Understanding Virtue Ethics In The Context Of The Quran

Understanding Virtue Ethics In The Context Of The Quran


This paper is set to briefly outline and understand the concept of virtue ethics. It aims to discuss that virtue ethics cannot be restricted to a particular context, especially with our social reality being more globally connected, virtue ethics requires it to be open to a different beliefs system, as well as accepting the various forms of thinking and living that shape our global life. This paper also examines how virtue ethics pursued through the concept of hilm as well as to analyse how the Qur’an promotes virtue ethics, through the moral virtues- such as justice, generosity and doing better- and intellectual virtues- such as reasoning, discernment and wisdom- that can be shared and understood universally, which ultimately regards to the aim of achieving hilm.

Written by Nahid Roshanali, Virtue Ethics Foundation.


What is virtue ethics:

Van Zyl (2019) argues that virtue ethics is recognised as one of the essential themes of normative theory, also known as moral theory. Normative theory consists of providing a methodical and coherent account of the values, norms, ideals and standards that we apply to make moral or ethical judgements in our daily lives (Van Zyl, 2019). Normative theorists, usually tend to focus on various aspects of our judgement, these include:
actions– judging actions prospectively, such as recommending someone to carry out an action that is considered the right thing to do under the circumstances, or retrospectively, making claims of someone’s actions being appropriate in a particular situation; state of affairs– on a community level we strive for values such as reducing poverty, unemployment and crimes, whilst on a individual level we strive for values such as being healthy, educated, happy and so forth; character– describing someone to be compassionate, reliable or arrogant and dishonest; motives and intentions– judging the reasons behind someone’s action as well as their conscious act  to obtaining what they desire; lives– making overall claims at someone’s life, for example if they lived a good or bad life (Van Zyl, 2019). Thus, normative theory concerns in giving a report of what is considered in making ‘good’ moral or ethical judgements.

Other major themes of normative theory involve consequentialism and deontology approaches. Both approaches aim to comprehend ethical matters in terms of understanding the characteristics of people’s actions (Adeel,2015). On one hand, consequentialist approach aims to assess actions in terms of the consequences for all concerned. For them, the action is right if, and only if, it brings about the greatest amount of overall happiness. That is because, consequentialism approach believes that happiness or pleasure is ultimately the only thing valuable in itself, and other things such as health and employment are considered valuable as a means of happiness (Adeel, 2015; Van Zyl, 2019).

Whilst, on the other hand, deontological approach seeks to look at the action’s moral quality through the perspective of rule or duty it may have been based upon. This is due to the fact that they reject the notion that right actions can be defined by good consequences, and subsequently, argue that consequences of our actions are not necessarily in our control. Therefore, it is considered a mistake to judge our action based on the consequences, and believe instead, we should judge the morality involved in those choices (Adeel, 2015; Van Zyl, 2019).

However, both of these approaches have been challenged by the revival of the Greek traditions of ethics- dating back to Homer, Plato and Aristotle- known as virtue ethics. Anscombe (1958) argued in her paper, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ that, in the earlier two normative approaches, our moral language, especially in the concepts regarding moral obligations and duty, as well as what we consider morally right is derived from the Judeo-Christian notions of ethics as a collection of universal laws that is presumed with the existence of a divine lawgiver. This means that what we consider ‘morally right’ is permissible by God, and what is considered ‘morally wrong’ is not permissible by God. She argues that because modern philosophers reject the existence of such an authority figure we cannot therefore consider God as a compass to our ethical ‘norms’ and suggest we need to search those norms elsewhere. She recommends to look into human virtues (Anscombe, 1958).  As per her, instead of looking at someone’s actions as morally right or wrong, she argues it should be replaced with terms of virtue and vice. For example, instead of it being morally wrong it should be perceived as dishonest or unjust; and instead of something being morally right it should be perceived as honest or generous (Anscombe, 1958). These notions date back to Greek traditions of virtues- such as wisdom, justice, moderation and courage- to live a good life rather than being based on moral obligations or duty (Anscombe, 1958; Adeel, 2015; Van Zyl, 2019).

