Question: How is it possible to reach a balance between pursuing high achievements and seek perfection on one hand and to be self-critical and remain humble on the other?
Answer: A real believer is a resolute person whose faith in God is doubt-free. A believer does not lose hope even in the face of the most daunting circumstances. For this reason, such a person never gives in to hopelessness but always stands firm, even when all roads are blocked, and keeps walking toward his ideals; he knows that God Almighty has never left those who walk on His path with no ways to reach their goals.
When it was not possible to live in Mecca, God opened the way of miraculous Ascension of the Prophet to the heavens, along which every one of the greatest Prophets saluted him. The Messenger of God reached such a point that even Gabriel the Trustworthy said, “I will be perished if I take one more step.”
God Almighty never let down those who walked on His path; He held their hands even at the most unexpected moments, delivering them safe and sound. You may fall down a well, but when you least expect it, a strong rope will be dropped down. There may be times when you are mistreated by a few jealous brothers. However, after a term of spiritual journeying, you just see that God sets thrones in hearts for you. In this respect, no matter what hardships are faced, believers who always feel the Divine help and support behind them will seek out great achievements, and try to give their willpower its due in terms of fulfilling those accomplishments in accordance with their worth. They will thus try to produce the most perfect works, because the Prophet commanded believers to be equipped with the morality of God.
The Divine morality of this issue is related to us by statements like, “He who makes excellent everything that He creates,” (as-Sajdah 32:7) and, “This is the pattern of God who has perfected everything” (an-Naml 27:88). Thus it is pointed out that He brings everything into existence in the best, most beautiful, soundest, and perfect fashion. If He created something out of nothing, built it up, and breathed life to it, those who witnessed His works could not help but say, “There could not be anything better.”
Bediüzzaman relates the following remark of Imam al-Ghazali about this: “There is no possibility of anything more wondrous than what exists in this universe.” A person who beholds this universe with a comprehensive perspective, and moves his shuttle of wisdom between the cause and effect, will have to make the following confession: “God created the universe so beautifully that, had I been given a life of thousand years long and assigned to build a little piece of existence, I could never do it.”
Thus Divine morality shows us this: while striving on the path of God, believers should do their best and try to carry out their tasks in the best and soundest fashion.
As if presenting your work to God’s supervision
Concerning the fact that a believer should seek the perfect for the sake of gaining God’s good pleasure, we can ponder over the following verse: “Say: ‘Work, and God will see your work, and so will His Messenger and the true believers; and you will be brought back to the Knower of the Unseen (of all that lies beyond sense-perception) and the witnessed (the sensed realm), and He will make you understand all that you were doing (and call you to account for it)’” (at-Tawbah 9:105). God Almighty does not command as “if’alu” (do), but as “i’malu,” which means to “fulfill a certain deed.” The Qur’an frequently refers to deeds by putting emphasis on “righteous deeds,” so we understand that the term “deed” refers to fulfilling a certain task positively and flawlessly, within a certain plan, and by considering the results.
The verse also commands fulfilling deeds with the consciousness that God, His Messenger, and all true believers will see these deeds. Namely, a believer should fulfill their deeds so that God Almighty will approve, the Prophet will express appreciation, and believers will wish to have fulfilled their own deeds in such a way. However, the purpose of a believer who seeks perfection in his deeds is not to cause envy in others. On the contrary, they try to gain God’s good pleasure by giving the task its proper due. It is good to aspire to do the same good deeds another person has done, but this issue should not be approached with a feeling of jealousy or rivalry.
Angels as examples
Concerning the angels, the Qur’an states: “(They) do not disobey God in whatever He commands them, and carry out what they are commanded (to carry out)” (at-Tahrim 66:6). That is, they fulfill every command scrupulously and do not disobey His orders in the least bit. They are important examples for us in this respect. Believers should fulfill their tasks comparably to the archangel Gabriel and seek Divine appreciation. They should feel a pulsing in their temples, as if their brains would come out through their noses. It is said that whoever does his best for the sake of accomplishing a certain task, God will grant that person what he seeks.
The heavy trial entailed by success
A person who exerts himself or herself in this degree may attain very good accomplishments, by God’s permission and grace. Thousands, or hundred thousands, of people may gather around them and shower them with thanks and praises. The greatest trial starts at this very point: will they lay claim to the good results or give them to their rightful Owner? Will the achievements trigger feelings of thanksgiving or cause dizziness and blurring of vision? Those who pass this heavy trial successfully and keep their ego in check in order to tame their carnal soul are the heroes of the heart who are fixed on the consideration of humbleness and modesty. They know to keep their place at this critical point, while other people might become addicted to success or winning. Just as they give their willpower its due at the beginning, here as well they give their conscience its due and appropriately determine the correct place they are supposed to stand. They never credit themselves but say, “It was Him that made these things happen,” and run like the plague from vices such as pride and self-satisfaction. Let alone indulging self-satisfaction, from their horizons of self-criticism they see the failures of their work, regret these, and suffer over not having performed even better.
