About the concepts of morality in Islam

Standards and Sources of Morality

(Assume) the attributes of Allâh and who is fairer than Allâh in attributes? (2:138)

Standards of Morality

The Holy Qur’ân has time and again reiterated Allâh's mention and the mention of His attributes, and no page of the Holy Book is without it. The objective is not to earn the reader's praise and devotion, but to impress the reader's mind in diverse ways with the Divine attributes so that he can, and as fast as he can, duplicate these qualities within him. The Holy Qur’ân has repeatedly drawn our attention to Divine laws of nature because the source and origin of these laws are the Divine attributes which are a prerequisite for making a human being into a moral being, so that he should, as far as his human limitations allow, make the Divine Character, the Divine Spirit, the Divine Disposition, the Divine Love, the Divine Mercy, the Divine Forgiveness and Divine "Rabűbiyyat" (-the Divine quality which leads us to all perfection) the guiding principles of his life. In order to dispel human ignorance on morality, God the High has described in the Qur’ân all the moral qualities and attributes which stem from good. The names and attributes of the Divine Being are the fundamental touchstone for judging morals, the deeds which are consonant with these come under the heading of excellent morals and those that are against these come under the category of debased morals.

The Divine attributes are a true friend and kind guide for those who want to attain to high morals, and a guidance and a support for the pious and a travel guide for those possessed of knowledge in their quest for higher spiritual stations and evolution (2:1). This code does not call upon us to obey its commandments summarily or by force (2:256), nay, it goes on expounding the expediencies and wisdom underlying these commandments, giving arguments for what it states (4:174). It tells us that the soundness of these stands -- verified through experience, observation and practical application (3:67) -- fully meet all the standards that have been set to judge their soundness, or could be set under the principles of criticism. Again, it does not go silent after giving these commandments, it also brings about a suitable environment for application of these precepts, creating an atmosphere conducive to their application.

The whole of the Holy Qur’ân is full with moral teachings, and the entire canvas of the Divine plan of human existence on earth is under its purview. In formulating this plan it has kept the dictates of perfect fairness and equity. It tells us the internal and personal mechanism which makes us act or not to act, and tells us which internal impulses gives rise to external actions. What are the principles governing the practical investigation of actions? What is the mechanism which can bring about the development of our inherent traits and habits? What is the relationship between actions and emotions and what are the principles governing the arousing of human emotions? It has recognized the power of morals in all spheres of human life. If we analyze its moral code we would find in it a world of personal ethics, family morals, social morals, business, political ethics, and literary ethics (e.g. 2:177-209; 2:215-242). In short there is not an aspect of human actions, psychological conditions, circumstances, rights, excellence and etiquette which has been left out of the Qur'ânic moral teachings.

The Origin and Sources of Good of Morals

The first and the most fundamental question that arises in respect of a Moral Code of Conduct is what are the origins and sources of good morals. According to the Holy Qur’ân there are three sources of it, and all the three are imbedded in human nature. They are:

1. The Commanding Self (Nafs-e-Ammâra) is the self, which incites the human being towards evil. We read in the Holy Qur’ân:

"Yet I do not hold myself to be free from weakness, for the Commanding Self ( -the animal self) is surely prone to enjoin evil, except on whom my Lord has mercy." (12:53)

There are various natural and moral states of human being. According to the Holy Qur'ân the state arising out of the human beings animal self, Nafs-e-Ammâra (the Commanding Self) is the first source of morality if the weapon of reason is applied. The reasoning faculty in the human being is sufficiently well developed to analyze his behaviour critically and to perceive the immediate and remote consequences of his actions. It is the result of the critrical exercise of reason that comes into play on inappropriate occasions and animal like actions, functioning as a control. This exercise of reason and control take then the hue of moral states. In other words, the foundation of good morals lies in our natural emotions and instincts, and good morals are nothing more than appropriate and controlled exercise of these naturally endowed powers and instincts. Hunger and sexuality are the basic commanding needs of humans and animals. Now if these basic commanding forces are brought under control through fasting and marriage, they become virtues. The Holy Qur’ân has not only discussed in detail the basic human emotions and instincts, but also has gone further by investigating the underlying causes for arousal of these emotions, the need for such an arousal and has also explained how to channel and sublimate these emotion towards morality.

