What Is Akhlaq?
Akhlaq is most commonly translated in English dictionaries as: disposition, nature, temper, ethics, morals or manners (of a person). It is the plural of the word khulq which means disposition. “Disposition” is a faculty (malakah) of the soul (nafs) which unconsciously inspires activities. Malakah comes into existence through repetitive practice and is not easily destroyed. A particular malakah may appear because of one of the following reasons:
- Fitrah (natural state): The original state in which humans are created by Allah. Muslims believe Allah determined certain aspects of their lives for which they are not accountable (e.g., their place of birth and physical appearance)
- ‘āda (Habit): Formed by continual repetition of certain acts and creates a certain disposition.
- Practice and conscious effort: Which if persistent will eventually produce a disposition.
Although fitra produces certain dispositions, man can surpass nature through free will and effort. While dispositions caused by mental faculties (i.e., intelligence, memory, mental agility etc.) are not alterable, all others can change. When we speak of man’s capacity to change his dispositions, we do not mean he should destroy instincts of reproduction or self-preservation. Instead, he should avoid extremes so they perform their functions properly. Abu Hurairah narrated that Prophet Muhammad has said:
“Indeed I have been sent to complete the best of character (akhlaq).” Anas, the brother of Abu Dharr is narrated as saying: “I saw him (the Prophet), he would enjoin the people to good character and conduct.” The Prophet also said, “The most complete of believers in iman (faith) are those who are best in character.”
The level of human perfection is determined by discipline and effort. Man stands between two extremes, the lowest is below beasts and the highest surpasses even the angels. The movement between these extremes is discussed in
ilm al-akhlaq</i> or the science of ethics. Traditional Muslim philosophers believed that without ethics and purification (<i>tazkiyah</i>), mastery over other sciences is not only devoid of value, but would obstruct insight. That is why it has been said that,knowledge is the thickest of veils’, which prevents man from seeing reality (haqiqah).
By improving their akhlaq, the Muslims improve their Ibadah.
Moral virtues bring eternal happiness, while moral corruption leads to everlasting wretchedness. Man must purge blameworthy traits (akhlāq madhmūma) before he can integrate ethical and moral virtues. Anas Karzoon has offered the following definition of tazkiyah al-nafs, “It is the purification of the soul from inclination towards evils and sins, and the development of its fitrah towards goodness, which leads to its uprightness and its reaching ihsaan.” Attempts to obey God’s commands are successful only when one is purified; then the soul can receive God’s unlimited grace.
The hadith of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: (“My religion is based on cleanliness“), does not refer to outward cleanliness alone; it also alludes to the soul’s inner purity. To attain perfection, it is necessary to struggle against lusts and immoral tendencies, and prepare the soul to receive God’s grace. If man travels the path of purification, God will aid and guide him. As the Quran says:
And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good..
Malakah of the Soul: Effects & Characteristics
The soul is created devoid of traits. As one progresses through life, he develops malakat related to his lifestyle. The soul becomes accustomed to repeated behavior, which then determines actions. Noble faculties manifest moral and wise behaviour, while evil faculties manifest immorality. These faculties determine the fate in the Akhira.
The Quran says:
And every man-We have fastened to him his bird of omen upon his neck and We shall bring forth for him, on the Day of Resurrection, a book he shall find spread wide open.
Read thy book! Thy soul suffices thee this day as a reckoner against thee.
And the book shall be set in place; and thou wilt see the sinners fearful at what is in it, and saying, `Alas for us how is it with this Book, that it leaves nothing behind, small or great, but it has numbered it?’ And they shall find all they wrought present, and thy Lord shall not wrong anyone.
The day every soul shall find what it has done of good brought forward, and what it has done of evil; it will wish if there were only a far space between it and its deeds.
The Soul and Its Powers
The soul (nafs) employs the body to attain its goals. The soul has also other names, including spirit (ruh), intelligence (‘Aql), and heart (qalb) although these terms have other usages. The primary faculties of the soul are:
- Intelligence (al-quwwah al-aqliyyah)- angelic.
- Anger (al-quwwah al-ghadabiyyah)- ferocious.
- Desire (al-quwwah al-shahwiyyah)- animalistic.
- Imagination (al-quwwah al-wahmiyyah)- demoniac.
The value of these forces is obvious. Reason distinguishes good and evil: ghadab (anger) helps defend against aggression: sexual attraction maintains the survival of the human species; and imagination allows visualization of universals or particulars. Reason is man’s guiding angel. Anger brings violence; passions (hawā) encourage immorality; and imagination provides material to formulate demoniac plots and machinations. If reason controls the other faculties, it moderates excesses and ensures useful performance. Allah says in surat Ash-Shams: And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it, And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness, He has succeeded who purifies it, And he has failed who instills it [with corruption].. The soul is in a continuous jihad (struggle) between these four powers for domination. The victorious trait determines the soul’s inclination.
In a hadith from Imam Ali, he is related as saying: Surely God has characterized the angels by intellect without sexual desire and anger, and the animals with anger and desire without reason. He exalted man by bestowing upon him all of these qualities. Accordingly, if man’s reason dominates his desire and ferocity, he rises to a station above that of the angels; because this station is attained by man in spite of the existence of hurdles which do not vex the angels.
Pleasures and Pains
The soul experiences pleasure when perceiving something harmonious with its nature. Pain occurs when it contacts things in disharmony. The soul’s pleasures and pains are also divided into four categories, each corresponding to one of the four faculties.
- Pleasure of the reasoning faculty lies in gaining knowledge and its pain lies in ignorance.
- Pleasure of the faculty of anger lies in feelings of overcoming an enemy and revenge. Its pain lies in the feeling of being overpowered and defeated.
- Delight of the faculty of desire is enjoyment of foods and drinks while its pain lies in denial of such experiences.
- Pleasure of the imaginative faculty lies in the visualization of particulars which lead to the appearance of carnal desires, while its pain lies in the insufficiency and inadequacy of these visions.
The strongest of pleasures is experienced by reason. This pleasure is inherent and constant. It is unlike the other pleasures, which are transitory and often embarrassing. Rational pleasures have many degrees, the highest of which is nearness to God. This sublime pleasure is attained through love and knowledge of God, acquired through effort to be closer to Him. When efforts are directed to this goal, sensual pleasures are overshadowed; taking their proper place in moderation.
Goodness and Happiness
The aim of tazkiyah and moral development is to attain felicity and happiness. Man’s most consummate felicity is reflecting Divine attributes. According to Qatada ibn al-Nu’man, the content soul (an-nafs al-mutma’inna) is, “the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allah has promised. Its owner is at complete rest and content with his knowledge of Allah’s Names and Attributes…”
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia