Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west; rather righteousness is belief in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and to give wealth, however cherished, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, to those who ask, and for freeing slaves; It is to establish prayer and give zakat; to honour the promise when it is made; and to be patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the mindful.
(Chapter 2: Verse 177)
When God commanded the change of the prayer direction –Qibla- towards the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, Muslims turned to it after they had been facing Jerusalem. From that point on, each of the heavenly religions had its own prayer direction exclusive to them. The Muslims faced towards the Ka’ba, the Jews towards Jerusalem and the Christians faced East.
Allah is telling the Muslims not to consider the turning of the direction in prayer as righteousness, because the action of turning one way or another is not difficult at all. Righteousness is not in easy; it requires effort and patience. Righteousness encompasses great matters such as faith, piety, honesty, obedience, charity and many other good deeds. It is vast in meaning and requires hard work in application.
Allah is teaching us to focus on our faith, piety and efforts, rather than differ concerning small and easy matters which do not require effort nor benefit others. Righteousness has a much higher purpose such as preserving the purity of faith when you are tested, and prioritizing God’s command over one’s comfort and desire. Righteousness demands that you hold on to God’s teachings no matter how difficult the circumstances maybe. It is to see that sin only brings you immediate short-lived satisfaction but leaves you with loss and lasting punishment. Righteousness encompasses all good and adds beauty and peace to the universe.
Let’s take a moment to study the phrase “righteousness is belief in Allah”. When you say, for example, that ‘John is just’, or ‘Adam is truthful’ it means that they have these traits in general. However, when you say ‘John is justice’ or ‘Adam is the truth’, then you are implying that each one of them embodies this trait. It is a form of emphasis, and it is used indicate to the listener that the truth and Adam are inseparable. Similarly, Allah used this form of emphasis “righteousness is belief in Allah” to inform us that both righteousness and faith in God are intertwined. You cannot be a righteous person if you are not a believer first, nor are you a true believer if you do not behave righteously.
“Belief in Allah” is the first step of faith; it is the beginning. On the other side is the belief in "the last day." On one end of the spectrum is the realization that you have a creator that brought you into this world; and at the other end is the realization that you will meet your Lord and be held accountable for your actions and for how you used the gift of life. Faith is applied in exactly that order: faith in the last day comes after believing in God first and believing in whatever He tells you. Allah informed you that there will be a Judgment Day, thus, you believed in what He told you. Then there is the issue of faith in the angels. How do we believe in a creation that we have never seen, you may ask? It all comes from our belief in God. He has informed us that there are angels. Thus, we believe in their existence. Similarly, we believe in the Jinn even though we are unable to see them. Such is the case with all unseen matters that come from our Lord.
The issues related to faith and belief are all unseen. You would not say that you believe or have faith in visible or tangible matters, because things you can see and touch do not require belief. It is precisely because unseen matters escape all our senses and perception that belief and faith are required. The apex of creed is that you believe in God, and from this conviction stems your belief in all that God tells you of the unseen and unperceivable.
How would this concept apply to our belief in Messengers and scriptures? We, after all, know who the prophets and messengers are, and we can see and touch the scriptures. We answer that it is correct that the books and the Prophets are real and tangible, but we did not physically see the revelation of the book or the sending of Prophets. None of us were alive at the time of revelation or at the advent of the Prophet; yet we have faith in these matters. In fact, belief in the unseen is the foundation of faith; and the cornerstone of that foundation is belief in God.
Let’s take the next step on the road of righteousness. Allah explains that righteousness is not limited to belief; rather it has to translate into day to day actions and behaviours. Allah is not concerned with your faith and conviction if you do not act on it and benefit those around you. Allah wants –through His teachings- to insure that life on earth is just and peaceful for all. Thus, He Almighty says: “and to give wealth, however cherished, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, to those who ask, and for freeing slaves”
What is wealth? Wealth is anything you can save and spend. In today’s world it is used almost exclusively for money and currency. We accumulate wealth either by working for it or by inheriting someone else’s work and effort such as our parents’ or grandparents’ work. A wealthy person is anyone who has worked hard enough and accumulated wealth not only to satisfy his or her needs, but to have left over wealth that can satisfy someone else’s basic needs.
The phrase: “and to give wealth, however cherished” can hold several meanings: it may mean that you give your wealth in charity despite your love for money and your desire to keep it for yourself. It could also mean that you pick the best of your wealth and possessions to give away in charity because you want to implement God’s teachings when He said: “You will not attain righteousness unless you spend that which you dearly cherish.” (3:92) Another -even higher meaning- is that you give money because of your love for giving and because of the inner peace you get from helping others. And, yet in another interpretation, you give the best of your wealth in charity because you love your Lord. God says:
They give food, for the love of Him, to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner (76:08)
We all have many possessions, but few are truly dear to us. So, it is possible that when you give money or gifts in charity, you take it from what you own, but not from what you love and cherish. In this case, you would have merely removed a few items from your wealth. When, on the other hand, you give from the possessions that are dear to you, then you would have removed a few items from your wealth and from your heart. In this way, you become stronger in the face of material desires and gain a new level of independence from the power of wealth. Money should be a tool in your hand that serves you, not a tool over your heart that controls your movement in life. A poet once said:
I do not mind saving money for dark days
Spending it in comfort and in hardship
As long as it is in my hand and not in my heart
As long as I control it and it does not overpower me
“and to give wealth, however cherished” gives you the option of donating out of your possessions, or donating out of your possessions and out of your heart that cherishes these possessions. You should not, however, pick the things that you hate or the things that are in bad condition to give out in charity. Allah gave you from what you wanted and liked, so you should do the same for the needy. God says:
They make over to God that which they dislike for themselves; and all the while their tongues utter the falsehood that the best reward would be theirs. No doubt theirs is the Fire, and they will be hastened on into it. (16:62)