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A Too-Narrow View of Religiousness

In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

By Sheikh Sâmî al-Mâjid

Muslims share the principle of monotheism and the basis of their collective faith. Though they have this in common, they differ in the degree of their religiousness and piety – or the degree of their sinfulness and iniquity. Some are truly oppressors of their own souls, some are eager to do righteous deeds, and others are somewhere in between. This disparity between Muslims does not take any one of them outside of the bonds of loyalty and affection that must exist among them. All of them are promised “gardens of eternity that they shall enter”. Even those who are iniquitous to their own souls will ultimately find admission into Paradise.

There are many ways a person can be iniquitous to his own soul. There are in fact as many ways to do so as there are ways to be sinful. The same can be said about righteousness. There are numerous ways to be good. Just like the Hellfire has seven gates, Paradise has eight. There will be people called to each of these gates; some will even be called to all of the gates of Paradise. This shows us that there is more than one manifestation of righteousness. It does not have a single face. We cannot paint a single picture and say: “This is what it means to be righteous. There is nothing else.”

However, there are those who take a certain mode of dress and outward appearance and use it as the sole measure of a person’s piety. Narrowing the notion of religiousness to outward appearances instead of the essence of a person – whereby outward appearances become the sole qualifying factor for religiousness so that its presence requires nothing else and its absence cannot be compensated fro by anything else – is one of the major errors of the current Islamic awakening.

The Islamic awakening has brought changes to society far beyond a change in appearance. It has been an awakening in belief, in intellectual discourse, in methodology, in ethics, and in emotional sentiment. Nevertheless, the terminology that has been born of this awakening – like the term “religiousness” – do not embrace such a wide spectrum of meanings or express the total effect that the awakening has had on people. These terms remain as restricted in scope and superficial in meaning as the day they were first coined.

The term “religiousness” is restricted to outward appearance. The two are so intrinsically tied together that whoever looks the look is instantly declared religious and pious, whatever his shortcomings might be. Likewise, whoever fails to look the look in every important way is stripped of the epithet of religiousness. All his other good qualities will not redeem this honor for him, no matter how much more important than appearance those qualities might be.

We can see how offhand and arbitrary such judgments are, honors conferred after a cursory glace at a person’s appearance and style. Such observations are, in truth, mute. They tell us nothing about what the person says or does, and it is a person’s words and deeds that really tell us what that person is all about. However, these summary judgments take hold of one tongue after another, until they become the standards by which people gauge piety and virtue.

Admittedly, we have nothing to go on in assessing the character of other people aside from what they outwardly exhibit. As `Umar said: “We but hold you to account for what is apparent to us from your deeds.” However, we need to understand that it is the deeds the moral conduct, and what a person says that make up this outer aspect of a person, not his mere outward appearance. A person’s “look” indicates nothing more or less than itself. It asserts nothing else. It negates nothing else. It provides no source of praise or condemnation outside of itself. `Umar had spoken about deeds, not about dress and appearances.

Religiousness is not restricted to the trappings of the body, but is rather the sentiments, emotions, and tendencies that emanate from the heart and translate into the outward behavior of the limbs. If loyalties are maintained through a narrow circle of outward trappings, society will split into small, factions that are antagonistic, or at the very least, uncooperative with one another. These divisions tend to keep growing to the point that the people feel that they have nothing shared between them.

Therefore, it is imperative that we put matters of outward appearance in the proper perspective that Islam depicts for them. We should not neglect those matters or belittle their importance. They are outward expressions of faith. Those who uphold them do right and those who violate Islamic teachings regarding them do wrong. But that is the extent of it. Those who adopt these manners do not deserve to have every perfection and virtue attributed to them for doing so. Nor should these matters be treated as if they were basic principles of faith upon which our loyalties and our disavowal, our love and enmity, should be based. Just as no one has a right to belittle the teachings of our faith pertaining to outward appearances, equally no one has the right to magnify their importance and declare people righteous and ignoble on their account alone.

No sane person can dispute the fact that the presence of some righteous characteristics in a person does not necessarily mean that he is inwardly wholly righteous. Likewise the absence of some righteous characteristic does not mean that the person is inwardly unrighteous. If all of us are able to recognize this simple fact, then why do some of us make such outward indications of piety the decisive factor as to where we place our loyalty and friendship?

A person can be lacking in some virtuous quality or another, but possess other good qualities that are far more important. A person may have a pure heart, a tongue that restrains itself from licentiousness and evil speech, sound ideas, good character towards others, generosity in charitable spending, fastidiousness in prayer, and integrity in fulfilling his duties to others. Should all of these mighty qualities be cast aside because the person falls short in his outward appearance?

Should not a person possessing such noble qualities be dearer to our hearts than someone lese who has the look of “religiousness” down to a tee, but whose character possesses such ugly qualities that his outward appearances can never hope to mask – like someone who is overbearing towards others, foul and abusive of speech, who denies people their rights, is envious, and who despises and thinks ill of his fellows?

We need to rectify the notion of religiousness that people have. They need to realize that it is not restricted to a few, specific rules pertaining to outward appearance, nor is it the exclusive possession of some group that distinguishes themselves by the way they look. In this way, we will protect ourselves from being fooled by appearances – a trick well used by con men to gain favor with those they wish to deceive.

By rectifying our notion of religiousness, we will also be able to do away with the aversion that people show to each other on the account of their cursory judgments that do not go beyond a first prejudice glance.

Finally, I do not want anyone to misunderstand me and think that I am taking the religious teachings regarding our appearance as unimportant or that I am saying it is alright to neglect those matters. That is not what I am saying. I am only saying that the importance of these matters should not be exaggerated to the extent that other important matters are trivialized. 

From IslamToday.com

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