Islamic Morality: Teaching to Balance the Record

Terence Lovat. Journal of Moral Education. Volume 45, Issue 1. 2016.


In a day and age that has seen Islam captive to Islamophobia at one end and radicalization at the other, it is incumbent on educators everywhere to inform themselves and their students about the Islamic tradition as evidenced from the best sources and the most balanced record available to us. For moral educators, this must include a focus on the Islamic moral tradition itself, especially around matters by which Islam’s reputation has been both built over time and partly destroyed in our own time. In this regard, certain features of Islam stand out as worthy of particular attention for moral education. They include its original charter and historical record in: promoting intercultural and interreligious tolerance; facilitating modern science and scholarship; ground-breaking innovations in social welfare; and, among these innovations, new conceptions of gender equity that challenged the context of early Islam. These are broadly areas of moral pertinence that are popularly understood in the West as ones of low repute for Islam, exacerbated in large part by the socially malevolent and abhorrent practices of a core of radical extremists, named herein as ‘Islamist’. As such, they present as prime areas for educational investigation and, where justified, correction and reputational recovery for Islam. There would be few more important or just causes available to the contemporary moral educator. In making the case for a highly relevant moral education around these matters, I wish to begin not only with the popular stories of Islam’s origins but also with its more tangible developments and influence in the Middle Ages.

Islam’s Origins, Medieval Developments and Influence

It is with the work of Muhammad al-Tabari (839-923 ce), known commonly as The History (Rosenthal, 1989), that the story of Islam as the fulfilment of the Abrahamic tradition is told most definitively, allowing for the Muslim religion to form around this identity and self-understanding (Martensson, 2014; Warraq, 1998). The importance of this timing is that it coincides with the early period of what would come to be described as ‘the Golden Age of Islam’ and the direct influence from Tabari on the first of the acknowledged great scholars of medieval Islam in the person of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (Chevallier, Schnoor, & Dallas, 2010). It was from Tabari’s retrospective account of Islam’s foundations in the communities of Medina and Mecca centuries before that these great scholars (Farabi, then later, Avicenna and Averroes, among others) came to understand Islam as a religion that strove for interreligious tolerance, scholarship and social welfare of all kinds. In turn, it was this understanding of Islam that impelled many of the rulers of Islamic territories to cultivate the medieval civilizations of northern Africa and, especially, southern Spain that would be associated in time with the concept of Convivencia (Lovat & Crotty, 2015).

Convivencia denotes a period from early to late medieval times (711-1492 ce) that saw Muslims forming successful interreligious societies in the Al-Andalus region of Spain. The success was seen in the relative social stability, wealth and technological advancement of these societies, most markedly at times when Muslims and Christians, in particular, were at war in regions not so far away (Ashbridge, 2011). History records that these fairly settled populations lived well for the times, modelling what can be achieved when issues of interreligious tolerance are addressed and pursued. The most successful instances of Convivencia were those that saw the Muslims either in governance or the most influential religious group. Cordoba in the eighth and ninth centuries ce provide an example, where a succession of effective Caliphs, Abd al-Rahman, his son, Hisham, and grandson, al-Hakam, ruled continuously for nearly seven decades. They employed the most modern forms of technology, including in building and irrigation, to ensure work and productivity for the population, harnessing the combined strengths of their multi-religious society in the task of material and cultural development (Kennedy, 1996).

Importantly, part of the underlying philosophy for the Convivencia societies came from the confidence among Muslim leaders that had accrued from Tabari’s account of Islam as the fulfilment of the Abrahamic tradition. Not only did it justify Muslims believing that they were the rightful rulers where mixed religious communities cohered, especially with Christians and Jews, but Tabari’s work had underlined the affinity, almost sibling status, that Muslims had with Christians and Jews (Lovat, 2013). These siblings were therefore best understood as fellow ‘Peoples of the Book’, rather than merely infidels, whose (inherently imperfect) religions had been important in the development of Islam and so should be respected. In constructing the story of Islam’s foundations, Tabari had laboured the point about Muhammad’s own attempts to deal constructively with Christians and Jews and where these efforts had failed, it was because of Christian or Jewish intransigence (Rosenthal, 1989). This then became the philosophical and theological basis for the ways in which Caliphs like those in Cordoba in the eighth and ninth centuries treated Christians and Jews in their own provinces and, in turn, secured their support for the common good. Specifically, Tabari’s account of Islam justified the policies and practices of the Convivencia societies, such as interreligious tolerance, scholarship, social welfare and gender equity, the four main topics for moral education concerning Islam on which I focus this article.

