Principles are basically the limits that should guide and define people’s behavior. In legal terms, they refer to restrictions or boundaries (hudud), and Islam’s Shariah imposes certain additional hudud on believers that confine our actions to a certain sphere.
We know that there are certain limits beyond which we cannot go. Without these limits, human/social life as we know it would not be possible. The pure human condition in nature as imagined by J. J. Rousseau or Thomas Hobbes described examples of such a primitive era when principles and therefore boundaries (hudud) were not clearly established.
Boundaries by definition are protective and restrictive. Yet we know that it is hard and even impossible to make people into “good people” or “good Muslims” solely through normative rules or limits. These boundaries should also be supported with a profound “ethical and spiritual upbringing.” In other words, when legal rules are used in combination with moral rules, people can be properly supported in their effort to become good people. These two sets of rules may be sufficient up to a certain point, but it is better still if they are augmented with a third set. This third set consists of good conduct, manners, etiquette and aesthetics. In short, we may call this set a “spiritual excellence” (ihsan). Ihsan adds a higher quality to rules and actions. A quality Muslim is the person who progresses on the path to perfection.
Then we can assert that the principle that every Muslim should have and dutifully comply with is a personal attribute consisting of “spiritual basis, morality, boundaries and aesthetics.” In a famous hadith, this is expressed as “iman, Islam and ihsan” (Muslim, Iman, 1). This has nothing do with the personal development modern man is after, but it is a struggle on the path to perfection.
Formalism leads to a crude form of piousness or extreme attachment to normative rules. If people who lack sufficient spiritual and aesthetic values are allowed to reduce religion purely to a set of rules, they emerge as gendarmes acting on behalf of religion and imposing rules on people and punishing them if they fail to comply with these rules; there is nothing reminiscent of God’s mercy other than a despotic attachment to the rule of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in their narrow minds and hearts. A quest to pursue morality or spirituality that does not pay respect to rules or provisions will eventually yield to the oppression of the material world. To strike a delicate balance between morality, spirituality, rules and aesthetics in religion and derive valid principles from this balance is certainly a glorified target, but this is not as easy as is believed.
Our real shortcoming is hardly that we don’t know what rules should guide our lives. Almost everyone knows which rules and provisions Islam’s Shariah relies on and what is forbidden and what is not by the religion. Everyone knows this, but although everyone is responsible for regulating his/her life based on these rules, they tend not to attach importance to the moral and aesthetic values in their acts or words.
Envy, curiosity about other people’s sins or failures, dissension (fitna), affront, summary execution, defamation, lies, libel, arrogance, breach of other people’s rights, etc. each exemplify a moral weakness. Each of these acts and attitudes destroys rules, prevents people from attaining faith based on their knowledge, and keeps them from doing good deeds. The divorce of faith from knowledge or the separation of beliefs from deeds leads to conflict based on differences and sparks the fire of dissension. Those Muslims who are trapped in sectarian or ethnic clashes in the Muslim world feel their souls burning just as fire burns wood. We must keep away from this fire of dissension; we cannot be enlightened by this fire. Fire (nar) burns while light (nur) illuminates.