Moral Teachings of the Quran
The word ‘moral’ can be defined as follows according the Oxford dictionary:
1a: Concerned with goodness or badness of human character or behaviour, or with the distinction between right and wrong b: Concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behaviour. 2a: Virtuous in general conduct b: Capable of moral action 3: (of rights or duties etc.) founded on moral not actual law 4: Associated with the psychological rather than the physical.1
‘…concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behaviour…’ this particular aspect of the definition essentially determines whether one is truly virtuous in general conduct. Therefore, it is accurate to state that one’s own morality, or one’s perception of morality is determined wholly by social policy, i.e. societies accepted norms of behaviour.
As we have established that morality is determined by social policy, we must then ask ourselves who or what determines our social policy. In contemporary secular society there has been a radical change in attitudes to sex and drugs. Though, social policy concerning sex and drugs differs between nation states and in the case of the United States of America even between states, but interestingly though the policy differs, the very subjects that the policy seeks to govern remains the same; human beings.
Furthermore, what may have been considered against social norms and immoral, such as homosexuality may now be accepted. But, how would one class a monogamous marriage, though it can be accepted as a social norm can it also be the foundation of virtuosity? Adultery is considered immoral but it is arguably accepted and acknowledged as a social norm. The Times (2004) reported that according to one academic the number of married women having illicit affairs is at 60% and that women are having affairs as often as men.2 It would be rational to say that should a particular behaviour become pervasive and widespread in society this in turn would affect social policy, which essentially means our political laws and regulations. Therefore, should a social norm that was or is considered immoral have legislative leniency then actions that would fall under the remit of ‘…accepted rules and standards of human behaviour…’ which in turn supposedly sets the ‘…foundation for virtuosity in general conduct’ would become ever more elusive and vague. We thus redefine morality as a concept, or even worse we render it obsolete within our own vocabulary.
The principles of human conduct have tended to rest on the shoulders of secular philosophers advocating a non-divine humanistic vision of life and also pious religious characters throughout history. The role of either of the aforementioned has now been superseded by a secular democracy; we all are now essentially judges unto our own conduct.
In relation to this, should the foundations that govern our behaviour be found to be illogical or blatantly dubious than no matter what noble intentions those foundations seek to uphold, as its integrity has been proven to be in err its principles eventually whither away. Such is the case for the many world religions today, especially post enlightenment and the scientific revolution when reason was upheld as means to establishing an authoritive system of aesthetic, ethics, government and logic, which would allow human beings to obtain an objective truth about the universe.3 However, with high levels or theft, rape, murder, fraud, sexually transmitted diseases, depression an impartial observer of the secular society would have cause for concern.
As the dominance of science continues to supersede religion, it is sometimes forgotten that science never does solve why things happen, but rather only manages to explain how things happen. Our moral conduct void of religion attempts to allow us to satisfy our own desires without infringing on the rights of others, essentially becoming a socio-materialistic concept, and therefore as we have seen also inconsistent.
The nature of this introduction has been to bring to the readers attention as to the battle of what sets the foundation of human principles and in turn leads to define our own morality without necessarily proving the existence of God who would otherwise logically be the one who sets that foundation, but rather implying the failure of many religions and the problems with all religions being fundamentally the immorality of humanity.
Just to paraphrase from Kevin Reinhart’s contribution to the Encyclopaedia Of Islam under ‘Ethics in the Quran’, the Quran right from the very beginning contains more of an exhortation rather than a stipulation, rather rallying Muslims to act rightly and reframes their moral knowledge in the context of retribution and reward in this world and judgement in the next. It is aware of the fickleness of human nature as being attentive to God and upright when in jeopardy but ignorant when secure (Surah Al Sajdah 41: 53) and seeking evil just as much as good (Surah Bani Israil 17:11). Though, this may be a somewhat depressing depiction of humanity in Surah Al Hujarat 49: 7, God says, “…God has made you love faith and has made it beautiful to your hearts and made hateful to you ingratitude, wickedness, and rebellion. These are the rightly guided!” The Quran did not so much provide new rules but a new perspective.
It would appear that God, Allah, is well aware of our ability to differentiate between good and evil and our respect for what is good but it is another matter whether we practice what we innately know.
An Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i in the preface to his book ‘Islamic Teachings in Brief’ states:
“One of the most valuable styles for the promotion of culture, sciences and religion is through simple writings…no matter how technical a branch of science or subject is, it could be stated and written in such a way that everyone can utilise it and gain a relative knowledge in proportion to his educational status…this style we see in the Quran in its best form”4
Religion tends to denote a set of beliefs and practices conferred upon humanity by men in receipt of divine knowledge, characters known as Prophets or Messengers who were themselves pious and steadfast in propagating what they saw as God’s message. Above all such men were an example of how we are to conduct ourselves and what’s more as they are but men they are an example of our own potential as human beings.
“Say (O Muhammad): “I am no more than a human being like you; one to whom revelation is made: ‘Your lord is the one and only God.’ Hence, whoever looks forward to meet his lord, let him do righteous works, and let him associate none with the worship of his lord.”(Al- Kahf 18: 110)5
Consider the following verse:
“(The Prophet) frowned and turned away, because there came to him, the blind man (interrupting). But what could tell thee but that perchance he might grow in (spiritual understanding)? Or that he might receive admonition and teaching might profit him? As to the one who regards himself as self-sufficient. To him dost thou attend: Though it is no blame on thee if he grow not (in spiritual understanding). But as to him who came to thee striving earnestly, and with fear (in his heart), of him wast thou unmindful. By no means (should it be so)! For it is indeed a message of instruction.” (Surah Abasa 80: 1-11)
At the time this particular Meccan Surah was revealed, there were perhaps only about 42 or 45 Surahs in the hands of the Muslims, but the revelations such as the one above were given high spiritual value.6 These particular verses reflect the highest honour on the Prophet’s sincerity in truly wanting to relay the message to the greater Meccan community but is rebuked by Allah. Scholars of profound research commenting as follows: “This pure and delicate style shows extreme modesty and goodness on the part of the speaker and shows extreme honour for the person addressed…’7 Unfortunately, the English translation cannot do justice to the eloquence of this particular verse.
The verse is concerned with the Prophet whilst he was engrossed in a conversation with some of the most influential chieftains of Mecca, hoping to convince them and the community at large of the truth of his message. At that point he was approached by Ibn Umm Maktum with the request for a repetition or elucidation of certain earlier passages in the Quran. Annoyed by this interruption of what he momentarily regarded as a more important endeavour, Muhammad “frowned and turned away” from the blind man and was immediately, there and then reproved by the first verses of this Surah. In later years the Prophet would often greet Ibn Maktum with words of humility: “Welcome unto him on whose account my sustainer has rebuked me”.8
What this verse succinctly demonstrates is that Allah’s message is universal across all creeds, ages, learned or ignorant and that ones status as a human being has no bearing on his or her worthiness for the message. It also demonstrates the Prophets own humanity in dealing with the Umm Maktum in a manner that human beings are likely to do so if they were in a similar situation, effectively his own potential fallibility as a human being; but rather than belittling the noble Prophet, it gives humanity hope in the possibility of refining our own character on the example of the Prophet.
The Prophets exalted status and his exemplary character are mentioned no less than fourteen times in the Quran of which two have been put forth below:
“We have sent you forth as nothing but a mercy to people of the whole world” (Al-Anbiyah 21: 107)9
“Ye have indeed in the messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct)” (Al-Ahzab 33:21)10
Through knowing the frailty if our own character and acknowledging our potential through the Prophet, Allah in the Quran set the most beautiful verses in dealing with our moral conduct. In truth it is moral conduct that truly defines faith and as moral beings we become the embodiment of that faith, that faith which is…:
“The same religion has he established for you as that which he enjoined on Noah – that which we have sent by inspiration to thee – and enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus…’ (Al-Shura 42:13)11
Ones conduct, rationally speaking, should not restrict ones innate desires to an extent it causes anxiety but rather a system of conduct needs to be conferred that allows one to satisfy those needs without compromising the greater social structure. We as individuals contribute to that society and it is within ourselves that conduct first need be understood.
