Islamic Ethical System

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Islamic Ethical System

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Basic Beliefs of Islam

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Cherif Bassiouni. An important Hadith saying of the Prophet is that religion is not what one formally or ritualistically practices but how one deals with others. It is therefore not sufficient to be pious without performing deeds which demonstrate one's beliefs. It is reported that the Prophet once entered a mosque and saw at prayer a venerable old man with a long white beard. He was told that the man was in the mosque all day long, worshipping and dispensing the words of Allah to others. The Prophet then asked how he earned his living and was told that a merchant, not known for his piety, supported him.

The Prophet remarked that of the two, the merchant was indeed the more worthy. Every Muslim is the recipient, guardian, and executor of God's will on earth; his responsibilities are all encompassing. A Muslim's duty to act in defense of what is right is as much part of his faith as is his duty to oppose wrong. The Prophet once said, "If someone among you sees wrong he must right it by his hand if he can deed, conduct, action. If he cannot, then by his tongue speak up, verbally oppose ; if he cannot, then by his gaze silent expression of disapproval ; and if he cannot, then in his heart.

The last is the minimum expression of his conviction faith, courage. A view inside the ninth-century Karaouine Mosque, Fez, Morocco. By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give freely of that which ye love; and whatever ye give, of a truth God knoweth it well. Qur'an The preservation of a social order depends on each and every member of that society freely adhering to the same moral principles and practices. Islam, founded on individual and collective morality and responsibility, introduced a social revolution in the context in which it was first revealed. Collective morality is expressed in the Qur'an in such terms as equality, justice, fairness, brotherhood, mercy, compassion, solidarity, and freedom of choice.

Leaders are responsible for the application of these principles and are accountable to God and man for their administration. It is reported that a man went to Umar, the second khalifa, to talk to him. It was nighttime, and a candle burned on Umar's desk. Umar asked the man if what he wanted to discuss was personal. The man said that it was, and Umar extinguished the candle so as not burn public funds for a private purpose.

Leaders in Islam, whether heads of state or heads of family or private enterprise, have a higher burden or responsibility than others. There is a relation in Islam between individual responsibility and the rights and privileges derived from membership in the community. Individual obligations must be met before one can claim a portion from the community of which he is part.

Each member of a society must fulfill his own obligations and rely on others to fulfill theirs before that society can acquire the necessary reservoir of social rights and privileges which can then be shared by all. The notions of brotherhood and solidarity not only impose upon the community the duty to care for' its members, but also require each person to use his initiative to carry out individual and social responsibilities according to his ability.

And to be firm and patient, in pain or suffering and adversity, And throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing. The equality of all Muslims is emphasized repeatedly throughout the Qur'an. It is because of that concept that Islam under the Sunni tradition does not have an ordained clergy. There is a direct relationship between every man and his Creator, and there can be no intermediary. This particular closeness between the individual and God is paramount in belief as well as in practice. It is frequently argued that Islam is not a religion that provides for full equity among Muslims.

Indeed, because Islam makes distinctions between men and women; not all rights and privileges available to men are available to women. For example, a male Muslim inherits twice the share of the female, but then a male relative has the financial responsibility to care for a needy female relative. Also, a male Muslim has the right to unilaterally divorce his wife, while she can only divorce her husband through a judge's determination. Custody of children from a divorce is given the mother, boys till age 9 and girls till age Thereafter custody reverts to the father, provided that he is fit. However, the fact that there is not absolute parity in all rights and privileges does not mean that women do not share an overall equality with men.

It must also be noted that certain social practices in some Muslim countries are not required by Islam, but have simply evolved in the course of time as a result of indigenous cultural factors. Islam differentiates between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the "People of the Book" dhimmi and others. Only Muslims have the right to elect the khalifa. In judicial matters the oath of the Muslim prevails over that of the non-Muslim. There are therefore some differences between males and females in Islam, between Muslims and Dhimmis, and Muslims and non-Dhimmis.

One of almost mosques on the Tunisian island of Jerba. These glimmering, whitewashed structures dominate the landscape, their colors shift with the changing light, and their flights of architectural fantasy seem to come in an infinite variety. Individual Responsibility. The search for justice is one of the continuing quests of humankind. It is the quest that is prescribed by the Qur'an for every Muslim. Social and individual justice are evolving concepts which depend largely upon a variety of external considerations. Above all, Islam seeks to inculcate within every Muslim the need to seek justice and to apply it to himself as well as to others. Because Muslims believe that God is the beginning and the end of everything, all is preordained by Qadar divine will.

