The Origin and Essence of Ethics:

The Religious vs. the Universal

Sadek Jawad Sulaiman


Do we have to be religious to be ethical? More precisely, do we need to believe in a given metaphysical system, such as a formal religion, to be good? The question, as you may well surmise, is answered variously, depending on one’s point of view. This paper briefly discusses the ethical notion in general, and compares the religious and secular standpoints thereof in particular. It concludes by offering a personal perspective.

The progress of science has brought man to a deeper and more precise understanding of the magnitude of the universe and the subtlety of its laws. It has also made us more awesomely conscious of the mystery of life, including, of course, our own. We were not present at creation, or given to witness our own genesis (The Qur’an 18:51). We are not empowered to fashion the cosmic laws as we choose, or ultimately to control our own destiny. But we are given to discover that which exists, and to utilize it for our good. In the process of discovery and utilization we are enabled to grow in knowledge, and, hopefully, in wisdom as well.

Embedded in the immutable laws governing the universe, life, and our own evolution is the immutable will of the Infinite Intellect. From a finite consciousness we cannot grasp the essence of the Infinite Intellect. But we can discern His signs and sense His presence all around. "On high or below, He abides in His own laws," says a Hindu tradition (Atharva Veda 4.1.3). And, says the Glorious Qur’an: "Soon will We show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth…" (41:53). The desire for truth has indeed been made part of human nature itself.

But the progress of science has also given us, not entirely incidentally, but rather much by our own design, technological capability to inflict catastrophic harm upon ourselves and the environment around us. In the technologically less developed distant past the wise man of Athens, Socrates, said: Knowledge is virtue; so it is in so far as learning makes one a better person. The Qur’an depicts the learned as God-fearing (35:28); so they are in their acute awareness of, and hence great caution against, pitfalls that may beset human experience. Al Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, in his consistent emphasis on learning, said: Knowledge is [the equivalent of] a religion that is worthy of following (Nahj al Balagha); so it is as a source of enlightenment and a refiner of character. But the more world-wise Francis Bacon of Sixteenth century England, stressing the empirical imperative in the pursuit of science, said: Knowledge is power. Bacon’s, I reckon, is an apt description of the nature of the knowledge we produce and disseminate today. We even have a word for it: TEKNOLWEDGE!

The knowledge that Socrates and Ali spoke about, and one that the Qur’an glorifies as a measure of distinction among humans (39:9) is a synthesis of the learning of facts and the crystallization of wisdom: thus constituted knowledge enriches, disciplines, and elevates. It becomes virtue, enlightenment, and power, all in one. Of such knowledge the Qur’an prompts humankind to seek ever more (20:114), realizing that above every learned one is another of greater learning (12:76) and that knowledge [the words of God] is inexhaustible (31:27). In enumerating the tasks of Prophet Muhammad as a Messenger, the Qur’an mentions knowledge and wisdom as part of what he taught his yet unlettered people (62:2).

But knowledge as mere absorption of empirical data, and devoid of the disciplines and guidance of wisdom, like sheer power, can be fraught with danger. The Nineteenth century philosopher John Acton of England, in his stern rebuke of authoritarian rule, tersely pointed out: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power, as a potential instrument of coercion, and knowledge, as a potential means of control, must both be tempered with the sobering influence of wisdom, and neither left to be monopolized or concentrated in the hands of a few. For humankind to live in peace, and with dignity, to grow intellectually and prosper in all possible directions, wisdom must lead and prevail. "The thought emanating from wisdom," says a Christian tradition, "is more abundant than the sea, and her counsel deeper than the great abyss" (Sirach 24:29). And, observes the Qur’an most profoundly: "He to whom wisdom is given has received abundant good, but none remember except persons of deep understanding." (2:269).

Wisdom begins with ethical awareness, or in the words of both the Judaic-Christian and Islamic traditions, that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10 and Hadith). Ethical awareness is that persistent prodding in our conscience that we ought to conduct ourselves righteously, that knowingly or wantonly we must harm none, and cause no damage to the environment we share. This conscientious feeling is common to no damage to the environment we share. This conscientious feeling is common to mankind, regardless of race, creed, or any particularity, even though, with the accumulation of immoral behavior our conscience gets numbed. In an eye-opening analogy depicting such degeneration the Qur’an reminds: "then your hearts hardened and became like rocks or worse, for even among rocks are some from which rivers gush forth, and others that split asunder and give out water, and others that lie low humbly in awe of God" (2:74).

