Righteousness and Piety

The Happiness of a Human Being

All praises be to Allah who tells us in His Book:

“…Help one another in birr (righteousness) and taqwa (piety), and do not help one another in sinning and transgression. And fear and revere Allah; verily Allah is severe in punishment.” (Surah al-Maidah 5:2)

This ayah comprises all that is good for people in this life and in the Hereafter, both among themselves, and between themselves and their Lord. This is because a person is always dealing with one of two obligations, either between themselves and Allah or between themselves and the people.

The duty of a person toward their fellow human beings is that they should direct them towards the worship of Allah and obedience to Him, because in this lies the ultimate success and hapiness. This is the ‘birr and taqwa’, or righteousness and piety, which comprises the whole of the religion.

(It should be noted that when one of these words is mentioned, it implies the other, meaning that to say ‘righteousness’ implies ‘piety’ and vice versa. But when they appear together, as they do here, each has a separate distinct meaning, as we will see.)

Birr in Relation to Taqwa

Birr is the excellence, virtue and goodness present in something. It comprises all kinds of goodness and perfection expected in a human being. It is the opposite of ithm, which means sinning. The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said,

“Birr is good manners, and ithm is those [evil] thoughts that weave about in your chest and you fear that other people may know about them.” (Recorded in Muslim)

Under the meaning of birr comes imaan, with all its apparent and concealed manifestations, and taqwaBirr is frequently used to describe the heart, and to indicate whether it possesses the true taste and sweetness of imaan. It implies feelings of serenity, satisfaction, strength and pleasure that enter the heart because of imaan. One who does not experience these feelings, lacks imaan and is amongst those described by Allah as:

“The bedouins say, ‘We believe’. Say [Muhammad]: ‘You believe not, but you can only say, ‘We have submitted to you as Muslims,’ for imaan has not yet entered your hearts…” (Surah Al-Hujurat 49:14)

We can see from this that we are not true believers unless imaan has entered our hearts.

Allah illustrates the various qualities of birr in the following ayah:

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward the east or the West [in prayers], but righteousness is he who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angles, the Book, and the Prophets, and he who gives his wealth, in spite of love for it, to kinfolk, to orphans, to the needy, to the wayfarer, to those who ask, and he who sets slaves free, and he who establishes prayer, and gives the purifying charity, and those who fulfil their covenant when they make it, and those who are patient in extreme poverty and ailment, and at the time of fighting during the battle, such are the people of truth, and they are the pious.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:177)

Believing in Allah, His Books, His Angles and His Messengers and in the Last Day, are all required acts of birr, and are the five articles of faith without which imaan cannot survive. Salah and zakah are also mentioned as acts of righteousness, as are concealed deeds of the heart, all of which are also qualities of taqwa.

Taqwa in Relation to Birr

Taqwa has been beautifully defined as acting in obedience to Allah, with light (guidance) from Allah, seeking Allah’s reward, and avoiding disobeying Allah, with light from Allah, fearing His punishment.

Every deed has an origin and a destination. A deed does not count as an act of obedience and does not bring us closer to Allah, unless it originates from sincere imaan, with the destination of hope in attaining Allah’s reward (ihtisab). These two things were often linked by the Messenger, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, who said:

“Whoever fasts Ramadan with imaan and ihtisab will have his previous sins forgiven.” (Recorded in al-Bukhari)

“Whoever stands up [in prayer] on the Night of Qadr with imaan and ihtisab will have his previous sins forgiven.” (Recorded in al-Bukhari)

Differences Between Birr and Taqwa

A stated earlier, when the two words birr and taqwa are metioned together, then there is a difference in their meaning. This is similar to the difference between a means and a purpose.

Birr is sought on its own and represents the integrity and excellence of a human being. One cannot attain virtue without it, as was discussed earlier.

Taqwa, on the other hand, is the means and way leading to birr. The root of the word taqwa in Arabic means protection. One practicing it will protect themselves from the Fire. Protection is not for itself, as much as to prevent harm. Thus the relationship between birr and taqwa is similar to that of health (which is a purpose) and care for the body (which is a means).

Sinning and Transgression

What is required from people in their gatherings and company is therefore to help one another in birr and taqwa. Each person should help their companions with knowledge and action. A person cannot do this by themselves, and Allah’s wisdom has decreed that the existence of human beings should be through mutual help and support.

In the afore mentioned ayah of Surah al Maidah, Allah orders us “…but do not help one another in ithm (sin) and udwan (transgression).” Forbidding these things is parallel to enjoining birr and taqwa. The difference between sin and transgression is that sin applies to the actual prohinited deeds (adultery etc) and transgression applies to exceeding the limits set by Allah (marrying a fifth wife etc).  Allah tells us:

“These are the limits ordained by Allah, so do not transgress them. Whoever transgresses the limits ordained by Allah, such are the wrong doers.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:229)

“These are limits set by Allah, so do not approach them.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:187)

In the first ayah Allah forbids transgressing His limits, and in the second He forbids us to approach them. Allah’s limits are therefore what separates the halal from the haram

The Two Obligations

There are therefore two obligations on every human being: one towards the creation and one towards the Creator.

We have an obligation to help other people with both our knowledge and actions, to enjoin them to act with birr and taqwa, and we have an obligation towards our Lord to observe His commands and avoid disobedience, out of love and fear of Him.

We cannot fulfil the first obligation unless we detach ourselves from the evils of people, sincerely offering them advice, being good to them and caring about their well-being. And we cannot fulfil our obligation towards our Creator unless we eliminate all creatures from between ourselves and Allah and do so with love and sincerity and adoration.

We should not let attachment to the people come between ourselves are our Lord, and we should not let favouring ourselves come between us and other people. If we do either of these things we will be in continued confusion, and all our affairs will be lost. May Allah save us from a fate such as this. Ameen.

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