A moral sense is inborn in man and, through the ages, it has served as the common man′s standard of moral behavior, approving certain qualities and condemning others. While this instinctive faculty may vary from person to person, human conscience has consistently declared certain moral qualities to be good and others to be bad.
Justice, courage and truthfulness have always found praise, and history does not record any period worth the name in which falsehood, injustice, dishonesty and breach of trust have been praised; sympathy, compassion, loyalty and generosity have always been valued, while selfishness, cruelty, meanness and bigotry have never been approved of by society; men have always appreciated perseverance, determination and courage, but never impatience, fickleness, cowardice and stupidity.
Dignity, restraint, politeness and friendliness have throughout the ages been counted virtues, whereas snobbery and rudeness have always been looked down upon. People with a sense of responsibility and devotion to duty have always won the highest regard, those who are incompetent, lazy and lacking in a sense of duty have never been looked upon with approval.
Similarly, in assessing the standards of good and bad in the collective behavior of society as a whole, only those societies have been considered worthy of honor which have possessed the virtues of organisation, discipline, mutual attention and compassion and which have established a social order based on justice, freedom and equality. Disorganisation, indiscipline, anarchy, disunity, injustice and social privilege have always been considered manifestations of decay and disintegration in a society. Robbery, murder, larceny, adultery and corruption have always been condemned. Slander and blackmail have never been considered healthy social activities, while service and care of the aged, helping one′s relatives, regard for neighbours, loyalty to friends, aiding the weak, the destitute and the orphans, and nursing the sick are qualities which have been highly valued since the dawn of civilisation.
Individuals who are honest, sincere and dependable, whose deeds match their words, who are content with their own rightful possessions, who are prompt in the discharge of their obligations to others, who live in peace and let others live in peace, and from whom nothing but good can be expected, have always formed the basis of any healthy human society.
These examples show that human moral standards are universal and have been well-known to mankind throughout the ages. Good and evil are not myths, but realities well understood by all. A sense of good and evil is inherent in the very nature of man. Hence in the terminology of the Qur′an good is called Ma′rif (a well-known thing) and evil munkar (an unknown thing); that is to say, good is known to be desirable and evil is known not to commend itself in any way. As the Qur′an says:
Allah has revealed to human nature the consciousness and cognition of good and evil. (al-Shams 91: 8)
What are the Differences?
The question that now arises is: if what constitutes good and evil is so clear and universally agreed, why do varying patterns of moral behaviour exist in the world? Why are there so many conflicting moral philosophies? Why do certain moral standards contradict each other? What lies at the root of other differences? What is the unique position of Islam in the context of other ethical systems? On what grounds can we claim that Islam has a perfect moral system? And what exactly is the distinctive contribution of Islam in the realm of ethics?
Although these are important questions and must be squarely faced, justice cannot be done to them in the brief span of this talk. So I shall restrict myself to a summary of some of the points crucial to any critical examination of contemporary ethical systems and conflicting patterns of moral behaviour:
(a) Through their failure to prescribe specific limits and roles for the various moral virtues and values, present-day moral structures cannot provide a balanced and coherent plan of social conduct.
(b) The real cause of the differences in the moral systems seems to lie in their offering different standards for judging what constitutes good and bad actions and in their laying down different ways to distinguish good from evil. Differences also exist in respect of the sanction behind the moral law and in regard to the motives which impel a person to follow it.
(c) On deeper reflect we find that the grounds for these differences emerge from different peoples′ conflicting views and concepts of the universe, the place of man in it, and of man′s purpose on earth. The various systems of ethics, philosophy and religion are in fact a record of the vast divergence of views on such vital questions as: Is there an Allah of the universe and, if there is, is He the only one or are there many Allahs? What are the Divine attributes? What is the nature of the relationship between Allah and human beings? Has He made any arrangements for guiding humanity through the vicissitudes of life or not? Is man answerable to Him or not? And if so, in what spheres of his life? Is there an ultimate aim of man′s creation which he should keep in view throughout his life? The ethical philosophy and the pattern of moral behaviour of the individual and society.
It is difficult for me, in this brief talk, to take stock of the various ethical systems in the world and indicate what solutions each one of them has proposed to these questions and what has been the impact of these answers on the moral evolution of the society believing in these concepts. Here I have to confine myself to the Islamic concept only.
The Islamic Concept of Life and Morality
The viewpoint of Islam is that the universe is the creation of Allah who is One. He alone is its Master, Sovereign and Sustainer, and it is functioning under His command. He is All-powerful and Omniscient, He is Subbah and Quddas (that is, free from all defects, mistakes, weaknesses and faults and is holy in every respect). He is free from partiality and injustice.
Man is His creature, subject and servant and is born to serve and obey Him. These correct course of life for man is to live in complete obedience to Him. And it is for Allah, not man, to determine the mode of that worship and obedience.
At certain times Allah has raised Prophets for the guidance of humanity and has revealed His books through them. It is the duty of man to live his life according to the dictates of Allah and to follow the Divine guidance.
Man is answerable to Allah for all his actions and will be called on to render an account of them in the Hereafter. Man′s short life on earth is really an opportunity to prepare for that great test. He will be impartially assessed on his conduct in life by a Being who keeps a complete record not merely of his movements and actions and their influence on all that is in the world from the tiniest speck of dust to the highest mountains but also of his innermost thoughts and feelings and intentions.