Individuals who serve in different areas of life may make different achievements in the fields of their responsibility. They may put stamps of excellence on every task they fulfill, in a way that evokes admiration in dwellers in the high assembly of the heavens. Individuals may perform perfectly—some with speeches they deliver, some with the articles they write, some with their abilities of teaching and administration, and some with their artistic talents. However, a genuine believer should say, “had there been some sensible person with an immense conscience, he would have probably performed much more perfectly and efficiently.” Considering the impossible—if an act of this person’s parted the moon in two, changed the sun’s course, united all people in the world for a lofty truth, or made an accomplishment comparable to that of Gabriel, the sound of the conscience would still say: “Had there been someone else in my place, who knows how much better he would have done this work! To tell the truth, since this work came out of my foul hands, it remained much lower than where it should have been; it remained derelict, poor, and undeveloped.”
The Apocalypse and the Self-accusing soul
Why is it so important for a believer to revile himself in this degree? Because, there is the risk of experiencing the greatest loss in a zone of winning. After swearing on the Day of Judgment, God Almighty swears on the self-accusing human soul (al-Qiyamah 75:1). As it is known, valuable things of significance are sworn upon. The Day of Judgment is important, for on that day all of those galaxies, constellations, and solar systems that look so impressive to people will be in utter chaos before God’s all-comprehensive Knowledge, overwhelming Will, and supreme acts. That day, everything will be thrown to the air like pieces of straw. By swearing on the Day of Judgment, it is brought to attention that this glorified act of God is a great happening.
Right after this, there is a swear upon the self-accusing soul (an-nafs lawwamah), which refers to one that never likes his own works, but constantly questions and criticizes himself. In this respect, it is the first step of progress on one’s spiritual journey. It is not possible for a person who does not ascend this first step to progress to the level of the soul receiving inspiration (an-nafs al-mulhimah); or from there to its two wings—the soul with which God is pleased and the soul pleased with God; and particularly from there to the soul perfected or pure (safiyah or zakiyyah). The Self-accusing soul can be compared to a ladder, stairway, or an elevator to help a person reach these soul levels on their spiritual journey. It is for this reason that it is very important for a person to constantly confront himself, attribute the negative outcomes to himself, and always criticize himself.
The safest way to purification from sins
Bediuzzaman’s approach on how to avoid the pitfalls of arrogance that can come about after victories and accomplishments is noteworthy. At the end of his Twenty-sixth Word, he virtually addresses his soul like speaking to another person and says:
“O my ostentatious carnal soul! Do not be proud of your services to God’s religion. As stated in a Prophetic Tradition, God may strengthen this religion by means of a dissolute person. You are not pure, so regard yourself as that dissolute person.”
As a spiritual discipline he suggests, “We should never hold ourselves pure; instead, we should regard ourselves as fallible and susceptible to error.”
Accordingly, a person who does not see his own soul as impure does not feel any need to purify it. Thus, he will not purify his soul and cannot be pure. As the carnal soul is not pure in essence, a person should ascribe all negative things to himself.
What happens if a person holds himself responsible for defects and faults? Such a person genuinely turns to God Almighty and asks guidance from Him. Also, God Almighty takes such considerations as remorse and repentance, and paves the ways leading to forgiveness for that person. If a person does not have such considerations at all, he commits various kinds of mistakes unawares and still attaches importance to himself; just like the way people do in our time in spite of their being nothing.
Consider that Umar ibn al-Khattab was a person who successfully dealt with the superpowers of his time, who spent his days and nights in obedience to God and had nothing to do with sins. During a time of draught, he placed his head on the ground by prostrating himself and cried in sobs, praying, “O God, please do not ruin Muslims because of my sins!”
On another day, when they asked him to lead a prayer for rain, he probably said to himself, “How can a sinful person like me pray for rain?” With such a consideration, he held the hand of the Prophet’s uncle Abbas and climbed a hill with him. Then he made his wish by utterly humbling himself, raising the latter’s hand as an intercessor and saying, “O God, this is the hand of your beloved servant’s uncle. Grant us rain for its sake!” Sources relate that a heavy rain began afterwards.
This should be the attitude of an ideal believer. Along with fulfilling every task perfectly, and always seeking to achieve the best at everything and using his willpower to the ultimate degree, one must see various defects in those works in his own sight and constantly criticize himself. As it is expressed in a saying attributed to Umar ibn al-Khattab, a person must continuously call himself to account before the Day of Reckoning comes.
To conclude, if a person performs perfectly in a way that does not bring him shame when presented to God Almighty; if he still sees faults in himself by saying, “Had someone else realized these works, they would have done it better, but I have messed it up;” then by God’s permission and grace, this will render that person impeccably pure.
1. Sahih al-Bukhari, Jihad, 182; Abdurrazzaq, Al-Musannaf, 5/270.