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The Objectives of Islamic Ethics and Law

Islam considers wealth as a necessary and important ingredient for the satisfaction of essential needs but its holistic vision of human development cannot be realized by this alone. Jurists have identified four other dimensions of deprivations that need to be addressed to ensure true well-being. These five dimensions of well-being are together known as the Maqasid (Objectives) of Islamic ethics and law. They are faith, life, intellect, posterity, and wealth. The understanding of the Maqasid has enabled Islam as a faith to remain contextually relevant and illuminating in each new age and circumstance.

The individual components of Maqasid al-Shari’ah are either explicitly stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah or have been deduced, directly or indirectly, from these primary sources by jurists. A large number of Maqasid have been identified – they have been broadly classified as essential, complementary, and embellishments in descending order of importance. The first identification of the five categories given above; i.e. faith, life, intellect, posterity, and wealth, as the essential Maqasid (necessities) was made by Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.505/1111) in his book al-Mustafa fi ‘Ilm al-usul. However, Imam al-Shatibi (d.790/1388), the scholar to write about the Maqasid as an independent science in his book al-Muwafaqat fi usul al-Shari’ah which was dedicated to science.

Scholars are in agreement about the five essential values of al-Ghazali although some contemporary scholars have added other Maqasid to the list. There are also minor differences between jurists in the nomenclature and order of importance of the five objectives. According to al-Ghazali as quoted in Chapra (2000):21 “The objective of the Shari’ah is to promote the wellbeing of all mankind, which lies in safeguarding their faith (din), their human self (nafs), their intellect (‘aql), their posterity (nasl) and their wealth (ma’al). Whatever ensures the safeguard of these five serves the public interest and is desirable.”


The Maqasid give prominence to faith as an essential dimension of well-being because it brings meaning and purpose to life and thereby can transform a person in a way that will lead to the actualization of all other spiritual and material needs. By conferring on believers clear moral and ethical values along with explicit rules of behavior, faith leads to moral enhancement and social solidarity- key assets in addressing adversity and vulnerability. Faith is also linked to well-being and protection by enabling adherents to take a long-term view of their self-interest through belief in accountability in the Hereafter.

Thus Islam recognizes the freedom of worship as an essential need for humans. This is the theme of several declarations in the Qur’an. To quote some: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from Error.” Al-Baqarah (2:256) “The truth has come from your Lord. Whoever wishes may believe in it and whoever wishes may reject it.” Al-Kahf (18:29). “If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed – all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” Yunus (10:99).


This dimension encompasses all the needs of human beings that should be fulfilled for the sustenance of the human body and also those that are necessary for humans to discharge their role as custodians (khalifa) of the earth namely, preserving dignity and good governance. The physical needs include food, shelter, and clothes. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has defined the barest needs of the body in the hadith which says: “The son of Adam has no better right than that he would have a house wherein he may live, and a piece of cloth whereby he may hide his nakedness, and a piece of bread and some water.” (Tirmidhi 2341)

Another important need included in this dimension is health. The rights to life and security, health, healthy environment, food, shelter, clean water are also included in this objective along with freedom from fear.


The first revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet (PBUH) required him to: “Read in the name of the Lord … Who taught man through the use of pen what he did not know.” Al-Alaq (96:1, 4-5).

The Last Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself has made it obligatory for every Muslim man and woman to seek knowledge. This objective highlights the importance of freedom of thought and expression in Islam. The development of the intellect and the acquisition of knowledge is universally accepted as foundational in building capabilities, human freedom, and removing barriers to human development. This is because education is the vehicle through which individuals can explore their own conception of what it is they have reason to value and thereby work towards the freedom to make valued choices in other spheres of life.

The principle of the protection of the intellect has also enabled scholars to respond to contemporary threats to the intellect such as psychotropic drugs.


The objective embraces the focus is on the protection of future generations and the family as the basic unit of society and solidarity. It includes the right to family life and the rights of the child. It can also include honor, freedom from shame, right to privacy, etc. An obvious contemporary issue that is prioritized by this objective is the responsibility to secure future generations through environmental management and protection.


The final dimension is wealth. This is a key determinant of well-being. Islam considers wealth as the lifeblood of the community which must be in constant circulation; therefore its possession excludes the right of hoarding. This implies that wealth must be invested to improve people’s well-being. The benefit of the investment is not only measured by the monetary gain associated with it, but also by the benefit which accrues to society. The needs of the society must therefore be a consideration for the owner of wealth.

The disposition of wealth is subject to certain regulations. The first is the recognition of the rights of others in the wealth. Next follows the payment of appropriate levies (zakat) if the amount falls within the specified threshold. Only then can the owners use it as they wish within the bounds of the law. Divine law opposes extravagance, opulence, waste or general abuse of wealth; or its use to harm others. The right to lawfully acquired wealth is strictly protected but the wealthy are regarded as trustees who hold the wealth as a trust on behalf of God “… and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you.” Al-Nur (24:33).

Despite these apparently strict restrictions, Islam encourages the legitimate pursuit of wealth and the enjoyment of the bounties created for human fulfillment. Complete abandonment of family life means that the community in pursuit of closer proximity to God is not a tradition encouraged by Islamic teaching. Indeed, along with one’s personal worship, the growth of one’s spiritual stature as a human being is also related to the fulfillment of social obligations, service, and relationships through full social engagement. The Qur’an says: “But the Monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them.”Al-Hadid (57:27).

The Prophet (PBUH) also said: “There is nothing wrong in wealth for those who are God-conscious.” (Ibn Majah 2132)

Thus the right to private property is respected. God says: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger and spend out of that in which He has made you successors. For those who have believed among you and spent, there will be a great reward.” Al-Hadid (57:7)

However, wealth is considered in Islam to belong to the dominion of God and it is a trust to be acquired and used in lawful ways. Greed and the hoarding of wealth are prohibited since they harm the well-being of both present and future generations. The Prophet (PBUH) said: “Wretched is the slave of the dinar, dirham, and velvet.” (Bukhari 2887).


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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