Moral integrity and upright conduct are held in high esteem by all people and all religions. They are a fundamental part of the Message of all the Prophets (peace be upon him), so much so that the last of the Prophets – Muhammad (peace be upon him) – said: “I was only sent to perfect good moral character.”
There is no need to speak at lengths on this point, since it is something about which all people agree. You find that even those who campaign against moral character and act immorally and unscrupulously invariably speak highly of moral character and admit to its virtue.
A person might adopt good manners under certain circumstances, simply because they are prevailing or he might do so little by little. Even this is something good. Abû al-Dardâ said – and some narrations have him attribute the words to the Prophet (peace be upon him): “Knowledge is attained only through learning and gentleness is attained only through being gentle. Whoever is intent on attaining goodness will be given it and whoever keeps away from evil will be spared it.” [Târîkh Baghdâd and Târîkh Dimashq]
However, it is not at all praiseworthy for a person to make a show of good character in order to take advantage of others or win them over for some personal benefit or ulterior motive. The true test of a person’s moral fiber is constancy. This is why the old Arabic saying goes: “You see the true character of men when you travel with them.”
A person’s true character shows forth when he is at home in how he deals with his wife through the long years, in hardship and ease, when things are going well and when things go wrong. This is where has to hold himself together and where his patience is tested. His ability to keep clear of vanities, to remain clement and tolerant, and to exhibit good conduct are all tested by his married life and his family life.
The same can be said regarding friendships when a person is constant and sincere regardless of the changing circumstances. How often does a person see his friend as the one who he can rely on in need, only to find that “friend” adds to his hardships when that time of need arrives?
May the lives of those who are faithful and sincere be beautiful and blessed, those who resolve within themselves not to be fickle when circumstances change and not to turn their backs in times of misfortune. How rare such people are.
Long acquaintance and association reveal how substantial or superficial a person’s moral character really is.
There is another important test of moral character that shows how true or false a person’s morals are, and that is the test of power. A person who is weak might exhibit good moral conduct and a present a passive, subdued disposition. He does not do so because it is part of his nature, but simply because he does not have the power to behave any other way.
The Arabic poet al-Mutanabbî said:
Oppression is human nature, so if you find
Someone abstain from it, there is some reason why.
Perhaps al-Mutanabbî borrowed these words from Aristotle who said: “Oppression is part of human nature. Only one of two reasons withholds people form it: religiousness or fear or reprisal.”
When a person is in a position of strength, then his true moral character shows forth. If a person who attains power, wealth, or prestige continues to uphold his moral values, maintains his affection for others, remains humble, and shows clemency to those who ill treat him, this is a sign of the true nobility of his character and the true goodness of his person.
Alas, how often do we find people who are not corrupted by power, fame, and sudden wealth?
A third test of moral character is disagreement. Most people exhibit good conduct with those who agree with them and share their way of thinking, on account of their common interests. However, when differences arise, whether ideological or material, people tend to expose their true selves.
A person of dignity and good character will remain composed and sensible. He will articulate his disagreements in a clear and precise manner. Moreover, he will be respectful when doing so and avoid accusative, insulting, and offensive language. His moral character will prevent him from conducting himself in a mean and lowly fashion, so he will be able to retain his composure while talking to others, in spite of his disagreement with them. He will not react emotionally in a way that detracts from his character and merely demonstrates his inability to prevail on the strength of his opinion.
Another person, in the same situation, will start cursing and hurling accusations at his opponents, acting as if only he is right and everyone else is by necessity wrong. His misplaced anger will destroy the edifice of his good character. He may go so far to concoct lies and make false claims. He might resort to deceptive arguments to make his opponents stumble and deliberately take the words of others out of context.
People like to say that disagreements do not spoil their interpersonal relationships and it is good that they say so, but what really counts is how they conduct themselves in actual practice, not just in theory. I have observed many young, religious people in their disagreements amongst themselves, and have encountered them applying to one another statements so horrid and injurious that it grieved my heart made my eyes well up with tears. They would call each other idiots, insult each other, and accuse one another of deception, heresy, immorality, and unbelief. I would ask myself: When will these sick disputes come to an end? When will they attain a level of moral character suitable for the community that Allah has chosen and favored? When will they put into practice the values set forth by the Qur’ân and Sunnah that teach us how to deal with others, even our enemies, in a decent manner? “And do not let the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just. That is nearer to piety.” [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 8]
When will we come to realize that sometimes our motives stem from our own temperaments and emotions, though we might mistake them for religious conviction?
Then I would turn my attention to some writers who were regarded as being educated and intellectual, and not just part of the common folk. However, I found them to be the same, if not worse in their double standards and their shamelessness.
There are aggressive, predatory tendencies and feelings of enmity latent in the hearts of people, lurking in wait. Sometimes, with the mere appearance of a disagreement in ideology or politics, outward appearances of civility are often cast aside and people fall upon one another with the greatest possible ferocity.
When will we learn to preserve our amicable relationships with others when we disagree? When will we keep up the level of decorum that we want people to see from us? When will our moral values and principles translate from theory into a practical way of life, into something that endures throughout our lives and throughout our relationships, no matter how long they last? They must be values that stay with us even if we become powerful or attain to high administrative office, or a prominent media spot, or social prestige, or success in business. They must endure even when we disagree with one another, so we do not have to be always faced with the choice of either destroying our relationships or remaining silent whenever we disagree or see someone making a mistake.
Frankly, though I write all this, I do so with a pen that is hesitant and slow. It is as if it turning to me and asking: “Do you really live up to all of this?” I have to reply: “No, but I promise you that I will try to live up to it, and no matter how often I might stumble, I will keep trying…”