Akhlāq is the plural form of khulq which comes from the same root as the word khalq. In order to fully understand the meaning of the word akhlāq and its singular form which is khulq, we must first study the meaning of the word khalq.
Khalq is a very familiar term in Arabic and has been used in different ways in the Qur’an. Khalq means “to create” or “creation.” God uses various terms in the Qur’an to refer to the act of creation. However, one of the most frequently used terms is khalq which is the root for the verb kha-la-qa.1 His names al-Khāliq (meaning “the Creator”) and al-Khallāq (meaning “the Creative” or “the One who creates a lot”) come from the same root. This term also serves as the basis for the term akhlāq.
Every human being possesses both khalq and khulq. In this lesson we will define each of these terms and look into the difference between them.
If we could observe each and every creature we would find that God has created human beings in the very best way. In the Qur’an, God says:
"We certainly created man in the best of forms (95:4).”
As far as our creation is concerned, we have been given the best form of creation. The point here is that we have been
given the best form of creation to serve our purpose as human beings. In order to reach our maximum level of perfection we do not need to be the largest or fastest animal. What we require is a body that serves our purpose as human beings, and more importantly, a soul which has no limit for achieving understanding, for acquiring virtues and vices, and for moving towards or away from God. This is why in the Qur’an God says:
قَدْ خَلَقْنَا االنسَانَ في أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيم ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ إِال
الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَعَمِلُواْ الصَّالِحَاتِ فَلَهُمْ أَجْرٌ غَيرُ ممْنُون
We certainly created man in the best of forms then We relegated him to the lowest of the low, except those who have faith and do righteous deeds. There will be an everlasting reward for them.
Mankind has been given the best form of creation. But human beings can end up becoming the lowest of the low or the highest of the high depending on how they utilise their potential. Of course, there are also people who occupy a position somewhere in between these two points.
We can find people who are the lowest of the low, indeed even lower than animals because animals do not have an intellect and so they are not expected to act rationally like we are. It is not wrong for them to do things for pleasure or to satisfy their desires. However, as human beings who possess intellect, it is wrong for us to drop everything and decide only to seek worldly pleasure and satisfy our desires. Describing such people, the Qur’an says:
أُولئِكَ كَاألَنْعامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَل
They are like cattle; rather they are more astray.
This means that animals cannot be regarded as misguided for acting in the way that they do. But human beings can be considered misguided when they act out and this is why they can be counted as lower than animals.
However, human beings can also reach a very elevated position to which even angels cannot access. Of course, angels are very good and pious, and they glorify and praise God all the time. But since angels do not face the challenges that we face and they do not have any desire for worldly pleasures, they are not capable of achieving the same elevated position as human beings who have to endure a vast array of challenges in order to perform the same things that angels do, such as glorifying and praising God.
Therefore, there is a wide spectrum of levels that a human being can achieve, from being the lowest of the low to being the highest of the high. Every human being holds a rank somewhere along this spectrum.
The whole purpose of our creation and of being given free will and guidance is to make sure that we endeavour to elevate ourselves higher and higher in order to reach the height of perfection. But naturally, not everyone chooses to try to be the best, or at the very least to be good. Therefore we have a whole range of different kinds of human beings.
Now, we will return to the term khalq. As far as our form of creation is concerned, we are almost all the same. If we observe both the most virtuous people and the most vicious, we do not find much of a difference between them as far as their form of creation is concerned. Of course, there may be some differences. Some people may possess talents that others do not possess (or at least which are not as developed or strong in them), some people are taller than others, some are physically stronger, and some may be more beautiful, and so on, but these differences are not great enough to prevent us from being considered and categorised as human beings. As proof that there is no relationship between having a physically strong body and a strong soul, history contains numerous examples of wicked people with physical attributes which are better than those of virtuous people. There are virtuous people who are physically weak, and wicked people who are physically strong, and vice versa. One should not be surprised to encounter a very pious person suffering from physical illnesses. Therefore, we can conclude that what makes us a better human being is not our physical creation; our physical creation has been taken care of by God in the best possible way given the realities and limitations of the physical world.
Khulq is what we are able to acquire. It refers to those aspects of a human being – good or bad qualities, virtues or vices – which are shaped and formed over time. The ability to elevate or degrade ourselves spiritually is related to our khulq.
A supplication which is recommended to recite when one sees oneself in the mirror is as follows:
اللهمَّ كَمَا حَسَّنْتَ خَلْقِي فَحَسِّنْ خُلُقِي
O Allah! In the same way that you have made my physical creation (khalq) good, please make my qualities of the heart (khulq) good as well.2
God has given us so much in our physical creation. He has given us numerous blessings, many of which we do not even know about or are not able to understand. Within our body there are countless things that have been designed by God to keep it healthy. Even those who suffer from various ailments should understand that compared to what is functioning properly, the problems which they have are like one in a thousand if not one in a million because usually we only suffer in certain areas of our functioning. Therefore, our body, which is part of the creation of God, is very great.
In addition to our body, we have our heart in its spiritual sense, which is even greater. There is a phrase in a poem attributed to Imam Ali (a) which reads:
اتزعم أنك جرم صغير
وفيك انطوى العالم األكبر
And you think you are a small mass while inside you there is the greater world.3
According to Muslim mystics there is a universe inside us, like the external universe around us, which is so magnificent and so great that even when compared with the external universe – with all the galaxies positioned in it – it can be called ‘the greater universe’ (whilst the external universe can be called ‘the smaller universe’). Therefore, if one could understand all the wonders of one’s soul it would no longer be surprising to know that the greater world is inside of us. This is precisely why in the Qur’an God has described a very high status for mankind. Indeed, He has given human beings His Trust which is something that it was not possible for even the mountains and the earth to bear. The Qur’an says:
إِنَّا عَرَضْنَا األَمَانَةَ عَلىَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَ األَرْضِ وَ الْجِبَالِ فَأَبَينْ أَن
يَحْمِلْنَها وَ أَشْفَقْنَ مِنْها وَ حَمَلَهَا االنسَانُ
Indeed We presented the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to bear it, and were apprehensive of it; but man undertook it.
The mountains refused because they did not feel like they were able to hold such a weighty trust from God. However, mankind accepted it because human beings have been given a spirit which is so great that God attributes it to Himself:
وَ نَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُوحِي
And I have breathed into him of My spirit.
So this is the condition of mankind with regards to their creation. Then they have to actualise and realise their potential, and benefit from those talents. If they do so then they will achieve an excellent khulq (moral character). However, if they do not make such efforts and instead are lazy or make efforts in the wrong direction by insisting on doing incorrect things, then they will go in the opposite direction.
Thus, with regards to khulq, we find good and bad, virtuous and vicious. This is why whenever we look at ourselves in the mirror we are recommended to ask God to make our moral character good in the same way that He has made our physical creation good. So we can realise why ‘ilm al-akhlāq is so important and why for us as human beings it relates to the very essence of our humanity.
1 The past tense which means “He created.”
2 Tuhaf al-‘Uqūl, p. 11
3 al-Wafi, vol. 2, p. 319