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Sufism and the Perennial Conflict of Good and Evil

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Article Index
Sufism and the Perennial Conflict of Good and Evil
Introduction
What the Prophet Brought
Umm ul-Ahadith, The Hadith of Jibril
The Relationship between Shari‘ah and Haqiqat
All Pages

Evil has been a problem for mankind since the advent of the first humans on earth. Cain killed his own brother, Abel, so that his ritual sacrifice might seem more worthy in the eyes of Allah — proof that the outward forms of religiosity are not sufficient to check the negative traits of the lower self. More is required to purify the self from these evil impulses. Abel had developed this quality, as evidenced by his refusal to harm his brother even when faced with the threat of death. His was the state of purified spiritual character. That character is not developed in a vacuum, but requires a focused discipline to achieve. It is a discipline that was developed and refined by subsequent generations into a systematic path of self-analysis and self-correction that became known as the “Science of the Self,” or Sufism.

Sufi discipline has always played an essential role in the life of human beings. It builds upon the teachings of scholars and spiritual scientists imbued with wisdom, sagacity and the courage to stand for what is right. Such teachers were intellectually adept, able to appeal not only to the masses but to academics and people of import.

Psychologically, Sufism works to neutralize the caustic character of negative personality traits, just as a base in a chemical reaction counters the properties of an acid. The wise men and women who have mastered this path are able purify themselves in this life are able to neutralize the axes of evil that so often seek to dominate human discourse.


Introduction

The struggle between good and evil is a perennial conflict that has been ongoing throughout human history. It has been unfolding from the time of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as evidenced by the dramatic showdown between their two children, Abel and Cain.

Abel, who represented good, was always in conflict with his brother, Cain, who represented evil. Both sought to worship Allah, and both were asked to render a sacrifice. However, under the influence of Satan, Cain chose as his gift the worst, most diseased sheep in his flock. Abel presented his best yearling. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, but Cain’s was rejected. Out of overwhelming envy, Cain slew Abel. Regarding this, Allah says:

وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ ابْنَيْ آدَمَ بِالْحَقِّ إِذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَانًا فَتُقُبِّلَ مِن أَحَدِهِمَا وَلَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الآخَرِ قَالَ لَأَقْتُلَنَّكَ قَالَ إِنَّمَا يَتَقَبَّلُ اللّهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ

And convey unto them, setting forth the truth, the story of the two sons of Adam — how each offered a sacrifice, and it was accepted from one of them whereas it was not accepted from the other. [And Cain] said: “I will surely slay you!” [Abel] replied: “Behold, Allah accepts only from those who are conscious of Him. Even if you lay your hand on me to slay me, I shall not lay my hand on you to slay you: behold, I fear Allah, the Sustainer of all the worlds.”

Through this one sees Abel’s purity of heart and his tolerance for his brother. More importantly, it shows his acceptance. Acceptance is a profound concept, because it goes far beyond mere tolerance. When we say we tolerate someone, we mean that we put up with his shortcomings and faults. To accept someone is to acknowledge his right to be himself, withholding both judgment and criticism. It represents a higher state of submission to Divine Will and issues from a place of unconditional love, making it a rare quality indeed.
Allah gave every person the right to defend himself from harm, but Abel adhered to an even higher standard. He said, “I am not extending my hand and I am not even defending myself.” Here again, we see another example of utter submission to his Lord and acceptance of His Divine Will.
Abel was motivated by the same high level of faith that guided Sayyidina Ibrāhīm when he was cast into the fire by Nimrod. Jibrīl came and asked Ibrāhīm if he needed help. His reply was, “No, for truly Allah is seeing me and will give me what I need.” He was not mistaken, for Allah then said:

ُلْنَا يَا نَارُ كُونِي بَرْدًا وَسَلَامًا عَلَى إِبْرَاهِيمَ

We said, “O Fire! be thou cool on Ibrāhīm”

In this tremendous trial, Sayyidina Ibrāhīm ¡ showed the highest level of submission to Allah, for even though he recognized Jibrīl as Allah’s messenger to the prophets, he said, “The one sending you knows what I need. I seek whatever He Wills.” If Jibrīl had said, “Allah is sending me to ensure that you are safe,” then Sayyidina Ibrāhīm would have accepted. There is tremendous subtlety in this affirmation of tawħīd, for keep in mind, this all occurred in the course of a great physical struggle between good and evil: the conflict between Sayyidina Ibrāhīm and Nimrod, who was the representative of Satan. Here, too, is another example of that perennial struggle.

