Moral consistency in an inconsistent age
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Morality, to us, is the distinction between right and wrong. Its power comes as it relates to universal values that virtually all of humanity can agree upon. These values include, among others, justice, compassion, patience, and altruism.
In almost every culture, these universal values are manifested in different ways. People do not always agree on the meaning of justice in a specific situation, but we all agree that true justice is real in principle. This common sense of basic morality between all humans is what the Creator has instilled within us. Our moral instinct serves as a guide and a reference, a moral compass, as we attempt to search for the truth.
Natural morality is what gives meaning and beauty to life, and it is itself a sign of the Creator’s design. Without morality, human life would serve no clear higher purpose beyond eating and drinking like the animals.
Nevertheless, paradoxically, maintaining integrity in our moral values can be exceedingly difficult at times. Although the call of morality is instinctual, the human mind is also easily distracted by senses and desires:
فَاحْكُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا تَتَّبِعِ الْهَوَىٰ فَيُضِلَّكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ
Judge between people in truth and do not follow your desires, for they will mislead you from the path of Allah.
Surat Şād 38:26
People have different urges and impulses that tend to contradict what we know to be right. Those tendencies are very potent as they play on the senses and promise instant gratification at the expense of long term reward.
To avoid the pitfalls of desire, human beings have to consciously maintain higher moral purposes in their lives. The struggle between desires and values will almost always end in favor of desires, unless people have internalized the precepts of monotheism.
In other words, morality can only be sustained in monotheism. This claim might be unsettling at first, as we all have witnessed individuals who exhibit a high moral standard without adhering to the outward signs of monotheism. Likewise, other people who loudly proclaim monotheism outwardly end up desecrating its moral values. To understand how morality does not exist as a sustainable medium except in monotheism, one has to explore how we interact with everything around us and how this interaction impacts our point of view.
Marshal McLuhan has proposed a revolutionary perspective on the development on humankind over the ages. He observed that human history and development of civilization can be attributed to the mediums, or environments, that humans are subjected to. By understanding the medium, he asserted that the medium itself has the power to shape human thoughts and actions irrespective of its content. This led him to coin the famous statement, “the medium is the message.”
However, as McLuhan explored further, he observed that everything makes sense from the perspective of the individual subjected to any medium. In this context, two individuals subjected to different mediums would have two different perspectives that might be contradictory. From the perspective of each one of them, the other is wrong and a conflict emerges.
This analysis leads to a very important observation: human points of view are not really a source of absolute truth as they are merely a representation of how the medium has shaped us. McLuhan himself maintained in his writings that he has no absolutely true point of view, since his own perspective, in his view, is based on a transient medium.
Evil occurs when people mistake a transient medium, such as their cultural heritage, for an eternal medium. Cultural heritage itself is relative and cannot be a source of absolute morality. Allah mentions this conflict in the Quran:
وَإِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً قَالُوا وَجَدْنَا عَلَيْهَا آبَاءَنَا وَاللَّهُ أَمَرَنَا بِهَا ۗ قُلْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَأْمُرُ بِالْفَحْشَاءِ ۖ أَتَقُولُونَ عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
When they commit obscenity, they say: We found our fathers doing it and Allah ordered us to do it. Say: Verily, Allah does not order obscenity, so do you say about Allah what you do not know?
Surat Al-A’raf 7:28
The relativity of human points of view leads to a difficult philosophical problem: if all points of view are valid, then there is no morality and everything is right and nothing is wrong. This type of thinking might push us over the edge into nihilism, and the ethical dilemma it creates has been a source of distress for philosophers and theologians throughout the ages.
For example, McLuhan reports on the conflict between reason and intellect in ancient Greek society. Although philosophy had developed through means of reason and rationality, by itself it failed to quench the human passion of searching for a purpose. What these ancient philosophers and intellectuals lacked was the understanding of Abraham (Ibrāhīm), who lived in what is now called the Middle East.
Abraham distinguished between eternal and transient mediums. While he had no point on view within transient mediums, he looked for the eternal medium to be the only source of morality. This idea gave birth to the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and it positioned the Middle East to develop philosophically upon a different path as compared to Europe.
