By John Span
What ought or ought not to be done? Ethics in Islam and Christianity
This article explores the ways that Muslims answer the question “how do we avoid wrong and embrace the good?” and what determines the source of their decisions.
In the title of this article, I posed a question that is applicable to every human, and society, namely “what ought or ought not to be done?” The very fact that we as humans ask that question, and do not simply act on instinct is an indication that God has wired humanity with a moral compass, just as Romans 2:15 tells us. In this article, I will compare and contrast the way that Muslims answer that question and how Christians answer that question, but more importantly, the source on which they base their answer. In doing so, we hope to probe a bit deeper than a superficial comparison which says, ‘Muslims don’t steal, and Christians don’t steal, so they are all working from the same ethical foundation,’
Just what are ethics, then? In simple—and someone might say overly simplistic terms—the ways that humans, individually and collectively answer the above question, ‘what ought or ought not to be done?’ This idea is evident in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates said, “We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” It is immediately obvious that this can apply to business dealings, right to life, deciding on who gets a ventilator, whether the rules in a situation apply to all or to just a few, and so forth.
Ethics in Islam
A predominant theme in the Qur’an is the phrase ‘do the good and avoid the wrong.’ For example, Surah 3:104 reads, “Let there be one community [Ar. umma] of you, calling to good, commanding right [ma’ruf], and forbidding wrong [munkar]; those are the prosperers.” 1. Cook notes that the language of “let there be” in this verse is strongly prescriptive, or this is what Muslims must do.
Surah 3:110 describes Muslims as “the best of peoples, evolved for mankind” because “You enjoin [or command] what is right and forbid what is evil, and You believe in Allah…”. The phrase “commanding the right…” also appears in Q. 3:114; 7:157; 9:71; 9:112; 22:41 and 32:117.
From these verses or ayat, we see that Muslims, defined as the “successful ones” and the “best of peoples,” have the right to order or command other people as to what constitutes right and wrong. They are said to have the ability to distinguish right and wrong. This idea of distinguishing or discerning comes from a word that is sometimes used to describe the Qur’an, namely, ‘the criterion’ [Ar. furqan] which is the title of Surah 25. Thus one could safely say that according to Islamic theology, the Qur’an is a book of guidance for making the right decisions on the path of life: the Shariah.
As Islamic theology and history developed, five broad categories were developed to aid in applying Shariah law in different situations. The basis for these decisions came from interpreting the Qur’an in light of the example of Muhammad as reported on in the Hadiths and in his biographies, consensus among Islamic theologians, and the experience of the Muslim community. These five are either:
By way of example, it would be said to be forbidden or haram to eat pork. Ceremonial washings or ablutions before Islamic prayers would render one in a state of ritual purity or halal—the same word to describe meats that have been slaughtered according to rules of Islamic—are said to be necessary, just as asserting that Allah is only One and not a Trinity.
A question that arises, from this area, however, is who is the ultimate determinant of what is good and what is evil? This leads us to the next section.
The foundation of Islamic and Christian ethics
There is an adage which states, “show me your God, and I will tell you why you act the way you do.” At the risk of being overly-simplistic, this quote suggests that action—and we might say ethical decisions—are highly influenced by a person’s view of God. If, for example, God is seen as a highly indulgent grandfather who affirms all of the actions of their grandchild, the person will likely not have a fear of judgment and this will be reflected in their actions. On the other hand, if a person sees God as a cruel and exacting despot, this will likely show up in a scrupulous legalistic attitude which is perennially asking if something is pleasing enough.
Both Muslims and Christians have views of God and since he is the ultimate standard of what ought to be done, as communicated either via the Qur’an or the Bible or via the examples of Muhammad or Jesus, we will examine the sources of ethics in each case.
