ISLAM, LIKE CHRISTIANITY and Judaism, is commonly described in Comparative Religion textbooks as an ethical monotheism. That is, it asserts that there is only one God, and that recognition and worship of that one God carries grave ethical implications and imposes profound ethical duties.
Do Monotheism and Ethics Imply Each Other?
To better understand the way that these two terms, ethics and monotheism, are linked, let us ask ourselves what happens when we de-couple them. Is it possible to have monotheism without ethics? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Many contemporary Americans claim to believe in the one God, but do not seem to have the faintest idea about what that implies in terms of their behavior.
This non-ethical monotheism is not really new. Deism, which was the philosophy of many of America’s founders, claims that the one God created everything but then left creation to its own devices to run like a gigantic clock. Many deists, and those whose outlook is influenced by deism, believe that God does not care too much about what happens with creation, and that human ethics are a human matter—not a matter involving God.
Is it possible to have ethics without monotheism? Again, the answer seems to be yes. A great many of the cultures and individuals that have lived on earth have not been self-described monotheists, but they certainly were not entirely lacking in ethics. Today, many of those who profess and express various ethical approaches and doctrines are not monotheists.
In fact, some of the most “intensely ethical” people these days are not religious at all. Despite their living by a strict ethical code, one wonders whether such an outlook could ever be life-enhancing and sustainable in the long run. The Quran, with its insistence on the primacy of belief and submission, would seem to suggest that the non-religious ethical approaches that are so common today are constructed on very shaky ground.
The Whole is Greater Than Its Parts
In ethical monotheism, the two terms, ethics and monotheism, synergistically influence each other. The whole notion of ethical behavior becomes tinged with faith in—and worship of—the one God, while the one God is viewed as ethically-charged, requiring human beings to submit to a code of ethics grounded in faith and worship.
Islam shares this ethical monotheism with Judaism and Christianity, and these three great Abrahamic religions stand apart from other spiritual paths by virtue of it.
Corruption from Pure Monotheism
Though all three Abrahamic traditions partake of this tradition, Islam is the purest form of ethical monotheism, offering a path that is more straightforward and intensely monotheistic than Judaism and Christianity.
Islamic scripture and tradition, like Jewish scripture and tradition, suggests that Judaism has been marked by a sort of dialectic between monotheistic faith on the one hand—and doubt, polytheism, and faithlessness, on the other hand. The classic example as recorded in the Quran is in Sûrat Al-Baqarah [2:67-71] in which Allah recounts how the people of Mûsa/ Moses were asked to sacrifice a cow. Rather than simply following Allah’s command, they asked Moses: Are you mocking us? What kind of cow? We don’t understand, please give us a precise description of this cow…Though they finally did sacrifice the cow, “they almost did not” [Sûrat Al-Baqarah 2:71].
Islamic tradition also suggests that Christianity has also been marked by a certain straying from the path of pure Abrahamic monotheism, namely the confusion between man and God stemming from the erroneous deification of Jesus. Like Judaism, Christianity ordains the worship of the one and only God, referred to in Arabic as Allah. But like Judaism, Christianity does not always do so in a completely straightforward way.
“Radical” Purity of Concept in Islam
Whether one buys into these arguments from within the Islamic perspective, as Muslims do, or whether a neutral observer is striving for a balanced or objective perspective, as scholars of Comparative Religion are, I think we can agree that the emphasis on pure, “radical” monotheism is stronger in Islamic scripture and tradition than in its Christian and Jewish analogues. God’s Oneness, Tawḥîd, which is repeatedly mentioned in the daily Salahs, is an omnipresent theme in the Quran, and forms the basis of the religion of Islam.
Ethics Synonymous with Islamic Lifestyle
Likewise, I would argue that Islam puts more powerful emphasis on the ethical component of monotheism than do its sibling monotheisms. Judaism and Christianity do, of course, have extremely impressive ethical traditions of their own, and I do not wish to belittle them. But just as the monotheism is more intense in Islam, so is the ethics. In the Islamic cosmology, every move we make on earth is of immense ethical significance, and we are constantly reminded of this at every turn in the Quran and Islamic tradition.
