What is Good Character?

Scholars have defined good character as the disposition which causes one to incline towards praiseworthy inward traits and outward conduct. Character is comprised of multiple qualities, as elaborated in “Attributes of Success“.

Such excellent character cannot be attained without three conditions:

  1. The foundation must be good. If one has a rough and dry nature, it will be hard for him to submit to this (excellence of character) through knowledge, will, or practice. On the other hand, a mild and smooth nature will be ready and willing to receive the ploughing and the seeds (to prepare it for character excellence).
  2. The soul must be strong and capable of conquering calls of laziness, transgression, and desire. Those matters contradict perfection, and souls which cannot defeat them will always be defeated and conquered.
  3. (One must possess) a discerning knowledge of the truth of matters, enabling one to put them in the rightful position, and to distinguish between flesh and cancer; between glass and jewels.

If these three qualities are present in a man, and Allah’s facilitation helps him, then he will be among those whom the best (Husnaa) has been decreed and for whom Allah’s care has been secured. (Extracted from the teachings of Imam Ibn ul Qayyim al Jawziyyah)

Character is not what you do but it is what makes you behave as you do. Character comes from our natural propensity or preparedness. Hence action is not character, but analysing a person’s actions can reveal his character (i.e. the intentions behind his actions). There is a law of reciprocity in that character affects our actions and actions affect our character.

Human beings have a dual nature:

وَنَفۡسٍ۬ وَمَا سَوَّٮٰهَا / فَأَلۡهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقۡوَٮٰهَا / قَدۡ أَفۡلَحَ مَن زَكَّٮٰهَا / وَقَدۡ خَابَ مَن دَسَّٮٰهَا

“And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it, and inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness, he has succeeded who purifies it, and he has failed who instills it [with corruption].”
[Quran; 91:7-10]

The voice of one’s conscience is clear to every person and provides an ever-present moral awareness that he either choses to abide by or suppress. While it is true that the lower self beckons to corruption, one has the ability to master these inclinations and take charge of one’s actions.

It has been argued that one’s nature cannot be changed. Character is firmly established and it may be difficult to alter the disposition of one’s soul from which actions are effortlessly generated. Thus by knowing our hearts we know our character.

Yet we see that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Make your conduct good.” So indeed it is possible to strive against one’s own habituation, control it, and alter it towards a beneficial course. Thought and deliberation can be used to alter our character in order to make it better.

When the nature of lower animals can be changed by training, human nature can all the more be changed by training, education, and habit.

Good character can be attained through persistence–not just in hating sin but also in doing good deeds. The more acts of worship one performs throughout a long life, the greater will be the reward, the purer will be the heart, and the stronger and more deeply rooted will be one’s good conduct.

Therefore one must get into the habit of doing good deeds in whatever form and place they may be. One may encounter temptations and trials but both of these can be addressed through piety and patience.

Good character, as Imam Ghazali explains in his Ihya’, is an inward disposition that causes one to incline towards praiseworthy inward traits and praiseworthy outward actions.

The object of good character is to disconnect the heart from worldly attachments and directing all its love towards Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). Good character opens the door to Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) while bad character takes one away from Him and opens the door to the Fire.

The Islamic term for good character is adab. However, in addition to this meaning, it also carries a gamut of connotations about one’s code of conduct. Islam–afterall–is a complete way of life. A person who has attained adab has been shaped in accordance with Islamic principles so much so that the Islamic code of conduct becomes their nature.

A source of adab is the consciousness of Allah’s (Glorified and Exalted be He) constant watch and presence in our life and behaving accordingly. A saying goes, “Adab is a person’s external clothing. A person with no adab is as though undressed.” In other words, it is a spiritual garment that can serve as a barrier from harm; a manifestation of piety.

Knowledge without adab can never bring forth wisdom, regardless of the breath and depth of learning. It is famously mentioned of ibn Al-Qasim, that he studied with Imam Malik for twenty years–eighteen years learning adab and two years for other types of knowledge (ilm)–but that he wished he had spent all twenty learning adab.