Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ava Buchanan: Islamic Moral Worldviews and Institutions of the Classical Period

During the classical period, many significant Islamic institutions and moral worldviews were developed. With the passing of time, younger generations of Muslims were tied less directly to Muhammad and the early development of the Quran. This led to the desire among many Muslims for structural development, especially as circumstances began to arise that could not have been predicted by the first generations of Muslims. Some of the most significant Islamic institutions which developed in the classical period were waqf and madhhabs, while the most significant moral worldviews were largely reflected in Sufism.

Waqf, an endowment or charitable foundation, was a key Islamic institution of the classical period, as it supported the economic foundation of Muslim civil societies. Waqf can be classified into three different categories: religious endowments, charitable institutions, and family waqf — though the first two were more instrumental in shaping Muslim communities than the third. Waqf were devoted to fulfilling a single charitable purpose in a given community, with the eventual goal of expansion and outreach to others. Further, waqf — as opposed to trusts — were always designed to exist in perpetuity, allowing for positive long-term effects to be felt by those they were meant to help. Waqf was a non-governmental institution invented in the 8th century, and its outreach and longevity actually meant that it could act as a check on the government. It empowered Muslim scholars, and allowed those who were struggling to gain some independence from government when seeking aid. In addition to helping those in material need, waqf was able to strategically propagate and advance Islam, as it served as a means of financing jihad. It also served as an instrument of public policy — funding politicians, mosques, hospitals, and even other Islamic institutions such as madrasa. 

Madhhabs, or schools of law, were also important Islamic institutions in the classical period, as more contemporary generations of Muslims began to feel the need to access more recent sources than the Quran and the Sunnah about how to conduct their lives. As Islamic societies began to confront controversy over issues not explicitly talked about by God in the Quran, they were forced to come to conclusions about who was on the correct side of a given issue of Islamic law, and what actions should be taken moving forward. A dilemma lay in how to approach these unfamiliar issues — either Muslims could choose to trust only the word of God, and assume the permissibility of anything not explicitly prohibited by God in the Quran, or they would have to trust human reason. Ultimately, many Islamic scholars used qiyas — or analogical reasoning — to attempt to understand the will of God. Qiyas allowed scholars to figure out the reasons behind the known will of God on one issue, and then apply that same reasoning to issues in which the will of God was unknown. Determinations about the actions of the umma, or community of Muslims, were made by jurists based largely on this type of reasoning. Using this method, though, meant that there would inevitably be a gap between Shari’a (the will of God), and fiqh (the human attempt to understand the will of God). Jurists had the task of ranking actions on a five-point scale. All actions were either: obligatory (wajib), recommended (mandub), neutral (mubah), discouraged (makruh), or prohibited (haram). Islamic law also emphasized the doctrine of ijma, or consensus between jurists on an issue. The importance placed on ijma was based strongly on the Sunni belief that God would not let all Muslims be wrong at once, and therefore if there was consensus, God was likely in agreement with jurists.  Unresolved disagreements between jurists led to the creation of the four major Sunni madhhabs, which were founded by Abu Hanifa (767), Malik Ibn Anas (795), al-Shafi’i (826), and Ibn Hanbal (862), as well as one major Shi’i madhhab, founded by Jafar Sadiq (765). Madhhab founders did not realize the lasting impact of their work during this time, and thought of themselves as just scholars, not founders of Islamic schools of law. 

Generally, the most important sources of Islamic legal thinking were the Quran, the Sunnah (the way in which the Prophet Muhammad lived his life), qiyas, and ijma. Shi’ite Muslims, though, did take issue with a couple of the ideas presented in this model of legal thinking. One such disagreement was that Shi’ite Muslims thought the Sunnah should include teachings of imams, and not just Muhammad. Another was their desire to de-emphasize ijma, as they believed that imams were better authorized than jurists to make determinations about Islamic law.⁴ Muslims across sects, though, appreciate the importance of contracts in Islamic law. Islam teaches that even in war, Muslims are not to break contracts with their enemies. Muslims are also taught about the value of human life, and almost all Islamic law can be cancelled by law if there is concern for saving a life. Even cannibalism can be permitted in some instances if it is for the sake of saving someone.

A final Islamic institution is Sufism — or Islamic mysticism — which also has an important relationship to the formation of Islamic moral worldviews developed during the classical period. One important moral theme highlighted by Sufism is capacity-based ethics. Those with a greater ability to do good have higher expectations placed on them by God. An example of this is that ordinary people are expected to repent for their sins, while a select group of more educated people would be expected to repent even for their good deeds, as they could have done more to help their community. An even more select third group of people would be expected to repent for the fact that they must repent in the first place. They would be expected to ask of themselves: “Who am I to give myself the credit of repentance?” Another significant part of Islamic morality that is reflected in Sufism is the idea of asceticism. The etymology of the word Sufi in itself makes reference to asceticism. The root word of Sufi is “suf,” which means wool in Arabic. This allusion to wool is relevant to asceticism because of the ascetic practice of wearing itchy and uncomfortable wool. This practice served as a reminder to its participants not to get comfortable in this life, as all people are destined for transformation into the afterlife. The 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun mentions the ascetic practices involved in Sufism: “dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.” One of the examples presented here is a willingness to worship alone, and while this is important, Sufism actually put great emphasis on community and communal worship. Sufis are expected to engage in master-disciple relationships in which they are taught by a shaykh whose spiritual authority can be traced back to Muhammad. Further, many Sufis are apart of brotherhood known as tariqas in which all members are bound to a particular authority and practice Sufi rituals together. Some of these rituals included the practice of dhikr, or the remembrance of God, which was a form of prayer allowing Sufis to reach a state of ecstasy while worshipping God. The development of these and many other Islamic moral worldviews was possible with the growth of Sufism.

Waqf, madhhabs, and Sufism were all important Islamic institutions established during the classical period, and the institution of Sufism reflected many Islamic moral worldviews as well. Further, the institutions of waqf and madhhabs can be tied to Islamic moral worldviews. Waqf was highly related to zakat — the pillar of Islam related to giving a tax to charity — which portrays a larger theme of the importance of charity in Islam. Madhhabs, too, ultimately came to be as a result of different moral standards that were being created during the classical period. The formation of Islamic institutions and moral worldviews were incredibly intertwined, and the interaction between them shaped the environment of the classical period for Muslims. 

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Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. (3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017) 173-193.

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Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. (3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017) 219-242.

Mahallati, Jafar. “Class Lecture.” Class Lecture. October 14, 2019.

 “Sufism.” BBC. Penguin Random House, September 8, 2009.

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1994) 11-16.

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