The author in this article has attempted to answer the queries of those who
do not appreciate the idea of studying a course on Islamic ethics in an academic
programme focusing on business or business-related studies. It is being
reproduced in this journal since it deals with many important issues. (Editor)
This article is divided into five parts. The first part describes the reasons
why ethics should be studied. The second one delves the question of the
rationale of studying Islamic ethics in particular. In the third section, an
attempt is made to explain the rationale from the secular and Islamic points of
view of behaving ethically in the business world. The fourth section clarifies
the methodology that is adopted to decide what is ethical and what is not. The
final section explains the reasons why prophethood is the most reliable source
of deciding about ethical questions.
1. Why Study Ethics?
Why should the study of ethics be a part of the curriculum of Business
Studies? This question has relevance both from an individual’s and a society’s
point of view. In this section, the question is going to be addressed from a
society’s point of view, where as in Section 3 the question of the individual
will be taken up for discussion. The concern behind the question is
understandable. Since business activity is primarily undertaken to earn and, in
most cases, maximize profits and ethical behaviour, on the contrary, tends to
place, it seems, restrictions in the pursuit of this objective, it is,
therefore, against the spirit of business activity to be concerned about ethical
questions. Business concerns are wary of following even the law of the land in
many cases for the same reasons. However, since law is backed by the muscles of
the state machinery, it receives practical acquiescence in the business world
even though, in many cases, reluctantly. Ethical norms, unaccompanied by the
force of state, are not likely to be practically very successful.
The rationale of studying business ethics lies in the fact that when business
enterprises follow their narrow objectives of profit making, they tend to ignore
the interests of others. If they are not going to be properly guided to be
careful about interests of others while pursuing their self interest, the result
will be a net loss to the society. Corruption will creep in and the ensuing
chaos and unrest may deny even the successful businessmen the real, long-term
benefits from gains that they may have made in their businesses. It is always,
therefore, useful to have an ethically sensitive business environment to enable
the individual businesses to grow in making the most out of the business
Another reason for studying ethics is that the law of the land in an
ethically consistent society draws heavily from its commonly accepted responses
to ethical issues. Most principles on which laws are based are ethical in
nature. Studying business ethics, therefore, is an attempt to study the broad
principles on which the local laws are based.
A third reason why business ethics deserves attention is that the study
enables the individuals to become better human beings even when approaching such
‘mundane’ activities as profit making. The principles underlying the common
understanding of ‘rational behaviour’ of an economic man mentioned in the
contemporary literature of economics are exaggeratingly narrow. Human beings are
much more than profit maximizing economic agents even while engaged in economic
pursuits. They do have inner compulsions of varying degrees to behave ethically
as well. In other words, even though the suggestion that man is highly selfish
in his business endeavours gained wide theoretical acceptance, since it was
based on a narrow understanding of the real man, it has never been practically
visible as a universally applicable rule. It is, therefore, more reasonable to
study the principles which seem to be (or ought to be) followed even despite the
overwhelming suggestion to the contrary from writers on economic behaviour.
2. Why Islamic Ethics?
Another question that is sometimes raised quite forcefully is concerned with
the wisdom behind the idea of studying Islamic ethics instead of general
principles of ethics. The commonly presented logic for the purpose is that
whereas studying Islamic ethics is likely to be divisive, studying principles of
ethics at a secular level is likely to be integrative.
For a Muslim, however, it is completely rational to prefer Islamic ethics
over Secular ethics. If he does not prefer Islamic ethics, he is undermining his
claim to being a Muslim. There seems some problem with his claim rather than the
idea of studying Islamic ethics. To claim one thing and to act otherwise is
indeed not an ethically sound behaviour. The message of Islam requires the
believers to behave ethically in all areas of human activity. In fact, for a
Muslim, the study of Islamic ethics should be a welcome opportunity to know or
revive what his faith entails. If believers in a message that lays claim to have
come from God Almighty to guide humanity at large on the right behaviour choose
to study principles of right conduct from other sources, it makes neither
logical nor ethical sense.
