THE REALITY OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND THE
QURANIC STANDARD OF TAQWA (PIETY)
IN THE SHADE OF ĀYATUL-BIRR
(No. 177, SURAH 2, AL-BAQARAH)
لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَـكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ وَالْمَلآئِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّآئِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلاةَ وَآتَى الزَّكَاةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُواْ وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاء والضَّرَّاء وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ أُولَـئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَأُولَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ (2:177)
“Righteousness is not whether you turn your face towards East or West; but righteousness is to believe in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Books and the Prophets, and to spend wealth out of love for Him on relatives, orphans, helpless, needy travellers, those who ask for help and on the redemption of captives; and to establish Salah (prayers), to pay Zakah (charity), to fulfil promises when made and (particularly), to be steadfast in distress, in adversity, and at the time of war. These people are the truthful and these are the pious”.
In the first lecture in the continuing series of the Selected Syllabus for the Study of the Quran-e-Kareem , we studied Surah Al-‘Asr. This second lecture deals with Āyah 177 of Surah 2, Al Baqarah, which is sometimes called Āyatul Birr. This Āyah is inscribed in the Mushaf at the beginning of the sixth Ruku‘ of the second Juz. We have presented above a simple literal translation of the Āyah, following the Arabic text of the Quran Hakeem.
Now in the light of this translation, we can note the following points:
1) This is only one Āyah, while the first lecture dealt with a complete Surah. But this Āyah is many times longer than the Surah we studied previously. Remember, the Surahs in the Quran Hakeem are short and long. Surah Al-‘Asr is very short, while the longest Surah is Surah Al-Baqarah, having 286 verses occupying two and a half Juz of the Quran Hakeem. Similarly, an Āyah may be very short – sometimes having only one word, as in ‘Wal-‘Asr’, which is a complete Āyah. Sometimes an Āyah (verse) comprises of hurūf-e-muqatti‘at (unconnected letters). Other verses are long, like the one we are studying now. All these variations are taufeeqi (divinely guided). They are not based on human innovation or intervention. We have come to know them through the Prophet (saw) guided by Allah through the Archangel Jibrail.
2) When we consider the text of this verse, we find a deep relationship and similarity between this Āyah and Surah Al-‘Asr. In Surah Al-‘Asr we came across four ingredients for the success and welfare of a human being: a) Imān; b) ‘Amal Saleh; c) Tawāsi bil Haqq; and d) Tawāsi bis Sabr. In comparison to the comprehensive term Imān which was an ingredient in Surah Al-‘Asr, here five beliefs are mentioned in the beginning of the Āyah. This comparison can be presented as a metaphor of a flower bud with concealed leaves all tightly wrapped. When this bud blossoms, it becomes a flower, and the leaves can be clearly seen. Similarly, the word ‘Imān’ in Surah Al-‘Asr is like a closed bud. But when we read this Āyah of Surah Al-Baqarah, we come to know that the bud of ‘Imān’ has transformed into a flower with five petals. In other words, this Āyah clearly spells out that ‘Imān’ consists of:
a) Belief in Allah (swt);
b) Belief in the Mala’ikah (Angels);
c) Belief in the Yaum-e-Akhir (the Day of Resurrection);
d) Belief in the Kitab (Messages of Allah); and
e) Belief in the Anbiya’ (the Prophets of Allah).
The second comprehensive ingredient in Surah Al-‘Asr was ‘Amal Saleh. But the details about this ingredient were not given there. This broad topic of ‘Amal Saleh’ can be divided into three sub-topics:
1. Service to Humanity: A person should spend his hard-earned money, that he loves earnestly, to fulfil the needs of his fellow-beings in spite of his natural desire to keep the money for himself.
2. Worship and the Rights of Allah: This deals with Salah (Prayer), Zakah (Charity), Saum (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage).
3. Human Affairs: This deals with the fulfilment of promises. All human transactions, such as loans or business or leases, are types of agreements. Similarly, marriage is also a social contract. Thus the foundations of all human affairs depend upon promise and agreements. If the fulfilment of promises is strictly observed in any society, then human relations work smoothly.
In Surah Al-‘Asr, ‘Amal Saleh’ was a comprehensive terminology. In this Āyah, three sub-topics have been dealt with. It is as if from the trunk of a tree, three thick and large branches have emerged. ‘Amal Saleh’ (mentioned in Surah Al-‘Asr) is the trunk, and the three thick and large branches generated from it are: Service to Humanity; Worship & the Rights of Allah; and Human Affairs.
Tawāsi bil Haqq has been mentioned at the end of Surah Al-‘Asr and in this Āyah the following equivalent words are mentioned in the end.
“…….to fulfil promises when made and (particularly), to be steadfast in distress, in adversity, and at the time of war. These people are the truthful and these are the pious….”.
In relation to Sabr, here also three sub-topics are mentioned similar to the three sub-topics under ‘Amal Saleh. The first sub-topic is ‘Al-Ba’sā’’ which means poverty, hunger and straitened circumstances. The second sub-topic is ‘Ad-Darrā’’. This Arabic word is derived from ‘ad-darar’ meaning tribulation, whether physical or mental. The third category, the ultimate trial and test of perseverance and endurance as well as of ‘sabr’ (patience) and ‘musāberah’ (convincing patience), is the battlefield, where the mujāhid puts his life at stake and partakes in the battle at the cost of his life.
