There are two particular hadiths that are extremely important for Muslims to keep in mind; one establishes the foundations of Islam, telling us about the basis for this religion, its absolute pillars, while the second relates to the way in which one beautifies this structure of Islam and ones iman, representing the roof, adornments, embellishment and outward expression of this structure. As Muslims we are attending the masjid, praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, paying zakat once a year and performing hajj, if we have the ability to go, and if not we still desire to go to perform hajj. These are the foundations. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Islam is based on five pillars: shahada, to declare there is no God except Allah and Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is Allah’s Messenger, then to establish the salat, to pay zakat, to make hajj to the House [of Allah most High] and to fast in the month of Ramadan” (Bukhari and Muslim). These are the essential foundations, however they are not all that Islam entails. Numerous hadiths underscore the importance of good character.
Often when someone explains Islam to someone else, they say that “Islam is based on five pillars”, but is that all our Islam is? Someone looking for a complete lifestyle, a comprehensive system that will guide them in every aspect of life, when told Islam is only five pillars, maybe very discouraged. They may ask: “Well, what about my interaction with other people? How am I supposed to conduct myself with the environment around me, with the people around me, with my neighbours, the young, the old, the ill, with animals and everything else around us? How do I buy and sell? What about the rules related to marriage, divorce and conflict resolution?” These questions prompt us to remember that in reality the five pillars are just one dimension of Islam, of which there are five primary ones.
The Five dimensions
The first is the dimension of belief; to believe that Allah is one, to believe in the Messengers, to believe in the Books, to believe in the Angels, to believe that all good and bad destiny is from Allah and to believe in the Last Day, the Hereafter, Janna and Jahannam. These beliefs fall in the realm of aqida, which comes before even the five pillars, as performing them without belief is of no consequence. The second dimension is these five pillars, which encompass one’s worship. Looking carefully at them, one can see that the shahada, meaning to bear witness, requires ‘declaring’ that Allah is one, not just to believe that Allah is one. Similarly, salat, zakat and hajj are all external actions as the hadith above mentions worship rather than anything of one’s internal state. The third dimension encompasses buying and selling, renting, marriage contracts, divorce, custody of children, conflict resolution, partnerships: contractual matters referred to as mu’amalat. Then the fourth regards our interactions with others on a social level, such as being good to our neighbours and relatives, maintaining ties of kinship, honouring the old and being merciful to our young, not cursing anyone etc. These are known as mu’asharat.
The fifth of these primary dimensions concerns the development of our internal character, which can be referred to in a number of ways, including tazkiyah, and purification of the heart. This involves removing anger from our hearts, or feelings of hatred, enmity, dissatisfaction with Allah most High about what He has apportioned for us, or a lack of contentment, and to change all of these feelings into positive qualities; love for others, compassion, generosity and wanting good for your brother or sister. As the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” (Bukhari and Muslim). Although these characteristics fall into the last dimension, each one of them is important, as is made clear in the hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in which he was told about a woman who used to pray salat, but at the same time used to be cruel to her cat, and so he made clear warnings against her (see Sahih Bukhari). This tells us that one cannot simply stick to just one dimension of Islam, rather we must strive in all directions to be a perfect believer. This is why Islam is a comprehensive system.
The perfect believer
Keeping all of the above in mind, we must now remember that whenever we describe Islam to someone else, we need to describe all of these dimensions. More importantly, though we may explain and describe much with our tongues, while we do not embody these five dimensions within us and enact them in our lives, our words will have no impact on others. When we attend the masjid, make our salat and fast, we must also abstain from backbiting, enmity, discontentment, hatred and jealousy and we must strive in our mu’amalat such that we will never try to cheat someone. We should exercise good character with others, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, be kind and not waste our time talking too much, and we are concerned about our inner selves. Only then are we trying to be the perfect believer. Allah most High tells the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the beginning of surah Ta-Ha: “We have not sent down the Qur’an that you be distressed” (Qur’an 20:2). The Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to stand long nights in prayer and he was dearly beloved to Allah most High, such that in other places Allah comforts him, telling him not to worry or become aggravated: “Perhaps, [O Muhammad], you would kill yourself with grief that they will not be believers” (Qur’an 26:3). There was no end to his beautiful character, may Allah bless him and give him peace.
Akhlaq – good character
Allah most High has created us in the form in which we see ourselves. If somebody has a long nose they may constantly be concerned about what people think of them. If somebody has large ears, they worry that people will make fun of them. This is especially true in children when they are developing, as everything is not always proportionate until they are fully grown. If somebody has protruding teeth or an extra finger it makes them feel very self-conscious and embarrassed in many cases. But just as we want perfect proportion in our body (and it is truly a sign of the power of Allah that He has made us all, billions of us, look different and yet proportionate), we should also seek proportionality and perfection in our inward. When we look at ourselves in a mirror we recite the du’a: “Allahumma, hassanta khalqi fahassin khuluqi—O Allah, just as you have made my outer form (khalq) excellent, make my inner akhlaq (khuluq) like this as well”. For a moment, imagine our akhlaq as a body, how would it look? Imagine how proportionate it would be, how handsome or ugly it would be. Think about how it will look if we say something bad about someone. We should constantly be aware of this. Though the physical body is something one cannot really change without plastic surgery or such things, when it comes to akhlaq, it is something that can be changed.
