And whatsoever He has created for you on this earth of varying colors [and qualities from vegetation and fruits, etc. (botanical life) and from animal (zoological life)]. Verily! In this is a sign for people who remember. The Holy Quran 16:13

Surat al-Baqarah Verse 177 (Ayat al-Birr)

This transcript is based on the audio recordings of Late Dr. Israr Ahmad (Rahimahullah) and paraphrased for clarity. 

لَيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَنْ تُوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آَمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآَخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآَتَى الْمَالَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآَتَى الزَّكَاةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُوا وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ أُولَئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ

“Virtue does not lie in turning your faces to the East or to the West. The truly good are those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, the Angels, the Book and the Prophets, and who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and the very poor, and to travelers and beggars and to set slaves free, and who establish salat and pay zakat; those who honor their contracts when they make them, and are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. It is these who are truthful and it is these who are righteous” ((al-Baqarah, 2:177).

The second lesson of the selected course of study of the Qur’an is the explanation of ayah 177 of Surat al-Baqarah. There is no particular name designated to this ayah. However, since it deals with the concept of virtue (al-Birr), it shall henceforth be referred to as Ayat al-Birr.

Four Preliminary Points about Ayat al-Birr

Firstly, it is one of the longest verses (ayaat) of the Qur’an. It is greater in length than at least 20 surahs of the Qur’an and is about 3.5 times longer than Surat al-‘Asr. The Qur’an consists of long as well as short surahs and ayaat. This phenomenon is not based on or governed by any principle of logic, rule of grammar; or intervention of the human mind, but rather on what the Prophet (SAW) told us. It is something given or tawqifi.   

Secondly, after discussing Surat al-‘Asr in the first lesson, it is most appropriate that Ayat al-Birr be discussed in the second lesson. This is because of the relationship between them, and a common theme that they share. This is like the relationship between Surat al-Ikhlas and Ayat al-Kursi. Just as Ayat al-Kursi is the most comprehensive ayah on the subject of tawhid, likewise Ayat al-Birr is the most extensive ayah on the subject of real virtue (al-Birr). 

The four conditions of success on the Day of Judgment mentioned in Surat al-‘Asr are (1) having real faith (iman), (2) doing righteous deeds (al-‘Amal al-Salih), (3) exhorting one another to truth (Tawasi bil-Haq), and (4) exhorting one another to patience (Tawasi bil-Sabr). Ayat al-Birr is an exposition of three of these four conditions. 

While Surat al-‘Asr mentions faith or iman as the first condition for salvation, Ayat al-Birr discusses this iman in detail to include iman in Allah, iman in the Hereafter, iman in the Angels, iman in the Books, and iman in the Prophets. These five articles of iman are potentially present in Surat al-‘Asr, but only in the form of a bud with five enclosed petals that takes shape of a flower in full bloom in Ayat al-Birr. 

Surat al-‘Asr mentions good deeds or al-‘Amal al-Salih as the second condition for success, Ayat al-Birr explains that these good deeds fall under three main categories: (1) fulfilling the rights of fellow human beings (Huqooq al-‘Ibad) by having mercy and sympathy toward them, and by actually spending on them for the sake of Allah (SWT); (2) fulfilling the rights of Allah (Huqooq Allah) through prayers (salah) and obligatory charity (zakah), and (3) fulfilling and honoring human relations including all types of business and social contracts. These three categories are like the three branches of a tree, the trunk of which is ‘good deeds’ or al-‘Amal al-Salih. 

The third condition for success in Surat al-’Asr is exhorting one another to truth (Tawasi bil-Haq). While this is not mentioned in express terms in Ayat al-Birr, it is however implied, and a reference to this will be made later on. 

The fourth condition for success mentioned in Surat al-‘Asr has to do with exhorting one another to patience (Tawasi bil-Sabr). Ayat al-Birr mentions the three occasions in which patience, fortitude, and forbearance are required—misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These situations are faced in times of fear, hunger, loss of life, loss of wealth, situations of conflicts and so on. It is in such times when one’s strength of character is tested. Such were the state of affairs with the Prophet (SAW) and his companions, especially during the Meccan era of the Prophet’s life. The subject discussed very profoundly, yet very succinctly in Surat al-‘Asr is elucidated in detail in Ayat al-Birr.

The Need to have a Code of Virtue

The third point about this ayah is the Qur’anic concept of virtue. The ayah begins with a negation of some limited and superficial notions of virtue, which at times may even be perverted, and then gives a very comprehensive and complete concept of real virtue. 

Every human being needs food, water, and air for his bodily existence. Likewise, every human being, however immoral or unethical he may be has some concept of virtue and tries to live by it for his internal and spiritual satisfaction and in order to satisfy his conscience. Often, criminals and people with questionable characters justify their wrong actions by projecting their acts of good deeds, such as spending on the destitute, helping the widows and caring for the orphans. They try to balance and offset their wicked deeds with their virtuous deeds. They practice their own codes of virtue to keep themselves composed inwardly. 

In a society, different groups of people have different concepts of virtue and piety. If we were to look at the Muslim society, we find two distinct groups of people having their own concepts of virtue and piety. One group consists of the so called ‘religious people’ who place all their emphasis on adherence to dogma, observance of rituals, and an outward manifestation of religiosity in their style of dressing, appearance, and behavior. They may even be engaged in acts of charity, giving huge donations toward building mosques, learning centers, orphanages,   and helping the poor and the deprived. However, they have no problem in leading their lives against the tenets and ethical values of Islam by freely indulging in activities that are absolutely forbidden, such as dealing in usurious transactions (riba), lying, cheating, defrauding, hoarding, exploiting, and so on. Undoubtedly, there are also people who are deeply religious both outwardly and inwardly, but such people are few and far between. 

The other group is made up of the educated, modern, liberal, and progressive type of Muslims whose leaning is more toward humanism than toward the deen of Islam. They are not concerned with religious rituals, dogma, and external appearance. Rather their thoughts center on humans and their values of honesty and integrity. They marginalize religion, but are otherwise concerned with the interests, needs, and welfare of humans. 

Thus the concept of real virtue or piety is different with different groups of people, and each group seems to be happy and content with its own code of virtue. 

 Purity of Intention

It is human limitation that we judge any action on the basis of its external manifestation.  Since a person’s intention (niyyah) behind an action cannot be perceived or gauged, we tend to pass judgment on the external manifestation of the action. An insincere politician, for example, who is about to contest for elections may do certain acts of charity to please the people of his county while his intention may well be nothing more than to capture peoples’ votes. There can be extreme conflict between the intention and the action behind that intention. An apparently noble deed may lead a person to doom because of his or her intent to cheat, deceive or show off. 

There is a hadith that highlights the importance of sincerity of intention (ikhlas al-niyyah) in all our actions. This hadith is so significant that most of the classical scholars of hadith (mhaddithun) begin their collection of ahadith with this particular hadith:  It is narrated on the authority of Amirul Mu'minin, Abu Hafs 'Umar bin al-Khattab (RA), who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (SAW) say: إنما الأعمال بالنيات  ("innama al-a'malu bi-l-niyyat," – “actions are judged by intentions…” ). Imam Rajab, a traditional Muslim scholar commenting on this hadith said, “The first sentence of the hadith is a declaration that the voluntary actions of a person are a consequence only of that person's purpose to perform the act or bring it into existence. The second sentence, وإنما لكل امرئ ما نوى ("wa innama li-kulli imri` ma nawa," – “so each man will have what he intended”) is a declaration of religion's judgment of the act in question. Thus, if the intention motivating an act is good, then performance of the act is good and the person receives its reward. As for the corrupt intention, if the action it motivates is corrupt, the person receives punishment for it. Therefore, acts in themselves, their goodness, foulness or neutrality, from the perspective of religion are judged according to the actor's intention that caused their existence.” 

