Holy Qur’an’s ethical heartbeats resonated within the very social milieu of its revelation, intertwining religious, moral, and legal obligations under the vast expanse of God’s will.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, a crucible of ethics was simmering, the understanding of which can paint a more comprehensive picture of the Qur’an’s moral fabric. It is intriguing to note how, when the pagan Arabs embraced Islam, many of these ethics were redefined and reshaped into a spiritual mold.
Arabia, before the profound revelations of the Qur’an, was submerged in what was called the age of ‘ignorance’ or ‘jahiliyyah.’ Some scholars suggest a different translation for this term — ‘barbarism.’ Arguments hinge on Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) intent, which seemed to juxtapose Islam with barbarism rather than ignorance. It is fascinating to delve deeper into the language: Another term, ‘jahl,’ rooted in the same origin, points towards the feisty nature of the pagan Arabs, standing in stark contrast to ‘hilm’ – a term symbolizing patience, forbearance, and restraint from unrestrained passion.
This duality – the hotheaded impetuosity of ‘jahl’ juxtaposed with the noble qualities of ‘hilm’ – marked the psyche of the pagan Arabs. The Qur’an does not shy away from addressing societal nuances but references this fiery streak in the pagan Arabs. A verse highlights how Allah infused tranquility upon His messenger (PBUH) and believers, starkly contrasting to the proud, tribal ferocity that instigated numerous blood feuds in pre-Islamic times.
Integral to this discussion is ‘muru’ah,’ or what can be best understood as ‘manliness.’ This virtue encompassed the fiery indignation of paganism and qualities such as generosity and honor. Its scope was broad, marking personal fame and responsibilities rooted in familial and tribal bonds. However, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reshaped this virtue, teaching the Arabs that forgiveness, contrary to their beliefs, was the zenith of ‘muru’ah.’
Ethical discussions surrounding the Qur’an are never isolated. Whether rooted in religion or philosophy, every facet of Islamic morality traces its genesis to the Qur’an. It is worth noting how certain Muslim scholars have blended Greek ethical theories with Quranic foundations. One must understand the Qur’an’s moral tenets to grasp the evolution of ethics. While a comprehensive framework of Qur’anic ethics is yet to be crafted for contemporary times, notable figures like Izutsu, Rahman, and Hourani have laid the groundwork.
This rich tapestry of ethics was not solely an abstract realm of thought. The Qur’an’s ethical heartbeats resonated within the very social milieu of its revelation, intertwining religious, moral, and legal obligations under the vast expanse of God’s will. Furthermore, amid this mosaic, a shift was brewing: the ‘jahl’ and ‘hilm’ dichotomy of yesteryears metamorphosed into a new ‘kufr-Islam’ duality post the Qur’an’s revelations.
In the Qur’an, ‘hilm’ – a quality of control, calm, and restraint even when provoked – emerges as a potent virtue, governing man’s relations with peers. It is not merely a passive attribute but a dynamic force of the soul. Intriguingly, while ‘hilm’ reigns supreme as a human virtue in the Qur’an, its absolute form is reserved only for God as one of His exalted attributes. However, its spirit continues to be a cornerstone of Qur’anic teachings.
The Qur’an highlights the principle of hilm, as conveyed in verse,
‘True devotees of the Merciful walk with humility on earth, and when approached by the ignorant, respond with “Peace”.’ (Q. 25:63).
In societal contexts, hilm stands as a distinguished ethical trait. From a metaphysical standpoint, humans serve the Divine rather than mere mortals. Hilm sits at the heart of Islamic social values. A Muslim’s sense of courage and tranquility is anchored in their character and deeply tied to their bond with God.
The Qur’an, imbued with the essence of hilm, encompasses various moral virtues, including devotion to the Divine (Q. 8:1), balance (Q. 2:190), pardon (Q. 5:199), modesty (Q. 17:39), truthfulness (Q. 17:37), generosity (Q. 24:22), and integrity (Q. 5:1). Among the frowned-upon behaviors are arrogance (Q. 31:11-17), irreverence (Q. 33:57), and defamation (Q. 33:38).
Embracing the spirit of hilm, the Qur’an depicts Hazrat Abraham as gentle and repentant (Q. 11:75). In another instance, Hazrat Luqman advises his child about maintaining humility, prayer, and decency, with a warning against pride (Q. 31:17-19). The Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) compassionate approach is attributed to divine mercy, emphasizing forgiveness and collaboration (Q. 3:159).
Goodness (khayr/Salih) and Righteousness (birr)
‘Khayr’ represents a broad spectrum: Value, advantage, faith, and material well-being. It even denotes wealth, as shown in a dialogue with a wealthy individual about benevolence (Q. 2:211). The term also represents virtuous deeds, underscoring prayer and charity (Q. 2:104). Its antonym is ‘sharr,’ pointing to life’s trials through good and bad (Q. 21:36). Meanwhile, ‘birr’ zeroes in on faith-based deeds, underscoring belief, piety, and moral commitments like kindness (Q. 2:82, 2:840).
In Islam, justice ranks highly, echoing monotheism and prophetic truths. Numerous Qur’anic verse champion justice, emphasizing fairness, truthfulness, contract fulfillment, accurate measurements, and avoiding deceit (e.g., Q. 4:58, 4:135, 5:3, 3:17, 2:177, 6:152, 26:181-183, 9:85). Terms like ‘birr,’ ‘adl,’ and ‘qist’ in the Qur’an denote varying shades of fairness and righteousness.
Given the Qur’anic insistence on justice, humans’ free will is implicit. While the Qur’an does not delve into theological debates on free will, it hints at human responsibility and accountability to God (e.g., Q. 16:56, 93; 21:23; 29:13). This notion presupposes free will. Although the exact term for ‘freedom’ is not explicit in the Qur’an, there are verses hinting at free will and divine preordination (Q. 2:178, 16:75, 76). Both ‘qadar’ and ‘istifa’ah’ relate to capacity, but the latter, appearing more in the context of human abilities, suggests moral autonomy (Q. 3:97).”