ISLAMIC ETHICS
WHAT THE QUR'N SAYS


Context

Islamic, and particularly Qur'nic, ethics must be understood and evaluated not just in itself, but also in comparison with what it came to replace or improve upon. That is the ethics of pre-Islamic Arabian society.

It can also be better understood when compared with other ethical systems, notably the philosophical ethics of the ancient Greeks and Christian ethics.

Islamic ethics comprises not only the Qur'n but also the adith. These constitute Sharica law and are the foundational ethics of Islam. Later writers elaborated on this following either Sufic or philosophical trends of thought. Here we will limit ourselves to a consideration of Qur'nic ethics. Like Pauline ethics, Islamic ethics has a structure: "creation-preservation-guidance-judgement", in the words of Fazlur Rahman (Major themes of the Qur'n, p.9). In a modified form, we can say that the structure is: God's initiative in creating and guiding, man's response by islm, manifested in faith and obedience, and God's final judgement.

God's initiative

The foundation of Islamic ethics God (Allh), who is one, all-knowing, almighty and absolutely transcendent. God takes the initiative by creating the universe and man as part of it. As "everything in heaven and on earth submits to God willingly or unwillingly" (3:83) and "sing the glories of God" (17:44). "Do you not see that the shadow of everything God has created casts its shadow to the right and to the left in humble adoration to God. All things in heaven and on earth, beasts and angels, bow in adoration; they are not proud" (16:48-49; cf. 57:1; 59:1; 61:1 13:15; 16:49; 22:18; 55:6; 7:206; 21:19). Man is likewise called to submit to God voluntarily. The word for submission is islm.

The second action of God is guidance (hidya), leading people to Islam. At the beginning of creation "your Lord gathered the descendants that were within sexual parts of the sons of Adam and made them testify for themselves (to the question) 'Am I not your Lord?' They answered, 'Certainly! We bear witness (to that)" (7:173). This initial covenant (cahd, mthq), made with Adam (20:115) and renewed with the Israelites (2:83,93; 3:187; 5:12) and the prophets (3:81; 33:7) makes everyone Muslim by birth or nature (fira; cf. 30:30). Through the prophets God continues to guide and call people to Islam.

Islam has no developed theology of grace, but the Qur'n frequently uses the terms ni`ma, fal and a verb corresponding to luf, three terms expressing God's favour and kindness in a general way. They are used for his giving all the blessings of life, including faith and protection from evil, for example "Were it not for God's mercy and favour to you, most of you would have followed Satan" (4:83).

Response by islm

Islam (submission or commitment to God) is expressed first by faith (mn), which implies thankfulness (shukr). This is opposed to kufr, whose first meaning is ingratitude (21:94; 14:28,34; 16:112-113; 2:152; 17:67; 42:48; 29:65-66; 30:34; 16:53-55,83), but then came to mean simply unbelief in God's signs (3:70; 17:89; 21:29-32; 2:28), in the resurrection (6:29-30; 17:98-99; 13:5), or God's revelation (38:4-5; 2:89-91,108-109; 3:86,90; 34:31; 8:55), often by arguing against it (14:4-5; 18:56; 22:8; 31:20; 40:35; 43:57-58; 42:33; 18:54). Kufr also means polytheism (shirk), or associating anything with God as an object of worship (6:1; 12:33; 40:12; 6:100,106; 13:15; 24:39), and is applied to Christians (5:72-73; 10:68).

Secondly, Islam is also expressed by obedience (`a). This is paid not solely or directly to God, but also to Muhammad and others: "Obey God, the Messenger and those who are in authority from among yourselves" (4:59; cf. 4:83).

Thirdly, Islam (to God and Muhammad) implies belonging to the Muslim community. "The believers are brothers; so make peace among your brothers" (49:10). "You are the best community raised up among mankind, commanding what is good and forbidding what is evil" (3:110). The Muslim community is seen as replacing communities before them that did not please God and caused "corruption on the earth" (fasd f l-ar, cf. 5:64-66; 7:38,96). Yet it is possible for Muslims to abandon the Qur'n and Muhammad's teaching (3:32; 9:38).

Let us examine the Qur'n's description of a believer (in the full sense of a Muslim) and an unbeliever, starting with the latter.

     The unbeliever

The Qur'n divides humanity into two clear opposite types of people, and has a number of general terms to describe each type. Opposed to a believer (mu'min) is the kfir, who denies (mukadhdhib) what God revealed (56:51; 52:9ff). Such a person is:

     The believer

A believer (mu'min) is just the opposite of a kfir (47:12; 30:15-16; 4:76; 16:106; 3:177) and a fsiq (32:18; 49:7). A believer is marked by certain characteristics:

Response by obedience

The Qur'n insists that a believer must do good deeds and avoid evil deeds, described in several pairs of opposites:

There are several words for sin:

Lists of commandments demanding obedience

2:177: Piety is not turning your face to the east or to west, but piety is when you believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets, and give your wealth)although you love it)to those close to you, to the orphans, the destitute, the travelers, the beggers and for the redemption of slaves, and if you do your salt, pay the zakt, fulfill the pacts you have made, and are steadfast in trouble, misfortune and danger.

6:151-2 Your Lord has forbidden you to associate anything with himself.
Be good to your parents.
Do not kill your children from fear of poverty; we provide for them and you.
Do not commit unchastity, openly or in in hiding.
Do not kill a life that God has made sacred, except in carrying out justice...
Do not appropriate the wealth of an orphan, except to guard it until he is of age.
Deal in measures and weights that are correct...
When you speak say what is just, even if it concerns someone close to you.
Live up to the pact of God.

16:90-91 God commands you to be just and good and to give to those close to you. He forbids you to commit unchastity, what is detestable and acts of violence. Live up to the pact of God which you have contracted. Do not default on the oaths you have ratified with God as your guarantee.

17:22-37: Do not place any other deity alongside God...
Do not worship anything but him.
Be good to your parents; if one or both of them become old do not insult or be rude to them but speak respectfuly to them. Stoop before them with a bow of compassionate lowliness and say, "My Lord, show them mercy, just as they took care of me when I was little..."
Give your neighbour his rights, the same to the poor and the traveler.
Do not spend wastefully; the profligate are the brothers of Satan...
If you turn away from them, waiting for some mercy that you hope for from your Lord, yet speak to them kindly.
Do not close your hand on your neck [refusing to give] and do not open it too widely lest you be dishonoured and miserable...
Do not kill your children from fear of poverty; we provide for them and you; killing them is a big sin.
Do not go near fornication; that is a defilement, and what an evil way!
Do not kill unlawfully those whose lives God has made sacred, but if someone is killed unjustly we give his representative power [to revenge] but he should not be excessive in killing; he will certainly be helped.
Handle the property of orphans with utmost respect until they reach maturity.
Fulfill your promises, for you are responsible for them.
Give true measure when you measure and weigh with a correct scale...
Do not follow [rumours of] what you do not know; you are responsible for your listening, watching and thinking.
Do not walk insolently on the earth; you cannot open the earth or reach the tops of the mountains.

23:1-9 Successful are those believers:
who pray humbly,
who turn away from foolish talk,
who pay the zakt,
who guard their private parts, except for their wives or concubines...
who look after their trusts and their pacts,
who are faithful to their salt.

23:57-61 Those who are overwhelmed with respect for their Lord,
who believe in the signs of their Lord,
who do not associate [another] with their Lord,
who give what they have obtained,
and whose hearts are throbbing because they are returning to their Lord:
these are eager for good works and are the first to do them.

25:63-74 The servants of the Merciful are those who walk modestly on earth,
and if spoken to by those ignorant [of revelation] reply "Peace",
those who who who spend the night prostrating and standing before their Lord,
whose who say, "Lord, turn from us the punishment of Hell...
those who, in giving, are neither extravagant nor stingy; between that is what is right,
those who do not invoke another god along with God,
and do not kill a life that God has made sacred, except in carrying out justice,
and do not fornicate, for whoever does that commits a crime...
those who do not swear falsely,
and if they come across foolish talk pass by nobly,
those who, on hearing the signs of their Lord, do not act deaf and blind,
those who say, "Our Lord, give us pleasing wives and children, and make us a model for the pious."

33:35 The Muslim men and women, the believing men and women, the bowing men and women, the true men and women, the perseverant men and women, the God-fearing men and women, the alms-giving men and women, the fasting men and women, the sexually self-controlled men and women, the oft-God-remembering men and women: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward.

70:19-35 Man is certainly fickle... except for those who are faithful to their salt, who pay the due amount on their wealth to the beggers and the destitute, who believe in the day of judgement, who are apprehensive of punishment from their Lord... who guard their private parts, except for their wives or concubines... who keep to their oaths and pacts, who stand by what they have sworn to, who are faithful to their salt: these are honoured in the Gardens.

Particular requirements of obedience

     Belief

The first passage above, 2:177, describing piety in general, mentions the importance of belief, as do thousands of other Qur'n verses. The unique thing about this verse is that it enumerates the five objects that are central to Muslim belief, about which much detailed commentary has been written: "Believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets." It is interesting to observe that faith is listed among the five pillars of Islam and is the first chapter of any book on Shar`a; in other words, faith is considered a duty or a practice like other practices of Islam. To understand this perspective we have to aware that, in Islam, faith is not only in the heart, but is also professed by the mouth and is manifested by action. Faith as witnessed is a practice, and a very important one in Islam.

