Engaging in good deeds – work, in other words – is a principle value of Islam, and it has a vital role in protecting the faith and maintaining civilized life on Earth. The obligatory nature of work is a weighty and established principle supported by a vast amount of textual evidence from the Qur'ân and Sunnah.
Work is the basis upon which an individual finds success or meets with failure. It is also the basis of strength or weakness for society as a whole. It is the foundation of worldly prosperity and salvation in the Hereafter.
This verse says that we are here on Earth to work. Our lives were given to us to see how we would conduct ourselves.
The term used in Islamic discourse is "good works" (`amal sâlih
). I have tried to specify the number of times the phrase "good works" appears in the Qur'ân in all of its forms while containing both words, and have found that it appears about 90 times. The word "works" in all of its forms appears in other contexts, either by itself or with another adjective besides "righteous", in over 360 places, according to my quick estimation.
Allah says: "so He may try you as to which of you is best in deeds." We must take note that the verse does not speak about the quantity of deeds, but their quality. The Qur'anic expression is not "most in deeds" but "best in deeds."
Fadl b. `Iyâd's statement on this issue is well known. In his commentary on the phrase "best of deeds" he says: "It means to make them sincere and correct, because a sincere but incorrect deed will not be accepted, just as a correct but insincere deed will not be accepted. A deed will never be acceptable unless it is both sincere and correct." [Refer to Ibn Taymiyah, al-`Ubûdiyyah
In other words, for a deed to earn this attribute of virtue, it must fulfill the following necessary conditions:
A. Purity of intention and nobility of purpose. This is sometimes referred to as sincerity.
B. Agreement with the Sunnah and Islamic Law. This is sometimes expressed by the term "conformity" or the term "correctness."
The virtue of any deed rests on these two foundations. The more sincere an act is and the more rigorously it adheres to the conformities of Islamic Law, the more virtuous it is.
A brisk market of ideological orientations has recently come up in the philosophical circles of the West - especially in America - that looks at work, fulfillment, and performance and considers this to be the true philosophy of life not to speak of the philosophy that they call Pragmatism or the philosophy of utilitarianism that says the true measure of knowledge is in the practical and tangible results that it provides such that true knowledge must have some practical use and must not be purely theoretical knowledge, divorced from reality.
The manner in which Allah extols the value of work exposes the foolishness of two tendencies that are far removed from the truth. The first of these tendencies is to perform works without guidance or insight, deeds carried out in disregard of both Islamic and natural causes. The works of these people are to be described as evil and filth. Such works are bereft of benefit and come to naught. If such works are of a religious nature, they will not be accepted and will not bring about salvation in the Hereafter. If they are of a worldly nature, they will not provide the desired results, since they are neither based on proper consideration nor on true experience.
This is why Allah says: "Some faces that day will be humiliated, laboring hard, weary - the while they are scorched by the blazing fire and are given to drink of a boiling hot spring." [Sûrah al-Ghâshiyah
And He says: "Say: Shall we tell you about those whose deeds are lost? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works? They are those who deny the signs of their Lord and their meeting with Him. Vain will be their works, and on the Day of Resurrection, We will not give them any value." [Sûrah al-Kahf
The same can be said for "Islamic" sects, schools of thought, or approaches that deviate from the way of Allah and calls its adherents to worship Allah in falsehood and ignorance. This includes the devotees of heretical groups who exhaust themselves in their works, like the Khawârij, the deviant among the Sufis, and others. This also includes the reform movements that do not properly study the divine laws and manners and as a result built their approach to life and work on their false understanding. Their situation is described by Allah in the following manner:
"Those before them did also plot, but Allah took their structures from their foundations, and the roof fell down upon them from above. And the punishment seized them from a way that they did not perceive." [Sûrah al-Nahl
The clearest contemporary example that can be given of such deviant reform is that of Communism, in both its philosophical framework and its political and cultural manifestations. It collapsed upon itself in a most unexpected manner and all its accomplishments became its bane. The questions came. Some asked how they could free themselves of it. Others asked how its swift departure could be forestalled. Still others ask how at least some small part of it could be retained.
The other of these two false tendencies is that of complacency. It is the approach of those who are heedless of Allah's way of dealing with the universe. Such a person wants all his desires fulfilled for him without any expenditure of effort on his part. Though such an attitude is rare on account of the natural human inclination for activity, it does surface in certain ways. It appears in those who casually follow their every lust and desire, who mask themselves behind a name or slogan thinking that it will suffice them.
The Qur'an tells us of the Jews who used to say: "The Fire will not touch us except for a few numbered days."
Then some Christians came along and made similar statements. They claimed to be the children of Allah and His beloved ones. Then: "they were succeeded by a generation who inherited the scripture but who chose for themselves the vanities of this world, saying: 'Allah will forgive us.' Then. if similar vanities came their way, they would again choose them.". [Sûrah al-A`râf
Yes, the verse is about the Jews and Christians, but its implications are equally relevant to the Muslims, since the behavior exhibited is the same. It is just like Hudhayfah said: "Yes, the Children of Israel are your brothers… you will follow in their ways very closely."
Likewise, it applies to those who live without purpose or direction, those who are prisoners of their misfortunes, problems, and of the complications of their daily lives. Their behavior has no method to it and their actions have no rhyme or reason. They are immersed in activities that are utterly devoid of meaning. One of them works at his job in order to pay the installments on his house. He lives in that house in order to sleep, eat, and drink. Yet, he only sleeps, eats, and drinks so he can have the strength to work. A person so immersed in this way of life can become so distracted by it that he becomes oblivious to how imbalanced and empty it is.
Worse than this are those who adhere to vacuous philosophies like the sophistry of old or the nihilism of more modern times, those who claim that there is no value to human reason, that knowledge cannot be attained, and that the things people deem to exist are in reality nothing. They reject all moral values and they seek to tear things down without possessing any decent alternative. Nihilism was the political ideology of a Russian political party founded in 1870. Its objective was to demolish the existing social order without having any intention of establishing another order in its place. The philosophy of nihilism earned its fame in connection with this political party.
Many people can grow dissatisfied with a specific set of circumstances and seek to destroy it without having any care that the alternative is anarchy and discord. It is like the saying of an Arab poet:
Many a day I passed my time in weeping
On the coming day, I wept for its return