English Articles

 Morality and Spirituality

Four questions that each panelist is asked to respond:

1. What is your definition of morality? What are your motivations?
2. How do we go about moral reasoning if we are faced with a dilemma?
3. How do you translate your understanding of morality into your daily life?
4. Is there a universal morality (is morality possible w/out religion/spirituality?)

Introductory remarks

I WOULD LİKE TO THANK friends from Christian Science Organization for giving me the opportunity to present my ideas on an important subject of our time. When I say our time I mean both our American time and also our global time. Domestic clock or public discourse in the US isn’t always in tandem with international clock or global discourse. However, now the question of morality is at the forefront of both discourses and indeed this is a timely panel. Today, not only American society feels divided more than ever before but also the division between US and the rest of the world is felt more than ever before. The fault line is argued to be moral values in both cases. There is another paradox too. At a time when United States (America abroad) appears to be the most immoral state on earth for its unilateral military actions and its imposition of its order through war and destruction, the US domestically (America-at-home) is allegedly experiencing the resurgence of morality as its leaders lay bold claims to moral values as determinants of their policies. There are many more paradoxes regarding this unprecedented resurgence of ‘moral values’ talk in this country. As members of different faith groups we are here to share our perspectives with each other.

Q 1: What is your definition of morality? What are your motivations?

Let me begin with the first question which is probably one of the most difficult. My definition of morality, from an Islamic point of view, derives from the following framework. There are four sources that lead us through the path to truth. These are two books, a man and a sense (let’s temporarily call it the sixth sense).

  1. the first book is the Revelation (the revealed book of QUR’AN and by the same token other revealed books). It is the user manual of the second book.

  2. the second book is the Grand Book of the UNIVERSE the verses of which are embodiment of the verses of written book, Qur’an. Hence there is not any contradiction between the descriptions of these two books. Understanding either of them requires use of REASON, inquiry and contemplation.

  3. the third source is a man: Prophet MUHAMMED (upon whom be peace) who is the guide in our orientation tour in the universe and he is the first reciter and messenger of the revealed book. He links himself to earlier prophets and his message to their messages.

  4. the fourth source is a sense. It is called CONSCIENCE. Every men and women in the world has it. It is the entity that resists our ego on behalf of goodness (God, society etc). It constantly urges us towards sublime quests. It is what both atheists and believers have in common.

Each of these four sources that give shape to our otherwise fluid, disoriented existence are in harmony and voice the same universal message: We human beings exist not in ourselves and by ourselves. We exist as part of a greater universe and unlike any other species in the universe, we are equipped with a freedom which is as powerful and as risky as the ring (of the Lord of the Rings). We can oscillate between the worst of the worst and the best of the best. We can go beyond angels and we can fall below the level of animals. The history of humanity is full of stories of tyrants, pharaohs as well as those of prophets and peoples whose memory is associated with love, compassion and guidance. Those who read both books, listen to the tour guide and follow their inner voice learn lessons that many of us call religion.

Religion is called Islam among Muslims. Let’s call them the Ten Commandments. Since we are given free will to go either direction we are also made subject to a test, to a final judgment on the basis of which we will be either rewarded or penalized. Heaven and hell are extensions of this life and without them one of the strongest sense in human beings, the sense of dignity and justice would have been betrayed. If this is how we live in this world, than it is a certainty that there is a hereafter where all incomplete files will be closed. (It is this belief in hereafter that releases the otherwise explosive tension that cruel acts create. If some people blow up themselves against some forms of oppression this is not because their belief in hereafter is too strong but because their belief in hereafter is too weak.) If there is a God, there has to be a hereafter.

However, the lowest level for a person who recognizes his creator and purpose in this universe is to do things for either fear of hell or for the pleasures of paradise. Yet nowhere one can find an order and justice (call it Law and Order) without punishment and reward. Hence, morality arises out of one’s recognition of his purpose in this life and in response to the demands of his or her Creator. Heaven and hell are only lower limits for moral action not the upper limits. Not committing crimes is part of good citizenship but definitely it is not the end of it.