Interreligious Tolerance

The issue of interreligious tolerance in the Convivencia societies has always been and remains contentious, especially in relation to the notion of dhimmitude, this being the name given to the status of Christians and Jews living in these Muslim-dominated societies. There is no doubt that dhimmitude did not connote a homogeneous reality, as would hardly be expected of any notion across a vast amount of time, space and instances, least of all at times when Jews, Christians and Muslims were at loggerheads generally across Europe and the Middle East. Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged that there is a literature devoted to exposing claims of interreligious tolerance during Convivencia times as being false or at least exaggerated. Such literature highlights many historical examples as illustrations that Islam in fact did not treat Christians and Jews as equals, as sometimes claimed, and that dhimmitude at times left them subject to extreme forms of discrimination and harsh and even violent treatment (Yeor, 2001). This is all partly true, as far as the evidence can be trusted.

On the other hand, one must remember both the context of the times and the fact that neither claims nor counter-claims around these matters are entirely without their vested interests. As to the times, Christian Europe generally was characterized by extreme forms of anti-Semitism and, for much of the Convivencia period, Christians were waging genocidal wars against Muslims in the so-called Crusades, wars to which the Muslims responded very effectively but largely to defend lands that had long been in their possession rather than as the invading armies, as were the Christians (Ashbridge, 2011). As to vested interests, dhimmitude, in particular, has been used by both proponents and opponents of peace between Muslims, Christians and Jews to justify their varied positions, this not least in regard to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (Durie, 2010; Emon, 2012; Yeor, 2001). Many popular books have been written in recent times that seem intent on destroying any positive interpretation that could be put on dhimmitude in the past or present, using these interpretations to characterize Islam as an inherently intolerant and thoroughly repugnant religion, especially in its attitude to and mistreatment of Jews and Christians. On occasion, the reader is directed to consider current situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that suggests that no sympathy should be held for the Palestinians today on the basis that their Muslim forebears dealt so ruthlessly with Jews, under the aegis of dhimmitude, in Muslim lands of the past.

These books and popular publications often ignore the very different interpretations offered by some of the most highly regarded scholars of Islam over time. Bernard Lewis is an example. Counted as virtually peerless among non-Muslim scholars of Islam, Lewis (1984) suggests of Jews living as dhimmis in medieval Muslim societies:

… the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. … the restrictions to which they were subject were social and symbolic …these regulations served … not to oppress the Jewish population. (p. 62)

In similar fashion, Will Durant (1980) records:

At the time of the Umayyad caliphate, the people of the covenant, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Sabians, all enjoyed a degree of tolerance that we do not find even today in Christian countries. They were free to practice the rituals of their religion and their churches and temples were preserved. They enjoyed autonomy in that they were subject to the religious laws of the scholars and judges. (pp. 131-132)

Lewis and Durant are just two of any number of eminent non-Muslim scholars, principally Jewish and Christian, who have echoed this understanding of dhimmitude (Cahen, 1965; Cohen, 1995; Menocal, 2002). As best we can tell, impartial historical evidence suggests that the treatment of Jews and Christians by Muslims in the Convivencia sites, while not perfect nor without its aberrations, was nonetheless ground-breaking and progressive for its time. Certainly, Jews were treated better by Muslim leaders than was the pattern of treatment of Jews by Christian leaders and, furthermore, Christians were dealt with far more equably by Muslims than the other way around. The hard evidence for this seems to come in the testimony that Jews and Christians moved in great numbers out of northern Europe to enjoy the far better conditions to be found in the Convivencia societies. Partly as a result of huge movements of non-Muslims towards these Muslim lands, the city of Cordoba, as an example, became the largest city in the known world throughout the tenth century (Menocal, 2002).

