Essential Virtues for Developing Nobility of Character: Introduction and Framework

blog quran & spirituality Oct 29, 2015

This is the first post in the series Essential Virtues for Developing Nobility of Character. The series will share the speaking notes for lectures delivered in Toronto in October 2015. The audio files of the lectures are also available online via itunes or libsyn (Living and Loving the Quran.

The topic that we will discuss, reflect on and inshallah put into practice in the next few days is called Essential Virtues for Developing Nobility of Character.
We will be discussing in very practical terms various virtues of character and how we can develop and nurture them within ourselves. Before we can do that, however, we need to gain some basic understanding of what is good character and why it is important to develop it. This part is more theoretical and abstract than what is to come but it is usually useful to understand why we need to work at something challenging as it gives us a reason to push through when we face obstacles.

What is akhlaq?

The Arabic word akhlaq (usually translated as morality or character in English) is the plural for the word khulq which means disposition. Al-Ghazali stated that man consists of two forms, khalq and khuluq.

Khalq refers to the physical form of mankind while khuluq or akhlaq refers to the inner disposition. "Disposition" is that faculty of the soul which is the source of all those activities that man performs spontaneously without thinking about them. In English, we normally translate akhlaq as ‘character’ and it is said that Character is “who are in the dark”.

We often think of akhlaq as the social etiquettes that a person displays and this may be one way a person displays their character. However, it may be useful to distinguish our social persona or personality from true akhlaq. It is possible to have a ‘social mask’ which we can put on in front of people. This is slightly different from akhlaq. According to the definition of akhlaq, this is the disposition that you don’t need to think about or plan, it arises from within because of who you are. Our akhlaq are the ways we consistently behave that reveal fragments of our character. For example, we say that a person is truthful when he consistently speaks the truth, or patient when he consistently acts patiently in the face of challenges.

Moreover, if you have the character trait of being a generous person, you will not need to plan or think about being generous. The impulse to give will arise from within as an expression of the quality of generosity that forms your disposition.

There is also a subtle difference between believing that a character trait is desirable and having that virtue as a part of our akhlaq. Being truthful, patient, kind, ambitious, etc. are all character traits that we possess based on the principles we truly live by (and not those we wish to live by).

Where do Akhlaq come from?
Scholars explain that akhlaq come from the following sources:
1. You are born with it: We know that even with the same upbringing and environment, people can have different temperaments. Some of us are naturally more easy going than others, for example.
2. Upbringing: there is much modern research currently talking about how parenting can have a major influence on your personality. Children growing up in highly critical households for example, are more likely to be anxious and have low self esteem than those that grow up with encouragement.
3. Practice and conscious effort: The first two conditions of akhlaq are those over which we have no control or influence. Religious scholars and most modern psychologists agree that we can develop character with awareness and practice. Once we recognize that we have the potential to develop a virtue which is desirable, we can begin the journey to develop it within ourselves. Islam stresses individual responsibility and the freedom to choose. It is truly hopeful for us to know that although we cannot change our past, we can create our own future. We do not need to be determined by our past.

Ilm ul Akhlaq:
Ilm ul AKhalq or the study of Akhlaq in Islam ethics is concerned with the pursuit of human excellence through awareness and conscious effort. Ilm al-akhlaq is a science which deals with the ways to maintain virtues at their optimum level, i.e, to avoid wrongdoing and to do what is right and desirable.
Scholars maintain that the study of Akhlaq is of paramount importance and without it, other sciences are meaningless. In a sense, the pursuit of Akhlaq is what religion is all about, as evidenced by various different ahadith (traditions) and verses of the Quran. The scope of Islamic ethics is far reaching and comprehensive because Islamic ethics deals with the relationship between man and God, man and his fellow men, men and other creatures of the universe, and man with his innermost self.

The two primary sources of Islamic ethics are the Qur’an and Sunnah (way of life) of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Scholars use these two sources to reflect on and explain the importance of knowing and practicing virtuous akhlaq.

Akhlaq as the balance between extremes:

In Islamic literature, it is clear that virtuous akhlaq does not lie in negating or going against human being’s nature. Islam is called “deen ul fitra” which means that it is in line with the innate nature of man. Man has been created with different faculties such as anger and desire. The pursuit of excellence in Akhlaq or moral development does not lie in negating or ignoring these faculties. In fact, excellence is the mean between two extremes.

For example, excellence of character does not mean never getting angry – that is against a human being’s survival instinct. In fact the inability to get angry is a moral vice (cowardice) and not a virtue. Excellence in akhlaq is the balance between the two extremes of cowardice (the inability to get angry) and a violent, quick temper (getting angry for the wrong reason or in the wrong amount).

Excellence in akhlaq means that one is able to manage oneself and know when and how to use the faculty of anger in the right amount, for a greater purpose rather than as a reaction to impulses from the ego.

