إِلَيْهِ يَصْعَدُ الْكَلِمُ الطَّيِّبُ وَالْعَمَلُ الصَّالِحُ يَرْفَعُهُ ۚ
Ilayhi yas‘adul-kalimut-tayyibu wal-‘amalus-sāliTo Him ascends the good word [belief], and righteous conduct elevates it [belief]
(Sūra al-Fātir, No. 35, Āyat 10)
An important discussion in Islamic ethics is how faith and action impact one another. In many places, the Quran suggests that action on what one knows results in the strengthening of belief. Usually, we understand how belief necessitates action, and this verse brings about an interesting discussion on the symbiotic relationship between faith and action and how they are constantly strengthening one another.
In this verse from Surat al-Fātir, ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī in Tafsir al-Mīzān presents an interesting commentary of the verse to allude to this point. There are a few different interpretations of this verse, based on its grammatical reading, and as such, it is an interesting case study of a point.
The first point is that “kalim at-tayyib” or “a wholesome word” means that which is in harmony between one’s belief and tongue. Moreover, it is when the belief is based in the Truth and reality; this is when a word is truly “tayyib” or wholesome. This is a similar usage to the same words used in Sūrat Ibrāhīm, where “a wholesome word” is compared to a fruitful tree:
أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا كَلِمَةً طَيِّبَةً كَشَجَرَةٍ طَيِّبَةٍ أَصْلُهَا ثَابِتٌ وَفَرْعُهَا فِي السَّمَاءِ ﴿٢٤﴾
Have you not regarded how Allah has drawn a parable? A good word is like a good tree: its roots are steady, and its branches are in the sky.
As such, when the term “wholesome word” is used, it does not mean the words alone, but rather it means words that are based in a strong belief system.
The second point that is brought up in relation to the part of the verse where it says, “and righteous conduct elevates it” or “and He elevates righteous conduct”. Depending on the reading of certain pronouns, the verse has historically been read in two ways by different commentators and both are grammatically feasible.
The first possibility is that righteous conduct with correct belief ascends to Allah ‘azza wajall and is a part of our journey in becoming closer to Him. This means that He accepts this type of action when it is accompanied with a wholesome belief and pure intention.
The second possibility is that righteous conduct elevates and increases our wholesome beliefs. As such, righteous conduct can actually be something that results in stronger faith. This is the inverse of what we already know which is that faith results in action and suggests a more symbiotic relationship between the two. This is the possibility that ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī believes is the more likely one in his grammatical and content analysis.
There are different ways in which we can understand how action strengthens faith; an important way which that it is a tawfīq or gift from Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā. When we follow His guidance, He enhances us in our guidance (Q.29:69) and guides our hearts (Q.64:11) This is a consequence of the fact that we are acting on goodness and trying to get closer to Him. In His Mercy, He ensures that we reach our destination of proximity to Him.
There may be times in which we seek to strengthen our faith and we can become caught in a trap where we want our faith to increase before we take actions or follow on a certain part of divine guidance. However, we may be working backwards. This verse and others like it, show us that encouraging ourselves to wholesome action with the intention of seeking proximity to God may be the key that will help us strengthen our faith and root it in our hearts.
References: Tafsir al-Mīzān, Sayyid M. H. Tabātabā’ī