Religious Ethics in Comparison
Though the three religions reviewed and critiqued in this paper — Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — have very different histories and quite original approaches to ethics, there are also a number of startling similarities when comparing them. One can easily find the differences, and this paper does indeed point to the differences. And yet, when it comes to the philosophical ingredients that go into each of the three and the values that each present as important, there emerges a tapestry of goodness and ethical beliefs as well.
Buddhist Ethics — Background Information
It should be understood at the outset of any discussion of Buddhism that there are many approaches to practicing Buddhism. Philosophy Professor Michael G. Barnhart points out that there are “deep similarities” between various approaches to Buddhism — for example Buddhists universally share a “reverence for the personal history of the Buddha” — but there are obvious contrasts as well (Barnhart, 2012, 18). The “Hau-yen” Buddhist tradition focuses on issues apart from what the Buddha said or did, Barnhart explains. In fact the Hau-yen believers — using the texts of their “Pali canon” — take the position that at the time of his death Buddha “urged his followers to figure things out for themselves” and not to rely solely on his words and deeds (Barnhart, 18).
That said, on the other hand nearly all who follow Buddhism in any context believe in the Four Noble Truths, and nearly all Buddhist traditions focus on “â€¦existential suffering” even though a clear understanding of what suffering is not the same in every approach to Buddhism (Barnhart, 18). Suffering (“dukkha”) is distinguished from pain in the early Buddhist texts, but newer approaches to Buddhism (like “Engaged Buddhism”) view both suffering and pain in the same way, Barnhart continues (18).
More to the point of this research, Barnhart points out that very few scholars have made arguments that Buddhism expects followers and believers to be obligated or duty-bound in any way. Unlike Catholicism, for example, which places a number of obligations on practitioners, Buddhism does not list duties that believers must adhere to or follow unfailingly (Barnhart, 19). When it comes to ethics and values, Buddhism does make clear the “normative force of principles” through the “Five Precepts” — which is similar to the “Ten Commandments” in Christianity — albeit nowhere does Buddhism offer an “overall principle that provides structure and definition to moral deliberation,” Barnhart asserts on page 19.
The point made by professor Barnhart is that through an observance of the Five Precepts (they will be fully delineated later in this section) there is an imprecise sense of obligation and duty. The reason many Buddhist followers observe the Five Precepts “â€¦stems more from philosophical anthropology and psychological insight” than it does from any “systematic appraisal of normative judgment” (Barnhart, 19). In other words, Barnhart and other scholars believe that in Buddhism there are no powerful deontological ethical standards that must be believed and obeyed.
A deontological ethic is one that is “â€¦morally required, forbidden, or permitted,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Moreover, deontology is based on moral theories that “guide and assess our choices” of what we should and should not be doing, the Stanford reference explains. An example of how some approaches to Buddhism skirt deontological demands is in the fourth of the Five Precepts. “Avoiding false speech” — or always being truthful — is very clear and easy to grasp. “Truthfulnessâ€¦is therefore essential in an ethical life” (The Buddhist Centre).
Indeed, according to Buddhist precepts people who believe in Buddha should always tell the truth, but if telling the truth contradicts other obligations, or betrays a “trust,” maybe the truth can be postponed or deferred (Barnhart, 20). In the process of moral reasoning — Buddhist style — there is a kind of “â€¦reconciling of duty with reality,” Barnhart explains, which is linked to Buddhism’s tendency to “modify its initial list of duties and obligations” in order to fit well within certain changing circumstances (20). In other words, one shouldn’t lie, but falsehoods that help others can “escape the stain of lying” — which is a convenient way of saying, the Fourth Precept is to be followed unless telling the truth will bring harm to another person (Barnhart, 20).
Buddhist Religious Ethics
Barnhart reviews the emphasis that Buddhism places on nirvana (freedom from suffering) and suggests that nirvana (among the best-known Buddhist concepts) is reached through “â€¦the dissolution, perhaps deconstruction, of selfhood” (30). And the way one dissolves selfhood — or gets out the way of his or her own consciousness and self-image — is through wisdom and compassion; and that in turn comes intellectually and through the “â€¦practical transcendence of grasping” (30). That said, Barnhart wonders, “Where is the ethics in all this?”