In the theological context, this conscientious constraint is equated with, and expressed as, the fear of God. In Islam, more specifically, it is called taqwa, and by its measure, says the Qur’an, is man’s worthiness measured in the sight of God (49:13).

The religious and secular outlooks in essence so far overlap. Ethical awareness is cognized in either perspective as a critical element of wisdom, and wisdom is mutually cognized as the optimum state of the mind. There is no remarkable discord here about the centrality of the moral factor in the human experience, in terms of enabling man to survive, prosper, and live peaceably through social cohesion and universal cooperation. Where the two perspectives begin to diverge, however, is on whether or not morality can exist independently of religion, and whether or not eschatological considerations are relevant to the practice and promotion of ethics.


Before taking our discussion any further, let me back up somewhat to develop some background. The etymological basis of the word Ethics is the Greek word ethos, meaning habitual or customary conduct. Ethics and ethical are often used synonymously with morality and moral, as when reference is made to the ethics or morality of a person or group, or to their ethical or moral values. The world Morals comes from the Latin word mores, likewise meaning customary behavior. In Arabic we use akhlaq, in the plural, and khuluq, in the generic singular, to denote ethics and morality. In the Qur’an Prophet Muhammad is commended as one possessed of sublime morals (68:4). The Prophet himself, summarizing his lifetime mission said: "I have come to complete the code of moral conduct" (Hadith).

Stressing the centrality of ethics in the human experience, the Qur’an often calls attention to the fate of nations that perished in the past as a result of moral degradation. In one parable we read how a society that enjoyed security, quiet, and prosperity, fell prey to fear, hunger and deep suffering when it turned ungrateful for the favors of God (16:112). Turning ungrateful for divine favors can be read allegorically as rejecting the moral qualities with which man is sustained and enhanced, both as individual and society. For nothing can be a greater favor to humankind than to be given to grow and prosper by qualities that are essentially and absolutely divine. Conversely, nothing can be more self-destructive than the rejection of these qualities.

Nations prosper and perish by their morality, or the lack thereof, warns our beloved poet, the late Ahmed Shawqi. An avid reader of the Qur’an, he reiterates this theme in a memorable verse:

Nations endure for as long as do by their morals

When their morals go away they too go away

In yet other verses (Nahj al Burdah) he counsels self-discipline, because, he asserts, one’s true well-being rests upon one’s moral character, and disciplining the self, much like weaning a child when the time has come, requires exertion of effort.

Notwithstanding the Greek and Latin etymologies of the words ethics and morals, as indicated earlier, an ethical or moral act is not just a customary act performed from an attitude of indifference, however right and good that act may happen to be. An ethical act, rather, is one that is consciously intentioned to be right and good. In other words, not only what we do, but also what we think, what we say, and how we freely decide when faced with choices with ethical implications go in the making of our moral fiber. As such, a moral life is lived intentionally and consciously in harmony with the moral imperative – in action as well as thought, speech, and choice.


But what is the rationale behind ethical behavior? Why should we act morally, as opposed to acting amorally, or immorally?

In one view it is said that we must act morally because we are required or obligated to do so. This would predominately be the traditional religious view. It would stipulate that should we conduct ourselves non-morally, we would not obtain the divine reward of happiness in this world or in the next. It would further stipulate that should we behave immorally, as distinct from, and obviously by far worse than, behaving non-morally, we would face severe after-life punishment, and possibly eternal damnation. In this view what is moral has already been defined and ordained through revelation, and as such, is not subject to human second-guessing. No human deliberation is called for here in determining what is moral; only human compliance is in order.

