Wednesday, December 2

The Good and The Bad

Can a good deed ever be bad? Or a bad deed good? I guess the first answer which comes to mind is "no", but after a few examples it becomes clear that the question is not so straightforward after all.

First up let's take the classic smoking hijabi. Judging by the passing comments of many, the hijab (which can otherwise normally be considered a good thing) somehow becomes a bad act if accompanied by certain other habits, like smoking or wearing relatively tight clothes. The implicit course of action advised (from a distance, naturally) is for her to remove the hijab since the person in question clearly isn't good enough to wear it; she or the world is worse off by her wearing it. Sometimes the advice given is for the person to stop smoking, but since this is just given to hijabis who smoke (as opposed to anyone), again it seems that the hijab is bad for somehow "amplifying" an already bad act.

Or how about stealing money to feed your (albeit secret) charity habit? This is a good one since we're now discussing whether it's a noble act in its own right or just something to justify ill gotten gains. So it depends on the intention and context.

So we've established that ambiguously good and bad deeds to exist; or at least are perceived to exist by us, even if it takes a bit of consideration to recognise them as such. But who cares? Does it matter as long as we're all trying our best? And if it is an issue, how should we address it? If indeed at all? Is Shak just going off on one again?

Well it's only important if you want to reduce any bad you might be doing, or to help others focus on theirs. Sometimes we don't even realise we're doing something bad (or indeed good), so it could be a form of discouragement or encouragement. But like we saw above determining whether or not it's good-bad or bad-good is quite tricky. In formal terms the main thing to determine is whether there's a causal relationship between various actions or if they're merely correlated or even related at all.

It's unlikely that the hijabi is smoking just because she covers her hair, so it's difficult to argue that it's caused by it. There may be a correlation though - perhaps some new bout of confidence or independence enabled her to both don the hijab and take up smoking. It's probably likely that they're not linked at all though, that she was smoking before or as an aside to her headdress, so in this case I don't really see an issue with her continuing to smoke while wearing a hijab (well not any more than I would with anyone else smoking - this is coming from someone who even hates sisha).

But let's not pick on the poor hijabi, not when the charity example is a better example of why context matters. Let's say that a guy already generously donates £500 a month, funded by his job. Now let's say that he loses his job, and turns to stealing in order to keep up his payments. This can be described as a causal relationship, and since the paying of charity is directly causing the theft, I'd say that it's now a bad act. The guy should stop paying the charity and so stop stealing.

But now let's say that a guy is already a thief and has been for a while. Putting aside the fact that he's a bad person already, what if he then decides to pay a bit of charity with these ill-gotten gains? Does that make his charity a bad act? I'd argue not; the money has already been stolen and charity seems a better use for it than blowing it all on booze and hookers. Of course the guy should stop stealing full stop, and the hijabi should stop smoking full stop, but we're more interested in the relationships between various acts here rather than what an ideal person would do.

We're probably not thieves so that example is probably a bit extreme. But this juxtapositioning of acts does happen a quite lot, especially now as Muslims become increasingly practising or worldly or both. In all our respective and wonderful multidimensionality there's plenty of more subtle and everyday examples of this tug of war between good and bad, many of which are generally accepted.

So to recap, I count four kinds of relationship between good and bad deeds:

  1. No dependency, where the bad would be done regardless of the good and the good regardless of the bad, and there's no impact on the quality of the good act. Smoking and wearing a hijab falls in this category.
  2. A correlation, like the above except that both the good and bad both came about at the same time via a single source (not necessarily good or bad). Since they're still independent there's still no impact on the quality of the good act, although there is a danger that addressing the bad act via that source could mean stopping the good one too.
  3. A good-bad relationship, where someone does a bad deed only to do a good one, like stealing only to pay it all to charity. I'd say that the quality of the good act has been diminished in this case and this person should stop both acts.
  4. A bad-good relationship, where someone uses a good act to justify a later bad one. Someone who becomes proud now that they pray five times a day could fall into this category. Although the quality of the good act does diminish, it should be simple (!) enough to stop doing the bad while keeping the good.
And this is why this analysis is important. A lot of the time we allow our bad habits to dictate our good ones, or allow our good acts to justify our bad ones. In other cases we refrain from doing good at all because of non-dependant bad actions, or remove the good because we incorrectly think that doing so will help us with the bad.

So the hijabi will remove her head-covering because she thinks as a smoker she'll be in a better position without it, or the thief will stop helping others (but carry on stealing anyway) because he's told his money is haraam, or the everyday Joe will not go on Hajj because he listens to too much music and isn't Islamic enough. Knowing the respective position of all your good and bad acts can help you figure out how to increase the former and decrease the latter in the most efficient and non-impactive way possible.

In closing I think what's important is to try and figure out why we do what we do, and what the downstream implications are. If a good action directly means you do a bad one, then I'd rethink your strategy of doing that good action. And if you're already doing something you consider bad then although you should make an effort to stop doing it, it shouldn't be an obstacle to doing other good things. If anything the good will influence you to stop doing the bad (provided there's no dependency between them).

This self assessment might be hard at first but I figure it's important and will become easier over time both as we accept that we're just human and then learn to be honest with ourselves. Once we get the ball rolling I reckon the balance will swing towards the good all by itself anyway.