An Exposition of the Signs of Good Character

Continued from the Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din of Imam al-Ghazali.

Know that every man is [at first] ignorant of the faults which lie in his soul. When he comes to struggle with it, even in the least degree, until he has abandoned the grosser transgressions, he may think to himself that he has refined his soul and made good his character, and may now dispense with any further struggle. It is therefore essential to explain what are the signs of good character, since good character is equivalent to faith, and bad character to hypocrisy, God (Exalted is He!) has in His Book made mention of the traits which characterise believers and hypocrites, which are all the fruits of good or bad character. We shall now set forth some of the texts so that you may come to know the sign by which good character is to be recognised.

God (Exalted is He!) has said, The faithful have triumphed: who are humble in their prayers who shun vain talk, are payers of the Tithe, who guard their private parts – save from their wives or those whom their right hand possess (for then they are not blameworthy); but whosoever desires what is beyond that, such are the transgressors. And who observe their pledge and their covenant, and who pay heed to their Prayers; such are the inheritors (Qur’an, 23:1-10).

And He has said, Those who repent, who worship, who praise, who fast, who bow, who prostrate, who enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and who keep the limits ordained by God. And give good tidings to the believers! (Qur’an, 9:112)

And He has said (Great and Glorious is He!), Those whose hearts feel fear when God is mentioned, and who, when the signs of God are recited to them, grow in faith, and who trust in their Lord, those who establish the Prayer and spend of that which We have bestowed upon them. Such are the true believers (Qur’an, 8:2-4).

Similarly, He has said (Exalted is He!), The bondsmen of the All-Merciful are they who walk gently upon the earth, and who, when the foolish address them, answer: Peace, to the end of the Sura (Qur’an, 25:63-77).

The man who is uncertain what his condition might be should measure himself against these verses. The presence of all of these attributes betokens a good character, while their complete absence is the sign of a bad one, and the presence of only some indicates a character that is good in parts, and should encourage a man to busy himself with acquiring that which is lacking and preserving that which he possess already. When describing the believer, the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) attributed to him many traits, and referred to their totality as ‘the good traits of character’ [mahasin al-akhlaq]. He said, ‘The believer loves for his brother that which he loves for himself’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Whosoever believes in God and the Last Day should honour his guest’, and ‘Whosoever believes in God and the Last Day should honour his neighbour’, and, ‘Whosoever believes in God and the Last Day should say something good, or remain silent’. He declared that the qualities of believers are the best of qualities: ‘The believer with the most perfect faith is he with the finest character’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘If you see a believer who is quiet and dignified, then draw near to him, for he has been vouchsafed wisdom’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘The man who is made joyful by his good deeds and melancholy by his transgression is a believer’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘It is not permissible for a believer to look at his brother in a manner that hurts him’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘A Muslim should not frighten another Muslim’. And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘When two people sit together they are under a trust established by God; therefore let neither of them speak about his brother afterwards in a way which he would dislike’.

A man once summed up the signs of good character by saying, ‘It is to be abundantly modest, to avoid harming others, to be righteous, truthful in speech, and of little discourse; it is to do many things and slip up infrequently, to avoid excess, to be loyal, friendly, dignified, patient, grateful, satisfied, forbearing, charitable, chaste and pitying; and not curse or to insult people, or to backbite or slander them, and to avoid hastiness, hatred, meanness, and jealousy; to be cheerful and kind, to love [good] and hate [evil] for the sake of God, to be well-pleased with Him and to be angry for His sake. Such is the man of good character’.

The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) was once asked about the distinguishing marks of the believer and the hypocrite. He replied, ‘The believer’s concern is for prayer, fasting and worship, while the hypocrite, like an animal, is concerned with food and drink’.

Hatim al-Asamm said, ‘The believer is occupied with meditation and perseverance, while the hypocrite is occupied with greed and his hope. The believer has despaired of everyone but God, while the hypocrite has set his hopes in everyone save Him. The believer feels safe from everyone except God, while the hypocrite fears not Him, but all others. The believer sets his religion before money, while the hypocrite sets money before his religion. The believer does good and weeps, while the hypocrite does evil, and laughs. The believer loves solitude and isolation, while the hypocrite loves company and assemblies. The believer sows, and fears that his crop will be spoilt, while the hypocrite uproots his crop, and hopes to harvest it. The believer orders and prohibits for the sake of [good] government, and succeeds in setting things right, while the hypocrite orders and prohibits for the sake of power, and causes corruption.’

