Belief & Worship Community Islamic Character

The Lesser of Two Good Deeds

Lecture by Suhaib Webb | Transcribed by Fuseina Mohamad

Surat Al-Fatiha Series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIVPart XV | Part XVI | Part XVII | Part XVIII | Part XIX | Part XX | Part XXI | Part XXII Part XXIII | Part XXIV | Part XXV

 This is the final article in the Surat Al-Fatiha Series. 

The Lesser of Two Good Deeds

The sixth trick of Shaytan – if he can’t make you fall into any of the previous traps and he knows that you’re going to do good – is to make you choose to do the good that has lesser reward.

For example, the students are going to organize a rally on campus one morning where they will have seminars about Iraq and the condition of the Muslim world, as well as civil and human rights in North America. You say to yourself, “It sounds good, but I have to pray my tahhajjud (early morning prayer). And if I pray my tahhajud I will have to sleep in the morning, so I won’t be able to go.” Both are good, but which one is better? Which one do you all think is the better reward?

[Audience]: Praying.

No. The rally. Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal said, “Tahajjud is for myself. But the actions of the ummah (the Muslim community) are for everyone. So I would rather do what’s going to help the most number of people than help myself.”

This is something that many Muslims, especially here in the US, tend to neglect because we’re very individualistic. We’re stuck on “mine”. However, even while making du`a’ in Surah Fatiha (Qur’an 1), we don’t say, “guide me”; rather we ask Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) to “guide us”. So, the actions which can benefit the masses of the Muslims earn more reward than the actions which benefit one’s self alone.

We learn the same lesson in the story of the great scholar Fudayl ibn Iyyad. During a time of jihad, Abdullah ibn Mubaraak was defending the Muslims from an attack and Fudayl had gone to Makkah to worship Allah (swt). Abdullah ibn Mubaraak wrote Fudayl a poem in which he said, “O Worshipper of the Two Houses! While you are busy in the night wetting your beard with your tears, we are busy in the day and the night wetting our beards with the blood of the shuhadaa (the martyrs).” When Fudayl read this, he started crying, realizing his selfishness.

The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) said that if you stroke the head of an orphan the hairs you touch will be a reward for you with Allah (swt). Why? Because when you help an orphan you’re helping more people than just yourself.

Shaytan tries to get us to fall into the acts of lesser rewards. How can we protect ourselves from this? The answer is learning and gaining knowledge. We don’t have to become scholars, but we need knowledge enough to make good choices, to be good Muslims and to help others.

Another way to remedy this is found in the famous hadith (narration) of Umar radiAllahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him). Umar (ra)’s daughter’s name was Hafsa. She was first married to someone named Khunays (ra). Khunays suffered an injury in the battle of Badr and he died of his wounds. She was 19 years old. After Hafsa finished her i’dah (waiting period), Umar (ra) went to find her a good husband. He went first to Uthman ibn Affan (ra) and asked, “Would you be interested in marrying my daughter?” Uthman (ra) declined, and Umar (ra) got mad. Then he went to Abu Bakr (ra) and said, “Would you like to marry my daughter?” Abu Bakr (ra) also declined. So, Umar (ra) got really upset. He went to complain to the Prophet ﷺ.

The question is, why did Umar (ra) get upset? Some people may say it’s because of the honor of his daughter. This is not the main reason. The main reason he got mad (sisters take note) is because he lost good men. Umar (ra) was looking for a good man to marry his daughter. Someone who would be good to his daughter, take care of her, and love her. Someone whom he knew was a good person. So, when Umar (ra) lost good men, of course he got mad. He didn’t get mad just because this was his daughter, Hafsa. He was mad because he wanted to give his daughter not to someone who was making six digits and driving a Lexus, but to someone who had good akhlaq (character and behavior) and iman (faith).

You see, we often misunderstand the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ  where he said, “Marry a woman for four reasons…” This also means, “Marry a man for four reasons…” Unfortunately no one tells the sisters this, so they sometimes think men get to choose but they don’t.

The four reasons the Prophet ﷺ  mentioned were beauty, wealth, family and deen (religion). The Prophet ﷺ then said, “Choose the one with religion, may you be blessed.”

