Morals can either be classified as secular or religious. Secular morality tries to establish a moral system that is independent of God and religious faiths. In terms of motives for morality, various explanations have been given. One explanation is that people are ethical in pursuit of happiness or perfection. Another suggests that pressure by political power or social means forces people to follow a certain code of conduct. Yet another explanation is that a feeling of duty makes people moral.
Another problem in this classification for morals is that it lacks clarity in defining ethical knowledge. For example, is happiness mental, physical, or spiritual?
As for religious morality, it is fundamentally based on two things; first is the belief in God as the Creator of the universe, and second is the belief in the Hereafter.
“Religious morality” is not a uniformly used term because the fundamentals of religious morality are not the same for all religions.
Islamic Concept of God
A Muslim believes in the absolute perfection, sovereignty and lordship of God, that He is the sole Lord, Creator and Sustainer of this universe. Some of God’s divine attributes include; absolute and perfect knowledge, absolute life, perfection, wisdom, power, mercy, and justice. In Islam, the relationship of a Muslim with God is a loving, conscious, and voluntary submission to the will of God. One verse in the Qur’an describes this relationship: (And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (by our knowledge) (Qaf 50:16).
Unlike some Hellenic philosophical ideas, advocated by thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, propose that God is both transcendent and remote from this universe, Islam teaches both the absolute transcendence and perfection of God alongside His direct relationship with mankind.
Differences from Other Religious Communities
The Muslim belief in a supreme and universal God whose divine attributes are not shared by any of His creatures, automatically leads to the belief in one single ultimate supreme will (God’s will). This leads to stability and a sense of certitude because that there is only one ultimate ideal to look up to. For example, some people refer to phenomena in nature as “laws of Mother Nature”. Muslims believe that God created laws in nature, and that nature has permanent laws that are not haphazard. This leads to the conclusion that there must be one single and uniform Will behind creation.
Polytheism is the belief in more than one ultimate God, or that other creatures of God share some or all of His divine attributes, or the belief in some minor gods that intercede between man and the Ultimate God. All this leads to the belief in more than one ideal or ultimate source of guidance which would cause chaos in the universe. That is why the Qur’an is very clear when it says what means: (Had there been therein (in the heavens and earth) gods besides Allah, then verily both would have been ruined. Glorified be Allah, the lord of the throne, (High is He) above what they attribute to him!) (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:22)
Comparison with Biblical Concept of God
The difference between Islamic monotheism and the concept of God as depicted in the Bible is definitely not as comparatively large as the difference between Islamic monotheism and other forms of polytheism. A very common error about the Islamic concept of monotheism is that it is simply an extension of the Biblical concept of God or is based on it.
Many non-Muslim scholars have pointed out that among the early Israelites the nature of God seems to be like that of a super-human being. In the Book of Genesis you find the description of God as someone needing to rest after He created the heavens and earth. It describes Him as walking in the garden and Adam and Eve hearing the sound of his feet. It also depicts God making mistakes and people correcting him. God is portrayed as being jealous of the power of humans in the story of the Tower of Babel. When humans started building the Tower of Babel, God, according to the Bible, believed they were becoming very smart and powerful, so He changed their language so they would not understand each other. This is what caused the multiplicity of languages, according to the Bible. Many times the term “God of Israel” is used, giving the impression that He is a tribal God.
These descriptions that depict God as a super-human contradict Islam’s emphasis of God’s transcendence, His total freedom from all human defects, and that He is not human-like because He is not “physical” in the sense that He can be perceived.
If the Islamic concept of God is compared with Biblical concept of “God of Israel”, we find that the first chapter in the Qur’an describes God as (Lord of the universe) (Al-Fatihah 1:2), and the last chapter of the Qur’an describes Him as (Lord of mankind) (An-Nas 114:1). The Qur’an does not say “God of Arabs” or “God of Muslims” or God of any ethnic group, but God is the God of all humanity.
In the New Testament, Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) is described as the intimate, sole son of God, who came to save humanity by shedding his blood on the cross. But from the Qur’anic point of view, this is not acceptable. A Muslim believes in Jesus as a righteous, noble prophet who is among the greatest prophets of God, and that he is only a human, in the same way that all other prophets of God are human. In addition, Muslims believe his relationship with God is metaphorical in a sense that all human beings are “children” of God, whom He provides for. The concept of God in Islam is the purest form of monotheism and is a consistent and coherent system of belief that is completely independent from any other belief.
Implication of Ethics
The concept of God in Islam affects its ethical system in many ways. For example, when the pure monotheism of God and the conception of the highest ideal are mixed up with imperfections, errors, or inconsistencies as it is in other religions, then how can that be an ultimate, single and absolute source of ethics? In addition, acknowledging God as the sole Bestower of all that we have in this life leads to a feeling in the heart of a loving, conscious, and voluntary submission to God, which is the meaning of the word “Islam” as a faith. This in turn leads the individual to have a sense of ultimate loyalty to God alone.
By believing in God, His Perfection and divine attributes, that He is the sole power in this universe, and believing that He is the Ultimate God Who has the full, perfect and complete knowledge, it follows that God knows what is in our hearts and minds and we can not hide anything from Him or deceive him. This results in increased self-discipline by knowing that you can not get away with wrong-doing if you are not caught by humans because God is the All Encompassing. This self-discipline must be at the heart of any ethical or moral code of conduct.
Difference from Other Beliefs in the Hereafter
Some of the views held by religions other than Islam on the Hereafter are quite different. Some “eastern” religions look at the pleasures and desires of this world as being temporary and conclude that because life is a passing pleasure, then there is no sense in trying to accomplish anything in this world. This leads to a renouncing of the body and of physical existence, and a focus on purifying the soul and saving it by getting it out of the shackle of the material world. In that sense, the life of meditation and religious exercise becomes what the ideal human being aspires to. This is not only limited to “eastern” religions. Ernest Findley Scott, in his book, The Ethical Teaching of Jesus, indicates that some early Christians, especially in the first, second and third centuries, upheld that somehow the kingdom of God is something that is going to take place only in the future miraculously, and that denouncing this world would be an act of piety because only then can you focus on self-purification.
Balancing This World and the Next
Muslims believe strongly in the Hereafter, but at the same time, Islam teaches that the belief in the Hereafter should not lead to the neglect of this life. For example the Qur’an says, when addressing Qarun, who was a wealthy contemporary of Moses:
(But seek, with the (wealth) which God has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, Nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, As God has been good to thee, and seek not (Occasion for) mischief in the land: For God loves not those who do mischief) (Al-Qasas 28:77).
So when Islam teaches the belief in the Hereafter and the belief in punishment and reward, it does not mean that the ultimate piety or righteousness can be attained through the renunciation of this world. Rather, worldly life should be coordinated with the Hereafter. Muslims are told to prepare for it by accumulating “credit” for salvation by struggling in this life on earth to right wrongs, and to establish justice and peace.
By Dr. Jamal Badawi
* Adapted from a lecture in Dr. Jamal Badawi’s Islamic Teachings series.
** Dr. Jamal Badawi is a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada where he currently teaches in the areas of Management and Religious Studies. He is the author of several works on various aspects of Islam.