Akhlaq: Sacred Teachings of Islam on Character

And whoever purifies one's self, 
purifies only for one's own good. 
And to Allah is the eventual Home coming. 
- The Divine Recital 35:18

In search of unity within our selves

We are indeed living in an interesting time when proliferation, convergence and ease of access to spiritual knowledge have often time make us forget that:
- to learn about spirituality, and
- to practice that or to embody that in our day to day living are two quite different matters.

Practical Spirituality is a term coined to mean the practice and embodiment of all that is spiritual. It is the harmonious convergence of spiritual knowledge (‘ilm) with its appropriate application in our life. One of the reasons why the organized religions in the world today have been losing its value to its followers is because of the gross failure on part of its people who are vanguard of the individual traditions, to embody what they know, teach or preach. The great illuminated beings were exactly the opposite. They embodied the spirituality in their core of their being first, and others were attracted to that light naturally. Now a days the religious and spiritual knowledge are more confined to the black inks of the pages and hence in the intellectual mind than in the heart of people and in their character.

Its really wonderful that spiritual knowledge is really easy to access now a days. Any bookstore will have section of spiritual classics, modern day spiritual book, self-help type of books. But do we see really that knowledge transformed into practical living? Not really. Head knowledge is quite different than personality perfumed in spirituality. Infact those who go around with only head-knowledge without any reflection of that in their character, in their generosity to others, in their loving-kindness to others are like donkey loaded with books (62:05) which they grow so habituated to carry around without realizing that at the end none of these knowledge will benefit them unless their quality of their heart and spirit is transformed.

The great gnostic, Imam Jafar Sadiq narrates that, "Anyone who is devoid of knowledge (‘Ilm) and Noble Character (Akhlaq) is like an orphan who has lost both his parents."

What is the most intimate place where we can practice our spiritual knowledge? It is within our self, within our characters, within the fibers of our being. Leaving aside all flowery talks about God, Divine, Love – if we are unable to see our spiritual bankruptcy and do something about it, we would certainly not be immune from hypocrisy and that indeed is a grave danger.

O you who believe! Why do you say that which you do not do?
Grievously odious is it in the sight of Allah that ye say that which ye do not. - The Final Testament 61:2-3

In his zen like wise teachings Christ spoke of the need for the unity within ourselves when he said: "But let your ‘Yes' simply be ‘Yes,' and your ‘No,' ‘No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37).

For unity of our own being, for harmony of our outer and inner we must efface all conflicts within. And to do that, the most necessary place where a reflection of our head knowledge must merge is our character, in our interaction with the world of appearances, with our mingling with people, how we relate with each other and how we conduct our actions, our responsibilities. And its our character, our embodiment of our personality is what is most important when it comes to  our  actions, interactions and our presence in the world. After all what is the point of knowing about love and speaking about love if we fail to give love to others, what is it the point of memorizing discourses after discourses on patience and forgiveness if we fail to show patience and forgive when its demanded of us in our life.

The pious tongue without the pious heart is sinfulness and a straying from the Truth. The pious heart without the pious tongue is completion without completeness, and a pious heart and a pious tongue is a completion above all completion. - Ahmad ibn Ujaba al-Maghribi

Foundation of the Way of Divine Surrender (Islam) is upon Knowledge and Noble Character

‘Ilm and Akhlaq - approximately translated in English as ‘sacred knowledge’ and ‘noble characters’ are two basic foundations of Islam. Just as knowledge is necessary to efface ignorance, aviddya (veils that keep our soul from recognizing the Real), it is equally important to strive towards perfecting our character by adorning the selfhood with noble qualities. Lots of head-knowledge without embodiment in character (hence a mismatch in what is outside and what is inside) is exactly the attitude labeled as munafiq (hypocrisy) and condemned in the most harsh terms in the Quran. It was the same kind of attitude that Christ, the immediately earlier divine messenger in the chain of prophetic brotherhood before Muhammad, was extremely vocal against which he found among the Pharisees in his time.

Islam places great emphasis on embodying noble characters (akhlaq), so much so that when a man came to the Last Messenger and asked, “O messenger of Allah, what is religion?”

The holy one summed it up by replying: “Good Conduct.”
Then the man came to his front and asked: “O Messenger of Allah, what is religion?” He again replied: “Good Conduct.”

Then he came to his left side and asked: “what is religion?”Again reply was given: “Good Conduct.”

Then he came to his back side and asked the same question: “what is religion?” The Holy Prophet Muhammad replied once again with his sincere tongue: “Good Conduct.”

The Last Messenger, Muhammad Mustafa, for humanity is the example par excellence, specially when it comes to human character. Since very young age he was known as al-amin (faithful, sincere) to his town-folks, ages before he was mantled with the mantle of Prophethood. About whom God bear witness that, "And most certainly you (O Muhammad, my Messenger of Love, Beauty and Harmony) are on sublime morality (exalted standard of character)." (68:4)

In other places the Prophet goes on to transmit:

'I have been sent (by God to mankind) is to perfect good manners.'

'The most beloved of you to me is he who is the best of you in Akhlaq.'

Thus to be come beloved of the Messenger, the vicegerent of Godon earth, and hence beloved of God - its imperative to have a beautified character.

'There is not anything that will be placed on the divine scale weightier than good Akhlaq, and, certainly, the one who has good Akhlaq reaches by it the rank of one who continuously observes Saum (Fasts) and performs abundant (Nafl) Salah.'

'The most (important) things that cause people to reach Heaven (Divine Proximity in the Hereafter) are divine piety and a good temper.'

'Verily, a servant of the Most High can gain the rank of him who both fasts during the day and keeps vigil at night, keeping up prayers, through his good disposition.'

'Ilm al-Akhlaq

In the domain of sacred knowledge of Islam, Akhlaq is an the term referring to the practice of virtue, morality and manners. This arabic word is most commonly translated in english dictionaries as; disposition, nature, temper, ethics, morals or character (of a person).

Akhlaq is the plural of the word khulq which means disposition. "Disposition" is a faculty (malakah) of the psyche (nafs) which unconsciously inspires activities. Malakah comes into existence through repetitive practice and is not easily destroyed. A particular malakah may appear because of one of the following reasons:

a) Fitrah (natural state): The original state in which humans are created by Allah. The Creator for example determined certain aspects of their lives for which they are not accountable (e.g., their place of birth and physical appearance)
b) 'ada (Habit): Formed by continual repetition of certain acts and creates a certain disposition.
c) Practice and conscious effort: Which if persistent will eventually produce a disposition or character trait.

Akhlaq or good character is emphasized on a number of occasions in the Noble Quran. The Divine voice speaks about the importance of beautified character in the Final Revelation, where its read:

Akhlaq in speech: And say to My servants (that) they speak that which is best. (17:53)

Akhlaq in worshipful service and interaction in the world: Worship Allah, and do not associate partners with him. And be good to your parents, and the relatives, and to the orphans, and to the poor people, and the neighbor that is close to you and the neighbor that is not close to you, and your companion on the journey. (4:36)

The level of human perfection is determined by discipline and effort. Man stands between two extremes, the lowest is below beasts and the highest surpasses even the angels. The movement between these extremes is discussed by `ilm al-akhlaq or the science of ethics. Traditional Muslim philosophers believed that without ethics and purification (tazkiyah), mastery over other sciences is not only devoid of value, but would obstruct insight. That is why it has been said that, `knowledge is the thickest of veils', which prevents man from seeing reality (haqiqah).

Moral virtues bring eternal happiness, while moral corruption leads to everlasting wretchedness. Man must purge blameworthy traits (akhlāq madhmūma) before he can integrate ethical and moral virtues. Anas Karzoon has offered the following definition of tazkiyah al-nafs, "It is the purification of the soul from inclination towards evils and sins, and the development of its fitrah towards goodness, which leads to its uprightness and its reaching ihsaan." Attempts to obey God's commands are successful only when one is purified; then the soul can receive God's unlimited grace.

The hadith of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: ("My religion is based on cleanliness"), does not refer to outward cleanliness alone; it also alludes to the psyche's inner purity. To attain perfection, it is necessary to struggle against lusts and immoral tendencies, and prepare the soul to receive God's grace. If man travels the path of purification, God will aid and guide him. As the Quran says: 'And [as for] those who struggle in Our cause, surely We guide them in Our ways.'

The nafs or self employs the body to attain its goals. The primary faculties of the self are:

a) Intelligence (al-quwwah al-aqliyyah)- angelic.
b) Anger (al-quwwah al-ghadabiyyah)- ferocious.
c) Desire / Craving (al-quwwah al-shahwiyyah)- animalistic.
d) (False) Imagination (al-quwwah al-wahmiyyah)- demoniac.

The value of these forces is obvious. Reason distinguishes good and evil: ghadab (anger) helps defend against aggression: sexual attraction maintains the survival of the human species; and imagination allows visualization of universals or particulars. Reason is man's guiding angel. Anger brings violence; passions (hawā) encourage immorality; and imagination provides material to formulate demoniac plots and machinations. If reason controls the other faculties, it moderates excesses and ensures useful performance. Allah says in surat Ash-Shams: And by nafs, and Him Who perfected him in proportion; Then He inspired him corruption and its righteousness; Indeed he succeed who chooses to purify his ownself; and indeed he fails who corrupts his ownself. The psyche is in a continuous jihad (struggle) between these four powers for domination. The victorious trait determines the soul's inclination.

In a hadith from Imam Ali, he is related as saying: Surely God has characterized the angels by intellect without sexual desire and anger, and the animals with anger and desire without reason. He exalted man by bestowing upon him all of these qualities. Accordingly, if man's reason dominates his desire and ferocity, he rises to a station above that of the angels; because this station is attained by man in spite of the existence of hurdles which do not vex the angels.

The completion for those who claim faith, claim belief is testified by good character

The most complete of believers in Imaan (faith) are those who are best in character. - Saying of the Holy Prophet

What is within and function of our consciousness, our intelligence - that which we claim that we know, if not practiced in our interaction – then this life of ours falls into the trap of hypocrisy. Those who fell along the way, those who claimed to be doctors of the religion or knower of spiritual knowledge eventually perished because what they knew, they didnt even strove to practice in their life. Any authentic religious / spiritual path never ever ignores the practice that takes one from knowledge to application.

In the chapter of the Hypocrites in the Quran the Divine voice transmits:

"When the hypocrites come to thee, they say: We bear witness that thou art indeed Allah's Messenger. And Allah knows thou art indeed His Messenger. And Allah bears witness that the hypocrites are surely liars. They take shelter under their oaths, thus turning (men) from Allah's way. Surely evil is that which they do. That is because they believed, then disbelieved; thus their hearts are sealed, so they understand not. And when thou seest them, their persons please thee; and if they speak, thou listenest to their speech. They are like pieces of hollow wood, clad with colorful garments. They think every cry to be against them. They are the enemy, so beware of them ... and when it is said to them ‘Come, the Messenger of Allah will ask forgiveness for you’, they turn away their heads and thou seest them hindering (others), and they are big with arrogance."

These verses from the Quran, if contemplated deeply provides multi-dimensional messages. First, bearing witness and conforming to the outerwardness of religion (even when its the highest reality) without sincerity of the heart and sincerity of action is null and void. Such people through their hypocrisy, even if they be men of religion they end up turning people from the Path of God. There are no short of such bishops, priest, imams and mullahs whose behavior only make people feel averse and horror about religion and anything to do with religion. How grevious end awaits for them! One of their characteristic is their hanging on perpetual belief and disbelief, they dont have inner conviction and harmony, hence continue to traverse into faithlessness even if they are sitting at he highest seat of religious chair. Another important message is that they are often pleasing to the common folk in their outwardness, when they speak they speak with artificial sweetness, they wear pompous (religious) dress to impress people but this makes them nothing but like hollow piece of wood (worthless in the Kingdom of the Eternal Father).

This reminds of a sufi tale of donkey and firewood.

Once upon a time a donkey walked in front of a blacksmith shop. Fate had it carrying much firewood when suddenly a flare fell upon its load. Flames consumed the firewood and finally midst the fire the donkey was charred.

The foul of the character
            Fire of yours
The deeds of that foulness
            Firewood of yours

Once loaded with firewood and passing over the hell
Amazing if you could pass unharmed alive and well

Lo! You shall not pass! This too heavy a-load
Trapped underneath the heaviness’s hold

After all your habits if to eat or to sleep
What a fortune! This is indeed your (all) bliss!?

Every soul shall have a taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have attained the object (of Life): For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception. - Q 3:185

In this world of duality the hypocrites are labeled as enemy of the spiritually evolved people and people of truth. And men of real knowledge are instructed to be aware of them, to shun and avoid them. And last but not least is to take note of their arrogance and what is more dangerous than spiritual and religious arrogance. This also is Sign for us to get rid of every trace of arrogance and pride from our own characteristics if we are to progress in the Path of Truth.

May God protect us from such beings of low and negative energy and people who cover the truth of their true self. Just today a friend of the Path shared something which is worth sharing here on the need to avoid the company of such people. I quote my friend, may Allah exalt her station:

I can't stand having lots of people around me. I instantly feel my energy draining out. Most people are pretty toxic. And with all my meditation, cleansing and detoxing during weekends, the last thing I need is for these corporate vampires to suck my energy out. I take great heed of Shaykh al Jilani's words - stay away from ignorant people, stay away from people whose energy is lower than yours. My Sufi guide told me that our energy is like water. If your energy is high and you spend time with someone of lower energy, your energy will flow downwards to the other person so that your energies will balance. That's why you always feel tired when you spend time with people who have low energy levels and they feel rejuvenated when they are with you. Stay away from toxic people. They are energy spongers.

That is also the spiritual significance why a mu'min is instructed in the Revelation to be cautious of whom they chose as friend in life and to take only mu'min  or mu'mina (person of awakened faith) as friends and companions in life journey (with exceptions to the spiritual rule).

A person is upon the (level / station of) faith of his friend. So everyone of you should see whom you are befriending. - Hadith

Recommended readings, contemplation and task

People of the Path will tell you with certitude and proven knowledge that akhlaq or noble characters are best learned from the people of noble character. What it means is that to sit with the fuqara (seekers of truth who are empty of the worldly attachments) and who are people of ihsan (excellent) is the best approach to learn and train the personality. What is learned in the company of true pious men of God in one week, takes years and years of self-seeking in the wonderland of self's landscape which keeps us happy with our lowly condition and keep us blind from its blameworthy traits. The best approach, regardless of age or place or circumstances is learning from heart to heart (sina be sina) from men of purified heart. Thus a spiritual guide and his or her company is the best to improve noble character. The next and complementary way is to learn from the writings and teachings of such men of true piety who spoke from realization and sincere travels to their Lord.

In the wonderfully resourceful website maintained by Dara O. Shayda , may Allah bless him and his service, Untired with Loving, a very important manual “The Defects of The Nafs (Self)” by Sheikh Abdur-Rahman Sullami is shared which enlists the defects and short-coming of the human self as well as spiritual therapy against each of them are mentioned. When one become vigilant against such defects and are able to avoid them in their disposition, by God’s grace, will ascend in their spiritual station. Removing that which are blameworthy in character: the filth, is the first step towards purification and adornment of self, without which there is neither any major evolution of the soul nor significant mystical opening given to us.

> Visit the site and may this be helpful resource: Defects of Nafs for your spiritual journey.

Also you may download Husn-e-Akhlaq (Beautiful Character) which is a compilation of blessed sayings of Last Messenger, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. Its in urdu and corresponding english translation, encompassing the noble qualities necessary and to be bloomed with care in a beautified character.

. In this article materials are cited from Wikipedia entry of Akhlaq.

:: Further
+ Blameworthy traits of the self
+ Shadows of the ego-self (nafs)

Tawba Astaghfirullah wa tubuilaih: We turn to the Divine and seek His forgiveness for all our shortcomings and our hidden and outward hyprocisy. Indeed He is Knower of our real self, its conditions and truly the Divine is ever forgiving to His servant who turn to Him and repent sincerely.

When the Prophet used to see the reflection of his noble and radiant face, this was his supplication:  'Allahumma anta hassanta khalqi, fahassan khulqi' - "O Allah, just as You have made my external features beautiful, make my character beautiful as well".

Also another dua of the Prophet to be used as seed to grow awareness:
"Guide me to the best character
for no one can guide to best (character) except You,
and turn away bad conduct from me
for no one can turn it away from me except You."



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Technology of the Heart: Akhlaq: Sacred Teachings of Islam on Character
Akhlaq: Sacred Teachings of Islam on Character
Technology of the Heart
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