Chapter 4: Man in the Midst of Duties

Living together with other members of his species is one of man's natural needs. His innate tendency for collective life is an independent factor that causes him to establish communities.

Human society, too, revolves around the variety and disparity amongst individuals and classes, and in it every individual shoulders particular responsibilities and duties which he must carry out properly. The system of society runs properly when everyone has faith in the responsibilities accepted by him in his work environment and his activities do not trespass the limits of those duties.

The animals do not have to abide by any limits or controls in their life. But man, on the contrary, is surrounded by various kinds of regulations and restrictions, to the extent that they may be said to encompass all the aspects of his life. It is these limits and regulations that distinguish man's life from that of animals.

Every movement and pause creates a certain duty for man and this system of duties regulates human life. In a word, duty is something that extends from the earliest to the latest stages of life and at no point is it possible to draw a line of separation between a person and his multifarious duties. As long as there is any capacity, it is accompanied by duty, and it is only death, when it catches hold of a person, that can close the file of his duties.

Apart from the precepts and laws of religion, man as a matter of principle is by his nature also bound by laws. His relation to values and norms, his characteristic instincts and emotions-all these give rise to duties. Although there may be scattered motives behind the performance of duty, it may be said that the universal laws of reason constitute the axis for the determination of duty. Adherence to the precepts of religion also depends on compliance with rationally inferred laws, because, in social matters and issues of life, the rules and precepts of religion are an elaboration of general rational truths.

That which is difficult is not the identification of duty but rather its observance in practice, which is harder than is ordinarily imagined. In this path, only by the means of a firm and steadfast faith, self-denial and vigilance can one attain the goal.

In the same way as social environment provides the ground for the development and growth of human merits, it also provides an atmosphere conductive to the emergence of many vices. The development and growth of society stagnates and comes to a halt when every individual transgresses the bounds of his duties and neglects his major responsibilities.

Every plant needs particular conditions in order to have a sustained growth and grow to its fully developed stage. However, that which is essential for the growth and development of society is not its geographic location or material conditions; what it requires are particular educational and spiritual conditions that may serve as foundations of a worthy and progressive society.

In a society where the spirit of duty-consciousness rules over the minds of people, purity and righteousness become visible in their intentions and conduct, and in their cognition, thought and practice in all walks of life. Obviously, in such societies aggression, betrayal and violation of others' rights do not flourish nor are given an opportunity to do so. Rather, every individual there opposes and resists vice and crime and prevents them from spreading.

We are not led into trouble except as a result of neglecting our various duties and failing to carry them out. Many people are parsimonious in regard to themselves and their energies despite all the various kinds of means they have at their disposal. For this reason they shun their responsibilities and avoid the tasks which in their view would deprive them partly of their joys and comfort. They are not inclined to devote a part of their time to matters that will be of benefit to others.

This group of people, whose horizon of thought and whose scope of activities is always narrow and limited and revolves around personal and petty matters, become accustomed to these spiritual qualities. That is why they can never undertake great and worthy tasks or exhibit any ability or personal accomplishment in any matter of consequence.

As against these is the other group of persons who never take lightly their responsibilities under any condition. They are never shaken or upset by the vicissitudes, reversals and ups and downs of life. They are always prepared to welcome responsibility and generously offer their efforts for the benefit of humanity.

They think that the accomplishment of every beneficial and useful task, however demanding on one's effort and time it may be, is the most beneficial thing to do. Accordingly, the wiser a person and the more profound his insight, the greater is his interest and inclination for the fulfilment of duty.

Struggle for Realisation of Higher Ideals

That which gives worth to life is struggle for the sake of realisation of sublime and fruitful ideals. One must resolve to reach a station worthy of humanity and make every possible effort to develop himself, fulfil his duty, and offer ungrudging service to society. In the sweet words of Hafiz:

Though the world's wont, like the bud, is to be close-fisted, yet you, like the spring breeze, be an opener of knots.