2. The Self-Accusing Spirit (Nafs-e-Lawwâma) is the second source of morality, the one judging the excellence of morals. It is the voice of the conscience which becomes loud when an act of indecency is being done. Every human being is endowed with this voice. We read:

And I swear by (and bring to witness) the Self-accusing Soul (Nafs-e-Lawwâma - the innate self reproaching spirit, at the doing of an evil deed as an evidence). (75:2).

Nafs-e-Lawwâma is thus what we call the living perception of one's psychological condition or the call of the inner voice. One aspect of getting a ruling from the voice of the conscience and from one's heart is that when we are about to commit any action we should first imagine to apply such an action to ourselves. If we are not adversely affected by this action and if it proves to be good and effective for us, such an action would also be beneficial and good for others. And if we cannot accept it for ourselves, then it must be assumed that it is neither appropriate for others. All those who act unfairly towards others, should put their own persons in place of others and see how they would like such an act to be perpetrated against them.

The Holy Prophet is reported to have said, "When wanting to decide whether something is good or bad, ask your heart and innersoles, and take it that the deed, the commission of which gives you a feeling of satisfaction to the heart and innersoles, is a virtuous deed and the deed which rankles in the heart and produces perturbation and hesitancy in the mind is a sinful deed, even though the people may tell you that it is a lawful deed."

The question that arises at this juncture is that if this Nafs-e-Lawwâmah, the self accusing spirit is present in every person, and every person is endowed with a voice of the conscience, why is it that a lot of persons still commit immoral acts? The answer to this is simple. Though our conscience does raise its voice of protest and the commission of such an act, people mostly do not pay heed to it. Secondly, immorality is a poison. Repeated doses of this poison blunt or destroy the conscience.

3. Love and Faith in the All-Mighty is the third and the ultimate source of morals. Once a Muslim Sűfî was asked, how can we free ourselves from unlawful prohibited things and from afflictions and find peace and tranquility? He replied, through a firm faith in Allâh, for one gets free of all weaknesses and calamities through such a faith. Faith in God is the foundation stone of the Qur’ânic Code of Ethics, not only in the sense that the Divine Attributes are like milestones on the way to good morals, but also from the angle that our faith in God strengthens our heart to achieve the good and shun the evil. The "angels" of God guide such a person and he starts to live a life of peace and security, freeing himself of the filth of vice and sin. It is through this channel the human soul finds its ultimate peace and tranquility which is called in the Holy Qur’ân Nafs-e Mutma'innah - the Soul at Peace.

(As for the person who has been blessed with a contented and peaceful mind He will say to him,) ‘O you soul at peace! Come back to your Lord well-pleased with Him and He well-pleased with you. Enter the fold of My chosen servants, and enter the Garden made by Me.’ (89:27-30)

It is wrong to say that a disbelief in God does not produce any defect or diminishing effect on one's morals, and confirmation of the existence of God does not strengthen one's moral powers. Among the principles proposed by the Holy Qur’ân for faith in God is the principle of Retribution and Recompense for one's deeds and this is an important principle in the laws of nature. A person who is merely adhering to a moral code only uses his own person or the society at his personal discretion, and by doing so he thinks that he is becoming better civilized and serving the society. He has no motivation of getting any reward. But when the Holy Qur’ân motivates us towards higher morals, it simultaneously tells us that by adopting higher morals we not only improve and reform society, but we are also making our next life better.