The ethical question that is most pertinent to understanding Buddhism, as far as Barnhart is concerned, is not “What should I (specifically) do?” But rather, “What should I care about?” (30). And if that seems a little vague, it is because the author believes there are no “specific rules [or] principles, exactly,” in Buddhist ethics. Instead of rules to govern how Buddhist followers should behave, Buddha offers “a case-based approach”; to wit, ethical reasoning is found in the cases presented by the Buddha because Buddhism is “â€¦simply blind to moral considerations generally” (Barnhart, 30). Saying a universally practiced denomination like Buddhism is “blind to moral considerations” is not the same as saying Buddhism has no morality.
Rather, the emphasis in Buddhism is on “â€¦achieving a state of enlightenment” which has little if anything to do with “moral or ethical conduct in itself,” Barnhart continues (30). And enlightenment has to do with relieving “â€¦existential suffering” (i.e., suffering that is the consequence of one’s behavior), but not because relieving suffering is the right thing to do, Barnhart asserts (30). Relieving suffering in Buddhism is about achieving a desirable state of mind, but to what end? Barnhart spends a considerable amount of his narrative trying to pin down specific ethical ideas within the Buddhist ideology and he ends up suggesting that there are no principles to which Buddhism “â€¦unequivocally subscribes” and hence Buddhism should be viewed as a “moral phenomenon” (30). Buddhism is not deontological, it is not “consequentialism,” and it has no “overriding commitment toâ€¦the general welfare” either, Barnhart continues on page 31.
Since Buddhism says little or nothing about human obligations, or the consequences of human actions, or the actual meaning of life, then, Barnhart wonders, “what does it say?” Despite its flowery precepts and case samples of how people behaved in certain situations, Barnhart asserts that Buddhism “â€¦appears unprincipled” — and this brings up the question of whether or not “principles are necessary to successful moral deliberation” (31). On the subject of morality and principles, the author quotes scholar Jonathan Dancy (from Dancy’s book Ethics Without Principles):
“There is no reason whatever to suppose that morality stands or falls with a supply of principles capable of doing the job required of them.
I suggest that morality can get along perfectly well without principles, and that the imposition of principles on an area that doesn’t need them is likely to lead to some sort of distortion” (Barnhart, 31).
Thai Buddhists Sell Out Buddhism for Money
Meanwhile, not all members of any denomination are always able to stand up for what’s ethical and right when money is on the line. Indeed, Thai Buddhists are known to have violated the Five Precepts, according to a peer-reviewed piece in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. The research that the author put into this scholarship was based on the fact that “â€¦large amounts of money are capable of motivating people to commit unethical behavior,” and with that in mind, questions were posed to eight hundred Thai Buddhists revolving around large sums of money (Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2007). One study referenced by Ariyabuddhiphongs reflected that men are far more likely to engage in unethical behaviors for “a million dollars” (39). Another research result referenced by the author showed that 76% of males and 58% of females would “have one-time sexual relations with a stranger” (39). This research indicates that males more than females are willing to break the Ten Commandments and the Five Precepts for money and pleasure. Twenty-one percent of men and just 10% of women “would steal something” and 22% of men and 10% of women would “tell a lie about a business associate” (Ariyabuddhiphongs, 39).
With that data as background, Ariyabuddhiphongs discusses the Thai Buddhists that apparently were perfectly willing to be unethical — and sell out their Buddhists beliefs — for big money. This is not to say that Buddhists in Asia are alone in abandoning their faith for cash, but it is interesting and worthy of mention in a paper about religion and ethics.
To wit, each the 800 members of Buddhist congregations in Thailand were given a 14-page questionnaire which presented this question (followed by five scenarios, each of which violated one of the Five Precepts): “If someone gave you a million baht and asked you to perform the following jobs, would you accept them?”