Dr. Schweitzer writes:

Often we hear people say, "I want to do some good in this world but the obligations of life and work are so exacting that I cannot score any success in this regard. I am sunk to my ears in the petty chores of life and there doesn't arise any opportunity for my life to become meaningful." This is a very common-and dangerous-mistake. Everyone finds opportunities at his doorstep to help others, so that his spirit may rise to the occasion and attain peace and joy. In order to attain this joy it is not at all necessary to neglect one's ordinary duties or to perform some dazzling feat.

I call this spiritual work your 'second duty'. All that you must do is to make use of the many opportunities that arise and carry out this duty. You will get plenty of excellent opportunities in this path and acquire a perfect ability to make use of them. At this point all the energies stored up in your being will swing into action.

That which the world needs today, and lacks, are people devoted to fulfilling others' needs. In this work, done for the sake of others, both the helper and the helped are blessed.

... We are gradually losing our personality under the strains of modern society. The urge for creativity and self-assertion is killed in us. Accordingly, the attainment of genuine civilisation is delayed. The big mistake of every one of us is that we travel blindfolded through life and do not notice the good opportunities that arise. Once we open our eyes and look around we will observe many people who need our help, riot for big things but for very small things.

In altruism and sacrifice we must invest the best part of ourselves. The coin that a widow gives, which is all that she owns, has greater worth than all the donations of the rich. We often hear people say, "Were I rich I would do many things for people". But one can be rich in respect of love and charity. If we discover the real needs of those who require help and take steps to meet them, we would have spent the best part of ourselves in this path, which is love and compassion for others and which all the money in the world cannot equal.

You might think that my life in the equatorial forests of Africa is something wonderful. But you should know that you can live a more wonderful life by remaining where you are and, by impelling your soul to effort, engage in a thousand kinds of good and kindly actions. This task demands a spirit of sacrifice and courage and a strength of will, and the determination to love, which is the greatest test of a human being. But you must know that it is in this second and difficult duty that you can find true happiness.1

Man is free either to obey or disobey the commands of his conscience. Every man is the master of his soul and his will. He may choose rectitude and purity, liberate himself from the bondage of lust and endless desires, make chivalrousness his motto, and abstain from injustice and cruelty. These qualities and virtues are within his reach and he may adorn himself with them through persistent effort. He may also take an opposite path, the path of decadence and vice, and dive into the ocean of variegated lusts and pleasures.

The power of will is a heavenly gift which must never be left idle or used for filthy purposes and inhuman goals instead of being employed in the path of duty. The lack of will and determination is the biggest obstacle in the way of fulfilment of duties. The employment of will power under the guidance of conscience and in the struggle against carnal urges and desires, against egoism and moral vices, is a difficult task at the beginning and requires self-denying effort. But through determination, persistence and perseverance, the soul gradually becomes stronger and its moral characteristics improve. Then, the performance of duty becomes a quite normal and easy matter.

If one's feeling of duty-consciousness be strong, he would not retreat in the face of hardship and obstacles. Even when such a person's effort remains fruitless due to obstacles, his conscience at least would be at peace and he would be able to hold his head high before himself because his defeat and failure have been for the sake of duty.

A father gives the following counsel to his son:

My son let it be that you remain poor and penniless while others gather wealth and get rich in front of your eyes through deceit and treachery. Lead your life without position and glory and let others get into high positions through obsequiousness and servility. Put up with misery and loss and let others satisfy their desires by the means of flattery and sycophancy.

Refrain from associating with big people, to get near whom others are killing themselves. It is better for you to put on the garment of virtue and piety so that when your head turns white there isn't any blot on your honour and good name. At that time, thank God and surrender to death with an easy mind and a happy heart.2

In the same way as admonishment, reproof and censure are beneficial in the struggle against vices, so also appreciation, commendation and encouragement are undeniably effective in producing better motivation for work and performance of duty. Evil is the state of a nation in which traitors are encouraged and worthy and duty-conscious servants are censured, humiliated and driven away from sensitive positions in society. Where deceit and imposture bring success and those who are totally devoid of human values attain their cherished goals, a nation in which those who wish to fulfil their human mission remain deprived as long as they continue to live in purity-in such a society there remain utterly no grounds for the growth of moral excellence.

