Akhlaq-e-Islami or Islamic ethics can be divided into two parts: practical and theoretical.The theoretical part, which is known as اخلاق نظری, consists of Islamic recommendations derived from the Holy Qur’an and traditions of the Holy Prophet (sa) and the infallible Imams.
Before we discuss what Islam says about moral values, we need to see if morals are recognized as universal values in all human societies or not, and also if the same set of values are shared in all cultures and religions. For example, is respecting one’s parents recognized and universally accepted as a good moral value or not? If it is considered as a moral value in all cultures universally, then how should it be practiced? Does practicing a good moral value consist of a universal etiquette or does it differ from one culture to another?
In this series, this discussion cannot be discussed in detail, but we can say that the majority of Muslim scholars believe that all moral and ethical values are universal, and they call this “حسن و قبح ذاتی ” which can be defined as “things that are bad and good in their essence.” This means that moral values are defined by themselves, and specific cultures or religions don’t have to define or recognize them as good or bad.
Now the following questions arise: Why do we have so many differences in defining certain moral values? Why are there differences in how to practice one type of moral value in different cultures? Due to the fact that specific moral values can be practiced differently across varying cultures, it becomes important to discuss the Islamic point of view of them. For example, the notion of modesty for men and women is universal, but how it is practiced differs between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures.
It is due to this reason that we have to talk about Islamic ethics and learn about real Islamic moral values. Furthermore, we need to know how to maintain an Islamic moral character by dissociating ourselves from bad morals. This series of discussion will focus mostly on the akhlaqi and moral diseases which can be found in us while we are not even aware of them.
How can you define ‘akhlaq’ or moral values? Akhlaq is a plural of ‘khulq’ which refers to the second nature of a person. A person’s second nature (khulq) serves as the basis of his characteristics and actions. Thus, akhlaq has a psychological root that is apparent in one’s actions. This psychological root or basis upon which an individual acts upon is influenced by what that particular individual’s belief is. On this basis, the akhlaq of a person who truly believes in one God, the prophets and the day of judgement is different than the person who doesn’t believe in any of these things. One’s akhlaq is also affected by his/her surroundings, upbringing and ethnicity, with the potential to change or be replaced throughout one’s life.
In the study of Akhlaq-e-Nazari, scholars focus on an individual’s soul or ‘nafs’ and the power that this ‘nafs’ has been equipped with, like the strength of intellect (قوه عقلیه), strength of imagination (قوه واهمه), strength of wrath/anger (قوه غضبیه) and the strength of desire (قوه شهویه). These strengths are naturally present in all individuals, and in accordance with the knowledge of theoretical akhlaq these strengths determine one’s good or bad akhlaq. In a nutshell, balancing these strengths are what helps us adhere to the recommended Islami akhlaq.
According to the Holy Qur’an, human beings are born with an innate sense of good and bad:
فالهمها فجورها و تقوها
And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness. (The Holy Qur’an, 91:8)
This means that Allah has given an innate knowledge of good and bad morals to every individual. This is related to the ‘nafs’ of a human being. The next two verses following that verse state:
قد افلح من زکها
He has succeeded who purifies it.
و قد خاب من دسها
And he has failed who instills it with corruption. (The Holy Qur’an, 91, 9-10)
These two verses show us that we need to learn how to maintain this innate sense of good and evil because of the distractions of this world, and the devil (Iblees) whose forces compel us to go astray from the right path. It shows the importance of learning Islamic moral values and this is done in ‘Akhlaq-e-Nazari.’ It is not only important to maintain this innate knowledge of good and bad, but to also improve it, because the forces of evil are constantly trying to seep into our nafs where they can distort our basic knowledge of good and evil in different ways. This deviance is seen in the man who screams “Allah-u-Akbar” when slaughtering a child in the name of “jihad” – because evil forces have succeeded in justifying this inhumane act as a virtuous and moral act. Since this individual was not equipped with the true knowledge of Islamic ethics and rules he ended up doing the devil’s work for him, all the while thinking he was working for Allah (swt).
Shaytan and his forces are working during each and every second of our lives to make us go astray from the path of Allah, and they’re coming up with new techniques by the hour. If we are not observant of that then we might commit sins either unknowingly, or worse, whilst thinking that we are doing a good deed.
For example, sometimes we backbite (gheebah) thinking that we are saving people from a particular person, or we may perform our acts of worship, like prayer and fasting, to show off to others instead of for God. The sincerity behind the “Allah-u-Akbar” of our prayers may differ when we offer these prayers in public as opposed to in private. In these two examples the former is related to ‘Akhlaq-e-Nazari’, where we need to know what is gheebah, while the latter is related to ‘Akhlaq-e- Amali’, where we need to ‘practice’ Islamic akhlaq until these actions become our second nature.
In summary, theoretical Akhlaq should be known by a Muslim for determining what Islamic akhlaq is, and the practical akhlaq follows from the theoretical knowledge. It should be noted that once we learn true Islamic moral values, we cannot acquire them without practicing them in real life.
Editor’s note: Islamic Insights is honored to host the “An Ethical Life” column by esteemed guest contributor and student from Qum, Brother Raza Rizvi. Besides being a medical doctor educated and trained in Pakistan, Brother Raza is now pursuing his bachelors degree in Fiqh and Usool from the Amir-ul-Momineen Seminary in Qom, Iran. His column will focus on discussing the recognition, types, consequences, and cures for spiritual diseases from the Islamic point of view.