Good deeds and the spiritual life.

by Shaykh. Ahmad Hendricks


Good deeds (al-‘amal as-salih) are fundamental to the spiritual life. We improve or enhance our personal spirituality through increasing our good deeds or through improving the quality of the good deeds we already practise regularly. It is therefore crucial that we understand the nature and purpose of good deeds correctly and as deeply as possible. Are we instructed by Islam to live the pious life for its own sake or are there deeper levels of meaning to the simple good deed like dhikr (remembrance), salah and sadaqah (charitable actions) for example. Related to this issue is the whole question of sin (dhanb). What is a sin and why must we avoid it? In this discussion we will look at good deeds and leave the discussion of sin to a later article.

Let us examine briefly a few verses in the Quran about good deeds. Allah, the Most High, says in the Quran, " Those who believe in Allah and the Day of judgement, and who perform good deeds, their reward is with their Rabb."[al-Baqarah. v. 62]. He, the Most High, also says, " Those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and who perform good deeds, they will not fear." [al-Maidah v.69]. In surah al-Nahl verse 97, Allah, the Most High, says," Those who perform good deeds, men and women, and they believe, We will give them a new good (lit. a perfumed) life." In another verse He says, "Except those who repent, believe and perform good deeds, for them we will change their sins (they might have incurred in the past) into good deeds, Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful" [al-Furqan v. 70]. The consequences of good deeds according to these verses are huge. We are promised unimaginable rewards in the after-life, that is why in the first ayah Allah simply says, " their reward is with their Rabb" without specifying any particular reward. Good deeds if done properly transform human life. It injects a new vitality into an otherwise sterile and unpleasant life. It changes the person who patterns his life on them. Our bad qualities are removed and replaced by good ones. Good deeds are like a breath of fresh air after suffocating in a dark, dusty room. Allah indeed compares the sinful and spiritually sterile life with the narrowness and cramped condition of the grave when He, the Most High, says, " He who turns his back to my remembrance, he will live an impoverished life (ma’ishatan dhanka)." [Ta-Ha v. 20]. The word "remembrance" in this verse can be interpreted firstly, as a reference specifically to dhikr (remembrance by mentioning and repeating the Names of Allah) and secondly, it also a refers to the general category of "good deeds" we are discussing here.

The Nabi, may Allah pour His peace and blessings on him, says in a well-known Tradition, " He who practises what he knows Allah, the Most High, will teach him things he does not know"[al-Bukhari]. Good deeds, there is doubt, is an effective and powerful means to transforming and enlightening the heart. According to this tradition the enlightenment, this greater understanding and insight, is inspired into the heart by Allah, the Most High, Himself. Good deeds lead to the expansion of the breast to the light of Islam. It is the door that opens up to greater knowledge and leads to understanding the truth of things. The Nabi, may Allah pour His peace and blessings on him, also said, " Surely in the human body is an organ, if this organ is defiled, the entire body is defiled, and if it is sound the entire body is sound. Verily it is the heart" [al-Bukhari and Muslim]. The Prophet also said, " Allah does not look at your bodies but he looks at the contents of your hearts" [al-Bukhari and Muslim]. These sayings of the Nabi, may Allah pour His peace and blessings on him, have a number of implications and the one relevant to this discussion is the quite obvious focus on the health of the heart. Commentators generally agree that the "heart" spoken about here is the spiritual and not the physical one. The body takes on the fragrance or odour of the heart. The qualities of the heart manifest in the actions of the body. The body is like a mirror in which the contents of the heart are reflected. But in all of this the successful in the eyes of Allah, the Most High, are those who have pure hearts. In surah al-Shu’ara verse 89 Allah, the Most High, relates to us as part of the prayer of Nabi Ebrahim, may Allah bless him, the following words, " Do not dishonor me (O Allah) on the day of resurrection, the day that neither wealth nor off-spring will be beneficial, except the one who comes to Allad with a pure heart (qalbin salim)". Purifying and transforming the qualities of the heart is therefore crucial. In fact without it we will simply fail the ultimate test before Allah. The only means we have to that end, as all the verses and ahadith we quoted indicate, are good deeds.

One important point here is that good deeds will have these results only if they are done regularly and consistently. In a Tradition the Nabi, may Allah pour His peace and blessings on him, said, "The person who is in the habit of doing a certain ‘ibadah and he stops doing it through boredom Allah curses him." He also said, " The good deed that Allah loves most is the one practised consistently even if it is small."

This is what Shaykh Amin al Kurdi says, " The one who perseveres in good deeds will taste the sweetness of ‘Iman in his heart. ‘Iman will penetrate to the innermost recesses of his heart. Once he reaches this level doubts and insecurities disappear and he begins to experience a deep joy in his ‘ibadah, to the point where he prefers spiritual activities to the pursuit of material objectives. At this point ‘Iman enters into the heart exactly like the desire for cold water on an extremely hot day, overwhelms the extremely thirsty man. And so the effort and tiredness that goes with the practise of good deeds is lifted by the joy he eventually discovers in them ."

(from the Boorhanul Magazine: April 2000)


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