Obviously, in such an environment the attraction and inclination for deceit, corruption and hypocrisy make way, on an extensive level, into the depths of the people's souls, and vice and corruption rapidly take the place of virtues and decent morals. In such an environment, many chaste souls may be compelled to turn their backs on piety and purity as a result of unbearable pressures, for there are few people who can heroically safeguard their souls in such a corrupt environment and preserve their piety and purity in the mire of social filth. Yet all people do not have such extraordinary qualities so as to continue with their sublime and majestic spirit to live amongst a base and decadent people.

In the course of his upbringing an ordinary individual stands in dire need of a society on which he can rely to offer him worthy examples that may acquaint him with practical patterns of conduct in life.

Faith and Duty-Consciousness

The sense of duty and consciousness of responsibilities, which envelop all aspects of human life, are the most fundamental factors of individual and social welfare. Islamic education is also based on developing the sense of duty and its fulfilment.

In his pursuit of welfare and happiness every Muslim must rely solely on his faith and actions in life and refrain from putting his reliance in anything else. Imam al-Sajjad, may peace be upon him, in one of his precious sayings describes the encompassing character of man's duties in various spheres:

You-may God include you in His infinite mercy and blessings-should know that the Sustainer of the world has assigned certain duties and rights to you whose number is so great that they cover your entire conduct and behaviour, your every act and movement, every pause and stop that you may make and every halt that you may decide upon, and, ultimately, every bodily member that obeys your will. These rights are evident and clear, although some of these involve greater responsibility than others.3

In Islam everyone is responsible for his actions and no one is answerable for another's duties and responsibilities. The Qur'an declares:

Whosoever is guided, is only guided to his own gain, and whosoever goes astray, it is only to his own loss; no soul laden bears the load of another. (17:15)

There is a power present in the depths of man's being that calls upon him to perform his duties and carry out his responsibilities. That inner power reassures him when he responds to its call and carries out his duty, and after its performance infuses his soul with tranquillity and delight. This invisible power is the same conscience that arises from the depths of innate nature and impels us to perform good acts and to shun vice.

It may be imagined that the conscience is solely capable of insuring the fulfilment of various duties without our needing to follow the teachings of religion. However, in fact, the moral faculty of the conscience, notwithstanding its worth in providing the needs of man's well-being, is not singly capable of saving man from decadence and fall in all situations and under all conditions.

Before everything, we must pay attention to the range and scope of the activity of the conscience. The dictates of the conscience concerning a matter vary in relation to the different national and ethnic customs and factors of space and time. The persuasive activity of the conscience relates to matters that have been approved as right and praiseworthy previously by social custom and habit, although it may in fact be something abominable or blameworthy from the viewpoint of the customs of another people. In certain eras of human history some of the most shameful and filthiest of acts have been considered by people as being virtuous and praiseworthy and have borne the seal of general approval.

The Holy Qur'an refers to this fact in these words:

O Prophet, say to the people, "Shall we tell you who will be the greatest losers in their works? Those whose striving goes astray in the present life, while they think that they were working good deeds." (18:103-104)

But their hearts were hardened, and Satan had decked out fair to them what they were doing. (6:43)

Moreover, conscience is not capable of resisting unaided the onslaughts of many carnal desires and withstanding the fierce hurricane of lust for wealth and position. In the battlefield against urges and instincts its resistance is diminished in degrees, and it is possible that it may be overwhelmed in the very first encounter with them. The tricks of the carnal self, by turning facts upside down, may deceive the conscience and extinguish the light of this lamp that illuminates man's inner being.

