The Qur’ānic term ma‘rūf refers to what was welcomed as virtuous by the Arabs of the time of the Prophet (sws) and its opposite munkar signifies what they detested as evil. The Arabs of pre-Islamic age were not animals living in a jungle destitute of any sense of good and evil. Their literature outshines the literature produced by the Romans and the Indians in their most enlightened periods. To have an unbiased understanding of what good moral values the Arabs cherished one has to make an impartial study of their literature. We must discard the wrongs of those of the Muslim historians who have transgressed against history and have depicted a very cruel picture of the Arabs of the time. The importance the pre-Islamic Arabia attached to moral values and moral uprightness in a person, is best depicted in the fact that they gave ’Imr al-Qays, a king poet, owing to obvious elements of inciting drunkenness and lewdness in his poetry, the appellation of al-malik al ḍalīl (the errant king) in spite of his status as a great poet and chief of his tribe.
At this point I intend to present some specimen of their poetry in an appendix, to make it clear that they recognized as good and virtuous what is universally recognized as such. The Holy Qur’ān only complemented their moral values; it did not fundamentally change them. This is the reason the virtuous among them were immediately attracted to the Holy Qur’ān. The opponents of the Messenger were two kinds, evil, recalcitrant factions of the society and the ones who saw him threatening their political and religious leadership. Just as the Jews, owing to the obstinacy and envy for Jesus, opposed him, Umayyah bin Abī al-Sallaṭ and the like obstinately opposed the Prophet Muhammad (sws) even though they claimed that they followed the creed of Abraham.
Another source of determining ma‘rūf and munkar is the pure soul of the person of the Prophet (sws) who, by the dint of his position as a divine guide, clarifies to the followers the status of the issues not dealt with in the divine revelation. This is part of his duty as a messenger and prophet. God commands him to teach people the ma‘rūf and to stop them form munkar. His ummah is required to follow whatever ma‘rūf he commands them and refrain from whatever munkar he forbids them. Remnants of the earlier revelations also served as a guide. Examples of such remnants of the Sharī‘ah of Abraham include ḥajj, ritual sacrifice and ṣalāh. These practices were not introduced by the People of the Book in the pre-Islamic Arabia.
Another worth considering point is that, in the beginning, the Almighty Allah did not reveal the specifics and details of the religious practices. Only well-known and established religious teachings were required to be followed for example ṣalāh, zakāh, remembering God, showing compassion to orphans and maintaining excellent moral behavior. However, once details of a prescribed matter were revealed, this fresh divine guidance assumed the status of original source in that particular matter and the previous concept of ma‘rūf was abandoned.
Sometimes the Almighty commanded to follow ma‘rūf in a particular matter. Later on some part of that particular matter was detailed in a fresh revelation. The part this divine explanation covered was then to be followed abandoning the previous concept of ma‘rūf in that regard. The rest, which the revelation did not take up, was still governed by the previous concept of ma‘rūf. The example of a matter partly qualified by the divine revelation and partly by the existing concept of ma‘rūf is the case of bequeathing wealth to parents and other relations. The right to leave a will in favor of one’s parents was later on abrogated, whereas one could still leave testamentary will in favor of the relations which have not been granted any share in the fresh ruling.
The principle guidance in this regard can be reduced to the fact that the details and applications of matters, which human intellect can penetrate and come to the right conclusion, have been left to the prevailing human concepts of ma‘rūf. Had the Almighty revealed such cumbersome details where human intellect suffices as a guide it would have caused the God-consciousness and virtue of the people to fade and die out. Therefore, in many verses such matters have been left upon the human intellect to decide. Thus by establishing the existent concepts of ma‘rūf and exhorting the adherents of the faith upon following it, the Holy Prophet (sws) has indeed added to the respect commanded by the national laws and good customs of the society. He did not aim at revolutionizing the society and toppling the existing setup. He, rather, adopted the method of gradual improvement, complementing the existing concepts of good and virtue. This is because he had to confirm the previous religious traditions in a specific way and to remove what wrong and unfounded things were mixed with them. He purified the religion of all human manipulations and got the people on the highway of God’s guidance, initially implanted in human nature (fiṭrah).