Qur’anic Ethics and the Moral Imperative of Humanist Da’wa

My recent research has led to an encounter with a critical question for Muslims who live in and must now engage with an increasingly diverse religious landscape: what is da’wa (the Muslim mission to share the message of Islam with the people of the world) in the modern experience? How does it relate to theology? How should it be carried out in a time when, as Martin Nguyen has pointed out, the practice of theology is “a life-encompassing and faith-affirming process with which every person is already engaged” and “an integral and intrinsic part of what it means to be human.” Theology, Nguyen writes, “is also a means for changing one’s condition in the here and now, in the Hereafter, and—above all—before God.”[1] Da’wa is, for Muslims, a theological, and therefore a human responsibility.  An authentic approach to da’wa, my engagement with the scholarship of several scholars actively writing on the intersection of Islamic theology and ethics points out, is dependent not on argumentation or apologetics, but on one’s character, ethics, and respect for shared human dignity.

…what is da’wa (the Muslim mission to share the message of Islam with the people of the world) in the modern experience? How does it relate to theology? How should it be carried out in a time when…

My engagement with the scholarship of Martin Nguyen, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Wael Hallaq, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Tariq Ramadan and many others, has led me to think about this question:  can faithful da’wa be achieved without simultaneous concern not only on our own condition but the condition and well-being of others? Whether it is an exercise in inter or intra-religious communication, the invitation to re-think one’s faith or to accept a new one is an attempt to elevate one’s condition before God. To some, this process is straightforward: They argue that this engagement with God, for Muslims, is predicated on the understanding that i) Islam touches the political, social and personal spheres of a society and ii) this process is constructed through sincere individual belief. Hence, a rational argument to make, they argue,  is that the best way to make a society more “Islamic” is to make more Muslims. Such approaches are beyond simplistic however and often lead to monolithic, majoritarian, or static views of a faith that, like the rest of the Abrahamic tradition, is predicated on moral commitment as the primary means of societal transformation.

Like Martin Nguyen, I am a convert to Islam concerned with questions of how normative and constructive discussions of Islamic theology can and should take place in academia where discourses are forged through critical engagement and constant re-examination. It is with this in mind that I here present the first steps in what I hope will be a life long journey as a scholar who in striving to respond to God sees the necessity of Tyler Roberts’ humanistic encounters with religion that place the self squarely in the firing line when it comes to transformative discourses on religion.

It is not enough for da’wa to simply result in theology that looks more Islamic. As Marshall Hodgson observed, authentic Islam requires a “fundamental private attitude of soul.” “True inward islâm” he asserts, “cannot be perceived from without” and therefore, “must be judged by its most elementary consequences.”[2]

It is not enough for da’wa to simply result in theology that looks more Islamic. As Marshall Hodgson observed, authentic Islam requires a “fundamental private attitude of soul.” “True inward islâm” he asserts, “cannot be perceived from without” and therefore, “must be judged by its most elementary consequences.”[2] In search of these consequences–a more Islamic society–I am arguing here for what Peter Mandaville termed “an imperative to bear dialogical witness” and aiming to challenge any conception of da’wa as an instrumentalized wielding of knowledge for purposes of conversion or submission. Religious devotion must of course be demonstrated collectively, but if it is motivated by something other than individual conviction based on a relationship with God and desire to be closer to Him, it is something other than religion.

God-consciousness, Religious Authenticity, and Self Transformation

Discipline and purification of the self through consciousness of, orientation toward, and response to God (taqwa) is critical for theology as religious encounter and response to the divine. It is the most important, and arguably the only criterion by which the authenticity of someone’s Islam can be truly judged. As Khaled Abou El Fadl has observed, “If the Qur’an does not transform you into a more ethical human being who is able to tell the difference between wrong and right, then the Qur’an is not a furqan or criterion for you.”[3] For someone who commits to live as a Muslim, and practice Islam, the set of ethical principles given by God to promote and preserve taqwa is the Shari’ah, the way toward faithfulness for the believer.

Taqwa is certainly impacted by one’s external circumstances, relationships, and community, but it is ultimately a matter of the heart, and representative of an individual moral agreement between the monotheist servant of God and her Creator. Thus, it cannot be imposed from without, or even standardized as a set of rituals to be followed by the community. Without consciousness of God and knowledge of why and for whom an act of worship is being performed, rituals are hollow and can hardly inspire any effort to change the world for the better, even if it is only in gaining a greater mastery over ourselves.

Religious Diversity, Common Morality and Din as Obligation to God

Taqwa is certainly impacted by one’s external circumstances, relationships, and community, but it is ultimately a matter of the heart, and representative of an individual moral agreement between the monotheist servant of God and her Creator.”
If da’wa is a not a religious encounter that places all participants in a position of vulnerability and humility necessary for sincere communion with God, it becomes a defensive stance where another’s certainty about the fate of our souls leads them to apologia of blind pretense that in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith is nothing short of “self indulgent romanticism” and “the professionalization of dissemblance.” [4] Such apologists could certainly argue that the Qur’an clearly asserts that “True Religion, in God’s eyes, is islam:” (3:19) and “If anyone seeks a religion other than [islam] it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter” (3:85). However, Islam’s revelation also stresses that the judgment of who will be the winners and losers in the hereafter rests with God. “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you,” we are told, “so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about” (5:48). This verse is key among several that indicate religious diversity as part of the divine plan.

Pre-eminent Qur’anic studies scholar M.A.S. Abdel Haleem alludes to this in his translations by rendering [islam] as indefinite “complete devotion to God alone” rather than membership in a specific community of exclusivist theological belief. This to me is not only in keeping with the divine direction to Muhammad in 28:56, “You [Prophet] cannot guide everyone you love to the truth; it is God who guides whoever He will: He knows best those who will follow guidance” but also supports another reminder: “if they argue with you [Prophet], say, ‘I have devoted myself to God alone and so have my followers.’ Ask those who were given the Scripture, as well as those without one, ‘Do you too devote yourselves to Him alone?’ If they do, they will be guided, but if they turn away, your only duty is to convey the message. God is aware of His servants” (3:20).

Understanding the Qur’an’s message as a confirmation of and merciful invitation back to the truth of God’s nature, His plan and expectation for all of humanity to worship is critical. Din can certainly be translated as religion, but as with so many words in Arabic this rendering does not do justice to the richness and depth of a term that is critical for Islamic practice, and not only in Muslim theology, but more importantly for inter and intra-faith human relations. If din is devotion to God in recognition that such devotion is necessary for guidance, our acknowledgement of our innately human indebtedness to God and submission to His judgment is perhaps the higher purpose of religion rather than being satisfied with confessionalism and its potential to divide us. With this foundation, it is clear that Abdulaziz Sachedina’s observation of a Qur’anic call across religious traditions to “a universally recognizable moral good” is essential. “[I]n Muslim theological ethics,” he writes, “determination of the objective and absolute nature of moral values has been subject to some of the same problems that have been encountered in modern secular debates about general ethical principles of coexistence in society.”[5]

Universal Ethics as The Foundation and Core of Shari’ah

The restoration of a moral paradigm and its role in the transformation of self and society has critical ramifications for da’wa. Defining Shari’ah, Khaled Abou El Fadl writes that it is:

a set of natural virtues. . .and a normative guide [which] represents an affirmation of moral character and identity of the people the continuity of the Islamic heritage and tradition, and at the same time, a renewed search for common ground with humanity at large, which after all shares responsibility for the well-being and flourishing of earth as the collective inheritance from God.[6]

This emphasizes the necessity of universal acceptance of shared human dignity as a basis for the Islamic order, which as Sachedina points out, is predicated on a “paradigm of common morality.” “[T]he Koran” he explains, “supports full freedom of religion, not merely tolerance of religions other than Islam. The irtidād or ridda of the Koran is apparently a turning away from God and hence is punishable by God alone.”[7] This must not be forgotten in the inevitable, and indeed beneficial, exercise of theological disagreement where salvific authority is often a pretext for depriving those we otherize of the dignity to which their humanity entitles them. For anything to be established as normative, it must be subjected to and approved by human interpretation.

