قُلْ كُلٌّ يَعْمَلُ عَلَىٰ شَاكِلَتِهِ
Qul kullun ya‘malu ‘alā shākilatih
Say, ‘Everyone acts according to his character…’
(Sūrat al-Isrā, No. 17, Āyat 84)
Human beings possess an external and internal dimension to their being. These dimensions are deeply intertwined and connected with one another. The external influences the internal, and as the above verse indicates, the internal also influences the external. This apparent conundrum is the topic of our discussion.
With the external physical dimension of his existence, man performs actions. For example, he looks at things with his eyes, speaks with his tongue, moves with his feet and so on. Beyond this, man has an internal and immaterial dimension, that is known in Arabic as his nafs or in English as his soul. In fact, the true reality and essence of man lies in this soul. It is the same soul that remains with him as his body changes and even after death when the body is lost. Moreover, it is this soul that acquires virtues and vices of character, known in Arabic as akhlāq.
In a very important verse of the Noble Quran, Allah mentions the criteria of man’s success as lying in the purification of the soul:
وَ نَفْسٍ وَ مَا سَوَّاهَا فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَ تَقْوَاهَا
By the soul and Him who fashioned it and inspired it with [discernment between] its virtues and vices. (Q 91:7-8)
Returning to the verse of Quran that was initially quoted, man’s soul usually dictates the actions that he performs. For example, the hand of someone who is stingy and greedy will not be extended in charity. The tongue of one who is a coward will not speak up in defence of the oppressed. The tongue of one in whose soul the fire of jealousy has been kindled will shamelessly lie, backbite, and insult the one who he is jealous of. In this sense the external dimension of man reflects the internal reality of his soul and how it has been moulded and formed. In one narration from Amir al-Mu’minin (peace be upon him) this point is indicated when he says: Speak so that you may be known, since man is hidden under his tongue (Nahj al-Balāgha, saying 392)
At the same time, this internal reality of man’s soul takes shape by means of his actions. It is by repeatedly performing an action that deeply rooted traits come about in the soul. For example, the same greedy individual mentioned earlier must undertake the difficulty of giving money away if he seeks to purify his soul from greediness. By repeatedly forcing himself to give, the trait of greediness will slowly be uprooted, and he will become a generous individual. Similar is the case with other vices of the heart. By controlling his tongue to only speak words that are in line with the luminous commandments of the sharī‘ah, the jealous individual will slowly move towards extinguishing the fire of jealousy in his heart. The fuel to this fire is committing sins such as lying and backbiting. By not supplying fuel to this fire, it will eventually go out.
With this profound understanding of the two-way relationship between the external and the internal dimensions of man, we can now appreciate the importance of carefully learning the commandments of the sharī‘ah and then striving to live a life of obedience to Allah ‘azza wajall. When someone forces themselves to control their eyes, their tongue and all their actions until they are completely in line with Allah’s will, they are forming their soul and purifying it from evil.
Sources: Āyatullāh Muhmmad Bāqir Tahrīrī, Insān va gustaray-i huqūq-i bandegī (A Commentary on the Risālat al-hqūq).