Toward a Global Code of Ethics?

I. Introduction

Is interfaith dialogue and cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims possible?  In 1992, at the Second Parliament of the World Religions a gathering of Muslim scholars from all over the world gave a decisive and resounding answer: No!  At issue was Muslim participation in developing and approving a statement originally prepared by the Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, entitled “Toward a Global Ethics.” 

While I was busily trying to recruit cooperation with the Muslim community from Buddhists and the world leaders of other religions at caucuses all over the conference headquarters in Chicago, Muslims appointed by the Saudi government spent their time first objecting to the initial draft and then debating whether they should boycott the Parliament and thereby destroy it.  After the host society found it could not fund travel for the world’s leading Muslims, the Saudi government “saved” the situation by providing all necessary funds, provided that certain invited individuals would not get any travel funds and others not previously invited would. 

The result was predictable.  The entire Parliament, which commemorated the first such parliament a century earlier and first introduced Islam to the American public, nearly collapsed.  Everyone understood that participation by Muslims, who made up the second largest religion in the world, was essential to bring to bear credibly in the real world the power of spiritual wisdom and commitment.

Instead of taking a proactive stance by introducing Islamic principles and, indeed, an entire Islamic framework for the draft, the persons who dominated the Muslim caucus focused on a couple of provisions concerning gender equity and homosexuality that they considered un-Islamic.  These Wahhabi missionaries had no experience in the process of give-and-take common in issue-oriented conferences outside their own religious ghetto and, indeed, in societal governance in general.  The provision for freedom of “lifestyle” was opposed, in fact, by most of those present at the Parliament and could easily have been eliminated.  But, dialogue, and especially interfaith dialogue, was strange and threatening.  It seemed that if they could not immediately control the entire Parliament and impose their sectarian mindset without even discussion, they would rather torpedo this greatest interfaith gathering in history altogether and claim victory over evil.

II. What is Ethics?

A major problem was the very word “ethics.”  What is this?  The word is not in the Qur’an in any translation, nor in the ahadith, nor even in the writings of the great scholars of shari’ah.  Hence it must all be a trick to secularize or Westernize Islam and promote the hegemony of the Hindus in South Asia or even of Israel in the Middle East, even though the major Jewish organizations boycotted the Parliament.

Unfortunately, the Wahhabis are not the only ones confused by non-Islamic terminology.  And they are quite right that terminology is the heavy weapon in mimetic warfare, which is the use of mimes or symbols, like words and phrases, to control the thought of the opponent subliminally without the opponent even knowing that he is starting at a lethal disadvantage.  Christians like to start every discussion by subjecting everyone to the framework of salvation, which sub rosa means that ab initio one should accept the divinity of Christ.  Muslims like to start by discussing submission to God and what this means in terms of justice, to which Christians respond by attacking the Muslims’ alleged ignorance of or intolerance toward love.  Definitions are critically important to productive dialogue.  One must begin by accepting the “other’s” definition of self, rather than trying to impose one’s own definition, because failure to do so is the most grievous affront to the other’s human dignity.  And one must make clear one’s own definition of basic terms like human, humanity, truth, justice, morality, law, and ethics.

On October 26th, 2002, Sister Amira Quraishi, who is getting an advanced degree at Penn State in Religious Studies, posted an Islamic Law Inquiry at the listserve of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers.  She was asked to give a lecture to an undergraduate class on Islamic ethics.  She had done enough research to locate Fazlur Rahman’s chapter on “Law and Ethics in Islam” in the course textbook, Readings in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  His coverage of the subject left her totally confused, because he maintained that the maqasid al shari’ah or universal and basic purposes of Islamic law detracted from reliance on the basic sources of Islamic thought, the Qur’an and ahadith, and even promoted the secularization of Islam at the expense of enlightened ethics.

