So far we have been discussing the significance of akhlāq. We have said that our struggle for perfection is very much a moral struggle. Although in addition to morality we have to make sure that we have correct beliefs and proper practices, these beliefs and practices are very much related to akhlāq and in a sense, dependent on it. Correct beliefs and practices in themselves can prepare us to become much better people and to observe morality in a better way; however, in order to accept the truth as our belief, we need to be moral to a certain extent in the first place. We have to at least have qualities such as truthfulness, thankfulness, and humility. If a person is not truthful, thankful, or humble, they will not at all be concerned about having a belief system.
There have been people who knew the truth but did not believe in; to believe in something involves more than simply knowing it. In the Qur’an God says:
ADD ARABIC HERE (not copy-pasting properly)
And they denied them, though their souls acknowledge(27:14)
them wrongfully and out of pride: so see what was the
end of those who acted corruptly!
This means that a person may know something but still reject it. For someone to believe means that they must accept, admit, and acknowledge what they know. Whilst it is true that we should endeavour to know, this is not sufficient. There were people who were very sure about the truth of Islam yet they did not believe in it. They knew that the Prophet (s) was honest; the Prophet (s) exhibited honesty – a very important moral quality – even before being appointed as a prophet. Indeed, he was known as amin (honest). Before and after the advent of Islam, if anyone was asked to identify the most honest person in Makkah, the answer was Muhammad (s). When the Prophet (s) wanted to migrate to Madinah thirteen years after the advent of Islam, he had in his possession many items that he had been entrusted with by the people of Makkah – the very same people who were his enemies or did not believe in him; people who opposed him knew that he was so honest that they entrusted him with their goods. Indeed, they never witnessed anything bad from him during his entire lifetime. Thus, it was not that they did not have faith because they did not know; rather, they simply did not want to believe. Of course, some of them believed later on.
Therefore, certain good qualities need to be present in a person in order for them to believe, and the same is the case with being able to practice. There are people who do not practice by observing God’s laws even if they believe, whether it’s because they are lazy or because they are not determined enough or for some other reason. There are many different reasons for this and if we carefully and deeply examine these things, we will realise that all of the reasons are connected to a person’s morality. Therefore, morality is a very important and fundamental matter.
In a very well-known hadith, Prophet Muhammad (s) said:
إِنَّمَا بُعِثْتُ ألُتَمِّمَ مَکَارِمَ األَخْالق Verily, I have been sent by God only to complete the noble traits of character.8
In this narration, the Prophet (s) used the word innamā, which means that he has mentioned an exclusive reason.9
Thus, when the Prophet (s) mentioned akhlāq as the goal of his prophethood, he meant that if he pursued any other goal it was because it was related to akhlāq. The priority at the top of his agenda was to accomplish noble traits of character. Firstly, this shows that this was not a journey which he started but rather that he came to accomplish a mission
which had already been started. Previous prophets had started this task and each and every one of them made efforts to take the people of their time a step further. However, the final Prophet (s) planned and implemented the final stage because no other prophet was going to be sent; he therefore had to provide humanity with all instructions necessary to achieve the highest levels of noble character traits.
Furthermore, he did not say that he had come merely to teach makārim al-akhlāq; rather, he said that his mission was to complete and to accomplish noble character traits. He first achieved them in himself and then demonstrated them in practice through his words and actions. Therefore, the holy Prophet (s) did not just teach or preach; he practically showed people what they should do.
Another beautiful point is that the Prophet (s) said makārim al-akhlāq and not mahāsin al-akhlāq. There are good character traits and there are also noble character traits. Good character traits can be very general whereas noble ones are at the highest level of goodness. Examples of good character traits (mahāsin al-akhlāq) are: not harming people, not annoying anyone, not disregarding the rights of people, reciprocating good with good, and being kind to our parents when they become old. But these are not enough. So what does it actually mean when we say that the Prophet (s) came to accomplish noble character traits? In practice this means, for example, to visit those who have abandoned us.10 We may have relatives who never visit or ask about us but we should still go and visit them. Maybe they did not visit us when we were ill but we should still visit them when they become ill, without even mentioning that we have done so. We should not even think that we are doing something important; we should simply go and do it. Or, for example, we should help the person who denied us help when we needed it.11 Maybe when we were in need of money they did not help us even though we asked them to because we wanted to buy a house or we were trying to arrange for our
son or daughter to be married. However, when they are in need of money we should go and help them if we are able to do so. Indeed, we should not even wait for them to come and ask us for help; we should go and offer it to them before they ask. This is what noble character traits consist of. We must not simply reciprocate the good things that we have
received but rather we have to be the first to extend our love, mercy, and help to others.
