Home » All My Posts » Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

Socrates: If that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. […] But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not and what is impiety?
Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. (Euthyphro, Plato’s Dialogues)

But you will not unless God wills; surely God is ever All-knowing, All-wise. (Al-Quran, 76:30)

So they departed; until, when they met a lad, he slew him. He said, ‘What, hast thou slain a soul innocent, and that not to retaliate for a soul slain? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing. (Al-Quran, 18:74)

Moses and KhidrThe story of Moses and the wise man (known as Khidr in Islamic tradition), related in 18th chapter of Quran, invites our attention towards a classical moral dilemma: Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will? As he holes the boat about to take passengers, slays an innocent lad and responds to a town’s inhospitality by setting up their tumbling down wall, Khidr repeatedly disturbs Moses’ preconceived notion of morality as well as ours. An unbiased and careful reader of Quran is therefore justified in asking whether an all benevolent and sovereign God can make it just and good to kill an innocent boy for crimes he had not committed hitherto. Putting it in perspective, If something is good only because God wills it so (as entailed by God’s sovereignty) then there is nothing that can be called intrinsically good or bad and mankind is oblivious regarding ultimate nature of morality. Furthermore, the idea of Godly benevolence would seem empty and problematic; perhaps, best described in the words of C.S. Lewis

…if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘Righteous Lord’

This kind of moral dilemma, though not discussed by Islamic philosophers explicitly, is indirectly an important part of traditional as well as modernists Islamic discourse regarding nature and concept of God. Theologically speaking, the question of ultimate nature of morality is understandably inseparable from the nature of God; and interestingly, the more concrete and rigorous your concept of God, the more apt you are to run into difficulties as to what are the actual origins of moral standards.

There seems to be two possible reasons for this conflict. Firstly, the academic classification of epistemology, theology and ethics are fairly modern and classical Islamic philosophy of the tradition of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes is virtually non-existent since well before Descartes; hence, it is not easy (if not impossible) to fill this gap of at least three centuries. Secondly, a conventional religious mind, unaware of logical tensions in his belief, necessarily speculates about the nature of God (and thus morality) by way of revelation, thus garbing a primarily epistemological question into a theological one.

Albeit academically necessary, it is not of immediate importance (perhaps too difficult) to comment upon the complete tradition of Islamic ethics. Suffice it to say that with the exception of Mutazilites and initial Muslim philosophers of Peripatetic tradition, most of the scholars believed that humanity is always in need of Divine guidance to settle the ultimate moral questions. Some of them, for instance Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah, linked the moral question with original unaltered nature of human being but failed to satisfactorily incorporate revelation into the model. Others circumvented the question altogether. But literalists among them, like Ibn Hazm, went so far as to claim that categories of good and bad are not something existing per se, and if God so desires, he can punish good and reward evil.

In the modern times, Shah Wali Allah has explained God’s customary way of acting in some detail in his magnum opus Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Conclusive Argument from God), regarding which Quran mentions at several places (e.g., 33:62 and 35:43):

…and never wilt thou find any change in God’s way.

According to him, God’s perpetual creativity always moves all the causes in the universe to attain absolute good; and the knowledge of mankind, though well aware of the immediate action proceeding from an obvious cause, cannot encompass the complete causal structure in the universe and is thus liable to face conflicts. How Shah Wali Allah further explains the nature of Divine creativity is beyond the context of present discourse, but it can be safely assumed that he is trying to access the moral problem through theory of knowledge besides employing the usual theological operators from revelation. In a nutshell, I would dare say that if Shah Wali Allah would try to resolve our present dilemma he would argue that even though God can reward evil and punish good if He desires so, it is against His customary way of acting; a kind of Divine resolve which He never violates.

This brings us back to the narrative of Moses and Khidr. Interestingly in the verse immediately preceding the narrative (18:65), Quran points towards the nature of knowledge possessed by Khidr: we had taught him knowledge proceeding from Ourselves; thus supplying enough epistemic grounds within the revelation to resolve the so called Euthyphro’s dilemma.

But moving further from here onwards on a different note, questions may be asked as to how revelation is justified as a universal tool for comprehending morality, and for that matter, the ultimate nature of truth? Are there any pure philosophical means using which one can proceed testing the character and medium of revelation (I assume there may exist some scattered pointers in critical and post critical theories of text)? or should we instead try to metaphysically vindicate the religious experience itself, like Ghazali or Iqbal?

PS: Euthyphro’s dilemma is elegantly presented by the guys at philosophyexperiments.com where they let us talk with God and help us reveal the tensions inherent in our belief which we might not be aware of.


