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VIII) Practical Morality

 

181. Fickleness, which is a fault, consists of switching from one way of life which is forced and senseless, to another way of life which is equally forced and senseless from one absurd state to an equally absurd state for no good reason.

182. But a man who will adopt habits which suit his capabilities and his needs, and who will reject everything that is of no use to him [will be drawing on] one of the best sources of good sense and wisdom.

183. The Prophet (Allh grant him blessing and greeting), the model of all goodness, whose character was praised by God, in whom God gathered together the most diverse and perfect virtues, and whom He kept from sin – the Prophet was in the habit of visiting the sick, accompanied by his friends. They went to the boundaries of Medina on foot, wearing neither boots nor sandals, hat nor turban. He wore clothes woven from the hair of wild beasts when he had them, or he might equally likely be wearing embroidered cloth if he had it, never wearing anything unnecessary and never forgetting anything necessary, content with what he had and doing without whatever he did not have. Sometimes he would ride a fine mule or he would ride a horse bareback or a camel or a donkey, with a friend riding behind him. Sometimes he ate dates without bread, sometimes dry bread, sometimes he ate roast lamb, fresh melon, or halwa, taking as much as needed and sharing out the surplus, or leaving what he did not need and not forcing himself to take more than he needed. He was never angry when he found himself alone fighting for a cause, and he let nothing prevent him from anger when it was a question of God, the Almighty.

184. The perseverance which consists of keeping one’s word and the perseverance which is nothing but obstinacy are so alike that they can only be told apart by someone who knows what different characters are like. The difference between the two kinds of perseverance is that obstinacy clings to error. Its actions are the actions of someone who persists in doing what he has decided upon when he knows that he is wrong, or when he does not know for sure whether he is right or wrong. Such obstinacy is wrong. The opposite of obstinacy is fairness. As for the kind of perseverance which consists of keeping one’s word, its actions are the actions of someone who is right, or who believes himself to be right, not having seen any reason not to believe this. This quality is worthy of praise, and its opposite is inconstancy. Only the first of the two kinds of perseverance [obstinacy] is wrong, because it makes you lose the habit of thinking about a matter once it has been decided, and you stop wondering whether the decision is right or wrong.

185. Good sense is defined as the practise of obedience to God and the practice of piety and the virtues. This definition implies avoidance of rebellion and vices. God has stated this clearly more than once in His holy book (the Qur’n), emphasizing that anyone who disobeys Him is acting unreasonably. Speaking of certain people, the Almighty has said, They will say: if we had listened, if we had understood, we would not be among the damned, [67:10] and He has confirmed their words as true by saying, They have recognized their own sins, so misfortune be to the damned. [67:11]

186. Stupidity is defined as the practice of disobedience to God and the practice of vices.

187. As for going wild, throwing stones at people, not knowing what one is saying, that is lunacy and excess of bile.

188. Stupidity is opposite of good sense, as we have shown above; and there is no middle point between good sense and stupidity unless it is ineptitude.

189. The definition of ineptitude is to work and speak in a way that neither serves religion nor the world nor a healthy morality. This is neither disobedience to God not obedience, it does not bring anybody else to such acts, it is neither a virtue nor a harmful vice. It consists only of drivelling and rambling about doing pointless things. According to whether these actions are frequent or rare, the person should be treated as more or less inept. Moreover he may be inept in one matter, sensible in another, stupid in a third.

190. The opposite of madness is the ability to discern and the ability to make free use of sciences and technical knowledge. It is what the ancients called the faculty of reasoning". There is no middle point between these two extremes.

191. As for the art of conducting one’s affairs and flattering people by means that might win their good will and save a situation, such as false dealing, perversion or any other bad practices, and as for the tricks which allow one to amass a fortune or to increase one’s reputation or to achieve glory by means of a crime or every kind of base behaviour, these are avowed that they had lost their senses and whose words of God confirmed as true when He said that they had lost their senses, knew very well how to conduct their worldly affairs, own standing. This characteristic is called astuteness, and the opposite of it is intelligence and honesty.

192. However if, in order to achieve these same ends, someone acted with reserve and dignity, this would be firmness. Its opposite is weakness or wasting.

193. To be serious, to know how to put each word in the right place, to preserve moderation in the way that you conduct your life, to show courtesy towards anyone who comes to you, that is called steadiness and is the opposite of ineptitude.

194. The virtue of keeping one’s word is made up of fairness, generosity and courage. Because a trustworthy man thinks it is unfair to deceive anyone who has put his trust in him or anyone who has done him a good deed, he acts with fairness. Because he wishes to help to repair the injustices of fate as quickly as possible, he acts with generosity. Because he has decided to bear without flinching all the likely consequences of his fidelity, he is courageous.

