My daughter has a cat who loves to eat. When she feeds her a meal at the correct time, or offers her a treat, she sits happily right next to her and crunches away. But sometimes, when my daughter is eating, the cat’s urge to snack is so strong that the cat will sneak out and steal a bite of my daughter’s food. This time, she dashes away, absconding with her stolen morsel to a hidden corner. It is as if that cat knows that she has done something a little bit naughty that she must not do.
Sometimes the distinction between right and wrong is so obvious even a cat knows the difference. In many other situations, the decision-making process is more complex. For this reason, achieving a state of being where one willingly and naturally makes choices of high moral value is a noble and desirable goal. Remaining upright is a challenge worth embracing, not even only for its own sake, but also for the many desirable effects it has on the world around us.
The human moral compass balances many elements as it directs people on their journeys through life. Those who carefully evaluate their options and choose well, to the best of their abilities, should not let themselves be caught up in angst or worry. Someone committed to respecting the laws of the universe should just feel good about their choices. As we see in verses 13-14 of Chapter 46 of the Qur’an (al-Ahqaf):
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قَالُواْ رَبُّنَا ٱللَّهُ ثُمَّ ٱسۡتَقَـٰمُواْ فَلَا خَوۡفٌ عَلَيۡهِمۡ وَلَا هُمۡ يَحۡزَنُونَ (١٣)
أُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ أَصۡحَـٰبُ ٱلۡجَنَّةِ خَـٰلِدِينَ فِيہَا جَزَآءَۢ بِمَا كَانُواْ يَعۡمَلُونَ (١٤)
13. Those who said, “Our Lord is God,” and then remained upright have nothing to fear, nor shall they grieve.
14. These are the people of Heaven, where they will dwell forever—a reward for what they used to do.
Heaven, after all, does not have to be a physical place. If Heaven is the reward for doing the right thing on earth, and peace of mind is also the consequence for making good choices, then Heaven is also a state of being characterized by peace of mind and contentment.
“Remaining upright,” or continuing to make good choices in harmony with the laws of the universe, is also a debt we owe to our parents, particularly our mothers, for their inevitable difficulty in bringing us into the world, as detailed in the next verse:
وَوَصَّيۡنَا ٱلۡإِنسَـٰنَ بِوَٲلِدَيۡهِ إِحۡسَـٰنًاۖ حَمَلَتۡهُ أُمُّهُ ۥ كُرۡهً۬ا وَوَضَعَتۡهُ كُرۡهً۬اۖ وَحَمۡلُهُ ۥ وَفِصَـٰلُهُ ۥ ثَلَـٰثُونَ شَہۡرًاۚ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ أَشُدَّهُ ۥ وَبَلَغَ أَرۡبَعِينَ سَنَةً۬ قَالَ رَبِّ أَوۡزِعۡنِىٓ أَنۡ أَشۡكُرَ نِعۡمَتَكَ ٱلَّتِىٓ أَنۡعَمۡتَ عَلَىَّ وَعَلَىٰ وَٲلِدَىَّ وَأَنۡ أَعۡمَلَ صَـٰلِحً۬ا تَرۡضَٮٰهُ وَأَصۡلِحۡ لِى فِى ذُرِّيَّتِىٓۖ إِنِّى تُبۡتُ إِلَيۡكَ وَإِنِّى مِنَ ٱلۡمُسۡلِمِينَ (١٥)
15. We have instructed human kindness with his parents. His mother carried him forcibly and delivered him forcibly. His bearing and weaning take thirty months. Until, when he has attained his emotional strength, and has reached forty years, he says, “Lord, assist me to appreciate the blessings You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to act right, pleasing You. And enhance righteousness in my progeny. I have repented to You, and I am among those who submit.”
