Monday, 18 March 2013

Book Of Ethics

The Prophet of Islam (SAW) expressed the ethical prerogative of his mission in his famous utterance that “I have come to perfect ethics.” There is too much debate about religion or theology but little focus on what constitutes the basic prerequisite for a truly religious life: Ethics. Shari’ah is fundamentally ethics. Even rituals or pillar of Islam are ultimately directed for self transformation. We may never resolve theological quarrels but we can resolve to come forward on the common minimum programme of the Quran that emphasizes Iman in God and the Last Day or iman and aml-i-salih. The Last Day implies faith in the permanent significance of our actions or accountability. Sufism is, according to one definition, perfection of morals. In fact our earliest Sufis had little time for speculations on wujudi or shuhudi Tawhid but simply emphasized sincerity of action or perfection of our ethical self. Ethics unites traditions and in fact the Quran has proposed this as the criterion for grading people when it singles out God-fearing (taqwa) for judging people. How is God fearing shown? By action and action only. Imagine if our debating factions debate how ethical they are in their individual or social lives, how many beggars are in the vicinity of areas dominated by them, how many marriages are funded by them, how many community guest houses or hospitals they have built. Islam has characteristically emphasized correct action (orthopraxy) rather than correct opinions.
Today I talk about a great book that has the distinction of being the smallest book available on web only on the subject. And the book is by a Kashmiri scholar who is not well known in academic circles here but has the distinction of being one of the most gifted scientist-thinkers of the State. True to his lofty ethical philosophy he has not cared for fame and name although he deserves it by virtue of his acclaimed contribution in as diverse fields as veterinary pharmacology and mathematics. Given more conducive atmosphere he could have been a great mathematician and philosopher. As a self taught mathematician and philosopher he has, with his own limited resources, managed to admirably work on binomial theorem and other mathematical problems and evolved some very interesting philosophical theses. It is our misfortune that we have no institutional spaces for harnessing such a great talent which is available in plenty in Kashmir but fails to bloom for want of space or patronage. I present here, in his own words, the crux of world ethical systems including that of the Islamic tradition. We can only marvel at the comprehensiveness of its scope and the elegance and brevity of its formulations. They are not original as there can be no originality in metaphysics and ethics informed by it but nevertheless encapsulate in an original way the key ethical principles of not only religious traditions but great traditional philosophers and some modern thinkers. His choice of language may have slightly reduced its scope but not if appropriately transposed in transtheological language. This is the first “book” on ethics by any Kashmiri scholar.
Saint Augustine was asked to recite the whole scripture in one go standing on one foot only. He raised the foot and said that love and charity constitute the whole of scripture. Our author has similarly stated the ethics of world traditions and philosophies in 12 propositions. One can only think of a qualifying clause here or there or more nuanced use of terms with definitions of them and few clarifications. However, the shortest book could afford to dispense with them perhaps. We may derive a few principles from others and further shorten it but we can’t contradict anyone.
Stating his premise that “We must begin our actions in the name of Almighty Allah” he straightaway lists 12 moral codes.
 Adhere firmly to the principles of justice.
 Honesty is the best policy.
 Be truthful, avoiding injury and harm to innocent.
 Do not do to others what you do not wish others to do to you.
 Do not encourage wrong-doers in their actions. Do all you can to curtail their injurious actions.
 Do not transgress limits set by Allah.
 Be good to yourself. This implies nurturing and improving positive energies and impulses, and curbing and disciplining negative energies and impulses.
 Do not wish good for those whose existence is harmful and/or injurious to those of others.
 Do not disturb the balance and harmony in Nature nor contribute towards those disturbances.
 Do all that you can to contribute towards the preservation and improvement of harmony in Nature, and its embodiments.
 Observe your lawful obligations and duty with sincerity, zeal and devotion utilizing the best of your capacity.
 Do improve your knowledge, wisdom and skills to render the best of possible actions.
And finally “Always end your work while offering a lots of thanks to the Almighty for whatever trivial or great has he bestowed upon His creations and existences.”
Countless volumes have been written on ethics. All great philosophers, saints and sacred scriptures have expounded on ethics. But Mir’s shortest book has succeeded in summing them up. Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Christ and Muslim thinkers are all here appropriated in these deceptively simple maxims that will take a life time to contemplate and practice. Wittgenstein has also stated his ethics in few propositions. Whenever in doubt we can hang by the golden rule of which others are explications. The whole of ethics consists in acting for self-transcendence, acting so that God acts through us. Let us examine these 12 principles and add anything if one can. I find them not only comprehensive but quite pragmatic in a world where ethics seems to be the last and least consideration.
I hope Prof. Shabir attempts a sort of Spinozoistic treatment of these maxims and engages with very complex questions (we don’t even bother to inquire into them) like ethicality of sending our children to private schools  and thus further weakling public sector institution of education or implicating class division or being part of the system that encourages privatization of healthcare by opting for treatment in private hospitals or being part of the State that is wedded to the interests of the Capital.
(The book by Prof Shabir Ahmed Mir is available at )

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