ETHICS IN ISLAM
If Muslims suppose that Islam paves the way for a purer faith then they are under a delusion. Their ethics, while agreeing to a great degree with the ten commandments of the Decalogue, flounder upon the assertion that the measure of the moral stature of Muhammad is the source and foundation of all moral ideals in Islam.
Robert E. Speer after studying the moral character of Muhammad writes: “ I would rather believe in ten pure gods than in one God who would have for His supreme prophet and representative a man with Muhammad’s moral character ……. Can a religion of moral inferiority, meet the needs of struggling men?” Proverbially, it is true; a stream cannot rise higher than its source; a tower cannot be broader than its foundation.
It has often been asserted that Islam is the proper religion for Arabia, yet the canny hungry Bedouins have said: “Muhammad’s religion can never have been intended for us; it demands ablution, but we have no water; fasting, but we always fast; almsgiving, but we have no money; pilgrimage, but Allah is everywhere.”
Yet Islam makes its amazing claims. It asserts that this ‘final and best religion’ came to complement the virtues of the previous monotheistic religions. Islam claims that it is the source of all good commandments and habits therefore, there is no need for another source to inform mankind regarding virtues.
As in the case of all human nature the strangest inconsistencies were blended in the character of Muhammad. The pure and lofty aspirations of Muhammad were first tinged, and then gradually debased, by a half unconscious self-deception; and how in this process truth merged into falsehood, sincerity into guile. Along with Muhammad’s anxious desire to extinguish idolatry and to promote religion and virtue in the world, there was fostered, in his own heart, a licentious self-indulgence; till in the end, assuming that he was the favourite of heaven, he justified himself by ’revelations’ from God in flagrant breaches of morality.
Muhammad, we note, cherished a kind and tender disposition, ‘weeping with them that weep’ and binding to his person the hearts of his followers by the self-sacrificing offices of love and friendship. Yet, he could yet take pleasure in cruel and deceitful assassinations and could gloat over the massacre of an entire tribe. Inconsistencies as these continually present themselves from the period of Muhammad’s arrival at Medina; and it is by the study of them that his character must be rightly apprehended.
The benefits of Islam have been purchased at a costly price for as long as the Quran is the standard of belief polygamy and slavery will be maintained and perpetuated while freedom of thought and private judgement are crushed. We maintain therefore, that there is need for a mission to Islam solely on the grounds of its ethical needs.
The ethical imperative of the Bible
The Bible has a certain approach to ethics and the following points must be recognised:
a) Progressive revelation allows for understanding a lower dimension of ethics in the Old Testament.
b) The practice of certain Biblical saints is not to be equated with Biblical ethics; the latter refers to what is required the former shows the short-comings of men.
c) The various penal sanctions arose from the presence of sin and the biblical ethic takes this fully into account. Conditions and circumstances have been revolutionised by sin but the basic structure of man’s life has not been destroyed. Man is still created in the image of God and man’s obligation is to be conformed into His likeness. Since God does not change the ethical imperative remains.
d) The sum total of scripture is that it provides great variety. Human life is full of complexity with its numberless variety of situations in which men find themselves; but its grandeur is that it is adequate for every situation.
The Ten Commandments
The central core from which ethics surround itself are the Ten Commandments. They were evident before Sinai but only promulgated there in concrete and practical forms. They did not cease when the Mosaic economy passed away. Christ did not destroy the Law and the prophets but interpreted and applied these commandments, vindicating their sanctity. All the New Testament writers did the same.
The Ten commandments are concerned with the most fundamental of our relationships, firstly to God and then to our fellow-man. They cover the basic sanctities governing belief, worship and life. Love is the fulfilment of the Law but is not itself the law but it constrains us to comply with the Law.
Muhammad seemed confused over the number and character of the commandments given by Moses. There is a remarkable tradition of a Jew coming to Muhammad and asking him about the ‘nine commandments’ which were revealed to Moses. “The Holy Prophet replied ’Do not associate anything with God, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not take an innocent before the king to be killed, do not practice magic, do not take interest, do not accuse an innocent women of adultery, do not run away in battle and especially for you O Jews, do not work on the Sabbath.” (Mishkat Book 1 Chapter 2, Part 2 – reported by Tirmizi, Abu Daud and Nasai)
Comparison of the Monotheistic Ten Commandments and the Islamic lists
The Quran lists commandments which have much in common with the Biblical Decalogue, but both omits and adds (Al-Anam 6:151, Al-Mumtihina 60:12 & Al-Isra 17:22-39). They agree in putting monotheism at the head of the list: respect for parents comes second in the Quranic lists, fifth in the Decalogue. Both forbid murder, though the Quran restricts this to certain cases. Theft is forbidden in the abridged code for women (Al-Mumtihina 60:12), whereas in the longer code (Al-Isra 17:22-39) only certain forms of dishonesty are specified as unlawful.
