“Guilt is a gift from Allah, warning you that what you are doing is violating your soul” -states a popular Nouman Ali Khan quote.
NAK also said, “Regret is a form of punishment itself,” which fits in nicely (and certainly applies greatly to me. Regret sucks).
Then there’s a quote that often floats around sites like Instagram: “The guilt you feel after committing a sin is also a mercy from Allah. Some hearts have been hardened so much that sins mean nothing to them.”
Basically, natural amounts of guilt after you did something wrong is a good thing.
It means you’re a normal human. A human who feels regret.
A human who wants to be good.
However, typically after the “I feel bad” part, no one stops and looks at the actual reasons WHY someone may feel bad. WHY exactly they are guilty.
Does merely feeling guilty mean your heart is in the right place?
“The reward of deeds depend upon intentions, and every person will get the reward according to what he intended” (Bukhari) is a commonly known ahadith that is very important Islamically. It defines the ultimate justice system– where if the good you do in this life doesn’t come back to you in the dunya, you don’t need to worry, because it certainly will in the akhira, and same for bad deeds. “And whoever does a speck of good [in life], will see it [on the Day of Judgement]. And whoever does a speck of evil, will see it.” [Qur’an 100:7-8]
While this may be similar to, someone intended to do a good deed but for whatever reason was unable to follow through and will still “get credit” for it, this quote is also often referenced to encourage Muslims to be very critical of themselves and their own intentions. Are you leading that event because you want to share knowledge, or because you want the praise? Are you helping someone because you want them to thank you, or because you genuinely wanted to help them?
Intentions are important, and while merely having good intentions doesn’t necessarily mean everything you DO will be good, this philosophy encourages people to practice self-awareness; look critically at themselves and determine their real intentions.
Which brings us back to guilt.
Say you hurt your friend’s feelings.
Most people would feel guilty after they hurt their friend’s feelings.
But for what reason are you feeling guilty?
The purest reason would be “I feel guilty because now my friend is hurt, and my friend does not deserve to feel hurt” but this is not the only option.
In Gone with the Wind (which I still haven’t finished watching….aehhhh) There’s a quote: “You’re like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail”
This sums up quiteeeee a few people. Other options for reasons why someone may experience a type of guilt is:
-They feel guilty because they don’t want the person to view them as a bad person
-They feel guilty because they don’t want their actions to hurt their reputation
-They feel guilty not because of how they affected the person, but because what they did makes them feel like a bad person
-They feel guilty because they dislike that they got caught
-They feel guilty because they don’t feel guilty for what they did (which makes them feel like a bad person)
-They feel guilty because they think what they did makes them a bad Muslim/not good enough in whatever role they are in
Everything but the “purest” reason for guilt is technically selfish to varying extents.
Typically after any guilt, though, one will wish to apologize and repent. They miiiiight also feel so guilty that they instead run from addressing something, which certainly isn’t good, but that isn’t the point of this blog post.
The point is to observe in this case, if your intentions behind feeling guilty change anything. Feeling guilt at all means that you, on some level, want to be a good person, but what if you don’t feel guilty for the act itself, at all?
Let’s pause for a second and think about psychopaths/sociopaths (technically the same thing, although from a criminology perspective one is ‘organized’ and one is ‘disorganized’). Those who do not feel empathy or guilt. I read a book once about a sociopath who was a Mormon, and she was religious despite the fact that she never felt guilty for anything that she did; never felt empathy with those who she hurt in life or who were hurt by others.
If a psychopath, who really cannot have “good intentions” because they can’t experience empathy and are thus inherently selfish, be good people? Are there psychopaths in Jannah? I had a conversation about this with some friends a while back, and we came to the conclusion that yes, of course there can be. A psychopath is born that way (unlike those with anti-social personality disorder- who are often misidentified as psychopaths- and narcissistic personality disorder- which can lessen empathy but not entirely erase it- which are both acquired in life) so “playing nice” is the best they can do. A psychopath can still be a “good Muslim” even if they don’t feel things genuinely as they go through life; they don’t need to become a serial killer. They don’t fit the textbook definition of a “good person” on a core level, but they aren’t doing anything bad, either, if they are living the right way.
“Those who refrain from committing wrong actions out of their love for Allah are of the highest status in His sight” (Ibn Qayyim) so while psychopaths cannot “love” in the empath’s version of the word, they can still follow Islam and outwardly be on the right path even if their fitnahs and intentions are very different than others.’
So then what’s the point of intentions? You can still be an outwardly good person for all the wrong reasons. You may not even be being fake– you may genuinely want to be good– but only for the sake of your own ego and not because you think others’ deserve good treatment; not for the sake of Allah SWT. You may be so concerned about wanting to be a good person that you miss out on having the intentions that an inwardly “good person” would genuinely have, and so while you may apologize and make up for doing the wrong thing, your reasons are in order to make you feel good about yourself, not because you truly feel bad for the person you have wronged. But does it matter? Does it matter as long as outwardly, you are doing the right thing?
My opinion is as follows:
There is a personal benefit and a societal benefit to being a good person by actions or intentions.
From a societal perspective, your intentions don’t necessarily matter. The reason why you feel guilty doesn’t matter. As long as you are trying to be a good person and succeeding in behaving correctly, you are not negatively affecting those around you. You’re a functional part of society. You aren’t making Muslims look bad, if you are a Muslim. You aren’t causing trouble, no matter why exactly you are not causing trouble.
From a personal perspective, this isn’t enough. You won’t be able to feel truly good about yourself, or have good interpersonal relationships, if you don’t have pure intentions. If your guilt is a selfish guilt.
(So ironically, being selfless is the most helpful for yourself in life). Additionally, people can often tell when you’re being selfish, and they don’t like it. A pure-hearted person will light up a room and you’ll want to be just like them, versus a person who hasn’t technically done anything wrong, but you simply get “bad vibes” from being around them. A pure-hearted person makes others feel loved, while an inwardly selfish person makes others feel used even if they go through all the motions externally.
If you do something that brings you guilt, think about why you feel bad. Look into the deepest corners of your inner self. Do you feel bad for what you did to them, or feel bad for yourself, thinking this makes you a bad person?
If your reasoning for guilt isn’t selfless, try and empathize with the person. Put yourself in their place– and not just what YOU would do if you were IN their place, but imagine that you are viewing it the way that THEY are viewing it, and then try to feel for them.
But also remember that guilt is a good thing. So even if you feel guilty for yourself, it does mean that you indeed want to be a good person. Don’t plague yourself with guilt to the point that you can never overcome your struggles. Practice not self-love, but self-compassion– advise yourself like you would advise someone who you care about.
Maneuvering through life with pure intentions will give you a much more fulfilling experience than a good-playing psychopath, even if you both make it to Jannah, and will bring true good to the lives of those around you as well.