Thanks to the media projection and certain events like the attack on New York Towers on 9/11 Islam is equated with nothing but Jihad as if Jihad was the sole motive of religion of Islam. No religion, much less Islam, can ever be reduced to jihad or dharma yudh or holy war. Religions represent, above all, ethics and morality and moral social order and so does Islam. Though moral or ethical concepts belonging to different religions are more or less same, each religion has certain socio-cultural and historical background, which plays an important role in its formation. Emergence of Islam in Mecca had its own socio-economic and historical background which must be understood in order to understand its ethical and moral concepts.
Any revelation has certain context and prevailing moral degeneration necessitates emphasis on oral restoration. However, understanding this background in no way reduces its importance. On the contrary it enhances it. For example, any believer refers to the moral degeneration in the Arab society in general, and in Meccan society in particular, before emergence of Islam.
Islam's great emphasis is on equality and justice. Its great emphasis on these concepts has certain socio-economic and historical background. The Meccan Arab society, as we have pointed out earlier too, was basically a tribal society and had strong grounding in tribal ethics. Though tribal society has no written law but it values equality and its chief also does not enjoy king-like privileges but enjoys status of only first among equals.
The Meccan society was dominated by the tribe of Quraysh but the Quraysh leaders were taking to international trade and grossly neglecting tribal ethics. Not only that inter tribal trade corporations were coming into existence, some individuals were also emerging as highly successful traders who had accumulated a great deal of wealth. We find it mentioned in the 104th chapter of the Qur'an. It is strong denunciation of accumulation of wealth which will turn into hutamah i.e. crushing disaster.
Similarly in the chapter 107 we find strong denunciation of neglecting the orphans and the needy and behave roughly to the orphans. Both these chapters were revealed in Mecca in early stages of Islam. In a tribal society this was a shocking behaviour. Generally there is no concept of private property in a tribal society. The Meccan tribes were no exception. However, what was worse was that not only private property had developed but also some people grew very rich and had totally abandoned their tribal morality of looking after the weak of the society.
Thus Islam not only denounced neglect of the poor but also laid great emphasis on justice and equality and denounced neglect of weaker sections of society. Throughout the Qur'an we find strong emphasis on helping the weaker sections of society. In 28:5 we find that Allah wishes to oblige the weaker sections and make them inheritor and leader of this earth. Thus the Qur'an wants the weaker sections to be more equal than the privileged sections of the society.
Similarly the concept of justice is quite central to Islamic ethics. Islam wishes to establish a just society. In fact 'adl is a key word in the Qur'an and Allah is also referred to as 'aadil i.e. just. Since the Meccan society in general, and its dominant tribe of Quraysh in particular, was neglecting weaker sections and its rich and powerful leaders had become too arrogant to respect the humanity of the weaker sections, the Qur'an showed great concern for justice. The Prophet of Islam had set up, even before Islam, a society called hilf al-fudul which was meant to do justice to the weaker people of Mecca. Thus the Prophet (PBUH) personally was highly concerned about the weaker sections or those at the receiving end of the powerful in the society.
The Meccan scene was highly disturbing before the advent of Islam. Tribal norms were being neglected and the powerful and rich tribal leaders had adopted hedonistic attitude. There was no law written or oral to check them. They were law unto themselves. The weaker sections were groaning under the unequal and unjust social set up. There was no state either to redress their grievances. The senate (mala') was controlled by the tribal chiefs. Thus an emerging commercial class across tribal boundaries was crushing down the poor and needy of the society.
Of course the Meccan revelations referred to above were moral denunciations of accumulation of wealth and misuse of power and consumerist culture as there was no state authority to enforce them. But this is precisely the point. We are discussing here Islamic ethics and moral concepts which appeal to ones inner conscious being. These concepts had moral and spiritual appeal, not legal authority. However, they acquired legal force only later when a state structure began to develop in Madina.
In Islamic ethics zakat (charity which acquired status of tax later in Madina) plays very important role so much so that except at two or three places the word salat (prayer to Allah) is not mentioned without the word zakat. Thus it is very clear that only salat is not enough; one should also regularly pay zakat to take care of the weaker sections of the society. In chapter 107 referred to above it is clearly mentioned that mere offering prayer will be of no use if one gives rough treatment to the orphans and the needy. Such prayer is at best only for showing off.
Justice, as pointed out, is very central to Islamic ethics. The Prophet has been "commanded to do justice" among people irrespective of the fact whether one is Muslim or not (42:15) and justice has been equated with piety and love of God (5:8). Also justice must be done even if it goes against oneself and ones parents. The Qur'an also says "O you who believe, be upright for Allah, bearer of witness with justice; and let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably. Be just; that is nearer to observance of duty (5:8).
