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)
The 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 philosophyexperiments.com where they let us talk with God and help us reveal the tensions inherent in our belief which we might not be aware of.