By Bashir Ahmad Orchard (rahmat Allah ‘alayhi)
Developing Moral Virtues
Those of you who have visited Edinburgh in Scotland may have observed a massive monument standing beside Princess Street about a hundred yards from Waverley station. This monument was erected in honour and memory of Sir Walter Scott who was a renowned Scottish author and historian of the last century. Whenever I see or visualise this monument I am reminded of his dying words to his son-in-law as he lay on his death bed. He said:
‘I have but a minute to speak to you. My dear, be a good man; be virtuous, be religious-be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here’.
Although Sir Walter Scott had earned literary fame and had won the admiration of millions of his readers, he realised during the last moments of his life that the most worth-while avocation in life was the acquisition of virtue. A great Islamic truth contained in the Holy Qur’an is:
I have not created the Jinn and the men but that they may worship Me.(Ch.51: V.57)
Worship of God in this verse does not refer only to formal prayer. Its meaning is that we should manifest the attributes of God in all our thoughts, words and deeds. We should glorify Him through the demonstration of moral virtues. This is the purpose of our existence and consequently we should focus our attention on this ideal with earnest devotion. Day-by-day we should strive to shed virtuous light in every thought we think, in every word we speak or write, in every action we undertake and even in every expression on our face. The following prayer should be a source of inspiration for us:
‘O Allah, diffuse light into my heart and ears; Diffuse light on my eyes and on my tongue; Diffuse light on my right and on my left; Diffuse light above me and under me;
Engulf me in Thy light’
The Holy Qur’an declares elsewhere that the culmination of virtue should be our foremost aim in life in as much as it elevates us to an honourable status in the sight of God which is, after all the ultimate aspiration of every true believer.
Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: .
…Verily the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is most the most righteous among you…’ (Ch.49.V.14)
The Qur’an reveals as clear as crystal why we have been created. It declares that we should endeavour to excel in moral virtues. This being so then why should we give preference to the fulfillment of any other ambition? Indeed, let us have ambitions; but let our highest ambition be the development of moral virtues. Allah has declared that He has ordained fasting during the month of Ramadan solely as a means of acquiring virtue:
Fasting has been prescribed for you so that you may become more righteous. (Ch.2: V.184)
Keeping this point in mind we should look forward to Ramadhan with eager anticipation and diligently observe all the fasts unless legitimate reasons prevent us from doing so.
Most people in this world are primarily concerned in seeking financial prosperity. They forget that as silver is less valuable than gold so gold is less valuable than virtue. Describing man God says in the Holy Qur’an:
Surely he is very keen .for the love of wealth. (Ch.100:V.9)
While it may be good to have plenty of money it is also good to check up now and again and make sure that we have not lost those things which money cannot buy such as moral virtues. Concerning real prosperity God says in the Holy Qur’an:
Verily he truly prospers who purifies himself. (Ch.87:V15)
Let us remember that virtue is to the soul what health is to the body. People are very concerned about their physical health and are prepared to give careful attention to their diet. When they are unwell they will quickly call the doctor and seek the most effective remedy; but generally they are little concerned in feeding their souls with spiritual nourishment and similarly they do not seek effective remedies for their spiritual ailments.
Islam provides a complete code of guidance on all virtues. God helps those who help themselves and it is now up to us with the help of God – to develop them within ourselves.
A moral virtue is the proper control and regulation of thought and conduct in conformity with the teachings of Islam. Love, for instance, becomes a moral virtue when demonstrated correctly and on the appropriate occasion, otherwise, if it is merely instinctive or channelled in the wrong direction then it is not a display of virtue. The love and care which animals show for their young is instinctive and, therefore, not an act of virtue. Again love is regarded as a virtue only when expressed within proper and lawful bounds. The mother who showers an excess of love upon her child and allows it to do and have whatever it wants is not exemplifying the moral virtue of love; nor does the man who runs away with some one else’s wife on account of his affectionate feelings for her. Exercising correct conduct on appropriate occasions formulates a moral virtue.
