Here, practical akhlāq and theoretical akhlāq should be distinguished from one another. What is meant by the former is the seminarians’ efforts to purify themselves while the latter deals with the steps taken in Shi‘a seminaries to study akhlāq as an independent field of study. Each will be discussed separately.
Practical Ethics in Shi’a Seminaries
In the Shi‘a seminaries, the teaching and practice of morality have always been highly regarded. Taking morality into consideration is an indispensable part of life in the seminaries where knowledge is not looked upon as the main goal; rather, it is seen as a means for purification, for attracting God’s pleasure, and for serving people for the sake of God. Teachers in the seminaries always place great emphasis on the fact that attending the seminary must be done with pure intention and the seminarians should maintain this intention throughout their lifetime in the seminary. In order for them to reach this goal, the seminarians have to constantly ponder over morality and spirituality. In Shi‘a seminaries it is taken for granted that learning without self-purification is detrimental. Although helping other people to purify themselves is counted amongst the numerous duties of a seminarian, as a prerequisite, they are expected to have already purified themselves. The students of the seminaries always keep this narration in mind:
مَنْ تَعَلَّمَ الْعِلْمَ وَ عَمِلَ بِهِ وَ عَلَّمَ لِلَّهِ دُعِيَ فِي مَلَکُوتِ السَّمَاوَاتِWhoever learns for the sake of God, practices for the sake of God. and then teaches for the sake of God, would be held in high esteem in the kingdom of God.1
In addition to the importance of morality in the seminarians’ way of life, it is believed that spirituality and piety are of considerable influence in the process of learning. From the viewpoint of the seminarians, this process is only partly dependent on attending classes, engaging in discussions, reading, and so on; a great part of it is attained when the student reaches divine guidance through spirituality. In a well-known hadith, Imam al-Sādiq (a) says:
EDIT ARABIC HERE
Knowledge is not only a matter of teaching and learning; rather, it is a light which dwells in the heart of those people whom God wills to guide.2
Although learning by attending classes and discussions is a necessary step, it is not the end of the story; one should do one’s best to gain divine guidance as well.
- The lecturers in the seminaries, irrespective of their field of teaching – whether theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, exegesis and so on – generally begin or end their session with moral advice, on a daily or weekly basis.
- In every seminary there is a weekly session in which most of the seminarians take part. Seminarians benefit from ethical lectures given by great scholars and mystics in order to improve their morality. In the Islamic seminary of Qum and some other cities, thanks to the presence of a great number of scholars and mystics, numerous meetings of this type are held weekly.
- Aside from the above-mentioned general classes on morality, some of the great mystics choose a select group of well-qualified pupils in order to train them for spiritual wayfaring.
Theoretical Ethics in Shi’a Seminaries
Introducing ethics as an independent field of study in the Islamic seminary of Qum is a new and very significant step in Iran. In the seminaries of Qum, developments in this regard have been momentous in the last few decades. Several journals on ethics have been published, many dissertations have been compiled on the subject, and numerous projects on ethics have been undertaken. Interestingly, inspired by the steps taken by the seminaries of Qum, some of the universities in Iran have followed the seminary’s example in the above-mentioned ways. What follows is a short account of these developments in five spheres: fields of study, journals, dissertations, projects, and books:
Fields of Study
As mentioned earlier, the Islamic seminaries of Qum took the first step in the establishment of an independent discipline on ethics and consequently, several fields were introduced in numerous seminaries and universities. Among the various courses held on ethics, one may refer to following:
- A master’s course in training spiritual mentors was launched in 2002 in the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute.
- A master’s course on Islamic Spirituality was launched in the International Section of Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a)3 in 2002. This course was the first of its kind in Iran. The curriculum was designed by myself and approved by the relevant authorities at Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a).
- After the successful experience in Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a), I proposed a similar course to the University of Payām-e-Nūr.4 The University welcomed this idea and obtainedpermission from the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education to offer two masters courses on moral philosophy and Islamic ethics from 2004. The curriculum was designed by Dr. Muhsin Javādī, Dr. Hamīd Shahrīārī, and myself.
- Afterwards, at the suggestion of Dr. Javādī and myself, the organization for Islamic Seminaries Abroad5, started a distance learning course on Islamic ethics at the masters level in 2005. Until now, 200 students have completed this course and more than 90% of them have submitted their dissertations.
- In 2008, the University of Qum obtained permission from the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education to offer the same courses designed for the Payām-e-Nūr University (i.e. the master’s courses on moral philosophy and Islamic ethics)
Now the master’s in Islamic ethics programme is running in Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a), Payām-e-Nūr University, al-Mustafā University, and other universities such as the University of Allamāh Tabātabā’ī in Tehran and the University of Qum.
- A third level course6 on moral philosophy for seminarians was approved by the main body in charge of the Islamic seminaries of Qum in 2009.
- A PhD course on moral philosophy in the University of Qum commenced in the academic year 2010-2011.
- A PhD course on comparative moral philosophy has been approved at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, where all the students are seminarians. It is presently awaiting validation by the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education.