The foundation of Islamic ethics
“All paths lead to, or have their source in Tawhid” goes the Islamic saying. Let me unpack this cryptic saying. In Islamic thought, Allah is absolutely One. That is to say, he is a monad, or a single solitary being, who needs no one else. If he creates something, this is to serve him as a Master. His slaves largely serve him out of fear of punishment. Thus they want to avoid his wrath. He is so transcendent that he is above all ethical categories, and he has no need to answer to anyone. If he decides to change his mind about something, that is his prerogative. These concepts are illustrated in Surah 2:284 which reads,
What he reveals about himself is his will and sheer power, and not his person. If something appears to be contradictory in his 99 names that is just how it is. Although Allah is said to be the prototype for good behavior he can be the ‘best of deceivers’ [al-Makr—see Surah 3:54] can be ‘the kind’ [Ar-Ra’uf—see Surah 9:117]; the ‘most haughty’ or the most proud one [El-Mutakabbir—see Surah 59:23] and is the same one who promises that he will send ‘those who wax proud’ (al-mutakabbireena—see Surah 16:29) to hell.
Who is the best ethical example in Islam?
If a Muslim poses the question to his/her self ‘what ought to be done and what ought not to be done?’ which is a question of alkhlaq (ethics or morality) in Islam, a trajectory of thought will lead to Allah, but more than likely, Muhammad. This is because he is said to embody the traits of adab (good manners) and makarim alakhlaq (noble qualities of character). In Surah 68:4, he is described as being of “a great moral character”/ “an exalted standard of character” (khuluqin ‘azim). Surah 33:21 describes him as “an excellent pattern (uuswatuun husanatuun) for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often.” These two texts could be summarized with the words, Insan ul-Kamil or the “perfect and complete man” as Islam describes Muhammad. In other places, Muhammad is described as the “best of creation” (Khayru-l-Khalq). Interestingly, the words for character and creation, share the kh-l-q root in Arabic. Just as Muhammad was reported by Abu Hurayrah to have said, “I was sent to perfect good character” so in a fashion a Muslim must create a noble character in their own person and by their own strength.
This trajectory back to Muhammad limits changes in Islamic ethics. For example, if today a major Islamic institution declared that actions such as taking child brides were to be outlawed as being unethical, others would contest that decision—and likely successfully so—by appealing to the unchanging example of Muhammad as the standard of ethics.
The goal of Islamic ethics
Surah 2:25 describes Muslims as, “those who believe and do good works.” This stress on good works is a dominant theme of Islamic ethics and it was codified in a genre of Islamic literature that describes noble qualities of character. Originating around the ninth century, one is entitled The Refinement of Character, and another, The Noble Qualities of Character by Ibn Abi al-Dunya. He combs through Islamic traditions and cites, for example, a tradition reported by Aisha which lists actions associated with ten noble qualities, namely:
- Truthfulness in speaking
- True courage in obedience to God
- Giving to someone who asks
- Returning one good deed for another
- Being faithful to maternal relatives
- Returning safely something given in trust
- Respect for one’s neighbors
- Respect for one’s friends
- Hospitality to guests
- A willingness to listen to others which is the chief of all the rest.
At a first glance, one might think that these could have been drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. Yet one must ask a number of critical questions.
On number one: As much as truthfulness in speaking is advocated, if Allah is allowed to change his mind, and so speak out something different from before, how does this apply to Muslims? If some schools of Islamic thought espouse the doctrine of taqiyyah, or speaking a lie in the cause of Islam, how does this show up? Related to this doctrine is the question, are there different standards of truth-telling between Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims?
On number seven and eight: Who are a Muslim’s friends and neighbors? The Islamic doctrine of Al–Wala’ Wal–Bara‘ (loyalty and disavowal) essentially conveys the idea that Muslims must love and show loyalty to fellow Muslims and show enmity to non-Muslims. Related to this question are the ethical standards that Islamic books on jurisprudence show towards the treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority lands. The Sunni classic textbook on Islamic law, the Reliance of the Traveller shows, for example, that the life of a Christian is worth far less than that of a Muslim in the case of wrongful death.