The proceeding verses will attempt to give clarity with regards to the goal of the Quran in perfecting one’s character, the goal never being to create a pacifist or an individual who denies himself justice due to his or her own austerity but gives humanity a pragmatic path of being pious, humble, noble, just, courageous and above all full of hope.
“And the servants of (Allah), most gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace”; those who spend the night in adoration of their Lord prostrate and standing; Those who say: “Our Lord! Avert from us the wrath of hell, for its wrath is indeed an affliction grievance” (Al-Furqan 25: 63-65)12
The aforementioned verse clearly advocating the avoidance of a potential argument with those characters in life who are content with the little knowledge that the may have and seek not or fear enlightening themselves further. In instances such as this, rather than confronting the ignorant as there would be no benefit, one should rather swallow their ‘pride’ and move on respectfully. The lesson being the acquisition of knowledge is not a matter of competition but a sincere effort to increase ones piety and in truth those with more spiritual and theological knowledge only benefit the greater community and as history teaches us, such characters often suffer much more.
“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the last day, and the angels, and the book, and the messengers, to spend of your substance out of love for him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves, to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity, to fulfil contracts which ye have made and to be firm and patient in pain and adversity” (Al Baqarah 2: 177)12
Paraphrasing from a notable Muslim scholar, Yusuf Ali, in his commentary Al Baqarah 2: 177 ties in well with the humility of the previous in terms of sincerity of ones intentions. The Quran is explicit in its emphasis against formalism, that is those who look at faith in such a rudimentary mechanical ritualistic practice rather than being conscious of God, Allah. That Muslims should be sincere in their devotion, charitable, decent citizens and support social organisation. ‘To spend of your substance’ is meant to convey that practical deeds of charity, assisting those who need our help before they even ask for it; it is our duty for us to seek such people out. Such charitable deeds are of value when they proceed from love and from no other motive.
The concluding part of this verse “…be firm and patient in pain and adversity” relates to preserving the dignity of man, whether it is bodily pain, injuries of all kinds, deserved and undeserved and periods of public panic, such as war and violence.13 This unswerving hope that all of humanity should possess is further bolstered with an emotive and beautifully buoyant and comforting verse in Surah Al Imran:
“So lost not heart, nor fall into despair, for ye must gain mastery, if ye are true in faith” (Al Imran 3: 139)14
Consider the next verses with regards to the honour given to parents:
“Thy Lord hath decreed that ye worship none but him and that ye be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour 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” (Surah Al Isra 17:23-24)15
The importance of the lesson in this verse should not be underestimated as Allah has placed kindness to parents second only to worshipping him. One may ask why such importance to our parents? Maybe it is because we never really appreciate the love and perseverance that our parents have had towards us when we were helpless, and that though our parents may not be perfect and may not even be Muslim but their integrity towards us was something that Allah acknowledged and maybe it is our family where we need to put our attention towards first and in that way society may just be able to fend for itself.
When it comes to justice the Quran is unrelenting in its approach:
“O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is the closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God: verily, God is aware of all that you do” (Al-Maa’idah 5:8)16
In order to truly appreciate this verse empathy and a vivid imagination would help as it is meritorious enough to deal justly in a neutral atmosphere but whether one could be just when one has a genuine and even understandable aversion to a people is when Allah still expects no less from humanity. Such is the degree of morality in the Quran.
This particular short account of moral teachings in the Quran though has not touched on behaviour pertaining to interpersonal relationships, greetings, talking, tolerance, extravagance, arrogance, mockery and ridicule inter alia which are mentioned in the Quran, it has rather intended to portray the spirit of a believer from the verses that have been quoted where the core values of a believer can be appreciated. The values being that of humility, honour, truthfulness and justice, serving a one God, all for a one God.