5 thoughts on “Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

  1. i am not sure if shah wali ullah rh was saying the same thing, but I think that the idea of good is an extension of God’s nature (because he IS Rehman, it is a sift e zaati, not a sift e ikhtiyaari), and thus is operative at all levels: from the very structure of the universe, to the structure of our consciousness, to the structure of our souls. so even if we attempt to formulate a notion of good in a seemingly independent fashion, the tools we would be using (our consciousness, logic etc), being created by God, already are loaded with the idea of good.

  2. Here is a very valid comment by one of my friends (Arif A. Arshad) on this post. Thought to post it here for interested readers:

    It is not that Farabi and Aristotle did not see a difference between the kinds of knowledge, or the difference between ethics and theology. In Aristotle, there is a difference between the theoretical use of reason (theology, metaphysics, physics), the practical use of reason (ethics, economics, and politics), and productive use of reason (poetics, rhetoric). In Descartes, the inquiry was about how we know at all, not how we get knowledge of what is given, or not how we know things in different ways. Hence, only what was amenable to his method of geometric reasoning became an object of knowledge. So the shift was from what we know and how, to how we know, and what we know is dependent upon how we know.

  3. Great thought provoking article.

    Check this article out, I think natural law is what you are sort of hinting at, even if you are not explicitly mentioning or discussing it.

    Revisiting Islam and Human Rights (taken from Viewpoint)

    The issue of human rights is contentious. More so in Pakistan, where human rights are seen as firstly a foreign conception and peculiarly a repressive instrument of neo-colonial forces aimed at vilifying Muslim societies. However, in this article I argue that in order to justify human rights in Muslim societies we need to adopt certain epistemic and philosophical methods.

    I argue that adopting a basis for human rights on the proviso of utilitarianism, liberal neutrality or a free standing conception of justice independent from comprehensive doctrines of religion and ideology (in the Rawlsian sense) is unfeasible. The fact of the matter is that adopting a non-theistic moral framework in a religious society is unfeasible. A framework of moral reasoning grounded in a form of religious liberalism (for instance the liberal theology of John Locke), is needed to counter the conservative/traditionalist framework of religious reasoning.

    Most political theorists urge us to adopt non-cultural and non-religious grounds for human rights so that we can avoid the tricky metaphysical, theological and ontological questions involved. But this is to totally avoid the crux of the matter, to skip the substance of the debate and cede ground to fundamentalists. We cannot avoid when discussing the big questions of our day such as human rights without getting involved in the indigenous traditions of ethics, justice, morality, epistemology and ontology of a specific faith or culture. Hence rather than try and banish moral and religious arguments liberals should engage in these arguments providing an alternative narrative. Critics rightly criticises the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights because it limits moral autonomy by having a narrow and literalistic conception of God’s Sovereignty. So rather than avoid the subject of God’s Sovereignty altogether we should engage in this discussion and argue that God’s Sovereignty does not mean we adopt a dictator-despot conception of God, but rather God endows us with the capacity for free moral choices (free will).

    The fact of the matter is that clerical authorities and religious groups work on certain assumptions. These assumptions focus on human nature, the nature of Revelation and a hermeneutical method of Sacred scripture.

    Hence by creating a scenario where liberals fear to engage in theology, religious ethics and epistemology by adopting this delusional principle of moral abstemiousness we let the public sphere be filled with narrow and intolerant moralisms. And that is the situation in Pakistan today. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that ‘’Fundamentalisms rush in where liberals fear to tread”.

    Grounding human rights in Muslim societies will require an epistemological shift in religious theology and religious moral reasoning. In short I argue we must move from the traditional Ashraite conception of Divine Command Ethics (‘’an act is only good or bad if God says that it is; an act is never inherently good or evil’’) towards the Mu’tazilite conception of natural law (the moral value of an act can be determined by unaided human reason). A theory of Islamic Natural Law will enable a dialogue between secular and religious reasons and participants. This is the shift from the traditionalist-Ashraite thesis to the rationalist/naturalist-Mu’tazilite thesis.
    The ingredients for the religious justification of human rights, is the acceptance of:

    Free Will

    Human Dignity

    The moral worth of all human beings

    The historical context of Sacred Scripture (a new approach to legal Quranic hermeneutics, which Iqbal proposed aswell)

    The value of human reason

    The Mu’tazilites adopt a unique position in affirming the moral value of all human beings, the ability of all human beings regardless of faith to comprehend basic values of right and wrong (in contrast to the Asharites who argue our conception of right and wrong must come directly from Revelation, hence only Muslims have the ability to determine right and wrong). The Mu’tazilites adopt furthermore one can say a precursor to the historic-critical method of Quranic interpretation and the crucial conception of free will which can be related to moral autonomy, which is critical for any justification for human rights. The Mu’tazilite belief that ethical values are independent of God, that we are endowed with free will and all humans have the same moral worth and dignity is the strongest opposition available to us to deconstruct discriminatory practices on the basis of religion.

