Do we need religion to be “good people”?
In actuality, we specifically need Islam to be good people.
Yes there are good people of other faiths, no doubt. But I am using the term “good” in a technical sense to characterize a person who fulfills all basic moral obligations or at least feels bad about not fulfilling them.
To suggest that only Muslims are even in a position to fulfill all basic moral obligations and that adherents of other religions are missing out on these obligations violates principles of universalism that have become so widespread among people and Muslims today. It is almost a truism in the minds of people that even those without religion can be morally upright. But is this true?
Those who make this claim focus their argument on a small set of moral truths.
“OF COURSE I don’t need God to know that murder is wrong!”
“OF COURSE I don’t need God to know that rape is wrong!”
“If you only refrain from murder and rape because God told you so, then that shows how truly IMMORAL you are!”
In actuality, this shows how limited these people’s understanding of morality is. Their morality only consists of two line items: don’t kill and don’t rape.
There is usually also the platitude, “I don’t harm anyone. That’s what my morality is based on and it doesn’t require belief in God, much less Islam.”
This, of course, is a cop out because “harm” is so subjective and context-dependent. What one considers harmful varies from time to time, culture to culture, and even from person to person within a single time and culture.
So, even if we all agree that morality is simply about preventing harm, different people will have widely divergent views on harm. Furthermore, it is not easy to “calculate” what causes harm in the first place or what causes the most or least harm in any given situation. And when we look at the way people behave in real life according to their morality, it does not seem like they are acting on the basis of a complex calculation of weighing harms. Mostly it seems people act on the basis of larger societal and cultural norms of acceptable behavior and then interpret whatever is socially unacceptable as “harmful.”
These are the standard objections raised against what’s known as the “harm principle” in Western ethics.
But Islamic ethics is far richer, far more nuanced, and, yes, far superior to the vague, speculative musings of liberal deployments of the harm principle (which is, again, just a cover for transient cultural sensibilities anyway).
Central to Islamic ethics are the concepts of adab and khuluq, i.e., manners and character. As the Prophet ﷺ said, “The best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.” Allah also praised the Prophet ﷺ as having “khuluq adhim.”
When we look at the content of Islamic ethics, adab, and khuluq, we find a great deal that is not intuitive as far as Western liberal cultural sensibilities are concerned. Here are some of the more prominent examples:
1. Great emphasis for respecting and taking care of one’s parents.
2. The moral imperative of helping one’s neighbors.
3. The moral significance of visiting the sick.
4. The premium placed on supporting orphans and the poor.
5. The moral necessity of maintaining family ties.
Sure, you will find some impoverished semblance of these values in other religions and non-Islamic cultures. But in Islam, these are not niceties. They are duties. You are not considered a morally exemplary person for doing the above. Rather, you are merely doing your basic moral duties and if you fail in this, then you are morally culpable. It’s a big difference.
But there are further imperatives:
1. Can one be a moral person if one is racked with jealousy?
2. Can one be of sound moral integrity if one habitually backbites?
3. Can one be considered ethical in any sense if one fails to have good assumptions of people?
4. Can one be of high moral character if one spreads hearsay without verifying the truth of the matter?
5. Can one be characterized as morally upright if one partakes in usurious business transactions?
The answer to all these questions is a hard no: If a person has these qualities and does not feel guilt and shame and attempts to rectify himself, then he cannot be considered a moral person. So how could it be possible for someone who doesn’t even know that these moral imperatives exist to abide by them? Obviously they couldn’t. You don’t see atheists, for example, emphasizing things like backbiting or jealousy or respecting one’s parents. Ethics is all about “Rape!” and “Murder!” for them.
In truth, the above 10 points are a very small sliver of all the moral imperatives of Islam. For example, all these points concern moral duties to other people. What about moral duties towards one’s Creator? Certainly there are moral imperatives there as well, which by themselves would mean that those who reject God are ipso facto morally deficient. But for the sake of argument, we can limit ourselves to moral duties with respect to other people and, still, the atheist and those who consign themselves to a liberal secular morality are to be found grossly lacking in their understanding of what morality even entails.
Some might argue that there really isn’t a moral imperative to, for example, respect one’s parents, etc. The response to this takes us deep into the subject of meta-ethics. How do we determine what is or is not moral in the first place?
Well, we can start from a completely skeptical position about all moral duties. This would make us nihilists. If we can ask, why is it a moral imperative to respect one’s parents, we can also ask why is it a moral imperative to not harm others? The atheist and secularist do not have a compelling or even consistent response to this. Simply look at the state of moral philosophy in the halls of Western academia. There is no consensus on even the most basic questions. Everything is constantly in dispute. The confusion is tangible.
As far as we’re concerned, atheists and secularists are not even in the running.
Theists, however, fair far better. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologies each provide an overarching theory of God, the universe, and humanity. It is in context of these broader theories that moral imperatives are grounded and find meaning. These theories can then be evaluated and compared. Which one is most consistent? Which one is most compelling?
When we look at Christian and Jewish ethics, they have undergone significant changes especially in the last 100 or even 50 years. For example, many Christian and Jewish denominations now find no moral qualms with same sex behavior. Their theological and ethical considerations of family relations and the family institution have also significantly shifted in order to mirror and accommodate the dominant social forces of modern secularism, liberalism, and capitalism. What justifies these shifts? Is it a belief in progress, namely that ethics must progress as civilization progresses?
Well what does civilizational progress even mean? And what does it mean for ethics to “progress” such that what was once considered a moral abomination 100 years ago is morally permissible or even laudatory now? These are questions that most Christian and Jewish denominations do not have answers for. They too have fallen victim to the pressures of modern cultural hegemony. Islam, in contrast, has resisted these pressures. This is often why, for example, Islam is considered morally “backwards” and retrograde, but Islam is only “retrograde” if the last 10 or 20 years of Western culture are considered the measuring stick by which to grade religions. By that measure, all of humanity prior to, say, the year 2000 or 2010 were in the dark abyss of moral purgatory. This is a baldly arrogant perspective on world history and a thoroughly uncompelling narrative. Islam safely avoids the entire dilemma, where most Christians and Jews are embroiled in its plain implications.
We can also evaluate the overarching theories of Christianity and Judaism. Providing full critiques is beyond the scope of this short post, but areas of pressure can be put on the Trinity, of course. As for Judaism, their theology historically borrowed a great deal from Islamic kalam discourse in the 12th century (Maimonides being the most prominent example of a Jewish theologian actively engaging in the debates and theological discourse of Islamic Spain).
The only objections people these days raise about Islam are that the Quran and Sunna sanction practices that people with Western liberal cultural sensibilities find problematic. This is pretty weak. Many of the things that people today find objectionable about Islamic law and ethics were considered completely acceptable and unproblematic simply 10, 20, or 100 years ago. But again, the vague, inconsistent notion of “moral progress” is incessantly invoked to handle this obvious critique. Without substantiating what “moral progress” amounts to and explaining how moral truths concerning human nature can be conditional on time, these objections cannot be taken seriously.
In the end, Muslims have the most compelling overarching theory. And those of sound intellect can also investigate the specifics of Islamic morality, including imperatives such as the 10 listed above, to see how beautiful and profound Islamic normativity actually is. Muslims, meanwhile, enjoy the sweet fruits of abiding by the deen in this life as well as the life to come bi idhnillah. Non-Muslims are always welcome to accept Islam and experience all this for themselves. And if they are not interested, we simply say, lakum dinukum waliya din.