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Honesty is better than all policies

Islam emphasises not only the duty to be honest, truthful and trustworthy, but also the social obligation to always support truthful people, to associate with the truthful ones and to keep their company.

THE Prophet Muhammad cautioned: “O people, if any of you is put in an administrative post on our behalf and conceals from us a needle or more, it would be misappropriation (of public funds) and he will have to produce it on the Day of Judgment” (recorded by Muslim and Abu Dawud).

The Prophet was conforming to God’s warning in the Quran, “he who is false to his trust (including by misappropriating public property) shall be faced with his fraud on the Day of Resurrection, when every human being shall be repaid in full for whatever he has done (in the world), and none shall be dealt with unjustly” (Ali ‘Imran 3:161).

Universal political wisdom is at home with such a cautious attitude. As Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke put it beautifully: “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust: and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”

Tried ethical virtues are called probity, while adherence to moral principles is termed integrity. Interpreted according to the world view of Islam, integrity and probity are discussed in Islamic ethics under the rubric of sidq.

Integrity and probity are so significant in reality that in a passage of Abu Bakr’s speech when he was elected caliph after the Prophet’s demise, he declared that “the essence of sidq is amanah (being trustworthy), while the essence of kadhib (corruption) iskhiyanah (perfidy).”

It is indeed important to remember that Islam emphasises not only the duty to be honest, truthful and trustworthy and hence not to be dishonest, deceitful or untruthful at the individual level; but also, the social obligation to always support truthful people, to associate with the truthful ones and to keep their company.

This is evident in the following Quranic verse: “O believers, fear God, and be among those who are the truthful ones” (al-Tawbah 9:119).

“Truthfulness” – as aptly observed by al-Qushayri – “is the supporting pillar of any state of affair, by it comes the perfection of the affair, and through it comes its order.” Well known as a theologian and Sufi, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072) used to teach traditions of the Prophet in the palace of caliph al-Qa’im in Baghdad.

It should be borne in mind that “honesty” already refers to comprehensive moral traits, covering being truthful in speech, fairness in dealing with others, keeping one’s promises, being trustworthy, duly repaying one’s debt, being responsible, and so on. Such is the conclusion made by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their study of important statements on man and his institutions by the great thinkers in western history. (See their Great Treasury of Western Thought, page 668).

A moral requirement of rectitude in intention, speech and action is arguably more emphatically couched by the term “integrity”.

Derived from the Latin integer, meaning entire or untouched, integrity implies moral “incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge”.

Within a spiritual fellowship, sidq or sincerity and truthfulness, therefore, comes highest after the grade of prophethood, as God says, “Those who obey God and the Messenger are in the company of those on whom God has blessed – the prophets and the veracious...” (al-Nisa’ 4:69).

While the term sadiq (the truthful one) is derived from truthfulness, the term used in that Quranic verse is siddiq (exceedingly truthful, veracious), which is the intensified form of the former, being he who is pervaded by truthfulness.

The lowest degree of truthfulness is that both one’s inner being and outward actions are in harmony with revealed, religious guidance.

In other words, while the sadiq is one who is truthful in word, the siddiq is one who is truthful in all his words, acts, and inward states – with constancy and precision.

It is also well said by al-Qushayri that “truthfulness means asserting the truth even in times of peril”. Abu Sa’id al-Qarshi hence noted, “The truthful one is he who is ready to die and he who would not be ashamed if his secret were disclosed”, reflecting God’s challenge, “Wish for death if you are truthful” (al-Baqarah 2:94).

“Integrity” reflects well the inner self of an honest man, who is conscious that to be morally corrupt means to violate the unity of his human self as a whole – to at once betray the wholesomeness of his very self and human society, of whose general welfare he partakes.

Listen, for example, to Simon Blackburn in his The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, and note his comparable definition, “integrity: most simply a synonym for honesty. But integrity is frequently connected with the more complicated notion of a wholeness or harmony of the self, associated with a proper conception of oneself as someone whose life would lose its unity, or be violated”. Hence, to be dishonest is to lose harmony in both the private and public life.

When al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 243/857) was asked about how to internalise truthfulness, this great authority in ethics answered that moral integrity can be attained through God-consciousness, the observation of religion-moral obligations, abstaining from that which He forbids, acting in all things only for Him, and taking His Prophet as the exemplar par excellence, who has vehemently cautioned against any kind of misappropriation.

Dr Mohd Sani Badron The STAR Columnist 29 September 2015

Tags: ikim, integriti, truth
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