In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Preservation of the final revelation, The Qur’an, includes retaining of the meaning of its words. Allah chose the Arabic language to be the final medium for His last revelation, as the meanings of its words are closely tied to deeper meanings within the letters that form them. As the letters derive their meanings from the way they are pronounced or uttered, the meanings of the Quran are naturally preserved as long as the words are pronounced correctly in accordance with the canonized recitations (qira’at). This unique feature of Qur’anic Arabic is why the correct method of audible recitation, known as tajwid, is so important, not merely the shapes and order of letters; the Qur’an is actually what is recited aloud.
An example of this preservation of meaning by sound is the word al-Birr, often translated as piety, righteousness, or benevolence. The word is actually far more reaching than ritual piety, as the English translation might suggest. The deeper meaning of the word can be better understood through the individual letters it is composed of. The first letter is B, this letter is pronounced with a pressure to maintain both lips together and it indicates connection, sticking together, or gluing. The second letter is R, it is pronounced by a vibration of the tongue in the mouth and it refers to turbulence, action, or motion. In this case, the word Birr implies an activity that is preceded by a connection.
Interestingly, flipping the order of the letter gives us the word Rabb, often translated in English as Lord. Again, following the meanings of letters, Rabb refers to a connection that follows an activity. In the context of Lord, in everything that happens to us we can observe Allah’s care over us by providing rain, food, sustenance, and other blessings. Upon observing the unity of these seemingly disconnected events and phenomena, we establish a relationship or ‘connection’ with our Lord.
On the other hand, Birr means to have this realization or ‘connection’ first and then to engage in activities that honor this relationship. We connect with Allah through our faith then we engage in righteous deeds. As Allah said:
وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولَٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ الْجَنَّةِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ
Those who have faith and do righteous deeds, those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide therein forever.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:82
In this formulation, the Qur’an always mentions faith as preceding good deeds, the same as implied in the word Birr, establishing a relationship before developing it with activities.
Likewise, Jundub ibn Abdullah (may Allah be pleased with him) said:
وَنَحْنُ فِتْيَانٌ حَزَاوِرَةٌ فَتَعَلَّمْنَا الْإِيمَانَ قَبْلَ أَنْ نَتَعَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ ثُمَّ تَعَلَّمْنَا الْقُرْآنَ فَازْدَدْنَا بِهِ إِيمَانًا
We were with the Prophet ﷺ while we were strong young boys. We learned faith before we learned the Quran, then we learned the Quran and it strengthened our faith.
The companions were first taught to have faith, then they engaged in learning the Quran on the basis of their faith. From this perspective, we can start to understand the different contexts this word Birr as it appeared in the Quran and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
One of Allah’s Names is Al-Barr
Consistent observation of nature is essential to the recognition that only one uncreated Creator exists. At the heart of this realization is the connection between all creations pointing to one Source from which they came. The sound theology of Islam perfectly explains all of reality and its purpose, as well as the fate that lies ahead of all of us. Corrupt concepts, by contrast, are rooted in discontinuities in which people are distracted by what is immediate and fleeting, while they fail to grasp the bigger picture.
In the Qur’an, Allah has associated such discontinuity with corruption:
الَّذِينَ يَنقُضُونَ عَهْدَ اللَّهِ مِن بَعْدِ مِيثَاقِهِ وَيَقْطَعُونَ مَا أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ وَيُفْسِدُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْخَاسِرُونَ
Those who break the covenant of Allah and it is enacted, who sever (relationships) Allah has commanded to be joined, and spread corruption on the earth; these are truly lost.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:27
Breaking the covenant of Allah is a discontinuity in faith, and severing relationships such as family is a discontinuity of community. These are acts of corruption in Islam, the opposite of Birr.
The great importance of Birr is highlighted by the fact it is related to an Attribute of Allah, derived from the same linguistic root. Allah tells us the believers will say on the Day of Resurrection:
إِنَّا كُنَّا مِن قَبْلُ نَدْعُوهُ ۖ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْبَرُّ الرَّحِيمُ
Indeed, we used to call upon Him previously, for He is the Benevolent (Al-Barr), the Merciful.
