I do not understand people who say that because a person is good — or because they have only ever known good from them — it is inconceivable that they could ever do anything bad or evil.
I am sometimes a nice person. From time to time, I am generous and kind. I am occasionally charming, even. But I am also all too well aware of the layers of darknesses which choke my soul. There are those mundane and minor traits: the desire to be known, the lust for admiration, the pride and arrogance and conceit. And then there are those cruel and nefarious traits we hide from everyone, however close or intimate, that must be suppressed whatever it takes.
My Lord has blessed me with obscurity, a slouching frame, a monotonous nasal voice, average intelligence, a big nose and the type of character real men decry. Thank goodness. I shudder to think what might have become of me if I was popular, hansom, athletic, articulate or an intellectual, or — God forbid — all five combined. What impact would I have had on the world around me, were the conditions or my environment different?
Perhaps I might use my occasional kindness and generosity to cultivate a vast following of sincere admirers, who would testify far and wide to my benevolence. And perhaps my altruism might even be earnest, genuine and true: not necessarily bogus, but maybe just not all that I am. Not necessarily a charade, but a veil nevertheless, that obscures the public and private parts of me.
If I had power, or fame, or wealth of money or knowledge, how might that change me as a person? Might my private sins, become pubic mistakes, impacting others — taken in by my semi-fictitious representation of myself, or my partial story-telling? Might I slip and er, not in private, but with my groupies and admirers, with their misplaced devotion and zealotry?
I imagine a scenario something like this: at a moment of vulnerability or fatigue, when inattentive to the diseases of my heart, I allow myself to transgress. Regret and self-loathing would inevitably follow. I would promise myself never to succumb to that inner darkness again. But inevitably there would be another lapse, followed by more regret, and then another, the contrition this time dampened by resignation to the impossibility of ever escaping the cycle of sin and sorrow. And with time, as wealth, power and popularity increase, and the need to sustain them all, it just becomes a secret to be concealed and shrouded in a mythical layer of piety: that public kindness and generosity, that everyone can vouch for.
Is such a scenario really inconceivable? Is it preposterous to concede that what we know of our companions is dwarfed by what we do not know? That our public and private facades can be diametrically opposed? That after the guests have left and the door has closed and the conversations have ceased, there might be another side to us? Might the generous one, after pledging five thousand pounds to an emergency appeal, turn to his companion and say: “Look how generous I was today!” Might the humble sage who lowered his gaze and softened his voice, and feigned meekness, think to himself, “I am a true scholar and saint!”
Why is such a prospect so unbelievable, when our Prophet — peace be upon him — himself is reported to have warned that the Fire on the Day of Resurrection will be kindled with the martyr, scholar and giver of wealth, because they intended not the pleasure of their Lord by their deeds, but the admiration of their peers?
Good men can do unspeakable evil: history teaches us this much. Men and women, respected in their communities, found themselves capable of sending men, women and children into gas chambers, when their environment changed, morality redefined. A man of the cloth who publicly condemned and campaigned against the aerial terror bombing of German cities, later stood accused of child abuse. A famous philanthropist, charity worker and media personality, honoured by society, Royalty and the Holy See, turned out to have been a lifelong and prolific sexual abuser.
How might any of us behave in the wrong environment, with the wrong conditions, and the wrong peers or companions, or with supporters too willing to look the other way, or to egg us on, or encourage us when we should have been discouraged, or to counsel us into believing that our sins are not sins at all? How might we behave if thrown into a despicable war, in which every evil is made permissible — when, as a soldier with a broken soul, all of that ordinarily suppressed cruelty comes flooding out as a hideous release, rampaging against innocents without remorse?
Pity the famous with their colossal followings, their excessive power, their zealous disciples, their stupendous wealth: pity them for the temptations which flurry before them like a curse, all too readily attainable and succumbed to. Like the rest of us, they have their inner and their outer, their public and their private, their good and their bad. Like the rest of us, they must decide which part of themselves to elevate and which to suppress. But unlike the rest of us, they have access forbidden to ordinary folk, and the capital of respect, admiration and praise, to hide behind if the calls of the lower self are just too vigorous to ignore.
I cannot join the fervent campaigns of fanatical followers for their beloveds, who have only ever known their good and cannot conceive of another side to them, because I am perpetually torn by an inner battle between honourable, lesser and despicable traits — because I know that humans are complicated and complex, and multi-dimensional, capable of both greatness and malevolence. It is perfectly conceivable that a brilliant mind, loved and respected by millions, could harbour a darker side: that persistent, recurring accusations are not just the forgeries of opportunists with an axe to grind, or the murmurs of mentally unstable erstwhile devotees, but instead a manifestation of partial or actual realities.
It is right to assume the best of people: to give them the benefit of the doubt. But humans are bound to sin: we are not angels, or inanimate objects. Men are not built to be worshipped. A celebrated musician, a fine sports star, a brilliant scholar, a generous philanthropist, an honourable teacher, a distinguished writer: all of these are made of the same stuff as you or I, affected by the same psychologies that affect us all. They were not conceived to be worshipped and treated as gods. We mere mortals are set up to be tested, by fitnas within and without.
‘Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and God will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. Or do those who do evil deeds think they can outrun Us? Evil is what they judge. Whoever should hope for the meeting with God—indeed, the term decreed by God is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing. And whoever strives only strives for the benefit of himself. Indeed, God is Free from need of the worlds.’ — Qur’an 29:1-6
If it is men that you worship, all that I have written will be a hideous sleight, and I a peculiar aberration with an untamed soul. But if it is God that you worship, you will recall those eleven consecutive oaths in the Qur’an concerning the heart, which remind us precisely that we have been granted souls which must be purified.
‘By the sun and his brightness, and the moon when she follows him, and the day when it reveals him, and the night when it enshrouds him, and the heaven and Him Who build it, And the earth and Him Who spread it out, and a soul and Him Who perfected it and inspired it with awareness of what is wrong for it and what is right for it, he is indeed successful who purifies it, and he is indeed a failure who neglects it.’ — Qur’an 91:1-10
May our Lord make us of those who purify their hearts and clean their souls of the worst of traits, enabling us to walk on the earth with honesty and piety, and may He protect us from conditions and environments which allow the worst parts of our souls to flourish. May our Lord purify us and elevate our souls to goodness.