From its inception, as a topic of research, this study, titled, Islamic Ethics: Fundamental Aspects of Human Conduct (Oxford University Press 2022) was searching for a reliable anchor for the historical setting and development of practical ethics closely aligned with religious practice. Could it be theological/religious ethics? Could it be Aristotelian virtue ethics away from traditional textual entanglement?
Historically, the critical question for Muslim religious thought has been to establish a logical epistemological connection between the two fields of law and ethics to demonstrate a cognitively undeniable correlation between reason and revelation in derivation of authoritative orthopraxy. The debatable aspect of this attempt to affiliate law and ethics was whether such a relationship could be shown to be solely the product of a religious worldview firmly founded upon scriptural authority of the Qur’an and the Sunna, or whether it was possible to guide human moral conduct with minimal reference to revelatory sources. The idea about the correlation between the findings of reason and those of revelation was the result of the logical necessity connected with continuation of reliable guidance for the post-prophetic developing and culturally diverse Muslim societies.
The present study on Islamic ethics comes at almost the end of my career in academia. From all that I had studied in my history, philosophy, and Islamic studies courses I was confident that there existed a far-reaching connection between religion and ethics in Islamic tradition.
The present study on Islamic ethics comes at almost the end of my career in academia [Editor’s note: Please see this interview with Prof. Sachedina we published on the Maydan in 2017 to learn more about his life and academic journey.]. From all that I had studied in my history, philosophy, and Islamic studies courses I was confident that there existed a far-reaching connection between religion and ethics in Islamic tradition. My graduate work in Islamic studies further confirmed the contours of the debate among Muslim scholars who often deliberated about the priority of locating ethics as a fundamental source for deriving epistemic guidelines about human conduct. Historically, the critical question for Muslim religious thinkers has been to establish a logical epistemological relation between the two fields of law and ethics to validate a cognitively undeniable correlation between reason and revelation in derivation of authoritative orthopraxy. The controversial aspect of this attempt to affiliate law and ethics was whether such a relationship could be shown to be solely the product of a religious worldview firmly founded upon scriptural authority, or whether it was possible to guide human moral conduct without reference to any revelatory sources. The emerging idea was about the relationship between reason and revelation to provide continuous guidance for the developing and culturally diverse Muslim societies, principally by taking into consideration historical circumstances that determined the contemporary social and political practice. The main thrust of the classical Muslim intellectual development was to anchor moral epistemology reliably within the primarily religious sources to underscore its inseparable and logical relationship to interpretive jurisprudence that provided time-specific responsa in general to resolve pressing issues related to everyday practice. The universal moral truth that was endowed by God’s nature (fatrat allah) in humankind and was acquired rationally did not require religious affiliation or scriptural justificatory reasoning. The more immediate religious inquiry was not to explore the sources of human conduct; rather, it was to comprehend divine will as it related to human life in this and the next world. God’s will, as declared by the revelation, was embodied in the divinely ordained system that would define and formulate the boundaries of orthopraxy. This was the scope of the emerging field of interpretive jurisprudence (al-fiqh) in the classical period.
The Qur’an laid the moral foundation of Islam on a universal idiom that sought to apply moral values to all human beings, regardless of their religious affiliation. It was an a priori endorsement of intuitive reason’s ability to autonomously pursue happiness. This was the core of Islamic secularity, which held all of humanity accountable for their conduct irrespective of their membership in a faith community. The relationship between religiously and non-religiously informed moral conduct was emphasized in the Qur’an so that, despite their religious differences, human beings were guided to learn to live in peace and harmony with one another. The emphasis on human coexistence and cooperation as part of civic virtues was founded upon the idea of justice and fairness as the essential principles needed to regulate interhuman relations. Islamic revelation provided the moral-cum-religious idiom to initiate the notion of inclusive political society that, in addition to the legal-ethical responsibilities of all people living under Muslim political order established by the Prophet, afforded human nature a critical role in extracting universal values to organize a multifaith society. Human nature was conceived as a central doctrine of the revelation that regarded human beings as totalities that manifest all the attributes of the macrocosm (al-‘alam al-akbar), of which other creatures are simply parts of a whole (al-‘alam al-asghar). This latter objective was proposed in the historical document known as the Constitution of Medina.
