In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Most Merciful
Special Character Building (Akhlaq) Techniques
Part 1: Make your private behaviour better than your public behaviour
In this series of Friday Sermons, we shall be focused on improving our character and mannerisms. Each week we will pick one Akhlaqi principle and delve into some of its features, the idea being that from one week to the next we make a special and dedicated intention to implement this particular practice. God-willing over the week, this one practice will help us to improve that element of our moral nature, preparing us for the following weeks principle.
This of course is based on the noble character of the holy Prophet Muhammad (s) who the holy Qur’an tells us, “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah, you have an excellent model for the one who seeks God, the Day of Judgement and remembers God unceasingly” (33:21).
Our first Akhlaqi principle is to make our private behaviour surpass our public behaviour. It is often the case that our public behaviour is better than our private behaviour. This is because when we are in public, we want the best version of ourselves to be seen and so we become very aware of how we act; when in our private circles however, we revert to default behaviours or are less concerned with how people see us.
This manifests itself in many ways: In public, I may never swear but in private I may. In private I will watch things I would never watch in public. In public the length of my Salaat is very long but in private it is extremely quick or with the TV still on. In public I will smile and talk nicely to people at the Mosque but when I return home, I am grumpy and would never spend time talking to my family and so on.
This is problematic because of the hypocrisy it builds within us and normalises this dichotomy, entrenching its practises further. The narrations specify that when our inward state is corrupted so too will our outward behaviours be, as we will not always be able to control ourselves and these inward states will manifest themselves. But similarly when our outward behaviours are problematic such as acting differently, it will corrupt our inward realities. For example one narration states, “When the outward gets corrupted, the inward also gets corrupted.” عِِنْدَ فَسادِ العَلانِيَةِ تَفْسُدُ السَّريرَةُ
Amongst the qualities of Allah (swt) is that He is aware of what transpires in our hearts. This is mentioned in numerous Qur’anic verses, examples of which are:
1) “Say: Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or bring into the open, God knows it, for He knows all that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth” (3:29)
In the Islamic ethical system there are multiple spheres of privacy. In the discussion at hand there are two private spheres:
i) The inner circle of family and friends who get to see our private forms of behaviour
ii) The heart and mind which no one other than Allah (swt) and I know the truth of (although a third form of the private space is the phone/laptop etc which is often not known by even the spouse but is known by the FBI/MI5!)
For this reason, the hadith mentions “Blessed is the one whose inward thoughts are good, whose outward [character] is righteous and who does not harm the people.” طُوبى لِمَنْ صَلُحَتْ سَريرَتُهُ، وحَسُنَتْ عَلانِيَتُهُ، وعَـزَلَ عَنِ النَّاسِ شَرَّهُ.
Let us now look at these two spheres and how we can improve our private actions to be purer than our public ones
The central reason for acting differently in certain spaces is usually due to placing more sanctity in one place or another (e.g. the Mosque is ‘holy’ whilst the house is ‘normal’); or one group of people are worth more effort and respect than another (e.g. those in the Mosque are more deserved than family for mercy). This of course is in contradiction to the Islamic worldview: Allah (swt) is present everywhere for “He is with you wherever you are” (Qur’an 57:4) and that all human beings have equal dignity (17:70).
The fact that one acts differently in some spaces or with some people needs to be addressed within himself as to what has led him to think and act this way. Often it is out of ignorance or bad behaviour that has not been checked for so long. Take the example of the man that goes to Mosque and when tea is served to him he will thank the server. When he returns home his wife will make him tea but never say thank you. His public behaviour is better than his private. Why? Because of a false sense of entitlement and imagining his wife to be duty bound to him as opposed to her volunteering herself out of kindness, just like the server at the Mosque is also volunteering out of kindness. The hadith recognise this internalised problem and different treatment for some saying, “Let not your family or those whom you love be the most miserable of people because of you.” لايَكُنْ أهْلُكَ وذُو وُدِّكَ (ذُوُوكَ)أشْقَى النّاسِ بِكَ.
What then is the Akhlaqi prescription for this? The hadith says, “When the consciouses are being reformed, the hidden rancour becomes evident.” عِنْدَ تَصْحيحِ الضَّمائِرِ يَبْدُو غِلُّ السَّرائِرِ.
This means that the more one observes how the same action manifests itself in two different places or with two different sets of people etc the more conscious one will be of the gap in quality of action between the two. He will note how high a bar he sets for himself in one sphere or what he is capable of in one setting and compare it to how low a bar it is in another setting and therefore aim to implement his highest bar in all other spheres such that his private actions end up surpassing even how he is in the public eye.
The second private sphere was that of the heart, which only yourself and Allah (swt) knows of what transpires. It might be the case that when we do a good action, deep down we are hoping someone watched us or will compliment us or we will receive some worldly reward for it. Externally the action is flawless, seen as being done for God; internally it is wretched and filled with attention-seeking, for example.
What then is the Akhlaqi prescription for this? One of the spiritual masters was probed by his student, “Whenever I do a good deed, inside me there is showiness; I secretly hope someone would recognise what I have done. Can you advise me how to stop this?”
The reply came, “Increase your showing off! Show off more and more! Just change whom you are showing off to! If you want the attention of someone, seek it from Allah (swt). Talk to him and hope that Allah (swt) noted the length of your prostration or the charity you gave etc. Ask him, ‘Allah! Did you see what I did for your sake?!’ and in this way your attention-seeking will be rewarded and not diminish your act.”