So, for example, we also read: "Do not place any other deity alongside God... Do not worship anything but him" (17:22). "Your Lord has forbidden you to associate anything with himself" (6:151-2). "Those are overwhelmed with respect for their Lord, who believe in the signs of their Lord... who do not associate [another] with their Lord..." (23:57-61).

     Prayer

The first passage above, 2:177, like hundreds of Qur'nic passages, urges Muslims to be faithful to salt: "Do your salt;" detailed references on how do do this five times a day and on certain other occasions need not be quoted here (for times cf. 2:238; 11:114; 17:78; 20:130; 30:17; 32:16).

Besides formal salt, there is praise for "those who who who spend the night prostrating and standing before their Lord" (25:64; cf. 39:9). "Remember (dhakkir) your Lord often and praise him in the evening and the morning" (3:41).

     Fasting /dietary rules

Fasting does not occur in any of the lists of commandments, or even short summaries of duties, except for 33:35 (see above), but the Ramadn fast is set forth in detail in 2:183-187.

"God has forbidden you to eat animals found dead, blood, pork and what was sacrificed to a deity other than God; but one who has no other choice and eats without intending to do wrong or disobey does not sin" (2:173; cf. 6:145; 16:115). "You are forbidden to eat animals found dead, blood, pork, what was sacrificed to a deity other than God, animals strangled or clubbed, killed by a fall, rammed or eaten by wild animals, unless you slaughter them, and what was slaughtered before idols" (5:3). "Do not eat what [was slaughtered] without the name of God being called over it" (6:121).

"They ask you about wine and the game of maysir. Tell them that in both there is both sin and advantage for men, but the sin is greater than their advantages" (2:219). "You who believe, wine, the game of maysir, stone shrines and divination arrows are an impurity and the work of Satan; avoid them that you may prosper. Satan only wants to stir up hostility and hatred among you by means of win and maysir and to keep you from thinking of God and of salt" (5:90-91).

     Almsgiving

Zakt, equivalent to sadaqa in the Qur'n, was both a compulsory tax and a voluntary act. It is mentioned in practically every list of commandments or summary of duties: "Give your wealth)although you love it)to those close to you, to the orphans, the destitute, the travelers, the beggars and for the redemption of slaves" (2:177; cf. 16:90, 23:4, 70:24-25 above).

Zakt must be qualified by moderation: "Do not spend wastefully; the profligate are the brothers of Satan... If you turn away from them, waiting for some mercy that you hope for from your Lord, yet speak to them kindly. Do not close your hand on your neck [refusing to give] and do not open it too widely lest you be dishonoured and miserable (17:27-29). "Those who, in giving, are neither extravagant nor stingy; between that is what is right.. (25:67).

Zakt must be motivated by a certain detachment from worldly things: "Be aware that your wealth and your children are an occasion-of-sin (fitna, 8:28).

     Pilgrimage

The hajj, or obligatory pilgrimage, like fasting, does not come up in the usual lists of duties, but is treated extensively in 2:196-203 and 22:26-37. The `umra or unofficial pilgrimage is mentioned in 2:158 and 3:196.

     Honouring parents

"Be good to your parents; if one or both of them become old do not insult or be rude to them but speak respectfuly to them. Stoop before them with a bow of compassionate lowliness and say, 'My Lord, show them mercy, just as they took care of me when I was little'" (17:23-24; cf. 6:151 above). John the Baptist is proposed as a model for honouring his parents (wa-barran bi-wlidayn, 19:14,32).

     Honesty

"Do not appropriate the wealth of an orphan, except to guard it until he is of age. Deal in measures and weights that are correct" (6:152; cf. 17:34-35 above, 11:85). "Give your neighbour his rights, the same to the poor and the traveler" (17:26). "Cut off the hands of a thief, man or woman, in requital for what they have done and as a deterrent from God" (5:38). On views of theft, see the story of Joseph: 12:70,73,77,81. "Do not covet the things with which God has favoured some of you over others" (4:32).

     Respect for life

"Do not kill your children from fear of poverty; we provide for them and you; killing them is a big sin" (17:31; cf. 6:151 above; by implication abortion is condemned). "Do not kill unlawfully those whose lives God has made sacred, but if someone is killed unjustly we give his representative power [to revenge] but he should not be excessive in killing; he will certainly be helped" (17:33; cf. 6:151 & 25:68 above; 18:74). "It is out of the question for a believer to kill another believer unless in error" (6:92). But: "If two parties of the believers fight, reconcile them. If one side attacks the other, fight the aggressor until he submits to the order of God; if he submits, reconcile the two according to justice (`adl) and treat them justly (aqsi, 49:9).

