Communication and Human Development

Islamic Ethics: Concept and Prospect

Islamic ethics as a discipline or a subject does not exist at the present. We do not have works that define its concept, outline its issues, and discuss its problems. What we have, instead, is a discussion by various writers  - philosophers, theologians, jurisprudents, sufis and political and economic theorists-in their particular fields of some issues that are either part of, or relevant to, Islamic ethics. Philosophers like Abu Nasr al Farabi (d. 329/950) and Abu ‘Ali Miskawayh (d. 421/1030), in their ethical works, have mostly rehashed Greek ethics. True, they have introduced, here and there, some Islamic terms and concepts and modified some notions that hurt their Islamic susceptibilities. But this does not make their ethics Islamic. They do not raise many issues that Islamic ethics must raise, and many ideas they have set forth cannot be considered to be Islamic unless they are seriously modified.

Theologians have, indeed, discussed some very important questions of Islamic ethics, such as the source of ethical knowledge, the meaning of ethical terms, and the basis of moral obligation. The views they have expounded are extremely significant. But they have been treated as part of theology rather than ethics, and they form only one aspect of Islamic ethics. Works on Sufism, principles of jurisprudence (usul al fiqh) , principles of government and administration (al ahkam al sutaniyah), and public revenue and expenditure (al kharaj), also touch upon ideas that are part of, or relevant to, Islamic ethics. We have in them an analysis, for instance, of some ethical virtues, a discussion on motives, priorities and preferences, levels of obligation, and political and economic justice.

There is, in short, much material scattered in the works of various disciplines that can be utilized to develop Islamic ethics. At present, while the discipline of Islamic ethics does not exist, it can be developed. Thirty years ago, Islamic economics did not exist, but thanks to the devotion of a number of scholars, we now have Islamic economics. I am sure that Islamic ethics will take even less time to develop, provided we give it the required effort. Let us hope this conference of ours initiates the process.

In this paper, I will try first to define the task Islamic ethics should perform, and then review, in that light, various streams of writings to which I have referred , and see what contribution each of these can make to the subject.

The first task of Islamic ethics is to understand and expound the ethos of Islam as conceived in the Qur’an and elaborated in the Sunnah of the Prophet. Although these are the two primary sources of Islamic ethics, one more source should also be taken into account: the practice of the Prophet’s Companions. They were trained by the Prophet himself, and their lives as individuals and as a society are the best embodiment of Islamic values, after the example of the Prophet. Further, the life and the practice of the second and third generation leaders (a’immah) of Islam are the next best model of Islamic values and norms. They are almost free from alien ideas and values that affected Islamic society in succeeding generations. This is testified to by the Prophet himself as well as by history. He said: “The best generation is mine, next comes the generation that will follow, and then the generation that will come after.”’ It goes without saying that the life of the Companions or of the (a’immah) of the next two generations does not constitute an independent source beside the Qur‘an and the Sunnah. It is taken only as an authentic expression of the ideals set forth in them. The life of the peoples in succeeding generations does not enjoy this status, because it bears the influence, in varying degrees, of alien ideas and practices.

To define the Islamic ethos as presented in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the life of the Companions, and their righteous Successors is the first task of Islamic ethics. The view of the good life (al hayat al tayyibah) for which Islam stands has to be set forth in detail. It has to spell out the various components of that life, the traits and characteristics, motives and attitudes, feelings and emotions, actions and reactions, relations and associations that constitute it. It has to determine the place of human necessities and material conditions in the realization of that life. It has to define the priorities: What goods are higher and what are lower; what is the ultimate end of life, and how are various goods related to that end? It has to study the relation between knowledge, action, and feeling; between personal attainments and social concerns; between devotion to God and commitment to humanity. It has to determine the place of aesthetic values in life, the pleasures of the body, and material goods. It has to show the value of individual work and collective action. In all these things, it has to be viewed in the context of normal life, as well as in extraordinary and stress situations.

Another aspect of the Islamic ethos comes to light when we discuss such questions as what is right and what is meritorious, and, opposingly, what is wrong and what is punishable by God? What is the place of motive and intention in this regard? What are the degrees of obligation, and what are the personal and collective duties? How do the circumstances of the individual and society affect the degree of obligation?

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