Many of us ensure our public persona or public interactions are of the highest standard, and this is good. But if we are to compare those same actions with how they are performed in private there would be a large gap in their quality.
In order to develop ourselves, we aim that these private acts, which are often a truer reflection of the self, to be better than what people see of us. With a little reflection, we realize what we are capable of; this is the potential of self-control or good mannerism or worship that exists within me as I conduct myself like this in public already! If I were to uphold or improve on this when alone, it would remove the dual standards and in fact raise both my private and public practices. What Allah (swt) knows about me in public and private would be praiseworthy, not just one.
InshaAllah next week we look at another Akhlaqi principle to build on this.
Friday 21 June
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Most Merciful
Special Character Building (Akhlaq) Techniques
Part 2: Seeing your own fault
In part one we looked at the principle of aiming for our private actions to surpass in quality our public ones. This is because often our public image is the best version of ourselves whilst our default in private is not as good. If our default was to be at the level of our public or better even, our Akhlaq would God-willing be supremely improved.
Part two proposes the principle that when you notice a fault in a person, this should be enough of a lesson for yourself to take note and ensure you do not practice that act yourself. This principle is mentioned in the hadith by Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (a) who stated, “Sufficient is a person’s own defect (in himself) that he tries to pick and look for faults in other people when he himself has those same faults in himself (and does not recognize them.” كَفى بِالْمَرْءِ عَيْـباً أَنْ يُبْصِرَ مِنَ النٌّاسِ مٌا يَعْمى عَنْهُ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ
It is often the case that when a person does a bad act we notice it. It can be anything like how a person reacts to traffic on the road, or whether they keep in touch with their family members, a face they make when asked to do something, how they eat. All of these may be innocuous acts but they do not go unnoticed by ourselves and in fact may often grind or irk us or make us wish they did not act like this. However, it is also the case that more often than not we also have the same or similar trait – but just don’t realise it!
The Qur’an tells us not to laugh at others nor fault find: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not fault find amongst yourselves” (49:11). يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا يَسْخَرْ قَوْمٌ مِّن قَوْمٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُونُوا خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَلَا نِسَاءٌ مِّن نِّسَاءٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُنَّ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُنَّ وَلَا تَلْمِزُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ
Expanding on this verse, narrations warn us about keeping company with fault-finders. For example “I warn you about keeping relations with people who look for faults in others, since surely there is not a single person who will be safe from such people.” إِيٌّاكَ وَ مَعٌاشِرَةَ مُتَتَبِّعِي عُيُوبِ النٌّاسِ! فَإِنَّهُ لَمْ يَسْلَمْ مُصٌاحِبُهُمْ مِنْهِم
This narration warns us that whilst we are targeting our fault finding at another person, the moment I leave that group, I will be targeted by their ridicule and fault-finding just as I was earlier doing.
Although we are commanded not to fault find, it is natural that when a prohibited or insensitive or inappropriate action is performed we would notice it. This is because Allah (swt) has placed within us a nature that dislikes evil. This innate moral compass is a blessing and divine evidence [Hujjat] for us.
The narrations however emphasise how easy it is to find that we dislike something in others but in fact perform that very same act ourselves! For example, “The person who busies himself looking into the faults of others should start by looking into the faults of his own self (first).” مَنْ بَحَثَ عَنْ عُيُوبِ النٌّاسِ فَلْيَبْدَأْ بِنَفْسِهِ
One of the great scholars was addressing his students telling them, “If you see in me any error I demand that you point it out to me.” He then began to tell a story about how easy it is to dislike in someone an act yet find yourself doing the same. He continued, “One day on pilgrimage I walked toward the door to enter. Yet standing there was a man blocking the crowds entrance causing a nuisance. I was annoyed and in my mind wondered how this person could be so oblivious to the right of others. No sooner had he moved, I found myself doing exactly the same act of standing at the door engaged in my own thoughts but also blocking others from easy entrance and exit! We do not realise how quick we are to do what we dislike in others!”
The scholars of Akhlaq add the following prescriptions to remedy or navigate this sort of heedlessness. When a person sees an act they dislike, either they truly do perform that act themselves or truly they do not.
i) In the case where they do not, they should first thank Allah (swt) for having purified them that they do not commit that act. This is because guidance success is from Allah (swt) in the first place and so He is the prime cause of one’s goodness. In sincerely thanking Allah (swt) he would keep you protected from this and improve you even further, as He states, “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you further [in favour]” (Qur’an 14:7).
If one is not humble to this, certainly they will soon fall foul and perform that act themselves.
ii) In the case where they do perform such an act, it is most likely that Allah (swt) has covered that act such that most people will have never seen it performed. Allah (swt) indeed is the concealer of defects. The books of supplication are replete with lines of du’a that should be recited at this moment. For example
How many faults I have committed, yet Thou didst not tear away from me their covering
iii) And also In the case where they do perform such an act, one may entreat Allah (swt) to remove that practise in themselves for just as you dislike to see it in others, you should dislike it for your own self.
It is normal to notice and dislike a bad trait or reaction in someone else; this is a sign of a healthy conscious and an awareness of inappropriate behaviour. However, it is just as normal that though we dislike something in others, we may find that same practice in ourselves. This noticing it in others and our own reaction to it should be sufficient as a means of self-improvement.
After noticing it in others and in our own selves, the aware and God-conscious (Muttaqi) person takes himself to account greater than he would take another person to account. He holds himself to a greater responsibility for removing that action before expecting another to stop it. In this way he is more focused on his own development than finding faults with another.
InshaAllah next week we will build on this principle with another Akhlaqi formula.