Two persons doing the same pious act with different intentions will be judged equally by us, but the judgment of their action with Allah (SWT) will depend upon the intentions behind their action—the states of their hearts at the time of performing the particular act, which is known only to Allah (SWT). To explain this phenomenon, there is a hadith that says, "The one who prays and wants people to see him has committed shirk. The one who fasts and wants the people to know about his fasting has committed shirk. The one who gave charity (sadaqah) and wants people to know about his charity has committed shirk."  

Associating others with Allah (SWT) is shirk, which may either be manifest (al-shirk al-jali) or hidden (al-shirk al-khafi). The shirk mentioned in the above hadith refers to riya (showing off), which comes under the category of al-shirk al-khafi. The hidden shirk is very elusive, and its inconspicuous and unnoticeable nature has been described by the Prophet (SAW) as “the creeping of the black ant on a black rock in the pitch darkness of the night.” There are individuals including Muslims who succumb to their lustful desires to the point that they are enslaved by them. Thus Allah (SWT) says, 

 أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَهَهُ هَوَاهُ

“Have you seen him who takes his whims and desires to be his god?” (al-Jathiyah, 45:23).

Hence, it is incumbent upon us that we should shun and guard ourselves from any kind of shirk. As for the major shirk, it is the worst sin that one could commit. Allah (SWT) is willing to pardon any person for any sin except the sin of shirk, which implies associating anything or anyone with Allah (SWT). We find this stated clearly twice in Surat al-Nisa’, once in ayah 48, and the second time in ayah 116.

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَغْفِرُ أَنْ يُشْرَكَ بِهِ وَيَغْفِرُ مَا دُونَ ذَلِكَ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ وَمَنْ يُشْرِكْ بِاللَّهِ فَقَدِ افْتَرَى إِثْمًا عَظِيمًا

“God will not forgive anyone for associating something with Him, while He will forgive whoever He wishes for anything besides that. Whoever ascribes partners to God is guilty of a monstrous sin” (al-Nisa’, 4:48).

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَغْفِرُ أَنْ يُشْرَكَ بِهِ وَيَغْفِرُ مَا دُونَ ذَلِكَ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ وَمَنْ يُشْرِكْ بِاللَّهِ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلَالًا بَعِيدًا

“Surely, God will not forgive the ascribing of partners to Him. He forgives whoever He will for anything other than that. Whoever ascribes partners to God has strayed far indeed” (al-Nisa’, 4:116).

In his book Ad-Daa wad-Dawaa (‘The Sickness and the Cure’), Ibn al-Qayyim explains the hadith of the first three to be thrown into Hell on the Day of Resurrection. He says, “From Abu Hurairah, who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘Verily, the first to be judged on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who had died as a martyr. He will be brought forward. Allah will remind him of the favors He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. Then He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I fought for Your Cause till I was martyred.’ Allah will say: `You have lied. You fought so that people might call you courageous; and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell.  

Next a man who had acquired and imparted knowledge and read the Qur’an will be brought forward, Allah will remind him of the favors He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. Then He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I acquired knowledge and taught it, and read the Qur’an for Your sake.’ Allah will say to him: `You have lied. You acquired knowledge so that people might call you a learned (man), and you read the Qur’an so that they might call you a reciter, and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him, and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell. 

Next a man whom Allah had made affluent and to whom Allah had given plenty of wealth, will be brought forward, Allah will remind him of the favors He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I did not neglect any of the ways You liked wealth to be spend liberally for Your sake’. Allah will say to him: `You have lied. You did it so that people might call you generous, and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell.” And the wording, “So these are the first of Allah’s creation the Fire will be kindled with on the Day of Resurrection.” 

This explains the world of difference that can exist between the inner motive of an action and the manifestation of that action. One’s niyyah can only be made pure through iman. The niyyah of a person with deep iman motivates him to do everything that will please Allah and that will make him or her successful in the Hereafter. Socrates had said, “Knowledge is virtue and ignorance is evil.” From an Islamic perspective, this is correct in the sense that real knowledge is to have the knowledge of the metaphysical realities; of Allah, of resurrection and accountability on the Day of Judgment, and of an eternal life in the Hereafter. It is this philosophical knowledge that we call iman. 

 إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ

“It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true awe of God” (Fatir, 35:28).

And indeed, ignorance (jahiliyyah) is evil, because without iman, one does not know the purpose of one’s life; one’s position in the cosmic scheme of things, and one’s ultimate fate. Thus, it is only the person of true faith who will have real positive motivation to do an action because such action will only be done for the love of Allah and to please Allah. The negative motivation to do an act will not be directed toward loving and pleasing Allah, and will consequently lead the doer of the action to his or her ultimate doom.  

Human Personality should be the same outwardly and inwardly

Allah (SWT) has made it clear through Ayat al-Birr that essentially, virtue is a spirit which permeates the whole personality of a person. It starts with his thinking. His thinking should be right; his concept should be clear; his worldview (weltanschauung) should be right; his philosophy should be correct, and then this spirit of piety and righteousness and virtue should permeate his whole personality, and transform it into a balanced person. Every aspect of his life should be based on virtue. It is not possible for a person to be partially virtuous and partially sinful. Both virtue and evil cannot coexist in one personality. We may get deceived by the manifestation of a person’s action or behavior, but basically a person is either virtuous or sinful. To make the concept of virtue crystal clear, this blessed ayah portrays the model of virtue that should be reflected in the personality and character of a truly virtuous person.

Background of Revelation of Ayat al-Birr: Changing of the Direction of the Qiblah

The fourth point about Ayat al-Birr is to know the background and context under which it was revealed in order to get an insight into its message. Ayat al-Birr was revealed following the incident of Tahweel al-Qiblah or changing of the direction of Qiblah from Jerusalem to the Ka’ba in Mecca. Till such time that the Prophet (SAW) was at Mecca, he used to pray facing the Ka’ba toward the North. In this position, while he was facing Ka’ba, he was also facing Jerusalem, because Jerusalem lay further up north. After the hijrah, and while in Medina, the Prophet (SAW) prayed for about a year and a half facing Jerusalem. It is possible that the Prophet (SAW) was directed by Allah through al-Wahy al-Khafi (revelation that is not a part and parcel of the Qur’an) to face Jerusalem during prayers performed in Medina. It is also possible that this decision was taken on the basis of a personal ijtihad made by the Prophet (SAW), which was duly acknowledged by Allah (SWT).  

However, while facing Jerusalem in prayers, the backs of those who prayed were toward the Ka’ba in Mecca, because of it being situated at the south of Medina. This became a test for the companions of the Prophet (SAW) who had migrated from Mecca. It burdened their feelings. They belonged to the progeny of Ismail (AS) and Ibrahim (AS). The Ka’ba was dear to them not only because of its religious origins, having being initially built by Adam (AS), but also because of its racial and ethnical links with their forefathers—Ibrahim (AS) and Ismail (AS). However, it is obligatory upon all Muslims to follow the commands of the Prophet (SAW), and the companions did so, despite their being put to a big test. Nearly a year and a half after the hijrah, an ayah was revealed directing the Prophet (SAW) to change his Qiblah from Jerusalem to al-Masjid al-Haram (al- Ka’ba) in Mecca.

قَدْ نَرَى تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِي السَّمَاءِ فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَاهَا فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنْتُمْ فَوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ وَمَا اللَّهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ

“We have seen you looking up into heaven, turning this way and that, so We will turn you towards a direction which will please you. Turn your face, therefore, towards the Masjid al-Haram. Wherever you all are, turn your faces towards it. Those given the Book know it is the truth from their Lord. Allah is not unaware of what they do“(al-Baqarah, 2:144).

