7 Modern Deadly Sins and Misunderstandings: Clarity

Understanding and Critiquing Certain Common Sense Moralisms in Modern Society

Previously, we discussed the moralism of determining when exclusivity functions and certain misjudgments we make regarding the moral weight of things. The following discussion ties into another issue in conceptualizing popular sentiments in modern ethics – namely, our severe lack of moral clarity, sincerity and concern for our heart.

The cost of a lack of clarity

In Islamic history and thought, this idea of clarity – central to the tradition of Tasawwuf – was referred to normally as basirah, an inner-sight which traversed beyond the general forms of intuition, a seeing with one’s heart. It is also strongly tied to the idea of hikmah (wisdom), an intelligence that is not based on rational argument and logic. When you see with your heart you see beyond what is immediately apparent. A wise person with hikmah, can also differentiate between confusing things. Another term referring to this general phenomena of suprarational faculties is firasah. Firasah is a kind of special insight or perception into the internal realities of others, an ability to read signs and understand the truth behind things, even when they are confusing. The believer is meant to cultivate these faculties and use them for their spiritual practice. For example, if I make dua, and the answer is delayed, what does this mean? How can I differentiate between a test of punishment and a test of patience or elevation? This idea of clarity also extends to the moral realm. Say someone wants to be Muslim but drinks alcohol: Does the situation call for acceptance and mercy towards someone who wishes to enter into Islam? Under which circumstances is a harsh condemnation of their actions necessary? And what allows us to have this clarity in our affairs more generally? 

Knowing the correct action in every situation is a far more difficult task than conceptualizing abstracts of “justice” and “equality.”The most difficult ethical work requires a sense of clarity, which has all but disappeared from our culture. Instead, “ethics” is increasingly defined by the developed ability to properly refer to a series of social-status markers and high-culture. 

We have little understanding of how abstract principles such as justice and equality apply to our daily lives, nor do we live in a culture of moral clarity which seeks to effectively answer these questions. This then leads to a misjudging between good and evil, or an improper weighing of them: whether somebody supports X or Y political candidate is, in most instances, largely irrelevant to their general character, yet for the modern person it is entirely determinative. We no longer focus on traditional conceptions of virtue — how you treat your parents and others, whether you are charitable, whether you speak kindly, etc. Rather, what matters is your opinion on the next hot button issue, which nobody will care about in six months time. As a consequence, all of religion becomes a guise through which we are pursuing goods that the religion considers falsehoods, or some obvious harm that the religion does not endorse.

The Public Appearance of Good as a False Standard

This inversion between real and true goods and virtues, and apparent or false good and virtues, is socially upheld by a low-threshold requirement for the “ethical” which seems to dominate contemporary culture in the West. It does not require the kind of noble sacrifices we would traditionally imagine, such as chivalry in the medieval Western imagination, but rather it demands adherence to a series of social markers of group-belonging, without any requirement of private virtue. 

This same trend can be seen in certain portions of the Muslim community in the West specifically (especially due to their strong digital permanence). For example, there is a subset of Muslims who will do takfir (declare one to be outside the fold of Islam) of an individual for making a racist comment but will turn a blind eye to people openly promoting and celebrating lifestyles rejected by the Islamic tradition. Simultaneously, there are Muslims for whom larping as a trad-Jihad-lion-warrior online is more important than the basics of civility and respect. Since this very low threshold appearance of good is more conducive to the general artificiality and status-orientation of the modern academy, political environment, digital realm, and social sphere in which ethical presentations of identity and personhood are made, actual ethical development (which happens largely privately) is ignored. Islamically, a key sign of true spiritual development is when those things which are innately private, such as offering the night-prayer and purifying yourself of various vices, induce a perpetual examining of one’s sincerity leading to a shunning of public attention and presence, not an extension of it. 

Conveniently, much of our newfound moral focus is centered on public matters; for example, social justice has become the all-encompassing structure to which religion defers. We have conveniently redefined Islamic goods as those which offer us the most social clout and capital possible. Supposedly, Islam is about activism, NGOs, and climbing corporate and academic ladders by adopting foreign moral and political agendas. Such public announcements of religiosity are concerning. Those who pursue every possible protest and social issue, yet ignore the most basic obligations of prayer and charity, are merely acting as publicly Muslim. In addressing a public matter, the mark of true spiritual sincerity is that your religious practice is not limited to or exhausted entirely by a social issue. In spiritual confusion, we assume that it is somehow justified to miss our prayers and fasts or to not fully adhere to the Sharia, in our pursuit of other moral goods. This is a confusion of lexical priority – adherence to the law, to the best of our ability, must come first. Although we will never be perfect, we must prioritize our religious obligations even as we shift into justice-oriented action. 

