Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Harun Kerçek – Islamic Morals and Institutions

As earlier discussions of class material clarified, the arrival of Islam was the harbinger of much needed regulations in society and in the concept of justice. Consequently, a set of understandings to drive and form Islamic conduct on human action brought about policies based on morality as well as institutions to help implement Islamic doctrines.

The tale of the fish illustrates the spiritual richness and insight individuals are bound to obtain as a result of internalization of Islamic concepts. The fish that doubt the central and quintessential nature of water as the origin of all are asked to point to ‘something that is not water.’ In this respect, realization of the presence and of God[i] is emphasized as the Quran asserts ‘We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein’ (Quran 50:16)

The perception of God’s distance and omnipotent nature (tanzih) and his nearness, similarity and mercy (tashbih) are laid out by Murata and Chittick.[ii] Personally, I was reminded of an Islamic practice of using prayer beads to honor the 99 names of Allah. Those prayer beads are called ‘tesbih’ where I am from and serve to allow people to constantly contemplate God.

God’s presence can be felt in the details of his work, as our world is gifted with the maximum intensity of life in the universe. Islamic embrace, therefore, encourages people to strive toward achievements on earth to follow the principles of moral guidance prevalent in Islam. Unique distinctions of such guidance was apparent earlier in moral regulations of medicine, politics and ethics of war. The Quranic understanding of shirk, similarly, restricts not only idols but the pursuit of caprice and pride as well.[iii]

In this way, Islamic ethical practice seeks to influence not only final actions but also the inherent character and mental activities of human beings. It is this idea of further internalization of God’s guidance in all aspects of living that led an outstanding way of life called ‘Tasawwuf,’ particularly rejecting fear-based compliance in Islam and encouraging sincerity of mind. This approach, I believe, is the art of unveiling embraced in Sufism that accentuates the internal growth of humans to not only understand divine teachings like the Sharia, but also to constantly drive themselves toward the embodiment of awe, reverence and submission to God in all actions and moments of consciousness. Reasonably, it is the pursuit of God and not the reward of paradise, that appeal to Sufis. Unlike differing moral views on the ‘helal’ status of music, Sufism’s acceptance of spiritual songs in the form of hamd and manqabat influenced world-renowned poetry.

Simplicity as in Hajj and the equality of the day of resurrection are observed in sufism, promoting the idea that the world is a realm of perpetual examination and involvement for humans. The mystical approach of sufism favors the personal experience of the divine.[iv]

 Even personality and identity are secondary to the end goal of following the direction of divine light to be warmed and illuminated by it. Sunflowers, in addition to creatures that fly around light are metaphors used to convey this message.

Institutions to uphold certain principles, exist in various forms such as universities and madrasas, and accentuate different approaches to concepts. The Sunni branch of Islam, for instance, pursues a realist school based on power, stability. The emphasis of Shia identity on  knowledge and justice likewise drives certain norms. The Shia embracement of a hadith on justice is historically rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, Prophet Muhammed’s grandson. A history of consequent marginalization by the Sunni majority led the Shia to preserve their own moral and religious beliefs [v]that Ali and his descendants are part of a divine order and that bloodline is sacred. Shia-oriented Ulama, through their seclusion kept their autonomy from the government until the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Islamic institutions reflecting divine moral guidance can be observed to adopt right-based ethics to extend to society their means of assistance. This process may include the virtue of forgiveness for those seek it, as numerous moral views are embedded in the practice of Islamic establishments. The institution of Ulama incorporated knowledgeable and experienced men of piety that contributed to or regulated madrasas, and therefore societal education through the concepts of Ahlak and Adab.

The invention of the endowment waqf in 8th century was a result of expanding Islamic morals that upheld the preservation of certain property for the benefit of philanthropy. Similar to the institution of ulama that operated independently from the state mentioned above, the waqf was a non-governmental institution.

Morgan points that ‘unlike the trust, ownership is not located privately’ but rather is said to be owned by God or the community that is the recipient of the beneficiary.[vi] All in all, moral views are embedded in the operation of Islamic institutions and organizational as well as communal behavior.

Chittick, William C. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2007.

[ii] Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. Srinagar, Kashmir, India: Gulshan Books Kashmir, 2015.

[iii] Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. Srinagar, Kashmir, India: Gulshan Books Kashmir, 2015.

[iv] Kabir Helminski “Adab: The Sufi Art of Conscious Relationship,” In Chittick, William C. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2007.

[v] Watt, William Montgomery. Islamic Political Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

[vi] Claire Morgan, “The Waqf,” The Good Society No 10, vol. 1, 2001


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