A Warning Against Corrupt Company
In general there exist two alternatives for man, either to surrender totally to his corporal and natural faculties and subjugate his soul absolutely to his instincts and appetites, or to answer the summons of his higher spiritual aspirations and to cultivate the higher part of his spirit and realise the vital significance of this precious gift.
Man is constantly under the pull of the two opposite poles of virtue and vice. Therefore, he should pay undivided attention to the great mission that he has to fulfil in this inner conflict. He should select for himself a way that is worthy of man and choose the most reliable means for attaining his high human goal in order to realise the full significance of life.
This choice is something continuous and perpetual, and it should be made in such a way that at every moment one makes a forward movement as long as one is alive without either coming to a standstill or going back. In view of the brevity of human life, that which is important is to obtain a worthy provision out of this brief, transitory existence for the life of the next world, which is everlasting. Without doubt, one would derive the most lasting and precious benefit by dominating destructive desires and by refraining from submitting to deviant urges.
Islam wishes to develop a capacity for discernment and bring about an inner discipline in the human mind by making people reflect on the significance of social intercourse and selection of one's companions. It desires to habituate people to observance of discipline in their activities and decisions. Besides, in this manner it draws their attention to real human merit so that they come to have in it a faith arising from the depths of their hearts, perpetually keeping the higher planes of reality in their view to attain to the utmost human perfection, a perfection whose worth cannot be measured by any materialistic criteria.
Islam has pointed out to man each of the two paths of human progress and edification, the outward and the inward, and it is now up to him to utilise that guidance in choosing his mode of thinking and formulating his approach in action.
The company of pious persons committed to moral and human considerations provides an appropriate opportunity for the nourishment and growth of man's spiritual faculties. Minds grow and develop in the radiance of their sublime thoughts and the inclination to virtue and piety is awakened in one's mind. As a result of personal contact with them, one becomes more conscious of one's spiritual inadequacies, and that provides one with the chance to judge one's own capabilities by comparing them with those of worthy and competent humans.
It is through such a comparison that one can gradually free oneself from the influence of vicious and undesirable qualities, and derive light from the most hidden depths of one's soul. The significance of the moral and spiritual qualities of one's associates is not something which has been studied for the first time by modern psychology. In fact, the necessity of identifying the qualities of friends and one's intimates has been recognised for centuries, and this is dealt with clearly and abundantly in religious texts and traditions. What modern psychology has done is to reaffirm the value of those profound prescriptions and to reiterate the beneficial and fruitful guiding principles that have been recognised since long in this regard.
The Prophet of Islam, may God bless him and his Household, declared in an eloquent and absorbing statement of his:
Persons follow the ways and conduct of their friends. Hence everybody should be careful in choosing his friends, and study the character of those with whom he wishes to develop terms of friendship. 4
In one of his aphorisms, Imam 'Ali, may Peace be upon him, points out that one should avoid associating with degenerate persons, as one tends to pick up their personal traits:
Avoid the company of the vicious, because your character would pick up their degenerate and deviant qualities without your knowing it. 5
Dr. Alexis Carrel, the well-known scholar, writes:
The psychological state of the social group determines, in a large measure, the number, the quality, and the intensity of the manifestations of individual consciousness. If the social environment is mediocre intelligence and moral sense fail to develop. These activities may become thoroughly vitiated by bad surroundings. We are immersed in the habits of our epoch, like tissue cells in the organic fluids; like these cells, we are incapable of defending ourselves against the influence of the community. The body more effectively resists the cosmic than the psychological world. It is guarded against the incursions of its physical and chemical enemies by the skin, and the digestive and respiratory mucosas. On the contrary, the frontiers of the mind are entirely open. Consciousness is thus exposed to the attacks of its intellectual and spiritual surroundings. According to the natures of these attacks, it develops in a normal or defective manner.
The education of the intelligence is relatively easy. But the formation of the moral, aesthetic, and religious activities is very difficult. The influence of environment on these aspects of consciousness is much more subtle.
Man is powerless against such psychological attacks. He necessarily yields to the influence of his group. If one lives in the company of criminals or fools, one becomes a criminal or a fool. 6
In the course of their experiments, social psychologists have made interesting findings on the tendency to imitate others.
In the spring of 1953, a group of hundred male candidates applying for managerial jobs involving leadership qualities ere subjected to a three- day test in order to evaluate their mental abilities in the psychology lab of the University of California.
On the third day, it was the turn to precisely measure their personal susceptibility to the influence of others. First, these hundred men were divided into two groups of fifty, the group under test and the group of spectators. The purpose was that when those in the test group were subjected to the influence of the opinion of the group, each of the individuals in the group of spectators was individually and independently tested in relation to the opinion of their group. Then arrangements were made to divide the test group into ten subgroups of five. There was a device in front of each individual so that when a question was put to him he could know the result of the answers given by others in his group by the means of special lamps.
However, the secret of the experiment lay in the point that the answer that appeared on the board was one manipulated by the experimenter, not one that reflected the group's response. In fact, in every case, by creating an artificial and arbitrary majority the experimenter duped those who were under test, and they, unaware of this secret, thought what they saw on the board to be the opinion of the majority, and mostly followed it blindly.
To the astonishment of the experimenters, in a case involving the solution of a mathematical problem, seventy-nine per cent of men thoughtlessly followed the incorrect and illogical answer of the hoax majority. 7
4. Al-Nuri, Mustadrak al-Wasail ii, p. 62.
5. Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Sharh Nahj al-balaghah, xx, p. 272.
6. Alexis Carrel, Man the Unknown (Bombay: Wilco Publishing Co.), pp. 146,147,149.
7. Gardner Murphy, Persian trans. by Sahib-zamani, Raz-e karishmaha, p. 39
Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"
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