Muslims who explore the sciences often ponder on how to relate their scientific understanding to their religious beliefs. Some Muslims feel it necessary to justify their scientific findings by demonstrating that those findings are specifically sanctioned by scripture, and go so far as to cast doubt upon the veracity of their scientific findings if they cannot do so. Others take the opposite approach, and try to reinterpret the Qur’ân and Sunnah to demonstrates that the scientific conclusions they already accept are found therein.
Neither of these two approaches is satisfactory. A third, more balanced, approach would be to determine the extent to which a proposed scientific theory is compatible with Islamic teachings, without requiring the ideas of science to be interpreted into the sacred texts or vice versa.
Muslims students of psychology, when confronted in their studies with the theory known as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, quite often react according to one the two unsatisfactory approaches mentioned above. Some of them reject the theory as contrary to Islamic teachings. Others try to find the theory within the sacred texts. Therefore, we wish to use this theory as a practical basis to explore how Muslims might generally approach various scientific theories.
A Summary of Kohlberg’s Theory
Kohlberg’s theory holds that moral reasoning has developmental stages. The theory simply states that human beings show a consistent pattern in how their moral awareness develops. He proposes six stages, grouped into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.
The stages of moral development proposed by Kohlberg can be very briefly summarized as follows:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
Though especially common in children, this level of moral reasoning can be exhibited by adults. At these two stages, the morality of an action is determined by the direct consequences of the action.
1. Obedience and punishment orientation: At this stage, only direct personal consequences are understood. The perspectives and needs of others is not recognized
2. Self-interest orientation: At this stage, consideration is given to one’s own best interests. The perspectives and needs of others are considered only to the extent that one’s own interests can be furthered.
Level 2 (Conventional)
This level is typical of adolescents and many adults. At this level, moral reasoning entails adhering to external social conventions.
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity: At this stage, a person considers the approval of others. This is often referred to as “good boy / good girl” morality, whereby a person tries to live up to the expectations of others.
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: At this stage, the person is concerned with obedience to laws and social conventions in order to preserve a functioning society. The focus is on notions of duty and on the good of society as a whole.
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
This level, according to Kohlberg, is not reached by the majority of adults. At this level, moral principles and individual moral conviction are the determining factors.
5. Social contract orientation: At this stage, social welfare and social good become the focus.
6. Universal ethical principles: At this stage, universal moral principles and the individual’s conscience are the focus.
This is a very brief summary of Kohlberg’s proposed stages of moral development.
Some Muslim students have been critical of this theory in that it dares to discuss moral development at all. They see morality as the domain of faith and not something that can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. They also criticize some of the types of moral conclusions Kohlberg suggests people can arrive at when reaching levels five and six, conclusions that clearly show Kohlberg’s cultural biases, but that, in all fairness, are presented by him more by way of example than to outline the basic premise of his theory.
Other students have been tempted to demonstrate that the sacred texts preceded Kohlberg in advancing similar ideas, citing the different levels of the “self” mentioned in the Qur’ân.
We shall now turn our attention to what Islam says about moral consciousness.
Islam & Levels of Moral Reasoning
The basic idea of there being various levels to moral reasoning, in and of itself, is not objectionable from an Islamic perspective. The Qur’ân speaks about people having different levels of moral awareness. There is the wrongfully disposed spirit (al-nafs al-ammârah bil-sû’) mentioned in Sûrah Yûsuf: 53], the self-reproaching spirit (al-nafs al-lawwâmah) mentioned in Sûrah al-Qiyâmah: 2, and the morally contented spirit (al-nafs al-mutma’innah) mentioned in Sûrah al-Fajr: 27]
The first of these – the wrongfully disposed spirit – is one easily enticed to wrongdoing. It is not inherently evil, but uninhibited and self-indulgent.
The second – the self-reproaching spirit – is one that has moral inhibition, whether or not it acts upon it. It is morally aware and feels guilt at the commission of wrongdoing. Its moral conscience has the potential to hold its base desires in check.
The third – the morally contented spirit – is at peace and harmony with its moral existence. There is no conflict between its inner desires and motivations and the dictates of its moral conscience. For it, virtue is its own reward.
However, it will not be right for us to try to use these concepts in the Qur’ân to try and prove or disprove Kohlberg’s theory. That would be reading into the texts far more that what the texts indicate, and that is a great disservice to the Qur’ân. We do not need to try to fit in these three concepts with Kohlberg’s levels of moral development. Such an attempt is unnecessary. The Qur’ân is not a psychology textbook. It is a book teaching us how to relate to our Lord. It is concerned with achieving our moral development, not with dissecting the “nuts and bolts” of it.
