Characteristics of the Islamic Moral Code

The main objective of the Islamic moral code is to create an “Islamic personality” that lives by its deep faith of loving, conscious submission to God, and is nourished by His divine love. These features motivate the actions of this personality and help it restrain itself from temptation, due to its fear of displeasing God. It also understands and accepts the dignified role that has been given by God to Man as His trustee on earth, which gives it a meaningful feeling of its existence.

If people were to meet these ideal criteria, they would be able to constitute a community which would ordain good and forbid injustice and evil in society. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said: “I have been sent to prefect the high moral standards” (Narrated by Malik), which means that he was sent in order to complete and prefect the noble moral qualities that have been preached by all the prophets before him.

Relationship Between Morals and Faith

Some people think that faith and morals may not necessarily be related. In Islam, any reform on an individual or social level must start with moral transformation. This moral transformation may be encouraged by an appeal to either patriotism, the power of law, or inherent kindness. However, to have profound and sustainable moral elevation, it must be concurrent with the moral code that is revealed by God, which in itself is not temporary due to certain circumstances or basic benefits.

The Qur’an says what means: (Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls)) (Ar-Ra’d 13:11).

Elsewhere it says what means: (Because Allah will never change the Grace which he hath bestowed on a people until they change what is in their (own) souls: and verily Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all thing)) (Al-Anfal 8:53).

These verses depict the rise and fall of different ancient civilizations. According to the second verse, these people were deprived of all the blessings and luxuries bestowed on them by God because of their bad deeds and ungratefulness to Him.

The relationship between faith and morals is frequently mentioned in a verse that is repeated frequently in the Qur’an and says what means: Those who believe and did good deeds (Saad 38:24). This verse indicates that to have true faith, good deeds are essential.

This relationship is also clarified in many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. For example, it was reported that he once told his Companions that the most beloved to him and the closest to him in the hereafter is the one who has the best manners (Ahmad). The Prophet also said: “The best of the believers in faith are those who are the best in morals” (Narrated by At-Tabarani).

The Prophet’s grandson Al-Hassan also said that true faith is not only by wishing or pretending to have faith, but it is the true belief of one’s heart which is verified by good deeds.

Relationship Between Morals and Worship

In Islam, if any act is preformed with good intention and within the boundaries that God has permitted then it is considered an act of worship.

More specifically, by relating the characteristics of the moral code to the pillars of Islam (i.e. prayer, charity, fast), we will find that acts of worship are closely related to morality.

Prayer for example is required of a Muslim five times a day, in which he stands facing the qiblah, then bows and prostrates in devotion to God. If these actions are looked at in view of morals, we discover that the real meaning behind prayer is to train the Muslim on feeling the conscious, loving submission to the will of God, and a reminder of keeping away from evil. Prayer also instills the feeling of humbleness in the heart while standing before God.

A verse in the Qur’an describes this relation between morals and prayer, where it says what means:

(…and establish regular Prayer: for Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt. And Allah knows the (deeds) that ye do.) (Al-`Ankabut 29:45).

The Prophet informs us that God says in a hadith qudsi that He only accepts prayers from people with certain characteristics. These characteristics include: humbling themselves before His glory, not oppressing any of His creatures, being merciful to the destitute, and being compassionate to those who are suffering or are injured. (Narrated by Al-Bazzar) All this is proof of the essence of prayer in Islam.

Another pillar of Islam is Zakah. This religious duty symbolizes feelings of love, compassion, and mutual concern towards people who are less fortunate in society. It does not comprise the materialistic meaning behind giving money.

This is referred to in the Qur’an where God addresses the Prophet: Of their goods take alms, that so thou mightest purify and sanctify them (At-Tawba 9:103). The term “purification” in this verse signifies the elimination of selfishness and lack of concern for others from the hearts of Muslims.

In addition, the word “charity” in Islam is not only used in terms of paying money to those who are needy, but charity could be a smile or a good word, as the Prophet says: “A good word is a sadaqah (charity).” (Narrated by Muslim)

The fourth pillar of Islam is fasting. We find that the real meaning behind it is not only to restrain from food and drink from dawn to dusk. Rather, it is to strengthen one’s will and develop self-discipline in permanently restraining from evil.

This is stated in the Qur’an: O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restrain (Al-Baqarah 2:183).

The Prophet Muhammad also declares: “It happens that a person who fasts may gain nothing of his fasting but hunger, and it happens that a person who spends his night in prayer may gain nothing from his prayer but sleeplessness” (Narrated by Ibn Majah).

Finally, Hajj or pilgrimage, which is the last pillar of Islam, is also not just about going to Makkah, wearing specific clothing, and making certain rites. Pilgrimage is full of moral lessons, such as patience and humility, which purify a Muslim’s soul.

The Qur’an highlights the manners that a Muslim should abide by during Hajj:

For Hajj are the months well known. If any one undertakes that duty therein, Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj. And whatever good ye do, (be sure) Allah knoweth it. And take a provision (With you) for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct. So fear Me, o ye that are wise (Al-Baqarah 2:197).

Contradictions Between Worship and Behavior

Often times we encounter people who may be active in their acts of worship, but yet their behavior is inconsistent with that apparent devotion. From the Islamic point of view, the lack of morals indicates the weakness of faith as true faith should reflect on one’s manners. This does not mean that people are expected to be infallible. Rather, they should sincerely try to comply with the moral code revealed by God.

A woman was once described to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as being one who used to offer (voluntary) fasting and prayers but also used to offend her neighbors. Upon that the Prophet said: “She will enter Hellfire.”

Another woman was described before the Prophet as observing only the obligatory prayers and spending a few pieces of cheese in charity, but not offending her neighbors. The Prophet said “She will enter Paradise” (Narrated by Ahmad).

Describing the punishment of those who pretend to have faith, the Prophet once asked: “Do you know who is poor?” His Companions answered: “A poor man amongst us is one who has neither dirham with him nor wealth.” He said: “The poor of my Ummah (nation) would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with prayers, fast and Zakah but (he would find himself bankrupt on that day as he would have exhausted his funds of virtues) since he hurled abuses upon others, brought calumny against others and unlawfully consumed the wealth of others and shed the blood of others and beat others, and his virtues would be credited to the account of one (who suffered at his hand). And if his good deeds fall short to clear the account, then their sins would be entered in (his account) and he would be thrown in the Hell-Fire” (Narrated by Muslim).

This certifies that the amount of worship does not necessarily indicate true faith, or that faith substitutes worship. Rather, both should be coordinated to create the “Muslim personality”.

Stability of the Moral Code

Some people believe that various moral codes should be changed or updated in accordance with new circumstances. In Islam, this approach is refused if the meaning of “updating” is to change fundamentals or principles of its moral code. But change is acceptable if it entails the adaptation of the applications, and not the principles of the moral code so as to suit the circumstances of people.

Fundamental regulations in Islam are taken from the Qur’an and Sunnah, which were revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These divine regulations are applicable to all times and places. However, if humans attempt to change them, this means they are claiming to have more knowledge than God. Doing that would be subjecting moral standards to people’s vices. Islam teaches that the source of moral principles should come only from God, and that people should be elevated to these moral standards, instead of degrading the moral standards to human defects.

This does not mean that Islam is against dynamic changes in society. Rather, it proposes a balance: divine principles should not be tampered with, as this would lead to the damage of the foundation of the moral code revealed by God, which is the base for all reforms.

By Dr. Jamal Badawi *

* Adapted from a lecture in Dr. Jamal Badawi’s Islamic Teachings series.

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