The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

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The Kaʿbah, the Abrahamic Call & the Spiritual Meaning of Hajj:

The Qur’an relates to us this duʿa of the Holy Prophet Abraham:

رَبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِنْدَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلاَةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِنْ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُمْ مِنْ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ

‘Our Lord! I have settled one of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House so that, O Lord, they may establish the prayer. Thus make the hearts of people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ [14:37]

This duʿa was made around 2000 BC. But let’s go even further back in sacred time to the dawn of man’s arrival on earth, to 3000 years earlier; or much more so:

It’s been said that Adam, the first man and prophet, having been told to leave Paradise for this dusty earth, was ordered to undertake a great journey.

Guided by Heaven, he travelled far till he came to the deserts of the Hijaz and stood, at last, in a valley ringed by mountains; a barren place of rock and sand. There he built a holy structure, a place of worship; and when this task of his was complete, he left. And for a great length of time, silence and stillness descended upon this sacred place, and windblown sand covered what Adam had built. The Qur’an says of this sacred House and valley:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِي بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلْعَالَمِينَ

The first sanctuary ever built for mankind was that at Bakkah [Makkah], a blessed place and a guidance for the worlds. [3:96]

The hadiths about Adam’s role in erecting the Kaʿbah aren’t definitive, their soundness questionable. What is certain, though; what does constitutes sound sacred history, is that:

After long ages had passed, two people came over the desert into the Makkan valley, with a child. The one, an elderly man in his eighties, Abraham by name and a prophet by destiny. The other, Hagar, his Egyptian maid-servant who had borne him this child in his old age: Ishmael. Near the mound that now covered the Sacred House, Abraham left both Ishmael and Hagar to the divine mercy and under divine instruction, leaving with them a few dates and a water skin.

Thirsty, hungry and perhaps by now distraught, Hagar left the child under a sheltered spot and began looking for water and help. Following a path that led her to the hilltop of Safa, there she saw no spring nor signs of habitation. She ran to the neighbouring hilltop, Marwa; again she saw nothing. Seven times she ran between the two hilltops, calling on Allah for mercy. It was then she heard the sound of a voice. Hurrying back to her son, she saw standing besides him an angel who was now striking the earth with his wing so that water gushed forth. This was the spring of Zamzam, from which the pilgrims in their millions drink even today. Here it was that Hagar settled, and reared Ishmael, soon to be joined by a wandering tribe from the north, the Jurhumites; and it is here she died and here he thrived.

Abraham would often come back to Makkah. On one such return, when Ishmael had grown to manhood, both father and son set about rebuilding the Kaʿbah; repeating Adam’s deed, as all men must in one way or another. Father and son dug the earth, found the foundations of the original structure, and rebuilt the Kaʿbah as a simple structure of four walls, setting in one corner of this House a white stone:

وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنْ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]; You are indeed the Hearing, the Knowing.’ [2:127]

On another earlier occasion, according to one of two authoratative readings, Abraham came to fulfill a dream about him and his first born, Ishmael:

فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ. فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ. وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ. قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ. إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ. وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ.

And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so what do you think?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you have been commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ So when they had both surrendered to Allah and he had turned him down on his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. Thus We reward the doers of good.’ That was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-07]

And then there is this duʿa spoken by Abraham, perhaps when he was leaving Makkah for the last time, or perhaps when he was back in the fertile land of Canaan:

رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمْ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

‘Our Lord! Raise from their midst a Messenger who shall recite to them Your signs, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

More than two millennia passed before Abraham’s prayer was answered. By that time, the worship of the One true God taught by Abraham was mixed with much idolatry, the Kaʿbah had been defiled with idols in and around it, and the pure white stone set in the eastern corner had been blackened because of the sins of men. Once more, the sacred House was largely forgotten, except to the Arabs and a few scattered tribes of nomads, of whom history took little notice.