Why was this the case? Why could Muslims of that time construct these sorts of successful interreligious societies when the modelling elsewhere was so poor? The answer would seem to be partly theological and it is an important point, much underrated about Islam and the inherent morality of tolerance that sits at its centre. Islam is the only one of the three sibling Abrahamic religions that has a cogent theology of the other two religions. Judaism has no theology of Christianity or Islam because they are regarded as illegitimate and lacking the essential Chosen status of the Jews. Christianity has a partial and historically negative theology of Judaism and no theology of Islam. Only Islam understands and incorporates the theological importance of Judaism and Christianity as closely related religions to its own, sharing much of the same mega-tradition. The sacred heroes of both religions, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and even Mary, are sacred characters in Islam as well. Hence, Abd-al-Rahman, for instance, granted to the Jewish and Christian dhimmis the status of ‘Peoples of the Book’. Jews were permitted to work in important occupations of finance, trade and medicine. They were involved in education, commerce and industry (trading in silk and slavery) and, as suggested, were free to practice their religion, as were Christians. Synagogues and churches were maintained and repaired, sometimes at the expense of the state. Christians from Arabic lands, in particular those held to be heretical because of earlier disputes with Roman Christianity (Jenkins, 2009), were often safer and more secure in these Muslim lands than they were in other parts of Christendom.

No doubt those who demean dhimmitude have a ready audience in a world characterized by large measures of Islamophobia. There is also no doubt they can point to historical instances that justify their position; even those who promote dhimmitude as an important social advance acknowledge that there were times when the positive spirit broke down and broke down badly. At the same time, the promoters seem, on balance, to be able to identify far more positive instances, especially for the times, and evidence of a rare impact on the development of pre-Enlightenment civilization. Indeed, several authors infer that the Convivencia sites constituted a virtual medieval Muslim enlightenment that existed centuries before the Western European equivalent (Ferruta, 2014; Lovat & Crotty, 2015).

Meantime, while the detractors seem able always to find verses from the Qur’an or Hadith that could justify an inherent harshness or violence, the promoters seem able to find more verses, normally in, rather than out of, context, that justify their view. Verses from the Qur’an include, from Sura (chapter) 17, verse 53, where God (Allah) is recorded saying to Muslims: ‘And tell my servants that they should speak in a most kindly manner even unto those who do not share their beliefs … Hence, we have not sent you with power to determine the faith of others.’ Additionally, Sura 21: 107 reads: ‘We have not sent you except to be a provider of mercy and peace to all humankind.’ Meanwhile, in a verse that seems clearly to establish Islam’s interreligious tolerance credentials, Sura 109: 6 proffers: ‘to you be your religion and to me be mine.’ Then, in Abu Dawud’s collection of Hadith, Muhammad himself is quoted as saying:

‘Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will, I will complain against that person on the Day of Judgement.’

(Dawud Sulaiman, 2015) These are examples from the primary sacred sources of Islam (Qur’an and Hadith) that would seem clearly to match if not overwhelm anything that could be brought forward by critics of Islam’s credentials in interreligious tolerance, at one end, or Islamists proposing that Islam is inherently intolerant of other religions, at the other end. They are sacred texts that seem clearly to undergird an essential component of Islam’s pioneering social morality around interreligious tolerance.