Stages of Moral Advancement
The Promised Messiah(as) has drawn our attention to three stages of moral advancement regarding our dealings towards other people. The first stage requires that we should at least treat others in the same way that they treat us. We should return good for good. The second stage requires us to return better treatment and greater good for that which we have received while the third stage calls upon us to render service and do good to others without any thought of receiving anything in return. We should never even hint to the person that he is under an obligation to us of any kind. This state of mind should be cultivated to the extent that it functions as second nature as does the love of a mother towards her child.
Moral virtues embrace numerous personal qualities. Among them are self-respect and respect for others, kindness. sympathy, honesty, forgiveness, simplicity, cleanliness. gentleness, courage, goodness, nobility, patience, steadfastness, perseverance, charity, generosity, politeness, hospitality, mercy, justice, self – control, contentment, cheerfulness, helpfulness, gratitude, chastity, tolerance, love, unselfishness and many more which could be added to the list.
No exemplar of virtue excelled the Holy Prophet(saw). The following verses taken from a poem written by the Promised Messiah(as) extol the high morals of the Holy Prophet(saw).
‘What a noble man! What a comely man; His breath smells like the breath of flowers. God is visible in his face,
Such are his virtues, such is his case.
That is why he is loved. Indeed his virtues demand
That he should be loved to the exclusion of all.
Easy of access, noble, bounteous, friend of the God-fearing.
And he excels all in excellence and nobility,
in glory and the beauty of the soul.
Muhammad is the best of creatures,
The soul of the nobles, the elect of the elect. All noble virtues have found their limit in him.
The blessings of all times have found their place In him. By God! Muhammad is next to God,
And through him alone can we reach God. He is the pride of the pious, the holies. He is the pride of the men of virtue.
He excels all those who were honoured before him. Indeed excellence is a matter of virtue and not of time.
I have already explained from the Holy Qur’an that the cultivation of Islamic virtues is the purpose of our creation and it would, therefore, be a folly on our part to neglect the object of our existence for then we would be the losers in both the worlds. The development of moral virtues is the highest and most rewarding of all accomplishments. In no other pursuit can we find greater satisfaction and happiness not even in the accumulation of a large fortune.
The first requisite needed in the achievement of any objective is that we should be charged with an earnest desire to attain it otherwise we are not likely to get very far. Enthusiasm makes all the difference. It jet-propels us towards our objective whatever it may be. Let us, therefore, be in earnest.
The Holy Qur’an mentions certain people who declared:
…We earnestly wish that the Lord should include us among the righteous people. (Ch.5: V.85)
These people earnestly wished to become righteous. They were not indifferent about it; nor did they only mildly wish for it. They earnestly wished for it and as a result of their enthusiasm to become virtuous they were successful and became the recipients of God’s favours and blessings, as the next verse reveals.
So Allah rewarded them for what they said, with gardens beneath which streams flow. Therein shall they abide; that is the reward of those who do good. (Ch.5:V.86)
Let us enter this crusade to develop and improve moral virtues within ourselves earnestly and with enthusiasm then our efforts are sure to bear fruit, blessed and rewarded by God.
The next point is the subject of prayer. The Promised Messiah(as) has said that one is proud who places complete faith in one’s own powers and does not recognise the omnipotence of God. He declared that his only weapon was prayer and that he relied on the help of God for everything. It is essential that we resort to prayer and seek God’s assistance in our efforts to develop moral virtues. God tells us in the Holy Qur’an of another great benefit of prayer:
Surely prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil.(Ch.29:V.46)
Sincere prayer is itself a virtue as stated in the Holy Qur’an:
…Remembrance of Allah is, indeed, the greatest virtue. (Ch.29: V.46)
In these permissive times we need every ounce of strength to resist the multifarious temptations which assail us from all directions. God tells us that the answer lies in prayer: so the next step for us is to give more attention to prayer. Not only should we be regular in our daily prayers but we should also pray for protection against the incitements of satan. The Holy Prophet(saw) has also spoken on the efficacy of prayer in times of temptation. He said:
As to those who are virtuous, when a suggestion from satan assails them, they remember God: and behold! they begin to see things right’.
