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Islamic Ideology ( 29 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamic Ethics: The Missing Dimension

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

Muslims in general admit that Muslim society the world over is characterized by a severe moral decline—indeed, nothing short of a moral crisis. This is apparent not just in our personal lives but also in our collective affairs and dealings. This lamentable state of affairs brings to mind the well-known saying of George Bernard Shaw that while Islam is a good religion, Muslims are generally not good people. We need to seriously ponder on this contradiction between Islamic teachings, on the one hand, and our practice, on the other, to locate the causes of our moral decline.

The basic cause of our moral crisis is our wrong understandings of our religion and of what proper religiosity should really mean. These erroneous conceptions, one has to admit, are widespread and deeply-rooted among Muslims. Islam is based on four basic pillars—beliefs, worship, morals and laws. The entire edifice of Islam rests on these pillars. However, while our Islamic literary tradition has given great stress to the beliefs, worship and laws, it has paid relatively scant attention to morals. The most attention has been paid to worship and rituals, and to debates and intricate discussions about the rules thereof.

The effective sidelining of morals in our religious literary tradition is particularly unfortunate, especially since morality is the basis of true religiosity. This is evident from a statement of Ayesha, youngest wife of the Prophet, found in the Sahih al-Bukhari, according to which the moral values that the Prophet exemplified were an embodiment of the Quran (kana khuluquhu al-quran). From this statement one can truly appreciate the centrality of morals and morality in Islam.

In a hadith report contained in the Muwatta of Imam Malik, the Prophet is said to have declared that he had been sent by God to the world to ‘establish the pinnacle of morality’.  This clearly indicates that the Quran is first and foremost a book of morals and ethics (kitab al-akhlaq), and only after that a book of laws (kitab al-qanun). The Quran teaches us that God has sent different laws for different communities:

‘To each among you have We prescribed a law and an open way’ (5: 48).

This indicates that while the laws sent by God for different communities may vary, there can be no variation in divinely-revealed moral standards and values, which are universally applicable and invariant, across both space and time. This is because the latter are the basis of the primal faith or al-din, which was taught by all the prophets of God, who had been sent by Him to all the peoples of the world.

In saying this, I am not seeking to debate about which is superior—morals, worship, or laws. Rather, my point is to ask why in our Muslim religious and intellectual circles is the question of morals and morality not given adequate attention in the same way as worship and rules of various rituals. This fact that this is the case is undeniable, and our behaviour in this regard is a complete contradiction the following Quranic commandment:

          ‘O you who believe! Enter into Islam wholeheartedly’ (2: 208).

A central role in promoting and propagating this faulty understanding of Islam has been played by popular Muslim preachers. In their writings and sermons, they focus mainly on ritual worship, various cultural ex-pressions of Islam, and the distinctive aspects of Islamic teachings that relate to the collective sphere which distinguish Muslims from others. They exhort Muslims to be very particular about these matters.

In contrast, they pay relatively little attention to morals and ethics. The main reason for this is because they themselves faithfully follow these rituals and personally observe and exhibit the distinctive badges of Muslim identity, while in matters of morals and ethics many of them miserably fail. In fact, in terms of social ethics and dealings with others, this class of people has little that can gain for them the confidence of the Muslim masses, despite the respect that the latter have for them in their hearts. This fact can easily be gauged from the lifestyle of the men who head various Islamic institutions and from the pathetic complaints of their subordinates.

Many ulema think it is their right to criticize others for their real or alleged immorality or irreligiousness, but if the same complaint is made against them they declare it to be a ‘conspiracy’ against Islam and the ulema. This response is often totally unfair because, needless to say, in every class of society, including those who call themselves ulema, there are opportunists and unethical people. If every class, including the ulema, practiced introspection and self-criticism, our society would surely be much healthier, in terms of moral standards, than it presently is.

