Vying with one another to excel in doing good deeds

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 19 January 2024

“And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying what is (already) before it of the Book and a guardian over it, so judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and do not follow their low desires, (turning away) from the truth that has come to you. For everyone of you We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie (or compete) with one another in good works. To Allah you will all return, so He will inform you of that in which you differed;” — ch. 5, Al-Mā’idah, v. 48

وَ اَنۡزَلۡنَاۤ اِلَیۡکَ الۡکِتٰبَ بِالۡحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَیۡنَ یَدَیۡہِ مِنَ الۡکِتٰبِ وَ مُہَیۡمِنًا عَلَیۡہِ فَاحۡکُمۡ بَیۡنَہُمۡ بِمَاۤ اَنۡزَلَ اللّٰہُ وَ لَا تَتَّبِعۡ اَہۡوَآءَہُمۡ عَمَّا جَآءَکَ مِنَ الۡحَقِّ ؕ لِکُلٍّ جَعَلۡنَا مِنۡکُمۡ شِرۡعَۃً وَّ مِنۡہَاجًا  ؕ  وَ لَوۡ شَآءَ اللّٰہُ لَجَعَلَکُمۡ اُمَّۃً وَّاحِدَۃً وَّ لٰکِنۡ لِّیَبۡلُوَکُمۡ فِیۡ مَاۤ اٰتٰىکُمۡ فَاسۡتَبِقُوا الۡخَیۡرٰتِ ؕ اِلَی اللّٰہِ مَرۡجِعُکُمۡ جَمِیۡعًا فَیُنَبِّئُکُمۡ بِمَا کُنۡتُمۡ فِیۡہِ تَخۡتَلِفُوۡنَ ﴿ۙ۴۸

I am continuing this week with the topic of the importance which Islam attaches to the doing of goods deeds. I said last week that in the Quran the doing of good deeds is mentioned very often in connection with being a believer in Islam, as in the recurring expression “those who believe and do good deeds”. However, the doing of good deeds is also sometimes mentioned without referring to belief. In the verse which I just read, the doing of good is mentioned not only in connection with being a Muslim, but any­one who believes in a religion, including Jews, Christians, Hindus etc. The verse begins by stating that the Quran has been revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad to confirm that the religious scriptures which people of previous religions believe in were indeed, in a general sense, books from God. The Quran also guards these books. Guarding them means that the Quran showed which teachings of these books were genuinely from God, and which were added by people themselves to fulfil their low and selfish desires. The Holy Prophet Muhammad is then directed by Allah that he must adhere to what is revealed to him, and not deviate from the truth to pursue and satisfy people’s low desires.

After this, all mankind is addressed and reminded that its various nations all have their own laws, religions and customs which stem from their holy books. Then the verse says: “And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you.” It is a test and trial from God that humans belong to different religions and the test is to find how they behave towards followers of other religions. Should they make those differences into the basis of hostility and fighting, and consider followers of other religions as inferior, and belittle and denigrate them? Or should they try to learn something from those differences, and reflect on their own selves, and see if they can benefit from the experiences and lives of others?

The verse then says:

“So vie (or compete) with one another in good works” (fa-s-tabiqu-l-khairāt).

Followers of different religions should compete in the doing of vir­tuous deeds, instead of fighting each other. Each group should try to excel and outdo the other religious communi­ties in the doing of good deeds because the aim of every religion is that its followers should do good deeds. Then the verse adds this: “To Allah you will all return, so He will inform you of that in which you differed.” The differences between us in beliefs and religious doctrines will always remain, as long as we are on this earth. No side can show to others, in an absolutely clear way, that its beliefs are correct, in a way leaving no doubt at all. That is impossible. But what can be seen in the life on earth are people’s deeds, actions and works. We cannot know for certain which beliefs are right and which are wrong, but we do know for certain which deeds are good and which are bad.

As an example, if you have a machine or appli­ance, say a television or a car, you will most likely not know how the components inside it make it work. But you will certainly know if that machine or appliance on the outside works or doesn’t work, or works well or works badly. Just like this example, the deeds of people are visible to all and they provide the final verdict on the effective­ness of their underlying beliefs in leading them to do good deeds. Competing with others in doing good is also what is called a win-win situation. Even those who lose the competition have benefitted others by their good works.

