Leo Hochberg: Ethics, Paradigms, and the Islamic Worldview

To understand the Islamic worldview, one must first consider the primary pillar of Islam, the shahada. While the profession of faith appears simple, comprehending its deeper meaning requires an explanation of its underlying notion, tawhid – the Unity of God. The most accurate description of tawhid’s relationship with Islam to be found in available source material is provided by Brown. “Acceptance of the unity of God was the foundational religious duty, and the proof of authentic belief was in deeds not words: a true monotheist must act like a true monotheist, and anyone who demonstrates devotion to any being other than God is, by definition, an idolater and a non-Muslim,” (Brown, 246). At its heart, the notion of tawhid defines two truths about God. The first is His unity; Allah is indivisible, omnipotent, and completely unique from all other things. Many Muslims even consider anthropomorphic language such as “being”, “existing”, and “indivisible” to be inaccurate, as these only function in philosophical discourse due to God’s distinct removal from humanity. This gives rise to the second notion, which is His ‘greatness’, although, once again, such terms cannot describe Him as He is far beyond human comprehension. God is not simply greater than all other things. He is above and beyond our powers of description; so far beyond, in fact, that no word or concept of human invention could accurately put a label on the notions we so humanely attempt to describe as ‘omnipotent’ or ‘all-wise’. (Aslan, 152-53). In tawhid we see a contrast to external expressions of tradition which can theoretically be performed in the absence of faith. Respecting and surrendering to the Unity of God are internal constructions, thus defining them as spiritually superior to any physical statement or action in Islam. Belief in tawhid, on an extremely simplified level, is a testament to one’s personal character as a Muslim. Performing any other rituals without this essential internal facet would, as mentioned above by Brown, fail to fulfill one’s duty as a Muslim, and thus mark them as a nonbeliever. It is this notion that makes the shahada so critical within Islamic tradition – in stating, “The is no god but God and Muhammad is His prophet”, one proclaims their belief in tawhid, and indeed their faith in Allah. Of course, internal truth is known only by to oneself and to God, but in a tradition so indispensably constructed upon communal religious identity, the shahada exclaims belief to all those who hear it. Yet a philosophical and inward look does not entirely capture the Islamic scope when considering God’s role – one must also look to the historically divisive notion of predestination.

In the great epic of the ideological foundation of Islam, predestination can be divided into two main camps. The first, known as the Mu’tazilites, reigned among the ulama for roughly a century following the death of the prophet. The Mu’tazilites were rationalists. Effectively, they believed that God was both distant and transcendent. He does not control the facets of everyday life – rather, each person is responsible for his or her own actions. As Aslan describes, “God, while fundamentally ineffable, nevertheless exists within the framework of human reason… [as such], all theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought,” (Aslan, 155). The Mu’tazilites soon lost control in the ummah, but their rationality-based ideologies defining God as bound by some universal paradigmatic laws have enjoyed a resurgence in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, to the Ash’rites, defining God’s actions as right on wrong was strictly blasphemous. In their traditionalist ideology, it was God’s very actions that decided what was right and wrong, and as such, He is even responsible for the micromanagement of the universe. All things that have come and all things that have yet to come are predestined by Him: “A human being is in reality no different from an inanimate object when it comes to agency; he is absolutely powerless… to say ‘so and so did such and such’ is similar to saying ‘the sun rose’,” (Brown, 175). Critics of this notion proclaimed that if God is beyond all-powerful and beyond all-good, then the existence of evil should be impossible. The Ash’rites fought back, stating that it is simply beyond the mortal perspective to understand why God would permit evil – that is simply His way. The argument is just one of many reflections of a singular paradigmatic question that has become so critical in the Islamic worldview; what is God like? Does He have describable characteristics? Does He have a face, as humans do? And how exactly does He exert influence over creation? Opinions shift consistently among Muslims around the world, and most likely will remain unanswered. This amorphous movement of philosophy translates effectively to many other aspects of Islam, one of the most important being ethics.

Islamic ethics, rather than question what God is, confronts a more material paradigm; who gets the privilege of His company the afterlife? In other words, what makes one a good Muslim? The simplest answer comes down to observance of the five pillars and keeping God within one’s heart. In the words of the prophet, “Islam is serving God without associating anything with Him, performing the ordered salat, paying over the obligatory zakat, sand fasting during Ramadan,” (Brown, 180). However, studies in Muslim ethics over the course of Islam’s history has given rise to a bountiful series of literature and philosophical works concerning what is right, what is wrong, and what lies in between the two. The vast majority of the Muslim community has historically referred to the Qur’an as the primary source of general guidance. This has resulted in a five-tiered ranking system as dictated by Shariah.

  • Wajib – Obligatory actions. This includes actions for which a Muslim will be punished for skipping, such as prayer, respecting tawhid, and upholding the sanctity of life.
  • Mustabah – Meritorious actions. This includes actions that are not necessary of all Muslims, but that should be performed if possible. Examples include unsolicited charity, social elegance, fasting during other holy months (such as Rajab and Sha’ban), and visiting family and neighbors.
  • Mubah – Neutral/permitted actions. If the Qur’an is silent on the nature of an action, then its legality or relative ‘goodness’ can be deferred to Hadith, similarity to another Qur’anic or Hadith ruling (known as qiya), consensus of the ulama, or, if there is no possible consensus, to the objective reasoning of a scholarly individual. Some traditions (such as modern Mu’tazilites) may place the value of reason higher or lower depending on personal interpretation of tradition.
  • Mahruk – Reprehensible actions. This includes actions that are considered frowned upon by the Qur’an, but that do not always warrant punishment.
  • Muharam – Forbidden actions. Those who commit such actions have failed to fulfill their duties as Muslims. This includes murder, polytheism, usury, and for some the consumption of alcohol. (Imam Reza Network).

The Shariah, more a system of laws than a system of ethics, goes into significantly more detail concerning what actions are acceptable in the Muslim community. However, its scope is far larger that can be discussed here, and its legislation is more centered around jurisprudence than the ethical characteristics of the heart. However, this dichotomy does handily outline the true center of Islam. To be a good Muslim, one must balance internal submission to God with an external attention to worldly ethics. Love for the one God is paramount, but a good Muslim must find equilibrium between piety and charity.




Aslan, Reza. No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House, 2011.


Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.


“Five Categories of Laws in Islam.” Imam Reza Network. Accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.imamreza.net/eng/imamreza.php?id=5631.