Verily, those who say, "Allâh is our Lord," and then remain steadfast (and follow the straight path), the angels will descend upon them (saying), "Have no fear nor grieve rather rejoice at the glad tidings of receiving the Gardens (of Paradise) which you have been promised." (41:30)

The existence of moral forces within the human personality emanates from and is subservient to the inborn faculties of a human being and there exists a natural impulse towards morality in the human makeup. The human faculties which are inherent in human nature in its inner aspect as opposed to the outer and physical aspect, are denoted by the word Khulq. Khulq is the term which describes that habitual and firm disposition in a human by virtue from which moral actions flow spontaneously and effortlessly. All the moral principles that exist are nothing else but a manifestation of natural human emotions and nature is the source of them all. A person becomes laudable only when his natural faculties and personal disposition take on a moral hue through training. If such actions are good and laudable when judged by common sense and the Law, such a disposition is called a virtuous disposition, and if such actions are bad and condemnable, such a disposition is called an evil disposition (Ahyâ al-Alűm by Imâm Ghazâli).

Thus the source of all morals is within the nature of a human being - his disposition and his various natural states. If human faculties are the source of morals, and sometimes we see immoral actions emanating from human beings, are we to understand that some of these emotions and faculties are evil in themselves? The Holy Qur’ân has answered this question in the negative, telling us that the headwaters of human birth are not mudded, nor is sin and immoral behaviour an intrinsic part of his nature. The human being is simple and pure by nature. Its true nature is endowed with guidance and Divine inspiration, he has been created in the finest make and endowed with righteousness:

We have surely created the human being in the finest make and the best proportions (with enormous capabilities for an all round advancement through the process of evolution). Then (according to Our law of cause and consequence) We degrade him to as the lowest of the low (if he does evil deeds). Different, however, is the case of those who believe and do deeds of righteousness. There awaits them a never ending reward. (94:3-6)

Thus, the evil in the human beings is something which evolves later as a consequence of their training (94:5). Similarly The Holy Prophet is reported to have said,

"No infant is born except with an inborn sense of natural goodness, and then his parents make him into a Jew, Christian or a Muslim." (Bukhârî).

In other words, a human being is born innocent and unblemished in his nature (94:4), and he does not enter this world carrying a load of original sin. Those who think that a human being is sinful by birth have erred. Similarly it is a wrong assumption that a human being is the product of some earlier life and his present birth is an outcome of some previous birth, and that he is caught up in the ramifications of his actions in some previous existence, as is believed by some. That is why in the Holy Qur’ân there is no mention of "original sin", "atonement" or "transmigration of soul" as these are the products of human fantasy with no evidence at all for their support.

It must be understood that there is a difference of quality and quantity of natural powers in various individuals. There is a difference between emotional origins and practical manifestations of emotions and these differences give rise to a vast sea of moral values, and this sea has been enclosed in the small canvas of Qur’ânic moral code.

Sources of Evil

The Holy Qur’ân tells us that when an immoral act is committed, human nature and his natural morals are not the basic motivators of such an act, rather his wrong brought up and training, his unsuitable environment, compulsions arising from the society and artificially created social norms, bad company and erratic and wrong use of one's natural desires and passions aroused by social environment. These and many other external factors lead to immoral acts and improper behaviour. But when one's natural faculties come into play, remaining within the bounds of priority and free of any slip or wrong-doing, such an act falls within the definition of good morals. Imâm Ghazâlî says that it is against human nature and disposition to be attracted towards evil and blamable actions. An example of such an inclination is like the example of some young children falling into the habit of eating clay superstitiously. On the other hand, human being's inclination towards the Love of God, His worship and His Gnosis is as natural as his inclination towards eating good and pure things, because this is in complete accord with his nature and disposition and the very desire of his heart. And what is the heart? It is an inspired command of God, and the inclination of the heart towards the dictates of his passions is imposed upon it from outside his person. (Ahyâ al-Alűm by Imâm Ghazâli 3:63).

