Akhlaq (Arabic: أخلاق) is an Arabic term referring to the practice of virtue, morality and manners in Islamic theology and falsafah (philosophy). It is most commonly translated in English dictionaries as; disposition, nature, temper, ethics, morals or character (of a person).
Akhlaq is the plural of the word khulq which means disposition. “Disposition” is a faculty (malakah) of the soul (nafs) which unconsciously inspires activities. Malakah comes into existence through repetitive practice and is not easily destroyed. A particular malakah may appear because of one of the following reasons:
- Fitrah (natural state): The original state in which humans are created by Allah Muslims believe Allah determined certain aspects of their lives for which they are not accountable (e.g., their place of birth and physical appearance).
- ‘āda (Habit): Formed by continual repetition of certain acts and creates a certain disposition.
- Practice and conscious effort: Which if persistent will eventually produce a disposition.
Although fitra produces certain dispositions, man can surpass nature through free will and effort. While dispositions caused by mental faculties (i.e., intelligence, memory, mental agility etc.) are not alterable, all others can change. When we speak of man’s capacity to change his dispositions, we do not mean he should destroy instincts of reproduction or self-preservation. Instead, he should avoid extremes so they perform their functions properly. Abu Hurairah narrated that Prophet Muhammad has said: “Indeed I have been sent to complete the best of character (akhlaq).” Anas, the brother of Abu Dharr is narrated as saying: “I saw him (the Prophet), he would enjoin the people to good character and conduct.” The Prophet also said, “The most complete of believers in iman(faith) are those who are best in character.”
‘Ilm al-Akhlaq: The Study (knowledge) Of Akhlaq
The level of human perfection is determined by discipline and effort. Man stands between two extremes, the lowest is below beasts and the highest surpasses even the angels. The movement between these extremes is discussed by `ilm al-akhlaq or the science of ethics. Traditional Muslim philosophers believed that without ethics and purification (tazkiyah), mastery over other sciences is not only devoid of value, but would obstruct insight. That is why it has been said that, `knowledge is the thickest of veils’, which prevents man from seeing reality (haqiqah).
By improving their akhlaq, the muslims improve their Ibadah.
Moral virtues bring eternal happiness, while moral corruption leads to everlasting wretchedness. Man must purge blameworthy traits (akhlāq madhmūma) before he can integrate ethical and moral virtues. Anas Karzoon has offered the following definition of tazkiyah al-nafs, “It is the purification of the soul from inclination towards evils and sins, and the development of its fitrah towards goodness, which leads to its uprightness and its reaching ihsaan.” Attempts to obey God’s commands are successful only when one is purified; then the soul can receive God’s unlimited grace.
The hadith of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: (“My religion is based on cleanliness”), does not refer to outward cleanliness alone; it also alludes to the soul’s inner purity. To attain perfection, it is necessary to struggle against lusts and immoral tendencies, and prepare the soul to receive God’s grace. If man travels the path of purification, God will aid and guide him. As the Quran says: And [as for] those who struggle in Our cause, surely We guide them in Our ways.
Goodness and Happiness
The aim of tazkiyah and moral development is to attain felicity and happiness. Man’s most consummate felicity is reflecting Divine attributes. According to Qatada ibn al-Nu’man, the content soul (an-nafs al-mutma’inna) is, “the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allah has promised. Its owner is at complete rest and content with his knowledge of Allah’s Names and Attributes…”