Senior Analyst; Executive Director, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies
True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west — but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance — however much he himself may cherish — it — upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God. (2:177 [Asad])
Many people, and not all of them from other faiths, would define Muslim piety as strictly adhering to Islam’s exterior “rules,” what in the modern West may seem like an endless list of dos and don’ts — and mostly don’ts. While The Law is by no means irrelevant to Muslim piety, this ayah (the name for a verse in the Qur’an, which literally means “miracle” in Arabic) gives a more holistic picture. According to this passage, devotion to God is not merely about the motions — facing towards the east or west — but about the belief in certain ideals and the courage to act on them.
The scholars of Quranic revelation sequence explain that God revealed this verse shortly after He ordered the faithful to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. This shift in the rules legislating worship made some people nervous. The ayah was responding by expanding their and our understanding of religiosity.
The verse begins with the foundation of piety — belief in God. Islamic monotheism functionally means making God — not money, ambition, or any other selfish interests — lord of our lives. The implications are profound. It means ethics must rule over impulse, principles must supersede passions. It means that we must treat each other not according to the pull of society’s power differentials, but according to the compassion prescribed by The All-Powerful.
The lifelong process of purifying the heart of its attachments to false deities, and therefore realizing true monotheism, is the very essence of our purpose.
The rest of the verse integrates the “how to” and the “outcome of” this cleansing process. To lead a God-centric life, we need to be grounded in faith, which means believing in that which we cannot see or measure in a laboratory — an idea captured by the belief in angels. We also need guidance, what God’s prophets and revelation provide.
However, beyond the theory, people need hands-on training to put God first. That is where Islam’s devotional requirements or “five pillars” come in. The pillars of Islam, which include prayer, paying the purifying alms, fasting Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca, like other “pillars,” exists to support something, not just to exist. These tools, each in their own way, help free our hearts from the shackles of earthly addictions. Deep and regular connection with God through the five daily prayers gives us perspective and spiritual strength often worn away by the clamor of life’s immediacy.
Sharing our wealth with those in need, though it is dear to us, gives us practice putting God before material gain. By giving some of our money to the orphan and the wayfarer in kinship, not patronage, we empower ourselves to be masters of our material processions, not their slaves, while at the same time building brotherhood in society.
The outcome of this dual-learning approach of principles and practice should be a heart and mind wired toward justice and compassion, and actions to prove it. The Prophet saw this as the core of his mission. He famously said, “I was only sent to perfect good character” — good character demonstrated in trustworthiness, integrity and patience in times of great turmoil, as the ayah goes on to explain.
This is what it means to be truly pious, leading a life of principles, not just ritual prescriptions.
Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. She writes here in her personal capacity.