We will insha’Allah be posting the video (or audio) and notes from Imam Suhaib’s new class on Good Character at the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, CA.
by Suhaib Webb
In front of the reader lies the first in a series of brief notes covering concepts addressed by Imam al-Maqdisi in his work Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin under the chapter “Training the Soul and Aquiring Good Character.” This work is an abridgment of the book written by the 6th century scholar ʻAbdu al-Rahman ibn Jawzi, Minaj al- Qasidin, which is itself an abridgment of the classic, Ihya ʻUlum al-Din, written by the famous scholar and ascetic Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali. I hope that these notes will assist those interested in studying the original and serve as a potential GPS for al- Ghazzaliʼs masterpiece. We ask Allah to make them of benefit, to ease our understanding of His will and to assist us in follow the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him).
Note: This work is a simple summary (with my own notes added). “NO ONE” has the right to reproduce, teach or publish this work without the express permission of the author, Suhaib Webb.
On Refining the Soul and Good Character
Summary of Introduction:
Good character is an attribute of the Prophet’s ﷺ and the truthful and its opposite is a deadly poison that drives to the way of Satan. Identifying the illnesses that have a negative impact on character is crucial since that helps in their cure. We will address these issues soon, but first, let’s spend some time discussing “good character.”
The Components of Good Character: Khalq and Khuluq
When we talk about good character, it is important to understand that it is made up of two parts – khalq, which denotes a person’s outer character, and khuluq which denotes the inner. For that reason the Arabs used to say, “Such and such has good khalq and khuluq” implying that the person had complete character. In this regard, if one truly desires to have complete character, he must work to perfect his outer and inner states. Many times people use the “inner” as an excuse to neglect the outer, while others simply focus on the outer, neglecting the inner. Both are incorrect since balance is the goal. In order to truly achieve good character and follow the Prophet ﷺ and his companions – the Qur’anic generation, radi Allahu `anhum (may Allah be pleased with them) – one should strive to rectify both.
Balancing the Inner and the Outer
It is interesting to note that in many cases the Arabs used the same words for the eyes for the hearts. Thus, the eyes “see” and the hearts “see,” the eyes have vision and the heart has vision, and the eyes know and the heart does as well.
For that reason the following verse of Qur’an has two different “authentic” readings:
“If you have sustained a heavy blow (qarh), so have they.” (Qur’an, 3:140)
Here the word “Qarh” implies physical injury.
The second reading, although the change seems insignificant, is important to our discussion:
“If you have sustained a heavy blow (Qurh), so have they.” (Qur’an, 3:140)
This change “Qurh” does not imply a physical blow, but an emotional or psychological one.
Al-Maqdisi wrote, “The body sees with vision (basar) while the soul sees with perception (basirah), and for each (body and soul) there are good and bad qualities.”
Which is Better, the Body or the Soul?
Allah says, “Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. So when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul…” (Qur’an, 38:71-72)
Imam al-Maqdasi said about this verse, “Notice how the body is associated with clay, while the soul is associated with Allah.”
What is Good Character?
Great scholars from our past offered as host of definitions for good character.
Hassan al-Basri said, “Good character is generosity, striving to help others and giving people the benefit of the doubt.”
Ibn Mubarak said, “It is to have a warm smile, struggle towards good and avoid harming others.”
Imam Ahmed said, “To avoid anger, threatening others and grant people the benefit of the doubt.”
An Important Rule when Reading the Words of Scholars
We could summarize al-Maqdisiʼs definition of good character as, “A deep inner state which shines through noble actions and honorable character, whose implementation takes on a subconscious reality.”
The Virtues of Good Character:
- Good character is the main reason people will enter Paradise.
- The Prophet ﷺ encouraged his Companions to have good character.
- A person of good character reaches the stations of those engrossed in worship.
- Good character is beloved to Allah and His Messenger ﷺ.
- Good Character was the way of the Prophet ﷺ.
Is it Possible to Improve One’s Character?
The general consensus is that while some are blessed by Allah to have noble character, it is not a fixed component; it is one that can be disciplined and trained with knowledge and effort. Thus, there are two types of people: those blessed with a natural disposition that is noble, and those who develop it through learning and practice. An example of this is the companion Ashj ʻAbul al-Qayis who the Prophet ﷺ said, “You have two qualities which Allah and His messenger ﷺ love – forbearance and ease.” In another narration, Ashj asked the Prophet ﷺ, “Are these qualities that I have acquired, or did Allah fashion me this way?” The Prophet ﷺ responded, “God created you that way?” Upon hearing this Ashj responded, “All praise be to God who created me with two characteristics beloved to Him and His messenger!”
With that being said, it is agreed that most people must acquire noble character by learning and practicing. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim noted that good character is based on five important qualities:
- A willingness to change;
- Good nature;
- Sound submission (islam).
A few points that support this contention:
1. The Prophet ﷺ said, “I was sent only to complete noble character.” Thus, if the Prophet ﷺ was sent to complete noble character, it would not make sense if people were unable to improve it. There is an important set of axioms that deal with the divine texts:
There is nothing in the divine texts that is useless
Meaning that when we find encouragement, or an order to do an action or refrain from it, that said order has a purpose and it is not simply useless. We find a number of sacred texts that encourage us towards the acquisition of noble qualities and characteristics.
There is no obligating people beyond their scope
This implies that Allah, the Most High, would not ask us to do something beyond our scope. Thus, the orders and encouragement towards good are so numerous in the Qu’ran and the Sunnah (ways of the Prophet ﷺ); and their presence lends to the fact that we are obligated towards the pursuit of noble characters. Thus, they are something within our reach.
2. Imam al-Maqdisi notes that “Just as we see horses, dogs and other animals respond to training, it make perfect sense that such is the case with man.”
Finally, the words of the Prophet ﷺ related by al-Bukhari and Muslim, “Whoever seeks dignity, then Allah will dignify him, whoever seeks patience, then Allah will grant it to him and whoever seeks to enriched, then Allah will enrich him.” Ponder on this statement of the Prophet ﷺ for its blessings are infinite!