Middle Eastern Theories of Ethics

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  • 0:03 Background on Middle…
  • 1:16 Judaism
  • 2:21 Islam
  • 3:34 Cultural Ethics in the Region
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angelica Goldman

Angelica has taught college and high school history and social sciences, has a master's degree in history, and is a licensed FL teacher.

This lesson will broadly discuss the basis of Middle Eastern theories of ethics, including those centered on both Islamic and Judaic religious beliefs. It will also discuss traditional cultural concepts of ethics in the region.

Background on Middle East Ethics

What makes right and wrong? Good and evil? Each society and culture and region of the world has their own ideas of what constitutes acceptable behaviors and practices. These ideas form the basis of these groups' systems of ethics, or the mores and standards by which people are expected to comport themselves. Let's explore the rich heritage and traditions of the Middle Eastern region.

The Middle East is one of the oldest inhabited areas of the world and is considered one of the cradles of civilization. Its ethical theories have had a lasting impact on not just the region itself but on the development of the ethical systems of the entire Western Hemisphere. Religious beliefs play a fundamental part in the ethics of the entire Middle Eastern region. The Middle East is the cradle of all three major monotheistic faiths, or the faiths who hold that there is only one deity. These faiths are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Christianity migrated and help formed the foundation of ethics in Europe and the Western world. The mores and tenets of Judaism and Islam remain more closely tied to the region, weaving themselves into its ethical tapestry.


For over 2000 years, the religion of Judaism has held and debated ethical theory. These ethics hold their basis in the Jewish religion, its main religious texts, the Torah (or Hebrew Bible) and the halakhah (or the Jewish law established by rabbis over the centuries). Nearly all of Jewish ethics can be linked to these texts and teachings. Two other key texts, the Mishnah and the Talmud, contain the established ethical laws Jewish religious leaders, or rabbis, have elucidated over the centuries.

The fundamental ethos that undergirds nearly all the ethical principles of Judaism have remained largely the same for two millennia: 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' (frequently called the 'Golden Rule'). What does this mean in ethical practice? It means that good actions are those that promote justice, truth, and peace, as well as an attitude of hesed, or loving kindness toward others. Actions like stealing, perjury, or murder are forbidden. Compassion for others, including in the form of charity, or tzedakah (or friendship), and respect are prized.


The prophet Mohammed finished receiving the founding text of Islam, the Qu'ran around 632 C.E. Considered by Muslims to be direct from Allah, which is the Islamic name for God. Similar to the Jewish tradition, Islam also has accompanying commentary known as the Hadith, that clarify and formulate ethical principles from the Qu'ran. These two textual sources are codified into a framework of religious law known as Sharia. Many modern Middle Eastern countries utilize this foundation as a significant portion of their nation's actual legal proceedings.

In the Islamic tradition, the most important ethical principles revolve around the idea of active submission to the will of Allah, as well as to the will and mores of the community. Muslims believe adherents have a moral obligation to follow the laws of God as laid forth in the Qu'ran and clarified by Hadith and Sharia. There is also a strong traditional emphasis on peace, as the customary greeting 'Salaam alaykum' literally translated to 'peace be upon you.'

In practice, this has lead to a similar ethos as found in the Jewish tradition. Violence is meant to be frowned upon, and being an active good in one's community is praised.

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