Amidst the controversy and predominance of a negative view, the work of the Muslim historian and Qur’anic scholar, Mohamed Talbi, is particularly important for educators seeking out positive sources. Talbi (1995, 2006, 2011) has been an especially prominent voice for moderate Islam, serving as president of the Tunisian Association of Qur’anic Muslims for a number of years. The association formed to counter the negative views of Islam regarding a range of issues, including interreligious tolerance and dialogue, coming from both Western but especially Islamist quarters. For Talbi, Islam should not only be a participant in such dialogue but, granted the clear charters for tolerance to be found in both its sacred sources and its history, it should be leading it, as it did in the Convivencia societies of old. He writes strongly of the need for Muslims to be reformers around this issue and so to counter the many fractures in the human community caused by religious difference:

We can think of the whole of humankind as a … ‘community of communities’ or God’s Family as the Hadith states, in which everyone has the right to be different, to be accepted, and fully respected in their chosen differences. To respect others in their chosen and assumed differences, not just to tolerate them on point of pain, is finally to respect God’s Will Who willingly created humans free to choose what they like to be and to build with true liberty their own destiny … (And this is written in the Qur’an) …

We have to focus on cooperation in real and urgent issues confronting our human family, and the first step toward peaceful co-existence and cooperation among communities of different faiths and ideologies is to shy away from thinking in nationalistic or exclusive terms to believing in global and universal ones. We are, all of us, embarked on the same frail boat and, from now onwards, we can have only an interdependent future. (Talbi, 1995, pp. 61-67)

In spite of the clarity, backed by source and historical evidence, of Talbi’s position, the issue of Islam as a promoter of interreligious tolerance remains a contentious topic and a minority view among non-Muslims, and indeed many Muslims who have lost touch with their own tradition, never more so than in today’s volatile times. The negative view on the issue is stronger than ever. Twenty years ago, most in the West hardly knew what Islam was; now the majority think they know lots about it and a large proportion of what they think they know is negative. Ironically, while this negativity clearly feeds off a measure of Islamophobia fuelled by the spectre of radical Islamism, it actually plays successfully into the hands of the same radicalism by hardening positions against Islam generally and making it harder to distinguish between the claims of radical Islamism and the historical and theological claims of Islam itself. In other words, intolerance and ignorance abound at both ends with far too little information and reasonable positioning in the middle. This is the gap into which good education must step and, granted the moral issues that abound in the topic, it presents as an area which moral education should address (Lovat, 2005). Pedagogically, the warring literature can be used very effectively to set up the poles of the debate, drawing students into it and showing how the two sides can directly influence world events for good or ill. In most settings, such education will be lively if not potentially fracturing for a class but that should not deter the moral educator from entering into such an important topic.

Science and Scholarship

Another issue around which Islam enjoys a poor reputation that could well be the subject of moral education concerns its approach to science, and scholarship in general. Just as the Western stereotype is of an intolerant interreligious faith, so it is of Islam as anti-intellectual, denying of modern science and a scholarly backwater. As with the issue above, a section of Islam, being referred to herein broadly as radical Islamism, does nothing to controvert the stereotype when it routinely targets Muslim intellectuals, closes schools and forbids education to much of the populations under its control, especially girls. Again, we find nothing in the sacred sources to justify such attitudes and practices; on the contrary, the dominant scholarship, ancient and modern, suggests that the sacred sources of Islam are more explicit about it being incumbent on its followers to inform and educate themselves than could be said of most religions.

For Islam, knowledge is God’s and the more knowledgeable we are, the more we can come to understand God (al-Ghazali, 1991; Whittingham, 2011; Yusuf, 2012). Furthermore, the history of its early development, especially as manifested in the Convivencia societies, is of a religious movement that pioneered scientific methodology being applied to all manner of social artefacts, including engineering and medicine, among many others, and encouraged scholarship in a way that was rare for the times. It is not accidental that the three oldest continuous universities in the world are to be found in the Muslim world (CollegeStats, 2015). We find some of the clearest historical evidence in the Convivencia region of Toledo in the mid twelfth century ce.

Toledo was a Muslim caliphate in the twelfth century, with a thriving Jewish and Christian community living alongside the majority Muslim population. The Christian leader of the city was Archbishop Francis Raymond de Sauvetat, a French Benedictine monk, well-educated himself and dedicated to providing his Christian followers with the best education available (Raeder, 2015). He recognized the huge value to Christianity of the burgeoning scholarship of the Muslims on whom the Christians relied for their patronage and so constructed the Toledo School of Translators to ensure that the work of the Muslims would be available to the Christians. He also encouraged his community to engage as actively as possible in interreligious dialogue with the Muslim scholars so they could benefit from the advanced educational culture of the Muslims. At the heart of the Muslim scholarly endeavours was the Arabic translations of Aristotle from the original Greek, work that was not available anywhere at the time within Christendom. Through the further translations of such work into Latin, it would become available in time to Western scholars, not least to Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian philosopher theologian of the Middle Ages.

