For many people religion is a problem; religion is a synonym of a long set of restrictions; religion is a natural enemy of freedom and individual liberties. Even for religious people religion is not always easy.
Now, is religion a problem or a solution? There’s not a clear-cut answer to that. The safest way to approach that question would be to say that religion is a set of solvable problems. "Every soul must taste of death, and We try you with evil and with good, for ordeal. And unto Us ye will be returned." (21 : 35) "But lo! with hardship goeth ease, Lo! with hardship goeth ease." (94 : 5-7) "Allah will vouchsafe, after hardship, ease." (65 : 7) Even the best religious society, led by the best religious ruler, would have problems, but they are solvable problems. Societies are tried just like individuals. An individual believer can lose his job, a society can suffer drought or an economic crisis. So what’s the use of religion if it will only add more problems to my problems? If I put that question bluntly, I will get nowhere. If I put it in good faith, as I said before, there’s room for discussion. God says: "Thou knewest not what the Scripture was, nor what the Faith. But We have made it a light whereby We guide whom We will of Our bondmen. And lo! thou verily dost guide unto a right path." (42: 52) "And if We willed We could withdraw that which We have revealed unto thee, then wouldst thou find no guardian for thee against Us in respect thereof. (It is naught) save mercy from thy Lord. Lo! His kindness unto thee was ever great." (17: 86-87) That means religion is a mercy, a divine favour, not a problem. Why should God bother to send thousands of prophets and messengers in so many languages to so many peoples over a long period of time? What’s the use for God to do that? Isn’t that a "problem" for God? When God says: "Ah, the anguish for the bondmen! Never came there unto them a messenger but they did mock him!" (36 : 30) "Shall We utterly ignore you because ye are a wanton folk?" (43 : 5) , what good would that add to God ? What interest would God have in prohibiting sex outside of marriage, for example? Yes, Islam says don’t do this, don’t do that. A lot of restrictions. But in this chapter I will focus on the do’s. Many people would love to move up from Islam to Iman to Ihsan. Many people would love to elevate their nafs from ammara to lawama to mutmaina. Many people would love to approach beauty and greatness in the light of the Word of God. Many people would seek godly solutions rather than lament over Satanic problems. But that’s the minority of the minority. God says: "Whoso obeyeth Allah and the messenger, they are with those unto whom Allah hath shown favour, of the prophets and the saints and the martyrs and the righteous. The best of company are they!" (4 : 69) That’s the Elite. And in this elite (the saints, asseddeeqoon) come immediately after the prophets and before the martyrs. Who are asseddeeqoon ? God says : "And those who believe in Allah and His messengers, they are the loyal, and the martyrs are with their Lord; they have their reward and their light.". (57 : 19) (Translators have rendered here the Arabic word asseddeeqoon as the saints or the loyal.) At first sight those criteria do not appear to be unattainable. So can I be a seddeeq (a saint) ?
Let’s first see how al-muhsinoon (the good), which is a general term, are described in the Quran and then we’ll see whether you and I can attain that. Let’s just dream a bit !
"And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off (evil); Those who spend (of that which Allah hath given them) in ease and in adversity, those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; Allah loveth the good." (3 : 133-134) "Such as remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and consider the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! Thou createdst not this in vain. Glory be to Thee!" (3 : 191) "Who forsake their beds to cry unto their Lord in fear and hope, and spend of that We have bestowed on them." (32 : 16) "The (faithful) slaves of the Beneficent are they who walk upon the earth modestly, and when the foolish ones address them answer: Peace; And who spend the night before their Lord, prostrate and standing." (25 : 63-64) "The steadfast, and the truthful, and the obedient, those who spend (and hoard not), those who pray for pardon in the watches of the night." (3 : 17) "Who are constant at their worship And in whose wealth there is a right acknowledged For the beggar and the destitute." (70 : 23-25) "And to feed in the day of hunger, An orphan near of kin, Or some poor wretch in misery, And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity." (90 : 14-17) "And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him, (Saying): We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you." (76 : 8-9) "And let not those who possess dignity and ease among you swear not to give to the near of kin and to the needy, and to fugitives for the cause of Allah. Let them forgive and show indulgence. Yearn ye not that Allah may forgive you? Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (24 : 22)
