‘Repel evil with good’

Surah 5 (Al-Ma’idah/The Table Spread): 48

And unto thee [O Prophet] have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein.

Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee.

Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you.

Vie, then, with one another in doing good works!

Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.


Both {2.148} and {5.48} encourage believers to ‘vie with one another in good deeds’, a phrase that is also used in the story of the birth of John, the cousin of Jesus in {21.90}. In the same vein, {23.61} and {35.32} urge listeners to hasten to be ‘foremost’ in good deeds. An alternative image that the Qur’an employs to depict the duty to perform virtuous deeds as a personal challenge is that believers should ‘repel evil with good’, {13.22} and {28.54}, or ‘by that which is better’, {23.96} and {41.34} or to ‘pardon and set matters aright’, {42.40}. All of these verses present right conduct as a form of piety. On a societal level, a phrase commonly applied is that communities should collectively ‘command the good and forbid the bad’, {3.104, 110 & 114}, {7.157}, {9.71 & 112}, {22.41} and {31.17}.


But what for a Muslim defines good and evil deeds? In the above verses the word that is rendered as ‘good’ or ‘what is right’ is ‘ma’rūf’, from the root ‘-r-f literally meaning ‘known’. Within the overall context of the Qur’an, and particularly within the context of commanding and forbidding, ‘mah’rūf’ is almost certainly intended to convey ‘as made known by God’, contrasted with ‘munkar’ (from n-k-r) meaning ‘unfamilar’ or ‘that which is rejected’. It is suggested that in all these verses, Shabbir Ahmed’s translation: ‘advocate what the Book calls virtue and forbid what the Book calls vice’ and Sarwar’s ‘Obey the Law and prohibit the commission of sin’ is closer to the intended meaning than The Monotheist Group’s more open-ended ‘order kindness and deter from evil.’


It is of the essence of the Qur’an’s message that qualities of ‘goodness’ and ‘evil’ should be determined, by a Muslim, not subjectively according to their own lights, but as obedience to God Whose will is made known through His prophet and Books. Several verses state explicitly that a person shall be punished for sin, even if what they did ‘seemed fair’ to them at the time: {4.79}, {6.108}, {17.16} and {92.5-10}. Deeds are commonly categorised in Islam as falling into one of five ethical categories:

  • farḍ’: positive obligations on believers as individuals (effectively the ‘five pillars of Islam’, see 〈E.〉 and 〈52.〉 to 〈56.〉 above,
  • mustahabb’: recommended, ie virtuous, conduct,
  • mubab’: actions that are morally neutral,
  • makruh’: actions that are discouraged, but nevertheless permitted (‘ḥalāl’),
  • ḥarām’: actions that are forbidden.


Applying this taxonomy, the first priority for the individual believer must be the performance of their ‘farḍ’ obligations – the profession of faith, the payment of the zakat and the performance of the three religious rituals of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage so far as is practicable – and the avoidance of haram acts. Since the Qur’an has stated that believers should ‘command the good and forbid evil’, it would also seem a reasonable implication that Muslims must consider themselves under a moral imperative not only to comply with their individual obligations, but also to contribute, as best they can within their own circumstances,  towards shaping a community that is organised in accordance with the Qur’an’s instructions, and if possible, towards expanding the influence of this community.


In two passages {6.151-153}: and {17.22-39} the Qur’an sets out a series of short prohibitions that appear to have been deliberately formulated to act as its equivalent to the biblical Ten Commandments of Exodus 20.1-17 and Deuteronomy 5.4-21 (which are themselves mentioned in the Qur’an as the covenant with the Children of Israel, at {2.83-84} and {7.142-145}.)


Quranic Equivalents of the Ten Commandments


Ascribe nothing as partner (unto God)’,

Be virtuous to parents’, 

Slay not your children for fear of poverty…’ , 

Approach not the indecencies, whether outward or inward,’

Slay not the soul that God has made inviolable, save by right.’

Observe fully the measure and the balance with justice,

When you speak be just, even if it be against a kinsman’,

Fulfil the pact of God



Do not set up another god along with God…’

Be virtuous to parents’,

Give unto the kinsman his right’,

Give unto the indigent and the traveller‘,

Do not squander wastefully’,

‘Approach not the orphan’s property, save in the best manner’,

‘Let not thine hand be shackled to thy neck, nor let it be entirely open…’

Slay not your children for fear of poverty’,

Approach not adultery’,

Slay not the soul that God has made inviolable, save by right

Approach not an orphan’s property save virtuously’,

Fulfil the pact’,

Give full measure … and weigh with the straight balance’,

‘Pursue not that whereof you have no knowledge’,

Walk not exultantly upon the earth.’


