Hayley Segall: Moral Codes and Paradigms of Islam

Islam has a highly codified moral and legal system in which behaviors and expectations of Muslim followers are founded in sacred works such as the Quran, the Hadith, pre-Islamic traditions, and reason[1].  There are many ways to describe Islamic ethics and paradigms, but the more effective way is to explore how the structures of Islamic law and pillars interact with foundational ethical standards. Three of the most important ethical expectations of Islam are intention, repentance, and accountability. As a faith that is decidedly action oriented, the standards of behavior may be measured through five categories of Islamic law: wajib (obligatory acts), mandub (recommended acts), mubah (neutral acts), munkar (despised acts), and haram (forbidden acts)[2]. The interaction of ethical behavior with the mores and standards of Islamic society emphasizes the importance of consciousness and the complexity of attaching epistemology and daily-life rituals. This piece will explore how intention, repentance, and accountability interact and function in legal and religious contexts of Islamic society by relating each to three of the five pillars of Islam (zakat or charity, sawm or fasting, and hajj or pilgrimage) and the eventual goal of Paradise.

One of the most important ethical concepts of Islam is the notion of intention, or al-Niyya. According to Prophet Muhammad, “All actions are measured by their intentions”[3]. This brings up a question of what intention truly means. In the context of Islam, intention implies a broader consciousness in a person’s actions as to how they would be perceived by standards of Islamic law, and more importantly by God. According to Professor Mahallati, Islam says that a human being cannot control the results of their actions but may and must learn from the consequences of said actions[4]. If their intent is to follow the word of God and live a moral life in accordance with Sharia law, then their mistakes bare less weight on the ability to achieve Paradise. According to the Quran, ignorance is the true sin[5]. This implies that a person whose intent is in the right place, and uses the consequences of mistakes to educate and correct themselves, is truly righteous. As an example, if someone’s intention is to give charity, zakat, to an orphan, this is seen as a cardinal virtue[6].  Even if this orphan ends up suffering due to the charity given, the giver’s intent was to follow the third pillar of Islam, the demands of God, and therefore will not be punished for one’s deed.

Repentance, or tawhah, becomes an important factor in recovering a violation of ethical standards. Within the Sufi denomination, repentance is the first, and most major, stage of the seven stages towards religious enlightenment. Within the concept of repentance lie three levels of sophistication. The regular Muslims will avoid all sin; the select Muslims will avoid all slips and possibilities of sin; the select of the select (the most ideal) will repent from all rights and repentance[7]. This concept of repentance emphasizes the importance of consciousness in one’s thought, something that, as previously described, is expected of action through intent. While repentance is an essential, possibly majib, action, forgiveness of sin committed by another is not required, rather recommended (mandub), to reach Paradise; in other words, forgiveness is a virtue, not a duty[8]. Professor Mahallati explained that many will repent their sin and apologize to those whom them have wronged before going on Hajj, because without the benevolent forgiveness of whom they have wronged, their Hajj loses religious meaning. This holds heavy weight as, according to McAuliffe “The pilgrim returns home unstained as he was at the moment of birth and able to face the final judgment”[9]. The concept of choice to sin, duty to repent, but choice to forgive emphasizes the responsibility and trust endowed to humans from God; sins against others cannot be forgiven by God, so human relationships hold heavy weight in the ability to reach Paradise.

Accountability is an essential ethic in the Islamic faith. Because followers have the choice to sin, and must have a consciousness for their intent and repentance, all their actions, good or bad, must be answered to. The notion of accountability connects Muslims to their own community members against whom they may sin as well as to God whom they face on judgement day. If one violates Sharia law by murdering, an action strictly forbidden (haram), they will be held accountable both by their peers and then by God. The family of the deceased may either choose retaliation in kind (eye for an eye), monetary compensation, or simple forgiveness[10]. Further, when the murderer attempts to walk across the sirat bridge (narrow passage that evaluates moral balance in earthly life) after their own passing, God will hold them accountable for committing a prohibited sin, and send them to Hell fire[11]. Accountability is attached to every behavior committed by a person, but with intent in mind. For example, if one does not fast during Ramadan, sawm, due to old age or health reasons, their intent is not to sin even though the consequence is that they have. These violations will not require accountability, but rather these followers will find other ways to participate in tradition to maintain piety.

As evidenced through analysis of three of the most important ethics of Islam, codes of behavior and thought are all deeply related and integrated into notions of maintaining a good relationship with God and creating a positive scale of good deeds to bad as to be able to go to Paradise after death. If one’s intent is to please God for the sake of being a moral person, they are seen as the most liberal and ideal of believers. Similarly, if one repents for the sins they have committed with a like consciousness that they repent in vain, they are the select of the select in sophistication. Finally, one who is aware of and accepts accountability for their intent and actions sets themselves up for a truly moral and pious life. All moral standards of Islam interrelate and appear in each religious paradigm and ritual.



[1] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[2] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[3] Moosa, Ebrahim. Ethical Landscape: Laws, Norms and Morality. Pg 38.

[4] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[5] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[6] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[7] Mahallati, Jafar. Sufism. Lecture. 11 October 2017.

[8] Mahallati, Jafar. The Islamic Virtues & Vices. Lecture. 29 September 2017.

[9] McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2015). Pg 304.

[10] Mahallati, Jafar. The Essentials of the Islamic Worldview. Lecture. 22 September 2017.

[11] Mahallati, Jafar. Eschatology. Lecture. 27 September 2017.