Goal of the Believer: Perfection of Divine Service

Today, many Muslims believe that the purpose of Islam is to take them to Paradise and save them from Hell. In reality, this is only a secondary goal.

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ

I have only created Jinns and men, that they may worship Me.

Muhammad al-Asad, in his commentary on this verse, states:

Thus, the innermost purpose of the creation of all rational beings is their cognition (ma'rifah) of the existence of Allah and, hence, their conscious willingness to conform their own existence to whatever they may perceive of His will and plan: and it is this twofold concept of cognition and willingness that gives the deepest meaning to what the Qur’ān describes as “worship" (ibādah). As the next verse shows, this spiritual call does not arise from any supposed “need" on the part of the Creator, who is self-sufficient and infinite in His power, but is designed as an instrument for the inner development of the worshipper, who, by the act of his conscious self-surrender to the all-pervading Creative Will, may hope to come closer to an understanding of that Will and, thus, closer to Allah Himself.

Sayyidina Alī said:
All goodness is found in four character traits:
aš-šamt—knowing when to keep silent
an-nuţaq—awareness of what you speak
an-nazr—awareness of what you observe
al-ħaraka—awareness of where you are moving.

And he said:

Every speech, if it is not in dhikrullāh, is considered laghaw, idle talk, of no importance. And every silence not in thinking and meditating on Allah is considered heedlessness. And everything observed by the eyes from which one does not take an example is heedlessness. And every movement not in ta'abudun, worship, is useless, faţara. May Your Mercy envelop someone who made his speech Your Remembrance (nuţuq dhikruk) and made his silence contemplation and remembrance, and made his vision an example and made his movements worship. By that way the person will be saved from his tongue and his hand."

From these examples, we see that mankind was created to worship Allah. The Prophet came to teach us how to accomplish that fundamental purpose.


What the Prophet Brought

Allah sent Islam for all time:

إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللّهِ الإِسْلاَمُ وَمَا

The Religion before Allah is Islam.

هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَى وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ لِيُظْهِرَهُ عَلَى الدِّينِ كُلِّهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْمُشْرِكُونَ

It is He Who hath sent His Messenger with guidance and the Religion of Truth, to proclaim it over all religion, even though the Pagans may detest (it).

Islam consists of two aspects: belief and practice. Its purpose is to take each individual Muslim on a personal journey towards Allah, while at the same time creating a community in which people live together and work together as servants of Allah, striving to establish an ideal society, living under His guidance and seeking ongoing improvement and steadfast observance of Allah’s religion.

Living the religion of Islam depends on practices and actions. In the process of that journey, we face ongoing struggles between our instincts, egoistic desires and carnal lusts on the one hand, and the divine principles and good manners that the religion calls us to on the other. This struggle is continuous and like a war, in that victory or defeat are taking place at every moment. Evil may overcome the good for a time, and then good may overcome evil. Ultimately, one side overwhelms the other. The hope is that good will prevail. When the power of good surpasses that of evil, the individual soul begins to ascend through levels of knowledge that enables its possessor to prevent the ego’s selfish mastery. This enables the seeker to fully comply with and fulfill Allah’s Orders with alacrity. This is experienced on the seeker’s journey as manifestations of virtue emerging on the horizon of the self.

The struggle, however, is long. We are torn by truth and falsehood, greed and generosity, happiness and regret – pulled towards Heaven, then goaded towards Hellfire. The only way to avoid that bad ending is to override our selfishness, our egoistic desires and our carnal lusts. Such a victory can only come through faith, Īmān. Allah sent the Prophet Muhammad ÿ so that we might acquire this important trait, and thus advance on our spiritual journey towards Him.
Allah said:

هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ

وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ

It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered an apostle from among themselves, to recite unto them His revelations, to purify them, and to instruct them in the Book and Wisdom, although they had been, before, in manifest error.

Here Allah makes clear that Sayyidina Muhammad’s mission is first to teach revelation, then to purify us, then to teach us the Holy Qur’ān and wisdom. Note that tazkīyyat an-nafs, purification of the self, precedes learning the Holy Qur’ān and wisdom.


