‘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] Another hadith records the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: ‘Nothing is heavier in a believer’s scales on Judgement Day than beautiful character.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2003] Yet another 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 way of life, or din, that is 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 or cultivated behaviour – in contrast to that deemed crass, vulgar or ugly – is gathered in that genre of knowledge termed “adab”.
The Arabs say: adaba ila ta‘amihi – “He invited [others] to his banqueting feast.” From it comes the idea of adab being an “invitation” to partake of whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. In its religious sense, adab is a call to acquire praiseworthy traits. Adab carries with it the sense of civility, courtesy, politeness, refined manners, and cultured breeding or 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. It says in one hadith: ‘Indeed, God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ [Muslim, no.91]
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 Hanbali school in Damascus during his age. He writes as part of his commentary to the adab-poem:
‘It is 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 of iron; the fourth, baked bricks; and the fifth [outermost wall] from mud 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 become negligent, 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), then sincerity (ikhlas), next 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.