ethics

(akhlaq)
   There was a heated debate in Islamic theology between the Ash‘arites and the Mu‘tazilites over the nature of ethics, harking back to the Euthyphro problem of whether the good is what it is because of God’s commands, or whether God’s commands are as they are because they are good. The Mu‘tazilites argued that ethics is objective and so God has no alternative but to recommend the good and forbid the evil in the way that he does. The principles of justice represent how we ought to act, and God follows them in telling us what to do. For the Ash‘arites this goes against God’s freedom to do exactly what he wants, and for them He is entirely unlimited in what He can do, what He can demand we do and how He punishes or rewards us. The debate extended into the nature of the afterlife and whether our fate there was determined by our behavior during this life, or whether it was entirely up to God. The Ash‘arites and al-Ghazali argued that God can do anything He likes on the Day of Judgement, and is not obliged to adhere to any objective sets of standards.
   Two important works for ethics were the Republic of Plato and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. These texts dealt with the definition of justice and a virtuous society, and the idea of virtue as a mean. Both concepts were applied to an Islamic context, and the emphasis in the Qur’an on patience and moderation was seen as fitting in nicely with definitions of virtue as a mean. A perfect society could be seen as run by philosophers, as with Plato, who combined their intellectual skill with those of a religious authority or leader. Religion is seen as a way of explaining theoretical truths to everyone in the community, regardless of their background or intellect, and this applies particularly to morality. Most people would not be able to work out how to behave on the basis of their own reason, unlike the philosophers, and require the vivid and imaginative language of religion to inform them of their duties and why they should carry them out. Without this, they will not be able to perfect their natures to whatever extent possible and thus achieve happiness (sa‘ada). Al-Farabi developed a highly influential theory of language according to which philosophy and religion both express the same truths, albeit in different ways. The philosopher appeals to human reason, religion to our emotions, and so the latter tends to use more material ideas than the former, since we are material creatures and regard that as the most important aspect of our lives. Both the ordinary member of the community and the philosopher can know their duties and be happy, but they will come to it in different ways. The discussion in Aristotle of the claims of different lifestyles as the best such as the contemplative, social, animal and so on was linked with the Qur’an. The book was seen as presenting just one desirable lifestyle for everyone, albeit one that could be understood in different ways by different people.
   Many complex accounts of the moral personality were produced by thinkers such as Miskawayh, al-Tusi and al- Isfahani. They often employed both Greek ideas and themes from the Qur’an to develop close analyses of particular moral dispositions. Intriguingly, even the enemies of philosophy such as al-Ghazali acknowledged that there was no dispute between the philosophers and their opponents on what moral behavior actually was, only how it should be understood theoretically.
   See ‘Abduh, Muhammad; adab; Ash‘arites; al-Farabi; free will and predestination; God, imitation of; Miskawayh; Mu‘tazilites; political philosophy; al-Razi, Abu Bakr
   Further reading: Butterworth 1992; Fakhry 1991; Hourani 1985; Lerner and Mahdi 1963

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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