In virtue ethics, action determines the character, or virtue, that one cultivates in oneself (Choudhury, 2001). Therefore, in virtue ethics, the assessment of the human character is ultimately more significant than the assessments of rightness of action or the assessment of the value of the consequences of action (Choudhury, 2001).

 Virtue Ethics in Relevance to Islam:

Whilst to Choudhury’s (2001) beliefs, virtues are not innate in character, they can only be affirmed and developed; and can be sustained through training and habit. Thus, he suggests, we learn our virtues based on our socialisation, habituation and development of practical wisdom- and for this to occur, there must exist agents to demonstrate the excellence of these virtues- for example a mentor or a guide (Choudhury, 2001). Consequently, Statman (1997) suggest that being a good person is not a matter of just learning and applying principles, it is also about imitating some models.

According to Choudhury (2001), the integrity of virtues and character are not restricted to a particular context- such as the self, family, race, nation, class, local community. Both, MacIntyre, 1985 and Stole, 1995, convey that there is nothing in the traditions of virtue ethics for it to be restricted to a particular political, theological, ethnocentric or epistemological claim. In fact, for virtue ethics to thrive in its focus on the ethic of character and respond to human diversity, it has to recognise and remain open to the boundaries of various human identities MacIntyre, 1985; Stole, 1995).

Because our social reality has become more global, through the advancement of communication and an increasement in our interactions and inter-relationships; we cannot deny the existence of various different beliefs of others, but more importantly we are able to determine all the different forms of thinking and living that are present in our own consciousness (Choudhury, 2001).

Virtue Ethics foundation view point on this matter:

Virtue Ethics Foundation takes a different stance in understanding virtue ethics, and that’s in the context of hilm. But firstly, to understand definition of hilm in the context of virtue ethics, we need to grasp the understanding of the soul.

For Greek philosopher’s conception of virtuous character in an individual. Plato suggests that an individual’s personality contains desires (ephithymiai) and capabilities of carrying out functions to serve a person’s needs- desire should be considered as ‘motive forces’, which fall into three categories: reason, spirit and appetite (White, 2015). Plato argues that humans conduct themselves solely by these types of motives, as three ‘parts of the soul’; and additionally suggest that all desires of each types of motives, produces and influences one’s action towards one thing or another (White, 2015).  Thus, Plato explains virtue and vices in a human character based on the harmony or disharmony of these desires. Therefore, wisdom is the regulator of the person through reason, directing each desire to perform their natural functions without violating the others; courage is submission of the spirit to reason and enforce harmony on other motivations; and moderation is obedience of the appetites to reason’s regulations (White, 2015).
Moreover, Abdullah (2017) states, for Plato, the only significant harm that could be done to a person, is a harm to his soul. He held strong beliefs that the soul is delicate and important, any harm done to it, could alter the whole personality of a person (Abdullah, 2017). Thus, wisdom is the driving force in contemplating the truth, and ultimately concerns itself with the meaning of life as well as the nature of the physical universe and human nature.

Similarly, For Aristotle, wisdom is considered useful knowledge, needing both theoretical and practical knowledge (Abdullah, 2017).  Theoretical knowledge consists of the metaphysical knowledge- what we consider as science today- and practical knowledge consist of knowing what needs to be done and understanding what makes life good (Ronald, 2003). It is though both that enlightenment can be achieved-recognising what is true and doing what is right for the greater good- and therefore achieving a seamless life (Abdullah, 2017).

Whilst in the Islamic context, the soul is referred to as nafs, and the same soul can be subjected to both purification (tazkiya) and defilement (tadsiya) (Picken, 2005). Saeed (2020) suggest that al-nafs can be understood as the self or the ego; he uses Al-Ghazali’s work to examine the differences of the state of the nafs. The first being the ego, which is considered the vices of the human, such as anger and temptation. Whilst on the other hand, the second definition, consist of the nafs being gentle (latifa), it is the self of human and his identity- the use of latifa which can be translated as gentle, nice, pleasant, good-natured and subtle, suggest goodness is in the essence of the human being- implying that we humans have a sense of goodness within our souls, thus an inherent nature to cultivate virtue (Saeed, 2020).  Subsequently, it is through the understanding that the elimination of the vices and cultivation of virtues, that cause the blooming of goodness that is already within us (Saeed, 2020).