Umm ul-Ahadith, The Hadith of Jibril

We cite here the well-known hadith of Jibrīl ¡ which all scholars recognize as the source of the Sunnah and the source of all hadith (Umm as-Sunnah wa umm al-aħādīth). As one of the most important hadiths in Islam, it needs no additional support:

قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي اَبِي عُمَرُ بْنُ الْخَطَّابِ قَالَ بَيْنَمَا نَحْنُ عِنْدَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ذَاتَ يَوْمٍ اِذْ طَلَعَ عَلَيْنَا رَجُلٌ شَدِيدُ بَيَاضِ الثِّيَابِ شَدِيدُ سَوَادِ الشَّعَرِ

لاَ يُرَى عَلَيْهِ اَثَرُ السَّفَرِ وَلاَ يَعْرِفُهُ مِنَّا اَحَدٌ حَتَّى جَلَسَ اِلَى النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَاَسْنَدَ رُكْبَتَيْهِ اِلَى رُكْبَتَيْهِ وَوَضَعَ كَفَّيْهِ عَلَى فَخِذَيْهِ وَقَالَ يَا مُحَمَّدُ

اَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الإِسْلاَمِ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ الإِسْلاَمُ اَنْ تَشْهَدَ اَنْ لاَ اِلَهَ اِلاَّ اللَّهُ وَاَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَتُقِيمَ الصَّلاَةَ وَتُؤْتِيَ الزَّكَاةَ

وَتَصُومَ رَمَضَانَ وَتَحُجَّ الْبَيْتَ اِنِ اسْتَطَعْتَ اِلَيْهِ سَبِيلاً ‏.‏ قَالَ صَدَقْتَ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَعَجِبْنَا لَهُ يَسْاَلُهُ وَيُصَدِّقُهُ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَاَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الإِيمَانِ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ اَنْ تُؤْمِنَ بِاللَّهِ

وَمَلاَئِكَتِهِ وَكُتُبِهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ وَتُؤْمِنَ بِالْقَدَرِ خَيْرِهِ وَشَرِّهِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ صَدَقْتَ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَاَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الإِحْسَان ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ اَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَاَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ فَاِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ

تَرَاهُ فَاِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَاَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ السَّاعَةِ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَا الْمَسْئُولُ عَنْهَا بِاَعْلَمَ مِنَ السَّائِلِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَاَخْبِرْنِي عَنْ اَمَارَتِهَا ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ اَنْ تَلِدَ الأَمَةُ رَبَّتَهَا وَاَنْ تَرَى

الْحُفَاةَ الْعُرَاةَ الْعَالَةَ رِعَاءَ الشَّاءِ يَتَطَاوَلُونَ فِي الْبُنْيَانِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ ثُمَّ انْطَلَقَ فَلَبِثْتُ مَلِيًّا ثُمَّ قَالَ لِي ‏"‏ يَاعُمَرُ اَتَدْرِي مَنِ السَّائِلُ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قُلْتُ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ اَعْلَمُ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏

"‏ فَاِنَّهُ جِبْرِيلُ اَتَاكُمْ يُعَلِّمُكُمْ دِينَكُمْ

From Umar who said, “While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah, there appeared before us a man with a very white garment, and very black hair. No traces of journeying wee visible on him and none of us knew him. He sat down close by the Prophet, rested his knees against his and put his palms on his thighs and said, ‘O Muhammad inform me about Islam.’ Said the Messenger: ‘Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, that you should say the prayers, pay the zakāt, fast during Ramadan and go on Hajj to the House if you can find a way to do so.’ He said, ‘You have spoken truly.’ We were astonished at his first questioning him and telling him that he was right, but he went on to say: ‘Inform me about Īmān.’ Muhammad answered: ‘It is that you believe in Allah and His angels, and his books and his messengers and in the last Day and that you should believe in the Decreeing of both good and evil.’ He said: ‘You have spoken truly.’ Then he said: ‘Inform me about Iħsān [perfection of character].’ The Messenger answered: ‘It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him, yet He sees you.’

Thereupon the man went off. I waited a while and then the Prophet said: ‘O Umar do you know who that was?’ I replied: ‘Allah and His Messenger know better.’ He said: ‘That was Jibrīl. He came to teach you your religion.’”

In this hadith, the archangel Jibrīl divided religion into three categories or main branches, from which everything else – all ahādīth and all Sunnah – flows. He also emphasized the divisions between each branch by asking about each one separately. The first is Islam, the practical side of the religion that includes worship, deeds and other obligations. It relates to the external aspect of the self, the body and the community. Scholars call this Shari'ah. It is the subject of Ilm al-Fiqh, the Science of Jurisprudence.