But the time was at hand when the Abrahamic call would be reinstated, re-energised, and its scope made universal. And in the fullness of time, with destiny being ripe, there was born from Ishmael’s seed, among the Arabs, from the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim, a Messenger of God, a final Prophet, in a line of prophets extending all the way back to Adam and his descendents: Muhammad ﷺ – mercy to the worlds. Under the weight of the final divine Revelation, the Prophet ﷺ restored the primordial Adamic faith and reestablished the salvic truths of Abrahamic monotheism.1

The Pilgrimage to Makkah and to the Kaʿbah, as well as involving the continuity of a number of ancient rites, contains potent spiritual symbolism. The physical journey from one’s homeland is a reminder that one must eventually leave this world forever. Wearing the ihram reminds one that each will be buried in a shroud when they die and shall meet their Maker, shorn of any ability to hide behind clothes of pretension or of status. The huge multitudes of people camped out on the plain of Arafat, or under the desert sky of Muzdalifah, brings to mind the tumult and terror of the Resurrection, when all shall be marshalled together for judgement. But of course, the most potent symbol, and the one that most links us to the Abrahamic legacy, is the ritual sacrifice, in remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. For Abraham’s story is a story of loving submission – and it is loving submission and surrender that lie at the very heart of Islam.

1. See: Gai Eaton, Islam & the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 46-48.

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Egos, Injustice & Just Us: Shaping Our Social Order

Cruel and unjust treatment of women continues to be a huge problem the world over, including Muslim societies and communities. Despite the Qur’an insisting otherwise, mens’ egos can all too often turn a deaf ear to the divine commands in this regard. If we Muslim men wish to fare well in the Divine Court, we’d do well to scrub ourselves clean from the stench of male chauvinism and learn the virtue of chivalry (futuwwah). If we Muslims wish to draw down Allah’s favours on our societies or states and climb out of this pitiful state that is currently ‘the Muslim world’, we must put working for social justice at the heart of our concerns. The Qur’an demands: Be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. [5:8]

We’d also do well to understand that it’s not only about better or fairer treatment of women. It’s about justice and fairness for the other voiceless and vulnerable members of society too. In fact, scholars like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah hold that it is the absence of justice that is the main reason for Allah’s help and support to be withdrawn from any Muslim polity, thereby causing it to descend into tyranny, weakness, or rack and ruin. Ibn Taymiyyah puts it thus: ‘The affairs of people in this world are kept in order with justice and a certain measure of sin, more than with infringing peoples’ rights even when no other sin is involved. This is why it has been said that Allah upholds the just state even if it is disbelieving, but does not uphold the unjust one even if it is Muslim. It is also said that the world can endure with justice and disbelief, but cannot endure with injustice and Islam.’1

A little further on in the same discussion and we find Ibn Taymiyyah pressing on with the theme of justice and social stability, when he writes: ‘The reason for all this is that justice is the universal order of things. So when worldly administration is established upon justice, it works; even if the person in charge has no share in the Hereafter. But if it is not based on justice, it doesn’t work; even if the one in charge is a believer who will be rewarded in the Hereafter.’2

Of course, acts of corruption and tyranny that are routinely or ruthlessly perpetrated by a government or ruling elite will certainly have its negative impact upon the social order. But it’s when injustice becomes endemic; when not only the regime, but public servants or the general public play fast and loose with the shari‘ah and with matters of justice, that things really fall apart. When corruption becomes normalised in society; when bribery becomes firmly rooted among public servants; when parents internalise oppressive control mechanisms in the way they raise their children; when patriarchy of husbands crosses a line from being benign and compassionate to being unjust and tyrannical; and when boys are taught to objectify women or to be chauvinistic rather than to respect them and learn to be the gentleman that the Sunnah demands, then it matters little how corrupt or not the actual government is. For by then, the victims of corruption learn to live with it, the perpetrators continue out of habit or because they can, and everyone rationalises their guilt away by blaming the system, saying: “Well everyone does it!” If we add to this list of injustices the crimes of neglecting salat or zakat; lying, cheating and slandering; and sexual misconduct and immoral behaviour, then to blame only the regime for the country’s failings and miseries is nothing short of delusional and a grand lie! Consider wisely and dispassionately the following words of Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz when speaking about tyrannical rulers that are Muslim:

‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from injustice and doing wrong.’3

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:146.

2. ibid., 28:146.

3. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.

Do Good Deeds, But Don’t Rely Upon Them!

