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Religion Library: Islam

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Mohammad Fadel

Islamic ethics, however, is also concerned with social interactions, mu‘amalat in Arabic. Mu‘amalat are sharply distinguished from ritual in Islamic ethics insofar as Islamic law presumes that when regulation speaks to human interactions, it does so to further human welfare in the secular world rather than to regulate the relationship between the human and the divine. It is the assumption that revelation's regulation of social life is essentially comprehensible to human reason, which makes feasible the project of an expansive Islamic law grounded in human interpretation of the divine command. 

For Sunni Muslims at least, this means that much of Islamic law—especially as applied to social interactions—is largely a product of human reflection upon the message of revelation, with the inevitable result that differences of opinion regarding what revelation requires for any particular situation abound. In theory, Shi‘i Muslims, because of their adherence to the concept of a divinely guided imam, are not in need of human interpretation of revelation, with all its foibles. In practice, however, because the great majority of Shi‘i Muslims are Twelvers and believe that the last Imam is currently in hiding, they too are required to construct the rules of Islamic law using interpretive techniques. 

Fundamental norms (daruri)Secondary norms (ijtihadi)
set forth explicitly in revelationbased on scholarly interpretation
include religious doctrine
(unity of God, accountability before God)
include most doctrines and ethical obligations
also include practical obligations
("Five pillars of Islam," dietary restrictions)

Because Islamic ethics requires the use of interpretation (ijtihad) to extend revelation to novel cases, Islamic ethics makes a broad distinction between fundamental norms (daruri) and secondary norms (ijtihadi). The former are set forth explicitly in revelation and include both elements of religious dogma—such as the simple unity of God, the inevitability of resurrection after death, and the accountability of individuals before God—as well as practical obligations, such as the "Five Pillars of Islam" and the obligations to refrain from illicit sex, eating pork, or drinking grape-wine. Most Islamic doctrines and ethical obligations, however, are secondary (ijtihadi) and are derived through the interpretation of scholars. Muslim scholars have engaged in a tradition of scholarly interpretation for over one thousand years, leaving a rich legacy of theological, ethical, and legal doctrines. 


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