The conscience needs a firm foothold and guide as represented by faith, which stands above the domain of common custom and is not subject to its mandates. Those in whose inner being the innate spirit of tawhid (monotheism) has been awakened and who have real faith in God, they pay full attention to the voice of conscience, considering its mandates to be God's natural guidance. For them not only duty is not a heavy burden to carry about but gives them strength and joy. They carry out their duties with burning love, dedication, and zeal.

Where there is no conflict between conscience and instinctive urges, it is easy to obey the mandates of conscience. But difficulty arises when obeying conscience entails suppression of one of one's inner desires. The power of instinct, which has a wide field open in front of it for its assaults, overwhelms conscience if it is not reinforced by religious faith, and the field of action will be practically taken over by instinct.

It is fact that every human call that is not derived from faith in God is devoid of meaning in the objective world and amounts to no more than a pretty and exciting fancy. The call of Islam, which was realised in the objective world and became practical on earth, opened a brilliant chapter for itself in history. It is a call based on calling the souls of people to the Source of legislation, to the sublime horizon of human felicity, on guiding and linking the hearts to the infinite Divine essence. Otherwise man will not always accept the mandates of insipid and dry human calls and will not submit to their logic in all situations and under all conditions. When moral teachings come into conflict with the carnal desires of people, they violate those teachings in order to attain to their wishes and demands.

Le Comte du Nouy says:

Some atheists who are morally inclined by temperament say that the basic problem is obedience to ethical laws. Hence if we can act in accordance with these laws in practice, we would not stand in need of religion. This approach indicates ignorance of human psychology, for man is skeptical of the worth of laws whose source is uncertain to him.

Moreover, such an approach discloses a misunderstanding of the basic problem, for the objective is that man should grow inwardly so that he thinks in an ethical manner. The goal is not to induce him to behave in an ethical way. For so long as one's conduct is not indicative of a deep inner development, his behaviour will remain a series of artificial, conventional and temporary restraints which will vanish at the first excuse. If moral rules are imposed in an arbitrary manner, no matter how much practical value that may have, they will never be successful in fighting animalistic urges.4

William James, the famous Western philosopher and psychologist, writes:

The sheer moralist obeys the universal laws that govern the universe on the basis of his knowledge, but this obedience is accompanied with a certain sense of burden and regret. He does not feel any warmth and passion in his heart. The feeling that these laws are like a yoke never leaves him. In religion, on the contrary, this cold and dismal obedience is replaced by a warm welcome and enthusiasm that fills everything in life with grace, joy, sincerity and vigour.

All our moral rules are like bandages that are applied to conceal scars and wounds, without containing any healing balm...

It is here that religion comes to our help and takes charge of our destiny. Religion offers a spiritual state and station that cannot be found anywhere else.5

Luqman's Counsel

In the verses of the Holy Qur'an we came across the sayings of Luqman addressed to his son, which are rich in meaning and loaded with profound advice. While giving educative and beneficial exhortation to his son, he sets down in outline the principal duties of every human being.

1. Man's Duty to God:

And when Luqman said to his son, admonishing him, "O my son, do not associate others with God; to associate others with God is a great in justice" (31:13)

2. One's Duty to Parents:

And We have charged man concerning his parents (to treat with kindness and gratitude, and to fulfil the rights of) his mother, who bore him in weakness upon weakness and his weaning was in two years-Be thankful to Me, and to thy parents; to Me is the homecoming (of all My creation). (31:14)

3. Man's Duty towards Others:

O my son, perform the prayer, and bid people unto virtue and honour, and forbid them from vice and dishonour. And bear patiently whatever may befall thee in this path of guiding and educating people at the hands of ignorant persons, for surely that is a mark of true constancy. (31:17)

Turn not your face from men in scorn and pride, and do not be indifferent towards them, and walk not in the earth exultantly, for God loves not any man proud and boastful. (31:18)

4. Man's Duty to Himself:

In general be modest and moderate in your conduct in life, and speak in a low voice, for the coarsest and most hideous of voices is the ass's. (31:19)

The Levels of Duty-Consciousness and Worship

As all people do not have a single level of intellectual capacity and there is a significant difference between them from the point of view of understanding and perspicacity, the leaders of the Islamic faith have called the people to fulfil their duties in different ways in conformity with the different levels of thinking.

