Moral Arguments

I begin by praising Allah who distinguished and legislated good from evil and moral from immoral, then gave us a heart to incline us, a book to guide us, and a law to supervise us.

However, the sad state of affairs is that many people in this world have only taken the first of God’s gifts without taking the latter two. Seeing as we live with them on this earth and their decisions influence our lives, Muslims need a way of communicating morality to these people.

Why communicate morality to non-Muslims?

It is possible someone might say: The evilest of actions is disbelief, and the best of actions is belief. This is the root of the tree. All moral judgements after that are branches of the tree and invariably less important. Shouldn’t you spend your time convincing non-Muslims of these root judgements (by inviting them to Islam) instead of convincing them of lesser judgements while they are outside Islam? What is the benefit in convincing them of these lesser judgements when they are still committing the greatest of crimes??

I would respond to such a person as follows.

There is no doubt that disbelief is the worst evil and belief is the best good, and there is no doubt we should invite people to belief and away from disbelief. However, that is not to say it is useless to argue with people about lesser evil and lesser good if we are already inviting them to the more important good and evil.

The following are some reasons we might argue morality in lesser matters with non-Muslims:

Firstly, a disbeliever who commits a lesser evil is worse than a disbeliever who does not. This is absolutely clear in how Allah phrases the Quran.

Allah describes the Pharaoh in Surah Qasas like this:

Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters.

Quran 28:4

Allah describes the Pharaoh with crimes which have nothing to do with disbelief and uses those crimes to describe him as one of the corrupters. That is because the Pharaoh was not simply a disbeliever. He was an oppressive, transgressing disbeliever.

Secondly, it was the example of the Prophets to warn against lesser evil along with warning against disbelief. They did not just limit themselves to disbelief and say “We will only talk about the other evils after they become Muslim.”

Two clear examples of this from the Quran are Lut and Shuaib (AS).

As for Lut (AS), his warning to his people against sodomy is famous:

[Lut said:] Do you approach males among the worlds? And leave what your Lord has created for you as mates? Rather, you are a transgressing people.

Quran 26:66-67

As for Shuaib (AS), his people were known for dishonesty in trade, so he warned them against that:

[Shuaib said:] Give full measure and do not be of those who cause loss. And weigh with an even balance. And do not deprive people of their due and do not commit abuse on earth, spreading corruption.

Quran 26:181-183

The peoples of both Lut and Shuaib (AS) were disbelievers and had not yet accepted Islam, however the two of them still warned against lesser evils that were prevalent in their societies. Sodomy was prevalent in Lut (AS)’s people and cheating was prevalent in Shuaib (AS)’s people.

No one can argue that these passages were only speaking to the believers from their people since Lut (AS)’s people had no believers except himself and his daughters.

Additionally, the evil Lut (AS) warned against is a crime without victims (at least in the apparent and when done without force), hence it is also not possible for someone to argue that warning against lesser evil is only for crimes against humans.

Rather, the two examples clearly show that it is the practice of the Prophets to warn against any sins prevalent in their societies.

Thirdly, reasoning with the non-Muslims regarding morality could save the Muslims from harm. This is especially the case in overt oppression like killing or torture.

An example of this is when the believer in the family of Pharaoh tries to reason with him not to kill Musa (AS). Allah says:

And a believing man from the family of Pharaoh who concealed his faith said, “Do you kill a man [merely] because he says, ‘My Lord is Allah’ while he has brought you clear proofs from your Lord? And if he should be lying, then upon him is [the consequence of] his lie; but if he should be truthful, there will strike you some of what he promises you. Indeed, Allah does not guide one who is a transgressor and a liar.

Quran 40:28

Here, the man appeals to his people’s sense of justice that it doesn’t make sense for them to kill a man whose only crime is to believe in one God. Even if he were lying, the consequence of the lie would be upon himself. There is no fairness in killing him.

This same quote from the Quran was repeated by Abu Bakr (RA) in the infamous incident of the disbelievers attacking the Prophet while he was praying.

Narrated Urwa ibn Zubair:

I asked Abdullah bin Amr, “What was the worst thing the pagans did to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)?” He said, “I saw Uqba bin Abi Mu’ait come to the Prophet (ﷺ) while he was praying. Uqba put his sheet around the Prophet’s neck and squeezed it severely. Abu Bakr came and pulled Uqba away from the Prophet and said, “Do you kill a man [merely] because he says, ‘My Lord is Allah’ while he has brought you clear proofs from your Lord?”

