أعوذ بالله من الشيطان الرجيم

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Imam Zafar al-Tahanawi mentioned, in the final chapter of his I`la’ al-Sunan, translated as Sufism & Good Character:

“Refining (tazkiyya) character traits is one of the most central concerns of the Sufis, for they consider noble traits to be stations on the spiritual path. They were distinguished from others by their good character, and through it they were known. Whoever reflects on the the Qur’an and Sunna will know that good character is as central to religion as a foundation is to a building.

Improving character traits is not possible except through spiritual struggle at the hands of a perfected spiritual guide (shaykh) who has struggled with his own self, opposed his caprice, left lowly character traits, and adorned himself with praiseworthy ones. Whoever thinks they can achieve this by mere knowledge and the study of books has erred and gone far astray. Just as (outward) knowledge is only acquired through study with the scholars, good character is acquired by struggling to attain it at the hands of the knowers of Allah. [F: Imam Muhammad `Ali Al-Tahanawi, who is not related to the author, cautioned in Kashshaf Istilahat al-Funun that: “When a seeker (murid) thinks that he has found a spiritual guide, it is incumbent upon him to be cautious and exert his utmost effort in finding out whether the guide is fit to be a Shaykh or not. Most seekers were misguided and perished in this area (f: by following would-be guides); rather, most of humanity has been led astray and perished by following misguided leaders. The proper way, then, is to carefully examine whether the spiritual guide is uprightly adhering to the Sacred Law (Shari`ah), the (f: principles of the) spiritual way (tariqa) and the higher realities (haqiqa). If he is an innovator, this can be known by what [learned] people say about him, and by the conduct of those who follow and love him without correcting him. If the seeker finds out that the scholars of the time are not critical of this spiritual guide, and that some scholars and notables, young or old, take him as a guide and turn to him in their search for the spiritual way and higher realities, then he will know that such a spiritual guide is worthy of being followed…” (Kashshaf Istilahat al-Funun, 1: 1050)]

The Importance of Good Character

Good character is an attribute of the Master of the Messengers, and the best of the works of the veracious (siddiqin), and is in reality half of religion, the fruits of the spiritual struggles of the god-fearing, and the efforts of the worshippers. Lowly character is a killing poison, a deadly destroyer, a humiliating abaser, clear lowliness, and filth that distances one from the sanctuary of the Lord of the worlds. It makes the one characterized by it of the Satans, and it is the open door to the burning fire of Allah, that “Leaps up over the hearts (of men),”(Qur’an, 104: 7) as good character is the open door to the bounties of the Gardens and proximity to the Merciful. Lowly character is a sickness of the heart and a disease of the lower self. It is a sickness that endangers the ever-lasting life. Thus, it is necessary to pay utmost attention to it, even more than outward sickness.

Character traits are attributes of the self by which it leans to one of either beauty or ugliness. Complete outward beauty is not possible through the beauty of the eyes alone, without the nose, mouth, and cheeks; rather, it is necessary that all these be beautiful. Similarly, inward beauty needs four essential elements for good character to be complete through an appropriate balance and temperance of these elements. These elements are knowledge, anger, passion, and justice between the other three elements.


As for the attribute of knowledge, its good and uprightness lies in its ability to comprehend the difference between truthfulness and lying in speech, between truth and falsehood in belief, between the good and evil in actions. If this attribute of knowledge is made upright, then its fruits are wisdom, which is at the root of good character. Allah said of wisdom, “And he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly has received abundant good” (Qur’an, 2: 269), and it is what the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) meant by deep understanding (fiqh) when he said, “Whoever Allah wishes well for, He gives deep understanding (fiqh) of religion.” [Bukhari & Muslim]


As for the attribute of anger, its good lies in its suppression and expression being according to the dictates of wisdom.


Likewise, the good and uprightness of passion lies in its being under the indications of wisdom; that is, the indications of the intellect and Sacred Law.

Know, then, that those whom laziness has overcome find it difficult to carry out spiritual struggle, discipline, purify the self, and refine their character. They wrongly believe that because natures do not undergo change, it is not possible to change character traits. If this were the case, then counsels, admonitions, and discipline would have been of no use. How can it be impossible to change the behavior of humans, when it is evidently obvious that it is possible to change the behavior of animals such eagles, dogs, and horses by training?

In reality, those who deny that character traits may be changed have confused changing traits with removing them. What is not possible is the second. If one sought to completely remove all traces of anger and passion, it would not be possible. However, it is possible to control and direct them through spiritual struggle and discipline, which we have been commanded to do, and these are the means of our salvation and the path to reach Allah. At the same time, dispositions vary. Some are quick to change, others slow.

How can it be desirable to uproot passion and anger completely when without anger, jihad would not be possible? How could that be a goal if the Prophets (Allah bless them and give them peace) were characterized by them? For our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “I am a human, and I get angry as humans do.” Similarly, if someone spoke in his presence about a disliked matter, he would get angry until his cheeks were red. However, he would not speak other than the truth, so his anger would not make him leave the truth. Allah Most High said, “Those who control their anger and are forgiving towards people; Allah loves the good.” (Qur’an, 3: 134) Allah did not say, “Those bereft of anger.” Anger and passion are to be returned to a balanced state, such that they neither overcome nor master the intellect. Rather, the Sacred Law and intellect are to be the standards and masters over anger and passion. This is clearly possible, and is what is meant by changing character traits, so understand [oh reader].[1]

How to Achieve Balance

This balanced state is reached in two ways: firstly, by divine generosity and sound natural predisposition, such that one is born with a high intellect and good character, and with their passion and anger in balance. This is the case of the Prophets (Allah bless them and give them peace)…

The other way to attain these noble traits is by spiritual struggle and discipline, namely, to make oneself perform the actions that a desired trait entails. These traits are then gradually acquired by becoming used to those actions, as well as by keeping the company of those who already posses these traits.

One who wishes to become generous, for example, should force himself (yatakallaf) to act as a generous person would, by spending money. Then one consistently struggles with one’s self by giving until it becomes naturally easy to give, and one becomes generous by nature. Likewise, one who wishes to become characterized by humility (tawadu`) after arrogance (kibr) was preponderant, should force himself to perform the actions of the humble for a while, struggling with his lower self, until it becomes a character trait, and these actions become easy. All traits that are praiseworthy in the Sacred Law may be attained by this means.

Keeping the company of perfected spiritual guides and avoiding the company of those with blameworthy traits has a strong effect, for dispositions (tiba`) can acquire good traits through company as it can acquire bad traits.[2] Moreover, for many people a Shaykh’s reminders and reprimands may achieve what mere determination and spiritual may not. It may be that a student may leave the mire of lowly traits by the reminders and reprimands of his Shaykh far more quickly than by his determination and spiritual will alone. [3]

If the self finds pleasure from habit and its habitual company in the worthless and inclines to them, then how can it not find pleasure in the worthwhile if it is returned to it for a period and made to remain attached to it while mixing with the righteous and keeping their company, while avoiding worthless company? In reality, the self’s inclination towards despicable things is contrary to its natural disposition and akin to an inclination to eat mud. As for its inclining to wisdom, the love and knowledge of Allah and His worship, it is like its inclination to food and drink. It is a result of the natural disposition of the heart, for the heart is a lordly matter.[4] Thus, the self’s inclining to its passions is alien to it, and foreign to its disposition.

The food of hearts is wisdom, knowledge of Allah, and love of Him. Its turning away from its natural disposition is the result of sicknesses that afflict it, as when a sickness afflicts a person’s stomach, causing him not to desire food or drink though they are the means for his survival. Thus, every heart that inclines to love of other than Allah has a sickness to the extent of its inclining. The only exception is if it loved that thing as a means to the love of Allah and His religion. This is subtle, however, and only known by those of spiritual insight. The opinion of the one afflicted is of little consequence in this, unless confirmed by his spiritual guide.

It has become clear, then, that it is certainly possible to acquire good character traits by spiritual discipline, which is forcing oneself to perform certain actions until they become a habit. This is a result of the wondrous relationship between the heart and limbs, the self and the body. Every attribute that appears in the heart leaves traces on the limbs, until they do not move except in accordance with it. And every action of the limbs can leave traces in the heart, so the relationship is circular.

The one who wants to become a legal scholar of deep understanding (faqih al-nafs) needs to undertake the works of such scholars, namely repeated study of legal texts and keeping the company of jurists, until he is characterized by legal understanding, and thus becomes such a jurist. Likewise, the one who seeks to purify his self, perfect it and adorn it with noble traits and good works has no way to achieve this except in the same manner. Just as the student of law cannot become a jurist by a night’s study or reading, the one seeking to purify his self cannot achieve it by a night’s worship or be debarred from it by a day’s disobedience. However, a day’s remissness could lead to another until, little by little, the self becomes accustomed to remissness and leaves its striving.

Thus, good character traits may be present in some cases by natural disposition and nature. More commonly, however, they need to be acquired by making oneself used to performing good works, by observing those of good works and keeping their company. These are the worthy associates and brethren in godliness, for natures acquire both good and bad from the company one keeps. The one for whom all three means[5] are present is in a highly noble state, while the one with a lowly disposition who has bad companions whom he learns from, until the means to bad deeds become easy for him, is extremely far from Allah. Between these two stations are those with varying acquisition of these means, each with a station of closeness or distance depending on their state and situation. “And whoso doeth good an atom’s weight will see it then, and whoso doeth ill an atom’s weight will see it then.” (Qur’an, 99: 7-8) “We wronged them not, but they did wrong themselves.” (Qur’an, 2: 57)

Know too that at the root of good character is humility (tawadu`)[6] and making one’s intention sincere to Allah. The root of lowly character is arrogance (kibr)[7] and thinking highly of oneself.[8] Whoever is free from these has been saved from all ill. Whoever is humble for the sake of Allah is raised by Allah, and is shielded from the sicknesses of the lower self, and Allah knows best.

Whoever seeks more details on how to cure the sicknesses of the heart should read Imam al-Ghazali’s (may Allah have mercy on him) Ihya.[9] In this chapter, we have mentioned only the necessary minimum hadiths warning against lowly character and encouraging good character. Whoever seeks more comprehensive coverage should check more detailed hadith collections, such as Imam al-Mundhiri’s (may Allah have mercy on him) al-Targhib wa al-Tarhib.[10]

The basis of this entire chapter is the words of Allah Most High, “He is indeed successful who purifies it, and he is indeed a failure who stunts it.” (Qur’an, 91: 9-10)[11]

It is indeed strange how many neither direct themselves toward eternal success nor seek it, being content instead with failure and loss. O Allah, guide us to the best of character and works, for none guides to the best of them except You. And there is no ability or power except through You, and no recourse or safety from You except in You.

[End of the quote from Imam Zafar.]


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