Fortunately, Sister Amira appears to be a model of a mujtahid exercising ijtihad, because she starts analysis of anything by questioning everything, especially the definitions of words that control thought.  Even the concept of “Islamic ethics,” as distinct from “Islamic law” or even “morality,” challenges Muslim scholars to examine the unexamined basics of Islamic thought.

III. Sources of Knowledge

One might define ethics as the study of right versus wrong (and shades in between, e.g. mandub vs makruh) without the benefit of divine revelation.  The question immediately arises, is this forbidden for a Muslim if it threatens the basic source of knowledge and substitutes reason for revelation, as did the extremist Mu’tazili or “rationalists” of a millenium ago. 

Of course, one would do well to begin the answer by defining terms. There are three sources of knowledge, according to classical Islamic scholars.  The first is haqq al yaqin, which is truth revealed through divinely chosen persons directly from the Creator of all reality, i.e. Revelation, which has always been available to every community since the days of the earliest cave-men.  The second is haqq al ‘ain, which is truth revealed indirectly through the Sunnatu Allahi or signs of God, known in the West as “natural law,” inherent in the universe, including in our own human nature.  This is the realm of “physical science,” which does not need divine revelation but usually ends up in complete agreement with it, depending on whether the individual scientist has a hidden or not-so-hidden agenda.  The third source of knowledge, which is usually rejected as such by most Muslim scholars, is haqq al ‘ilm, which is knowledge derived still more indirectly from both of the first two sources by the human intellect in the sense of the rational brain. 

The question then arises, what is the “rational brain” and what role does it play in a person’s access to knowledge.  All sentient beings consist of a ruh or “spirit,” which is always in the presence of Allah, somewhat like the angels; a nafs or “soul” that is aware of the ruh, but has the power of free-will to ignore it and to oppose the divine will, though it may advance in awareness of the divine from a state of self-worship (nafs al ammara) to a state of repentance for such self-worship (known as nafs al lawamma) to a state, known as nafs al mutma’ina, of “union” with the ultimate reality (which should be understand only as a “sense” of union (wahdat al shuhud, not wahdat al wujjud) with the presence of God in the universe.  The rational power of the human person, which is the soul, produces haqq al ‘ilm, by using the physical body, the jizm, both brain and heart, to process the first two sources of knowledge (revelation and science) into a human creation or mental construct.

This mental construct is the aim of ijtihad.  If it relies exclusively on the second and third sources of knowledge, i.e. observance of the laws of nature and the laws of logic, to induce rules of right and wrong, in the sense of what is conducive to or in opposition to the common good, it may be defined as “ethics.”  If ijtihad or “mental effort” relies additionally, however, on divine revelation, the product may be called “transcendent law” or “metalaw.”  Both ethics and transcendent law are known as “normative law,” and they both inform normative economics as well as advanced physics.  The shari’ah or Islamic law is normative law informed by the wisdom of the Creator revealed especially in the Qur’an as a standard against which to judge all human thought and action.  This transcendent law is referred to twice in the Qur’an as the shar’ or the law revealed to all the prophets, ‘alayhim al salaam.

IV.  Methods of Legal Reasoning

In order to dispel the fog of confusion caused in the mind of Sister Amira by one of the greatest of Muslim scholars, Fazlur Rahman, one should posit some more definitions.  First, one should distinguish the result from the methods of legal reasoning.  The result consists, first, of specific injunctions, known as the ahkam (sing. hukm), either positive or negative, directly evident in the “sources,” namely the Qur’an and ahadith, and, second, of the fatawa (sing. fatwa) or reasoned and principled opinions derived either directly or indirectly from revelation, scientific observation, and/or human reasoning.

The methods of legal reasoning, known as ‘usul al fiqh or the roots of legal reasoning, as developed by Islamic scholars, are three, ranging from the strict to the less strict.  They all make use of the “good of the community” as a standard and thus are known as maslaha mursala.  The first is maslaha al mu’tabara, which is based exclusively on an explicit hukm or ruling (regulation) in the Qur’an or Sunnah.  Shafi’i and Abu Hamid al Ghazali recognized only this strict use of maslaha.  Al Ghazali (d. 505/1111) stated that qiyas or analogy is another word for ijtihad, which can be interpreted ironically as a narrowing of the intellectual function in Islamic civilization.