When it is said that a human being is by nature good and virtuous, the question arises, are not defensive and negative emotions to be found in human nature? Emotions that gives us the capability of dispute and through which some of our fellow beings are hurt? At times a frightful scenario can develop in human society, a scenario full of greed, hate, jealousy and anger. If the natural emotions of humans are good and virtuous, then why are we endowed with these negative states and why are these troubles and hurts part of human destiny. In the light of the Qur’ânic teachings the answer is that though it cannot be denied that such defensive faculties are also to be found in human beings, faculties that lead him into myriads of calamities, hardships and defilement, it does not prove that human being is sinful and a sinner by nature. These negative emotions have a use and have been vouchsafed to us for our defensive needs and for safeguarding our right to self-determination. A human being needs such emotions as much as he needs finer emotions like sympathy and forbearance. The fact of the matter is that all the faculties found in a human personality, if used properly, are good morals in themselves. If at any time we see a defect in these or a slip is noticed, it is due to our misuse of these faculties. The capability of good morals has been endowed in our nature and this capability can safeguard against slip-ups through will power and training.

Lack of knowledge is another cause of evil. That is why a great emphasis is laid by the Holy Qur’ân and by the Holy Prophet on acquiring knowledge and wisdom. We read:

Verily, Allâh undertakes to accept the repentance of only those who do evil through lack of knowledge, then repent soon after. Such are the person towards whom Allâh turns with mercy. And Allâh is All-Knowing, All-Wise. (4:17)

It is important here to note in this verse those attributes of All­âh - the All-Knowing and the All-Wise, which are relevant to the contents mentioned here.

The Holy Qur’ân tells us that every thing in this universe exerts an influence on its environment and also accepts influence from its environment. Every action is followed by a reaction. We know how a person’s health is influenced by changes in weather, by his food, his dress, and his home. The Holy Qur’ân goes even further and does not limit the influence of physical environments on the human body alone. It also tells that this influence affects even the morals of a person. Thus the commandments it gives about the material world, such as its laws about food, dress, the principles of government, the economic order etc. are not only meant to keep the physical, social and economical side in order, but also to uplift our moral conditions. Thus for example the use of unclean and unlawful food (pork, alcohol) will badly affect our moral conditions. The wisdom underlying the prohibition of certain foods by the Holy Qur’ân is that by using them, one is prederived of certain high moral qualities as such foods produce bad moral qualities. Writing about the effect of food on morals Imâm Ghazâlî said, "The child's wet-nurse should be very religious, pious and used to eating lawful things, for a milk that comes out of unlawful food would not have any good or blessing in it. Since, she is involved in the upbringing of the child from the very beginning, this wholesome milk would permeate the child's every fibre and in the long run he would be naturally inclined towards the unlawful and unclean things." (Ahyâ-al-Alűm 3:77).

To safeguard the newborn from any evil influence and to impress upon him the highest form of puritanic sound effects the Holy Prophet used to recite the Adz­ân (Call for Prayer) in the right ear and the Iqâmah (prayer service readiness call) in the left ear of a new born child. If we look closely at the wordings of these two calls we notice that these consist of sentences calling one to highest type of purification. Scientific research has shown that the first sense to become operational after birth is the hearing, and that is why Islam has impressed this very faculty with a highest purifying sound.

Imâm Ghazâlî in his book Ahyâ-al-Alűm says, "When one grows up a whole world of observation and perception is opened before him by nature, and the Laws of Nature begin to unfold themselves one by one before him. A reservoir of information of diverse types accumulates and is built up gradually in his mind, and this reservoir itself becomes a source of training for him and his fellow-beings. Most people observe events unintentionally and pass over them summarily and think that their memory has not preserved these in its store-house, but in fact, these observations and scenes find their way into our consciousness silently and imperceptibly, and that is why the Holy Qur’ân has drawn our attention to observation of natural phenomena and working of nature both in the sky and the earth, for this also affects human conduct and morals."

Another source of evil are the bad companies with persons of low moral standards. That is why we are told:

O You who believe! Keep your duty to Allâh and be with the truthful (9:119)

This companionship with the truthful can be diverse in ways. Practically, by developing friendship with the pious, attending gatherings of such persons, studying the writings of the pious and reading their biographies.

Mental and physical illness can also be the cause of certain immoral deeds, to offset which Islam has drawn our attention to many aspects of physical and mental hygiene.

