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Ethics: A Principle in Islamic Epistemology
Nov 1, 2017

Islam has been ordained for higher objectives designed to refine the conduct of those who endeavor to follow its guidance. The hope is to yield benefits both for society and individuals. These honorable objectives aim at providing safety and peace by ensuring the security of one’s life, freedom to practice one’s faith, right to obtain property and have a family, and safeguarding one’s intellect. 

God has prescribed us to act mercifully and charged us with the responsibility of getting to know one another and living together in peace so that religion is practiced for God alone, and no human is given authority over another. The purpose of this prescription is to ensure that everyone is free to practice their faith, is safe, doesn’t worry about their financial interactions, and can express one’s beliefs. In fact, all the rules, laws and regulations of Islam have actually been placed in order to secure, guarantee, and regulate these freedoms.

Community freedoms are different; some are shared by all, and some are agreed upon. While some are mutually inclusive, some might conflict or oppose the freedoms of others. By reminding of possible consequences and promises of rewards in the hereafter, Islam aims to prevent such conflicts by commanding virtue and prohibiting vice.

A truly free human being is one whose presence in a community is respected. A free individual can enjoy the opportunities of advancement and development, in realms both material and immaterial. Therefore, what befalls upon such a free person is to observe and respect the rights and freedoms of others and to defend these rights just like his own rights are defended. Free individuals seek equality.  

It is among one’s rights to discuss and debate with others regarding their thoughts and creeds; even to raise objections in light of one’s faith and creed. However, one is not allowed to cause any harm to others, nor mock what they consider holy or make fun of the symbols of their religions. Rather, one must respect what they hold high. In turn, one might expect others to respect what you consider holy.

Shedding light on this topic, God says, “And do not insult those they invoke other than God, lest they insult God in enmity without knowledge” (Qur’an 6:107-8). And He the Exalted also said, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best” (16:125). He also added, “Do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them” (29:46).

The main structure of freedom, according to Islam, is based on the obligation of securing the individual’s life through providing his or her basic necessities and needs. Based on this provision, it is possible for an individual to utilize their right of freedom in thought, faith, religious practice, and expression. Nonetheless, if the community fails to cater to the rights of the poor, weak, and impoverished some people will be deprived of their freedoms. This is especially so when the distribution of welfare is off balance, for the crushing forces of poverty will further curtail the freedoms of the poor.

God says in the Qur’an, “God will surely perfect His light, however hateful (it may be) to the unbelievers dislike it. He it is Who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religions” (61:8-9).

The “perfecting of the light” and the “manifesting of the truth” can only be realized when the community and the nation become an exemplary embodiment of the values they hold. These values include mercy, peace, respect, solidarity, unity, prosperity, truthfulness, and other high moral qualities. In the community where all these values are manifested, creedal concepts are translated into behavior and aesthetic values. For this to be possible members of the community have to be aware of their rights and the ways of obtaining them. Consequently, communities will be committed to preserving these rights – and then extending them to other states or nations. Just as one must live justly, one should support other nations and communities that strive to obtain their human rights, prosperity, and freedom; this is an inseparable part of the being an exemplary community.

When moral qualities and values are firmly rooted in a community and the consciences of the people, these values will be seen in their behaviors, actions, and attitudes guiding them to becoming the “perfect human” who is potentially equipped with faculties to receive the heavenly message and benefit from it. A community’s advancement and civilization are in direct proportion with nobleness of the moral values it possesses.  

Islam did not leave the issue of a community’s morality to the wills of individuals. Rather, it put certain limits and borders on freedoms and established rules and regulations to establish a moral atmosphere. It also laid down a set of punitive measures to ensure security and peaceful coexistence in the society.

By entrusting the rights of the needy and poor upon the society at large it can also be said that Islam enjoins a social security system. As an extension of these rights, Islam has prescribed alms-giving (zakat) upon the rich and other legal incentives for the giving of charity through vows (nadhr), expiations (kaffarah), and financial compensations. In return, to protect peoples’ rights of property, Islam has also laid down a penal system against crimes like theft, rebellion, and murder which endanger a community’s safety and unity whilst also undermining its ethical values.

The moral system that Islam lays down is unique in the following aspects:

1. The source of Islam’s moral system is divine revelation: the Qur’an and the Sunna. In these two sources, there are measurements and broad objectives that adjust a person’s behavior in the universe in accordance with a lofty system of high morals.