For the first Precept (“â€¦would you work for a year as a chicken slaughterer in a slaughterhouse?”) men were “more likely” than women to take that job. For the second Precept (“â€¦would you sell an employer’s secret to a competing company?”) men and women both indicated they would take the money and sell out their employer. Men and women both said they would violate the third Precept (“â€¦would you leave your girl/boyfriend or separate from your spouse?”) and they would also take the money by going against the 4th Precept (“â€¦would you falsify a report saying a client was a good risk when he wasn’t?”). But men were more likely to agree with the 5th Precept (“â€¦would you drink a bottle of whiskey every day for a year?”). If there was a similar study of Christians or Muslims one could fairly compare those two denominations with this Buddhist investigation, but those studies were not available.
Ethical Comparisons: Five Precepts and the Ten Commandments
Buddhism puts forward Five Precepts in terms of showing believers ways that bring help rather than harm or suffering. There is no “single course of action that will be right in all circumstances,” The Buddhist Centre explains. With that in mind, the Five Precepts do not speak of right or wrong but rather of being “skillful” (kusala) or “unskillful” (akusala).
Buddhist Precept #1 (“Not killing or causing harm to other living beings”) is the closest thing to a fundamental ethical principle in Buddhism, according to The Buddhist Centre. This is why many Buddhists are vegetarians — because they do not wish to eat animals that have been killed. Taken a step further, it could also mean don’t mistreat the neighbor’s dog or cat, and don’t use pesticides like DDT because it brings harm to wildlife, notably birds.
Christian Commandment VI (“Thou shall not kill”) is abrupt, straight forward, and does not identify what should be and should not be killed. Christians who eat animal meat clearly do not believe “Thou shall not kill” refers to animals (including fishes in the sea).
Buddhist Precept #2 (“Not taking the not-given”) is about stealing and why stealing can do harm to others. The Buddhist Centre explains that “Not taking the not-given” also refers to not taking advantage of others, or manipulating them; in other words, taking the not given is taking advantage of others because no one has been given the right to exploit others.
Christian Commandment VIII (“Thou shalt not steal”) is again very simple and obvious and it offers nothing about manipulating others or taking advantage of others though it is implied because to steal from someone is to in effect take advantage and manipulate them.
Buddhist Precept #3 (“Avoiding sexual misconduct”) basically refers to not causing harm to another person through a sexual activity of some kind (that could be not getting a woman pregnant or giving her a venereal disease). This Buddhist precept also alludes to not “breaking commitments in the area of sexual relations” which dovetails with the Seventh Commandment (VII).
Christian Commandment VII (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”) is right out there without equivocation or confusion. It is the closest match to Buddhist Precept #3 albeit it does not suggest causing harm, it simply states that a married person should not engage in sexual activity nor should an unmarried participate in sexual activity with a married person.
Buddhist Precept #4 (“Avoiding false speech”) would be equivalent to saying “Do not lie” and comes close to matching the Ninth Commandment in the Christian Bible. The Buddhist Centre says that language is “a slippery medium” and people can easily “deceive” themselves and others without knowing that they are being deceptive. In other words, those Buddhists who profess to desire an “ethical life” should be truthful (which flies in the face of Barnhart’s narrative earlier in this paper — that is, if telling the truth contradicts other obligations, or betrays a “trust,” perhaps the truth can be either postponed or deferred somehow).
Christian Commandment IX (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”) certainly suggests that God does not want humanity to lie, but it is not a generalized way of asserting that the truth is better than a falsehood. It asks humans to “avoid false speech” because false witness implies statements that are untrue and unethical (hence it is linked to Buddhist Precept #4) against not only neighbors, but also implied is the suggestion that bearing false witness against anyone is wrong. Perhaps that is a stretch but surely bearing false witness is deceptive and wrong.
Buddhist Precept #5 (“Abstaining from drink and drugs that cloud the mind”) doesn’t necessarily command that Buddhists should live a clean, healthy, drug-free life, but clouding the mind with substances takes away the ability to achieve enlightenment. Again, Buddhists are urged to seek nirvana, or freedom, and anything that gets in the way of that is unethical.
Christian Commandment I: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is very different from Buddhism because the Buddha is not God and doesn’t pretend to be God; Buddhism is not based on a powerful Deity, but rather it is based on those values and ethics that reduce pain and lead to contentment and enlightenment.