Qadar does not imply inaction, but, rather, acceptance. It requires the strength to change what can be changed and the fortitude to accept what cannot. Individual responsibility is a cornerstone of Islam. Every Muslim is accountable to his Creator for what he himself does or fails to do—as well as for others for whom he may be accountable—and for things that he has control over. As in Western legal codes, individual responsibility is predicated on the intent and motive of the actor in light of his ability to do good and to avoid evil or harm to others. Thus Islam believes in free will, and to the extent that this exists a person is responsible for its exercise in the framework of Islamic morality. But the relativity of human justice is not to be confused with the absoluteness of divine justice whose application every Muslim expects without fail on judgment day.

Because of the Muslim's belief in accountability in the hereafter, his oath is valid evidence in any judicial or extra-judicial process. Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good—To parents, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers; the companion by your side, the way-farer ye meet , and what your right hands possess: For God loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious;— Qur'an A Muslim is accountable for what he does and what he fails to do in accordance with not only the letter but also the spirit of the law.

However, even though Islam imposes a number of very rigid requirements and appears formalistic and inflexible, one of the basic premises of the relationship among Muslims, and between Muslims and others, is derived from one of the basic premises of the relationship between a Muslim and his Creator, namely, forbearance and forgiveness. In one of the Prophet's Hadiths it is stated that a person could do such evil during his lifetime that there might be between him and the doors to hell only one step and then he could repent and ask for God's forgiveness and do one good deed and enter heaven. By the same token, a person may during his life do so much good as to be one step removed from heaven and then do one evil deed that would be sufficient to earn him hell.

The meaning of the Hadith is to emphasize that, even though a person may do good throughout his life, he should never be absolutely certain that the good he has done all along is sufficient to carry him through; he should not forget that one bad deed could overcome all the good ones. Conversely, a person who has done evil all his life may repent even at the last moment and with one good deed earn paradise. The element of forbearance and forgiveness has to be predicated on knowledge, awareness, and truth. Forbearance and forgiveness depend on the believer's recognition and acceptance of what he has done and his genuine repentance with an intent not to repeat the misdeed.

That is why Muslims are encouraged to forgive the bad deeds of others committed against them. Allah is described in the Qur'an as the Forgiving and the Merciful. Everything is forgivable by Allah except Shirk the negation of the existence of the Singularity, Uniqueness and Oneness of the Creator. Even so the mercy of God is infinite. A man was once brought to the Prophet for trial because he denied the existence of God. Upon review of the facts, it appeared that the man was in despair over a personal tragedy. He had been found in the desert throwing his spear to the sky and screaming that he wanted to kill God for the injustice that he had suffered.

The Prophet replied, "Is it not enough that he acknowledged the existence of God to want to kill him?. As in most of the nomadic tribes of the ancient world, women were deemed unimportant in pre-Islamic Arabia. Indeed, in a society shaped by the rigors of desert life, women were relegated to the margins of community life. The advent of Islam fundamentally altered the status of women in several ways. First, and most importantly, it overturned tradition by according women equal status before Allah. It was argued that the human power to perform acts was not one's own, but came from God. Human beings 'acquire' responsibility for their actions, thus making them accountable.

It must be underlined that traditionalist thinkers were not opposed to the use of reason, quite the contrary: they parted company with rationalists only over the value placed on reason. They regarded it as an aid and tool for affirming issues of faith, but purely secondary in its relation to the definition of ethical obligation. Sunni Approach. Such formulations of commands and prohibitions in Muslim books of law are expressed in ethical terms.

Five categories are employed for evaluating all acts:. These categories were further set by jurists within a dual framework of obligations: towards God and towards society. In each instance transgression was perceived in both legal and theological terms, as constituting a crime as well as a sin. Such acts were punishable under the law and the jurists attempted to specify and elaborate the conditions under which this could occur.

For example, one of the punishments for theft or highway robbery was the cutting off of a hand and, in minor instances, flogging. Traditionally, jurists attempted to take into account active repentance to mitigate such punishment, following a tradition of the Prophet to restrict the applicability of such punishments to extreme cases. Some of these categories have received attention in several Muslim countries in recent times, where traditional juristic procedures have been reinstated, but there is a great deal of divergence in the Muslim world about the necessity and applicability of some of these procedures. Where applied, such punishment is meted out through Shari'a courts and rendered by appointed Muslim judges.

Jurists or legal experts also function as interpreters of the Shari'a and are free to render informed legal opinions. Such opinions may be solicited by individuals who wish to be certain about the moral intentionality of certain acts, but among most Muslim schools of law such opinions need not be binding. The four major Sunni schools of law consider each other to reflect normative stances on matters of legal and ethical interpretation. For these Muslim jurists, both law and ethics are ultimately concerned with moral obligations, which they believe are the central focus of the Islamic message.

