Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

By Aasem Bakhshi

Socrates: If that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. […] But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not and what is impiety?
Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. (Euthyphro, Plato’s Dialogues)

But you will not unless God wills; surely God is ever All-knowing, All-wise. (Al-Quran, 76:30)

So they departed; until, when they met a lad, he slew him. He said, ‘What, hast thou slain a soul innocent, and that not to retaliate for a soul slain? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing. (Al-Quran, 18:74)

Moses and KhidrThe story of Moses and the wise man (known as Khidr in Islamic tradition), related in 18th chapter of Quran, invites our attention towards a classical moral dilemma: Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will? As he holes the boat about to take passengers, slays an innocent lad and responds to a town’s inhospitality by setting up their tumbling down wall, Khidr repeatedly disturbs Moses’ preconceived notion of morality as well as ours. An unbiased and careful reader of Quran is therefore justified in asking whether an all benevolent and sovereign God can make it just and good to kill an innocent boy for crimes he had not committed hitherto. Putting it in perspective, If something is good only because God wills it so (as entailed by God’s sovereignty) then there is nothing that can be called intrinsically good or bad and mankind is oblivious regarding ultimate nature of morality. Furthermore, the idea of Godly benevolence would seem empty and problematic; perhaps, best described in the words of C.S. Lewis

…if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘Righteous Lord’

This kind of moral dilemma, though not discussed by Islamic philosophers explicitly, is indirectly an important part of traditional as well as modernists Islamic discourse regarding nature and concept of God. Theologically speaking, the question of ultimate nature of morality is understandably inseparable from the nature of God; and interestingly, the more concrete and rigorous your concept of God, the more apt you are to run into difficulties as to what are the actual origins of moral standards.

There seems to be two possible reasons for this conflict. Firstly, the academic classification of epistemology, theology and ethics are fairly modern and classical Islamic philosophy of the tradition of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes is virtually non-existent since well before Descartes; hence, it is not easy (if not impossible) to fill this gap of at least three centuries. Secondly, a conventional religious mind, unaware of logical tensions in his belief, necessarily speculates about the nature of God (and thus morality) by way of revelation, thus garbing a primarily epistemological question into a theological one.

Albeit academically necessary, it is not of immediate importance (perhaps too difficult) to comment upon the complete tradition of Islamic ethics. Suffice it to say that with the exception of Mutazilites and initial Muslim philosophers of Peripatetic tradition, most of the scholars believed that humanity is always in need of Divine guidance to settle the ultimate moral questions. Some of them, for instance Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah, linked the moral question with original unaltered nature of human being but failed to satisfactorily incorporate revelation into the model. Others circumvented the question altogether. But literalists among them, like Ibn Hazm, went so far as to claim that categories of good and bad are not something existing per se, and if God so desires, he can punish good and reward evil.

In the modern times, Shah Wali Allah has explained God’s customary way of acting in some detail in his magnum opus Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Conclusive Argument from God), regarding which Quran mentions at several places (e.g., 33:62 and 35:43):

…and never wilt thou find any change in God’s way.

According to him, God’s perpetual creativity always moves all the causes in the universe to attain absolute good; and the knowledge of mankind, though well aware of the immediate action proceeding from an obvious cause, cannot encompass the complete causal structure in the universe and is thus liable to face conflicts. How Shah Wali Allah further explains the nature of Divine creativity is beyond the context of present discourse, but it can be safely assumed that he is trying to access the moral problem through theory of knowledge besides employing the usual theological operators from revelation. In a nutshell, I would dare say that if Shah Wali Allah would try to resolve our present dilemma he would argue that even though God can reward evil and punish good if He desires so, it is against His customary way of acting; a kind of Divine resolve which He never violates.

This brings us back to the narrative of Moses and Khidr. Interestingly in the verse immediately preceding the narrative (18:65), Quran points towards the nature of knowledge possessed by Khidr: we had taught him knowledge proceeding from Ourselves; thus supplying enough epistemic grounds within the revelation to resolve the so called Euthyphro’s dilemma.

