Humans need to remember that they were created to serve a very particular aim, and were deliberately placed on earth by Allah. Without this correct perception, moral debates rage on without any consensus on key issues. In terms of moral motivation, so many people behave morally to look good in the eyes of others, or for the feel-good endorphin response, and may cease behaving morally if these motivators are not present. But when one sees oneself as a subject of Allah (abd/servant), and recognizes that moral rules come from Him and that the only perception that matters is His, then one’s moral behaviour will be principled and consistent. Lacking this perception can lead to conflicted feelings that are largely alien to practicing Muslims, for their self-image as an abd in Allah’s kingdom remains vivid by virtue of their regular ibadah.
In the various domains of his life, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ displayed a consistent awareness of his reality as an abd before Allah. For instance, he ﷺ would say each morning and evening,
سَيِّدُ الاِسْتِغْفَارِ أَنْ تَقُولَ اللَّهُمَّ أَنْتَ رَبِّي، لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ أَنْتَ، خَلَقْتَنِي وَأَنَا عَبْدُكَ، وَأَنَا عَلَى عَهْدِكَ وَوَعْدِكَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُ، أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ شَرِّ مَا صَنَعْتُ، أَبُوءُ لَكَ بِنِعْمَتِكَ عَلَىَّ وَأَبُوءُ لَكَ بِذَنْبِي، فَاغْفِرْ لِي، فَإِنَّهُ لاَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلاَّ أَنْتَ ”. قَالَ ” وَمَنْ قَالَهَا مِنَ النَّهَارِ مُوقِنًا بِهَا، فَمَاتَ مِنْ يَوْمِهِ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُمْسِيَ، فَهُوَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ، وَمَنْ قَالَهَا مِنَ اللَّيْلِ وَهْوَ مُوقِنٌ بِهَا، فَمَاتَ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُصْبِحَ، فَهْوَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ
“O Allah, You are my Lord, none has the right to be worshipped except You; You created me and I am Your servant, and I abide by Your covenant and promise as best I can; I take refuge in You from the evil which I have committed. I acknowledge Your favour upon me and I acknowledge my sin, so forgive me, for certainly none can forgive sin except You.” The Prophet ﷺ added. “If somebody recites it during the day with firm faith in it, and dies on the same day before the evening, he will be from the people of Paradise; and if somebody recites it at night with firm faith in it, and dies before the morning, he will be from the people of Paradise.” [Bukhari 6306]
A person’s moral compass informs their values and responsibilities, and ibadah represents the ontological grounding of these values through a relationship with the Divine. A person traverses the struggles of life by coming closer to Allah through embodying qualities that reflect His Names and Attributes such as Compassion, Kindness, Love, and Generosity. That is why whenever individuals perform an act of virtue, such as helping the needy or defending the vulnerable, without intending by this act closeness to the Creator, they ignore the very basis of these virtues. Furthermore, there is a strong moral responsibility owed to the One who granted life and showered humanity with blessings worth incalculable fortunes.
Instead of acknowledging this fundamental moral duty, such individuals enjoy the fruits of this world without raising their palms in grateful supplication, attempting to live virtuously while ignoring their moral responsibility toward Allah. This is similar to strolling into a mansion belonging to a person of great wealth and power—though belonging to Allah alone is the loftiest description—and lounging on his extravagant chair and sleeping on his expensive bed (without dirtying either). Once the mansion owner returns and becomes appalled by this man’s trespassing and his use of these luxuries without permission, he is told by the intruder, “I did not ruin anything. I even kept it clean!” He neither acknowledged the affluent man’s virtue nor his authority over his grand mansion. This is precisely the attitude of those who perform acts of virtue in this world without acknowledging the foundation of these virtues or the authority of its Owner.