In one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, a question is posed about ethics and morality that has become known as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’. Socrates asks Euthyphro, do the gods love something because it is good, or is something good because the gods love it.
The problem forces us to consider whether the nature of ‘goodness’ is arbitrary or whether it is an ontological necessity i.e., is there something out there which can be termed moral. The stance taken with regards to this question plays a major role in our conception of jurisprudence and law.
The Euthyphro dilemma is universal in scope so has been addressed by philosophers and scholars of jurisprudence across eras and civilisations.
For monotheists, who believe in a universe with an eternal omnipotent Creator, potential paradoxes arise:
To preserve the omnipotence of the Creator from a theory of external morality, voluntarist theology and command ethics argue moral actions are those that God commands. Morality is the same as God’s law, and is subject to God’s will. This does not necessarily make it arbitrary as that would require understanding how God's will works.
An alternative view famously put forward by Thomas Aquinas is that of natural law which sees morality as objective, inscribed into the universe and accessible to human reason. Human-posited law is based on a natural law from which it draws its power to bind.
However, there are evident problems with an ontological morality.
As a reaction to these problems, modern legal positivism attempted to sever the link between legality and morality by building legal validity on promulgation of norms for a given society, thus allowing law to be subject to human conceptions of ‘goodness’.
Despite centuries of theorising, the question of how we can discern or theorise what determines and comprises ‘goodness’ and how to translate this into law is still unanswered.
This obedience to God is celebrated in religion, and it is his submission which makes Abraham God’s khalil and beloved prophet (Qur'an 37:99-112). The most commonly proposed Islamic response to the status of morality thus became one of ethical voluntarism, or “theistic subjectivism” whereby something is good only because God declares it so, not because it is ontologically so. This is the position of the Ashʿarite school of kalam which eventually came to prevail over its early contender, the Muʿtazilite school.
For the Ash’arites, divine revelation was the source for both legislation and knowledge of morality, ‘goodness’ or al-maslaha al-shar'ia. This resulted in a theory of command ethics and the relegation of human intellect to uncovering God’s law rather than determining law or determining what is ethical. Jurists are mubayyinun not musharri'un. This meant legally sanctioned ‘goodness’ as opposed to that determined by human consciousness “(Wa min shurut al-ilhaq biha [maqasid al-shari’a]) ayy bi-sabab al-illa (ishtimalaha ala hikma tab’ath) al-mukallaf (ala al-imtithal wa-taslah shahid li-inaṭat al-hukm) bi-l-illa ka-hifz al-nufus”,
This response was justified with the aim of protecting the omnipotence of God in theory, for if true maslaha were objective and thus independent of God’s commands, then God would be held accountable to it, which is anathema to the concept of a free and all-powerful God. Consequently, the Ash’arite school accepted that if God commanded murder or theft, the performance of these actions would be morally good.
Despite this, the theory of maqasid al-shari’a (theory of the higher objectives of Islamic law, hereafter maqasid) holds that God, out of His infinite wisdom and mercy, has broadly aligned His commands with what is morally intelligible to human intellect. The five maqasid, or objectives, of the law, are commonly defined as the protection of: religion, life, intellect, progeny and property, and are derived from an inductive reading of scripture (al-istiqra al-kulli min adillat al-shari’a).
Therefore, while allowing revealed law to be morally intelligible to human intellect, the theory still maintains the textualist and prescriptive hermeneutic necessary for a morality of theistic subjectivism and jurisprudential theory of command ethics. The great scholar Taj al-Din al-Subki (d.769 H/1368) saw this moral intelligibility as a necessity in encouraging humans to comply with the law. Similarly, late classical aqida texts such as Ibrahim al-Laqani’s (d.1041 H/1631) al-Mahalli affirm the obligation to believe God preserves these maqasid.
Nevertheless, the prescriptive interpretations necessitated that positive law be derived from the Qurʾan and hadith literature, and scholarly consensus, ijma. In the absence of an answer to legal problems in these sources, analogies to the texts were made, whereby the effective legal causes of rulings, ilal, are identified and applied to new situations. The methods for identification of such legal causes were dealt with in books of usul, sources of law, under the heading masalik al-illa, methods for identifying effective legal causes. In the rare instances when it was not possible to identify an appropriate illa in the texts and apply it to a particular new situation, there was recourse to al-maslaha al-mursala, unrestricted interests. This option required invocation of the maqasid to determine the ruling.
Although there were classical debates on the acceptability of maslaha, the conclusion was that an acceptable use of maslaha must be scripturally grounded.
For Muslims, the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is a paradigmatic symbol of uncomprehending obedience. Muslims generally view moral actions are those which God commands, morality is equated with God’s law and subject to God’s will. The Mutazalites, a minority fringe group, historically argued morality was objective but did not go as far as arguing that God is judged by this objective standard.
Ahmad Dallal, “Appropriating the past: Twentieth-Century Reconstruction of Pre-Modern Islamic Thought” Islamic Law and Society
Hunt Janin and André Kahlmeyer, Islamic Law: The Sharia from Muhammad's Time to the Present
Trends in modernist approaches to the study of maqāṣid al-sharī'a with special reference to al-Shāṭibī’s al-Muwāfaqāt fī Uṣūl al-Sharīʿ - A Neo-Muʿtazilism in the writings of Aḥmad al-Raysūnī and others
Wael Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories
Wael Hallaq, Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations
Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics
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