But moving further from here onwards on a different note, questions may be asked as to how revelation is justified as a universal tool for comprehending morality, and for that matter, the ultimate nature of truth? Are there any pure philosophical means using which one can proceed testing the character and medium of revelation (I assume there may exist some scattered pointers in critical and post critical theories of text)? or should we instead try to metaphysically vindicate the religious experience itself, like Ghazali or Iqbal?


PS: Euthyphro’s dilemma is elegantly presented by the guys at where they let us talk with God and help us reveal the tensions inherent in our belief which we might not be aware of.



Filed under Islam, Philosophy

23 responses to “Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

  1. PGill

    How can we find out what is God’s will? From Bible? Quran?
    How do you prove that these books – or any other book like Rig Veda- represent God’s will?

  2. amar

    The concept of revelation “works” in an environment of ignorance, fear, tribalism, groupism, hierarchical societal construct etc. It fossilizes a time and place bound tribal morality and mentality for eternal use. If a new revelation comes up then it slowly enters into a state of conflict with older ones. It is like the old muslim way of killing brother princes when the prince becomes the king. An attempt is made to declare a particular revelation as the final revelation, but that makes the problem worse since this finalism ends up in bloodshed.

  3. Probyn

    ‘It is like the old muslim way of killing brother princes when the prince becomes the king’

    thus spaketh amar…

    (this was more or less an Ottoman thing for some time and was seen as a cold, practical matter)

    Someone…no…Vajra!….may I request you to please come forward and give this unrestrained Islamophobe a history lesson?

  4. Perspective

    Abrahamophobe? As per Outlook India, the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Talmiz Ahmad, has a book: “Children of Abraham at War: The Clash of Messianic Militarisms”.

    Quote: The book is a tapestry of pertinent quotations from scholars, all leading to Talmiz’s basic thesis: all conflicts, particularly in the West Asian theatre, however one-sided, fall back on the belief that aggravation of the conflict might precipitate Armageddon, a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ, or any other manifestation of the Messiah. Continuous conflict, according to these belief systems, hold promise of bringing man closer to the bliss of afterlife.”

  5. O J DEEN

    Now, let us see what the Holy Qur’an says about a True Muslim. God Almighty has commanded us, in the Holy Qur’an, that a Muslim should enjoin what is good and forbid evil; and if you do that, in that lies your greatness.
    As God says,
    “You are the best people raised for the good of mankind; you enjoin what is good and forbid evil and believe in God…” (Holy Qur’an, Ch. 3: v. 111)

    Muslims Created For The Good of Mankind
    Now, as stated in the Holy Qur’an, you have been created for the good of mankind. So, it cannot be that a person should be created for the good of mankind, but nothing except mischief should come from him and mankind should suffer from him and be terrorized by him.
    In fact, God Almighty has taught Muslims to work for the good of mankind, to guide them towards that which is good, to invite them towards God, their Creator, and to fulfil the obligations that they owe to Him and His people.
    Everyone should benefit from a Muslim. And Muslims should stop those among them who are involved in evil and are causing loss and suffering to people, and are killing God’s creatures without any just cause. In this commandment, therefore, a Muslim has been made responsible for the good and the betterment of the entire mankind.

  6. Perspective

    …a Muslim has been made responsible for the good and the betterment of the entire mankind.

    Responsibility is meaningless without authority, and therefore this is a justification for Muslim imperialism. “How can we uplift and better humankind without ruling over them?”

  7. Perspective

    Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

    For those who answer “No”, the usual corollary is that those who know God’s will are the custodians of moral standards, and those who do not know God’s will have no morals. And this is what is used to justify crusades and jihads.

    The answer to “are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?” is “we do not know, because no human now or ever knows or knew God’s will”.

  8. Watty

    Re: “Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?”

    A distinction between personal morality and social morality is important since they yield differing sets of moral standards. While it is possible to shape our personal morality to be consistent with God’s will, we may often find that social morality requires some deviations as our modern world is increasingly interconnected with other traditions, cultures and religions with which we have to coexist.