    Practices of misogyny, gender discrimination, religious discrimination and other such human rights abuses either stem from an outdated interpretation and theology of moral reasoning or through the virus of cultural relativism (see my previous article, ‘’The virus of cultural relativism’’). These practices are sanctioned by the supposed guardians of the religious tradition (which is then erroneously fused with issues of identity, culture and a collective communal conscience), and they go unchallenged.

    Natural law maybe a dated concept in the West (there are still respectable theorists who urge a natural law conception of human rights –‘’natural law liberalism’’), derived from medieval scholastic theology, but it is an invaluable resource.

    Contemporary examples of utilising the approach of religious natural law are Abdulaziz Sachedina and Anver M. Emon. Sachedina in his recent work, ‘’Islam and the Challenge of Human Right’’ (Oxford University Press), argues for a theory of Islamic natural law. He uses Mu’tazilite philosophical and interpretive strategies and concepts to provide a framework of inclusive and liberal moral theology. Sachedina argues for a conversation and dialogue between religious liberals and secular moral theorists, since the goals are the same but the routes are different. This innovative set up of moral pluralism (not relativism) where different cultures and traditions can reach the same conclusions but with different conceptions of human nature, epistemology and ethics is attractive. Sachedina argues we must utilise ‘’religious reason’’ to construct arguments from the Islamic tradition to provide a buttress for human rights. Sachedina offers a novel conception of the Quranic narrative of Creation and provides an elaborate argument for human dignity and rights using religious sources.

    Emon’s book, ‘’Islamic Natural Law Theories’’ (Oxford University Press) is more specialised but richer since Emon provides several possible versions of Islamic natural law from Muslim history and philosophy. Indeed the books shows that: (from the Oxford website):

    ‘’ they [Islamic natural law theorists)] asked whether and how reason alone can be the basis for asserting the good and the bad, and thereby justifying obligations and prohibitions under Shari’a. They theorized about the authority of reason amidst competing theologies of God and their implications on moral agency. For them, nature became the link between the divine will and human reason.’’

    Islamic natural law should be the adopted moral and epistemological basis for human rights in Pakistan. Liberals must realise they cannot stay above these debates and must engage in community reasoning, identifying common ground and building upon it. Otherwise, religiously sanctioned human rights abuses will continue and liberals will become irrelevant.

    Examples of liberal theology, the use of the religious tradition to cultivate democratic sensibilities and cherishment of tolerance and diversity do exist among Muslim intellectuals. Unfortunately, their presence is being felt mainly in traditionally non-Muslim societies in the US and Europe. There is an issue of outspoken religious liberals being exiled or forced out from their own countries due to their writings such as Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt, Abdul Karim Soroush in Iran (aswell as the wider Green Movement) or the late Professor Fazlur Rahman in Pakistan. In Turkey this form of liberal Islam has found articulated itself in a sustainable political fashion in the thumping successes of the AKP party over the last decade or so. These are the theologians and religious intellectuals who call for greater democracy, tolerance and pluralism, but do so from within the religious tradition which is why their voices are more potent than say the secular left who try and locate these same concepts but in a foreign idiom. That is not to say that one should reject an idea on the basis of its origin. However, this is the reality of social and political discourse in Muslim societies.

    The transformative effect of using religious teaching in ushering in a new tradition of political thought has been noted by the eminent thinker Jurgen Habermas who writes that:

    ‘’Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.’’

    In the Iranian context, Nader Hashemi reminds us that:
    ‘’The religious roots of modern liberal democracy often escape our attention..’’

    Professor Hashemi in his book ‘’Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy’’ uses the example of John Locke as a liberal religious democrat. All of John Locke’s arguments and theories about freedom of conscience, the basis of authority, the legitimacy of political authority and equality do not stem from a myopic focus on human reason devoid of religious revelation. Rather they must be understood as emanating from a revised reinterpretation of Christianity, setting the parameters for a political theology of liberality. Locke recast religious norms, fought the conservatives of his times on their terms and in their idioms and successfully merged liberal ideals with religious legitimacy, to advocate a unique form of governance.

    For Pakistani liberals to have a truly transformational effect, they need to speak in the religious idiom and bring to the table a rigorous and charismatic theology of liberality. It is critical to talk about the arts, Urdu literature and the humanities but not as a hope that it will act as a creative buffer against radicalisation. The real buffer against terrorism with a religious impulse is a culture of religious tolerance and pluralism borne out of a unique theology of liberality in combination with these aforementioned disciplines.


    Perhaps it’s not a question of independence of the standards but rather a question of the reasoning to reach and attain these standards? By all accounts I think the good author should investigate the case for a natural law tradition within Islam.

  4. Pingback: Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave) | Hanging Odes

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