So far we have studied the subject of the science of akhlāq. At this point, we need to further explore the definition of this science. When it comes to the term commonly used in Arabic, there is no ambiguity and it is easily understood when we say ’ilm al-akhlāq. However, in English, two different terms are used: the science of Islamic ethics or the science of Islamic morality. We must first clarify these two terms and then continue to define this science.
“Morality” and “ethics” are used in different ways. Sometimes when the word morality is used what is meant is the moral character of a person, group, religion, society, or community. Thus, the set of morals adhered to by one person can form the morality of that person and in such a case, it is a matter of describing a reality rather than a prescriptive science. However, at other times the word morality is used to indicate a science which deals with moral character traits or moral actions, and this is where it comes very close to the science of al-akhlāq. Thus, it can be said that Islamic Morality is the area of Islamic science which is responsible for studying morals.
“Ethics” sometimes refers to the study of morals and at other times refers to moral philosophy. Therefore, “ethics” can mean morality as a science or it can mean moral philosophy as a science. Moral philosophy deals with the science of akhlāq as a subject. In other words, it tries to investigate the presuppositions, concepts, epistemology, and even the ontology of the science of akhlāq. These are the different things which can be meant by the term “ethics.”
Since we are concerned with the Islamic science of akhlāq, it does not make much difference for us whether we use the term Islamic morality or the term Islamic ethics. However, we have to be clear that at present we are discussing the Islamic science of morality and we are not talking about Islamic moral philosophy or Islamic philosophical ethics.