Christian Commandment II: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any craven image, or any likeness or anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth below or in the water under the earth” (Heritage-Signs). In other words, false idols are not to be admired no matter where those idols might be found.
Christian Commandment III: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” — this is very far afield from the ethical standards that the Buddha asks of his followers. Clearly God in the Christian milieu is a God that demands obedience to his rules, whereas Buddha only suggests ways of life to reduce pain and seek enlightenment.
Christian Commandment IV: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” which is yet another Christian rule that has little to do with ethics per se, but instead is a demand by God to never forget which day to worship; the implication, however, is that an ethical Christian will observe the Sabbath the way God intended it to be observed.
Christian Commandment V: “Honor thy father and mother” is God’s way of trying to keep families together and to explain to Christians that respect of one’s parents is vital.
Christian Commandment X: “Thou shalt not covetâ€¦[anything that is thy neighbor’s including the neighbor’s wife and servants and cattle]. It is interesting that nothing like this commandment is found within the Buddhist ethical values although it might be considered similar to Precept #2, “not taking the not-given,” because to have a desire to take the not-given could be construed to be coveting that thing.
In conclusion to this section of the paper, in Deuteronomy 6:2-4 the subject of “fear” of God comes up (as it does in many other places in the Holy Bible). The idea that Christians should be afraid of the Lord is the exact opposite of what Buddhists are asked to do, but that helps a researcher relate to how different values and ethics are in the two denominations.
“So that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God so long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you” (Bible Gateway).
And in Matthew Chapter 19 Verse 17, Jesus was asked what is good and what is bad. He responded (according to the New International Version of the Bible): “Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments'” (Bible Hub).
Islam vs. Buddhism vs. Christianity — Areas of Ethical Agreement
In the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology essayist Max. L. Stackhouse explains that “All religions” have something in common, and that is a “â€¦sense of being under a moral law that is not constructed by human will” (Stackhouse, 2007, p. 548). Religions also “â€¦share similar sensibilities about what is right and wrong,” Stackhouse continues; religions also have what Stackhouse calls “â€¦an overlapping awareness” of the sorts of human “practices” and “institutions” that are required so that humans may find their lives sustainable (548). The essayist selects Hinduism and Confucianism as the “most enduring ‘high’ philosophical and ethical religions,” which he said has formed the “moral character of millions” of people for centuries (549).
But Buddhism and Islam are also religions with strong ethical foundations, Stackhouse continues. In fact the Buddhist concept of nirvana and the Islamic “hope for ‘paradise'” offer a sense of “ultimate destiny” that is based on “â€¦decidedly transformed ethical states of affairs” albeit the two faiths are in philosophical opposition to one another (Stackhouse, 549). In describing the ethics of Buddhism and Islam, Stackhouse notes that they have “ethical propensities” that influence the cultures they are associated with; both have “â€¦dispositions, duties, behaviors, normative practices and altered social relationships” that reflect a “meritorious morality” that stands in juxtaposition to the way the world really is today (549).
As mentioned previously in this paper, and reemphasized by Stackhouse, Buddhism calls for its followers to eschew thoughts of God or soul and instead to show compassion for others and to withdraw from personal desires as an ethical way of existence. On the other hand, Islam is more like Christianity because it insists on “â€¦a radical obedience to the commands of Allah” (in the same sense that the Ten Commandments and other Biblical passages insist that Christians must be obedient to God and fear God) (Stackhouse, 553). And as for Christianity, there are three “decisive elements of ethics” and “moral logic” within the Christian denomination, Stackhouse explains on page 554).
Those three elements of Christian ethics include: a) a “universally valid moral law”; b) an awareness of “the sustaining of life in even the sinful contexts of nature and history” that humans are living in; and c) a “promise of blessings and woes” (Stackhouse, 554). These three ethical and moral Christian tenets are given to believers through the “Sermon on the Mount” (also known as the Beatitudes). Christ later died on the cross and hence he offered an ethical way out of humans’ “â€¦sinful states of existence” through the “spiritual, mental, moral, and social” dominions that God intended for His son to present (Stackhouse, 555).
