The Holy and Most Noble Quran, as most readers may already know, is a book that was delivered piecemeal to humanity and covers all its needs – from answering questions regarding the existential crises of individuals, to outlining precious and divinely-ordained laws concerning ecological stewardship, to making clear what is right and wrong. Additionally, the Quran also addresses the down-to-earth and practical aspects of day to day living, clearly articulating Allah’s expectations for the believer as he or she traverses daily life in community.
What does it mean to have good character?
In Islam, to have good character means, in a nutshell, to embody godly justice and righteousness, to exhibit the moral qualities exhibited by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and to show kindness to all living things on this planet. The underlying essence of good character and manners is love, love for the creatures of Allah motivated by a profound love for the Divine. The Sufi mystic Rabia of Basria articulated this ideology best when she humbly walked through the streets of Iraq with a flaming torch in her right hand and a pale of water in her left hand, proclaiming: “I want to put out the fires of hell, and burn down the rewards of paradise. They block the way to Allah. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah.”
This article does not even begin to scratch the surface of the vast amounts of Islamic teachings on the importance of good character, the monumental corpus of etiquette and orderly conduct based off the Quran and Hadith, and the fatwas given on miscellaneous issues of daily life. My prayer is that the following verses will serve to give the reader a general framework with which to understand the Quranic ideals for the overall righteous conduct and godly behavior expected of humanity, and particularly of the believers.
Verse 1: Purity and Cleanliness
“Allah loves those who keep themselves pure.”(Quran 9:108)
In Islam, hygiene, sanitation, and purity are religious acts in and of themselves. The Arabic word for this is tahara, which outlines and explicitly describes the methodology for achieving this state of ritual purity. There are three primary ideas underlying this methodology:
- Certain bodily acts produce a state of ritual impurity (i.e., sexual intercourse, ejaculation, urination, or defecation).
- Certain spiritual acts will defile an individual (i.e., sins such as theft or lying).
- Certain physical substances such as pork and blood will render a person, space, or object unclean.
In Surah al-Ma’ida, verse 6, one finds detailed instructions on how to perform the ritual purification known as wudhu. The Prophet (pbuh) was recorded to have said that prayer is not accepted without purification[i], and that cleanliness is half of faith[ii].
It has been said that one can discern a lot about the inner state of an individual by the state of their outer world, hence, many self-help books will suggest making your bed in the morning, taking care of your physical health, and cleaning your room regularly. Prior to the rise of modernity, both the Quran and the lifestyle of Muhammad (pbuh) encouraged certain customs, behaviors, and activities called adab, which resembled holistic ways of contributing to the betterment of humans and their personal development rather than resembling religious laws and divine prohibitions. Some of these adab include customs like filling a stomach a third for food, a third for water, and a third for air[iii]; regularly cleaning the nostrils, mouth, and teeth; and waiting for the invitation of the host rather than intruding in on someone unbeknownst to them[iv].
While the aforementioned examples may not seem to have much to do with ritual purity, by caring for our physical bodies and appearances, we are showing that Islam is much more than just a religion – it is a lifestyle that embodies everything from how we dress to how we eat to how we interact with our communities. Much more than being a list of dos and don’ts, Islam provides the Muslim with wise teachings on how to keep oneself pure and undefiled in practical matters.
Verse 2: Integrity in Worldly Affairs
“Mention too, in the Qur’an, the story of Idris. He was a man of truth, a prophet.”(Quran 19:56)
The prophets in the Quran serve as concepts and models of righteousness and its many different facets. For instance, Moses exemplifies justice through the liberation of his people from Pharaoh; Noah represents obedience which saved him and his family from the flood. Idris, an enigmatic figure mentioned twice in the Quran, was elevated ‘to a lofty station’ as a result of his truthfulness. Various traditions (both Muslim and Jewish) embellish him as a philosopher and mystic – but it is commonly accepted that he was an exemplar model of sincerity, honesty, and wisdom, all of which are attributes intimately linked with truth.
In his own life as an entrepreneur and businessman, the Prophet began as a poor orphan who had started trading with his uncle and developed into a well-known and highly respected salesman as a result of his honesty and fair dealings. He was known as Al-Sadiq (the Truthful) and Al-Amin (the Trustworthy) among the Meccans. But why be honest, even when we will not suffer any serious damage to our own integrity or spirituality? What is wrong with a little white lie here and there if nobody gets hurt? Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, offers three reasons:
- Even telling a small lie risks ruining our reputation.
- Telling one lie often leads to telling another, thus triggering a complex network of falsehood.
- The consequences of dishonesty are risky and unpredictable, potentially ruining relationships and placing us in emotionally difficult areas[v].
