First Principles of Conscience

We believe that there is order to God’s creation and that certain fundamental principles are woven into the very fabric of nature. Divinely ordained, these principles — which Muslims associate with the “Beautiful Names of God” (asma’ Allah al-husna); Western philosophers and theologians have termed “natural law” or “universal moral law”; Hindus refer to as rta and C. S. Lewis described as “the Tao” — reflect God’s infinite love, compassion, wisdom and justice.

When apprehended by human conscience, these fundamental principles give rise to universal values that have long been articulated and embraced by the world’s great cultural, religious and ethical traditions.

By understanding and acting in accord with these “first principles,” one may develop noble character, or virtue. Muslims use the term al-akhlaq al-karimah when referring to the complex, mutually reinforcing elements of exemplary moral character such as universal love, compassion, honesty, gratitude and humility. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” This includes a duty to:

  • Seek truth;
  • Develop the self-discipline, and summon the courage, required to obey the dictates of conscience; and
  • Choose to act justly and with compassion towards others.

“‘Go thou unto Pharaoh, for verily he has transgressed all bounds of equity.’

“[Moses said:] ‘O my Sustainer! Open up my heart [to Thy Light], and make my task easy for me, and loosen the knot from my tongue so that they might fully understand my speech, and appoint for me, out of my kinsfolk, one who will help me to bear my burden, my brother Aaron. Increase my strength with him, and let him share my task, so that [together] we might abundantly extol Thy limitless glory and remember Thee without cease. Verily, Thou seest all that is within us!’

“Said He: ‘Thou art granted all that thou hast asked for, O Moses! And indeed, We bestowed Our favor upon thee at a time long since past.’”

~ Qur’an, 20:24 – 37

“History provides an ample basis for virtually every identity group on earth to harbor and direct hatred towards others. The rationale (justification) for peace is not to be found in the history of the past. Rather, it simply reflects the pressing need of present and future generations, who may not survive without it.”

~ KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf, Co-founder of the Humanitarian Islam movement and Center for Shared Civilizational Values

At a gathering of 20,000 Muslim scholars in February of 2019, Nahdlatul Ulama adopted the Nusantara Manifesto, the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam and other foundational texts of the Humanitarian Islam movement. The Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board subsequently published these documents in a book titled Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars.

Nusantara Manifesto
Part IX
Let Us Choose Compassion

  1. Virtually all religions teach that the path to individual and collective “salvation,” however defined, requires the ability to rise above egotistical self-interest through a transformation of the human heart and the attainment of a state of inner nobility.
  2. Many religious figures describe this process as “the purification of the soul,” which gives rise to a state of inner illumination.
  3. This inner, or spiritual, nobility is said to find its outer expression in the form of noble character and behavior, both individual and collective—for a community of spiritually ennobled individuals will naturally strive to build a noble society and a civilization founded upon noble values, such as humility, compassion, gratitude and beneficial purpose.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil well nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
God guides to His Light whom He will.

~ Qur’an, 24:35

“The sunlight is one and the same wherever it falls, but only bright surfaces like water, mirrors and polished metals can reflect it fully. So is the Divine Light. It falls equally and impartially on all hearts, but only the pure and clean hearts of the good and holy can reflect it fully.”

~ Sri Ramakrishna

“‘There is a polish for everything that taketh away rust: and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.’ The companions said, ‘Is not repelling the infidels also like this?’ Muhammad said, ‘No, although one fights until one’s sword be broken!’”

~ Muhammad (saw.)

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”

~ St. Matthew, V. 8

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart: who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.”

~ Psalm, XXIV. 3 – 4

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

~ I. Corinthians, XIII. 1

“Accustomed long to contemplating love and compassion,
I have forgotten all difference between myself and others.”

~ Milarepa

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, or its color or scent, so let a sage dwell in his village.”

~ Dhammapada, IV, 49

“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

~ Isaiah, XI, V. 9

“He (Rama) has compassion, a sense of justice and courage, and he makes no distinctions between human beings—old or young, prince or peasant; he has the same consideration for everyone. . . Rama’s whole purpose of incarnation was to abolish fear from the hearts of men and gods, and establish peace, gentleness, and justice in the world.”

~ The Ramayana

“[L]et those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato—one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions. For, as the guardianship of a minor, so the administration of a state is to be conducted for the benefit, not of those to whom it is entrusted, but of those who are entrusted to their care.”

~ Cicero, On Moral Duties (De Officiis), I, 25

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

~ John Adams

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a basket, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

~ St. Matthew, V. 14 – 15

“When a village embodies Tao, it is protected; when a country embodies Tao, it prospers; when the world embodies Tao, it reveals its perfection.”

~ Tao Te Ching, V. 54

It is said that Buddha and Shiva are two distinct substances.
They are indeed different, yet it is impossible to regard them as fundamentally different,
for the essence of Buddha and the essence of Shiva is one.[They appear] different, yet [are] one (bhinneka tunggal ika),
for Truth is indivisible.

~ Mpu Tantular, Sutasoma, 139:5

“And so, set thy face steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] religion, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition (fiṭrah) which God has instilled into mankind: not allowing any change to corrupt what God has thus created—this is the ever-true religion; but most people know it not.

“Turn unto Him, and remain conscious of Him, and be constant in prayer, and be not among those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, [nor] among those who have shattered the unity of religion and become sects, each group rejoicing only in what they themselves hold [by way of tenets].”

~ Qur’an, 30:30 – 32

First Principles of Moral Reasoning

The process of moral reasoning consists of intellectual deliberation informed by an alert and sensitive conscience, which conveys a sense of right and wrong and urges one to act accordingly.

Moral reasoning also requires a proper formation in the disciplines necessary thereto, which are imparted through a complex web of social institutions including the family, community, education and religion. These institutions give concrete form and vitality to the first principles of conscience, and are thus essential both to their application in particular contexts and to their being passed on from one generation to the next, in the form of moral codes.

The human rights project that emerged in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust — including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR — was founded upon these principles. As the Preamble of UDHR and its first article state:

The world’s great ethical and religious traditions teach that human flourishing, both individual and collective, requires that reason obey the dictates of conscience and express itself in principled action.

Thus, to engage in sound moral reasoning and principled action, it is necessary to:

Sound moral reasoning and principled action are, in turn, predicated upon:

  1. An ability to discern the existence and nature of universal moral law (i.e., the “principles of conscience”);
  2. Noble character, which entails living in accord with the principles of conscience;
  3. The avoidance of moral degradation and respect for the inherent dignity of others;
  4. Affirming and safeguarding the fundamental goods and values that are essential to human flourishing. Both Christianity and Islam have traditionally regarded life, family/progeny, religion, reason, and property as basic human goods deserving of protection by moral and civil law.
“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony part out of your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh.”

~ Ezekiel 36:26

“My love and compassion embrace all things.”

~ Qur’an, 7:156

“I have been sent only to perfect the moral framework of humanity.”

~ Hadith, Sahih Muslim

Agama ageming aji – (True) religion is a garment, worn by souls endowed with nobility.”

~ Javanese proverb from Serat Wédatama, 1:1

“Always be honest and open; there’s no need to be afraid.”

~ H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid

“We wish to submit to the dictates of conscience.”

~ Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, Nahdlatul Ulama spiritual leader, Chairman of the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Center for Shared Civilizational Values