     Revenge /forgiveness

"We prescribed for them [the Jews] a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and that wounds are to be requited in kind; but whoever makes an alms of this right will have atonement for his own [sins]" (5:45). "Believers, retaliation is prescribed for you in case of homicide: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, a female for a female, except if one is remitted something by his brother..." (6:178; cf. 6:194). "The requital for an evil deed is an evil deed just like it, but if someone forgives and reconciles he has his reward with God; God does not love the unjust. No action is to be taken against those who vindicates themselfvesafter suffering injustice" (42:40-41; cf. 22:39). "If you inflict punishment, inflict in the measure you were inflicted, but if you put up with the injury, your forbearance will be better for you" (16:126; cf. 22:60).

"A kind word and forgiveness are better than an alms followed by an offence" (2:263). "They will receive a double reward for having been forbearing, paying back evil with good and being generous with the blessings we have given them" (28:54). "A good deed and a bad are not the same; repel a bad deed by a very good one; then the man who is so hostile to you will become your very zealous ally" (41:34).

     Chastity

Be among "those who guard their private parts, except for their wives or concubines" (23:5; cf. 70:29-30; 33:35). "Do not commit unchastity (fawish), openly or in in hiding (6:151). "Do not go near fornication (zin); that is a defilement, and what an evil way!" (17:32; cf. 16:90, 25:68 & 33:35 above; also 2:169,268; 12:23-34)the example of Joseph). "Satan commands unchastity and what is despicable; without God's grace and mercy none of you would be ever pure, but God purifies those he wishes" (24:21).

As for homosexuality, "Lot said to his people: 'Do you commit such unchastity without parallel in history? You are lusting after men in place of women; you are an outrageous people'" (7:80-81).

     Truthfulness /justice

"When you speak say what is just, even if it concerns someone close to you" (6:152). "Be steadfast in justice (qis), witnesses to God, even against yourselves or your parents and relations, whether they are rich or poor; God is preferable to them. Do not be swayed by feelings rather than being just. If you deviate or turn aside God knows what you are doing" (4:135; cf. 4:58, 5:8,42; 2:282 on recording debts). "Do not follow [rumours of] what you do not know; you are responsible for your listening, watching and thinking" (17:36). "Do not swear falsely" (25:72). The opposite is being "a detractor and spreader of calumny (ammz mash' bi-namm, 68:11).

     Keeping one's word

"Do not default on the oaths you have ratified with God as your guarantee" (6:91). "Fulfill your promises, for you are responsible for them" (17:34). This is opposed to being "an oath-breaker (allf, 68:10).

Judgement on the Last Day

At the end there is God's judgement, when he will take an account (isb) and deal out reward or punishment. This gives motivation to the whole of Islamic ethics. Islam does not speak so much of "salvation" as it does of "success" (fal) or "failure" (khusrn 22:11; 39:15; 4:119).

The Last Day, after monotheism, is the most important theme in the Qur'n. It is called yawm ad-dn (the day of judgment), al-yawm al-khir (the last day), yawm al-qiyma (day of resurrection), or as-sca (the hour). Occasionally it is called yawm al-fal (day of distinction), yawm al-jamc (day of gathering), or yawm at-talq (day of meeting).

The hour comes suddenly (6:31; 7:187; 12:107; 22:55; 43:66; 47:18). It is heralded by a shout (36:53), a thunderclap (80:33), or the blast of a trumpet (69:13; 74:8; 78:18; 39:68). The mountains then dissolve into dust, the seas boil up, the sun is darkened, the stars fall, and the sky is rolled up. God comes to judge preceded by angels in ranks (78:38; 89:22) or circling his throne and praising him (39:75).

The graves are then opened and people are judged before going to Paradise or Hell. No one is there until that time. The only exception may be martyrs: "Do not say that those who are killed for the sake of God are dead. They are alive" (2:154), "enjoying their reward with their Lord" (3:169). Some interpret this as a description of the future, while others would say that martyrs are raised up and admitted to Paradise ahead of time.

The records of a man's deeds are opened; the good deeds are weighed against the bad (101:6-9; 7:8ff). A good man receives his book in his right hand and the bad man in his left hand or behind his back (84:7-12; 69:19-32). A man's wealth or friends will be of no use then in influencing the judge (82:19; 31:33; 35:18; 44:41; 53:38; 99:6). There are vivid descriptions of Hell (jahannam) or the Fire (an-nr). Unbelievers stay there eternally. All Muslims will go there, but God will rescue those who fear him (19:71-72).

Paradise (firdaws - a Persian word meaning garden; the Arabic is al-janna) is a place of delight (2:25; 4:57; 11:108; 43:68-73; 47:15ff; 56:10-26). This includes being served fruits, good food and wine that does not intoxicate, the use of beautiful women (r 44:54; 52:20; 55:72; 56:23; cf. 37:48; 38:52; 55:56-8; 56:35-40; 78:33), who may be wives (13:23; 40:8; 36:56; 43:70) or "purified spouses" (2:25; 3:15; 4:57) peace with everyone, and above all the vision of God (75:23). Most Muslim theologians say that seeing God is an occasional activity.