The Conscience in Islam
The Conscience in Islam

Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro:

The Conscience in Islam
New York, USA
December 1992

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Dear Brothers and Sisters. May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon you all.

When man is driven by a true religious inspiration and incentive, he automatically generates within himself the desire towards good, thus adorning himself in a highly moral attire and exhibiting an exemplary character and attributes. This incentive convinces its owner that religion, in its most basic form, is character and behavior. Such an upright conduct brings contentment to its owner both in the worldly life and in the hereafter. We call this incentive the conscience.

As for man-made laws, they may demand a high standard of behavior but lack the means to encourage its actual practice. That is because they are incapable of motivating a conscience that is self-actuated. These laws may encourage morality, but their very structure lacks the positive motivation towards its application. Piaget, the French educator and author, maintains that: Morals without religion remain redundant. For him and sincere religious leaders, religion cultivates character and creates a virtuous society where there is no iniquity, poverty, division, dissension, or weakness. Allah says in the Quran:

Then help one another towards righteousness and pious duty and help not one another towards sin and transgression. T.Q., Sura 5, The Table Spread, verse 2.

Omar, the second caliph after the death of Muhammad, once ordered the narrow streets of Madinah to be kept clear of the obstruction of merchants displaying their goods, thus leaving the streets clear for people to walk on. Despite this order, one shopkeeper continued to display his wares in the street. Upon seeing this, Omar struck the shopkeeper in rebuke for his disobedience. During the nights that followed, as Omar tried to sleep, his conscience began to bother him over his action and kept him from sleeping. After several days of remorse, Omar returned to the shopkeeper and apologized for his behavior. At hearing the apology from Omar, the shopkeeper said: I have forgotten that. Omar replied: If you have forgotten it, Omar cannot.

Another incident illustrating such a highly-refined conscience also occurred during the early days of Islam. When the governor of Homs resigned during the Caliphate of Omar, he was asked the reason for his resignation. The governor said: I fear the wrath of Allah for addressing one Christian under my responsibility when I said: 'May the disgrace of Allah be upon you.

These two stories demonstrate that religion can bring about a society in which a high level of conscience can play a positive role in its construction. Such a situation is not solely limited to the religion of Islam, but includes all the revealed religions which emphasize the cultivation of the conscience. The Quran mentions:

He is successful who purifies himself and remembers the name of his Lord and so he prays. But you prefer the life of the World although the life of the Hereafter is better and more enduring. Lo! This is in the former Scriptures, the Scriptures of Abraham and Moses. T.Q., Sura 87, The Most High, verses 14-19.

The reality of faith in Allah is to believe that He is with you wherever you may be, that He observes you and is aware of you at all times and in all your actions. Allah states in the Quran:
And you are not occupied with any affair and you recite not a discourse from the Quran and perform not an act but We are witness of you when you are engaged therein. T.Q., Sura 10, Jonah, verse 61.
The Quran goes on further to say: There is no secret conference of three but He is their fourth. T.Q., Sura 58, She that disputes, verse 7.

Hence, man is responsible for all his affairs be they public or private, even his innermost thoughts.

And whether you make known what is in your minds or conceal it, Allah will bring you to account for it. T.Q., Sura 2, The Cow, verse 284.

Prophet Muhammad elaborates on this issue further by saying: Worship Allah as though you see Him; although you cannot see Him, He sees you.

So, we must seek the way towards attainment of a living conscience, one that extends mercy and prohibits oppression, guides and does not mislead, and shows the way towards truth and good. A tradition of Muhammad describes this path in the following way: Allah strikes an example towards the straight path which is confined by two walls in which there are open doors upon which are drawn screens. At the beginning of this path stands a caller summoning all the people towards it and warns against deviating from it. A second warner is stationed within the path warning those that may be tempted to pull away these veils, admonishing such that if they do they will find themselves inside.

Muhammad goes on further to explain that: This straight path is Islam, and that the open doors represent the prohibitions set by Allah, and the screens define the margins of Allah. The caller at the beginning of this road personifies the Quran, and the caller stationed within this path is the conscience in the heart of every believer. Whoever follows this path will have for his life an example of purity, chastity and right conduct. Prophet Muhammad says: All creatures are God's dependents, the most beloved to Allah is he who is most helpful to them.