Christianity — Religious Ethics
Reverend Florea Stefan writes in the peer-reviewed HEC Forum that Christian ethics has “â€¦always had a man at its center” and the way Christians approach their ethics is based on the “â€¦care and responsibility of this man,” Jesus Christ (Stefan, 2008, p. 62). The road that Christians travel while fulfilling their spiritual lives passes “unmistakably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption” (Stefan, 62). Christian ethics cannot be seen as having been launched through the goal of mankind to be perfect, but rather Christian ethics is based on the fact that God “â€¦was made man” and became the “perfect” model for humans no matter in what epoch they live or where they live (Stefan, 62).
The scholarly article presents the case that Christian ethics is not about a philosophical idea or trend; instead Christian ethics should be viewed as an attitude that one must have in order to embrace humanism. To wit, Christian humanism is about responding to the world by “â€¦assuming, encompassing, and showing that all which is truly beautiful, clever, and bountiful” in the world is “neither foreign to nor incompatible with Christianity” (Stefan, 62).
Moreover the center of the humanistic characteristic is not philosophies or theories about mankind but rather the center of Christian humanism is about “â€¦the historical man, real and down to earth” (Stefan, 63). Baptism symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection (the believer is held under water for a brief few seconds and brought up out of the water), and this is the Christian virtue that leads to an ethical life, the author explains.
That having been said, Stefan critiques humans caught in the modern world as having either forgotten God or as being in the process of “â€¦chasing God away from historyâ€¦ [by] hoping to affirm absolute freedom for himself” (64). Mankind is presently in the hands of a “â€¦whirlwind of this society wherein each and every product is but an object to sell for pleasure,” and when objects don’t offer “immediate and immanent satisfaction” they are thrown away and seen as “ugly” (Stefan, 65). The author goes so far as to assert that because of mankind’s “lack of balance” and his “instability,” he is led down a path of “psychological fragmentation” — in a way, like a schizophrenic (65).
This article breaks away from explaining the ethics that Christianity brings to the world and to mankind by pointing out — through several pages of narrative — that the current social conditions on the planet have gone astray from the goodness that Christ emphasized. This is not atypical of a minister’s narrative, and in fact it is the apparent duty of the Christian clergy to illustrate the way in which congregations have gone astray from an ethical Christian life. This strategy is taken so that the Christian minister can bring the wayward person back to the life that Christ portrayed through His teachings.
As for Stefan — who is on the faculty of the college of Orthodox Theology in Romania — he posits that the way the Bible characterizes mankind is very different from how people believe and behave today. “Man distinguishes himself as the sole interrogative and meditative being,” Stefan continues, and because people tend to see the world as theirs to shape and mold, they are engaged in a life of “futility like a dead star which offers neither light nor health” (67). All the negative signs that the pastor brings to light are wrapped up in what he calls “post-modern ethics” which stands in the way of “Traditional Christian ethics” (70). Hence, he sees an “utter urgency to promote Christian ethics,” which is the path to “true meaning in life” because it provides “solutions to the countless daily problems” (71). Christian ethics contributes to the building of what Stefan calls the “civilization of love”; being involved in the ethics of Christianity is by way of “..extinguishing the ever growing impact of & #8230;darkness” (Stefan, 71).
Islam — Issues Related to Religious Ethics
“Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicityâ€¦” (Qur’an).
John Kelsay is Professor of Religion at Florida State University, and he begins his discussion of Islam and ethics by trying to set the record straight as to what is ethics and what is either borderline ethical or not ethical at all. Kelsay points out that many questions about Islam (especially over the past few years) center on popular media representations of the Muslim world. Two typical questions that students ask are: “Is this a religion of peace, or of the sword?” And “Are Muslim women oppressed, or is Islam a liberating force?” (Kelsay, 2012, 358). These are shallow questions and lack scholarship, Kelsay explains, because “â€¦things are not that simple” (358). Moreover, those whose scholarship focuses on Islam have the duty and the responsibility to provide a more truthful and historically accurate picture of this denomination because a great deal of scholarship vis-a-vis religion centers on Christian or “Anglo-American philosophical discourse” (Kelsay, 359).