As we grow up, we learn how to live our lives independent of parental care. To show appreciation for their hard work, we must treat them with kindness. People who understand this, and who treat their parents well, have established within themselves a strong foundation of moral goodness. By the time a person achieves emotional maturity, typically around age forty, they have the wherewithal to incorporate this essential gratitude into how they live their lives. This verse does not recommend merely that people pay lip service to their parents’ attention and generosity (al-ḥamd); rather, it recommends that people demonstrate their gratitude through action (al-shukr). To honor one’s parents and respect the effort they put into raising you, one should strive to live an upright life (do ʿamal ṣāliḥ), raise children of sound spirit, and be one of those people who try to live by the guidelines of the universe (muslimīn). The ripple effects of an individual’s goodness can spread to others in their life, and also forward through time through the lives of their righteous children.
Those who strive to remain upright can also take comfort in that the universe will naturally conspire with them to help them achieve the blissful state to which they aspire. In Chapter 41 of the Qur’an (Fussilat), verses 30-32 promises the support of the Mala’ika:
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قَالُواْ رَبُّنَا ٱللَّهُ ثُمَّ ٱسۡتَقَـٰمُواْ تَتَنَزَّلُ عَلَيۡهِمُ ٱلۡمَلَـٰٓٮِٕڪَةُ أَلَّا تَخَافُواْ وَلَا تَحۡزَنُواْ وَأَبۡشِرُواْ بِٱلۡجَنَّةِ ٱلَّتِى كُنتُمۡ تُوعَدُونَ (٣٠)
نَحۡنُ أَوۡلِيَآؤُكُمۡ فِى ٱلۡحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنۡيَا وَفِى ٱلۡأَخِرَةِۖ وَلَكُمۡ فِيهَا مَا تَشۡتَهِىٓ أَنفُسُكُمۡ وَلَكُمۡ فِيهَا مَا تَدَّعُونَ (٣١)
نُزُلاً۬ مِّنۡ غَفُورٍ۬ رَّحِيمٍ۬ (٣٢)
30. Indeed, those who say: “Our Lord is God,” and then remain upright, the Malaikah will descend upon and inspire them: “Do not fear, and do not grieve, but rejoice in the news of the Garden which you were promised.
31. We are your guardians in this life and in the other life, wherein you will have whatever yourselves desire, and you will have therein whatever you call for.
32. As accommodation from an All-Forgiving, Merciful One.”
This chapter emphasizes the impact of the ripple effect, saying:
وَمَنۡ أَحۡسَنُ قَوۡلاً۬ مِّمَّن دَعَآ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ وَعَمِلَ صَـٰلِحً۬ا وَقَالَ إِنَّنِى مِنَ ٱلۡمُسۡلِمِينَ (٣٣)
33. And who is better in communication than someone who calls to God, and does right deeds, and says, “I am among those who submit.”
That is, those who embrace good values and live their lives accordingly are the best at communicating these values to others. Living by example is the most effective way of helping guide others to also make upright choices. The most upright of people will even share their goodness with those with whom they are in personal conflict:
وَلَا تَسۡتَوِى ٱلۡحَسَنَةُ وَلَا ٱلسَّيِّئَةُۚ ٱدۡفَعۡ بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحۡسَنُ فَإِذَا ٱلَّذِى بَيۡنَكَ وَبَيۡنَهُ ۥ عَدَٲوَةٌ۬ كَأَنَّهُ ۥ وَلِىٌّ حَمِيمٌ۬ (٣٤)
وَمَا يُلَقَّٮٰهَآ إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ صَبَرُواْ وَمَا يُلَقَّٮٰهَآ إِلَّا ذُو حَظٍّ عَظِيمٍ۬ (٣٥)
34. Good behavior and misbehavior are not equal. Repel misbehavior by what is better, so that the one whom you have hatred with, as if he is an intimate guardian.
35. And none will attain it except those who were patient, and none will attain it except the extremely fortunate.
Making good choices and remaining upright is a challenge that every human being is equipped to face, but at which not everyone will succeed. To become successful, one must be patient, practice gratitude, and be determined to distinguish between right and wrong. With sincere commitment, we can all sustain an elevated spiritual station and become living examples of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion.
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