Islamic Ethics and the Modern Human Interview with Dr Seyed G Safavi



Dr. Safavi’s expertise is in Philosophy, Islamic Mysticism, and Comparative Philosophy. His new books on philosophy and Islamic Mysticism are: New Path: A Novel Interpretation of Mathnawi; Practical Mysticism; Ethics and Perfect Human in Rumi’s Perspective; Ahl Al Bayt According to Rumi; Islamic Mysticism in the East and the West; Structure of Mathnawi Ma’navi, Mystical Interoperation of Zyarat ‘Ashura.

1. Do you think Islamic Ethics belong to the realm of opinion or action? Based on this, then how is Traditional-Islamic Ethics configured?


Based on a hypothetical classification, Islamic episteme is divided into three elements: Belief, Fiqh (jurisprudence), and ethics. Belief is based on the rational expression of religious principle while fiqh deals with religious law and with the external actions and behaviors of believers. Ethics, on the other hand, is about the value and criteria of positive and negative conducts. Therefore, Islamic ethics, praxis, is the result of an interaction, and a dialogue between the realm of belief (theory) and the realm of behavior (action).  Texts and different branches of traditional ethics are divided into four types: Ethics based on Aristotelian philosophy, Quranic ethics, ethics based on Hadith, and finally spiritual ethics.


2. It seems that ethical discussion in the Islamic world is being misinterpreted. Like the approach which encourages solitude, seclusion, and the avoidance of the social, it is sometimes called the ethics of solipsism. What do you think?

Ethics that is being taught so far, that is an ethics which responds to the behavioral needs of society and of modern life, has some serious and fundamentally crucial deficiencies. The first problem with current ethics is that it belongs to the time when Shia was excluded from power.  Therefore, discussions on how to control the self when one is in power and how to treat society are either neglected or weakened. It is obvious that the ethical requirements when one is in a small cloister with a limited number of clientele and no real power are entirely different from when one is in power, as a ruler, as a president, a minister, a lawyer, a judge, a commander, or as a torturer, and has power in his or her hand. The result of this weakness, when Shia holds political and administrative power, is the chaos wherein one can witness how some ruling authorities do not observe moral standards, and which makes any believer’s heart bleed. The second weakness is the existence of weighty individual ethics while social ethics suffer from poor health. The third weakness is the lack of attention to applied ethics such as engineering ethics, medical ethics, scientific ethics, traffic ethics, bureaucratic ethics, ethics in technology, environmental ethics, and digital media ethics and so on. And in the complex contemporary world, applied ethics is vitally important.

3. If Islamic ethics is read as isolationism, then where is the place of such matters like trust in God and patience?

There are discussions assigned to “patience” and “trust in God” in Quranic, Hadith, and spiritual ethical branches. For example, in Ghazali’s Minhaj Al-Abidin, or in his Ihya Ulum-ud-Din (in its fourth section on “Constructive Virtues”), or in Fayz Kashani’s Mohjat-al-Beyza. But due to the predominance of individual ethics over social ethics, and of static ethics over dynamic ethics, more profound and productive deliberations, such as patience and trust in God, are marginalized. Of course, during the holy defense we witnessed, in war fronts and among our soldiers, an ethical revolution and the dawn of a true Islamic ethics. But unfortunately, in the present situation that spiritual atmosphere, of sacrifice, humility, and tolerance is dead and authoritarian, totalitarian, and exclusionary tendencies, the winter of moral social virtues, have prevailed.

4. In general, what is Islam’s view on the two domains of this-worldliness and other-worldliness? And which one of these dimensions does it attend to more?

Otherworldliness is the dominant theme in major texts on ethics. And its main inclination and proclivity is to pay attention to the world, to cultivate the world, to be protected from the world, and to play a role in the growth of the world and is not interested in the question of moral virtues. While, in the holy Quran and the in Sunnah of the prophet and his family (Ahl Al Bayt) there are many discussions on these issues, which can be developed and expanded.

5. In Islamic ethics we have virtues and vices. As one contemporary mystic construes, we need mischief in this world as well. Meaning that even Satan is a manifestation of the mercifulness of the merciful and is itself a basis for human growth. Now, do satanic human beings have a positive role in the constitution of this world? In other words, could individual vice lead to social virtue?