Among the most prominent Muslim scholars whose work came into Christendom courtesy of the Toledo School and other such ventures were Abu al-Farabi [Alpharabius] (872-950 ce), Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (980-1037 ce), and Ibn Rushd [Averroes] (1126-1198 ce). Alpharabius is regarded as one of history’s most outstanding polymaths (expert across a number of fields); he excelled in mathematics, science, philosophy and music, among other disciplines (Randel, 1976). Much of his work relied on the translations of Aristotle, bringing new thoughts into the world of his time about logical thought which would go on to become the basis of later scientific propositions and testing, and about moral thought, how people can and should go about the business of discriminating between right and wrong. Alpharabius is rightly regarded as one of the architects of Islamic morality, a morality that placed great emphasis on the free will and capacity of individual people to know and choose the right path without being subservient to any institution or its authority. Alpharabius’s morality represented a challenge to the institution-centred Christian morality of the day, one that emphasized the incapacity of individuals to make moral choices without the intervention of the church. Aquinas would eventually construct a new notion of morality for Christianity, one that was inspired heavily by Alpharabius. Aquinas’s notion of synderesis was about an inborn facility that gave each person the capacity to know what was right and act accordingly (Aquinas, 2015). While given by God, it then provided people with a measure of autonomy from institutional authority in making their moral choices. It was based on Aristotelian Natural Law, owed much to Alpharabius and was a radical development in the Christianity of its day. Alpharabius would eventually earn the nickname, Muallimalthani, or ‘second teacher’, second only to Aristotle who was considered the first teacher (al-Farabi, 1968).

Another Muslim polymath whose work influenced later developments in the West was Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. In the mid-twelfth century, Dominic Gundissalinus, a Christian convert from Judaism, was head of the Toledo School of Translators. In this role, he translated Avicenna’s work titled alShifa [The Healing] (Avicenna, 2005). In this book, we find the philosophical basis of ‘the man suspended in space’, a symbol that would become famous in later European Enlightenment times, capturing the belief that one’s mind was sufficient to tell one that s/he was a thinking being who exists. Essentially, it is the same notion that Rene Descartes would employ centuries later in his dictum, cogito, ergo sum, often held to be the first statement of modern empirical science. It has been speculated that Descartes’ foundational thought behind Western science and Avicenna’s foundational thought behind Islamic science centuries before are related and that Avicenna might therefore be the true architect of modern scientific method (Yaldir, 2009).

Yet another Muslim polymath of the Middle Ages was Abu Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes. Arguably, his work (Averroes, 2010) most directly and obviously influenced the crucial later European events known as the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment (Leaman, 2013; Urvoy, 1991). He was the pioneer of an Islamic religious science that could converse most confidently with science generally as it was developing everywhere around him. What Aquinas would come to see in this was that religion and science do not need to be opposed but religion must revise and reform many of its assumptions about the role of scriptures, church authority and God. Landau (1962) says of Ibn Rushd:

The Western philosophers could have never reached the level we see today unless they had obtained the results of Ibn Rushd’s research in philosophy. … [He] is universally acknowledged as the great philosopher of Islam and one of the greatest of all times. (p. 32)

With a tradition and history such as we find here, the idea of Islam as inherently anti-intellectual and a scholarly backwater, much less a religion that would act harshly to prevent anyone from going to school, is clearly incongruous in the extreme. It is yet another example of an Islam hijacked by a combination of anti-Islamic Western and radical Islamist uninformed biases. Both for the moral content ingrained in this issue, as well as for the moral justice entailed in it, it presents as a prime issue for moral education to address.

