This is not a book review, but I thought some people might find it helpful, so here it is.
I have just come back from a public lecture given by Tim Winter in Gonville and Caius College, a lecture on Islamic ethics as personified by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I went with a non-Muslim friend and as much as I was moved by the lecture, she was visibly more moved. It is her particular reaction to the lecture that made me decide to write a review on it.
Winter started by illuminating on the personality of the Prophet. According to Muslim chronicles, it took 23 years for Muhammad (pbuh) to bring about a nearly complete transformation of the Arab peninsular, from a pagan society of feuding tribes to an ordered monotheist community governed by a single law. This man was no theorist, he did not commit to writing a set of principles or a dogma that his followers can cling to; in fact he could not read nor write. At a time when the Quran was more a verbal guidance than a codified source of law that it is now, people were more attracted by what they witnessed rather than everything else. The Prophet's personality or mannerism (خلق) is very likely to have accounted for the success of the societal transformation of Arabia during that time.
The Prophet claimed that he was sent by God to perfect the human character*. It is in the perfection of human character that the universal ethics in Islam lie. Winter calls this set of ethics universal because despite liberal democratic values, there are things that people still find to be intrinsically wrong. Winter gave the example of modesty, one of the underpinning value in the Prophet's life. It was reported that the Prophet was more shy than a virgin in a tent (I take that to mean very shy indeed!). The west might be more willing to accept certain immodest behaviours but the notion of modesty itself is not alien to westerners. Even now, public nudity is still illegal in most European countries. The same goes to other Islamic ethics that non-Muslims are able to relate to; perhaps not in the same magnitude as Muslims, but the avenue for understanding is there.
Of course, we as Muslims have a duty to facilitate this understanding, even when at times we are forced to resort to utilitarian explanation of Islam. For example, a non-Muslim who asks about the headscarf may be given the rather secular answer (the society will benefit more if women wear modest attires, etc) and not the real answer, which is that Muslims simply submit to God's order to cover their aurah (عورة). This duty to help understanding lies behind the core duty of spreading the word of God, but it does not do to dismiss the real reason for most of Muslim's behaviours: submission to God's will, the underlying principle within each Muslim's life.
One need not go further to find the essence of Islamic ethics than to be familiar with God's attributes. Winter alludes to the idea of moral excellence by adorning ourselves with divine qualities. The 99 names of Allah help us to identify the characteristics of the perfect being. This does not mean that we are prescribed a duty to be the perfect being. It is in the process of striving to be morally excellent by means of emulating the divine attributes that Islamic ethics can truly be meaningful. And then, there is of course, the example of the Prophet himself, whose character, according to his wife Aishah, is the Quran.
One of the most important lessons that we can take home is perhaps the alertness to the present in our reflection of the transience of life. Islam pays a lot of attention to the afterlife, and the Prophet himself said that the wisest man is he who thinks of death constantly. By bearing in mind that the future is not certain and that death may come at any time, we can do well by focusing on the present. I personally have found myself inhibited from doing the right thing because I fear the consequences that might entail. The Prophet himself never went to sleep before giving away what little money he had in his possession that day. His absolute trust in God's provision absolves him of fear of the future's uncertainty. Some people say that this is foolhardy; how can you not worry about the future even for a bit? Surely we have to plan for the future? Yes we do, but not at the expense of doing the right thing now. Whenever we feel held back from doing what is right, maybe because it is not financially or socially wise to do so, remind ourselves of what The Prophet said to Abu Bakr, "Do not be sad for Allah is with us. / لا تحزن إنالله معنا "**
There is a lot more discussed in the lecture but I am pressed for time since tomorrow will be a full day for me and there is some work I have to do. I will end the review here and hope that you find it as helpful as my friend and I did. In the mean time, stay well : )
* Sahih Muslim, 6017
** The Quran 9:40