Judaism does not put much stress on rewards and punishments in the afterlife, and its ethical discourse is largely one of argumentative questioning—including the questioning of God.
Christianity, while in part based on an ethical critique of Judaism, has traditionally offered a cosmology based on original sin, in which the effort to behave ethically on earth may be less important than a doctrinal affirmation of belief in the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. Many Christians believe that the worst sinners can get a ticket to heaven by embracing Jesus as their personal lord and savior. This fits in with a cosmology in which creation is profoundly flawed by original sin—so profoundly flawed that only the torture and murder of God’s own son can redeem it. And only the doctrinal embrace of this sacrifice can save mankind from this evil world we are stuck in.
Islam, by contrast, unambiguously teaches that creation is basically good, because God is good. Humans, like the rest of creation, have a basically good nature, a “Fiṭra” which is our gift from God. We are destined for good things, in this life and the next, if we act wisely and well. But we also face temptations to act badly and stupidly.
If we give in to those temptations, and behave badly, we will suffer momentous consequences. We will very likely suffer for our action in this life—and if we do, we are lucky, because suffering for them in the next life would be even worse. In short, Islam teaches that “what goes around comes around.” Allah’s justice is perfect, whether we see it dispensed or not. Each individual is individually responsible for his or her own actions, and nobody, not even the great prophet Jesus can atone for another human being’s sins.
Pillars of Islam Linked to Ethical Reminder
This powerfully ethical dimension of pure Islamic monotheism is present in all the actions and utterances that make a person a Muslim.
- We perform Salah in ritual submission to God five times a day in part because it serves as an ethical reminder. It’s hard to behave really badly if you have to meet God in an hour or two.
- Fasting for Ramadan also teaches ethics by reining in the nafs, the desiring ego, and instilling compassion for the hungry.
- Alms-giving or charity, of course, is about restraining self-interest in favor of ethics.
- The Hajj or pilgrimage is a transformative spiritual journey that aims to produce a “hajji,” a person whose spiritual/ethical state has been raised a notch higher than it was before the trip.
- And the first pillar of Islam, the Shahâda “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God” commits the Muslim to embracing and following monotheistic ethics as they were revealed in the Quran and elaborated on in Prophetic Tradition.
The idea that there is no god but God is not a tautology, but a reminder that we should not be too attached to other things; we should not make them our “gods.” All the things that we selfishly desire like money, sex, fame, pleasure, and so on are fine, but we shouldn’t get carried away and turn them into idols.
Institutionalized Reminder of Commitment to Pleasing Allah
Does this system of ethics work? Yes, if it is conscientiously applied.
I cannot prove that all or even most nominal Muslims today consistently behave more ethically than nominal non-Muslims. There are just too many variables to make that kind of sweeping comparison. But it does seem to be true that faith in Allah and a strong commitment to Islam—call it piety, faith, Taqwa, or what-have-you—tends to go hand in hand with uprightness and ethical behavior.
Having grown up in the land of greedy, hypocritical Sunday-morning TV preachers, I had always associated intense religiosity with bad behavior and hypocrisy—until I came to Islam. Gradually it dawned on me that most of the pious Muslims I met were good-hearted, sincere, honest and trustworthy. Sure, some of them—maybe all of them—were struggling with the nafs and trying to be better people. But that was the point: At least they were trying!
Walking the Talk
I realized that the media stereotypes I had grown up on, which portrayed fervent Muslims as wicked, wrathful “fundamentalists,” were extremely misleading.
The opposite, in fact, is usually the case: If you find yourself in trouble in a Muslim country, and you need someone who is honest, sincere, courageous, and willing to go the extra mile to help you out, you will probably find that the folks who don’t pray or fast, who drink and do drugs and follow Western fashions, may not be of much help.
You will, Inshâ’Allah, find that the person you need is a pious, practicing Muslim—a person upon whom Islamic monotheism has bestowed the peace of mind that comes from surrender to Allah, and whose behavior is modeled on the high ethical standard of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ.
May Allah enlighten us all in our islam and make easy our attachment to Him as our Lord.