Having said something about the primitive roots of morals in general, I would turn to the question: Why go for and aspire after high morals? Correspondingly, why turn away from low morals?
Western thinkers having had more to do with the ultimate nature of things, have given this question special importance. What is the moral purpose? Moral purpose is Moral Achievement of the highest order. This would have been impossible but for the roots of man’s nature being imbued with moral potentialities. Only a Being like God could have provided for this. The moral potentialities of man are at work at all ages and in all circumstances. With the given potentialities man became ready to respond wherever and whenever moral stimuli were present. Some of the Western scholars believe that high morals are intrinsically good, good in themselves. They believe that we should strive for high morals for their own sake. No ulterior purpose is needed. To them high morals are their own justification.
Muslim moralists have returned a different answer. There should be one preponderant motive to all moral actions, high and low. This would be thawab or divinely determined merit. Imam Ghazali is quite explicit on the point. He goes so far as to say that if a man keeps away from adultery not for thawab but for the sake of his health, he is not truly pious.
Against the doctrine of thawab, West oriented writers raise two objections. According to them, when a physician treats a patient not for health’s sake but for the sake of thawab, he is not fully moral. He is instead a kind of tradesman. He is as good a believer in give and take as is the latter. Then why should the one be considered superior and the other inferior? Their second objection is: if a man keep away from adultery for the sake of his health, or good reputation, he has as much title to being chaste as anyone else. After all, has not Shariah prohibited adultery? You say because no concern is shown for spiritual merit as such, therefore, such abstention is expedient, not moral. But the question is why should thawab or merit be the essential condition for an action being moral? Obviously because the divine scheme is the commands should be obeyed and prohibitions should be eschewed. The next question is why does the divine scheme contain commands and prohibitions? If there is no wisdom in commands and prohibitions of the divine scheme; if they are arbitrary, so to say, then the divine scheme is meaningless. But if the divine scheme is not meaningless, but full of wisdom, then to act in accord with this wisdom cannot but be moral. And why not ? If a person while acting out of respect for God’s command, also keeps in view the wisdom contained in the command, why should the merit or value of the action be any the less? If on the other hand, a prohibition has no meaning, it would mean God as law-giver is just arbitrary.
The objection which reduces morality to a simple give and take affair is easily answered when we remember that a business transaction and a moral action are very different matters. In the divine scheme the value of good and evil actions is declared beforehand. Good actions will be rewarded and evil actions penalised. In business, the seller himself fixes the price of his wares. The merits and penalties of the divine scheme were defined and determined long ago, long before the birth of man. They are determined by nature and reflect the value of the act. We may or may not be thinking of God while we perform an action, but merit or thawab is being dealt out to us. This is not give and take. This is not business. In give and take, a person has a quantity of butter and another person has an amount of money. The latter can buy the butter with his money. But the man with butter may or may not agree to sell. In morals it is different. The value of actions and their reward has already been laid down; what action will have what reward. There has been no business transaction, no claim to a price and so on. Another difference is that our Arbiter is one Whom we are going to need in any case. Our actions, whether we have any return for them in view or not; our life, every breath of it, depend on Him. Such a Being to Whom we owe our very being, is not to be dismissed as the other party in business. Business relations are voluntary; we are free to enter into them or not.
The second objection is quite valid; provided it is understood that an action not motivated by the hope of divine reward is not moral. The real point is that those who cannot be reconciled to the use of words like thawab do not understand the real content and meaning of this word. If thawab meant cash in some sense, the difficulty in using it in a moral discourse would be understandable. But Thawab does not mean cash; it does not mean pounds and shillings. It means the end, the ultimate end, for which life exists. Thawab has almost the same sense as the term summum bonum. Summum bonum for man is to become a perfect profile of God which indeed is the purpose of his creation. Morally and spiritually, we should become as holy and as perfect imitations of God as possible. Pure spirituality should be within our grasp. The rewards described in physical language and metaphors are to be interpreted like all metaphors. They are not the end we aim at, but adjuncts to the end. Adjuncts are adjuncts, not the end. A friend entertains a friend. The extra attention, the little things he provides and presents to the friend, are not the real purpose. The real purpose is the meeting of hearts and the meeting itself. So, here, thawab does not mean the eating and drinking which is done on the occasion, but getting close to the end which is to be as like God attributively as possible, to be as much of an abd as one can be. Says the Holy Quran:
I have not created the Jinn and men but that they may worship Me. (51:57)
When actions are thus motivated, only then can they acquire the status of true morals. Without their motivation our actions are materialistic exercises. There is no doubt that even these exercises are of some use. But if men do not aspire to be good and perfect, and if the approval of God is not their aim, how will they attain the fulfillment for which they are made and after which they ought naturally to aspire? Mental and spiritual action and effort depend so much on good motives. Even physical actions depend on the motives which buttress them. All experts on physical culture will tell you this. When taking exercise, if you keep an eye on the result, the end of the exercise, it will make a great difference. Without this extra attention, the result is not as good as it can be.
The second answer to the difficulty is that we practise morals to win the approval of God. This does not mean we expect to have something in return for our moral effort but only that we return our thanks to Him, for what He has already done for us. Thus the discharge of this moral obligation, the expression of our gratitude should enable us to acquit ourselves well in a manner of speaking.
Lastly, the critic fails to understand himself. If reward makes an action selfish, the critic too is not any the less selfish. Let him ponder the question. Why does he tend a sick person, look to his needs and so on? If the answer is — his heart compels him to do so, then tending the sick no longer is his virtue. It is his heart which should have the credit, but for whose compulsiveness the tending of the sick would not have taken place. Alternatively, the answer could be that it is a matter of give and take. Tend a sick man for maybe when you happen to be sick, you will have someone tending you in return. The element of return is unavoidable. But look at us. When we perform a good action, we do not expect to have our return in cash or in some other form. By the present action we thank God for the opportunities we have had in the past for doing good things.