The Second Component of Din al-Islam - Iman (Belief)

The second category, Imān, is the expression of belief through the mind and heart. This means belief in Allah, His Messengers, His Books, the Angels, the Last Day, and Destiny. This became known to scholars as Ilm at-Tawħīd, the Science of Divine Unity, or Ilm al-aqā’id, the Science of Doctrine. The meaning of Imān is elaborated on elsewhere in the Holy Qur’ān:

قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَابُ آمَنَّا قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَكِن قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ وَإِن تُطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ لَا يَلِتْكُم مِّنْ أَعْمَالِكُمْ شَيْئًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

The desert Arabs say, “We believe.” Say, “Ye have no faith; but ye (only)say, We have submitted our wills to Allah, For not yet has Faith entered your hearts. But if ye obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not belittle aught of your deeds: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."

Here, Allah informs the desert Arabs that they have yet to attain true belief. Rather, they have achieved the level of Islam. They became Muslims, but faith did not yet enter their hearts. Faith entails belief in the Unseen, al-Imān bi ’l-ghayb, and the highest level of faith is to testify to the truth of the Prophet’s statements, as Sayyidina Abū Bakr did when the Quraysh confronted him saying, “Your companion claims to have ascended to heaven and returned in one night. What do you say to that?” and he replied, “The Messenger of Allah spoke the truth.”

The Third Component of Din al-Islam - Ihsan (Perfection of Character)

The third aspect of religion is known as Iħsān, Perfection of Character. It combines the first category, worship, and the second, belief, to reach the State of Presence. This is why the maqām al-Iħsān is described as worshipping Allah “as if you are seeing Him.” The qualifier “as if” is necessary, because in reality we cannot see Allah. However, we can reach a level where we realize that Allah is seeing us. That is a colossal perception, and it is sometimes termed al-yaqīn, certainty. One who has reached this state of perception is granted a taste of spiritual pleasure and illuminated with the light of knowledge by Allah. The heart of the seeker is filled with His Favors and Grants.

The path to this high station of spiritual awareness has been termed by scholars the Science of Truth, ilm al-Haqīqat. In the time nearest to the Prophet , during the lives of the Sahaba, it was known as aš-Šiddiqīyya, the path of the veracious. Later, it become known as ilm at-tašawwuf, the Science of Sufism.

We see then that Islam prescribes the behavior of a Muslim, Īmān relates to his beliefs and defines them, and Iħsān refers to the state of the heart which determines whether his Islam and Iħsān will bear fruit in this life and the next.


The Relationship between Shari‘ah and Haqiqat

Understanding the distinctions that separate these three components of religion, we can then turn to the relationship between Fiqh, the science of jurisprudence, and Tašawwuf, the science of Iħsān. To understand this relationship, it is useful to consider the example of prayer.

The science of fiqh teaches us that we must perform our prayer in full accordance with the rules of the Shari'ah, including all of the prescribed actions, invocations and intentions. This is known as jassad aš-šalāt, the body of the prayer. Included in these is the requirement to keep the heart in Allah’s Divine Presence and to know that Allah is observing you during the entire prayer. The external form of the šalāt is its body, and the humility and self-effacement, khushu, is its soul, or rūħ. This is the essence of the prayer, but we know from our own experience that people sometimes perform the outward actions of šalāt without this inner awareness in their hearts. The one who performs the outward actions of šalāt without maintaining this awareness of the Divine Presence is like a zombie.
As the soul needs the body in which to live, so too does the body need the soul to give it life. The proper relationship between Shari'ah and Haqīqat is like the relationship between body and soul. The perfect believer who has reached the state of Iħsān is the one who can conjoin Shariah and Haqīqat.

That is why Imān came directly after the five pillars of Islam in Umm al-ħadīth which defined al-aqāid — the doctrine of Islam. If Imān is strong, then one can ascend to the third level, which is moral excellence — the state of Iħsān. Imān is the mindset of belief, itiqād fikrī. Imān is a theoretical belief that requires strong character to accept. Imān needs a booster. That booster is the spiritual dimension of the self. Returning to the story of Cain and Abel, we see now that Cain was arrogant and his faith was weak. These diseases of the heart led him to kill his brother and lie to his Lord. He fulfilled Allah’s Order to make a sacrifice, but his intention was impure. His story is important, for it shows us that one can perform the outward acts required by the religion and still fail to fulfill the attending obligations because those actions lack sincerity and are, therefore, not accepted.