Philosophical approaches. The integration of the philosophical legacy of antiquity in the Islamic world was a major enabling factor in the use of philosophical tradition among Muslim intellectuals. It gave rise to figures such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina Avicenna , Ibn Rushd Averroes , and others, who became well-known to mediaeval Europe as philosophers, commentators and exponents of the classical tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle. The public discourse of 'adab , grounded in philosophical and moral language and concerns, represents a significant part of the cosmopolitan heritage of ethics in Islam and reflects efforts to reconcile religiously and scripturally derived values with an intellectually and morally based ethical foundation.

The Muslim philosophical tradition of ethics is therefore doubly significant: for its value in continuing and enhancing classical Greek philosophy and for its commitment to synthesising Islam and philosophical thought. Al-Farabi d. Through philosophy, one is able to arrive at an understanding of how human happiness is to be achieved, but the actual recourse to moral virtues and acts involves the instrumentality of religion. He compares the founding of religion to the founding of a city.

Citizens ought to acquire the traits which enable them to function as residents of a virtuous polis. Similarly the founder of a religion establishes norms that must be upheld through action, if a proper religious community is to be established. The thrust of Farabi's argument, particularly as it is articulated in his classic work, The Virtuous City , suggests a communal framework for attaining ultimate happiness, and therefore significant social and political roles for religion as well as an engagement in similar concerns by politicians. In this respect, the emphasis on virtue and its ethical connotations suggests a common focus for both Greek and Muslim philosophy, namely the application of such standards and norms to political societies.

The greater the wisdom and virtue of the rulers and the citizens, the greater the possibility of attaining the true goal of philosophy and religion - happiness. Ibn Sina d. The Prophet has acquired the moral characteristics needed for his own development which, having resulted in a perfect soul, not only imbues in him the capacity of a free intellect, but also makes him capable of laying down rules for other people, through laws and the establishment of justice. This implies that the Prophet goes beyond the philosopher and the virtuous ruler, who possess the capacity for intellectual development and practical morality, respectively. The establishment of justice is, in Ibn Sina's view, the basis for all human good. The combination of philosophy and religion encompasses harmonious living in both this world and in the hereafter.

Ibn Rushd d. The latter, through a work entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers , had sought to represent philosophers as self-contradictory, anti-scriptural and in some cases as affirming heretical beliefs. He asserted that philosophy and Islam had common goals, but arrived at them differently. There is thus a basic identity of interest between Muslims who adopt philosophical frames of inquiry and those who affirm juridical ones. In summary, the various Muslim philosophers in their extension and occasional revision of earlier classical notions linked ethics to theoretical knowledge, which was to be acquired by rational means.

Since human beings were rational, the virtues and qualities that they embraced and practised were seen as furthering the ultimate goal of individuals and the community. This goal was the attainment of happiness. Among the Shi'a, who differed from the Sunni group in attributing legitimate authority after the Prophet Muhammad's death to his cousin and son-in-law 'Ali, and subsequently to his designated descendants, known as Imams, there developed the notion of rationality under the guiding instruction of the Imam.

Shi'ism, like the early theological and philosophical schools, affirmed the use of rational and intellectual discourse and was committed to a synthesis and further development of appropriate elements present in other religions and intellectual traditions outside Islam. An example of a work on ethics by a Shi'a writer is the well-known Nasirian Ethics by Nasir al-din Tusi d. Developing further the philosophical approaches already present among Muslims and linking them to Shi'a conceptions of guidance. Tusi draws attention to the need for ethical enactments to be based on superiority of knowledge and preponderance of discrimination, i. Wilferd Madelung has tried to show that Tusi blended into his ethical work elements of Neo-Platonic as well as Shi'a Ismaili and Twelver Shi'a philosophical and moral perspectives.

The Twelver Shi'a are so-called because of their belief that the twelfth in the line of Imams they recognised had withdrawn from the world, to reappear physically only at the end of time to restore true justice. In the meantime, during his absence, the community was guided by trained scholars called mujtahids who interpreted for individual believers right and wrong in all matters of personal and religious life. In the Twelver Shi'a tradition therefore, such individuals, called mullahs in popular parlance, play a significant role as moral models and, as in recent times in Iran, have assumed a major role in the political life of the state, seeking to shape it in line with their view of a Muslim polity.

