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the Message Continues ... 7/73




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The Quest for Virtue  (Akhlaq) - Faith in Action

                                                                     by  Dr. Robert D. Crane


   Although all of the world's major religions agree on the essential spiritual truths, of course with dissenting factions within each one, and on the moral verities that underlie the formation of character, each religion has its own unique paradigm of thought and can be understood only within its own frame of reference.


           In Islam, this paradigm is the shari’ah or Islamic law, just as in Judaism the paradigm is the Torah and for most Jews also the Talmud.   Islamic law is a framework for both knowledge and virtue, based on the recognition that knowledge pre-exists our awareness of it.  A current challenge is to counter what Catholic scholars for more than a century have called "modernism," which is the concept that knowledge is created by man.  This secularist movement aims to destroy all real knowledge and thereby to end every revealed religion.  The most subtle initiative that reflects such secularism is the concept that knowledge can be Islamized.  Thought can be Islamized, but not knowledge itself.  As Mortimer J. Adler, America's greatest professional philosopher has said in his The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical, Moral, Objective, and Categorical, Macmillan, 1993, footnote on page 6: "Knowledge always has the connotation of truth possessed by the mind.  The phrase 'false knowledge' is a contradiction in terms; what is correctly judged by the mind to be false is not knowledge."


           More important in any religion than mere knowledge (‘ilm) of what is right and wrong is the practice of virtue (akhlaq).  In Islam, faith without works is a contradiction in terms.  Faith is measured only by action.  There is special emphasis on this in the Islamic Sufi orders.  The leader of the Naqshbandi Owaisia order, for example, says that the only criterion for a good Sufi is whether he does his daily job better than anyone else.   Muslims therefore distinguish sharply between knowledge and virtue.  Akhlaq or virtue is the praxiology of applying truth in one's own life as a person and as a member of one's community, starting with the family and reaching out to the community of humankind.


           This praxiology is expressed in the articles and pillars of faith, which Muslims, Jews, and Christians share to a remarkable degree.  Underlying these articles and pillars of faith is commonality of belief in the nature of faith itself.


           Faith, from the Islamic perspective, might be summarized as an openness to God, and even as a suspension of the intellectual process in order to be more conscious of God and more responsive to His personal inspiration as guidance for one's own life, as well as an emotional commitment to submit one's life to Him out of complete trust in His love.


           One may be a Muslim simply by recognizing the existence of God and all His revelations to man.  But one can be a mu'min, which is the adjectival form of iman or faith, only if this is manifested in action.  In the Qur'an, Surah al Anfal (8:2-4), we read: "Believers are only they whose hearts tremble with awe whenever Allah is mentioned, and whose faith is strengthened whenever His messages are conveyed to them, and who in their Sustainer place their trust, those who are constant in prayer and spend on others out of what We provide for them as sustenance: it is they who are truly believers!  Theirs shall be great dignity in their Sustainer's sight, and forgiveness of sins, and a most excellent sustenance."


           Faith is a response to the transcendent instincts implanted in our nature, as well as to objective study of the universe.  The mental and emotional outlook of the man or woman of faith protects against the totalitarian mentality that feeds on the arrogance of rationalism.


           This linkage between the totalitarian mentality and rationalism, i.e., denying the existence of any and everything beyond one's own immediate understanding, has been shown repeatedly in the modern world, but its verity was imprinted forever on the Muslim conscience by the Abbasid Caliph Ma'mun, who ruled in the third Islamic century.  He established the rationalism of the Mu’tazilites as a state religion, and proceeded to introduce for the first and last time in the history of Islam the mihnan or Inquisition based on a paradigm of thought that rejected all limits to one's own ignorance, even those of the shari'ah, and elevated man, and especially the Caliph himself, to the status of God.


           The intellectual accomplishments during this 20-year period of inquisition sowed the seeds of the European Renaissance and the subsequent wars of religion in a culture that, unlike the Islamic, had no concept of tawhid and therefore could not incorporate the useful aspects of Greek thought without threatening religion itself and everything sacred in life.  Since everything is sacred in Islam, and nothing is profane, "religion" as the opposite of the “secular" is inconceivable, and the very thought that science can conflict with faith is absurd.