Prohibition of images
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
The prohibition of images and pictures which is emphasised in the second commandment of the Decalogue is not found clearly in the Quran, commentators point out that Solomon (a prophet) had images made for him by the jinn, and Isa (also a prophet) made of clay figures resembling birds, to which he gave life. Still the Tradition according to which Muhammad destroyed both images and pictures is probably trustworthy, and images till quite recent times were forbidden in Islamic countries, while some countries permitted art in two dimensions.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy“. (Exodus 20:8)
The Sabbath which occupies the fourth place in the Decalogue was according to the Quran only enjoined on those “who differed about it (or him, Abraham)”, a phrase of which the exact import is uncertain, but in any case means that it was not part of the code of Abraham, which Muhammad claimed to restore. For the Saturday which is the Jewish day of rest the Quran substitutes Friday, but only for the time in which public worship is being performed.
Kindness to parents
The injunctions of kindness to parents is seen in the following verses from the Quran and in the ahadith:
“Worship none but Allah; treat with kindness your parents and kindred, and orphans and those in need; speak fair to the people” (Al-Baqarrah 2:83)
“And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord! bestow on them thy mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.” (Al-Isra 17:24)
Mu’āviyah Ibn Jāhimah reported ….. “ “Hast thou a mother?” He said, Yes, he said: “Then stick to her, for paradise is beneath her two feet.” (Mishkat ul-Masabih 4939 Nasai. 25:6.)
These injunction underwent modification. In the instructions of Luqman to his son, which resemble those translated above, he is careful to add: “But if they strive to make thee join in worship with Me things of which thou hast no knowledge, obey them not; yet bear them company in this life with justice (and consideration) …. ” (Luqman 31:14,15)
When the refugees in Medina were in constant war with their Meccan relatives, the treatment to be given to unbelieving parents and relatives became harsher: “Take not you parents nor your brethren for friends if they prefer unbelief to belief: whoso among you befriend them are evildoers.” The believers are forbidden to ask forgiveness for those who associate others with Allah, even if they are closely related. Abraham (Al-Anbiya 21:67), and his fellow-believers were to be a model in declaring that there was perpetual enmity between them and their relatives until the latter believed.
Prohibition of killing
“Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)
The prohibition of killing is restricted to the case of those who are sacrosanct, i.e. believers; where such killing has occurred intentionally, certain modes of atonement, partly by payment are specified: 1) Never should a believer kill a believer; 2) if it happens by mistake compensation is due (An-Nisa 4:92,93)
The rule that a believer shall not suffer death for killing an unbeliever, though not stated in the Quran, seems to be a correct inference from it. Indeed killing may be said to be regarded as a civil rather than a criminal offence.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)
“And go not nigh to fornication, for it is an indecency and evil is the way” (Al-Isra 17:32).
The punishment for adultery in the Quran is a hundred stripes for each party, and incapacity for marriage except with persons similarly convicted of associating others deities beside Allah.
Additional ethical standards found in the Quran
Wine and Gambling
According to the above Muhammad was asked about wine and the arrow-game, a form of gambling which the archaeologists are unable to describe very clearly but which seems to have been a common diversion of the pre-Islamic Arabs. His reply was mixed but in another passage these activities are both considered as expedients employed by Satan for causing enmity and hatred, and diverting from the mention of Allah. The occasion for the prohibition of wine is said to have been some disorderliness occasioned by excessive drinking after the battle of Badr. The fact that wine enters into the religious rites of both Jews and Christians rendered the prohibition of value for the Prophet’s purpose. It was a notable departure from the practice of the pagan Arabs, whose poets, in the odes ascribed to them, boast of squandering their resources in the purchase of liquor, and tell us from where the best wine came.
Prohibition of the Slaying of Children
“kill not your children on a plea of want; We provide sustenance for you and for them; come not nigh to shameful deeds.”