Among Ismaili groups that give allegiance to a living Imam, the Imam's presence is considered necessary to contextualise Islam in changing times and circumstances and his teachings and interpretation continue to guide followers in their material as well as spiritual lives. An example is the role of the current Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, the Aga Khan who leads a worldwide community. Among the Shi'a continuity with Muslim tradition and values thus remains tied to the continuing spiritual authority vested in the Imam or his representatives. Muslim ethics in the contemporary world. Sufism is the mystical and esoteric dimension of Islam, emphasising the cultivation of an inner personal life in search of divine love and knowledge.

Since a major part of Sufi teaching was to enable an individual Muslim to seek intimacy with God, it was felt that such seekers must embrace a commitment to an inner life of devotion and moral action that would lead to spiritual awakening. The observances of the Shari'a were to be complemented by adherence to a path of moral displine, enabling the seeker to pass through several spiritual 'stations', each representing inner, spiritual growth, until one had understood the essential relationship of love and union between seeker and God.

Since the inner meaning of action was a significant aspect of Sufi understanding of ethical and moral behaviour. Sufis emphasised the linkage between an inner, experiential awareness of morality and its outward expression, so that a true moral action was one embracing and penetrating the whole of life. In institutional settings organised Sufi groups taught conformity to traditional Muslim values but added the component of discipline and inner purification. Since the practices that instilled discipline and moral awareness varied across the range of cultures and traditions encountered by Islam, many local practices were appropriated. These included, for example, the acceptance of the moral customs and practices adhered to in local tradition, such as in Indonesia and other countries, where large scale conversions had occurred.

Sufi ethical practices thus provided a bridge for incorporating into Muslim moral behaviour the ethical values and practices of local traditions illustrating the universality of Sufi Muslim perspectives on the oneness of the inner dimension of various faiths. Al-Ghazali, the Sunni jurist and theologian mentioned earlier, became a supporter of Sufi thought, but sought to synthesise the moral perspectives of the Shari'a with the notion of inner piety developed by Sufis. He conceived of divinely ordained obligations as a starting point for cultivating a moral personality, provided that it led to an inwardly motivated sense of ethics in due course.

He was, however, reluctant to accept the emphasis of some Sufis on a purely experiential and subjectively guided basis for moral action. The practice and influence of the diverse ethical heritage in Islam has continued in varying degrees among Muslims in the contemporary world. Muslims, whether they constitute majorities in the large number of independent nation states that have arisen in this century, or where they live in significant numbers and communities elsewhere, are going through an important transitional phase.

There is growing self-consciousness about identification with their past heritage and a recognition of the need to adapt that heritage to changing circumstances and a globalisation of human society. As with the rest of the issues, ethical questions cannot be reflected in unified and monolithic responses. They must take into account the diversity and pluralism that has marked the Muslims of the past as well as the present. Ethical criteria that can govern issues of economic and social justice and moral strategies for dealing with questions of poverty and imbalance have taken up the greater share of Muslim attention in ethical matters. Whether such responses are labelled 'modernist' or 'fundamentalist', they all reflect specific readings of past Muslim symbols and patterns and in their rethinking and restating of norms and values, employ different strategies for inclusion, exclusion and encoding of specific representations of Islam.

In terms of broad moral and ethical concerns, this ongoing discourse seeks to establish norms for both public and private life, and is therefore simultaneously cultural, political, social and religious. Since the modern conception of religion familiar to most people in the West assumes a theoretical separation between specifically religious and perceived secular activity, some aspects of contemporary Muslim discourse, which does not accept such a separation, appear strange and often retrogressive.

Where such discourse, expressed in what appears to be traditional religious language, has become linked to radical change or violence, it has unfortunately deepened stereotypical perceptions about Muslim fanaticism, violence, and cultural and moral difference. As events and developments in the last quarter of the twentieth century indicate, no one response among the many Muslim societies in the world, can be regarded as normative for all Muslims. In the pursuit of a vision that will guide Muslims in decisions and choices about present and future ethical matters, the most important challenge may be not simply to formulate a continuity and dialogue with its own past ethical underpinning but, like the Muslims of the past, to remain open to the possibilities and challenges of new ethical and moral discoveries.

Al-Farabi: 'The attainment of happiness'. Abu Hamid: Tahafut Al-Falasifah , trans. Hodgson, M. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, In addition to the main presentation by Fazlur Rahman, the book contains articles by K. Faruki, G. Hourani, W. Madelung, G. Makdisi and F. Madelung, W. Makdisi, G. Pickthall New York: Mentor, Schimmel, A. Ibn Sina: Isharat wa al Tanbihat , trans. Wickens London: Allen and Unwin. Further reading. Arkoun, M. Hourani, G. Lapidus, L: 'Knowledge, virtue and action: the classical Muslim conception of 'adab and the nature of religious fulfilment in Islam', Moral Conduct and Authority , ed. Metcalf Berkeley: University of California Press,

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