Kelsay focuses some of his article on what scholars have written through the years about Islam and ethics, and he states first of all that ethics is not just about “â€¦telling people how to live” (361). The study of ethics is more about investigative work into the history of a culture, a subject or of a society, and as to the ethical tenets of Islam, it was not until 1983, Kelsay continues, that the initial “â€¦substantial discussion of Islamic ethics appeared” in the literature (361). Hence, there is much more to learn, he insists, about Islam and ethics. Historians and journalists both tend to find “certain portions” of Islamic tradition that “fit” into their subjective narratives, and from those portions they “â€¦propose to others a set of actions” that seem appropriate.
The contemporary meaning of jihad, for example, which pertains to “armed struggle” in the Qur’an, has been adopted by people like bin Laden to justify killing Americans and their allies (Kelsay, 367). Muslims in this category see jihad as a “duty” and yet Kelsay points out that “nefarious types” like bin Laden have constructed what they believe is an ethical approach to play out their loathing of the West and of the United States in particular (368). The rhetoric of radical Muslims pushes the idea that by killing Westerners they are in fact defending a political idea that “â€¦is no longer viable — indeed the notion of a unified Muslim community governed strictly by divine law” (Kelsay, 368).
The Islamic Ethical Concepts
Meanwhile, essayist Jonathan E. Brockopp maintains that when it comes to ethics and Islam, the Qur’an “â€¦must serve as the basis of all inquiry” because it is believed to be “God’s own speech” (Brockopp, 2007, p. 3). That sets the Qur’an apart from the Old Testament of the Bible because in the Old Testament God’s word is delivered through men who have been selected somehow to be the interpreters of what the Lord asks of humans. In the Qur’an, however, believers accept that it is God actually speaking. God spoke to Muhammad (through the angel Gabriel) in Arabic, and “â€¦to this day, Muslims resist translation of the Qur’an into any other language,” Brockopp explains (3).
The Qur’an — the final word when it comes to ethics in Islam — is about as long as the New Testament in the Bible, and as a “fixed, limited text,” it is divided into 114 chapters (called suras) (Brockopp, 3). The Qur’an is not a law book demanding that the faithful follow specific rules, Brockopp explains; it is a book of “directives,” though, and is designed to provide guidance on ethics, ritual, and law (3). The Qur’an has a relationship to the Bible because it alludes to “â€¦tales of Noah and the Flood” and to the creation of Adam and Eve albeit those stories are provided in “oblique language” (3).
The verse many scholars consider one of the most important passages in the Qur’an is the following (translated) sentence: “â€¦do not kill the person that God has made sacred, except by right” (Qur’an 6:151; 17:33; 25:68) (Brockopp, 3).
Unlike the Buddhist Precept #1 — “Not killing or causing harm to other living beings” — and the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not kill”), the Qur’an leaves an opening in its ethical text. This certainly implies that in some circumstances it’s okay to kill another being, and it is clear that terrorists like bin Laden and others (including the Taliban) have either taken this passage out of context for their own ethical values, or those individuals actually believe that it is perfectly fine to crash hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and do other criminal acts because the Qur’an justifies such slaughter using the words, “â€¦except by right.”
Brockopp makes a point that while the Qur’an is indeed the most important guide when it comes to Islam and ethics, what most people use as guidelines for their spiritual lives are the “specialized commentaries” that expand on the Qur’an and interpret the Qur’an. The author mentions Muslim philosophers and historians that have produced classical commentaries relating to how individuals should perceive and act upon the 114 chapters of the Qur’an.
“Muslims have depended on learned men and women to interpret the divine word,” and so for a Muslim seeking enlightenment on spiritual matters in the Qur’an, he or she can read the commentaries of al-Tabari, al-Zamakhshari, al-Qurtubi, and al-Razi, Brockopp explains.
