“Pluralism in Islamic Ethics”

[This is the third in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of general participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Pluralism in Islamic Ethics”

Prof. Carl W. Ernst, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

In thinking about a major topic one should go to the major reference works to see what the current status is. I saw that Kevin Reinhardt, Ebrahim Moosa, and Abdul-Aziz Sachedina had very different views from one another on the subject of Islamic ethics. How does one define the subject and what are the solutions proposed? The variations in the definition are fascinating.

Reinhardt says Islamic ethics must be defined exclusively in terms of Shariah, excluding philosophy, Sufi tendencies, and theology. Sachedina sees teleology as the key realm, excluding law from the primary focus. Moosa not only introduces the philosophical tradition, but also adab (manners) as a comprehensive norm. He also draws on the Persian tradition and salûk (behavior), Sufi norms of comportment, and even when discussing fiqh, he includes the inner intentions of the actor. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to argue against Hodgson, who stipulates we could separate Islamic as religious phenomena derived from scriptural sources from Islamicate, which constitutes a broader cultural realm. Where does culture fit into the discussion of ethics? Reinhardt acknowledges the impinging norms of civilizations in contact, but finds it easier to focus on the role of Islamic teachings. This orientation is common in Islamic discourse today.

While it is true that for both Moosa and Sachedina the dispute between the Mu`tazila and their rivals is central, I think they address different projects. For Moosa, the challenge is to take into account how law and ethics figure in change and secondly to ask how law and ethics retains its sacred character despite change—which he thinks is not being done. For Sachedina, the project is the reinstatement of reason as a partner with revelation in restoring ethics.

Islamic ethics is an outsider term. In Islamic writing, one speaks of “ethics” not “Islamic ethics.” “Islamic ethics” shifts us into the discourse of comparative religion. Perhaps this is necessary, but we need to acknowledge it. These analytical distinctions are useful for scholars, but they are not particularly reflective of the living world of Islamic moral choice, which I would like to suggest is more integral, in which there was a fusion of the horizons of what scholars would consider different ethical systems. Consider that the Pashtun see no difference between their customary ethical code and Islam. A Malay text from 16th century Java called “An Early Manual of Muslim Ethics” that was deeply embedded in the local culture includes the saints who brought Islam to Malaysia. The culture is inseparable from the authority that the people receive in their local environments. Thus, I think Hodgson’s distinction lends itself to ignore an interaction between culture and religious teaching, at our peril. I found a translation of a Persian text on fatâwa on chivalry, manliness, and virtue from which one may draw a similar conclusion.

I will focus on Greek philosophy and the colonial period. The encounter with Greek philosophy is important, as were other ancient cultures. The translation movement, mediated by Nestorian Christians, translated first into Syriac and then into Arabic, and resulted in a new series of categories and methods of thinking that became deeply embedded in the religious sciences as well. There were sectors of thought resistant to foreign thinking, but Ibn Rushd represents those who insisted that the study of philosophy was necessary, provided one was qualified. The Decisive Treatise on the Difference between Religion and Philosophy is a masterful demonstration of this method. For example, he explains that qiyâs means analogical reasoning in law but syllogism in philosophy. Even more ambiguous is al-Ghazali who famously repudiated the philosophers, notably Ibn Sina, but he took on a lot. Similar to ibn Rushd, but in a more Sufi manner, he draws on the Greek tradition but widens it to include the ideas of generations of Sufi thinkers. There is a vast literature on this. Muzaffar Alam has written how Islamic ethics comes out of the Greek tradition, not Shariah, but he underestimates the role of the Islamic tradition. We cannot understand Ghazali and Ibn Rushd without considering the embedding of Greek thought in Islamic civilization.

There were other traditions drawn on beside the Greek. The Persian and Mongol notions of kingship that antedate Islam and were not defined by Shariah affected the Islamic empires. Khalîl wa Dhimma originates in Sanskrit and is one of the most widely translated books in history and became a popular text on the dissemination of statecraft. Sachiko Murata has published studies on the influence of Confucian thought on Islam. If you didn’t know the author was a Muslim you would find it difficult to distinguish it from the standard literature composed in Chinese circles.

Darsay Nazami is an 17th century Indian text with a heavy emphasis on the intellectual tradition, but colonial rule eliminated the local patronage of intellectual institutions. So a new type of institution founded during the British period like Deoband (established 10 years after the Indian revolt against the British) had an entirely hadith-based curriculum. It moved in a different direction from the earlier curriculum and adopted a new bureaucracy in an understandable reaction to British pressure at the time. There were other changes such as the rejection of slavery. Moving to the 20th century, a new form of reflection continued on gender, the emergence of the modern nation state as an entity of unprecedented concentration of power and monopoly of violence in a position to create new definitions of religion.

