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What is an Islamic Personality?

The question — “What is an Islamic personality” — comes into the Muslim mind now and again. There is no record of companions asking Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) this question as the perfect Islamic personality was embodied and demonstrated by the Prophet himself. The Prophet is not amongst us now except in the record that has been left in certain verses of the Qur’an and in the hadeeth literature. Wanting to close the gap between what we are and what we can potentially be, we ask the question again — what is an Islamic personality?

Personality is the external manifestation of both built-in and acquired aspects of character, all the thoughts and feelings and behaviors that come into play when dealing with the self, other people, and the surroundings. The newborn, with its innate genetic personality traits, is constantly influenced by external stimuli, social interactions, and learning opportunities. His character develops as a result of the interplay of his genetic predisposition and his increasingly diverse experiences. Everyone around a child, including parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and extended family affect his developing selfhood. It has been said, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” That “company” is not only the real-life people in his daily activities and interactions; it is also the characters in the books he reads and in the movies and TV shows he watches. That “company” is also each thought that animates his inner dialogue, a chattering that goes on day in and day out. Those thoughts are some of the building blocks of habitual behavior.

Watch your thoughts as they become your words; watch your words as they become your actions; watch your actions as they become your character; and watch your character as it may become your destiny

Habits are acquired as a result of internal drives and external stimuli that elicit a response. The drives are of two types: a) basic instincts such as hunger, thirst, the physiological urge for sex, self-preservation, maternal protectiveness, and so on; b) acquired inclinations such as a well-developed work ethic or passion for a hobby like hiking. Most of the social and cultural norms that a person interiorizes and abides by are acquired drives. They are a set of rules and expectations by which a group guides the behavior of its members, with the aim of satisfying the basic instincts while, at the same time, maintaining societal values and protecting the interactions between individuals of that group.

Those social and cultural norms arise out of a basic moral code. Such a code is universal and common to all religions, and even fundamental to secular ideology. Every individual, whether he believes in one God, many gods, or no god, appreciates a person who is honest, trustworthy, humble, generous, and so on. The Islamic moral code — the foundation for the Islamic personality — is based upon true human nature, is universally applicable, and not subject to whim, passing notions or trends, or majority vote. It is an ethics of highest perfection, consistent, constant, and permanently for the pleasure of God. This ideal is outlined in the Qur’an and demonstrated by the life of the Prophet. Thus, the perfect Islamic personality, the exemplary role model, is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Verily in the messenger of Allah, you have a good example of one who looks toward Allah and the last day and mentions Allah frequently” (Qur’an, 33:21).

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), himself, has said, “I have been sent to perfect your conduct.” This exemplar of upright comportment established himself as a truthful and trustworthy person even before he became a prophet. Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her), his first wife, said to him about his character, “You join the ties of relationship, you speak the truth, you bear people’s burdens, you help the poor, you entertain the guest, you mitigate (decrease) the pain and grief suffered for the sake of truth.” After his death, when a group of Muslims who never met him came to his wife Ayesha (RAA) and asked her to describe his character, she replied with a question, “Have you not read Qur’an?” Thus, Prophet Muhammad’s character was nothing but a living example of Qur’an itself. In order to get an idea of the character of the believer, therefore, one has to read the Qur’an with the aim of discovering the elements that comprise that character. In Surah Al-Mu’minun, believers are described as those who are humble, avoid vain talk, do their prayers, spend in charity, and guard their modesty. In Surah Al-Infal, it is said of them, “When Allah is mentioned, their hearts feel fear, when Qur’an is recited it increases their faith, and they have trust in their lord.” In Surah Tawbah, Allah SWT says, “they protect each other, enjoin good and forbid evil and strive in the cause of Allah.” In Surah Ra’d, they are described as the ones who keep their promises, have patience, and migrate for the cause of Allah.

If we engage in reflection and self-examination in order to assess how we fare in relation to the characteristics of a believer, we might be pained to acknowledge that we don’t always measure up, and even display at times traits attributed to unbelievers or hypocrites, especially in our social dealings. A Muslim is not supposed to lie, backbite, be envious, break his promise, be of loose character with the opposite sex, oppress, abuse, blame, or harm in any way. In fact, only if we are striving to purify our personalities from such inclinations, can we be a “mirror to fellow Muslims” as the Prophet has instructed us. The Qur’an says, “O prophet! We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of glad tidings, a warner and as one who invites people to Allah with His permission and as a shining lamp” (Qur’an 33:45-46). Thus, the Prophet did not hesitate in correcting companions, in being a “mirror to fellow Muslims” when he found a need, but always in the best manner. When Asma, sister of his wife Ayesha, came to him while he was with Ayesha, he noticed that Asma’s dress was too thin. He turned his face away and told her, “When a woman reaches puberty, nothing should be seen of her (by non-mahrem) except this and this,” and he pointed to his hands and face. Once a man came to the Prophet, sat down, sneezed, and he did not say, “Praise be to Allah.” The Prophet remained quiet. Then another man came, sat down, sneezed and said, “Praise be to Allah.” The Prophet responded by saying, “Allah’s mercy be on you.” Then the first man asked, “How come you did not pray for me?” The Prophet replied, “You forgot Allah and I forgot you!”

The Islamic personality is comprised of traits we should cultivate in ourselves, like being humble and guarding our modesty. It is also a working model of purification so that we strive to eliminate habits such as backbiting or blaming. And notably, the Islamic personality takes care to internalize the teachings and principles that transform the self so as not to simply create and present to the world a persona that is more image than substance. The delight of a perfume is not its name or the shape of its bottle, but its pleasing fragrance. The quality of a book is not its cover but its contents. The promise of happiness in a marriage is not a once-and-done exchange of verbal pledges to love and honor, but a lifetime of daily affirmations and dedicated efforts to build a successful marriage relationship. Likewise, dawah in Islam is not sloganeering, merely pamphlets and videos and lectures. The character of a Muslim him or herself is the most genuine promise and pledge and affirmation and effort — an invitation to a non-Muslim to discover the beliefs that underlie and engender the upright character of the Muslim they are encountering. It is our destiny to transform ourselves and to invite others to that same path of self-purification. So it becomes imperative to cultivate an Islamic personality in all its particulars, and we can begin by realizing that our thoughts are the closest companions we have, the most influential “company” we keep. We can remember Allah SWT (keep Him and the Islamic precepts and wisdom in our thoughts) whether after a sneeze or in a heated exchange; in all cases speaking only words of virtue, and behaving only in the best of manners. We do well to heed the advice of Imam Ghazali: “Watch your thoughts as they become your words; watch your words as they become your actions; watch your actions as they become your character; and watch your character as it may become your destiny.”

Dr. Shahid AtharAuthor Shahid Athar, MD, FACP, FACE is a physician (endocrinologist) in private practice and on the faculty of Indiana University School of Medicine (sathar3624@aol.com).

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