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The Criterion of Moral Worth of Actions

Besides, Islam takes an original view of the real inner motives of human actions and makes intent the criterion for value judgements. Every action has two aspects, and each of these two aspects has to be treated separately from the viewpoint of good and evil. An action may be greatly valuable from one aspect and worthless from another. What is significant is the kind of inner moral motive that has prompted the doer to perform that act and the kind of goal that was envisaged in his mental perspective.

If in such cases our judgement relies on specific social and objective values the intents of the doer are not relevant. It does not matter whether a person's humanitarian act is performed with an ostentatious motive and for the pursuit of material interests, or if he is driven by a sublime motive and his act is inspired by a sacred intent. Hence from a social point of view a virtuous person is one which is beneficial to society. The individual's moral or spiritual maturity is not relevant, nor the motive that drives him to perform his action.

However, in a divine perspective the quantitative dimensions of actions are not important. That which makes an act worthy of acceptance by God is the quality of an action and the inner spiritual condition of the doer's person. Here, that which is significant is the kind of relation that exists between the doer and the act, as well as the aim and intent that have led him to perform it. If he performs a virtuous act to show off and to impress others, such an action not only does not elevate him towards the higher planes of being but also brings him down. In order to be considered righteous, it is not just sufficient that an act should be beneficial for society.

A socially beneficial action is useful from the viewpoint of spiritual growth when it takes a spiritual and angelic form and the soul transcends the confines of self-seeking motives and self-aggrandisement, to reach the frontiers of inner purity and sincerity.

The Qur'an declares:

And they were not commanded except to worship God with sincere devotion. (98:4)

The Noble Messenger, may God bless him and his Family, said:

The value of works depends on intentions. 16

This is a definite and unchanging basis on the basis of which the worth and acceptability of deeds and actions can be determined. The basis factor that results in one's edification and the acceptability and sublimity of one's works is the honourable and sacred purpose that takes the Lord's pleasure into account.

The best sign of a steady faith in God is the moral and spiritual character of a person's intentions and motives. In that case his acts assume a special value and merit, and he comes to partake of Cod's support and His infinite grace. This firm and valuable-criterion does not lie beyond the domain of human conduct, capacity, cognition, and feeling.

One whose soul has not been lit with the rays of God's greatness and whose heart is devoid of sincerity and faith, the motives that drive him are those which derive from self-seeking desires and the love for a passing reputation. The tasks that such a person begins and brings to conclusion, being devoid of spirituality and truth, are performed, for instance, so that others may respect him and consider him a man of human merit. Such a worthless objective will have a degenerating effect on his character and fail him as a human being. The specious achievements of such a person will not possess any worth before Cod, and he will not receive any reward for his accomplishments except achieving the limited and insignificant purpose that he had in view.

The persons who are self-confident and reliant on their actions do not feel any need for ostentation and show. Ostentation is the conduct of those who lack action and confidence, and suffer from a spiritual malady.

Imam 'Ali the Commander of the Faithful, may Peace be upon him, makes this remark about such a person:

The speech of an ostentatious person is pleasing, but there is a far-reaching disease in his heart. 17

Self-conceit derives from the pettiness of one's values. 18

Schachter, the well-known psychologist, says:

Another means that we employ in order to attract others' attention, despite personal failure and lack of success, is bragging and self- advertisement. We imagine that we have already achieved what we aspired to achieve and done what we wanted to do, and we attribute them to ourselves. Instead of the success that we could not achieve and the important tasks that we could not accomplish, we content ourselves with talking continually about what we have done and to magnify their own deeds no matter how much insignificant they might have been.

Such persons are so mislead by their own bragging and self- complaisance that they lose every opportunity to make any kind of achievement. If their self-advertisement provides them with a passing relief from the painful lack of success and inattention of others, and temporarily deceives their listeners, it does not solve the real problem.

One who can carry out his job correctly and successfully and win the hearts of others by his worthy conduct and speech, has no need to brag. By devoting himself to action instead of vainglory, every day he makes more friends and achieves greater success. 19

Schopenhauer says:

Vainglory produces contempt and resentment, because it is on the one hand the sign of dishonesty and dissemblance, and, on the other, a product of stupidity and ignorance. One who continuously claims to possess a merit, is certain to be devoid of it. Those who ceaselessly talk of their achievements, the brilliance of their minds, their ingenuity and power, should know for sure that they lack all these merits. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that deception and vainglory cannot endure, and the truth will be ultimately revealed resulting in a total loss of face and repute. 20


16. Nahj al-fasahah, p. 190.

17. Ghurar al-hikam wa durar al-kalim, p. 610.

18. Ibid ., p. 106.

19. Rushd-e shakhsiyyat, p. 92.

20. Afkar-e Schopenhauer, Persian trans., by Mushfiq Hamadani, 1326 H. Sh. p. 92.

Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"

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