Right and Wrong in Islam

During the middle ages a dispute arose which is playing itself out today. The question was:  When God commands us to do an action, is the action right solely because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?  Both the Christian and the Muslim worlds were confronted with this question as a result of their encounter with Greek philosophy.  If God commands an action because it is right, then the rightness and wrongness of the action lies in its very nature as an action, and we human beings, by using our reason to analyze the action, can in principle discover for ourselves whether it is right or wrong.  In that case the function of God’s command is to give authority and clarity to the voice of our conscience, especially by pointing to the ultimate reward or punishment that our actions deserve.  But we have a conscience independently of hearing God’s revealed command.

If, on the other hand, an action is right only because God commands it, and wrong only because God forbids it, then we cannot discover for ourselves by the use of our powers of reasoning what actions are right or wrong by analyzing the nature of the actions, but we must rely instead simply on learning from the mouth of God what is his command.  Until we have heard God’s command we do not have a conscience.

The answer given by the Christian thinkers of the middle ages was that God commands actions because they are right.  Theologians concluded that since faith and reason came from the same source, God, there could not be fundamental disagreement between them.  Philosophy was welcomed into the Christian worldview as the handmaid, ancilla, of theology.  So long as reason did not contradict faith, it could function independently within the religious sphere.  Today we can see that this was a momentous step in the history of our civilization.  It was explained and defended in detail especially in the monumental Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.  The question of moral right and wrong was henceforth for the Christian world largely a rational question that could be answered by the independent power of reason.  There arose a Christian ethics.  This remained the Christian consensus till the Reformation.

One consequence of this Christian alliance between theology and philosophy was that Christianity accepted the ancient Stoic doctrine of natural law.  This is the view that the basic principles of right and wrong are not merely relative to the particular culture or society or to subjective individual opinion, or to a particular religion, but are objective values that are universally valid for all rational beings.  This view developed originally in the Greek and Roman empire after Alexander had unified the various peoples of the Mediterranean and they started interacting with one another much more than they had been.  They realized that it was not sufficient to appeal to their own traditions of right and wrong but they had to discover moral rules that could be accepted universally.  This is the concept of natural law.  As Cicero wrote: If justice does not exist in nature, it does not exist anywhere.  That is, justice must be something objective. We do not create justice, we discover it.  This has been a very precious development in the West.

From this it follows, among other things, that there is a foundation for rational dialogue between different civilizations about right and wrong.  This was part of the worldview that led St. Francis Xavier to India and Fr. Matteo Ricci to China.  Another consequence was that Christian thinkers such as Peter Abelard could conclude that not only the external action but also one’s interior state of mind, one’s intention, was of decisive importance for the moral value of an action.  This idea, the doctrine of mens rea, was adopted into the English Common law, where it remains to this day.

The Muslim world went down the other path.  For a brief while Muslim philosophy flourished.  Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were great and powerful thinkers.  But soon the religious authorities decided that philosophy presented too great a danger to Islam, because the philosophers raised questions about certain basic Muslim beliefs.  If actions were right or wrong by their own intrinsic nature, the religious authorities reasoned, God would no longer be sovereign over all things: he would be dependent for his knowledge of right and wrong on something other than himself.  There were also some Christian thinkers who had adopted this view, but they were argued down.  Philosophy was banished from the Muslim world.  (This was especially true of the Sunnis, who are the majority; the situation with the minority Shiites was more nuanced.)

Consequently there is nothing in Islam corresponding to what we in the West understand by ethics as a field of inquiry.  There is no such thing as rational discussion and debate about the inherent morality of particular actions.  Instead there is the divine command and its interpretations by different schools and scholars.  The Muslim knows that murder is wrong only because statements to that effect are made in the Koran.  But since, to take one example,neither the Koran nor the Hadith (the authoritative sayings and doings of the Prophet) speak of “civilians” as distinct from soldiers, the Muslim considers he has no reason to treat them differently in war.  It is true that some Muslim schools of law can make an argument by analogy, if they can find in Koran or Hadith some similar situation.  But this is not automatic.  In Islam there are commands, and there is debate about how the commands are to be interpreted, but there is no debate about what independent reason can conclude about right and wrong.

It goes with this that traditional Islam has no doctrine of natural law.  It has no philosophical basis for believing that the discussion of right and wrong with other religions or cultures could be fruitful.  Either one accepts the Koran or one does not.  Those who do not are simply not worth talking to.

Dialogue presupposes some degree of common ground.  It is possible to converse with Muslims because we are all human beings with the common human experiences of birth, love and death.  But unfortunately the common ground that could enable Western civilization to dialogue with Islam about what is right and wrong is vanishingly narrow.  If we are to make any headway in rational discussion with the Muslim world, we need on our side again to realize the value of the doctrine of natural law, and to regain our confidence in the power of reason to settle disputes.