As much as it is a noble goal of Islamic ethics to do good works, underlying questions still remain. Who or what determines what is truly good? What is the motivation for doing such: fear of punishment, or accumulation of enough merit to avoid such? What is the motive force for doing such? Is it resident within a person? When are these good works enough? Who among the branches of Islam determines what is ethical? Is it the literalistic Salafis? Is it the secular person only carrying the name Muslim?
The foundation of Christian ethics
In his book Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, theologian Wayne Grudem 2 argues that the ultimate basis for Christian ethics is the moral character of God. This same idea is found in Scott Rae’s Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics where he states,
In the Bible, we are introduced to the attributes of God which demonstrate his moral character through and through. He is holy and completely above sin, he is good and gracious, completely righteous in all of his words and actions. He is trustworthy and condescends to make covenants with humans, and what he says he will do and what he has done is underscored by what he says. Thus in Christian ethics, we can say that all paths lead to the Triune God.
The concept of Trinity is critical in Christian ethics because within the Godhead there is a ‘community’ of perfect love, of perfect goodness and perfect personhood. The Trinity embodies what it means to be in a relationship with ‘another.’ This Trinitarian other-centeredness is a key for humans to making ethical decisions, in contrast to the self-centeredness of a being who is a monad who then asks humans to try to be other-centered.
Who is the best ethical example in Christianity?
When the former Muslim, Mark Gabriel, made a comprehensive comparison between the life of Muhammad and the life of Jesus in his quest to find ultimate answers, he began to read the New Testament. In his book, Jesus and Muhammad he relates how he was especially struck by the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and perhaps more so, that Jesus walked the talk. Not only did he say, “do not look lustfully at a woman” he treated women with respect and dignity and did not see them as sexual objects. Not only did he say that those would be blessed who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” his life exemplified one of perfect righteousness. Everything he did on earth was to please his Father in Heaven and Jesus went as far as to say that doing his Father’s will was his food. When Jesus said to his followers that they must be perfect just as his father in heaven was perfect, he was not asking them to do something that he was not. In fact, he was the perfect God-man, and he asked his followers to emulate his example.
The goal of Christian ethics
Christian ethics is focused on an end-result. This goal is to be Christ-like in every way and so bring glory to God. Yet it is not a pie-in-the-sky compulsion, it is a goal that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Thus when Jesus suggests that a summary of God’s law—which in the Old Testament and continuing today—was seen in the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), can be encapsulated by the words that he related to a teacher of the law (Matthew 22:37-39)
In the context of this paper, it is important to note that Jesus refers to “the Lord your God” as a reference to the covenant-keeping God, known by his name YHWH in the Old Testament. This is the God who saved his people out of Egypt, carried them through the desert, was patient with their back-slidings, and who brought them to the promised land. He is not referred to as “the God your Lord/Master” which is a way that Islam describes him. Jesus also shows that it is possible to love this loving God with the totality of one’s being, rather than a response of forced obedience due to servile fear.
Secondly, Jesus is asking his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. These neighbors are not just those who are in the same religion as they are, they are anyone who is created in God’s image, and this even extends to enemies.
What we observe is that rather than an emphasis on divine commands—important as they are—Christian ethics focuses on a Christ-like heart disposition that has an overflow of right action, rather than prescribing right actions that will effect a change of heart disposition.
A practical comparison of an Islamic and Christian ethical issue: War
The subject of war is an issue that both Muslims and Christians have wrestled within their respective religions. It also answers the question, ‘what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done.’ To understand the Islamic view of war, one must take a very wide view. That is to say, one must not only look at today’s reality but also how Islam sees humankind in its primordial state and where it will eventually end up. It must also reckon with the fact that Islam sees war as both a spiritual and physical battle, with lands or civilizations being conquered as part of its reality. Richard Martin explains it as such,
Martin’s quote suggests that in Islam war is a perpetual necessity due to the presence of areas of the world that are not governed by Shariah law. Thus, Islam divides the world into the area/house or land of peace and Islam (dar el-Islam or dar es-salaam) and the land of war (dar el-harb). The goal is to use whatever force necessary to bring these areas into submission to Allah—as one could say—“as it was in the beginning,” Islamically speaking. The Islamic view of war is very much driven by an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach, as the end goal is to see the entire world become Islamic and the world is brought back to its so-called primordial state.
