Ethics, Moral Relativism and Islam

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This article is an essay/op-ed by I Kahn. Pen-icon2.png
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Many Muslims in justification of the deeds of Muhammad propose that we view his life with a sense of moral relativism. Succinctly put; do not juxtapose the standard of morality practiced in today’s West dominated society to the rituals and life styles of 1400 years ago. This can only be construed as an admission that moral values of today are incongruous with those followed at the time of Muhammad. The assumption is that many if not most moral values have evolved, transformed even revolutionised themselves in to a framework unrecognisable from the time when they were practiced over a millennia ago. Hence his marriage and its subsequent consummation (3 years later) with a 6 year old, his violent looting of passing booty laden caravans, his bloody conquests of non-Muslim tribes, his aggressive (rarely defensive) policy of imperialist Islamic expansionism, his penchant to acquire slaves and regard women as spoils of war etc. must be viewed within a context of Arabia at the time. This as far as justifications go is fair enough. Life then mostly was barbaric and brutish and Muhammad, fair play to him, was a product of his time. It certainly does facilitate the absolution of Muhammad from many of his “misdemeanour's”.

The problem however is that this leaves Muhammad in a very precarious position. As a “perfect” human being and faultless messenger of a supreme being delivering the final and absolute word on the subject of morality and ethics to be practiced on Earth he puts himself on a pedestal as the epitome of what is righteous and virtuous. So far so good. The issue however gets trickier when the acceptance of the finality and absoluteness of his message is made a pre-requisite for all Muslims if they are to qualify themselves in to the realm of Islam. Not only is a Muslim expected to follow the written letter of the Qur'an to its logical conclusion (whatever that may be), he is also necessitated to glorify the life of Muhammad by imitating and replicating his behaviour and lifestyle to its very last detail. Muslims take pride in attempting to mirror Muhammad’s mannerisms and are filled with a fetishistic desire to be as close to “perfection” as Muhammad himself supposedly was.

It is hard to tell whether the Muslim apologists who justify Muhammad’s pedophilic (according to today’s morals I may add) relationship with Aisha and his self-initiated barbaric and violent episodes on the battlefield would consider such acts as relevant, appropriate and practicable in the 21st century. They seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one. Presumably sexual intercourse with a 9 year old is as morally legitimate today as it was 1400 years ago since it was practiced by the “Prophet” himself. They have a choice either to submit themselves wholeheartedly to the practices of Muhammad - absolutely, as what is required of them, or they should abandon what they themselves regard as morals not of this time and age. We really have to view this diametrically; it is either one or the other but certainly not both or neither. Muhammad, according to the logical assertion of the moral relativists themselves, keeping in mind the polarity of contemporary versus 7th century morality, was either right then or still is now; not both. Would an Islamic army conquering and overwhelming an infidel land today be as justified to acquire slaves, keep women as objects of sexual gratification and loot every last treasured possession as was the case in the 7th century? If yes, then the Muslim apologists can take pride in calling themselves true ambassadors of Islam since they are not abandoning the very practices their beloved Prophet practiced. However, if they view such acts as morally reprehensible and inhumane, all be it according to today’s “West dominated morality”, then they would be doing their Prophet a great disservice.

See, the issue is not as much about morality as it is about ethics. Morality is transitionary, fluid and interpretable. Ethics are not. Slavery may be morally acceptable on one part of the planet at a certain time; it however is not ethical, ever. Contrary to the dishonest and frankly ignorant rhetoric of many Muslims, Muhammad never sought to abolish slavery and nor did any of the verses in the Qur'an. He succeeded only in institutionalizing slavery within Islam and what by many are regarded as indicative acts of an “humanistic” approach towards slavery he merely assured its legitimacy was perpetuated. The “humanistic” acts themselves range from monetary transactions by which a slave may buy his freedom to the penalty imposed on a Muslim who as punishment for killing another Muslim must free his slave. Slavery has been prevalent throughout Islamic history from the time of Muhammad right up till now in places such as Sudan and parts of Saudi Arabia. Anything that restricts the free movement of a human being is antithetical to the very essence of what is righteous and ethical and this axiom is unalterable in any dimension.

Similarly, equally ethically vacuous examples of Muhammad’s acts include sexual intercourse with a girl yet to reach double figures, forceful (by all standards of common-sense) conversions to Islam of non-Muslims and non-consensual sexual intercourse with women gathered as spoils of war. As pressing as the practical needs of survival owing to his unorthodoxy were in the savage lands of Arabia in the time of Muhammad his survival certainly did not critically necessitate unprovoked violence, taking women and children as hostages, looting innocuous caravans and taxing minorities for reasons no other than the fact that they were non-Muslims. I shudder at the thought of me, or indeed anyone, having to pay a tax because they were not of the right race, colour, creed, religion, ideology or persuasion in today's free world. Yet this sort of institutionalised discrimination, akin to racism, is precisely what has been prescribed in the Qur'an for all time. Ethics transcend place and time; one would imagine the ultimate Prophet, who expected his minions to mimic his behaviour as a sign of devotion to Allah, would display enough sagacity to raise himself above the incumbent bankrupt morality of the time rather than being another cog in its perpetuation.

For a Muslim to consider the morality of 1400 years ago as irrelevant today would be an indication of clear and unequivocal rejection of the practices and beliefs of Muhammad. And let’s face it, when one or some of Muhammad’s teachings are discarded, his bubble of unquestionable perfection is pricked rendering all the rest of his teachings open to ridicule. Soon the whole concept of Islam would dismantle like a pack of cards such is the precarious precision of its belief system and its reliance on blind submission to unquestionable and most importantly of all unalterable constructs.

A true Muslim is not one who practices morality of today but that of 1400 years ago.

See Also