The Jews in and around Medina, even though in minority, were influential as they were rich, learned and organized. They had fortifications around Medina. They also had a Revealed Book and a Shariah. They got alarmed when the Qiblah was changed. Jerusalem was their Qiblah. It was the seat of Temple of Solomon. It dawned upon them that the incident of change of Qiblah (Tahweel al-Qiblah) from Jerusalem to Mecca manifested the creation of a new Muslim ummah and the consequent marginalization of the Jewish community. They began to create doubts and suspicion in the hearts and minds of naïve believers regarding this incident by telling them that their prayers offered earlier facing Jerusalem had gone in vain. They also began to raise propaganda about the Prophet’s fickle nature of not remaining fixed and stable with the earlier Qiblah (Jerusalem). 

It is in the context of the above incident of the change of Qiblah that Ayat al-Birr was revealed to explain to the people that righteousness did not merely comprise of praying toward a particular direction but real virtue and piety had to do with real faith and a host of other good deeds. 

There is a special style of the Qur’an that is worth mentioning. Whenever a message of great significance is to be discussed in the Qur’an, it is discussed fully at one place, and elsewhere, the same subject is discussed in a more general way.  The incident of change of Qiblah has been discussed in as many as eleven ayat of Surat al-Baqarah (ayat 142-152).  This was done because of the importance of the message that had to be fully impressed upon the minds of the people. Then, we have ayah 115 of Surat al-Baqarah, which indicates that the fixation of the Qiblah and praying in one particular direction is only for the purpose of solidarity and discipline among Muslims. Otherwise, Allah’s presence is not limited to any one direction. He is All-Encompassing and All-Knowing. 

وَلِلَّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

“The East and the West belong to Allah. Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of Allah. Allah is all pervading and all knowing” (al-Baqarah, 2:115).

The same message is discussed again in ayah 177 of Surat al-Baqarah (Ayat al-Birr) from the perspective of the correct concept of virtue, piety, and righteousness.  Piety is not an issue of facing a particular direction in prayers. Although external manifestations of things are important as no spirit can exist without a form, yet it is more important that attention should be directed more towards the spirit, essence, and the underlying principles of things. When people attach too much emphasis on the form and to the exterior aspect of an action, then the thinking gets distorted and the concepts become perverted.  We prostrate toward Ka’ba and not to Ka’ba. We prostrate to none but Allah (SWT) who is transcendent and beyond the perception and comprehension of our senses. It is as if the Muslims are being told that all their concern is due to their limited concept of virtue, and that  concept needs to be widened and corrected. 

The Meaning of al-Birr

The word Birr has been variously translated as virtue, piety, righteousness, and charity. It is derived from the root letters baa-raa-raa. The word Barr, meaning land, is also derived from the same root letters. The word for sea or ocean is Arabic is Bahr. In olden days, whenever a man set out to sea (Bahr), he felt uneasy because of the hazards involved in the sea voyage. He only felt truly safe, secure, happy, and satisfied once he came back and set foot on land (Barr). Birr has to do with the inner satisfaction, spiritual pleasure, and happiness that one gets in doing a good deed; an act of charity. It is the internal sense of security, peace, and satisfaction that is actually the essence of the word Birr. 

Our actions can be divided into two categories. Either we act out of some urges coming from our animal instincts like eating and drinking to satisfy our hunger or thirst, or we do something to satisfy our spirit and soul. The actions we perform for the inner happiness of our souls, and just for our spiritual pleasure is actually Birr.

There is no difference between the smoke that rises out of the hearth from a rich man’s mansion or a poor man’s hut. Similarly, good deeds done by the rich or the poor rise upwards towards heaven. The doing of good deeds is open to everyone alike. However, it is the quality of the action and the intention behind it that holds value with Allah.

The Requirements of al-Birr 

Faith in Allah (SWT)

According to Ayat al-Birr, the first requirement for real virtue or piety is to have iman in Allah (SWT), iman in the Hereafter, iman in the Angels, iman in the Books, and iman in the Prophets. The last three among these five articles of faith make up what is called believing in the institution of Prophethood (iman bil-Risalah) that involves Angel Jibril bringing down the Books (scriptures) by way of revelations to the Prophets for the purpose of providing guidance to mankind. 

The reason why iman in Allah (SWT) and iman in the Hereafter are mentioned before iman in the institution of Prophethood is because belief in Allah (SWT) and in the Hereafter is what purifies one’s intention and motivates one to become righteous and virtuous. A deed is really virtuous, when it is done only to please Allah (SWT) and not to please anyone else and the reward of which is only sought in the Hereafter, and not in this world. If the reward of the good deed is sought in this world, then it is not the Birr that Allah (SWT) would like and accept. If these two conditions of iman in Allah (SWT) and iman in the Hereafter are not fulfilled, however great an act of piety may appear to be, it has no weight in the eyes of Allah (SWT), nor will it carry any weight in the balance of Allah (SWT) on the Day of Judgment. 

Iman in Allah (Tawhid) is the first and the most fundamental of the articles of faith. All other articles of faith may be taken to be its corollaries. It marks a definite turning point in one’s life, at which one is freed from servitude and submission to all manner of powers. Force and desires, and submits to Allah alone. It is a transformation from chaos to order, from aimlessness to purpose, and from fragmentation to unity. It is a focal point around which all mankind stands equal in the eyes of God and which gives the whole of existence direction, balance, and coherence.  

It was Kant, the father of modern philosophy, who wrote a book called “The Critique of Theoretical Reason,” in which he said that there was no proof or logical explanation of God’s existence. Subsequently, he wrote another book called “The Critique of Practical Reason,” the essence of which was that there can be no morality without belief in God. In other words, from the Islamic perspective, there can be no real virtue or Birr without iman in Allah (SWT).

 The motivation that compels one to tell the truth and not to tell a lie, although one may incur a harm or loss in doing so is that Allah (SWT) likes one to tell the truth, and will reward one on the Day of Judgment for telling the truth. Allah (SWT) does not love the liar and will punish him on the Day of Judgment for lying. And the punishment of the Hereafter is much greater than the loss that one will have to sustain here if one tells a lie.  

Therefore, the only basis and foundation of moral life is belief in Allah (SWT). Even though one may believe in some moral and ethical values and laws, one needs some motivation to have a moral attitude in life, and that motivation cannot be achieved except through iman in Allah (SWT). 

Faith in the Hereafter  

Belief in the Hereafter (al-Akhirah) is also an integral part of iman. Numerous ayat of the Qur’an and ahadith speak of life after death, beginning with barzakh or the intermediate state in which the soul of the deceased is believed to be transferred across the boundaries of the mortal realm into a kind of ‘sleep’ in which the soul would supposedly rest until the Day of Judgment.

It is significant to note the two-thirds of the Qur’an, which was revealed in Mecca speaks mainly of the concept of al-Akhirah and of al-Ghayb (the unseen). In fact, all the articles of faith—belief in Allah, the angels, the scriptures (in their original forms in the preserved Tablet), the messengers, the Last Day, and the divine decree are beyond the realm of the ‘seen,’ and constitute a part of the ‘unseen’. One of the fundamental qualities of a believer is to believe in the unseen. We have in Surat al-Baqarah,

ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ () الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنْفِقُونَ ()

“This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of Allah, who believe in the unseen, keep up the prayer, and give out of what We have provided for them” (al-Baqarah, 2:2-3).

To those who deny life after death and the occurrence of the Hereafter, Allah (SWT) says,

لَا أُقْسِمُ بِيَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ () وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ () أَيَحْسَبُ الْإِنْسَانُ أَلَّنْ نَجْمَعَ عِظَامَهُ () بَلَى قَادِرِينَ عَلَى أَنْ نُسَوِّيَ بَنَانَهُ ()

“I swear by the Day of Resurrection, and by the self-reproaching soul; does man think We shall

not put his bones back together? In fact, We are well able to reshape his very fingertips” (al-Qiyamah, 75:1-4).