Another reason why Islamic ethics has a clear edge over other forms of
studying ethics is its strength of stability. Based on unalterable message of
the Qur’ān and Sunnah, the message of Islam provides a stable foundation for
ethical behaviour to be inferred from for all times to come. It enables people
feel confident about what is desirable and what is not. Secular methodology, on
the contrary, is always changing not just in details of behavioural pattern but
in the principles behind that behaviour as well. What was totally unacceptable
yesterday, may turn out to be thoroughly acceptable today. Such shifting
attitudes do not inspire the confidence of those who would like to carry out
their activities free from doubts.
The concern that Islamic ethics will be irrelevant for the non-Muslims is
more legitimate. However, those who live as a part of a religious minority
always find themselves mentally prepared to know the majority view. No
collectivity can afford to allow some of its members to follow one course of
action in collective affairs and others some other. All citizens are therefore
required to follow the law of the land no matter whether they agree with it or
not. Minorities, moreover, are not being proposed to be forced the Islamic
ethics course ‘down their throats’. It is only going to help them in
understanding the Islamic way of looking at the problems of the world.
There are those who show their lack of interest in Islamic ethics because
they believe it is going to be another course of Islamic Studies. These
comments, however, do not deserve much attention for they are made in disregard
to the understanding of both Islam and ethics. Like any other discipline,
Islamic ethics calls for a certain minimum degree of interest of participants
for the course to be useful for them. That interest can come out of faith in the
veracity of the message or a genuine keenness in knowing what Muslims believe to
be the right behaviour to conduct their worldly affairs. If the first reason is
missing, the second one could be attempted to create interest.
3. Why Should an Individual be Ethical?
The question is again to be viewed from both secular and Islamic standpoints.
No worthwhile effort can be undertaken without a strong motivational compulsion.
People are motivated by different factors. Material benefits being high on the
list of motivators, ethical behaviour is viewed as difficult to be pursued
because it is seen to run contrary to the objective of achieving those benefits.
However, there are reasons both at the secular as well as religious levels for
individuals to behave ethically.
At a secular level, there are many who consider virtue to be its own reward.
Ethically good behaviour is, in other words, an end in itself. The pleasure of
satisfaction one derives is a strong enough motivational reason to continue
Another reason why ethically good behaviour is considered to be desirable is
that, in some cases, it is materially rewarding as well. People do tend to
patronize those businessmen who are known for their honesty and trustworthiness.
The collectivity to which one belongs expects a certain standard behaviour
from its members. A behaviour below par is viewed as bringing a bad name to the
collectivity. Affiliation to a collectivity is a strong reason why many members
of groups find themselves compelled to behave well. These affiliations may be at
the level of a family, tribe, club, political party, nation etc.
At the religious level, there are two motivating forces -- both originating
from the same source: belief in Allah. The proper Islamic understanding of
belief in Allah entails a behaviour from the believer imbibed in a spirit of
yearning to earn the pleasure of the Almighty on the one hand and the earning of
a place of success in the eternal life of the Hereafter on the other.
The Qur’ān emphasizes that the good conduct of the believing Muslim is always
inspired by an urge to seek the pleasure of Allah. It is not meant to gain any
worldly benefits. That does not necessarily imply that the goal of achieving
worldly gains is never acceptable Islamically. However, for an act to qualify as
ethical and virtuous, it must be done with the intention of pleasing the
Almighty. This intention is not only required to be cultivated in acts
traditionally known to be religious but in all others seeking to be qualified as
ethical. Any act claimed to be ethical but inspired by a different intention
would stand rejected in the eyes of Allah and would, therefore, not be regarded
as one worthy of being rewarded by Him.
The other important motivating force for the believer is the desire to get
rewarded by the Almighty, not in this world but, in the Hereafter. The believer
sacrifices some of the temptations of worldly gains coming through unethical
practices by pinning his hope on better rewards in the Hereafter. The believer’s
entire life is dominated by his obsession to gain a place of eternal pleasure
and satisfaction in the life to come.
Many critics would, however, disapprove the suggestion that life Hereafter is
a morally acceptable motivating factor on the grounds that it sounds selfish. To
some, acting for any purpose other than the pleasure of Allah is mundane. In the
opinion of others, even the ideal of pleasing Allah does not appear particularly
impressive. One should be virtuous, in their opinion, only to benefit others.