Q 2. How do we go about moral reasoning if we are faced with a dilemma?

Perpetrators of immoral acts betray their book, betray the harmony and balance of the grand book of the universe (i.e., ecological crisis) and betray their conscience. They follow their ego for which things are either useful (pleasure) or useless/harmful (pain). The idea that human beings are self-interested, autonomous beings is a modern idea and it constitutes the basis of our modern society. It is also the premise upon which the idea of republic is built. It is the premise upon which the definition of freedom is made. One’s freedom ends where that of another begins. Modern concept of freedom is defined in terms of enslavement to one’s own ego and it is regulated through balance of power between egos. Often times community and society turn out to be nothing but aggregate egos.

Is it not interesting that selfish talk at the individual level is not welcomed while selfish talk at the collective level (e.g., “national interests”) is applauded? Why something wrong and ugly at the individual level remains unchallenged at the national level?

What is called moral behavior in a purely modern society is possible only through the fear of “others”. It is ‘neighborhood watch’ or ‘police camera’ or ‘credit history fear’ that produces moral behavior in our modern society. It doesn’t emanate from one’s inner self, if that person has turned off his conscience. Pure societies of self-interested individuals actually don’t have ethics or morality. It is true that we never find purely self-interested societies and individuals. Thanks to surviving influence of religions and social justice movement such as socialism, we have a set of norms and a culture of rights. Had modern societies could have become purely utilitarian, they would not be short of Nazism.

If you want to measure the level of morality of a society, cut their electricity/power off at night and watch what happens. See how individuals behave in the absence of others (of course, in the absence of God as well). I think that this is a good way of measuring how civilized and how moral a society is. I think that morally weak societies tend to need stronger rule of law to be viable. After all, that’s how individuals are contained and order is secured.

When I read this question I could not help but think about a recent small incident in Falluja. It was captured by a camera and made its way to news networks. An American soldier kills an Iraqi who is armless and wounded. Let’s not mention that it takes place inside the mosque. For this soldier what is the moral dilemma? The cost of a wounded POW is greater than a bullet. After all, Iraqis who don’t welcome their occupation are less than dirt. But I think that soldier’s conscience will not let him get away with what he did even at the time of war. Because unlike many other dead Iraqis who were killed by chemical bombs in Fallujah and hence they didn’t have a chance to see their killers, this Iraqi had an eye contact with his killer. His eyes probably spoke to that soldier’s conscience.

Q 3. How do you translate your understanding of morality into your daily life?

For a self-interested individual, for whom right and wrong are products of his principle of pleasure, life is divided into two parts: On-stage and off-stage. He is nothing but an actor. He is good only when he has to be good. When the microphone is hot or when the camera is on. Off the stage, his language changes. So do his behaviors. Society needs to increase the mechanism of control to keep him within the limits of morality.

Whereas those who believe in something other than their ego (that can be social good, but what fool would believe in that unless it is to his interest?) are those whose on-stage and off-stage lives have little, if any, discrepancy. They can be religious but religion as I said earlier is not the only basis of moral behavior. A person who listens to his/her conscience can also be a good person. But once again moral behavior is that which you do when it might be contrary to your individual interests.

Q 4. Is there a universal morality (is morality possible w/out religion/spirituality)?

As discussed earlier there are four basis of moral behavior. Some of them are specific to Islam. Some of them are shared by other (Abrahamic) religions. And the fourth one, conscience is the universal basis of moral behavior in every human being. It is where revelation finds echo when it is perceived without interruption. Societies also build grounds for moral behavior and socialize its incoming members (children) accordingly. Therefore, even when they are not religious people might be moral. But if you really dig up that morality, you will end up with two sources. It is either fear of others that society instills in its members in a sublime, elevated way by presenting them as mores and ethical conduct, or it is a leftover of a religious principle but the person no longer makes that connection. The universal morality is morality of conscience which runs across many religions and humanist ideologies. It is probably the ultimate common ground that we all share.


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