And purify your clothes (and the thoughts). And idol-worship, (spare no pains to) exterminate it and shun all uncleanliness. (74:4-5)

The pollution of the environment can be another source of evil. To rectify this kind of uncleanness, the Holy Qur’ân has taught us:

And guard against an affliction which surely will afflict not only those of you in particular who have acted unjustly (but it will involve others also who are inclined towards them); and know that Allâh is Severe in requiting. (8:25)

National calamities, when they strike, do not spare even those members of the community who may be quite innocent. Greed, prejudice, grudge, black-marketing, hoarding, adulteration, carelessness, irresponsibility, deception, theft, immodesty, dissembling, show, self-seeking, rumor-mongering, calumny, mischief-making; all these are un-Islamic traits. The Holy Qur’ân through its teachings and the Holy Prophet through his practical demonstration have completely fulfilled this need.

Suppression of Natural Faculties and Monasticism is no Piety

Say, ‘Who has made unlawful Allâh’s beautiful things of adornment and elegance which He has produced for His servants and the delicious and pure things of (His) providing?’ Say, ‘They are primarily meant for the believers (and for the disbelievers too) in this present life (but) exclusively for (the believers) on the Day of Resurrection.’ In this way do We explain the Messages for a people who would know.
Say, ‘Verily, My Lord has forbidden all (acts of) indecency, open and hidden, and every (kind of) sin and aggression, which is never justifiable; and (He forbids you also) to associate with Allâh that for which He has sent down no authority, and to say concerning Allâh that which you do not know (that it is in fact said by Him).’ (7:32-33)

The Holy Qur’ân has not taught us to suppress human faculties and has told us that no human faculty is bad in itself, nay, it is called bad when used inappropriately in any situation. It has lauded those who control their anger but not the person who wipes out his capacity for anger. In fact the triumph of joy, cheerfulness, hustle and bustle of progress in this world are promoted not through snuffing out human emotions, rather, it lies in their proper and appropriate use. Those who say that immorality and uncivilized behavior cannot be rooted out till such time that we eliminate our natural emotions like libido or anger etc. and advocating a point of view by following which we stray farther away from the correct path proposed for us by nature itself.

Two major points of Qur’ânic moral teachings come to light through the following stated verses. One is that, it is not a virtue to suppress our natural emotions and it is unlawful to give up this worldly life and adopt monkery.

And We placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him (- Jesus), but as for monasticism, they invented it themselves, We did not enjoin it upon them. (They started monastic life) to seek Allâh's pleasure, but they did not observe it (as faithfully) as it should have been observed. Yet We duly rewarded such of them as (truly) believed; (57:27)

Some instincts start to function in a human being at his very birth and some come into play as one develops physically. The Holy Qur’ân has not taught us crushing and trampling of any of these instincts, rather, it has drawn out attention towards promoting their growth. Behind all its commandments the same wisdom is at work, i.e., to train these instincts properly which lead one to success and thus bring forth sweet and delicious fruits. On the contrary, if the faculty of intellect is blunted and if the intellectual and physical powers and capabilities are not given the chance of nourishment and growth, the object of life and of the spirit is defeated. Avoidance of attachments, when carried out within special limits, is useful in developing one's spiritual powers, because no spiritual power can develop without first controlling one's physical powers and faculties. This is encouraged in the form of Ěttekâf - the ten days of seclusion in the month of fasting, devoted to prayer only. We should not go about slaughtering our physical desires and start living the life of monks to attain His pleasure and acceptance. In other words, the measure of excellence in morals lies midway between licence and monkery.

Human violation, freedom of choice and his diverse emotions are not unreal. Personality and individuality is a reality and it should not be crushed. The monks and recluses are often a burden on the society, because they live from the work of society. The Holy Qur’ân does not endorse monkery for yet another reason: Some moral qualities are left unhewn if one does not become a part of the society. In short, the philosophy of moral code put forth by the Qur’ân has never aimed at the very elimination and wiping out of any human power, faculty or emotion, rather, it has stressed the need of normalization and training of our natural powers.

Actions are Judged by Intentions

Natural powers of a person take on a moral tone when one's volition and intention is also involved in the act. This is the message we get from the following Qur’ânic verse.

