In order to study the history of the science of akhlāq in Islam, we have to start with the Qur’an and the Prophet (s). The Qur’an is the most important source for understanding Islamic ethics. It is full of moral teachings which do not only address Muslims since there are many teachings which address all human beings. Accordingly, we believe that even a person who is not religious would be able to understand and appreciate these fundamental moral values.
For example, it is not necessary to be a religious person to understand that justice is good and injustice is bad. It is not necessary to be a believer to understand that we should be kind to our parents, supportive of our children, and that we should not disregard the rights of other people. Thus, the Qur’an is full of moral teachings which are relevant to all human beings in general but with higher levels of expectation for the believers.
The contents of the Qur’an alone are sufficient to encourage its reader to be a moral person. It involves us so profoundly in moral discourse that we need to have a good understanding of morality. The Qur’an does not want us to act like robots or machines. It wants us to be moral thinkers; people who act with understanding and in a moral way.
Therefore, the Qur’an is a book that encourages us to contemplate over serious questions; it does not expect us to act without asking and understanding. Indeed, it requires us to understand. So not only is there no problem with asking, but the Qur’an says that we should be asking:
فاسْألواْ أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ التَعْلَمُون Ask the People of the Reminder if you do not know. (21:7)
In some other religious traditions, asking questions can be taken as a sign of weakness because when there is a religious authority, one is expected to believe and act on what they say without questioning anything. However, in Islam it is quite the opposite. In order to respect the religion, and to respect God and the Prophet (s), it is imperative to understand why one is asked to do something, and if one does not know then one should ask. This quest for understanding is an act of worship. Not only is it not considered bad, but it is in fact obligatory. When someone does not know something, they must ask, study, and learn. Islam does not want people to be close-minded and short-sighted, or to easily accept or reject things without understanding why.
Of course, there are things that may be beyond our understanding or reach, but when we have a rational method to prove that a particular person, such as the Prophet (s), has authority, only then will they be accepted. However, first of all it must be proven rationally that he is a true prophet, that Islam is a true religion, and that the Qur’an really is a message from God. When this has been established, it is then possible to accept even the things which may be beyond one’s reach; for example, issues regarding the hereafter and details which cannot be understood by using our reason.
However, there is no problem in wanting to understand. We should conduct extensive research and eventually, either a clear answer or explanation will be found or at least we will have realised that it is based on the authority of the Prophet (s); even though we do not have direct access to it, it is not something that goes against reason.
In Islam, there is nothing irrational and nothing that contradicts something else. It is never expected that one should have to accept something on the basis of “faith” even if it goes against reason. Everything in Islam is such that we have to be able to understand and accept it independently, or at the very least, we have to be able to argue for it in an indirect way. Certainly nothing that is either in contradiction with itself or is irrational can meet these requirements.
Therefore, the Qur’an is a book that encourages Muslims to consider serious questions about ethics. Two important questions are the question of justice and injustice, and the question of goodness and badness.