           Faith in Islam is beyond the limits of scientific observation, because some of the most important truths are beyond the power of man to know through his unaided intellect alone.  He cannot reason to them.  These are known as the 'aqida or articles of faith, and they all come from Revelation.


           In the narrowest sense, 'aqida encompasses seven cardinal doctrines, all of them common to Judaism and Christianity, namely, belief in the Oneness of God, in the instruments of Revelation, namely, angels, prophets, and books, in the resurrection and accountability of every person, and in the absolute power of God reflected in the popular concept that "man proposes, but God disposes."


           This seventh article of faith, known as qadr, is expressed Qur'anically in the Revelation that man may plan the future but he cannot control it because the best Planner is God.  Every person as a khalifa or viceregent of Allah has the responsibility to promote the good and oppose the bad, but the results of his actions are up to Allah, Who not only created man but sustains him in love, mercy, and justice throughout his life.



The Pillars of Faith as a Source of Virtue


           Since the essence of faith is submission to God not only in belief but also in action, for this purpose God has revealed five practices, known as the arkan  (sing. rukn) or "pillars of Islamic faith," which constitute the essentials of virtue or faith in action.  Like the seven articles of faith, these five required actions are essential elements of Judaism and Christianity.  They are all external acts by which each person changes both himself or herself and the entire world.  Not only are they good in themselves but without them no person can remain close to God, which is the ultimate purpose of everyone's life.


Declaration of the Shahada


                    The first of the five pillars, the constant declaration that God is ultimate and therefore without rivals and that He sent messengers, including the Prophet Muhammad, to teach man what he otherwise would not know, is an act and promotes action in accordance with the belief that God is absolute in every way, and therefore is One and unique.  Christian mystics, such as the unparalleled Meister Eckhard of 13th century Europe, share the Islamic concept of Allah in their belief that the trinity is transcended by the Godhead, which is Beyond Being.  Many Christians, if not all, pray to the Absolute, which is Allah.  The function of this first pillar is not to formulate one's thought but to direct one's every action in life.  It requires one to avoid the de facto worship of anything else as absolute or ultimate, because this is idolatry or shirk.  As the British diplomat, Charles Le Gai Eaton, expresses it on page 56 of his book, Islam and the Destiny of Man, "Idolatry is, in essence, the worship of symbols for their own sake, whether these take the form of graven images or subsist only in the human imagination. ... The ultimate 'false god,' the shadowy presence behind all others, is the human ego with its pretensions to self-sufficiency."  This is the cardinal sin of every secularist paradigm in foreign policy.


                    The false gods, which all Jews, Christians, and Muslims are commanded to reject, include not only the crude pursuit of wealth, power, prestige, and wanton pleasure as ultimate goals in life, but the worship of hidden false gods, which is known shirk al khafi.  These may lurk in intellectual premises and paradigms of thought, or in ultimate values, or even in loyalties to human persons or institutions that may replace God as the center of one's life and lead away from Him.


                    The Qur'an distinguishes between the Jews and Christians who have a "disease in their hearts," and those who are sincere in their beliefs, worship, and lives.   The former must be regarded as enemies, because they are, whereas the latter can "come to common terms ... that we worship none but Allah" (Surah al 'Imran, 3:64), knowing that "Our God and your God is One, and it is to Him that we submit" (Surah al 'Ankabut, 29:46).  In order to enlighten the "exclusivists" among the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Allah has revealed that "to each of you We have prescribed a law and an open way.  If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues.  The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute" (Surah al Ma’ida, 5:51).


                    The open way for Muslims is provided not only directly in Divine Revelation from Allah but indirectly through the model of His Messenger, Muhammad.  This is why the first pillar of Islam is of two parts, la ilaha ille Allah, there is no god except Allah, and Muhammad al Rasul Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.


              Of all the drives implanted in human nature, including hunger, sex, and love, perhaps the strongest is the craving for orientation, for the right direction in fulfilling one's role as God's steward on earth, because our eternal future depends on how well we fulfill this responsibility. The goal is Allah, as indicated by the first half of the initial pillar of Islam, and the direction to this goal is found in the model of the Prophet Muhammad as the perfect exemplar (al insan al kamil) of man created in the image of Allah.