Social Welfare

Social welfare is an area where Islam’s popular reputation in our time is arguably at its lowest ebb. Again, the stereotype is well affirmed through the unlikely alliance between those non-Muslims disposed to hostility to Islam and those who claim to represent it in their Islamist extremism. We find around the issue the same disjunction between these strangely aligned forces, on the one hand, and the sacred sources and history, on the other hand. Indeed, it is in these areas that Islam’s strongest reputation should abide.

First to the sacred sources. In the Qur’an, where the Five Pillars of Islam (the essential statement of morality) are spelled out, we find, in Sura 21, verse 73, Allah saying of the third pillar, zakat or ‘almsgiving’: ‘And We made them Imams who guided [people] by Our command, and We revealed to them the doing of good and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of the alms, and Us [alone] did they serve.’ In practical terms, from earliest days, a proportion of the Muslim’s income, usually around 2.5%, was deducted to support the wider community and especially anyone in need. While an ethic towards assisting the poor and downtrodden is to be found in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, only Islam spells out the obligation in the form of a tax. Like all the moral pillars of Islam, the social welfare imperative is enjoined upon its followers in a practical form in its holiest book.

Furthermore, the earliest tradition testifies to the practice of social welfare as a distinguishing feature of the original Islam. In constructing his history, Tabari crafted a story of a community that excelled in conforming itself to an ideal prophetic society characterized by its care for the needy. Tabari referred to the moral code that bound the community by the term ‘Constitution of Medina’. Ronald Nettler, the Jewish scholar of Islam, refers to the constitution as an historical source that contains ‘… a humanistic message of the Golden Rule’ (i.e. that we should treat each other as we would wish to be treated) (Nettler, 1999, p. 106). As conceived by Tabari, the original Muslim Ummah (community) was a virtual welfare state in which no-one was left wanting. It included the equivalent of doles, pensions and public funds for education and health care. In its conceived vision, it was the modern Western welfare state 1000 years or so ahead of its time. There is no end of reputable scholarship that attests to this element in Islam, be it in the past or the present (Chapra, 1979; Crone, 2005; Donohue & Esposito, 2007; Durant, 1980; Lewis, 1987, 1994; Naqvi, 1981; Shadi, 2003; Watts & Diaconu, 2005; Weiss, 2002). In urging modern Muslims to be positive contributors to modern Western welfare states, Tariq Ramadan (2013) proffers the following:

Islam is a concept of life which directs believers towards spirituality and meditation over life’s meaning. It is both a simple and a very demanding way of life which requires from the Muslim that (s)he does the utmost to be better tomorrow than today and to choose, at any price, the way of generosity, honesty and justice. (p. 230)

Gender Equity

In the context of justice, including to Islam, the welfare issue about which Islam’s reputation would arguably be lowest in the Western mind is that concerning gender equity. Women’s rights are predictably the most controversial of the many features of modern revisionist scholarship in and about Islam (cf. Ahmed, 1992; Haddad & Esposito, 1998; Lovat, 2012; Lovat, Samarayi, & Green, 2013). Again, this is intriguing because the evidence is that arguably it was addressed as a justice issue more seriously in early Islam than in any religious establishment before its time; both the crafting of Tabari’s history and, in allied fashion, Islamic Law, testify to this. While it might not accord with every tenet of a modern Western woman’s perception of gender equity, Islam nonetheless represents a positive moment in the liberation and equality of women and, as with its many other reforms, this came centuries before, and no doubt influenced, similar reforms in the West.