Grosso modo, it’s all about gratitude towards God and solidarity between humans. The details may differ from one verse to another, but the major guidelines are the same. "Ihsan," as the Prophet (pbuh) said, "is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet He sees you." How can I translate this into acts ? Well, the Quran answered this in the verses above. That’s what al-muhsinoon (the good) do. But suppose I can’t do that. For one reason or another, I can’t fast very often or worship God at night while people are sleeping, for example, and yet I aspire to be among al-muhsinoon. What can I do ? Well, if I can’t do what al-muhsinoon and asseddeeqoon (saints) do in terms of acts of worship I should not expect to get the wages they get or the special place they get near God. Playing in the school games is not like playing in the Olympic Games. However, I can still rise in my Iman and stand out in the Eyes of God. How ? I should have a strong faith, an unwavering faith. If I hear "Is there any God beside Allah?" (27 : 62) , my heart will say before my tongue NO ! I have to be among those "Who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of Allah." (13 : 28) That means I have to be anything but "anxious" , "Fretful" or "grudging." (70 : 19-21) If I have a problem I implore God : "and call on Him in fear and hope. Lo! the mercy of Allah is nigh unto the good." (7 : 56) In addition to praying I keep my duty to God. "And whosoever keepeth his duty to Allah, Allah will appoint a way out for him, And will provide for him from (a quarter) whence he hath no expectation. And whosoever putteth his trust in Allah, He will suffice him. Lo! Allah bringeth His command to pass. Allah hath set a measure for all things." (65 : 2-3) If my prayers are not answered quickly, I presevere and keep hope. "Such as are steadfast and put their trust in Allah." (16 : 42)
By doing so I discover things that I can only read about in the Quran and the Haddith. It’s my problems and how I see them solved by God, by the power of God, by the knowledge of God, that will show me whether this religion is about truth or about dogma. If I don’t have a problem, how will I know that ? "And whosoever keepeth his duty to Allah, Allah will appoint a way out for him, And will provide for him from (a quarter) whence he hath no expectation." (65 : 2) Who can try that out ? It’s my personal experience (what I feel when I have a problem, what I do to solve that problem, how I do it) that will teach me on God better than any scientific or religious book. These are the signs that affect my life directly. "If Allah touch thee with affliction, there is none that can relieve therefrom save Him, and if He touch thee with good fortune (there is none that can impair it)." (6 : 17-18) "And your Lord hath said: Pray unto Me and I will hear your prayer." (40 : 60) "But lo! with hardship goeth ease, Lo! with hardship goeth ease." (97 : 5-6) "Lo! Allah defendeth those who are true." (22 : 38) "And whosoever keepeth his duty to Allah, Allah will appoint a way out for him, And will provide for him from (a quarter) whence he hath no expectation. And whosoever putteth his trust in Allah, He will suffice him. Lo! Allah bringeth His command to pass. Allah hath set a measure for all things." (65 : 2-3) "And whatsoever ye spend (for good) He replaceth it. And He is the Best of Providers." (34 : 39)
If anyone tells me about reason and obscurantism, well, I tell him that there are things that can never be rationalized. If you ever have to go through a real love experience, chances are that you will be confronted with situations where reason can’t help.
That’s why I devoted the previous chapter to intention (good or bad faith). And I posed the question : what do I care about ? What do I want ?
Ihsan is not a prerequisite to Heaven. An ordinary Muslim who keeps his duty to God is entitled to Heaven. Ihsan is a chance given to ambitious believers who would like to stand out with their work, to express their gratitude to God in the best way possible. It’s a further step towards God, Who made this world and gave me a chance to live in this world. Many people in history began as low-ranked soldiers and became army leaders or even kings. It’s a matter of ambition. "And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off (evil); Those who spend (of that which Allah hath given them) in ease and in adversity, those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; Allah loveth the good." (3 : 133-134) "It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing." (2 : 177) "Those who entered the city and the faith before them love those who flee unto them for refuge, and find in their breasts no need for that which hath been given them, but prefer (the fugitives) above themselves though poverty become their lot. And whoso is saved from his own avarice - such are they who are successful." (59 : 9) "And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him, (Saying): We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you." (76 : 8-9) – Not everyone has that privilege.