    A Muslim perseveres in his/her individual faith with a strong sense of self-discipline to develop a deep sense of devotion rooted in a strict code of personal morality . There is however the danger that such a devout Muslim can become possessive about his devotion. This sense of possessiveness is itself prohibited. True devotion requires that we step out of our own self and keep a distance from it – to practice detachment without possessiveness and essentially surrender oneself entirely to Allah the Almighty and Glorious.

    The prohibition on possessiveness over matters related to our devotion enables us to coexist with diverse traditions, faiths and cultures allowing us to practice our faith in full measure while abiding by the wider social standards. God’s will is benevolent to the entire creation.

  9. O J DEEN

    God guides mankind towards the cure of physical ailments why would He not do so in the sphere of spiritual ailment? In every age He sent Prophets for this reason and when human life became an amalgamation of spiritual ailments He sent the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) and revealed His perfect teaching which made beastly people into godly people. After an age, when even the Muslims forgot to put this teaching in practice, in accordance with His promise, God sent the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) who discovered pearls of knowledge in the existing teaching of the Holy Qur’an and cured spiritual ailments. He asserted that the cure of the ailments of the ummah was in this teaching. In medical field doctors make discoveries after long and arduous research, however God gave the cure for spiritual ailments 1400 years ago in the perfect Shariah and pious people in every age availed of it. In the latter-days, the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) informed us of the cures for the new ailments. He removed all doubts about any form of abrogation in this teaching and then alone the real cure and antidote could be appreciated.

  10. Bin Ismail

    “Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?”

    I would like to submit my humble opinion in response to this question.

    There are different levels of morality. The most elementary level of morality manifests itself through the expression of what is commonly known as the conscience. This is an innate human faculty, with which all humans, irrespective of their religious inclination, have been blessed. Even the child of atheist parents, who was born and brought up in a Godless environment, has this innate sense of right and wrong. Even the religionless child feels content on doing what is morally right and feels guilty on doing what is morally not right. This is a morality independent of any conscious appreciation of religious values. These could be termed as moral standards independent of a conscious belief in God. However, being independent of a conscious belief in God does not mean being independent of God’s will.

    Indeed, it is God who has willed that humans be blessed with a conscience, a conscience that operates with or without consciously believing in God. It is by God’s will that this conscience serves as a hidden priest sits inside man’s heart, who commends him on his morally right actions and reprimands him on his morally wrong actions. The Quranic term for the human conscience is “nafs lawwama” or the “reproving spirit”.

    Hence, while there may indeed be moral standards independent of an appreciation of God’s will, I believe that the innate moral sense in man is very much on account of God’s will.

    Religion serves man at all stages of moral refinement. Religion imparts to man a sense of God-consciousness. It is this God-consciousness that raises man’s morality to higher levels. Religion thus serves the purpose of refining man’s innate moral sense. It lends acuity to the human conscience. Thus God-consciousness gradually evolves into a real and viable relationship between man and God.

  11. @Probyn [October 29, 2010 at 9:22 pm]

    Tell him to read Tod for a healthy, balanced diet.

  12. Prasad

    Bin :: you are too good man…seldom have I come across a secular yet deeply religious man who also happens to be well educated……Kudos my friend for your decency and yet being stubbornly attached to your principles…wish all were like you!!

  13. curious me

    Well its hard to bring together both the greek and the judeo christian traditions(islam included), but in the later the position is that its holy/pious because god says its so, where as in the former because its good the Gods approve of it.

    And a more apt example of this would be the story of Abraham when he is commanded by God to sacrifice his Isaac. If he goes ahead with this it would be considered as murder, and therefore something wrong.
    And here in lies the dilemma.

    Kirekegard in “Fear and Trembling” deals with this issue from a quite a few angle, making it a must read for someone interested in the topic.

  14. curious me

    *his son Isaac

  15. curious me

    quite a few angles*

  16. Tilsim

    I find God through my heart.
    My conscience is my guide.
    Morals are my connection.

    We are all wayfarers,
    on different journies.
    For this,
    will you chastise me?

  17. readinglord

    Khizr is a very interesting character described perhaps only in Quran. According to one school of religious thought, Khizr is Imam, a person above prophet, who is not bound by Shariah or morality. They also place Ali and Salman Farsi also in the same category. The question arises why the people then follow the Mullah, who has become a demigod in the Pakiland with his ‘deen-e-fassaad’, labeled as Islam.

  18. Does this question not conveniently assume that god(s) exist?

  19. O J DEEN

    “You are the best people raised for the good of mankind; you enjoin what is good and forbid evil and believe in God…” (Holy Qur’an, Ch. 3: v. 111)
    Now, as stated in the Holy Qur’an, you have been created for the good of mankind. So, it cannot be that a person should be created for the good of mankind, but nothing except mischief should come from him and mankind should suffer from him and be terrorized by him.
    In fact, God Almighty has taught Muslims to work for the good of mankind, to guide them towards that which is good, to invite them towards God, their Creator, and to fulfil the obligations that they owe to Him and His people.
    Everyone should benefit from a Muslim. And Muslims should stop those among them who are involved in evil and are causing loss and suffering to people, and are killing God’s creatures without any just cause. In this commandment, therefore, a Muslim has been made responsible for the good and the betterment of the entire mankind.

  20. Bin Ismail

    @Tilsim (October 31, 2010 at 3:09 am)

    Beautiful and profoundly mystical, I must say.

  21. Gorki

    This is an exceptionally stimulating essay and I want to thank Aasem Bakhshi for posting it and for posting the links, especially to the philosophy experiments, which I enjoyed immensely.

    Morality and God is a topic that has fascinated mankind all over the globe.
    One of the most beautiful and thoughtful prose on this topic that I read was a poem from the Rig Veda (some may remember as a title song for a Shyam Benegal serialization of the discovery of India, Bharat Ek Khoj popular on the Indian TV in the 80s.) because it speculates on the topic of the Universe, Morality and God as one continuum.
    I will post a translation below:

    Goodness (being) did not exist before all things came to be
    Evil(nonbeing) did not exist either
    The atmosphere did not exist as well
    The sky too was not present
    Was anything hidden? Where?
    Who had covered it?
    At that moment
    Unmoving, strong ocean was not there either

    Who is the doer of all things?
    Is that a doer or non-doer?
    Living in the high skies?
    Always plays the part of the leader?
    Only that knows the truth
    Or maybe that does not
    No one knows really, No one knows
    No one knows really, No one knows

    Though God and Morality is a staple of philosophers and spiritual leaders, other disciplines have approached it as well.

    Sigmund Freud tried to answer the question from a psychological standpoint and called religion nothing more than a self-deception in which man engages to deny his own loneliness and fear and God as a projection of the infant’s loved, feared, all-potent father.

    In Civilization and its Discontents, he went further, to trace the interesting relationship between the infant’s inability to distinguish its body from the universe and the religious feeling of oneness with existence. Morality, then, is a reflection of the superego, while religion itself, the “oceanic feeling”, is an echo of the infantile id. It follows then that just as we must renounce infantile impulses, no matter how gratifying, to avoid living our lives soiled, helpless and ineffective, humans collectively renounce chaotic impulses so that they may co-exist in a stable society.

    For an Evolution biologist, both moral standards and God are a creation of urges that are entirely human; any link between the two is therefore a human construct.

    Morality is a product of two very basic human instincts or urges;

    1. Empathy
    2. Sense of justice,

    These are urges or instincts, just like sex and the fight-flight reactions that are necessary for the propagation and preservation of life. There are other complex instincts built into primates such as the maternal instinct to nurse and protect its young ones and they all interact in complex ways to give us an evolutionary advantage.

    The combination of these two particular urges is incorporated in different forms into a tribal memory or ‘culture’ and the product is something we term morality.

    The concept of God is a similar human construct as well; again the concept itself provides a certain evolutionary advantage in self preservation by identifying himself with a powerful being and in so doing acquiring the attributes of this omnipotent being for oneself. One can say that man loved himself so much that he created God into its own form.

    This above construct does not necessarily put an agnostic in conflict with a believers because it fits in quiet comfortably with the beautiful poem Tilsim wrote or as Bin Ismail has been arguing; that is, even if one believes that morality is an inherently human impulse, then it was put in there by who ever or what ever put a human being there.

