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The Anatomy of Virtue

What is it that the believer does that makes him worthy of Paradise?

This article is an effort, a meditation in hope of reaching a conclusion. I will first lay down my questions, after which my analysis will come, if Allah gives me success.

What does the believer do? What is the force at work during every act of virtue?

Why should I deserve a reward when I avoid a sin? I have noted that my power to do good and avoid sin increases and decreases by the amount of Quran I read or listen to (I have this idea that a Muslim needs to dedicate at least one hour a day to reading or listening to Quran if he wants to be a Muslim that he is not ashamed of). So the virtuous act itself is actually the fact that I remind myself of Allah, which then gives me the power to be good.

It is easy for a person to sin when God's punishment seems distant. So distant, in fact, that it seems unreal or impossible to many. It is part of our design (a design created by God) that we discount faraway rewards and punishments. The thought of receiving a thorough beating in an hour gives you a bigger amount of stress than the thought of receiving said beating in five years. A virtuous person keeps God's punishment real in his imagination, so that it seems nearer than what our brains tell us, and this is the virtuous act. The virtuous act wasn't the avoidance of the sin, but the fact that he had "done his homework" and had kept God's punishment real in his imagination, so that he had the willpower to avoid the sin.

You could say that the avoidance of sin is an application of his willpower, and that this is where the virtue lies. But anyone who has lived and tried to be virtuous knows how easy it is to slip when presented with temptation, and how easy it is to forget God without active remembrance of Him. For this reason a person's willpower at the moment of choice is not very significant, what is significant is his willpower to perform remembrance of God, to do the homework necessary to be virtuous, so that when the moment of temptation comes, he has the power to be good.

So a believer deserves reward for choosing to keep God's remembrance alive in his heart during his normal, everyday life, and when the hour of action comes, his power to do good and avoid evil is directly proportional to how real God's reward and punishment is in his imagination.

The unit of measurement of a person's virtue, as given to us by God, is taqwa (fear and mindfulness of God), as expressed in the following verse:
... the most honorable among you are those who have the most taqwa ... (Quran 49:13)
A person's capacity to fear God is directly related to how much "homework" he does at home, during those calm and "boring" moments when others entertain and enjoy themselves in various ways. The virtuous person chooses to listen to Quran instead of music. Or if he wants to listen to music, he chooses to listen to an Islamic song. When he is lying in bed, instead of thinking of the best way to conquer the world, he chooses to make istighfar (pray to God for forgiveness) a hundred, or a thousand times, until he falls asleep. When he performs sujood (prostration during formal prayer), he chooses to recite each line seven times instead of three, and then he chooses to add three more prayers for forgiveness to this.

We often think that virtue is made at special times, when a person uses his willpower to do a great deed or avoid a very tempting sin. This is incorrect. These are simply signs, expressions, or proofs of a person's virtue, a virtue that he has built elsewhere, during the normal and boring days when no one was watching him, he built his virtue small choice after small choice, listening to an Islamic song instead of another type of song, he prayed a little while longer, he made istighfar during moments of waiting.

He carried out God's command when He said:
... and come closer. (Quran 96:19)
The Quran repeatedly tells us the two conditions necessary for a person's entry into Paradise. In 51 different places the Quran refers to those who succeed in this manner:
Those who had faith and performed virtuous acts
Once we attain to faith, we are not left alone to do as we like until we enter Paradise. We are also required to perform acts of virtue. And to perform acts of virtue we need to keep God near and real in our imagination, otherwise we slip and lose our way and forget God.

The Quran also says:
Are they waiting for the angels or your Lord to come down to them, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? The day when some of the signs of your Lord shall come, it shall not profit any human being who did not have faith before, or who did not earn any good by his faith. Say to them, ‘Wait then, we too are waiting.’ (Quran 6:158)
To be saved, one needs to earn good by his faith. And to earn good by one's faith, he needs to actively reprogram his brain to think that God's reward and  punishment are real and close.

The Quran, when speaking of the non-virtuous, says:
They see it [the Day of Judgment] as a distant thing. (Quran 70:6).
It becomes clear then that the fundamental force that differentiates one believer from another in virtue and rank is how close and real he keeps the things that he believed in when he attained to faith. What our religion is about, is to believe in God and His words in the first place, and then to keep these alive and close in one's consciousness.

Thus when a person first attains to faith, he does so because he has realized that God and His words are true. At this moment of true faith, in the person's consciousness, the closeness and realness of God and His promises are as follows:
Day 1: [person]-[God]
Then a day passes, and if he hasn't actively tried to re-enliven God's presence in his heart, the image becomes as follows:
Day 2: [person]--[God]
And as the days pass, if he doesn't do his homework, God fades away from his heart he becomes less virtuous and more sinful.
Day 3: [person]---[God]
Day 4: [person]----[God]
Day 10: [person]----------------------[God] (sins become easier)
Day 30: [person]-------------------------------------------------------------[God]
Day 90: [person]------------------------------------------------------[The person doesn't even know where this goes anymore. Is God even real?]
While for a virtuous believer, the graph would be as follows:
Day 1: [person]-[God]
Day 2: [person]--[God]
Day 10: [person]---[God]
Day 11: [person]-[God] (he realized that he had been neglecting his duties, and thus applies more effort toward remembering God, and brings God closer in his heart]
The thing that a virtuous believer does is keep the remembrance of God alive in his heart. We say that what a weightlifter does is to lift weights, and what a programmer does is to program applications. In the same way, what a virtuous believer does on the job is to kindle and rekindle the remembrance of God in his heart.

The non-virtuous believer ignores his duty on the job and lets God's remembrance fade away, and thus falls into sin and starts to ignore his main obligations.

So an easy way to measure your level of virtue, something that I have known for a long time without thinking too much about it, is to ask yourself how real Paradise and Hell feel to you. How close or faraway are they? I know that during those times when I was at the highest points of my virtue, Paradise and Hell felt very real, as if they could be right next door. So ask yourself, how faraway are these? One mile, a thousand miles, or infinitely faraway?

It seems now that we have found the fundamental principle of virtue, the equation that will determine a person's virtue, and thus his rank in Paradise:
Total Virtue = (Sum of the closeness of God and His promises at each moment or day of the person's life)
As an example, each moment of a person's life can be broken down as follows:
Day 1 -  Closeness of God: 96% - Score: 96
Day 1500 - Closeness of God: 50% - Score: 50
Day 8000 - Closeness of God: 100% - Score 100 (God's existence and His promises are as close as it is humanly possible to experience, thus the person, when he thinks of Paradise, it is as if he can touch it, and when he thinks of Hell, same thing.
 When the person dies, his final score is:
The sum of all scores divided by the sum of all days
The top score will be 100, which no one can get because that requires being in God's presence every day of one's life. And by averaging the scores, a person's length of life will not matter. Living for a year at a score of 50 is better than ten years at 25, even though a person may have done more good during those ten years. Because by having a lower score, we can deduce that the person also committed more sins, which take away from the good deeds.

In reality we know that God judges us based on our good deeds and sins on the Day of Judgment, not based on how real God's remembrance was in our hearts during each day. But as has been illustrated in this article, the two things are the same thing. The realness of God's remembrance in your heart decides how many good deeds you do and how few sins you commit, and thus it decides how you will end up on the Day of Judgment. It is better to focus on the root of success, which is God's remembrance, rather than the branches, which are the deeds.

We, as (hopefully) intelligent believers, can focus on the one thing that truly matters, the one thing that makes us do good deeds and avoid sins: the realness of God and the Unseen world in our minds. And everyday we can ask ourselves how close Paradise and Hell feel to us, and if they don't feel close, we must increase our worship and remembrance. And everyday we can try to make them feel closer. To make them more real in our minds. Until the fire of Hell feels so close that the slightest sin becomes unthinkable, and until Paradise feels so close that it takes away the difficulty from the most difficult good deed.

I know that as self-respecting human beings, we like to think that we can choose do to good deeds and to avoid sins whenever we want through our amazing willpower. But reality will always prove us wrong. There is no way to constantly be good and avoid sin without keeping God and His promises close and real in our minds. This is how we, as human beings, function.

