Before giving examples of Muslim scholars who have studied akhlāq in this way, as a contrast, it is good to read about various other people’s thoughts on akhlāq. According to some contemporary western ethicists, the science of ethics is responsible for explaining what sort of behaviour is appropriate. They only focuse on behaviour and do not go beyond this. It would appear that they do not want to admit that there is something much more profound underlying these behaviours, which are the qualities of the human soul. For example, Gex says that “Morality is to investigate human behaviour as it ought to be.”1 Or a French philosopher called Paul Foulquie says: “The science of morality gives us a set of laws and regulations which relate to behaviour acting upon which can help us in achieving our goals.”2
Thus, for such people akhlāq is responsible for advising on what sort of behaviour we should adopt in order to be successful in achieving our goals. Therefore, for example, for a businessperson, business ethics would merely explain how to be a successful businessman and no more than that. Or for a doctor, medical ethics would explain how to be a successful doctor and how to reach one’s goals as a doctor. It would be considered sufficient to behave properly and observe the laws. However it is not considered to be of concern should someone suffer from serious diseases of the soul. For example, if a doctor helps their patient in accordance with no more than the legal and professional requirements but does not have heartfelt love and care for them, this is considered perfectly acceptable as they have outwardly behaved appropriately. So this is one approach to the science of morality.
As we said, in the Islamic understanding of morality the main focus is placed on the qualities of the soul and heart. We should purify our heart, remove all bad qualities and vices and, at the same time, we should also make sure that we behave properly. These things go hand in hand with one another. However, this does not mean that it is being suggested that for some years one should first examine and purify their heart and only then, after being certain about the state of one’s heart, should one think about one’s actions. This is not the Islamic way of doing things.
It is important to make sure that we are not completely preoccupied with our actions. We should not be satisfied merely by good performance or observing laws and regulations. We should also place great emphasis on solving the root causes of problems and not just their symptoms. These two things need to go hand in hand.
Many famous Muslim scholars have voiced their thoughts on the subject of akhlāq. The late Mullā Sadrā, Sadr al-Dīn
Shīrāzī, spoke about al-hikmah al-‘amalīyah (practical wisdom) which is the title used for the practical aspect of philosophy which also deals with morality. He said:
Sometimes when they say practical wisdom they mean the traits of character themselves, sometimes they mean knowledge of traits of character, and sometimes they mean the actions which result from traits of character. Therefore, when it is used in contrast to theoretical wisdom [which included metaphysics, mathematics, and physics] it means the science which studies traits of character, whether good or bad, and every action that originates from them. 3
Therefore, according to Mullā Sadrā, practical wisdom, or in other words the science of akhlāq, is the science which deals with character traits and the actions that originate from them. As the Qur’an says, people act based on their character:
ُلٌّ يَعْمَلُ عَلى شاكِلَتِه
Everyone acts according to his character.
In Persian there is a proverb which says: “What comes out of a jug is the same as what it has inside.” In the past they used to keep water in containers made out of clay. The reason for this was that a small amount of water could penetrate through the clay and find its way to the surface of the jug. So there were always drops of water on the surface of the jug which would then evaporate, resulting in a reduction of temperature which would make the water inside the jug cooler. Thus the jug would act as a natural cooler. Other liquids could also be kept in such a jug. Therefore, the poet says that, depending on what kind of liquid is put inside this kind of jug, naturally the drops appearing on the surface of the jug will be of the same type of liquid. If salty water is put inside the jug then, when water penetrates through the clay, there will be salty drops of water on the surface. If juice is kept inside the jug then drops of juice will appear on the surface. Although it will not come out completely but somehow part of it will appear. However, it is impossible to put orange juice in the jug and have apple juice on its surface.
Human beings have hidden qualities inside their heart, of course in a spiritual sense. These qualities may be so hidden that even the person themselves may not be aware of all of them. Therefore, we need to reflect on our own personal qualities. However, the actions that we perform are like those drops of water that appear on the surface of the clay jug in the proverb mentioned above. In the science of akhlāq we have to examine both the liquid inside and the wetness which is on the surface, and that entails studying both qualities of the heart and actions.
Actions can be suggestive of the quality of the soul which has caused them. However, this is not always so straightforward. For instance, we cannot be sure that a person is generous merely by witnessing that they invite guests to their home once or twice. Of course, there must be something good involved in doing this but this does not necessarily mean it has become a habit which is rooted in
generosity as a quality of the soul.
It is necessary to study actions, whether good or bad, and then encourage people to perform good actions and refrain from bad actions, whilst at the same time encouraging them to continue this journey until they have made sure that they have achieved good qualities and virtues. After this, if and when virtues have been acquired, it is not going to make that much of a difference whether there is an opportunity to act on them or not.
For example, someone might be a very generous person who is looking for opportunities to help needy people but there are none to be found. Of course, it does not mean that their generosity is useless. Generosity is there and God loves that person because of this generosity. It is simply that there is no needy person around to help in order to show this sense of generosity outwardly. Furthermore, maybe there are poor people needing help but one does not have the means to help them. Either way, one’s generosity is still very valuable.
Another example is that of a very brave person who is ready to sacrifice himself to protect people who are weak or vulnerable but there is no present need for this bravery to be acted upon since everything is safe and sound. Regardless of the situation, he is still considered to be a brave person.
Therefore, sometimes there are virtues which do not appear outwardly as actions because the opportunity did not arise. This is not a problem, although of course it would be better to find opportunities for action if possible.
