Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) used to pray to Allah saying: “O Allah! Beautify my character as you have beautified my creation.”
Two categories of habits must be recognized:
- Habits of the arts, judged by things produced i.e., habits of making.
- Habits of character reflect the doer i.e., habits of doing.
According to Quran, both types of habits are required for success. The daughters of Prophet Shuayb (AS) described Prophet Moses (AS) as strong to work for them but also honest: “O my father! Hire him: truly the best of men to employ is the man who is strong and honest.” [28:26]
When Prophet Yusuf (AS) recommended himself to the King of Egypt to oversee the storehouses of the Kingdom, he described himself as one who has the knowledge and expertise but also one who guards the storehouses with honesty and integrity. “I will indeed guard them as one who knows.” [12:55]
I will focus in my discussion on the habits of character.
In the center of Surah Al-Shams, The Sun we find a core message and a lead idea about the significance of the habits of character in the definition of the human self. “Truly he succeeds who increases the goodness of his self, and he fails who corrupts it.” [91:9-10]
Our success is dependent on the degree of goodness we add to ourselves, and the level of self-development we achieve. We fail when we stagnate and stop the growth and development of ourselves. The word, dassaha دَسَّاها implies that we bury ourselves in the dust, prevent their advancement, and cause their social death. In other words, Quran is giving us the freedom to choose between two diametrically opposite mindsets: The growth mindset versus the fixed or social death mindset.
Quran uses the genre or the style of the oath in the beginning of Surah Al-Shams to emphasize the above central and core idea. At the same time, the verses of the oath are constructed in a way to give us an insight and deeper understanding of the human self.
The Chapter starts by an oath where Allah (ﷻ) swears by the sun, the moon, the day, the night, the heaven, and the earth. All of them were preceded by “the”الـ, the article that is used to define a specific object or an abstract idea. This means that all of them were given only one direction to follow since the time of their creation. None of them had or has the chance or the capability to change its mission, function, or course.
“It is not permitted to the sun to catch up with the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day: each swims along in its own orbit.” [36:40]
But when Allah (ﷻ) swears by the human self or “nafs”نَفْس, we see that the word “nafs” is not preceded or defined by the article ‘the”. “By every soul and the proportion and order given to it.” [91:7]
Therefore, we can conclude that contrary to the Universe, each human soul is born without a predetermined definition. The task of defining the human soul is solely accomplished by every self and after it is born into this life. The Universe is therefore, unidirectional. Human beings, on the other hand, are given a dual or bidirectional nature, i.e., the ability to choose between two major directions: “He enlightened it as to its wrong and its right.” [91:8]
This freedom of choice grants all human beings the divine gift to define and add “the” to their souls.
Every one of us is born with certain identities, like gender, ethnicity, or native language. But as time goes on, we add new identities: we learn a new language or more, we learn a new trade or profession, and we choose a new country to live in and raise our children. The right to choose new identities must be respected and acknowledged. Quran is not against choosing new identities. However, any identity, whether it is language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or socioeconomic status should not be placed above the high values and mores or the habits of character.
Let’s examine the Quranic verse talking about Justice as a high value. “O you, who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is against rich or poor, for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts, lest you swerve, and if you distort or decline to do justice, verily Allah know all that you do.” [4:135]
Whether you are a judge or a witness, justice must have the highest priority over every form of identity, self-interest or expedience.
High values and the habits of character have two characteristics in the Quranic worldview:
- They are common to all humans. Quran does not refer to these high values as “Islamic”, or Judeo-Christian”, or “Abrahamic” or “Mohammaddan” but as “maaruf”مَعْروف, i.e., self-evident, universally known and accepted. These values such as justice, forgiveness, mercy, love, truthfulness, etc. constitute the common grounds for people of different and diverse identities to live peacefully together and build different cultures and civilizations.
- They all emanate from the Beautiful Attributes and Names of Allah. The more these habits of character are engrained and the high values are realized in our lives, the closer we come to Allah (ﷻ). You practice mercy and forgiveness with your family and your fellow human beings, and then you get closer to Allah, the most Merciful, and All-forgiving. You seek or disseminate knowledge and then you will be closer to the All-knowing, Allah (ﷻ).
In conclusion, human beings are responsible for their own definition, and this responsibility cannot be delegated.
High values and the habits of character must remain above all identities. They are guaranteed and protected by the Beautiful Attributes and Names of Allah; and preserved in Quran, the ultimate reference of meaning and direction for this era of human history.
By Dr. Walid Khayr