The Consequences of Spiritual Confusion

This culture of spiritual corruption and inability to reflect on our intentions and our hearts culminates in widespread moral confusion. We are unable to parse between good and evil, a thematic sign of the end times. When Dajjal, the false Messiah (better translated as the Impostor in the original Greek of “anti” if we refer to the anti-Christ), claims Lordship, many believe him; the disappearance of moral clarity leads to deception and the inability to see the truth of things.

An example that illustrates this spiritually is the idea of istidraaj (lit. graduality). In a hadith, the Prophet ﷺ says: 

“When you see that Allah Ta’ala gives a person (material) things of the worldly life which he desires whilst he remains persistent in sinning, then [know] that it is only Istidraj from Allah Ta’ala.”1 

Here, istidraaj is the perverse opposite of barakah (blessing), one which is actually based upon delusion. An individual’s persistence in sinning is not corrected by Allah through tribulation, rather he is exalted and increased. A person with some insight and clarity would immediately find this concerning. It was the practice of the salaf to constantly question whether a good in this life truly reflected a removal of good in the akhira. Furthermore, the salaf preferred tribulation over ease, because they knew that in difficulty there is a greater possibility of Allah’s pleasure and reward. However, they also possessed the ability to differentiate between difficulties that arose from their own sins and evil and those that were a form of elevation from Allah. This hadith shows that, often, the believer is required to sort through a confusing set of affairs, distinguishing whether or not something that seems good is truly evil. The pious predecessors throughout our history dedicated themselves to this task, reaching lofty ranks by which they could sort out much of these confusions. 

Today, we rarely find this same capacity. Good is easily mistaken as evil, and evil as good; we often mistake punishment for reward and reward for punishment. These are obvious aspects of the human condition that the believer is called to reflect upon, yet that reflection becomes increasingly difficult in the accelerated pace of the digital era. 

As our ability to sincerely reflect declines, so too does moral clarity. For example, Muslims often align with a political party based on the hope that, eventually, we will gain some respect and assurance of our interests. Yet, after significant periods of time we see only an increase in doubts and confusion. It does not seem this general Faustian bargain with Western political establishments has led to any generalized increase of the respect shown towards Muslims in the West, nor does it seem that our actual ethical vision has made any progress. Instead, it seems we begin to accuse Islamic teachings themselves as somehow lacking the glamor and mercy of the outside world. As a result, Western legal and political systems appear more harmonious with our fitrah (nature) – more merciful and considerate of our human sensitivities. 

Some Examples of Moral Confusion

With the confidence that some revisionists speak I find myself confused — could it be that Islam, historically, was actually pro-homosexuality at a social level? Nobody could state something so blatantly false as confidently as proponents of this view do. Was the usul-ul-fiqh prohibition against homosexual acts simply a formalist artifact of the irrelevant jurists law, while in reality homosexuality was permitted in the moral realm, and perhaps even socially laudable?

Legally, no Islamic scholar would argue homosexuality is not prohibited, but arguments on the margins of sentimentality and understanding can color our legal understandings in different ways. Over generations, having a significant portion of scholars adopt such understandings would harm the moral foundations and spirit with which the law is assessed, understood, and practiced in relation to our identities as Muslims — even if the black-letter law remained the same. As in we are not just obligated to uphold the Sharia but do so with certain attitudes: contentment, acceptance, love, pride, desire, strength, courage, wisdom etc. These are just examples of ways in which even that which is explicitly forbidden — if you squint, blur them a bit, fudge the margins and misstate a few principles by just a few words — can seem acceptable. And it is not just some obvious heretic that can fall victim to these but even the most sincere person. 

Another example is the hijab: Abdul Hakim Murad says in his contentions” In the fight against the Monoculture, the main sign is the hijab, and the main act is the Prayer.” But what of those who argue that hijab is too formalist, focusing only on the external and the legal, and that obsessing over the outward at the expense of the inward bastardizes the Islamic spirit of piety? It is true that an excessive focus on external clothing can be seen as misplaced and misjudging real spiritual practice. However, at the same time Islam is keenly attentive to the ways in which it is often the external that is the most difficult for us to forego, and so the internal spiritual practice is not possible so long as we are attached to it. 

The hijab, as Taha Abdurrahman and Abdul Hakim Murad have stated in other ways, is the primary symbolism by which one isolates from creation and remains in divine presence at all times. The hijab both signifies modesty — the foundational characteristic of the religion — and is an act of sacrifice, especially for women, by which they orient ourselves first and foremost to Allah’s pleasure and sight. I care only what He sees and desires, rather than what others see and desire, at the expense of my own desires and aspirations. 

