100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 48


The Ka'aba in Mecca


The Islamic Ten Commandments

In the Qur’an, as in the Talmud, law and morals are one; the secular is included in the religious, and every commandment is of God. Here are rules for not only manners and hygiene, marriage and divorce, and the treatment of children, slaves, and animals, but also for commerce and politics, interest and debts, contracts and wills, industry and finance, crime and punishment, war and peace.   

    The greatest problems of the moralist are first to make cooperation attractive, and then to determine the size of the whole or group with which he will counsel preeminent cooperation. A perfect ethic would ask the paramount cooperation of every part with the greatest whole—with the universe itself, or its essential life and order, or God; on that plane religion and morality would be one. But morality is the child of custom and the grandchild of compulsion; it develops cooperation only within aggregates equipped with force. Therefore, all actual morality has been group morality.

    The ethic of the Qur’an, like that of the New Testament, rests on the fear of punishment, and the hope of reward, beyond the grave. Muhammad’s ethic transcended the limits of the tribe in which he was born, but was imprisoned in the creedal group that he formed. After his victory in Mecca he restricted, but could not quite abolish, the plundering raids of tribe against tribe, and gave to all Arabia, implicitly to all Islam, a new sense of unity, a wider orbit of cooperation and loyalty. “The believers are naught else than brothers” (xlix, 10). Similarity of belief diminished distinction of rank or race that was so strong among the tribes, “If a Negro slave is appointed to rule you, hear and obey him, though his head be like a dried grape.” It was a noble conception that made one people of diverse nations scattered over the continents; this is the glory of both Christianity and Islam.

    The inevitable gap between theory and practice seems narrower in Islam than in other faiths. The Arabs were sensual, and the Qur’an accepted polygamy; otherwise, the ethic of the Qur’an is as sternly puritan as Cromwell’s; only the uninformed think of Islam as a morally easy creed. The Arabs were prone to vengeance and retaliation, and the Qur’an made no pretense at returning good for evil. “And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner. . . . Whoso defendeth himself after he hath suffered wrong, there is no way” (of blame) “against them” (ii, 194; xlii, 41). It is a virile ethic, like that of the Old Testament; it stresses the masculine, as Christianity stressed the feminine, virtues. No other religion in history has so consistently tried to make men strong or so generally succeeded. “O ye who believe! Endure, outdo all others in endurance” (iii, 200). Thus also spake Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

    For the Muslim world the moral code centered on their own “Ten Commandments,” which every Muslim paid lip service to and some even followed. Unlike their more famous counterparts from the Bible, the Islamic Ten Commandments are seldom displayed in city halls, public monuments, or courthouses. Nevertheless, they play a crucial role in Islamic society and in essence are very similar to their Hebrew/Christian counterparts.

1. Set not up with God any other god (O, Man) lest thou sit down reproved, forsaken . . . thy Lord hath decreed, that ye worship none save Him (xvii, 22-3)

2. And (that ye show) kindness to parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age with thee, say not "Fie" unto them or repulse them, but speak unto them a gracious word. And lower unto them the wing of submission through mercy, and say: My Lord! Have mercy on them both as they did care for me when I was little. (xvii, 23-4)

3. Give the kinsmen his due, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and squander not (thy wealth) in wantoness. Lo! the squanderers were ever brothers of the devil, and the devil was ever an ingrate to his Lord. (xvii, 26-7)

4. Slay not your children, fearing a fall to poverty. We shall provide for them and for you. Lo! the slaying of them is a great sin. (xvii, 31)

5. And come not near unto adultery. Lo! it is an abomination and an evil way. (xvii, 32)

6. And slay not the life which God hath made sacred save with right. Whosoever is slain wrongfully, We have given power unto his heir, but let him not exceed bounds in the taking of life. Lo! he will be helped (by the law). (xvii, 33)

7. Come not near the wealth of the orphan save with that which is better 'till he come to (the age of full) strength; (xvii, 34)

8. And keep the covenant. Lo! of (every) covenant it will be asked (of on the Day of Judgment). (xvii, 34)

9. Fill the measure when ye measure, and weigh with a right balance; that is most fitting, and better in the end. (xvii, 35)

10. (O, Man) follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge. Lo! for every act of hearing, or of seeing, or of (feeling in) the heart--of each of these it will be asked (on the Day of Judgment). And walk not in the earth with insolence. Lo! thou canst not rend the earth, nor canst thou stretch to the height of the hills . . . of all such things the evil is hateful in the sight of thy Lord. (xvii, 36-8)

    Revered to the edge of idolatry, copied and illuminated with loving skill and care, used as the book from which the Muslim learned to read, and then again as the core and summit of his education, the Qur’an has for over fourteen centuries filled the memory, aroused the imagination, molded the character, and perhaps chilled the intellect, of hundreds of millions of people. It gave to simple souls the simplest, least mystical, least ritualistic, of all creeds, free from idolatry and sacerdotalism. Its message raised the moral and cultural level of its followers, promoted social order and unity, inculcated hygiene, lessened superstition and cruelty, bettered the condition of slaves, lifted the lowly to dignity and pride, and produced among Muslims (barring the revels of some caliphs) a degree of sobriety and temperance unequaled elsewhere in the white man’s world. It gave people an uncomplaining acceptance of the hardships and limitations of life and at the same time stimulated them to the most astonishing expansion in history. And it defined religion in terms that any orthodox Christian or Jew might accept:

    Righteousness is not that ye turn your faces to the East or to the West, but righteousness is this: whosoever believeth in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the Prophets; and whosoever, for the love of God, giveth of his wealth unto his kindred, untoorphans, and the poor, and the wayfarer, and to the beggar, and for the release of captives; and whoso observeth prayer . . . and, when they have covenanted, fulfill their covenant; and who are patient in adversity and hardship and in the times of violence: these are the righteous, these are they who believe in the Lord! (ii, 177)