Hikam 1Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari (d.709H/1309CE) is best known in the Muslim world for his slim anthology of spiritual aphorisms known as Kitab al-Hikam, or Hikam al-Ata’iyyah. The Hikam’s enduring appeal and popularity, among scholars and layman alike, lies in its ability to convey Islam’s spiritual truths with beauty, brevity, energy of expression and layers of meaning. What follows is the first aphorism in the collection, along with a brief commentary:

مِنْ عَلَامَةِ الْاعْتِمَادِ عَلَىَ الْعَمَلِ نُقْصَانُ الْرَّجَاءِ عِنْدَ وُجُوْدِ الْزَّلَلِ

1. One of the signs of relying upon one’s deeds is the loss of hope when a slip occurs.

1 – A sure proof of being mislead into believing that it is our good deeds which bring us closer to Allah, rather than His unmitigated grace and pure generosity, is a loss of hope when a sin occurs. This, as masters of the inner life point out, is a lesser form of idolatry (shirk). Shaykh Muhammad Hayat al-Sindhi (d.1163H/1750CE) stated: ‘In this dependance is a branch of shirk that negates the perfection of tawhid.1 How so? For it reflects an unhealthy attachment on our part to deeds and their outcomes more than to the Creator of such deeds and His mercy and plenitude.

2 – This aphorism helps us to realise that we do not reach Allah through good deeds, but rather through His enabling grace (tawfiq), which allows us to do good: And Allah created you and what you do. [37:96] There is also this authentic hadith: ‘None of you will enter Paradise due to your deeds.’ They said: Not even you, O Allah’s Messenger? He ﷺ said: ‘Not even me; unless Allah covers me in His kindness and mercy.’2 In this realisation, then, lie the soul’s repose and the removal of the layered profanities of our own selfhood. For how can we harbour pretensions of righteousness when righteous accomplishments are not of our own doing, but are gifts from God? It’s only when we fail to see this reality do we then start to see works of faith as being of our own doing; and thus begin to be vain, conceited and bask in our own self-glory.

3 – Al-Shurnubi (d.1348H/1929CE) spells out: ‘The author’s aim in this aphorism is to arouse the seeker (salik) to diligently perform good deeds, whilst elevating his concern above relying on them, but instead to rely purely on the grace of [Allah] the Possessor of Majesty and Honour … His intent isn’t to instruct people to leave-off doing acts of worship.’3

4 – At this point, the more informed among us may point out the verse: Enter Paradise because of what you used to do, [16:32] and well ask how it squares with the above cited hadith? And it’s a good question that warrants pause for thought. Al-Shurnubi’s reply to it puts to rest any lingering pretensions as he explains ‘that deeds will not be given any consideration unless they are acceptable (maqbul); and their acceptance is purely by divine grace. Thus it is sound [to assert] that entry into Paradise is purely by Allah’s kindness, while actions are a cause of one’s level in it.’4

5 – As for the arifun – the ‘knowers’ of Allah; the true people of tawhid – they do not increase in hope by doing acts of good; for they are flooded with the intensification of perception, in that they experience all good as originating solely from God’s grace and boundless generosity; this includes their own acts of obedience too. ‘Their hopes do not deepen because of doing good deeds, in as much as they do not see themselves as the [actual] doers. Nor do their hopes in Allah’s mercy diminish if they fall short in an act of obedience or commit a slip. For they are immersed in the seas of contentment with the Divine Decree.’5

6 – The above degree of faith is an extraordinary one indeed. It is the station of those who worship Allah kannaka tarah – ‘as though seeing Him’ – as one celebrated hadith tells us.6 Most of us would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were at such a lofty degree of tawhid and awareness of the Divine Presence. Realistically, for us it’s more a case of what al-Shurnubi stresses next: ‘As for the seekers, it behoves them to delight in their righteous deeds and prioritise the required fear, due to the lessening of hope, when a slip occurs – as per the words of Imam al-Dardir: “Let your fear dominate over your hope/and travel to your Lord with straying (wa ghallibi’l-khawfa ‘ala raja’i/wa sir li mawlaka bila tana’i).” This is so, especially in our times when religiosity has weakened, sins have proliferated and trustworthiness has all but been lost.’7

7 – A final point that this aphorism points to is that sins must never lead to despair. In a state of sin, we must train our hearts to turn their gaze away from our [sinful] deeds to the mercy of Allah: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of Allah’s mercy! Allah forgives all sins; He is Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [39:53] Al-Sindhi states that: ‘The ‘arif’s gaze is on his Lord, not on his deeds.’8 We, too, must try and learn to do the same.

