In this series of Friday Sermons, we shall be focused on improving our character and mannerisms. Each week we will pick one Akhlaqi principle and delve into some of its features, the idea being that from one week to the next we make a special and dedicated intention to implement this particular practise. God-willing over the week, this one practise will help us to improve that element of our moral nature, preparing us for the following week’s principle.
This, of course, is based on the noble character of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) of whom the Holy Qur’an tells us: “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah, you have an excellent model for the one who seeks God, the Day of Judgement and remembers God unceasingly (33:21)”.
Our first Akhlaqi principle is to make our private behaviour surpass our public behaviour. It is often the case that our public behaviour is better than our private behaviour. This is because when we are in public, we want the best version of ourselves to be seen and so we become very aware of how we act; when in our private circles, however, we revert to default behaviours or are less concerned with how people see us.
This manifests itself in many ways: In public, I may never swear but in private I may. In private I will watch things I would never watch in public. In public, the length of my Salaat is very long but in private it is extremely quick or with the TV still on. In public, I will smile and talk nicely to people at the mosque but when I return home, I am grumpy and would never spend time talking to my family and so on.
This is problematic because of the hypocrisy it builds within us and normalises this dichotomy, entrenching its practises further. The narrations specify that when our inward state is corrupted so too will our outward behaviours be, as we will not always be able to control ourselves and these inward states will manifest themselves. But similarly, when our outward behaviours are problematic such as acting differently, it will corrupt our inward realities. For example, one narration states:
When the outward gets corrupted, the inward also gets corrupted / عِِنْدَ فَسادِ العَلانِيَةِ تَفْسُدُ السَّريرَةُ”.
Amongst the qualities of Allah (swt) is that He is aware of what transpires in our hearts. This is mentioned in numerous Qur’anic verses, examples of which are:
1) “Say: Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or bring into the open, God knows it, for He knows all that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth (3:29) قُلْ إِن تُخْفُواْ مَا فِي صُدُورِكُمْ أَوْ تُبْدُوهُ يَعْلَمْهُ اللّهُ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الأرْضِ وَاللّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ ”
2) “And Allah knows what you conceal and what you reveal (16:19) وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا تُسِرُّونَ وَمَا تُعْلِنُونَ”
In the Islamic ethical system, there are multiple spheres of privacy. In the discussion at hand there are two private spheres:
i) The inner circle of family and friends who get to see our private forms of behaviour, and
ii) The heart and mind which no one other than Allah (swt) and you know the truth of (although a third form of the private space is the phone/laptop etc which is often not known by even the spouse but is known by the FBI/MI5!)
For this reason, the hadith mentions:
Blessed is the one whose inward thoughts are good, whose outward [character] is righteous and who does not harm the people / طُوبى لِمَنْ صَلُحَتْ سَريرَتُهُ، وحَسُنَتْ عَلانِيَتُهُ، وعَـزَلَ عَنِ النَّاسِ شَرَّهُ”.
Let us now look at these two spheres and how we can improve our private actions to be purer than our public ones.
The central reason for acting differently in certain spaces is usually due to placing more sanctity in one place or another (e.g. the mosque is ‘holy’ whilst the house is ‘normal’); or one group of people are worth more effort and respect than another (e.g. those in the mosque are more deserved than family for mercy). This, of course, is in contradiction to the Islamic worldview: Allah (swt) is present everywhere for “He is with you wherever you are” (Qur’an 57:4) and that all human beings have equal dignity (17:70).
The fact that one acts differently in some spaces or with some people needs to be addressed within himself as to what has led him to think and act this way. Often it is out of ignorance or bad behaviour that has not been checked for so long. Take the example of the man that goes to mosque and when tea is served to him he will thank the server. When he returns home his wife will make him tea but he will never say thank you.
His public behaviour is better than his private. Why? Because of a false sense of entitlement and imagining his wife to be duty bound to him as opposed to her volunteering herself out of kindness, just like the server at the mosque is also volunteering out of kindness. The hadith recognises this internalised problem and different treatment for some saying:
Let not your family or those whom you love be the most miserable of people because of you / لايَكُنْ أهْلُكَ وذُو وُدِّكَ (ذُوُوكَ)أشْقَى النّاسِ بِكَ”.
What then is the Akhlaqi prescription for this? The hadith says, “When the consciouses are being reformed, the hidden rancour becomes evident / عِنْدَ تَصْحيحِ الضَّمائِرِ يَبْدُو غِلُّ السَّرائِرِ”.
This means that the more one observes how the same action manifests itself in two different places or with two different sets of people etc the more conscious one will be of the gap in quality of action between the two. He will note how high a bar he sets for himself in one sphere or what he is capable of in one setting and compare it to how low a bar it is in another setting and therefore aim to implement his highest bar in all other spheres such that his private actions end up surpassing even how he is in the public eye.
The second private sphere was that of the heart, which only yourself and Allah (swt) know of what transpires. It might be the case that when we do a good action, deep down we are hoping someone watched us or will compliment us or we will receive some worldly reward for it. Externally the action is flawless, seen as being done for God; internally it is wretched and filled with attention-seeking, for example.
What then is the Akhlaqi prescription for this? One of the spiritual masters was probed by his student, “Whenever I do a good deed, inside me there is showiness; I secretly hope someone would recognise what I have done. Can you advise me how to stop this?”
The reply came:
Increase your showing off! Show off more and more! Just change whom you are showing off to! If you want the attention of someone, seek it from Allah (swt). Talk to him and hope that Allah (swt) noted the length of your prostration or the charity you gave etc. Ask him, ‘Allah! Did you see what I did for your sake?!’ and in this way, your attention-seeking will be rewarded and not diminish your act.”
Many of us ensure our public persona or public interactions are of the highest standard, and this is good. But if we are to compare those same actions with how they are performed in private there would be a large gap in their quality.
In order to develop ourselves, we aim that these private acts, which are often a truer reflection of the self, to be better than what people see of us. With a little reflection, we realise what we are capable of; this is the potential of self-control or good mannerism or worship that exists within me as I conduct myself like this in public already! If I were to uphold or improve on this when alone, it would remove the dual standards and in fact raise both my private and public practises. What Allah (swt) knows about me in public and private would be praiseworthy, not just one.
InshaAllah next week we look at another Akhlaqi principle to build on this.