This is a scattershot approach. Things that don’t fit easily into our categories require us to reflect on how to deal with the seemingly anomalous cases. Discussions of ethics today tend to take place in the context of writers like Allistair McIntyre and Charles Taylor, who provide important questions that can be addressed by people from various backgrounds. Sometimes culture is viewed as the realm of inauthentic elements in Islam. One looks at, for example, the Sunnah of Medina as something bracketed off from culture. I think Islamic culture needs to be theorized.


Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina, IIIT Chair, GMU. Both fiqh and akhlâq deal with human action. Ethics wants to analyze human action in such a way that the actor and the act may be deemed laudable or blameworthy. Why must the one who enters a house greet the people in the house and not the other way around? Why must the one on a horse greet the person on the ground and not the other way around? “No harm should be done, no harm should be reciprocated” is ethical language. I say it is part of the Shariah, but it is something more fundamental: scriptural ethics. I want to understand the reasoning that makes an action right or wrong. George Hourani has shown us that legal categories and moral categories are not different, except in source. The Shariah categories of mandatory, laudable, optional, reprehensible, and prohibited antedates the revelation of the Qur’an.  Yes, we are influenced by our colleagues in Christian and Jewish studies. The Qur’an is a moral book. Al-Ghazali is a relativist. I think this is a modern discourse, but even if these ideas were not well-articulated, they were native to the classical tradition.

My starting point is not Charles Taylor, etc. I do not read them first; I read them afterward to see how I can refine my understanding. Mohamad Ghazali distinguished between the Sunnah of the Prophet and the sunnah of the Arabs (the fuquha) and was condemned for it. I remember asking Ayatollah Khoei in Najaf many years ago as to whether women could sit with men and listen to the religious discourse. He replied that things applied in Najaf cannot be applied in Toronto.

Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub, Hartford Seminary. Is ethics the study of religious morality or the study of proper behavior without due regard to morality or correctness? Takhalaqu bi ikhlaqAllah means what? Is ethics simply the study of etiquette? Shariah is more than the study of law; it is a set of moral imperatives by which human beings live. Why did Mansur kill Abdullah ibn Muqaffa? Ghazali was willing to look at ethics in the abstract. What is a just ruler? One who imposes justice or one who just guides society to the good? Should Machiavelli’s Prince be studied as literature or as ethics; and if ethics, where does it take us? Ayan At-Tawhidi talks about proper behavior that is expected of highly sophisticated ministers; yet, it is also entertaining. It is not fortuitous for me that the Thousand and One Nights came out of the Mamluke culture, where people enjoyed hearing about modes of living that symbolized different things. Draz Muhammad Abdullah called his book La Morale du Coran. Is enjoining good and discouraging evil just moral? Is al amr bil ma`rûf (enjoining the good) ethical? The opposite of ma`rûf is munkar, that which is rejected. Miskawai did Persian ethics as well as Aristotle. At-Tusi and others spoke not of moral action, but of how you beautify a woman in preparation for her wedding. Is this ethics? Broadly, yes, but how can we translate the Aristotelian Western term into Arabic? Akhlâq is not ethics but character, perhaps moral character. I want to address the idea that ethics is something definable to which all would agree. People who take about global ethics are really talking Western capitalism. Is that ethics? The only way I avoided failure in my ethics course at Harvard was to write a paper on a Quaker thinker.

General Discussion.

Q. There is an unsophisticated attempt to separate culture from Islam that presumes that the understanding of Islam of the sahaba, or of the proponent, is culture-free as opposed to the understanding of others.

Q. Many Muslims feel they own a privileged definition of Islam from which they can adopt an imperial notion of the self in identifying all around them. Naming (i.e., definition) is a process of inclusion and exclusion. The ethical dimension comes when you apply this to human relations and you privilege a human community by attributes that have no moral dimension to them (gender, color, tribe, etc.). Identity is important to the human project.

Q. I believe Hodgson has a point. Monotheism, although still hierarchical, tends to be more egalitarian than other traditions. Even ibn Rushd is hierarchical in stating philosophy is only for the elite. Louise Marlow has shown how egalitarian the first century of Islam was, until hierarchical structures were adopted from other civilizations.

Q. I was intrigued by Prof. Ayoub’s question on what is ethics? I think ma`rûf means to make virtue customary. As an immigrant I don’t have a clear cultural reference, so I turn to the teachings.

Ernst. The term culture is a modern term, but it hasn’t been looked at much in relation to Islam. See Elizabeth Qassam’s award-winning book on modern Arab culture, in which she says culture has become so important in Arab society because of the absence of political participation. Also see Charles Tripp’s Islam and the Moral Economy on the translation of Society into ijtimâ` and how it became a new way of thinking about identity.  A lot of this has taken place without conscious reflection. I am still a member of the Hodgson tarîqa, but remain concerned about the inauthentic use of `arf and ma`rûf. It is addressed to multiple communities.

