Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

There are a number of ways to categorize different types of actions according to Islamic principles.  Sunni Islam comprises four remaining schools of Islamic law. While each of these differs somewhat in its conception of both permissibility and prohibition in the range of human actions, they are all generally consistent about of the extent of that range. That is, according to Islamic law, all human actions fit into one of five categories ranging from permissibility of, preference for, neutrality to, dislike, or outright prohibition of any particular action.  The number of actions that are expressly prohibited, or haram, is rather limited in Sunni law. Anything that is not expressly prohibited in the Quran or Sunna, is considered halal, permissible. However, the category of permissibility is itself rather broad. Within this category are actions that are said to be preferred, such as extra non-obligatory prayers, as well as those things that are deemed disliked, such as divorce.

Divorce is an excellent example of an Islamic issue that provides insight into a certain moral perspective. According to Sunni law divorce is permissible, and Muhammad himself married divorcees. However, it is generally advisable to consider alternatives before concluding that a divorce is necessary. These alternatives, such as marital counseling, are advised because while divorce is permitted by Islamic law, it is considered something that God dislikes. Therefore Sunnis believe that it is meritorious to avoid it even though there is no punishment attached to carrying it out. This is a particularly vivid example of the way law can affect even the most personal aspects of a believer's ethical life. Namely, the advisability of counseling or seeking alternatives before divorcing seems to prioritize marriage, emphasizing the normative aspects of Islamic law.

From an Islamic legal point of view, civil society is governed by laws that regulate the financial and family relationships that exist in the public sphere. Criminal behavior is also an issue that received extensive treatment in books on Islamic law. The five fundamental principles at the heart of Islamic law represent values of accountability and public order protected by jurisprudence: life, religion, reason/mental faculty, property, and progeny. The scripture of Islam is, by contrast, rather limited in its specification of particular punishments for criminal acts. According to the text of the Quran, few crimes have prescribed punishments. These include apostasy, theft, adultery, murder, slander, highway robbery, and the consumption of alcohol. Looking at Islamic law as a whole, it becomes clear that laws regulating punishment for criminal behavior are meant to preserve the values enumerated above.

These five "fundamentals" are the values upon which the philosophy of Islamic law is based. Aside from the seven offenses listed above, two other categories of public behavior are regulated by principles of Islamic law. On the one hand there are crimes that fall under the broad category of "discretion." This means that for an offense that does not fall under the category of one of the seven, there is no single prescribed punishment in Islamic law. The second category has to do with crimes of bodily offense. This can range from simple assault to the infliction of more serious or permanent injuries, for which there are various potential ramifications. In the medieval world, retaliation was often resorted to in these cases, but it is more usual that some kind of recompense in the form of a financial payment be made. This is the equivalent of a monetary settlement for a personal injury.

On the other hand, acts of worship that do not have a public impact and the relationship between an individual and God are not a matter of social regulation or citizenship, even if one lives in what is called an Islamic state. Private behavior, such as praying, fasting, and the like is impossible to regulate on a large scale. Therefore, it is generally the exception rather than the rule when an issue of private moral behavior is dealt with publicly.

Of course this varies from society to society and certain states are more restrictive than others. For minority Muslim populations living in larger non-Muslim societies, the privacy of worship is particularly notable. In secular societies that stress a separation between church and state, Muslim communities often resort to the same kinds of social structures as other faith-based organizations, especially in the United States.

As with many religious traditions, it would be artificial to assume that a member of the Sunni community consciously applies an ideological connection to basic moral principles on a daily basis. This is especially so when we consider that many Muslim communities are simply one part of a larger pluralistic society. This signals that in general, Islamic law recognizes a separation between personal, private belief and the broader public world. This separation is a good reminder of the principles of personal responsibility and individual moral accountability, especially for beliefs, that is at the center of Sunni concepts of moral behavior.

Study Questions:
     1.     How are human actions categorized, in terms of morality?
     2.     What are the five fundamental principles at the heart of Islamic law?
     3.     What seven crimes have “prescribed punishments”?

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