All other objectives that motivate ethical behaviour are below the ideal of true
In response to this objection one can argue that even the purest altruistic
behaviour is compelled by an inner desire of the doer to see others getting
helped and as a consequence get a feeling of satisfaction. If the doer is unable
to get even a feeling of satisfaction on doing an act of virtue, is it possible
that he would still keep doing it? If the answer to the question is in the
negative, then the motive of getting inner satisfaction and seeking pleasure of
Allah should also be considered as selfish objectives. If on the other hand,
these are legitimate objectives without which an individual should not be
expected to be compelled to do good deeds, then the other non-worldly objectives
should also be considered worthy of being acknowledged as acceptable.
The motive of getting an abode of peace in the life Hereafter can in no way
be described as material, selfish, or mundane. It is, in fact, a motive based on
the promise of reward from the Almighty that is going to be offered in a life to
commence (or continue) after death. Selfishness is a this-worldly concept,
whereas a desire for a reward after life is a that-worldly motive. Why should it
be considered as selfish in this life?
In actual fact, it all depends on one’s understanding as to whether life
Hereafter is a reality or not. If in the opinion of an individual it is a
reality, to struggle for achieving a place of success in the eternal life would
be the most rational behaviour. If however it is only a creation of human
desires, in that case indeed it would be foolish to pin one’s hopes on it. Thus,
it is primarily on the question of one’s confidence in the truthfulness of the
concept of that life that one’s behaviour would depend.
One of the arguments to support the idea of Hereafter-based action is that,
in the absence of a life after death, morally correct behaviour would seem
inconsistent with the general mood of the creation. If there is no encouragement
offered anywhere to morally correct behaviour, such behaviour should not be the
worry of any one but the most irrational people. On the other hand, if ethically
guided behaviour is to find encouragement, only then it should be considered
worthy of being followed. Success in the life Hereafter is nothing but a promise
of reward by the Creator for the ethically correct behaviour.
4. What is Ethical and What is Not?
The question of practical significance is regarding the identification of the
methodology and the sources that enable an individual and a collectivity to
decide what is ethical and what is not? With regard to this question too there
is considerable difference in approach between secular and Islamic societies.
In a secular society, the question is answered by drawing from tradition and
common sense. A more orthodox society would show a tendency to stick to the
traditions of the forefathers tenaciously. However, there is found a strong
tendency amongst the less orthodox societies to challenge the traditional views
about ethics by bringing forth arguments based on the logic of common sense and
practical expediency. The process of change is not usually swift. Nonetheless,
once the process is initiated, opinions take varying spans of time to change.
The duration involved in the process depends on a number of factors, the chief
amongst them being the popularity of the individual presenting them, openness of
the members of the society, effectiveness of presentation, prevailing conditions
The foremost amongst those who are agents of change are the philosophers.
They tend to challenge the very basis of the traditional ethical positions. The
media adopted for the purpose of effectuating change, apart from writing and
speech, depends upon the available possibilities. As a consequence of a
continuous effort, old thoughts give way to new ones.
The process of change is met with varying degrees of resistance. A debate
takes place which gets coverage in the media and the new point of view prevails
by the active support of those who control the media. Adherence to the old views
either disappears or becomes unpopular.
Once the support for a particular point of view gains currency and seems to
influence the majority, the political support follows which ultimately results
in the legal enactment of the new point of view. That, however, may not always
be the case. For an ethical principle to get legal cover, it is important that,
in a democracy, the majority of the parliamentarians should not fear it to be
threatening their vested interests.
The above discussion shows a very generalized picture of the treatment of
ethical issues in a secular society. It is quite clear that ethical solutions
lack permanence. No moral position can hold its ground for long. What was
ethically bad yesterday can be made to appear not so bad today and perfectly
In a religious society, although common sense and tradition do have a place
in influencing attitudes towards ethical questions, these are subservient to the
all important source of prophethood which dominates the ethical world. All
traditions and suggestions of common sense are -- or ought to be -- in line with
the teachings of the prophets. The very act of confirming the claim of an
individual to prophethood, from an Islamic viewpoint, entails that the prophet
thus accepted has been conferred the right to dictate the correct approach to
ethical issues. Although interpretation of the prophet’s teachings on the
subject vary, the basic principle that prophethood enjoys ultimate authority
over other sources of knowledge remains unchallenged. In fact, to a religious
society the teachings of prophets are the teachings of God Almighty and
therefore unquestionably superior to all others.
