Faith and ethics are thus intertwined in the Qur’an and linked further to the Prophet as a moral exemplar. In elaborating and further developing ethical thought, Muslims, throughout history, developed a diverse set of expressions: philosophical, theological, legal, and literary. 

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Muslim World, Vol. I, p.34-35, ed. Richard C. Martin, MacMillan Reference Books, New York, 2003

Akhlaq, the plural form of khuluq, refers to innate disposition or character and, by extension in Muslim thought, to ethics.

In the Qur’an the term is used to refer to Prophet Muhammad’s exemplary ethical character (68:4). The Qur’an also emphasises the significance of ethically guided action as the underpinning for a committed Muslim life. Qur’anic ethics emphasise in particular the dignity of the human being, accountability, justice, care and compassion, stewardship of society and the environment, and the obligation to family life and values.

Faith and ethics are thus intertwined in the Qur’an and linked further to the Prophet as a moral exemplar. In elaborating and further developing ethical thought, Muslims, throughout history, developed a diverse set of expressions: philosophical, theological, legal, and literary. These expressions were framed within a context of vigorous intellectual debate and in interaction with the legacies of many ancient traditions, including the works attributed to Aristotle and Plato, and Iranian, Jewish, and Christian thought.

The Muslim philosophical tradition of ethics developed an intellectual framework for rationally grounded moral action. Some of the key thinkers who contributed to this were al-Farabi (d.950 CE), Ibn Sina (d.1037 CE), and Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1273/74 CE). Their works in turn influenced other major figures, including the Sunni scholar al-Ghazali (d.1111 CE), who did not always agree with them. The philosophical tradition, in common with other early groups such as the Mu‘tazila and the Shi‘a, emphasised reason and logic in arguing for a universal ethical framework. 

Ethical action in their view did not oppose religiously grounded ethics; rather it sought to enhance their meaning and appreciation by philosophical reasoning and took account of personal and social, as well political, virtues.

Al-Farabi’s classic al-Madinah al-Fadilah (the excellent city) explores the ideals of a political community that produces the greatest good for all its citizens.

Muslim legal tradition also developed a framework for guiding individual and social behaviour. In Muslim law (shari‘a), jurists classified acts according to their moral value and categorised them as obligatory, meritorious, indifferent, disapproved, or forbidden. All actions thus fell within these normatively and juristically defined categories and provided religiously defined prescriptions that could be enacted at a personal as well as social level to followers by scholars trained in jurisprudence and religious sciences.

Mystically grounded ethics as developed in the Sufi tradition emphasised the necessity of an inner orientation and awareness for guiding human action, leading to greater intimacy, knowledge, and personal experience of the divine.

Ethical acts were linked to spiritual development and Sufi teachers wrote manuals, guides, and literary works to illustrate the way – tariqah – which represented, in their view, the inner dimension of outward acts. In the modern period, as Muslims have come into greater contact with each other and with the rest of the world, their ethical legacy, while still continuing to be influential in its traditional forms, is also being challenged to address emerging issues, changing needs, and social transition. 

Muslim scholars are debating and formulating responses to a variety of issues, prominent among which are the ethical bases of political, social, and legal governance; the ethics of a just economic order; family life; war and peace; biomedical ethics; human rights and freedoms; the ethics of life; and the broader questions raised by globalisation, degradation of the environment, and the uses and abuses of technology. 


Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000

Izuztsu, Toshihiko. Ethno-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1966


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Professor Azim Nanji

Professor Azim Nanji serves currently as Special Advisor to the Provost at the Aga Khan University. Most recently he served as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University 2008-2010 and also lectured on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies. He was previously the of Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1998 - 2008. Prior to this, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and has held academic and administrative appointments at various American and Canadian universities.

Professor Nanji has authored, co-authored and edited several books including: The Nizari Ismaili Tradition (1976), The Muslim Almanac (1996), Mapping Islamic Studies (1997) and The Historical Atlas of Islam (with M. Ruthven) (2004) and The Dictionary of Islam (with Razia Nanji), Penguin 2008. In addition, he has contributed numerous shorter studies and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism in journals and collective volumes including The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, and A Companion to Ethics. He was the Associate Editor for the revised Second Edition of The Encyclopaedia of Religion. In 1988 he was Margaret Gest Visiting Professor at Haverford College and a Visiting Professor at Stanford University in 2004, where he was also invited to give the Baccalaureate Address in 1995. He has also lectured widely at international conferences all over the world.

Professor Nanji has served as Co-Chair of the Islam section at the American Academy of Religion and on the Editorial Board of the Academy’s Journal. He has also been a member of the Philanthropy Committee of the Council on Foundations and has been the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In 2004 he gave the Birks Lecture at McGill University.

Within the Aga Khan Development Network, Professor Nanji has served as a Member of the Steering Committee and Master Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Task Force Member for the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) and Vice Chair of the Madrasa-based Early Childhood Education Programme in East-Africa.