What is the role of Islam in guiding the human conscience?
Islam gives careful consideration to the heart or human conscience. According to ethics scholars, malady-free heart and its steadfast inclination to perform good deeds means that such a heart is granted Allah’s Pleasure and Prosperity. Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, says, “Allah doesn't care about your appearance or money; He only cares about your hearts and deeds. Piety is here (referring to his chest)”.
In fact, the truth-relieved and straight heart that abides by the right path can be trusted to perform every beneficent and glorious action; it can impart its pure quality to everything; it is encompassed by Allah's blessings due to its constant contact with Allah.
I would like to cite here some instances that reflect the degree of heart integrity and conscience purity.
During one’s childhood and adolescence, one likes, and probably exerts strenuous efforts, to make a great show of many things to be praised by others. Adulation and hypocrisy appeal to human nature. Seeking to please people is an end in one’s early stages of life. As a human being grows up, his outlook becomes highly sublime and he turns only to Allah. The hypocrite person only thinks of and works for people, but the sincere one only thinks of and works for the Lord of all people and creatures.
Religion cherishes tolerance and asks us to devote our deeds to Allah alone. If a human being seeks the satisfaction of Allah and people together, Allah will not accept his deeds.
Allah exclusively accepts deeds consecrated only to Him. Thus, a true believer always tries to perfect his work and fulfill his duties irrespective of whether he is seen or praised by people or not. He would do his best under any circumstances whether his employers and superintendents praise or scold him.
A human being, by nature, likes to receive material or moral rewards for his work. He may stop working if he does not receive an immediate reward; he would not care about work if its compensation is little or deferred. Nevertheless, if one has sincere devotion to Allah, one fulfills one’s duty perfectly, for one is certain that he will definitely receive his permanent reward from Allah on the Day of Judgment.
The role of conscience here is to make a human being steadfast in performing his duty even if people underestimate or deny things he does. The Prophet (P.B.U.H) says, “You will find selfishness (among people) after my death”. They said, “What do you command us to do”? The Prophet answered, “Perform your duties and ask Allah only to reward you”.
This means that we should fulfill our duties perfectly and leave everything to Allah Whom we only ask for our rewards and Whom everything goes well with.
Inclination to give others must be based on self-incentive motives whose end must be seeking Allah’s Pleasure, irrespective of whether people are pleased or not. Allah says in the Ever-Glorious Qur’ān,
“The most pious one who will be spared Hell Fire is the one who gives his wealth away as self-purification, not to return a favor to anyone, but for the sake of his Lord, the Most High and he will be well pleased.” (92: 17 – 21)
Historians said, “while fighting the crusaders, Saladin noticed that the camps of the enemies caught fire twice, resulting in destruction and confusion. Looking at the enemy direction, he glimpsed the one who set that fire as he sided to the Muslim soldiers. He commanded that this person be brought to him. Interrogating him, Saladin asked him, “What is your name?” The man answered, “Allah knows”. To reassure him, Saladin told him, “I would like to reward you". The man said, “If I wanted money, I wouldn’t have come here” and he then left.
This is a noble soldier that attended the battlefield fighting for the sake of Allah and deemed Allah's satisfaction the most sufficient of all rewards. When Saladin, the Sultan, summoned him, he didn't like to be rewarded for his bravery.
Truly, Muslim's victory, their conquering of Bait ul-Maqdis, overcoming the malevolent warriors and rallying the scattered remnants of the nation can only be attributed to a number of Allah-connected and Allah’s pleasure-seeking consciences that performed their duties in silence, devotion and abstinence.
The Sultan could have fairly been content with paving the way and lightening it for these kind hearts but he would rather participate in carrying the stones in the morning and evening. If he willed, he would have issued commands and supervised those who worked. Nevertheless, he refused to do so and insisted that he himslef, together with his army, fill military gaps and construct fortifications!!
Let's contemplate on the description of these malady-absolved consciences given in the Qur’ān,
“…the Day when neither wealth nor children can help, when the only one who will be saved is the one who comes before Allah with a sound heart.” (26: 88-89)
The word sound here means free from cheating, impurities, megalomania and any attention-attracting behavior. The person who performs or perfects his work just for being praised or money will do nothing if money is halted and people are kept away.
