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The Five Ethical Categories in Islam

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In this lesson, you will learn about the five ethical categories of Islam. These categories govern all Muslim actions and are defined as required, neutral, discouraged, or forbidden. After the lesson, take a quiz to see what you have learned.

Islam as a Law

Islam is one of the world's major organized religions. Those who believe in Islam are called Muslims. They believe in the teachings of the prophet Muhammed, as written in the Qur'an. At its core, Islam is a code of conduct for humanity. In this respect, it is much more like Judaism than it is like Christianity. After all, the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians, has books devoted to how to act, even down to what clothes to wear, whereas the New Testament focuses greatly on belief rather any any mandatory actions. As such, there is a very heavy emphasis on not only how a person believes but how a person acts. This emphasis on proper action is called orthopraxy. To help Muslims find their way to proper behavior in a complex world, Islam has laid out a very specific ethical code. Central to this code is a five-layered system of morality, by which all actions are judged as required, encouraged, neutral, discouraged, or forbidden. These five categories are known as the al-ahkam al-khamsa, or five approvals.

Necessary and Proper

Islam does place some requirements on its believers. This is best seen in the famous Five Pillars of Islam, which serve to explain the core duties of Muslim belief. Each of these is a requirement, and each of these requirements demand specific action. For example, it is not enough to just believe that there is not god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, but it must be said. Likewise, daily prayer and, if able, a pilgrimage to Mecca are requirements. These requirements are known as wajib, coming from the root word for necessity in Arabic.

Pilgrimage to Mecca is wajib
Mecca

But what about those things that are good, but not necessarily required? Islam says to pray five times a day, but what if an individual wants to pray more than that? What if she wants to give to charity more than is required, or otherwise goes above and beyond? According to Islam, that is recognized as a mandub action. Giving extra to charity is a great example of a mandub action.

Neutral

There are some things that Islam is rather neutral about. Not surprisingly, this covers a great deal of territory. You don't gain anything as a Muslim by sleeping, or by eating lamb instead of chicken, or by being a brunette or a blonde. Simply put, these actions are just average. In Arabic, they are called mubah, though sometimes you'll see a much more common term, halal. However, mubah is the technical term within the realm of these five categories.

Discouraged and Forbidden

Under Islamic law there is plenty of room to do things that are not pleasing to God. Just as you'd expect, there is some latitude here. There are those things that are frowned upon, and then those things that are forbidden. For example, divorce is frowned upon. The Qur'an states in no uncertain terms that it is not preferable for couples to end their marriages in divorce. That said, it does recognize that sometimes divorce is necessary. As such, it offers numerous ways for a couple to divorce, ranging from the just barely frowned upon to the truly offensive. Actions like divorce that are discouraged in Islam are considered makruh. Smoking is another example of a makruh action.

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