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Natural differences and moral development in Islam

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

In this turbulent era for the Muslim world, many people have been unable to reach common ground in the universal values that Islam shares with others. Are we better off living without any differences at all? Or is it better to continue struggling to reconcile our diverse beliefs?

The answer to this question, as Allah revealed in the Quran, is that natural differences are an important check and balance in society. Different perspectives have enormous value and without them there would be corruption on earth:

وَلَوْلَا دَفْعُ اللَّهِ النَّاسَ بَعْضَهُم بِبَعْضٍ لَّفَسَدَتِ الْأَرْضُ وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ ذُو فَضْلٍ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ

Were Allah not to check some people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted, but Allah has shown favor to the worlds.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:251

Allah declares explicitly that differences are meant to improve our lives and protect us from a bigger problem. Which begs the question, how? A monotheistic approach to this question starts from acknowledging that the Creator of natural law and the source of divine revelation are the same. This indicates that true wisdom based on monotheism comes from reconciling the realities of creation with revelation, as both are complementary sources of truth. From this premise, we ought to explore how humanity develops morally, how this is addressed in the Quran, and subsequently how natural differences can be a source of much good.

Investigations of moral development in human beings had been ignored for a long time to avoid the controversy of labeling people as “good” or “bad”. Nevertheless, morality was studied by prominent scholars who avoided judgmental language and focused on the reasoning behind ethical positions that people take. It was noted that, although people can have drastically different positions, each would have a reasoning or justification that is rooted in the individual’s understanding of justice.

What is intriguing is that psychological researchers of moral reasoning discovered that all humans develop their individual morality through similar stages. Moreover, it was discovered that humans can only reach a higher level of morality after they pass through lower levels on their journey of moral development. It was also noted that humans can regress in their moral development, that is, they fall back to a lesser developed stage after having achieved a higher level of moral reasoning.

Stages of moral development in Islam

Researchers in the field of cognitive moral development have different ways of categorizing those stages. All of the methods of categorizing moral development follow the same logic from primitive, to intermediate, and then advanced stages. One notable classification schema that can help us isLawrence Kohlberg’s theory on stages of moral development. We will consider here Kohlberg’s classification as it is more discretely defined than others.

The first category of moral development includes the “obedience and punishment” and “self-interest” stages. In these stages, humans justify their moral positions based on the reward and punishment that are associated with such positions and their personal stake in them. This category can be observed clearly in children where their sense of morality comes from what their parents and teachers tell them and the impact their choices have on them personally.

Allah mentioned several times the rewards and punishments associated with obedience or disobedience to His commands:

بَلَىٰ مَن كَسَبَ سَيِّئَةً وَأَحَاطَتْ بِهِ خَطِيئَتُهُ فَأُولَٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ النَّارِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولَٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ الْجَنَّةِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ

Yes, whoever earns evil and their sins have encompassed them are the companions of Hellfire wherein will abide, but whoever has faith and does righteous deeds are the companions of Paradise wherein they will abide.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:81-82

The next stage of self-interest is addressed by the verse:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا عَلَيْكُمْ أَنفُسَكُمْ ۖ لَا يَضُرُّكُم مَّن ضَلَّ إِذَا اهْتَدَيْتُمْ ۚ إِلَى اللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ

O you who believe, you are responsible for yourselves. Those who have gone astray will not harm you when you have been guided. Unto Allah is you return all together, then He will inform you of what you used to do.

Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:105

Once can see that if morality stops there, it will create serious problems. People can only achieve advanced stages of moral development once they consider their relations with others around them and not merely their own selfish impulses.

The second category of moral development includes the “interpersonal accord and conformity” and “authority and social order” stages. In these stages, people begin to base their morality on how they appear in front of others and how their actions impact those around them. The stage of conformity explains, for example, why teenagers care so much for how their friends view them, leading to the phenomena of peer pressure.

The Quran addresses this stage by praising the companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and their role in establishing order and authority in early Muslim society:

كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ ۗ وَلَوْ آمَنَ أَهْلُ الْكِتَابِ لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَّهُم ۚ مِّنْهُمُ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَأَكْثَرُهُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ

You are the best nation produced for humanity. You enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil and have faith in Allah.

Surat Ali Imran 3:110

In this stage, Allah recognizes the power of social conformity as a stage of moral development. Muslims are encouraged to emulate the Prophet’s companions for their righteous behavior. Appointing positive role models is a way to shape social norms and make it easier for people at this stage to do the right thing.

The next stage places a greater emphasis on authority and social order, as people begin to base their moral reasoning on what promotes stability to society at large. Allah addresses this stage by commanding obedience to authority figures:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ

O you who believe, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.

Surat An-Nisa 4:59

Similarly, Islam has placed a strong emphasis on fulfilling obligations, promises, and contracts:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَوْفُوا بِالْعُقُودِ

O you who believe, fulfill all your contracts.

Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:1

Honoring agreements is indeed a sign of integrity and high moral standing. Enforcing contracts also brings order and stability to societies and reflects this higher stage of moral development.

