Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

The truly Islamic character is always marked by humility—the paramount virtue to be cultivated by the believing Muslim.

“The true servants of the Merciful One are those who walk humbly on the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they say: ‘Peace!’ (Quran, 25: 63)

The above verse makes it clear that true servants of God are humble in their bearing. This is because, having become aware of their own position in relation to God, they have lost all sense of self-importance. Such people are meek in their dealings’ not only with God but also with their fellow-men. That humility is the very essence of an Islamic character is illustrated by this saying of the Prophet of    Is­lam:

“God has revealed to me that His servants should be humble towards one another. One person is not to commit excesses upon another, nor should one look with scorn upon one’s fellow human being.” (Muslim, Sahih)

Hoping for a reward from God.

It is in becoming acquainted with God that one knows what characteristics one should, as a Muslim, cultivate in oneself. Along with the discovery of God, there comes the realization that one is not free to do as one pleases in this world. God’s special reason for setting us down in this world for the few years that we are to live out our lives is that He wishes to put us to the test. Then, after death, we will return to Him, and, depending upon how we have behaved while on this earth, we shall either find our eternal abode in Gardens of Delight or else we shall be consigned forever to the raging fires of Hell.

When this reality of life dawns on an individual, his prime concern is then to save himself from God’s eternal punishment, and to make himself deserving of His mercy and forgiveness. This concern for his own salvation in the life after death has a direct bearing on his worldly demeanor towards his fellows. He becomes compassionate and forgiving towards others, in the hope that God will in turn shower mercy and forgiveness upon him. He also shows great ­heartedness in all his daily transactions, hoping that in this way he will be treated in like manner when he comes before God.

Such is the treatment, which a believing Muslim should mete out to others. This has been explained in various ways by the Prophet Mohammed. A selection of his sayings on the subject is given below:

Truly, God shows mercy to those of His servants who are themselves merciful.

Be ready to pardon, so that you may also be pardoned.

Be merciful to those on earth; the One on High will then be merciful to you.

(AI-Jami as-Saghir)

In a long hadith related by Abu Hurayrah, the follow­ing words of the Prophet appear:

“Whosoever relieves a believer of one of the hardships of this world will himself be relieved of one of the hardships of the Day of Judgment by God; and whoever lightens the burden of one who encounters hardship will have his own burden lightened by God, both in this world and in the next. God helps His servant, so long as that servant is ac­tively helping his brother.”  (Muslim, Sahih)

All these statements are summed up in a hadith re­lated by Jarir, according to which the Prophet said:

“God will not show mercy to one who is not merciful to others.”  (Bukhari, Muslim)


Say someone hires a taxi and, at the end of his journey, is asked to hand over fifty rupees for his fare. Now, if the passenger has only fifty rupees in his pocket, he is likely to argue that the taxi driver is quoting too high a fare. He does not, after all, want to be left with an empty wallet. However, suppose he has five thousand rupees in his wallet, he will not argue over a mere fifty rupees. He will just pay whatever fare is demanded and go on his way.

The possessor of great wealth will not argue over mere trifles, whereas a man living in straitened circumstances will have to be careful about every rupee he spends. When a man discovers God, it is as if he had suddenly inherited great wealth, and he becomes the biggest-hearted of all human beings. On the other hand, the man who remains distant from his Maker can have no knowledge of this spiritual wealth and, therefore, remains mean-spirited in his dealings with others. The possessor of spiritual wealth develops the capacity to put up with untold losses in this world. Magnanimity becomes the hallmark of his behaviour, as all traces of petty-mindedness vanishes from his per­sonality. His is a generous spirit and a sublime nature.

It is this quality, which has been attributed to the Prophet Mohammad: “Surely, you have a sublime charac­ter” (Quran, 68:4). What does this “sublime character” con­sist of? It is the capacity always to be guided by high moral principles, and never to act merely on the basis of the treat­ment one receives from others. A sublime character does not react violently in an adverse situation, nor does it in­dulge in vengeful retaliation. This is what is known as being ‘a man of principle.’ It was this type of human being that the Prophet Mohammed urged his followers to become when he warned them not to become imma’a. By imma’a he meant one who made a point of returning good for good and evil for evil. The Prophet told his followers that they should instead form the habit of being good to those who were good to them, while refraining from wronging those who had wronged them.

