After I prayed this morning, I felt good about myself. Why? Because I’d followed Allah’s will and that made me feel righteous. But the more I thought about that, the more it seemed to me that I had the concept of righteousness all wrong. I’m certainly no scholar, and my knowledge of the Qur’an and the ahadith is sketchy. But as I thought about righteousness this morning, I had the following thoughts:
The point of righteousness is not so that we can feel better about ourselves (which often means that we also feel that we’re better than others), but to train ourselves to care more about others. Because being righteous, or virtuous, or even pious isn’t primarily about getting into Jannah. It’s about becoming the person Allah wants us to be in this world.
That’s not to say that being righteous doesn’t make us feel better. It’s a good feeling to draw closer to God. Sin separates us from Allah; righteousness unites us. Not because we’re made worthy to stand before Him by our acts of righteousness, but because our mindset becomes more like His. We become one with Him in purpose. We get our minds off ourselves and on to Allah and others.
Righteousness means nothing unless it’s demonstrated by what we do for others. Righteousness should be an attitude of the heart more than an act of the will. But we have to act to demonstrate what’s in our hearts, and to spread Allah’s love and message to others.
At the same time, we must never act in order to get others to think better of us. Righteousness should be never be a show. If my being righteous makes me feel pride, I’m on the wrong track.
Allah judges righteousness differently than we do. He has different standards of what’s important. When we perform righteous acts, we should never be puffed up with pride. Instead, we should be humbly grateful to Allah for showing us how to be righteous. And for showing us why it’s important to be righteous.
Righteousness needs to be paired with repentance, so that every act is an act of penance, not in the sense of punishment, but to show that we know we did something wrong and we want to make up for it. Allah will always honor our attempts to start over.
The goal of Islam isn’t our personal redemption (or shouldn’t be). The goal of Islam is to help us along our journey into righteousness. Getting into Jannah is only a side-benefit. It’s not about what we get, but about what we give.
Allah has already established who we are and His view of us is far more positive than Christians believe it is. At the same time it is realistic: Allah knows we’re prone to sin. (Christians believe that we are sin; they spend so much telling themselves how sinful they are, it’s no wonder that so many Christians struggle with guilt and a sense of spiritual inferiority).
Contrary to Christian belief, people are inherently capable of goodness and “random acts of kindness.” Allah made us with the potential for evil and good (or righteousness). Evil comes from rebellion against Allah and our better natures. Rebellion is a rejection of what is good about us; righteousness is an affirmation of the same.