Rajiv began the discussion by saying to Michael and Yousef:
Rajiv: Our previous conversation concerning the behavior of some Muslims has led us to discuss ethics in Islam. Do you think that this topic is worth discussing?
Michael: Yes, definitely! I'm surprised by some Muslims, as I see on one side they have a high degree of noble ethics, and on the other, some of their morals do not fit in with the first image.
Yousef: Allow me to elaborate Mr. Michael, this is due to two factors: Firstly, your own perspective of ethics, and secondly, the extent to which they themselves really adhere to, or express, a certain ethical system, because personal morals also clearly show the effect of the environment and upbringing, in addition to inherited factors. This was referred to by the Prophet of Islam, and has been proved by experience and scientific research.
Rajiv: Would you please explain this reference?
Yousef: This reference is derived from two hadeeth of the Prophet [May the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon him]. Firstly, addressing one of his companions, the Prophet said, "You possess two characteristics which Allah and His Messenger love: forbearance and deliberateness." The companion asked him, "O Messenger of Allah, did I acquire these characteristics, or did Allah create them in me?" he replied, "No, Allah created them in you." In this Hadeeth it is confirmed that forbearance and deliberateness could be part of the genetic characteristics of a person, i.e. created in his genes. In another Hadeeth, the Messenger of Allah [May the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon him] said, "Knowledge is acquired through learning, and forbearance is achieved through practicing it. Whoever seeks good will be offered good, and whoever fears evil will be saved from it." In this Hadeeth the Messenger [May the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon him] proves that the characteristic of forbearance (which was genetic in the case of the former companion) can be acquired. This, of course, could be achieved through up-bringing, in which the society also plays a part.
Michael: This leads us to a deep multi-detailed philosophical study, but regardless of this philosophical issue, I would first like to state that the ethical sense in humans is an innate sense that urges them to love some characteristics and hate others. This is clear as though the system of ethics may vary and be of different degrees in different individuals, yet the general feeling of humanity, at any period of time and regardless of the individuals considered, still regards some moral traits as being good and some others as being bad. Truthfulness, honesty, justice, and keeping promises for example, are all considered as being praiseworthy and commendable moral characteristics, no matter what role one has in life. On the other hand, humanity still, up until now, regards lying, injustice, treachery and treason as bad characteristics… and in the same way consolation, mercifulness, magnanimity, generosity and intolerance are regarded as being good.
Thus, can we say that Islam differs from the rest of humanity concerning these points? Furthermore can one claim that Islam has a moral system that is independent and distinct from other systems?
Yousef: With some reservation I have about acknowledging the truth of what you have mentioned, and reservation about the reality of the content of moral virtues and shortcomings that you have mentioned, I add to what you've said that even if the matter is so, yet different moral systems have been established, not only in Islam, but in all religions and social man-made systems, because they differed in determining the criterion of what is good and what is bad with regards to ethics and the means of knowing good from evil. They also do not agree in acknowledging the effective force that works behind the law and works in making people keep to it. The reason for this difference lies in the different view of the universe and the criterion taken (to judge what is good and bad) in all frameworks in which man may find himself in this universe, and the aim of man’s life in that universe.
For example, many ethical theories take selfishness as their basis. In Renaissance Europe both Hobbes and Spinoza concluded, in different ways, that the conservation of self-survival is where good lies. Freud also, from his early writings, introduced a theory which continues to form the behavior of many Westerners, and is completely dominated by the concept of self-gratification. It has even been considered as being the basic primary concept when compared to other psychological concepts, while altruism and good deeds were considered as secondary phenomena that obtain all the effect they have from their link to the various forms of self-gratification.
On the opposite side of these individual morals, stand the principles that are related to the group and community. These kind of morals adopt theories that emphasize the importance of the group, rather than stress that of the individual.
Michael: If we say that Islam indeed has a moral system that is distinct from that of the other systems, then on what basis does that system stand? And what are its traits and characteristics?
Yousef: As I've mentioned in previous dialogues, Islam is a way of life, a realistic human life in all its areas, because it is an approach that includes a doctrinal view that explains the nature of existence and identifies the place of man in this existence, and also determines the aim of human existence. Furthermore it is an approach that includes realistic systems and arrangements that emerge from that view and makes a realistic picture that is represented in the human beings way of life, involving the moral system and what springs from it, the foundations on which it stands, and the authority from which it is derived. It also involves the political system, with its form and characteristics, and the social order, with its foundation and components. The economic system, its philosophy and forms, and also the international system, its relationships and connections also play a part in this way of life...
