By Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider on 2 June 2017 at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Islamic Centre, Ottery, Cape Town

Our discussions in the past 6 lectures have explained in detail the first portion of the Supplication for Noble Moral Character by the 4th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s). Thus far, we have covered:

1. Dua as a channel of communication with Almighty Allah (SWT)

2. Salawaat

3. Imaan

4. Yaqeen

5. Niyyah

6. Amaal – the best of deeds

Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s) concludes the first portion of this beautiful Dua by linking the message with the above points, where he speaks about the completion of the Niyyah and perfection of conviction in the following verses:

أللَّهُمَّ وَفِّرْ بِلُطْفِكَ نِيَّتِي،

O God, complete my intention through Thy gentleness

وَصَحِّحْ بِمَـا عِنْدَكَ يَقِينِي،

rectify my certainty through what is with Thee

وَاسْتَصْلِحْ بِقُدْرَتِكَ مَا فَسَدَ مِنِّي.

and set right what is corrupt in me through Thy power!

The lesson that Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s) is teaching us here, is to never be over-confident. It is easy to fall into this trap of conceit when one becomes very pious and conducts a self-righteous life.


These verses explain that the best of Imaan, the best of Yaqeen, the best of Niyyah and the best of Amaal cannot be achieved on our own. It is not possible without the Mercy and Grace of Almighty Allah (SWT).

It is a warning and reminder for ourselves, that only Allah (SWT) can guide and protect our Imaan, our Yaqeen, our Niyyah and our Amaal. Over-confidence in yourself is not the behavior which is becoming of a Mu’min (true believer).

The station where a Mu’min hovers is always between hope and fear. A Mu’min never believes he is 100% on the write path, and also never loses hope that he is a complete write off. A Mu’min always has hope and trust in Allah (SWT), because we do not have absolute control. Everything is in the hands of Almighty Allah (SWT).

The purpose of Dua Makarimul Akhlaq is to teach us the best of moral traits. However, there is a natural sequence where it starts with Imaan, Yaqeen, Niyyah and only then as a fruit does it reach to Ahsanal Amaal (the best of deeds). And as noted in the above 3 verses there are warnings of corruption and deviation.

It is therefore important to understand why Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s) first speaks about the doctrines of Islamic faith, in a Dua which is meant to teach us Akhlaq!

The very important ideological lesson that Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s) is teaching us is that the FOUNDATION of Akhlaq (noble character) in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) is based on these 3 values, Imaan, Yaqeen and Niyyah.


So, today we will discuss the foundation of Akhlaq ie. Philosophy of Ethics, which is different to ethics itself.

Ethics teaches us what is good and what is bad, and what to do and what not to do. Philosophy of Ethics is about the rationality of these morals. In Ethics, we don’t ask WHY must we do good and forbid bad. However, this is conceptualized in the foundation, namely the Philosophy of Ethics!

There are various responses to this question of WHY must we do good deeds, which we will study in this discussion, specifically:

1. Christianity: You do good to serve others

2. Immanuel Kant: Our conscience guides us to good

3. Approach of Ash’ari versus Mu’tazila

4. Bertrand Russell: It is all about self-interest

5. Islamic Philosophy of Akhlaq


This reference to “other” is very important in Christian theology. They say that you are supposed to serve for the sake of OTHERS. We often hear this in the form of “thy neighbour”, which generally takes on a communal/societal reference. So, when you do good then it is for the whole community or humanity at large, and not for oneself. In other words, you are doing good for the sake of others.

This explanation is not very clear in answering our question of WHY must we do good deeds for others.

Christian theologians have defined good Akhlaq as everything which is done for the sake of OTHERS and bad Akhlaq is everything which is done for the sake of YOURSELF. This does not answer the RATIONALITY of Akhaq. It still begs the question of what is the motivation to do things for others.


Immanuel Kant was a well-known German philosopher who presented this reasoning of the inner voice guiding towards good and forbidding bad. His great emphasis on this is evident from this inscription on his tombstone:

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing admiration and awe – the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

So, as an example, he professes that nobody teaches you that being truthful is good and injustice is bad. He says this is obvious due to the fitrah (pure essence) or inner conscience which guides us. We have been created with the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, etc. This does not need to be taught to us.

This is the opinion of Immanuel Kant and it is not a wrong opinion. We, as Muslims and followers of Ahlul Bait (a.s) very much believe in this philosophy, in principle at least. However, this is not our complete view on the matter.

Immanuel Kant explains his philosophy by saying that even someone who is deep in the jungle and removed from civilization and has no access to society will resist if you hit him for no reason. He does not need to be told that this is unjust! It is the inner voice which is guiding the thinking.


In history, Baghdad which was the Cradle of Civilization, was known for hosting these types of debates between the Ash’ari and Mu’tazila.

The big question is whether our intellect is independently capable of knowing what is good and bad?

In Ash’ari thinking from the Sunni theological viewpoint, the answer is NO. We cannot INDEPENDENTLY understand ourselves what is good and bad. It is Almighty Allah (SWT) and the Holy Quran which teaches us what is good and bad.

In opposition to this approach is the Mu’tazila thinking (rationalists) and of course Ahlul Bait (a.s) who believed very strongly that we don’t need to be taught what is right and wrong, but rather, we can independently distinguish between right and wrong through our inner voice.


Bertrand Russell was a well-known British philosopher who presented a completely different approach to Christianity (serving others) and that of Immanuel Kant (inner voice), saying that their philosophies of Akhlaq are all fallacies and a figment of our imagination!!

Bertrand Russell says that we human beings only understand one thing, and that is PROFIT! Whatever serves our selfish interests is regarded as good, and vice versa.

Example, he claims that smiling and speaking politely is because we need to come along with others in society. We act this way out of no choice and in return we will be able to live peacefully in society. This is the profit – we do good so that it can be reciprocated.

Let’s sum up Bertrand Russell’s philosophy using another example, namely stealing. If I steal from someone, he will steal from me in return! I am not avoiding stealing because it is bad! I am avoiding stealing to prevent society from becoming insecure and this has a direct impact on me living peacefully!

a. I want to live peacefully in society and therefore I do not steal; 
b. So if I don’t steal, then the rest of society will not steal and be peaceful;
c. If society is peaceful, I will live peacefully!

So it is not about stealing being bad per se. It is bad because it will not serve my personal interest!

This is a very, very dangerous philosophy of Akhlaq and is taking over the world today. This is a pure MATERIALIST approach governed by self-interest and nothing else! There is no system of Akhlaq in this philosophy and is therefore in diametric contrast to our philosophy of Akhlaq!

If smiling helps today, then they will smile and if conflict helps tomorrow then there will be conflict! The criterion is PROFIT and self-interest!


The Holy Quran and Islam categorically condemns the materialist philosophy presented by Bertrand Russell.

We accept Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to a certain extent, that Akhlaq is the demand of our inner conscience which guides us on what is right and wrong. You don’t need to believe in God to accept this philosophy. Even an Atheist will feel ashamed if he/she does something horrible, at least in the early stages, because doing bad repeatedly kills the inner conscience and results in no feeling of guilt any longer! We call this PRACTICAL aql (intellect) in Islamic philosophy.

We believe in Theoretical Intellect and Practical Intellect.

There are numerous references in the Holy Quran and Hadith which refers to the return to our PURE self/essence. But what is this pure self?

Islam takes the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a step further. The approach of Ahlul Bait (a.s) is that your inner voice of conscience can guide you until certain principle issues, but cannot guide you completely! There are matters where you will get lost, requiring you to lean on support BEYOND your inner voice of conscience.

There are issues which are values in certain periods of time, and after a while those values become obsolete. For example, homosexuality has always been frowned upon as an evil taboo by the conscience of human beings. Looking at the world today, we see how this human conscience has been so heavily polluted for homosexuality to be accepted in society using the same principles of human conscience as their basis. Here we can see how a matter which was anti-Akhlaq becomes Akhlaq!

Therefore, Islam teaches us that the foundation of the Philosophy of Ethics cannot be based entirely on inner conscience. But remember, we are not denying the role of inner conscience.


Almighty Allah (SWT) commands us in the Holy Quran, in verse 2 of Surah Ma’ida (chapter 5):

وَتَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الْبِرِّ وَالتَّقْوَىٰ ۖ وَلَا تَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الْإِثْمِ وَالْعُدْوَانِ ۚ

“Help one another in righteousness and piety, but help not one another in sin and rancor”

An incident is recorded in history where there was a person who approached our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWAS) when this verse was revealed. This person wanted to know what the definition of good and bad is. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWAS) placed his 2 fingers on his heart and told this person: “Ask your heart, and your heart will reply what is good and bad!”

The issue and challenge is that our conscience cannot give you a COMPREHENSIVE system of Akhlaq! Therein we find the reality that we need the guidance from Almighty Allah (SWT), as we will not be able to completely understand what is good Akhlaq and bad Akhlaq without the guidance of His revelation.

Let us revert to the first response in our discussion, namely for the sake of others as professed by Christian theologians. Islam and the Holy Quran presents a more realistic approach to human psychology.

Indeed, there is an internal motivation which drives us to serve others but this nature is only a portion of our self. The general psychology of human beings is that he always looks for his own benefit! This is the reality of human psychology. Therefore in psychology we say that you cannot compel people forever.

Islam and the Holy Quran considers this nature of human beings as well, of always wanting to know what’s in it for me! Selfishness and greed is a reality which the Holy Quran refers to numerous times.


The approach of Islam and the Holy Quran is that we cannot establish comprehensive Akhlaq, nor can we guarantee sustainability of this Akhlaq, simply on doing something for OTHERS.

The question arises: What about the people who do service for humanity without expecting anything? They are not hypocrites, nor are they self-loving people. These are the rare exceptions.

The average commoner is generally looking to gain something from his/her good deeds. They cannot live their entire life with no expectation of any benefits. This is where Islam and the Holy Quran establishes that when the foundation of your Akhlaq is Imaan based on God consciousness, then you will not have good Akhlaq only to serve others, but the reward of this good Akhlaq will return to you, as evidenced in the Holy Quran in verse 115 of Surah Hud (chapter 11):

وَاصْبِرْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُضِيعُ أَجْرَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

“And be patient, for surely Allah does not waste the reward of the good-doers.”

In other words, Imaan guarantees that your reward is safe, since we human beings are customized to work for compensation. This is the natural condition. You can work without reward for a limited time, but after a while this motivation will dry out.

The Holy Quran explains that Akhlaq based upon Imaan has wages which Almighty Allah (SWT) guarantees, rather than material wages. This is evident in the above verse of Surah Hud and also verses 7 and 8 of Surah Zalzala (chapter 99):

فَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ خَيْرًا يَرَهُ

“So. He who has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it

وَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُ

And he who has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.”

This system of Akhlaq as per the Holy Quran has reward and punishment, which guarantees that it is practical, and applicable and also a system which is not based upon profit alone. Islam is not saying that Bertrand Russell was right. This selfishness is indeed there, but not in this dunya (material world). Rather, it is to attain the Divine reward of Almighty Allah (SWT).

In Surah Dahr / al-Insaan (chapter 76) of the Holy Quran, we read verse 9 which refers to the Philosophy of Akhlaq according to Ahlul Bait (a.s):

إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا

“We only feed you for Allah’s sake; we desire from you neither reward nor thanks”

The foundation of Akhlaq and quality of the good deed is on a completely different level when it comes to Ahlul Bait (a.s). Now we can make sense of why Imam Zainul Abideen (a.s) starts Dua Makarimul Akhlaq by first asking from Allah (SWT) for the best of Imaan, the best of Yaqeen, and the best of Niyyah, before teaching us about Akhlaq!

Akhlaq has no value unless the foundation is Imaan, Yaqeen and Niyyah! The result from this is Ahsanul Amaal (the best of deeds). This reminds us that the best of deeds have challenges and we must implore from Almighty Allah (SWT) to protect our good deeds from corruption.

To be continued…………