This means that doing goodness, for him, is of a temporal not a permanent objective. He is such an unsound person whose heart is void of love and natural inclination to do goodness.
Some worldly aspirations for money and prestige may affect the heart. However, faith always resists such aspirations and conscience clings to its Master, submitting to Him. This is the meaning of Allah's saying,
“…who held the Most Gracious in awe, though He is unseen, who comes before Him with a heart turned to Him in devotion - so enter it in peace. This is the Day of everlasting Life.” (50: 33 – 34)
It is not surprising that the human ego loves money and prestige. However, this love should be defeated for the sake of Allah and His long-awaited bounty.
If we explore the reasons behind earthquakes that undermine nations' entities, we will find that they have to do with dead consciences and stone hearts that do not emit nobility, approve a virtue or get disgusted from a bad behavior.
The honorable Sunnah mentions many examples of the living conscience that overcomes temptations, defeats immoral suggestions and manages to swim against the current and just to remain safe.
Abu Ḑharr, may Allah be pleased with him, has reported that the Prophet (P.B.U.H) says,
There are three whom Allah loves and three whom Allah abominates. Concerning the three that are loved by Allah, the first is a man who comes to some people and asks (to be given something) for the sake of Allah and not for the sake of their kinship, but they refuse to give him. So one man stayed behind and gave him secretly, and no one knew of his giving except Allah and the one to him he gave.
The second is a man who stays awake to praise Allah, pray for Him and recite His verses while others are asleep. That man was with some people travelling all night until sleep became dearer to them than anything else and they fell fast asleep.
The third is a man who was on a campaign that was defeated and fled when they met their enemy. Unlike the rest of the company, that man went forward fighting the enemy expecting to be killed or be granted victory from Allah.
Concerning the three abominated by Allah, they are an adulterer old man, a fraudulent poor man and an unjust rich man.
It is obvious that the last three people have dead hearts that led them to habitually commit some sins despite the fact that they have poor motives for these sins.
There are also some other examples of living consciences that other Prophetic ḥadīths mentioned. An example is that of the man who can commit gross indecency but he resists its temptations to remain righteous and keep his relation with Allah pure.
Another example is that of a man who hired a worker who performed his job and then for a reason left before taking his wage. Therefore, the employer did not give the worker his pay. After several years, the worker came back to ask for his due wage. To the utter astonishment of the worker, the employer had invested the worker's wage with his own money until it became a fortune then he gives the worker his original wage and its plentiful profits.
Faith provides solid benchmarks of good conduct and makes the heart an awaking guard to the rights and duties. So, neither oppression nor chaos prevails.
Some regimes make the state sovereignty an awful ghost that coerces people in order to perfect their works. Have this coercion led to work perfection? No; no regime can appoint a policeman with every worker in the field or the factory to keep him active, with every contractor to be honest, with every physician to be attentive, with every merchant to avoid monopoly and with every president to keep him away from being despotic and tyrant.
What if a policeman commits treason? Should we appoint another policeman to watch him? It is said that we can prevent such moral deviations through upgrading people’s cultural level and educating both adults and children on the virtues that should be done and the vice that should be avoided.
Reality proves that major crimes have often been perpetrated by some really-knowledgeable criminals and that mental maturity does not entail kindness, sincerity or honesty. So many are those “intelligent” persons who were gross representatives of themselves and their nations. The Qur’ān warns Muslims to beware the behavior of such people. Allah says,
“[Prophet], consider the one who has taken his own whims as a Allah. Allah has led him into error although he had knowledge and has sealed his hearing and his heart, and made envelopment on his eyesight. Who can guide such a person after Allah [has done this]? Will you [people] not take heed?” (45: 23)
The pure, truth-seeking, honor-preserving, ego-defeating, affectionate hearts can only be created by firm faith and devoting association to Allah only.
In fact, Qur’ān's statements about Allah the Almighty, the past history of the ancient nations, resurrection, reckoning, reward, punishment and the numerous acts of worship He has enacted, comprise some elements that are required to ensure heart soundness and steadfast inclination to the truth and the goodness.
 Muḩammad El-Ghazāli, “A Hundred Questions on Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 116.