To undermine the hijab as a legal artifact, somehow removed from spirituality, ignores the heart’s situatedness within the body. What we eat and wear, who we associate with and how, the things we hear and the things we say — all of these are affect our hearts. By collectively donning the garb of modesty, we cherish that civilizational heritage which every other ummah has abandoned. The supposed confusion or tension between the legal and the spiritual is not new: it was a point of discussion for many extremist and false-Sufis throughout Islamic history, in contradistinction to orthodox Sufism which saw and continues to see the Sharia as non-negotiable. The same mistake is occurring today, as we somehow think that the divine law, the Sharia, can be removed from spirituality. 

Amidst this malaise of performance and nudity, is it wise to tell the last ummah to “not worry about the legal and the outward, focus on your heart!”? Our task (both men and women) is to observe the hijab; Allah will take care of our hearts. If Imam Shaafi supposedly lost 40 years of knowledge from seeing the ankle of a woman, should we be unconcerned with the extent to which we see the opposite sex on a daily basis? By this, I do not mean to use hijab and modesty as tools to to vault your superiority over others. Rather, people should see that Muslims, men and women, observe the hijab in their clothing and their mannerisms, as it is the foundational sign of Islamic civilization. So much of the current anger against mentioning hijab is against those who use it as a sword against others, but a kind of subtle shift towards a dislike for the hijab itself as superficial takes place. The nuances of how we approach the issue must always negotiate between the reality of something, its outward forms, and how people operationalize them. 

Certain things in Islam are legally non-negotiable, such as prayer, zakah, hajj, etc. Many of these should likewise be seen as civilizationally non-negotiable. A Muslim land or civilization cannot exist without prayer, not just because it is legally-mandated, but because Muslim civilization is entirely structured by the prayer; to be a Muslim land without prayer is an oxymoron. Though the hijab is not as legally foundational, it is a non-negotiable symbol against the monoculture. That is, if we as Muslims truly stand for something alternative to the monoculture — to the clout-chasing, status-oriented paradigm of the modern world, driven by consumption, indulgence, convenience, and heedlessness — we must maintain our acts and our signs, first and foremost. To consider acts such as the hijab as an excessive focus on the external is to misapply the spiritual principles of the religion and to miscalculate the weight of things. This is not to say that there cannot sometimes be an excessive consideration of the outward – some scholars maintained that the beard beyond a certain length was overzealousness in the religion. However, no one of any spiritual or legal rank has ever held this to be true of the hijab despite a certain misunderstanding assuming that this principle could apply to both. This makes the problem of moral clarity even more difficult because it is not between some obviously immediate good and evil. 

Possible Solutions to Moral Confusion

What then is the solution to this moral confusion? We can refer to the hadith of The Messenger of Allah ﷺ. 

“Beware! There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt and that is the heart.”2

There are many ahadith on the heart and its role in the moral uprightness and sincerity of the believer. The heart is not merely a physical organ, but has a spiritual counterpart, the spiritual heart, which actually provides intimate knowledge and insight into truth and piety. And righteousness itself is found in the heart of the believer. Some brief hadith explicating this:

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ pointed to his heart and he said: Righteousness is here.3

Wabisah ibn Ma’bad reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said to me, “Have you come to ask about righteousness and sin?” I said yes. The Prophet ﷺ clenched his fist and struck his chest, saying, “Consult your soul, consult your heart, O Wabisah. Righteousness is what reassures your soul and your heart, and sin is what wavers in your soul and puts tension in your chest, even if people approve it in their judgments again and again.” 4

This hadith already assumes that the heart has some form of sound righteousness within it. The last line of “judgements” is actually translated by many as “legal judgements.” A corrupt heart will naturally incline towards a kind of concessive falsehood — take for example the distinction between someone who sincerely believes something is lawful, and someone who is taking a convenient fatwa from a mufti without much consideration for whether it is truly lawful in the eyes of Allah. A sincere heart may actually take the same material course of action but based upon a sincere belief, whereas a corrupt heart does it based on hawa (whimsical desire). The heart actually can itself be the foundation of a certain sound moral intuition – but simultaneously we know our own hearts as capable of whispering to us great evils and misgivings, since we are not yet entirely purified such that our heart only directs us towards good thoughts. 

