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Different Approaches to Morality in Islam

lecture by
Hujjatul Islam
Dr.Muhammad Ali Shomali,

Dr.Shomali teaches Islamic Sciences in Qum and Meshad, and at the University of Tehran.


This lecture is particularly important for those considering the study of Sufism or Islamic Mysticism (Irfan) to enrich their spirituality. The audio for the 55 minute lecture has been split into three logical parts, making it easier to download.

PART 1: Intro & Philosophical Method

Listen (real audio, 18 min )

Download (shift-click) (2.2Mb)


Among Muslim Scholars, there are three approaches to the study of Morality (Aklaq):

  • Philosophical Approach
  • Mystical Approach (Sufi & Irfan)
  • Narrational Approach (Hadith)


The subject of aklaq is the human soul, it has different faculties (dimensions) - for example : intellectual, anger, appetite, sexual desires, imagination, etc.

Each faculty has its own virtues and own vices

For example consider the intellectual faculty: If someone is simple minded then they fail:

Aviccena once commented:
" Who ever has got used to accepting whatever he or she hears without reason, he or she is no longer a human being", because the most important characteristic of a human being is the power to distinguish - to use their intellect.

On the other extreme, if someone is too rational - they fail because rationality cannot solve everything. So the best course is to strike a balance between these two extreme positions.

To a great extent the philosophical method is successful, but there are some problems:

Some times its difficult to define what is the right measure of each virtue e.g. justice, and there are some virtues that cannot be defined as a balance between two sides - for example between telling truth and telling lies. Another problem is that this approach is very technical, and hence very rigid and rather dry. It cannot engage ordinary people.

PART 2: Sufi and Hadith Approaches
Listen (real audio, 15 min)
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HISTORY: After 10th century Mysticism (Irfan) separated from Sufism, so now you have Arifs that are not Sufis such as Allamah Tabatabai, and Sufis that do not understand Irfan, as well as Sufis that are also Arifs.


THEORY: Aklaq is a journey - not static. Human being is like a plant that grows - its not like a house that you want to decorate with beautiful characteristics (i.e. philosophical approach). No, human beings is in a process of being something.

The start point for your spiritual journey is to WAKE UP - readies something is missing in your life.

The Prophet (SAW) once said:
" People are sleeping, only when they die do they wake up - when its too late".

Then the next stage is repentance for example, and it goes on, different people have mentioned different stages - some have mentioned 50 stages, some have mentioned more.

The destination for Arifs (& Sufis) is to get close to Allah - to loose your own self and become part of the divine reality - this does not mean that we can become God or for example we add something to God, no its just a way of realising our nothingness.

For example if we look at the waves in the ocean - they are all different but if we go beyond the differences we can readies that they are nothing other than ocean - it is just the ocean that has different manifestations. So we are just manifestations of the Divine reality - we are not part of God.


PROBLEMS: You need an experienced knowledgeable guide to supervise your improvement - unfortunately in history some have turned out to be cheats pretending to be guides, pirs, etc.

Another problem with Sufism is that sometimes some people are not 100% committed to Sharia. They say at the start of your spiritual journey you need to practise the practical laws - committed to sharia, but when you reach spirituality (tarikah) - no longer a beginner you no longer need to say your prayers, to fast, etc. This is completely wrong and is based on misunderstanding of the Quran.



This is based on hadith. Scholars following this approach list moral attributes and then for each moral character they list relevant hadith. In hadith there are many insightful explanations, directions, instructions.

PART 3: Comprehensive Approach
Listen (real audio, 21 min 37 sec)
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The comprehensive method is one that can have the advantages of all three.

Its has a philosophic foundation, i.e. realism - morality is based on real facts.

Then you have to have the advantage of using the Quran and Sunnah and hadith because our reason (akal) though important is not enough on its own.

Then we also take advantage of the mystical approach - because it has the advantage of introducing a journey to us - has the advantage of treating each person according to his own current situation (position in journey) because a good doctor isn't one who proscribes the same medicine for everybody.

Good recent works by Allamah Tabatabai and Shaheed Mutahhari help us to have such a system, because they have been masters in all three aspects: the philosophical knowledge, the great knowledge of Quran and Sunnah, and also the mystical knowledge - they themselves were very spiritual.


  • The book "Light Within Me" is a good starting point - it includes parts of both Shaheed Mutahhari'sand Allamah Tabatabai's work on Irfan.
  • "Introduction to Irfan" is a short article from Shaheed Mutahhari book on the subject.
  • Also one of the good books to follow is Imam Khomeini's "Fourty Hadith", now translated in english (serialised in Tawhid Journal). In Fourty Hadith you will see how the guidance of Sunnah and Quran is put next to the philosophical and mystical teachings.
  • Ayatullah Amini's "Self Building" is another worthy book.
  • [Although the lecturer didn't mention this, but he himself has written a worthy book on the subject: "Self-Knowledge" and is available in english.]