Islam places great emphasis on purity and sincerity of motivation, especially in respect of worship and rituals. While engaging in prayers or performing rituals one often tends to concentrate on the outward form, on external symbols and to lose sight of the underlying spirit of worship or ritual. The Quran emphasizes, in respect of the ritual of animal sacrifice, that "It is not their meat or their blood that reaches God, but it is your piety that reaches Him" (22:37). The Prophet is reported to have said: "God does not look upon your bodies or your actions but looks upon your hearts and your intentions".
Pure, undiluted devotion and motivation are the essence of worship and piety. Therefore, one should be careful that acts of worship, deeds of virtue and rituals are not contaminated or vitiated by a mechanical sort of performance, or by a desire to exhibit one's piety, or other extraneous considerations. All acts of piety and virtue should be motivated solely by a desire to earn the pleasure of Almighty God. "Say: Indeed, my prayer and my service of sacrifice and my life and my death are all for Allah, the cherisher of the worlds", says the Quran (6:162).
Deliberately exhibiting or flaunting one's piety has been described as "hidden polytheism". In explicit or open polytheism, one either believes in many gods and goddesses or associates them with the Almighty. Displaying one's religiosity-with a view to gaining popularity or earning self-esteem-betrays a dilution of one's devotion and motivation. The implication of others (in one's mind) in the act of worship makes such an act akin to polytheism.
The Prophet said: "A Muslim cannot become a (true) Muslim unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself".
Self-centredness is a universal human weakness, common to individuals, groups and nations. This weakness is a reflection of the duality of human nature, which is characterised by benign qualities and potentialities as well as the propensity for viciousness and evil.
The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by four distinct characteristics. In the first place, Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds and given dominion over all that is in the universe. Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All human beings have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God's sight. Furthermore, man has been designated as God's vicegerent on earth.
Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality. On the one hand, man has been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 95:4-5). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23). The dual nature of man is illustrated in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5:23-31).
Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice. Man has the freedom to choose between good and evil (Quran 8:53; 13:11; 15:29). The Quran says: "We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up…. .." (Quran 33:72). The commentators of the Quran point out that the word trust (amanah) refers to the capacity for reason, self-reflection and moral choice.
Fourthly, Islam recognizes the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: "There is not a newborn which is not born in a state of nature, (but) his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian". He is also reported to have said: "A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore you should be watchful about the person you befriend." Islam also suggests a normative framework and an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature.
Interestingly, one can find an echo of the Islamic view of human nature in the observation of an eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal (d.1662): "It is dangerous to show man too clearly how much he resembles the beast without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very profitable to show him both."
Islam urges man to overcome his organismic frailties and weaknesses-such as selfishness, jealousy, hatred, haughtiness, self-righteousness-which damage man's personality and undermine human relationships. This Hadith seeks to inculcate man with one of the noblest qualities of human character so as to bring out the angel in him.
One finds a striking resemblance between this Hadith and one of the sayings of the Chinese sage Confucius. One of his disciples, Kung, asked the Master, "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?" The Master replied: "How about 'shu': never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?"
The Prophet said: "Verily, by God! I am not apprehensive about you being faced with poverty and destitution. I am afraid the (bounties of the) world would be spread out for you as they were spread out for those who went before you, and you might get too enamoured of them as they did, and (in consequence of it) it might destroy you the way it destroyed them".
The Islamic faith strikes a balance between the extremes of world-renunciation and self-mortification on the one hand and excessive self-gratification and hedonism on the other. "There is no monasticism in Islam", declared the Prophet. Islam emphasizes balance and moderation in all spheres of life.
The ascetic way of life is against the grain of human nature and society. Islam emphasizes that the world and all its resources and bounties have been created by God for the benefit of mankind. Man is therefore urged to partake of them (Quran 7:32; 28:77).
On the other hand, an unbridled, reckless pursuit of affluence and prosperity contains the seeds of its own nemesis. It breeds some of the worst qualities in human character, including avarice, pride, selfishness, aggression, and jealousy. It leads to the concentration of wealth in a few hands and strengthens economic and social inequality. It encourages the tendency to exercise domination and control over others and promotes rivalry and unscrupulous competition. It stifles some of the most sublime qualities in human nature such as concern for the underprivileged, selflessness, altruism, sincerity and sacrifice. It undermines the fabric of human relationships. A compulsive drive for the accumulation of wealth is often accompanied by high levels of stress, which have adverse consequences for health.
The Holy Quran alludes to the transience of worldly life and the transitoriness of material possessions in an evocative metaphor. It says: "Know that the life of this world is only play, and idle talk, and ostentation, and boasting among you, and competition and rivalry in respect of wealth and children; as the likeness of vegetation after the rain, whereof the growth is pleasing to the farmer, but afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow, then it is reduced to straw" (57:20).
This Hadith provides a valuable insight into the discontents of affluence and prosperity. The Prophet is also reported to have said: "Riches have nothing to do with material possessions; it comes from self-contentment".