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Sources of Moral Authority: An Ethics of Divine Command


The three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – ultimately hold that ethical obligations are derived from Divine commands and instructions revealed through or dictated to a divine intermediary or a messenger and set down in sacred scripture.

In Judaism, God’s will is revealed in the law given through Moses at Mount Sinai. These instructions covered virtually every aspect of life: social, legal, dietary, economic, sexual, ritual, etc. As situations and circumstances arose that were not anticipated by these divine commands, Judaism came to rely on interpretations and traditions that developed in the Oral Torah or Talmud.

In Christianity, Jesus is considered the divine intermediary who brings a new set of laws by which his followers are to live. Like other rabbis, Jesus sought to summarize the complex laws of the Hebrew scriptures in simple terms. The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a “second Moses” who goes up on a mountain and delivers an ethics of divine command to the faithful who are gathered below (Matthew 5-7). In spite of these divine commands, the early church quickly encountered new situations that required interpretation and application. Thus, we see the church struggling to apply these ethics throughout the Book of Acts

In Islam, Muhammad is the messenger to whom Allah through the archangel Gabriel dictates the Qur’an. Nevertheless, Islam actually exemplifies an ethics of divine command based on a tradition of legal-ethical commentary. Mortals cannot know every aspect of God’s Law (Shari’a); rather we can only have limited insight (fiqh) into the Divine Law. Although the Divine Law does not change, insights may differ. Consequently, in Sunni Islam, it is held that no ruling/insight can be an infallible statement of Divine Law. Differences were accepted and tolerated to the point that all rules derived by Jurists from careful consideration were considered equally valid.

  • Over time, four sources for the Divine Law were recognized
  • The Qur’an itself
  • The customs or traditions (sunna) of the prophet, like the Qur'an were considered divinely inspired.
  •  Analogical deduction The ijma – the majority consensus of Islamic jurists.

 Example of Interpretation of Divine Law: The jihad.

 In popular thought jihad is often referred to a "Holy War." Broadly speaking, however, jihad refers to the exertion of one’s religious effort especially in the spread of belief in Allah and Islam throughout the world. According to most Muslim jurists, this jihad is more than zealous missionary activity. It also includes the duty of military actions against unbelievers. Differences of interpretation arise from the fact that in some places the Qur’an implies that jihad is an unconditional command to permanent war against unbelievers; in other places, jihad can only be in response to a clear threat to the faith or to Islamic countries. Consequently, some embrace a militant, aggressive interpretation of jihad while others hold to the view that the jihad must be defensive warfare against those who have invaded Islamic territory for political gain. Still others have spiritualized the concept of jihad and argued that the term simply means to strive and exert oneself fully in being a faithful Muslim. Thus, in spite of the fact that ethics have their source from the divine command, different interpretations of that command have been set forth.