Anna McLean: The Basis and Structure of Qur’anic Morality

The Qur’anic Moral Order

Like many structured religions, Islam has a variety of rules and regulations concerning how humans ought to live on earth, according to the wishes of God. These rules prescribing actions that are morally right, wrong, or inconsequential make up a large part of the content of the Qur’an itself, and it, along with the prophetic Hadith, lays out a moral structure and general behavioral guidelines for followers of the Islamic faith. The Qur’anic moral structure is largely based on man’s responsibility as a individual with free will, and whether an action that man chooses to take is right or wrong is based predominantly on the normative morals of the time, as well as what is best for the continuation and growth of the religion of Islam. The nature of actions, and what counts as good or bad, is hotly debated throughout the Islamic world and has grown from the time of the prophet into a fascinating school of exegesis.

The separation between humankind and the rest of God’s creation is humankind’s free will and, by extension, their ability to choose.1 God chose to give humans this ability and as the Qur’an says, “Had He wished He would have guided you all.”2 However, he wanted humans to be creators in his own image, so he gave us free will and the universe. This ability is apparent in everything humans do. If humans were to stop choosing, humans would stop doing anything at all. Our continued existence on this earth is, itself, a choice we make, and removing ourselves from it, while forbidden by the Qur’an, is also a choice we have the power to make at any time. This unique human power becomes the root of morality, because with choice comes options, some good and some bad.3 If you have no options, and what you are going to do is decided for you by God, there is no way you can do a bad action, or a good action. There is just the action, predetermined and therefore neutral. It is choice that gives moral weight to what you decide to do. Because of this, the foundations of the Qur’anic moral structure rests of the idea of humans as individuals, not humans as a whole. According to this individual focused morality, each person is responsible for him or herself, and do not and can not bear the burdens of their peers or of past humans.4 This is distinctly different from Christianity in particular, in which not only is there a primordial sin but there is also Christ who dies for the sins of the world, and therefor takes the sins of his followers onto his shoulders. In Islam, is this considered impossible. There is no primordial sin, and in fact all humans are considered to be good in basic primordial nature; no sin is assumed of them. As the Qur’an says, “This is the primordial nature that God implanted in mankind—there can be no change in God’s creation.”5 Because every human is judged based off of their choices, the sin of their ancestors including Adam and Eve has no impact on them. This is obviously a huge departure from the other Abrahamic faiths, and I think an extremely positive and wholly more fair method of judgement. In addition, it is considered if not impossible, extremely rare for any one person to be able to intercede and absolve another person of their sins, as every competent person is responsible for their own actions.6 This is the moral basis on which every human is judged upon the Day of Judgement, and on that day everyone will know the full moral weight of their actions.7

After acknowledging the origin of morality as free will, the natural question then arises: how do we know what is a good action and what is a bad action? On of the worst states in Islam is kufr, or “the total loss of moral energy”8, is a state of disbelief and rejection of truth that is generally considered to be the worst thing that you can do. Not believing or following the Islamic faith is considered to be the worst choice. Kufr is often thought of as being about thought, if one is thinking or feeling correctly. Interestingly, however, Islamic scholar Izutsu argues that kufr means to cover up the truth, and that only actions can be considered kufr.9 In addition, it is subject to following normative beliefs, but is composed of overarching kufr categories that allow for more fluidity in Islamic law, and therefor keeps these laws relevant as society shifts.10

However, this has not been the common practice of Islam throughout its existence. While the Qur’an’s official answer to why something is moral or immoral within Islam is essentially because God said so11, many of the explicit actions that the Qur’an and Hadiths categorize involve the normative morals of the time and what is best for the resilience and growth of the Islamic religion and society. The Qur’an largely fits in with what would be considered normal for the society in which it was birthed, and even offers different options to suit a particular time or culture. For example, there are multiple suggestions given for punishment for murder: retaliation, compensation, and forgiveness.12 While some might argue that justice should default to the harshest or to the most forgiving, I find it more convincing that the Qur’an offers three to accommodate the different capacities and cultures of Islam throughout the ages. This tactic is important to keep the resiliency and relevancy of Islam alive, and when the Qur’an fails there have been instances of culture superseding religion as in the case of stoning, which was widely practiced but not provided for in the Qur’an13. Many of its strictest laws, the wajib or obligatory things,14 are focused on maintaining the commitment of the followers of Islam. The main ones are the five pillars, all of which are focused on keeping the devotion of Islam’s followers. The Hajj, daily prayer, and fasting are all acts of deep devotion and strengthen the commitment to the faith, and are amongst the most strict laws in all of Islam. In fact, without following them, you can not be a Muslim at all.

Humans are the only one of God’s creation with free will and the essence of God in our bodies, and are therefore the only one of God’s creations that morality applies to. In reality, morality is largely tailored to human culture and the preservation of Islam. I was very interested in concepts of free will in relation to morality because it largely aligns with my own natural intuition about personal responsibility and autonomy, and clears up a long troublesome problem I take with the biblical view of morality; I don’t believe that humans should be assumed evil, nor that every human born be held responsible for the sin of humanity. This, in my view, is truly fair, and is compatible with the idea of a forgiving and loving god in a way that I have never found the God of Christianity to be.

 

Endnotes

  1. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Creation and the Nature of Humankind.” Lecture, March 13, 2018.
  2.  The Qur’an 16:9 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  3. ibid.
  4. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Creation and the Nature of Humankind.” Lecture, March 13, 2018.
  5.  The Qur’an 30:30 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  6.  Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pg.31
  7.  Sells, Michael. Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007), pg. 95
  8.  Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pg.27
  9.  Izutsu, Toshihiko. “The Inner Structure of the Concept of Kufr.” In The Analysis of Major Concepts, 119-55.
  10.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Ethical Structures of the Qur’an.” Lecture, March 15, 2018.
  11.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Cosmic and Moral Order: The One God.” Lecture, March 8, 2018.
  12.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Ethical Structures of the Qur’an.” Lecture, March 15, 2018.
  13.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Creation and the Nature of Humankind.” Lecture, March 13, 2018.
  14.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Ethical Structures of the Qur’an.” Lecture, March 15, 2018.

 

Bibliography

Izutsu, Toshihiko. “The Inner Structure of the Concept of Kufr.” In The Analysis of Major Concepts, 119-55.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Cosmic and Moral Order: The One God.” Lecture, March 8, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Creation and the Nature of Humankind.” Lecture, March 13, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Ethical Structures of the Qur’an.” Lecture, March 15, 2018.

The Qur’an (Khalidi, Tarif)

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007)