Good character, morals, ethics, and manners are fundamental to the religion of Islam and the means by which we can achieve salvation in the life to come. Good character is a major theme in the teachings of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. True righteousness is defined by it and the best Muslims are those who practice it. The believers with the most complete faith, who are most beloved by Allah and His Messenger, are those with the best character.
Allah praised the Prophet’s character and set him as the example for all believers to follow
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
Verily, you are upon great moral character.
Surat al-Qalam 68:4
The commentators say the “great moral character” mentioned in this verse is the Quran, the Prophet, and the religion of Islam itself.
Ibn Kathir comments on this verse, saying:
وَمَعْنَى هَذَا أَنَّهُ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَامُ صَارَ امْتِثَالُ الْقُرْآنِ أَمْرًا وَنَهْيًا سَجِيَّةً لَهُ وَخُلُقًا تَطَبَّعَهُ وَتَرَكَ طَبْعَهُ الْجِبِلِّيَّ فَمَهْمَا أَمَرَهُ الْقُرْآنُ فَعَلَهُ وَمَهْمَا نَهَاهُ عَنْهُ تَرَكَهُ هَذَا مَعَ مَا جَبَلَهُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ مِنَ الْخُلُقِ الْعَظِيمِ مِنَ الْحَيَاءِ وَالْكَرَمِ وَالشَّجَاعَةِ وَالصَّفْحِ وَالْحِلْمِ وَكُلِّ خُلُقٍ جَمِيلٍ
The meaning of this verse is that the Prophet would emulate the Quran in its commands, its prohibitions, and it became his temperament. His character became accustomed to it and he abandoned his visceral carnal nature. Whatever the Quran commanded he did, and whatever it prohibited he abstained. Along with this, Allah ingrained within him great character traits of modesty, generosity, courage, forgiveness, forbearance, and every beautiful trait.
Source: Tafsīr ibn Kathīr 68:4
The primary mission of the Prophet was to instill good character within the believers in every aspect of their lives.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّمَا بُعِثْتُ لِأُتَمِّمَ صَالِحَ الْأَخْلَاقِ
Verily, I have only been sent to perfect righteous character.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 8729, Grade: Sahih
Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
بُعِثْتُ لِأُتَمِّمَ حُسْنَ الْأَخْلَاقِ
I have been sent to perfect good character.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa 1614, Grade: Sahih
Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ بَعَثَنِي بِتَمَامِ مكارمِ الأَخْلاقِ وَكَمَالِ مَحَاسِنِ الأَفْعَالِ
Verily, Allah has sent me to perfect noble morals and complete good deeds.
Source: al-Mu’jam al-Awsaṭ 7073, Grade: Hasan
Ad-Dahhak, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
السَّيِّدُ الْحَسَنُ الْخُلُقِ
The head of the matter is good character.
Source: Makārim al-Akhlāq lil-Kharā’iṭī 524
With respect to Allah, good character means adhering to the sound creed (aqeedah) and performing acts of worship (ibadah). With respect to people, good character means being just, merciful, forgiving, kind, and patient in our interactions with others (mu’amalat).
This comprehensive view of good character colored the Prophet’s preaching in Mecca and throughout his life. The companions would recall how good character was one of the first Islamic teachings they had ever heard.
Ibn Abbas reported: When Abu Dharr heard that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, had appeared in Mecca, he said to his brother, “Ride to this valley and tell me about this man who claims to have received revelation from the heavens. Listen to his words and then inform me.” The man rode along until he arrived in Mecca and he listened to the Prophet, then he returned to Abu Dharr and he said:
رَأَيْتُهُ يَأْمُرُ بِمَكَارِمِ الْأَخْلَاقِ وَكَلَامًا مَا هُوَ بِالشِّعْرِ
I have seen him order noble morals, and his speech is not that of a poet.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2474, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Since good character is so important, behaving in a morally upright manner is a religious obligation. The Prophet commanded Muslims to behave well in every circumstance and with every human being, not simply to those who are close to us.
Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
وَخَالِقِ النَّاسَ بِخُلُقٍ حَسَنٍ
Behave with good character toward the people.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1987, Grade: Sahih
Fudail ibn Iyad, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
إِذَا خَالَطْتَ فَخَالِطْ حَسَنَ الْخُلُقِ فَإِنَّهُ لا يَدْعُو إِلا إِلَى خَيْرٍ وَلا تُخَالِطْ سَيِّئَ الْخُلُقِ فَإِنَّهُ لا يَدْعُو إِلا إِلَى شَرٍّ
If you mix with people, then mix with good character for it only invites to good. Do not mix with bad character, for it only invites to evil.
Source: Hilyat al-Awliyā 11728
Good character is not merely recommended or secondary to issues of doctrine. Rather, good character, morals, ethics, and manners are the spirit that breathes life into our doctrines. It is the very essence of righteousness spoken about all throughout the Quran. It is accessible to our innate rational nature, as Allah has bestowed upon all of us the power to recognize righteousness and sin even without the aid of revelation.
An-Nawwas ibn Sam’an reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
الْبِرُّ حُسْنُ الْخُلُقِ وَالإِثْمُ مَا حَاكَ فِي صَدْرِكَ وَكَرِهْتَ أَنْ يَطَّلِعَ عَلَيْهِ النَّاسُ
Righteousness is good character and sin is what waivers in your heart and you hate for people to find out about it.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2553, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet said:
اسْتَفْتِ نَفْسَكَ اسْتَفْتِ قَلْبَكَ الْبِرُّ مَا اطْمَأَنَّتْ إِلَيْهِ النَّفْسُ وَاطْمَأَنَّ إِلَيْهِ الْقَلْبُ وَالْإِثْمُ مَا حَاكَ فِي النَّفْسِ وَتَرَدَّدَ فِي الصَّدْرِ وَإِنْ أَفْتَاكَ النَّاسُ وَأَفْتَوْكَ
Consult your soul, consult your heart. Righteousness is what reassures your soul and your heart, and sin is what wavers in your soul and puts tension in your chest, even if the people approve it in their judgments again and again.
Source: Sunan al-Dārimī 2533, Grade: Hasan
Ibn Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
لَا يَبْلُغُ الْعَبْدُ حَقِيقَةَ التَّقْوَى حَتَّى يَدَعَ مَا حَاكَ فِي الصَّدْرِ
The servant will not reach the reality of Godfearing piety (taqwa) until he leaves what wavers in his heart.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 8, Grade: Sahih
Good character is the result of a pure heart that is free from spiritual diseases like envy, malice, and arrogance. A person with good character had integrity and is not overly attached to worldly things at the expense of righteousness.
Abdullah ibn Amr reported: It was said to the Messenger of Allah, “Which of the people is best?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
كُلُّ مَخْمُومِ الْقَلْبِ صَدُوقِ اللِّسَانِ
Everyone who is pure of heart and truthful in speech.
They said, “Truthful in speech we know, but what is a pure heart?” The Prophet said:
هُوَ التَّقِيُّ النَّقِيُّ لَا إِثْمَ فِيهِ وَلَا بَغْيَ وَلَا غِلَّ وَلَا حَسَدَ
It is a heart that fears Allah and is clean. There is no sin in it and neither aggression, malice, nor envy.
Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 4216, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, they said, “O Messenger of Allah, who shows a sign of it?” The Prophet said:
الَّذِي يَشْنَأُ الدُّنْيَا وَيُحِبُّ الآخِرَةَ
Those who dislike the world and love the Hereafter.
They said, “And who shows a sign of it?” The Prophet said:
مُؤْمِنٌ فِي خُلُقٍ حَسَنٍ
A believer with good character.
Source: Shu’b al-Imān 4457, Grade: Sahih
From all this, many classical scholars understood that good character is essential and required in Islam, even equivalent to the religion itself.
Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
الدِّينُ كُلُّهُ خُلُقٌ فَمَنْ زَادَ عَلَيْكَ فِي الْخُلُقِ زَادَ عَلَيْكَ فِي الدِّينِ
The religion itself is entirely good character, so whoever surpasses you in character has surpassed you in religion.
Source: Madārij al-Sālikīn 2/294
وَالشَّرِيعَةُ كُلُّهَا إِنَّمَا هِيَ تَخَلُّقٌ بمكارمِ الْأَخْلَاقِ
The Sharia in its entirety only creates noble morals.
Source: al-Muwāfaqāt 2/124