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  • 5/29/2005

Muslim Ethics: Emerging Vistas

Amyn B. Sajoo

 I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Isma'ili Studies, 2004, 164 pp,ISBN: 1 85043 550 2

(Adapted from Preface)

The study of Muslim ethics cannot be confined to scripture and its attendant normative regime, even as it extends to scholarly commentaries in disciplines ranging from law and philosophy to the natural sciences. The foundational importance of these elements is axiomatic, for they offer tenets, arguments and stories that can be timeless in their potency. Yet, the central role for Muslim ethics at large of the Qur’an and the body of prophetic guidance and conduct, theSunna, is accompanied by a key principle, one that underlies the oft-repeated assertion about Islam being ‘a way of life’. It is the idea of the historical locus of the life of Muhammad, with its series of well-documented struggles to fulfill a prophetic mission in which the pursuit of ethical ideals is not an abstraction but a practical matter.
Yet, there have always been Muslims and non-Muslims who prefer to treat religious texts as bearing singular and fixed meanings, the life of the Prophet Muhammad as closed to the creative interpretation that it richly merits and the diverse histories of Muslims as a unitary history of ‘Islam’. This perspective yields, predictably enough, an ethos that is readily identified as a body of sacred rules, some finding their way into law or fiqh, and the rest into the wider shari'a as a normative expression of Islam. Applying this ethos to the daily challenges that confront a Muslim is, then, an act of will, albeit with discernment as far as identifying the relevant principles are concerned.
It is not only those a ‘fundamentalist’ persuasion – better referred to as political Islamists – who adopt that view, in which human agency and reason are subordinated to acts of compliance. Ironically, that this ideological posture is shared by numerous commentators on ‘Islam’ who, like the Islamists, would rather not grapple with the intricacies of pluralist Muslim worlds, historical and contemporary, textual and social, orthodox and heterodox, and all the shades in between such binaries. That reductive tendency has rarely been as conspicuous as it is today, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. Vexing issues of political violence, tolerance, the nexus of individual and community, even the fresh challenges of biotechnology, are too loudly treated as if the ethical problems at hand have ready-made solutions that only need uncovering in scripture.
Among the principal burdens of this study is the claim that it is motivation that makes religious ethics in general, and Muslim ethics in particular, an exciting field of study amidst the advent of secular modernity. This is not about an exploration of how one attributes motive and responsibility to an actor in ethics (as compared with law, for example), and least of all about the psychology of motive-formation in its interface with social and private ethical action. Those are vast and indubitably relevant fields that merit attention in their own right. What I have chosen to address is addressed here is a fundamental problem in approaches to modern ethical conduct that straddles easy divides between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ motivation, and not only among Muslims: it has to do with the question, ‘Why act ethically?’ Responding coherently to that query requires one to considervarious concepts! Asking whether an act is ‘inherently’ right or wrong as the primary question, and building an approach thereon in terms of secular or religious perspectives, is a blinkered approach. When wedded to an adamantly secular framework, this gives short shrift at the outset to the discourses and praxis that religious affinities bring to the ethical choices that individuals actually make.
Equally, an adamantly absolutist frame of reference, secular or religious, to whether something is inherently wrong, gives short shrift to the complexities of human motivation that attend such judgments in the real world. It reduces the interplay of reason and faith or commitment to nothing more than passive compliance within an impoverished,deux ex machina view of the world. Both frameworks exist for some, of course, but they can hardly tell the whole story.
In seeking, then, to do justice to contending and plural realities, the author has ventured in the opening section to consider an array of social settings in which Muslim conceptions of the good have developed and are today unfolding, including biomedicine and ecology. Asking how and why those conceptions are to be taken seriously is the underlying thread that connects the settings, yielding continuities and reinventions of tradition and reason. Next, the work focuses successively on three distinct yet overlapping domains - of ‘civility’, ‘humanism’ and ‘governance’ - that compel our attention in normative and empirical terms alike. For they engage such basic contemporary notions as human rights, the rule of law and civic culture in which conceptions of the good, whether as ethos or specific moral judgments, are vitally entwined. Engaging with those notions, as indeed with the history of ethics generally, also requires acknowledging the continual entwining of ‘Islamic’ perspectives with those of other traditions, confessional and secular - which is rendered all the more necessary today amid globalization and the enormous diasporic presence of Muslims across civilizations.

The author has sought to range beyond sources and contexts that usually receive attention in such studies; hence, the canvas includes references to cultural expressions like novels, the cinema and fine art in which conceptions of the ethical are embedded.



Taking Ethics Seriously: Adab to Zygots

Civility and its Discontents

A Humanist Ethos: The Dance of Secular and Religious

Pluralist Governance


Charter of Medina (622 CE)

The Aga Khan Development Network: An Ethical Framework

Excerpts from the Islamic Code of Medical Ethics

Select Bibliography

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