“I went to the West and saw Islam, but very few Muslims,” Shaikh Muhammad Abdu, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, was reported to have said at the turn of the 19th century. “I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not much Islam. “
He was referring to the manners, behaviours, work ethic and many of the other positive attributes that people aspire to. His sentiments are repeated by many Muslim youngsters who grow up in the West and return to visit their ‘Islamic’ homelands. I for one had my utopian vision of the Muslim world come crashing down in my early teen years during visits to the Middle East.
This brings one to the question, can Islamic ethics make the world a better place?
To convey the full complexity and nuance of Islamic ethics requires books, but our goal here is much more modest: to touch upon the major themes and concepts and to provide an overview of the theoretical underpinnings of Islamic ethics.
Ethics may be defined as the set of moral principles that help us distinguish between right and wrong. Ethics help us assess and evaluate human conduct by reference to higher standards or norms. Ethicists may even offer prescriptive advice on how one should act or not act in particular situations.
Sometimes a morally right action may be called ethical, though morality and ethics may differ on many levels, particularly when there is no divine reference point agreed upon.
Ethical behaviour is a central theme in both of the primary sources of the Islamic worldview, the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, which are the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). Indeed, the Holy Quran notes:
“Ye are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in God…” (Chapter 3:Verse 110)
This is reinforced by the Prophet (peace be upon him) who is reported to have said:
“I have been sent for the purpose of perfecting good morals.” (Ibn Hambal, No: 8595)
There is of course a general agreement among most human beings that ethical behaviour is important to maintain our social contract and indeed for the survival of our species. There may even be agreement on what some of the fundamental ethical values or principles must be. However, the Islamic ethical system substantially differs from secular ethical formulations as well as from the moral codes advocated by other religious orders in distinctive and varying ways, though of course there are significant similarities among some of these variations as well.
The foundations of Islamic ethics rest on the following concepts, wherein lies some of the differences and similarities with other ethical systems:
1) the fundamental ideals of Islamic ethics are divinely ordained. They are of course subject to interpretation and varying understanding but they are nonetheless accepted as being inspired by God;
2) human beings are born in a state of fitra (pure state), our upbringings, surroundings, experiences and the choices we make then shape our character;
3) Adherence to an Islamic ethical code is part and parcel of having iman (faith) and taqwa (God consciousness);
4) Human beings are God’s vicegerents on earth. Humans have been given stewardship over God’s other creations and the environment, and it follows that humans will be accountable on the day of judgment;
5) Human beings are equal in the sight of God, save and except as differentiated by conduct and intentions;
6) Formal compliance may not be enough as God knows your intention and circumstances. The substance as well as the spirit behind your actions are critical;
7) Individual freedoms and rights are valued but collective interests and the needs of all of God’s creations must be weighed and given due consideration;
8) Ethical breaches even if not legally or socially sanctionable may still be punished in the afterlife as a sin;
9) Injustice, selfishness, greed, hoarding and miserliness are unIslamic; and
10) Free enterprise and social responsibility go hand in hand. The mizan (balance) must be maintained between these two sometimes conflicting concepts. Contrary to what some advocate, the social responsibility of business extends beyond profit maximisation.
Of course, these are aspirational. As to the question of whether Islamic ethics can help make the world a better place? Certainly, but only if our practices are squared with the theory. An easy enough prescription, but practically may appear beyond attainable for most of us.
Another scholar visiting the West echoed Shaikh Abdu’s feelings when he pointed out how unlike in his homeland, he was received with a smile — an act of charity according to the Prophet (peace be upon him), but noticeably in short supply in much of the Muslim world especially among public servants at the airport. The scholar also rhetorically asked where in the Muslim world would we leave a box full of newspapers and trust people to pay for and take out only a single paper. He was alluding to the fact, that more than likely, people would pay for one and clear out the entire box.
We Muslims have our work cut out for us in squaring the circle.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2016.