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Reaching Perfection: an Islamic Perspective

Shrine of the Infallible Imam Hussein [as]Good moral conduct is the basic strategy for reaching perfection. That is, once we have established our definition of perfection based on the knowledge of the human creation and its Creator, then we can accept the standards for ethics and expected conduct.

Shrine of the Infallible Imam Hussein [as]Often times it is said that “nobody is perfect.” The saying has served as a popular excuse for making a mistake and even committing a sin. But is it true to say that nobody is perfect, or rather, is it true to say “nobody is capable of being perfect”? Before analyzing these questions, we must be able to define perfection.

There must exist a standard for perfection which one may compare to or strive towards. In Islam, the standard for perfection has been set by Allah. He has told us in the Holy Qur’an about perfection and what people must do to achieve it. He has shown us through the example of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) what perfection is. And just to make it clear and precise, Allah has shown us perfection again in the Holy Imams and Guides (peace be upon them) as well. Allah has told His creation to strive for perfection.

A common dictionary defines perfection as “Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind”. In the Holy Qur’an, we read what the angels are told about the human, “So when I have made him and have breathed unto him of My Spirit, do you fall down prostrating yourself unto him.” Considering that Allah is the Most Perfect, His Spirit as a primary element of His creation would allow that subject to reach a corresponding level of perfection in which it was manifested with.

Also in the Holy Qur’an we read, “And a soul and Him who perfected it and inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and what is right for it. He is indeed successful who causes it to grow.” In this verse, it is again evident that a perfected soul does exist in the human creation. And this soul was inspired by Allah. With these verses, we fulfill one of the definitions of the dictionary stating that perfection is “lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.” Allah has indeed created the human with complete essentials. The essentials of the human include its soul and mind and the ability to think and feel, and also the physical aspect of the human and the ability to function with the body and house the soul and mind. As well, medical science has already proven the level of “perfection” of the human body. With these common proofs, we find that the human is a perfect creature lacking nothing essential as a whole or to its nature. However, we also understand that this soul, mind, and body have regulations of what is good for them to help them grow and what is bad for them. It is necessary for the human to understand the tools of maintaining and growing his/her spirit of perfection.

To better understand the concept of growing one’s soul with what is good and bad, we look at a narration from Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him). He has said, “There is a white spot inside the heart of each believer. Once he commits a sin or repeats it, a black spot appears inside the heart. In case of persistence of sins, the black spot increases gradually in size, filling the entire heart with blackness. When this happens, the owner of such a heart never returns towards goodness, and this is what God meant in the verse: ‘Nay, but that which they have earned is rust upon their hearts.'”

It is apparent that committing a sin is bad for the soul and furthers one from the definition of perfection. And if committing sins is bad, then that which contributes to reaching perfection must be good moral conduct.

The Holy Prophet has said, “My Ummah will enter into paradise mostly on the basis of piety and excellence in moral conduct.” Also it is narrated that a man approached the Holy Prophet and asked: “What is religion?” The Holy Prophet replied: “Good moral conduct.” The man asked the Holy Prophet the same question alternatively by appearing from right, left, and behind the Messenger. Finally the Holy Prophet took a deep look at him and said: “Why don’t you understand? Religion is defined as never to get angry.”

Good moral conduct is the basic strategy for reaching perfection. That is, once we have established our definition of perfection based on the knowledge of the human creation and its Creator, then we can accept the standards for ethics and expected conduct. To understand this concept, one must appreciate and respect the spirit of Allah in which the humankind was produced. Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib (peace be upon him) has said, “Whoever knows the worth of his self will never allow himself to be indulging into passing worldly amusements and shameful deeds.”

Worldly amusements and shameful deeds can be defined by anything that would be considered contrary to good moral conduct. These include arrogance, revenge, anger, slander, fear, back-biting, oppression, misery, lying, hypocrisy, deceit, suspicion, cruelty, self-weakness, and many other similar poor characteristics. Besides these traits, particular negative actions or indulgence in worldly pastime can also lead to what Allah described as “rust upon their hearts”.

Imam Ali has said about a corrupt person: “Although his outward appearance is like a human being, but his heart is like an animal heart. He does not recognize the path of guidance so that he could follow it and does not know the path of deviation so that he could avoid it. Such a person is indeed a dead one living among the alive.” In order to avoid being the subject of such a description, one must consider the implications of what acts construed us to be on the path of deviation.

