Holy Qur'an

The Vigour of ‘Fairness’ in Qur’anic Ethical Concepts – Part 1

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The writer, Dr. Sibtain Panjwani (London, United Kingdom) qualified as a dentist and obtained his MA in Medical Law and Ethics and a PhD in Law, after which he went on to work closely with Marhum Mulla Asgherali M M Jaffer at the World Federation.

Ethical concepts:

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This article explores the proposition that the Qur’an introduced innate ‘quality’[1] of fairness within the ethical concepts that governed the Mecca society at that time. As a result, these transformed ethical concepts became widely accepted over time and help the early pre-Islamic Mecca society to change and accept fairness as a basis to conduct its affairs. This introductory paper can be the basis for detailed research in the future on whether human beings have intrinsically a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ nature and how ethical concepts that promote fairness that can inspire this innate faculty in human beings to fight for a just cause to progress humanity.

 

Pre-Islamic Mecca Society

When Prophet Muhammed (s.a.w.w) was born in the city of Mecca in 570 A.D., neither of the great powers at the time – Persia or Byzantium – gave Arabia a thought. Arabia was considered uncivilised by both great powers who, at the time, were locked in a debilitating struggle with one another. Life in Arabia was difficult and insecure. People were tribal and nomadic. An individual simply could not survive in this society on his own. The only safe way to survive was to seek protection by belonging to a tribe.

Once in, the tribe demanded absolute loyalty to it and their allies. No room for individualism existed under this system. Everything had to be subordinated to the interest of the tribe. To protect the tribe, a chief prepares to avenge each injury. Life was cheap and in this society, there was nothing immoral about killing per se. Each tribe will avenge a death of a single member by killing somebody from another tribe that did the killing. By such vendetta, a modicum of security was available to the members of the tribe.

Under this ethos, an ideology emerged that encouraged courage, patience and endurance in battle dedicated to avenging the wrong done to the tribe. Each member of the tribal group had to be ready to leap to the defence of a fellow tribesman and obey his chief without question. This sort of evolving ideology and ethics functioned as a religion and provided a vision that enabled the tribal groups to find meaning in their perilous existence.

For example, the generosity of the over-abundant kind became an important virtue in the pre-Islamic Mecca society of Arabia. Power and confidence were liberally demonstrated by means of over-abundant generosity. It encouraged an indifference to material goods to the extent that a tribe which is rich could easily become destitute overnight. Tomorrow did not exist in this virtue of overabundance of generosity where the society struggled with scarce resources. It was a matter of pride which must be protected at all costs. This approach was driven by deep fatalism. Time or Fate was accepted as a hard fact of life. Whatever position one had in life was accepted as inevitable. Furthermore, Meccans of that period believed that nothing could be done to improve one’s lot or prolong man’s life or ensure a sufficient provision of sustenance.[2] You are where you are as Fate and Time have determined it for you.

Such was the mindset. It was essentially a communal mindset, where one member of a tribe was much the same as another, broadly relying upon the vendetta principle for security which provided a semblance of public order. The outcome of this system, unintentionally, led to a balance of power within various tribes and provided a degree of stability to the pre-Islamic Mecca society. Whilst this ensured rough and ready survival, it also made it impossible for the various tribes to unite.

Having this mindset had consequences for the community as a whole which meant that instead of pooling their meagre resources, the various tribes were caught up in the cycle of violence which could, sometime, last for generations. Only the strong would survive and the weak were exploited unless they can have protection from the tribe. Women were considered mere chattels and female babies were killed without remorse or regret. Such was brutal ethics which governed the actions of pre-Islamic Mecca society. In this society, Prophet Muhammed (s.a.w.w) was born and lived and to this society, he introduced the Book of God – The Quran.

Necessarily the Quran is revealed in the Arabic language as the community he lived in spoke and understood Arabic. In reality, however, the Quran is in the language of nature that touches some on a conscious plane and others at the subconscious level. This reality has been described in the Quran as ‘clear revelations in the hearts of those who have been given knowledge. This verse goes on to say that ‘none deny our revelations save the wrongdoers’.[3]

The objective of the Quran is to make man aware of why God created this world, what is required of him on the earth and what he is going to confront after death. In essence, it is reminding man of His blessings in terms of exceptional qualities with which he is endowed together with all kinds of support systems that exist for his benefit. The fundamental purpose of the Quran is to ensure that man will keep this enduring truth in mind and acknowledge the munificence of his creator.              

An action can be ‘right’[4] or ‘not right. Basically, this depends on whether one’s action is regarded as morally or ethically ‘good’ or ‘not good. Many questions arise out of this statement such as what is ‘morally or ethically good?  What is it that is ‘right’? What is the relationship between ‘good’ and ‘right’? Can we learn ‘goodness’? Can ‘goodness’[5] or ‘being right’ be appreciated only through one’s experience or is it rationally learnt? When anyone says ‘this is right or good’ or ‘this is not right or good’, how does one come to this judgement? These are questions relating to life and living and it is not the purpose of this article to explore them.

This introductory article, however, attempts to explore the proposition that the Qur’an introduced an innate sense or quality of fairness within the ethical concepts that governed the Mecca society at that time and help transform the community into becoming a more balanced community. I hope this paper can then be the basis for future research on whether human beings have intrinsically a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ nature and how ethical concepts inspire this innate faculty in human beings to fight for a just cause to progress humanity and our humanness.


[1] Essential property –  an essential identifying nature or character of somebody or something

[2] Karen Armstring – “Muhammed – Biography of the Prophet”- 1991 pages 58,59

[3] Quran 29:49

[4] a state of conduct which forms a satisfying and harmonious whole to oneself

[5] The quality of being good

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