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Ethics

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Ethics

    Ethics is a broad concept that refers to principles of right and wrong. People use ethics as a guide for one's own behavior and for evaluating the actions of others. Islamic moral codes, like all religious moral codes, stress the relationship between human beings and God. Muslims believe that moral standards come from God, and that they are therefore timeless and universal and should govern a person's conduct in all areas of his or her life.

    Muhammad believed that morals develop with physical and mental maturity. In a hadith, he stated that the actions of a minor go unrecorded by God until he or she reaches puberty. Muslim scholars believe that the soul develops in three stages. In the first stage, ammara, a person inclines toward evil behavior which, if not controlled, leads him or her to spiritual ruin. An individual in the second stage, lawwama, recognizes evil, asks for Allah's forgiveness, and seeks to reform. In the third stage, mutma'inna, the intellect overcomes all evil tendencies and leads the soul to a state of contentment. A Muslim's taqwa, or piety, determines the stage that he or she reaches. Those who persist in unethical behavior lack taqwa and remain in the first stage.

    Classical Discussions.

    Muslims have debated ethics for centuries. In the 1200s, for example, many scholars studied the “science of virtue.” They focused on issues related to personal character and the cultivation of such traits as wisdom and tolerance. They tried to determine the feelings and thoughts that a “good” person would have, as well as the actions he or she would perform. Some scholars wrote about the ideals that they believed should guide such practices as politics, medicine, and business. They typically presented their views in the form of a story or a letter of advice to someone entering a particular field.

    Three disciplines dominated classical Islamic discourse on ethics. Scholars developed the first falsafah, or philosophy, in the 900s. Early Muslim writers, such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi , viewed philosophy as a quest for personal excellence in moral character and intellect. Al-Farabi believed that anyone with enough intelligence and wealth could embark on this journey. Wisdom would come through deep contemplation and years of inner struggle. Unlike the Prophet Muhammad, who learned truth through divine inspiration, the philosopher toils to gain an understanding of moral law.

    The second classical discipline, kalam, attempted to clarify religious teachings and took a theological approach to ethics. Scholars in this field studied the nature of judgment. They stated that people make moral judgments by assigning praise to some and blame to others for various actions, and they thought that God's moral law provides the basis for such judgments. Some believed that God gave humans the capacity to choose between good and evil. Others, however, suggested that both moral or unethical actions occur according to God's will, and that humans can know the difference between good and evil only by reading and interpreting texts such as the Qur'an.

    The field of fiqh also includes discussion of ethics. Fiqh deals with law and the principles on which laws are based. Some scholars studied how people could understand and follow divine guidance. They considered the Qur'an and sunnah the most important sources for comprehending God's law. They also described methods of reasoning, such as the use of analogy, that could promote Islamic ideals and balance the notions of duty with concern for the general welfare.

    Modern scholars routinely draw from earlier theories when writing about morality. Muslim fiqh scholars often make legal judgments based on precedents, or examples, set by medieval ethicists. Their work sometimes reflects a dialogue between themselves and a scholar of the past. Shi'i and Sunni scholars both rely on precedents when deciding an ethical matter. Shi'i Muslims, however, place a greater emphasis on reason. They believe that a person can learn God's views on moral issues through rational thought.

    Medical Ethics.

    Ethics has many important applications in the Islamic world. It plays a prominent role in Muslim medical practice. Islamic medical codes dictate that a Muslim physician must believe in God and seek God's support. Doctors must maintain the same ethical standards in their private as well as their professional lives, and they must follow Islamic teachings both in the home and at work. A physician who lacks morals in his or her private life is considered unfit for professional practice, no matter what qualifications the individual has. The Qur'an encourages Muslim doctors to display humility, patience, and tolerance.

    Muslim ethical codes impact medical practices in a variety of ways. For example, doctors must treat all those in need regardless of race or ability to pay. This practice reflects the Qur'an's call to care for and feed the poor with no thought of reward. Islam further holds that physicians do not have the right to take a human life. Doctors may not perform abortions unless the mother's life is threatened, and they may not practice euthanasia, or assisting in the death of a chronically ill person for reasons of mercy. Islamic ethics also concerns physical examinations of patients of the opposite sex. In such cases, the physician should seek the presence of a third party, if possible.

    Muslim doctors must also follow ethical codes in their interactions with other physicians. Doctors may not accept payment for treating a colleague. They should avoid criticizing each other in front of patients or staff. Finally, Muslim doctors have a duty to study current medical research and to comply with the legal codes governing their profession.

    Business Ethics.

    Ethics is an important part of Islamic business transactions. Islam teaches that Muslims have a duty to rise above corruption, despite the actions of others. Islamic law emphasizes fairness for consumers. Vendors must not sell defective merchandise. According to a hadith, an individual described as Allah's Messenger (Muhammad) forbids the sale of unripe fruits. If an individual purchases an item that does not have the advertised properties, he or she may cancel the sale.

    Muslim businesses must conduct their operations in an ethical manner, and avoid racial discrimination. The Qur'an warns against engaging in businesses that conflict with Islamic values, such as those that promote gambling or drinking. When dealing with people in debt, professionals must consider that debt often drives a person to commit unethical actions, and treat the debtor with leniency. Debtors must also attempt to make timely repayments of their debts. See also Farabi, Abu Nasr al-; Medicine; Philosophy; Theology.

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