The highest degree of moral conduct that has been seen set in the Quran seeks to elevate the human spirit, those people who do becoming distinct from the rest and an example for them. It is such a spirit that has a submission not to the materialistic fancies such as wealth, power, fame and lust but a spirit that rises above all of that and is aware such benefits are pitiful in the absence of a consciousness of God. Such individuals never living in anxiety but always full of hope and always standing strong.
“Ye are the best of Peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah” (Surah Al Imran 3: 110)17
Whether such values can be adhered to with the same degree of integrity in the absence of a god is highly debatable. Believing that this is but a single life what then is there a point in being good when it is so easy to be bad?
The Muslim may point one to the following verse:
“Allah! There is no God save Him, the Alive, the Eternal. Neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him. Unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that intercedeth with Him save by His leave? He knoweth that which is in front of them and that which is behind them, while they encompass nothing of His knowledge save what He will. His throne includeth the heavens and the earth, and He is never weary of preserving them. He is the Sublime, the Tremendous” (Surah Al Baqarah: 255)18
- Thompson, D (ed.), The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, (1996), Clarendon Press, Oxford
- Tabatabai, M.H, Islamic Teachings in Brief, (1991), Islamic Propagation Organistion, Tehran.
- Mawdudi, A.A, Towards Understanding the Quran, (2006), Islamic Foundation, UK pg. 631
- The Presidency of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call & Guidance, THE HOLY QURAN English translations of the meaning and commentary, (1990/1410), King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex, Madinah, pg. 1898
- Usmani, S A & Ahmed, M A, The Noble Quran Tafseer-E-Usmani, (1992) Vol. III, Idara Isha’at-e-Diriyat, New Delhi, pg. 2528
- Asad, M, The Message o the Quran, (2003), Vol. 6, The Book Foundation, England pg. 1061
- Mawdudi, op.cit., pg. 689
- Ali, A Y, The Holy Quran Text, Translation & Commentary, (2006), SH. Mohammad Ashraf Pub, Lahore, pg: 1062
- Ali, op.cit., pg. 1248
- ibid. pg. 904
- ibid. pg. 70
- ibid. pg. 163
- ibid. pg. 680
- Mohammad Asad translation of the Quran opted in preference of the usual Yusuf Ali due to the translation of the word ‘taqwa’ being more correctly translated by Asad as ‘God consciousness’ rather than a ‘fear of god’
- Ali, op.cit., pg. 155
- Pickthall, M M, The meaning of the Glorious Quran, (1930), Ta Ha Pub, London
- ‘Akhlak’ in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition
- Ali, A Y, The Holy Quran Text, Translation & Commentary, (2006), SH. Mohammad Ashraf Pub, Lahore
- Asad, M, The Message o the Quran, (2003), Vol. 6, The Book Foundation, England
- ‘Ethics and Morality (Muslim)’ in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (ed. Hastings, J)
- ‘Ethics and the Quran’ in the Encyclopaedia of the Quran (ed. McAuliffe)
- Jomier, J The Great Themes of the Quran, (1997), SCM Press, London
- Mawdudi, A.A, Towards Understanding the Quran, (2006), Islamic Foundation, UK
- Pickthall, M M, The meaning of the Glorious Quran, (1930), Ta Ha Pub, London
- Tabatabai, M.H, Islamic Teachings in Brief, (1991), Islamic Propagation Organistion, Tehran
- The Presidency of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call & Guidance, THE HOLY QURAN English translations of the meaning and commentary, (1990/1410), King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex, Madinah
- Thompson, D (ed.), The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, (1996), Clarendon Press, Oxford
- Usmani, S A & Ahmed, M A, The Noble Quran Tafseer-E-Usmani, (1992) Vol. III, Idara Isha’at-e-Diriyat, New Delhi