Citation for From Shariah to Taqwa : Islam and Ethics

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Cornell, Vincent J. . "Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 5, 2021. <>.


Cornell, Vincent J. . "Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 5, 2021).

Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge >
From Shariah to Taqwa : Islam and Ethics

The Islamic notion of human responsibility is epitomized in the Quran by a covenant struck between God and humanity before their placement on earth. In this Quranic covenant the archetypal (or “Adamic”) human being—prideful of human superiority over all other creatures but unmindful of human limitations as a created being—assumes the responsibility of the heavens and the earth and all that they contain: “We offered the trust of the heavens, the earth, and the mountains [to the jinn and angels], but they refused to undertake it, being afraid [of the responsibility thereof]; but the human being undertook it; however, he was unjust and foolish” (Quran 33:72).

The state of moral responsibility that is implied in this primordial covenant is referred to in the Quran as the vicegerency (khilafah) (Quran 2:30–33). Those who uphold the requirements of the covenant are known as God's vicegerents (khulafa, sing. khalifah) on earth. In the Quran they are described as those who must “Fear Allah [ittaqu Allah] and speak the appropriate words, so that He may make your conduct sound and forgive your sins” (Quran 33:70–71). The society that is made up of such God-fearing people (muttaqin) constitutes a “middle nation” or “axial community” (ummah wasat), whose collective responsibility is to bear witness to the truth and act as an example for the rest of humanity (Quran 2:143). This community maintains itself in a permanent state of surrender to God (ummah muslimah) and is exemplified historically by the polity founded by the prophet Muhammad and his companions in Medina between 622 and 632 C.E.

Evident in the previous discussion of the Sunna, the relationship between faith and practice in Islam is exemplified by the judgments, interpretations, and personal behavior of the prophet Muhammad. This example is canonized in the Sunna and codified in the shariah. Yet despite the often obsessive attention that is paid to the outer form of the Prophet's behavior by contemporary Muslims, the inner state that influences this behavior is often overlooked. This subtle but crucial aspect of the Sunna warrants further examination. This aspect is epitomized in what the Prophet's wife Aishah once said when summing up her husband's character. “His nature was the Quran [khuluquhu al-Quran]; he approved what it approved and he hated what it hated.”

In this famous hadith the idea of practice in Islam intersects with the concepts of God-consciousness (taqwa) and ethics. All ethical systems, whether religious or philosophical in nature, must start by explaining what is meant by “the good.” As with so much else in Islam, the ultimate definition of the good is seen to reside in the Quran. Although the Quran refers to the good in many ways, only a few Quranic terms, such as al-khayr (the good) and al-haqq (the truth), deal with what might be called philosophical principles. For the most part the Quran does not so much define the good as illustrate it with repeated examples of virtuous behavior. This indicates that from the Quranic perspective, ethics is more a matter of practice than of philosophy.

One of the most important terms used to describe the practice of “good” in the Quran is maruf (virtue). This is expressed most significantly in a Quranic verse that was previously alluded to in the discussion on Islamic law: “Let there be among you a community that calls to the good (al-khayr), commanding virtue (yamuruna bi-l-maruf) and forbidding vice (yanhawna an al-munkar); these are the ones who have attained felicity” (Quran 3:104). In Arabic, the meaning of maruf is essentially social in nature. It derives from the root arafa (to know) and literally means “that which is known.” As an ethical term, it signifies “known” or virtuous acts that are performed in the full light of day and thus do not need to be hidden away from a neighbor's sight. This socially contextualized definition of the good comes quite close to a practice that can be found in Mexico and parts of Central America, where the doors to village houses are left open so that neighbors can see that nothing shameful is going on inside. The antithesis of maruf, the semantic domain of secrecy and hypocrisy, is expressed by the Quranic term munkar (vice). Literally meaning “that which is hated or despised,” munkar connotes those behaviors that would ruin a person's reputation if they were performed in the open.

Another important ethical term in Islam is salah (social virtue). Although the word itself does not appear in the Quran, there are numerous references to this concept, as in the verse that depicts morally upright Muslims as residing “in the company of those whom Allah has favored: the prophets, the truthful [siddiqin], the martyrs, and the virtuous [salihin]” (Quran 4:69). The practitioner of salah is referred to in the Quran as a salih (fem. saliha) or a muslih, a morally upstanding individual who works for the betterment (islah) of himself and his fellow Muslims. By upholding the Sunna, he stands in opposition to the fasid (the “ruiner”) or selfish individualist, who jeopardizes the moral integrity of the Muslim community by undermining the standards of virtue that the salih seeks to establish. In Islam this moral distinction between socially conscious virtue and asocial individualism replicates the dichotomy between faith and unbelief that separates the social environment of Islam from that of non-Muslims. Although most Muslims would hesitate to repudiate the faith of a fellow believer simply because he or she has sinned, the venal sinner or social deviant might well be ostracized from the community as a “ruiner.” The sinner would still theoretically retain the option of returning to the fold, however, once he or she had stopped sinning and had sincerely resolved never to sin again.