Do I want to stand out in the eyes of people or in the sight of God ? Do I want to be talked about by people or by angels ? Do I want to be a celebrity in the earth or a celebrity in the heavens ? Do I believe in God because I am sure that He is God or because I want Him to give me a job or to give me a match or a child… ? These are essential questions ! My intention should be clear and pure. Do I do what I do for the sake of God ? If only my initial faith (intention) were good, God will take care of the rest. "As for those who strive in Us, We surely guide them to Our paths, and lo! Allah is with the good." (29 : 69) "Lo! Allah is with those who keep their duty unto Him and those who are doers of good." (16 : 128) "While as for those who walk aright, He addeth to their guidance, and giveth them their protection (against evil)." (47 : 17) "Allah is the Protecting Guardian of those who believe. He bringeth them out of darkness into light." (2 : 257) "O ye who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance. And glorify Him early and late. He it is Who blesseth you, and His angels (bless you), that He may bring you forth from darkness unto light; and He is Merciful to the believers." (33 : 41-43) If I am a sinner, God says to me (and to you) : "Save him who repenteth and believeth and doth righteous work; as for such, Allah will change their evil deeds to good deeds. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful. And whosoever repenteth and doeth good, he verily repenteth toward Allah with true repentance -" (25 : 70-71) If I want God, God says to me (and to you) : "And whoever hopeth for the meeting with his Lord, let him do righteous work, and make none sharer of the worship due unto his Lord." (18 : 110) If I forget, if I relent from time to time, God reminds me : "O man! What hath made thee careless concerning thy Lord, the Bountiful, Who created thee, then fashioned, then proportioned thee? Into whatsoever form He will, He casteth thee." (82 : 6-8)
If my faith is not that good, if it’s not pure, well, God will yet give me another chance, but through a trial, maybe two, maybe more. "Man tireth not of praying for good, and if ill toucheth him, then he is disheartened, desperate." (41 : 49) "And verily, if We cause him to taste mercy after some hurt that hath touched him, he will say: This is my own; and I deem not that the Hour will ever rise, and if I am brought back to my Lord, I surely shall be better off with Him -" (41 : 50) "When We show favour unto man, he withdraweth and turneth aside, but when ill toucheth him then he aboundeth in prayer." (41 : 51) "And if we cause man to taste some mercy from Us and afterward withdraw it from him, Lo! he is despairing, thankless. And if We cause him to taste grace after some misfortune that had befallen him, he saith: The ills have gone from me. Lo! he is exultant, boastful; Save those who persevere and do good works. Theirs will be forgiveness and a great reward." (11 : 9-11)
My trials will show whether I really want God. It’s then when I am supposed to do my best not to succumb to the lure of worldly pleasures ; it’s then when I have to show that I remember the Creator, I remember Him as I would remember a loved one. "then remember Allah as ye remember your fathers or with a more lively remembrance." (2 : 200) My trial will not necessarily be a hardship. I may be tried with a very good job, with a very happy family life. And that may be even harder than being tried with a hardship. In either case, I have to show what I want for myself in this world.
My belief in God entails a responsibility on my part, otherwise I'll be of those of whom God said: "And when it is said unto them: Spend of that wherewith Allah hath provided you, those who disbelieve say unto those who believe: Shall we feed those whom Allah, if He willed, would feed? Ye are in naught else than error manifest." (36 : 47) There’s good in all of us. The problem is that many of us don’t want that good to bear fruit. We prefer evil to good because evil is often easier than good. It’s easier to lie than to tell the truth, for example. I can lie to people, but unless I am a pathologically complexed person, I would not lie to myself. I know my mistakes. If my faith is alive there will be a struggle between me and my conscience. It’s in fact a struggle between my nafs ammara and my nafs lawama. The mere fact that I have this nafs lawama is a good sign. It’s a sign that I care about my faith. When my nafs lawama is stronger than my nafs ammara, what do I do ? Well, I know that "Unto Allah belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. He forgiveth whom He will, and punisheth whom He will. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (3 : 129) "Allah loveth the good; And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins - Who forgiveth sins save Allah only? - and will not knowingly repeat (the wrong) they did." (3 : 134-135) "Will they not rather turn unto Allah and seek forgiveness of Him? For Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (5 : 74) So I beg God’s pardon. I know God is just : "And whoso doeth good an atom's weight will see it then, And whoso doeth ill an atom's weight will see it then." (99 : 7-8) I implore God to forgive all my mistakes. That’s how I move up on the scale of my faith. "And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins - Who forgiveth sins save Allah only? - and will not knowingly repeat (the wrong) they did." (3 : 135) "Save him who repenteth and believeth and doth righteous work; as for such, Allah will change their evil deeds to good deeds. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful. And whosoever repenteth and doeth good, he verily repenteth toward Allah with true repentance -" (25 : 70-71) God does not expect me to be an angel. God expects me to be honest with myself first. I should be the engineer of my own redemption. In theory, if I personally am good and my family is good and my neighbourhood is good, who will ever be bad ? God says : "And a soul and Him Who perfected it And inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and (what is) right for it. He is indeed successful who causeth it to grow, And he is indeed a failure who stunteth it." (91 : 7-10)
Let’s imagine this. My brother and I are at the same university, at the same campus ; we have the same amount of money, the same amount of free time : I personally buy books or papers to learn more about the world, my brother buys beer and cigarettes ; I go to mosque, he goes to nightclubs… When I go to mosque I don’t find a devil who prevents me from entering ; when my brother goes to the nightclub he doesn’t find an angel who prevents him from entering. That's the freedom of conscience. "And a soul and Him Who perfected it And inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and (what is) right for it. He is indeed successful who causeth it to grow, And he is indeed a failure who stunteth it." (91 : 7-10) The judgement will come on the Day of judgement, not now.
