediately apparent: practically speaking, philosophy is for an elite group, whereas Islamic revelation confirms the basic equality of human beings before God. Is it possible, then, for the philosopher to reconcile a personal quest for excellence with the message given through prophecy? As al-Farabi has it, prophecy and falsafah are essentially one. The major difference is that the Prophet perceives truth suddenly, by inspiration, while philosophers must gain wisdom through a long and arduous struggle. Further, the Prophet has a special capacity that enables him to put the pure (and abstract) truth sought by philosophers in terms that the mass of humanity can comprehend. It is in this capacity that revealed texts (e.g., the Qur’an) make use of narratives and poetic discourse rather than philosophic argumentation. Thus revelation is philosophy for the masses, and the prophets become popular examples of obedience to moral law-although the real foundations of morality, as religion, are philosophical rather than revealed.

Kalam begins with a different set of interests and questions. Practitioners of kalam focused on clarifying points of doctrine, including the nature of ethical judgment. The Mu’tazilah, perhaps the most influential of the early kalam movements, made the discussion of justice a central part of their program. With some variations, they argued as follows. Justice has to do with attributions of praise or blame to agents who perform specific acts. A person who tells the truth usually deserves praise, while one who commits murder deserves blame-from the Mu’tazili point of view, such judgments are typical of humanity as a whole. The fact of such judgments leaves open an important question, however. How do human beings justify such judgments? According to most Mu’tazili thinkers, God made the world to be governed by moral law. “He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six days . . . that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct” (Qur’an, 11.7). It would be unjust for God to impose such a trial unless there is a fair chance for humanity to acquit itself; and so God has given all humanity the ability to discern which acts are blameworthy and which worthy of praise. God has also given humans the capacity to choose which acts to perform. For the Mu’tazilah, the ability to discern is based on a combination of rational reflection and intuition. Human beings, reflecting on the fact of moral judgment, come to understand that it is based on certain “grounds” (`illah) or basic principles that are “built into” the structure of reality. Prophetic revelation refers to these principles, confirms, extends, and strengthens them.

A contrary position was developed by the Ash’ariyah. Al-Ash`ari (d. 935) focused his kalam on the notion that nothing happens apart from God’s will. Notions of moral intuition and human responsibility are secondary to affirmation of the majesty and power of God. When human beings perform praiseworthy or blameworthy acts, they do so by God’s will. Further, the Ash’ari position is that the only way for human beings to distinguish good and evil is through reading and interpreting revealed texts, in particular the Qur’an and sound accounts (hadiths) of Muhammad’s words and deeds.

The Ash’ariyah emphasized revealed texts in order to establish continuity between their kalam and the last of the classical genres to be discussed here: fiqh, usually translated “jurisprudence.” Literally, the term indicates “comprehension”; in this context, fiqh has to do with a concern to comprehend divine guidance. In his famous Risalah, al-Shafi’i (d. 820) indicates that the concern of fiqh is to discern that guidance “whereby no one who takes refuge in it will ever be led astray.”

The great contribution of al-Shafi’i and other practitioners of fiqh lay in their development of a model of reasoning by which human beings could comprehend divine guidance. The theory of usul al fiqh or “the sources of jurisprudence” establishes a hierarchy of revealed texts, together with ways of interpreting and reasoning from the texts. The basic text is the Qur’an, the “speech” of God. Accounts of the Prophet’s exemplary practice (sunnah) confirm and extend the Qur’an. Various modes of reasoning serve to further extend Qur’an and sunnah, especially the use of analogy known as qiyas. Other approved types of reasoning include ray (juristic opinion), istihsan (juristic preference), and istislah (a type of reasoning concerned to balance notions of duty with considerations of the general welfare.) Finally, the judgments of individual scholars are regulated by the notion of ijma`(“consensus”), referring either to the consensus of scholars or to the common sense of the Muslim community. [See Usul al-Fiqh; Consensus.]

Each of the classical forms of discourse has its modern analogue. The publications of authors like Taha Husayn and Naguib Mahfouz might be construed as adab, for example. Indeed, in some cases Muslim writers see themselves as continuing specific conversations that originated in the classical period. This is clearest in connection with fiqh, which for a variety of reasons came to have pride of place among the genres associated with ethical concern. Especially among Sunni Muslims, the textualist tendencies so important for the Ash’ariyah and the scholars of fiqh became primary. Much Sunni discourse assumes that judgments about human activity are a matter of discerning God’s commands through interpreting the texts and employing the modes of reasoning developed in the classical theory of usul al -fiqh. Especially in settings where scholars of fiqh participate in a judicial setting (as in most Muslim countries), there is a very strong sense of making judgments informed by precedent or reflecting a conversation between the contemporary scholar and scholars of the past. The fatwas or opinions issued on the basis of usul al -fiqh by famous al-Azhar jurists like Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) have this character, as do many current pronouncements on issues of state policy, medical practice, and the like. Such judgments take place in response to specific cases brought before a scholar, who then makes a judgment concerning the rightness or wrongness of specific courses of action, all the time justifying this judgment in relation to authoritative texts, approved modes of reasoning, and the precedents set by other scholars of fiqh. For example, in consideration of the question, “Should Bosnian Muslims emigrate to Islamic territory?” following Austria’s annexation of the region in 1908, Rashid Rida’s fatwas weighed the positions taken in analogous cases by various practitioners of fiqh before saying that, in his opinion, any judgment in such a case should reflect on the ability of a group of Muslims to carry out their general obligation to “command good and forbid evil.”

At the same time, important Sunni scholars have argued that the political and social situation of Muslims in the modern world call for reforms not only in forms of government or patterns of investment but also in religious thought. One way to pursue such reform is to revisit relations between fiqh and some other classical forms of ethical discourse. Muhammad `Abduh, for example, argued for a new attempt at kalam, construed as a way to revisit the ideas of God and human responsibility that undergird fiqh. His Risalat al-tawhid (Theology of Unity) attempts to find a middle way between the Mu’tazilah and Ash’ariyah on the place of human moral intuition and revealed texts in matters of ethics. For `Abduh, moral intuition is sufficient to establish the first principles of morality and also to work out the implications of morality for social and political life. Revelation is necessary to indicate religious obligations, however; and since most human beings require the encouragement provided by “the promise and the threat” associated with the day of judgment as a motive to adhere to moral law, true religion plays an important part in the moral and political life of human societies. In this connection, fiqh finds its place as a specifically juridical counterpart to the more general moral concern common among human beings in a particular society. A position similar to `Abduh’s was developed by the Indian Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898). In either case, the revisiting of relations between kalam and fiqh provides a way of thinking about ethics that is less tied to the Ash`ari emphasis on the limits of human reason than was characteristic of Sunni thinking through the centuries.

Among Shi’i scholars, fiqh also assumed first position among the classical genres associated with ethics. In centers of learning like Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, contemporary scholars stress the importance of precedent and legal reasoning in ways that are comparable to those of the Sunni scholars. The Shi`i tradition is distinct, however, in regard to usul al -fiqh and even more on the relationships among fiqh, kalam, and falsafah. In particular, the historic position of Shi’is on justice (al-`adl) has important affinities with Mu`tazili kalam, in which the rational capacities of human beings in matters of moral discernment are emphasized. The related emphasis in fiqh on `aql (reason) as one of the sources by which human beings comprehend divine guidance constitutes an important difference between Shi`i and Sunni approaches to ethics. When, under Safavid rule, some Shi`i scholars (called Akhbariyah) advocated that the emphasis on `aql be lessened in favor of the use of textual precedents, the majority (known as Usuliyah) reaffirmed the validity of reason as an independent source of judgment. This historic validation of reason has allowed Shi’i scholars consistently to construe the relations between religion and ethics in ways similar to that proposed as a reform by Sunni writers like Muhammad `Abduh and Ahmad Khan. It has also allowed some Shl’! scholars to think about matters of ethics in terms of a thoroughgoing teaching on tawhid (divine unity) as the mode of the Islamic life, in which the concerns of the various classical disciplines are addressed and integrated in holistic fashion. [See Akhbariyah; Usuliyah]

One of the best contemporary examples of this development is in the thought of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989). Best known for his lectures on Islamic government and for his leadership of the Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khomeini was also a teacher of `irfan and akhlaq (gnosis and character formation). In various speeches and lectures Khomeini develops an interactive view of the various aspects of an Islamic life. One learns, through reflection and study, that God alone is the source and destiny of all things. Through disciplined and consistent spiritual practice, especially prayer, one comes to hold the notion of God as beneficent and merciful, and especially as “Owner of the Day of judgment,” in a way that fills one’s heart and mind. This is the meaning of faith, according to Khomeini; and one who holds the notion of God in this way will find it very hard to commit serious sin. Further, such a person will be motivated to struggle courageously on behalf of justice. Indeed, he or she will be willing to sacrifice life for the cause of God.

