Developing moral wisdom in Islam

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Acquiring ethical wisdom and moral intuition is a skill that must be developed over a lifetime of study, contemplation, and practice. It is not something that can be acquired by reading a single book or adhering to a single code, because the nature of ethics involves weighing multiple moral imperatives and variables that might sometimes conflict.

There are three main aspects of ethical philosophy or moral reasoning in Islam:

  1. virtues,
  2. duties,
  3. context.

Virtues relate to the purpose or value underpinning the deed, duties relate to the manner or modality of the deed, and context relates to the timing of the deed.

Ibn al-Qayyim writes:

الْحِكْمَةُ إِذًا فِعْلُ مَا يَنْبَغِي عَلَى الْوَجْهِ الَّذِي يَنْبَغِي فِي الْوَقْتِ الَّذِي يَنْبَغِي

Wisdom is to act as one should, in the manner that one should, in the time that one should.

Source: Madārij al-Sālikīn 3/449

Hence, whoever can appropriately assess and balance these three variables in relation to a moral problem will achieve wisdom. When these three variables conflict and it is unclear which moral imperative is strongest, it is called a moral dilemma.

First, Allah has revealed ethical virtues to be the guiding values that give purpose and meaning to our actions. They resonate with our God-given conscience (al-fitrah). The opposite of virtues are vices that should inform us of what not to do. These together form the spirit, or intention, of the law (maqasid al-shar’iah).

Allah said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُ بِالْعَدْلِ وَالْإِحْسَانِ وَإِيتَاءِ ذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَيَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ وَالْبَغْيِ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ

Verily, Allah orders justice and benevolence and giving to relatives and he forbids immorality and bad conduct and transgression. He admonishes you that perhaps you will be reminded.

Surat al-Nahl 16:90

Islamic values such as justice and benevolence (or mercy) sometimes apparently conflict and a Muslim must choose which value takes precedence in the given situation. For instance, showing mercy is generally the right thing to do, but sometimes showing mercy to an oppressor only aids them in their injustice; in this case, justice takes precedence over mercy.

Second, Allah has revealed duties, in the form of laws or rules, that human beings owe to Him and to each other.

ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاكَ عَلَىٰ شَرِيعَةٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْرِ فَاتَّبِعْهَا وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَ الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Thus, We have ordained a law (shari’ah) upon you in the matter, so follow it and do not follow the whims of those who know not.

Surat al-Jathiyah 45:18

Each duty has a corresponding right associated to it. For example, every human being has the natural right to life, security, and property, which means everyone else has the duty not to commit murder, assault, or theft. Human beings also have the right for their basic needs to be met, so the government has a duty to provide them.

Uthman ibn Affan reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَيْسَ لِابْنِ آدَمَ حَقٌّ فِي سِوَى هَذِهِ الْخِصَالِ بَيْتٌ يَسْكُنُهُ وَثَوْبٌ يُوَارِي عَوْرَتَهُ وَجِلْفُ الْخُبْزِ وَالْمَاءِ

There is no right for the son of Adam but in these things: a house in which he lives, a garment to cover his nakedness, a piece of bread and water.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2341, Grade: Sahih

As such, a moral decision must account for both the intended virtue (or value) and adherence to the code of ethics or laws (fiqh) derived from the Quran and Sunnah. However, a third element of context must further be considered in order to arrive at true moral wisdom.

In one incident, the Prophet (s) was aware of the plot of a hypocrite spying on the Muslims who intended to harm them. The spy was clearly a threat to the safety of the community. Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, had a strong sense of justice and he asked for permission to execute the spy. But the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

دَعْهُ لَا يَتَحَدَّثُ النَّاسُ أَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا يَقْتُلُ أَصْحَابَهُ

Leave him alone, lest the people will say Muhammad is killing his companions.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4624, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

In this case, the Prophet (s) would have been justified by both law and virtue to execute a traitor in their midst, but he refused to do so because it would have resulted in unintended harmful consequences. It would have hurt the public reputation of Islam, which would have been even worse than the damage this spy could have done.

Lastly, consideration of context involves weighing the virtues, duties, and consequences of a moral decision as they relate to a particular situation. To illustrate, it is the Sunnah to permit prayer in one’s clean shoes or sandals.

Sa’id ibn Yazid reported: I asked Anas ibn Malik, “Did the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, pray in his sandals?” Anas said:

نَعَمْ

Yes

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 555, Grade: Sahih

The virtue of this permission is to grant ease (mercy) to worshipers, especially travelers, and it has been codified in the orthodox legal schools of Islam. Nevertheless, it is the custom of most mosques today to include clean carpeted floors in which they prohibit shoes as a courtesy to other visitors. It would be wrong to insist on wearing shoes in such a mosque, despite the rule in the Sunnah, because it would harm and annoy worshipers, and such harm is prohibited. This is a different situation than when the rule was first applied.

Custom is itself an ever-changing phenomenon that must be taken into account when deriving any moral decision from Islam, as stated by Ibn al-Qayyim:

فَإِنَّ الْفَتْوَى تَتَغَيَّرُ بِتَغَيُّرِ الزَّمَانِ وَالْمَكَانِ وَالْعَوَائِدِ وَالْأَحْوَالِ وَذَلِكَ كُلُّهُ مِنْ دِينِ اللَّهِ كَمَا تَقَدَّمَ بَيَانُهُ وَبِاَللَّهِ التَّوْفِيقُ

Indeed, the judgment (al-fatwa) changes with the change of time, place, custom, and circumstance. All of this is from the religion of Allah as has been explained, and success comes from Allah.

Source: I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn 4/157

For this reason, the legal schools of Islam contain the principle that customs can be a source of law, as long as they do not flagrantly violate the law and spirit of Islam.

In sum, moral decisions can often be very directly guided by virtue-reasoning or adhering to one of Islam’s traditional legal codes. But there are difficult moral dilemmas, especially in the modern world, when the answers are not as clear cut. There are competing, sometimes conflicting, moral imperatives and variables that need to be weighed and balanced before coming to a conclusion on action. Such is the nature of moral wisdom, which comprehensively accounts for virtues, duties, and context.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.