              A healthy community depends on the healthy personalities of its members.  The personality of the Muslim is healthy only to the extent that all of his or her activities and habits are integrated within a divinely ordained pattern.  Allah designed the life of the Prophet Muhammad in all its details to provide this pattern, but he warned repeatedly, that, in their love of the Prophet, Muslims should avoid "overstepping the bounds of truth" (Surah al Nisa’a, 4:171).


                    The greatest "universal genius" of Islam, Abu Hamid al Ghazali of the fifth Islamic century, wrote that the true Muslim is one who "imitates the Messenger of Allah in his goings out and his comings in, in his movements and times of rest, the manner of his eating, his deportment, speech, and even in his sleep."


                    Paying close attention to such external details does not indicate a superficial outlook on life, as it would in a secular culture, but rather the opposite, because, for the devout Muslim, Allah has given meaning to absolutely everything.  It is precisely through the externals in life, al dhahr, that we can gain access to the inner reality, al batin.  In the desacralized world of secular man, nothing has any inner meaning.  In a world where everything is sacred the effort to give direction to one's life by following the Prophetic model is a most joyous form of prayer.  Everything the Prophet did and said, known as the sunnah, was an effort to submit to Allah in one way or another, so his life offers an inexhaustible wealth and diversity of ways to practice virtue. 


                    Following the Prophet's model thus offers unlimited opportunities to be one's true self, which is the person that God has created one to be.  We read in the Qur'an (Surah Ahzab, 33:6) that the Prophet is "closer to the believers than their own selves."  Members of some Sufi orders during prayer are transported into the presence of the Prophet Muhammad, just as in the isra’ he was transported into the presence of all the great prophets in Jerusalem before his ascension (miraj) into the presence of God.  For those so favored, the meaning of this passage in the Qur'an is very clear.  For others, the meaning is equally striking because, as Charles Le Gai Eaton writes in Islam and the Destiny of Man, it means that the Prophet "is the believer's alter ego, or, to take this a step further, more truly 'oneself' than the collection of fragments and contrary impulses that we commonly identify as the 'self'."


                    The most visible examples of such external modeling, other than the formal prayer itself, is the sunnah whereby men wear beards and women cover (hajaba) their hair as a sign of modesty and submission to Allah.  The symbolic meaning of hijab was strikingly presented in August, 1987, when the demented President Bourguiba demanded the execution of Shaykh Rashid al Ghannouchi and the other senior leaders of the Renaissance Movement (Al Nahda), which is the leading Islamist organization in Tunisia and forswears all violence in either gaining or maintaining political power.  It was, and still is, a criminal offense in Tunisia for a man to wear a beard in public and for a woman to wear the Islamic headcover recommended for those who want to follow the sunnah, because these are symbols of submission to Allah, rather than to the secular state.  At the first hearing of the kangaroo court, in which the chief judge was the Chief Prosecutor in the Interior Department, all ten of the wives of the senior Islamist leaders showed up in the identical light-tan hijab, tinted with the color of rose, each clearly demanding by this symbolism: "If my husband is to be executed for his religious beliefs, then I must be executed beside him."


                    Following the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad clearly is not merely a form of prayer but also a statement of belief and of community cohesion. 




                    The second pillar of Islam, and the second result of faith and its clearest expression in the lives of all the Abrahamic peoples, is formal prayer, salat.  God has prescribed specific forms of prayer as a minimum requirement to help us "remember" Him in everything we do throughout the day.  We are forgetful of God.  Muslims pray five times every day.  Christian monks pray eight times daily, as many Christians have done for centuries, by adding prayer in midmorning and twice at night (corresponding to the optional prayers in Islam of the shaf/witr and tahajjud), because if we forget God as the center of our life, then we will be helpless in the face of the temptations and evil forces in the world.  Muslims do not even have a word for "sin," because evil does not consist so much in the actions themselves as in the elimination of God from our lives, which is the cause of all evil.


                    The root of the word for man, ins, which means to forget, is also directly related to the word uns for intimacy, which occurs when one forgets oneself and thinks only of the other.  All informal prayer in Islam is called "remembering" Allah, zikr, and this, in a single word, is the purpose of human life.