5. Why Prophethood?
Although in a religious society a personality may start getting acknowledged
by new generations as a prophet on account of traditional reverence enjoyed by
him, there are several reasons why it is only logical to grant the genuine
messengers of God the status they claim to enjoy. Character of the prophets,
consistency in their message, miracles presented by them, the prophecies of the
earlier prophets heralding the arrivals of the later ones, and the effectiveness
of the message they bring are some of the reasons why the prophets are not
venerated just because of a society’s traditional attitude towards them but are
genuinely considered as true representatives of the will of God by many
The character of a prophet is always above board. He lives amongst the people
whom he immediately communicates the message of God. People are unanimous in
confirming that he has an impeccable character. It is in the backdrop of this
moral popularity that a prophet begins his mission. The Prophet Muhammad (sws),
for instance, started communicating his message to the people of Makkah from
Mount Safā by first getting confirmed from them that they all held him in the
The prophets, since they all come with special assistance from God, are
remarkably different from all other individuals in the manner their message
manifest itself. Unlike all other human beings, the presentation of the
prophets, once they start receiving Divine Revelation, do not show any change in
either the basic content or the quality of the message. In other words, one
finds perfect consistency in the words, deeds, and teachings of the prophets. No
genius can be claimed to have demonstrated the same degree of remarkable
consistency. In fact geniuses, like all other mortals, have had a familiar
pattern of gradual development in their abilities and achievements throughout
their stay in this world. The Prophet Muhammad’s life, for instance, can be
divided into two eras: pre-revelation era and post-revelation era. In the former
period, he lived as a very noble man not known at all for taking interest in
intellectual pursuits or academic activities of his times. On attaining the age
of forty, however, when he announced the receiving of Divine Revelation, he
started, and continued, to communicate a message which for the next twenty-three
years remained consistent in the highest literary quality it demonstrated from
the very first day. Thus unlike the gradual-development pattern of the geniuses,
in his case we find a sudden-eminence-and-consistency pattern which remains to
this day inexplicable except by the fact that what he taught was the result of
the Divine Revelation he received.
The prophets have been presenting miracles to their people to further confirm
the authenticity of their claims to prophethood. A miracle is an inexplicable
phenomenon that occurs and leaves stunned those who experience it. The miracle
of the last of the prophet was the Qur’ān. It continues to stay a miracle
because the prophethood of Muhammad (sws) was to last for ever. Since the
messages of the earlier prophets were not meant to be applicable for until the
very end of this world, the miracles brought by them were era-specific. The
Qur’ān, however, has been vowed to remain fully preserved for all times to come
(15:9). At the time of the Prophet (sws), it was an extraordinary experience for
the people of Makkah that a person like him who didn’t know how to read or write
and who had never shown any leanings towards literary pursuits all of a sudden
presented before them a message about which he claimed that it was from God
Almighty. The very people who turned into his enemies and who did every thing
within their means to refute his claim never had the occasion to respond to the
challenge of the book that if they wanted to prove that it was not from God,
they should bring a message equal to it in literary richness (2:23). The poets
who used to be proud of their literary excellence were, however, unable to
respond to the call. Today the same book remains a miracle on account of the
fact that it hasn’t gone stale, neither in its style nor in contents. No part of
the Qur’ān has been picked by the most ardent of the enemies to show
convincingly that any single part of the book has gone wrong in view of the
changing understanding of realities.
In the case of many prophets, the earlier prophets had paved the way for
their mission by prophesying their arrival beforehand. The same principle was
true about the last prophet. That is why we find in the Bible references of an
individual to come in the future which cannot fully fit into the personality of
any other person but the Prophet Muhammad (sws).
Finally, it is only an individual’s sincere reading of the message of the
prophets that can lead him to recognize as to whether it promises to be from the
Creator of our existence or not. Those who believe in the prophets very strongly
claim that on reading the message, they get that feeling of confidence which is
quite often referred to as faith.