Léo Anderson: The Role of Ethics and Ritual in Shaping Islamic Worldview

The Islamic worldview is informed by the principles, ethics and the practice of Islam, in which devotional rituals are the ways that central Islamic values and ethical principles manifest themselves when put into practice in daily life. In this response paper, I will explore the relationship between the most essential Islamic ethical tenets, and how they translate into practical ritual to show that faith and practice influence each other to create the paradigm of the wider Islamic worldview. In short, ethics and ritual are interconnected, and revolve around certain elements that are central to Islam.

 

Fundamental Principles

First, we will focus on tawhid, one of the 3 Shahadas, or principles of faith. Tawhid is the most fundamental principle of Islam, that “there is no god but God” (Murata & Chittick, 45). This concept of monotheism stresses the oneness of Allah, which defines “islam”—to submit or surrender to the omnipresent entity that is God. To understand the pervasiveness and oneness of God is impossible without divine revelation through the Qur’an, as God lies beyond human vision. Despite the foundation nature of tawhid, there is already a divide over how Muslims should connect with this one supreme being, and to understand the relationship between human beings and God. The terms tanzih and tashbih are used to contrast the perceptions of the distance between humans and God. Tanzih means that God is pure and free from defects thus dissimilar and distant from humans; this farness is viewed as transcendence, awe, wrath and fear that can be incited by God. On the other hand, Tashbih declares that God is similar to his creations, or human beings, who were gifted with certain attributes such as life, knowledge, mercy that belong to God; this closeness highlights the accessibility, mercy and compassion of God (Murata & Chittick, 71). While Sunni & Shia Kalam experts emphasize tanzih and assert that there is a distance to humanity, who cannot possibly see God, Sufis emphasize tashbih, that Allah’s nearness to humanity allows humans to see God in this world through the eye of the heart (Murata & Chittick, 277). This disagreement is also rooted in the difference in principles, where Sunni and Shia Muslims believe in a rationality that comes from observing the world around them, while Sufis believe that the senses cannot be trusted because they are subject to interpretation and change (Lecture 15). The various understandings of divine presence heavily influence the world views and practices of the Sunni, Shia and the more mystical Sufis.

Another major element of Islamic faith is divine love, and how the nature of this love determines the relationship between God and humans. God’s favoritism of humans traces back to their very creation, when human beings agreed, out of ignorance, to carry the trust of God while all other creations denied such a responsibility (Lecture 10). This preference is explicitly articulate in Qur’an, where human beings are referred to as the “vice-regents of God on Earth” and the best of all creations, in which the universe was created for them. Furthermore, God’s love is said to be always directed at human beings, indicating a special relationship between humans and God (Murata & Chittick, 287). This love stems from a certain trust that is placed in human beings that is only possible because of their autonomy, and is what makes them distinctive from any of God’s other creations (Lecture 10). This freedom is an important quality in even becoming a Muslim and practicing islam, to make the choice to submit and become a servant of God (Murata & Chittick, 124).

God’s justice in relation to free will is another important element of contention in Islamic faith. There is a general consensus across Islamic believers that human beings have free choice in their actions. However, there are those who dissent to the concept of free will, and base much of their belief on hadith literature, which is strikingly deterministic. The Jabriyya were a group that denied human beings any power over their own actions, and the ethical disputes raised by this stance are numerous (Brown, 198). If everything were predetermined in advance, then why should the players put any effort into the game? Furthermore, how could humans exercise the will to be the “vice-regents” of God if they had to choice in their judgements and decisions on earth? Similarly, moral problems over God’s judgement and punishment arose—if God punished or rewarded humans for the very deeds he made them perform, it would be in direct contradiction to the Qur’an, which calls for moral action and promises reward or punishment over good and bad deeds, or any conceptions of divine justice. Thus belief in the justice of God requires a belief in human freedom, to make moral decisions on good or bad decisions, and even to become genuine, virtuous believers of Islam.

 

Devotional Rituals (Putting them into practice)

As Islam is an orthopraxy instead of an orthodoxy, it stresses good conduct over proper ways of belief, as exemplified by over half of Islamic legal texts produced since the 9th century being focused on devotional rituals (Mahallati, Lecture 11). The most obvious element of ritual practice in Islam are the 5 pillars. They embody the act of serving God—part of ‘ibada, the wider obligatory and recommended ritual actions that Muslims perform (Murata & Chittick, 125). They consist of the Shadada, to profess one’s faith in God and 3 principles of faith, Salat, the daily prayers, Zakat, or almsgiving, Sawm, to fast during Ramadan, and the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Because taking action and showing faith through good deeds are so central to Islam, the 5 pillars are a central tenet in envisioning and actively practicing the fundamental principles of Islam. Worship shows the practical implication of tawhid, as believers mush orient themselves to what is Real by their prostration only to God alone. Making the decision to actively perform Salat on a daily basis affirms the freedom in which the believer is submitting to God out of their own will, and reciprocating the trust and love that God has in them. In doing what is good and beautiful, Muslims themselves can become beautiful, thus achieving Ishan, which “brings one’s motivations and psychological qualities into harmony with one’s activity and understanding” (Murata & Chittick, 267). Islamic worldview is guided and determined by the principles of faith and the behaviors that exemplify belief in the submission to the oneness of God, his love and trust in human beings. It is in these ways that practice and faith influence each other, and unify the wider Islamic community.

 

 

Bibliography:

Brown, D. A New Introduction to Islam, 3rd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture notes. September 13, 2017.

Murata, S. and Chittick, W. The vision of Islam. London: New York, 2006.