Learning about priorities from creation
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
In the journey of life, decisions often involve weighing between different options and then selecting a path based on an understanding of priorities. Some scholars defined wisdom as the ability of the individual to order priorities appropriately. This ordering involves knowing what is the better of two goods or the worse of two evils.
Wisdom is the pursuit of every believer and he benefits from it, no matter what the source, as the Prophet (s) said:
الْكَلِمَةُ الْحِكْمَةُ ضَالَّةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَحَيْثُ وَجَدَهَا فَهُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا
The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, then he is most deserving of it.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2687
Regardless of however we define wisdom, it always includes knowledge of priorities. Wisdom is to know what should take precedence in the context of a given situation; therefore, the path to wisdom involves gaining contextual knowledge and then prioritizing our actions accordingly.
In Islam, the answer to every question always begins with monotheism. Monotheism, as embodied by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), demands consistency in any answer as it is only by consistency in the creation that we can rightly infer a single Creator. This statement carries more weight than it appears when reading it for the first time.
Consistency, in this sense, is the ability to identify the order or patterns of progression by which the past teaches the present, or distant causes are connected to local effects, or improbable events are distinguished from the nearly certain. In light of monotheism, the stages of creation (or cosmology) are very important to our understanding of how we got to where we are today.
In fact, all scientific progress has to assume that the laws of creation (or nature) are universal or near universal, that they are consistent, or else experiments cannot be trusted. Allah puts great emphasis on the early stages of the creation, as mentioned in Surat Fusilat for example:
فَقَضَاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ فِي يَوْمَيْنِ وَأَوْحَىٰ فِي كُلِّ سَمَاءٍ أَمْرَهَا
He completed them as seven heavens within two days and inspired in each heaven its command.
Surat Fusilat 41:12
This verse inspires the believers to reflect on the progression of creation, thus solidifying the idea that nature is ordered. Once we accept the fact that nature is ordered, we can extract the universal principles underpinning the fabric of existence. In particular, some principles that can be derived from creation stand out: moral values are better than materialism, differences are natural, start with the closest in mind, and circulation results in stability.
Moral values are better than materialism
Order in nature directly points to the consistency of the Creator and His names and attributes. It is these names expressing His attributes, such as mercy and justice, which constitute our value system as Muslims. Everything around us is a manifestation of the same values that are derived from the traits of the Creator.
This understanding brings us to an important principle for gaining wisdom in Islam: the preservation of our moral values, as individuals and societies, takes precedence over our material lives. In the terminology of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), matters of the religion (deen) are prioritized over matters of worldly life (dunya).
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَنْظُرُ إِلَى صُوَرِكُمْ وَأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَلَكِنْ يَنْظُرُ إِلَى قُلُوبِكُمْ وَأَعْمَالِكُمْ
Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather he looks at your hearts and actions.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2564
As such, true wealth in Islam is uphold our moral values through acts of worship and charity; it is spiritual wealth, not just money, status, or power.
This principle is demonstrated all throughout history, as the great empires fell not because they lacked power or money, but because they disobeyed Allah and abandoned their moral values:
وَإِذَا أَرَدْنَا أَن نُّهْلِكَ قَرْيَةً أَمَرْنَا مُتْرَفِيهَا فَفَسَقُوا فِيهَا فَحَقَّ عَلَيْهَا الْقَوْلُ فَدَمَّرْنَاهَا تَدْمِيرًا
When We intend to destroy a city, We give commands to the affluent but they defiantly disobey therein. Thus, the word is justified over it and We utterly destroy it.
Surat al-Isra’ 17:16
Knowledge of moral values in Islam is an essential component of wisdom, existing already in our hearts by instinct (fitrah) and being reinforced by Revelation. We are tasked with manifesting those values into the physical world through our behavior and transactions. Recognizing patterns in life, and the values on which they are based, is a means to acquiring wisdom.
In the Quran, Allah gives us clear guidelines for living a life based on values, to be firm ground that keeps us from swaying wildly in the vicissitudes of life. People fall into despair if they lack the ability to tie events to the universal value system:
وَإِذَا أَذَقْنَا النَّاسَ رَحْمَةً فَرِحُوا بِهَا ۖ وَإِن تُصِبْهُمْ سَيِّئَةٌ بِمَا قَدَّمَتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ إِذَا هُمْ يَقْنَطُونَ
When we give people a taste of mercy, they rejoice in it. And if they are afflicted by evil because of what their hands have done, they immediately despair.
Surat al-Rum 30:36
Prophet Muhammad (s) likens faith (and its moral values) to a crop that can withstand violent winds because of its roots:
مَثَلُ الْمُؤْمِنِ كَمَثَلِ الزَّرْعِ لَا تَزَالُ الرِّيحُ تُمِيلُهُ وَلَا يَزَالُ الْمُؤْمِنُ يُصِيبُهُ الْبَلَاءُ
The parable of the believer is that of a crop which withstands the wind, for the believer continues to withstand the suffering of trials.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5320
However, sometimes these values exist in tension with one another, such as a case in which one has a choice to execute justice or show mercy. We can learn how to order our values properly by deriving another lesson from the creation.
Differences are a natural part of creation
This major principle is often viewed as counter-intuitive by many people, as they tend to focus on the value of equality. We are all equal in front of Allah, to be sure, in terms of our human nature and our opportunity to come close to Him. We also perform different roles based on the circumstances that Allah has put us in and our reactions to them.
