The Concept of Morality
The concept of morality in Islam centers around certain basic beliefs and principles. Among these are the followings:
(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 forbidden, which must be avoided.
(7) Man’s ultimate responsibility is to God and his highest goal is the pleasure of his Creator.
The dimensions of morality in Islam are numerous, far-reaching and comprehensive. The Islamic morals deal with the relationship between man and God, man and his fellow men, man and the other elements and creatures of the universe, man and his innermost self. The Muslim has to guard his external behaviour and his manifest deeds, his words and his thoughts, his feelings and intentions. In a general sense, his role is to champion what is right and fight what is wrong, seek what is true and abandon what is false, cherish what is beautiful and wholesome and avoid what is indecent.
Truth and virtue are his goal. Humbleness and simplicity, courtesy and compassion, are his second nature. To him, arrogance and vanity, harshness and indifference, are distasteful, offensive and displeasing to God.
More specifically, the Muslim’ s relationship with God is one of love and obedience, complete trust and thoughtfulness, peace and appreciation, steadfastness and active service. This high – level morality will, undoubtedly, nourish and reinforce morality at the human level. For in his relationship with his fellow men, the Muslim must show kindness to the kin and concern for the neighbor, respect for the elderly and compassion for the young, care for the sick and support for the needy, sympathy for the grieved and cheer for the depressed, joy with the blessed and patience with the misguided, tolerance toward the ignorant and forgiveness of the helpless, disapproval of the wrong and rise above the trivial. Moreover, he must respect the legitimate rights of others as much he does his own. His mind must be occupied with constructive ideas and serious pursuits; his heart must beat with compassionate feelings and goodwill; his soul must radiate with peace and serenity; his counsel must be sincere and courteous.
The Muslim’ s moral obligation is to be a vivid example of honesty and perfection, fulfil his commitments and perform his tasks well, seek knowledge and virtue by all possible means, correct his mistakes and repent his sins, develop a good sense of social consciousness and nourish a feeling of human response, provide for his dependents generously without extravagance and meet their legitimate needs. Nature and the world are the field of exploration and the object of enjoyment for the Muslim. He must utilize their elements and ponder their marvels, read them as signs of God’s greatness and preserve their beauty, explore their wonders and discover their secrets. But whether he uses them for utility or for sheer enjoyment, he must avoid waste and excess. As a responsible agent of God and a conscientious trustee, he must always be mindful of others who share the world with him and who will succeed him in the future.
The moral principles of Islam are sometimes stated as positive commitments which must be fulfilled and sometimes as negative prescriptions which must be avoided. Whether they are stated positively or negatively, they are designed to build in the human being a sound mind, a peaceful soul, a strong personality, and a healthy body.
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There is no doubt that these are necessary requirements of the general welfare and prosperity of mankind. And to help man to satisfy these requirements Islam has, among other things, laid down the following regulations:
1. To bear witness to the Oneness of God and the Messengership of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) in a meaningful commital way;
2. To observe the daily prayers regularly;
3. To pay the religious tax which is known as alms or the poor-due (zakah);
4. To keep the fast of the Holy Month of Ramadan;
5. To make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca at least once in his lifetime.
The moral and social implications of these regulations will be discussed later in detail.
Besides these positive measures, there are others which may be called preventive and precautionary ones. To protect man from insanity and degeneration, from weakness and indulgence, from indecency and temptation, Islam has prohibited certain things pertaining to food, drinking, recreation and sex. Among these are the following:
1. All kinds of intoxicating wines, liquors, and spirits (Qur’an, 2:219; 4:43; 5:93-94);
2. The meat and products of swine (pork, bacon, ham, lard), of wild animals that use claws or teeth to kill their victims (tigers, wolves, leopards, etc.), of all birds of prey (hawks, vultures, crows, etc.), of rodents, reptiles, worms and the like, of dead animals and birds that are not slaughtered properly (Qur’an, 2:172-173; 5:4-6);
3. All forms of gambling and vain sports (Qur’an, 2:219; 5:93-94);
4. All sexual relations out of wedlock and all manners of talking, walking, looking and dressing in public that may instigate temptation, arouse desire, stir suspicion, or indicate immodesty and indecency (Qur’an23:5-7; 24:30-33; 70:29-31).