In my studies in Islamic jurisprudence, at various points I have engaged in initiating discussions about the profound relation between theology, law, and ethics, based on a key question: How integral is the subject of morality to the study of Islamic religious law? Whether dealing with the legality and morality of engaging in offensive militancy in the name of jihad or the constitutionality of highest juridical authority in matters of the Shari‘a rulings, how does ethics become integrated in jurisprudence? At what stage of their legal-moral evaluation of historical paradigms are the jurists actively engaged in introducing these rational maxims as part of their search for universal moral law or ethics? Contemporary research has demonstrated that juridical methodology (usul al-fiqh) from the classical age was based on the strictures provided by the revelation and extrapolated with the aid of reason. One of the most striking features of this methodology is the critical sifting and authenticating of the textual repository by revealing the incongruency of the traditions ascribed to the early community. Both linguistic and lexicographical investigation was based on comprehending the ordinary language as spoken by Arabs in the classical age—the Qur’anic Arabic. It is not far-fetched to suggest that rational inquiry (al-ijtihad al-‘aqli) in ordinary language provided legal scholars with analytical tools to direct human relations resolutely based on moral principles resulting from scriptural values. This rational inquiry undertook to resolve the inconsistencies and disagreements between revelation and reason in determining the cognitively valid orthopraxy. The latter resolution indicated the development of legal theory that, on the one hand, provided thoroughly text-based orthopraxy to the community and, on the other, provided it with rationally extricated ethics of relationship for interpersonal and intercommunal harmony.
My interest in religious ethics was sparked by my substantial interest in juridical studies. I wanted to investigate the relationship between juridical theology and ethics: How does ethics interrogate the cognitive validity of judicial decisions? Is it by extracting moral principles from moral and factual elements secured by rational analysis of moral experiences and judgments or by evaluating and comprehending the types of moral reasoning that revelatory sources like the Qur’an and the Sunna employ to infer the right course of action? In other words, my research was based on clarifying the intimate, and almost inevitable, relationship between law and ethics in Islam. The major obstacle to achieving this objective, as I discovered in my readings in interpretive jurisprudence, was the way Muslim jurists conceived the project of deriving valid orthopraxy without formally taking up ethics as an organically related field to analyze and acquire authentic orthopraxy.
Muslim scholars of jurisprudence, in view of their emphasis on divinely ordained text-based morality, regarded rational ethics as derived on the basis of morally infused human nature and intuitive reason superfluous. For these jurists, religion preserved in juridical sources and practice was sufficient to guide humanity to life in both this world and the hereafter. In principle, the classical curriculum for religious education in Muslim seminaries (madrasa) primarily included subjects that critically evaluated transmitted sources (al-naql) and developed an adequate methodology for the derivation of orthopraxy (ahkam) based on linguistic and lexical analysis of classical heritage. Nevertheless, linguistic and lexicographical studies continued to encounter rationally derived scriptural moral principles integral to religious law. Revelatory sources attained authoritative status in epistemological hierarchy as the principal source of both the orthodoxy and the orthopraxy, with the caveat that its epistemology relied heavily upon the divinely inspired textual repository.
As long as the founder of Islam was alive, questions about the role of divinely endowed intuitive reason (al-‘aql) in relation to the absolute authority of the revelation (al-naql) defined the parameters of interaction between reason and revelation. And although the orthopraxy depended consistently on the paradigmatic authority of the Prophet and the early community to derive the Sunna (Tradition) as part of the scriptural basis, the role of reason remained disputed by those who emphasized traditionalism (ahl al-hadith) as its primary source for solving the expansive problems generated by social and political transformation of Muslim society. In my many years in Iran and Iraq (between 1966 and 1979) the epistemology that prevailed and dominated the seminarian educational culture was, strictly speaking, text-bound and avoided entanglement with rationalist universalism that characterized moral philosophy in the modern world. Consequently, investigation of the nuances and theories of moral philosophy was shunned for fear of the relativity of ethical opinions and plans of action under the impact of modernity. To put it differently, religious law was regarded as sufficiently equipped with moral philosophy and was actually integrated with the religion of Islam. Religion, according to this understanding, was one and the same with ethics. There was no need to separate the two fields that dealt with the teleology—ends or goals pursued by human minds—that transcended the divinely decreed deontic nature requiring humans to obey the divinely commanded praxis. I did not gauge the fear of universalism or secularity in the 1960s since religious authorities everywhere in the Muslim world were retreating from their claim to speak authoritatively for the orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Modernization had been introduced through mass education and intellectual development external to the seminaries.
There was another fear about admitting ethics as a separate discipline that seemed to challenge and outstrip the monopoly of religious authority as the sole representative of authoritative orthopraxy and substitute that for modernly educated men and women, modern in outlook and secular in their approach to everyday problems faced by men and women.
There was another fear about admitting ethics as a separate discipline that seemed to challenge and outstrip the monopoly of religious authority as the sole representative of authoritative orthopraxy and substitute that for modernly educated men and women, modern in outlook and secular in their approach to everyday problems faced by men and women. Ironically the moral foundation of the Qur’anic guidance to lead humanity to accomplish moral excellence in social transactions was overtaken by the overemphasis on deontic normative concepts and normative reasoning. Revelatory notions of obligation (ilzam, wujub), permission (jawaz), prohibition (tahrim), and related concepts were part of these deontic commandments that undertook the project to reveal the necessity of bringing back the revelatory goal of creating a moral order in which all humanity was guided and required to follow the ethical impulse infused in human nature in addition to the guidance embedded in the revelation.