The second method of legal reasoning or ijtihad is based on istislah from the root salah.  This, like the first, is based on the values of Islam revealed in the Qur’an and sunnah, but they are identified by induction from the parts to the whole. 

The third is based on istihsan, from the word hasana, which is rejected by some scholars as a source of Islamic law.  Istihsan is the most free-wheeling of the ‘usul, and some have used it to connote merely whatever subjectively seems good, i.e. hasan.  During a three-week tour of English universities in August and September, 1997, sponsored by the Islamic Foundation, Fathi Osman, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, and I debated the nature, meaning, and relevance of these ‘usul.  I was the most “conservative” of the trio, but we agreed that even the most free-wheeling use of the ‘usul, the istihsan, must be distinguished from English equity law and from the Arabic term, ra’i, which are nothing more than personal opinion, however well informed.

The universal principles of the shari’ah, known variously as the maqasid or purposes, the dururiyat or essentials, and the kulliyat or universals, were developed largely by students of open-ended istislah.  Although pioneered by Ali’, radi Allahu anhu, under the tutelage of the Prophet Muhammad, salla allahu alayhi wa salam, they were not formalized until Al Ghazali designated them as a specific set of five.  During the past six hundred years, an overwhelming consensus of scholars following the principle of taqlid have tried to freeze all thought by Muslims by insisting that any other formulation is bida’ or “innovation.”  They reject the very thought that further development of Islamic law can be bida’ hasana, because they rule out the possibility that any further development of Islamic thought can be good.

The greatest student of the maqasid, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Musa al Shatibi (d. 790/1388), emphasized the universal idea of justice as the ultimate purpose of the shari’ah from the Qur’anic mandate, wa tamaat kalimatu Rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan (“and the Word of your Lord is perfected in truth and in justice”).  This greatest master of normative law taught that the number of the maqasid is flexible, as are also the subordinate levels and architectonics of purpose, the hajjiyat and tahsiniyat.

V.  Fazlur Rahman’s Objections

We as Muslims are now beginning to emerge from centuries of intellectual stagnation.  The message of Islam has survived only because the faith or commitment by hundreds of millions of Muslims to a personal relationship with Allah has survived the injustices that have rendered the teachings of Islam practically irrelevant to human life.  The bitter battles now being fought against some of humankind’s most outstanding leaders of thought, such as Professor Khalid Abou el Fadl, may help explain some of Fazlur Rahman’s otherwise confusing conclusions, as well as explain the open hostility to any product of the human mind by so-called Wahhabis.

The narrow-minded approach of almost all Muslim scholars in Fazlur Rahman’s day, less than twenty years ago, indeed did divorce all discussion of the maqasid from normative law and ethics.  He is quite right that, as Sister Amira quotes him, “If values and principles were to be derived from the entire Qur’an, it would be possible to build an ethical system that would be genuinely Qur’anic, … and jurists would not have been compelled to resort to principles of istihsan and maslaha mursala.”  He is referring to the taqlidi approach to and interpretations of the maqasid almost universally taught in his day, which were reactionary corruptions of the high point of Islamic legal thought during the time of Al Shatibi.  Otherwise, his statement would by an oxymoran, because the very purpose of the maqasid is to formulate the meaning of justice, both in the secular sense of ethics and the transcendent sense of what I call “shari’ thought.” 

Fazlur Rahman further objects, going to the other extreme, that the formulation and application of the maqasid “seemed to secularize Islamic law.”  This is true only to the extent that Professor Rahman is referring to the extremists at one end of the spectrum.  I would go even further by contending that the muqalidun, who worship the past, right or wrong, are secularizing Islamic thought, even though they claim to be protecting it from secularization, because their very refusal to think or permit anyone else to think is the worship of oneself rather than an effort to bring the wisdom of divine revelation to a world in so much need of it.