The same theme was taken up by the Prophet on another occasion when he said that the finest character out of all the inhabitants of both this world and the next was that of one who forged stronger ties with those who severed their ties with him, who gave to those who denied him and who forgave those who wronged him. The “sublime charac­ter” mentioned in the Quran has been interpreted in the same vein. One Quranic commentator says that we should “show forgiveness, enjoin justice and avoid the ignorant” as has been commanded by God in the Quran (7:199). A sub­lime character then has the capacity to show forgiveness in a situation where revenge might normally be sought; it spreads the message of good-will and justice wherever hate and oppression have taken root, it simply by-passes situa­tions in which there is needless entanglement in disputes.

Two types of character

From the Islamic viewpoint, human character is either noble or ignoble. Those who fall into the latter category do not acknowledge any hard and fast principles which are to be adhered to at all times, preferring to allow themselves to be moulded by particular situations and allowing them­selves to be blown in whatever direction the winds of for­tune take them. Theirs is an impulsive, changeable, un­dependable nature.

A man of this type treats with utter contempt anyone whom he considers his inferior, while anyone who appears his superior becomes an object of jealousy. He forges friendships whenever he expects to profit thereby, but adopts an attitude of indifference towards those who do not hold out any promise of advantage. One who treats him well will receive exemplary treatment, but anyone who treats him badly may be sure of even worse treatment in return. If it happens that he succeeds in improving his status, his ar­rogance knows no bounds. But if high status eludes him, he sinks into despair. He is generous to those he likes, but quite the opposite to those he dislikes. He reserves his praise for those who agree with him, but roundly condemns those who disagree.

These are the different aspects of a degraded character. God and His Prophet have commanded believing Muslims to ennoble their characters by first suppressing all such baseness in themselves.

Nobility of character

The Prophet Mohammed himself was of a very fine character, and he made it his mission to exhort others to cultivate in themselves all that was noble and altruistic. In his Muwatta, Imam Malik records the Prophet as saying:

“I have been sent to perfect excellence of character. “

In other versions of this statement, the words “righteousness of character” and “graciousness of character” are used. What is meant by this ‘graciousness of character’, which the Prophet was sent to inculcate? As the Prophet himself made clear in another statement, it consists of three virtues: “Readiness to forgive those who wrong you, to give to those who deny you and to reunite with those who sever their ties with you.”

It follows that a sublime character can be formed only when there is never any falling away from high personal standards in the face of wrong treatment from others.


When an engineer sets out to build a bridge, he chooses steel as the principal material to be used in its construction (as opposed to wood, bamboo, weaker types of metals, etc) for he knows in advance that it can be depended upon to bear very heavy loads. If he were not at all certain of this, he would not venture to construct a bridge made of steel. Everything in the world has been endowed with certain properties—just as steel has been endowed with strength ­and each element can be relied upon to display its own par­ticular properties. The behaviour of each element can, therefore, be predicted when subjected to different sets of conditions. It is because of this reliability of performance in the world of nature that human civilization has been able to advance. Were material objects to lose their properties, the whole edifice of human civilization would fall to pieces.

Such is the importance of the physical properties of the material world. In the human world, too, there are properties which are equally important: they are the ele­ments which together add up to strength of character—a cardinal virtue without which no flourishing society can be built. A society composed of individuals who are weak in character can never be anything but weak itself.

For a society to function in the best possible way, its members should be so dependable that their behaviour un­der specific conditions should be easily predictable. In other words, in one’s dealings with them, one should be able to trust them to do as they say they will do. One should reasonably expect that they will accept the truth and that, even if they have a sense of personal grievance, they will not, therefore, treat others unjustly. Individuals of this na­ture are true ‘men of steel,’ for they fulfill the expectations placed in them, just as steel will forever go on bearing the heaviest of loads. A society made up of such people cannot but flourish and progress.

A society in which this is not the case is inevitably doomed to ruin. When people do not keep their promises and refuse to accept the truth when confronted with it, when they take prompt action against others out of a sense of personal grievance, regardless of whether it is humane to do so or not, their society becomes like a world in which steel has ceased to be steel, in which the very rocks have begun to break up into splinters like so much old, rotten wood.

Having others at one’s mercy

The severest test of a man’s integrity is the realization that he has an enemy at his mercy. Generally, from such a position of advantage, his first impulse will be to destroy the enemy, especially if he considers that the cir­cumstances exonerate him from all moral responsibility.