Thus, we now have an idea of what the Prophet’s mission was, as explained by the Prophet himself. In the Qur’an God says that he actually achieved this. Addressing the Prophet (s), God says:
وَ إِنَّكَ لَعَلىَ خُلُقٍ عَظِيم and indeed you possess a great character. (68:4)
We need to consider one further point in order to fully understand the very beautiful idea contained in this phrase. Being great or insignificant is a relative issue because we evaluate the greatness or insignificance of other things based on how great or insignificant we ourselves are. For example, someone who is in secondary school appears to be very knowledgeable in the eyes of a person who has only attended primary school. However, for a person in secondary school, a university student seems to be very knowledgeable. Thus, it is a relative issue. If someone has only a small amount of money they will consider a person who has thousands of dollars to be very rich. However, for
the one who has thousands of dollars, a person who has millions of dollars is seen as very rich. Therefore, when we consider God and all His greatness, everything else is insignificant in comparison. As God says in the Qur’an, this material world – with all its beautiful countries, jungles, rivers, gold mines, planets, and galaxies – is insignificant.12
Therefore, when such a Lord says that something is great, it means that it is definitely, absolutely great. When God says that the Prophet (s) has great character traits then this shows that according to God’s expectations and standards, the Prophet’s character was truly great. He achieved this in himself. But in addition to this, he had a mission to also establish this amongst his followers. Some people achieved this according to their capacity and others did not. The achievement of this type of thing takes time. However, this world will not come to an end until and unless there are true followers of the Prophets (s), especially the last of them, who will achieve these most noble character traits. It is then that the mission of the Prophet (s), and indeed of all prophets (a), will be fulfilled.
God says that being concerned about justice and equity is one of the most important qualities that must be achieved by humanity, and that all prophets (a) were sent for this purpose:
لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنا رُسُلَنا بِالْبَيِّناتِ وَ أَنْزَلْنا مَعَهُمُ الْکِتابَ وَ الْميزانَ لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْط Certainly We sent Our apostles with manifest proofs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that mankind may maintain justice; (57:25)
Indeed, this must be attained both as a character trait and as a practice. According to hadiths narrated by Sunnis and Shi’as alike, at the end of times when Imam Mahdi (a) comes, this level of justice and equity will be established.13
At that time, all the prophets (a) will be pleased that their mission has been completed.
However, the Prophet of Islam’s mission was such that it cannot be completed merely by the establishment of justice and equity. He aspires to something much greater and that is noble character traits. The establishment of justice and equity would prepare the grounds for humanity to be elevated even higher. Thus, justice is not the aim or end result because it is only when we have justice and social equity that we can then aspire to higher levels of perfection. In that situation, we can aspire to having humanity as a whole loving one another, being kind to each other, and not only reciprocating good but offering it in the first place without expectation.
We have a hadith which says that the people of Heaven and Earth will all be pleased with Imam Mahdi (a),14 including
even birds in the sky,15 because Imam Mahdi (a) and his followers not only do not do any harm to anyone or anything (including even animals and plants), but they are so kind and merciful that they are also concerned about everyone and everything’s goodness. According to some hadiths, Imam Mahdi (a) is like a queen bee with whom all bees take refuge.16 It is only love that can satisfy people and it is only mercy that can really please people. So this is what
the Prophet (s) describes as his mission: “to complete noble character traits.”
8Makārim al-Akhlāq, p. 8
9 In Arabic, innamā (INSERT ARABIC HERE)is different from inna (إن .) Inna means ‘truly’ whilst innamā shows exclusiveness. In this narration, the Prophet (s) used the word innamā which means that the reason he mentioned is the exclusive reason. This exclusiveness is of two types: absolute and relative. For example, sometimes someone asks a person if they have seen Ali and Hasan and Husayn. The person replies by saying that they have only seen Ali. This does not mean that they have not seen any other
human being; it is possible that they had seen many other people, but from amongst the people they were asked about, they had exclusively seen Ali. This is called relative exclusiveness (INSERT ARABIC HERE). On the other hand, sometimes when someone says they have only met such-and-such a person, it means that they have only seen that person and no one else. This is absolute exclusiveness (INSERT ARABIC HERE) Thus, relative or absolute exclusiveness can be established according to the context and the
evidence surrounding what a person says.
10 Misbāh al-Sharī‘ah, p. 159. The original text is as follows: INSERT ARABIC HERE
11 Misbah al-Shari’ah, p. 159. The original text is as follows: INSERT ARABIC HERE
12The Qur’an, 9:38: INSERT ARABIC HERE. Are you please with the life of this world instead of the Hereafter? But the wares of the life of this world compared with the Hereafter are but insignificant [little].
13Sunan Abi Dāwūd, vol. 4, kitab al-Mahdi. al-Kāfī, vol. 1, p. 338. The original text is as follows:
يَمْألُ األَرْضَ عَدْال وَ قِسْطاً كَمَا مُلِئَتْ جَوْرا
14al-Qībah (Tūsī), p. 178. The original text is as follows: يَرْضَى عَنْهُ سَاكِنُ السَّمَاءِ وَ سَاكِنُ األَرْض
15 Dalā’il al-Imāmah, p. 441. The original text is as follows: يَرْضَى بِخِالفَتِهِ أَهْلُ السَّمَاءِ وَ الطَّيْرُ فِي الْجَو
16 al-‘Adad al-Qawīyah, p. 91. The original text is as follows:
يَئُوبُ النَّاسُ إِلَيْهِ كَمَا تَئُوبُ الطَّيْرُ إِلَى أَوْكَارِهَا وَ كَمَا يَئُوبُ النَّحْلُ إِلَى