Islamic Ethics – Introduction
When it comes to Islamic ethics, S. Parvez Manzoor makes it clear, “There is no division of ethics and law in Islam.”
Because of the linkage between Islamic ethics and law, this article touches briefly on certain elements of Islamic ethics. A study of Islamic ethics is more fruitful when done in conjunction with a study of Islamic law (see related article).
Islamic Ethics – Muhammad as Exemplar
Historically, Muslims derive their Islamic ethics from the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an contains several commands Muhammad’s followers must obey. The Hadith presents Muhammad as the exemplary human whom Muslims must imitate in all respects. “Muhammad was only a mortal being commissioned by God to teach the word of God and lead an exemplary life,” writes Hammuda Abdalati. “He stands in history as the best model for man in piety and perfection. He is a living proof of what man can be and of what he can accomplish in the realm of excellence and virtue.”
Ram Swarup explains how the actions and judgment of Muhammad recorded in the Hadith are perceived by Muslims:
The Prophet is caught as it were in the ordinary acts of his life—sleeping, eating, mating, praying, hating, dispensing justice, planning expeditions and revenge against his enemies. The picture that emerges is hardly flattering, and one is left wondering why in the first instance it was reported at all and whether it was done by admirers or enemies. One is also left to wonder how the believers, generation after generation, could have found this story so inspiring.
The answer is that the [Muslim] believers are conditioned to look at the whole thing through the eyes of faith. An infidel in his fundamental misguidance may find the Prophet rather sensual and cruel—and certainly many of the things he did do not conform to ordinary ideas of morality—but the believers look at the whole thing differently. To them morality derives from the Prophet’s actions; the moral is whatever he did. Morality does not determine the Prophet’s actions, but his actions determine and define morality. Muhammad’s acts were not ordinary acts; they were Allah’s own acts [i.e., acts empowered, guided and approved by Allah].
It was in this way and by this logic that Muhammad’s opinions became the dogmas of Islam and his personal habits and idiosyncrasies became moral imperatives: Allah’s commands for all believers in all ages and climes to follow.
We will detail some of these traditions regarding Muhammad’s life and teachings in other articles.
Islamic Ethics – Moral Absolutes
The Islamic view of ethics, like the Christian view of ethics, affirms ethical absolutes. Whereas the Bible grounds morality in God’s essential character, the Qur’an teaches that God cannot ultimately be known. Certain actions are good not because they derive from God’s character, but because God chooses to call them good. God could have decreed a different set of moral principles. Therefore, Muslims know moral goodness by God’s decree. Islam and Christianity agree to some of the same moral standards although significant differences exist.
Hammudah Abdalati summarizes Islamic morality as follows:
The concept of morality in Islam centers around certain basic beliefs and principles. Among these are the following: (1) God is the Creator and Source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. (2) Man is a responsible, dignified, and honorable agent of his Creator. (3) God has put everything in the heavens and the earth in the service of mankind. (4) By His Mercy and Wisdom, God does not expect the impossible from man or hold him accountable for anything beyond his power. Nor does God forbid man to enjoy the good things of life. (5) Moderation, practicality, and balance are the guarantees of high integrity and sound morality. (6) All things are permissible in principle except what is singled out as obligatory, which must be observed, and what is singled out as forbidden, which must be avoided. (7) Man’s ultimate responsibility is to God and his highest goal is the pleasure of his Creator.
Islamic Ethics – Conclusion
When viewing Islamic ethics, Muslims see Muhammad as the exemplary human being, the one all people should seek to imitate. Along with more general virtues, the Five Pillars of Practice form a core of Islamic ethics. In addition to many motivations for ethical behavior, anticipation of final judgment is the strongest.