195. The virtues have four roots which form all virtue. They are: fairness of justice, intelligence, courage and generosity.

196. The vices have four roots which are the basis of all faults and which are the opposite of the constituents of the virtues. They are: unfairness, ignorance, cowardice and greed.

197. Honesty and temperance are two kinds of fairness and generosity.

Here are some lines of my poetry dealing with morals. Ab Muhammad Al ibn Ahmad says:

    The spirit is the foundation
            morals build the fortress upon it.
    If the spirit does not adorn itself with
            knowledge it will surely find itself in distress.
    An ignorant person is surely blind
            and does not see where he is going.
    If knowledge is not paired with justice
            it is deceitful.
    If justice is not paired with generosity
            it is oppressive.
    Generosity depends on courage.
            Cowardice is deceitful.
    Keep yourself in check if you are jealous
            A jealous person has never yet committed adultery.
    All these virtues are sublimated in piety.
            Truth spreads light when it is spoken.
    It is from the roots of Good that springs vows
            [that bring us neared to God].

And here some other lines of poetry in my style:

    The reins which control all the virtues are
            Justice, intelligence, generosity and strength.
    The other virtues are composed of these four.
            Anyone who possesses them is at the head of his people.
    Likewise it is in the head that one finds
            The qualities of good sense that enable one to resolve all difficulties.[1]

198. Disinterest as a human quality is a virtue which is made up of courage and generosity. The same is true of patience.

199. Magnanimity is one kind of courage. It does not have an opposite.

200. Moderation is a virtue which is made up of generosity and fairness.

201. Ruthlessness arises from covetousness, and covetousness arises from envy. Envy arises from desire, and desire arises from injustice, greed and ignorance.

202. Ruthlessness gives rise to great vices, such as servility, theft, anger, adultery, murder, passions and fear of poverty.

203. To beg for something that belongs to someone else stems from a tendency which is midway between ruthlessness and covetousness.

204. If we make a distinction between ruthlessness and covetousness, it is only because ruthlessness reveals the covetousness that is hidden in the soul.

205. The art of dealing with people is a quality composed of magnanimity and patience.

206. Truthfulness is composed of justice and courage.

207. Anyone who comes to you with lies will go away with truths; that is to say, anyone who repeats to you lies which he attributes to a third person will make you beside yourself with rage; you will respond to him, and your response is the truth that he will carry away. Therefore be careful not to behave like this, and only answer when you are certain about the provenance of the lies.

208. There is nothing worse than falsehood. For how do you regard a vice which has as one of its varieties disbelief or impiety itself? For all disbelief is falsehood. Falsehood is the genus and disbelief is one of its species. Falsehood arises from wickedness, cowardice and ignorance. Truly, cowardice debases the soul. A liar has a vile soul which is far away from achieving a greatness worthy of praise.

209. If we categorize people by the way of their speaking – and, remember, it is speech that distinguishes mankind from donkeys, dogs and vermin – we can divide them into three groups: the first kind do not worry about what they pass on, they say everything that comes into their heads, without keeping to the truth or correcting mistakes, and this is the case with the majority of people. Another group speak in order to defend their own fixed opinions, or to protest against what they believe to be false, without trying to establish the truth, merely holding their ground. This is frequently the case, but it is not so serious as the first group. The third group makes use of language in the way of God intended and this is more precious than red sulphur.

210. Endless anxiety awaits a man who is goaded or irritated by justice.

211. Two kinds of people live a life without care: one kind are extremely worthy of praise, the other kind are those who care nothing for the pleasures of this world, and those who care nothing for haya’, modesty.

212. To distance ourselves from the vanities of the world it should suffice to remember that every night every man alive, in his sleep, forgets everything that worried him during the day, all his fears, all his hopes. He no longer remembers his children or his parents, glory or obscurity, high social responsibilities or unemployment, poverty or riches, nor catastrophes. Such a lesson should be sufficient for a thoughtful person.

213. One of the most marvellous arrangements in God’s world is that He has made the thing that are most necessary also the most easily attainable, as can be seen in the case of water and the thing which is even more necessary. (i.e. air) And the less essential a thing is, the rarer it is, as can be seen in the case of sapphires and things which are even less useful.

214. With all the worries, a man is like someone walking across a desert. Every time that he crosses a certain area, he sees other areas opening in front of him. Likewise, every time that a man gets something done, he finds other tasks piling up.