The finest thing through which good character can be put to the test is steadfastness in the face of suffering, and enduring the harshness of others, for whosoever complains of the bad character of another man has revealed the badness of his own character, since good character is to endure that which offends. God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) was once walking with Anas when one of the nomads came up to him and pulled violently at his thickly-edged Najrani cloak. Anas said, ‘I looked at the neck of God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) and saw that the cloak’s edge had left a mark there, so roughly had it been pulled. Then the nomad said, “O Muhammad! Give me some of God’s money which you have!” And the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) turned to face him, and laughed, and ordered that he be given some money’. And when Quraysh assailed him with injuries and blows, he said, ‘O Lord God! Forgive my people, for truly they do not know’. (It is said that this was on the day of Uhud.) It was for this reason that God (Exalted is He!) said, Assuredly, thou art of a tremendous character (Qur’an, 68:4).

It is told that Ibrahim ibn Adham went out one day into the desert. There he met a soldier, who asked him, ‘Are you a slave?’ and told him that he was. ‘Where is the inhabited country?’ the soldier asked, and Ibrahim pointed to a cemetery. ‘I meant the inhabited country!’ the soldier said, but Ibrahim replied, ‘The cemetery is such’. At this the soldier lost his temper and struck Ibrahim’s head with his goad, cracking his skull. Then he took him back with him to the town, where he was met by his companions, who asked him what had happened. And when the soldier told them, they said, ‘But this is Ibrahim ibn Adham!’ At this the soldier dismounted, and kissed his hands and feet, and tendered his apologies. Later on, Ibrahim was asked why he had called himself a slave. ‘He did not ask me whose slave I was,’ he answered, ‘he merely asked me if I was one, and I said yes, for I am a slave of God. And when he struck my head I asked God to admit him into Heaven’. ‘But he did you an injustice!,’ someone said. ‘How could you pray for such a thing?’ And he replied, ‘I knew that I would be rewarded [for my forebearance], and did not want to come by something good because of him, while he gained something evil because of me’.

Abu ‘Uthman al-Hiri once received an invitation from a man who wished to put him to the test. When he arrived at the latter’s house, he said, ‘You cannot enter now’. so Abu ‘Uthman went away. But before he had gone any great distance, the man called him again, and said, ‘O Shaykh! Come back’, and Abu ‘Uthman did so. Then he called him a third time, and said, ‘Return to what you should be doing at this time’, but when he reached his door again, he repeated what he had first said. He went away, and returned a fourth time, only to receive the same rebuttal. The man continued to do this again and again, with Abu ‘Uthman responding in the same fashion each time. At last, he bent down [and kissed Abu ‘Uthman’s] feet, and said, ‘O Shaykh! I only wanted to test you! How fine is your character!’ But he only replied, ‘The actions you saw me do were no more than the character traits of a dog, for a dog, when ordered not to do something, simply refrains’.

It is related that Abu ‘Uthman was once riding in the street when a pot of ashes was thrown down upon him. He dismounted, and prostrated himself to God in gratitude, and then brushed the ashes from his clothes without saying a word. ‘Shall you not rebuke them?’ he was asked, but he replied, ‘A man who deserves hellfire but receives only ashes cannot fairly be angry’.

It is related that ‘Ali ibn Musa al-Rida was of a swarthy complexion, his mother having been a negress. Near the door of his house at Nisabur there was a public bath, which the attendant would ensure was empty whenever he wanted to use it. One day when he was in this bathhouse the attendant shut the door and went away to run some errands. A rustic then went up to the door of the bathhouse, opened it, entered, and undressed. When he saw ‘Ali ibn Musa al-Rida he thought that he was a bath attendant, and asked him to bring him some water. ‘Ali ibn Musa rose, and followed the man’s every instruction. When the attendant returned, and saw the rustic’s clothes and heard him speaking to ‘Ali ibn Musa, he was terrified, and fled, leaving them where they were. And when Ibn Musa emerged, and asked about the attendant, he was told that he had been so frightened by what had happened that he had run away. ‘He should not have fled,’ Ibn Musa remarked. ‘The fault lies only with the man who slept with a black slavegirl’.