A story is told of a desert shepherd, who had joined this school that brings life to man's conscience. He was asked by Abdullah Ibn Omar to slaughter a sheep for him but he refused. His reason was that the owner of the flock had authorized him to only milk the flock for strangers, not feed them of their meat. On being refused, Abdullah suggested that he pay for the slaughtered sheep and the shepherd tell the owner that it had been devoured by a wolf. Upon hearing this, the shepherd cried out: Then where is God? Then where is God?...... several times over.

This simple shepherd had subjected himself to his own conscience, even before concerning himself with facing his master and, ultimately, Allah. This is because he fully understood the teaching of Prophet Muhammad: Make yourselves accountable to yourselves before you are accounted for, and weigh your deeds before they are weighed for you. It is religion that cultivates such consciences. In the case of the shepherd, despite the absence of his master, he remained loyal to the trust that he was given. The Quran says:

We verily created man and we know what his soul whispers to him and We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. T.Q., Sura 50, The Qaf, verse 16.

In reality there are two consciences: an apparent conscience, which is known to all people and liable to mistakes, and a higher conscience. At the higher level is the conscience of the revealed religions, which cannot err because it is linked to its Creator. Religion says that each man possesses an innate tendency towards good. However, this inbuilt nature requires a teacher, or a cultivator, just as the seed which is sown in the earth, watered and fertilized until it germinates. Then it takes root, grows and flourishes, eventually becoming a fully grown tree, laden with fruit and providing shade from which all can benefit.

Such is the case with the conscience of man, which flowers when nourished by the waters of man's observance and obedience of the laws and commands of his Omnipotent Creator. Evidence of this can be seen in a tradition of Prophet Muhammad:
Is there not in the heart of man an ear that lends itself to the advice of an angel promising all good and confirming truth, or to the insinuation of the devil promising evil and forbidding piety! He who realizes the angelic advice should know that it comes from his Lord and requires his gratitude. However he who realizes the latter should know that it comes from his negligence towards his Lord and as such should ask for forgiveness from his Lord.

Islam has educated the conscience on the basis that man should be cautious in his deeds, in respect to his behavior towards people and all other creatures of God. Muhammad, the Messenger of God, narrates the story of two women, the first of whom entered hell because of her maltreatment of a kitten she had imprisoned, neither feeding it herself, nor allowing it to feed itself until the kitten died. The second woman, despite being a prostitute, was forgiven her sins and went to heaven because of a thirsty dog she found licking mud near a well. Upon seeing the pitiful plight of the dog, she said to herself, the thirst that has afflicted this little dog has afflicted me. So she went down the well, quenched her thirst, and then filled her shoes with water to quench the thirst of the dog as well.

Prophet Muhammad planted the criterion of belief and, therefore, right conduct with the following tradition: If you feel happy with the good deed that you do and unhappy with the bad deed that you commit, then know that you are a believer. This criterion can only be understood in the environment of the cultivated conscience. However, Islam does not stop at this level but urges man to move to a higher level, where he acknowledges the rights of others and compensates those he has unwittingly oppressed. The Quran says:

O you who believe! Observe justice and be witnesses for Allah even though it be against yourselves. T.Q., Sura 4, The Women, verse 135.

Prophet Muhammad says: There are three attributes, if they are found in a man he will complete his faith; giving charity despite abject poverty, spreading peace through out the world, and to give people their acknowledged rights without the use of a judge. Under all circumstances, it falls on the shoulders of each of us to educate and polish our consciences. Allah says in the Quran:

Lo! The hearing and the sight and the heart, of each of these it will be asked. T.Q., Sura 17, The Children of Israel, verse 36.

In conclusion, it can be said that the true human being is one in whom true and unshakable belief has settled and in whom abides, in the depths of his heart, the very matrix of conscience. It is this very person who will respect the law and care for society, its stability and structure, and the harmony of its people. A society without a conscience knows no rest, and there is no conscience without faith.

Peace be upon you all.