All Virtues, Big and Small
A big hang up of our times --- sometimes found even in those involved in Islamic work --- is the focus on doing something big. We want to be associated with big projects. We want to serve the cause of Islam in a big way. Big deeds, big rewards. Big success, here and in the hereafter. Who can argue with that?
Well, though the logic appears to be bullet proof, there actually is a problem with it. It assumes that the reward for a good deed is based on its value as perceived by us. That is the problem. The reward for every good deed is based on the actual goodness in it and only Allah can judge that. That is why even after performing the greatest meritorious acts, our salaf (predecessors) used to be worried whether or not their deeds would be accepted. At the same time they approached even the smallest virtues with the enthusiasm of a desperate person who knows he needs all the help he can get. They had fully understood the message that many seemingly great deeds may not carry much weight in the hereafter because of some inherent flaw that the doer may not even be aware of. Yet it is possible for some apparently minor charitable act to save a believer from hell. For example one hadith in Bukhari and Muslim mentions the case of a woman of ill repute who once helped a thirsty dog by making extra effort to fetch water from a well. She was saved from hell for that small kindness alone.
That is the point of this hadith? It is beautifully stated in another hadith: "Never belittle any good deed." [la tahqiranna min almaroofe shaea]. We should always remember these golden words of wisdom from the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Every good deed, no matter how small, has the potential of becoming our ticket to paradise. It just depends upon the situation in which it was performed and the level of sincerity in our heart. Feeding water to a thirsty dog is not an extra-ordinary event per se, but in the particular case mentioned in the hadith it became large enough to wipe out all the sins of a very sinful person.
It certainly does not mean that we should become complacent with sins in the hope that some small kindness will wipe them out. No one who remembers this warning by the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, can do that: "Really frustrated will be the person who follows his own desires (in violation of Allah's commands) yet entertains the wishful thinking that Allah will forgive him." Rather the point is that we should never miss an opportunity to do some good by considering the act too small. We should never consider any good act beneath us.
For who knows the true value of a small kindness or small virtue? One may simply say Alhamdu-lillah (Praise be to Allah) with such an intense feeling that it alone tilts the scale in his or her favor in the hereafter. Helping a destitute person with small amount of money or just some kind words, greeting a stranger, visiting the sick, joining in the funeral, consoling someone going through difficulty, removing something harmful from the path, making a quiet prayer for someone in need of help, forgiving a person who has hurt us --- none of these will make big headlines but all of them can bring about major change in our lives.
What is true about good is also true about evil. What seems to be a minor evil may not be small in terms of its consequences both here and in the hereafter. As the Qur'an mentions:
"You thought it to be a light matter while it was most serious in the sight of Allah."[Al-Noor, 24:15].
Small sins, if we become comfortable with them, may lead us to bigger and bigger sins. "The difference between a major and a minor sin is like the difference between a big and a small burning piece of charcoal," says Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. "Who would willfully pick the burning charcoal with their bare hand because it is small?"
The Qur'an does make a distinction between minor and major sins, but that distinction is meaningful only when the sin just happened, not when it was committed on purpose. A sin, any sin, is by definition an act of disobedience. It may be forgiven when it resulted from human weakness. But when performed with a "so what" attitude, it becomes defiance --- and thus a major sin.
We can begin to grasp the wisdom behind this teaching by considering what happens in real life. Our minds are fascinating machines that are always receiving and generating all kinds of ideas. It would be a rare person who never received any idea for either virtue or vice. An action idea can come from any source. Something we read or heard. A conversation with a friend or a stranger. Some quiet reflection. Something we saw on the street. Anything. While these things may just happen to us, what we do with them can make all the difference in our life. If the inspiration is for some good, normally Satan counters it by suggesting that it is too small to be of any consequence in our life. Why bother. You are not that pious anyway, he assures us. If it is for some vice and we are reluctant to do it, Satan assures us that in light of other vices already in our life, it won't make any big difference. Either way the cornerstone of this Satanic strategy is the trivialization of both vices and virtues.
But the person who listens to this Prophetic teaching will be able to counter this strategy. Small or big, a virtue is a virtue. I need it. I must cease the moment. This person will find that good deeds are connected to each other through an invisible web. Each one is a window to the world of virtue. The goodness generated in the heart by a seemingly small good deed may lead us to a much bigger good deed later. Thus through this regenerative and multiplicative process, even small acts may gradually bring a total change in one's life.
We should certainly go for the big virtues. But we should also remember that no virtue is too small.