Among the greatest teachings of Islam is the importance of striving for an exalted moral character. The multi-faceted morality espoused in the revelation of Allah facilitates growth of a sound and pure character for individuals, families, and societies. While there are many facets to exalted moral character in Islam, one can study a part of it through Surah 41, verses 33 to 36, in the Qur’an. Allah says, “And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and acts righteously and says, ‘Indeed, I am of those who submit’” (41:33).
After previous verses consoling the believers and reminding them of the paradise that is promised to them, Allah commands believers to fulfill their duty in inviting others to the truth, in performing righteous deeds, and in proclaiming their faith as Muslims. We can focus on three lessons apparent in this verse.
Da’wah and Righteousness
First, Allah classifies da’wah – inviting others to the truth – as one of the greatest forms of speech. Therefore, it is not enough to strive for religious faith and a good character; but rather one should love for others, as well,to have access to the truth and its fount of wisdom and guidance to personal betterment and salvation.Prophet Muhammad (s) was reported to have said, “If Allah guides a person through you, it is better for you than everything in this world” (Bukhari).
Second, it is not enough for one’s character to be demonstrated in inviting others to Allah and the truth of Islam, but rather one must practice righteousness and practice what they preach. This verse profoundly emphasizes one touchstone of character that can be summarized as follows: practice what you preach and preach what you practice.
Third, one of the greatest tests of character is standing for the truth in times of personal difficulty, or when worldly or societal challenges arise, such as during the early stage of prophethood. Likewise, today, proclaiming one’s adherence to Islam, in many societies, comes with its own trials. A test of character, thus, is found in being confidently Muslim and proclaiming it without reservation. The one who follows the truth should not be timid to share it with others, particularly when many people today unabashedly call toward falsehood and immorality.
Respond with What Is Better
In the next verse, Allah says, “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel it [evil] with what is better, then the one, who between him and you is enmity, will become like a close friend” (41:34).The invitation to the truth was difficult during early prophethood because there was strong opposition and antagonism. The opposition itself was grounded in the mores of the era and the region which abounded in indecency, immorality, and social injustices. This is similar to the opposition of our times.Allah Almighty reminds humankind that good and evil are not equal. The one who does evil, who violates the rights of others, is not like the one who does good, who fulfills others’ rights.In this verse, believers are reminded that responding to evil with goodness can often break down barriers, soften hearts, and establish alliances.
At a protest against Islam and Muslims in 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona, aman stood in front of the mosque wearing a shirt with a profane message insulting Islam.One of the mosque members invited him to join them for the Friday prayer. Later that day, he stated that he had taken off his shoes and kneeled in prayer with so many peaceful people. He insists that the experience changed him. He was treated with kindness, welcomed rather than castigated, and he ended up leaving with the profanity on his shirt covered up and a newfound respect for Muslims. A man who urinated in the mosque of Prophet Muhammad was treated with tolerance and mercy by the Prophet and ended up embracing Islam.
How should we deal with insults and abuse? It is an opportunity to represent Islam. In fact, the verse suggests not only responding with what is good but what is better, and this for the believer is a reminder to contemplate one’s situation carefully before responding to evil. This does not imply that a Muslim is to be stepped on or physically abused, or that Islam encourages ongoing evil and harassment, but rather that many situations can be dealt with effectively by refusing to stoop to the low moral standards of the perpetrator. In many cases, the one who committed evil is moved by the high-minded response and this can lead to remorse, a softening of the heart and an apology, or even friendship.
The Requisite of Sabr
Allah then says with regard to the capacity to return something better,“And it is not granted except to those who have sabr; and it is not granted except to the one who possesses great fortune” (41:35). Sabr is patience and perseverance, both aspects needed when making da’wah and when responding to evil with something better. As to the great fortune mentioned in this verse, according to the tafsir (exegesis) of Ibn Kathir, it is “a great portion of happiness in this world and in the Hereafter.” This happiness comes from worshipping Allah and striving for purity of heart and an elevated character. One of the salaf (righteous predecessors) described this happiness: “There are moments that I say to myself, ‘truly if the people of Paradise feel what I feel here on earth, they are indeed living a good and joyous life.’”
Although returning that which is better is effective and powerful, it is not so easy to implement and therefore the reward is significant. When someone wrongs you, it requires great restraint and self-control, as well as spiritual vision, to look beyond the moment and see an opportunity to demonstrate Islamic character and embody the message of Islam.
In fact, sabr is one of the most crucial traits to be practiced by the believers, and it is one that connects the believer with other people in beneficial ways, and with God, with the afterlife and its eternal bliss. Allah says, “Verily, humanity is at a loss except those who believe and do righteous deeds; and enjoin one another to truth and enjoin one another to sabr” (103:2-3). An attachment to one’s desires, or to societal trends, or to this worldly life in general, is an attachment that prevents the cultivation and growth of moral character. An attachment to Allah and the Hereafter purifies one’s character of low standards, of defective character traits, and of base desires. The more we are attached to Allah and the afterlife, the better our character. The more we are attached to the truth of Islam, the greater our character. The greater our character, the more inclined we are to contribute to the improvement of society in ways that are mature, sensible, and rooted in truth.
On the other hand, a corruption of moral character, unfortunately, ruins individuals, families (the building blocks of society), and society. Much of the corruption we see in politics and politicians today is due to a lack of morals. What we see are actions that are self-serving and politically expedient, often with no regard to morality. The more we uphold upright character in our everyday lives, and demand it of our leaders and institutions, the more we will see it normalized in society. The devil, however, strives to corrupt the character of mankind, and this is why Allah says in the next verse, “And if you are tempted by Satan, then seek refuge with Allah. Indeed, He alone is the All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (41:36).
The Profound Effects of Good Character
Beyond the fact that it is Allah who opens hearts, and that the truth has a compelling, transcendent quality, it was also the elevated character and graced personality of the Prophet (s) that motivated people to embrace Islam.Anas (r) reported, “A man once begged from the Prophet and he gave him enough sheep to fill a valley. The man returned to his people and said, ‘Enter Islam, for by God, Muhammad gives with no fear of poverty!’ People would go to the Prophet wanting only worldly goods and would find before the day was out that their religion had become dearer and more precious to them than the whole world” (Muslim). Those people went with a materialistic motivation, “wanting only worldly goods,” yet ended up experiencing a spiritual surrender “dearer and more precious to them than the whole world.”
The Prophet (s) said, “Nothing is weightier upon the scale [of good] for the believer on the Day of Resurrection than good character…” (al-Tirmidhi).