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Reason and Revelation in Islamic Moral Reasoning

In recent years, attempts have been made to engage Muslim scholars in the ongoing debate in the area of business ethics in the West. At the center of this debate is the role of ethical principles and rules in the moral assessment of an action in Western thinking. Such assessment can be developed from at least four different perspectives: those of the agent, the act itself, the end, and the consequences. They offer different viewpoints about the meaning and nature of moral principles and rules as they are applied to different types of moral dilmmas. In fact, many disputes in applied ethics in the West stem from disputes about the generalizability and applicability of more than one of these normative principles that function as action-guides, categorizing actions as morally required, prohibited, or permitted. Moreover, there exists the great variety of principle-based approaches that focus on general principles as sources of rules, and rules that specify type of prohibited, required, or permitted actions before any particular judgments can be derived in cases dealing with questionable business practices.

While this conceptual apparatus is helpful, it does not enable Westerners to delineate the pattern of Islamic moral reasoning. Without adequate training in the Islamic legal sciences, especially legal theory, one cannot pinpoint the principles and the rules that Muslim jurists utilize to justify and assess moral-legal decisions within their own cultural environment. The process has combined revelation and reason. The convergence between the divine command that human beings must treat each other justly and the rational cognition of justice being good encouraged Islamic jurists to formulate specific moral-legal judgments first and then to search for principles that can be generalized and then applied to new cases. The method, refined over centuries, yields certitude in moral judgment. By working back and forth between legal doctrines and rules, on the one hand, and analogical reasoning based on paradigm cases, on the other, Muslim jurists are able to resolve ethical dilemmas that face the community in dealing with immediate questions about economic issues: banking, taking interest, advertising, and so on. The practical judgments or legal opinions, known as fatawa, reflect the insights of a jurist who has been able to connect cases to an appropriate set of linguistic and rational principles and rules that provide keys to a valid conclusion of a case under consideration.

This pattern of moral reasoning should not be seen as a lock-step deductive model. The Qur`an uses the word al-ma`ruf (the "commonly known" paradigms) for the generalized principles which must be inferred from concrete ethical practice of everyday life. It made no attempt to lay down a comprehensive moral system because it treated morality as "the known," al-ma`ruf. Al-ma`ruf, in the meaning of moral behavior in the Qur`an, signifies "goodness," a "good quality or action," gentleness in any action, or deed, of which goodness is known by reason and by the revelation." Muslim jurists have been working out practical ways of carrying out more efficient proceedings in view of the changed circumstances of commercial life, without setting aside the more idealistic provisions of the law as basic norms. The justification provided by these jurists was to argue that there is a correlation between "known" moral convictions and God's purposes as mentioned in revelation.

Adapted from the book: "The Issue of Riba in Islamic Faith and Law" by: "Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina"

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