Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ashley George: Moral Order in an Orthopraxy

There are so many schools of ethics in Islam that it’s hard to keep track of them all. One such school of thought is capacity ethics. This ideology says that those with a greater capacity to do good are expected to practice virtues of greater value.[1] Therefore, a virtue to an average person can be a sin for someone of much greater capacity. The fact that there are so many schools of thought shows that there is no one universal interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic values. Aside from the pillars of Islam, most Muslims or scholars of Islam would probably tell you something different if you ask them to explain Islamic ethics.

Like in many other religions, there is debate and controversy over whether the word of the Qur’an is meant to be read with the changing of times and eras in mind or if the word of the Qur’an is meant to serve humankind regardless if technologies and societies have changed since its birth. Even some suras slightly contradict themselves in terms of strictness, such as a Meccan sura that requires no drinking close to prayer and a Medinan sura that prohibits drinking at all.[2] This controversy depends on whether the school of thought addressing it is more “conservative” or “liberal,” but the point is that it depends on one’s interpretation of the text. What we can easily see from these two suras regardless is that drinking is something that should be limited and kept separate from prayer and worship. Many facets of the Islamic moral code can be gather from simply recognizing patterns and themes stressed throughout the text.

Towards the early suras of the Qur’an, the fourth sura is devoted to the rights and treatment of women. Before the birth of Islam, Arabia was entrenched in jahiliyya or the “Age of Ignorance,” where women had notoriously dismal rights and were subject to more violence like female infanticide. The Qur’an was the first text in this region to insist upon the rights and inheritance of women. The fourth sura says, “Unto the men a share of what parents and kinsfolk leave, and unto the women a share of what parents and kinsfolk leave, be it little or much– a share is ordained.”[3] This is just one example of the feminist influence of Islam on Arabia, and it would slowly spread to most corners of the world over time, taking its progressive ideology with it.

Another big thing to notice is that so many suras are named after animals or elements of nature. These suras include but are not limited to, “The Bee,” “The Ants,” “The Stars,” “The Moon,” and so on. These environmental themes are present in suras at the beginning, middle and end of the Qur’an, which shows a continuous effort to prioritize the well-being and divinity of nature. This sentiment is seen many times throughout the Qur’an, but one such example is in sura 40 in which God says, “Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind. But most of mankind know not.”[4] Nature is not just an afterthought in the Qur’an, but a constant thought. Humans are required to care for their world and anything less is irresponsible.

Toshihiko Izutsu makes an important point that while virtues are virtues, there is a point in which virtues can become negative and therefore sins. A great example of this is when he talks about excessive generosity, where he says, “…although generosity is a virtue, it ceases to be a virtue and even becomes positively a vice if it goes to the length of wastefulness.”[5] He then mentions this to be kafir, one who is “covered” or ignorant from their duties as a Muslim.[6] Kafir can be someone who is well intentioned or evil intentioned. Because Islam is an orthopraxy, it matters most the action, which means even if someone has good intentions, if they act in a harmful way, the sin is still significant, though it is still noted that there was no ill intention.

Fazlur Rahman also shows us the difference between being lost and guided by God’s light, evoking the concept of kafir like Izutsu does. Rahman does this by using a quote from Muhammad Iqbal, which says, “The sign of a kafir is that he is lost in the horizons; The sign of a mu’min is that the horizons are lost in him.”[7] In other words, one who is lost and doesn’t practice their faith is ignorant but one who knows the way and strives to live their life abiding by the straight path is the one who is truly pious and worthy of paradise. This is not to say that one who is lost will surely face Hellfire, but the ideal Muslim is one who knows the way and follows that path, rather than only thinks or speaks about it.

Based on all of these factors and nuances discussed, I think it is always important to keep in mind that Islam is an orthopraxy with a merciful god. Muslims are expected to abide by the five pillars, to act in a pious manner and treat others and the world around them with respect, and mere beliefs alone will not satisfy their duties as practicing Muslims. With this in mind, God is also merciful and his angels pray for the well being of humans on Earth.[8] They say to God, “Forgive those who repent and follow Thy way, and shield them from the punishment of Hellfire.”[9] In other words, Muslims who follow the way of God will be forgiven, so long as they strive to be pious and virtuous.

Tying all these thoughts together, the Qur’an does present us with a moral code, one that can be seen throughout the entire text and is expected to be followed by all Muslims. It is important to remember though that amongst Muslim communities, there will always be different interpretations of certain parts of this text, and God expects no one to be perfect. It is often said that if God enacted justice on all who have sinned, no one would be spared. With this in mind, moral order is paramount to the words and meaning of the Qur’an, but it is also acknowledged that we are all human and no one is free of mistakes and sin. Because of this, our true duty is to strive to be our best and most respectful to our world and to others and that is one of the biggest parts of being a pious Muslim.


[1] Mahallati, 3-13-18

[2] Mahallati, 3-6-18

[3] Q. 4:7

[4] Q. 40: 57

[5] Izutsu, 77

[6] Izutsu, 119

[7] Rahman, 22

[8] Mahallati, 3-8-18

[9] Q. 40:7


Works cited:

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture. March 6, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture. March 8, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture. March 13, 2018.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. HarperOne, 2016.

Rahman, Fazlur, and Ebrahim Moosa. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

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