To summarise: The above aphorism offers us two invaluable lessons: (i) To realise that we do not reach Allah by our works of faith, but by His grace and acceptance of them. Simply put, salvation is through God’s grace, not our deeds. (ii) To train our hearts to see what comes from Allah to us, more than what goes from us to Him.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Al-Sindhi, Sharh al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Beirut: Dar Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2010), 17.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.6103; Muslim, no.2816.

3. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh Hikam al-Imam Ibn Ata’illah (Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 65.

4. ibid., 66.

5. ibid., 64.

6. Muslim, no.80.

7. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam, 64.

8. Al-Sindhi, Sharh al-Hikam, 17.

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Regrets & Missed Opportunities

5421944290_8dacb6fe85_oHere are some brief words from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim about missed opportunities and squandering benefits. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘Shall We tell you whose works will bring the greatest loss?’ Those who efforts have been wasted in the life of this world whilst thinking they were doing good. [18:103-4] There are people whose smug self-righteousness is so ingrained that they go through life spreading corruption; campaigning to alter clear-cut religious precepts; or making a show of their piety – imagining all the while that they are acquiring virtue. Ultimately, such people shall suffer the worst of regrets. For their labours yield no real benefits and are emptied of God’s purpose for them. ‘Of all the words of mice and men,’ wrote an American novelist and satirist, ‘the saddest are, “It might have been.”’

Ibn al-Qayyim lists ten matters that he wishes us to meditate over, so as not to be of those who are ridden with regrets in the Afterlife, forever mumbling to ourselves: ‘It might have been!’ He writes:

‘Ten things which, if lossed, have no benefit:

[1] Knowledge that isn’t acted upon.

[2] Works of faith that are bereft of sincerity [to God] or conformity [to the shari‘ah].

[3] Wealth from which nothing is spent; so neither is joy gained by hoarding it, nor is it sent on ahead to the Afterlife.

[4] A heart empty of God’s love, yearning for Him, and intimacy with Him.

[5] A body devoid of obedience and service to Him.

[6] A love that doesn’t confine itself to the Beloved’s pleasure, nor does it comply with His commands.

[7] A moment of time not used to rectify one’s remissness, or seized to do good works and draw closer to God.

[8] A thought that dwells on what isn’t beneficial.

[9] Serving someone whose service doesn’t bring you closer to God nor does it rectify your worldly affairs.

[10] Your fear of, or hope in, someone whose forelock is in God’s hand, and is himself a captive in the divine grasp: possessing no power to bring about harm, benefit, death, life or resurrection.

The greatest of these losses, and it is the real root of all losses, are two things: wasting the heart, and squandering time. The heart is wasted when the world is given priority over the Afterlife; time is squandered by procrastination. Corruption stems entirely from following caprice and procrastination: rectification stems from following right guidance and preparing for the Encounter.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 162.

Turning to God After All Else Has Failed Us

image-by-Robert-GoldsteinIsn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or everything else, has failed us? Isn’t that trivialising God’s greatness that we’ve put Him last on our list? If so, will He still listen to my plea for help? Should I still turn to Him? Or will it be a case of: ‘The cheek of it!’?

In his celebrated volume of spiritual discourses, called Futuh al-Ghayb, the venerable Shaykh and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his time and a spiritual master par excellence of his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:

‘When the servant is tried with some difficulty, his first impulse is to try and cope with it by himself. If he is unable to extract himself from it, he looks to others for help, such as those in power, important officials, people of means and influence, or medical experts; if disease or physical ailment is involved. If he still finds no relief, he then turns to his Lord with prayers of petition, humble entreatment and offerings of praise. As long as he feels he can cope on his own, he will not turn to others; and so long as he can count on others, he will not turn to the Creator.’1

It seems a poor thing to turn to God as a last resort; to remember Him when all else fails us; to lift our hands to Him only when the ship is going down. If God were proud He would never accept us on such terms. But God is not proud. Instead, Kind, Caring and, Merciful – God will have us even if we have shown that we have preferred others over Him and that we come to Him only because we are now at a dead end. Indeed, it does not really proclaim the glory of God if we chose Him only as an alternative to Hell; and yet even this He accepts. Such is God’s mercy and kindness; such is how He forgives and overlooks His glory’s diminution. In fact, God says in the Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me [tell them] I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [2:186] God further states: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins; for He is the All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. [39:53]

