Monday, April 09, 2007

False Guarantees and Character

I attended a wedding this weekend and heard the usual hadith and verses of the Quran, and by “usual,” I do not mean uninteresting or boring, but passages that pertain to marriage and family building, typically cited at weddings. However, one of the “usual” statements poked out sharply. It concerns the Prophet’s statement that a family should accept the marriage proposal of a person who has demonstrated excellence in “his religion and his character.” It is interesting that “religion” and “character” are treated separately, and that the conjunction “wa” (or “and”) is not intended to make synonymy. Religion is understood here as one’s performance of basic rituals and devotion therein, while character brings to mind one’s manners, demeanor, and such things as honesty, promising-keeping, politeness, humbleness, fairness, reliability, and, especially, scruples—important “things” that are not automatically inculcated with the moves and postures of religion, and “things” that can be firmly and regularly part of a person who, in fact, has a problem with religion and openly rejects it.

We’ve all made the observation: people of excellent character—neighbor, colleague, or plumber—whom you can trust with a dime or your credit card, but who struggle with belief in any higher power, etc. And then we’ve met or known a person with darkened patches on the forehead caused by long and consistent prostration, but who mysteriously disappoints in matters of honesty, selflessness, and/or modesty—a person who struggles with living a principled life.

This is where the nuance-challenged among the Muslim ministerial class especially suffer. There is an over-emphasis on what is “showable” in terms of “religiosity,” and skipped over is the fact that religiosity and excellent character are not necessarily bound to each other. One does not prove nor train the other. I only underscore the point that how much a person knows and the ostensible moves of religion do not guarantee that a person is trustworthy, fair, nor psychologically secure. Nor, for example, is a Muslim woman who wears hijab necessarily of a higher character when compared to one who does not. I know this will beat the bushes a bit, but the reality is that we have politicized the outer form of religion, such that mere appearance and scholarly reputation (demonstrated or feigned) seem to confer upon a person the automatic right to enjoy an unexamined life. This is unfortunate, especially these days, when many young people sincerely eager to learn and offer their learning to others fall foolish at the thrones of those who seem to believe that it is their divine right to be served and, to add insult, have that service unacknowledged.

To make a larger point, we need to learn from the thieves and the charlatan beggars in Makkah itself—those who lie for charity, put on award-winning displays of hopelessness, and maim their children or strip them of their dignity to increase their begging profits—that goodness is not automatic, never was, not even in the holiest site in the solar system.

If the West has an addiction to oil, Muslims appear to have an addiction to “ideology,” the cliques we identify with. We have to remember that no matter how great or elite a clique is perceived, it can never replace one's personal sense of right and wrong, honorable and ignoble, and ethical and illicit—the stuff that so much of his or her Scales will be filled with. We will never sneak into Paradise riding on the coattail of some “movement.” These things completely lack the authority to excuse us of our own individual moral infirmity or supplant personal culpability for the daily decisions we make and then forget the next day, as if the invisible scribes have forgotten them just the same—as if thousands of prophets and messengers never came, never taught, and never warned. The store owner, for example, wants a caliphate so badly, he will rant until the blood vessels in his face turn blue, rise, and spell the word “Jihad.” But a minute later, he’ll put his thumb on the scale to make an extra thirty cents on a sale of bananas—all the while not noticing any contradiction.

There's waste in engaging too long in issues and debates that have nothing to say about what we should do in our day. We give sermons that make us not feel enthused about loving our neighbors. And we have allowed the Prophet’s most beautiful words—“I was not sent except to ennoble [human] character”—to be lost on a mindset completely unprepared for such a radical thought and, more important, unprepared for the obligations the statement suggests about our daily living.


Anonymous ot said...

Thank you.

4/09/2007 1:45 PM  
Anonymous Maliha said...

That's so interesting, I have always understood and experienced the disconnect between religion and character; but i have never heard that hadith in the same way. The emphasis has always been on the "deen" part.

Thank you for your thoughtful post.

4/10/2007 8:12 AM  
Blogger Yursil said...



Good post! I largely agree with the sentiment that Muslims are focused on the external

I would add, however, that I do believe that the two qualities being discussed (religion and character) do have a relationship.

Religion in itself is a complex system involving the internal and external. Certain aspects of the religion do indeed train the character.

Good character can eventually lead one to admire the disciplines, justice, and lifestyle of the externals of the religion, and good internal religion can impact character by causing appreciation of noble qualities such as honestly, trustworthiness, and good intentions.

This is the realm of training of ikhlas and ihsan, the realm of the Tariqats and their methods of which most people are woefully ignorant.

4/10/2007 1:12 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thanks, Maliha, for your "thanks." Yursil, I agree that there should be a relationship between religion and character, but the relationship is not a necessary one. It is possible to learn the forms of religion (popular pedagogy these days) and fail to inculcate the virtues and manners that people need in their day between the bends and bows of prayer.

4/11/2007 6:36 AM  
Anonymous Abdur Rahman said...

Salaams Fromclay,

Thank you for an interesting post. More please!

Abdur Rahman

4/22/2007 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Sumera said...

Interesting...never thought about religion and character from that point of view.

Thanks for the post!

4/26/2007 4:04 PM  

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