A day spent in negligence of God is not a "neutral" day as we like to think. It is a day on which Paradise and Hell will become ever so slightly more distant in our minds, and immediately with this, our desire to do good deeds, and our power to avoid sins, will decrease. Virtue is like a painting that's constantly losing its color, so that it needs to be painted again and again, every day, otherwise soon little will be left of it.

Now that we realize that "how real and close Paradise and Hell feel to us" decides our success and rank on the Day of Judgment, the next step is to think of the ways to accomplish this, the best ways to keep Paradise and Hell real and close. In my own experience, reading Quran is the best way. There is a reason why the Quran is called adh-Dhikr ("The Remembrance") in verser 15:9. It is the tool that Allah in His boundless grace and mercy bestowed upon to allow us to keep Him and His promises close and real, if we only dedicate some time to it.

The proper way of treating the Quran is as Aaidh al-Qarni says:
... read the Quran in private and out in public, when standing and when sitting, when reflecting upon its meaning and without reflecting, when in a state of wudu and when not in a state of wudu, for every letter earns you ten hasanaat [good deeds].
The amount of time we dedicate to the Quran per day will determine how close Paradise and Hell feel to us, and thus it will determine our success and rank on the Day of Judgment. If we dedicate 30 minutes per day to it, this will lead to a certain outcome. If we dedicate an hour per day to the Quran, this will cause us to be a different type of believer, and a higher ranking one than the believer who dedicates 30 minutes to it. And one who dedicates two hours per day to the Quran will have a higher rank (more good deeds and fewer sins) than the previous two.

And what about the blessed believer who dedicates every available moment to the Quran? What rank will he have? How much will he put us to shame on the Day of Judgment? When Allah points him out to us, we will realize how much we have failed. Will we even think that we deserve to enter Paradise? There stands a man who deserves Paradise, and what about us? We will carry the unbearable shame of realizing just how foolish we were to have wasted the only chance we had, in all eternity, to earn a high rank in the sight of God, and yet we wasted it. We were too busy increasing our wealth. We were too busy watching the news. We were too busy having a good time on the internet. And thus we wasted our one and only chance to have an incredibly better place for the rest of eternity.

On that Day how much will we wish that we had spent just an hour more reading the Quran? How foolish will we feel to have wasted all those great opportunities that God gave us to remember Him and increase our rank in His sight?

Two years ago I learned that it is very important for a believer to be unattached to dunya (the worldly life), and I thought this was the ultimate stage of growth, to put all focus on detaching myself from the worldly life and to always be on guard to keep my attachments under control. But now I realize that this is the wrong focus. Detaching yourself from the worldly life is not something you can do, it is like telling yourself "do not think of elephants" so that you may stop thinking of elephants, it does not work.

What does work is to think of something else. Detaching yourself from the dunya is accomplished by making Paradise and Hell and the Day of Judgment (and the rest of God's promises) real in the mind. Once the mind is filled with God's remembrance, the dunya will automatically leave. Therefore as you will surely hear a lot about detachment from dunya, know that it is accomplished by attaching yourself to the akhirah (afterlife). The more real and close Paradise and Hell feel to you, the less real the dunya will feel.

Let's all dedicate our lives to keeping Paradise and Hell and the Unseen world as close as humanly possible through remembrance of Allah, and inshAllah in this way we will not be among those who are covered in shame on the Day of Judgement.

And to repeat, ask yourself everyday: How close and real do Paradise and Hell feel to me? If they don't feel very close and real, realize that you are in great danger of committing sins and getting in a bad place spiritually. Fix the situation immediately with more Quran and more worship, as much as is necessary to make Paradise and Hell close and real again. You may need to read the Quran all over a number of times if you have been neglecting it for a long time, because the Quran will not inspire a person who neglects it. And the next step will be to design a lifestyle, a daily routine that ensures that Paradise and Hell are always close and real to you, through Quran reading, tahajjud, istighfar, and anything else that works for you.