Thus there is a deep relationship between the texts of this Āyah and Surah Al-‘Asr. This is why we have selected this Āyah for the second lecture of this Selected Syllabus.
3) The next point is to ascertain the theme of this Blessed Āyah. This Āyah starts with:
“Righteousness is not whether you turn your face towards East or West”
This indicates that the discourse begins with the negation of a limited concept of virtue. Then immediately after this, the Āyah paints a vivid and comprehensive portrait of virtuous action.
“..………but righteousness is to believe in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Books and the Prophets, and to spend wealth out of love for Him…..”
Thus the theme of this Āyah is ‘the total portrait of Virtue’.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE TEXT
Let us now discuss the importance of this theme. Since we have a material existence in this world, we have certain basic requirements without which we cannot continue living: for example, air, water, and food.
Similarly, there is another intrinsic (intellectual) aspect of life, and in order for this aspect to continue existing, our ego or self must be maintained. For a person to maintain his ego, he must adopt some concept of virtue and satisfy his conscience through it, though he may be an evil person in other aspects of life. To satisfy his conscience, every person inevitably adopts the strategy of keeping an apparent account of some virtue: ‘In spite of my being a bad person in some aspects, I also perform certain virtuous actions as well’. In addition to this, he rationalises his evil-doings on the basis that he is helpless to avoid doing that evil. He continues to make excuses for his vices and to publicise his virtues. Hence, we find that even in those classes of our society which are considered the most degraded, they also have some concept of virtue within themselves. The robbers, thieves, pick-pockets and even the prostitutes have some concerns of virtues and vices in their minds.
So if even those classes who are considered degraded have a concept of virtues and vices, then what about the case of the noble people? These can be broadly classified into three classes, having different concepts of virtues.
One class belongs to the tradesmen and business people. These are religious people and they are at the forefront in the activities of prayers, fasting, alms-giving, Hajj/Umrah, financial support of the Madrasas, service to the religious scholars and so on. But, Masha Allah, with some exceptions, people of this class also carry on some other undesirable activities: for example, avoiding tax payments, maintaining fictitious accounts; trading in black-markets; indulging in smuggling; fraud, corruption and hoarding; and also they conduct transactions involving interest. Thus we see that on one side they offer their five-times daily prayers, they perform pilgrimage, they are pious. But on the other hand, they are hard-hearted without any sympathy for others. Thus they are a fulsome mixture, having nobility combined with goodness on the one hand and being excessively amoral and irreligious on the other.
There is another class of people with modern education who are of the opinion that the real virtue is that one should fulfil his duties towards others punctually and properly. As far as prayer, fasting and other religious duties are concerned, these are personal and private matters not to be scrutinized and questioned. If one performs these, well enough for him, and if he doesn’t perform them, no one should worry. It is his own personal business. So this concept of virtue is quite contrary to the one presented above in the first case.
The third class of people has an unbalanced attitude: they are very particular to investigate the evident or outward rituals of the religion. They are very sensitive about religious performances, not willing to tolerate minor negligence. But they do not care about the essence of deen, which is the real taqwa (Allah-consciousness). All these three kinds of thinking about virtues can be found in society.
This Blessed Āyah starts by addressing the thinking of the third class of people mentioned above. The Salah (prayer) has a form of expression that one stands facing toward Qibla (that is, facing the Ka‘ba). Facing the Qibla is one part of the overall form of expression of the Salah. But there are some people who give importance only to the form of expression of the Salah, and they neglect the real essence of Salah (prayer). So an unbalanced situation arises.
Allamah Iqbal, the poet philosopher says:
‘If Thy love does not lead my supplications
My prostration and standing both are deterrents.
Love is the best guide of intellect and passion
Without love the laws and rules are conceptual idols.
The text of this Āyah starts by negating the concept of virtue held by this third class of people. Then immediately after this comes the positive aspect of the Āyah, that being the disclosing of the real concept of virtue so that the clear distinction is brought into the limelight.
So this Blessed Āyah starts with the negation of a superficial and limited concept of virtue, and then elaborates on the comprehensive and overall concept of virtue. This means that the style of this Āyah is the same as the style of our Kalimah Tayyibah. The Kalimah Tayyibah starts with the negation and then emphasises the positive: first the negation in La Ilaha and then the positive statement of Illa-Allah. It is exactly the same in this Blessed Āyah. The negation starts with ‘Laisal Birra’, and then from ‘Wa Lakinnal Birra’ ….. to ‘Humul Muttaqun’, the standard of virtue and taqwa (righteousness) is mentioned in a positive way.
2. THE LITERAL MEANING OF ‘BIRR’.
Now let us concentrate on the Arabic word ‘birr’, which is expressed in English as ‘virtue’. Let us ponder over the real essence of this word ‘birr’, and its relationship with ‘virtue’. The root letters of this word are b, r and r. Let us take two words, formed by these root letters, ‘birr’ and ‘barr’. ‘Barr’ means dry land or solid ground – that is, the solid part of the earth’s surface; ground as distinct from the sea or a river or other body of water. In the Urdu language, dry land is called ‘khuskkee’. So first let us find the common threads between birr and barr.
When a person is in the ship or boat in the ocean (bahr), he/she gets worried. On the wet surface, even though he is in a boat, a person does not feel himself to be totally safe. He doesn’t have the security and contentment he feels on the dry surface, i.e. barr. As soon as he gets down, and his feet are on dry land, he attains a feeling of peace and contentment. This peace and contentment is the spirit and main feeling that is also attained by having birr or virtue.
