The Noblest Man is the One with Most Taqwa.
Dr Billal Philips
In the name of Allāh, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful;
All the praise and Thanks is due to Allāh, the Lord of al-‘ālameen. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allāh, and that Muhammad, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam is His Messenger.
Among the community of believers, some are superior to others; and this superiority is a direct result of their own strivings. It is a superiority linked to Eman, the strength and depth of faith. A living faith drives the one who possesses it to shield himself from whatever displeases Allāh. This shield in Arabic is called "Taqwa." It has been variously translated as "Fear of God", "Piety", "righteous" as well as "God-consciousness"; and it carries all these meanings and more.
Allāh Almighty clearly expressed "the superiority of Taqwa" as follows:
"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allāh is the most Taqwa (righteous) of you. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Acquainted."
[Surah Al-Hujurat 49:13]
Allāh is here saying that the only factor which makes a believing man or woman truly superior to another is the level of Taqwa. It is this piety or fear of God which elevates man from the level of "thinking creature" to that of governor [Khalifah] of the planets. The importance of the fear of Allāh in a Muslim's life cannot be overstressed. Allāh mentioned Taqwa and its derivatives 26 times in the Qur'an, everywhere emphasizing that Taqwa is the driving force behind living faith. Without it, faith is only a meaningless jumble of memorized words and phrases, and 'righteous' deeds only shells of pretense and hypocrisy.
Consequently, piety is preferred over all other considerations in all of life's transactions. The Messenger of Allāh (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: "A woman is married for four [reasons]: her wealth, her nobility, her beauty, and her piety. Choose the pious one and be successful." [Reported by Abu Hurairah (radiyallāhu’anhu) and collected by Al-Bukhari [Sahih Al-Bukhari; (Arabic-English), vol.7, pp.18-9, and no.27] and Muslim [Sahih Muslim, (English Trans.), vol.2, p.749, and no.3457].] No matter how beautiful, rich or well bred a woman might be, if she is not pious, she is inferior to a pious, ugly, poor woman from a dishonorable family.
The converse is also true, as the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: "If a man whose practice of the religion satisfies you, asks you for your daughter in marriage, you should marry them; otherwise there will be corruption in the land." [Reported by Abu Hurairah (radiyallāhu’anhu) and collected by at-Tirmidzi.]
The Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) once reprimanded Abu Dharr (radiyallāhu’anhu) for derisively calling Bilal ibn Rabab, 'son of a black woman', and then he went on to say, "Look! Surely you are not better than a brown man or a black man except by fearing Allāh more than them." [Reported by 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr (radiyallāhu’anhu) and collected by Ahmed.] This understanding was hammered home time and time again by Allāh's messenger (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam). Even in the Farewell Pilgrimage, done shortly before he died, he lectured the people on the insignificance of racial differences and the all importance of Taqwa. The most pious individuals are only known to Allāh, because the seat of Taqwa is the heart. Man can only judge people by each other's outward deeds which may or may not be misleading.
Allāh the Exalted made that abundantly clear in the following verse:"There is among people in this life, he whose speech will dazzle you. And he will call on Allāh as a witness to what is in his heart; yet, he will be among the most vicious of enemies." [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:204]
Therefore, it is not permissible for humans to designate certain people as being particularly saintly and pious to a degree beyond the reach of ordinary humans. The Prophet Muhammad (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) specified among his companions [Sahabah] some whom he gave glad tidings of paradise in this life. [ Among them are ten well known, Abu Bakar, 'Umar, 'Uthman, 'Ali, Talhah, Az-Zubair, Sa'ad Ibn Abi Waqqas, Sa'id Ibn Zaid, 'Abdul Rahman Ibn 'Auf, Abu 'Ubaidah Ibn Al-Jarrah [see al-'Aqidah at-Tahawiyah, pp.485-7].] However; such pronouncements were based on revelation and not his own ability to judge the hearts. For example, when the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said concerning those who make a pledge of allegiance known as Bai'ah Ar-Ridwan:"No one who made the pledge beneath the tree will enter the hellfire," [Reported by Jabir (radiyallāhu’anhu) and collected by Muslim [Sahih Muslim (English Trans.), vol.3, p.1034, no.4576].] he was confirming the Qur'anic verse revealed to that effect: "Allāh is pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you beneath the tree..." [Surah Al-Fath 48:18]
Similarly, he judged some whom everyone thought were destined to paradise to be among those destined for the hellfire. All such judgments were based on revelation. Ibn 'Abbas (radiyallāhu’anhu) said that he was told by 'Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (radiyallāhu’anhu) that on the day of [the battle] of Khaibar, some of the Prophet's companions came and said, "So and so is a martyr and so and so is a martyr," but when they came to a man about whom they said, "So and so is a martyr," Allāh's Messenger (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) declared, "By no means! I have seen him in hell in a cloak which he took [from the spoils] dishonestly." Allāh's Messenger (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) then said, "Go, Ibn Al-Khattab, and announce among the people three times that only the believers will enter paradise."[Collected by Muslim. See Sahih Muslim [English Trans.] vol.1, p.65, no.209.]