Surat al-Dhariyat 52:28
Upon establishing this benevolent connection with their Creator, the believers also become recipients of His special mercy and kindness. As such, true believers should be benevolent and merciful to the creation as a reflection of their Creator’s Attributes.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ describes the process by which believers connect to their Lord:
يَقُولُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى أَنَا عِنْدَ ظَنِّ عَبْدِي بِي وَأَنَا مَعَهُ إِذَا ذَكَرَنِي فَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي نَفْسِهِ ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي نَفْسِي وَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي مَلَإٍ ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي مَلَإٍ خَيْرٍ مِنْهُمْ وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ بِشِبْرٍ تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ ذِرَاعًا وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ ذِرَاعًا تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ بَاعًا وَإِنْ أَتَانِي يَمْشِي أَتَيْتُهُ هَرْوَلَةً
Allah Almighty says: I am as My servant expects Me and I am with him as he remembers Me. If he remembers Me in himself, I will remember him in Myself. If he mentions Me in a gathering, I will mention him in a greater gathering. When he draws near Me by the span of his hand, I draw near him by the length of a cubit. When he draws near Me by the length of a cubit, I draw near him by the length of a fathom. When he comes to Me walking, I come to him running.”
As one remembers Allah, he or she becomes closer to Him. This, in turn, makes the inhabitants of the heavens closer to them, which then makes the believers closer to them. By connecting to Allah, one forges a stronger connection with all those connected to Allah.
This natural principle of ordering by connection can be observed in everyday life and all throughout Islamic teachings. That is why, for instance, one should give charity to the closest neighbor or closest family members first. One should give to their closest family members (parents, etc.), then to those in closest proximity (neighbors, the poor), then those in further proximity (travelers, etc.). Similarly, every action a believer takes is ordered and prioritized upon levels of connection, just as the obligatory prayers take priority over voluntary prayers.
Birr and connection with Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
It is commonly stated that being around those who are successful itself breeds success. In the context of faith, the connection with Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is a must for every believer who wants to develop a clear direction in life and success in the Hereafter. Allah has order this connection in the Quran:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ ۚ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا
Verily, Allah and His angels send blessings upon the Prophet. O you who have faith, send blessings and abundant peace upon him.
Surat al-Ahzab 33:56
This connection ensures that Muslims can always clarify ambiguities and remedy confusion along the journey of life by returning to the closest point of revelation, which is the Prophet. One cannot expect to renew the Ummah and shed its worldly inclinations without reestablishing a deep connection to him.
As revival in the Ummah is necessary to shed away accumulation of worldly inclinations, this revival is strictly contingent on going back and connecting to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by understanding his way of life, his mannerisms, his character, his values, and his wisdom.
The Prophet ﷺ related success of the Ummah directly to how well they knew about him:
يَأْتِي عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ يَغْزُو فِئَامٌ مِنَ النَّاسِ فَيُقَالُ لَهُمْ فِيكُمْ مَنْ رَأَى رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَيَقُولُونَ نَعَمْ فَيُفْتَحُ لَهُمْ
A time will come to people when groups of people set out upon a campaign and it is said amongst them, ‘Who among you has seen the Messenger of Allah?’ They will yes, and they will be given victory.
Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2532
Essential to connecting with Allah (Al-Barr) and His Prophet ﷺ is by practicing good manners and benevolence with the creation. In this regard, the Prophet ﷺ said:
الْبِرُّ حُسْنُ الْخُلُقِ وَالإِثْمُ مَا حَاكَ فِي صَدْرِكَ وَكَرِهْتَ أَنْ يَطَّلِعَ عَلَيْهِ النَّاسُ
Righteousness (al-birr) is good character, and sin is what waivers in your heart and you hate for people to find out about it.
One simply cannot keep up a good relationship with anyone, let alone family members or believers, if they have poor manners and lack Islamic values. Hence, the meaning of Al-Birr comes full circle: as a connection to Allah, then to His Messenger, then to creation. And each connection (represented by the letter B) is followed by good activities (represented by the letter R).
Allah has blessed humanity with a revelation that preserves its eternal and universal meanings, even societies and people’s language varies greatly over time. This preservation through the Qur’anic Arabic language allows us to understand the true meanings of the divine revelation and the terminology of the religion (din). Birr, which implies connection, is directly related to the Lordship of Allah. It is only when we realize that all the creation operates on the same natural principles that we understand the Creator is One. This concept further expands in Islam to involve our conduct with others, through good manners and charity as a means of establishing unified, continuous, and beneficial relationships.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.