Even at such moments, however, one who truly fears God will not forget that his Lord is watching over him. His enemy may be in a position of weakness, but this weakness lies under the protection of Almighty God. If one gloats over the weakness of an enemy, one must also cringe before the power of God. Consciousness of God’s all-embracing power leads the victor to forgive his vanquished enemy, despite the latter’s helplessness, for the victor knows that in so doing, he is grasping a golden opportunity to win God’s forgiveness for himself.

Moses once asked the Lord which of His servants was dearest to Him. The Lord replied: “One who forgives even when he has the power to do otherwise.”


Of all the human emotions, the most destructive is anger. It tears apart human relationships, shatters the har­mony of the environment and destablizes whole com­munities. It must be recognized as one of the worst negative forces in society, and, as such, be kept under strict control.

Alas, it is an emotion, which affects all human beings at some time or another, and keeping it under tight rein is of­ten a matter of the greatest difficulty. Fury can be so blind­ing that it causes a man to forget all norms of human decency—to the point of wishing to humiliate; injure or even kill an opponent. He descends to using vile, harsh language, even comes to blows, all in the attempt to beat his opponent either verbally or physically. His anger does not allow him to see that in so doing he degrades himself as much as the object of his rage. And it is not just the weak, the egoistic, or the ill-natured who fall a prey to such baneful impulses, but even the most morally upright and socially irreproach­able members of the community.

Anger gives a momentary illusion of strength, but in actual fact it weakens, degrades and destroys. An otherwise excellent character is seriously marred by fits of rage, for that is what causes a man to forget all his moral precepts and throw his principles to the winds. It was not without good reason that the Prophet said, “A strong man is not one who overwhelms his opponent. A strong man is one who controls himself when he becomes angry.”

The advice which the Prophet gave to his companions is advice which we need to follow today: “When one of you becomes angry, he should keep quiet.”

But, truly, there is only one thing in this world which can prevent an irate person from going beyond the bounds of decency, and that is the fear of God. When an awareness ­of God’s greatness is truly lodged in an individual’s heart, this enables him to rein himself in so that he does not stray beyond the limits laid down for him by the Almighty. His consciousness of the fact that God will call him to account for each and every one of his actions exercises a powerful restraint upon the anger surging within him. Such is the character of one who fears God, that when he is made angry by a human being, it is God who looms up before him, effec­tively quelling his anger.

The Quran makes it clear that any such strong, ad­verse, emotional reaction such as anger does not befit the true believer, and instead cites as a mark of excellence the quality of forgivingness: “When they become angry, they are forgiving” (42:37). The true believer must cultivate the capacity to rise above negative sentiments in his dealings with people so that his relationships with them remain on a positive basis. When anger and bitterness well up inside him, he should not give vent to these feelings but should, instead, contain and suppress them within his own self. He should live in the world in the way that the flowers do-giving off a sweet fragrance even to those who give nothing but abuse, and remaining unruffled even in the face of violent attack.

After making a mistake

However upright one may be, one cannot help but err from time to time in one’s dealings with one’s fellow-men. There are bound to be occasions when one fails to give another his due or neglects some responsibility towards him. The Quran tells us that at such times we should right the wrongs we have done by immediately doing good. If we lose no time in doing so, we can effectively cancel out any harmful consequences of our wrong-doing. To this end the Prophet counselled: “Fear God wherever you are, and follow up a bad deed with a good deed. In so doing, you will right whatever wrong you have done.” This can take various forms. It can mean asking for forgiveness, praying for the one who has been wronged, giving him a present by way of making amends, speaking well of him to others or generally acting as his well-wisher.

The people of paradise

According to the Quran Paradise will be free of idle talk and sinful speech. There shall be no lying, no false accusa­tions, and no denigration of others. There will be the most sublime feeling of peace and goodwill, for there will be no ridicule, no abuse, in short, no remarks which are even to the slightest degree inappropriate or this to be a reality, it will be only those who are truly superior in character who will be ushered through its portals. Paradise is no place for the low in character. It is a place where only the noble shall reside.

It is of the greatest importance then to build up a good character while still in this world, for it is only those who are possessed of the highest qualities of character who will be eligible to take up their abode in Paradise. Those who fall below this high standard will be discarded like so much rubbish and cast into the pit of Hell, there to suffer eternal punishment for the wickedness of their ways.

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QURANIC VERSES25:637:19942:37
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