This is a very technical question and its thorough discussion goes well beyond the bounds of a newspaper. This topic must be examined in professional journals so as to not be misunderstood or become misleading. But in short, the material, the physical or the human world is the space of difference and conflict. The movement and the development of the world is a dialectical process; of course, dialectical not in the Marxian sense of the word.

6. Are the ethics of the modern human secular or spiritual? And what is the relationship between the two?

There is a fundamental difference between the modernity and the modern. Based on this distinction, the ethical underpinning of the culture and the civilization of modernity is a secular one. However, the ethics of a modern human is neither secular nor spiritual necessarily. The modern human is free and has the choice to follow either secular or spiritual ethics. A common misconception by seculars is to have us believe that one of the requirements of the modern era is secular ethics. As a modern human living in the age of modernity, we are confronted with a new civilization. As René Guénon contends, we can struggle against the “reign of quantity” in ourselves and believe, as Kierkegaard did, that we can lead a heavenly life. As modern human beings who live in modernity, we are “free” (the principle of freedom of choice) and we “can” (the principle of capability) live spiritually and liberate ourselves from the determinism of modernity. Because we are humans and the “distinction” between “human and animal” is the former’s free will based on “knowledge”.

7. In the West, and especially in anti-Christian thinking, it is proposed that secular ethics, and bringing religion into the world, causes the world’s prosperity. In a comparative framework, how is this elucidated in Islamic ethics?

In Quranic, and Alawi thought, developing this world is the prerequisite of cultivating the other world. This world and its beyond are neither in contrast to each other nor are they mutually exclusive of one another. Materiality and spirituality are tangled into one another. The work of a laborer is “worship” (ibadat) and an effort to provide for the family is “Jihad” (holy war). Quranic ethics is not a passive, but rather an active ethics.

8. In your opinion, what is presently the ethical trend in the West? Some believe that secular ethics has reached a dead end and speak of the afterlife and religion?

The project of modernity, which was to build a heaven on earth, has failed. Some facts that shows the bankruptcy of modernity are: killing and massacre of millions in the two world wars of the 20th century, then there was Vietnam, later hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of this century, the brutal assault on the environment due to capitalism and Imperialism’s greed, the huge chasm between the North and the South caused by unjust neocolonial economic relations. In the West, the postmodern movement has grown in opposition to modernity; but religiosity is not the dominant discourse and discourses of liberalism and secularism are still prevailing discourses in institutions of power and mass media.

9. What we interpret as Islamic ethics, could it be compatible with the modern world? Some of our statesmen who have a hand in culture, religion and ethics claim that based on these foundations we can influence the global ethical process, especially in the face of Western culture, which has influenced and manipulated parts of our society, we can have a more superior saying?


With being realistic we can prevent fancifulness. The fact of the matter is that Iran, after the holy war period, is facing moral decadence in institutions of power and in society. The conservative discourse, itself, is a confession about the fall of ethical values within institutions of power. The reformists’ criticisms of conservative government are also a reflection of the absence of ethical values during conservative administrations. The result of all the debates in society, and in governing bodies is that both parties acknowledge that Islamic ethical values have plummeted in society. The rise in different forms of addictions, theft, divorce, illicit relationships, violence and aggression in society all illustrate the epidemic of moral weakness in society. It is best if we first reform ourselves and then start thinking about influencing global ethics and morality. We need serious work in two areas: first, using theorists, we must, as an organic system, make applicable the following fields: the theoretical field, Islamic social ethics, ethics of power, applied ethics, ethics of the modern human based on the holy Quran and reputable Hadiths of the Prophet and his family, Philosophy and dynamic Islamic mysticism. Then, rulers in their actions must become the agents of Islamic ethics.

“(People abide by the actions and behaviors of their rulers and the authorities). الناس علی دین ملوکهمBecause: “

With kindness and forgiveness, pardon and mercy, dignity and integrity, justice and humility, temperance and chastity and purity in their actions, rulers can bring about reform in society. When in both theory and practice they become successful, they can start thinking about reforming the world. But for now, these claims are either for domestic propaganda, or due the speakers’ ignorance about domestic and international situations.


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