Furthermore, actions can sometimes be accompanied by virtues and at other times they are not accompanied by virtues. Actions performed hand in hand with virtues are much better, but even if they are performed without the presence of virtues they are not useless and should be persisted with until eventually the relevant virtues are acquired and become a permanent feature of a person.
The late Ayatullāh Mutahharī, in his book Understanding Islamic Sciences, which is an introduction to Islamic sciences, has a section on practical wisdom (hikmate ‘amali), including akhlāq. In it he says that the science of akhlāq teaches us how to live, and that this has two aspects. One aspect is with respect to our behaviour, meaning how we should behave, and the second concerns how we should be. This section is deliberately chosen and mentioned here because he then goes further to say that rather than the science of akhlāq merely studying our behaviour and our qualities, it actually teaches us how to be and how to behave. This demonstrates and explains how qualities form and then influence who we actually are. He continues by saying that our life and the way in which we decide about our life have two aspects: one is our behaviour and the other is our very being.4 This shows that we are who we are mostly due to our qualities. Actions are very important but as explained previously, there is a great chance that they might not be very deeply ingrained and established in us.
As mentioned previously, it is not possible to figure out someone’s level of generosity by merely witnessing them carry out two or three acts of generosity, or to conclude that someone is not generous simply because they are not seen to be acting generously. The latter situation may simply be due to the fact that they do not have the means to do so or maybe that they have the means but there is no one in need at that particular time. So although that person is not actually doing anything at that time, they may still be a generous person and whenever it is necessary their generosity will appear in the form of certain actions. Therefore, both our behaviour, which relates to our performance, and our very being, which relates to our qualities, are very important. However, naturally, our qualities should receive more attention.
Furthermore, in the first volume of his al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’an, which is the best available commentary on the Qur’an, the very well known late ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī mentions that the science of akhlāq is the science that deals with human character traits (malakah).5 He then goes on to say that these qualities can be related to the faculties that we have, which may be related to our vegetative, animal, and human life.6 After this he says that the purpose and aim of this science is to help us to a) discern between virtues and vices, b) acquire virtues or strengthen the virtues we already possess, and c) identify and remove vices. In this way we should then be able to perform the good actions which are implied by those virtues, and we would therefore have people in our society whose actions are praiseworthy. He also says that by acting according to akhlāq, people can achieve their happiness and salvation with respect to both the theoretical and practical aspects of humanity.7 So, according to him, the primary consideration is character traits which of course then lead to certain actions.
It should be noted that when scholars like ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī or Mullā Sadrā say that practical wisdom deals with character traits and the actions which issue from them, this does not mean that a person must necessarily have a particular quality and then the corresponding action arises from it.
Sometimes we have a quality and an action which corresponds to that quality is practiced by us. For example, someone is a generous person and an action like giving charity originates from that quality. However, it is also possible to have a person who acts generously but does not have the quality of generosity. Indeed, one way to acquire generosity is to act generously and by continuing to act in such way, generosity gradually becomes a habit and then a quality. Of course, if a person acts generously in a particular case, although they do not have generosity as a quality, this action still originates from their entire personality and so this means that they must have some other factors within them which have led to this action, but not necessarily a quality which is directly related to it. Or, for example, a person who is not brave has acted bravely in one particular case and so this action has not originated from bravery as a quality but
from this person’s entire personality. Therefore, there must be other factors which, when combined, produced this action.
It is important to note that, of course, in the end everything is filtered by our free will. A person may have all the good qualities or all the bad qualities and still does not decide to act upon them. This is entirely another matter. However, there does need to be some kind of relationship between our qualities and our actions. As explained previously, whatever is in our soul somehow emerges in our words and actions, although not exactly or completely.
Another point that should be considered is that various thinkers, ethicists, or schools of akhlāq may define and
understand what is good and what is bad in different ways. In reality, in many cases people agree on at least the main principles and values, but the details may differ. Occasionally, there may even be people who question some principles. However, this does not change the definition of the science of akhlāq because people’s diverse understandings of virtues and vices have nothing to do with the definition of the science of akhlāq. In the science of akhlāq we study good qualities and bad qualities, and good actions and bad actions. For example, people may have different views about whether abortion is good or bad but it can still be said that the science of akhlāq is a science that deals with good and bad actions, and good and bad qualities. Therefore, it should not be concluded that since people may have different views about these values, then the science of akhlāq has to be defined differently.
1 Gex, Falsafeh Akhlāq, translated by Pourhuseini, Abulqasim, p. 9
2 Cited in Falsafeh Akhlāq, p. 10
3 al-Asfār al-‘Aqlīah al-Arba‘ah, vol. 4, p. 116. The original text is as follows:
4Ashnaei ba ‘Ulūm Islami , vol. 2, pp. 191-192
5 Malakah is a quality which is established in a person in such a way that it is not easily changed. It is a quality which is possessed in such a deeply ingrained way that a person can act accordingly without much effort or struggle.
6 There are three different levels of soul and life: vegetative, animal, and human. We possess all three of them. Of course, this does not mean that we have three souls; rather, what we mean is that a human soul has the perfections of the souls lower than it, these being the vegetative and the animal souls. Plants possess only the level of the vegetative soul and animals also possess the higher level of the animal soul. Human beings possess the perfections of the vegetative and animal souls, as well as the human soul.
7 al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol. 1, pp. 370-371