Since we cannot trust ourselves and our own intuitions in our heart as always pointing towards righteousness, a baseline protection is necessary. If something is haram, avoid it without deviation or doubt. If something is in the gray-area, avoid it to the best of our ability, unless there is some hardship, and maintain a high-spiritual aspiration (have an intention to come to something better). And if something is even permissible, and gives our hearts doubt, follow the same procedure as if it is a gray-area. As for those things which the scholars find obligatory, one should not assume their hearts’ inclinations one way or another can negate that. As in no person as a lay-man should use this hadith to make permissible that which is haram, and that would be an understanding from a corrupt heart, since a proof of a sound-heart is reluctance, modesty, humility, caution, etc. This is obviously incredibly difficult. 

So our hearts can be the foundation of sincerity and righteousness, if they themselves are sound. And to have a sound heart is itself an entirely complex and separate topic but in brief, scholars of tasawwuf recommend removing the various blameworthy characteristics and to include the various praiseworthy characteristics, to stay away from doubtful matters and have wara (scrupulousness) in the religion, and to make abundant dhikr especially istigfaar (seeking forgiveness). Hamza Yusuf’s translation and commentary of “Purification of the Hearts” is a good possible starting point for those unfamiliar with the Sufi tradition, and another good introductory work is “Sufism for Non-Sufis” by the American scholar Sherman Jackson.

Accordingly, another important practice, emphasized by essentially all masters in the tradition of Tasawwuf is spiritual reflection and solitude. Once we truly reflect on our intentions in any given affair, we will come to various realizations regarding sincerity and whether it is best for us.Then we will begin to understand also our own spiritual intentions and attitudes, and perhaps what may be a deficiency and what may be a kind of blessing that I should attempt to further cultivate. And throughout all this, we maintain an inwards aspiration to purify our hearts and work towards high-spiritual stations and clarity. 

Once we have righteousness in our hearts then conversely and InshaAllah the lack of moral clarity we have internally will clear, allowing us to arrive at moral clarity in how we prioritize certain moral affairs. As in if there is someone I am holding a grudge against, is it more beloved to Allah for me to forgive that person, or offer 100 cycles of the night-prayer? This depends entirely on my sincerity and whether the latter is essentially an escape from the pressing obligation of the former. Further, our clarity on legal matters will be cleared up, to a large extent based on these moral considerations. We will be able to know with a greater clarity, whether I should be strict in a situation or gentle, whether I should pursue a certain path or another, etc. And finally, this new clarity on the legal affairs will spread largely to our clarity in larger considerations of sentiment and the spirit of the religion. It will point out to me the reality of whether some given opinion I have is from some sincere attempt to determine the truth or some nafsi delusion. 

Shepherding Our Hearts 

Foundationally the primary ethical lack in modernity is the lack of any consideration for our hearts to begin with. What affects our hearts never concerns us, since increasingly even Muslims do not see the heart as a spiritual concern, even though all of clarity lies in a sound-heart. Interestingly when I talk to non-Muslim friends and ask them where they feel pain when they are upset or depressed, they increasingly tell me it is in their brains, as in their head, their forehead, etc. I do however theorize that a Muslim feels pain specifically in their hearts: This is the reason that we refer to certain griefs as “heart-breaking,” our heart literally pains us. 

The heart is the entire focus of the human-creation, and just as we know sins blacken the heart, good-works illuminate it and grant us insight. And to continuously work on our hearts in a legitimate way, will lead us to a kind of clarity that is necessary in the end-times, and yet entirely absent from our larger culture. A clarity that applies to the confusion between matters in the ethical domain, the legal domain,the civilizational domain, with many stops and reroutes along the way. As a result, neither will we be confused nor will we confuse others, and we will not fall victim to things that seem correct but in their essence are not. Nor will we mistake a truth for falsehood, because it comes with bad advertising (isn’t this, unfortunately, much of contemporary da’wah?). And ultimately we will approach things in the best way possible, with a sound heart and sound intentions, which will reflect in the fruits that they eventually bear. 

An ending refrain for this necessary task for every Muslim, even more imperative in modernity, is the dua of Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, “O Allah, show me the truth as truth and guide me to follow it. Show me the false as false and guide me to avoid it.” 5

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

  1. Musnad Ahmad, vol. 4 pg. 145[]
  2. https://sunnah.com/bukhari:52[]
  3. https://www.abuaminaelias.com/forty-hadith-purification-of-the-heart/, Hadith 31, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2564[]
  4. https://www.abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2012/06/25/consult-conscience-fatwa/, Sunan al-Dārimī 2533[]
  5. Sharḥ al-Muntahá al-Irādāt 3/497[]

Leave a Reply