Beautiful Behaviour: the Fortress of Faith
‘Pious character, refined behaviour and moderation constitute one of seventy parts of prophethood,’ said the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. [Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.468; Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4776]
Another hadith records the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: ‘Nothing is heavier in a believer’s scales on the Day of Judgement than beautiful character (husn khuluq).’ [Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2003]
Yet another hadith links beautiful character and conduct with strong faith: ‘The most perfect of believers in faith are those with the best characters.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.1162]
As Muslims see it, Islam is a religion infused with the importance of beautiful conduct and moral exemplification, which finds its best representation in the lives of prophets and saints. But being possessed of moral virtues isn’t confined to the great ones of the past; it is expected of believers in the present too. The notion of beautiful conduct and cultivated behaviour – in contrast to that deemed crass, vulgar or ugly – is gathered in that genre of knowledge termed “adab”. The Arabs would say: adaba ila ta‘amihi – “He invited [others] to his banqueting feast.” From here develops the idea of adab being an “invitation” to partake of what is good and praiseworthy. In its religious sense, adab is an invitation to acquire praiseworthy traits. Adab carries the idea of civility, courtesy, politeness, comportment, refined behaviour, goodly discipline, cultured breeding and upbringing, and excellent manners. Throughout the ages of Islam, adab was that type of learning acquired for the sake of living beautifully; for adab relates to what a person should know, should be, and should do so as to perfect the art of living.
What follows is an extract from a commentary to the acclaimed Hanbali adab-poem, Manzumat al-Adab of Ibn ‘Abd al-Qawi (d.699H/1300CE). This particular commentary was written by the even more acclaimed Hanbali jurist-author, Imam Musa b. Ahmad al-Hajjawi (d.968H/1561CE). Author of the celebrated Hanbali fiqh text, al-Iqna‘ and its abridgement, Zad a-Mustaqni‘, al-Hajjawi served as mufti of the Hanbalis in Damascus during his age. He writes as part of his commentary to the adab-poem:
‘It has been said that: “The allegory of faith (iman) is as a fortress having five walls. The first [innermost] is made of gold, the second of silver, the third from iron, the fourth of baked bricks and the fifth [outermost wall] from clay bricks. As long as the inhabitants of the fortress are diligent in guarding the clay wall, the enemy will not set its sights on [attacking] the next wall. But if they are negligent in this, they will attack the next wall, then the next, until the entire fortress lays in ruins.
Likewise, faith is defended by five walls: certainty (yaqin), next is sincerity (ikhlas), then comes fulfilling the obligations (ada’ al-fara’id), after which are the recommended acts (sunan), and lastly safeguarding beautiful behaviour (adab).
Thus, so long as adab is guarded and defended, the devil will not set his sight on it. But if one forsakes it, Satan makes inroads into the sunan, then the fara’id, then ikhlas, and finally yaqin itself.”‘1
1. Al-Hajjawi, Sharh Manzumat al-Adab (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 36.