This Act of Prohibition is introduced by God for the spiritual and mental well-being of man as well as for the moral and material benefit of humanity. It is not an arbitrary action or a self-imposed intrusion from God. On the contrary, it is a sign of God’s interest in the welfare of humanity and an indication of His good care for man.
When God prohibits certain things, it is not because He wants to deprive man of anything good or useful. It is because He means to protect man and allow him to develop a good sense of discrimination, a refined taste for the better things in life, and continued interest in higher moral values. To achieve this, good care must be taken of man’s spirit and mind, soul and body, conscience and sentiments, health and wealth, physique and morale. Prohibition, therefore, is not deprivation but enrichment, not suppression but discipline; not limitation but expansion.
To show that all prohibitions are acts of mercy and wisdom, two Islamic principles are worth mentioning in this connection. First, extraordinary circumstances, emergencies, necessities and exigencies allow the Muslim to do what is normally forbidden. As long as these circumstances exist and to the extent that he cannot help the situation, he is not to blame if he fails to observe the moral rules of God (see Qur’an, 2:173; 5:4). Secondly, God has inscribed for Himself the rule of mercy: any who do evil out of ignorance, but thereafter repent and amend their conduct, will be forgiven; surely God is Merciful and Oft-forgiving (Qur’an, 6:54).
In a remarkable, typical passage, the Qur’an has laid down the grounds and philosophy of sound moral conduct. The passage may be rendered as follows: O Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer; eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not the wasters. Say: ‘Who has forbidden the beautiful gifts of God, which He has produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure (which He has provided) for sustenance?’ Say: ‘They are, in the life of this world, for those who believe, (and) purely for them on the Day of Judgement.’ Thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who understand, Say: ‘The things that my Lord has indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds, whether open or secret, sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning of partners to God – and saying things about God of which you have no knowledge’ (Qur’an7:31-33).
The range of morality in Islam is so inclusive and integrative that it combines at once faith in God, religious rites, spiritual observances, social conduct, decision making, intellectual pursuits, habits of consumption, manners of speech, and all other aspects of human life. Because morality
is such an integral part of Islam, the moral tone underlies all the passage of the Qur’an and the moral teachings are repeatedly stressed in various contexts throughout the Holy Book. This makes it difficult to devise any reasonably brief classification of these moral teachings according to their citations in the Qur’an. Every principle is mentioned many times in various contexts. It appears either as a single significant principle or as an element of a total system of morality, which itself is an element of a complete religious supersystem.
In view of this, the following passages must be taken only as representative selections from the Qur’an rendered and interpreted by human endeavours which, inevitably, fall short of the perfection of the original and complete version of the Book.
Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good; – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the needy ones, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands possess (captives, slaves, animals, birds, etc.): For God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious;- (Nor) those who are niggardly or enjoin niggardliness on others, or hide the bounties which God has bestowed on them; for We have prepared for those who resist Faith a punishment that steeps them in contempt; (Nor) those who spend of their substance, (out of hypocrisy) just to be seen of men, but have no faith in God and the Last Day. If any take the Evil One for their intimate what a dreadful intimate he is! (4:36-38).
Say (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)): ‘Come, I will rehearse what God has (really) prohibited you from’: join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want; for We provide sustenance for you and for them; And come not near to the orphan’s property, except to improve it, until he attains the age of full strength; give measure and weight with full justice; no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear; and whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned; and fulfil the Covenant of God. Thus does He Command you, that you may remember. Verily, this is My Way, leading straight; follow it; follow not (other) paths: They will scatter you about from His Right path. Thus does He command you, that you may be righteous (6:151-153).
