What is the relationship between faith and values? Does God care what label we call ourselves or how we behave with others? Is it better to be a good person or a religious person? Shouldn’t society just do away with religious doctrine?
Many people would assume that religion is about affirming a set of theoretical doctrines or subscribing to a particular dogma. Such purely theoretical conversations are consequently seen as bearing no impact on how we interact with others or live our lives. Religion has thus been regarded as secondary to the interests of mankind and to the progress of civilization. While the modern world has sought to depart from debates over abstract doctrine and instead unify society on key principles, challenges have arisen in finding alternative sources of meaning, morality, purpose and sacred values in a perceived purposeless existence. But perhaps that original assumption – that faith is a set of theoretical propositions – was mistaken to begin with.
Morality is theology
While every major religion in the world teaches people “to be good” and has a standard set of moral principles, the defining property of faith is generally presumed to be doctrines and beliefs. However, one may be surprised to know that the Islamic paradigm views faith quite differently. Faith is not about carrying a particular label or membership to a theological club, but about surrendering one’s will to God and engaging in excellent moral conduct (Qur’an 2:111-112). The Prophet Muhammmad (peace be upon him said), “The most perfect in their faith are those with the best moral character” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi).
How could moral values be the essence of one’s theology? The moral values in Islam stem from a particular way of looking at God, oneself and the world around us. True recognition and reverence of the grandeur of God imbues one with humility (Qur’an 25:63). Yearning for His Divine forgiveness renders one more forgiving to others (Qur’an 24:22). Knowledge of God’s infinite bounties endows one with overwhelming gratitude (Qur’an 34:13). A theological conviction in God’s response to those in distress develops perpetual optimism (Qur’an 27:62) and racing to be a vehicle of Divine aid to others (Qur’an 4:75). Objective moral values are reflective of the Divine nature of God, and our basic moral intuitions are allowed to come to fruition through a comprehensive program of moral development.
Evidently, Islamic theology and Islamic morality are two sides of the same coin, or rather, two sides of a single worldview. It should be obvious then that mistreatment of others is fundamentally indicative of a problem in one’s relationship with God and a deficiency in the way one views life. This is not without repercussions. In Islam, a person’s moral behaviour is actually of direct relevance to one’s spiritual salvation and fate in the afterlife. When he was asked about the predominant factor that enters people into heaven, the Prophet Muhammad said, “Taqwa (consciousness) of God, and excellent moral conduct with others” (Mustadarak al-Hakim).
A person’s compassion, generosity, and fairness with others reflects a commitment to know God and come closer to Him through these actions. From its beginning to its end, the Qur’an indicates that one’s relationship with God should manifest itself in one’s moral character with others. The defining verse on righteousness (birr) in the Qur’an states:
“Righteousness is not a matter of praying to the east or the west. Rather, righteousness is in a person who has true faith in God, the Last Day, the angels, the revelations, the Prophets;
One who lovingly donates of his wealth to family, orphans, the needy, the traveler, all those who ask for help, and for the sake of freeing slaves;
One who establishes prayer and gives charity of the poor, and is of those who fulfill their promise when they promise, who persevere in misfortune, tribulation and times of peril.
Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.“
Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad summarized the entire message of Islam saying, “I have only been sent to perfect the traits of moral character” (Musnad al-Bazzar).
The Speech of Ja’far
When persecution of the Muslims at the hands of the Quraysh intensified in Makkah, the Prophet Muhammad advised a number of his companions to seek refuge in Abyssinia. While there, the Quraysh sent an envoy to the ruling Negus of Abyssinia, demanding the return of these “renegades”. The Negus summoned the Muslim refugees and asked them to explain their way of life. The Muslim spokesperson was none other than Ja’far ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet and his esteemed companion. Given the opportunity to summarize the entire religion of Islam into a few short sentences, Ja’far said:
“O Noble King! Verily, we were a backward people in a state of ignorance, engaged in idolatry, consuming carrion, committing acts of sexual indecency, severing the ties of kinship, and mistreating our neighbours, while the powerful amongst us would subjugate the weak. And we remained in that state until God sent to us a messenger from amongst us, whose nobility, honesty, sincerity and dignity were well known to us. So he called upon us to build our relationship with God, to worship Him alone and to abandon the worship of stones and idols. And he enjoined upon us honesty in speech, fulfilling our agreements and trusts, building family ties, treating our neighbours and community with excellence, and refraining from any form of sin or bloodshed. And he forbade us from sexual immorality, false testimony, exploiting the wealth of orphans, slandering chaste women, and he instructed us to worship God alone without associating any partners with Him. And he enjoined upon us prayer, fasting, and charity to the poor.“
After enumerating the teachings of Islam he continued, “So our people transgressed against us, punished us, and persecuted us for our religion in order to coerce us back to idolatry and engaging in the sinful practices we had abandoned. So when they subjugated and oppressed us, and prevented us from practicing our faith, we left our homeland and chose you over others, seeking to become your neighbours, and hopeful that we would not be oppressed in your land, O Noble King” (Musnad Ahmad).