Hence, virtue can be understood as the action that provides peace and contentment to a person and ends his anxiety and the worry of his conscience. It is virtue that provides this full inner contentment. In an English poem, ‘Charity’, this concept has been expressed truly and very beautifully:
“Charities that soothe and heal the bless.
Are scattered over the feet of men like flowers.
No Mystery is here no special boon.
For the high and not for the low.
The smoke ascends as high from the hearth of a humble cottage.
As from that of a haughty palace.”
Thus in performing virtues, goodness, service to humanity, giving to others, a person gets a soothing feeling of contentment as if an ointment has been applied to his painful wound. This is the common factor between the words ‘birr’ and ‘barr’.
3. THE MUTUAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BIRR AND IMĀN.
When contemplating this Blessed Āyah, we immediately notice that the word Imān is placed as the first manifestation of ‘birr’. This seems unconnected, a little away from our common sense. Virtue is related with actions and Imān is not an action. And again, we find not only ‘Imān billah’, but there are also other articles of belief mentioned. Thus the main thing to ponder is the logical and rational relationship between virtue and belief.
The philosophy of morality is an important part of sociology. There are two main enquiries in the philosophy of morality. We will discuss them one by one.
a) What are moral values? Are these of a permanent nature or do they change with changes in time and social conditions?
About this issue, the philosophy of Quran Hakeem reveals that the basic consciousness of virtues and vices exists in human nature. Allah (swt) has bestowed upon humans some obvious capabilities, such as hearing, seeing, speaking, intellect and so on. Similarly, there are latent capabilities which are given to humans. One of these hidden capabilities is that people know virtues and vices as natural instincts.
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا (91:7,8)
“By the soul and Him Who perfected it and inspired it with knowledge of what is wrong for it and what is right for it”
Also the Quran uses the term mā‘rūf (well-known) for virtues and another strange term, munkar (unfamiliar), for vices. A vice is strange in the sense that human nature doesn’t absorb it and dislikes it. mā‘rūf and munkar are permanent qualities from the Quranic point of view. Speaking the truth has been considered a virtue from the beginning and until now it is still considered to be a virtue. The person speaking lies feels that he is performing an evil deed. Though he may rationalise his actions based on his circumstances, he realises in the heart that he is committing a bad action. Thus these are permanent and self-evident values. The following couplet of Allamah Iqbal portrays a wholesome concept of virtue and vice.
‘Time one, Life One and is the Universe One
Short sight prevails along old and new.’
Material conditions change on the surface, and civilisations and cultures evolve. But the imminent and self-evident truths of human nature are unchangeable and permanent.
b) The second basic question: What is that motivating force that can keep a person following the virtuous path, even if the person would face temporary loss and trouble by doing so?
Poets are sensitive and express their ideas more artistically. Mirza Ghalib says in this context:
‘Know I the reward of piety and surrender
Alas! my temptation betrays over’
And another famous poet Hali has taunted the piety and virtue performed by compulsion without inner motive.
‘Evil unavailable, I became pious
As if lack of evil opportunity is piety.
So the question is: having the temptation to perform evil for fun and other benefits, what can divert a person to perform good and act on virtue? For example, a person knows it is bad to speak a lie but he finds that there is a gain in lying. Now what is that way which can keep him away from speaking a lie, and compel him to speak truth, even at the cost of some loss to himself?
For the answer to this question, I will refer to Kant, the Western philosopher. First he wrote a book, Critique of Pure Reason, in which he argued that all the lines of reasoning given by people of logic for the existence of God can be nullified by other lines of reasoning against God’s existence given by opposing people of logic. Then he wrote another book, Critique of Practical Reason. In this book, he advocated very strongly that there is no basis for human morality for the one who doesn’t believe in God.
There is no foundation for morality without God. If a person is to adopt moral behaviour despite temptations to the contrary, he has to believe in God. Without God, a person cannot attain a moral character and position.
Thus the real matter has been stated in this Āyah that Imān billah and Imān bil Akhirah provide the motivating force for goodness and virtue. The Quran directs all people: ‘Behave righteously and perform good and noble deeds as Allah (swt) loves righteous persons.’ Also, a Hadeeth narrates: ‘All people are like the family of Allah’. Hence, just as one can please a person by being kind to that person’s relatives, all those who are in search of the Love and Pleasure of Allah should be ready at all times for service to Allah’s family, which is all humanity. So Imān billah is the source and fountain-head of the virtues. Be clear that this Imān billah is a motivating force, as obtaining somebody’s love and affection is positive and desirable, and the outcome of having Imān billah is that a person will obtain the Divine Love of Allah.
But all know that people are not equal in their level of intellect and consciousness. There are some who have no enthusiasm for love. They need some other motivating force which is more severe. This alternate motivating force is Imān bil Akhirah: the perception of accountability; the belief that the Day has to come for taking account of all deeds, as everyone has to account for each and every deed. If you desire, you may conceive Imān billah as the positive motivating force while this Imān bil Akhirah is the negative motivating force because it is based on the fear of accountability on the Day of Resurrection.
4. INNAMAL Ā‘MĀLO BIN-NIYYĀ T.
The logical outcome of the above discussion is that any action that is not based on the above two motives is not an action of virtue according to the Quran and Hadeeth, however major or important it may be. In such an action, there is some other interest – perhaps some worldly self-interest – in its performance. ‘According to the saying ‘No business trade, only the servitude to God’, righteousness should not be treated as if it was trading, and should not be carried on for worldly gain. Righteousness should not be performed to get its benefits in this world’.
