Friday, July 13, 2012

Understanding Goodness

"Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards east or west. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the Angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; who give away some their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travelers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage; those who keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and in times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.” Quran 2:177
When people ask me about Islam, I inevitably return to this powerful verse from the Quran. Allah summarizes his religion in this verse better than any Imam I ever heard. The opening sentence of the verse is a reference to the incident of al-Qiblatain. The Prophet Muhammad had been leading a prayer at Masjid al-Qiblatain in Medina, and received the following revelation from Allah:

"Many a time We have seen you turn your face towards Heaven, so We are turning you towards a prayer direction that pleases you. Turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque: wherever you may be, turn your faces to it." Quran 2:144
As soon as he got the message from Allah, the Prophet immediately changed his direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. The incident is very interesting because it shows Allah directly responding to a request from the prophet; allowing him to change the prayer ritual. A mere 33 verses later though, Allah makes it very clear that although prayer is important, the details of the prayer ritual are not ("Goodness does not consist..."). This is not an isolated incident. A little bit later in the same chapter Allah takes issue with another ritual; entering one's home after praying through the back door instead of the front:

Goodness does not consist of entering houses by the back; the truly good person is the one who is mindful of God. So enter your houses by their [main] doors and be mindful of God so that you may prosper. Quran 2:189
The formula of 2:177 is extremely clear; Allah cares about some things a great deal, but the detailed minutia of ritual is not one of them. Do whatever is practical in your life without compromising on what Allah truly cares about. This is reinforced by a story appearing in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah:
When prayer was laid upon the apostle, Gabriel came to him and prayed the noon prayer when the sun declined...then he said, "O Muhammad, prayer is in what is between your prayer today and your prayer yesterday." Sirat Rasul Allah: 158
So at the very moment the Angel Gabriel taught the Prophet how to pray, Gabriel himself downplayed the importance of the ritual to emphasize the actions of a Muslim between prayers. This brings me to the bulk of what Allah cares about:
  • Believing in "God and the Last Day, in the Angels, the Scripture, and the prophets"
  • Giving wealth to "relatives, to orphans, the needy, travelers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage"
  • Praying and paying alms
  • Staying faithful to your pledges, even in  "misfortune, adversity, and in times of danger"
This simple message is repeated throughout the Quran:
The believers, both men and women, support each other; they order what is right and forbid what is wrong; they keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; they obey God and His Messenger. God will give His mercy to such people: God is almighty and wise. Quran 9:71
God commands justice, doing good, and generosity towards relatives and He forbids what is shameful, blameworthy, and oppressive. He teaches you, so that you may take heed. Fulfill any pledge you make in God’s name and do not break oaths after you have sworn them, for you have made God your surety: God knows everything you do. Do not use your oaths to deceive each other— like a woman who unravels the thread she has firmly spun— just because one party may be more numerous than another. God tests you with this, and on the Day of the Resurrection He will make clear to you those things you differed about. Quran 16:90-92
God has made a promise to those among you who believe and do good deeds: He will make them successors to the land, as He did those who came before them; He will empower the religion He has chosen for them; He will grant them security to replace their fear. 'They will worship Me and not join anything with Me.' Those who are defiant after that will be the rebels.—[People], keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and obey the Messenger, so that you may be given mercy. Quran 24:55-56
These are the verses of the Qur’an—a scripture that makes things clear; a guide and joyful news for the believers who keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and believe firmly in the life to come. Quran 27:1-3
For men and women who are devoted to God—believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often—God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward. Quran 33:35
Charitable men and women who make a good loan to God will have it doubled and have a generous reward. Those who believe in God and His messengers are the truthful ones who will bear witness before their Lord: they will have their reward and their light. But those who disbelieve and deny Our revelations are the inhabitants of Hell. Quran 57:18-19
What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion. Those who do this will be on the right-hand side, but those who disbelieve in Our revelations will be on the left-hand side, and the Fire will close in on them. Quran 90:12-20
When I talk to my family about being a devout Muslim, I focus on this list that Allah has provided us on achieving goodness.