The Golden Rule is an ethical principle dictating how one should behave towards others. Most proponents of the principle say this ethical principle is innate to humans – it is fiṭrī – and perhaps this is why the maxim has appeared in the teachings of many different religions and is often worded in both affirmative and negative forms: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated’ – respectively.
The spirit of the principle can be found in some of the Qurānic verses as well – although not as an explicit maxim – for example:
[93:6-10] Did He not find you an orphan and give [you] refuge? And He found you lost and guided [you], and He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress [him] and as for the petitioner, do not repel [him].
These verses tell the Prophet (p) that there was a time when he was in a vulnerable position and desired to be assisted and aided. Now that he has been assisted and has reached an established position, he should assist others and not push them away if they come seeking help. In other words, he should treat people the way he wished people treated him when he was in a weaker position.
[2:267] O you who have believed, spend from the good things which you have earned and from that which We have produced for you from the earth. And do not aim toward the defective therefrom, spending [from that] while you would not take it [yourself] except with closed eyes. And know that Allah is Free of need and Praiseworthy.
This verse is saying when you spend and give charity from your possessions, give from the good and valuable things, not from the defective and worthless things. In other words, spend on people in a way you wish people would spend on you if you were in their positions.
[4:9] And let those [guardians] fear [injustice] as if they [themselves] had left weak offspring behind and feared for them. So let them fear Allah and speak words of appropriate justice.
The verse is saying that a person should not do injustice towards the orphans that are under his supervision. He should treat them in a good and just manner just like he would wish his own children were to be treated if they were also orphans under the care of a guardian.
However, in the ḥadīth corpus, not only is the application of this principle observable in numerous traditions but rather one will also find the literal maxim being reiterated. Consider just a few examples:
Imam ‘Alī (a): O’ my child, make yourself the measure (for dealings) between you and others. Thus, you should desire for others what you desire for yourself and hate for others what you hate for yourself. Do not oppress as you do not like to be oppressed. Do good to others as you would like good to be done to you. Regard bad for yourself whatever you regard bad for others. Accept that (treatment) from others which you would like others to accept from you. Do not say to others what you do not like to be said to you.1
Imam Ṣādiq (a) says that Allah (swt) told Ādam (a): Want for people that which you want for yourself and detest for people that which you detest for yourself.2
Imam Sajjād (a) in his Treatise of Rights: You should love for them what you love for yourself and dislike for them what you dislike for yourself.
When you connect these traditions with the Qurānic verses, you will see that the general spirit of this maxim is most certainly present in the Islamic tradition. But there are a number of points we must be attentive towards when actually implementing this principle:
1) The principle does not identify the nature of the act and does not inform you what actions are morally right or wrong. It also does not determine what exactly is it that you should like or hate for yourself. In fact, the principle begs the question as it presumes what you love for yourself is also necessarily loved by others. It does not consider the fact that the other person may not love that which you love for yourself or hate that which you hate for yourself. The apparent meaning of this principle presumes people are all the same, while that is not true and in fact, people generally have different desires and preferences.
2) The maxim makes humans the criteria for what is moral, while humans can prefer unethical things since they are prone to error. In order to avoid this dilemma, one needs to realize that this is an ethical principle encouraging us to behave in a better way, but it is not a legal principle telling us the specific ways in which we are expected to behave. The ethical principle, when combined with other legal principles, can help diminish the potential flaws that come with making humans the criteria since the Divine legal principles tell us the details of how we are to live our lives. Only in this context is the Golden Rule to be applied.
3) Some have said we are ignorant of people’s situations, preferences and desires, so to treat them in a way you like yourself to be treated does not mean others will also like to be treated the same way. However, one needs to realize that the principle is self-restricted in order to avoid this dilemma. If you had the taste of another individual, then preferring something for them that is in accordance to your own taste is not abiding by this principle, rather you have to put yourself in their shoes and consider what you would like if you also had their taste. Nevertheless, this restriction would not necessarily be applicable for differences rooted in religious convictions, which shows us that the Golden Rule is not a universal principle that does not have exceptions.
4) When you read the Islamic texts related to this principle, you will see that it is being applied to very micro level situations, often concerning personal interactions and transactions between people in a society. We do not understand anything about the application of this law on a macro level such as in global politics, nation-states, court laws etc. where there are legal principles often dictating contrary rules to the Golden Rule for those scenarios. The Golden Rule is subordinate to those legal principles and may not even be applicable if the law does not allow for its implementation.
What we can conclude from the aforementioned points is that the Golden Rule is not an ethical principle which governs all of our laws and subsequent behaviour, rather it itself is governed and restricted by many other prior ethical and legal principles. Generally speaking, the Golden Rule is to be seen as a maxim recommending behaviour which assists us in interacting with other humans on a micro-level and can at times aid us in implementing certain laws in our day to day lives.
Featured image: Muhammad al-Amin Mosque, Beirut 2019 Summer.
This post was inspired by a number of lessons on this principle given by Shaykh Hobbollah in between his advanced jurisprudential classes on Citizenship Law and Religious Minorities.
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.
- Nahj al-Balāgha, Letter #31.
- Uṣūl al-Kāfī, v. 2, pg. 146.