“You must be truthful, for truthfulness leads to righteousness and righteousness leads to Paradise. A man will keep speaking the truth and striving to speak the truth until he will be recorded by Allah as a Siddiq (speaker of the truth). Beware of telling lies, for lying leads to immorality and immorality leads to Hellfire. A man will keep telling lies and striving to tell lies until he is recorded by Allah as a liar.”[vi]
Verse 3: Repel Evil with Good
“Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.”(Quran 41:34)
At the time this verse was revealed, the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions were being persecuted in every possible way as a result of their emigration from the country. Mischievous and wicked people (namely the polytheists and the Quraish) uttered lies against the Muslims, evil defamations were being concocted in order to destroy the Prophet’s (pbuh) reputation. Accusations and anti-Muslim propaganda planted seeds of doubt among the Meccans in order to discourage them from supporting the mission of Allah. Despite the chaos and hatred that surrounded him, Allah instructed this chosen community to repel evil with good.
Elsewhere, the Quran reveals to the reader that humankind has a proclivity to hate evil, even though humanity has contributed to its propagation. The Quranic prescription against hatred and evil is not simply good, but a superior goodness marked by kindness and love in the face of mankind’s wicked machinations against God. To remain quiet as a response to an insult is good. However, to express blessings and good wishes for the one who insults is a superior goodness that puts to shame the words of your enemy. In the natural world, the sweetness of water puts out the destructive potential of fire, and good habits smother devilish ones. The challenge of every Muslim is to be an embodiment of the goodness of Allah in order to battle evil. Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi once said that “devil-incarnates are as few in the world as the embodiments of goodness are.”[vii]
Verse 4: The Value of Kindness
“O Messenger of Allah! It is a great Mercy of God that you are gentle and kind towards them; for, had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would all have broken away from you.”(Quran 3:159)
Throughout the Quran, the mercy of Allah is referred to hundreds of times. In another verse, Allah says, “My mercy embraces everything,” which encompasses everything from the farthest reaches of the universe to the life of a single ant. In context, this verse is referring to the personality of the Prophet (pbuh), establishing that he must exhibit the qualities of gentle manners, kindness, forgiveness, and generosity in order to serve the greater purpose of educating humanity. As the leader of the Muslim community during his time on earth, Muhammad (pbuh) went through phases of rejection, growth, and correction – when anyone, leaders in particular, takes a ‘hard-hearted’ or arrogant approach to life, he or she is not fit to lead a community nor to communicate the message of Islam.
Whereas punishment provides a sense of justice, forgiveness provides the emotional relief that soothes relational burns among people. Modern psychology takes a more balanced approach that falls in line with the Quranic view, suggesting a restorative justice model:
“When we try to forgive major transgressions without first exacting justice, the result is harmful not only to our own sense of self-worth but also to the relationship as a whole. Forgiveness without justice leads to lingering resentment on the part of the victim. Further, it fails to communicate the seriousness of the transgression to the offender, so nothing has been done to keep the problematic behavior from recurring in the future.”[viii]
This model, which takes into account both kindness and justice, is seen in the noble and godly leadership of the prophets of the Quran.
Verse 5: Hospitality to Strangers
“When they [the angels] came to him [Abraham], they said: ‘Peace’; he said: ‘Peace also be to you; (you seem to be) a group of strangers.’”(Quran 51:25)
The act of hospitality is an act of compassion in which one puts oneself into the situation of the Other, recognizing (whether cognitively or emotionally) that this is a person in need of something. It is easy to help a friend or family member; it is much more difficult to help someone you don’t know, especially when there is no guarantee that you will receive some sort of immediate reward or gratification for your hospitality. The objective of this verse is to exemplify Abraham’s supreme generosity to strangers, without asking for anything in return. Elsewhere in the Quran [41:30], the reader learns that the presence and activity of the angels is not limited to the spiritual realm, but occurs here on earth as well. In the context of hospitality and acting out one’s faith, this verse poses the following question to the reader: Who knows if you yourself are entertaining angels without being aware of it? The angels appeared in the presence of Abraham, and he served them unaware of their divine nature; could not the Lord of the Worlds present us with the same challenge?
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
- [i] Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 1 Hadith 59
- [ii] Sahih Muslim, Book 2 Hadith 1
- [iii] Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 29 Hadith 99
- [iv] Quran 24:27
- [v] Lickerman, Alex. 2014. Why Be Honest?
- [vi] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 78 Hadith 121
- [vii] A’la Mawdudi. 1988. Towards Understanding the Qur’an. The Islamic Foundation.
- [viii] Ludden, David. When to Punish and When to Forgive.