Ethics in Islam is the Qur’anic code of conducts which is fully epitomized in the perfect moral character of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic ethics is a framework, set by the Qur’an, within which all practical conducts are deemed permissible (Umaruddin, 1962). Hence, religion or more accurately ‘din’ is the foundation of Islamic ethics. “The purpose and end of ethics in Islam is ultimately for the individual; what the man of Islam does, he does in the way he believes to be good only because of God and His Messenger say so and he trusts that his actions will find favor with God” (al-Attas, 1993). Therefore, what is good is what Allah does and commands. Goodness is getting closer to Allah and to gain His favor. Moreover, man is created with a purpose and the purpose of man is to worship Allah in totality (al-Qur’an, al-Zariyat: 56). Goodness is the act that facilitates or fulfills one’s purpose as a servant and a vicegerent of God. Further, all other creations are created with their own purposes as well (al-Qur’an, Ali Imran: 191). Therefore, goodness is the act to ensure other beings are benefited according to their purposes. We can conclude that evil is going away from Allah; not fulfilling the purpose of one’s life; and preventing other beings from fulfilling their purposes or using other beings not according to the purposes they are created for.
God determines all values; hence values are independent of the human mind and absolute. However, moral conducts is context dependent. This means, for example, lying which is prohibited under normal circumstances is allowed for a worthy cause if other means are unattainable. The prophet says that “those who lie for the purpose of reuniting two individuals in conflict is not considered a liar, he says good words and the result is good” (hadith 2232, Muslim, Sahih, 1987: 221). This hadith conveys that one should understand the philosophy underlying a particular moral code. This understanding permits judgment by the intellect whenever it is deemed necessary. Since values are from God, the source of ethical values is the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which is the interpretation of the Qur’an. The archetype of the perfect moral character is Prophet Muhammad. Even though the Qur’an and Sunnah have laid down the principles of moral conducts, there are still rooms for judgment by the intellect.
The questions on moral responsibility started during the Umayyad dynasty when the caliphs explained that their immoral and tyrannical behaviors were predetermined by God. This view was opposed by the Qadarites which was later refined by the Mu’tazilites. The Mu’tazilite was the first group who made an attempt to define good and bad. The good is not what God does or command but goodness is inherent in the good. Thus, God command the good because of its goodness. Similarly, evil is not what God dislike but because it is evil that God dislike it. The Mu’tazilites took this stand to vindicate God from being responsible for the evil in the world since they believed that creating evil was against God’s wisdom and goodness (Fakhry, 1983). They also believed that reason was capable of distinguishing good from evil, thus authority of shari’ah was not needed (Fakhry, 2000). This view was disputed by the conservatists and the Ash’arites. However, the Mu’tazilites, conservatists, and Ash’arites’ views were rooted in the Qur’an and hadith (Fakhry, 1998).
No exposition on ethics was done before the introduction of Greek philosophy. The first Muslim philosopher who wrote on philosophical ethics was al-Kindi. His treaties on ethics (Paving the Way to Virtue and On the Art of Dispelling Sorrow) were influenced by Socratic thought (Fakhry, 1998). Al-Farabi was another contributor to the discussion on ethics. He wrote more systematic treaties on ethics which was nuanced by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. However, the most significant contributor to Islamic ethics was Miskawayh (1968). His tahdhib al-akhlaq (Refinement of Character) influenced later Persian thinkers such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Jalal al-Din al-Dawami (Fakhry, 1998). An examination of Al-Ghazali’s theory of virtue revealed that it is quite similar to Miskawayh’s tahdhib al-akhlaq (Umaruddin, 1962). Another great thinker who wrote on ethics was al-Isfahani (Mohamed, 2006). The common thread between all of the above mentioned thinkers is that they explained that moral character is good habits of a person which can be developed through habituation and self-training. Miskawayh, al-Isfahani, and al-Ghazali adopted Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between two vices and classified virtue into four divisions which are wisdom, temperance, courage and justice (Umaruddin, 1962; Miskawayh, 1968; Mohamed, 2006). Happiness in this world and in the hereafter is the end of acquiring these virtues.
Contemporary writing on ethics in Islam is lacking especially in applied ethics such as business ethics, medical ethics, mass communication ethics and environment ethics. Even though the Qur’an has set a clear framework for moral conduct, ethics based on the Qur’an and hadith have to be developed for the practical needs of the modern people who are engaged in various social, political and economics activities.