    All agree what those impulses are and call it a ‘conscience’….


  22. Tilsim

    @ Bin Ismail

    Thanks for the acknowledgement. Just knocking at the door in my own limited way 🙂

    Intellect without imagination and vice versa are like seeing things through one eye as Ibn Arabi, the giant philosopher of the 12th century observed. He noted that it fails to fulfill the potential of man.

    He went to see Ibn Rushd or Averroes (the great rationalist). Ibn Rushd said to Ibn ‘Arabi: “What kind of solution have you found through divine unveiling and illumination? Is it identical with what you have found through speculative thought? ”

    Ibn ‘Arabi replied: “Yes – No. Between the yes and the no, spirits take wing from their matter and necks are separated from their bodies”.

    -introduction to the Meccan Openings by Ibn Rushd.

    Ibn ‘Arabi reports Ibn Rushd’s reaction to these words: “His color turned pale and he began to tremble. He sat reciting, ‘There is no power and no strength but in God, since he has understood my allusion.”

    The Quran describes God as thus:

    “He is the First and the Last, the Apparent and the Hidden.” Can reason alone fathom such a construct?

    “He is closer to us than our jugular vein.”

    “And it is God who brought you forth from your mothers’ wombs, and He appointed you for hearing, sight, and inner vision”. The Quran talks about the importance of inner vision.

    Ibn Arabi believed in the unity of humanity, a unity within diversity and love as it’s foundation.

    The Quran points to this:

    “Oh people! We have not created you based on a male and a female: we have made you forming peoples and tribes so that you know each other”

    To me, the above verse reminds us that the evidence that we gather through reason is not sufficient and the answer to the question ‘why?’ also needs to be sought.

    Ibn Arabi gathered his unifying ideas, and reminded us about the importance of the heart, through the following poem:

    A garden among the flames!

    My heart can take on any form:
    A meadow for gazelles,
    A cloister for monks,
    For the idols, sacred ground,
    Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
    The tables of the Torah,
    The scrolls of the Quran.

    My creed is Love;
    Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
    That is my belief,
    My faith.

    Working out how humans work merely through reason or through observation of the law does not change our hearts. For that one needs a heart in the first place, a conscience and intuition, the bedrocks of our morality.

    Between the head and the heart says Ibn Arabi, there is a coming and going that constitutes the essential pilgrimage.

  23. God alone initiates salvation. He always turns toward man first and seeks him, as when God walked in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). Man does not seek God or turn to him without God first calling man to Himself (John. 6:37, 44; 1 John. 4:10,19).

    Second, God’s initiative does not exclude man’s free response, but demands it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Catechism], nos. 154, 155, 2002; Phil. 2:12, 13). In other words, God wills that man be free to choose His grace or reject it.

    Third, salvation is extended to each and every human person, not limited to just some, and one can fall away from grace (Hebrews 2:1-4; 6:4; 2 Peter 1:10; 3:9; 1 John 5:16, 17).

    Furthermore, it is imperative that once one is touched by grace, he perseveres in charity lest he forfeit the free gift of salvation (Lumen Gentium [LG], no. 14). Within the confines of these principles, Catholics have sought to understand the mystery of predestination.

    Though opinions and formulations have varied among Catholic theologians, with these principles left intact, there is room for legitimate speculation.

    The only proper framework to understand predestination must be rooted in the notion of a communion of persons in love. Why? The nature of God as Trinity is this very kind of communion and God created man to share in that “blessed life” (cf. Catechism, no. 1).

    This communion of love demands freedom of will. For love is not something thrust upon a person, but offered as a gift. This communion of love in the Trinity is also the basis for evangelization in the Church (cf. Catechism, no. 850).

    As this is the very essence of the relationship between God and man, everything in one way or another must refer back to it and be measured by it. As this was God’s purpose in creating man, it is also intimately tied to our redemption and our ultimate destiny. God is love (1 John 4:8).

    Salvation is the gift of God alone: Grace