God commands justice, the doing of good, and kindness to kith and kin; and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that you may receive admonition. Fulfil the Covenant of God when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them; indeed you have made God your surety; for God knows all that you do . . . . Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such (workers) their reward according to the best of their actions (16: 90-91, 97).
Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious; for your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who are truly guided (16:125).
Who is better in speech than one who calls (others) to God, works righteousness, and says: ‘I am one of those who bow in Islam’. Nor can Goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is best. Then the one between whom and you there was hatred will become as it were your friend and intimate! (41:33-34).
Whatever is given to you (here) is (only) a convenience of this Life. But that which is with God is better and more lasting. (It is) For those who believe and put their trust in their Lord; those who avoid the greater crimes and shameful deeds, and when they are angry even then forgive; those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for sustenance; and those who, when an oppressive wrong is inflicted on them, (are not cowed but) help and defend themselves. The recompense for an injury is an injury equal to it (in degree), but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God, for God loves not those who do wrong.
But indeed, if any do help and defend themselves after a wrong (done) to them, against such (persons) there is no cause of blame. The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice. For such (oppressors and transgressors) there will be a penalty grievous. But indeed, if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs (42: 36-43).
If any do wish for the transitory things (of this Life), We readily grant them such things as We will, to such persons as We will, but in the end, We have provided Hell for them where they will burn, disgraced and rejected. And those who do wish for the (things of ) the Hereafter, and strive therefore with all due striving, and have Faith, – they are the ones whose striving is appreciable (by God.). Of the bounties of your Lord We bestow freely on all-these as well as those: the bounties of your Lord are not closed (to anyone). (17:18-20)
Take not with God another object of worship: or you (man!) will sit in disgrace and destitution. Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: ‘My Lord! bestow on them Your mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.’ Your Lord knows best what is in your hearts. If you do deeds of righteousness, verily He is Most Forgiving to those who turn to Him again and again (in true penitence). After render to the kindred their due rights, as (also) to those in want, and to the wayfarer. But squander not (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift. Verily spendthrifts are brothers of the Evil Ones; and the Evil One is to his Lord ungrateful. And even if you have to turn away from them (the said people), in pursuit of the Mercy from your Lord which you do expect, yet speak to them words of easy kindness. Make not your hand tied (like a niggard’ s) to your neck, nor stretch it forth to its utmost reach (like an irresponsible squanderer, if you choose either way), you will become blameworthy and destitute (respectively). Verily your Lord does provide sustenance in abundance for whom He pleases, and He provides in a just measure; for He does know and regard all His servants. Kill not your children for fear of want. We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you, verily the killing of them is a great sin. Nor come near to adultery; for it is a shameful deed and an evil, opening the road (to other evils). Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, We have given his heir authority (to demand equal punishment or to forgive). But let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law). Come not near to the orphan’s property except to improve it, until he attains the age of full strength; and fulfill (every) engagement: for (every) engagement will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning). Give full measure when you measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight. That is the most fitting and the most advantageous in the final determination. And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge (idle and useless curiosity); for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning). Nor walk on the earth with arrogance; for you cannot rend the earth asunder, nor reach the mountains in height. Of all such things evil is hateful in the sight of your Lord. These are among the (precepts of ) wisdom, which your Lord has revealed to you. Take not, with God, another object of worship, lest you should be thrown into Hell, blameworthy and rejected (17:22-39).