The Goal of Moral Effort
This concept of the universe and of man′s place in it indicates the real and ultimate good which should be the object of all mankind′s endeavours ′seeking the pleasure of Allah. This is the standard by which Islam judges all conduct. It means that man is not left like a ship without moorings at the mercy of winds and tides; instead, we have a set of unchangeable norms for all moral actions. Moreover, by making the ′pleasure of Allah′ the object of man′s life, unlimited possibilities are opened for man′s moral evolution, untainted by narrow selfishness or racism or chauvinism.
Islam also furnishes us with the means to determine good and evil conduct. It does not base our knowledge of evil and virtue on mere intellect, desire, intuition or experience derived through the senses, which constantly undergo changes and modifications and thus fail to provide definite and unchanging standards of morality. Instead, it provides us with an objective source, the Divine revelation, as embodied in the Book of Allah and the Sunnah (way of life) of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him. This source prescribes a standard of moral conduct that is permanent and universal and holds good in every age and under all circumstances.
The moral code of Islam ranges from smallest details of domestic life to the field of national and international behaviour. It guides us at every stage in life and makes us free from exclusive dependence on other sources of knowledge, although we may, of course, use these as an aid to this primary source.
Sanction Behind Morality
This concept of the universe and of man′s place in it also provides the sanction that must lie at the back of every moral law, that is, the love and fear of Allah, the sense of accountability on the Day of Judgment and the promise of eternal bliss and reward in the Hereafter. Although Islam aims to cultivate a mass ethos which may induce individuals and groups to observe the principles of morality it lays down as well as helps the evolution of a political system which will enforce the moral law through its legislative and executive powers, Islam′s moral law does not really depend on these external factors. It relies on the inherent desire for good in every man which is derived from belief in Allah and the Day of Judgment.
Before laying down any moral injunctions, Islam seeks to implant firmly in man′s heart the conviction that his dealings are with Allah, who sees him at all times and in all places; that he may hide himself from the whole world but not from Allah; that he may deceive everyone but Allah; that he can flee from the power of any person but not from Allah; that while the world can see only man′s outward life, Allah knows his innermost intentions and desires; that while man may, in his short sojourn on earth, do whatever he likes, he has to die one day and preset himself before the Divine court of justice where no special pleading or deception will be of any avail and where his future will be decided with complete impartiality. It is this belief in accountability to Allah which is the real force behind the moral law of Islam. If public opinion and the powers of the state give it support, so much the better; otherwise, this faith alone can keep a Muslim individual and a Muslim community on the straight path of virtue.
Motives and Incentives
The fact that a man voluntarily and willingly accepts Allah as his Creator and obedience to Allah as the aim of his life and strives to seek His pleasure in his every action provides sufficient incentive to obey the commandments which he believes to be from Allah. Belief that whoever obeys the Divine commands is sure to be rewarded in the Hereafter, whatever difficulties he may have to face in his life on earth, is another strong incentive for leading a virtuous life. and the belief that breaking the commandments of Allah will mean eternal punishment is an effective deterrent against violation of the moral law, however tempted a man may be by the superficial attractiveness of a certain course of action. If this hope and fear are firmly ingrained in one′s heart, they will inspire virtuous deeds even on occasions when the immediate consequences may appear to be very damaging, and they will keep one away from evil even when it looks extremely attractive and profitable.
This clearly indicates that Islam possesses a distinctive criterion of good and evil, its own source of moral law, and its own sanctions and motivating force; through them it shapes the generally recognised moral virtues in all spheres of life into a balanced and comprehensive scheme and ensures that they are followed. It can therefore be justifiably claimed that Islam possesses a perfect moral system of its own. This system has many distinguishing features and I shall refer to three of the most significant ones which, in my opinion, form its special contribution to ethics.
1. By setting Divine pleasure as the objective of man′s life, Islam has set the highest possible standard of morality providing boundless possibilities for the moral evolution of humanity. By making Divine revelation the primary source of knowledge, it gives permanence and stability to moral standards, while at the same time allowing scope for reasonable flexibility and adjustment, though not for perversions or moral laxity. The love and fear of Allah become the real motives, which impel man to obey the moral law without external pressures. And through belief in Allah and the Day of Judgment, we are motivated to behave morally with earnestness and sincerity.
2. The Islamic moral order does not, through a mistaken love of originality and innovation, seek to lay down any new moral standards; nor does it seek to minimise the importance of the well-known moral standards, or give exaggerated importance to some and neglect others without cause. It takes all the recognised morals and assigns a suitable role to each within the total scheme of life. It widens the scope of their application to cover every aspect of man′s private and social life - his domestic associations, his civic conduct, and his activities in the political, economic, legal and educational fields. It covers his life at home and in society, literally from the cradle to the grave. No sphere of life is exempt from the universal and comprehensive application of the moral principles of Islam. These ensure that the affairs of life, instead of being dominated by selfish desires and petty interests, are regulated by the dictates of morality.
3. The Islamic moral order guarantees for man a system of life which is free from all evil. It calls on the people not only to practise virtue, but also to eradicate vice. Those who respond to this call are gathered together into a community (Ummah) and given the name ′Muslims′. The main purpose underlying the formation of this community is that it should make an organised effort to establish and enforce goodness and suppress and eradicate evil. It would be a day of morning for this community and a bad day for the entire world if its efforts were at any time directed towards establishing evil and suppressing good.