Much of the appeal of contemporary reformist movements in Islam is a result of their advocacy of social virtue. Indeed, the Arabic term for “reformist” (islahi) is related to the concept of salah. Throughout the Muslim world reformist organizations, such as the Muhammadiyah of Indonesia, devote a considerable percentage of their budgets to social welfare projects, such as building hospitals and medical centers and providing various kinds of family and social services. In Egypt the Mustapha Mahmoud Society, founded by a reformist physician, provides some of the best medical care in Cairo; the fee charged is based on the patient's ability to pay. In countries in which state-supplied services are either lacking or inadequate, the honesty, selflessness, and dedication to the common people displayed by such reformist activists count for much more than the theological or philosophical deficiencies that may exist in their doctrines.

Ethical terms such as maruf and salah recall the third dimension of Islamic practice that was mentioned earlier in the discussion of the Hadith of Gabriel: the doing of good or active virtue (ihsan). Although this term has been interpreted in many different ways, in the Quran the concept of active virtue is specifically linked to the concept of justice (adl). This connection between virtuous and just forms of action is clearly expressed in one of the most famous ethical verses of the Quran: “Verily Allah commands justice [adl], the doing of good [ihsan], and giving to one's near relatives; He forbids acts of wickedness, vice [munkar], and lust [bagha]” (Quran 16:90). In a later verse of the Quran, the concept of justice is expanded to include the notion of epistemological truth. This occurs in a discussion of the ends for which God created the universe: “Not but for just ends [illa bi-l-haqq] did Allah create the heavens and the earth and all that is between them” (Quran 30:8). In this verse al-haqq not only expresses the idea of truth in an abstract sense, but it also implies the notion of collective and individual rights (huquq), as in “human rights” (huquq al-insan) or even “divine rights” (huquq Allah). Therefore, when the Hadith of Gabriel defines active virtue as worshiping God “as if you see Him; for if you do not see Him, surely He sees you,” it is clear that this involves much more than mere perfection in the ritual observances of Islam. In this statement the epistemological and behavioral complementarity of faith and practice coincides with the moral complementarity of truth and justice. This is one of the main reasons why both Sufis and politically active Islamic reformists have taken the term ihsan to connote the highest degree of Islamic practice.

One Sufi social critic was so impressed by the complementarity of truth and justice that he chose to conceptualize nearly all of Islam around it. This was Abu-l-Abbas al-Sabti (d. 1204), the patron saint of Marrakesh and the North African equivalent of Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi. In a hagiographic work that was written by one of his disciples, al-Sabti discusses the social meaning of ihsan and its importance to the spiritual life of Muslims:

I found a verse in the Book of God that had a great effect on both my heart and my tongue. It was, “Verily, God commands justice and ihsan.” I pondered this and said [to myself], “Perhaps [finding] this is no coincidence and I am the one who is meant by this verse.” I continued to examine its meaning in the books of exegesis until I found [a work] which stated that [the verse] was revealed when the Prophet established brotherhood between the Emigrants and the Helpers [upon moving to Medina]. They had asked the Prophet to establish a pact of brotherhood between them, so he commanded them to share proportionately among themselves. In this way, they learned that the justice commanded [by God] was to be found through sharing . . . I understood that what [the Prophet] and his Companions adhered to were the practices of sharing in proportionate measure (mushatara) and selfless devotion to others [ithar]. So I vowed to God Most High that when anything

From Shariah to Taqwa : Islam and Ethics

Islamic law was initially taught in mosques, but with time a new institution, known as a madrasa, or theological college, developed. This madrasa built in late fifteenth-century Cairo combined spaces for teaching with a small mosque where students and teachers could perform daily prayers.

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came to me, I would share it with my believing brethren among the poor. I followed this practice for twenty years, and this rule affected my ideas to the point where nothing dominated my thoughts more than [the concept of] absolute sincerity [sidq]. After reaching forty years of age, another idea occurred to me, so I returned to this verse and [again] meditated upon it, and discovered that justice was [indeed] in sharing but that ihsan went beyond that. I thought about it a third time and vowed to God that if anything, small or large, came to me, I would keep one-third of it and expend two-thirds for the sake of God Most High. I followed this practice for twenty years, and the result of that decision among humankind was [both] respect and repudiation; I was respected by some but repudiated by others. After twenty [more] years, I meditated on the first requirement of the station of ihsan required by God Most High for His servants, and found it to be gratitude for His bounty. This is proven by the emergence of the instinct toward good at birth, before the acquisition of either understanding or intellect. I then found that eight grades of behavior were required for charity and that seven other grades [were required] for ihsan in addition to [what was required for] justice. This is because there is a right for oneself, a right for the wife, a right for what is in the womb, a right for the orphan, and a right for the guest [these rights are detailed in the Sunna]. . . . Once I arrived at [the station of ihsan], I vowed to God that whatever came to me, whether it be little or much, I would keep two-sevenths of it for myself and my wife and [give up] five-sevenths to the one for whom it was due [i.e., the poor].