Certain actions which are usually related to worldly pleasures, such as the consumption of intoxicating foods or beverages, including alcoholic drinks or drugs, are those that further us from control over our struggle to perfection. In fact, our behavior at the time of such intoxications, including the intoxicating state of anger, are those that one mostly feels ashamed of after the passing of time and reflection. Indeed, as Imam Ali has said, “pondering invites a person towards good works and actions.” Once one considers his/her negative actions and truly takes the time to contemplate the ultimate consequences of his/her bad deeds, one comes to realize what would have been a better moral choice.

Bearing in mind again that the human was created with the Spirit of Allah, the idea of good moral conduct is embedded in the soul of the creation, and hence pondering deeply, one becomes aware and knowledgeable. Again, the human is lacking nothing essential to the whole; hence its ability to reach perfection and study what is expected of the human self and understand what is the good moral conduct which grows the soul. Allah has told His creation to strive for perfection and has made the path of guidance as simple as deep thinking and good moral conduct.

Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran studied her Masters of Science degree at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Her focus is on dialogue mediation, peacebuilding and human rights in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. She has also moderated and participated in many interfaith dialogues. Her most recent paper is entitled “Islamic Feminism: Women’s Rights in the Shi’a School of Thought”. You can read more about Sayedeh at her website www.sayedeh.com.

About Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran

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  • Brother

    Thank you for this deeply thoughtful and reflective piece sister.

  • ZaraSyed

    Great work! The article truly hits home! 😉

  • Mohammad Ali Maujee


    I pray that all is well at your end and that you are in the best of health by the grace of the Almighty. Sorry for the late response but in the last few days just couldn’t get the time to connect to the internet.

    Some of my teachers at university explained some time back that all literary work should be well referenced. This article of yours makes use of excellent references ranging from the Holy Quran to the sayings of the Infallible Imams and therefore leaves no room for additions.

    However, I would like to discuss the following points that have been raised between lines in the said article to understand your perception on the following dimension of “perfection”.

    I have always looked at perfection through a spiral methodology which means that the human has been provided all essentials to be perfect but “perfection” it self is a very sequential process where at every higher stage there is another even higher stage to achieve. Therefore there is little space for self – complacency or arrogance as referred to in your article.

    Examples would remind me of Imam Khomeini who to a person like me would be defined as some one who is very perfect. However one of the incidences of his life, so simply explains this phenomena. He narrates that once he had been seized by Shahs men and when the time for prayers came he was still being taken in a car to the detention center. No matter how much he would complain, the men would not stop the car for prayers. And here the Imam recalls that he recited his prayers after performing tayamum in the car with his back to the Qibla. He states that God may approve these few rakats of his prayers even if rejects all others.

    A similar incident in the life of Ayatollah Golpaigani who while opening a Quranic institution said that if God does not accept his life long efforts he may accept this act which may become a source of recognition in the hereafter.

    Clearly both these men are placed at a very high level of perfection and this is demonstrated by these incidences where so much sensitivity towards religion is depicted. In fact this dissatisfaction over noble deeds which have actually made Grand Ayatollahs worthy of emulation shows their level of perfection. However these incidences also demonstrate that these Grand Ayatollahs are not complacent and continue to appreciate that further levels of perfection remain to be achieved.

    Then comparing this to the famous narration of the Prophet where he ranked the four famous disciples of Imam Ali (I think they were Salman, Ammar, Abuzar and Miqdad ) one above the other where Salman was ranked highest also shows that perfection has stages and sequences.

    So perfection it seems is a spirally designed instrument to achievement where the standard of Perfection is the Prophet and the infallible Imams. Each level of perfection and emulation brings you the satisfaction that you are closer to Allah but it also brings along with it, a package for further perfection.

    At a more philosophical level the stages within Paradise and Hell or even the rankings of the Prophets into categories may be used as a reference to this phenomenon. Agha Bahodin the representative of Grand Ayatollah Khamanei here in Karachi, Pakistan explained this point in one of his lectures where he stated that the “nafs” has categories such that nafs operates on a scale ranging from positive to negative. Good deeds push humans further upwards on the positive scale e.g from “Nafs-e-Amara” up to “Nafs-e-Mutmaina” and similarly evil deeds push them downwards on the same continuum.

    Sorry for taking so much of your time, however with respect to the topic of perfection I have identified these points which I have put forward after reading your article. Will InshAllah raise further points as I go through more of your writings.

    Tc and AH.
    Eltemase Dua.
    Ya Ali.

    Mohammad Ali Maujee

  • sami yassin

    Alhamdulilah! May Allah bless you for this

  • irtiza

    JazakAllah Ukhti!!!!

    MASHALLAH great article. I cannot tell you how much we all lack Akhlaaq. Its all about it.

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