Therefore, whilst for Greek philosophers, virtues were obtained through balancing the soul’s desires, but ultimately obtaining wisdom was the source in understanding the truth and having a good life. Similarly, in the Islamic context, it is important to flourish the good within ourselves and diminish the vices to ultimately live a life approved by Allah. Hence we argue that to achieve the best state for the human soul, in the context of Islam, is through hilm.

Concept of hilm:

Shah-Kazemi (2012) states it’s impossible to provide an accurate definition of the word hilm in the English in a single word, however it consists of several meanings: forbearance, wisdom, patience, self-mastery, composure, kindness, gentleness and mildness. It derives from the divine name, Al-Halim, that is sometimes loosely translated as ‘the Gentle’ or ‘the Mild’. Shah-Kazemi (2012) articulates that to understand the translation for halim as ‘gentle’, we need to return to its original meaning of the term as ‘gentleman’, but keeping in mind its relationship with the soul. Being a ‘gentleman’ is attributed with being courteous and kind, but also implying a sense of nobility or aristocracy, which should not be just understood in its social sense only, but in the original Greek meaning, ‘rule of the best’ (Shah-Kazemi, 2012).  According to Plato, aristocrats are those in whom the best part of the soul governs the other elements, which means their intellectual element governs their passional and ill-tempered elements of the soul (Shah-Kazemi, 2012).  Thus, in this context, the term ‘gentle’ is coined with the sense of nobility through self-mastery as well as compassion and tenderness, which together concocts the various meanings implied with the single term of hilm (Shah-Kazemi, 2012).  Furthermore, there is a relationship between hilm and ‘ilm (knowledge)- if hilm is considered the forbearance which originates from knowledge, then ‘ilm is considered to be that knowledge that produces forbearance (Shah-Kazemi, 2012).

Moreover, the vice which is contemplated as opposite to hilm, is understood as jahl– a term too simply translated as ‘ignorance’, however it is considered more than just the absence of knowledge (Shah-Kazemi, 2012).

If the root of ‘ilm (knowledge) and hilm is inseparable from attributes of patience, kindness and forbearance, then on the other hand, jahl is, at the root of it inseparable to attributes such as egocentricity, fanaticism and rashness- in summary, a range of vices that is present in the absence of self-control, thus in direct opposition of hilm.

Therefore, the Qur’an urges Muslims to conduct themselves with hilm (Armstong; 2006). It encourages to control their anger, to maintain calmness in the difficult times and to be slow in retaliating. Additionally, she argues, that possessing hilm, would mean that Muslims would take care of those who are weak and at a disadvantage, converse with one another with compassion and patience, feed the hungry and aid the impoverished (Armstrong; 2006). The Qur’an emphasises in behaving with gentleness and courtesy, because ultimately Muslims are people of peace:

“The (faithful) slaves of the Beneficient are they who walk upon the earth modestly, and when the foolish ones address them, they answer: Peace”  (25:63).

And as the leader of Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad’s ultimate goal was to construct a society based on hilm. For example, those who kept the faith were not simply ‘believers’, their faith had to be articulated through practical actions such as praying, sharing of wealth, defending themselves if attacked- however instead of lashing out, they must be prepared at all times to pardon injury (Armstrong; 2006).

Additionally, Izutsu’s (1964) who worked work on key Qur’anic terms, states that it is not just the character of the Prophet Muhammad, but the Qur’an ‘as a whole’ that imbodies the ‘spirit of hilm’. His claim, echoes the core Islamic principle, of the fundamental belief of resemblance between the message and the messenger. When asked about the Prophet’s character, his wife Aisha replied: “his character was the Qur’an” (found in Shah-Kazemi, 2012).

Thus, demonstrating that both the soul of the Prophet and the Qu’ran were permeated with the spirit of hilm.

