Why It’s Not Enough to Just Be A “Good Person”

Why It’s Not Enough to Just Be A “Good Person” March 25, 2018

Written by Dr. Shadee Elmasry

good person Islam
Photo by Jake Givens on Unsplash

In every era, in every society, there’s a common phrase people use to praise a person. In ours it’s the generic expression, “good person.” So… What exactly is a “good person”? If someone saved four lives, but it was then discovered that he killed his mother and father in cold blood with no regrets, would they be considered good? He saved four and took two, so the net is a positive two. But if you said no, he can’t be good for killing his parents, then you’ve just implied that ‘goodness’ has some hierarchy. So this “good person” thing is starting to be less generic and more specific.

There’s a hierarchy of deeds. Not all deeds are equal. If the categorically superior deed was skipped, then it doesn’t matter how many lesser deeds you did. The hierarchy must be observed. Which brings us to our point: Who or what determines this hierarchy?

I was a bit surprised—even though I shouldn’t have been—when last week, people (Muslims) were saying explicitly that they believed that what people did for humanity was more important than if they believed in Allah or disbelieved in Him. One said, “I don’t think God is going to judge people by their religion, but by what they do for people.” I thought to myself… ‘People are more important than Allah? What’s going on here? Muslims are saying this? Do we have a religion here or not?’ Then I realized, you know what, I think we’ve just been assuming one of the most important parts of aqida (creed) and not explicitly stating it or teaching it.

Tawhid is not just that there’s only one god, but that nothing in the universe is more important than Allah.

Tawhid is not just that there’s only one god, but that nothing in the universe is more important than Allah. That’s the line: Nothing in the universe is more important than Allah. People are not more important than Allah. Humanity at large is not either. I think this is the central pillar that’s been subtly displaced by the nuances of Humanism, which are embedded in all facets of modern life from literature to governance to Super Bowl commercials.

In the Renaissance, European intellectuals in Florence and Venice had lost faith in the Church, but they needed something to fill the void in place of God: they chose us, humans. (In a sense, it actually confirms our belief that the most noble creation is the human being, so in the absence of belief in the Divine, they went with humans.) Humanism thus became a grand celebration of the human being. In the next generation, a synthesis was developed: Christian Humanisms.

Muslims have a type of Muslim Humanists. It began as ‘Islamic Modernism,’ in which Islam is viewed as a tool to make our life in this world easier and better. The Muslim went from someone whose purpose is to serve Allah, to someone who uses Islam to serve their own lot in life. The true vision of Islam is lost on these folks. The sign of Islamic Modernism is that if you’re around them you get this odd feeling: “Wow we’re doing a lot of work, but what about Allah in all this?” There seems to be no mention of Him at any turn! Du’a becomes just a ceremonious thing, not a real tool.

The Muslim went from someone whose purpose is to serve Allah, to someone who uses Islam to serve their own lot in life.

The modernist agenda is solely filled with issues that affect Muslim worldly life. Discussing what Allah asked us to do—doctrine, law, spirituality—is redundant and mostly ignored. If knowledge is approached at all, it is interrogated and tortured until it divulges the fatwa of our choice. Contentions about the Sunna and orthodoxy—the right way to practice Islam (everything worth doing has a right way to do it and a wrong way)—is viewed as sectarian, and worse, something impossible to know.

Now back to Humanism. As it pervaded all the social sciences, this subtle prioritization of humanity—us over God—takes root little by little, until we reach a cross-roads that shows us how far we’ve really gone: A person is lauded solely for what they do for humanity, and oh by the way, the fact that he insults God is just an unfortunate wrinkle in the bigger picture.

Of course, saying that belief is the most important good, does not mean it is the only requirement for goodness. That’s basic logic.

The Muslim who thinks like this has to be woken up: ‘Excuse me, your scales are upside down.’ If the most important thing in the universe is Allah, then the best deed is belief in him, and the worst deed is rejecting Him. (Of course, saying that belief is the most important good, does not mean it is the only requirement for goodness. That’s basic logic.)

From what I’ve been seeing recently, Priority #1 amongst us is to revive and re-cement this very simple but utterly core foundational conviction: Nothing in the universe is more important than Allah. This is what’s at the top of the list. After that gets cemented, then we can talk about everything else.

Dr. Shadee Elmasry serves as Scholar in Residence at the New Brunswick Islamic Center in New Jersey. He is also the founder and head of Safina Society—an institution dedicated to the cause of traditional Islamic education in the West. His courses can be found at Safina-Online.Teachable.com.

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  • Casey Voce

    You’ve probably heard of Christian Smith’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, a vague generic kinda faith that can “wrap” itself in Christian terms & images.
    Do you think they’re could be an Islamic version of this?

  • a r tompkins

    Gee, about your hypothetical good (by +4-2=2 points) guy that killed his parents “in cold blood”. Can you give us a little more background on the dude? Were his parents suffering from terminal dementia, and the very “kindest” thing he could do was send them up to their heavenly reward sooner rather than later? Did his parents subject this man to a life of systematic abuse because they couldn’t accept him for what he was, say a homosexual, or dance major, or worst of all, a Christian or atheist? did the man have a mental illness, mental retardation, addictions to hallucinogenic drugs, etc? If a person could kill another person “in cold blood with no regrets”, wouldn’t that mean the killer is not “right in the head” so to speak? If that’s the case, say the person was born without the gene for empathy or love? Then is it really his fault? Can you apply the same standards to him that you might to yourself, assuming you have “normal” feelings regarding those people you know and see every day? What “normal” person, with “normal” mental health, “normal” aspirations, “normal” options, “normal” genes, etc, would choose to kill anyone let alone his parents? I think your opening salvo needs a little more backstory.

  • Pennybird

    With no proof of gods or an afterlife, how we behave on earth is more important.

  • a r tompkins

    why did you delete my comment? is that really how you handle your “discussions”? I asked you legitimate questions, trying to get to the point that not all things are black and white, true or false, yes or no, good or bad. It’s not a binary world.