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

Azim Nanji is currently Special Advisor to the Provost of the Aga Khan University, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, a joint partnership between His Highness the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada. He has held many prestigious academic and administrative appointments, most recently as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, where he was also lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies. From 1998 to 2008, Professor Nanji served as Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.

Professor Nanji has published numerous books and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism, 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 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.

Within the Aga Khan Development Network, he has served as a member of the task force 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. He served as a member of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1998, 2001 and 2016.​​