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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The Just Society

An earlier post, on Equity and Fairness in Islam, added to conversations in ethics about the balance between equity and equality. Similarly, in ethics classes we look at questions of justice, which usually takes us to Rawls and Pogge. What else might we consider when thinking about these broader justice issues? And, what other traditions, peoples, and cultures could inform that conversation? In 2017, Ramon Harvey published "The Qur'an and the Just Society" (with Edinburgh University Press), providing a useful addition. The book is an academic work (building on a PhD thesis). However, it is largely accessible (maybe for a university audience), with the aim making this ethical perspective more readily available in English. The author concludes by saying: "It is my hope that through sustained careful work of this kind, a distinctive Qur'anic vision of the just society can be adequately represented in the complexity of the contemporary world." (p. 194). A few notes from the book:

"I produce a thematic reading of the Qur'anic blueprint for the just society. That the Quran could contain such an ethical structure beneath the surface of the scripture's language, and encoded within the dynamic reshaping of lives in its first audience, has been a fundamental assumption in writing this book. Angelika Neuwirth seems to have a similar idea in mind when she states, 'There was a vivid image in the Qur'an of the Ideal City - the City of God - long before al Farabi's famous reworking of Plato's Politeia.' I read the Qur'an as an intensely moral text, continuously and repeatedly hailing the reader, or listener, as a responsible agent who must make choices with deep spiritual implications." (p. 2)

"...the Qur'an's story of the human condition holistically can furnish us with key aspects of its moral theology that are lost when considering verses in isolation. The leitmotif of this narrative is God's wisdom to create life as a debt owed and ultimately repaid as a test of morality. Although this notion of wisdom makes human life purposeful and intelligible, there remains an element of ineffability in its application as a quality to characterise the divine. Within the created world, it is represented by the Scale, read here as a Qur'anic analog to natural law. This interpretation, combined with the Qur'an's general discourse and specific notion of fitra, leads to a moral realist metaethics, corresponding to the knowability of at least basic ethical norms before the descent of revelation. The justice that the Qur'an calls upon its audience to establish, then, is predicated on realizing the wisdom of God's revealed Law such that it builds upon His natural law." (p. 25)

"The Qur'an sets the establishment of justice within society as a central goal of human life, yet inextricably links it with the inward quest to be true to the spiritual covenant with one's Creator. Here, then, is a moral teleology to which the normative function of the shariah, the divine law and moral code, is directed. If human beings, by virtue of their intelligence and free will, are able to despoil the world, so too are they called to act as stewards. The guidance delivered through revelation, whether in the form of commandments, prohibition, or recommendations, is not merely to test the obedience of moral agents, but to embed wise purposes [hikmas] within the life of the wider community. Based on this understanding, societal justice [qist] is the condition of society realized by the Wisdom [hikma] of God's Writ [kitab], which matches the scale [mizan] of moral value." (p. 191) 

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