Sarmad Naveed, Canada
The concept of morality is perhaps one of the most polarizing subjects in the world. The vast dichotomies of theories, philosophies, and understandings often confound one who attempts to grasp the reality of this concept. For centuries, theologians, philosophers, and scholars of all spheres have tried their hand at providing a comprehensive structure to understand morality, yet often times they merely add to the conglomerate of sub-theories within morality.
While it is almost universally accepted that one ought to be a moral person, the question remains, how to be moral? In modern times, the answer has been left to the individual. Thus, people may establish their morality based on religious teachings, any given philosophy which resonates with them, societal norms, or whatever they feel to be right.
When defining morality, many often resort to saying that it is simply the doing of good. But what is good? Many events in our history such as wars, genocides and even the Holocaust took place because certain individuals thought that what they were doing was the correct course of action, either for themselves or what they believed to be for that of society at large. If morality is simply doing the ‘right thing,’ then is the discerning of that based on the action itself or the result that it bears? When left to individual understanding, a single explanation can lead to a thousand more questions.
It is strange that despite being considered such a universally necessary concept, one is hard-pressed to find a substantial and comprehensive understanding of what morality is. When the discerning of a concept such as morality is left to any given individual understanding, then who’s to say what is truly moral and what is not?
Thus, in order to understand morality, there must be parameters whereby a standard level of morality can be established.
Islam presents the most comprehensive understanding of morality, from its origins to its practical application. The Islamic understanding not only conforms with achieving a higher spiritual standard, but it also conforms with reason and logic.
The Islamic understanding of morality can be likened to the building of a house. First the foundation must be laid, without which the structure cannot be built. Then, the appropriate tools and materials must be gathered, and finally, each tool must be used at the appropriate time and the materials put in their appropriate places. There must also be a builder to facilitate all of this. Only then can the house be built.
Thus, God established a structure of morality.
Before any structure can be built, a solid foundation must be established. Furthermore, the quality of any structure can be gleaned from the quality of its foundation.
Similarly, God established a foundation whereby the very concept of morality could exist. He did this by creating every human being with an intrinsic sense of right and wrong. God Almighty states in the Holy Qur’an:
وَ نَفۡسٍ وَّ مَا سَوّٰٮھَافَاَلۡھَمَھَا فُجُوۡرَھَا وَ تَقۡوٰٮھَا
‘And by the soul and its perfection. And He revealed to it what is wrong for it and what is right for it.’ 
According to Islam, an understanding of right and wrong, no matter to which degree, can be found in every single person.
Hazrat Hakim Maulvi Nooruddin (ra), the first caliph and worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community used to narrate a conversation he once had with a thief. He asked the thief whether he ever felt unease in spending wealth he had stolen. The thief replied that when the wealth had been obtained after great effort, why would be feel any unease in spending it? The First Caliph (ra) then took the conversation in another direction and asked him how he went about his heists, how many people were usually involved, and what he did with the stolen wealth. He explained that there would usually be four or five people, and upon stealing the wealth, they would give it to a goldsmith to melt it and make it unrecognizable. At that moment, the First Caliph (ra) asked if it was possible for the goldsmith to secretly set aside some of the wealth for himself? Upon this the thief replied, ‘If the goldsmith stole from us, then we would beat such a dishonest person.’
The First Caliph (ra) cited this incident to show that even those in society – such as thieves – whose actions contradict a general understanding of morality, still maintain a sense of what is right and what is wrong. This exists because it is something which God established within humans from the very outset.
When the foundation of any structure is laid, it is apparent that there is a builder behind this who will go on to complete the remaining structure. Such is the case with these intrinsic qualities, or foundations for morality, which God Almighty has imbibed within humans. The second caliph and worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) explains with reference to the philosopher A.J. Balfour:
‘A.J. Balfour was a renowned philosopher – his stance was that there are certain things which we deem beautiful and we desire to obtain things that are beautiful. However, it is not known why this desire is found within humans. This shows that there is a Being who has imbibed this desire in humans.’ 
According to A.J. Balfour:
‘I shall now contend that the emotional values associated with, and required by, our beliefs about beauty and virtue must have some more congruous source than the blind transformation of physical energy…’design’ is demanded by all that we deem most valuable in life, by beauty, by morals, by scientific truth: and that it is design far deeper in purpose, far richer in significance, than any which could be inferred from the most ingenious and elaborate adjustments displayed by organic life.’
Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) continues:
‘[Balfour] is of the opinion that this in itself is a great proof for the existence of God Almighty…This same argument can be presented by a Muslim, in whose Revealed Book, this argument was presented 1300 years ago; whose Revealed Book declares that humans are innately pure and are capable of endless progress.’ 
Thus, the Holy Qur’an presents the concept of innate good and the potential to develop this intrinsic good found within humans as proof for the existence of God:
وَ لَاۤ اُقۡسِمُ بِالنَّفۡسِ اللَّوَّامَۃِ
‘And I do call to witness the self-accusing soul, that the Day of Judgment is a certainty.’ 