Ibn Warraq in his The Islam in Islamic Terrorism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology connects the idea of “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong” with Islamic views on war. He shows from the hadiths and the theologian al-Ghazali that wrongs—by implication when non-Muslims do not follow what Allah and Muhammad command—must be righted by the tongue, the pen, the hand, and the sword.
Muslims will also look to the example of Muhammad and his view of war in their deliberations. They can read the ancient biographies, look at the Hadiths, and come to conclusions on how he treated prisoners of war, how he treated the people in the towns he captured, and how he viewed his role as a military commander, whether sex slaves would be permitted, and how he employed the tools of terror in his military campaigns. Today one might look at the Islamic State and ask where they derived their inspiration.
To understand a Christian view of war, one must also take a wide view. Christians look at the Bible and observe that the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve have caused disastrous inter-relational effects, also extending to enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). In the Old Testament, there was a concept of holy war that God used to punish idolatrous nations and in which his chosen people were granted land as a result. This was restricted to specific areas and not to a global campaign. There were also rules of engagement that applied to prisoners of war and were underpinned by the concept that all humans are valuable in that they are made in the image of God.
In the New Testament, Jesus demonstrated that physical holy war had been replaced by a spiritual war. Thus, he told his followers to put their swords away and he demonstrated that his battle was with the devil and his captives, as he said that he was going to set at liberty the captives. The apostle Paul also spoke about the fact that the main battle of Christians was not to conquer territory in the name of Christ but to fight against spiritual powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). The church’s battle is accomplished by following the victorious Christ and being empowered by the Holy Spirit, knowing that the book of Revelation has the strong subtext, “Jesus wins!”
Christians throughout history have had to struggle with the ethics of going to war. In their decisions, they have had to wrestle with just war theory, pacifism, and wars of aggression in the name of Christianity. Suffice it to say, Christians look to Christ for their cues, and they see someone who was willing to fight with a holy zeal for the honor of his Father’s house and to take the insults of those who crucified him. They recount that he said, “blessed are the peacemakers” and yet advocated for justice in the face of injustice. Just as Jesus came to usher in a Kingdom of wholeness, justice, peace and shalom, so Christians would keep their eye on this goal, even as they advise their governments on the difficult decisions with regards to war.
Islamic ethics, considering the question ‘what ought or ought not to be done’ draws on the character of Allah and his mouthpiece, Muhammad. Christian ethics meanwhile draws on the character of the Triune God and the revelation in word and deed by Jesus Christ. Islam essentially states, ‘do this and you will live’ and is strongly biased towards right actions. Christianity essentially states, ‘because He (Jesus) did this, then you will be glad to do that’ and is strongly biased towards right love.
In the final analysis, there is only One who can advise his followers “do as I say and do as I do.” He is the perfect God-Man.
For further reading
Daniel Brown, “Islamic ethics in comparative perspective.” The Muslim World 89, no. 2 (1999): 181-192.
Michael A. Cook. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Mark A. Gabriel. Jesus and Muhammad: Profound Differences and Surprising Similarities. Lake Mary, Florida: FrontLine, 2004.
Wayne Grudem. Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning.
Wheaton: Crossway, 2018.
Richard C. Martin. “The Religious Foundations of War, Peace and Statecraft Islam,” 91- 118, in James Turner Johnson, and John Kelsay eds, Just war and jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009.
Ibn Warraq, The Islam in Islamic Terrorism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology. Nashville: New English Review Press, 2017.