2. Good character is obtained by effort. The opportunity to advance and acquire high moral levels is open to all humans and all people. All start from a common point where they are all equal in this race for a higher good, that being that they are all the children of Adam (pbuh). In light of this, it is narrated that the Companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him, Abu Said al- Khudri said, “Some of the people of the Ansar asked for something from the Messenger of God and he gave it to them. Then they asked him again and he gave it to them until he had used up everything he had. He said, ‘If I had anything, I would not keep it away from you. (Remember) Whoever abstains from asking others, God will make him contented, and whoever tries to make himself self-sufficient, God will make him self-sufficient. And whoever remains patient, God will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience.’”

3. This moral system is also uniquely characterized by steadiness and stability. The reason for this is that morality in Islam has a “worship element” (ta’abbudi) in which a person seeks his Lord’s pleasure. Hence the reason behind the morality emanates from the fact that it is requested by the Almighty and hence it is not merely a way of interacting with others based on utilitarian principles and interest. In relation to this, the Companion of the Prophet, Abu Hurayra, narrated that the Prophet said, “May he be miserable, the worshipper of the dinar and dirham, and the worshipper of the striped silk cloak. If he is given anything, he is satisfied; but if not, he is unsatisfied" (Bukhari, Riqaq).

4. Islamic morality is also distinguished by being comprehensive and completing all aspects of life, the public and private, from one’s relationship with the Lord to those with other human beings, even down to the level of his domestic interactions.

5. The moral values in Islam point to ideal forms, yet they are also applicable and realistic. They do not oblige a person to do something that is beyond his or her ability. God said in the Holy Qur’an, “Keep, then, from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety as far as you can, and listen attentively and submit (to His commands), and obey Him, and spend (in His cause and for the needy), as it is to the betterment of your souls. Whoever is guarded against the avarice of his soul, those are they who are truly prosperous” (64:16).

Another verse reads, “What I seek is only to set things right so far as I am able. My success in my task depends on God alone. In Him have I put my trust, and to Him do I always turn with all my heart” (11:88).

God also said, “But seek, by means of what God has granted you, the abode of the Hereafter (by spending in alms and other good causes), without forgetting your share (which God has appointed) in this world. Do good to others as God has done good to you (out of His pure grace). Do not seek corruption and mischief in the land, for God does not love those who cause corruption and make mischief" (28:77).

6. Finally, Islamic morals are universal and dynamically alive. They are suitable for all human beings. The benefit of abiding by these morals will return to all humans, irrespective of whether they are Muslim or not. This stems from Islam being a religion which brought about universal and comprehensive systems, rules, and morals. To emphasize further on the universality of Islam, God said, “But it is not other than a Reminder for all beings” (68:52), and, “O humanity, in deed I am a messenger of God sent to all of you.” In the Qur’an, the Prophet is referred to as a “mercy” for all: “We have not sent you (O Muhammad) but as an unequalled mercy for all the worlds” (21:107). It is narrated that the Prophet said, The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one people trust with their lives and wealth” (Sahih Ibn Hibban). The Prophet (pbuh) also said, “The most beloved people to God are those who are most beneficial to the people” (Tabarani, al-Mu’jam’ul Kabir).

The message of the Prophet is established on the foundations of Islam’s moral system. The concept of the love of God and the love of His Prophet is tied with a person’s adherence to honorable and outstanding ethical and moral values. The Prophet summarized the whole purpose of his messengership as the completion and perfection of good character (Imam Malik, Muwatta). The Prophets before him began the project, and he finished it – or as he (pbuh) described through an analogy, all the Prophets worked together to build a building and only one brick was missing, and he (pbuh) was that missing brick.

It is reported that the Prophet said, “The dearest and nearest among you to me on the Day of Resurrection will be one who is the best of you in manners” (Bukhari, Fadail al-Sahaba). When the Prophet was asked what enables people to enter heaven, he replied, “piety and good manners” (Tirmidhi, Birr and Sila). The Prophet categorized good manners as worship through which a person can gain great spiritual rewards like someone who is in constant prayer day and night: “By his good character a believer will attain the degree of one who prays during the night and fasts during the day.”