Surely, no individual or class, including the ulema, can be considered to be above reproach. The story is well known of an elderly woman who once criticized the Caliph Umar, who then admitted his fault. Another story is told of an ordinary man who once said to Umar that if he went wrong he would correct him with the sword, if need be. If in early Muslim history ordinary folk could point out the faults of even Caliphs, and if the Caliphs willingly accepted their valid criticism, why does our religious class get so agitated when their faults are pointed out to them in a spirit of healthy criticism?

Unfortunately, the task of social reform has remained dormant in Muslim society for a long time. The main reason for this is the wholly misplaced, but still widespread, belief among our religious leadership (which includes not just the traditional ulema) that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our society and that, generally speaking, all is well with it. They fondly imagine that if faults and corruption are to be found, it is among non-Muslims and in the religions they follow. Instead of introspecting and seeking to reform themselves and the larger Muslim society, they believe our basic task is to rebut the allegations leveled by non-Muslims against us and our faith.

The biggest strength of any community is its moral standing. The glorious aspect or strain of its history is the story of its moral strength and commitment as expressed in its legacy. Historians and other scholars of Islam have tended to focus particularly on the Prophet’s military victories, while often ignoring, or, at least, not giving much attention to, events in the Prophet’s life, such as the peace treaty he signed with the pagan Arabs at Hudiabiyah, which was a profound ex-pression of moral strength. It was this moral strength that enabled innumerable Sufi saints, who lacked any political or military power, which so impressed large masses of people that they embraced Islam at their hands.

The underlying basis of social ethics in Islam is indicated in the following statement, contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari, attributed to the Prophet: ‘Desire for others what you desire for yourself.’ This principle has a vast scope of application. For instance, basing ourselves on it, we can ask if the many rights that Muslims enjoy in non-Muslim countries are also available to non-Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority countries. Are Muslims indeed ready to offer them these rights? If not, is it not a violation of the above-quoted statement of the Prophet?

 In numerous Western countries, unused churches are being bought over by Muslims and converted into mosques. The Muslim media is awash with reports of new mosques and Islamic centres being constructed in many non-Muslim-majority countries. Lamentably, however, if non-Muslims want to build a place of worship in a Muslim-majority country of which they are citizens, there is heated debate and discussion about this, and even opposition to this, in Muslim circles.

A while ago, a church was set up in Yemen, in the wake of which a report was published in the Arabic paper al-Bayan, which is based in London (yes, London, because, lamentably, it is simply impossible for a free press to flourish in Muslim countries), under the extremely provocative heading: ‘The Temple of Abraha’, drawing totally unwarranted parallels between the Christians in present-day Yemen and Abraha, the pre-Islamic ruler of Yemen, who is said to have plotted to destroy the Ka‘aba in Mecca. It went on to claim the establishment of the church to be a ‘conspiracy’ against Islam and Muslims.

Likewise, some days ago it was reported that the government of Saudi Arabia was discussing the possibility of granting permission to Christians living there to build churches. The noted Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi agreed to this suggestion, but the vast majority of Islamic scholars vehemently opposed it. This is why the matter was suppressed. The government of Saudi Arabia should either not allow non-Muslims to live in their territories for a long period (which, obviously, is not possible, given its dependence on, and links with, foreign powers) or else must allow them to do so and, respecting their religious sentiments and abiding by its own moral responsibilities, must allow them to construct their own places of worship if they wish.

In this regard, one should also refer to the particularly lamentable stance of some Islamic ‘revivalist’ ideologues that condemn everything associated with the non-Muslim West but yet seek refuge in Western countries from the repression of their own governments and use Western soil for promoting their own agenda. Living in the West, they avail themselves of various material comforts as well as rights which are denied to them in their own countries, but yet their proclaimed hatred of the West shows no signs of diminishing. Sadly, there is a deafening silence in Muslim circles on these brazen double-standards.

The fact of the matter is that we constantly boast about the various verses of the Quran that exhort Muslims to abide by justice and the demands of morality even with regard to people of other faiths, but our actions often belie our lofty claims. We desperately need to introspect and to realize how far we have departed in our own personal and collective lives from the ethical teachings of the Quran.

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore