Al-Nawwas ibn Sam`an (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Righteousness is good character, and sin is that which wavers in your heart and which you do not want people to know about.” (Muslim)
What is al-birr?
Al-birr comes from the same root as the word for ‘land’ in Arabic. Allah (the Almighty) says: “The land and the oceans” in the Qur’an. Why is there a relationship between the two? Just as the land seems vast and infinite, so too are the ways of becoming closer to Allah and pleasing Allah. There is a vast way to become closer to Allah (Glory be to Him) by certain channels. The word righteousness comes from the same root which means vast. Also, the meaning of (al-birr) has the connotation that the goods that come out of what you do are also vast and infinite. The rewards for being righteous cannot be counted. Allah (Glory be to Him) uses the word (birr) in the Qur’an for righteousness in many verses.
The hadith of Al-Nawwas tells us the action of birr and the hadith of Wabisah tells us the psychology of (birr). “Righteousness is good character, and sin is that which wavers in your heart and which you do not want people to know about.”
It is as if the Prophet (peace be upon him) said good manners is all of (birr), but the hadith is more profound than this. The phrasing indicates that the essence of
(birr) is good manners. For example: when the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that Hajj is standing at Arafat, he equated the two. Is Hajj only Arafat? No, yet the Prophet (peace be upon him) said this because the essence of Hajj is standing at Arafat. This is the entire point of going for Hajj. Similarly, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said righteousness is to have good manners meaning the essence of righteousness is good manners.
Husn al-khuluq (good manners) consists of three separate yet related spheres. A person can be good in one of them but until he is good in all three, he will not be righteous.
- Being good in your conduct with Allah
- Being good with other men
- Being good with yourself
Many Muslims read these hadiths and only think of husn al-khuluq with other men, but the reality is that all three are important. They are not all equally important and not all equally essential. The most important is with Allah then with other men and then with yourself.
“…Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and sin is what creates restlessness in the soul and moves to and fro in the breast…”
Righteousness is that which makes your heart happy and brings solace to your soul. This brings us to a fundamental point of Islamic psychology: The general state of man upon which Allah created him is that man loves good and hates evil. Doing good makes a person feel good. Being good brings about a state of good. This is the general rule of human nature. Doing sins and evil and vice brings about evil and discontent to your soul. The proof of this is this hadith and many hadiths and verses about the fitrah (natural disposition). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Every single child is born upon the fitrah.” This mean that every child has innate knowledge that is embodied in the fitrah and then his parents make him into a Christian or a Jew or a fire worshipper.
Narrated Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him): “Allah’s Apostle said, “Every child is born with a true faith of Islam (i.e. to worship none but Allah Alone) but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity or Magainism, as an animal delivers a perfect baby animal. Do you find it mutilated?” Then Abu Hurayrah recited the verses:
So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah . That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. (Ar-Rum 30.30) (Al-Bukhari)
The fitrah leads to Islam and is compatible to Islam. When a child is raised as a Muslim, the fitrah is nourished and is not corrupted. The fitrah is to Islam like a hand is to a glove (meaning it fits perfectly).
This fitrah tells us many things: there is a God and God is Perfect. Allah is worthy of worship. It tells us of the basics of morality, which is why every single civilization considers murder to be a crime. Every society knows it is good to take care of orphans, the elderly, and the weak and that it is evil to lie and plunder. These are not acquired truths. If you use rationality, many times you can justify some of these sins in certain situations, and yet no society does. These universal truths come from the fitrah.
The fitrah feels good when good is done and feels evil when evil is committed. This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) said good brings comfort to the heart. It is impossible to find a human being who does no good whatsoever. Why do people give charity? It makes them feel good. Conversely, you feel bad doing bad. In English there is an expression: ‘gnawing at my conscience.’
The opposite of (birr) is (ithm). If you feel guilty about committing something and do not want others to know about it, then it is a symptom that what you have done is wrong. What the Prophet (peace be upon him) is talking about is actions above and beyond what all men and women do of a personal nature like relieving ourselves or being intimate with spouses.
It is possible that you feel guilty for the wrong reasons, so the hadith will not apply to you. When you feel guilty for doing the right thing, you are not feeling guilty because of religion but because of societal pressure. For example, a sister may be social friends with non-practicing Muslims, and she decides to wear the hijab. It is very possible that when she takes this bold step and places her trust in Allah that when she goes into the gatherings of her friends, she will feel embarrassed and foolish and feel guilty. This guilt is not religious based but is the guilt of being different. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is talking about the guilt that comes from the conscience (an inner guilt) and not an outer guilt.
This hadith tells us about Islamic psychology and the role of conscience. This hadith informs us that the average state of man is that he likes to be good and being good leads to good. Coming closer to Allah (Glory be to Him) is what the soul wants to do. Going away from Allah harms the soul, and the soul does not like it.
This hadith applies to those who have iman (faith in Allah) and not to those who do not have iman. The Prophet (peace be upon him) told us of a group of people who have distorted their fitrah to such an extent that this hadith has no meaning for them whatsoever, and these humans have no conscience whatsoever. By their own deeds and actions that their own hands have caused, they have destroyed their own fitrah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) called these people shayatin (devils) in human form, and for them, the evil is pleasing and the good is despicable. The hadith apply to people who are sane and rational and not to these people.
Source: Taken with modifications from a book entitled “Sacred Scrolls: 40 Hadeeth Nawawi”