Virtue Ethics in the Quran:

This section aims to explore the various virtue ethics displayed within the Qur’an, which is considered as a source of wisdom for Muslims, and contains many universal values that one can draw upon and learn from them. I do not place the Qur’anic teachings as an inferior to nor exclusive supplicant of virtue ethics. However, I aim to provide a source of understanding of virtue ethics in the context of Islam, and ultimately demonstrate the spirit of hilm residing within the Qur’an.

 Firstly, Alpyagil (2014) stresses that a study in Islamic moral theory, must begin with the Qur’an as it is the foundational text for Muslims. He suggests, primarily, one of the main aims of the Qur’an is to contribute the ethical development of the human race:

 “And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong” (9:71).

 He elaborates that the verse set the tone for its moral universe by holding both men and women to be ‘protective friends’ who encourages the good, thus he states that the Qur’an is a work of “moral admonition”; and has a significant part in dealing with human relations, filled with assertions of justice, fair play, kindness, forgiveness, goodness, dignity, patience honesty, brotherliness and so forth (Alpyagil, 2014).

Whilst there are many virtues stated in the Qur’an, Apyagil (2014) suggests that there are three pre-eminent moral virtues outlined in the Qur’an:

“Allah enjoins justice and kindness, and giving to kindred and forbids lewdness and abomination and wickedness. He exhorts you in order that you may take heed” (16:90).

The verse highlights three essential principles for moral virtues in Islam- justice, generosity and doing better.

Justice is regarded as a fundamental aspect of Islam and often associated with the belief of Oneness of God and the truthfulness of the Prophet (Ali and Leaman, 2008). There are many verses in the Qur’an commanding its believers to adopt this as a moral ideal:

O you who believe! Be staunch in justice, witnesses of Allah even though it is against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) relatives, whether (the case is of) a rich man or a poor man, for Allah is nearer to both (than you are). So follow not passion lest you lapse (from truth), and if you lapse or fall away, then Allah is ever informed of what you do” (4:135).

“Say: My Lord enjoins justice. And set your faces upright (towards Him) at every place of worship and call upon Him, making religion pure for Him (only). As He brought you into being, so you return (to Him)” (7:29).

 In Islam, Justice usually means to equally divide something, or to inaugurate balance and equilibrium amongst all- both in material and spiritual aspects. It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad had said “it is with justice that the heavens and the earth stand” (Tafsir Safi Commentary on the verse 55:7- found in Shahidi, 2014).
Shahidi (2014) explains that the meaning suggests that all of the characteristics of the universe have been conveyed with equilibrium in such a manner that even a fraction of it were out of place, the entire system would plummet.

The next fundamental aspect of moral virtue in Islam is highlighted as generosity. Izutsu (1964) suggest that in the Semitic world, the concept of God is fundamentally ethical, and therefore the relationship between God and man, in this view, should be considered of an ethical nature as well.

Apyagil (2014) emphasises this notion, suggesting all chapters- except for one- in the Qur’an starts with the divine attributes of Ar-Rahman (The Most Gracious) and Ar-Rahim (The Most Merciful) after the name of Allah. Both divine attributes are derived from the noun Rahmah, which signifies ‘mercy’, ‘compassion’, ‘grace’ and ‘loving tenderness’ (Asad, 2003).

Thus, the significance of generosity in Islam start with the concept of God’s mercy is bestowed upon all living creatures:

“My mercy embraces all things, therefore I shall ordain it for those who ward off (evil) and pay the poor due, and those who believe in Our revelations” (7:156).

Moreover, Allah describes the Prophet’s essential objective in this world, in the Qur’an, is mercy:

“We sent you not except as a mercy for the peoples” (21:107).

Thus, many virtues in the Qur’an such as charity, assisting the weak and oppressed, nursing the sick and many more, are virtues listed under the spirit of generosity. It emphasises that we are all creatures of God, and therefore we should live in cooperation and not competition with each other, regardless of whether they are from, or different, race, stature or faith than us (Apyagil, 2014). Conversely the generosity of God bestowed upon us all, the same virtue is expected for us to share with each other.