Now I come to another point which is the management of our thoughts because everything originates from thought. I would like to quote a short passage from the Bible:
‘As a man thinketh in his heart so he is’. (Proverbs 23:7)
Scientific research has conclusively established the fact that man is what he thinks and he becomes what he thinks. He is the product of his thoughts.
Our character is no more than the embodiment of our thoughts. We build our character on the foundation of our thoughts. What we think we become. We possess the power to govern our own thoughts and thereby build a character of our own choice because our character is no more than a reflection of our thoughts. An immoral character grows from the seeds of immoral thoughts while a virtuous character grows from the seeds of virtuous thoughts. This law of mental science operates as assuredly as does the law of gravity or any of the other stable laws of this universe. We may use it to our own immense advantage in the development of moral virtues by discarding and omitting impure and negative thoughts from our mind and concentrating only on virtuous ones. One thing we do possess which no government can take from us is the freedom to choose and control our own thoughts.
Just as a gardener keeps his garden free from weeds and grows only the flowers and fruits of his own choice so may we cultivate the garden of our mind by weeding out undesirable thoughts and planting only noble, pure and virtuous ones which will grow, bloom and colour our character with their fragrance and splendour.
We wish to close our minds to impure thoughts and to discard those which happen to sneak in, Islam teaches us to keep away from those things which breed evil and for this reason to keep away from dance halls, gambling shops, public houses, brothels and low forms of entertainment. Other things which should be shunned are the lewd type of paperback novels which flood the bookshops; magazines crowded with photographs of nude women and most films which may be described as an abomination of satan. These things are all the work of the devil aimed to bombard the mind with impure thoughts. Furthermore we should avoid all uncharitable thoughts towards others such as hatred, jealousy, deceit, scorn, envy, revenge, etc., as they are also immoral in their way. Not only does the Holy Qur’an enjoin us to keep away from evil but also to keep the company of the righteous from whom we may derive moral upliftment. We should remember that not only are we accountable to God for our actions but also for our thoughts. We read in the Holy Qur’an:
…Whether you disclose what is in your minds or keep it hidden. Allah will call you to account for it… (Ch.2: V.285)
Being human it is almost an impossible task to shut out evil or wrong thoughts completely from our mind, In that case we are enjoined to discard or suppress them; and doing that is in itself a virtuous achievement. The Holy Prophet(saw) has said:
If a man is assailed by an evil thought but he suppresses it or drives it out of his mind and does not act in accordance with it. God will bestow upon him a good reward.
There is no doubt that the path of virtue is not an easy one to tread as it is a slippery uphill journey. We are all liable to slip. Nevertheless, it is an uplifting and delightful journey which winds through sceneries of heavenly enchantment. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without effort and this maxim applies to moral development as much as it does to any other endeavour. Without pains there can be no gains. Whereas prayer is essential, at the same time we have to put our best foot forward and strive in the way of Allah Some people pray for more than they are prepared to work for and then wonder why their prayers are not answered.
The objective before us is to improve day by day in the development of moral virtues. No one should like to remain static. It has been said that if we go not forward then we go backward. This virtuous objective which we now have in mind calls for self-effort and perseverance. Let it be said of us when we die that we died climbing on the path of moral virtue. God tells us in the Holy Qur’an:
…those who persevere in seeking the favour of their Lord… (Ch.13:V.23)
Again we read:
…Allah is with the steadfast. (Ch.2: V.154)
As I have mentioned, moral virtues cannot be developed without effort, We need to exercise constant self-vigilance, self-analysis, self-discipline and self-control. As we are human beings and not angels we are subject to weaknesses and liable to stumble and make mistakes from time to time as we have many temptations to battle with and overcome; but if our spirit is strong we need not despair of ultimate success. In fact our every effort to advance in moral development will lead us upward towards heaven and even if we fall short of the heights of our aspirations we shall have travelled a long way on the heaven bound path of virtue. God says in the Holy Qur’an that even when we falter and stumble we should not despair:
Say :O my servant who have committed excesses against their own souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, surely Allah forgives all sins. Verily He is Most Forgiving, Merciful. (Ch.39: V.54)
Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih II(ra) is the author of the book Ahmadiyyat or True Islam in which he writes:
‘Islam rescues man from despair and tells him that he can, in spite of his errors and mistakes, attain to the purity at mind and conduct which is the highest goal of man. It thus encourages him to make constant effort towards virtue and purity and enables him ultimately to arrive at his goal’.
