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Akhlaq, the plural form of khuluq, refers to innate disposition or character and, by extension in Muslim thought, to ethics. In the Qur˒an the term is used to refer to the prophet Muhammad's exemplary ethical character (68:4). The Qur˒an also emphasizes the significance of ethically guided action as the underpinning for a committed Muslim life. Qur˒anic ethics emphasize in particular the dignity of the human being, accountability, justice, care and compassion, stewardship of society and the environment, and the obligation to family life and values. Faith and ethics are thus intertwined in the Qur˒an and linked further to the Prophet as a moral exemplar.

In elaborating and further developing ethical thought, Muslims, throughout history, developed a diverse set of expressions: philosophical, theological, legal, and literary. These expressions were framed within a context of vigorous intellectual debate and in interaction with the legacies of many ancient traditions, including the works attributed to Aristotle and Plato, and Iranian, Indian, Jewish, and Christian thought.

The Muslim philosophical tradition of ethics developed an intellectual framework for rationally grounded moral action. Some of the key thinkers who contributed to this were al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), and Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1273/74). Their works in turn influenced other major figures, including the Sunni scholar al-Ghazali (d. 1111), who did not always agree with them. The philosophical tradition, in common with other early groups such as the Mu˓tazila and the Shi˓a, emphasized reason and logic in arguing for a universal ethical framework. Ethical action in their view did not oppose religiously grounded ethics, rather it sought to enhance their meaning and appreciation by philosophical reasoning and took account of personal and social, as well as political, virtues. Al-Farabi's classic al-Madinah al-Fadilah (The excellent city) explores the ideals of a political community that produces the greatest good for all its citizens.

Muslim legal tradition also developed a framework for guiding individual and social behavior. In Muslim law (shari˓a) jurists classified acts according to their moral value, ranging from obligatory, meritorious, indifferent, disapproved, and the forbidden. All actions thus fell within these normatively and juristically defined categories and provided religiously defined prescriptions that could be enacted at a personal as well as a social level to followers by scholars trained in jurisprudence and religious sciences.

Mystically grounded ethics as developed in the Sufi tradition emphasized the necessity of an inner orientation and awareness for guiding human action, leading to greater intimacy, knowledge, and personal experience of the divine. Ethical acts were linked to spiritual development, and Sufi teachers wrote manuals, guides, and literary works to illustrate the way—tariqa—which represented, in their view, the inner dimension of outward acts.

In the modern period, as Muslims have come into greater contact with each other and with the rest of the world, their ethical legacy, while still continuing to be influential in its traditional forms, is also being challenged to address emerging issues, changing needs, and social transition. Muslim scholars are debating and formulating responses to a variety of issues, prominent among which are the ethical bases of political, social, and legal governance; the ethics of a just economic order; family life; war and peace; biomedical ethics; human rights and freedoms; the ethics of life; and the broader question raised by globalization, degradation of the environment, and the uses and abuses of technology.

See alsoAdab ; Ethics and Social Issues ; Falsafa .


Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethno-Religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1966

Azim Nanji