All righteous actions carried with a wrong intention will become invalid according to the Quran. In religious terms, no action is accepted by Allah unless it is performed for sincere and pure intentions, and not for getting any worldly gain. There are certain Ahadeeth (Prophet’s sayings) that cause us to shiver on thinking about them. The most comprehensive Hadeeth is the one narrated by Hazrat Omar Farooq (ra). Most of the Muhaddatheen’s compilations of Ahadeeth books start with the Hadeeth:
‘The deeds depend upon the intentions for their performance. A person shall get the reward of deeds having proper intentions’. (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)
If a person performed a righteous action with a bad intention, then that righteous action will be considered a bad action, with a bad outcome for the person performing it. However, it does not follow that if a person performs a bad deed but makes a good intention, he will get rewards for that. In Hadeeth, the Arabic word ‘’A‘māl’ is used for righteous deeds, while the Arabic word ‘’Af‘āl’ includes both righteous and evil deeds.
The matter of ‘niyyah’ (intention) is dealt with only by Allah. Since we can only see the deeds in this world without knowing their intentions, we humans can judge another person’s deed based only on whether it is apparently righteous or evil. If a person is trapped by a problem and is therefore compelled to behave wrongly in appearance, we may judge the action to be wrongful, without true knowledge. Here, we end the discussion of the relation of virtue with Imān billah and Imān bil Akhirah.
5. IMAN BIR RISALAH AND USWA’E HASANAH (BELIEF IN ALLAH & PROPHET’S PRACTICE)
Excluding these two above beliefs, the three remaining beliefs mentioned in this Āyah are the beliefs in the Angels, the Books and the Prophets. These three may all be bracketed together as one and named ‘Imān bir Risalah’ (Belief in Prophethood) as the angels are the agents for bringing the wahi (divine message) to the prophets and apostles, and their messages are recorded in the books. Thus these three go together, as the message is delivered to the humans by the rasuls (the recipients of the divine messages from the angels). Now let us understand the relation between Imān bir Risalah and righteousness.
Just like other sentiments and motives, righteousness is also a passion. We know that all sentiments, passions and motives may go astray, and they have a natural tendency to cross the limits. Hence there is danger also in the passion of righteousness: sometimes being overpowered by emotion, people cross the limits of moderation (uswa’e hasanah) and thereby in fact indulge in some form of evil in place of virtue. For example, a person became extremely overpowered by emotion and left the society, and remained living in the caves or the caverns of hillocks to meditate upon God. Similarly, the institution of monastic life came into existence because the People of the Book exceeded moderation. It is quite obvious that this tradition is a revolt against human nature. It is fighting against human instincts. So, if such excess is adopted, the human instincts and motives will defeat the humans in the form of reactionary manifestations against this excessiveness.
Now it is well known what evil events had occurred as the result of the worshippers’ instinctive reactions against the unnatural way of life in the Christian monasteries, though monastic life was started with a very pious motive.
The negation of the monastic life has been described vividly in a Hadeeth. It has been narrated in both Ahadeeth Compilations, ‘Sahih Bukhari’ and ‘Sahih Muslim’:
‘During the pious life of the Mercy of Mankind Prophet Muhammad (saw), three companions of the Prophet (saw) approached his wives (ra) and enquired about his non-obligatory prayers and the non-obligatory fasting days in a month. The Prophet’s life was an open book and nothing was artificial in it. The wives didn’t exaggerate anything and informed the Companions of the facts. The Companions convinced themselves that: ‘The Prophet is infallible, and he can perform no wrong thing, and thus he is in no need of offering surplus worships other than the obligatory ones. But we are persons that got indulged in some wrong things. We should perform surplus worships in the nights.’ One pledged to keep the non-obligatory continuous fasting; the other pledged for praying the whole night and the third pledged not to marry and not to indulge in sexual relations, which are an obstacle to pondering deeply about Allah. The Prophet (saw) came to know about their pledges. He didn’t like it and called them. He addressed them:
“I am the most God-fearing among you but still I observe fast and break it; I offer non-obligatory night prayer and I sleep in the night; and I have wives with me. Now listen carefully!
“Whoever leaves my sunnah and life style does not have any relation with me.”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Kitabun Nikah)
Hence, the Prophet Muhammad (saw) is the perfect standard to follow in performing virtuous acts.
It is essential that we keep following his frame of reference as a model and a perfect example for our righteousness. This frame of reference must contain all the virtuous deeds in the most perfectly behaved and moderate manner. This should be our criterion to which we should always refer back and with which we should compare our deeds. This can only be fulfilled through Imān bir Risalah. We learn this kind of character and conduct – our frame of reference – from the lives of the prophets, and the most superior and upmost in this list is Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Thus the philosophy of morality is closely associated with these three constituents of Imān. Imān has inevitably been mentioned in this Āyah because it is the root and foundation of righteousness. Its mention here should never be understood as a benediction or a memoir in the limited ritual sense.
After this short discourse on the starting expression of this Āyah, we are going to discuss now how the Quran sets out the sequence of, and explains the interaction between, Imān, the intrinsic spirit of righteousness and the practical behaviour, character and conduct of humankind.