Sahih Bukhari 3678

These two examples are about cases of clear and overt oppression., but it is also possible to argue that this applies when there is no overt oppression. The normalizing of an evil among non-Muslims could lead to its normalization among Muslims. Hence, it could be considered useful to combat that evil even among non-Muslims.

Fourthly, it makes accepting Islam more palatable for people coming from an entirely different paradigm. Rather than simply telling them “Accept this because God said so,” it is much wiser to try to explain to them the morality of God’s commands and immorality of what He prohibited.

This wisdom of how to teach is demonstrated in the Prophet (SAW)’s interaction with the man who wished to commit Zina (the hadith is quoted later on) and in how Allah prohibited alcohol.

From what basis do we argue morality with non-Muslims?

The true source of morality is a matter of much discussion within Islam, and the reader should refer to the article on good and evil for that. However, without doubt, the perfect reference of morality for humans is Allah’s revelation.

As for non-Muslims, they do not accept God’s revelation as a whole or the Islamic sources specifically. Non-religious people do not accept Allah exists, hence they do not accept God’s revelation as a whole. Religious non-Muslims like Christians do accept some sort of revelation albeit corrupted but do not accept the Islamic sources of revelation specifically.

However, as alluded to earlier, all people have a heart that inclines to good and away from evil. This is referred to by many scholars in the Islamic tradition as the fitrah. The exact meaning and utility of the fitrah is a matter of some debate, and the evidence for the existence of the fitrah is well-known. I will neither delve into the debate nor relist the well-known evidence.

But, I will show the fact that humans do have some sort of basic nature according to the Quran from which they can recognize things as immoral.

Allah says regarding backbiting:

[…] And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. […]

Quran 49:12

In this verse, Allah compares backbiting to eating the flesh of a dead brother. The implication is that eating the flesh of a dead brother is obviously evil and immoral in the eyes of the audience.

However, even though Allah treats it as completely obvious, you will neither find a clear verse in the Quran nor a hadith of the Prophet (SAW) specifying that eating the flesh of a dead brother is evil.

It is clear then that Allah is appealing to people’s inherent human nature which He expects would lead them to consider this evil even without having been told it is.

In the same way, all arguments with non-Muslims regarding morality ultimately refer to this inherent human nature or (in the case of religious non-Muslims) to parts of their religion that agree with ours or (in the case of ideological non-Muslims) to parts of their ideology that agree with ours.

Is using something to argue about morality a general endorsement of it?

When we use our human nature to argue about morality, that is not an endorsement of the idea that we should always use human nature to determine morality.

After all, our human nature is corruptible. It is affected by society, the devil, and human desires. So, we use human nature only when we view it as being correct from our paradigm and against people for whom it would be useful.

The same applies to using religions, scriptures, or ideologies to argue about morality with their followers.

It is not an endorsement of their scripture as a whole or their ideology as a whole, but when the religion or ideology leads to a conclusion that is good, we are simply pointing people who claim to follow that religion or ideology to this good because we also agree with the conclusion for our own reasons.

This type of argumentation should be viewed then as an appeal to common ground, not an endorsement of the exact premises used in it.

Types of People of Immorality

People of immorality to whom we need to communicate morality are of two types:

  1. Criminal or individual
  2. Theoretical or societal

The first refers to people who commit an evil action individually either justifying it or not justifying it but realize that the action would be bad if society as a whole or a lot of people did it. Examples of this are robbers or thieves. They know stealing is evil in some sense for society, but they somehow justify it for themselves.

The second refers to people who justify an action as being moral as a whole theoretically for anyone even if they don’t commit it themselves. Even if they commit it, they would fall in this group if they justify it on a theoretical level. An example of this would be people who justify LGBT.

Most moral arguments are aimed at the second group of people because they are the most popular in society. People generally don’t commit evil except after justifying it. Criminals, who do something they acknowledge is evil, in any society are rare.

Some moral arguments like the upcoming “Golden rule” argument are aimed at the first group.

Moral Arguments

Human minds have experience empathizing with people, and our tongues have practice persuading people. That is how society works when citizens are not of the same moral system.

Hearts notice the inclination of other hearts and use that to come to an agreement.

So, this article does not bring new information but organizes the arguments so they may be used more effectively.

1. Incredulity

Incredulity is expressing disbelief and shock at a claim. In moral arguments, it is simply restating the false claim of the person in a question form to highlight its absurdity.

An example of Allah using it in the Quran is:

Or do those who commit evils think We will make them like those who have believed and done righteous deeds – [make them] equal in their life and their death? Evil is that which they judge.

