What are the ways of internalizing good ethical conduct and high virtues so as to make them a part of our nature?
Virtues such as sincerity (ikhlas1), loyalty, refraining from backbiting or suspicion2 are among the essentials of good conduct every believing person must adopt. I think everybody agrees on that. However, my personal assumptions do not mean much in practical life. What matters is each individual’s adopting this understanding and striving for its establishment in society. Naturally, this cannot be expected to happen all of a sudden.
Internalizing good or bad conduct as part of our nature is a very long process.
The most important point to pay attention to is our actual determination on the matter. Take sincerity for instance. It is something that almost everyone who regularly prays requests from God in their prayers day and night. We pray to God saying, “O God, please make me attain sincerity in faith, or make me one of those whom You have rendered sincere.” But how sincere are we in our wish? Being a loyal servant to God and attaining sincerity in faith… how important are these for us? How deeply do we ask for-and this is another dimension of sincerity in faith-attaining the good pleasure of God? Even if we mention it in our words, what about our actions for the sake of achieving that? While making a decision about a matter in real life, from marriage to having children, or continuing with our job or not, are we able to comfortably say that we make our decisions in the direction which we think pleasing to God? Can we even say we prefer the good pleasure of God over Paradise-though they are not opposite things-or over viewing the “Face” of God? We can extend the questions in this direction. Now, if we are not able to choose sincerity and what is pleasing to God, and if we are not acting in the way that we prayed for, then it definitely means we are being disrespectful toward God, or worse, it means that we are “lying against God.” In the Qur’an (Anam 6:21) fabricating a lie against God is mentioned as the ultimate wrong.
If we do not really wish to attain virtues like sincerity, the good pleasure of God, loyalty, and faithfulness as much we wish to marry, have children, have worldly possessions-a car, a house, a summerhouse and so on-or to have our business run smoothly… or if these virtues do not have as great a place in our hearts as the worldly matters, please let us not be disrespectful against God and let us avoid paying lip service about being sincere in faith. Attaining the good pleasure of God is an incomparably greater aim than any other. So, we should not hold these worldly matters, which we are supposed to keep under our feet, at the same level as attaining the good pleasure of God. As I repeat many times over, we need to value matters of this world and the next as they deserve.
What I have explained so far is only one aspect of the issue. Another aspect is that we should not fail to ask for high virtues in our prayers. There might seem to be a conflict between this sentence and what I have previously said. In fact, there is no conflict at all. The issue explained above points toward a certain perspective and provides us with a target. Until reaching that target, a natural process will be experienced as mentioned at the beginning. While proceeding toward the target, the one thing we should never give up is praying. Praying sets a target for us, it feeds the conscience, lets our hearts take wing, makes us comprehend the finiteness of our power, and makes us feel a need to take refuge in an Omnipotent One. As Nursi puts it, supplicating to God in a heartfelt and sincere way is already a profound form of worship in itself. Sooner or later, God accepts the prayers of people who believe in such a way.
I would like to cite two examples here concerning how prayers set targets for us. Here is the first example: One day God’s Messenger saw Abu Umama al-Bahili sitting in the mosque, looking shaken. When he asked for the reason, the reply was “poverty.” Upon hearing this, the Prophet taught him the following prayer:
“O God, I take refuge in You from worry, grief, incapacity, sloth, cowardice miserliness, the burden of debt, and subjugation by men.” We can consider these one by one and see how each sets a target in order to free oneself from poverty:
“I take refuge in You from worry, grief….” Now think about it please. Does someone who wishes to be free from worry and grief just sit there and worry? Does he get entangled in things that lead him to grief? Or, on the contrary, does such a person get up and seek ways to overcome them?
“…from incapacity, sloth….” Complaining about poverty and passively sitting in the mosque-even if it is the Prophet’s Mosque-this just means incapacity and sloth, doesn’t it?
“…cowardice, miserliness,” and finally “the burden of debt, and subjugation by men.” As it is seen, every component of this prayer sets a target for a person who suffers from poverty and takes refuge in the mosque and shows him the ways to free himself from that situation. After that phase, what falls to the individual is to put into action what he prayed for.
The second example is about one of my childhood memories. My father once told me that “anyone who recites the sura Nasr (Qur’an 110) two thousand times at night will see the Prophet in his dream.” I believed this with the heart of a child and recited the sura two thousand times and went to sleep. That night, even if it lasted until the morning, I would recite it again; for my desire to see the Prophet in my dream could make me sacrifice not just one night, but hundreds of nights. So, if a person’s heart is truly in something, then he should definitely seek ways to obtain it.
To conclude, as much as wishing to attain good conduct, our efforts to realize this purpose are important. These two are the halves of a whole. And prayer, in many respects, is such an important act that it cannot be substituted by anything else.
1. Doing something purely for the sake of God.
2. See Hujurat 49:12.