It is reported that when Allah revealed the ayah

وَأَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ

“And warn your closest kin” (al-Shu’ara, 2226:214).

Allah's Messenger (SAW) got up and said, ''O people of Quraish (or said similar words)! Save yourselves (from the Hellfire) as I cannot save you from Allah's Punishment; O Bani Abd Manaf! I cannot save you from Allah's Punishment, O Safiya, the Aunt of Allah's Messenger! I cannot save you from Allah's Punishment; O Fatima bint Muhammad! Ask me anything from my wealth, but I cannot save you from Allah's Punishment.''

In one of his moving sermons, the Prophet (SAW) said, “I swear by Allah that all of you will certainly die, just as you go to sleep at night. Then surely you will all be raised again as you wake up in the morning. Then you will definitely be judged for the deeds you had been doing. You will get rewards for good deeds and punishment for the evil ones; it will either be the everlasting life of Paradise or the endless torment of Hell-fire.” Hence belief in al-Akhirah constitutes believing in all these things of the unseen.

Man is prone to be rebellious by nature because he finds himself self-sufficient and independent of his Creator. The world is governed by physical laws and not moral laws. Moreover, no harm comes to man immediately for the moral choices he makes. He thinks, therefore, that he can get away with what he does because he does not believe, does not care, or is not conscious about being rewarded or punished for his deeds in the Hereafter.

كَلَّا إِنَّ الْإِنْسَانَ لَيَطْغَى () أَنْ رَآَهُ اسْتَغْنَى ()

“No indeed, man exceeds all bounds; when he thinks he is self-sufficient” (al-‘Alaq, 96:6-7).

But the fact of the matter is that man has to return to his Lord.

إِنَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ الرُّجْعَىٰ

“Truly, to your Lord is the return” (al-‘Alaq, 96:8).

The last three verses of the Qur’an sum up the whole philosophy of iman in the Hereafter (Iman bil-Akhirah). Belief in the Hereafter is a belief in universal and divine justice. It is testimony to the fact that human life on earth is not without purpose or value or order, and that good works that seem to go unrewarded shall certainly be rewarded. 

Faith in the Institution of Prophethood

The last three among these five articles of faith make up what is called believing in the institution of Prophethood (iman bil-Risalah) and involves Angel Jibril bringing down the Books (Scriptures) by way of revelations to the Prophets for the purpose of providing guidance to mankind.

Believing in the Angels is an essential part of believing in a world that is beyond human perception. It is what distinguishes the way humans perceive the world and understand it from the way animals do. Animals perceive the world through their senses and instincts, while man believes in a world that lies beyond the reach of his perception.

To believe in the Books and the Prophets means to attest, without reservation, to the truth, honesty, and integrity of all the revealed Books and all the Prophets and messengers God commissioned to deliver them at various times of human history. This leads to a belief in the unity of the human race, serving God alone, abiding by one and the same religion and adhering to one universal divine order. This outlook has a profound effect on the personality of the believer, who is seen as custodian of the heritage of God’s messengers and divine message. 

The manifestation of al-Birr was practically demonstrated by the Prophets and messengers of Allah (SWT) who were the models of real virtue and piety. They were the best human beings of their times, having the most balanced personalities.

لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الآَخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا

“The Messenger of Allah is an excellent model for those of you who put your hope in Allah and the Last Day and remember Allah very often.”(al-Ahzab, 33:21).

Real virtue requires maintaining a balanced personality and not letting virtue grow out of proportion lest it turns into evil. This is how the institutions of monasticism or asceticism (rahbaniyyah) crept into the religious thought of Christianity. The monks in their desire to seek God’s good pleasure adopted asceticism. Monks would lead a life of celibacy, isolation, and extreme austerity. Their path made them transgress the limits of human nature. Consequently, this perverted their own nature and gave way to many social problems such as clandestine sexual relationships, child abuse, and homosexuality. In ayah 27 of Surat al-Hadid, Allah (SWT) says, 

 وَرَهْبَانِيَّةً ابْتَدَعُوهَا مَا كَتَبْنَاهَا عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَّا ابْتِغَاءَ رِضْوَانِ اللَّهِ فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا فَآَتَيْنَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا مِنْهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ وَكَثِيرٌ مِنْهُمْ فَاسِقُونَ

“They invented monasticism — We did not prescribe it for them — purely out of desire to gain the pleasure of Allah, but even so they did not observe it as it should have been observed. To those of them who believed, We gave their reward but many of them are transgressors” (al-Hadid, 57:27).

It is reported that a group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet (SAW) asking how the Prophet (SAW) worshipped Allah, and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, "Where are we from the Prophet as his past and future sins have been forgiven." Then one of them said, "I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever." The other said, "I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast." The third said, "I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever." Allah's Messenger came to them and said, "Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers)."

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) once asked a companion: "(Is it true) that you fast all day and stand in prayer all night?" The companion replied that the report was indeed true. The Prophet then said: "Do not do that! Observe the fast sometimes and also leave (it) at other times. Stand up for prayer at night and also sleep at night. Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you." 

Practical Manifestation of Faith

As mentioned earlier, the broad spectrum of real virtue (al-Birr) in Ayat al-Birr is basically divided into three categories. These are: (1) fulfilling the rights of fellow human beings (Huqooq al-‘Ibad) by having mercy and sympathy toward them and by actually spending on them for the sake of Allah (SWT); (2) fulfilling the rights of Allah (Huqooq Allah) through prayers (salah) and obligatory charity (zakah) since He is their Creator, Sustainer, and Master and (3) fulfilling business transactions, marriage contracts, promises, and all other trusts. 

It is noteworthy that the first and foremost manifestation of iman and testimony of faith (shahadah) should normally be prayers (salah). Yet in Ayat al-Birr, it is not salah but al-Birr or righteousness. This is because when there is a discussion about the pillars of Islam or the modes of worship, then it is salah that is mentioned as the link or immediate manifestation of iman. But when the discussion is about charity, then iman is followed by mentioning charitable deeds and acts of kindness. In the context of obedience, for example, the order is to obey Allah, obey the Prophet (SAW), and obey those holding authority; or in the context of expressing one’s gratitude, the order is to show gratitude to Allah by not ascribing partners to Him and to show gratitude to one’s parents.

Fulfilling the Rights of Fellow Human Beings

According to this blessed ayah, the first manifestation of piety after iman is to have kindness, sympathy and mercy toward fellow human beings. According to a hadith, “He who is deprived of kindness is deprived of good.” There is another hadith that says, “Whoever relieves a believer from one of the hardships of this world, Allah will relieve him from one of the hardships of the Day of Judgment. And whoever eases a straitened circumstance (for the believer), Allah will make it easy for him in this life and the Hereafter; and whoever covers a believer, Allah will cover him in this life and in the Hereafter. Allah is at the assistance of the slave (of His) so long as the slave is at the assistance of his brother…” 

Describing the qualities of virtuous people, Ayat al-Birr tells us,

وَآَتَى الْمَالَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ

“And who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth.”