These two codes include between them thirteen distinct instructions of which nine are fairly specific:

  • not to kill children for fear of poverty 〈73.〉,
  • not to slay without right,
  • to respect the rights of orphans and other relatives and give full measure 〈80.〉,
  • not to approach adultery/indecencies 〈66.〉,
  • to give to the indigent and traveller 〈82.〉,
  • not to be wasteful, and
  • not to be boastful.


Two are more general, being just when speaking and ‘fulfilling the pact with God’, whilst the remaining two, to not have one’s hand ‘shackled to thy neck nor … entirely open‘ and not to ’pursue that whereof you have no knowledge’ are fairly obscure. It is no coincidence that in each of these lists, the first two commands are the prohibition of idolatry and the duty to honour one’s parents, which appear as the first and third of the biblical ten commandments. The second of the ten commandments, the duty to observe the sabbath, is the only one of the biblical commandments that has no equivalent at all in the Quranic equivalents listed above.


As with the ten commandments, these are lists of rules that prohibit conduct deemed to be blasphemous, disorderly or antisocial, rather than setting out a broad ethical principle. In particular, there is no statement in the Qur’an of the general, positive moral principle that is nowadays often referred to as the golden rule, namely that an individual is under a moral obligation to act in all matters towards others as they would wish to be treated themselves. This principle appears in the book of Leviticus 19.18 and was singled out be Jesus as being the most important commandment of the law, after loving God (Matthew 7.12 and Luke 6.31 ) . Some purport to see a Quranic variant of this rule in the instruction to give ‘full measure〈80.〉, or in {28.93}: ‘(Paradise) is the Abode of the Hereafter, which We ordain for those who desire neither dominance upon the earth, nor corruption,’ but these fall well short of a clearly expressed imperative to assist others wherever possible. A statement of the golden rule is attributed to Muhammad in two collections of hadith, the tenth century Shia compendium Kitab al-Kafi, and in the thirteenth century Forty Hadith of Abu Zakaria Yahya Ibn Sharaf al-Nawawī, the latter of which reads:

None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.

It will be noted, that even here, the rule is limited to an instruction to a Muslim to wish good things ‘for his brother‘ (i.e. a fellow believer). However, since this saying escaped inclusion in any of the voluminous collections of the sayings of Muhammad compiled in the eighth and ninth centuries, both of these adoptions of the golden rule in subsequent centuries can safely be dismissed as late inventions.


Nor does the Qur’an contain a statement of what a Christian would call the Good Samaritan principle: that one’s moral duties should extend equally to every person likely to be affected by one’s actions or inaction. Those instructions in the Qur’an that are readily recognisable, even by unbelievers, as resting upon sound ethical principles are expressed in limited, finite terms (duties to be generous towards parents, travellers, orphans, slaves, the indigent, etc). Far from exhorting kindness to one and all without discrimination, many verses are directed towards the formation and consolidation of a rightly ordered society, united in its shared belief and treating outsiders with distrust or hostility, see Part VII Unbelievers, with {4.92}, as has been seen, even making a point of refusing to recognise an unbeliever’s right to life 〈73.〉


As a result of the absence of these general principles, a devout Muslim might comply meticulously with each of their ‘fard’ obligations, avoid any ‘haram’ act, and even habitually perform copious ‘mustahabb’ acts, and still find plenty of scope for behaviour, especially towards unbelievers, upon which the Qur’an passes no moral judgment, but that modern standards would find reprehensible.


Finally, it should be noted that the Qur’an nowhere recognises, still less seeks to reconcile, the inevitable conflict that must arise between instructions to act in a way that helps or protects a particular category of person, such as travellers or orphans, and verses that permit conduct such as the ownership of (and for a man intercourse with) slaves or striking one’s wife for disobedience; and instruct the enforcement of laws with floggings and mutilations and the waging of religious war. Its prevalent theme is the obligation of submission to God’s will as this is made known either by the recorded example of His prophets or by compliance with the rules laid down in his Book, with Muhammad and the Qur’an being the final, definitive manifestations. It must follow that whilst in the New Testament Jesus makes all of the Mosaic law subsidiary to the overarching call to love one’s neighbour as oneself, for the Qur’an the duty to enjoin God’s will must supersede reservations over the consequences of so doing for other people.