These brief references in the Qur’ân simply do not come in the context of dissecting the nature of morality. They come in the broader context of moral exhortation.
Science, on the other hand, seeks to observe the world and derive knowledge from what it observes. This is what Kohlberg is trying to do. His conclusions are based on observing people to determine how their moral development takes place. His theory must either stand or fail, in the same manner as any other scientific theory, on the basis of how well it holds up in the face of further observations, experimentation, and research. Its predictions will either be in agreement with the data or in disagreement with it.
A Closer Look at Islamic Law
Islam brings a set of teachings that are suitable for all people, regardless of their moral maturity. Islamic Law recognizes that all people are not on the same level. It accommodates them all and encompasses their needs in its legislations.
Take Islamic criminal law, for instance. It provides harsh punishments for those who commit crimes. Notably, it provides the option of retribution (qisâs) in cases of murder to the victim’s family.
On the most basic level, this acts as a deterrent for murder, since a person knows that he can be killed for it. A person will seek to avoid this negative consequence.
On another level, it operates to satisfy the sense of justice of the bereaved. In Islam, contrary to what some people suppose, there is no capital punishment for murder. Retribution is a legal option open to the victim’s family and carried out by the courts’ according to the family’s instructions. They have three choices.
1. They can demand that the state executes the murderer on their behalf.
2. They can opt instead for a payment of blood money from the murderer.
3. They can forgive the murderer.
By giving the bereaved the option of retribution, they feel that justice is being done. This confers benefits to society by giving this justice a controlled, legal outlet that prevents the development of blood feuds and vigilante justice spreading throughout society. Allah says: “In the law of equity (qisâs) there is (saving of) life, O people of understanding, that perchance you may restrain yourselves.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 179]
However, the option of forgiveness is open to the victim’s family.
Forgiveness in this world, however, does not imply forgiveness in the Hereafter. A person is not only deterred by the threat of physical of pecuniary punishments. He is, first and foremost, accountable before his Lord.
Ultimately, the believer is brought to realize that murder is inherently wrong and unjust, because all human life is sacred. Allah says: “On that account, We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be for murder or spreading havoc in the land – then it will be as if he slew the whole of humanity. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he had saved the lives of all humanity.” [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 32]
With respect to worship, we can take a look at the example of our formal prayers. These are prescribed for in the manner and times of their performance. Allah says: “For such prayers are enjoined on believers at stated times.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 103]
With respect to children, it is enjoined upon parents to get them into the habit of praying, even with the threat of physical punishment. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Instruct your children to pray when they become seven years old. At the age of ten, beat them if they do not perform it and separate between them when they go to sleep.” [Sunan Abî Dâwûd and Musnad Ahmad, and authenticated by Sheikh al-Albânî]
It might seem odd that a matter of devotion is to be handled in this manner. However, the children in question are not considered by Islamic Law to be morally or legally accountable in any event. What is desired at this time is for the parents to instill within them the importance of prayer and get them into the habit of praying for their future benefit, when these prayers will be required from them as legally and morally accountable adults.
Prayer is required from us by Allah. There are rewards promised us for our benefit in the Hereafter for performing prayers and punishments that we become worthy of in the Hereafter for neglecting them.
Moreover, prayer is something virtuous in its own right. It is pleasing and beloved to Allah. When performed with sincerity and devotion, it confers important spiritual benefits for those who engage in it. Allah says: “Indeed prayer restrains from indecency and evil. And the remembrance of Allah is the greatest thing, and Allah knows what you do.” [Sûrah al-`Ankabût: 45]
We can also see this described beautifully in the following hadîth where the Prophet (peace be upon him) says, conveying to us Allah’s words: “My servant cannot draw near to me with anything better than with what I have commanded him to do. Then my servant continues to draw near to me with voluntary worship until I love him. And when I love him, I become his hearing that he hears with, his sight that he sees with, his hand that he clasps with, and his foot by which he walks.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6502)]
The rewards of our prayers are commensurate with our sincerity and devotion in performing them. The Prophet (peace be upon him) speaks about this when he says: “A worshipper will complete his prayer without having written to his credit save a tenth of it, or a ninth, or an eighth, or a seventh, or a sixth, or a fifth, or a fouirth, or a third, or a half.” [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (796) and Musnad Ahmad (12136)]
A believer understands that Allah, our Creator and Sustainer, deserves to be worshipped. Prayer becomes for such believers a most beloved act, The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The coolness of my eyes is in prayer.”