This view, moreover, does not much distinguish between ritual and moral concepts, between particular ritual pieties and universally applicable principles. Ritual is religion specific, in that every religion has a ritual system of its own, covering a host of devotional as well as social functions, such as prayer, fasting, alms-giving, self-purification, marriage, childbirth, and death. In contrast, the moral system is universal, therefore non-religion specific, though every religion uses its own theological lexicon in the articulation of its moral stance. What is remarkable here is that religions show keener interest in rituality than morality, and greater concern over ritual transgressions than ethical transgressions. Ritual violations invariable draw louder and harsher reactions than moral violations. In societies where democratic governance and civic institutions have yet to become effective instruments of public policy, corruption, admittedly a serious violation in any measure or form, is taken in stride, while ritual violations are openly censured. Thus ritual formality is accorded distinct precedence over moral content, and the particular, rather than the universal, is the aspect emphasized.

Notwithstanding its steep theological orientation and emphasis, the religious view nonetheless incorporates a pragmatic perspective and a utilitarian motive in so far as it appeals, in mainly eschatological terms albeit, to the deeply ingrained instinct of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. In this respect it is not much different from the secular perspective which, likewise, justifies morality ultimately on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Where, then, do the two perspectives part ways? Let us look deeper.


In the religious perspective, ethics has no basis or function outside of religion. Moral precepts cannot originate from a faithless state of mind, nor can they penetrate to the consciousness of men and women without the essential theological beliefs within which they are framed. Ethics cannot be de-linked from its religious correlative, since that would render ethics logically meaningless, spiritually sterile, and practicable unsustainable.

Moreover, many religious leaders would assert a connection between religious decline and what they see as the moral retreat or confusion of our time. And they would claim that whatever morality has continued to sustain us until these times has been inspired by religion in the past; in other words, we are living off the moral capital inherited from the pious traditions of centuries gone by.

In the secular perspective, on the other hand, it is often argued that religion may well have had a more negative than positive effect on the course of human affairs. By substituting scriptural dependency for independent thought, dogmatic speculation for rational deliberation, authoritarian structures – both religious and secular – for democratic governance, and behavior based upon unquestioning compliance for self-motivated behavior, religion may well have held back the systematic development of the human potential, both intellectually and morally. Ethics, the secularists would say, has never needed a theological rationale, for ethical principles and values have always been cognized by reason on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. At any rate, in the present, ethics no longer needs religion, for its precepts now are enshrined in our secular constitutional systems and civil societies. In a nutshell, ethics has its own origin and seat in the human experience, rather than in any conceivable divine sanction. Ethics stands on its own feet, and is sustained in reason by its own rationale.


With this dichotomy in mind, where does one come out? Let me state briefly my personal persuasion.

While I do accept the historical link between religion and ethics, and by and large view that link in a more positive than negative light, I do not consider that link as perpetually necessary or valid. The human condition, I surmise, is, as ever, undergoing dynamic evolution – presently, I might add, at the intellectual level in particular, at an unprecedented brisk pace. So whereas a theological framework for ethics may have been consistent with the circumstances of previous eras, a rational ethical outlook is more realistic for, and in tune with, our times. By adopting rational ethics we can more effectively disseminate moral awareness worldwide. Promoting ethics as a human enterprise, rather than a religious obligation, can more persuasively demonstrate its vital relevance to all spheres of human activity, particularly, and with greater urgency now than ever before, to politics, economics, education, and social equity.

I also share the view that ethical awareness can hardly develop in a faithless state of mind. But faith and formal religion are not one and the same. Faith in God, which then translates into faith in the integrity of the universe and its laws, and in the right place of humanity within the cosmic scheme, is an existential human condition that transcends religious dogma and doctrine. With faith, people everywhere, irrespective of culture or creed, are enabled to sustain themselves through adversity, rise up from their most hurtful falls, and quietly but persistently summon new energy and hope to forge new beginnings.

Faith generates ethical awareness by bringing clarity to a vision that sees personal and public welfare as organically intertwined. "By faith you shall be free and go beyond death," says a Buddhist text (Sutta Nipata 1146).

Yes, I concur that faith and morality are inseparable, but faith and a formal religious affiliation are neither synonymous nor concomitant. It is enlightening to observe how the Qur’an draws a similar distinction by admonishing some Arabs not to claim yet that they possess faith, but to simply state that they have accepted Islam (49:14), because faith is an affair of the heart, and must ultimately be proven by deeds.

