Lost treasures on ethics in Islam
In light of the global economic and ecological disorder over the years, there have been growing discourses by intellectuals of various faiths on the need to restore religiously inspired ethics into mainstream living.
Islam – a religion whose meaning (as encapsulated in the term dīn) includes the natural inclination of man (fitrah), inspired an intellectual tradition that promotes rich discussions in the field of ethics that can greatly contribute to the on-going conversations on restoring order to the economy and ecology which is more in tune with man’s natural inclination.
The science of ethics in Islam (ilm akhlaq), as in the case with other religious sciences in Islam, was initially a reality. For the Prophet Muhammad, may God’s blessings be upon him, who was sent to perfect good character, lived and embodied the knowledge of ethics based on the revealed guidance of God.
Gradually, when the civilisation of Islam came into contact with other civilisations such as the Greeks, a group of Muslim scholars beginning with Al-Kindi (d. 873), Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037) made effective use of earlier discussions by the ancient Greek philosophers (such as Plato, Aristotle and Galen, who lived about 1000 years earlier) and attempted to reformulate their sciences (including ethics) within the ambit of the religious worldview.
This is because, from the perspective of learned Muslims in the past, the discourses of ancient Greek philosophers were influenced by the remnants of the teachings of earlier Prophets. Therefore it is natural for discerning Muslims to critically benefit from the discourses of the ancient Greeks as per the famous dictum attributed to Prophet Muhammad: “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, take hold of it whereever ye find it.”
A monumental work that follows is Ibn Miskawayh’s (d. 1030) Tadhib al-Akhlaq (Refinement of Character), who made extensive use of the discourses of the ancient Greek philosophers on ethics within an Islamic framework.
Eighty-one years after Miskawayh, one of the great luminaries of Islam, al-Ghazali (d. 1111), refined and expanded on the discussions of his predecessors in his magnum opus Ihya Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences). This work and the stature of its author had inspired generations of Muslim scholars and leaders of various fields in Andalusia, North Africa, Balkans, Turkey, and the Malay world for centuries.
Subsequent to al-Ghazali came another monumental figure, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) who wrote a treatise entitled Kitab al-Nafs wa-l Ruh wa Sharh Quwwahuma (Book on the Soul and Spirit with a Commentary on their Faculties) which builds on the works of al-Ghazali but with further exposition and clarification on the place of man in the universe, and nature of the soul, as a basis for his subsequent discussions on cultivation of the self.
In 16th Malay world, the encylopaedic scholar and advisor to the Sultan of Aceh, Nur al-Din al-Raniri (d. 1658)—a contemporary of Rene Descartes (d. 1650)—had also discussed on the proper theoretical understanding for the cultivation of the self that draws from the Sufi metaphysical tradition of Islam in his Lata’if al–Asrar li–Ahl Allah al–Atyar (The Spiritual Subtleties for the Swiftly Ascending People of God).
In the contemporary world, Tan Sri Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’s recently published work which was launched by DYMM Sultan Dr. Nazrin Shah on 16th December 2015 entitled On Justice and the Nature of Man (IBFIM, 2015) can be classified as a continuation of this tradition which responds to present-day debates related to the subject matter.
The aforementioned scholars in their works all concur that man is in reality a soul, and thus the goal of ethics is for the attainment of an enduring, permanent happiness that can be attained and experienced in the soul by those who believe and live by their convinction accordingly.
And to live by their convinction accordingly entails cultivating both the religious virtues of reverential awe of God (taqwa), patience (sabr), repentance (tawba), sincerity (ikhlas) as well as the philosophic virtues of wisdom (hikmah), temperance (iffah), courage (shaja’ah), and justice (‘adl).
It is for this reason that Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud in his article Timelessness of Prophet Muhammad and the Nature of Islamic Civilisation (2015), explains that Islamic Civilisation was and should always be a moral-ethical civilisation, not merely that of the ecological civilisation or that of the industrial-technological civilisation.
Unfortunately this understanding and tradition of ethics is no longer imparted to present-day Muslims students and leaders for various reasons. Instead, an utilitiarian or secularized form of ethics is adopted unconsciousely by many Muslims today.
Therefore it is incumbent for the educated Muslims today to regain these lost wisdom as part of their personal self-transformation program to compliment the various transformation initiatives already in place at many organisations and government agencies in Malaysia by consulting the right teachers.
And in the context of interfaith and civilisational dialogue, it is in only in the realm of ethics that humanity at large can cooperate and build better societies together, for if we emphasize on differences in theology, we are bound to dispute. This writer intends to deliberate and illustrate further on this discussion in forthcoming articles, God-willing. (864 words)