- Another important development has taken place in the University of Ma‘ārif which is an institution that mostly trains lecturers who can teach general subjects in universities. In the Iranian higher education system, every bachelor’s degree student also studies certain general topics. For example, they take Islamic thought (ma‘ārif), Islamic ethics, Farsi literature, physical exercise, and English as general studies. So the University of Ma‘ārif offers programmes on Islamic theology and ethics and thus we now have people who are studying ethics in these programmes at the masters or PhD level and who write their thesis or dissertation on ethics.
Thus, at the present time there are many programmes at the masters or PhD level in which students study Islamic ethics, moral philosophy, or comparative ethics.
Of course, studying akhlāq is merely one step towards establishing moral virtues in society. We do not necessarily become better people simply by studying and teaching akhlāq, but it is hoped that it can at least facilitate the process; when people are more aware and more educated, there is greater hope that they will become more spiritual and act morally.
Up until a few years ago, there did not exist any journal specifically dedicated to morality and ethics, although one could find some moral issues discussed in various journals on Islamic studies. Today, however, there are several journals specifically on Islamic ethics, moral philosophy or applied ethics such as:
- Pazhuheshhāy-e-Akhlāqī (Ethical Enquiries), a quarterly journal published by the University of Mā‘arif. The first edition of this journal was issued in 2009.
- Ma‘rifat-e-Akhlāqī (Ethical Knowledge), a quarterly journal published by the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. The first edition of this journal was issued in the winter of 2009 comprising 204 pages including abstracts in English.
- Akhlāq (Morality), a quarterly journal dedicated to spirituality which is published by the Office for Islamic Propagation of Seminaries in Isfahan. The first edition was issued in the autumn of 2005. So far 15 issues have been published.
- Akhlāq-e-Pezeshkī (Medical Ethics), published seasonally by the University of Shahīd Beheshtī in Tehran. Some of the seminarians such as Dr. Mustafā Muhaqqiq Dāmād have key roles in the publication of this journal. The first edition was
- published in the autumn of 2007.
- Akhlāq wa Tārīkh-e-Pezeshkī (History and Ethics of Medicine), published by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. The first edition of this quarterly journal was issued in the winter of 2007. The tenth edition was published in the spring of 2010.
- Khuluq (Moral Traits of Character) is published every two months by one research centre in Qum. The first issue was published in the autumn of 2007 and so far sixteen issues have been published.
- Akhlāq Pazhūhī (Ethical Studies), an e-journal on Islamic morality and spirituality published by Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a). This is a quarterly which started in the winter of 2008. So far, seven issues have been published online.
- There is also an electronic encyclopaedia on morality and spirituality on the website of the Centre for Computing Islamic Sciences in Qum which contains 1,647 entries on ethics and 452 entries on mysticism.
Many dissertations and theses for the third and fourth levels7 of the Islamic seminaries of Qum and Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a) have been written on ethics. One of the official websites of the Islamic seminaries of Qum has registered 82 dissertations on different aspects of morality and ethics, among which one may refer to the following: Status of Morality in the Holy Qur’an, Status of Morality in Shi‘a Narrations, Moral Concepts and Values in the Holy Qur’an, Moral Concepts and Values in Narrations, Applied Ethics, Moral Philosophy, The Relationship between Morality and Politics, The Relationship between Morality and Jurisprudence, The Relationship between Morality and Religion, Comparative Study of Ethics, Epistemology of Moral Values and Concepts, Sexual Ethics in Islam, Environmental Ethics in Islam, and Management Ethics in Islam.
The official website of Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a) has also registered fifty dissertations on various issues in ethics such as: Moral Values and Concepts in the Holy Qur’an and Narrations, Inter-religious Ethics, Economic Ethics, Social Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Mysticism, The Relationship between Morality and Education, The Relationship between Morality and Development, and The Relationship between Morality and Mysticism.
Various research projects are being carried out in some of the research institutes and seminaries in Qum, such as:
- The Imam Khomeinī Education & Research Institute is working on an encyclopaedia on applied ethics from an Islamic perspective.
- The Research Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought8 is working on an encyclopaedia on prophetic teachings and the practice of morality (Dānish Name-ye Sīre-ye Nabawī). It comprises several volumes and will be published in the near future.
- The Office for the Islamic Propagation of Seminaries of Qum has many ongoing projects on Islamic ethics and applied ethics. For example, they have published a book entitled Kitāb Shenākht-e Akhlāq-e Islami which is a detailed bibliography of texts on Islamic ethics. This is a very helpful source as it includes reviews of all books written on Islamic ethics, along with an analysis of the writer’s method and the advantages and disadvantages of each book. They have also published other books, including a volume on applied ethics.
Thus, it can be seen that great attention is being paid to akhlāq at the moment. Many good and useful projects are finished or are going to be finished soon, God willing, and many will continue for years. We also need to launch new projects and try to reach a point where we have a very systematic and methodological account of Islamic morality with all of its prerequisites, such as meta ethical questions on ontology, epistemology, and logic of ethics.
