17. What is righteousness?

The teaching of the Bible takes the position that no man is able to be righteous. ‘All have fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness’ (Romans 3 verse 23). The Psalmist David says in Psalm 118 verse 19 ‘Open to me the gates of righteousness, I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.’ God is the righteous One and for mankind to experience His righteousness it must be imputed to him by God’s grace and mercy. Romans 3 verses 22- 23 states that ‘We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ and this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God with His undeserved kindness (grace) declares that we are righteous.’ Jesus is the Saviour of mankind and He alone can save us from our sins. The Apostle Paul a former zealous member of the Pharisees, a persecutor of the ‘People of the Way’ (Christians as they later became known) who kept the Law contained in the Torah, and believed that the keeping of the Law would save him, states after his conversion to Jesus Christ in Philippians 3 verses 8-11: ‘Yes everything else is worthless when compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have discarded everything else counting it as garbage, so I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the Law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with him depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing his death, so that one way or another I will experi- ence the resurrection from the dead.’ According to the Qur’an, the best among mankind in the sight of our Creator is he who is most righteous. Allâh the Almighty tells us: ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allâh is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allâh has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).’ (Surah 49: 13). We can conclude from the Qur’an that righteousness as described in the Qur’an prohibits racism. A righteous Muslim cannot hate any race of people.

Furthermore, Allâh instructs the Believers to help one another in righteousness and piety (Surah 5:2). He makes it clear that He loves the righteous (Surah 9:4) and those who do good (Surah 5:93). It is, therefore, an act of righteousness on the part of the Believers to invite others (everyone of all races) to do all that is good.

Islâm teaches that non-Muslims should be aware that Islâm is the only Religion and the only Way of Life that teaches us the true meaning of righteousness based on divine injunctions. You cannot be a pantheist and a good Muslim. Islâm is exclusive in its assertions. Allâh says in His Book: ‘It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allâh and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer (stranger), for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.’ (Surah 2:177). This verse tells us that the righteous are those who are truly God-fearing. They show their true and sincere faith in Allâh not only by praying to Him but also by giving charity, caring for strangers, fulfilling contracts, and being firm and patient in whatever trials that Allâh may bring to them. Allâh’s Messenger defines righteousness as follows:

Wabisha Ibn Wa’badt narrated that Allâh’s Messenger said, ‘…Righteousness is that with which the soul is tranquil and the heart is tranquil, but sin is that which rouses suspicion in the soul and is perplexing in the breast, even if people give you a decision in its favour.’ (Hadith – Tirmidhî, 2774).

From the above definitions of righteousness in the teaching of Islâm, the righteous individuals are expected to be assets and not liabilities to the society to which they belong, and to humanity as a whole. In line with the concept of righteousness, Allâh guides Muslims as to how we may attain righteousness. He tells Muslims: ‘By no means shall you attain righteousness unless you give (freely) of that which you love; and whatever you give, of a truth Allâh knows it well.’(Surah 3:92).

To be righteous, Muslims have to give wholeheartedly of the things that they love. We should give charitable gifts to others out of our sincere feeling to please Allâh, and not because we want people to be recognised. To give freely of that which we love implies that Allâh enjoins upon the righteous to love one another. This is in line with His divine attribute as One Who is Full of Loving-kindness (Surah 85:14). Allâh bestows love on those who believe and work deeds of righteousness (Surah 19:96). He is the Rabb (Only God, Cherisher and Sustainer) of Grace, Abounding (Surah 57:29). He listens to those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and gives them an increase of His Bounty (Surah 42:26). He grants the need of every creature (Surah 55:29). His bounties are not closed to any one (Surah 17:20). This is the reason why non-Muslims who desire and work for material prosperity, fame and other worldly needs in this world become wealthy, famous or attain worldly success. They receive Allâh’s reward for any righteous deed or virtuous act done in this world. If they desire happiness in this present world and work for it, Allâh grants them their need. However, their happiness is nothing but temporary. In the next world to come, they will suffer the eternal punishments for not worshipping the Only True God and/or accepting the only true Religion before Allâh. Allâh the Almighty stresses: ‘This is the Guidance of Allâh with which He guides whomsoever He wills of His slaves. But if they had joined in worship of others with Allâh, all that they used to do would have been of no benefit to them.’ (Surah 6:88).

Perhaps from these answers it could be concluded that Islâm is for the self-righteous, those who by their own effort can attain righteousness, and Christianity is for the unrighteous who seem unable to be righteous so they want to be made righteous by God’s mercy and power.