Islamic Ethics: Divine Command Theory in Arabo-Islamic Thought

  • Book Title:
 Divine Command Theory In Arabo Islamic Thought
  • Book Author:
Mariam al-Attar
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This book explores philosophical ethics in arabo-Islamic thought. Examining the meaning, origin and development of “Divine command theory,” it underscores the philosophical bases of religious fundamentalism that hinder social development and hamper dialogue between different cultures and nations.

challenging traditional stereotypes of Islam, the book refutes contemporary claims that Islam is a defining case of ethical voluntarism, and that the prominent theory in Islamic ethical thought is Divine command theory.

 the author argues that, in fact, early arab-Islamic scholars articulated moral theories: theories of value and theories of obligation. she traces the development of arabo Islamic ethics from the early Islamic theological and political debates between the Kharijites and the murji’ites, shedding new light on the moral theory of abd al-Jabbar al-mu’tazili and the effects of this moral theory on post-mu’tazilite ethical thought.

highlighting important aspects in the development of Islamic thought, this book will appeal to students and scholars of Islamic moral thought and ethics, Islamic law, and religious fundamentalism.

Mariam al-Attar is a faculty member in t e Department of Ethics, Philosophy and Religion at King’s academy in Jordan.


the divine origins of moral values and rulings are regarded by many as the only valid and genuine cause for acknowledging and retaining their legitimacy. they consider moral values almost synonymous with religious values and religion as the only guarantee of the truthfulness of moral judgment.

Religious texts are assumed to be the ultimate source of moral knowledge, and obedience to whatever is considered to be commanded by God would accordingly be the most highly regarded, basic virtue. yet believing in God as the supreme creator, without considering and emphasizing his essential attributes, such as Goodness, Justice, and Rightfulness might introduce serious suspicions concerning the morality of the believers who obey his commands.

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 His commands, if not ethically contemplated and morally justified, could be wrongly interpreted and used by unjust authorities to impose their own views and promote their own social, political or economic interests. for this reason, it is safer to hold that any rule that deserves to be obeyed has to be rationally and morally justified.

This also applies to what are considered divine rulings when these are related to morality. In some muslim countries, where the Islamic education syllabus is taught in primary and middle schools, divine rules are considered rules that are reason- ably justified. rules of conduct and moral values derived from the Holy Qur’ān and the Hadīth are interpreted as serving individual and community interests.

For example, at primary schools, in grade five, students are taught that some virtues decreed by God have to be appreciated and practiced, not merely for the sake of obedience, but also because they are for our own welfare. these virtues are such as politeness, helping others, and the etiquette of social conduct.1 they are justi- fied by showing their reliability in organizing social relations and improving the quality of life.

Even the five pillars of Islam, including prayer and fasting, are justified in terms of human interests in this life,2 as well as being rewarded in the afterlife. thus, children are taught that there are reasoning and wisdom (hikma) behind divine rules, which indicate the objective nature of divine prescriptions. such education is indispensable if knowledge and understanding are the objectives of the educational process, not blind obedience to commands. however, some people maintain that divine commands and rules have to be obeyed regardless of the social or moral implications, as there is no rationale beyond their being divine commands.

those people are consciously or subconsciously adopting Divine command theory in ethics. By doing so, they are actually exempting morality and even religion from their ultimate meaning.

this book will study some Islamic ethical doctrines and theories from a phil- osophical viewpoint. the development of arabo-Islamic moral thought will be investigated from the early beginnings until the culmination of moral doctrines in the Mu‛tazilite ethical theory provided by ‛Abd al-Jabbār (d.415/1024). The importance of his theory lies in it being a genuine ethical theory that opposes “Divine command theory” and provides an alternative basis for morality.

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some muslim scholars have proposed that the study of arabo-Islamic cultural heritage (turāth) has to be goal-oriented in order to contribute to socio-political development.3 consequently, ethical theories that hinder socio-political develop- ment must be challenged. Professor mohammed arkoun has called for a radical rethinking of Islam. “It is necessary,” he says, “to clear away the obstacles found in Islamic as well as Orientalists literature on Islam.”4 In another book he declared that “some problems have been intensively discussed at some time or another and have been rejected and relegated to the domain of unthinkable.”5 One of the exam- ples, as he says, is the famous theory of God’s created speech.6 the problems dealt with in this book may be thought of as another example. arkoun says:

Philosophical and religious ethics developed as two competing, differ- entiated systems until the tenth and eleventh century. the competition ended with the elimination of the philosophical trend of thought, this historical fact generated an intellectual handicap and a cultural gap which prevent contemporary Islamic thought from joining in the debate on ethics on its constraining level: namely biological, anthropological, sociological, psychological, and ultimately philosophical.7

It seems that what arkoun really means by “religious ethics” is what can be called “ethical voluntarism” or Divine command theory, which actually represents only one possible interpretation of Islamic ethics. thus, he could have better called it “ethical voluntarism” instead of “religious ethics,” since many religious muslims today are participating in different ethical debates, and their religious beliefs do not prevent them from participating in such debates.8

this work, as proposed byarkoun, is meant to be goal oriented in order to contribute to socio-political development process. thus, some obstacles found in Islamic as well as in orientalists’ literature on Islamic ethics will be cleared. for example, Donaldson’s insistence to trace back any progress in ethical thinking in arabo-Islamic culture to foreign influences will be challenged.

His conclusion that there are restrictions from Qur’ān and Sunna (prophetic tradition) that prevents Muslims from working out a system of moral philosophy,9 will be disproved, together with ethical voluntarism, which he considered the only possible interpretation of Islamic ethics.

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Ethical voluntarism, sometimes called Divine command theory,10 was inspired by the notion of an all-powerful God in control of everything. according to this

theory God simply wills things and they become reality. he wills the physical

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