This is why it is essential that before the legal and political implications of the Shari’ah are considered, it must be understood and taught as a moral and ethical project that begins not at the societal level, but in coming back to one’s self and demonstrating the resulting discipline in how we treat others. Professor Abou El Fadl further explains that:

Beyond tolerance, the ethics that are needed at this stage are not simply to put up with and indulge the existence of the other but to discover ways to include others in a collective enterprise for the common good of all human beings. At a minimum, this collective enterprise should include all believers, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, but ideally, even the believers and unbelievers should be able to find what is common to both of them and should be able to pursue shared or reconcilable visions of beauty.[8]

This shared moral commitment is indeed the divinely mandated foundation for a just society, but it must be established through the human effort of the God-conscious. These efforts, crucially, are not zero-sum. Which is to say the message God gave to Muhammad was not about the elimination of unbelief, but the guidance of those who recognized in themselves and each other, the capacity to believe. Tawhid, the principle of God’s oneness, is at the core of Islamic belief and practice, but it is proceeded by and predicated on God’s nature, which begins with mercy beyond human comprehension.

Qur’anic Argumentation beyond Condemnation

The Qur’an therefore is certainly polemical and argumentative. A warning and corrective call to return to that which is known, but as Joseph Lumbard has pointed out, its condemnation is aimed at beliefs and actions, not people – e.g. “God loves those who constantly repent and He loves those who purify themselves” (2:222). Recognizing impurity and unbelief in yourself, and correcting it, perhaps through prayer as al-Ghazali suggests, is an acknowledgement of our moral orientation toward God. In keeping this covenant with Him, we both fulfill our duty and gain a great reward. For Lumbard, the Qur’an completes a divine narrative focused on constant renewal of this covenant across time, space and community:

the Qur’an seeks to return to an equilibrium between the letter and the spirit, between faith and the law. All of the criticisms that the Qur’an makes of previous religious communities are cast with a view of restoring this equilibrium within humanity and within human beings themselves. The Qur’an condemns deviations without condemning the people themselves.[9]

Those who rely on condemnation as a mechanism for re-enforcing their identity are, I assert, betraying the divine guarantee of preservation of religion. God judges the validity of people’s belief, He is “the Lord and Cherisher of Mankind” who created the world in balance and harmony. That balance includes human beings (equals in creation) who belong to other faith traditions. Some among humanity, regardless of which confessional identity they cling to, will be guided, but the “clear evidence” of this is not what they claim for themselves, but what they show to others. Religion, as a phenomenon of call and response to God has achieved that which very few other human behaviors have approached: the pursuit of self-betterment through the unselfish service of others and society. As for those who have their reward with their Lord, God alone is aware. As an added blessing, God provides us with many among His creation who disagree with us.

“The question is, what do we do in the face of such disagreement? The Qur’anic answer to this question seems quite clear. God has perfected your religion for you, so perfect your character so that you may worship Him. “

The question is, what do we do in the face of such disagreement? The Qur’anic answer to this question seems quite clear. God has perfected your religion for you, so perfect your character so that you may worship Him. Those who devote themselves to worship, who purify themselves, who are steadfast in believing, doing good deeds and practicing wisdom and patience will surely meet their Lord and receive a share of His mercy. In competing with one another to do good therefore, how do we encounter someone who claims to represent another tradition?

I have tried to establish that essential starting points for interaction in and discussion of matters of faith is a common humanity and that judgment in these matters belongs to God. He alone provides, fully constitutes, and ultimately rules on the success of believers. This success requires belief, but especially for purposes of the act of da’wa, that belief must be translated into acts of worship to God, which have imposed a social responsibility on God’s vicegerents.

