Are Good and Evil Determined by the Human Intellect or by Revelation?

Answered by Sidi Faraz A. Khan

Question: In a hadith,  a sahabah willing to enter Islam approached the Prophet (pbuh) and informed of his only objection, which was regarding the prohibition of fornication.  The Prophet(pbuh) responded by questioning whether he would object against if someone else did the same to his sister or daughter.   So here a rational basis was provided, rather than than simply claiming “God willed it”.   Does this mean rationality can be a basis for morality?

If it is simply rationalization of God’s law, than, hypothetically speaking, if rape was legal in God’s Law, would that make rape morally right (and rational) ?

In Essence, my question here is, whether a action is moral because the action is intrinsically moral? Or is it because God’s Will defines morality ?

Thirdly, does Quran 91:8 imply our fitra or souls  have a natural ability to distinguish between right and wrong?

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and faith.

The essential question you ask is whether morality is intrinsic in actions or assigned only by revelation. This was historically a point of disagreement among Muslim theologians.

The Mu’tazili Position

The Mu’tazila, or strict rationalists, maintained that actions have an intrinsic moral value of either good or evil, which is necessary and independent of revelation. The Sacred Law comes with legal rulings that are secondary and that correspond to the intrinsic moral value of actions, which is primary. According to them, the intellect is the one that determines the moral value of actions, not Allah. Therefore, the intellect (aql) is capable of discerning the moral value of actions on its own, without any need for revelation.

The Sunni Position

There are two opinions among Sunni orthodoxy (Ahl al-Sunna) on this issue. Yet both opinions are in agreement that Allah alone is the One who assigns moral value to actions, not the intellect. This is a crucial point and the key difference between the Sunnis and the Mu’tazila. Due to this and other important differences, Sunni Orthodoxy considered the Mu’tazila innovators in creed, whose positions are not valid or followable.

The two Sunni opinions are as follows:

(1) The Ash’aris did not consider actions to have intrinsic moral value; rather, revelation and the Sacred Law form the basis of all morality. What Allah deems good is good, and what He deems evil is evil, irrespective of the judgment of human intellect. Because an action is commanded by Allah, it is good; and because it is prohibited by Allah, it is evil. The Sacred Law is the judge of what is right and wrong, while the intellect has no role in that judgment. It is merely a tool by which the Sacred Law can be understood. Morality cannot be ascertained until a messenger comes with revelation.

The basis of this position is that true moral value can only be known by appreciating the full context of any particular act. For example, severing a person’s arm would seem to be inherently evil. However, if a person had gangrene which would spread to destroy the entire body, then a doctor’s severing of his arm would be seen as a good and beneficial act. Full context of any given act is known only to Allah; the intellect does not have access to the entire context, and hence cannot ascertain the moral value of acts. Only revelation affirms morality.

(2) The Maturidis adopted a middle position between the two positions described above. Like the Ash’aris, they too considered assignment of moral value as belonging to Allah rather than the intellect. Allah alone is the Hakim (Authoritative Judge). Yet the intellect is not merely a tool to understand the Sacred Law. It can perceive the moral value of actions, and with some actions can do so independent of the Sacred Law. However, this would occur only by Allah creating that knowledge in the servant’s intellect.

Examples include the goodness of faith in Allah and of obeying Allah’s messengers. That is, recognizing a true messenger and obeying him is deemed good by the intellect alone, since before that action the intellect does not yet have access to revelation. Its goodness therefore does not depend on the Sacred Law, but rather is independently ascertained by the intellect.

However even according to the Maturidis, with respect to most legal rulings in the Shari’a, the intellect can discern moral value only after revelation. The judgment of the intellect then confirms the moral value given by Allah Most High.

[Ibn Abidin, Nasamat al-Ashar Sharh Ifadat al-Anwar; Ibn Nujaym, Fath al-Ghaffar bi Sharh al-Manar; Buti, Dawabit al-Maslaha]

Qur’an 91:8

Allah Most High states, “Then He cast in it [the soul] its transgression and its piety.”

There are two main interpretations of this verse according to classical exegetes.

(1) The verse means that Allah Most High taught the soul transgression and piety, and made it understand that transgression is evil and piety is good. In addition, Allah taught the soul the outcome of each and gave the soul the freedom to choose one over the other. [Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzil wa Haqa’iq al-Ta’wil ; Abu Suud, Irshad al-Aql al-Salim ila Mazaya al-Kitab al-Karim]

This interpretation would seem to favor the Mutazili and Maturidi positions, in that the intellect is endowed with the ability to ascertain, independent of revelation, the moral value of transgression and piety. However, it does not give proof of the Mutazili opinion that the ultimate judge of morality is the intellect.

(2) The verse does not deal with assessment of moral value but rather alludes to the phenomenon of tawfiq and khidhlan. That is to say, when Allah wills good for a servant, He inspires that servant to piety by casting that inclination in the servant’s heart. And when He wills harm for a servant, He Most High inspires the servant to evil by casting that inclination in the heart.

Imam Razi cites al-Wahidi as differentiating between the word used in the verse (ilham) and between words that mean teaching or giving understanding. Ilham is different in that it refers to Allah’s casting something in the servant’s heart, whereby the servant inclines to do that thing. This is supported by the root linguistic meaning of ilham, which is to cause one to swallow something.

Imam Razi supports this meaning by context as well. He states that the preceding verses of the Surah show how all of creation – from the heavens above to the earth below – are under the control and predestination of Allah Most High. Yet only one thing in creation remains unclear as to whether it is under Allah’s control and decree or whether it is totally independent – the free will of humans and jinn. So Allah explicitly states here that even the willful choice of the servant falls under Allah’s control and decree, since He Most High even inspires to good and evil. This does not negate free will, but rather confirms it as a part of creation, as all of creation exists only by the divine will. [Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb]

This interpretation does not support or negate either of the three views on morality above, as it deals with another issue altogether.

And Allah knows best.


Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani