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 Eemaan, the strength and depth of faith. A living faith drives the one who possesses it to shield himself from whatever displeases Allah. This shield in Arabic is called "Taqwaa." It has been variously translated as "fear of God", "piety", as well as "God-consciousness"; and it carries all these meanings and more. Allah clearly expressed the superiority of Taqwaa as follows:
"Verily the most noble among you Is the one with the most Taqwaa."
Allah is here saying that the only factor which makes a believing man or woman truly superior to another is the level of Taqwaa. It is this piety or fear of God which elevates man from the level of "thinking animal" to that of governor (Khaleefah) of the planets. The importance of the fear of Allah in a Muslim's life cannot be overstressed. Allah mentioned Taqwaa and its derivatives 26 times in the Qur'aan, everywhere emphasizing that Taqwaa 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 Allah (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said: "A woman is married for four (reasons): her wealth, her nobility, her beauty, and her piety. Choose the pious one and be successful." 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 (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said, "If a man whose practise of the religion satisfies you, asks you for your daughter in marriage, you should marry them; otherwise there will be corruption in the land."
The Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) once reprimanded Abu Dharr for derisively calling Bilal, 'son of a black woman', then he went on to say, "Look! Surely you are not better than a brown man nor a black man except by fearing Allah more than them." This understanding was hammered home time and time again by Allah's Messenger (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). 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 Taqwaa.
The most pious individuals are only known to Allah, because the seat of Taqwaa is the heart. Man can only judge people by each other's outward deeds which may or may not be misleading. Allah 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 Allah as a witness to what is in his heart; yet, he will be among the most vicious of enemies."
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 (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) specified among his companions (Sahaabah) some whom he gave glad tidings of paradise in this life. However, such pronouncements were based on revelation and not his own ability to judge the hearts. For example, when the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said concerning those who make a pledge of allegiance known as Bay'ah ar-Ridwaan, "No one who made the pledge beneath the tree will enter the hellfire," he was confirming the Qur'anic verse revealed to that effect:
"Allah is pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you beneath the tree..."
Similarly, he judged some whom everyone thought were destined to paradise to be among those destined for the hellfire. All such judgements were based on revelation. Ibn 'Abbaas said that he was told by 'Umar ibn al-Khattaab that on the day of (the battle) of Khaybar, 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," Allah's Messenger declared, "By no means! I have seen him in hell in a cloak which he took (from the spoils) dishonestly." Allah's Messenger then said, "Go, Ibn al-Khattaab, and announce among the people three times that only the believers will enter paradise."
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 (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) who said, "Do not praise me excessively as the Christians did to 'Eesaa ibn Maryam, verily I am only a slave, so call me instead the slave of Allah and His Messenger."
 Surah al-Hujuraat, 49:13.
 Reported by Abu Hurayrah and collected by al-Bukhaaree (Sahih Al-Bukhari; (Arabic-English), vol.7, pp.18-9, no.27) and Muslim (Sahih Muslim, (English Trans.), vol.2, p.749, no. 3457).
 Reported by Abu Hurayrah and collected by at-Tirmidhee.
 Reported by 'Abdullaah ibn 'Amr and collected by Ahmed.
 Surah al-Baqarah, 2:204.
 Among them are ten well known, Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthmaan, 'Alee, Talhah, az-Zubayr, Sa'd ibn Abee Waqqaas, Sa'eed ibn Zayd, 'Abdur-Rahmaan ibn 'Awf, Abu 'Ubaydah ibn al-Jaarraah (see al-'Aqeedah at-Tahaaweeyah, pp.485-7).
 Reported by Jaabir and collected by Muslim (Sahih Muslim (English Trans.), vol.3, p.1034, no.4576).
 Surah al-Fath, 48:18.
 Collected by Muslim. See Sahih Muslim (English Trans.) vol.1, p.65, no.209.
 Reported by 'Umar ibn al-Khattaab and collected by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim (See Sahih Al-Bukhari, (Arabic-English), vol.4, p.435, no.654).
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