The third fundamental moral virtue highlighted is doing better. The Qur’an focuses on thriving in doing better:

“Repel evil with that which is better. We are best aware of that which they allege” (23:96).

“When you are greeted with a greeting, greet with a better than it or return it. Allah takes count of all things” (4:86).

These verses recommend people to do better, and if they cannot do so, then to respond to it with equal goodness. Thus, Apyagil (2014), this virtue lies in between responding with doing the best, through generosity, or good, through justice. Fundamentally the principle is to thrive in doing better between good and the best.

Moreover, Apyagil (2014), states that similar to Aristotle’s view of character virtue being interdependent to intellectual virtues, Islam has a similar outlook. The Qur’an, he argues, emphasises thinking alongside your deeds. Riggs (2003), explains that the intellectual based virtues is absolutely necessary in obtaining knowledge of the past and current world affairs; whilst trait based virtues, such as strengths of character, is equally necessary to obtain greater intellectual achievements, such as understanding and wisdom. Thus, similarly the Qur’an also focuses on intellectual virtues such as reasoning, discernment and wisdom (Apyagil, 2014).

“(O man), follow not that of which you have no knowledge. The hearing and the sight and the heart-of each of these it will be asked” (7:36).

Verses like these in the Qur’an, call upon its followers to think and ponder, to understand. The word for knowledge and its cognates appears 750 times in the Qur’an (Rosenthal, 1970). The Qur’an constantly focuses on the importance of seeking knowledge and reflection, because without so, people lack the ability to recognise Allah ultimately.

 “And they worship instead of Allah that for which He has sent down no authority, and that of which they have no knowledge. For evildoers there is no helper” (22:71).

“Then exalted by Allah,  the True King! (O Muhammad) with the Qur’an before it’s revelation has been perfected to you, and say: My Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (20:114).

Thus, through the basis of knowledge and reasoning, one can comprehend the teachings and its implications (Apyagil, 2014).

Conversely, it is pointed out that it is only through the interdependent use of moral and intellectual virtues, that we can befit our Humanity (Apyagil, 2014). Thus, the Qur’an emphasises the importance of obtaining both virtues, to be able to discern the truth of which is falsehood.

“O you who believe! If you keep your duty to Allah, He will give you discrimination (between right and wrong) and will rid you of your evil thoughts and deeds, and will forgive you. Allah of Infinite Bounty” (8:29).

However, the ultimate goal is in obtaining Al- Hikmah, which is a term equated to wisdom- a deep insight and having the ability to make a reasonable judgement, concerning in matters or situations, through understanding cause and effect phenomena (Aljughaiman and Berki, 2013; Apyagil, 2014). In addition to this, wisdom also entails the capacity to hold back action when it is time to hold back (Aljughaiman and Berki, 2013).

 “He gives wisdom to whom He will, and he to whom wisdom is given, he truly has received abundant good. But none remember except men of understanding” (2: 269).

A wise man, therefore, exhibits a combination of both knowledge and action. Subsequently, definition of wisdom based on the Qur’an centres upon knowledge, insights perfection, ethical demeanour, prevention of oppression and ignorance (Aljughaiman and Berki, 2013).

Therefore, one can argue that ultimately trying to obtain Al-Hikmah, is embracing the spirit of hilm.

To conclude, I have given a brief outline what virtue ethics entails, focusing the significance of assessment of human character, rather than the assessments of rightness of action nor the assessment of the consequences of action. The paper also highlighted, that whilst some researchers argue that virtue is not innate to the character of the human being, we as a foundation suggest that through the principles of Islam, virtue is intrinsic to our soul. We argue that through virtue ethics teachings in the Qur’an, we can cultivate the goodness that is already residing in our souls, and consequently thrive to obtain the ultimate goal of Al-Hikmah (wisdom) to achieve the state the hilm. Therefore, we believe, the completion of character is the embodiment of the spirit of hilm.

 “The best among you are those who have the best of manners and character” – Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).


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