On the authority of al-Nawwaas ibn Samaan (may Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) who said, “Righteousness is good character. And sin is that which wavers in your soul and which you dislike the people finding out about.” (Recorded by Muslim)
Al-Nawwaas ibn Samaan (r) was a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (s) who lived briefly in Madinah as one of the ahl al-Suffah, or the people of the verandah. The ahl al-Suffah were the Muslims who were so poor that they did not have their own homes and they resided permanently in the Prophet’s Mosque. He (r) loved to ask questions of the Prophet (s) and a total of seventeen hadith have been recorded on his authority, three of which are contained in Sahih Muslim.
“Righteousness is good character”
The Arabic word birr translated here as ‘righteousness’ can be used in two senses. The first is to mean treating others in a good fashion, in particular one’s parents, though more generally it means to behave well towards everyone. When birr is used in this fashion in the Qur’an it is usually used in conjunction with tawqa or fear of Allah. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an:
“Help you one another in al-birr and al-taqwa” (Surah al-Maaidah:2)
The second sense in which the word birr is used is to refer to acts of worship and obedience to Allah (swt) both inward and outward. We can see an example of this in the following verse of the Qur’an:
“It is not al-birr (righteousness) that you turn your faces toward east or west [in prayers]; but al-birr is [having] belief in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, the prophets, and giving one’s wealth, in spite of love for it, to the kinsfolk, to the orphans, to the poor, to the wayfarer, to those who ask and to set slaves free; [it also includes those who] establish the prayer, give the zakat, fulfill their covenant when they make it, and who are patient in extreeme poverty and ailment and at the time of fighting. Such are the people of the truth and they are the pious.” (Surah al-Baqarah: 177)
The concept of righteousness then, incorporates treating others in the best way possible, believing in Allah (swt) and all that He (swt) has revealed, giving in charity, keeping promises, being truthful, patient and performing acts of obedience and worship of Allah (swt).
The concept of character (in Arabic khuluq) in Islam incorporates a combination of understanding, intention and deeds with the last two aspects playing the most important role. If a person has good intentions followed by good deeds, it is said that they have good character. If a person has bad intentions followed by bad deeds it is said that they have a bad character.
The scholars have discussed the concept of good character, as it is understood in Islam, in great detail.
Good character with respect to the Creator is said to incorporate three necessary aspects: sincere belief in what Allah (swt) has revealed without any doubts; acceptance of the commands of Allah (swt) and striving to fulfill them; and accepting the Allah’s decrees with pleasure and patience.
Good charcacter with respect to the creation incorporates being kind, generous, forgiving, refraining from harming others, greeting them with a smiling face and behaving in a way that brings them happiness. This also incorporates good behavior towards all the living things that Allah (swt) has placed on the earth. The one who is closest to Allah (swt) will be furthest away from causing any harm to His (swt) creation, especially when they remember what Allah (swt) has said:
“The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein glorify Him. There is not a thing but glorifies His praise, but you understand not their glorification. Truly, He is ever forbearing, oft-forgiving” (Surah al-Israa:4)
Finally, good character with respect to oneself relates to how one deals with one’s own soul. One should nurture one’s soul, do what is best for it and treat it kindly. The ultimate pleasure of the soul comes from worship and obedience to its Creator, and this satisfaction can be deepened through attaining the knowledge necessary to follow the Straight Path.
We can see from this that the Islamic concept of character is all inclusive, and incorporates good conduct towards the Creator, the creation, and oneself. For a person to have good character, they must have righteous conduct in all of these areas. It is not sufficient to be kind to your parents, but neglect your Creator. One cannot worship Allah (swt) and neglect the creation, that is not considered good character. To have good character we must be righteous in all our conduct towards all living things.
How to Attain Good Character
A person is born and grows with certain characteristics and qualities. If these are good characteristics, the person should be thankful to Allah (swt) that He (swt) has placed these characteristics in them. They should use these qualities for the sake of Allah (swt).
If a person naturally has some bad qualities, such as a quick temper or stinginess, these characteristics can be changed. Bad qualities are not fixed and we must struggle to overcome them through patience, practice, effort and constantly reminding ourselves to behave in a way that is better.
There are a number of ways in which can strive to improve our character:
1) Read the Qur’an in order to see the importance of having good character.
2) Read the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (s) to see how he lived his life, in order to understand the best example of good character.
3) Keep good company. It is easier to have good character when one is surrounded by inspiring examples.
4) Consider the negative results of bad character, and its effects on family, society and one’s own soul.
5) Perform acts that go against one’s negative instincts, such as donating in charity if one is stingy.
6) Remember Allah (swt) and His (swt) rewards and punishments.
7) Make dua to Allah (swt) for Him (swt) to help you change, because good character and its resulting actions are a gift from Allah (swt).
The Prophet Muhammad (s) used to supplicate to Allah (swt):
“Guide me to the best of manners, no one [can] guide to the best of them but you. And turn me away from evil manners, no one [can] turn me away from them except You.”(Recorded in Muslim)
Let’s follow the example of our beloved Prophet (s) and do the same.
“And sin is that which wavers in your soul and which you dislike the people finding out about.”
Ithm or sin is defined as an act for which its performer is deserving of blame or censure. It is said to encompass every form of evil deed whether large or small.
In this hadith the Prophet (s) gave us two very important signs of a sin. The first sign is a completely internal sign within the human being. It is a feeling that occurs within the soul with respect to the act. The human being is created with the internal mechanism to sense which acts are sinful and the soul is uneasy when it performs sinful acts.
The second sign is also internal but occurs in respect to how one is viewed by others. A sin is something we would feel ashamed of if the people knew about it. The commentators of this hadith stress that ‘the people’ here is not the wider population in general, but rather religious people. The soul has more shame in front of righteous people who respect the teachings of Allah (swt).
There may also be acts that because of shyness, embarrassment, custom and so forth people may not want others to know about, but these are not the acts referred to in this hadith. Rather a sin is an act which one’s conscience feels bad about because the soul feels it to be morally wrong.
We can see that the soul is naturally inclined to feel pleased when people witness its good deeds, and ashamed when people witness its bad deeds. We can also see that we are created with a soul that has an instinctual sense of right and wrong.
Can you think of any act that you have performed that would meet this criteria of wavering in your soul and making you feel ashamed if righteous people were to find out that you had done it? If so, make time to turn to Allah (swt) and ask for His (swt) forgiveness and the strength to help you stop committing this act again. For verily, the doors of Allah’s (swt) forgiveness are open no matter how large the sin is. The only time that the request for forgiveness is not granted is when the pangs of death are upon us, and we do not know when that will be.