                    Remembering God makes possible forgetting oneself so that in comparison to God all created existence seems to disappear and only God remains.  This "union" with God, known as wahdat al wujjud or "Oneness of Being," is purely subjective.  The great Islamic saints or awliya have all learned that the more aware one is of God, the more clearly one sees beyond the impression of Oneness, wahdat al shuhud, to recognize the immense distance between the Creator and the creature.  Only then can one understand the true meaning of the Prophet Muhammad's teaching that every person is created as a viceregent or deputy, khalifa, "in the image of Allah," that is as a theomorphic being, and that every human community should be not theocratic (run by professional clerics) but theocentric (led by persons who are led by God.


                    Only through prayer can any person understand his or her real identity by recognizing that one's purpose, as the modern Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, phrases it, is "to become the person that God intends one to be," that is, that one's identity is one's destiny known to God, Who is beyond space and time, in accordance with Ecclesiastes 3:15, "What has been is now, and what is to be has already been."  And only then can one understand one's true closeness to God by recognizing that one's spirit (ruh) was created in the presence of God "before" the creation of the universe, i.e. outside of space and time, and that the entire universe is nothing compared to one's own role in the Divine Plan.


              As Meister Eckhart put it, "God might make numberless heavens and earths, yet these ... would be of less extent than a needle's point compared with the standpoint of a soul attuned to God."  Everything in creation, the stars and the trees, praise God by being what they are and in ways "you do not understand" (Surah al 'Isra’, 17:44), yet only man is capable of "naming things," that is, of knowing the conceptual before the concrete, and of meaning before its symbolical representation, and of self-transformation through dialogue with his Creator.


              As Charles Le Gai Eaton puts it, in his chapter on "The Human Paradox," borrowing from Schuon, "Man prays and prayer fashions man.  The saint has himself become prayer, the meeting-place of earth and heaven; and thus he contains the universe and the universe prays with him.  He is everywhere where nature prays, and he prays with and in her; in the peaks that touch the void and eternity, in a flower than scatters itself, or in the abandoned song of a bird."  This highest level of prayer is known as ihsan.




                    The third pillar, charity, is produced by the first two, because each of the pillars is designed to make possible the next, more demanding pillar or habitual action.  At the same time, none of the five actions can survive elimination of the other four.  Thus, without charity there clearly is no faith, because faith is expressed in good works or it is not at all.


                    Charity in Qur'anic language is known as infaq, which is the inclination or desire to give rather than take in life.  If one has faith or iman, one will want to make an effort to help other people, because one would be unhappy not to do so.  In this way selflessness, which is just as much a part of our nature as the instinct for personal survival, becomes a permanent character trait. 


                    The generic term, infaq, includes zakah, sadaqah, hadya, and 'anfus Zakah is a specified amount of one's wealth required to be given to the needy as an institutionalized social responsibility to purify oneself from any arrogance and shirk that may come from one's success in accumulating more wealth than is needed for normal survival.  Such purification is needed, just as is the ritual washing before formal prayer, so that one may grow in both love and righteousness.  The root z-k-a expresses a philosophy combining both purification and increase, based on the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad that giving of oneself is, in modern terms, non-zero-sum, because the more one gives the more one has to offer, both materially and spiritually.


                    The required amount of zakah varies in proportion to the capital intensivity of the means of production, so that capital owners, and especially owners of mineral wealth created essentially by God, pay progressively more as a percentage of their wealth than would simple laborers.  Unfortunately, many of those who claim to own the oil resources of the world seem to have little knowledge of this pillar of Islam.


               It is best to give additional amounts, sadaqah, hadya, and 'anfus, as a sign of the truthfulness or sincerity of one's infaq, because this third pillar of Islamic prayer life serves primarily to develop concern for others as a trait of character.





                    The fourth pillar of Islam, and of faith among all the Abrahamic peoples, is siyam or fasting.  This is an essential part of prayer, because it strengthens our remembrance of God.  Siyam means to hold something fast.  We hold ourselves fast by self-discipline through fasting so that we will not forget the purpose of our relationship with God and our origin and end.  Fasting is so important in Islam that an entire month, Ramadhan, is required as part of the faith to strengthen one’s taqwa or consciousness of God and of His purpose for us during our time of testing in this world.  Devout Muslims, especially the unmarried, fast often throughout the year, but the Prophet Muhhamad disapproved of any excesses beyond the practice of the Prophet David (Da’ud), who routinely fasted every other day of his life.