Leila Ahmed (1992, 2006) offers a balanced view of the issue of women in Islam. She acknowledges that there are two different and equally cogent interpretations and some inconsistencies between the two accounts provided by the original sources. One interpretation seems to endorse the idea that all human beings are morally and spiritually equal, while another relegates women to an inferior status to that of men. Furthermore, she acknowledges that it is this latter conservative interpretation that has become a significant strain in much of Islamic history and has become synonymous especially with radical Islamism in modern times. Nonetheless, she is adamant that this is owing to a misunderstanding of the essential reforming nature of Islam. It also owes more to the patriarchal forces that gained control in the early centuries and is effectively a betrayal of the reform around gender equity that Islam represents. She even includes the central character of the foundation story, Muhammad, in this critique, acknowledging that even as a divinely inspired character, he was inevitably bound by his heritage and so perceived reference on his part to gender inequity should come as no surprise. In contrast, granted the social context and heritage, the real surprise and innovation is in the clear exhortatory discourses to be found concerning the moral and spiritual equality of all people, including between women and men. Ahmed regards the issue of gender equity as essential to the recovery of the original Islam itself. Recovery of this issue will show that it was in fact Islam, not the West, that first proposed the equality of women and enshrined in its own laws a level of rights, including to inherit and own property, that would only come to the West 1000 years later. This understanding on the part of all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, could have a ripple effect in recovering Islam as a reform movement more generally.

Amina Wadud (1999, 2006) builds on the same themes with much recourse to the Qur’an as her foundational source. She also asserts that the issue of women is the central social issue to be found in the Qur’an and the tradition and that the most vital message from the original Islam to its surrounding tribes and cultures, including Judaism and Christianity, was that women were not inferior in God’s eyes as most seemed to believe at the time. In fact, for Wadud, it seems that Judaism and Christianity were hindrances in this regard because their stories of the origins of the world prioritized the creation of man and left woman as an apparent afterthought. In contrast, she points out that the Qur’anic expression of creation, while based on a similar story, speaks of man and woman as a single pair enjoying perfect equality in the Garden of Eden, including shared guilt when the forbidden fruit is taken; that is, the woman is not held to be the more blameworthy as presented in Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, neither man nor woman can be created in God’s image because Allah is beyond being personalized, least of all gendered, in the way to be found in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. For Wadud, this de-gendering of God and the assertion of equality and equivalent rights for women is central to the reform that Islam represents.

Like Ahmed, Wadud acknowledges that Islam’s development was far from unequivocal in the way women were treated but she continues to point to the radical reforms characteristic of the Constitution of Medina to mount the strongest possible case for the issue being central to Islamic reform. In spite of the context of the times, Islam brought radical and progressive changes to the issue. The Qur’an guaranteed the right to inheritance, including of property (perhaps the most radical reform), as well as rights for women to initiate divorce and testify in court. It protected women’s rights against coercion, including against sexual violence even in marriage. Women and men were equally bound by the laws of their land and religion, including being equally liable for any punishment owing to misdemeanour. Wadud also points to the way the foundation stories of the religion present women as active participants and even leaders in the earliest communities. A’ishah, allegedly Muhammad’s favourite wife, is presented as having played a role as juridical advisor in the days following her husband’s death. Like Ahmed, Wadud believes that the current struggle to recover the voice of women is crucial to no less than a recovery of Islam itself.

Ahmed and Wadud are just two of a growing number of Muslim women who have been speaking strongly about the gender issue in Islam over the past few decades. Others include: Fatima Mernissi (1975, 2006), the Moroccan sociologist and author of Beyond the Veil; Majida Rizvi, the first female Judge of the High Court of Pakistan and later Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, most famous for her leading the successful opposition to the Hadood Ordinance in Pakistan that all but stripped women of their Shari’ah rights (Baldauf, 2003); and, Shirin Ebadi (2006), Iranian former jurist deposed to secretarial work after the Iranian Revolution and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, most famous for her support of women’s rights in Iran and Islam generally. Of interest also is the work of the self-described former Muslim and atheist convert, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2006, 2007, 2015), Somalian writer of the Caged VirginInfidel and, most recently, Heretic. Hirsi Ali challenges the notion that Islam was ever truly anything other than misogynistic and has especially sharp criticism of the malevolent effects of radical Islamism and political Islam on women in Muslim societies. She is partly a counter voice to the notion that Islam represents reform in this area, suggesting that radical Islamism in fact feeds off foundational harsh sentiments towards women. Her work is important because it highlights the other side of the debate about Islam, in this case from a former Muslim, an important counterpoint for education around the issue. Her political and literary influence is profound.

