Quranic Reflection No 683. Āyat 16:128 – Combining Piety and Virtue


In this last verse of al-Nahl, Allah, ‘subhānahu wata‘ālā links taqwā and virtue together. Many verses also talk about this link between the two qualities. According to Islam piety and virtue go together. Each support and manifests the other. A truly pious person will be virtuous and good to others, and a truly virtuous person will be pious and humble before the Creator. Each of these two remains incomplete without the other. This verse concludes the passage on inviting towards Allah and being just in retaliation with the enemies (verses 125-128) and declares that Allah is with such people. His support is for those who combine piety and virtue.

When Hammam the companion of Amīrul Mu’minīn Imam Ali ‘alayhis-salām asked him to describe the pious such that he could visualize them, Imam initially answers him by reciting the above verse. But Hammam asks for more details and Imam then gives a sermon with a detailed description of those who are truly pious. (Sermon 193, Nahjul Balāghah). The sermon lists about eighty qualities and juxtaposes religious and humanitarian (behaviour with humans) virtues together. In fact, the beginning of the sermon emphasizes: The pious in this world are people of virtue. There is no distinction between religious and humanitarian values.

Many contemporary virtue ethicists look at virtue from a secular perspective. According to their theories virtue is separate and independent of piety. But the fundamental source of knowledge of virtue is from Divine revelation. Left to human beings, the definition of virtue fluctuates, and many indecencies can become virtues with the passing of time. This lack of stability of the definition of a virtue is an indication of the frailty of such theories.

Happiness of the human being, in both the worlds, is not gained by focusing solely on perceived religious values such as prayers and fasting. The individual relationship with Allah ‘azza wajall is important but also important is the dimension of doing good to other human beings, qualities which may be classified as virtues. Both are required for perfection and closeness to God and both stem from Divine guidance manifested in the inner inclinations of the fitrah and the outer teachings of the Prophets and Imams, ‘alayhimus-salām.

Faith is a collection of both religious and humanitarian values. When Imam Ali (a) was asked to explain faith, he said: Faith stands on four pillars – forbearance, conviction, justice, and struggle against evil. (Saying 31, Nahjul Balāghah). Then Imam went on to explain each of these four pillars, giving four supporting qualities to each pillar. These qualities are a mix of what may be understood as religious and humanitarian values.

There is no dichotomy between being religious and being a good human being. Choosing one over the other is to disregard the complete and holistic growth of the human soul. The result is an imbalanced soul that is deprived of the perfection it is meant for. Let this verse be a reminder to be balanced and combine both religious and humanitarian values in the self. 

 Sources: Tahera Qutbuddin. Piety and Virtue in Early Islam: Two Sermons by Imam Ali.