Digest of terms

Muslim ethics

Traditions of ethical thinking among Muslims have tended to draw on largely the same sources and resources, while reaching divergent conclusions, both normatively and metaethically.

The two key sources are the Qur'an and the Sunna. The former is regarded as inerrant revelation vouchsafed through the Prophet Muhammad; the latter is to be found in the authoritative collections of hadiths, reports of sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad, who came to be regarded as the ideal role model in religion and morals. Yet already divergence is apparent, since Shi'ites acknowledge different collections from the six regarded as authoritative among the Sunnis.

A key direction taken in normative ethics was the development of shari'a, religious law. Amongst Sunnis four schools of law have remained established down to today, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali, while there are also several Shi'ite law schools. There is broad agreement among these regarding basic religious and moral duties, while amongst Sunnis the different schools have tended traditionally to be associated with particular regions. There are, though, significant differences in detail and emphasis, the Hanbali school linked to Saudi Arabia being generally the strictest.

Religious duties (there is no sharp distinction in the shari'a between religion, morality and law) include the so-called 'five pillars' of Islam: faith in God and acknowledgement of Muhammad as his Prophet, worship five times a day, daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan, almsgiving, and if possible pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. Some Muslims would add a sixth, jihad, traditionally understood as religious warfare (though there has been, and remains, disagreement over whether this should only be defensive, or may also be expansionist), but also interpreted as spiritual striving in the way of God.

Moral duties include special concern for the poor and needy (a prominent Qur'anic theme), while there is great emphasis on obligations regarding family life. A generally patriarchal ethos prevails, although elements favourable to women are highlighted and developed by modern Muslim feminists. Actions are analysed into five categories: obligatory, recommended, neutral or permitted, disapproved, and forbidden. It is in relation to the last of these that the severe punishments so controversial today (death by stoning, cutting off the hand of a thief) are prescribed, though traditionally jurists tended to raise the standard of proof so high they were not frequently applied.

Metaethical analysis led in early centuries to sharply opposed positions over whether morality prescribed intrinsically right actions, or whether actions were right simply because God commanded them. Orthodox thinkers championed the latter, prompted by the need to safeguard God's absolute power; a rival theological school, the Mu'tazila, countered that this made morality ultimately arbitrary. Related controversies raged over the respective roles of faith and reason, and the issue of predestination versus free-will. Each position was capable of receiving support from the Qur'an. Broadly speaking the Mu'tazilites emphasised intrinsic values, recognisable by reason, and capable of being freely chosen - and this became the typically Shi'ite stance. Sunnis, by contrast, emphasised a divine command theory of morality, and tended to subordinate reason to faith. Regarding free-will and predestination, the view which came to prevail, in the dominant As'ari school, was that God decrees what actions humans perform, but also grants them an ability to 'acquire' the actions decreed, and therefore they do deserve the rewards or punishments (another strong Qur'anic theme) that their actions incur (whereas strict predestination, as the Mu'tazilites emphasised, would imply that they did not).

Both the Ash'arites (conservative theologians) and the Mu'tazilites (rationalist theologians) differ from the philosophers of Islam. These made a study of ethics analogous to, and drawing on, the work of Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. However, these philosophical developments came to be denounced by the conservative theologians, and gradually withered. The Sunni Ash'ari and Shi'ite Mu'tazilite positions that crystallised during these early debates have remained largely unchanged down to today.

Amongst Sunnis and Shi'ites alike a further development was the emergence of Sufi thought and practice. Here one strand emphasised ascetic renunciation of the world, in sharp contrast to Qur'anic and mainstream Muslim attitudes; another emphasised a morality of love, sometimes regarded as being in tension with the sharia's emphasis on justice.

In today's world the weight of tradition represented by the foregoing is encountering a variety of challenges, particularly in normative and practical ethics. Areas of controversy include that of harsh punishments, of women's rights, and indeed the range of issues highlighted by the modern human rights agenda, not least freedom of religion. Muslim authorities have issued declarations of human rights in Islam, but these emphasise that they are to be interpreted within the framework of sharia, thus blunting their effect from a non-Muslim human rights perspective. Debates about jihad now include the morality of 'suicide' bombing - widely regarded by Muslims as actual suicide, and hence forbidden, while in the very different field of medical ethics widely diverging opinions are to be found, even exceptionally regarding what appears to most non-Muslims as the straightforward case of female circumcision.

In a word, the tradition of different ethical interpretations within a framework of largely shared sources and resources continues.

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