Islam indeed does not pay attention to the differences in colour, race or lineage. All people hails from Adam, and Adam was created from dust. The Most Honoured Person with Allāh is the Most Pious. However in Islam, the differentiation between people is based on faith (eman) and piety (taqwa), by doing that which Allāh has enjoined and avoiding that which Allāh has prohibited. Islam regards all people as equal as far as rights and duties are concerned. People are equal before the law (syari’ah).
Allāh Almighty says: “Whoever works righteousness — whether male or female — while he (or she) is a true believer (of Islamic Monotheism) verily, to him We will give a good life (in this world with respect, contentment and lawful provision), and We shall pay them certainly a reward in proportion to the best of what they used to do (i.e. Paradise in the Hereafter)” [Al-Nahl, 16:97]
Faith, truthfulness and piety all lead to Paradise, which is the right of the one who acquires these attributes, even if he is one of the weakest or lowliest of people.
Allāh says: “And whosoever believes in Allāh and performs righteous good deeds, He will admit him into Gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise) to dwell therein forever. Allāh has indeed granted for him an excellent provision” [Al-Talaq, 65:11]
Kufr, arrogance and oppression all lead to Hell, even if the one who does these things is one of the richest or noblest of people.
Allāh Almighty says: “But those who disbelieved (in the Oneness of Allāh – Islamic Monotheism) and denied Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.), they will be the dwellers of the Fire, to dwell therein forever. And worst indeed is that destination” [Al-Taghabun, 64:10]
The advisors of the Messenger (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) included Muslim men of all tribes, races and colours. Their hearts were filled with Tawhid and they were brought together by their faith and piety – such as Abu Bakar As-Siddiq (radiyallāhu’anhu) from Quraysh, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (radiyallāhu’anhu) from Bani Hashim, Bilal bin Rabah (radiyallāhu’anhu) the Ethiopian, Suhayb bin Sinan (radiyallāhu’anhu) the Roman, Salman (radiyallāhu’anhu) the Persian, rich men like ‘Uthman bi 'Affan (radiyallāhu’anhu) and poor men like ‘Ammar bin Yasir (radiyallāhu’anhu), people of means and poor people like Ahl al-Suffah, and others.
They believed in Allāh and strove for His sake, until Allāh and His Messenger were pleased with them. They were the true believers.
[See: Usul al-Deen al-Islami by Shaikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Tuwaijri]
Allāh Almighty says: “Their reward with their Lord is ‘Aden (Eden) Paradise (Gardens of Eternity), underneath which rivers flow. They will abide therein forever, Allāh will be pleased with them, and they with Him. That is for him who fears his Lord” [Al-Bayyinah, 98:8]
In Christian tradition down through the ages, some individuals were highly praised for their supposed spiritual achievements. Miracles were attributed to them and the rank of "saint" was bestowed on them. In pre-Christian Hindu and Buddhist tradition, teachers who were supposed to have climbed the ladder of spiritual excellence and who had performed supernatural feats were also given titles like Guru, Avatar, etc., indicating spiritual superiority.
These designations have led the masses to either seek intercession through them or to worship them as gods. Consequently, these religious traditions have lists of saints to whom the masses fervently pray. Islam, on the other hand, opposes even the excessive praise of Prophet Muhammad (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) who said, "Do not praise me excessively as the Christians did to 'Eesa ibn Maryam, verily I am only a slave, so call me instead the slave of Allāh and His messenger." [Reported by 'Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (radiyallāhu’anhu) and collected by Al-Bukhari and Muslim (See Sahih Al-Bukhari, (Arabic-English), vol.4, p.435, no.654.]
And Allāh Almighty Knows best.
[Excerpted with modification from Islam Q&A]