Again in 4:58 "Surely Allah commands you to make over trusts to those worthy of them, and that when you judge between people, you judge with justice. Surely Allah admonishes you with what is excellent." Thus the Qur'an requires of believers to be just in all their affairs whether it be matter between the people or concerned with affairs of state. Justice must be observed even when dealing with enemies, Muslims or non-Muslims. No stable society can be established without it being just. Injustice leads to oppression and violent consequences. A society can be truly non-violent society only if it be a just society.
The Qur'an speaks constantly of 'amalus salih i.e. righteous or good deeds those deeds which lead to establishment of a healthy society. Good deeds are what matters most for a good society. From this viewpoint the Meccan chapter 103 is quite important. In fact this small chapter is, in a way, essence of the Qur'anic ethics.
It goes like this: "By the time!
Surely man is in loss,
Except those who believe and do good, and exhort one another to Truth,
And exhort one another for patience."
Since this chapter starts with the word 'asr i.e. time we must understand its significance properly. For time immemorial it is goodness which is liberative. In the past too those who sacrificed good for their selfish ends, for their power and pelf, brought disasters to the society and those who sacrificed power and wealth for good of the society brought stability and health in social set up. Thus man will be in loss at any period of time if he does not believe (in goodness and moral values) and does not practice good.
The Qur'an talks of believing (aamana) and 'amalus salihat (good deeds) together. It is not enough to believe but it is also necessary to act according to ones belief. This is being emphasised in this chapter also. And what is more important is that when one acts what one believes one has to be ready for suffering at the hands of those whose interests are harmed by acting as one believes. Thus truth (haq) always necessitates patience to remain steadfast in view of these sufferings.
Our society is in turmoil time and again because we do not act according to what we believe and choose to act according to our interests rather than according to our belief in goodness. This brings disaster and man suffers and remains in loss. Thus for a good society men should believe in goodness and act according to them and show patience. The early Muslims suffered tremendously and sacrificed everything for principles and for values like justice, peace, truth and compassion.
However, the powerful vested interests in Meccan society felt great threat from these Muslims who were poor and oppressed yet steadfast in their belief in goodness, in truth and in justice and discarded belief in falsehood, in vain desires and in superstitions weaved around certain idols installed in Ka'aba. The vested interests who owned wealth and exercised great power and influence persecuted them severely. However, they refused to give up their beliefs and good deeds.
It was their steadfastness, sacrifices and patience in view of such inhuman oppression that Islamic revolution succeeded in Arabia at that time. Men were in loss and were suffering but this belief in Truth and goodness and good deeds 'amal salih that brought about a change. Thus according to the Qur'an all others are in loss except those who believe and do good deeds. Good deeds are most fundamental, not the mode or way of worship. Thus the Qur'an says: "And everyone has a goal (or direction) to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good work."
Maulana Muhammad Ali says, commenting on this verse, " In making Ka'bah, the Spiritual Centre the Muslims are told their goal, as a nation, is to lead the world on to the greatest good. Their race is not a race for material benefits, a race for riches or power, but a race for attainment of good and for the spread of good. As stated in clear words in v.143, they are made leaders of the world, and this lead, they are now told they must give in doing good, and hence they must vie with one another in doing good. In the words that follow - wherever you are Allah will bring you all together ? they are told that they will be spread far and wide in the world, yet their goal must be one. The outward unity of the qiblah has a deeper meaning under it; it stands for their unity of purpose, as being a nation which strives after one goal, and it forms the basis on which rests the brotherhood of Islam; hence the said of the Prophet: 'Do not call those who follow your qiblah unbelievers." (Holy Qur'an, Lahore, 1973, Pp-63)
Thus it will be seen from above that there is basic emphasis on good which is foundation stone of the Qur'anic ethics. The Qur'an also uses the terminology of ma'ruf and munkar i.e. good and evil. In fact it is enjoined upon all believers that to enforce good and prohibit evil (9:71). This is repeatedly stressed in the Qur'an. Thus it is basic duty of every believer to spread good in the world. Even Islamic prayer's basic purpose is to keep away evil and indecency (29:45). Prayer is means for promoting good, not an end in itself.
Another word used in this connection is birr, which is rendered as righteousness in English. Righteousness does not lie in performing certain rituals. The Qur'an defines it again in terms of certain beliefs and ethical behaviour. Thus the Qur'an says: "It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and West, but righteous is the one who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and set slaves free and keeps up prayer and pays the poor rate; and performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflict. These are they who keep their duty." (2:177)
This verse is very important to understanding of the Qur'anic ethic. Besides belief in Allah, the Last Day and His prophets and angels what is essential for righteousness is helping with ones wealth the near of kin, orphans and the needy and liberation of slaves and praying and paying of zakat (poor rate) and fulfilling ones promise and facing difficulties and times of conflict with patience and steadfastness. Thus helping the weaker sections of society and ending slavery and displaying courage and patience in difficult circumstances is the core of Qur'anic ethic.