Consider the case of one who performs his obligatory prayers, but while doing so conspires in his mind against his brother or sister. Will his prayer be accepted? A Muslim who prays and fasts but does not have a purified soul and does not have a qalbun dhākiran, a heart that remembers Allah, but instead gives himself over to all kinds of pleasures and desires - one who never knew humbleness, or sincerity, or struggles in the Way of Allah – his heart is dead, although he performs his prayers. He is a Muslim in appearance, but not in reality. What is the benefit of a dry prayer that has no soul in it and no life? In such a person Islam becomes weak and faith becomes weak because there is no warmth, no shawk, no love, no yearning, no emotion, no fear, no compassion. That one is no different from someone who is not a Muslim.

وعن أبي هريرة قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ( آية المنافق ثلاث . إذا حدث كذب وإذا وعد أخلف وإذا اؤتمن خان وإن صام وصلى وزعم أنه مسلم . (مسلم

Abū Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet said, “A hypocrite has three distinguishing signs; first when he talks he lies; when he makes a promise he breaks it; and when something is entrusted to him he misappropriates it. And  [this is the case] even if he prays and fasts and considers himself a Muslim.”

How many Muslims today observe all five pillars, yet when they speak they lie; when they make business deals they cheat and when they enter politics they are deceitful. Such people make promises they do not keep, and they feel no remorse in eating the money of other Muslims. Such a person, even if he offers the prayers and keeps the fast, and considers himself a pious mosque-attendee, is still a hypocrite.

عَنْ سَهْلِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ السَّاعِدِيِّ، اَنَّهُ قَالَ مَرَّ رَجُلٌ عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَقَالَ لِرَجُلٍ عِنْدَهُ جَالِسٍ ‏"‏ مَا رَاْيُكَ فِي هَذَا ‏"‏‏.‏ فَقَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ اَشْرَافِ النَّاسِ، هَذَا وَاللَّهِ

حَرِيٌّ اِنْ خَطَبَ اَنيُنْكَحوَاِنشَفَعاَنيُشَفَّعَ‏.‏ قَالَ فَسَكَتَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثُمَّ مَرَّ رَجُلٌ فَقَالَ لَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ مَا رَاْيُكَ فِي هَذَا ‏"‏‏.‏ فَقَالَ يَا

رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا رَجُلٌ مِنْ فُقَرَاءِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ، هَذَا حَرِيٌّ اِنْ خَطَبَ اَنْ لاَ يُنْكَحَ، وَاِنْ شَفَعَ اَنْ لاَ يُشَفَّعَ، وَاِنْ قَالَ اَنْ لاَ يُسْمَعَ لِقَوْلِهِ‏.‏ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ هَذَا

خَيْرٌ مِنْ مِلْءِ الاَرْضِ مِثْلَ هَذَا ‏"‏‏. (البخاري

Abūl-Abbās Sahl ibn Sa'ad as-Sa'adī relates that a person passed by the Holy Prophet and the Prophet asked one of the Companions that was sitting with him: “what do you think of this man, who has just passed this way?” The companion replied, “He is one of the noblest (or gentlest) of men, and by Allah, if he proposes marriage with any woman, his proposal should be accepted, and if he should recommend, his recommendations should prove effective.” And the Holy Prophet kept quiet. Then another man passed by and the Prophet asked, “What is your opinion of this man.” The companion replied, “He belongs to the class of poor Muslims. If he goes for marriage his proposal will be turned down; if he were to intercede on behalf of any person, his intercession would be rejected; and if he were to speak nobody would listen to him.” The Holy Prophet said, “If everyone in the world were like the first man, this man would be better than them all.”

The first person described is someone highly respected in the community. The second person described is an indigent of no apparent consequence. But the first is proud and arrogant, and full of all sorts of bad manners, while the second is humble and sincere. Although both pray, fast, give charity and do hajj, their actions will be weighed in accordance with what is in their hearts. Again, we find the same dichotomy that separated Cain and Abel.

These ahādīth of the Prophet , narrated by authentic sources, demonstrate that Islam requires more than just outward adherence to its five pillars. It also requires us to overcome the diseases of the ego and approach those acts of worship with sincerity and purity of heart. If we do not, all that we have done in the way of worship may come to naught and we may face disaster of Judgment Day, for Allah said:

وَقَدِمْنَا إِلَى مَا عَمِلُوا مِنْ عَمَلٍ فَجَعَلْنَاهُ هَبَاء مَّنثُورًا

And We shall turn to whatever deeds they did (in this life), and We shall make such deeds as floating dust scattered about.