Q. Salafism is so successful because it appeals to acculturated, deterritorialized Muslims.

Q.  The closest translation for the Greek word (ethos) that generated the word ethics in the Arab-Islamic perspective is fiqh. Islamic law is qanûn, not fiqh. Some say ma`rûf is what society agrees on and others say it is what Allah asks us to do. Taqâfa (culture) is not culture. Ibn Rushd distinguished between ethics and fiqh. The faqih did not benefit much from ibn Rushd the philosopher. Ghazali was not a relativist, but a musawwi (egalitarian). In the end he believed in al-haqq Wahid (absolute truth).

Q. Who are the makers of Islamic ethics today?

Q. The law may change but the morality that underlies it does not change. If you believe ethics can change, provide a historical example.

Sachedina. If we see no modern cognates, that doesn’t mean an idea didn’t exist. The absence of a word doesn’t mean there is no understanding of the concept. This applies to culture and to ethics. This is like the claim that there is no concept of conscience in Islam. Or like saying there is no secularity in Islam when Islam has no church and no ecclesia.

Ayoub. One of the problems today in discussing `urf and culture is the judgment implied. So many Muslims denied that the 9/11 bombers could be Muslims, but I cannot say anyone who calls himself is not a Muslim, only that they are wrong or mistaken in their actions.

Q. I want to return to the question of complimentarily. It implies diversity and an acceptance of different outcomes. Maybe the definition of ethics puts these together.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. All agreed the definition of ethics is ambiguous. I don’t understand how the proposition that the Qur’an is ethical becomes controversial. It defines itself as a book of guidance. The central issue of the story of Eden is the tree of harm and transgression. Nafs is characterized by an ability to know right from wrong, which can be purified or corrupted. The condemnation of female infanticide is not presented in the form of divine dictate, but as a rhetorical question posed to the infant who is asked “for what crime was she killed?” Surely, this is an ethical rather than a legal appeal. Ghazali was not a relativist; he only acknowledged the role of culture without elevating it into an absolute source. He notes that if anyone simply accepted the culture in which he is raised he would always remain in the religion of his parents, making it possible to come to the truth. Thus he was presuming, rather than denying, the existing of an objective truth. Hypocrisy, not gender segregation was the issue in your anecdote about Ayatollah Khoei. “Disentangling culture from religion” is a current project of mine and I agree that the approach requires sophistication. We must seek to intellectually disentangle culture from religion, but to do that we must appreciate  and articulate the role culture plays in or own understanding of religion, and in that of the sahaba, as well as in those whose interpretations we seek to critique. `Urf is a source of fiqh, but not the only, nor even the supreme, one.  `Urf is what all societies know to be good. Some things accepted by pre-Islamic Makkan culture are unethical and repulsive to the purified nafs, e.g. infanticide.  Fiqh is jurisprudence, not ethics. Ethos means character, so akhlâq is nearer to it in meaning than is fiqh.

Q. Is it necessary to pass through law to get to ethics?

Q. The definition of ethics is shifting. For example, organic milk is now argued to be a more ethical alternative. Ibn Khaldun says philosophy is okay provided you study the Islamic sciences first.

Q. Karl Barth says culture is like a gun and religion is like the cartridge. When one is wounded by culture, he blames the religion. The Hanafis in India accepted elements of the caste system, for example punishing people at the bottom more than those at the top for littering.

Q. Tawhid began with a negation, la illâha ill-allah, a rejection of the dominant culture.

Q. I am confounded by this discourse because we have not come to a precise understanding, as if we are in a fluid state. The Prophet challenges the `asabiyya of tribe, yet he retained some customs like generosity. Izutsu may give us the underpinning we need to understand these issues.

Ernst. Ethics originally meant virtue, but it has come to mean reasoning about these issues. We will not resolve the tension between the view that something is good because God commands it and the view God commands that which is already good. This is the core problem of ethics.

Sachedina. We have been using some terms interchangeably and without precision, because that is how the literature uses these terms. How do we make a decision about an action? Should I tell a lie to hide a man I believe to be innocent from the police? Literature provides answers.

Q. I insist the solution to all these issues is in fiqh, but I distinguish between fiqh and fuquha. I mean the fiqh haqîqi (true jurisprudence).

Q. IIIT has requested the Islamic Fiqha Council of North America to have a seminar on the issue of `urf and ma`rûf.

Q. The permissibility of touching a woman in the course of medical treatment is a great example; but if the touching becomes sexual gratification it is only the individual who knows it is haram–and the cameras. Islam is not to regulate every aspect of life, only to perfect it.

Sachedina. I am interested in looking at the usûl al-fiqh and help the fuquha to make fiqh more relevant.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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