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The Meaning and Origin of Akhlaq

By: Muhammad Mahdi ibn Abi Dhar al-Naraqi
Jami' al-Sa'adat, The Collector of Felicities, P. 8,

The word akhlaq is the plural for the word khulq which means disposition. Disposition is that faculty (malakah) of the soul which is the source of all those activities that man performs spontaneously without thinking about them. Malakah is a property of the soul, which comes into existence through exercise and repetitive practice and is not easily destroyed.
A particular disposition (malakah) may arise in human beings because of one of the following reasons:
1. Natural and physical make up: it is observed that some people are patient while others are touchy and nervous. Some are easily disturbed and saddened while others show greater resistance and resilience.
2. Habit: Which is formed because of continual repetition of cer tam acts and leads to the emergence of a certain disposition.
3. Practice and conscious Effort: Which if continued long enough will eventually lead to the formation of a disposition.
Even though the physical make-up of an individual produces certain dispositions in him, it is by no means true that man has no choice in the matter and is absolutely compelled to abide by the dictates of his physical make-up. On the contrary, since man has the power to choose, he can overcome the dictates of his physical nature through practice and effort, and can acquire the disposition of his choice.
Of course, it should be admitted that those dispositions which are caused by the mental faculties such as intelligence, memory, mental agility, and the like, are not alterable. All other dispositions, however, may be changed according to man's will. Man can control his lust, anger and other emotions and desires, and channel them to edify himself and propel himself along the path of perfection and wisdom.
When we speak of man's capacity to bring about changes in his dispositions, we do not mean that man should destroy his instincts of reproduction or self-preservation. Man could not exist without these instincts. What we mean is that one should avoid going to either extremes in regard to them, and maintain a condition of balance and moderation so that they may perform their functions properly. Just as the seed of a date grows into a fruitful tree through proper care, or a wild horse is trained to serve his master, or a dog is trained to be the lifelong friend and a help to man, so also can man attain perfection and wisdom through self-discipline and intelligent perseverance.
Human perfection has many levels. The greater the amount of self-discipline and effort on the part of the individual, the higher the level of perfection that he would attain. In other words, he stands between two extreme points, the lowest of which is below the level of beasts and the highest of which surpasses even the high station of angels. The human movement between these two extremes is discussed by 'ilm al-akhlaq or the science of ethics. It is the goal of ethics to raise and guide man from the lowest animal state to that exalted position superior to that of the angels.
The importance of ethics is thus revealed. And it is because of the reasons mentioned above that ethics is considered to be the most exalted and valuable of sciences; since the worth of any science is directly related to the worth of the subject with which it is concerned, and since the subject of the science of ethics is man and the means through which he can attain perfection. Moreover, we know that man is the noblest of creatures, the ultimate purpose of whose existence is to attain perfection; therefore, it follows that ethics is the noblest of all sciences.
In fact, in the past, the philosophers did not consider any of the other fields of learning to be truly independent sciences. They believed that without the science of ethics and spiritual purification, mastery over any other science is not only devoid of any value, but it would in fact lead to the obstruction of insight and ultimate destruction of those who pursue it. That is why it has been said that:
,which means, knowledge is the thickest of veils', which prevents man from seeing the real nature of things.

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