By asserting the existence of an eternal medium, a point of view is only valid relative to the eternal medium. Morality disappears as soon as belief in the eternal medium ends. Allah associated the lack of morality with polytheism, or the existence of many transient mediums:
ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلُ ۚ كَانَ أَكْثَرُهُم مُّشْرِكِينَ
Corruption has appeared on land and sea due to what the hands of people have earned, that they may taste part of what they have done and might return to righteousness. Say: Travel in the land and look at how those before were ended. Most of them were idolaters.
Surat al-Rum 30:41-42
From here, we see that prayer is held up as a source of morality, as it is a continuous conscious link between a person and Allah, the Creator and Author of the eternal medium. A sound practice of prayer necessitates fulfilling its objective of purifying the heart of spiritual diseases, not simply going through its outward motions.
إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ ۗ وَلَذِكْرُ اللَّهِ أَكْبَرُ
Verily, the prayer prohibits immorality and wrongdoing, and the remembrance of Allah is greater.
Surat al-Ankabut 29:45
Only when prayer is practiced in a purely outward and hypocritical way do we start to see immoral behavior from those who are allegedly devout and pious. A man once came to the Prophet Muhammad and he said, “Indeed, a man prays in the night but he steals in the morning.” The Prophet ﷺ said:
إِنَّهُ سَيَنْهَاهُ مَا يَقُولُ
Verily, it should stop him from doing that.
Prophet Muhammad had said on several occasions that an individual is in a state of prayer as long as he is conscious of his or her Creator, even while walking to the mosque or waiting for prayer.
Allah created people to recognize moral values as the laws of nature. Natural law, in this sense, is simply a manifestation of the eternal medium. For this reason, only the acceptance of this one universal law can guide people to sustained morality:
قُلْ هَلْ مِن شُرَكَائِكُم مَّن يَهْدِي إِلَى الْحَقِّ ۚ قُلِ اللَّهُ يَهْدِي لِلْحَقِّ ۗ أَفَمَن يَهْدِي إِلَى الْحَقِّ أَحَقُّ أَن يُتَّبَعَ أَمَّن لَّا يَهِدِّي إِلَّا أَن يُهْدَىٰ
Say: Do any of your idols guide to the truth? Say: Allah alone guides to the truth. Is one who guides to the truth more worthy to be followed than one who cannot guide unless he is guided?
Surat Yunus 10:35
Once people begin to refer to transient mediums, or unnatural sources of morality, then it is only a matter of time that they begin to contradict themselves as the medium breaks down. An example of this is when we make our moral choices based upon feelings and emotions alone without reference to higher principles. In this way, many people are misled by a false sense of compassion or justice.
We saw how the world reacted to the drowning of the Syrian toddler and to another boy pulled from the rubble. Most people naturally feel a sense of empathy and, in that moment, some resolve to do something.
However, feelings and emotions eventually subside as by themselves they are a transient medium. As the news cycle moves on, new stories emerge that will evolve into new feelings and new political climates. Some people will hear stories of terrorism and the powerful emotion of fear will trump any sense of humanitarian duty towards those refugees. Others will contradict themselves as they move from one transient medium to the next.
In contrast, from the perspective of the eternal medium, justice and compassion as consistent principles in balance ought to demand that we take some humanitarian action. Maintaining integrity to our values, rather than the whims of the day, is the meaning of true morality; that is why true morality can only survive in relation to the eternal medium, as universal, unchanging, and unbreakable values.
It is important to commend philosophers and thinkers like McLuhan for their intellectual work in discovering the role that mediums play in our lives. Their work can be understood in congruence with the first part of the statement of monotheism:
لا إله إلا الله
There is no God but Allah.
The testimony of faith begins by first negating any point of view and then asserting that Allah is the only truth to which all points of view must refer. Humanity will inevitably hold diverging perspectives, but harmony is possible as long as we refer to our common values; the values consistent with monotheism, even as we disagree on the details.
In our times, many Muslims have not understood the importance of discarding reference to transient mediums, questionable values, and cultural artifacts that are based upon whims. Transient mediums exist on both the left and right wings, from the most liberal and radical views to the most conservative and reactionary. Some Muslims even desecrate their values in the name of making a violent political statement; in this case, the transient medium of worldly politics and power takes precedence over universal values.
The way forward is a return back to the eternal medium, to moral consistency in reference to timeless values and principles that adhere in nature and revelation. When reference to the eternal medium is the starting point of our dialogue, absolute agreement on every issue is not necessary for social harmony. By positing the values from the very beginning, solutions will tend to work themselves out even as we disagree on the details.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.