Through this teaching Khomeini combines the concerns of various classical disciplines to create a type of “ethical spirituality.” The ultimate goal of life, he says, is the development of “truly human” character. Human beings are characterized by their religious/moral capacity. They have the potential to do great things, to develop into virtuous beings; they also have the potential for great sin. The struggle to become virtuous has personal dimensions, as one reflects on one’s existence as a creature of God; it has moral and political dimensions, as one struggles to create a just society. Further, the personal and the moral/political interact; in particular, the establishment of a political order governed by Islamic norms is not an end in itself but a way to encourage people to fulfill their potential for virtue through the creation of a social environment that encourages spiritual practice by enforcing the ordinances of Islam.

This contribution of Khomeini and other Shi’i scholars (for example, Murtaza Mutahhari, d. 1979) to the development of a modern Islamic perspective on ethics is possible, at least in part, because of the way Shi’i traditions of religious education have kept alive the relationships between kalam, falsafah, akhlaq, and fiqh. This should not be taken, however, as a denial of similar contributions by Sunni thinkers. The Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb (d. 1965) developed a rather similar way of thinking in his commentary In the Shade of the Qur’an; the many books of the Pakistani writer and activist Abu al-`Ala Mawdudi (d. 1979) also bear consideration in this regard. Indeed, the notion of an ethical or tawhidi spirituality is common among many of the diverse activist movements that have become prominent in Muslim countries during the 1980s and early 1990s, Deeply involved in an attempt to islamize social and political institutions, such movements are also making contributions to the Islamic tradition of thinking about practical justification, particularly in connection with concrete questions of political, medical, and economic ethics.

[See also Philosophy; Theology; and the biographies of `Abduh, Ahmad Khan, Khomeini, Mawdudi, Mutahhari, Qutb, and Rashid Rida.]


Carney,Frederick, ed. “Focus on Islamic Ethics.” Joumal of Religious Ethics 11.2 (1983). Collects five perceptive essays on ethics in classical Islamic disciplines: fiqh, kalam, falsafah, mysticism, and exegesis of the Qur’an.

Carney,Frederick, and John Kelsay, eds. “Focus on Islamic Law and Ethics.” journal of Religious Ethics 22.1 (1994). An introduction and three essays on concerns of ethics as reflected in the tradition of -fiqh

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought.Austin, 1982. Outstanding study of trends in contemporary Islamic political writing. Hourani, George F. Islamic Rationalism: The Ethics of `Abd al-Jabbar.Oxford, 1971. Groundbreaking study of a late Mu’tazili thinker. Hourani, George F. Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics.Cambridge and New  York, 1985. Indispensable collection of essays by one of the leading students of ethics in the Islamic tradition.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an.Montreal, 1966. Important work on key concepts in Qur’anic ethics, for example taqwa and zulm.

Johnson, James T., and John Kelsay, eds. Cross, Crescent, and Sword.West port,Conn., 1990. This volume and the one following explore the relations between the Euro-American “just war tradition” and the rules governing the use of force in Islamic tradition. Alternatively, see John Kelsay, Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics (Louisville, 1993)

Johnson, James T., and John Kelsay, eds. just War and Jihad.Westport,Conn., 1991. See annotation to preceding work.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated by Hamid Algar.Berkeley, 1981. An excellent sample of the thinking of the late ayatollah.

Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam.Chicago, 1988. Essays on selected topics related to political thought and practice in Islam.

Rahman, Fazlur. Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity.New   York, 1989. Well-crafted survey of some important issues connected with medical ethics.

Rajaee, Farhang. Islamic Values and Worldview: Khomeyni on Man, the State, and International Politics.Lanham,Md., 1983. Fine study of basic themes in Khomeini’s thought.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ethics/

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