For this, let us keep before us the simple meaning of this verse in English again:
“Righteousness is not whether you turn your face towards East or West; but righteousness is to believe in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Books and the Prophets, and to spend wealth out of love for Him on relatives, orphans, helpless, needy travellers, those who ask for help and on the redemption of captives; and to establish Salah (prayers), to pay Zakah (alms), to fulfil promises when made, to be steadfast in distress, in adversity, and at the time of war. These people are the truthful and these are the pious”
Until now we have dealt briefly with the five constituents of Imān in their relation with righteousness. Now we shall look at the practical manifestations of specific virtues in people’s personality, character, conduct and daily living by virtue of the real Imān being penetrated into their hearts as mentioned in this verse of the Quran Hakeem.
6. SERVICE TO HUMANITY
In this blessed Āyah, the first manifestation of righteousness after the description of the beliefs is to perform ‘Service to Humanity’.
You may have known, and it is also very correct, that after the first pillar of Islam ‘Kalima-e-Shahadah’, the next pillar, which is the main pillar also known as ‘Imād -ud-Deen’ (the Central Pillar of Islam) is the ‘Iqāmat-e-Salah’, (the establishment of Salah). But in this Āyah, Salah is placed later in sequence than the emphasis upon using money to remove human suffering and fulfil people’s requirements and help them in their tribulations.
This is a serious issue but it is the fact. Whenever the religious texts deal with righteousness, the sequence is the same as mentioned in this Blessed Āyah. But where the pillars of Islam are being described, the sequence is different as mentioned in the renowned Hadeeth:
‘The foundation of Islam has been laid upon five pillars: ‘Kalima-e-Shahadah;Salah;Zakah; Saum-e-Ramadan and Hajj’.
(Sahih Bukhari; Sahih Muslim, narrated by Abdullah bin Omar (ra))
But here, due to the theme of righteousness in discussion, the sequence has been replaced, with ‘Human Sympathy’ as the first practical manifestation of righteousness. How much the Quran emphasises this change of sequence can be easily ascertained by verse 92 of Surah Al-e-‘Imran.
لَن تَنَالُواْ الْبِرَّ حَتَّى تُنفِقُواْ مِمَّا تُحِبُّونَ وَمَا تُنفِقُواْ مِن شَيْءٍ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ بِهِ عَلِيمٌ (3:92)
“You can never attain righteousness unless you spend in the cause of Allah that which you dearly cherish; and whatever you spend, surely it is known to Allah.”
Be careful! This verse very emphatically warns you that true righteousness does not lie in discarding the things which you have become tired of or which you can’t use properly; in short, not those things that are now redundant for you. But you should give those things which are very dear to you, which you feel sorry to separate from, and which you give for the sake of receiving a reward from Allah as compensation for your righteousness. Giving or spending any thing or any wealth that does not provide ease for others by solving their problems is not the righteousness for which we can be counted among the abrār (pious) or muttaqeen (Allah-loving).
Please know this also! Every word or terminology has a sense, and some also have antecedents and demands that cannot be excluded. There are particular words, which become the special terminology, that attain a particular connotation. For example, if it is declared that a person is a scholar (ālim), the word ālim has its own special meaning. Similarly, the words zāhid (pious) or ābid (worshipper) have their own exclusive connotations. A person may be ālim, ābid and zāhid, but according to the Quranic point of view he will not be considered among the virtuous or righteous (abrār) people unless and until he cultivates a passion for removing the suffering and troubles of others.
This above view-point becomes crystal clear from the blessed words of this Āyatul Birr, but because of its importance, this very view-point has been expressed in the Quran Majeed at other places in different styles.
The Quran Majeed functions as mentioned in the following saying: ‘A variety of fragrances is brought on the surfaces in different ways’. Thus, when expressing this view-point of human sympathy as the first practical manifestation of righteousness, the Quran gives the following explanations:
a) Allah (swt) declares in Surah Al-Lail:
إِنَّ سَعْيَكُمْ لَشَتَّى (92:4)
“surely your efforts are directed towards various ends”
Then Allah (swt) has mentioned two diametrically opposite outcomes in the same Surah:
فَأَمَّا مَن أَعْطَى وَاتَّقَى (92:5)
وَصَدَّقَ بِالْحُسْنَى (92:6)
فَسَنُيَسِّرُهُ لِلْيُسْرَى (92:7)
“So for him who gives in charity, fears Allah and testifies to goodness, We shall facilitate for him the easy way”
So the outcome is the one which starts with the very first step of ‘’A‘ta’ (gives in charity): i.e. generosity and munificence (large-heartedness). This way leads to easiness and convenience in following the path of righteousness lovingly. Contrary to the above there is another outcome, which has as its first step miserliness and parsimony:
وَأَمَّا مَن بَخِلَ وَاسْتَغْنَى (92:8)
وَكَذَّبَ بِالْحُسْنَى (92:9)
فَسَنُيَسِّرُهُ لِلْعُسْرَى (92:10)
“As for him who is stingy and considers himself independent of Allah and rejects the goodness, We shall facilitate for him the hard way”
So this opposite outcome is the way of narrowness and stiffness.
b) Allah (swt) explicitly explains His Benevolence upon mankind in Surah Al-Balad:
أَلَمْ نَجْعَل لَّهُ عَيْنَيْنِ (90:8) وَلِسَانًا وَشَفَتَيْنِ (90:9) وَهَدَيْنَاهُ النَّجْدَيْنِ (90:10)
“Have We not given him two eyes to observe? One tongue and two lips to control it? Then shown him the two high ways (good leading towards paradise and evil leading towards hell)?