The spending of wealth has been tied up with ‘despite their love for it’ (عَلَى حُبِّهِ----‘ala hubbihi) which has three possible meanings. Firstly, the pronoun in hubbihi may refer to Allah (SWT), in which case, it would mean that in spending wealth one should not be guided by material motives or the desire to show off. Such spending should rather be done out of love for Allah (SWT) whose majesty requires that this be done with perfect sincerity. The second possibility is that this pronoun refers to wealth, in which case it would mean that, while spending in the way of Allah, only that part of one’s wealth and possessions which one loves will be deserving of merit. The third possibility is that the pronoun refers to the infinitive آَتَى (‘to give’) which emerges from the word   إِيتَاءِ  (giving) found in the text (al-Nahl, 16:90), in which case, the meaning could be that one should be fully satisfied in the heart with what one spends. Imam al-Jassas has suggested the likelihood that all three meanings may be inclusive in the statement. The Qur’an also tells us,

لَن تَنَالُوا الْبِرَّ حَتَّىٰ تُنفِقُوا مِمَّا تُحِبُّونَ وَمَا تُنفِقُوا مِن شَيْءٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ بِهِ عَلِيمٌ 

“You will never attain piety (Birr) until you spend out of what you hold dear, and whatever you may spend of anything, Allah indeed knows it” (Aal ‘Imran, 3:92).

It may be inferred from this ayah that a person who is miserly and without kindness of heart, or who has no sympathy toward his fellow human beings, even though he might be a great scholar (‘aalim), a famous exegete of the Qur’an (mufasssir), a well-known scholar of hadith (muhaddith), a well-known jurist (mufti / faqih), he cannot be virtuous according to the verdict of the Qur’an.    

Pious believers have the right attitude. They love doing good to others not for worldly gains or praise, but for the sake of pleasing Allah (SWT) and to be successful in the Hereafter. This notion is beautifully reflected in the ayah, which speaks of true believers as saying,

إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا () إِنَّا نَخَافُ مِنْ رَبِّنَا يَوْمًا عَبُوسًا قَمْطَرِيرًا

“We only feed you for the sake of God; we do not desire from you any reward or thanks. We fear from our Lord a Day, which will be horrible and difficult" (al-Insan, 76:9-10).

The significance of this commendable act of charity and sacrifice is that it liberates man from stinginess, selfishness, greed and excessive love of wealth, which cripple one’s ability to give and help those who are in need. It is a highly spiritual act of altruism when someone of means has the courage and the generosity to give away his dearest and most precious possessions. It is an act of liberation for the human soul when man rises above worldly desires and materialistic instincts. It is an admirable achievement, which Islam commends and values very highly.  

Charity is also a social value that strengthens the bonds of love and trust within the family unit, the vital nucleus of society, and preserves the dignity of its members. The first and foremost in the list of worthy recipients who deserve to be given from our wealth are our relatives, especially those who are close to us through relations of the womb. Ironically, they are the ones to whom people are generally disinclined to give. We are obliged to keep the ties of kinship intact, and helping them financially is one of the ways of doing it. There is a hadith that says that those who give their wealth to their relatives will have a double reward—one for maintaining the ties of kinship and another for charity (sadaqah). 

Charity towards orphans in society achieves social justice and helps to save the young and the weak from homelessness, corruption and abuse. Taking care of orphans is highly meritorious. The Prophet (SAW) himself was an orphan. In a hadith, the Prophet (SAW) said, "I and the person who looks after an orphan will be in Paradise together like this..." - then he raised his forefinger and middle finger together. 

The third group of people who should be helped monetarily is the miskeen. The Prophet (SAW) said: “The miskeen (poor person) is not the one for whom a date-fruit or two, or a morsel or two (of food) is sufficient, but the miskeen is he who does not beg or ask the people for anything or show his poverty at all.” This hadith defines who a miskeen is. It is not someone who is obviously poor, or who begs of people, but someone who is ashamed to let people know of his need and poverty. Such people can be recognized by their faces and by our sensitivity. Out of self-respect they do not ask others to help them but suffer in silence. They are truly deserving of our help. 

Another group of people entitled for charity are the wayfarers or travelers. They are those who may be well off otherwise, but while on journey, they have been confronted with difficulties such as having lost their money, ticket, identification cards etc and are therefore deserving of our help to overcome their problems.

Even when it comes to giving to beggars (fuqara’), who are yet another type of recipients deserving help, we should never scold them or scorn at them.

وَأَمَّا السَّائِلَ فَلَا تَنْهَرْ

 “And as for beggars, do not rebuke them” (al-Dhuha, 93:10).

It is learnt from many Prophetic traditions and from the sirah (biography) of the Prophet (SAW) that Islam abhors begging and encourages people to maintain their honor and dignity. The Prophet (SAW) said: “Man should call upon Allah alone to provide for all his needs, so much so that even if a shoe-lace is broken, he should pray to Allah to provide a shoe-lace, and if he needs salt, he should beseech Allah to send it to him.” Narrated Ibn 'Umar: I heard Allah's Messenger (SAW) while he was on the pulpit speaking about charity, to abstain from asking others for some financial help and about begging others, saying, "The upper hand is better than the lower hand. The upper hand is that of the giver and the lower hand is that of the beggar."

Actually, Allah tests His servants in both ways. One group of people face His test by refraining from begging and asking others for help. Others face His test by not repulsing or repelling the one who asks for help. So, everyone has to do his best to emerge successful in the test. 

The slaves are also among those who are entitled for financial help so that they can be freed from slavery, but as the institution of slavery is no longer in vogue, the scholars are of the opinion that in contemporary times, settling debts of Muslims who genuinely need to be extricated from financial debts falls into this category.  

Fulfilling the Rights of Allah (Huqooq Allah)

The regular observance of prayer (salah) is an important aspect of righteousness. Prayer is more than a sequence of bodily movements, and there is more to it than facing in a certain direction, east or west. It is more than a simple act of spiritual meditation. Prayer, an act of total submission and dedication to God, epitomizes the entire Islamic outlook on life. 

Islam recognizes the human being as a complex entity comprising body, mind and soul, and perceives no contradiction or conflict among their respective roles or needs. Prayer combines the activity of all three elements in an integrated act of worship dedicated completely to the adoration and glorification of God almighty. The bodily movements of standing (qiyam), bowing (ruku’) and prostration (sujood), and the recitation of Qur’anic verses and other prescribed text and the deliberated reflection required on that, and exclusive devotion to God, unite beautifully during prayer in a unique and splendid combination. Maintaining this standard in the performance of prayer is a reminder and a fulfillment of the essence and purpose of Islam as a whole.    

Paying the obligatory charity (zakah) is another aspect of righteousness. This is a social tax instituted by Allah (SWT), the ultimate provider, as a token of the entitlement of the poor to a share in the wealth of the rich. It is clear from the text that zakah is separate from, and not a substitute for, the charitable spending (sadaqah) mentioned earlier. While giving to those causes is voluntary, payment of zakah is a religious duty in its own right, and both are essential factors in attaining righteousness. 

Prayers (salah) and obligatory charity (zakah) are two of the most important rights of Allah (SWT). It is obligatory upon all believers to pray five times a day and give the obligatory charity regularly. Both these acts of worship connect one with one’s Creator and have been mentioned in the ayah right after acts of charity. This is to inform and remind the believers that acts of charity without fulfilling the rights of Allah (SWT) is no righteousness at all with Him. Both salah and zakah are mandatory. It is not sufficient that one performs salah but does not give zakah or gives zakah but does not perform salah regularly. While salah is the means to gain spiritual strength, zakah purifies and increases one’s wealth.

There are around eighty places in the Qur’an where Allah (SWT) associates zakah with salah. Both salah and zakah have to do with purification. While salah purifies one’s soul, zakah purifies one’s wealth. Further, those who observe their prayers and pay their zakah regularly also have firm belief in the Hereafter. This notion is expressed in numerous ayat of the Qur’an, such as

طس تِلْكَ آَيَاتُ الْقُرْآَنِ وَكِتَابٍ مُبِينٍ () هُدًى وَبُشْرَى لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ () الَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَهُمْ بِالْآَخِرَةِ هُمْ يُوقِنُونَ()

“Ta Sin. These are the Signs of the Qur´an and a Clear Book. It is guidance and good news for the believers; those who establish salah and pay hand are certain about the life to come” (al-Naml, 27:1-3).

