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Western and Islamic Ethics: Different or Similar?

30 April, 2017
Q What is the difference between Western and Islamic ethics?


Salam Azhar,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

Before discussing the question you pose, we need to have a clear idea of some concepts involved.

The implication that arises from your question is that “Western” and “Islamic” are mutually exclusive.

As a matter of fact, this need not be the case. For one thing, there are so many concepts and values that are common to both the Western and Islamic ethical frame of values. 

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What we mean by “Western”

The term “Western” can have multiple meanings, depending on its context. Most modern uses of the term refer to the societies that exist in Europe and North America.

Culture-wise, the term may refer to the societies of Australia and New Zealand as well. By Western culture, we today mean chiefly the culture of the materialistically minded and technologically advanced societies of those countries.

Since the countries in the “West” were generally those that colonized outside of Europe, the term “Western” became associated with European colonialism. This presupposed that the colonizer was always superior to the colonized.

This attitude of superiority is even now flaunted by many of the leaders, in addition to the attitude of the people of the West towards the people of non-Western societies.

The “superiority” of the West is understood as evident in their affluence and in their technical and military prowess. Democracy and human rights are often held to be Western values, while authoritarianism and oppression are considered the characteristics of a decadent “East”.

Today the “West” also stands for capitalism and economic liberalism. Authors like Francis Fukuyama argue that the Western brand of capitalism is the “end of history” towards which mankind has been striving through centuries of evolution.

What has all this to do with ethics? A lot in fact! The present-day world is ruled by the media. Those with poor media are easily outstripped by those with “good press” … a good PR department. Even wars are won in the PR arena, and not in the conventional battlefields.

The foregoing brings our issue into this perspective: Islam has “a bad press”, a poor PR department. So, in the world media, Islam is discredited, demonized, and collapse to falsely be represented by the concepts of “evil” and “terror”.

The core of the Western ethics is supposed to be Judeo Christian values. But, the real Judeo-Christian ethics has little difference from the Islamic ethics. This is because Muhammad (peace be upon him-PBUH) came in the same line of prophetic religion, as Moses and Jesus.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught the same morals, within the same framework of Semitic tradition. Muslims worship the same–One and Only–Creator, as Jews and Christians do. If we adopt a more inclusive “Abrahamic” view, Islam can no more be considered “the other”.

Indeed, Islam is not opposed to the democratic spirit. Islam advocates the right to voice your view, seek knowledge, and pursue a profession. The Qur’an commands Muslims to decide their affairs by mutual discussion and consensus.

Within Islam, each individual is accountable for himself or herself and all are equal before God.

As for tyranny, it is abhorrent to Islam. This is although it may sound surprising, as most Muslims today seem passive. The present situation in the Muslim world is–to a certain extent–a result of Western colonialism and Machiavellian power games.

Like everyone else, Muslims everywhere do want a larger say in their affairs. Those in the West may be more successful in this. Then, in this way, the West proves to be closer in spirit to Islam than many Eastern countries.

Another point worth mentioning is that Islam is egalitarian. Equality and fraternity are expressed effectively in the mosques of Islam, where you can simply see the black and white, poor and rich, weak and strong … etc., standing side-by-side and shoulder to shoulder in their prayers to the One and Only God.

It is this sense of equality and justice before God that makes the Muslim an activist. This sometimes becomes excessive or at any rate misconstrued as excessive.

Even Muslim dietary laws require that the permitted meat is prepared in a manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. In fact, these laws are in line with the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.

The tolerance of Islam is also worth emphasizing, though the popular view is different. For Muslims, tolerance is an article of faith. This is since Islam upholds the validity of all the prophetic paths. Muslims believe in the One God, Who revealed the one religion to all those prophets.

Add to this, the beauty of Islamic mysticism, which is very close to the heart of the West. Otherwise, how could Jalaluddin Rumi become America’s most popular poet?

In short, there is little difference between the core ethics of the West and Islam. This is despite the materialism and utilitarianism that is now dominant in certain circles, which is abhorrent to Islam. But, in fact, it is abhorrent to the real Judeo-Christian tradition too.

Hope my answer is satisfactory. Thank you, and please keep in touch.


Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

The Foundation of Islamic Ethics

Islam Did not End at the Borders of Saudi Arabia

Does Islam Promote a Clash of Civilizations?