But such a human proved himself being close-hearted and behaved as a coward and ungrateful:
فَلَا اقْتَحَمَ الْعَقَبَةَ (90:11) وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ (90:12) فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ (90:13) أَوْ إِطْعَامٌ فِي يَوْمٍ ذِي مَسْغَبَةٍ (90:14) يَتِيمًا ذَا مَقْرَبَةٍ (90:15) أَوْ مِسْكِينًا ذَا مَتْرَبَةٍ (90:16)
“Yet he does not attempt to tackle the Aqabah (steep path)! And what will explain to you what the Aqabah is? It is the freeing of a neck (slave) from bondage; or the giving of food in a day of famine to an orphan relative, or to a needy person in distress; besides this, he should be of those who believe, enjoin fortitude, encourage kindness and compassion.
First the Arabic word ‘the ‘Aqabah’ (steep path) is mentioned in verses 11 and 12. Then onward, the ‘steep path’ is described as meaning the spending of money and wealth for public service and human sympathy.
فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ (90:13) أَوْ إِطْعَامٌ فِي يَوْمٍ ذِي مَسْغَبَةٍ (90:14) يَتِيمًا ذَا مَقْرَبَةٍ (90:15) أَوْ مِسْكِينًا ذَا مَتْرَبَةٍ (90:16)
“It is the freeing of a neck (slave) from bondage; or the giving of food in a day of famine to an orphan relative, or to a needy person in distress;”
The expression ‘freeing of a neck (slave) from bondage’ seems redundant in the present era as there is no slave-trade in existence in the present times. But this expression can be applied to the innocent persons imprisoned, or to war-prisoners. Its meaning can even be considered to include relieving a poor person from a loan which is to be paid at a fixed time.
The expression ‘giving of food in a day of famine or to a needy person in distress’ can be applied to the poverty among the poor nations of Africa and South America. Even in India, Pakistan and Australia there are inhabitants who are deprived of health, education, and food. Providing these essentials to such people can be considered tasks of righteousness.
So the difficult path, the Aqabah, means the performance of all the services mentioned above, specifically by the believers:
ثُمَّ كَانَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْمَرْحَمَةِ (90:17)
“….besides this, he should be of those who believe, enjoin fortitude, encourage kindness and compassion.”
Thus the four characteristics mentioned in Surah Al-‘Asr are also mentioned explicitly in Surah Al-Balad.
For further comprehension of this blessed Āyatul Birr, we should remind ourselves with the treasure of knowledge and wisdom present in the Ahadeeth of the Prophet (asws).
The Prophet has reminded his followers of the same concept in short comprehensive expressions:
“The person devoid of the softness of the heart becomes deprived of goodness.”
(Sahih Muslim, Kitabul Birr was Sila wal Ādab)
(Sahih Muslim, Kitabul Fazāil)
“Allah does not bestow His Mercy upon the one who is not merciful to the people (in general irrespective of cast and creed).
“The human beings are the family members of Allah (SWT)”
(Mishkatul Masabih, Kitabul Ādab)
So if we earnestly and sincerely love Allah (swt), then should we not also love His family i.e. all the human beings?
As narrated by Abu Hurairah (ra), the Prophet (saw) addressed the Companions (ra):
“Allah (swt) will address the people on the Day of Resurrection: ‘O Children of Adam! I became sick and you didn’t come and nurse me.’ One will say: ‘O My Rabb! How could I nurse You, as You are the Rabbul-‘Alameen? Allah (swt) will reply: ‘Don’t you know that so and so servant of mine became ill and you never helped him in looking after him/her? Don’t you know that if you had been there with the patient, you must have found me there near him/her?’
‘O Children of Adam! I asked food from you and you never provided food to me.’ One will say: ‘O My Rabb! How could I feed you as You are the Rabbul-‘Alameen!’ Allah (swt) will reply: ‘Did you not know that so and so servant of mine asked food from you and you didn’t feed him/her? Don’t you know that if you had fed him/her, you must have found that food near me there with him/her?’
‘O Children of Adam! I asked water from you and you never gave me water.’ One will say: ‘O My Rabb! How could I give you water as You are the Rabbul-‘Alameen?’ Allah (swt) will reply: Don’t you know that so and so servant of mine asked water from you and you didn’t give water to him/her? If you would have given water to him/her, you must have found that water near me with him/her’.”
Just imagine the importance of fulfilling the needs of the needy people!
7. SEQUENCE AMONG CHARITY AND OFFERINGS
See the sequence in the following blessed words:
“……..on relatives, orphans, helpless, needy travellers, those who ask and on the redemption of captives……..”
This is a very natural sequence. Your relatives – the close family members who are in distress and trouble are the most deserving of your nice behaviour and treatment. The next ones are then the orphans in your society who are without any support. Then after them are the miskeen. Miskanat is cowardliness. Miskeens are those who have lost courage, have given up and cannot stand on their own two legs: they are not self-sufficient. Then the next one in this list is the person in the condition of travelling. Maybe he is having to travel because of some necessity. The last but one is the Sā’ileen (those who ask for something). The Sā’il person is sacrificing his self-respect and honour by asking help from you. Now the last one is the Fir-Riqab (imprisoned captive).
He is the one who is in some trouble. In olden days during slavery, the slaves were treated very badly. Therefore, to spend money for freeing a badly treated slave was a great righteous deed. Nowadays, spending on Fir-Riqab can mostly be applied to the people who have taken out a loan when in distress, and are not in a position now to repay the loan. This is also the last but not the least act of righteousness.
The above list is for the non-obligatory charities at the beginning of this Āyah. The obligatory charity is called in Arabic Zakah (Alms), which is mentioned in this Āyah near the end. The detailed list of the items to be covered by Zakah is found in Surah At-Taubah (no.9).
Fatimah bint Qais (ra) narrated that, when somebody asked the Prophet (asws) about Zakah, he informed the questioner: and further said:
‘O People! Don’t have the fallacy that only the payment of Zakah is required from your wealth in Islam. Zakah is obligatory. There is also the right of needy persons in your money as the non-obligatory sadaqah (charities)’
Then the Prophet recited this verse Āyatul Birr (2:177).
We should keep in mind that the main purpose of the items mentioned in this Blessed Āyah is to generate a passion for human sympathy and service to humanity. Once this passion has been generated, then the issues arise of when and how much to give, and the sequence of preference in these items. It is quite obvious that a person can spend only to his/her limitations. So the first preference should be given to the person’s close relatives. Once their rights have been fulfilled, the person can spend further in the sequence given in this Āyah until his limit is exhausted.
8. SEQUENCE AMONG CHARITY AND OFFERINGS OF WORSHIP
“…..and to establish Salah and to pay Zakah”
We will not discuss here about Salah, Zakah, their literal meanings and their status in our deen. We will deal with these at the relevant places in this series of lectures. Here we will note the deep relation and interaction of these two with righteousness.
Until now, two main concepts have emerged. One is the intrinsic spirit of righteousness, i.e. Imān, and the second is the prominent manifestation of the intrinsic spirit, i.e. the service to humanity – to give away one’s wealth to eradicate the suffering of others. Now Salah and Zakah are mentioned as items that are complementary to each other.
The Salah irrigates and refreshes the intrinsic spirit of righteousness. It is performed to maintain the bond with Allah (swt), establish His remembrance and to be reminded of the worry of the Akhirah (Hereafter). Salah is the most important and best of all techniques for these virtuous outcomes. Hence it is a pillar erected to keep Imān strong and flourishing.
The Zakah eradicates greed and the temptation of wealth from the heart, and encourages the heart towards Infāq (wealth-spending). It prompts the heart to spend wealth in the ways specified for righteousness. Thus Zakah functions as the starter for non-obligatory charities.
Zakah is an obligation on us. It must be paid every year in every condition according to the prescribed amount. If a person does not wish to pay, the Islamic State will forcefully take the Zakah from him/her. The principle of physics known as ‘static-friction’ applies to the obligatory Zakah. This principle states that if an object is stationary, more force is required to move it in order to overcome the ‘static-friction’. Once the object starts moving, movement can be maintained by lesser force. To move on the path of Infāq, the initial impulse is supplied by Zakah. Zakah is the entity that breaks the seat of the desire and love for wealth. Once spending has been triggered by Zakah, it becomes easy to continue spending, now as non-obligatory charities. There is no limit for sadaqāt-e-nāfilah (non-obligatory charities). Following is the relevant verse regarding it:
يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَآ أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ كَذَلِكَ يُبيِّنُ اللّهُ لَكُمُ الآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ (2:219)
“……..They ask you what they should spend; tell them: “Whatever you can.” Thus Allah makes His revelations clear to you, so that you may reflect upon them.”
The believers asked the Prophet (saw) about the upper limit of spending. In answer to their question, Allah (swt) directs us to spend whatever is surplus to our needs.
Regarding this issue, we must keep clearly in mind that Zakah is not a voluntary deed like sadaqah. Rather, it is a legal entity which is an obligation both in law as well as in worship.
9. PROMISE-FULFILMENT: KEY FOR THE REFORM OF INTER-HUMAN AFFAIRS.
Let us proceed! In the beginning I mentioned that fulfilling one’s promises is of great importance in the affairs of life. All our dealings depend upon agreements or contracts. To appoint a labourer for eight hours on the basis of a settled wage is a contract. Similarly, if a person is employed on a monthly salary, this is also a contract. The contract states that the person must perform particular duties, and in return the person will receive a stipulated reward. Nowadays most tasks are completed on the basis of contracts: the supply of materials, construction work, manufacturing, and so on, all these are carried on based on contracts, even though these contracts may not be written. Marriage is also a social contract. In the discussion on righteousness, there is a great importance attached to Īfa’e-‘Ahad (Promise Fulfilment). From the religious point of view and the point of view of accountability in the hereafter, the fulfilment of promises has been mentioned as an order from Allah in Surah Al-Isra:
وَلاَ تَقْرَبُواْ مَالَ الْيَتِيمِ إِلاَّ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ حَتَّى يَبْلُغَ أَشُدَّهُ وَأَوْفُواْ بِالْعَهْدِ إِنَّ الْعَهْدَ كَانَ مَسْؤُولاً (17:34)
“You shall not go near the property of an orphan, except with the good intention of improving it, until he attains his maturity. You shall fulfill your pledges; surely you shall be held accountable for your pledges”.
10. STEADFASTNESS AND PERSERVERENCE
Now we are going to deal with the last directive in relation to righteousness in this Ayah.
“……….to be steadfast in distress, in adversity, and at the time of war……”
Here the word As-Sabirun is not mentioned, but rather As-Sabireen. This is a grammatical issue which we will not discuss at this time. For this change in style, I have used an additional word, ‘particularly’ in translation, i.e. ‘particularly about the people of steadfastness’.