Many people think that this hadith means that a person must only marry a person who is religious, and everything else doesn’t matter. This is not the correct understanding of this hadith. It means if you can find a woman/man who is religious that’s good. If you find a man who is religious and handsome, that’s better. If you find a woman who is religious and beautiful you have two out of four good qualities. And if you find someone with all four qualities, you’ve hit the jackpot! That’s why the Prophet ﷺ  didn’t marry anyone when he was married to Kahdijah (ra). She was beautiful, she came from a good family, she was wealthy, and she had deen. She was the epitome of the complete woman.

So, Umar (ra) wanted his daughter to marry a good man, and he approached two good men. The question is, isn’t Abu Bakr (ra) better than Uthman (ra)? What is our belief about Abu Bakr (ra)? Our belief about him is that the Prophet ﷺ said, “The greatest person after the prophets is Abu Bakr.”

So why did Umar (ra) go to Uthman (ra) first?  Because, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “If Umar goes this way, Shaytan goes that way (i.e. the opposite way)”. Let’s look at this situation.

Abu Bakr had three wives, one of them named Umm Rumman (the mother of Aisha (ra) and Abdul Rahman (ra)). Of her the Prophet ﷺ once said, “Whoever wants to see a woman from the women of Paradise, let them look at Umm Rumman.” Abu Bakr had two other wives as well.

However, Uthaman’s wife (who was one of the Prophet’s ﷺ  daughters) had just died. He had no wives at the time. So, if priorities were weighed between Uthman (ra) and Abu Bakr (ra) in terms of marriage, Uthman would take the priority. This is the wisdom of Umar (ra). Umar (ra) used priorities when choosing to do good. This is why in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) we have something called fiqh al-awliyaat (the fiqh of priorities).

Ibn Qayyim Al Jawzziya mentions that there’s one question that can help you to always choose to do the right thing. He posed this question to us and I will pose the question to you now.  What is the best form of worship?

[Audience]: Prayer

No, he said prayer is wrong.

[Audience]: Serving people.

Good try, but no. Serving people is wrong.

[Audience]: Da`wah (inviting to Islam)

No, wrong.

[Audience]: Dhikr (remembrance of Allah (swt))


[Audience]: Follow the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Well, I can’t say no to that because it’s a general umbrella answer, so we’ll disqualify that one. What else?

[Audience]: Seeking knowledge?


[Audience]: Fasting?

No, not fasting. You all give up?

Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyya said that the best act of worship is “time and place”. What will bring the most benefit and reward according to its time and place is what you should do. For example, salah (prayer). In salah are we allowed to talk? No? Then how come if the sisters can’t hear, someone can say, “Allahu Akbar (God is Greater)!” after the Imam? What changed? The time and place.

What if someone says, “Let’s go and put posters up around campus for this event.” But it’s time for salah. Both are good, but which takes precedence because of time? Salah. If food is served should you pray or eat? Eat, according to the Prophet ﷺ.

What if someone says, “Let’s go to the masjid and increase our iman,” but at that moment people are putting up posters for an event about Iraq, or Palestine, or something in America that will benefit people? In that case the posters take precedence because of the time we are living in.

The same applies for when a college student chooses a degree. Muslims in the liberal arts department of campuses have been put on the endangered species list. Unfortunately some parents believe they are allowed to force their children to be what they want their children to be. This has no basis in Islam. Parents can guide and advise their children, but they cannot force them. We can’t have Muslims concentrating only on one field, like law for example. We can’t only have people who do corporate law because they want to get paid well. How many of us want to be civil rights attorneys? This is a need Muslims have these days. We need Muslim lawyers and Muslim social workers. We need to choose majors that allow us to best serve the ummah (community) according to the time and place.

An All Out Attack

The last thing Shaytan does, if he can’t get you to fall into any of the first six traps, is an all out attack with jinn. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be sitting in your room and all of a sudden you see some strange creatures coming to get you. One of the ways he can use the jinn against you is that the jinn can go to others and cause them not to like you. They will say bad things about you, and you’ll be attacked because you’re on the truth. People will be speaking badly of you, trying to cause you to waver from the deen. This is why we find that people often say bad things about the great scholars in the Muslim world. They’re at that last level. That’s why we should be careful about what we say about other Islamic workers and scholars.