We bestowed wisdom on Luqman: ‘Show your gratitude to God’. Any who is grateful does so to the profit of his own soul. But if any are ungrateful, verily God is free of all needs, worthy of all praise… And We have enjoined on man (to be good) to his parents. In travail upon travail did his mother bear him, and in years twain was his weaning. (hear the command), show gratitude to Me and to your parents. To Me is your final Goal. But if they strive to make you join in worship with Me things of which you have no knowledge (or do any wrong), obey them not; yet bear them company in this life with justice (and consideration), and follow the way of those who turn to Me (in love). In the end the return of you all is to Me, and I will tell you the truth (and meaning) of all that you did… O my Son! (said Luqman): Establish regular prayer, enjoin what is just (and right) and forbid what is wrong; and bear with patient constancy whatever betide you; for this is firmness (of purpose) in (the conduct of ) affairs. And swell not your cheek (for pride) at men, nor walk in insolence through the earth; for God loves not any arrogant boaster. And be moderate in your pace, and lower your voice; for the harshest of sounds, without doubt, is the braying of the ass (31:12-19) O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling . . . are an abomination, of Satan’s handiwork. Avoid such (abomination), so that you may prosper. Satan’ s plan is only to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of God and from prayer. Will you not then abstain? (5:90-91). But seek, with that which God has bestowed on you, the Home of the Hereafter. Nor forget your portion in this world. But you do good, as God has been good to you, and seek not mischief in the land; for God Loves not the mischief-makers (28:77). These selections can be supported by many others from the Qur’an and the Traditions of Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In themselves, they are sufficient to portray the fundamental morals of Islam. These Islamic morals are unique in their nature under all circumstances. They are introduced by God not simply to be admired occasionally but to be enforced and effective. They are meant to help the individual to develop his personality and cultivate his character in the most wholesome manner, to strengthen his bonds and consolidate his association with God, the Source of all Goodness.
Never were the Islamic morals designed to intimidate the individual and make him passive or indifferent. One example will illustrate the point. If a Muslim is wronged or oppressed, he has the free choice either to resist and retaliate in an equal measure or to forgive and entrust God with the results of his deed. He knows that he is authorized to take either action, and he equally knows that it is better for him to forgive. So, when he forgives, he does so with his own free choice for the love of God. Similarly, when he retaliates he is not violating the Law or acting unjustly; he is defending his rights, an attitude which is a sacred duty in itself, and is helping the rightful authorities to establish order and justice. If Islam were to demand absolute forgiveness as some other creeds do in theory, many undisciplined people would be tempted to do wrong and exceed all limits. Likewise, if Islam were to demand only retaliation, as some other creeds ruthlessly teach, there would be no room for mercy and patience nor for spiritual reform and moral maturity, in which case many fine qualities of man would subside and many moral potentials may never be actualized.
It is common knowledge that the people who are taught to forgive under all circumstances do not, and probably cannot, practice their teachings, because it is not the interest of humanity in the long run, nor is it in the interest of morality itself. Likewise, the people who are taught to practice stern retaliation have little or no respect for human virtues and careless for moral values as universal rules.
But Islam, the Divine foster of human nature, has given the right answer to human problems. To those wrongdoers who are looking for a second chance, who may improve or benefit by granting them pardon, forgiveness is recommended and preferable. But against those who might misunderstand the motives of forgiveness or be tempted to pursue the wrong course, equal retaliation is authorized. Thus, the attitude of the Muslim, in either case, is sound and beneficial. When he forgives, he pleases God, retains the upper hand and contributes to the reformation of the delinquent. And when he retaliates, he defends the right, establishes order and justice, and helps to arrest evil.
Now, which is sound morality? The attitude of the person who is a ruthless avenger indiscriminately? Or the attitude of a Muslim who makes room for mercy and forgiveness, and who allows for extraordinary circumstances? And who is normally sound? The person who forgives because he knows that he is not allowed to retaliate? Or a Muslim who forgives while he is fully aware that he can lawfully retaliate? Which is real forgiveness? The one resulting from external compulsion and prohibition not to act otherwise? Or the one resulting from freedom of choice and freedom of action? It is no wonder that the moral principles of Islam are sound, unique, and adaptive. They are the instructions of God, the Source of all goodness and morality.
This Essay was published in the February 2020 print issue of The Mountain Ink.
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Hammudah Abdalati graduated from Al-Azhar University of Egypt. He received an MA in Islamic studies from McGill University and a PhD in Sociology from Princeton University. He was appointed in 1960 the first full-time director of the Canadian Islamic Center of Edmonton, Aberta