The highest category of moral development includes the “social contract” and finally the “universal ethical and moral principles” stages. In the social contract stage, a person begins to place himself in another’s shoes, tries to understand their perspective, and has empathy for them. Allah encourages empathy for others in a profound verse that touches upon the essence of tolerance in Islam:

وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ

Do not insult those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they insult Allah without knowledge.

Surat Al-An’am 6:108

Even when engaging with non-Muslims on the most important matters of faith, Muslims are told to consider the feelings of others and how they would feel if someone had insulted their own religion. This is because at the heart of Islamic morals is the “golden rule,” that we should treat other people the way we would like to be treated.

Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ أَحَبَّ أَنْ يُزَحْزَحَ عَنْ النَّارِ وَيَدْخُلَ الْجَنَّةَ فَلْتُدْرِكْهُ مَنِيَّتُهُ وَهُوَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَيَأْتِي إِلَى النَّاسِ مَا يُحِبُّ أَنْ يُؤْتَى إِلَيْهِ

Whoever would love to be delivered from the Hellfire and entered into Paradise, then let him die with faith in Allah and the Last Day, and let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1844, Grade: Sahih

Even so, social contract morality has its own problematic limitations. Modern democracies, based upon political social contract theory, have produced many examples in which society has moved in the wrong direction, with citizens voting for policies based upon racism, tribalism, slavery, unjust wars, and even genocide. Their empathy with others only extended to those like them, or the “in-group,” while those in the “out-group” were treated as lass than human or worse.

Therefore, moral development only reaches its apex when the social contract is infused with universal ethical and moral principles that apply to all human beings. At this stage, individuals are loyal to justice, compassion, altruism, and other principles even when it conflicts with public opinion or society at large. History is full of many stories of people who braved the wrath of society when they stood up for moral principle. The truth of the principles was the greatest consideration above all else.

This highest level of morality, of principles over passion and group-interest, is what Islam demands of us:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ ۚ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا ۖ فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَن تَعْدِلُوا

O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you be unjust.

Surat An-Nisa 4:135

This is the level of moral reasoning demonstrated by great Muslim scholars throughout history, who would use the values of the religious law (maqasid ash-sharia) and the axioms of jurisprudence (qawa’id al-fiqh) to produce compelling solutions to new social problems.

Some researchers theorize that there is an even higher level of development, a fourth category, called the “morality of cosmic orientation.” However, it is so mystical and rare that it is impossible for any empirical study to investigate it. At this stage, individuals are able to intuitively see natural patterns in the creation and are “oriented” towards the universe in such a way that they are in harmony with all of their surroundings. In fact, this stage of development is known in Islam as “spiritual excellence” (al-ihsan).

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, defined spiritual excellence, saying:

 أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ فَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَرَاهُ فَإِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ

Excellence is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for although you do not see Him yet He certainly sees you.

Sahih Muslim 8

This is the level of moral development achieved by the prophets like Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, and David, peace be upon them all. The morality of a cosmic orientation enabled them to perceive God, the creation, and human nature in a seamless manner.

Why different moral views can be good for society

Different perspectives in the moral landscape can produce creative tension, the condition when the undesirability of the current situation leads to a more wholesome vision of the future. Considerations made from the perspective of conformity and authority are not necessarily wrong in themselves, but they would be better included under overarching universal principles. Each stage of moral development is valid and even those at the lower levels can bring forth a contribution to the collective vision of social good.

Conflicts, as it turns out, are instances in which our moral standing faces a crisis prompting self-examination. We are given an opportunity to achieve, or maintain, a higher level of morality when experiencing such trials. By realizing our flaws and limitations, we can continue to progress. Given the tendency of people to resist change, and to regress in their morality, conflicts are necessary to keep us at the cutting edge of self-improvement.

For this reason, the Prophets and the righteous will be more severely tested on the earth than others. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was asked, “Which people are most severely tested?” The Prophet said:

الْأَنْبِيَاءُ ثُمَّ الْأَمْثَلُ فَالْأَمْثَلُ فَيُبْتَلَى الرَّجُلُ عَلَى حَسَبِ دِينِهِ فَإِنْ كَانَ دِينُهُ صُلْبًا اشْتَدَّ بَلَاؤُهُ وَإِنْ كَانَ فِي دِينِهِ رِقَّةٌ ابْتُلِيَ عَلَى حَسَبِ دِينِهِ

They are the prophets, then the next best, then the next best. A man is tried according to his religion. If he is firm in his religion, then his trials will be more severe. If he is weak in his religion, then he is tried according to his strength in religion.

Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2398

The most righteous of humanity are the most afflicted by hardship because they are able to make the most out of the conflicts they experience. This does not mean that conflicts are necessarily good or to be desired, but realizing their potential benefit will help us reduce their negative effects and possibly derive something better from them.

Understanding conflicts and turmoil in this light, one can have hope for the Muslim world despite the appearance of serious crises in many places. We can view them as an opportunity for improvement and the potential for a new dawn of prosperity. Whether we want to develop morally or not, the opportunities will inevitably be forced upon us.

None of us can reach the level of the Prophets, but we can come close to them and achieve spiritual excellence, or perhaps even a “cosmic moral orientation,” if we are willing to work for it, to critically examine our inner selves and societies, to actively seek knowledge and wisdom, both ancient and modern, and to harmonize the divine revelation with the realities of natural law.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.