There are also some excellent books on morality authored by great scholars. The following is a list of some of them:
1) The late Ayatullāh Khomeinī has written several books on ethics. A very famous one is Chehel Hadīth (Forty Hadiths) in which he has not only mentioned the hadiths but has also explained and analysed them. It is a very good book which is used as a textbook in many places.9
He has also written a book which is a commentary on the hadith about the armies of intellect and ignorance, Sharh-e Hadith-e Junūd-e ‘Aql wa Jahl. This hadith is in al-Kāfi10 and explains that there are two armies: the army of ignorance and the army of intellect, each one having its own soldiers. The hadith contrasts the soldiers of these two armies.
2) The late Allāmah Tabātabā’i wrote al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’an in twenty volumes in Arabic. It is perhaps the best commentary on the Qur’an and contains numerous beautiful and informative discussions on ethics.
3) The late Ayatullāh Mutahharī has authored many works related to morality, including books and collections of his lectures published as books such as Dah Goftār (Ten Lectures), Bīst Goftār (Twenty Lectures), and Goftārhaye Ma‘navī (Spiritual Lectures) which include his lectures on morality. His book Seiry dar Nahj al-Balāghah (An Introduction to Nahj al-Balāghah) contains discussions about morality as does his Āshnāei bā ‘Ulūm-e Islami (Introduction to Islamic Sciences). There is also another series of his lectures on the philosophy of morality which has been published separately. He has also written a book about the most perfect man, entitled Insān-e Kāmel.
4) Grand Ayatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī talks about akhlāq in his commentary on the Qur’an, Tafsīr-e Nemūneh, and in other books, but in particular he has authored two volumes entitled Akhlāq dar Qur’an (Morality in the Qur’an) which are dedicated to the study of akhlāq.
5) Grand Ayatullāh Ja‘far Subhānī has discussions on akhlāq in his Tafsīr-e Mawḍu‘ī (Thematic Interpretation of the Qur’an). He also has a commentary of the Chapter al-Hujurāt which is related to akhlāq.
6) Ayatullāh Mesbāh Yazdī has written many books on akhlāq and many commentaries on different hadiths from the Prophet (s) such as Rāhīān Kūye Dūst, which is a commentary on the hadith of mi‘rāj, and Rah Tūsheh, which is a commentary on the Prophet’s (s) hadith to Abū Dhar. Both are all full of moral lessons. However, particular reference can be made to his book Akhlāq dar Qur’an,
written in three volumes, in which the major issues in Islamic morality are studied. He also has two other books on philosophical ethics. One is Falsafeh-ye Akhlāq, which is mainly about meta-ethics, and the other is Makāteb-e Akhlāqī (Moral Schools of Thought), which is mainly about normative ethics.
7) Ayatullāh Javādī Amulī has written many books about akhlāq and Qur’anic ideas on akhlāq. Particular reference should be made to two books: Mabādī-e Akhlāq dar Qur’an and Marāhel-e Akhlāqi dar Qur’an, which are a combination of Qur’anic studies together with philosophical discussions on ethics. The former is about the principles and foundations of morality according to the Qur’an and the latter is about the stages of morality according to the Qur’an.11
By virtue of the above activities, many people now specialise in ethics and many books are published in Iran regarding theoretical and applied ethics. Ethics, with its various branches, is now considered an independent field of study and research in Iran.
This attention to morality must become apparent in every aspect of Muslim life, including the academic sphere. Of course this is only one small step in the right direction because moral virtues should not merely be the subject of thought and discussion but should also be present, shared, and exhibited in society, God willing. Therefore, it is hoped that soon the science of ethics would achieve the level of recognition it deserves.
1al-Kāfi, vol. 1, p. 35
2Munyat al-Murīd, p. 149
3Jāmi‘at al-Zahrā (a) is the largest seminary for Shi‘a women in the world.
4The University of Payām-e-Nūr is the Iranian equivalent of the Open University in the UK.
5Later incorporated into the International Jāmi‘at al-Mustafā (s).
6Equivalent to masters level.
7Equivalent to M.A. and PhD
8Pazhūhishgāh-e-Farhang wa Andīshe-ye Islamī
9According to several hadiths from Prophet Muhammad (s), whoever memorises 40 hadiths which benefit them in this life would be raised by Allah (swt) on the Day of Judgment as a knowledgeable person. The Prophet (s) is quoted as saying:
مَنْ حَفِظَ مِنْ أُمَّتِي أَرْبَعِينَ حَدِيثاً مِمَّا يَحْتَاجُونَ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ أَمْرِ دِينِهِمْ بَعَثَهُ اهلل
عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ فَقِيهاً عَالِما
Whoever from my people memorises forty hadiths that they need in matters related to their religion, God Most High will revive him as a scholar and a knowledgeable person on the Day of Judgment.Thawāb al-A‘māl wa ‘Iqāb al-‘Amāl, p. 134
Therefore, there has been a custom amongst scholars to compile selections of 40 hadiths.
10 al-Kāfi, vol. 1, pp. 20-23
11Thanks to God translations of works by both Ayatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī and Ayatullāh Javādī Amulī are now being published as series in a new bi-annual journal in English called Spiritual Quest which has been established by the International Institute for Islamic Studies. All articles in this journal are related to Islamic morality and spirituality.