An Analysis of Izutsu’s Approach to Qur’anic Ethics

Celebrated as a seminal figure in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, Toshihiko Izutsu’s theoretical and methodological approach to studying the internal relationships of its ethical concepts is not something that can be ignored within the field. Although his 1959 book The Structure of Ethical Terms in the Koran was published in the same year and undertakes in many ways a similar programme of study as the work by Al-Shamma (The Ethical System Underlying the Qur’an), it does so with a significantly greater level of complexity and insight. Also to his credit, in the development of his thought there can be discerned an increasing concern to avoid divorcing the ethical dimension of the Qur’anic text from its religious message, witnessed in the fact that he titled his later contribution Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. This is in marked contrast to Al-Shamma who insists on keeping within his analysis a dichotomy between the two ‘fields’, despite admitting that in many cases a single word, such as ‘haqq’, has both religious and ethical implications. It seems the difference here is that Izutsu grasped that neither ‘religion’ nor ‘ethics’ have exact translations within the semantic field of the Qur’an. The closest word for the former is arguably ‘dīn’, which however connotes aspects of both. ‘Akhlāq’, the standard later translation for ethics does not appear in the Qur’an at all,1 while a term that much better expresses the idea of ‘right, or virtuous, living’ is ‘ira al-mustaqīm’, which in turn cannot ultimately be divorced from religious faith.

Izutsu, like M.A. Draz (in The Moral World of the Qur’an), affirms an ethical system of a kind within the Qur’an. It is, however, an essentially linguistic structure conceived only in terms of semantic interrelationships. The result is that while his methodology to some extent solves the problem of definition, raised by both Majid Fakhry and Al-Shamma, he does not adequately deal with its deeper normative principles and their practical application to human life. This follows from the nature of Izutsu’s conception of what ethical concepts are. He presents a picture in which an essentially non-verbal world is named and categorised according to culturally specific language. Implicit in this account is the fact that the specific moral code held by each linguistic community is based on nothing more than the aggregate of its evaluation of various actions. Thus he states, ‘Every culture has a number of traditional patterns of moral evaluation which have become crystallised historically in the body of its ethical terms, and these conversely furnish the speakers of the language with a complete set of channels through which to categorise moral phenomena.’2

From this statement, we can notice that Izutsu is unequivocal in his espousal of moral conception as culturally relative, which is from the Islamic point of view a deeply problematic way to understand a universal scripture sent to all humanity to teach divinely-based ethical values. In other places, it is clear that Izutsu envisages the content of moral action as being nothing more than a range of actions, which have been evaluated in this way from the standpoint of a particular culture and language. The ‘moral phenomena’ mentioned in his account are not recognised and named, but rather constituted through the act of naming. Izutsu sees his job as merely describing how this process takes place within a specific context, in this case the Qur’an as it stands against the backdrop of Arabian society and culture. With his overwhelming focus on moral terminology then, it is unsurprising that he is much less interested in Qur’anic ethical reasoning and justification.

In an earlier paragraph, we declared that Izutsu’s semantic approach went some way to solve the problem of definition, which has been put forward as an essential part of any ethical system. This is because by careful examination of the use of Qur’anic vocabulary it is possible to differentiate the different meanings that a word may carry in different contexts, a procedure of semantic analysis that Izutsu simply refers to as contextual interpretation. He lists seven different cases in which a passage can be viewed as important for this process and gives appropriate examples to illustrate the required technique.3 While his method falls under the more general rubric well known to Qur’anic exegetes as ‘al-qur’ān yufassiru baʿuhu baʿan’ (one part of the Qur’an explains another)4, Izutsu does much to develop powerful yet flexible techniques which draw on his knowledge of modern semantic and linguistic analysis and put such interpretation on a more rigorous basis than previously.

To give a flavour of his work, it is useful to present our own example illustrating the first and second of Izutsu’s cases, ‘contextual definition’, in which the Qur’an itself defines a term it uses and ‘synonymous expression’ in which it equates the meaning of one term with another in a particular passage:

wa ma yuillu bihi illā al-fāsiqūn, alladhīna yanquḍūna ʿahda allahi min baʿdi mīthāqihi wa yaqṭaʿūna mā amara allahu bihi an yūṣala wa yufsidūna fī al-arḍ ‘ūlā’ika hum al-khāsirūn.

(But it is only the rebels He makes go astray: those who break their covenant with God after it has been confirmed, who sever the bonds that God has commanded to be joined, who spread corruption on the earth—these are the losers.)5

Here it can be noticed that the meaning of the word al-fāsiqūn is defined by reference to four distinct acts, one performed by God upon them and the other three by the ‘rebels’ themselves. The word alladhīna, here beginning an ayah, commonly bridges between an ism al-fā’il and a series of following muḍāriʿ verbs or the nominal sentence ‘they are [ism al-fā’il often preceded by a prepositional phrase]’ which flesh out its semantic range.6 The use of ‘ūlā’ika is an example of definition by synonym as, at least in this context, the reader learns that al-fāsiqūn is to be equated with al-khāsirūn (the losers).

In conclusion, Izutsu’s methods of semantic analysis for Qur’anic ethical vocabulary should be taken seriously by any modern scholar of the Qur’an. However, his understanding of the Qur’anic ethical system that they work within should be critiqued, as it rests upon assumptions about the relationship between ethics, culture and language, which directly contradict the letter and spirit of the scripture as revelation.


1 The singular form khuluq meaning inherent nature, moral trait, or character, does however appear in, for example: Q68:4, ‘wa innaka laᶜalā khuluqin aẓīm’ (truly you have a strong character).
2 Toshihiko Izutsu, The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran, Keio University studies in the humanities and social relations, (Tokyo: Keio University, 1959), pp. 10-11.
3 Izutsu, pp. 33-38.
4 M. A. S Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), p. 158.
5 Q2:26-7.
6 See Q23:2-11 and Q70:23-34.


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