The following ‘affairs of steadfastness’ have been mentioned here: distress, adversity and at the time of war. So one thing must have become clear to you! There is a fundamental difference between a monastic concept of righteousness and the Quranic concept of righteousness mentioned in this Āyah. In the monastic concept, the pious person leaves the battle fields or the region of war, as well as society, and flees to the caves and caverns or dense forests for prayers and meditation. Islam, on the other hand, prompts people towards righteousness by keeping themselves in the midst of society and civilization. Moreover, righteousness is not defeatism or escapism; rather righteousness is to combat the evils face to face, eye to eye, boldly and squarely. According to Islam, to undergo suffering, to be steadfast in distress, and even to sacrifice one’s life for the success and prosperity of righteousness in this world, these actions are the pinnacle of righteousness.
11. HIGHEST GOOD: SUMMUM BONUM
All the systems of morality prevalent in this world discuss the ‘Highest Good’, the superb virtue. So, according to the Quran Hakeem, the highest, the loftiest and the superb virtue is to give your life for the propagation of righteousness, for persuasion towards goodness, for the establishment of a social system of justice and equity, and for the domination of Truth. Hence, the Quran declares:
وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ لِمَنْ يُقْتَلُ فِي سَبيلِ اللّهِ أَمْوَاتٌ بَلْ أَحْيَاء وَلَكِن لاَّ تَشْعُرُونَ (2:154)
Do not say about those who are slain in the cause of Allah (martyrs), that they are dead. Nay, they are alive, but you do not perceive it.
And the passage setting out this viewpoint ends with:
الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُواْ إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ (2:156)
“…who, when afflicted with calamity, say: “We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.”
Allamah Iqbal presents a couplet:
‘My affection is to the Youth
Throwing sealing ladder upon stars’
In my opinion, Iqbal has been inspired by Surah As-Saff to compose the above couplet:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِهِ صَفًّا كَأَنَّهُم بُنيَانٌ مَّرْصُوصٌ (61:4)
Indeed Allah loves those who fight for His Cause in battle array as if they were a solid wall.
12. SUMMING UP: CRITERIA OF DEVOTION AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
“…….. and particularly Righteousness is not whether you turn your face towards East or West; but righteousness is to believe in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Books and the Prophets, and to spend wealth out of love for Him on relatives, orphans, helpless, needy travellers, those who ask for and on the redemption of captives; and to establish Salah (prayers), to pay Zakah (alms), to fulfill promises when made, to be steadfast in distress, in adversity, at the time of war”
At the end of the Blessed Ayah, we see that the idea of Tawāsi bil Haqq has been used in this lecture although this expression does not exist verbally in this verse.
The persons having the light of Imān in their minds and hearts are the servants of humanity who:
“Mīr! We become restless at any atrocity
Our bosoms feel pain for the sufferings of others”
So such persons who punctually act upon Salah and Zakah, who fulfil their promises fully, their quarrel or conflict can neither be for their personal gain nor for occupying some territory, but only in the cause of Allah to finish evil. Allamah Iqbal says:
The Believer desires not position nor fame
Neither he seeks wealth nor land.
“………..These people are the truthful and these are the pious”
Here is the style of reckoning. In their claim of being truthful in Imān, only those people are counted whose hearts are absorbed with real belief and whose actions depict the manifestations of the characteristics of virtues mentioned in this Blessed Āyah. And only such people deserve to be categorised as real muttaqeen.
The study of this Blessed Āyah covers all the four factors of Surah Al-‘Asr. Those four requisites of success and welfare mentioned in that Blessed Surah have been explained as a new discussion in another context with a new style, new presentation and another frame of reference. The Reality is one and the same, the same Reality that was revealed in Surah Al-‘Asr. In this Blessed Āyah, we are comprehending it in another attractive manner.
This exalted Āyah makes clear the Quranic criterion of the Reality of Righteousness and Piety. But knowledge of this criterion will become truly beneficial for us only when we pledge with devotion and firm determination that we will fully utilise the knowledge we acquire through this Quran and the Hadeeth to transform our actions and our performance to our utmost.
MAY ALLAH (SWT) BE OUR HELPER AND GUIDE!
WA ĀKHIRU DA ‘WĀNĀ
ANIL HAMDO LILLAHE RABBIL ĀLAMĪN
1. What is the Theme of this lecture? How has it been analysed throughout its content? Give details.
2. What is the literal meaning of ‘BIRR’? Explain the mutual relationship between BIRR and IMĀN.
3. What is the motivating force that can keep a person following the virtuous path, even if the person faces temporary loss and trouble by doing so?
4. What is the relation between Imān bir Risalah and righteousness?
5. In some Quranic verses, Iqāmat-e-Salah and in other Quranic verses ‘service to humanity are considered to be the topmost manifestations of righteousness. Why is it so and how will you take both of them for yourself?
6. What is the importance of the sequence among charity and offerings maintained in this verse? Give the logic behind it?
7. Why is the Promise-Fulfilment the most important line of action for the reform of inter-human affairs?
8. Explain how steadfastness and perseverance are the key-actions for the inter-human affairs after promise-fulfilment.
9. What is the ‘Highest Good’, the most important virtue in this worldly life?
10. This one āyah elaborates Surah Al-‘Asr. Prove it by comparative analysis between the two?