What is the self-accusing soul? The Promised Messiah and founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) explains:
‘The time of true morals, whether good or bad, begins when a person’s reason becomes mature and he is able to distinguish between good and bad and the degree of evil and goodness, and begins to feel sorry when he misses an opportunity of doing good and is remorseful when he has done some wrong. This is the second stage of his life which is designated by the Holy Qur’an as the self that reproves.’ 
The Holy Qur’an presents the fact that humans are naturally imbibed with a feeling of remorse or regret indicating that one has done something wrong, or has lost an opportunity to do good as proof for the existence of One who takes account of a person’s deeds in the hereafter – in other words, the existence of a conscience proves the existence of God.
In this way the origins, and Originator of the very concept of morality have been established. However, remember this is just the foundation, the structure is yet to be put together.
Tools and Materials
The next step of any construction is to gather all the tools and materials which are necessary to build the house.
Similarly, God has bestowed each and every human being the with faculties and potential to become a moral person. God Almighty states in the Holy Qur’an:
فِطۡرَتَ اللّٰہِ الَّتِیۡ فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَیۡھَا
‘The nature made by Allah — the nature in which He has created mankind.’
Thus, not only have humans been created by God with an innate conscience and an innate feeling of right and wrong, God Almighty has also bestowed humans with naturally good qualities by creating them as a reflection of His own attributes. The Promised Messiah (as) states:
‘The truth is that whatever good quality, whether intellectual or relating to conduct or morals, that can be manifested by man, cannot be manifested by human capabilities alone; rather, the real cause of its manifestation is Allah’s grace. As these people receive Allah’s grace more than anyone else, the Benevolent God bestows all good qualities upon them through His boundless beneficence.’ 
Hence, a person can be modest, polite, steadfast, chaste, sympathetic, brave, generous, forgiving, patient, sincere, loyal etc. but it must be remembered that these good qualities are simply natural states. These qualities, or the potential to develop and establish such good qualities have been bestowed upon every human being. Yet it cannot be said that the mere manifestation of good qualities should be considered to be morality. Good qualities can also be exhibited by animals, or even infants, yet no one would ever consider an animal or an infant to be moral. The Promised Messiah (as) explains:
‘Natural conditions are not something distinct from moral conditions. When they are regulated and are used on their proper occasions, under the direction of reason, they acquire a moral character. Before they are controlled by reason and understanding they have not the character of moral qualities, but are natural impulses, however much they might resemble moral qualities. For instance, if a dog or lamb displays affection or docility towards its master it would not be described as moral or good-mannered. In the same way a wolf or a tiger would not be described as ill-mannered on account of its wildness… A child or a mad man sometimes behaves in a manner that has the appearance of moral action, but no sensible person calls such conduct moral, as such conduct does not proceed from good sense and appropriateness, but is a natural reaction to the circumstances.’ 
Hence, these natural qualities cannot be considered moral qualities until they are utilized in an appropriate fashion.
Right time, Right Place
If all the tools and materials required to build a house were gathered, but simply scattered around on the ground, no one would pass by and say, ‘this is a house.’ One may be able to recognize certain aspects of the house, for example one may see the roof in one place, the doors and windows at another, but no one would say that this is a house. It would only become a house once all the tools were used appropriately and all the materials were placed in their required positions. Then, upon the proper use of the tools and materials, would the house be completed.
Similarly, the mere possession of good qualities is not enough, though they may resemble moral qualities in some aspects. True morality cannot come about, until these good qualities are used at the appropriate time and place. The Promised Messiah (as) states:
‘All the natural qualities of man as courtesy, modesty, integrity, benevolence, honour, steadfastness, chastity, piety, equity, sympathy, bravery, generosity, forbearance, endurance, bountifulness, sincerity, loyalty etc., when they are manifested on their proper occasions under the guidance of reason and reflection would all be accounted moral qualities. In reality they are the natural states and impulses of man and are designated moral qualities when they are exercised deliberately on their proper occasions.’
He further states:
‘We have repeatedly pointed out the distinction between a true moral quality and a natural condition, which is that a moral quality is conditioned by conformity to place and occasion, and a natural impulse often comes into play out of place.’
The natural qualities which a person possesses, though they may resemble morality at times, cannot be considered moral until one uses reason and understanding, based on the divinely bestowed intrinsic conscience, to apply natural qualities at the appropriate time and place in order to make them moral qualities.
In order to know which tool must be used when, and which material goes where, the builder creates a blueprint to be followed.
Similarly, in order to implement one’s inherently good qualities at the appropriate time and place so that they may become moral qualities, the Originator of morality has also established a blueprint. It is in following this blueprint that true morality can finally take form.
This blueprint is the attributes of Allah. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra) explains:
‘…as man did not come about by himself, he need not work out his own moral standard and try to determine what is good for him. Having been created by a Higher Being, it stands to reason that he has no model worth following other than that Higher Being and no moral objective other than reflecting the attributes of his Creator and Master. the Holy Prophet (sa) himself, states:
تَخَلَّقُوْا بِاَخْلَاقِ اللّٰہِ
That is, O people! Model your morals on the attributes of Allah.