In one of the most succinct and concise expressions of the Islamic faith we find a heavy emphasis on values. When asked to explain his faith, Ja’far did not attempt to present the Negus with philosophical argumentation, nor details of jurisprudence, nor the historical and political situation in Makkah. He emphasized the moral values which are the very essence of faith. He focused on the values which are the necessary consequences of a conviction that there is a way in which the world ought to be, that this world is the creation of a Just and Merciful Lord who filled it with opportunities for us to accomplish good and know Him through our good deeds.
A paradoxical question
Once a person asked, “What’s better – to be a good Muslim, or to be a good person?”
The person understood a “good Muslim” to mean nothing other than performing ritual acts of worship, praying in the mosque, reciting lots of Qur’an, and so forth, while a “good person” was understood to mean someone who is kind towards others, caring, forgiving, etc. While it is easy to see how someone can arrive at such an erroneous conclusion, in light of the foregoing material, this question should strike one as absurd. There is no such thing as a good Muslim who is not a good person.
In fact, the companions of the Prophet discussed this very issue with him. When a man asked the Prophet about a woman who prays, gives charity and fasts a great deal, but is abusive towards her neighbour, the Prophet replied that she would be in Hell. The man then asked about another woman who is known to fast and pray very little, though she gives charity to the poor and does not harm her neighbours. The Prophet replied, “She will go to paradise.” (Sahih Ibn Hibban and Musnad Ahmad).
Our acts of worship are meant to transform us into better people. If faith is not serving as a transformative force in our lives, we need to interrogate the sincerity of our faith. All of the pillars of worship should increase our moral and spiritual growth as human beings. Concerning the Salah (daily prayers) for instance, God says, “Verily, the prayers prevent one from immorality and evil” (Qur’an 29:45). The Zakat (charity to the poor) is meant to purify us as human beings (Qur’an 9:103). Siyam (fasting) is about building ourselves morally as the Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever does not fast from foul speech and bad deeds, then verily God has no need of him fasting from food and drink” (Sahih Bukhari). Concerning the Hajj as well, the Qur’an states, “there is to be no lewd speech, wicked conduct, or any quarrelling during Hajj” (Qur’an 2:197).
Put into this perspective, it should be no surprise that the brilliant scholar of Islamic theology, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d.751H), entitled an entire chapter in his opus magnum Madarij al-Salikin with the title, “The religion (deen), in its entirety, is all moral character (khuluq). So whoever surpasses your in moral character has surpassed you in religion.”
What occupies the centre of one’s value system?
Everyone has values, even the most morally relativistic of people. Ibn Taymiyyah notes for instance, that if given the choice, people would opt to have correct beliefs populate their mind rather than incorrect beliefs, and they would prefer to desire something beneficial over something harmful (Dar Ta’arrud al-Aql wa’l-Naql, vol. 8, p.458). Interestingly, there’s no rational deduction or empirical data that establishes the superiority of the former over the latter in either case and yet, that has unanimously been the ambition of humanity. This is indicative of the fact that there are some inherently meaningful ways of approaching reality that human beings are naturally predisposed towards (read more in this article on meaningfulness).
Throughout their lives people end up acquiring a structure of values by which they choose between “right” and “wrong”. Sometimes that value system may be coherent, and sometimes it may be incoherent. Some of it may be based on culture and society, some of it on personal experiences, some of it perceived rational argumentation, some of it on historical influence of religious tradition, and perhaps a large amount arises from whatever is expedient to one’s pursuit of worldly gains. Whatever occupies the ultimate seat in one’s personal value system, is what is seen as conferring meaning upon all else. For the individual, that ultimate value is functionally his or her god, as the philosopher John Dewey famously articulated. By interrogating one’s own structure of meaning, one is forced to confront the lens through which one perceives the world, and evaluate its clarity and coherence.
Belief in God and belief in religion is not belief in the sense that one might believe that Venus is the second planet from the sun, or that a mule is bred from a horse and donkey, or that a molecule of water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. These are theoretical propositions that neither shape a person’s value system nor exert any influence on the way in which a person lives one’s life. Rather, faith in God’s religion is about fundamental moral convictions: that one’s life has a purpose, and that one’s mercy towards others is necessary in one’s relationship with God. Without it, all existence is rendered meaningless, including the very values by which one strives to structure their moral outlook on life.
In modern society, the relegation of faith to the periphery has been premised on the mistaken perception of religion as mere theoretical – and largely unsubstantiated – dogma. With that perception falsified, humanity has an opportunity to reclaim the value of values.