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The Golden Mean

Know that moderation and steering a middle course are required in all affairs and must be maintained. It has been handed down that “the best of the things are the middle ones”. And, “Moderation, deliberation, and graceful manners are one of twenty-five parts of prophethood.” The Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, may God ennoble his countenance and grant him His good pleasure, said, “Keep to the middle course, for those who exceed it return to it and those who fall short of it [eventually advance to] rejoin it.” It is out of incapacity or neglect that one falls short of the middle course and moderation, while to exceed it is to be immoderate and extravagant. God (blessed and exalted is He!) urges mankind towards moderation and to cleaving to the middle way: Let not your hand be tied to your neck, nor open it altogether, lest you sit down blamed and regretful (Quran, 17:29). Also, And those who when they spend are neither wasteful nor grudging, and there is ever a firm station between the two (Quran, 25:67).

All praiseworthy attributes and activities should be judged according to this rule. To go into this detail would be too lengthy, so we will give only a few examples, like liberality (about which you have just read what God the Exalted has said), such that excess and immoderation here amount to squandering and wastefulness, for God likes not the wasteful (Quran: 6:141). But on the other hand, insufficiency and neglect amount to avarice and greed, and the miser is remote from God the Exalted and from men. Again, courage is a praiseworthy quality. However when immoderate, it turns into recklessness and unnecessary risk-taking; whereas when insufficient it becomes cowardice and disgrace. Humility is also praiseworthy, but when excessive, it turns into degradation and humiliation; and when insufficient , it turns into arrogance and frivolity. The same applies to modesty which, when excessive, becomes effeminacy and weakness, and when insufficient becomes crudeness and impudence. Finally, too much humor and cheerfulness leads to fatuousness and triviality, while too little leads to offensiveness and estrangement. Other traits can be weighed in the same manner. The same principle applies to sleep, food, clothes, and so on. One must always cleave to the middle way, for both extremes are blameworthy.

Now be aware that the limits of moderation may not be evident, and the middle way may prove difficult to locate, except for those who have religious insight and are well versed in knowledge and certitude. Therefore any person who experiences problems in this area must refer to such people, and if he cannot find any of them, which frequently occurs these days, he must halt and wait until he is sure of the right thing to do. The best course of action when confusion occurs is to lean slightly on the side of excess in praiseworthy things, such as humility and liberality, and slightly on the side of frugality in habitual things such as eating, sleeping, and talking, for it is in the nature of the lower soul to lean towards excess in habitual things and toward insufficiency and neglect in matters of religion. It is therefore wise and appropriate to go against the soul’s inclination on both accounts. The Proof of Islam, [Imam al-Ghazali], may God have mercy on him, has given similar indications in his writings.

To explain further, if a man giving charity is undecided as to whether he is being miserly or prodigal, let him go a little more toward the side of excess, for this is better than avarice. The soul is inclined to like money and to dislike parting from it; so it must always stand accused of miserliness. If a man is undecided whether he has excessive or insufficient humility, let him move a little toward being humble, for the same reason [stated above]. If on the other hand, he cannot decide whether is taking the right amount of food, sleep, or any other habitual thing, let him move toward reduction and economy, for the soul again stands accused here, and any reduction in such things is unreservedly praiseworthy, so long as it does not affect one’s mind or body adversely. Understand these things, for they are important!

Source: Imam ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad, Al-Fusul al-‘Ilmiyya wa’l-Usul al-Hikamiyya (Knowledge and Wisdom), translated by Dr. Mostafa al-Badawi, The Starlatch Press, Chicago, 2001, p. 59-61.

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