Dr. Rahman, writes further that, “ … if the development of Qur’anic ethics had taken place and law had been deduced from it, resort to principles like maslaha, which were never well formulated, whose operations were uncontrolled and often arbitrary, and which were, indeed, amorphous would have been related to shari’a principles.”  This can only refer to the sad state of Islamic scholarship, with notable exceptions pointed out by Syed Hossein Nasr, at present and during the last several hundred years.  The principles developed under the aegis of maslaha are precisely the shari’a principles that Professor Fazlur Rahman finds wanting.

The set of maqasid that seems best to reflect the burgeoning state of the art in maqasid scholarship today consists of seven principles. The first is the overarching purpose known as haqq al din, which is the duty to respect divine revelation, because this informs all the others.  The hajjiyat under this principle include tawhid or the harmony of the universe that derives from the Oneness of its Creator, as well as what one might call the aesthetics of reality, which Professor Khalid Abou el Fadl call simply beauty. 

The next three, which I call the survival principles, are haqq al haya or the duty to respect life, which elaborates the just war doctrine and deals with suicide bombing; haqq al nasl or the duty to respect the nuclear family and group rights of the community at every level; and haqq al mal or the duty to respect private property, which includes the duty fard kifaya to design and establish institutions of society that broaden rather than concentrate wealth both within countries and among them.

The next three maqasid, which I call “quality of life principles,” are haqq al hurriya or the duty to respect political freedom, which has a whole set of hajjiyat, including khilafa, shura, ijma, and an independent judicial system; haqq al karama or the duty to respect human dignity, which includes religious freedom and gender equity; and haqq al ‘ilm or the duty to respect knowledge, which includes freedom of thought, expression, and association, and a duty to learn all one’s life from wherever one can obtain useful knowledge.

VI.  Phronesis: Translating Theory into Practice

The main task of Muslim intellectuals today is to develop the Islamic principles of human responsibilities and rights, which are the maqasid al shari’ah, because these form the Islamic definition of justice.  The injustices, oppression, and disorder in the modern world, abetted by the odd combination of hegemonical Puritanism now governing in Washington and described in my essay. “The International Criminal Court: an Arena for the Global Culture War in the Twenty-First Century?”, can be overcome only by deliberate promotion of the interdependent purposes of justice, freedom, and peace as the framework for both foreign and domestic policy.

As I have written in my essay, “The Search for Justice and the Quest for Virtue: The Two Basics of Islamic Law,” published as Part III of The Sun Is Rising in the West, by the editor Muzaffar Haleem, and author Betty (Batul) Bowman, Amana Publications, 1999, pp. 145-166, “The analysis of purpose resulting from the more liberal istihsan can be used to buttress the strict mu’tabara and the less strict istihslah, but the distinction must be preserved when one uses the maqasid al shari’ah or basic purposes of Islamic law as a framework for public policy.  The task of a Muslim think-tank in America, and by policy-oriented academics at a Muslim university, should be to use the maqasid al shari’ah as the basis of what we call ‘management by objectives,’ but we must be careful to assure that the objectives are managing policy, rather than the other way around.  The only concern of policy oriented academics and politically active Muslims should be the Agenda of Allah.  If so-called pragmatic political objectives begin to interfere with this Agenda, the result can only be the corruption of the Muslim umma and the triumph of the Shaitan.”

If interfaith dialogue and cooperation are to shape the global future, the leaders of all religions must work together toward a common vision based on revival of the best from every civilization.  Transcendent law, which is another term for the Islamic shari’ah, must inform the development of a common vision, and this vision must give rise to a common global ethic shared by the spiritual leaders of humankind so that every community, every country, and all humankind can be governed by leaders who are governed by God.


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