In view of the epistemological and ontological objectives of this research, the study of Islamic ethics has a limited objective of indicating an extensive itinerary pursued by Muslim scriptural as well as juridical sources to show, however implicitly, historical and theological-juridical notions and/or conceptions related to religious praxis that epistemically and ontologically pursued the path that led to prosperity in this and the next world. Accordingly, the legal-moral reasoning became an indispensable part of formulating the deontological ethics of Islamic juridical tradition. The scriptural guidance in Islam connected the ultimate salvation to adherence to orthopraxy. Muslims were obligated to discover God’s will in acts of obedience that guaranteed salvation to those who performed righteous actions. The scope of interpretive jurisprudence was to provide methodological procedures to ascertain the reliability of orthopraxy derived from revelatory sources like the Qur’an and the Tradition. The research traces the evolution of legal-ethical reasoning that has provided the conceptualization and compliance of reason with the standards and precepts provided in the revelation to advance human endeavors to identify processes that lead to meaningful existence. Moreover, it advances the major question in interpretive jurisprudence, namely: how to adhere to deontological ethics of the Shari‘a to seek what is advantageous and beneficial by performing all those acts that are prescribed as morally obligatory while avoiding those that are disapproved by the divine lawgiver. Muslim jurists had to grapple with a fundamental uncertainty about the ramifications of rational methodology (al-ijtihad al-‘aqli) that questioned cognitive validity of textuality promoted as unadulterated evidence without ascertaining their judicious reliability. Reliability of textual evidence depended upon its sound transmission, which in turn depended upon investigation of transmitted information and its congruity with the overall objectives of the Shari‘a. The traditions were meticulously scrutinized for their admission as documentation prior to the formulation of a moral-religious action-guide (taklif).
This study marks the departure from that Orientalist approach to uncover the path followed by Muslim legal scholars in the development of the juridical methodology to derive the Shari‘a. This legal methodology is deeply rooted in Islamic revelation – the Qur’an and the Sunna (Tradition) and the scholarly consensus.
The present study in Islamic Ethics introduces the reader to appraise the centrality of ethics as the most critical subject in directing the religious-social practice of the Muslim community. It introduces the field of ethics by reinvestigating the Islamic juridical heritage in the classical sources and their application in the contemporary Muslim societies. Until now, Islamic ethics has been studied as part of the philosophical discourse that has been greatly influenced by the Greek ethical tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle. This study marks the departure from that Orientalist approach to uncover the path followed by Muslim legal scholars in the development of the juridical methodology to derive the Shari‘a. This legal methodology is deeply rooted in Islamic revelation – the Qur’an and the Sunna (Tradition) and the scholarly consensus. Islamic religious sources are imbued with moral principles that have guided the religious-moral practice (the orthopraxy) in all its private and public facets to provide reliable practice for the organization of the community and its institutions. The important finding of the study underscores the close working relationship between spiritual and temporal, religious and secular, in Islamic ethics, simply because of the integrated nature of God’s rights and human rights – the substance of the Shari‘a that guided the orthopraxy by providing a set of fundamental values and their application in a comprehensively conceived blueprint for a total life on earth. The study demonstrates the need to go beyond philosophical ethics of virtue and refinement of human character to underscore the importance of ethics to the formulation of religious-moral procedures based on reason and revelation in the Muslim interpretive jurisprudence.
 Mithaq al-madina simply means a “contract between [Muhammad and the Jewish tribes] in Madina” and has been translated as “constitution” by W. Montgomery Watt in his monumental study of the early history of Muslim community, Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956). Watt discusses the Constitution of Medina, its sources, objectives, and reliability, in Chapter VII, pp. 221ff.
Abdulaziz Sachedina, Ph.D., is Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Dr. Sachedina, who has studied in India, Iraq, Iran, and Canada, obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He has been conducting research and writing in the field of Islamic Law, Ethics, and Theology (Sunni and Shiite) for more than two decades. In the last ten years he has concentrated on social and political ethics, including Interfaith and Intrafaith Relations, Islamic Biomedical Ethics and Islam and Human Rights. Dr. Sachedina’s publications include: Islamic Messianism (State University of New York, 1980); Human Rights and the Conflicts of Culture, co-authored (University of South Carolina, 1988) The Just Ruler in Shiite Islam (Oxford University Press, 1988); The Prolegomena to the Qur’an (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2002), Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Theory and Application (Oxford University Press, February 2009), Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, September 2009), in addition to numerous articles in academic journals. He is an American citizen born in Tanzania.