What will save you from this? The saying of the Prophet ﷺ  where he said, “Islam began as something strange, and it will end as something strange, so give good news to the strangers.”

It’s strange nowadays to dress correctly and not show your belly-button. It’s strange to not drive large metal objects through your nose and tongue (although according to the Hanafi madhab (school of thought), sisters can put a piercing in their nose). To have a beard, as was the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, is strange these days.

Let’s close now by answering the question we posed earlier. We learned that Shaytan said he will attack from the right, left, back and front, but he will not attack from the top. Why not?

[Audience] Because Allah (swt) is above us.

This is a good point. The sister is saying that Allah (swt) is above us, which is why Shaytan cannot attack us from the top. We understand this as Muslims to mean that Allah (swt) is Majestic. This is what we mean when we say Allah (swt) is above us; He is above us in a manner that suits Him. Good attempt, masha’Allah (through Allah’s will). Does anyone have another answer?

[Audience] Guidance comes from above.

Masha’Allah. That’s a good answer also.  Let’s read the answer that was turned in:

“Given that the devil attacks man from the left, the right, from behind, and from the front, and also given that the noor/light/guidance is singular, it is my guess that Allah (swt) has left us only on one path to reach guidance, and that is from the top, or through our minds.”

So, the writer is saying that the top is where our intellect is, and so, through our intellect we will reach the straight path. Very good, well thought out argument. It continues:

“In life we’re given an endless amount of choices every day, and although choices might seem like a good thing they truly only help to confuse even the most decisive and knowledgeable of men/women. Allah (swt) has left only one pathway open for us: it is through the mind that man gains knowledge and has the freewill to make both good and bad decisions. Man has the opportunity to go left, go right, go backwards and/or forwards where the devil waits for him. Or he can choose the correct path, the only righteous path which will, insha’Allah, lead him to God.

The mind here represents the knowledge and understanding of Islam. It also represents the ability to choose one’s own destiny by the choices one makes.”

So this writer is saying that because the intellect is the only way to God, Iblees doesn’t come from the top. Does anyone have any comment/constructive criticism for this response?

[Audience] Intellect can lead one astray.

Yes, that’s true. Look at, for example, the story of Khidr and Musa. When Khidr killed that boy, one’s intellect would say that is haraam (unlawful). Relying completely on the intellect can lead people astray. Another example we mentioned is the story of Adam (as) when Iblees told him and his wife that the only reason that Allah (swt) forbade them from eating from the tree was because they would become angels and live forever. This is an intellectual argument, and Adam (as) fell for it.

The intellect is one of the greatest gifts Allah (swt) gave human beings, but the intellect has to be guided by revelation. Sometimes we might find some things in Islam that if we try to rationalize, they don’t fit our rationalization. This is why we submit to Allah (swt).

This is a good answer, but it needs to be moderated a little bit to say that the intellect will guide us to Allah (swt) if we stick to the way that Allah (swt) sent us. Can we say that Karl Marx was smart? Most definitely. People can be intellectuals, but the question is, where does that intellect take us?”

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.


  • Loved it! Islam teaches us to be balanced, priority-driven and holistic. May Allah bless our ummah with these traits. Ameen.

  • the article has a great insight. indeed, what is best is a matter of priority, depending on time and place. yet the vast majority of people, and this includes muslims, have great trouble with the concept that given several general rules, you’re supposed to derive the answer – which may be *different* each time – according to what is the best priority AT THE TIME. holding to one too fixedly will eventually force you to choose between them and release other principles which are deemed less important (like, being strict on compliance but to the extent that you release the quality of forbearance and mercy to others); the only way to hold them all is to balance according to the appropriate priority among them at the time.

    the best leaders of large, diverse organisations do not have simplistic, rigid mindsets. they hold ALL the organisation’s guiding principles and balance them constantly according to the situation. and the best of such leaders was our Prophet Muhammad saw. simplistic, rigid leaders can only lead stagnant monocultures because they can’t cope with the movement and independence of diversity.

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