When one attempts to look at the moral order of a religion, one must first look at its cosmology and what it posits as the center of the universe. With the Qur’an this means looking at the creation of the world and the creation of man, and how those two agents interact with one another. It becomes clear early into Qur’anic study that the the moral order is based around the centrality of human beings.
God created the world and views it as His masterpiece. He did not just create individual creatures though, but various intricate ecological systems that work together. These natural systems are described in sura 16:4-11. Throughout these descriptions it becomes clear that they all were created to serve humankind. “He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars- all are made to serve by His command.” (Q 16:12) Even bees, the namesake of this sura, are given revelation and therefore produce more honey than they could ever consume in order for humans to be able to enjoy its sweetness. Unlike some schools of Hindu Traditions, which might conceptualize creation as the lila, or sport, of God, Islam views the intricacy of this Earth to point towards the fact that creation is not a game, but indeed a serious endeavour of the divine. Not only is creation a serious matter to God, but humans are God’s intermediaries and it is their responsibility to live a harmonious and moral life alongside creation.
The next logical question would be: why humans? What is it about the human race that makes them not only distinct, but sovereign over all of God’s other creations. Scientists might point towards opposable thumbs or enlarged brain capabilities but the Qur’an places the responsibility on something else. Mentioned at multiple points in the Qur’an, God fashioned human beings out of clay and then breathed His spirit into them. (Q 15:29, 38:72, 32:9) This makes humans the only beings to have an aspect of God’s spark inside them. Not even Angels or Jinn have this honor. In fact they were both made to prostrate to this new, superior creation. This spirit that is breathed into humans is not discussed in any sort of dualist manner. That is to say there is no separation of mind/soul/spirit and body as is found in other traditions. This means that all humans have the same “amount” (for like of a better term) of God-essence in them, enabling everyone to have the same attributes as Him. Therefore, human beings have the potential to be God-like and we should emulate His qualities. This is shown in Adam’s creation story, in which Angels protest the creation of “one who sows discord and sheds blood” (Q 2:30), and God responded with “I know what you do not.” He then proceeds to teach Adam to remember names, a skill that God possessed but Angels did not, which proved human’s potential.
Despite the broad potential of the human species, each individual does not have the same ability to act morally and in the name of God. God gives each individual person a select capacity and it is their choice to do with it what they please. This means that one person with a large potential to do good, who does less than their ability, is judged more harshly than someone with a small potential to do good who does the same amount. God gives us these capacities but we have the free will to act on them. All creation submits to God naturally except man, which “is the only being endowed with a free choice of obeying or disobeying the Command of God.” Being All-powerful, God could have made everyone pious but He gave humans this gift of free will to act within the allotment they received.
“To hold that the Qur’an believes in absolute determinism of human behavior, denying free choice on man’s part, is not only to deny almost the entire content of the Qur’an, but to undercut its very basis: the Qur’an by its own claim is an invitation to man to come to the right path.”
What complicates the piety of humans is the meddlings of one rebellious jinn who refused to bow to humans name Satan. Unlike in Christian theology, Satan is not an anti-God figure, but an anti-human figure who attempts to seduce men away from their straight path. The choice of people is less about whether or not to follow God, but whether to follow God or be led astray by Satan.
For those who are temporarily led astray by Satan, they need not lament as long they renounce his ways and embark on the path of righteousness. Omnipotent and omniscient as He is, God understands the fickle nature of humans and judges them, not on their worst actions, but on their best actions. In the heavily anthropocentric sura 16 already discussed, it is revealed that “Indeed, We shall recompense the patient with their wages, in accordance with the best of their deeds. Whoever does good, male or female, while having faith, We shall make him live a decent life, and We shall recompense them with their wages, in accordance with the best of their deeds” (Q 16:97) This is typical of the Qur’anic rewarding system. A punishment is equal to the crime committed while a reward is also much more than deserved- sometimes by tenfold. The moral order of the Qur’an is complex and intricate but the bottom line is that it is anthropocentric. Even behavior regulations that normally require or forbid a specific action are reversed if the action or lack thereof would save a life.