So woe to those who Pray. Who are unmindful of their Prayer (and ignore the spirit and aim of it), and they like (only) to be seen (of people while they make a show of their deeds) (107:4-6)

That is why the Holy Prophet is reported to have said, "Actions are judged by one's intentions". In other words, one's act becomes moral act only when the act is in itself virtuous and the intention to do it is also good. If any of these two aspects is missing, no act would be worthy of being called a moral act. If the act is good but the intention is bad (for instance, a Prayer offered for ostentation and show), or if the intention is good but the act is bad (for instance, stealing to help an orphan), or if both the action and intention are bad, (like taking a bribe for indulging in debauchery), then all these three cases would be considered outside the pale of good and moral acts. The moral act can only be that act in which both the intention as well the act itself are good. A simple example will be spending one's lawful and just earnings to help the poor. When inspite of the best of intentions, one's power of decision and intellect and comprehension flags and the person commits an immoral act (under the influence of his evil self), we cannot call this a virtuous deed.

The Holy Qur’ân also emphasizes the fact that a person should sometimes put to display his good actions in such a nice and decent manner that these take on a better shine and glitter, thus making people enamored of him. No doubt every kind and good display of morality has its own intrinsic worth, but one should be on guard against multiplying the virtuosity of any deed by his own negative behavior. Nay, sometimes the goodness of deed is rendered null and void by such behavior. For instance, a person engaging in charity and giving of alms is certainly engaged in a very fine display of high morals. But if during the distribution of alms or afterwards he boasts of the favour he has done, or adapts foul language or berates the poor who beg his help, he is degrading his act of charity and renders it null and void. The Holy Qur’ân's injunction in this respect is as follows:

Those who spend their wealth in the cause of Allâh, then follow not up what they have spent with a show of obligation, nor (with) injury, they shall have their reward with their Lord. They shall have no cause of fear, nor shall they ever grieve.
A fair word and forbearance are better than charity followed by injury. Indeed, Allâh is Self-Sufficient (having no want), Ever Forbearing.
O you who believe! Do not render void your charities by (a show of, or by boasting of the favour you have done to others) obligation and injury (by causing the recipients to feel embarrassed or by causing them some injury to their self respect, and) like him who spends his wealth to be seen by people and does not believe in Allâh and the Last Day. So his case is like the case of a smooth rock with some soil thereon, when heavy rain hits it leaves it bare and hard. They shall not be able to gain anything of what they accomplished. And Allâh does not guide such disbelieving people to the way of success. (2:262-264)

It follows that mere good deed are not the desired objective, rather, a good intention behind them is desired. Good intentions are thus a duty which must be present in all situations, and which provides a very high grade moral foundation for all goodly traits. That is why Imâm Bukhârî began his compilation of the Traditions of the Holy Prophet (Sahîh Bukhârî) with the Hadith from the Holy Prophet: "Verily all actions are (judged) according to the intentions". That is, no deed can be considered to be based on morality and to be correct unless the doer of the deed has the right intentions, and not unless good intentions form a major factor of the deed. Slaughtering an animal during the Hajj for sacrifice and give its meat to the needy is enjoined on the Muslim as a rite. In this regard the Holy Qur’ân says:

It is neither their flesh nor their blood (of these sacrifices) which matters to Allâh but it is guarding against evil and devotion to duty on your part that matters to Him. Thus He has made them subservient to you that you may proclaim the greatness of Allâh for His guiding you. And give glad tidings to the doers of good to others. (22:37)

In short, forbearance, honesty, truthfulness, steadfastness, contentment, self-control, bravery, chastity, all these are moral qualities of high values, yet these become a part of the list of good moral qualities only if they are free of all ill-intentions. Without good intentions the very same deeds can become damaging to one's morals. A person showing forbearance and humility in order to deceive people, or offering Prayers for show of piety, would be better off if he did not have these qualities of forbearance, humility and Divine worship. He is in fact insulting the real rectitude and goodness and practicing deception. In short the moral capability has been naturally provided within us, and none of our powers and emotions is evil in itself, rather, these take on an evil hue if used inappropriately or wrongly.