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How to unlock the value of Islamic ethics in a violent, dangerous world

Islam is not a monolith, and understanding its source code has value for everyone. Amit Dave/Reuters

People in liberal democracies are becoming increasingly conscious of Islam. One reason for this is that more and more Muslims are moving into countries where they’ve not been common before.

The faith’s dress code is another reason. It makes Muslims, women particularly, more visible.

But this supposed awareness of Islam tends to view the faith as a monolith. The religion is too often viewed as a single way of being and doing. Many people see Islam as a set of beliefs that can’t necessarily be reconciled with freedom, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

There have been a litany of [atrocities]( and [injustices]( against innocent others. Such acts perpetuate the rift between liberal societies’ conceptions of a civilised world and their flawed construction of a Muslim world.

In reality, the practices of Muslims and conceptions of Islam are diverse, broad and all-encompassing. So are social conflicts. Dystopian declines are so intricately intertwined that it is challenging to separate social and political from economic or environmental calamities.

The world is in turmoil. Terrible acts are being carried out in the name of Islam. This has contributed to a global wave of Islamophobia. In our [new book](, Ethical Dimensions of Muslim Education, we propose a possible response. This involves introducing some of the ethical precepts of a Muslim education to people regardless of their religious beliefs.

When considering contemporary violence, oppression or terrorism (acts of dystopia) associated with Muslims, as well as heightened levels of Islamophobia – such as those advocated by US presidential candidate Donald Trump – it’s important to ask: how would an ethical being – the ethical expression of Muslim education – respond?

Finding an ethical response

First, [we argue]( for deliberative engagement that recognises the right of every person or group to articulate their views in a spirit of mutuality and difference.

Such engagement would quell any attempt by groups or individuals to superimpose their views on others. Instead, such views should be shared and argued for. This is a matter of enacting shūrā, or mutual consultation. In fact, any approach not constituted by deliberation and just action is no different from the animosities expressed through languages of marginalisation and exclusion.

Second, an ethical community cannot be held hostage by distorted interpretations of the Quran that undermine human beings’ natural state of purity (fitrā) by, for example, justifying acts of terror. It also cannot be held hostage by hate speech, whose only function is to demonise.

Third, individual autonomy (ijtihād) can do much to oppose and even eradicate authoritarianism and patriarchy. These remain pervasive in some spheres of the Arab and Muslim world. In some countries political dictatorships, social and familial structures exclude minority voices. This often results in political excommunication and gender inequality.

Patriarchal interpretations have seen Muslim women depicted as embodying the moral basis of Islam. How she dresses, her purity, her devotion to her family and her level of domesticity have been presented as the cornerstone of Islamic values. To a large extent, patriarchal constructions have relegated Muslim women to the private domain of the home.

Ironically the treatment by liberal democracies of Muslim women – in regulating the hijab – has a similar effect as patriarchy. Muslim women are forced to retreat to the sanctity of their homes.

And yet, patriarchal constructions of Muslim women are fundamentally irreconcilable with Quranic interpretations. The Quran affords recognition not only to gender equality, but to individual autonomy. Through individual autonomy, it is possible to advance the ethics of the Quran, and with these Islam’s social and compassionate responsibility.

These precepts and approaches are relevant to anyone who believes in the tenets of justice and fairness.

Purity of being

Undertaking a Muslim education – coming to understand the faith’s teachings and its ideas about humanity – can have enormous value for anyone who wishes to tackle social conflicts.

As with many religions, Islam has a strong ethical backbone. An understanding of its teachings, though, can’t be derived from the actions of a few (and often only those who act humanely). They must be drawn from Islam’s source code: the Quran and defensible interpretations of it.

Conceptions of Muslim education are couched in the Quran and in the Sunnah, or lived experiences, of the Prophet Muhammad.

To be educated in this way is to have knowledge of God and his message. It is also to call others to this knowledge by virtues and just acts (adab), righteousness (birr), mutual consultation (shūrā), mercy (rahmah), patience (sabr), forgiveness (maghfirah), goodness (khayr), truth (haqq) and justice (‘adl).

These virtues emanate from what the Quran describes as human beings’ natural state of purity (fitrā). Because humans are described as embodying God’s spirit (rūh), it stands to reason they are naturally inclined towards God and everything that is just and pure.

We contend that propagating a Muslim education as an expression of ethics is tied neither to a particular Muslim identity nor to external expressions of identity and rituals. Rather, the idea finds resonance in the practices of an ethical being: an individual who is attentive to herself, to others and to the world around her.

Conflict is inevitable

There is an important element that accompanies the Quranic notion of an ethical being. This is the insistence on cultivating individual autonomy (ijtihād) and is considered a necessary precursor to conceptions of mutual consultation (shūrā) and disagreement (ikhtilāf).

So, the Quran acknowledges that personal and social conflict is inevitable. At the same time, it hints at the centrality of these three practices in human interaction. The presence or persistence of conflict, as encountered through difference, is constitutive of any social gathering.

This isn’t simply a matter of arguing that the Quran offers an ethical response to local and global ills. Rather, it says those who lay claim to the message of Islam, as articulated through the Quran and the Sunnah, have a responsibility to act and speak out against all forms of dystopia. This responsibility manifests in harmonious and balanced relationships between individuals.

Advancing human co-existence

The sort of ethical enunciation of Muslim education we are [espousing]( can advance human co-existence. How? Through non-imposition and the recognition of all people as humanely equals, irrespective of their religious, cultural, ethnic and ideological differences.

In this way, people can autonomously determine their own understandings of the good life.

At the same time they can enact such understandings in a spirit of peaceful co-existence. Their own understandings of the good life would depend on a renewed understanding of Quranic ethics that draws on notions of equality, recognition of difference – and an acknowledgement that things can be otherwise.

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