In recent important work that captures the potential of women from across the Abrahamic traditions to collaborate on the study of women in Islam, Yvonne Haddad, Jane Smith and Kathleen Moore focus on the changing experiences of women and Muslim views about the issue in Western diaspora communities. Their work (Haddad, Smith, & Moore, 2011) offers a reappraisal of historical material from within Islam, of traditional Western constructs of Muslim women and how Islam is changing in response to such reappraisals and critiques. Their book focuses especially on the Muslim experience in America, examining Muslim American analyses of gender, Muslim attempts to form a new ‘American’ Islam and the legal issues surrounding equal rights for Muslim females. It also looks at the ways in which American Muslim women have tried to create new paradigms of Islamic womanhood and are reinterpreting the traditions outside of the traditional patriarchal structures that would otherwise subjugate them. This research, together with other work noted above, represents a surge among female Muslim scholars to recreate the contemporary circumstances for Muslim women. Of equal significance is the fact that, among the intense scholarship being directed at reappraising the origins of Islamic source material (cf. Ohlig & Puin, 2009; Ramadan, 2007), female Muslim scholars (e.g. Mattson, 2008) are increasingly playing a part.


The article has attempted to locate a meaningful if not vital role for moral education in addressing a range of issues concerning Islamic morality in a context characterized by a growing gap between the public perception and the evidence provided by Islamic sacred sources and the historical record. The article has attempted to address this challenge in as balanced and scholarly way as possible, staying with the evidence even when conflicting. The article does not suggest that addressing Islam in this way is a simple task but that it is presenting increasingly as a moral challenge for a number of reasons. These reasons include seeing some justice done to Islam itself as a movement characterized by demonstrated moral reforms in its origins and over time, including many that Westerners enjoy today, albeit they are largely ignorant that Islam is owed some debt for them. Entailed in this is the justice owed to the many followers of Islam who, through no fault of their own, now find themselves demonized because of narrow and uninformed judgements on the part of a core of non-Muslims exacerbated by the malevolent actions of a minority set within Islam. The other moral cause to which moral education might commit itself concerns the increasing fracture in world harmony caused by the combination of ignorance and fanaticism, both legacies of poor education, at least in part. The teaching of Islamic morality with a view to recovery of the tradition, where the evidence suggests it is deserved, would seem to be as important an issue for moral education to address as could be found anywhere today.

Summary of Major Points

The story of Islam’s origins, especially dating from the work of Abu al-Tabari in the eighth century, impels a religious culture with particular credentials around interreligious tolerance, scholarship, social welfare and gender equity. These four features of the morality of early Islam stand in contrast to much of the popular image today, demanding they be addressed in education.
The morality entailed in interreligious tolerance centres especially on scholarly analysis of the notion of dhimmitude. Scholars differ on whether it connotes a ground-breaking policy of how a religious majority should treat religious minorities with beneficence or a more predictable policy of maleficent treatment. The article identifies scholarship that points to the dominance of the former view.
Analysis seems clearer about the innovative approach and outcomes wrought by early Islam’s approach to science as complementary to its religious beliefs. The approach and outcomes spilled over to the West and fortified Western civilization’s scientific development. Education of the masses, within and beyond the Islamic community, would seem to have constituted a component of early Islam’s morality.
Social welfare is another dimension of early Islamic morality that appears incontestable in the literature, although it remains an area of poor repute for Islam today.
Advanced morality in the area of gender equity is arguably the most contentious claim to be made about early Islam, yet there is a persistent scholarship among Muslims and non-Muslims that argues this to be the case. It is a growing view especially among many modern female Muslim scholars that coming to an informed understanding and policy action around this issue amounts to no less than the most defining issue for Islam generally today.
The article argues that there is much to be learned about Islam and its influence on Western civilization through study and teaching about these issues pertinent to moral education. Such education has potential to create greater accord between informed Muslims and non-Muslims and so to counter some of the more deleterious effects of the growth of radical Islamism whose morality seems to contradict the stories of Islam’s moral origins.