Toward the end of his life, after al-Sabti had become a widely revered advocate for the poor and enjoyed the patronage of the ruler of Marrakesh, he refined his practice of ihsan even further.

I divide everything that comes to me into seven portions. I take one seventh for myself and the second seventh for that which I am required to spend on my wife and the small children under her care, as well as the slaves and slave girls [in our household], all of whom number thirty-two individuals. Then I look after those who have lost their sustenance; they are the neglected orphans who have neither mother nor father. I take them in as my own family and see to it that not one of them lacks a [proper] marriage or a burial, unless someone else provides it for them. Then I look after my kinfolk, who number eighty-four individuals. They have two rights: their right as family members and their right as residents [in my household]. Then come those who have been deprived of their support as mentioned in the Book of God Most High. They are the poor who have fallen into hardship on the Way of God—those who are unable to work the land and are thought of as ignorant but who are rich in patience and restraint; they are the ones unable to manage their own affairs . . . I take them in as if they are my own relatives, and when one of them dies, I replace him with another. I carried out these obligations for fourteen years without respite.

It is important to reproduce al-Sabti's comments in detail because his discussion of ihsan so clearly illustrates the interrelationship in Islam between truth and knowledge on the one hand and justice and practice on the other. Although many other Muslims, both Sufi and non-Sufi, also discussed the Quranic notions of truth and knowledge and how they related to both inward and outward practices, few were as single-minded as this Sufi of Marrakesh in following the relationship between knowledge and practice to its logical conclusion in the domain of social action. In this regard, the trivialization by many Sufis of the social aspect of Islam comes as something of a surprise, because Islamic law clearly recognizes that religious practice involves both acts that are ritual in nature (ibadat) and those that have a bearing on social life (muamalat). For al-Sabti, ritual acts could never be performed correctly if they were divorced from their larger ethical and social contexts. Therefore, he set out to reestablish the connection between the ritual aspects of the five Pillars of Islam and their ethical implications.

From Shariah to Taqwa : Islam and Ethics

Prayers held to commemorate the end of Ramadan and the sacrifice made by hajj pilgrims are traditionally celebrated in an outdoor praying place know as a musalla or idgah. Like this twelfth-century example from Bukhara, these were normally located on the outskirts of cities in order to hold all the men who were old enough to engage in prayer.

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When dealing with the first pillar of Islam, al-Sabti passes over the ritualized aspect of the Shahadah in favor of the main point of the declaration of faith—the concept of the oneness of God (tawhid). As the witnessing of the Shahadah is seen as the formal means of entry into Islam and the prerequisite for each of the four other pillars, a full understanding of tawhid is seen by al-Sabti as the essential prerequisite for ihsan. For al-Sabti, tawhid as an ethical concept involves more than anything else the relinquishing of all sense of personal ownership or possession. This is because the affirmation of divine reality that is expressed in the declaration of God's oneness implies the negation of all forms of contingent existence. If the goods of the material world become the goals of a person's life, they are functionally equivalent to idols. The material world thus becomes an object of worship whose mastery of the human being increases in direct proportion to the importance it is given. “Everything that masters a person is his god,” says al-Sabti. For this reason to be a true muwahhid or affirmer of God's oneness, the human being must divest himself of everything but Allah—the One God, Absolute and Unique.

Al-Sabti gives a similarly ethical interpretation of the concept of prayer. Like the Shahadah (the act of bearing witness), the performance of al-Salat (the required five prayers) is more than a mere ritual. It is also a symbolic act of divestment in which a worshiper renounces before the Creator everything that he or she has vainly acquired and presumes to own. “He who does not understand the [ethical] meaning of prayer has not prayed,” says al-Sabti. “The beginning of prayer is the ‘Magnification of Consecration,’ which involves raising your hands and saying, ‘God is Most Great.’ The meaning of ‘God is Most Great’ is that you do not begrudge God anything. When the person considers a certain aspect of the material world to be most important for him, he has not consecrated himself and thus has not magnified God in his prayers. The meaning of raising one's hands to magnify God is that you have been emptied of everything and are saying, ‘I possess neither much nor a little.’ “ Such a person, who knows with certainty that the human being in reality possesses nothing of one's own, is the true “slave of God.”