If da’wa is truly a sincere desire to raise in others the awareness of their innate indebtedness to God and the necessity of divine grace for success in this life and the hereafter, then reasoned and critical engagements with one’s own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others, is essential. Shari’ah equips Muslims for this by protecting intellect, and the Islamic tradition describes Gabriel, the agent of revelation, as the “active intellect.” Furthermore, the revelation itself presents God as the educator of humanity: “Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.” (96:3-5) and “It is the Lord of Mercy who taught the Qur’an He created man and taught him to communicate.” (55:1-4).[10]  Communication from a position of confidence and self-assurance is very different from one of assumed supremacy or exclusive possession of the truth. The divine decree of diversity of belief is an opportunity to practice these skills and perfect our character in accordance with the Prophetic example.

Tariq Ramadan emphasizes in his The Quest for Meaning the necessity of coming back to terms with one’s self in an effort to return to God. With this in mind, Ramadan defines da’wa as the duty of every Muslim to “present Islam, explain the content of this Faith and the Islamic teaching as a whole.” He stresses that it:

must not be confused with either proselytism or efforts to convert: the duty of the Muslim is to spread the Message and to make it known, no more no less. Whether someone accepts Islam or not is not the Muslim’s concern for the inclination of every individual heart depends on God’s Will. The notion of da`wa is based on one principle which is the right of every human being to make a choice based on knowledge and this is why Muslims are asked to spread the knowledge of Islam among Muslims as well as non-Muslims.[11]

Andrew March sees in this definition an emphasis on “mutual recognition, restraint, and individual freedom” and notes that, “these values are partially derived from [Ramadan’s] comprehensive commitments: da’wa is actually a moral responsibility to increase knowledge and the range of choice in society for the good of others and of truth”[12] It is crucial that here, the good of others refers to both this life and the afterlife. It is not simply a focus on salvation, but a call to empower others to be more upright and successful in their human experience as well.

Self-critical theology as a basis for drawing closer to each other, and God

Theology, Tyler Roberts argues, must be experienced rather than merely observed from a far. The study of religion is a constant search for signs of life and receptivity to the truth in others and more importantly a challenge to be self-critical. He also suggests that faith should be understood through relationships: either the human to the divine, the human to the revealed or most importantly, the human to the human. This relationship, whether it be with a text or a person, Roberts says, is a challenge of call and response that requires personal openness, whether one is a believer or not, to “the possibility that religious discourse not only orients and places but also disorients and displaces.”[13] In the search for the universal, Ramadan warns:

Some have no qualms about arrogating to themselves the ground of universal values and stating, forcefully and arrogantly, ‘this is mine … and my people’s’. The quest for the universal is sometimes – and all too often – transformed from being a need to being a close and exclusive property, into an instrument of power and domination that has provoked wars and deaths, crusades, offensive and expansionist jihâds, forced conversions, civilizing missions, colonizations and so many other ‘misfortunes’ and ‘horrors’.[14]

If da’wa is perpetrated upon people as a means of furthering exclusivist claims, even if this is done in the name of supporting their eschatological success, it has already failed. Such approaches preserve dogmatic and taqlidi[15] mindsets which both betray the tradition and are obsolete in a modern context. The fruit of such divisive campaigns have seen an “Islam of identity” attempt to supplant an “Islam of truth” while the Muslim Ummah is splintered by nationalist ideology which has replaced religion as the unifying force.

