Building Good Character

Musa Kâzım GÜLÇÜR

Adab in practice, is part of the larger concept of akhlaq, that is, morality. In fact, from one perspective, adab in practice is fundamentally practical morality and ethics. Therefore, the essence of these concepts will be explained first, beginning with a short introduction to akhlaq, and only after this will adab in practice be returned to.

Akhlaq, the plural of khuluq in Arabic, means the character and temperament of a person. The temperament of a person brings either good or harmful things. In the broadest aspect morality means that there is a moral character, that is, morality becomes deeply ingrained in the soul and as a consequence right actions and behaviour come naturaily and easily from within; then, the person with such a character no longer has to struggle intellectually to know what ethical choices to make.

Human characteristics can generally be divided into those that society approves of and those that we disapprove of. Decency, humility, and kindness are traits that are seen in a positive light, while arrogance, deceit, and miserliness are generally perceived negative human characteristics. To recognize these characteristics, and their attendant traits is to understand what is meant here by the phrase “moral character.” Nawwas ibn Saman once asked the Prophet how to recognize the difference between goodness and sin. The Prophet answered, “Goodness is good moral character. Sin is anything that pricks one’s conscience, and which one does not want others to know about.”[1]

Another narration from Jabir reports that the Messenger said, “The most beloved to me among you and the ones who will be closest ro me on the Day of Judgment are the best in moral character. And they who are most loathsome to me and will be farthest from me on the Day of Judgment are those who gossip, those with unbridled tongues, and those who condescend.” When they asked him, “O Messenger of God! Who are those who condescendl” he replied, “They are those who are arrogant.”[2]

Ethics, which is the study or science of morals, can be divided into the theoretical and the practical. While theoretical morality is concerned with those concepts that constitute the principles and rules of morality, practical morality is concerned with the duties that constitute the basis of a moral life. As reported by the Prophet, “God looks not at your outward appearances, nor at your wealth or belongings. God looks only at your hearts and your deeds.”[3] For this reason, here we will be mainly concerned with the practical side of morality, and as mentioned above, the purpose of this article is to explore adab in practice. At this point, with a view to clarifying the meaning of human responsibility, let us take a closer look at the concept of duty, which is pivotal to developing a good character with adab.

The Nature and Types Of Duty

Duty is the moral responsibility of a person who has reached puberty when they have been asked to do something good or helpful. Accordingly, Islamically there are two types of duty. One is the obligatory (fard) group of duties, that is, those the performance of which is binding and the abandonment of which is forbidden. For example, performing daily prayers, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and offering prescribed purifying alms fall into this category. The other type of duty is that which, although not obligatory, is encouraged or desirable; it is these duties that religion presents as being inherent parts of a good moral character.

To observe these duties on top of the obligatory ones shows greater spiritual maturity and is worthy of Divine reward; the observation of them pleases God. To neglect such duties would be a shortcoming. An example of this type of duty would be the giving of money or goods to those in need (sadaqa), over and above the prescribed purifying alms (zakat), and generally being kind and polite to everyone.

Duties can further be classified as those fulfilled in the cause of God, or for the benefit of the individual, family, or even society. From this perspective, duties can be divided into different sorts-divine, familial, and social duties. Let us more closely examine these categories.

Divinely Ordained-Duties

It is incumbent upon every person who has come of age and who is in possession of all their mental facurties that they recognize and worship God. For a human there can be no greater blessing or honor than this servitude to God. One worships God by willingly and gratefully performing acts of worship, such as daily prayers, fasting, charity, and such other commitments that require both physical and financial abilities, like the pilgrimage to Mecca. In addition to these duties that pertain to the personal practice of Islam, safeguarding and defending one’s homeland is also a sacred duty.

Another very important divine duty is to struggle against one’s own evil-commanding soul. Those who cannot disciprine their ego or self through moral education will not be able to help themselves, let alone society. Believers, both as individuals and members of society, need to exert themselves to strive in the way of God in all their actions at all momenrs of life. This is what prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, meant when he said, “We are returning from the lesser jihad (struggle) to the greater,” while he was returning to Medina from the Campaign of Tabuk.[4] Emphasizing that they were returning from “the lesser struggle to the greater,” the Prophet directed his community to this “greater struggle, that is waged against one’s carnal self at all moments of life.

Being this comprehensive in nature, jihad, includes every action, from the simplest act of speaking to remaining silent or performing supererogatory acts of worship, such as extra prayers, worship and fasting to attain the good pleasure of God. Likewise, to enlighten our hearts we can read the Qur’an, or to increase the light of our faith we can continually remember and reflect on the Divine Attributes of our Almighty Crearor that are manifest all around us.

Individual Duties

Each person has some duties toward their own self as well. Some of these pertain to the body, and some to the spirit. The following are the main duties that fall into this category:

l. Training the body: For everyone it is crucial that the body be kept strong and clean. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “A strong and vigorous believer is better than a frail and weak one.”[5]

2. Caring for one’s health: Health is a great blessing; therefore, it is vital to avoid things that may damage one’s health and to seek treatment when one is ill.

