The Levels of Duty-Consciousness and Worship
As all people do not have a single level of intellectual capacity and there is a significant difference between them from the point of view of understanding and perspicacity, the leaders of the Islamic faith have called the people to fulfil their duties in different ways in conformity with the different levels of thinking. Their approach in their religious call is such that learned and contemplative individuals as well as the common and illiterate people can benefit from their guidance. For instance, to some people for whom the only matter of interest is profit and loss, it has called them to a profitable deal. To others who are mostly interested in pleasures and joys, it has promised them paradise, overflowing with plenteous pleasures and everlasting bounties, and warned another group of the painful punishment of hell.
Obviously most people are incapable of perceiving more refined meanings or of aspiring to higher goals. The establishment of duties in society and the general propagation of moral virtues for large numbers of individuals has not been possible except through this means. That is because human nature, by the side of its potentialities, is tainted by various kinds of frailties and vulgarities, and practically few individuals are capable of taking into view the intrinsic worth of an action or attending to a higher goal. In most individuals who have attained to the higher degrees of morality and human excellence, the idea of reward and punishment has had much effectiveness in the initial stages.
In general, an important part of the rapid progress of heavenly religions and their penetration into the hearts of the people has been due to the fact that, contrary to many man-made laws and ordinances, they attach a special importance to abstention from sins. In the system of education of these faiths, abstention from sin is not only the cause of deliverance from punishment but also that of reception of fair material and spiritual rewards. As regards his psychic makeup, man exhibits a keener responsiveness and sensitiveness to reward and is consequently more attracted to a teaching that offers reward in return for the fulfilment of duty.
Some of the traditions that refer to people who offer unconditional obedience to Divine commands and without the hope of reward or the fear of punishment, relate to a particular group of individuals whose knowledge of God's infinite essence is of a very high degree. Those righteous souls attain to the highest degrees of sincerity and perform their duties for the sake of God's good pleasure, not for any reward.
This group of persons have been called 'free man' in the traditions, whereas those who do worship and perform duties for the sake of reward have been called 'hired workers', and those who do their duty for fear of punishment, 'slaves'.
'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:
A group of people worship God for the sake of reward. That is the worship of merchants. A group of people worship God from the fear or punishment. That is the worship of slaves. But a group of God's servants worship Him solely out of gratitude and thankfulness. And this kind of worship is special to free men. 6
Aveberry, the well-known British scholar, says something similar in this context. He writes:
Someone whose soul is full to the brim with the love of God is compelled to worship and glorify Him. He worships God neither with the hope of reward nor for the fear of punishment, but solely for the sake of God. One who performs a virtuous deed or abstains from a sinful act for the sake of reward or for the fear of punishment, cannot be proud of his conduct. Such a one cannot be considered a godly person. He is a businessman who works for his own profit and is a mercenary who toils for a wage.
Nevertheless, such conduct is also commendable in itself when we take into view those who destroy themselves through ignorance, blacken their souls with the smoke of sin, and never worship God. Thus we can reckon the mercenary persons who are solely concerned with reward and punishment among the good.
But there is no doubt that that which causes them to act virtuously is something extremely petty and insignificant, for it would be much better if they pass beyond this stage and worship God because He is worthy of being worshipped.
Those who wear out their spirits in the path of beauty and art, do not expect any profit. They have a higher end in view, which is not tinged with materialistic ends. They admire beauty and love art, and endeavour to capture the fair bird of beauty in the cage of their imagination and to show it to others.
How good it would be if, in the path of religion, we too be like the lovers of art and liberate our souls from all traces of mundane ends and cherish no goal except the glorification of Eternal Beauty. This is the true religion that can elevate our souls to the peaks of perfection. 7
The greater the faith of an individual in God, the more visibly are his acts marked with sincerity, so that the effort to attain God's good pleasure predominates all his desires and attachments. He performs every virtuous act without any fear of punishment or hope of reward.
This moral ideal and sublime spirit is of such a great worth that there is no ideal that can equal it, and there are only a few of such moral geniuses in every era who can attain it.
'Ali, the Commander of the God-fearing, may peace be upon him, says this about his own position as a servant vis-à-vis God: My Creator, I do not glorify or worship Thee in the fear of hell and the hope of paradise. Rather, I worship Thee because I consider Thee worthy of being worshipped.
Like a beggar, don't serve your Master for a wage,
For He Himself knows how to take care of His servants. The Noble Qur'an quotes the Prophet Solomon's prayer in this verse:
My Lord, inspire me so that I may be thankful for Thy blessing wherewith Thou hast blessed me and my father and mother, and that I may do righteousness well-pleasing to Thee. (27:19)
It should be noted that 'worship' (ibadah) in Islam is not limited only to those moments when one is performing ritual acts of worship. Rather, it has a wide and comprehensive meaning that includes all the aspects of life, and as 'a way of life' covers the entire scope of life. 'Worship' in the ordinary sense, as well as thought, perception and the daily matters of life-all are included in worship so long as God is one's goal and end. In other words, worship is the principal basis on which rest all the norms and regulations of life; for brief moments of worship and fleeting rites by themselves do not have a very considerable value in life. They are of significance only when one's behaviour and conduct and all the affairs of one's life are clearly and unambiguously based on this principle, and when man bears witness, not merely verbally, but in actual practice that no power and entity is worthy of being worshipped except the sacred Essence of the Creator. Similarly, 'worship' in the teachings of Islam does not mean that one's heart should be filled with piety and God-fearing only when one is performing ritual duties; that once they are over, impiety and vices should dominate one's soul, divesting him of all goodness and making him shun justice and righteousness. One's heart does not commune with God in such a worship, and such a person is like a lost traveller who cannot advance towards his goal and destination with the help of the light that illuminates the path in the dark of the night.
The Qur'an declares:
It is not piety that you turn your faces to the East and to the West. True piety is this: to have faith in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, to give of one's substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveller, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to perform the prayer, to pay the alms. And they who fulfil their covenant when they have engaged in a covenant, and endure with fortitude misfortune, hardship and peril, they are they who are true in their faith; these are the truly God-fearing. (2:177)
The basic principle of Islamic education is that there be a perpetual, comprehensive and unbreakable bond between man and God. His object of love and fear, hope and reliance, is God. God is the sole authority to Whom he must make recourse in every matter and observe His ordinances, laws and commands in all moments of his life.
It is such a living and thorough link between man's heart and God that gives to every thing its wholeness and consummate perfection and without which everything becomes hollow and futile. The individual finds morality, virtue and all positive values by relying on that bond.
Without doubt, the human merits that spring from faith in God and His eternal and fundamental law are in fact man's genuine virtues and merits, which cannot be expected from anyone whose education and upbringing is not based on a real link with God.
6. Nahj al-balaghah, trans. by Fayd al-Islam, p. 1182.
7. John Lubbock Aveberry, Dar justeju-ye khushbakhti, p. 228.
Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"
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