The same idea resonates in the first few ayat of Surat al-Baqarah.

ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ () الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنْفِقُونَ () وَالَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكَ وَمَا أُنْزِلَ مِنْ قَبْلِكَ وَبِالآَخِرَةِ هُمْ يُوقِنُونَ()

“This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guide for the righteous; those who believe in the unseen, keep up the prayer, and give out of what We have provided for them; And those who believe in what was sent down to you, and what was sent down before you, and those who have firm faith in the Hereafter” (al-Baqarah, 2:2-4).

Hence, being cognizant of accountability before their Lord in the life to come, true believers are very conscious about guarding their salah and paying their zakah. Just as fasting (siyam) was prescribed to all nations to whom Allah (SWT) sent Prophets and Messengers, so was zakah prescribed to nations before us. It is not exclusive to the ummah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Talking of Isma’il (AS), the son of Ibrahim (AS), the Qur’an mentions:

وَكَانَ يَأْمُرُ أَهْلَهُ بِالصَّلَاةِ وَالزَّكَاةِ وَكَانَ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِ مَرْضِيًّا

“He used to command his household to do salah and give zakah, and his Lord was well pleased with him” (Maryam, 19:55).

Allah (SWT) commands the Bani Israel by saying,

وَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلاةَ وَآَتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَارْكَعُوا مَعَ الرَّاكِعِينَ

“Establish salah and pay zakah and bow with those who bow” (al-Baqarah, 2:43).

The Qur’an mentions ‘Isa ibn Maryam (AS) as saying,

وَجَعَلَنِي مُبَارَكًا أَيْنَ مَا كُنْتُ ‎وَأَوْصَانِي بِالصَّلَاةِ وَالزَّكَاةِ مَا دُمْتُ حَيًّا

‘He has made me blessed wherever I am and directed me to do salah and give zakah as long as I live” (Maryam, 19:31).

It may be mentioned in passing that our beloved Prophet (SAW) never paid zakah as he always lived at a level of subsistence and never had enough of worldly possessions to make him meet the nisab or the minimum specific amount, which makes one eligible to pay zakah.

The term zakah is derived from the Arabic root meaning ‘to increase,’ ‘to purify,’ and ‘to bless’ and can be defined as a specific portion of one’s wealth which is designated by way of obligatory charity for certain categories of people and for certain purposes. We should never be like those about whom Allah (SWT) says,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا إِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِنَ الْأَحْبَارِ وَالرُّهْبَانِ لَيَأْكُلُونَ أَمْوَالَ النَّاسِ بِالْبَاطِلِ وَيَصُدُّونَ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَالَّذِينَ يَكْنِزُونَ الذَّهَبَ وَالْفِضَّةَ وَلَا يُنْفِقُونَهَا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ فَبَشِّرْهُمْ بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ () يَوْمَ يُحْمَى عَلَيْهَا فِي نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ فَتُكْوَى بِهَا جِبَاهُهُمْ وَجُنُوبُهُمْ وَظُهُورُهُمْ هَذَا مَا كَنَزْتُمْ لِأَنْفُسِكُمْ فَذُوقُوا مَا كُنْتُمْ تَكْنِزُونَ ()

“As for those who hoard up gold and silver and do not spend it in the Way of Allah, give them the news of a painful punishment. On the Day it is heated up in the fire of Hell and their foreheads, sides and backs are branded with it: ´This is what you hoarded for yourselves, so taste what you were hoarding!´”(al-Taubah, 9:34-35).

There is a hadith that says, “If any owner of gold or silver does not pay what is due on him, when the Day of Resurrection would come, plates of fire would be beaten out for him; these would then be heated in the fire of Hell and his sides, his forehead and his back would be cauterized with them. Whenever these cool down, (the process is) repeated during a day the extent of which would be fifty thousand years, until judgment is pronounced among servants, and he sees whether his path is to take him to Paradise or to Hell.” 

While, discussing some aspects of the topic of zakah, it is important to have some idea of the Qur’anic concept of wealth, which in nutshell is as follows: 

Man owns nothing. Let alone worldly possessions, he does not even own his body parts.  Although the wealth we have is acknowledged by Allah (SWT) to belong to us, He makes it clear that in fact it is His.

وَالَّذِينَ يَبْتَغُونَ الْكِتَابَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ فَكَاتِبُوهُمْ إِنْ عَلِمْتُمْ فِيهِمْ خَيْرًا وَآَتُوهُمْ مِنْ مَالِ اللَّهِ الَّذِي آَتَاكُمْ

“As for those who seek an emancipation deal from among your slaves, make such a deal with them if you know any good in them, and give them out of the wealth of Allah which He has given you” (al-Nur, 24:33).

The absolute ownership of everything belongs to Allah (SWT) alone.

وَلِلَّهِ خَزَائِنُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلَكِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ لَا يَفْقَهُونَ

“The treasures of the heavens and earth belong to Allah. But the hypocrites do not understand this” (al-Munafiqun, 63:7).

 Whatever man possesses is a trust from Allah (SWT), and one needs to be faithful to the owner of that trust. What we have is not really our earnings (kasb), rather it is a gift or bounty (fadl) from Allah (SWT). We find the explanation of this concept in Surat al-Jumu’ah,

فَإِذَا قُضِيَتِ الصَّلَاةُ فَانْتَشِرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَابْتَغُوا مِنْ فَضْلِ اللَّهِ وَاذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

“Then, when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land and seek out God’s bounty. Remember God often so that you may prosper” (al-Jumu’ah, 62:10).

Out of the fadl of Allah (SWT) that one has, one’s legitimate right is one’s basic needs.  One may enjoy according to one’s social status the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, transport etc. All wasteful expenditure has to be avoided. Allah does not like the extravagant. .

 وَلَا تُسْرِفُوا إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُسْرِفِينَ

“Do not waste anything. He does not love the wasteful” (al-An’am, 6:141).

Others may have a legitimate right over one’s wealth and property.

وَالَّذِينَ فِي أَمْوَالِهِمْ حَقٌّ مَعْلُومٌ () لِلسَّائِلِ وَالْمَحْرُومِ ()

“Those in whose wealth there is a known share for the beggars and the deprived” (al-Ma’arij, 70:24-25).

Wealth is a test from Allah (SWT). It is Allah (SWT), the All-Wise who gives whatever He wills to whomever He wills.

اللَّهُ يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَقْدِرُ وَفَرِحُوا بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآَخِرَةِ إِلَّا مَتَاعٌ

“God gives abundantly to whoever He will, and sparingly to whoever He will and though they may rejoice in the life of this world, it is but a fleeting comfort compared with the Life to come.” (al-Ra’d, 13:26).

Regardless of how much material possessions one has, one is under constant test from his Lord.

وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّمَا أَمْوَالُكُمْ وَأَوْلَادُكُمْ فِتْنَةٌ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ عِندَهُ أَجْرٌ عَظِيمٌ

“And know that your wealth and children are a trial and that there is an immense reward with God” (al-Anfal, 8:28).

We are responsible for whatever we have, and we will surely be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for the worldly favors and pleasures bestowed upon us by Allah (SWT).

ثُمَّ لَتُسْأَلُنَّ يَوْمَئِذٍ عَنِ النَّعِيمِ 

 “On that Day, you will surely be asked about your pleasures” (al-Takathur, 102:8).  

Fulfilling One’s Covenant and Pledges

Another aspect of real virtue (al-Birr) is to fulfill one’s covenant and pledges. Staying by a contract entered into or the fulfilling of a promise made, is the essence of all dealings such as buying and selling, leasing, renting, partnership, marriage contracts, and all other trusts. Ayat al-Birr qualifies true righteous believers as those who fulfill their pledges.

وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُوا

“And those who keep pledges whenever they make them” (al-Baqarah, 2:177).

A similar ayah appears in Surat al-Ra’d,

الَّذِينَ يُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِ اللَّهِ وَلَا يَنقُضُونَ الْمِيثَاقَ

“Those who fulfill the agreements they make in Allah’s name and do not break their pledges” (al-Ra’d, 13:20).

Honoring and fulfilling of covenants, pledges, and promises have to be both with the Ma’bud (one who is worshipped), and with the ‘Ibad (servants of Allah). Before going into some detail about honoring and fulfilling the promises, pledges, promises, oaths, agreements, deeds, pacts, trusts, and all other covenants we make with other people, it is vital to understand the primary covenant (mithaq), which the entire humankind has taken with Allah (SWT). 

The Qur’an reminds us that in our primordial spiritual forms before our earthly existence, Allah (SWT) took a covenant from all potential human beings that He was their Lord.

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنْ بَنِي آَدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوا بَلَى شَهِدْنَا أَنْ تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَذَا غَافِلِينَ

“When your Lord took out all their descendants from the loins of the children of Adam and made them testify against themselves ´Am I not your Lord?´ they said, ´We testify that indeed You are!´ Lest you say on the Day of Rising, ´We knew nothing of this” (al-A’raf, 7:172).

This covenant stipulates that the entire humankind inherently recognizes Allah (SWT), and accepts Him as its Lord and Master. This phenomenon, in the Qur’anic terminology is called fitrah, and refers to the natural, inborn nature of man.

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا فِطْرَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

“So set your face firmly towards the Deen, as a pure natural believer, Allah´s natural pattern on which He made mankind. There is no changing Allah´s creation. That is the true Deen — but most people do not know it —” (al-Rum, 30:30).

There is a hadith qudsi, which says, “I created all my slaves as hunafa’ (upright monotheists), but the shayateen (devils) came to them and made them deviate from their religion, and they forbade them that which I had permitted to them.” According to an authentic hadith, everyone is born a believer in the true and natural faith (fitrah) and that it is the person’s parents who uproot him from the natural faith and transform him into a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian.” We learn through another hadith that the Prophet said, "Allah will say to that person of the (Hell) Fire who will receive the least punishment, 'If you had everything on the earth, would you give it as a ransom to free yourself (i.e. save yourself from this Fire)?' He will say, 'Yes.' Then Allah will say, 'While you were in the backbone of Adam, I asked you much less than this (i.e. not to worship others besides Me), but you insisted on worshipping others besides me.'" These ahadith further confirm to us the first and original covenant we took with Allah (SWT), as a consequence of which recognizing Him and accepting Him as our Lord is embedded in our very beings. 

There are few things that we need to fulfill in terms of pledges and contracts. First and foremost is our oath of allegiance to Allah (SWT).

قُلْ إِنَّ صَلاتِي وَنُسُكِي وَمَحْيَايَ وَمَمَاتِي لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

“Say: ´My salah and my rites, my living and my dying, are for Allah alone, the Lord of all the worlds” (al-An’am, 6:162).

A conscious, true, and righteous believer understands the depth and magnitude of this pledge that he makes with Allah (SWT). This pledge is also reflected and reasserted in the two testimonies of faith (shahadatain): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.” Fulfilling pledges and contracts is absolutely imperative.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَوْفُوا بِالْعُقُودِ

“O you, who belie; fulfill your contracts” (al-Ma’idah, 5:1).

Allah (SWT) loves those who honor their pledges.   

بَلَىٰ مَنْ أَوْفَىٰ بِعَهْدِهِ وَاتَّقَىٰ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ

“No indeed! ِAllah loves those who keep their pledges and are mindful of Him,” (Aal ‘Imran, 3:76).

As opposed to this, He detests those who do not.

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَشْتَرُونَ بِعَهْدِ اللَّهِ وَأَيْمَانِهِمْ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا أُولَئِكَ لَا خَلَاقَ لَهُمْ فِي الْآَخِرَةِ وَلَا يُكَلِّمُهُمُ اللَّهُ وَلَا يَنْظُرُ إِلَيْهِمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَلَا يُزَكِّيهِمْ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

 “But those who sell out ِAllah’s covenant and their own oaths for a small price will have no share in the life to come. Allah will neither speak to them nor look at them on the Day of Resurrection- He will not cleanse them [of their sins] - agonizing torment awaits them” (Aal ‘Imran, 3:77).

Breaching a pledge made with someone is indirectly breaching one’s pledge made with Allah (SWT), because it is He who has commanded us to fulfill all pledges.

وَأَوْفُوا بِعَهْدِ اللَّهِ إِذَا عَاهَدْتُمْ وَلَا تَنْقُضُوا الْأَيْمَانَ بَعْدَ تَوْكِيدِهَا وَقَدْ جَعَلْتُمُ اللَّهَ عَلَيْكُمْ كَفِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَفْعَلُونَ

“Fulfill any pledge you make in God’s name and do not break oaths after you have sworn them, for you have made God your surety: God knows everything you do” (al-Nahl, 16:91).

It goes without saying that the contracts and transactions that have to be honored are only those which are lawful and permissible. It is indeed sinful to deal with anything that Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (SAW) have declared forbidden or undesirable. One is not allowed, for example, to sign contracts or purchase agreements that have to do with any forbidden products like pork, and intoxicants, or any forbidden activities involving pornography, flesh trade, and other sinful engagements.

Breach of lawful contracts may be either intentional or unintentional. Entering into a contract with an intention to violate it is obviously intentional. A person who does so is a liar. Lying is a sin, and said to be among the traits of a hypocrite (munafiq). A hadith tell us: "Among the signs of a hypocrite are three: (a) whenever he speaks, he tells a lie. (b) Whenever he promises, he always breaks it (his promise). (c) If you trust him, he proves to be dishonest. And according to one version, the Prophet (SAW) added: “even if he performs fasting and prayer and claims to be a Muslim." The Prophet (SAW) is also reported to have said: “Whoever has four characteristics will be a pure hypocrite: If he speaks, he tells a lie; if he gives a promise, he breaks it; if he makes a covenant he proves treacherous; and if he quarrels, he behaves in a very imprudent, evil, insulting manner. And whoever has one of these characteristics has one characteristic of a hypocrite unless he gives it up.” As for the ultimate fate of the hypocrite, the Qur’an clearly asserts:

إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ فِي الدَّرْكِ الأَسْفَلِ مِنَ النَّارِ وَلَنْ تَجِدَ لَهُمْ نَصِيرًا

“The hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of Hell and you will find no one to help them” (al-Nisa’, 4:145).

Such admonitions make a demand on us to keep introspecting and evaluating ourselves and to keep exercising ample care and caution while entering into contracts and dealing with people. Unintentional breach of contract is that in which one is completely sincere and truthful in one’s attitude and action, but unintentionally does something that goes toward revoking the contract or pledge. Here also, one is advised to be as careful and cautious as possible.

فَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ

“Be mindful of God as much as you can” (al-Taghabun, 64:16).

Any one showing negligence or insincerity toward honoring and fulfilling pledges and promises will be questioned on the Day of Reckoning.

وَأَوْفُوا بِالْعَهْدِ إِنَّ الْعَهْدَ كَانَ مَسْئُولًا

“Honor your pledges: you will be questioned about your pledges” (al-Isra’, 17:34).

We are instructed in Surat al-Saff,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ (2) كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَنْ تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ ()

“O you, who believe, why do you say things and then do not do them? It is most hateful to God that you say things and then do not do them” (al-Saff, 61:2-3).