The Hebrew prophets denounced the slaying of children as practised amongst the Canaanites. That which is forbidden in the passages of the Quran is infanticide for economic reasons. The form of killing is said to be burying alive infant females. (An-Nahl 16:58,59)
According to the above when the birth of a daughter was announced, the father’s face blackened, and he hid himself for shame, hesitating whether to rear the infant in humiliation or to hide it in the ground. The reason alleged in the prohibition is fear of poverty, which Allah promises to avert. To what extent this crime was prevalent in the community addressed by the Prophet we have no means of ascertaining. In a surah which bears the mark on an early Meccan period one of the vents of the Last Day will be that the girl who had been buried alive will be asked for what sin she had been slain. The practice does not seem to have seriously affected the female population of a polygamous community. Its prohibition is justly regarded as a valuable reform.
The Right of Inheritance
“Allah directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females …… ”(An-Nisa 4:11).
Muslim writers claim that the Quranic legislation first gave women the right of inheritance, though this seems refuted by the Tradition for the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was an heiress. Probably the legislation which fixed the proportion of the estate which was to fall to widows and daughters, or other female relatives was regulated and enforced where previously it may have been optional.
Marriage and Divorce
“Divorce must be pronounced twice and then (a woman) must be retained in honour or released in kindness. And it is not lawful for you that ye take from women aught of that which ye have given them; except (in the case) when both fear that they may not be able to keep within the limits (imposed by) Allah.” (Al-Baqarrah 2: 229).
A legal marriage required a wedding gift from the bridegroom to the bride, which she retains if divorced. As with the Jews and the nations of classical antiquity divorce was an easy matter, at any rate for the husband. Muhammad at one time contemplated divorcing all his wives and replacing them. The matter forms the subject of several passages, especially a number of verses in Surah Al-Baqarrah 2:226-232, where the expression is not free from obscurity, but which are generally understood to mean that if the formula “I divorce thee” is pronounced twice only, it may be revoked, but it becomes binding if it is pronounced three times, The parties can only be remarried if the wife has in the interval been married to and divorced by someone else.
Prohibition of Usury
“O ye who believe! Devour not usury, doubled and multiplied; but fear Allah; that ye may (really) prosper” (Al-Imran 3:130)
“Avoid seven dangers: idolatry, magic, taking human life (except when it is lawful to do so and not forbidden by God), usury charging interest, devouring an orphan’s property, fleeing on the day of battle, and slandering women believers who would not think of doing wrong.” (Sahih Bukhari 4:12 Abu Huraya)
An enactment which had seriously affected the economy of the Islamic countries is the prohibition of usury, the taking of interest on loans. The principle passages referring to usury belong to the Medinan period and Muslim associations with the more wealthy Jews. It is defined as one of the gravest sins, even the least of its forms is equal to that of incest. All who take part in an action involving usury are cursed and the guilty are threatened with hell. The Quran regards usury as a practise of the unbelievers and demands as a test of belief that it should be abandoned.
Islam Exhorts Muslims to improve their morals
There are numerous passages in the Quran which furnish a series of commandments for conduct, or an enumeration of virtuous acts, in which recommendations are mixed with injunctions, justifying the distinction drawn by later Muslim jurists between what is enjoined and what is recommended, what is forbidden, and what is disapproved.
Anthologies about Muhammad’s statements on ethics seem to concentrate on personal characteristics such as honesty, good neighbourliness, modesty, generosity, courage, cooperation, justice, forgiveness, moderation, hospitality and the like. Cultivating good standards is exhorted in the following way: “As hot water melts an ice cube, likewise virtues melt mistakes and errors. As vinegar destroys honey, likewise vices destroy rewards for good deeds”
Vices are to be avoided: 60 vices are to be resisted in order for a Muslim to be a virtuous or good-natured person. The list includes disbelief (kufr), ignorance, greed, fondness of being praised, imitating people you do not know, ostentation, worldly ambition and conceit.
The religion of Christ contains whole fields of morality and whole realms of thought which are all but outside the religion of Islam. As well as engendering humility, purity of heart, forgiveness of injuries, sacrifice of self to man’s moral nature; it gives scope for toleration, development, boundless progress to the mind and a strong motivation. The Christian ideal life is far more elevating, far more majestic, far more inspiring, even as the founder of Islam is below the life of the founder of Christianity.