Their approach in their religious call is such that learned and contemplative individuals as well as the common and illiterate people can benefit from their guidance. For instance, to some people for whom the only matter of interest is profit and loss, it has called them to a profitable deal. To others who are mostly interested in pleasures and joys, it has promised them paradise, overflowing with plenteous pleasures and everlasting bounties, and warned another group of the painful punishment of hell.

Obviously most people are incapable of perceiving more refined meanings or of aspiring to higher goals. The establishment of duties in society and the general propagation of moral virtues for large numbers of individuals has not been possible except through this means. That is because human nature, by the side of its potentialities, is tainted by various kinds of frailties and vulgarities, and practically few individuals are capable of taking into view the intrinsic worth of an action or attending to a higher goal. In most individuals who have attained to the higher degrees of morality and human excellence, the idea of reward and punishment has had much effectiveness in the initial stages.

In general, an important part of the rapid progress of heavenly religions and their penetration into the hearts of the people has been due to the fact that, contrary to many man-made laws and ordinances, they attach a special importance to abstention from sins. In the system of education of these faiths, abstention from sin is not only the cause of deliverance from punishment but also that of reception of fair material and spiritual rewards. As regards his psychic makeup, man exhibits a keener responsiveness and sensitiveness to reward and is consequently more attracted to a teaching that offers reward in return for the fulfilment of duty.

Some of the traditions that refer to people who offer unconditional obedience to Divine commands and without the hope of reward or the fear of punishment, relate to a particular group of individuals whose knowledge of God's infinite essence is of a very high degree. Those righteous souls attain to the highest degrees of sincerity and perform their duties for the sake of God's good pleasure, not for any reward.

This group of persons have been called 'free man' in the traditions, whereas those who do worship and perform duties for the sake of reward have been called 'hired workers', and those who do their duty for fear of punishment, 'slaves'.

'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:

A group of people worship God for the sake of reward. That is the worship of merchants. A group of people worship God from the fear or punishment. That is the worship of slaves. But a group of God's servants worship Him solely out of gratitude and thankfulness. And this kind of worship is special to free men.6

Aveberry, the well-known British scholar, says something similar in this context. He writes:

Someone whose soul is full to the brim with the love of God is compelled to worship and glorify Him. He worships God neither with the hope of reward nor for the fear of punishment, but solely for the sake of God. One who performs a virtuous deed or abstains from a sinful act for the sake of reward or for the fear of punishment, cannot be proud of his conduct. Such a one cannot be considered a godly person. He is a businessman who works for his own profit and is a mercenary who toils for a wage.

Nevertheless, such conduct is also commendable in itself when we take into view those who destroy themselves through ignorance, blacken their souls with the smoke of sin, and never worship God. Thus we can reckon the mercenary persons who are solely concerned with reward and punishment among the good.

But there is no doubt that that which causes them to act virtuously is something extremely petty and insignificant, for it would be much better if they pass beyond this stage and worship God because He is worthy of being worshipped.

Those who wear out their spirits in the path of beauty and art, do not expect any profit. They have a higher end in view, which is not tinged with materialistic ends. They admire beauty and love art, and endeavour to capture the fair bird of beauty in the cage of their imagination and to show it to others.

How good it would be if, in the path of religion, we too be like the lovers of art and liberate our souls from all traces of mundane ends and cherish no goal except the glorification of Eternal Beauty. This is the true religion that can elevate our souls to the peaks of perfection.7

The greater the faith of an individual in God, the more visibly are his acts marked with sincerity, so that the effort to attain God's good pleasure predominates all his desires and attachments. He performs every virtuous act without any fear of punishment or hope of reward.