This is expressed by Dr. M.H. Durrani, who served as a priest in the Church of England for a long period of his life. He wrote:
"Islam has a system, law and morality altogether, for religious rituals which are made obligatory on persons have an ethical goal. They aim at regulating the individual morally and spiritually in a reasonable manner, and also aim at cleansing and purifying his mind as well as strengthening it, in order to perform his duties towards others who live with him. Islam is the only religion that does not theoretically and practically require from a person to believe in lifeless principles and mysterious secrets, as is the case in the Christian religion. Islam accepts the spiritual and the material aspects of life alike and puts each in its place, and it establishes its philosophy on a basis that covers all aspects of human behavior."
Rajiv: If we consider that to be the basis upon which the ethical system of Islam is established, then it is important to mention the characteristics of this system and what most distinguishes it from that of other systems.
Yousef: The characteristics of the Islamic ethical system can be summarized as follows:
Doctrinal basis: Which is that humans are creatures who are subservient to a Supreme Creator, a Creator Who know what is best for them and what benefits them most, and Who did not leave them to live aimlessly, rather He sent them messengers to inform them of His commands and way of life. Moreover, these humans will be resurrected after death for another life, to be held accountable for what they did, good or evil, in their worldly life. This is contrary to morality in the modern West, which is separated from religion by the separation of science and life from the Church.
Stability: Islamic morality expresses fixed principles and values derived from fixed bases and perceptions of man, life and the universe, addressed to a human whose reality and essence does not change over the years, even if conditions of life and facts of events around him change. Truthfulness, honesty and forbearance will remain as noble virtues, forever. Lying, backbiting and gossip will remain as vices forever. Homosexuality, which is not a natural way of life, will remain abnormal, and its reality will not change because it has spread among people or because some governments have legalized it, no matter how the pattern of people's lives change or alter.
Idealism with realism: If Islamic ethics are described as being idealistic by some of those who do not understand it, yet the reality of these ethics is that they are idealistic and realistic at the same time, and they take into their account the reality of human beings and their capacities, so everyone can apply and be consistent in them. This system of ethics maintains the life of the individual as an elevated creature, and it makes his life continue without encountering any pitfalls or obstacles. This is a system of ethics that does not conflict with nor is incompatible with human nature. Rather it is a system that integrates and is consistent with that nature. The Islamic view includes both the legislative side of life, which is stressed in Judaism, and the spiritual side which Christianity stresses. This is what the Indian writer Peggy Raderik indicated when he wrote:
"The moral teachings of Islam achieve a complete mixture between idealism and realism. One can, by virtue of these teachings, become acquainted with God and become a holy man while he is still engrossed in his daily life affairs..."
Commitment: It means that one pledges that he will adhere to such ethics in front of all humanity, based on the fact that the human has responsibilities he has to fulfill in this life. He has a message which Allah has entrusted him with, and he has a free will that governs his work and according to which he will be held accountable. Moral obligations are, therefore, the most prominent aspect of individual responsibility.
Responsibility: A human can never be of good moral conduct unless he has generated a sense of responsibility, and responsibility here means the acknowledgment of his own acts and his willingness to bear the consequences of his obligations, decisions and choices, positively or negatively, before Allah and before his own conscience and his community.
Connected to responsibility are the limits of that responsibility. In Islam this can be a personal, individual responsibility limited to only the individual who it concerns or who is to be held accountable for the act. It is can also be a social responsibility if more than one person participates in the act or decision. There is also a mutual responsibility between the individual and society, however, it has been ordained that one person does not bear the consequences of the actions or decisions of another.
Development of internal restraint and linking ethics with the general social order: Man forms his inner world, and from this world the real restraint for any moral obligation is generated. Islam has worked on the development of this restraint by emphasizing what is known as the intention, which is to have an internal aim which is specific, virtuous and permissible, pertaining to the act, before actually performing it. However, Islam does recognize that man is not perfect or infallible, and that he sometimes has his moments of weakness that also affect those around him. Islam thus does not leave the human to his internal conscience, rather it supports the individual’s commitment to ethical principles it identified by setting a set of social, legal and otherworldly deterrents and punishments for those who deviate from these principles.
Rajiv: Indeed, this is a system which is worthy of reflection and respect.