3. Refraining from dangerous practices of abstinence or self-denial practiced in the name of spiritual discipline.

4. Guarding against things that wear down and age the body.

5. Strengthening willpower: A person needs to develop healthy self-control. This involves learning what is good for the body and partaking of it, as well as finding out what is harmful and avoiding it.

6. Duties relating to the mind and intellect, such as pursuing learning and enlightenment, awakening higher emotions and positive feelings in the heart, and honing one’s talents and skills.

Family Duties

The family is the very foundation of a healthy society. Each member of the family must accept some responsibility for the others in the family. Some of the primary duties of a husband, for instance, are to behave kindly toward his wife, to meet her basic needs, and to be loyal to her. A narration of the prophet says, “The best of you is he who is the best to his wife.”[6] A wife who is happy with her spouse will support her husband’s decisions, as long as they do not conflict with religious directives and contribute to protecing the family honor and property. All these are pivotal to happiness in marital relations and to a happy family.

Parents in such an atmosphere commit themselves to nurturing, educating and training their children to the best of their ability, setting them on the path to success in life. Fathers and mothers should treat their children equally, holding them in equal regard and affection. They should be gende towards their offspring and raise them in such a way that they will nor be inclined to rebel. Parents also have the duty to be models of virtue for their children.

Respect and obedience are, in turn, some of the basic duties of children towards parents who have brought them up according to the principles set out above and with love and compassion, feeding and caring for them. Therefore, children should not show displeasure or impatience with their parents. A son or daughter who ignores the wishes of their parents and does not heed them nor come to their assistance if they are in need is not a source of blessing for the parents. Such a person not only is not a useful member of society but will also stand before God as one who is guilty of shirking their duty.

Likewise, siblings have duties toward one another, such as showing affection and compassion for each other, as well as helping and respecting each other. There is a very srrong bond between brothers and sisters and this should always be maintained. Brothers and sisters who cut their ties with one another over finances or property disagreements cannot be considered to be blessed or benevolent. Finally, if a household has hired help, this helper also must be treated as part of the family. They deserve kindness and gende treatment and should never be overloaded with work that is too difficult for them to carry out.

Social Duties

Human beings have been created as social beings, and as such they live in social groups and have formed civilizations. Socializing is one of our basic needs, and social life involves certain expectations between people. When these are disregarded, society breaks down and people can no longer coexist peacefirlly or work together. The main responsibilities in this category are the preservation of the following inalienable rights:

l. Protecting the life of every individual: Every person has the right to life. No one has the right to take another person’s life. According to Islam, one who wrongfully kills a person is as gullty as if they have murdered all of humanity; likewise, one who saves one person’s life is as blessed as if they have saved all of humanity.

2. Safeguarding the freedom of all people: God Almighty created every human being free and equal. At the same time, it is certain that this freedom has boundaries. We do nor have the prerogative to do anything we want; if we had such freedom this would violate the freedoms of others.

3. The consideration of conscience: When a person has a well-functioning conscience, this allows them to differentiate between good and bad. The value of such a conscience can be better understood if one observes outward consequences. A person who engages in incorrect behavior cannot be said to have a functioning conscience. Islam assigns great importance to having a conscience that helps one to be concerned for the happiness and guidance of all humanity. To this end, it encourages pity towards those who have a faulty conscience and tries to bring them to the right way. One can never try to control or rule another person’s conscience; this is the province of God alone. Each person will be rewarded or punished for what is in their conscience. However, this does not mean it is wrong to admonish or advise a person who has a bad conscience, if the idea is to help the person.

4. Protecting freedom of mind: Any thought or opinion, right or wrong, must be approached in a scholarly manner. This is the only way for a truth to be discovered, and it is also the only way for society to prove the harmfulness of false ideas.

5. Protecting the honor and reputation of individuals: In Islam, everyone has the right to maintain their honor and dignity. Any attack against honor or dignity, we have been taught, will be gravely punished. It is for this reason that gossip, slander, ridicule, the cursing of others and saying negative things about others are absolutely forbidden in Islam.

6. The preservation of other people’s property: It is also forbidden to usurp the property or possessions of any other person. What is earned by a person belongs stricdy to that person. This is essential for the development of a civilized society. It is reasonable and necessary that the individuals who make up a society will have different degrees of wealth, according to their profession and training. In a fair and equitable society all should be grateful for and satisfied with their own portion.

Translated by Jessica ÖZALP


[1] Muslim, Birr, 15, Hadith 2553; Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 52, Hadith 2390.

[2] Tirmidhi, Birr 77, Hadith 2019.

[3] Muslim, Birr, 33; Ibn Maia, Zuhd, 9; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2/1285, 539.

[4] Ajluni, Kashf al-Kafa, I, 425.

[5] Muslim, Qadar, 34.

[6] Tirmidhi, Rida, 11, Hadith 1162; Abu Dawud, Sunna, 16, Hadith 4682.

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