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What Is Ethics?


According to the Islamic scholars,2 ethics includes all human traits which are brought about either by heredity or environment and which make up one’s personality influencing one’s deeds, conducts thoughts and speech.

Raghib in his Mufradat al-Qur’an says that the two terms "Khalq" (creation) and "Khulq" (human traits) are, in fact, identical; but the former refers to superficial configurations which are observable with naked eyes, whereas the latter refers to the internal powers and innate goodness which are only observable with the hearts.3

Regarding this, Imam ‘Ali (as) has said: "Khulq refers to the soul, whereas khalq refers to the body".4

As the bodies are different among people; some are beautiful, and some are ugly, the souls are different as well; some are nice, others are inhuman. In the final analysis, the structure of human body relies on the rules of creation, which are beyond humans to tamper with; whereas sour behaviors and traits are for the most part learned and are formed through hardships.

Ibn Miskawayh in his book Taharat al-A'raq writes," Khulq is one of the traits of human self which entices man to carry out his daily affairs without thinking. It is of two types:

Some part of it is natural and rests on the human nature. An example is when a man becomes furious over minor things or fears insignificant events or becomes happy or depressed.

The other part of it relies on our customs and practices. This part at first rested, no doubt, on thought but later, due to practice and repetition takes on a habitual status; then it works with no thought at all."5

Thus, our physical traits are not considered as our ethical traits unless they have become constant. For instance, a person does not acquire the trait of generosity by random acts of generosity; neither is he termed brave by just randomly engaging in brave actions.

Thus traits take on the status of khulq only when they manifest themselves as constant, occurring without thought or consideration.6


But this does not contradict the optional nature of these traits since man is capable of either carrying them out or avoiding them as a whole,7 although it is hard to stop doing habitual things.8

Furthermore, as it is proven elsewhere, since from the beginning he could either form habits or abandon them, thus he has been free from the beginning to make the choices he likes.9


2. In our future disscusions we will see that the basics for ethics are different in the views of the western scholars. What we say here are the beliefs of the Islamic scholars.

3. Raghib's al-Mufradat, under the term khulq p.158.

4.Ghurar wa Durar, vol. 7, p.95, vol.3, p,382.

5.Taharat al-A’raq is juxtaposed to Mulla Sadra's Mabda' wa Ma’ad. p.385.

6.But as we will later see some consider one's deeds and daings as ethics taking no account of the constant khulq. They think these constant traits are not among good deeds since they are done by habit.

7. It is true that those temperaments which have taken habitual form usually act without thinking, But it is not the case that they cannot exercise their choice. A man can stop performing such deeds when he decides to. Thus Amir al-Mu'minin (as) has emphasized on the one hand the abandonment of bad habits saying, "Control yourself by abandoning habits; struggle with your desires", and has considered this abandonment as a sort of prayer, on the other hand.

8. The eleventh Imam, al-Askari (as) has said, “Training an ignorant person and making a person habituated to an act abandon his habit, is like a miracle." (Tuhaf al-‘Uqul, p 489).

9. Refer to Determinism and Free will written by the present author, and Haj Mulla Hadi Sabzvari's Manzumah, p.174.

Adapted from: "Imam 'Ali's First Treatise on The Islamic Ethics and Education" by: "Zainol Aabideen Qorbani Lahiji"