“As Abou El Fadl observes, in Islamic terms, if coercion is required, the law has already failed in its purpose. Making sure the purposes and objectives of Shari’ah are continuously pursued requires an emphasis within Islam on freedom of conscience and the ongoing engagement and negotiation of Shari’ah…”
As Abou El Fadl observes, in Islamic terms, if coercion is required, the law has already failed in its purpose. Making sure the purposes and objectives of Shari’ah are continuously pursued requires an emphasis within Islam on freedom of conscience and the ongoing engagement and negotiation of Shari’ah. 10:99-100 is explicit in allowing unbelief, and outlining the limits of our responsibility: “Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe? No soul can believe except by God’s will, and He brings disgrace on those who do not use their reason.” It was God who chose Moses, and taught him the eloquence that he did not previously possess in order to invite Pharoah, the Qur’anic embodiment of oppression, ego, and human failings, to accept Islam and liberate the people of God’s covenant. Yet Moses was only partially successful. The Prophet Muhammad, who through his example and perfected character was the greatest da’i of all time, encountered numerous people and communities who did not accept his message. Despite this, he continued in his devotion, his love of God, and his love of all people. As God reminded him, Even the most successful of people, if they lack mercy, will never find the friendship of God.[16]

Towards Da’wa that Confirms and Upholds the Dignity of All Human Beings

Before I conclude this essay, I would like to draw attention to the possibility of a universal da’wa. Sachedina asserts, for example, that  “We need ethics as a moral language that is understood across different cultures and traditions, across different political systems. [An understanding of human decency] unites all human beings. There is a universal language in all religions.”[17] Such an understanding is crucial in da’wa. Encounters with (people of) religion must be conducted in a universally comprehensible moral language in which all potential Muslims (who already by virtue of their humanity are interacting with divine revelation) can recognize each other through reasonableness and the ongoing collective search for beauty in our human experience. Ramadan stresses the importance, and on this I will conclude, that:

each of us, man and woman, brother and sister, must first pay attention to what is going on in his/her own family and between his/her relatives. This is the first space for ad-da’wa that is based on love, knowledge and good example. It makes no sense to go around speaking about Islam when our own children are left abandoned and lost. We know that, of course, but still it remains important to be reminded.[18]

If the Qur’an is the perfect reminder to a specific group and in a specific time, that all people in all places and times belong to God, and to Him they shall return, and God has “made clear to people “that which is known” by means of His guidance” then Muslims must pass on that guidance to others, knowing its source and its judge is not themselves. In the words of Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.” Muslims have a duty to anyone on any path to remain upright, to reflect and be grateful for all the good in the world, in acknowledgement of its Source, and to help each other get up and continue to strive for His sake even when we inevitably fall.

Alexander Hayes is a graduate of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at George Mason University, where his work focused on Islamic legal and political ethics. He is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Religious Studies and contributes to Maydan and Jadaliyya. 

[1] Martin Nguyen, Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 17.

[2] Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam Vol I (University of Chicago Press, 1974), 73.

[3] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Usuli Institute Khutbah: “The Power of Ramadan: Fasting, Guidance and The Criterion,” 24 April 2020.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton University Press, 1977), 88.

[5]Abdulaziz Sachedina. The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. (Oxford University Press, 2001), 70.

[6] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Qur’anic Ethics and Islamic Law” in Journal of Islamic Ethics, Vol 1 Issue 1-2 p. 7-28 (Brill, July 2017), 25.

[7] Sachedina, 100.

[8] Abou El Fadl, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age  (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 399.

[9] Joseph Lumbard, Diversity, and Pluralism, A Qur’anic Perspective,” Keynote Address to the International Conference on Islamic Studies, January 29th, 2020.

[10] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem explains that, “Bayan (communication)” which can also be understood as eloquence, “involves both expressing oneself and understanding what has been expressed by others, including the Qur’an, which is called bayan and mubin.” 353.

[11] Tariq Ramadan, To Be a European Muslim: A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context (The Islamic Foundation, 2009), 134.

[12] Andrew F. March, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: the Search for an Overlapping Consensus (Oxford University Press, 2009), 174.

[13] Tyler T. Roberts, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism (Columbia University Press, 2013) 232.

[14] Ramadan, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (Penguin, 2012), 18.

[15] I use taqlid here to refer to the blind uncritical and unqualified conformity to a traditional opinion which fails to take context or changing realities into consideration.

[16] See Qur’an 69:33-36.

[17] Sachedina, GPI Podcast: “The Ethics of Islam”

[18] Ramadan, Da’wa in the West.