The Science of Islamic Ethics
By: Rasoul Imani Khoshkhu
In the classical books of Islamic seminaries, the science of ethics (‘ilm al-akhlaq) has been presented as an independent field of study. This science addresses the positive and negative qualities pertaining to man’s self (nafs) and the actions associated with it. Furthermore, it explains how one should go about developing these positive attributes and abstaining from those that are negative in their nature. In turn, it is intended to lead a person to becoming inclined towards performing good deeds and distancing oneself from bad deeds1.
That having been said, the Islamic concept of ethics, as taught by the Qur’an and the Ahlul Bayt (a), is associated with two different meanings: One refers to the fundamental questions posed by the ethical sciences, which is commonly discussed today in the field of the philosophical ethics; the other defines ethics as a means of developing man’s qualities and traits to render him a “complete” human being.
Thus, this path seeks to discover both the theoretical and practical means through which a person can reach the highest of spiritual states2. Bearing these definitions in mind, Islamic ethics pertains to discussions within the fields of philosophical ethics, theoretical ethics, and practical ethics.
Major Characteristics of the Islamic Ethical System
The most important qualities pertaining to the field of Islamic ethics include:
A) The Close Link between Ethics and One’s World View
In Islamic ethics, ethical values influence how a person advances upon the path toward true perfection. In this system of ethics, to reach perfection lies in gaining proximity to God and recognizing His majestic Essence. This can only be achieved through servitude to Him. For this reason, Islamic ethics considers morality and purification of the self as keys to earning the highest levels of happiness. This happiness, of course, lies in gaining proximity to God and ascending to the eminent stages of humanity3.
B) Comprehensive System of Values
The Islamic system of values stands in contrast to many other systems of ethics in terms of its comprehensiveness. While many schools of thought solely limit themselves to topics concerning social ethics, Islam discusses ethical values in a number of arenas. Included in this field are topics pertaining to man’s association with his Lord, other forms of creation, himself, his family, society, and even matters pertaining to international relations. Since these various matters constitute the different aspects of man’s life, each requires special consideration4.
C) Taking into Account All Dimensions of Man
A point of criticism often made against many schools of ethics – including but not limited to emotivism, utilitarianism, conscious-centric ethics, power-centric ethics – is that they often consider only one dimension of man’s existence while ignoring other aspects. Meanwhile, Islam’s theocentric system of ethics considers the various aspects of man’s being – physical, mental and spiritual – and thus, brings into the fold all positive qualities found within these different schools.
Therefore, if someone reaches the highest stage of ethical perfection (i.e. proximity toward God), they will in turn reach an immortal existence, the purest form of everlasting pleasure, and the most complete form of strength5.
Different Methods in Islamic Ethics
Muslim scholars and experts within the field of ethics have generally adopted one of the following methodological approaches in their ethical studies6.
This approach is heavily influenced by the concept of middle position or moderation when approaching the matter of ethics. Immoderation is considered an undesirable moral quality. This approach studies different human faculties, along with the concepts of moderation and immoderation, as its main point of focus in all ethical discussions.
The following books have been written using this method: Tahdhib al- Akhlaq and Taharah al-A‘raq by Ibn Miskawayh, Akhlaq al-Nasiri by Khajah Nasir al-Din Tusi, and to an extent Jami’ al-Sa’adat by Muhammad Mahdi Naraqi.
The Principles of Anthropology in Philosophical Ethics
Principle One: The human soul has three distinct faculties: shahawiyyah (the faculty of desire or appetites), ghadabiyyah (the faculty of anger), and natiqiyyah (the faculty of intellect).
Principle Two: These three faculties interact with and are influenced by one another.
Principle Three: The quality that renders man distinct from other forms of creations is his awareness and ability to foster wisdom.
Principle Four: The perfection of each being is dependent on their ability to completely manifest and perfect each of their distinctive attributes. It is these attributes that separate that being from other forms of creation, thus, granting them a separate identity. A person’s ability to reach perfection also depends on this process; before attaining perfection, he must first completely manifest the trait that distinguishes him from others – that trait being the faculty of intellect7.
