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Morality and Religion 

By Alija Ali Izetbegovic

Morality can be based only on religion, but morality and religion are not one. Morality as a principle does not exists without religion even thought morality as a practice, as a particular case of behavior, is not dependant directly on religiousness. A common argument that connects them both is the other, superior world. Because it is the other world, it is a religious world; because it is a superior world, it is a moral world. This shows both the interdependence of religion and morality as well as their independence of each other. There is a certain inner consistency that is not automatic, mathematical, or logical but rather practical; divergencies are possible but sooner or later the dependence is reestablished. Atheism, after all, ends up as a negation of morality, and every true moral transformation starts with a religious renewal. Morality is a religion transformed into rules of behavior - that is, into man's attitude toward other man in accordance with the fact of God's existence. To have to fulfill our duties regardless of the difficulties and risks we face (this being moral behavior as distinguished from behavior motivated by interest), such a demand can be justified only if this world and this life are not the only world and the only life. This is the common starting point of morality and religion.

Morality was born by prohibition and has remained a prohibition until today. A prohibition is religious by nature and by origin. Out of the Ten Commandments, eight of them are prohibitions. Morality is always a restrictive or prohibitive principle which opposes the animal instincts in human nature. The Christian ethic can serve here as an example - not as the only but as the most famous and the most evident.

The history of religion is full of seemingly meaningless prohibitions. However, from the point of view of ethics, there are no meaningless prohibitions. Of course, a prohibition can have a rational meaning too, but utility is never its primary aim.

Morality is not " life in harmony with nature" as the Stoics defined it. It is rather life against nature, provided that the word "nature" is understood in its true sense. Like man, morality is also irrational, non-natural, supernatural. Natural man and natural morality do not exist. Man within the limits of nature is not man; he is, at best, an animal endowed with reason. Morality within the limits of nature is not morality but rather a form of selfishness, a form of wise and enlightened selfishness.

In the Darwinian "struggle for survival," the best (in the moral sense) do not win; only the strongest and the best adjusted do. Biological progress also does not lead to human dignity being one of the sources of morality. A Darwinian man may reach the highest degree of biological perfection, a "superman," but he will remain without human quality and, therefore, without human dignity as well. The latter could have been given to him only by God.

Social progress as a prolongation of the biological progress has the same effects on morality. The English moralist Mandeville asks: "What is the significance of morality for the progress of society and the development of civilization?" and answers very simply: "None. It may even be harmful." According to him, the means that are usually blamed as sinful have the most stimulating effect on a society's progress since " what increases man's needs promotes his development the most." To be more definite: "The so-called moral and physical evils of this world are the main driving forces that make us social beings."

If all progress, biological as well as technical, is to be found in Darwin's theory of natural selection where the stronger suppresses and even destroys the weaker, morality must be in opposition to this essential point of progress. Morality has always demanded protection, compassion, and regard for the weaker and less capable. Thus, morality and nature have been in opposition with each other from the very beginning. "Get rid of the conscience, compassion, forgiveness - those inner human tyrants. Oppress the weak, climb over their corpses..." The parting with morality is very evident. Destroy the weak versus protect the weak - those are the two opposite demands that separate the biological from the spiritual, the zoological from the human, nature from culture, and science from religion. Only Nietzsche consistently applied biological laws and their consequences to human society. The result was the rejection of love and forgiveness and the justification of violence and hatred. For Nietzsche, Christianity, especially Christian ethics, was "the most poisoned poison that had ever been instilled into the vigorous body of the ardent mankind."

In Phaedo, Plato expounded a genuine ethic: ordinary courage is only a kind of cowardice, and ordinary moderation is only a hidden lust for pleasure. That kind of virtue is only a commercial business, a shadow of virtue, a virtue of slaves. A true moral man has only one desire: to be away from the physical and closer to the spiritual. The body is the grave of the soul. In its earthly existence, the soul never reaches its aim, and true knowledge comes only after death. That is why an ethical man is not afraid of death. To truly think and live means constant preparation to die. Evil is the force that rules the world, and morality is neither a natural possibility of man, nor can it be based on reason.

Established ethics have never been rationally proved and, of course, they cannot be proven by this method. Plato referred to metaphysical proofs instead of anthropological ones, which made him the forerunner of theologically based ethics. This development was lawful. It is well known that Plato proponed a teaching about preexistence which stated that every item of knowledge is only a remembrance. An integral part and necessary presumption of such a teaching is the idea of immorality.

Plato's meditations on ethics led him directly to the religious position. Two other ancient thinkers, Epictetus and Seneca, were led to a specific religion (Christianity) through similar meditations. There are very certain indications that Epictetus was a clandestine Christian, and that Seneca corresponded with Paul. In his De viris illustribus, Jerome includes Seneca in the list of church writers. 

Christianity is a striking example of a perfect harmony, a strong mutual affinity, and almost a unity of a great religion and great ethics. The art of the Renaissance, completely inspired by biblical themes, proves that great art joins them. 

From a historical point of view,  moral thought is one of the oldest human thoughts. It is preceded only by the idea of the divine which itself is as old as man. These two thoughts have been closely connected throughout history. In the history of ethics, there is practically no serious thinker who has not decided about religion, either by borrowing the necessity of religion for moral principles or by proving the opposite. The whole history of ethics is a continuing story of the reciprocal permeance of religious and ethical thought. Statistics cannot be proof in this matter, but it can be pointed out that religious moralists prevail, while atheists almost never do.

The so-called laic (secular) ethical movements which stressed the independence of ethics from religion showed that every moralistic thought or activity naturally tends to approach or even to identify with religion. Notwithstanding the contradictory course of these ideas and their oscillation between religion and science,  their development is of great importance. Schoolbooks in French state schools, where moral instruction replaced religious instruction, followed the catechism format of teaching religious doctrines in Christian churches. This trend had a permanent tendency to maintain an independent position against religion which all the while continued to approach it unconsciously. 

Therefore, it is possible to imagine a truly religious but immoral man and vice versa. Religion is one kind of knowledge, and morality is a life lived in accordance with that knowledge. There remains, however, a certain discrepancy between knowledge and practice. Religion is the answer to the question of how to think and believe, while morals are the answer to the question of how to desire and aim or how to live and behave. The tidings of the other world also imply a demand to live in accordance with this wide and infinite vision, although the demand itself is not identical with the vision. Jesus' sublime ethics were a direct consequence of an equally strong and clear religious consciousness. However, the inquisitors' devotions were also sincere, even though this assertion sounds paradoxical. "Believe and do good deeds" - this sentence, which us repeated in the Qur'an more than fifty times, points out the necessity of uniting something that people tend to separate. It expresses the difference between religion ("believe") and morality ("do good") as well as the imperative that they should go together. The Qur'an uncovers a reverse relation and shows how religion can find a strong incentive in morality: "You will not believe until you give amply of what is dear to your heart." It is not: "Believe and you will be a good man," but the reverse: "Be a good man and you will believe." To the question of how one can strengthen his faith, the answer is: "Do good and by so doing you will find God."  

Excerpted from the book "Islam Between East and West" by 'Alija 'Ali Izetbegovic. Mr. Izetbegovic is considered by many to be the hero of Bosnian Muslim resistance during the siege of Sarajevo who led his country to independence from the genocidal campaign of Yugoslavia.


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