Good actions are supposed to make us good people. Bad actions usually have the opposite effect. Yet what if ‘good’ actions do not have this positive effect? If doing good can have the opposite result to what was intended, are such good actions really good?
Look at the following verse:
“Kind speech and forgiveness are better than charity followed by injury. And Allah is Free of need and Forbearing.” (Qur’an, 2:263)
If one is not wholeheartedly willing to help a poor person or is unable to, kindly turning down the offer is better than to give charity followed by spiteful words. This is stated despite the fact that giving your wealth in charity is outwardly better and usually harder on the ego than simply offering kind words; Imam Fakhr al-Rāzī mentions why. The first case of charity is from pure goodness, whereas in the second case there is a mixture of good and bad, which can easily be predominated by the latter1. Then to encourage charity without feeling bitter Allah reminds us that He is free of need, whilst we rely on him. By the same logic, we should give to those who look up to us.
To further confirm the fact that spiteful words can destroy the reward of giving charity Allah says:
“O you who have believed, do not invalidate your charities with reminders or injury as does one who spends his wealth [only] to be seen by the people and does not believe in Allah and the Last Day…” (Qur’an, 2:264)
Thus the two causes that invalidate charity are:
1) To follow it with egotistical reminders and spiteful words (al-adhā)
2) To give charity with the intention of showing off (al-riyā’)
In the science of Tafsīr however, there is an agreed upon principle which states it is better to keep the application of a verse more general than to restrict it2. Based on this, as well as keeping in spirit with reflecting upon the Qur’an (4:82), we can generalise the above verse.
Firstly, we can apply this verse to any good deed. This is obvious in the case of showing off (riyā’). There are several Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet ﷺ mentioning the destructive effect riyā’ has on our actions3. As for spite (al-adhā), then we can take this as an indication (juz’ī) to any verbal form of inflicted harm as a result of a good deed we have done. For example, after studying an area of Islam, we can feel very confident in our own opinions and thoughts, leading to ridiculing others or calling them innovators etc…
We can also apply this verse a step further. The specific form of verbal harm can be understood as alluding to any form of harm emanating from someone’s limbs, not necessarily the tongue. As for riyā’, it can be understood as symbolising any harmful action of the heart. For instance, feeling a “holier than thou” complex indicates a problem on both aspects. Here, one carries oneself arrogantly due to the conviction that one is somehow better at being Muslim than others, which is predicated on one’s perceived ‘good actions’.
As for defining what a good deed is has three aspects:
1) The outward form of the action itself,
2) The inward state of the person who performs it, and
3) Whether or not Allah accepts it.
Therefore while some actions may outwardly appear good, they are cancelled out due to the negative state of the person they emanate from. And in that sense a good action can seize to be good, especially when it leads to an evil end. This is a dangerous situation for us for if the very means which Allah gave us to purify our egos of spiritual blemishes become avenues which we use to only strengthen them, how than can we be from those believers described by Allah as having a “sound heart4“?
For those of us who do manage to (1) purify the outward form of the action as well as (2) our inner states, there exists a third level for that action to qualify as wholly good. This depends on whether or not Allah is pleased with that action. And because we can never be entirely sure of our judgment from Allah, we can never have certainty that what we have done is ultimately good or bad. It is this last humbling aspect that helps a Muslim keep their feet on the ground.
Since in the end, the value of our outward action ultimately depends on its connection to our hidden inward. Thus, when we fully understand this, we are all in a better state of hope and fear5. Hope: because of the All Merciful nature of our Lord Who accepts our actions even though they don’t befit His majesty, and fear because we are aware of our own shortcomings and weaknesses.
May Allah help us to act and create with goodness throughout. Ameen.