215. That man was right who said that the good have a hard time in this world. But the man who said that the good are at rest was also right. The good do suffer from all the evil that they see spread over everything, dominating it, and all the appearances of justice which rear up between true justice and themselves. But their calmness comes from [their indifference to] all the vanities of this world which so worry the rest of mankind.

216. Take care not to agree with a wicked speaker, not to help your contemporaries by doing anything which might harm you in this world or the next – however little – for you will reap nothing but regret, at a time when regret will not help you at all. The man you helped will not thank you. On the contrary, he will rejoice at your misfortune, or, at least – you may be certain – he will be indifferent to the bad results [of your action] and your sad ending. But guard against contradicting the speaker and opposing your contemporaries to the extent that you harm yourself in this world or the next, however little. You will reap only loss, hostility and enmity. You may even allow yourself to take sides, and you may suffer considerable trials which will be of no benefit [to you] whatsoever.

217. If you have to choose between annoying people or annoying the Almighty, and if there is no way out except either to run away from the right or to run away from the people, you should choose to annoy the people and run away from them, but do not annoy your God, do not run away from injustice.

218. You should imitate the Prophet – peace be upon him – when he preached to the ignorant, the sinful and the wicked. Anyone who preaches drily and cheerlessly is doing wrong and is not applying the Prophet’s method. Such preaching would usually only drive his audience to persist in their wicked ways, from obstinacy, anger and rage against the insolent sermonizer. He would then have done bad with his talk, not good. But a man who exhorts in a friendly fashion, with a smile and with gentleness, putting on the appearance of offering advice and seeming to be speaking of a third person when he criticizes the faults of the one he is speaking to, then his words reach farther and have more effect. But if they are not well received, he should go on to exhort or to appeal to the man’s sense of shame, but only in private. And if [his advice] is still not taken, he should speak in the presence of someone who will make the sinner change. This is the practice which God ordains when He commands the use of courteous terms. The Prophet used not to address his listeners directly; instead, he would say to them What are they thinking of, the people who do such thing?… Peace be upon him! He praised gentleness, commended us to be tolerant and not to argue. He varied his sermons so as not to be boring. And God has said, If you are harsh, and hardhearted, they would have scattered from about you. [Qur’n 3:159.] Severity and hardness should not be used except to inflict the punishment ordained by God. A man who has been given special authority to inflict such punishment must not be gentle.

219. Something which can also have a good effect in a sermon is to praise, in the presence of a wrongdoer, somebody who has acted differently. This is an incitement to behave better. I know no other benefit of the love of praise: a person who hears another being praised models himself on him. It is for this reason that we should tell stories of virtue and vice, so that anyone who hears them may turn away from the wicked deed that he hears others have done and accomplish the good deeds that he hears that others have done, so learning from history.

220. I have considered everything that lives beneath the skies, I have reflected long upon it, and I have observed that everything that exists, whether animate or inanimate, has a natural tendency to build itself up by divesting the other species of their characteristics and investing them with his own. Thus, a virtuous man hopes that all mankind will become virtuous and the sinner hopes that all mankind will become sinful. One may observe that everybody who recalls a past action of their own which they incite others to imitate says, I always do such and such; someone with a doctrine wishes that everybody would agree with him. This phenomenon can also be seen among the elements: when some become strong than others, they change them to their own substance: you can see how trees are formed, and how plants and trees are nourished by transforming water and the moisture in the soil to their own substance. For this may glory be given to Him who created and organized all things, the is no other God but He.

221. One of the most astonishing manifestations of God’s power is that [despite] the great number of creatures that exist, you never see one so alike another that there is no difference between them. I asked a man who was very old and had reached his eighties whether he had ever seen in the past any form that resembled somebody nowadays to the point of being identical. No, he replied, on the contrary, every form has something distinctive about it. The same is true of everything that exists in the world. Whoever makes a study of various objects and of the bodies they make up, whoever makes a long and frequent examination of them, knows this, and is able to discern the differences and to distinguish one object from another thanks to the nuances which the soul can perceive but words cannot express. Glory then to the Almighty, the Omniscient, whose power is infinite.

222. A curious thing in this world is to see people allow themselves to be dominated by perverse hopes which will bring them nothing but trouble in the short term and anxiety and sin in the long term. For example, one person will hope for a rise in the price of foodstuffs, a rise which might be fatal for some people. But, even if one has a certain interest in something happening, the fact that one hopes for it does not make it happen before its time, and nothing will happen that God has not decided. If he had wished for the good and the prosperity of other people, we would have speeded his own reward, achieved peace of mind and virtue, without fatiguing himself at all. Be amazed at the useless corruption of these characters!

 

Notes:

[1] This poem appears towards the end of the book in Makk’s edition [pp. 239F].

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