The meaning and importance of Makarim Akhlaq:

The Holy Prophet (saw) said this about his mission:
“I have been sent (only) to perfect noble character.”

He used the word “makarim” which translates as “Nobility of Character”. We will talk about the distinction a little later.

The Holy Quran addresses the Holy Prophet (saw) and says:

And you possess an exalted character. 68:4 (Sura Qalam)

In another verse of the Quran, Chapter 33:21 (Sura Ahzab) we are advised:

Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah and the latter day and remembers Allah much.

This aya makes it very clear that if our goal is connection to Him, and we hope for ultimate success in the Hereafter, we need to follow the path or the sunnah of the HP (saw) (and, by extension, his beloved family), who are, as the Quran states, of exalted character and role models for us to follow.

So putting all the above together, we understand why it is important to pursue excellence of Akhlaq:
1. The Prophet (saw)’s mission is introduced by akhlaq – so in a sense everything that he taught goes back to this point – to achieve this nobility.
2. He said that he came to ‘complete’ the nobility of character implying that this project has already been started – that all prophets were trying to establish the virtues – he came to complete the job. Maybe because mankind had reached that level of maturity and spiritual evolution that they were ready for the final message.
3. Makarim – noble traits of character. Another word for excellence of character is “mahasin” (“husnul khulq”). The Prophet (saw) does not use this word here. Masahin means to do good – especially to do reciprocal good. This means that you do good to people who do good to you or as a result of social pressures or because you expect something from them. This is not a bad thing but it is not “Makarim Akhlaq”.
Nobility means reaching the highest states of Akhlaq. Becoming Noble in Character, means that you are being driven by your values and intentions rather than by circumstances or as a reaction to what is going on.

It means that you practice ‘unilateral virtue’, regardless of what others are doing. Your behaviour is a proactive practice of what you believe in, and not a reaction to what others are doing. It is a very high standard.

  1. The Prophet (saw) does not say that he has come to “teach” akhlaq. At a very basic level, a teacher’s job is to pass on information. Although the most inspiring teachers go far beyond this, their job in essence is to pass on information as required. The Prophet (saw) was way beyond a teacher. The HP (saw) was a Murrabi. The word murabbi is made up of Rab and Tarbiyya.
    Murabbi comes from the root word “rabb which means growing something until its growth is complete or bringing it to perfection step by step. Tarbiyya means to nurture an entity and to shape it until it is completely and successfully configured.
    So Murabbi is a person who completes the process of “tarbiya”.
    So a Murabbi is one who nurtures, grows, guards and teaches an entity until the process of nurturing, growing, guarding and teaching is complete and successful. Being a murabbi implies that one is teacher, a coach, a mentor, a leader, a role model and anything else that the process of transformation requires.
  2. The Quran says indeed in rasul ullah there is a good example for you. This is a very general statement – not specific, not only in somethings but in all things, Laqad kana fi rasullulah, uswat ul hasana. There is no limitation to it. Since the Quran has also testified that he has the highest level of nobility of character, it follows that we should emulate his character in order to develop nobility ourselves.
    Once we have established that the Prophet (saw) has perfect nobility and that we are commanded to follow him to develop nobility, the next logical question is:

What does a person who has makaram akhlaq look like?
The beloved family of the Holy Prophet (saw) gave us a blueprint of what nobility of character looks like in the following narration when the Imam (as) was asked about makarim akhlaq:

Imam Jafar As Sadiq (as) said: “Indeed we love those who are intelligent, understanding, acute in their discernment, clement, amiable, patient, honest and loyal.
Indeed Allah, Mighty and Exalted, distinguished the prophets with noble moral traits, so whoever posses such traits should praise Allah for that. And he who does not possess any of them should implore and beseech Allah to bestow them upon him.” Upon hearing this, one of his companions asked him (as): “May I be your ransom, what are these (noble moral) traits?” He replied: “They are piety, contentment, patience, thankfulness, clemency, modesty, generosity, courage, self-respect, righteousness, truthfulness reliability.” Al Kafi, v 2., pg 46, no 3

In this hadith, the Imam as gave us a very clear portrait of someone who practices or exercises Nobility of Character and gave us a blueprint of those who have characteristics that make them beloved of the Allah swt, the Prophet (saw) and his beloved family. It contains the exact virtues that we need to nurture within ourselves to develop makarim akhlaq.

It is very important to remember this hadith as we go through the days because it is our motivation when things get hard. When we want to give up and not be forgiving or generous, we need to connect to the why? Why should we bother? Psychologists tell us that those who have a very strong “why” – a strong and inspiring motivation to do something challenging - are much more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not have a clear vision of why they are undertaking a challenging path.

So in the coming days inshallah, we shall look at some of these essential virtues and explore practical ways to develop these within ourselves.


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