Rebecca Posner: The Ethical Roles of Sharia and Sufism in the Islamic World

Islam is a highly complex religion, with a long history that goes back for many centuries.  As a result, the Islamic worldview cannot be easily reduced down to a few simple concepts.  However, there are certain basic duties that every practicing Muslim is expected to adhere to.  These are known as the Five Pillars of Islam, and they attempt to define certain specific actions that encapsulate the main aspects of the experience of being Muslim.  The Five Pillars can be seen as duties that must be performed, and their origins can be traced back to the collection of laws and commentaries derived from various religious sources known as Sharia.  Sharia serves as a guide for proper, moral behavior in a very wide variety of situations, and differing interpretations of it have multiplied since the very beginnings of the religion.  Through studying Sharia, Muslims can gain a fuller understanding of what it means to have a good character and to behave ethically according to God’s wishes for humankind.  However, many Muslim scholars might claim that adherence to Sharia is primarily an intellectual task, and thus it is helpful to have an additional dimension of worship.  Sufism is a type of religious practice or discipline that is meant to help fill this gap.  It involves attempting to understand the fundamental nature of God through the heart, rather than trying to describe it using knowledge and words.  All of these facets of Islamic religious practice are important, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that a full understanding of ethics and the overall Islamic perspective on life would be difficult to summarize quickly.  The Islamic worldview also includes a number of philosophical and theological perspectives that come from different schools of thought, which have influenced the directions that scholarship on Sharia have taken.  In addition, it is important to note that Sunni and Shi’i thinkers (representing the two main denominations of Islam) have differing opinions on many of these topics.

One group of beliefs that both denominations agree on, though, is the Five Pillars of Islam.  They include shahadah (sincere profession of the basic tenets of the faith), salat (ritual prayer performed five times per day), zakat (giving charity), siyam (fasting, in particular during the holiday of Ramadan), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime).[1]  All practicing Muslims try to make an effort to perform these actions; one could consider them the baseline requirements for being a member of the religious community.  The existence of the Five Pillars is based largely on a deontological view of ethics, where one’s possession or lack of a good moral standing is directly correlated with whether or not one performs certain prescribed duties.[2]  Much of the Qur’an is concerned with this type of ethical perspective; in many passages, God states that human beings have specific responsibilities or obligations that they must fulfill in order to reach paradise.  These statements could also fall under the category of divine command ethics, where something is good precisely because God deems it to be so.

In addition to the Five Pillars, Sharia covers various actions that fall into a few different moral categories.  These categories include the required, the recommended, the indifferent or neutral, the reprehensible, and the forbidden.[3]  Thus, the Islamic ethical perspective includes not only things that one absolutely must do in order to please God (i.e. duties), but also things that have more nuance to them.  In addition, scholars who study Sharia are frequently concerned with the intention with which an action is performed.  Intention can potentially elevate or degrade an action under certain circumstances, or it can offer a path to forgiveness for someone who performed an action with good intentions that ended up having unexpectedly negative consequences.[4]  Another layer of complexity is added to every potential action by the depth of the source material that scholars draw from; traditionally, Sharia is based on the Qur’an, the literature of the Hadith, analogy (meaning the comparison of new developments with things that the Prophet talked about in order to determine what his stance might have been), and the consensus of scholars.  In the Shi’i tradition, analogy is replaced by the reasoning of individual scholars.[5]  Because of all of these potential shades of meaning for each action, it is possible for those who study and practice Islam to spend most of their time in intellectual contemplation of God’s commandments.

Islam, however, is not solely a religion of the mind.  There is a significant emotional component, embodied in part by the Sufi tradition of mysticism, that offers a religious experience that goes beyond the study of God’s individual commandments.  Sufis liken the practice of Sharia to “polishing the heart” in order to make it reflect the moral beauty of the world.  This is only an initial step towards union with God, however.  The ultimate goal of Sufism is to become aware of God’s oneness and majesty through direct experience, rather than through the work of the intellect.  Many mystics use the metaphor of taste to describe this goal; one can spend many years studying literature and hearing what others have to say about how a particular food tastes, but none of this can compare to or substitute for the experience of actually tasting the food oneself.[6]  In this case, tasting the food can be likened to seeing and feeling God’s presence, and studying the food stands in for the study of Sharia.  The process of getting spiritually and emotionally close to God is a long one, but rewarding enough that Sufism has had a strong influence on Islamic theological thinking for a long time.

Everyday rituals, law and mysticism are major components of the Islamic worldview, but they do not encapsulate the entirety of Islam itself.  Nevertheless, studying these topics can offer a useful introduction to how Muslims understand morality in a variety of situations.  The diversity of approaches and ethical viewpoints within Islam has helped to strengthen it throughout its long history and gives individual followers of the religion guidance in living morally upright lives.


[1] Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print. Page 163.

[2] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/30/2016

[3] Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul: Paragon House, 1994. Print. Page 23.

[4] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/30/2016

[5] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/21/2016

[6] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/07/2016