                    Taqwa, usually mistranslated as "fear of Allah," is the essence of faith and is the beginning of wisdom, because it is based on both awe and love of God, and on the consequent fear of separating oneself from God by neglecting to live one's life as a form of prayer.  Taqwa eliminates indifference (qhafla) and produces an intention and a deep commitment to submit one's entire life to God by choosing the very best, rather than merely the minimally acceptable, as the only purpose of all one's plans and actions, and as the only criterion for deciding what to do and what not to do.


                    The Prophet Muhammad warned that, "Allah does not accept any deed unless it is done purely for His pleasure."  And, "The greatest punishment on the Day of Punishment will be meted out to the learned man to whom Allah has not given any benefit from his learning. ... The learning and actions that have no connection with Allah are fit to be entirely rejected by the wise and those who seek wisdom."


The Hajj


                    The fifth pillar of Islam, the hajj or pilgrimage to Makkah, is the least understood and the most misunderstood of the five pillars, especially in America, where it is usually regarded as a bunch of rituals that one has to go through, fortunately only once in a lifetime. 


              Muslim spiritual guides explain that the hajj is a grandiose and complex symbol, revealed by God in the process of all its details in order to present symbolically all the teachings of Revelation.  Like all the elements of the articles and pillars of faith, man could not produce the hajj through his own reason, because the concept of the hajj in all its ordered details was revealed as signs of God for us to contemplate and use as directions for our personal and community life.


                    Although the symbols of faith are often different in Judaism and Christianity, they reflect the same substance.  If non-Muslims could only participate in the hajj, they might experience the unity of all believers in God-consciousness and love.


                    The purpose of the hajj is to orient us toward our true qiblah, Who is God.  The core teaching of God for all Muslims, Christians, and Jews is the primacy of personal change.  In Surah al Rad, 13:11, we read: "Verily, Allah does not change a people's condition until they change what is in their inner selves."  This is the most obvious truth evident in the divinely ordained pattern of the hajj.


                    The first half of the hajj emphasizes the wisdom of the early Makkan surahs in the Qur'an, which teach the centrality of everyone's personal submission to God, out of which grows the unity of tawhid, which should be the governing principle in every person's thought and action.


                    Each half of the hajj contains three major symbols.  In the first half of the hajj these three elements are: 1) the honesty and purity of intent, symbolized in the ihram or seamless white robe of the pilgrim, 2) the Oneness of God, and the resulting unity of His creation, so powerfully demonstrated in the tawaf around the Kaa'ba, and 3) the submission to His will in the sa'i between Safa and Marwa.  All are designed to teach us that the path of perfection consists not merely in what we do but in living so that everything we do is a form of prayer, that is, so that the shari'ah and the three sources of knowledge, haqq al yaqin, 'ain al yaqin, and 'ilm al yaqin, on which it is based, become 'ibadah or a life of prayer in submission to God.


                    The second half of the hajj is designed to teach the power of combined efforts directed selflessly in a global movement.  This is particularly important in the modern era of polytheism, which is unequalled in human history.


                    This message of power in movement is highlighted by: 1) a day of recollection and listening to God in the midst of the tumult of 'Arafat, 2) commemoration in Mina of the sacrifice of God’s perfect servant, the prophet Abraham, ‘alayhi wa salam, and 3) the stoning of the false gods of power, prestige, privilege and hedonistic pleasure, as well as such hidden false gods as collective self-worship, manifested most clearly in secular nationalism, which the devil, al shaitan, places before every person throughout one’s life as a temptation toward moral or intellectual arrogance.


                    The great movement from Makkah to 'Arafat and back in the second half of the hajj is designed to teach the social obligations revealed in the later Medinan surahs.  Its purpose is to strengthen each person as a mujahid in the eternal jihad of mankind against the arrogance of nifaq, taghut, sheqaq, and kufr, that is, dishonesty, impurity, selfishness, and hatred of the truth.  The purpose is to teach the opposite of this, namely, honesty, purity, selflessness, and love, and to consolidate both personal and community commitment to social, economic, and political justice based on the Islamic principle of mizan or balance, so that His will not ours will be done.







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