Rewards and punishments at this point are no longer the primary motivational factors. A believer wants to pray to Allah because of his devotion, his gratitude, and love for his Lord and because doing so it is inherently right and good.
When Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) occupied himself in voluntary prayer, he would stand for such a long time that his feet became swollen. `A’ishah asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Do you do this in spite of the fact that your earlier and later sins have been pardoned for you?”
Thereupon, he replied: “O `A’'ishah! Should I not, then, be a grateful servant?” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1103) and Sahîh Muslim (2820)]
Even at the highest level of faith and moral development that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had attained, he still prayed his five obligatory prayers at their proper times. He still prayed in the manner prescribed for the believers by Allah.
Islam is, for everyone, surrender and submission to Allah’s will in all matters. A person may be at a level of faith and moral cognizance where his motivation for this surrender is more on the level of rewards and punishments in the Hereafter. He may attain a higher level, where he understands that Allah deserves our submission to him. He may be at the level that he realizes such submission the One who Created him and who knows all things is goodness and virtue itself and needs no other motivation. However, his submission only differs in its totality, its comprehensiveness, and in his motivations. The Law, the form of prayers, and all other such matters remain the same. Islam is comprehensive of the needs of all people.
In Islam, we recognize that there is really no distinction between the idea that “It is good because Allah says so” and the idea that “Allah says so because it is good”.
Indeed, these are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon. Allah created all things. He created us and the universe in which we live. He invested everything with its nature. Therefore, He knows what is best for everything and everyone and what is cognizant with that nature. Allah says: “Should He not know – He who created? And He is the Knower of the subtleties, the Aware.” [Sûrah al-Mulk: 14]
Therefore, when Allah decrees something, then with certainty that which He decrees is going to realize what is best for His Creation. Whether we accept His law as good because we define good and evil as “whatever Allah says is good or evil” or because we realize from our faith in Allah’s all-encompassing knowledge and perfection that Allah’s determination of what is good and evil is necessary in conformity with what is inherently good and evil, in the final outcome, we will arrive at the same result
In all of the preceding discussion, we have merely been able to show that the notion of stages of moral development as part of our study of how the human mind develops and works is not incompatible with Islamic teachings. This does not amount to an endorsement or criticism of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory. Islamic research can assess the compatibility of Islamic teachings with the propositions of a scientific theory. It cannot determine the accuracy of the scientific conclusions that are reached. We should leave that task to the scientists. Kohlberg’s theories must either thrive or fail under the scrutiny of further scientific research.
And Allah knows best.
The Distinction between Pure and Applied Science
Pure scientific conclusions about the workings of the human mind, conclusions drawn from observation, experimentation, and study, are matters that belong squarely in the domain of science, just like our knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology. None of these should be confused with religious teachings. Muslims should not use purely scientific conclusions to validate their beliefs or look into their faith to validate their scientific conclusions.
Applied science – which entails how scientific knowledge should be used – is another matter. This deals with the actions of legally accountable people and falls under the authority of Islamic moral teachings.
In biology, for example, whether or not it is possible to clone a human being is not a question that affects our faith. Either it is scientifically possible or it is not. However, whether we should actually go ahead and make human clones is a question full of moral implications that Muslims have to resolve in light of Islamic teachings.
The same can be said with respect to pure and applied psychology. There are conclusions based on observation and experimentation. These conclusions ultimately must stand or fall on the basis of scientific evidence. Applied psychology is another matter. A Muslim must approach the application of psychology in accordance with Islamic Law. A Muslim psychologist, for instance, cannot recommend to his patient a treatment that requires the patient to engage in what Allah has made unlawful.
Words of Advice
We need Muslims working in the field of psychology. This is critical, because though psychology is a science and a very valuable one, it is more prone than other sciences to being confused and corrupted by people’s personal beliefs, values, and subjective judgments. Often, people working in this field blur the line between scientific conclusions and personal values. One of the tasks of Muslim psychologists is to separate between the two.
At the same time, Muslim studying or working in this field needs to honor that distinction between what is science and what is not. A Muslim must resist the temptation to blur that line. It would be serving neither the field of psychology nor Islamic Studies by trying to use the conclusions of one of these fields to prove or validate the other. That is what leads to confusion and misinterpretation.
These days, people are too often tempted to misinterpret the Qur'an in order to uphold scientific findings they endorse or to reject scientific findings that they are uncomfortable with. This is a dangerous trend.
And Allah knows best.