Islam teaches that Allah, the Exalted, created man in the image of His own attributes, and the seeds of all His attributes (except those that are specific to God) have been sown in human nature, albeit in smaller and limited form. To nurture these natural seeds, He reveals a code of conduct—the Shariah—to His pious people from time to time. Shariah is the moral code that creates real reformation and progress in the world. Searching for an alternative is a wasted effort.’ 
Thus, true morality can be established by following the pattern set by the attributes of Allah, as explained through the Holy Qur’an – God’s own revealed Word. In doing so, the possibilities for moral progress are endless; simply look at the greatest moral being who has ever lived, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa), regarding whom God testifies in the Holy Qur’an:
وَ اِنَّکَ لَعَلٰی خُلُقٍ عَظِیۡمٍ
‘And thou dost surely possess high moral excellences.’
His moral conduct was a practical image of the moral code provided by the Holy Qur’an, as his wife Hazrat A’isha (ra) testified:
کَانَ خُلُقُہُ الْقُرْآن
‘His morals were according to the Qur’an.'
Thus, not only do we have a blueprint of how to achieve true morality, we also have the perfect example of how to follow that blueprint.
Morality Without Belief in God…?
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center called The Global God Divide, a majority of 38, 426 people across 34 countries spanning 6 continents believed that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. They were asked:
‘Which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion? It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values OR It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values?’
In response to this question, a median of 45% across the nations surveyed said that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.
When The Review of Religions asked what the research defined as ‘morality,’ Jacob Poushter, the Associate Director of Global Attitudes Research for the Pew Research Center said:
‘Our view is that these concepts are up to the respondent to determine what morality means.’
Thus, to say that most people do not think it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person is not exactly accurate, for a definitive term has been given to an infinite number of possibilities. If discerning morality was left to the individuals, then it is possible that among the 38, 426 respondents, there were 38, 426 different perspectives on what morality is.
This does beg the question however, as to whether it is possible to be moral without believing in God. The Promised Messiah (as) explains:
‘A person who denies the existence of God can yet exhibit good moral qualities, such as to be humble of heart, to seek peace, to discard evil and not to resist the evil-monger. These are all natural conditions which may be possessed even by an unworthy one who is utterly unacquainted with the fountainhead of salvation and enjoys no part of it.’ 
When it has been established that the very reason we are able to have a discussion about morality is because God created the concept and placed its foundations and potential within every single person, then there can be no merit in asking whether morality can be separate from belief in God. Furthermore, as it has already been established, without belief in God, there would be no parameters for the establishment of morality, which would then take us back to having millions of theories regarding what morality is and no conclusive answer.
Of course, those who do not believe in God can show glimpses of moral qualities, solely on account of innate and inherent good qualities, however true morality in the complete sense can only be realized upon the realization of its Originator. Thus, while explaining the need for belief in God in order for one to be moral, the Promised Messiah (as) explains:
‘It is necessary that he should become conscious of the existence of God to a degree at which he should not consider his creation as without purpose, so that an understanding of the Divine should stimulate his true moral qualities.’ 
It is only by believing in God and emulating His attributes, that the age old debate of morality can be put to rest; and this is what makes most sense, as Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra) writes:
‘Once we believe in God, it becomes obvious that as man did not come about by himself, he need not work out his own moral standard and try to determine what is good for him. Having been created by a Higher Being, it stands to reason that he has no model worth following other than that Higher Being and no moral objective other than reflecting the attributes of his Creator and Master.’ 
The Islamic model for morality is the soundest and most comprehensive. The structure for morality established by God conforms with the natural human disposition; in fact, it is within the natural human disposition that God Almighty has placed the very tools with which one can establish true morality. It is in recognizing God then, that these natural qualities can turn into moral qualities. The fact is that the conscience, intrinsic good, the soul that reproves, and the very concept of morality themselves indicate the existence of an Originator and Creator. Thus, the very existence of morality proves the existence of God; and true morality cannot exist without belief in the existence of God.
About the Author: Sarmad Naveed is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who graduated from the Ahmadiyya Institute for Languages and Theology in Canada. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions and coordinates the newly launched Facts from Fiction section. He has also appeared as a panelist and host of programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya (MTA) such as ‘Ahmadiyyat: Roots to Branches.’
- The Holy Qur’an, 91:8-9.
- Hasti Bari Ta`ala by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), p. 57.
- Theism and Humanity by A.J. Balfourd, https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/theism-and-humanism/lecture-2.
- Hasti Bari Ta`ala, by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), p. 57
- The Holy Qur’an, 75:3.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng. Translation) p. 27.
- The Holy Qur’an, 30:31.
- Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Part IV (Eng. Translation) p. 343.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng. Translation) pp. 24-25.
- Ibidp. 30.
- Ibid pp. 61-62.
- Our God by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra) pp. 172-173
- The Holy Qur’an, 68:5.
- Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal, Vol. 8 p. 144.
- Ibid p. 18
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng. Translation) p. 27.
- Our God, by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra), p. 172.