But suppose God gave me the power to judge people, what would I do ? Well, this is not an absolute utopia. In the Quran we read : "They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness. He said: As for him who doeth wrong, we shall punish him, and then he will be brought back unto his Lord, Who will punish him with awful punishment! But as for him who believeth and doeth right, good will be his reward, and We shall speak unto him a mild command." (18 : 83-88) Would I be fair in my judgement ? Wouldn’t I be subjective, impulsive in my judgement ? God wants me to be honest, free from contradictions, fair in my judgement. "As for man, whenever his Lord trieth him by honoring him, and is gracious unto him, he saith: My Lord honoureth me. But whenever He trieth him by straitening his means of life, he saith: My Lord despiseth me. Nay, but ye (for your part) honor not the orphan, And urge not on the feeding of the poor, And ye devour heritages with devouring greed, And love wealth with abounding love." (89 : 15-20) If I can be fair in my judgement I should judge myself first. If I judge myself fairly my nafs may move up from ammara to lawama to mutmainna. When I shed tears of repentance that’s a good sign that my nafs is on the right way to reconciliation with God. When I see my brother or my sister are not as good as me I should implore God to guide them. "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way. Lo! thy Lord is Best Aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is best aware of those who go aright." (16 : 125) Am I sure I will remain as religious as I am until the end of my days ? Am I sure my brother or my sister is not going to become as good as or even better than me ? A Moroccan proverb goes : "How many landfills have become mosques and how many mosques have become landfills !" Besides, am I sure I am a religious person ? God says : "Ah, woe unto worshippers Who are heedless of their prayer; Who would be seen (at worship) Yet refuse small kindnesses!" (107 : 4-7) "Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, And urgeth not the feeding of the needy." (107 : 1-3) Do I urge the feeding of the needy ? Religious people would say : "We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you." (76 : 8-9) Don’t I expect a reward or thanks when I do good to somebody ?
That’s the kind of education Islam wants for me. Islam wants me to be honest with myself. I should do as I say and say as I do. Otherwise I’ll be only lying to myself. It’s a matter of (good or bad) faith, once again. "And as for him who hoardeth, he hoardeth only from his soul. And Allah is the Rich, and ye are the poor. And if ye turn away He will exchange you for some other folk, and they will not be the likes of you." (47 : 38) Islam is not only about the veil or the beard. Islam is about every aspect of our life. "A kind word with forgiveness is better than almsgiving followed by injury. Allah is Absolute, Clement. "(2 : 263) "O ye who believe! Spend of the good things which ye have earned, and of that which We bring forth from the earth for you, and seek not the bad (with intent) to spend thereof (in charity) when ye would not take it for yourselves save with disdain; and know that Allah is Absolute, Owner of Praise." (2 : 267) "Ye will not attain unto piety until ye spend of that which ye love. And whatsoever ye spend, Allah is Aware thereof." (3 : 92) "It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing." (2 : 177) "O Children of Adam! Look to your adornment at every place of worship, and eat and drink, but be not prodigal. Lo! He loveth not the prodigals." (7 : 31) "Say: Who hath forbidden the adornment of Allah which He hath brought forth for His bondmen, and the good things of His providing? Say: Such, on the Day of Resurrection, will be only for those who believed during the life of the world. Thus do we detail Our revelations for people who have knowledge." (7 : 32) "Now whatever ye have been given is but a passing comfort for the life of the world, and that which Allah hath is better and more lasting for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord, And those who shun the worst of sins and indecencies and, when they are wroth, forgive, And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish worship, and whose affairs are a matter of counsel, and who spend of what We have bestowed on them, And those who, when great wrong is done to them, defend themselves, The guerdon of an ill-deed is an ill the like thereof. But whosoever pardoneth and amendeth, his wage is the affair of Allah. Lo! He loveth not wrong-doers. And whoso defendeth himself after he hath suffered wrong - for such, there is no way (of blame) against them. The way (of blame) is only against those who oppress mankind, and wrongfully rebel in the earth. For such there is a painful doom. And verily whoso is patient and forgiveth - lo! that, verily, is (of) the stedfast heart of things." (42 : 36-43)
"No soul can ever die except by Allah's leave and at a term appointed. Whoso desireth the reward of the world, We bestow on him thereof; and whoso desireth the reward of the Hereafter, We bestow on him thereof. We shall reward the thankful." (3 : 145) "What concern hath Allah for your punishment if ye are thankful (for His mercies) and believe (in Him)? Allah was ever Responsive, Aware." (4 : 147)