This is required in times of social change for good. As pointed out earlier the Arab social set up was in throes of change before Islam appears on the scene. However, that change that was taking place was favouring the rich and powerful and had adverse impact on the weaker sections of society. Islam, on the other hand, ushered in a change that benefited the weak and the oppressed. But when you usher in a change that favours the weak you have to go through a period full of conflict and tension. Thus the weaker sections have to show great deal of patience in view of adverse circumstances and on the other, the well off sections supporting the revolution, have to spend their wealth for the poor and needy and for removing blot of slavery.
Thus the Qur'an is prescribing befitting ethical behaviour for its followers. It is equally important to believe in Allah and the Book revealed by Him as it is this Book which provides guidance and urges upon believers to be kind and compassionate to the weaker sections of society. Also, belief in Day of Judgement makes a person accountable for what he/she does. Accountability is a very important doctrine for human beings engaged in building a just society. Only those who do wrong will reject or fear the doctrine of accountability. Those who are righteous have nothing to fear.
"Whoever does good", the Qur'an says, whether male or female, and is a believer, We shall certainly make him live a good life and We shall; certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did." (16:97). Thus good deed is its own reward. It makes a person's life purer and worthier.
Since Islam was a revolution in favour of weak and healthy social change it abhors what the Qur'an calls istikbar (arrogance of power). It denounces istikbar again and again and approves of istid'af (being weak). Istid'af is virtue and istikbar a great evil. A believer should keep away from istikbar in any case. Istikbar is a cause of suffering in the world. One cannot build a just society if there exists mustakbirun i.e. powerful and arrogant. In other words power should not be used for dominating others but for fighting evil and for establishing justice. Nimrod and Pharaoh both were among the mustakbirun and brought great evil in the world.
The Qur'anic ethic urges believers to establish a society which is free of exploitation. Exploitation leads to conflict and revolt by those exploited. One of the worst form of exploitation in the Arab society of the time was prevalence of riba' generally translated as usury. However, riba' is not only usury but any unjust growth in wealth. Usury is only one form of riba'.
Usury is nothing but exploitation of the weak by the powerful and practice of riba' leads to injustice and exploitation in the society and hence it has been condemned in very strong terms by the Qur'an. Thus it says, " Those who swallow usury cannot arise except as he arises whom the devil prostrates by (his) touch. That is because they say, trading is only like usury. And Allah has allowed trading, and forbidden usury. To whomsoever then the admonition has come from his Lord, and he desists, he shall have what has already passed. And his affair is in the hands of Allah. And whosoever returns (to it) ? these are the companions of the Fire: there they will abide." (2:275)
From the above it can be seen that riba' has been strongly condemned. One who indulges in riba' as if devil has touched him. All exploitative practices lead to unjust growth of wealth and increased greed. This increased greed leads to ever more exploitation and breeds anger and violence among the exploited. Thus human greed is root of many evils, conflict and violence. The Qur'an, on the other hand, wants to establish a society which is free of greed, anger, conflict and violence.
Hence the Qur'an lays stress on what is calls halal and tayyib i.e. what is legitimate, lawful and good. Qur'an says that rizq i.e. provisions for sustenance of life should be lawful and earned through legitimate means. It does not mean renunciation but resistance to greed for easy money and resistance to consumerism. One should earn ones livelihood through means, which would not involve exploitation of any kind.
It is generosity which is encouraged by the Qur'an. Thus it talks of sadaqah (charity) as opposed to riba'. Allah wipes out riba' while makes charity prosper. Charity is borne out of sincere feelings and is meant to help others whereas riba' is based on seizing what belongs to other. Thus such a society where riba' is practised freely cannot be a stable society. Similarly, Qur'an opposes all forms of unfair practices which are based on greed. Also, one should be content what is needed for sustenance of life i.e. content on basic needs and rest should be spent for the weaker sections of society (2:219).
One can argue that modern economy cannot be run on this principle. The very dynamics of modern economy is on more and more consumption. This consumption invariably leads to ostentation and all this is possible only when some get out of all proportions of their efforts while others will not get even what they have toiled for. This imbalance is the surest prescription for social disaster.
It is such ostentatious consumption by some nations that leads to wars and destruction. America, a small proportion of population in the world consumes far more than all other countries put together and hence it has to resort to war again and again be it in Vietnam, in Afghanistan or in Iraq. America is constantly involved in wars in various parts of the world to maintain its level of consumption. Had it been content on modest amount of consumption there would have been much more peace in the world.
Thus the Qur'anic ethical concepts are far more conducive to world peace and social stability. It is unfortunate that most of the Muslim countries do not practice these ethical concepts and maintain exploitative social order within their own countries and thus find themselves impotent to fight exploitative powers internationally. For international peace and stability one will have to create a balanced world order based on ethical concepts discussed above.