Akhlaq problems manifest themselves in a number of ways. There was an example of a person who had requested an associate to sell him something. The associate agreed but did not make any firm promise to him to do so. When the person found out that the associate had sold it to someone else some months later, he began to feel bad about it, going on about it over and over again, continuing even after three years to complain about the same thing. Can he not move on? Does he have nothing better to do in his life? If he feels bad about the person and complains, will it bring that item back for him? I tried to reason with him that he had not made a promise to you.
When we imagine bad character, we can often cite such examples or think of the attributes of someone we know. However, one of the reasons we would even be able to recognise these characteristics is because we probably have some level of that bad character within ourselves, which means we will definitely be able to see it in someone else. The problem is that we don’t see it in ourselves. The human being is blind to his own flaws: we love ourselves more than anybody else. When we see someone else acting strangely, we can point that out easily, but we will not see it in ourselves or even be aware that these traits exist within us.
The benefit of travel
Imam Shafi’i encouraged people to travel and said: “Travel, for there are five benefits in travelling”. One of the points he mentioned is that one learns akhlaq through travelling. How could this be? One of the benefits of travelling is that it may be that a bad character trait becomes prevalent in a particular community until they all become blind to it. Take backbiting (ghiba) for example, how many times have you sat down and even realised that a discussion you are having is ghiba? Backbiting is that you mention about your brother something he dislikes—it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not. Many people say that if it’s true then it’s fine but this is a fallacy, it is not ok. If what you are saying is false then this is actually buhtan (slander) which is even worse than ghiba. Sometimes we may even realise what we are doing but find no ability to stop it or say anything and we become used to it. But then if one travels and sees people acting differently as a whole, then one begins to consider, “Where do I come from? What kind of problems do we have?” One starts seeing the contrast. If you travel to the same kind of community, you won’t see the difference, but a new culture will show up these contrasts.
We must also beware of being suspicious of people, which is extremely detrimental and very dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that it can take us into the hellfire. Suspicion can lead to uttering words which we do not fully consider and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said; “The servant speaks words, the consequences of which he does not realise, and for which he is sent down into the depths of the Fire further than the distance between the east and the west” (Bukhari). This is how damaging words can be. Our suspicion may lead us to spread misinformation about a person, leading him to become deprived of certain friendships or dealings, which is a great sin for us in the eyes of Allah.
The outward manifestation of akhlaq
Just as we focus on the foundation of Islam, the roof and structure of this building is akhlaq. If our character is not proper, then the foundation is like an unfinished house. This is the reason that we are unable to have an impact on other people. If Muslims want to become true believers, akhlaq is the key. Those who wish to influence others in a positive way, especially non-Muslims or even non-practicing Muslims, must realise that they will not come to the masjid to watch us pray. What is a non-Muslim going to see from a Muslim? Is he going to see your fasting, your hajj, your zakat? No, rather he will see your akhlaq, your character, the way you conduct yourself, your honesty, your love and affection for people, your concern for humanity, your care for others: this is what he will see. The way we attract others is by showing them true Muslim character. If you’re undercharged in a supermarket and return to the cashier to pay for the item, this is what will have an impact. Don’t hide the defects in your goods when you sell to others. Don’t do ghiba. Show some concern for people. Don’t be selfish. This is the way of Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). His akhlaq was at such a level that we can scarcely even imagine. It is mentioned that he wanted to give all the benefit he could even to those hypocrites, such ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy bin Salul, the chief arch munafiq, who gave him so much trouble, simply for the mere fact that they called themselves Muslims. When Bin Salul passed away and his son came to request the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to lead the salat, he agreed, although ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) had a problem with it, exclaiming: “You can’t pray on him!” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “I’m going to make this janaza prayer”. Such was his concern for people, even a munafiq. After the salat, a verse was revealed to say: “And do not pray [the funeral prayer, O Muhammad] over any of them who has died, ever, or stand at his grave. Indeed, they disbelieved in Allah and His Messenger and died while they were defiantly disobedient” (Qur’an 9:84). Why did Allah allow the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to pray in the first place, when the prohibition was going to be revealed later? The ‘ulema mention that he had said to ‘Umar: “I’m going to pray on him” and so Allah most High did not want to reject that, rather He allowed him to pray and revealed the prohibition afterwards. This is the love of Allah for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). It shows the concern that Rasulullah (Allah bless him and give him peace) had for his ummah, that he was even willing to make salat over a munafiq.
Where is our concern? Where is our akhlaq and our sense of upright character? Let us project the inward forms of our character and see what kind appearance comes forth. How ugly it is, how disabled it is, how dilapidated it is, how weak it is. We must reflect deeply on this and strive hard to perfect our inward so that we try to be perfect Muslims. Let us try to build the structure and the form of our character so that it becomes handsome. We pray to Allah most High: “Just as you have made our outer form handsome, O Allah, make our inner forms in the same way”.