What is true for the canonical prayer is even more true for the Ramadan fast: “The secret of fasting is that you are hungry,” says al-Sabti. “When you are hungry you remember the one who is always hungry and know the strength of the fire of hunger that afflicts him, so that you become charitable toward him. Thus, if you deny yourself food but have no compassion for the hungry and your fasting does not cause this idea to occur to you, you have not [truly] fasted and have not understood the intended meaning of the fast.” The same is the case for the poor-tax (al-Zakah), a pillar of Islam that is ethical by its very definition. Here, al-Sabti agrees with the majority of Muslim scholars, who hold that the poor-tax is made obligatory for Muslims every year so that they become accustomed to spending on others instead of themselves. Also pertinent are al-Sabti's interpretations of the pilgrimage to Mecca and what Islamic activists often call the sixth pillar of Islam: the concept of struggle or jihad. For al-Sabti the point of the hajj pilgrimage is not the circumambulation of the Kaaba. Instead, it is that the pilgrim “appear in the dress of the poor, with a shaved head, unkempt, and wearing sandals, [after] having divested himself of fine clothing, expending his efforts for the sake of God Most High, and showing worshipfulness [toward Him].” As for the term jihad, its real meaning is not holy war against the unbelievers, as Muslim exoterists believe, but rather, as al-Sabti says, “the expenditure of oneself for the pleasure of God Most High, emptying oneself of everything for His sake, and divesting oneself of reliance on the material world.”

From Shariah to Taqwa : Islam and Ethics

In addition to upholding the Five Pillars of Islam, Muslims are exhorted to go beyond the miminum. For example, they should practice good deeds or active virtue (ihsan) to enrich their spiritual lives. In 1905 beggars gathered near the tomb of the great Persian poet Saadi in Shiraz in the expectation of receiving munificence from their brethren.

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Al-Sabti's interpretation of the Five Pillars of Islam through the conceptual lens of ethics was meant to restore a sense of balance to what scholar Charles Eaton has termed the “human paradox.” Although the human being was created as the vicegerent of God on earth, more often than not she fails to live up to the responsibilities of the vicegerency because of heedlessness or vice: “And when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Verily I shall place on the earth a vicegerent,’ they said, ‘Will You place upon it one who will make mischief therein and shed blood while we praise You and glorify You?’” (Quran 2:30). Al-Sabti reminded his audience through his teachings that by ignoring the ethical dimension of Islamic practice, the salvation of both society and the individual may be lost and its antithesis, social discord or perdition, may be found. In addition, through his selfless devotion to the poor, he shamed those who neglected their responsibility to their fellow Muslims and reminded them through his acts of charity that the greatest losers by their works are “those whose effort is wasted on the life of the world, although they believe that they are doing good” (Quran 18:104). For those who did not heed his warning, al-Sabti reiterated the Quran's stern admonition: “Those who desire the life of the world and its glitter will pay the price of their deeds in [this world] without any alleviation” (Quran 11:15).

One can therefore conclude—from the discourses of the Quran to the Sunna of the Prophet, the laws of the shariah, and the ethical teachings of al-Sabti and other Islamic reformers—that the truest means to happiness is to be found in the proper balance between knowledge (ilm) and practice (amal). This applies equally to acts that are purely religious in nature and to those that are essentially social. Faith, like speech, is both social and individual. Acts of faith always involve a dialogue—either between the worshiper and the object of her worship, or between the actor and his fellows in a religious community. This is why, for both the Sufi Abu-l-Abbas al-Sabti and the non-Sufi jurist ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, a faith that is not expressed in the context of structured social relationships is no faith at all.

According to the noted Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), moral character (khuluq) is not to be found in the knowledge of good or evil or even in the capacity for good or evil; rather, it is a state of the human spirit (nafs). Character thus precedes action for al-Ghazali and is a sort of gestalt that enables morally valued acts to occur immediately, without the need for reflection or deliberation. This gestalt of the soul reflects the vision of the heart and is good or bad to the extent that the heart “sees” with the Quranic “eye of certainty.”

Herein lies the importance of Aishah's statement that the prophet Muhammad's character “was the Quran.” If character refers to an inner state or condition of the human being, then each person inclines toward good or evil to the extent that his inner self has assimilated the moral outlook of the Quranic concept of vicegerency. To say that a Muslim's character “is the Quran” is to say that he is a complete vicegerent of God: his intellect understands reality through the “knowledge of certainty,” his eyes comprehend both himself and God's creation through the “eye of certainty,” and his spirit finds its center through the “truth of certainty.” This assimilation of the Quranic perspective is the practical essence of the prophetic Sunna and the basis of Islamic ethics. Because it is rooted in God's own “knowledge from the divine presence,” it is the tree of knowledge out of which all ritual and ethical practices grow.

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