This competing in good deeds may have another meaning as well. In the times of the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement there were bitter debates and verbal disputes going on between followers of different faiths, especially in his home country of the Indian subcontinent. Advocates and representatives of different religions in their writings and speeches were raising all kinds of accusations against other religions, often using offensive language. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, in order to defend Islam, was compelled to become involved in such debates. But this was against his nature and temperament. He advised that the spokesmen of different religions should concentrate on presenting the good points and benefits of their own religions, instead of attacking other religions.

He proposed to organise and hold a religious conference in his home town, to which he would invite one scholar from each of the major religions, including an intellectual to represent atheism. A condition required from every speaker would be that he would abstain from mentioning any other religion but speak only about the principles of his own religion and its scriptures and explain the merits and goodness of its teachings. He should, however, answer the objections that are raised against his religion by its critics, while he is strictly forbidden to denigrate or insult any other religion.

This kind of multi-faith conference also fulfils the instruction in this verse of the Quran: “So vie (or compete) with one another in good works”. Each speaker would be trying to show how his religion excels all others in a positive sense, on its own merits, but without highlighting what he thinks is the negative side of other religions.

This instruction to vie with one another in good works is also mentioned in the Quran for Muslims themselves to compete with one another in this way. In one verse the Quran says to Muslims:

“And everyone has a goal to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works.” — 2:148

The Arabic words here for “vie with one another in good works” are the same as in the first verse that I read above: (fa-s-tabiqu-l-khairāt). This verse was revealed among the verses in which Muslims are commanded to turn their faces towards the Ka‘bah at Makkah for prayer. What it means in this context is that just as the Ka‘bah is the direction to which Muslims must turn their bodies physically for prayer, they must also turn their attention and minds to doing good works, and not only doing them but trying to excel one other, get ahead of one another, in doing them. And to do this is as fundamental as facing the Ka‘bah for prayer.

In connection with excelling in good deeds, another statement in the Quran is the following:

“Then We have given the Book as inheritance to those whom We have chosen from among Our servants: so some of them do wrong to themselves, and some of them take a middle course, and some of them are foremost in deeds of goodness by Allah’s permission.” — 35:31–32

Muslims, all of them, have inherited the Book, i.e. the Quran, from the Holy Prophet Muhammad. But there are three kinds of people among Muslims. The first two are: those who completely neglect this inheri­tance and do not care at all for it, and those who pay some attention to it, but not full attention. Obviously this leaves those who are fully devoted to following this Book. They are described as being “foremost in deeds of goodness”, or sābiq-un b-il-khairāt. That means those who act on the command fa-s-tabiqu-l-khairāt to “vie (or compete) with one another in good works”. The best and the most devoted Muslims are therefore those who try to excel others in practical deeds of goodness.

The Quran also tells us that good deeds last forever. It says:

“Wealth and children are an adornment of the life of this world; but the ever-abiding, the good works, are better with your Lord in reward and better in hope” —18:46

Having wealth gives a person a sense of security, that he will be free of all needs and wants. His offspring give him a sense of permanence, as if his life will continue to exist through them. But both of these relate only to the physical and material world, and adorn our lives on earth only. But good works improve and nourish the human soul, which lasts after death. In fact, good works may also last in this world. For example, if you help finan­cially to lift someone out of poverty, or to educate them, they may go on to improve the lives of their families and also contribute to society in general. The effect of your good deed will propagate and cascade in society and through generations.

Jesus is reported in the Gospels as saying something similar: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew, 6:19–21).

Jesus refers to the temporary nature of worldly treasure by saying that it can be destroyed by moth and rust or be stolen. The Quran, in another place, likens it to vegetation which grows after rain falls on it, “pleasing the grower”, but “then it withers away so that you see it turning yellow, then it becomes chaff (or worthless)” (57:20). However, the Quran makes it clear that people are not forbidden to acquire the wealth of this world. They are only required to treat it in its proper perspective, which is that it is to be earned lawfully and used for good purposes, and not become the goal of life or an indicator of superiority.

So may Allah enable us to try to excel in doing good deeds, Ameen.