The first stage of creation occurred as an initiation (fatr) from Allah, the Originator (Al-Fatir). The process of initiation, in this context, is when a thing is split apart into a system of counter-balanced elements. It can only produce an environment of differences.
Physicists refer to this phenomenon as entropy; work can only be done if there is a difference in energy. This principle can be related to every aspect of life. For instance, an economy can only exist if there is a difference between supply and demand. Understanding this principle in Islam means that disbelief will always exist alongside faith:
هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ فَمِنكُمْ كَافِرٌ وَمِنكُم مُّؤْمِنٌ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
It is He who created you and, thus, among you are unbelievers and believers. Allah sees whatever you are doing.
Surat al-Taghabun 64:2
Our job as Muslims is not to eradicate disbelief in Islam; we can never do so because Allah willed for disbelievers to exist. Their disbelief distinguishes faith and makes it recognizable. Rather, our role is to highlight the difference between faith and disbelief as much as we can, with the aim of guiding people and ourselves to salvation in the Hereafter.
Hence, from this perspective, mercy to unbelievers has more priority than executing the justice of Allah upon them. It is not our place to punish them for their unbelief, while Allah gives them an entire lifetime to repent and accept faith.
The difference between faith and disbelief reflects the wisdom of the Creator, who allows such things to exist. Good cannot be known except by its opposite: evil. Other types of differences between people are benign and are part of a great human tapestry:
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ
Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the differences in your languages and colors. Verily, in that are signs for those with knowledge.
Surat al-Rum 30:22
Differences in language and ethnicity ought to be respected, as well as the views of people who are culturally different from us. Many times the diversity of a team is one of its core strengths, so bringing people together from different backgrounds provides an opportunity to challenge and refine ideas; to get work done. Diversity, in this case, is more important than making sure everyone holds the same opinions (within the boundaries of Islam, of course).
Start with the closest in mind
The second principle that guides our prioritization of values is that effects happen from the inside-out; people who are closer to an action are more affected. We understand this intuitively by observing the waves ripple outward when a stone fall into a lake. Islamic jurisprudence addresses matters of importance according to how far they are from the individual, literally or figuratively.
A neighbor who lives closer to you is more affected by your actions, either good or bad. Close neighbors are more deserving of the rights of neighbors than people who live in another town or city. In terms of voluntary charity, relatives are given preference over others due to the proximity of the family relationship.
Allah expressed this type of prioritizing in a concise but powerful verse:
وَاعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَلَا تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا ۖ وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا وَبِذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَالْجَارِ ذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْجَارِ الْجُنُبِ وَالصَّاحِبِ بِالْجَنبِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ۗ
Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and be good to parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the far neighbor, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those under custodianship of your right hand.
Surat al-Nisa’ 4:36
Although we have been commanded to do good to virtually everyone in society, we have to prioritize our time, money, and effort. The parents are mentioned here first because our duty to our parents is the most important, then to relatives, neighbors, and so on. Understanding the point that effects come from inside-out helps us prioritize our relationships.
Circulation results in stability
The third principle related to prioritization is the sustainability of circulation. Just as there is wisdom in differences, there is a lesson on the importance of circulation to keep a system going. The most obvious example is perhaps our own blood circulatory system, which results in a person’s death if it is disrupted.
Sustainability tends to operate in circular or repeating motions; the planets, the life cycle, the tide, the human circulatory system, and so on. Allah brings our attention to many natural systems that exhibit this behavior:
لَا الشَّمْسُ يَنبَغِي لَهَا أَن تُدْرِكَ الْقَمَرَ وَلَا اللَّيْلُ سَابِقُ النَّهَارِ ۚ وَكُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ
It is not for the sun to reach the moon, nor the night to overtake the day. Each is floating in an orbit.
Surat Ya Sin 36:40
This verse suggests that circular motion is a means of sustainability. We can take this same lesson from nature and apply it to an economy. The example of charity given in the Quran is like the multiplication of crops:
مَّثَلُ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ كَمَثَلِ حَبَّةٍ أَنبَتَتْ سَبْعَ سَنَابِلَ فِي كُلِّ سُنبُلَةٍ مِّائَةُ حَبَّةٍ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُضَاعِفُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۗ
The parable of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah is that of a seed, which grows seven spikes, in each spike is a hundred grains. Allah multiplies whatever He wills.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:261
Charity is an investment in another person that will circulate through the economy and produce mutual benefits for everyone, just as a single seed is multiplied into many crops. This is a reason why the obligatory charity, or zakat, is the third pillar of Islam; it is a top priority.
On the other hand, those who hoard the seeds without planting neither benefit themselves, nor others, by their hoarding. Indeed, the tragedy of modern economic inequity is because income between businesses and workers is not circulating at a healthy rate.
We can observe several aspects of creation, many of which are mentioned in the Quran, that demonstrate laws in the natural order. We can derive lessons from these patterns – moral values, the existence of differences, starting with the closest in mind, sustainability in circulation – and apply them to man-made systems like economies, institutions, and relationships. They can help us consider what to prioritize in a particular situation. For this reason, the believers ought to observe the patterns that make the universe work and incorporate such lessons into our broader religious understanding.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.