and Wrong in Islam
During the middle ages a dispute arose which is
playing itself out today. The question was: When God
commands us to do an action, is the action right solely
because God commands it, or does God command it because it
is right? Both the Christian and the Muslim worlds were
confronted with this question as a result of their encounter
with Greek philosophy. If God commands an action because it
is right, then the rightness and wrongness of the action
lies in its very nature as an action, and we human beings,
by using our reason to analyze the action, can in principle
discover for ourselves whether it is right or wrong. In
that case the function of God's command is to give authority
and clarity to the voice of our conscience, especially by
pointing to the ultimate reward or punishment that our
actions deserve. But we have a conscience independently of
hearing God's revealed command.
[COMMENT: If "the function of God's command is to
give authority and clarity to the voice of our conscience" as said above, how
does it do so? How could the voice of God give authority to something that
is of higher authority than God Himself? God could testify to that
authority, but it could not give that authority.
The Biblical view of God is that He IS the
highest authority, that He does not bow to any thing outside
If, on the other hand, an action is right only
because God commands it, and wrong only because God forbids
it, then we cannot discover for ourselves by the use of our
powers of reasoning what actions are right or wrong by
analyzing the nature of the actions, but we must rely
instead simply on learning from the mouth of God what is his
command. Until we have heard God's command we do not have a
[COMMENT: The last sentence is true. But is not God
speaking to all of us all the time? Or certainly, at least, when we need
to hear from Him. We could discover for ourselves what is right and
wrong only if we had some sense of the purpose of God for our existence, which
is to love God and each other, in other words, to promote the maximum amount of
mutually compatible life and happiness in relationship. And
indeed we do have almost universally a sense that life is itself valuable.
But in a Godless world, that would have no objective standing.
The answer given by the Christian thinkers of
the middle ages was that God commands actions because they
are right. Theologians concluded that since faith and
reason came from the same source, God, there could not be
fundamental disagreement between them. Philosophy was
welcomed into the Christian worldview as the handmaid,
ancilla, of theology. So long as reason did not
contradict faith, it could function independently within the
religious sphere. Today we can see that this was a
momentous step in the history of our civilization. It was
explained and defended in detail especially in the
monumental Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The question of moral right and wrong was henceforth for the
Christian world largely a rational question that could be
answered by the independent power of reason. There arose a
Christian ethics. This remained the Christian consensus
till the Reformation.
COMMENT: The problem was failing, almost universally among
Christians, to put
reason ahead of
truth ahead of
God. The radical Biblical way is to put truth
ahead of God (so that we have a way of discerning the true
God from false gods) and reason ahead of revelation (so that
we can establish the Biblical worldview in order to makes
sense of a Biblical revelation). All this is portrayed
(not discussed) in Biblical history.
The Reformation only hardened the negative attitude toward
reason, leading to the incapacity of Christians to discuss
with each other reasonably and candidly, and hence leading
to the religious wars which did more than anything else to
convince people to get religion out of the public arena.
One consequence of this Christian alliance
between theology and philosophy was that Christianity
accepted the ancient Stoic doctrine of natural law. This is
the view that the basic principles of right and wrong are
not merely relative to the particular culture or society or
to subjective individual opinion, or to a particular
religion, but are objective values that are universally
valid for all rational beings. This view developed
originally in the Greek and Roman empire after Alexander had
unified the various peoples of the Mediterranean and they
started interacting with one another much more than they had
been. They realized that it was not sufficient to appeal to
their own traditions of right and wrong but they had to
discover moral rules that could be accepted universally.
This is the concept of natural law. As Cicero wrote: If
justice does not exist in nature, it does not exist
anywhere. That is, justice must be something objective. We
do not create justice, we discover it. This
has been a very precious development in the West.
COMMENT: This reasoning sounds good, but it ends up
being corrosive to morality and religion both. There
is no way of showing how it "exists in nature" unless God
put it there. That is, of course, what the
Christians tended to say. In the pagan worldview,
there is nothing to tell us that might does not make right,
and that is how they indeed acted. Some were wise enough to
see it was very destructive, i.e., not for the "good" of
people. But they could only assert the obligation, not
show why it was really there. It was an arbitrary
Moral objectivity resides partly in a notion of "the good",
that which works for both personal and community wholeness.
Love is, in that sense , a good, but no one owes me love.
If I get loved, I am just lucky. Some things work for
the good and some against it,
that is objectively true. But, ONLY IF the command to
love is real, does the objective good becomes an objective
The Biblical concept of
agape love works for the good of any and all persons.
But without the commandment of God, that good is just
another good idea with no obligation behind it. When
Jesus made love of God and of neighbor the two highest
commandments in the cosmos, He redefined all moral
discussion. Morality is from then on about love. If you do
not understand agape love, you do not understand morality.
But love becomes an obligation only because God commands it.
The commands of God give us our reason for existence.
Again, see Defining
'Oughtness' & 'Love'.
From this it follows, among other things, that
there is a foundation for rational dialogue between
different civilizations about right and wrong. This was
part of the worldview that led St. Francis Xavier to India
and Fr. Matteo Ricci to China. Another consequence was that
Christian thinkers such as Peter Abelard could conclude that
not only the external action but also one's interior state
of mind, one's intention, was of decisive importance for the
moral value of an action. This idea, the doctrine of
mens rea, was adopted into the English Common law,
where it remains to this day.