Islam and Corporate Social Responsibility: Ethical Considerations
Geoffrey Williams and John Zinkin discuss the response that Islam has had to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility — and the United Nations’ Global Compact, which was intended to apply to all business organizations worldwide — in the Journal of Business Ethics. How well a company adheres to the principles of positive social and ethical behaviors in the community says a great deal about that company — whether the issues are in Islamic countries or nations dominated by Christianity. The United Nations’ “Ten Principles” of responsible business behavior — part of the UN Global Compact established in 1999 — lays out specific principles related to global businesses and their approaches to: human rights; fair labor practices (including the right to collective bargaining); environment; and anti-corruption (Williams, et al., 2010, p. 519).
The ethical basis of Islamic business — a pivotal part of the development of human life in Muslim societies — requires two things, according to Williams on page 520: a) the resources needed to “maintain life and fulfill the material needs of both the individual and society”; and b) the individual’s awareness of the principles of “individual and social behavior to allow individual self-fulfillment on the one hand and the maintenance of social justice and tranquility on the other” (Williams, 520). For a Muslim, prayer should always come first, but he or she is expected to seek profit (wealth) and also develop his or her life. Indeed, though work should be halted when it is time for the prayers (typically a devout Muslim prays five times a day), when “â€¦prayers are finished a good Muslim returns to work” (Williams, 520).
Why do Muslims pray five times a day, each time facing east (toward Mecca)? An important part of the ethical practices of Muslims revolves around worship, and there are five elements to worship: a) There is but one God and Muhammad is His Prophet; b) regular devotional acts of prayer are required; c) during the holy period of Ramadan believers must fast; d) giving to charity (Zakat) is an obligation; and e) once in a lifetime a devout Muslim makes a sojourn to Mecca (Williams, 520).
That having been pointed out, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to serve Allah “â€¦through good behavior” in work and in other aspects of daily life, Williams writes (520). There are numerous passages in the Qur’an that point out the importance of economic activity; in fact, “â€¦every individual is required to work in Islam” but that should not be seen as drudgery at all. That’s because work can be seen as “an act of worship” if the outcome of the work effort leads to “social justice and spiritual enhancement” (Williams, 521). This concept is clearly an ethical standard that Muslims are expected to adhere to. There are similar
The work Muslims participate in cannot be done just for personal gain — or for “the love of money” — but rather it must be conducted “in accordance with the canon of Islamic Law” (Williams, 521). Islam Law frowns on extremes, Williams continues, and hence working too hard (with selfish goals) or being pushy or arrogant about one’s power position with a company is not considered virtuous or ethical behavior.
There are certain types of businesses that Muslims are discouraged from working for and those prohibitions come from ethical concerns; that is, if a person is employed by a corporation that produces alcohol, weapons, tobacco or is involved with gambling, that employment is putting others at risk, Williams writes (523). The rationale for this ethical approach is based on the Qur’an (2, p. 219):
“They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: In them is great sin, and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit” (Williams, 523).
Why is gambling considered unethical in Islam? Williams says it is because gambling represents “getting something too easily” — and when it comes to money, earning cash that is based on a ruse (as it is in this case) is considered against Islamic laws. The same is true with the unethical practice of usury (lending money and then charging an outrageous interest rate). Usury is unacceptable and unethical in Islam not because it turns “excess capital into profit” but rather because of a “â€¦deeper concern for the moral, social, and economic well-being of society” (Williams, 523). To wit, usury creates “profit without workâ€¦and it does not share the risk between the lender and the borrower”; indeed, Islam prefers a “â€¦equity-based, risk-sharing, and stake-taking economic system to a debt-bases system” Williams, 523.
The bottom line when it comes to doing business in a Muslim country is that the Qur’an and the Islamic scholars that interpret what the Qur’an presents believe in ethical approaches to doing business. And this includes a rule against price-fixing:
“Allah is the One Who fixes prices, who withholds, who gives lavishly, and who provides, and I hope that when I meet Him none of you will have a claim against me for any injustice with regard to blood or property” (Al-Qaradawi, 1985, 255) (Williams, 523). Al-Qaradawi (among the Islamic scholars who interprets the Qur’an) also wrote the following:
“If anyone withholds goods until the price rises he is a sinner” (Al-Qaradawi, 1985) (Williams, 523). There is of course no specific data on what percentage of Muslims observe that fairness doctrine in business, but the fact that fairness in business is mentioned often in the literature and in the Qur’an is a reflection of the ethical tenets of Islam.