The divine teaching reminds us to be sincere and truthful in our intentions, actions, and dealings. The spirit of this divine message is further corroborated by the hadith, which says, “Whenever the Messenger of Allah (SAW) preached his companions, he used to say: “The person who does not keep trust has no iman (faith) and the person who does not respect his covenant (and promise) has no religion.” The Qur’an describes the true believers as those who honor their trusts and contracts.

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِأَمَانَاتِهِمْ وَعَهْدِهِمْ رَاعُونَ

 “And those who honor their trusts and their contracts” (al-Mu’minun, 23:8).

We also have a useful lesson from a hadith that teaches us to fulfill the pledges, contracts, and debts of the deceased if he or she was unable to do the same during his or her life. It is narrated by Jabir bin Abdullah: Once the Prophet (SAW) said (to me), "If the money of Bahrain comes, I will give you a certain amount of it." The Prophet (SAW) had breathed his last before the money of Bahrain arrived. When the money of Bahrain reached, Abu Bakr announced, "Whoever was promised by the Prophet (SAW) should come to us." I went to Abu Bakr and said, "The Prophet (SAW) promised me so and so." Abu Bakr gave me a handful of coins and when I counted them, they were five-hundred in number. Abu Bakr then said, "Take twice the amount you have taken (besides)."  

Exercising Patience and Endurance in Times of Misfortune

Another quality of righteous believers is that they exercise patience and endurance in times of calamities, hardships, adversities, conflicts and dangers. Ayat al-Birr describes them as,

وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ

 “And who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger” (al-Baqarah, 2:177).

It may be recalled that the fourth and last condition of success and salvation mentioned in Surat al-‘Asr is supporting each other with patience (sabr).

وَالْعَصْرِ () إِنَّ الإِنْسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ () إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ ()

“By the fleeting time; indeed man is in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to patience” (al-‘Asr, 103:1-3).

Literally, the Arabic word sabr means to hold or to tie. According to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the term sabr refers to the effort made to control and defend one’s slippery self against what is temperamentally unpleasing. Sabr, therefore, means and includes patience, perseverance, endurance, fortitude, forbearance, and self-control. 

Scholars have divided patience into three categories: (1) patience in obeying Allah (SWT) (sabr ‘ala al-ta’a), (2) patience in abstaining from the forbidden (sabr ‘an al-ma’siyyah), and patience in the face of adversity (sabr ‘ala al-ibtila). Islam provides a powerful psychological leverage in the form of patience to deal with adversities. Patience, therefore, has to be adopted by the believers as a way of life.

Sabr ‘ala al-ta’a is the patience and endurance required to face the possible hardships of performing the various modes of worship like praying (salah) and fasting (siyam) because of changes of climatic conditions, changes in prayer timings, lack of amenities and facilities, fasting for long hours, cutting on sleep and so on. The obligatory rituals of worship have to be carried out patiently and persistently, no matter how difficult they may apparently appear to be.

Sabr ‘an al-ma’siyyah means to control oneself by refraining from anything that is unlawful (haram), despite the craving one may have for it. A constant inward struggle is required to keep oneself away from committing a sin.

Sabr ‘ala al-ibtila means exercising patience in face of hardships and adversities. Bearing afflictions, trials, and tribulations with patience, perseverance, and steadfastness are also among the essential parts of real virtue and piety. We are all subjected to various tests in this life.

وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنْفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ

“We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives and crops. Give good news to those who endure with fortitude” (al-Baqarah, 2:155).

Qualities of fortitude and forbearance are required while facing adversities such as fear, hardship of hunger, loss of life, loss of wealth, situations of conflicts, and so on. Patience is required in each one of these situations. Believers are asked to seek Allah’s help through patience and prayers.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَعِينُوا بِالصَّبْرِ وَالصَّلَاةِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ

“O you who believe, seek help through patience and prayer, for Allah is with the patient” (al-Baqarah, 2:153).

   The righteous believers when faced with adversities exercise patience and perseverance and say that they belong to God and to Him they will return. They are the ones who are blessed, who qualify for Allah’s mercy, and who are guided.

الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُمْ مُصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ () أُولَئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ وَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ ()

“The ones who when afflicted with adversity say, To God We belong, and to Him is our return. Those are the people who will have blessings and mercy from their Lord; they are the ones who are guided.(al-Baqarah, 2:156-157).

The true righteous believers also believe, understand, and rely on the divine comforting words,

فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا () إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا ()

So truly where there is hardship there is also ease; truly where there is hardship there is also ease” (al-Inshirah, 94:5-6).

Patience and restraint are especially required while facing oppression, repression, and injustices that may even culminate in extreme forms of physical and mental torture. Our beloved Prophet (SAW) himself is a shining example of patience. He displayed utmost patience and perseverance in the face of countless adversities that he encountered during his arduous prophetic mission. The Prophet (SAW) while being a model of patience also inculcated this noble quality in his companions. 

The noble companions of the Prophet (SAW) were persecuted, both verbally and physically, for declaring and conveying the truth of tawhid. Their intense and deep rooted faith (iman) made them withstand all forms of persecution, hardship and torture meted out to them by the arch enemies of Islam including Abu Jahal and the Prophet’s own uncle Abu Lahab. Bilal, Mus’ab ibn Umair, Ammar, and Yasir (RAA) among other companions of the Prophet (SAW) were brutally tortured and some of them were actually slaughtered. Sumaiyya (RA), mother of Ammar (RA) was forced to lie under the scorching sun. The Prophet (SAW) passed by her and said, “Keep patience, for paradise is your destination.” Abu Jahl got so infuriated over this that he killed her with his spear. Thus she became the first woman to be martyred in the history of Islam. The noble Prophet himself was subjected to verbal abuse and constant harassment and many intrigues and murderous plots were hatched against him.

The companions of the Prophet (SAW) did not retaliate or raise arms to defend themselves as the divine command for active resistance in self-defense had not been revealed during the Meccan period. The Prophet’s comforting words exhorting his companions to have patience and fortitude in the face of such trials and tribulations had a healing effect on their wounds. They paid heed to the Prophet’s words and followed the divine command,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ 

“O you who believe, be steadfast, more steadfast than others; be ready; always be mindful of God, so that you may prosper” (Aal ‘Imran, 3:200).

Thus the companions of the Prophet (SAW) were successful because they fulfilled the prerequisite and criterion of success outlined in Surat al-`Asr that has been explicated in Ayat al-Birr. They stood up for the truth, and in doing so, they were persecuted. They endured all persecution with utmost resignation while enjoining one another with patience and perseverance. 

For the Muslim community to fulfill its great role of universal leadership of mankind and its task of instituting justice and equality in the world, it is necessary to collectively acquire these qualities. All should have the resilience to withstand poverty, weakness, shortage of manpower and resources, and the rigors and consequences of war and striving to serve God’s cause. 

 

After elaborating what real virtue is, Ayat al-Birr concludes by highlighting the principal quality of the people possessing real virtue, righteousness, and piety. 

 

أُولَئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ

“Those are the people who are true. They are the people who have taqwa.”

Such people are sincere in their faith and their commitment to God. They prove themselves capable of translating that faith into a practical way of life. They are also God-fearing, because they are conscious of God and of their bond with His power and grace. They are conscientious in fulfilling their obligations towards Him. 

In reflecting on the contents of Ayat al-Birr, one can clearly visualize the great heights to which God is aiming to raise human beings through Islam. There are those among humanity who resist it and suppress or persecute its followers and supporters, and those who simply turn away from it. Yet we must not despair. Our faith and trust in God fill our hearts with hope and confidence that the day is coming when humanity will come around to seeing the profound value, universal beauty, and eternal qualities of Islam. 

 

 

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