Quran 45:21

Allah makes no argument here to prove why it would be unjust to leave them equal. He simply leaves it in a question and considers its absurdity extremely obvious to the listener.

Another example is Lut (AS) speaking to his people about sodomy:

And [mention] Lut, when he said to his people, “Do you commit immorality while you are seeing? Do you indeed approach men with desire instead of women? Rather, you are a people behaving ignorantly.”

Quran 27:54-55

He makes no argument to prove why it is wrong. He simply asks them about it incredulously.

This is a pure appeal to moral nature.

2. Analogy

Analogy is when you show that a moral situation is similar to another moral situation which both parties agree about.

An example of Allah using it in the Quran is:

[…] And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. […]

Quran 49:12

Allah demonstrates that backbiting is evil by giving an analogy to eating the flesh of a dead brother. The comparison is that a person dislikes his reputation being ruined similar to how he dislikes his physical body being ruined. So, how can you detest eating a brother’s flesh while also being fine with ruining his reputation?

3. Golden Rule

The so-called golden rule is the idea that you should only do to others what you would like them to do to you. Islam does endorse some form of this idea, and human nature seems to incline to it.

That is why some of the most effective moral argumentation is through it: How can you think this is moral when you would not like it to be done to you?

A famous example of this is the hadith of the man who wanted to commit Zina:

A young man came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, give me permission to commit fornication.” The people turned to rebuke him, saying, “Quiet! Quiet!”

The Prophet said, “Come here.” The young man came close and he told him to sit down.

The Prophet said, “Would you like that for your mother?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.”

The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their mothers. Would you like that for your daughter?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.”

The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their daughters. Would you like that for your sister?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.”

The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their sisters. Would you like that for your aunts?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.”

The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their aunts.” Then, the Prophet placed his hand on him and he said, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart, and guard his chastity.” After that, the young man never again inclined to anything sinful.

Musnad Ahmad 21708

The Prophet convinced him of the evil of fornication by appealing to his sense of protective jealousy (gheerah) over his own female family members. If he would not like it to be done to him, how could he do it to other people’s family members?

It is important to be mindful of the audience when using this form of argument. The argument of the Prophet (SAW) in the above hadith would fail with most people in today’s liberal society simply because of how desensitized they are to fornication and how much they have lost their feeling of protective jealousy. If you asked them, “Would you like it for your mother,” they would say, “Sure, she can commit fornication with whomever she wants as long as there is consent.”

To use the argument, you need to make sure the person actually feels it would be bad if it happened to him.

4. Population

Since the idea of natural inclination to morality depends on humans, it holds some weight when one can show that the vast majority of humans presently and historically agree or disagree about some aspect of morality.

An example of this argument in the Quran is:

And [We had sent] Lut when he said to his people, “Do you commit such immorality as no one has preceded you with from among the worlds? Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people.”

Quran 7:80-81

Lut (AS) argues against their action by noting that no one else in all the nations preceded them in committing sodomy as much as they did.

Nowadays, I find this method more useful to argue against the notion that something is obviously immoral. When non-religious people try to claim slavery or concubinage is evil, they have no leg to stand on when their morality is entirely built on human inclinations and the vast majority of humans in history allowed some form of slavery and concubinage. What makes their modern inclinations more worth considering than what humans have inclined to for centuries?

5. Effect

You can show something is moral or immoral if you can show it causes something else which is agreed upon to be good or bad or beneficial or harmful.

This is the hardest of all moral arguments because people by nature already avoid harm. So, if something causes harm obviously, they would avoid it without needing people to tell them.

Thus, if one uses this argument, it would not be in something that is very obvious. It would be something that causes harm in an indirect or non-obvious way.

Allah says about wine and gambling:

Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?

Quran 5:91

He also said:

They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” […]

Quran 2:219

Allah justifies the prohibition of gambling based on its effect of causing sin and animosity between people.

In this way, we can argue against many things and in favor of many other things due to their effects.

In the modern day, Zina is a major example of something that needs to be argued against in this way. The effects of rampant Zina in society are gradually becoming evident to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

A Warning

Inviting people to believe in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) should remain the primary goal, and inviting them to lesser issues of morality should be treated as it is: lesser. It may be useful in many cases, but it is not the final goal.

Moral arguments should also not be the only tool of responding to moral objections about Islam. Not everything can be explained in this way, and there should still be much appeal to God’s wisdom.

Even when this method is used, it should be made clear that we accept God’s judgements without objection even if we do not understand them, and justifications of this form are only theories to help understand His wisdom.

And Allah knows best.

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