Faith and morality are universal; any given religion per se is not. Faith and morality are symmetrical, because they both spring up from an existential well within the soul. They are concomitant, in that neither can exist without giving rise to the other. They are permanent, in that they constitute the constant core in an evolving human being. They are the measure of human worthiness, for where nurtured well, they bring out the best in every person, of any race or religion. Thus commitment to faith and morality cannot be equated with the mere profession of a formal religion. Moreover, a formal religion my contain, as generally is the case, ingrained dogma and doctrine that are hard to reconcile intellectually or morally. The scientific and ethical veracity of religious beliefs, as such is a dilemma of no minor significance, for issues of truth are themselves issues of morality. These issues may not be compromised or explained away, because they bear directly on the integrity of the human intellect. So, unless one would accept the Machiavellian advice in The Prince, that one need not be religious, only pretend to be so, one would have to reckon fairly and squarely with whatever is problematic, morally or intellectually, within the religious outlook.

Apart from issues related to dogma, doctrine, and ritual, the moral dilemma is encountered with more serious ramifications in the area of political and social concerns. Here religious rulings of a distant past, maintained traditionally over many centuries, without much review and scarcely any revision, and with historical deference to the powers that be, continue to limit the ability of contemporary societies to adapt to the more advanced social and political systems of the day. Much needed reform of vital public affairs – governance, economics, social justice, education, human rights and such – is held back to allow parochial priorities and privileges, religious as well as secular, to continue always.

In the contemporary Islamic experience, more particularly the Arab experience, I see little room allowed in terms of rational and moral review. For example, in the field of governance, democracy or real shura -- whichever term you prefer -- has yet to find popular acceptance, and even where elections are held theocratic constraints and aristocratic privileges prevail. The national significance of democracy based upon equal rights or all citizens before the law has yet to be sufficiently appreciated, and yet to find real support from either the pedantic clergy or the self-serving aristocrats. In economics, the attitude continues to be one that is least concerned with public welfare, and most focused on personal gain. In education, doctrinal rigidity curtails academic freedom, and undermines the veracity of science. In social justice and civil rights, a callous indifference to glaring social and political inequities in public life perpetuates the less than equal status of women, sustains tribal autocracy, and lends credence to anachronistic hereditary rule in monarchical and non-monarchical systems alike.

It is not quite common in our Islamic-Arab experience to think of governance, economics, education, social justice, civil rights, and such as moral issues. Al Akhlaq is widely misunderstood as good manners – an etiquette of politeness in behavior and speech. But that clearly is not what the Great Prophet defined as the centerpiece of his mission. By makarem al akhlaq, which he said he had come to complete, he meant highest ethical standards on all issues that bear on the rights of the people, their welfare, their opportunities of progress, and their integrity as a nation. All such issues are, indeed, moral issues. Ultimately, they are human issues that cry out for human solutions.


To conclude, let me summarize my perspective as follows:

ONE: Ethical awareness originates in the human experience, and is cognized by reason as indispensable on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. The moral imperative is the bedrock of human survival and prosperity.

TWO: Ethics ought to be viewed in relation to sustaining and enhancing this life experience of peoples worldwide, rather than in relation to any eschatological notions. Ethical values are neither relative nor sectarian; they are grounded in the universal experience of humankind, not just in the doctrines of one particular religion. As such, ethics should be taught outside of any theological framework, and introduced early on in the educational process as a shared human enterprise.

THREE: Wisdom ought to guide the use of power and knowledge. Wisdom begins with ethical awareness, and flourishes in a state of faith. Faith, as distinct from formal religion, is an existential phenomenon that enables peoples of all backgrounds to hope, survive, and prosper. Faith, wisdom, and morality go hand in hand.

FOUR: To the question: Do we have to be religious to be ethical, my answer is no. Conversely: yes, we can be ethical without being religious, and yes, we can be good without holding any specific metaphysical beliefs. For faith in God is neither a metaphysical nor a theological construct. Rather, it arises from the innate cognizance of the mind of the One who is Absolute, Eternal, Changeless, and like unto Him this is none. (Qur’an 42:11).

Home Page | Al-Hewar Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising
Copyright © 2000 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.