It is related that Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Khayyat had a shop in which he would sit, and a Zoroastrian client who made use of his tailoring services. Whenever he made something for this Zoroastrian, the latter would pay him with bad coins, which Abu ‘Abd Allah would take, without either saying anything to him or refusing them. Now, it so fell out that one day Abu ‘Abd Allah had left his shop on some task, and the Zoroastrian came, and, not finding him, paid his apprentice instead – with a bad coin – for something which had been sewn for him. The apprentice looked at it, saw that it was bad, and gave it back. When Abu ‘Abd Allah returned he told him what had occurred. ‘You have done wrong!’ Abu ‘Abd Allah told him. ‘That Zoroastrian has been dealing with me in this fashion for some while, and I have been patient with him, taking his coins and throwing them into a well so that no other Muslim might be taken in by them’.

Yusuf ibn Asbat said, ‘Good character has ten signs: reluctance to argue, fairness, never hoping for slips in others, looking for a charitable interpretation of other people’s misdeeds, finding excuses for them, tolerating the harm they do to one, blaming oneself, knowing one’s own faults and not those of others, meeting young and old alike with a cheerful face, and speaking kindly to those who are superior or more humble than oneself’.

Sahl was once asked about good character, and said, ‘Its least degree is to tolerate the wrong done to you, and not to seek compensation. It is to have compassion and pity for the one who wrongs you, and to ask God to forgive him’.

Al-Ahnaf ibn Qays was asked from whom he had learnt forbearance. ‘From Qays ibn ‘Asim,’ he replied. ‘How forbearing was he?’ he was then asked, and he answered, ‘Once, when he was sitting in his house, a slave-girl of his came with a large skewer of roast meat. This fell from her hand and landed on and killed his baby. The slave-girl was horrified, but he said, “Do not be afraid. You are free to go: I give you your freedom, hoping for a reward from God”.’

Whenever children pelted Uways al-Qarani with stones he would say to them, ‘Brothers! If you must throw stones at me, then do so with little ones, so that my legs do not bleed, for when they do so I cannot perform the Prayer’.

A man once insulted al-Ahnaf ibn Qays, and followed him about, yet he held his peace. When they drew near to his home district al-Ahnaf stopped, and said, ‘If you have something more to say then say it now, lest some of the foolish men of the district hear you and do you some harm’.

It is related that ‘Ali (may God ennoble his face) once called a slave-boy to him. When he failed to respond he called him a second time, and then a third, yet he still did not respond. So he arose and went to him, and found him lying down. ‘Did you not hear me?’ he asked. ‘Yes I did,’ he replied. ‘So why did you not respond?’ ‘I knew that you would not punish me,’ he said, ‘so I was lazy’. ‘Depart from me,’ he said, ‘for I have freed you for the sake of God’.

A woman once said to Malik ibn Dinar, ‘You hypocrite!’ And he said, ‘Woman, you have found my name which everyone else in Basra has mislaid!’

Yahya ibn Ziyad al-Harithi had an ill-mannered slave-boy. ‘Why do you keep him?’ people asked, ‘He is teaching me forbearance,’ was his reply.

These souls were made humble through discipline, so that their qualities reached an equilibrium and their inner aspects were cleansed of all dishonesty, rancour, and ill-will. This in turn bore fruit in the form of contentment with all that God (Exalted is He!) has decreed, which is the highest form of good character, since the man who dislikes the actions of God is discontented with Him, an attitude which is the most ignoble of all traits. The signs mentioned above appeared in the external aspects of these men; whosoever does not find in himself these same tokens should not be pleased with himself and think that he is possessed of good character; rather should he occupy himself with self-discipline and struggle until he attains this degree, which is an exalted one, attained solely by the Ones Brought Nigh [al-muqarrabun] and the Truthful Saints [al-siddiqun].

Hujjatul Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din)Translated by Shaykh ‘Abdul Hakim Murad (may Allah reward him for his effort and initiative)


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