This moral ideal and sublime spirit is of such a great worth that there is no ideal that can equal it, and there are only a few of such moral geniuses in every era who can attain it.

'Ali, the Commander of the God-fearing, may peace be upon him, says this about his own position as a servant vis-à-vis God: My Creator, I do not glorify or worship Thee in the fear of hell and the hope of paradise. Rather, I worship Thee because I consider Thee worthy of being worshipped.

Like a beggar, don't serve your Master for a wage,

For He Himself knows how to take care of His servants.8

The Noble Qur'an quotes the Prophet Solomon's prayer in this verse:

My Lord, inspire me so that I may be thankful for Thy blessing wherewith Thou hast blessed me and my father and mother, and that I may do righteousness well-pleasing to Thee. (27:19)

It should be noted that 'worship' (ibadah) in Islam is not limited only to those moments when one is performing ritual acts of worship. Rather, it has a wide and comprehensive meaning that includes all the aspects of life, and as 'a way of life' covers the entire scope of life. 'Worship' in the ordinary sense, as well as thought, perception and the daily matters of life-all are included in worship so long as God is one's goal and end. In other words, worship is the principal basis on which rest all the norms and regulations of life; for brief moments of worship and fleeting rites by themselves do not have a very considerable value in life.

They are of significance only when one's behaviour and conduct and all the affairs of one's life are clearly and unambiguously based on this principle, and when man bears witness, not merely verbally, but in actual practice that no power and entity is worthy of being worshipped except the sacred Essence of the Creator.

Similarly, 'worship' in the teachings of Islam does not mean that one's heart should be filled with piety and God-fearing only when one is performing ritual duties; that once they are over, impiety and vices should dominate one's soul, divesting him of all goodness and making him shun justice and righteousness. One's heart does not commune with God in such a worship, and such a person is like a lost traveller who cannot advance towards his goal and destination with the help of the light that illuminates the path in the dark of the night.

The Qur'an declares:

It is not piety that you turn your faces to the East and to the West. True piety is this: to have faith in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, to give of one's substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveller, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to perform the prayer, to pay the alms. And they who fulfil their covenant when they have engaged in a covenant, and endure with fortitude misfortune, hardship and peril, they are they who are true in their faith; these are the truly God-fearing. (2:1 77)

The basic principle of Islamic education is that there be a perpetual, comprehensive and unbreakable bond between man and God. His object of love and fear, hope and reliance, is God. God is the sole authority to Whom he must make recourse in every matter and observe His ordinances, laws and commands in all moments of his life.

It is such a living and thorough link between man's heart and God that gives to everything its wholeness and consummate perfection and without which everything becomes hollow and futile. The individual finds morality, virtue and all positive values by relying on that bond.

Without doubt, the human merits that spring from faith in God and His eternal and fundamental law are in fact man's genuine virtues and merits, which cannot be expected from anyone whose education and upbringing is not based on a real link with God.

  • 1. Kelidha-ye khushbakati, trans. from English into Persian by Ahmad Aram, Tehran: Shirkat-e Sahami-ye Intishar, Khurdad 1347, pp. 269-277.
  • 2. Samuel Smith, Akhlaq-e Samuel, Persian trans. p. 8.
  • 3. Al-Harrani, Tuhaf al-uqul, p. 255.
  • 4. Pierre Le Comte du Nouy, Sarnevisht-e bashar, p. 216.
  • 5. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Persian Trans,. Din wa rawan, p. 19.
  • 6. Nahj al-balaghah, trans. by Fayd al-Islam, p. 1182.
  • 7. John Lubbock Aveberry, Dar justeju-ye khushbakhti, p. 228.
  • 8. Fayd al-Kashani, Haqa'iq, p. 202.