With Western countries at the top of those considered most ethical, it is tempting to generalize and claim that the best political and economic practices prevail in places that are affluent, secure and free from conflict. A state in constant war, suffering from extreme poverty, military dictatorship and lack of social and economic development will obviously curtail ethical values in the public domain, and may begin to erode them even in the home.
The principles of ethics are often discussed with respect to gains and benefits to society at large. What is good or bad is supposedly determined by the rule of the majority, with little attention given to the principles of morality. Islamic ethics differ from the Western concept as these are derived from God, directly from the Quran, and from the practices of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It is therefore a set of beliefs and actions that is divine and transcends the limitations of time, place and tradition.
Unlike the commonly held belief that man is evil by nature, Islam holds that man is born with a morally good nature that responds to faith and ethical values. Over time, it may get corrupted due to temptations and man’s inability to exercise control over his desires. According to Islam, there is universal equality among mankind, with the single exception of moral goodness and strength of character or taqwa (God consciousness).
For man’s conduct to be ethical as per Islam, there are two conditions which must be fulfilled: his intention must be good and his action must be according to what God has instructed. If either is corrupt, his behavior is unlikely to meet ethical standards. For example, if a wrong deed was done with good intentions that ultimately produced a good outcome, it cannot be termed ethical. If the intentions were wrong to begin with, and the outcome was accidentally good, there is no question of ethical behavior. Good intentions and good deeds must go hand in hand.
There are three very important and interrelated ways in which ethical principles in Islam differ from those that are understood and practiced in the West. The first is the concept of individual freedom and independence. In Islam, one’s freedom ends where another’s physical and moral space begins. Indeed, alongside freedom of expression and liberty for individuals, society also has moral rights. Thus, how one individual behaves morally must be guided by how that behavior impinges upon and influences the behavior of those around him.
Secondly, Islamic teachings expand outwards with the family as the unit of society, not the individual. Islam believes in collectivism, not individualism. There is, therefore, no concept of being responsible for the self alone.
And thirdly, ethical principles, by virtue of their divine source, are not determined by the vote of the majority. If the majority in a society votes that speculation on the stock market is ethical, Islamic ethics will not accept this decision.
Corruption and bribery may very well be the order of the day, and so could the consumption of drugs, and they may be declared legal. But they could never be morally right in Islam. Obviously, this also points to the fact that what may be the law in a country may not be necessarily ethical.
The Quran is replete with clear messages pertaining to ethics (akhlaq), the standards of behavior that God expects mankind to adopt because He has sent him to this world as His vicegerent. These cover all aspects of truthfulness, honesty, kindness, integrity (that includes being consistent in word and deed), meeting commitments and sincerity. The best example of ethics is in the life of the Prophet himself. When Aisha (ra) was once asked about the personality of her husband, she had replied: “he was a reflection of the Quran itself”.
Islamic ethics is a code of conduct that calls for humankind to undertake a continuous process of self-purification, in thought, feelings and emotions (tazkya nafs); in social interactions through intentions and deeds that benefit other human beings as well as other creations of God; in using the resources that God has given him in a wise manner; and in bringing him closer to the ideal as described by the Prophet: “the best amongst you are those who are the owners of the best morality.”
Why is so much of the Muslim world mired in corruption and demonstrating the sins that the Quran has warned against? The answer lies perhaps in its collective failure to use intellect and reasoning, learning from mistakes, pondering over the message of the Quran and abstaining from living in the fantasies of past glory.