The Muslim world went down the other path. For
a brief while Muslim philosophy flourished. Ibn Sina and
Ibn Rushd were great and powerful thinkers. But soon the
religious authorities decided that philosophy presented too
great a danger to Islam, because the philosophers raised
questions about certain basic Muslim beliefs. If actions
were right or wrong by their own intrinsic nature, the
religious authorities reasoned, God would no longer be
sovereign over all things: he would be dependent for his
knowledge of right and wrong on something other than
himself. There were also some Christian thinkers who had
adopted this view, but they were argued down. Philosophy
was banished from the Muslim world. (This was especially
true of the Sunnis, who are the majority; the situation with
the minority Shiites was more nuanced.)
COMMENT: Actions are life-supporting or
life-destroying by their own intrinsic nature, that is one
objective part of the matter. A second objective part
of the matter is the commandment of God. That is true
whether or not anyone likes it or accepts it or obeys it.
The universality of the law of God does not come from
being abstract and beyond God, under which God would
Himself obligated, and therefore be less than the Biblical
view of God (as supreme sovereign). Rather it comes precisely from the
fact that God is indeed the creator of all that is.
The fact that the particular command of God makes a thing right (as
distinct from, and in addition to, good) therefore does not make it less than
universal. The command of God unites the good (that
which nurtures, builds up) with the right (that which is
obligatory) eternally. It is precisely the love of God
for His creation which elicits the command, making our love
of each other objectively obligatory. Love becomes our
reason for existence, which, as a logical fact, only our
creator can give us. That is the foundation of all
obligation, and therefore of all morality, and therefore of
Consequently there is nothing in Islam
corresponding to what we in the West understand by ethics as
a field of inquiry. There is no such thing as rational
discussion and debate about the inherent morality of
particular actions. Instead there is the divine command and
its interpretations by different schools and scholars. The
Muslim knows that murder is wrong only because statements to
that effect are made in the Koran. But since, to take one
example, neither the Koran nor the Hadith (the authoritative
sayings and doings of the Prophet) speak of "civilians" as
distinct from soldiers, the Muslim considers he has no
reason to treat them differently in war. It is true that
some Muslim schools of law can make an argument by analogy,
if they can find in Koran or Hadith some similar situation.
But this is not automatic. In Islam there are commands,
and there is debate about how the commands are to be
interpreted, but there is no debate about what independent
reason can conclude about right and wrong.
COMMENT: The reasonable debate among Christians does not
come because morality is universally true regardless of
religion or worldview. It comes because there is
legitimate discussion about what is loving (i.e., about
human nature and what makes it flourish and what makes it
die), and about what love means. But the command of
God to love, once given, is not itself debatable. If God has so
commanded, then that is obligatory. But there is
plenty of room for debate about our human nature, about the
meaning of love, and how they connect. And, indeed,
about the meaning of obligation itself, and of how
obligations apply to us, and whether God has given the
command. That is true because the
primal obligation to be a truth-seeker and truth-speaker
precedes all other obligations. So Biblical religion
does not descend into the arbitrariness and irrationality
so typical of Islam.
It goes with this that traditional Islam has no
doctrine of natural law. It has no philosophical basis for
believing that the discussion of right and wrong with other
religions or cultures could be fruitful. Either one accepts
the Koran or one does not. Those who do not are simply not
worth talking to.
[COMMENT: The above paragraph nails the epistemological
failure of Islam.
As the Pope has mentioned, there is an inherent irrationality to Islam
because of its arbitrary founding and writing of the Koran.
Dialogue presupposes some degree of common
ground. It is possible to converse with Muslims
because we are all human beings with the common human
experiences of birth, love and death. But unfortunately the
common ground that could enable Western civilization to
dialogue with Islam about what is right and wrong is
vanishingly narrow. If we are to make any headway in
rational discussion with the Muslim world, we need on our
side again to realize the value of the doctrine of natural
law, and to regain our confidence in the power of reason to
COMMENT: The problem described with Islam is
certainly true, and for the reasons given. But it does
not follow from that that a thing is obligatory apart
from the law of God. A thing may be good
(helpful, life-promoting) apart from the law of God.
So, it is conceivable the God could command hateful things,
that are not life-promoting. Some of Calvin's theology
seems to see God that way, predestining some to hell.
We live by the grace of God, not by His being compelled by a
law higher than His own will.
The adoption by Christians of the Hellenic view of such
things has been one of the most destructive things we have
Nancy Pearcey on this). We rightly adopted the
Hellenic development of the tools of reason (logic, abstract
reasoning, etc.), but we should never have imported their
The fundamental difference between the Muslim and the
Biblical views of God is that the Biblical view sees God as
committing Himself to our good and in a reasonable manner.
We can discuss the matter with God (as Abraham did regarding
Sodom, etc.). God makes that commitment
an obligation for all the rest of us as well. Islam
does not see God focusing Himself that way, so there can be
no reasonable dialogue about Islam or its morality.
The fundamental issue is the nature and image of God. If
God is Himself reasonable and loving, then we will see
ourselves as obligated to be like that.
Thomas Patrick Burke, Th.D.