This approach to ethics, which has generally been adopted by mystics, primarily focuses on the concepts of ethical development and spiritual wayfaring. In this method, striving against the desires of one’s self is considered the means of attaining ethical perfection. For an individual embarking upon this path, the various stages – leading to the ultimate goal of attaining perfection – are specified.
Mystics believe that in the same manner in which the world is comprised of a manifest reality (alam al-shahadah) and a hidden reality (alam al-ghayb), man too is a being composed of both manifest and hidden realities. They consider the hidden aspect of man’s existence capable of maturing through ten stages. When a person is born, they possess the lowest and most manifest degree of humanity – otherwise known as the animalistic self.
However, over time and as that individual develops in terms of their intellect, other aspects of their existence begin to display themselves. Mystics state that in order to acquire true perfection and prosperity, one must delve deep within the inner-most levels of their hidden self. In doing so, these stages of development can be reached through means of the potentials that exist intrinsically within man’s self.
In each stage of development, the spiritual wayfarer must meet certain requirements in order to advance further. These requirements, in addition to the basic principles of ethics, may necessitate enduring spiritual trials and tribulations along with adhering to particular rules and ethics8.
The most renowned work based on this approach within the field of Islamic ethics is the book Manazil al-Sa’irin by Khajah ‘Abdullah Ansari. This book contains 100 subjects, most of which address the topic of man’s relationship with his Lord. Meanwhile, some subjects concerned with the topic of “individual ethics” expound upon that specific topic or explain the various stages of ethics. In addition, parts of this book touch briefly upon the topic of social ethics9.
Scripture Based Ethics
This refers to works containing compilations of narrations from the Infallibles (a) concerning the topic of ethics. These books are solely collections of narrations and may, at the very most, categorize the narrations contained within based on their subject. This approach relays ethical points that have been revealed in the Qur’an and traditions of the Infallibles (a) without giving heed to the order or association between the points presented. Instead of explaining the foundations of ethical concepts or guiding one to their practical implementation, this method focuses primarily on describing ethical concepts10.
The following works have been written using this approach:
-Musadaqat al-Ikhwan by Shaykh Saduq
-Ihya’ al-‘Ulum by Muhammad Ghazali
-Mishkat al-Anwar by Tabarsi, Al-Mahajjat al-Bayda by FaydKashani
-Ghurar al-Hikam by ‘Abd al-Wahid Amudi
General Characteristics of Scripture-Based Works on Ethics
1. Islamic ethics and Islamic etiquettes and manners (adab) are discussed together.
2. The volume of these works is generally greater than those based on other schools of ethics. Furthermore, books of traditional ethics tend to cover more subjects than those written in the philosophical or gnostic approach.
3. Generally speaking, the contents of these books are not arranged using a specific method of organization. Therefore, the narrations presented on a given topic may not necessarily be uniform in their level or may not be intended for a particular audience11.
The next part of this series is on the historical origins of the most important religious seminaries in the Shi’a world.
1. Tusi, Khajah Nasir al-Din, Ethics of Nasir, Page 48.
2. Ahmad Daylami and Mas’ud Adhar Bayjani, Islamic Ethics (second edition), p. 26.
3. Misbah Yazdi, Ethics in the Qur’an, Research and Composition: Mohammad Husayn Iskandari, Page 95.
4. Misbah Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi, Critique and Assessment of Ethical Schools, Research and Compostion: Ahmad Husayn Sharifi, Page 352.
5. Ibid.. p. 354.
6. Ahmad Daylami and Mas’ud Adhar Bayjani, Islamic Ethics (second edition), pp. 22-25.
7. Mahdi Ahmad poor and Others, the Book of Understanding Islamic Ethics, Page 30.
8. Ibid.. p. 45.
9. Ibid.. pp. 198-199.
10. Ahmad Daylami and Mas‘ud Àdhar bayjani, Islamic Ethics (second edition), pp. 22-25.
11. Ibid.. p. 57.