Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Islamic moral views

Islam’s moral code come primarily from the teachings of the Quran. The Quran includes verses on morality and codes of law. Ethical standards also arise from Hadith, which are verses traced back to Prophet Muhammad but not included in the Quran. Hadith are reports on statements and actions of the prophet and spiritual authorities. They are transmitted narrations concerning the speech, actions, appearance and approvals of the messenger of allah. The Quran however can be interpreted in different ways which has in turn lead to fractions within the Islamic faith. Sunni’s and Shi’ite Muslims differ in their moral views. Some institutions that Madrassas are institutions of higher learning that are important to the moral views of Islam. Finally, Sufism emerged as a new interpretation of Islam and involves many moral undertakings. 

The divide between Sunni and Shi’ite occurred after the death of prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. There were questions on who should succeed the prophet, as the ruler of the Islamic state. Some believed that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin was the rightful successor however three other caliphs came before him in order of succession. It came down to believing in seniority or believing in knowledge of the faith. When Ali was given the turn to rule he was assassinated which marked the original split. His son, Husayn ibn Ali led an army against Al-Yazid, the ruler after Ali, but was unsuccessful in his campaign. Husayn’s army of 72 was defeated by Al-Yazid’s army of thousands. This occurrence led to a deeper divide between Sunni and Shi’ite sects. Husayn became a martyr for the Shi’ite Muslims. Shi’ites march for non-violence on the day of Husayn’s defeat every year. These two sects have differing ethics, laws and morals. The Sunni’s, who are more fundamentalist, believe that power stability and security are of utmost importance. Sunni are more realist and follow the Hadith of Ibn Taymayya; “an hour of chaos is not worth 60 years of worship.” The Shi’ites believe in knowledge and justice, following the Hadith of Tawus IbnKaysan which states, “an infidel but just ruler is better than an unjust Muslim ruler.”

Madrassas are similar to universities as they offer a concentrated place for learning and academia. Madrasa are run by ulema and are commonly centered on the subject areas of religion and the physical sciences. These two areas correspond to the two knowledge of God’s teachings and knowledge of the earth. Understanding the Quran is essential to the practice of Islam, often students would work to memorize the complete text from a young age. Once memorized, one must attempt to investigate and understand every verse. Madrassas play a crucial role in the practice of Islam because they are constantly moving the understanding of the faith further. Madrassas are like a continuation of the mosque because that is were the initial prophecies of Islam are learned. Mosques are a central feature of every Madrassa.  The first degree granting university was Al-Qarawiyyin university in Fez, Morocco. This madrasa was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 CE and has been continually operating since. Other notable Madrasas are the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, founded by the Fatimids. It was the first university in Egypt. This madrassa originally followed the Shi’ite understanding of Islam but when Egypt was concurred by Sunni Muslims they changed it to a Sunni institution. Nizamiyya university of Baghdad, founded in 1091, was a particularly large institution which housed over 3000 students.

One of the pillars of Islam, Zakat, requires a tax on the wealthy so they do not accrue too much wealth. Zakat is a required charitable contribution. Zakat means “that which purifies” and is a way to morally purify one’s financial acquisition. From the pillar of Zakat comes the idea of endowments as a form of just moral action. Endowments came about in the 8th century in the Islamic world. They were a novel idea at the time. The right to property was investigated and a new system was put in place. A hadith from Waqf states the following: give to charity to make property inalienable. After one passes away they can make a religious endowment, give to charity or pass on their wealth to their family. The Waqf hadith came with certain implications for the endowment, it is irrevocable, perpetual, inalienable but must in turn be tangible and managed by a decreed trustee. There can be beneficiaries entitled to usufruct. The institution of endowments resulted in a powerful accruence of capital outside of the government. Waqf is similar to a shift to divine ownership.

Sufism is highly relevant to the moral views of Islam. Sufism is a form of Islam that is based on orders and produced three large caliphates in the 16th century. It is an art of unveiling true spiritual practice based on the assumption that we are practicing in a veiled world. Sufism is a very artistic view of religion: unique, personal and esoteric. It focuses on the inner dimension of the revelation the heart of Islamic a reality without form. Reaching the highest state of spiritual advancement beyond paradise. The word Sufi comes from the world suf which means wool. Sufiism is intertwined with metaphoric language. Rumi is a very important poet who practiced Sufiism. Serve Allah as though you can see him because he can see you. The goals of Sufism are to purify the soul, to know God and to create a union with God. Sufis use law as a starting point for their moral practices but go far beyond the laws on Islam. They wish to not harm anything in the world. There are many journeys that a Sufi must partake in, in order to reach higher levels or states of being. Sufism is supra rational. Theology and law rely on discursive reason and dialectic thought. Sufism is a pedagogical method: active master-disciple relationship. Active and present. Hadith Qudsi If human beings come closer to god, god will come closer to humans. Persian became the primary language of Sufism because it is non-gendered. Sufi stations are both an achievement and a mode of being. There are many stages before one can reach higher spirituality. True repentance is not just avoiding wrongdoing or small infraction but not even using the rights on has.

The moral views of Muslims mainly come from the verses of the Quran. The Quran and the words of Muhammad concerning his succession were able to be interpreted in different ways which led to the Sunni, Shi’ite divide. The division has carried on through the centuries and affects how the Quran is taught in Madrassas. The Sunni school is more fundamentalist and believes in order. Shi’ite Muslims are concerned with non-violence and just rules. Separate from the two sects is Sufism which preaches very high moral standards as a way to get closer to God.


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Masroori, Cyrus. “An Islamic Language of Toleration: Rumi’s Criticism of Religious Persecution.” Political Research Quarterly63, no. 2 (2010): 243-56.

Elias, Jamal J. “Sufism.” Iranian Studies 31, no. 3/4 (1998): 595-613.
Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 105.

The Masnawi, translation by E.N. Whinfield (1898) (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2010), p. 104.

Kabir Helminski, Adab the Sufi Art of Conscious Relationship (Parabola Anthology series) p. 93-98

Claire Morgan, Islam and Civil Society: The Waqf (2001)  (The Good Society, Vol. 10, No. 1) p. 21-24

Uzma Anzar, Islamic Education, A Brief History of Madrassas With Comments on Curricula and Current Pedagogical Practices (2003) (Unpublished)


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