Lessons from Imam Malik’s Letter to al-‘Umari, the Renuncient
Imam Malik was once urged by ‘Abd Allah al-‘Umari – who was given to much worldly detachment (zuhd) – that he ought to devote far more time to spiritual seclusion and to other personal acts of piety. Imam Malik wrote a letter of courtesy to him, offering this piece of wisdom:
إِنَّ الـلَّـهَ تـعـالَـى قَـسَّـمَ الأَعْـمَـالَ كَـمَـا قَـسَّـمَ الأَرْزَاقَ ، فَـرُبَّ رَجُـلٍ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـلاةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـدَقَـةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الْـجِـهَـادِ , وَنَـشْـرُ الْـعِـلْـمِ مِـنْ أَفْـضَـلِ الأَعْـمَـالِ ، وَقَـدْ رَضِـيـتُ مَـا فُـتِـحَ لِـي فِـيـهِ ، وَمَـا أَظُـنُّ مَـا أَنَـا فِـيـهِ بِـدُونِ مَـا أَنْـتَ فِـيـهِ ، وَأَرْجُـو أَنْ يَـكُـونَ كِـلانَـا عَـلَـى خَـيْـرٍ وَبِـرٍّ.
‘Allah, exalted is He, apportions people’s actions as He apportions their sustenance. So sometimes He grants a spiritual opening to a person in terms of [optional] prayers, but not [optional] fasting. Or He grants an opening in giving charity, but not in fasting. To another, He may grants them an opening for jihad. As for spreading sacred knowledge, that is from the best of deeds, and I am pleased with what Allah has opened to me. Nor do I imagine that what I am engaged in is any less than what you are engaged in; and I hope that both of us are upon goodness and righteousness.’1
Its adab and humility aside, the core lesson from the letter is: When Allah opens a door to being consistent in doing a certain righteous deed, and makes that your main focus, then cling to it and do not give it up for anything else. We should, undoubtedly, have a share of other good deeds too; without them necessarily being our main preoccupation or focus.
Something similar is suggested in a report concerning Ibn Mas‘ud, when he was asked as to why he did not fast optional fasts more frequently. His reply:
.إِنِّـي إِذَا صُـمْـتُ ضَـعُـفْـتُ عَـنْ قِـرَاءَةِ الـقُـرْآنِ , وَقِـرَاءَةُ الـقُـرْآنِ أَحَـبُّ إِلَـيَّ مِـنَ الـصَّـوْمِ
‘When I fast, it weakens my ability to recite the Qur’an; and reciting the Qur’an is more beloved to me than [optional] fasting.’2
We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq.
1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:114.
2. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.8909; al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8868.