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Right & Wrong in Islam vs. the Bible

[COMMENT:   For my answer to the dilemma posed below about whether God commands because a thing is right, or whether it becomes right because He commands it, see Defining 'Oughtness' & 'Love'.  See also, Does God Command a Behavior because It Is Good....?

See also comments below in text.  E. Fox]

Subject: Right and Wrong in Islam
Notes from Wynnewood 
October 22, 2007
Right 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 of Himself.       E. Fox]

            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 conscience.


[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.    E. Fox]


            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 Scripture, and 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.  E. Fox


            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 assertion. 

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 obligation

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 be 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 all politics. 


            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.      E. Fox]

            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 settle disputes.


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 done (see 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 worldview.  

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.      E. Fox  


Thomas Patrick Burke, Th.D.

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