William Gladstone, a former British Prime Minister of the Victorian era made the following significant statement:
‘No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes’.
Although the prophets of God are exempt from this observation because they are exceptionally good all their lives, it is a truth which is witnessed in the lives of all other great men; so if from time to time we slip on the path of virtue we should not be unduly grieved but pick ourselves up and carry on determined more than ever not to make the same mistakes again.
Two thousand years ago a famous Roman author named Seneca wrote the following appraisement of a virtuous man:
‘The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptations from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms: and the most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on God is the most unfaltering’.
Simplicity is a characteristic of virtuous living and the Holy Prophet(saw) has warned us against leading a life of luxury:
Beware of leading a life of luxury for verily the servants of God never live luxurious lives’.
Simple living in the way of Allah polishes and brightens the soul because one becomes detached to a certain extent from the material embellishment of this world. One does not hanker for this thing or hanker for that thing, while those loving luxury are not content in mind unless they have the best of everything. The truth has been said that the richest are those who have fewest wants and the Holy Qur’an tells us that the best provision is righteousness and not the luxuries of this world. A virtuous person is content with little and is not interested in a life of luxury. Wealth, no doubt, is a blessing and does not necessarily prevent a person from living a simple life although it very often does.
Simple living has always been the way of the prophets of God. The Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) could have had every kind of luxury he demanded but he preferred to live a life of extreme austerity. His habits were simple. His food was simple. His clothes were simple. His home and its furnishings were also simple. He used to sleep on a rough mattress and recline on a coarse mat which would leave its impression upon his skin. Someone once asked why he rested on such a coarse mat while the rulers of other countries use soft mattresses and cushions. He replied that this was no matter for concern as they had chosen this world while he had chosen the next.
In 1934 Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih II(ra) launched a scheme called Tahrik Jadid. He called upon members of the Ahmadiyya Movement to contribute an annual sum of money for the purpose of opening and maintaining missions in overseas countries. These contributions are in addition to the normal Aam chanda contributions which requires a minimum of one sixteenth of our income. He also called upon Ahmadis to live simple lives.
Some of his instructions were:
• Meals should consist only of one dish.
• Stop going to cinemas and theatres.
• Cut down on home decorations.
• Cut down on clothing expenses.
• Cut down on jewellery.
• Not to buy things one really does not need.
Our present Khalifa [Third Khalifa at the time. Ed] has also called upon members of the community to live frugal lives and cut down lavish expenditure on clothes and ornaments. He said in one of his addresses:
‘I want to knock at the door of every Ahmadi and start a crusade against evil customs. I want to tell them that whosoever will not give up wasteful customs and not reform himself, then he should know that he is of no use to God, His Messenger and to our community and that consequently he would be thrown out of it as a fly is thrown out of milk’.
The Promised Messiah(asa) has also emphasised the value of simple living. He has said:
‘Do not be extravagant’.
‘O you who love the pomp and pleasures of this world bear well in mind that this is not the place of permanent abode for man’.
‘Luxurious living and the enjoyment of the good things of material life hold no permanent guarantee’.
‘For the sake of the Lord, abandon the path of luxurious and easy living! It is, indeed, an accursed path: have nothing to do with this curse! Otherwise forget all about your hopes of seeing the Lord’.
Another advantage of simple living is that it brings one closer to the poor and common people. Those who like to maintain a high standard of living often look down upon the poor and are not inclined to mingle with them. While they are happy and at ease to visit and stay with their well-to-do friends they would not care to visit, let alone stay with, their poorer brothers in faith.
The development of moral virtues is a practical philosophy and not one just to be listened to or even just to be remembered. It is one to be practised. Certainly it is a very comprehensive subject on which volumes could be written. I have covered briefly just a few aspects of this vast subject. My aim has been to awaken interest and increase the urge within us to pay greater attention to the development of moral virtue. My prayer is that the seeds which I have scattered may fall on good soil to grow and bear virtuous fruit – Amen.