وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ ابْنَيْ آدَمَ بِالْحَقِّ إِذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَانًا فَتُقُبِّلَ مِنْ أَحَدِهِمَا وَلَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الْآخَرِ قَالَ لَأَقْتُلَنَّكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنَّمَا يَتَقَبَّلُ اللَّـهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ
Watlu ‘alayhim naba-bnay ādama bil-haqqi idh qarrabā qurbānan fatuqubbila min ‘ahadi himā walam yutaqabbal minal-ākhari. Qāla la’aqtulannaka. Qāla innamā yataqabbalul-lāhu minal-mutaqqīn.
Relate to them truly the account of Adam’s two sons. When the two of them offered an offering, it was accepted from one of them and not accepted from the other. [One of them] said, ‘Surely I will kill you.’ [The other one] said, ‘Allah accepts only from the Godwary.
(Surāt a l-Mā’idah, No. 5, Āyat 27)
The story of Hābīl and Qābīl is one that many Muslims have explored with regards to history of murder and as the first instance of murder among the Banī Adam. However, when stories are told in the Quran, they often explore various facets and comment on many ethical components. This story is no exception and the conversation cited above goes beyond the discussion on murder.
It is noted in the verses that the two gave a sacrifice or an offering. It was accepted from Hābil but not from the other. In jealousy and rebellion, Qābīl decides to kill Hābīl. In the conversation that ensues, Hābīl notes the reason the offering was accepted from him and not his brother is that actions are accepted by God when they are done with taqwā.
There are a few subtle points that can be denoted from the Arabic, and they are worth reflecting on. The first is that the verb ‘qurb’ means in its most essential meaning, to cause to be near. It is used to describe the offering of a sacrifice. The origins of the word ‘qurbān’ are debated. Some believe that it has Syriac origins while others relate it to the same root letters. Here, it would be clear that it is speaking of seeking proximity to God. This can also be related to the phrase that we often use in forms of worship where we may say, ‘qurbatan ilallāh’, i.e., denoting our intention to seek the proximity of Allah ‘azza wajall in our actions. Moreover, the word ‘muttaqīn’ is an active participle (ismun fā‘il) meaning that God accepts from those who are actively doing taqwā or God-wariness.
Essentially, the point is this: though Qābīl offered a sacrifice and in a sense, fulfilled a duty, he did not do so with the spirit of taqwā or God-wariness. God was not his goal, and he did not do the action seeking proximity to Him. In some ways this can be compared to actions that we do, claiming that we are “acting” even when they are missing a vital quality. While action (particularly acting on God’s commands) is necessary and important, it is also vital for these actions to have the quality of God-centricity i.e., to act with the intention of proximity to God. Many of us fail to act on the bare minimum of what we are required to from Allah but claim that our intentions are ‘good’. Many more of us act on what we know to fulfill our responsibilities but perhaps we have mixed our intentions with something other than God.
With a short snippet into the last conversation between these two brothers, there is an important lesson on Islamic ethics. It shows the relationship between the quality of an action and its acceptance. Throughout the Qur’an, taqwā is often discussed with two components: belief and action. True piety is not only belief, but it is belief that is accompanied with action. In Q2:177, the Qur’an describes the Godwary with descriptors of not only their belief but the affirmation of this belief with actions:
لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَٰكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَى الزَّكَاةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُوا ۖ وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ ۗ أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ
Piety is not to turn your faces to the east or the west; rather, piety is [personified by] those who have faith in Allah and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, and who give their wealth, for the love of Him, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller and the beggar, and for [the freeing of] the slaves, and maintain the prayer and give the zakat, and those who fulfill their covenants, when they pledge themselves, and those who are patient in stress and distress, and in the heat of battle. They are the ones who are true [to their covenant], and it is they who are the Godwary.
Moreover, action that is void of belief and God-centricity is often stated to be futile. Later in the same chapter, in verse 264, the example of charity without belief is noted through the parable of a bare rock:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُبْطِلُوا صَدَقَاتِكُم بِالْمَنِّ وَالْأَذَىٰ كَالَّذِي يُنفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَاءَ النَّاسِ وَلَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۖ فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا ۖ لَّا يَقْدِرُونَ عَلَىٰ شَيْءٍ مِّمَّا كَسَبُوا ۗ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْكَافِرِينَ
O you who have faith! Do not render your charities void by reproaches and affronts, like those who spend their wealth to be seen by people and have no faith in Allah and the Last Day. Their parable is that of a rock covered with soil: a downpour strikes it, leaving it bare. They have no power over anything of what they have earned, and Allah does not guide the faithless lot.
These concepts are mentioned many times throughout the Quran and build an ethical paradigm. Actions are not only about the form of the actions themselves, but rather, the quality behind them. In this story the words of Hābīl are a cautionary tale; even when we act on God’s commands, the quality of God-centricity is a part of the action that will lead to its acceptance or rejection. In a reliable tradition from Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin (a), it is narrated: There is no action except with its intention i.e., the God-centric quality of an action is a part of the action itself and what makes an action worthy of divine reward is if it was done to please God (and was of course, according to His commands). As such, an important question to ask ourselves as we analyze and assess our own actions is not whether or not our action was ‘good’, but rather as to whether or not our actions were ‘Godly’.
References: Elsaid Badawi and Muhammad AbdelHaleem, The Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage; Shaykh Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī, Volume 2