Meanwhile, as to the UN Global Compact and how human rights are observed in Islam, on page 524 Williams uses a quote from the Qur’an (49, p. 13): “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of male and female [an allusion to Adam and Eve] and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other” (Williams, 524). In addition, the Qur’an makes clear that that people who are not part of the Islamic faith should be treated with respect: “To you be your way and to me mine” (Qur’an, 109, p. 6). That sounds a great deal like the Biblical passage in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Bible Gateway).
Comparing Ethics of Work In Religion: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity
“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly suppliedâ€¦” (Proverbs 13:4).
An article in the peer-reviewed journal Business Review, the authors point out that business management in the Muslim community is “not separate from ethics; the latter reinforces the former” (Maishanu, et al., 2012, p. 113). In fact, Islam balances life by avoiding “extremism” because mankind is a combination of “matter and spirit” and both of those require attention. Man is supposed to aim his material and spiritual pursuits toward “â€¦acquiring the pleasure of Allah,” Maishanu explains on page 114. The business ethics of a Muslim are quite different from the business ethics of other faiths, Maishanu asserts. There should always be a “sincere urge” within a manager to conduct his duties as though he has been given this assignment as a trust from Allah.
“All the stakeholders in all spheres of the Muslim society” — including workers, husbands, wives, leaders, subordinates and servants — are each considered “as a shepherd and will be responsible for his flock” (Maishanu, 115). “Be kind to those on earth and He who is in the Heaven will be kind to you” (Tirmithi and Abu Dawud) (Maishanu, 115). In other words, a person in a Muslim society works to please Allah when he or she is fair to others, and fair to himself or herself. In Muslim businesses, the man or woman in charge should at all costs “â€¦avoid deceit and exaggeration” and there should be no philosophy such as “survival of the fittest” (Maishanu, 116).
Looking at Buddhism and ethical business practices, Wan Kah Ong and colleague explain that while it may seem like an “oxymoron” to place business concepts next to Buddhism, it isn’t that way in reality. In fact the Buddha originally “renounced a privileged life of pleasure and leisure” and instead he took up the life of a person living in a forest; but he did not find the enlightenment he sought and so he approached what the authors call “a middle path.” In the Pali canon (Buddha’s teachings) there is advice as to how to “earn, spend, and save money,” and financial success was considered a virtue (Ong, 2012, p. 142).
That having been said, the Buddha also believed that while “people were not forbidden to become rich” — they were allowed to “amass wealth in a rightful way” — they were also advised to “abstain from five kinds of commerce: slaves, weapons, meat, alcohol and poisons” (Ong, 142).
Regarding Christian ethics vis-a-vis work and commerce, in Colossians 3:23, the Bible offers this: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the lord and not for men” (Open Bible). That passage rings a bell when considering the ethical approach that Muslims are supposed to take regarding work; they are supposed to be doing it for Allah.
In conclusion, as mentioned in the thesis to this paper, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have unique tenets and histories, and there is no doubt that some of those tenets and values in Buddhism, for example, conflict with tenets and ethics in Christianity and Islam — and it cuts both ways for all three denominations. However, when viewing the three faiths with an open mind and an open heart, there is more similarity than start differences to behold and to admire.
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Brockopp, Jonathan E. “Taking Life and Saving Life: The Islamic Context.” In Islamic
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Bible Gateway: “Luke 6:31 (New International Version).” Retrieved September 21, 2013,
Bible Hub. “Matthew — Chapter 19 — Verse 17.” Retrieved September 19, 2013, from http://biblehub.com/matthew/19-17.htm.
Dancy, Jonathan. Ethics Without Principles. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press 2006.
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Islamic Approach.” Business Review, 7.2 (2012): 113-118.
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Research, 12.4 (2012): 139-149.
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Qur’an. “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is goodâ€¦”
Retrieved from Ali ‘ Imran: 104.
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