Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an

Continuing with a series of posts on democratizing knowledge about ethics (see posts on dignity, justice, and equity), this post covers ethical concepts in the Qur'an, in a book written by Toshihiko Izutsu (1914-1993), a remarkable person (one example: he spoke more than 30 languages). This book being originally written in 1959 and published by Keio University in Japan, which was titled "The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran" the author revised and republished with MQUP as "Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an" in 1966. A few notes:

"I should like to begin by laying a special emphasis on what may appear at first glance almost a truism, the importance of not placing any reliance at all on the indirect evidence furnished by translated texts. Translated words and sentences are partial equivalents at the very most. They may serve as rough-and-ready guides to our fumbling first steps but in many cases they are quite inadequate and even misleading. And in any case they can never afford a reliable basis for discussion of the structure of the ethical world-view of people." (p. 4)

"The common-sense simply and naively assumes the existence of a direct relationship between words and reality. Objects are there in the first place, then different names are attached to them as labels. In this view the word table means directly this concrete thing which exists before our eyes. But the example of the word 'weed' [the unwanted plant] clearly shows that this is not the case; it shows that between the word and the thing there intervenes a peculiar process of subjective elaboration of reality." (p. 7)

"This world is transitory and vain, Islam teaches, and so you must never count upon it; if you really desire to obtain immortality and enjoy eternal bliss you should make the principal of other worldliness the very basis of your life. All is vain in this world, Jahiliyah [ignorance] preaches, and nothing is to be found beyond it, so you must enjoy your ephemeral life to the utmost limit of its capacity. Hedonism is the only possible conclusion for the worldly minded people of Jahiliyah." (p. 50)

"Just as kufr [disbelief] constitutes, as we have seen, the pivotal point round which turn all the qualities belonging to the sphere of reprehensible properties, so iman, 'belief' or 'faith', is the very center of the sphere of positive moral properties. 'Belief' is the real fountainhead of all Islamic virtues; it creates them all, and no virtue is thinkable in Islam, which is not based on sincere faith in God and His revelations." (p. 184)

" the Qur'an, religion is the source and ultimate ground of all things. In this sense, the ethico-religious concepts are the most important and most basic of all that have to do with morality. Moreover, Islamic thought at it's Qur'anic stage, makes no real distinction between the religious and the ethical. The ethical language of the Qur'an, however, has another important field, composed of key concepts relating to social ethics. This field too is essentially of a religious nature, since all rules of conduct are ultimately dependent on divine commands and prohibitions. But it's concepts concern horizontal relations between human beings living in the same religious community, while the ethico-religious concepts concern vertical relations between human beings and God." (p. 252)

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Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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Equity and Fairness in Islam

One of the courses I have taught across three continents is ethics. Most textbooks (nearly all) are exclusively eurocentric (other than brief nods to other peoples and traditions existing). An interesting conversation we have in class is engaging with how different ethical theories consider equality and equity. In "Equity and Fairness in Islam" (2005) by Mohammad Hashim Kamali provides a useful (albeit legalistic) perspective from Islamic ethics. A lengthy set of notes for interested students in particular:

"there are basically two types of istihsan namely analogical istihsan and exceptional istihsan. The former consists of a departure from obvious analogy [qiyas jali] to a hidden analogy [qiyas khafi], whereas the latter consists of making an exception to the normal rules of Shari'ah in particular cases. In both eventualities, the jurist relies on his personal opinion [ra'y] and carries out ijtihad on that basis for the purpose of avoiding the rigidity and hardship that are feared from strict conformity to existing law." (p. 76)

"The origins of istihsan can clearly be traced back to the Companions especially the decision of the Caliph 'Umar al-Khatab to postpone the prescribed punishment of theft during the year of famine on the ground that applying the normal rules under such conditions would fail to obtain justice and may even amount to oppression. The Caliph is also on record as having made two different decisions concerning a case of inheritance, known as al-mushtarakah [discussed below], the second of which set aside the normal rules of inheritance and provided a solution that seemed equitable and just under the circumstances. The facts of these decisions leave little doubt as to the historical origins of istihsan." (p. 17)

"Another example is when someone sees a goat that is without its owner and has suffered an injury that is likely to cause its death, and with a view to prevent its loss, the observer slaughters it at his own initiative without the owner's permission. The normal rules would make him liable for consumption by the owner, but not liable under the rules of istihsan based on maslahah." (p. 41)

"The basic intent of istihsan is to ensure harmony between the letter and the spirit of law, but it's application is confined to cases and situations where a conflict arises between the letter and spirit of shariah due mainly to the factual peculiarities and circumstantial anomalies of particular cases" (p. 3-4)

"The juridical meaning of istihsan reflects its literal meaning in that the term refers to juristic preference, exercised by a qualified jurist and mujtahid, consisting of departure from an existing rule or principle of the law in a particular case, in favor of a different ruling that is considerably preferable." (p. 11)

"istihsan has equally strong grounds of identity with the masajid it should, in fact be evident from our discussion of istihsan throughout this presentation that the evidential basis, rational and purpose of istihsan are almost identical with those of masajid al- Shari'ah. Istihsan can thus be seen as an instrument of consolidation that can link up the major themes of the usul and the masajid into an organic unity." (p. 123-124)

"the Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali jurists have considered istihsan a valid proof, the Shafai, Zahiri and Shi'i 'ulama' have rejected altogether and refused to give it any credibility in their formulation of the legal theory of the 'usul al fiqh'." (p. 5) 

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Classifications of Knowledge

Looking to explore different epistemic and ontological vantage points? One option is Osman Bakar's "Classification of Knowledge in Islam - A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science" published by the Islamic Texts Society in 1998 (first published by the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1992). The book examines classifications (different types; of knowledge, of knowledge seekers, of methodologies) based on the works of three classical scholars in the Islamic tradition.

In the Forward, by Seyyed Nasr, the hierarchical classification of knowledge is focal to Islamic ontology, asking: "How can an Islamic education system accept a situation in which there is no hierarchy between the knowledge of the angels and of molluscs or between the method of knowledge based upon reason wed to the external senses and knowledge which derives from the certitude (yaqin) derived from heart-knowledge?" (p. xiv) 

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