Further on in the very same discourse, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir speaks about how, when the person’s illusions of self-sufficiency are shattered – and for the person’s sake they must be shattered – and as he is made to realise that none can help him or grant him relief except God, God responds to his servant’s humility and brokenness and shades him from distress. For God accepts His servants however they may come to Him – if not in loving submission, then by trials and troubles, or by simple fear of the eternal flames; unmindful, even, of His glory’s diminution.

1. Futuh al-Ghayb (Cairo: Dar al-Maqtam, 2007), 22. My translation of the passage was based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.

Don’t Stop Making Dhikr Because Your Heart Isn’t In It

Islam-Prayer-Beads-Hand‘I’m remembering Allah, but my heart’s not in it; what’s the point’ is a typical anguish for many of us? ‘When I make dhikr, my heart doesn’t have focus, it’s all over the place. Is there any use’ is another one?

So should we stop making dhikr because out heart lacks focus on Allah; because there isn’t any hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”? There are some who are dead set on the issue. There is no point in making dhikr when the heart is heedless, to do so would be making a mockery of dhikr – or so they’d have us believe.

But that’s not quite right. That’s not what those whom Allah has blessed with a huge share of fiqh and profound insight into the realities of faith (haqa’iq al-iman) teach us. Instead, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, dhikr ‘is sometimes performed with the heart and tongue, which is the best dhikr; sometimes with only the heart, which ranks second; and sometimes with only the tongue, which ranks third.’1 And whilst dhikr with the tongue alone does not yield the fruits of gnosis (ma‘rifah), divine love (mahabbah) and intimacy (uns) as does dhikr with the tongue and heart combined; nonetheless, it still has its benefits. In fact, for most people it begins with dhikr of just the tongue. Imam al-Ghazali wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously.’2

The truth of the matter is that if we were to make dhikr only when our hearts were fully present, absorbed and focused on Allah, most of us would never make any dhikr at all! Masters of the inward life instruct us that if, whilst engaging in dhikr, we drift into the valleys of heedlessness and idle thought, when we realise we simply bring our hearts back into focus and continue in our dhikr. In this, as with all other matters, it is Allah’s fadl and karam that we rely upon; not our own efforts.

Perhaps the finest articulation of this reality (the reality of dhikr with just the tongue, and dhikr with the tongue and heart combined) is presented to us by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in his celebrated Hikam or collection of “Spiritual Aphorisms”. In one such aphorism, he states:

‘Do not abandon dhikr because you do not feel the presence of Allah therein. For your heedlessness of the dhikr of Him is worse than your heedlessness in the dhikr of Him. Perhaps He will lift you from dhikr with heedlessness (ghaflah) to dhikr with vigilance (yaqza); and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence (hudur); and from dhikr with presence to dhikr wherein everything but the One being remembered becomes absent: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]‘ 3

In his commentary to the Hikam, al-Shurnubi teases out some of the subtleties in the above aphorism. He writes: ‘Do not, O aspirant, forsake dhikr – which is an invitation to sanctity (manshur al-walayah) – because your heart isn’t present with God in it, due to it being preoccupied with worldly distractions. Instead, remember Him in all states and conditions. For your forgetfulness of His dhikr, in that you abandon it entirely, is far worse than your forgetfulness while making dhikr of Him. For at least, in this state, your tongue is moving in His remembrance, even if your heart is heedless of the One remembered. Perhaps you will be taken, by His grace, from dhikr with heedlessness to dhikr with vigilance; in other words, with an attentive, awakened heart; for this is the courtesy (adab) which befits His Presence; and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence, presence of His closeness; and from dhikr with presence to dhikr where all becomes absent except the One being remembered. So the person is “lost” even to his own dhikr … When dhikr flows from the tongue in this state, it does so spontaneously, without intent. Instead, his tongue only utters what the Manifest Truth [Allah] wants it to, for such a person is at the Station of Divine Love – which the [next] hadith refers to: ‘ … and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works (nawafil) so that I love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, and his tongue with which he speaks.’4 None knows the reality of this lofty station except the spiritual wayfarers (salikun). So accept it wholeheartedly, even if you aren’t from its people: and follow not the desires of those who have no knowledge. [45:18] And hold tightly to the means, then the veil shall be lifted for you: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]’5

1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 176.

2. Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 87. Also see the related article on this blog: How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God.

3.  Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.47.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.6137. Even though the meaning is sound and correct, the phrase: ‘his tongue with which he speaks’ is not part of the wording of this particular hadith. This phrase occurs in a hadith related by Ibn Abi Dunya, al-Awliya, no.45; Ahmad, Musnad, 4:256; and others. But the chains all have defects in them and are therefore da‘if. See: Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:331-32.

5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 111-12.

Think Before You Text, Tweet or Speak!

twitter_keyboard-d1e079745afd757a6b2597e5e169973ae837a5cb-s6-c30‘A still tongue makes a wise head’, says one proverb. And in other one: ‘The wounds of a sword may heal one day; the wounds of the tongue, they never may.’ And then there is this note of caution: ‘Speak when you’re angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’

While it is certainly true that great good can come from the tongue, it is also true that it can stir up immense enmity and strife. The tongue, despite it being a small organ of the body, has an influence wholly disproportionate to its size. How many conflicts, divisions, divorces and distresses have been triggered by angry words and unbridled tongues! Regretably, the tongue as a source of evil is something our communicative and social-networking culture seldom considers. In contrast to the modern urge to endlessly yap, yell and yodel (or rather I should say, text, tweet and tag), our ancients recognised that when a carpet of silence is laid, wisdom begins to settle.

As part of his celebrated and encyclopedic anthology of transmitted prayers from the Prophet, peace be upon him, al-Adhkar, Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) devotes a separate chapter on the obligation to guard the tongue and the merits of silence. The following is a translation of the opening segments of that discussion:

‘Know that it is required of every legally responsible person (mukallaf) that they guard their tongue from all types of speech, save that which contains an overriding benefit. Whenever speaking or keeping silent are equal in their benefits, then the Sunnah is to refrain from speaking. For speech which begins as permissible can quickly degenerate into what is forbidden or disliked. In fact, this occurs a lot, or is more often the habit; and there is no substitute for safety.

It is related in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari [no.2018] and Muslim [no.47]; on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him; who relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak well or keep quiet.’

I say: The soundness of this hadith is agreed upon and contains an explicit stipulation that one must not speak unless one’s words are good and that the benefit in doing so is clear and preponderant. Whenever there is uncertainty about the benefit being preponderant or not, one remains silent. Imam al-Shafi’i, may God have mercy upon him, has said: “When one intends to speak, let him think before he does so. If there is an overriding benefit, let him speak; if in doubt, let him desist from speaking until the benefit is clear.”‘1

Of course, nowadays, it’s not just our speech that we need to be concerned about. We need to guard what we text or tweet about too; for that too is part of our speech. The above words of Imam al-Nawawi, and the numerous hadiths that caution against the sins of the tongue, equally apply to our texts and tweets on social media. If talk can rapidly degenerate into what is haram, our texting or tweeting can do so too. Indeed, received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. After all, as the saying goes, ‘The fool’s mind dances on the tip of his tongue’ – I suppose we could add, ‘… and his twitter thumbs and fingers!’ Today, such wisdom has been largely thrown to the wind, to be replaced by hasty, trigger-happy texting and tweeting (the upshot of which can be damaging and damning, in both this world and the life to come). Let’s not let our tongues, or our activities on social media, become the nail in the coffin of our spirituality. As the Prophet, peace be upon him, once said whilst pointing to his tongue: ‘Restrain this. Is there anything that topples people on their faces into Hellfire other than the harvests of their tongues?’2

1. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 535.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2616, who said: the hadith is hasan sahih.

*This blog first appeared on The Humble I on 16th August, 2012, with the title: ‘Think Before You Speak.’ Here it has been revised, updated and reposted.

Revering the Symbols of God in an Age of Irreverence

Kaaba-7The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks or emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are those religious rites and practices which are emblematic of, or specific to, certain religious communities.

Here, the symbols of God being spoken of in the above verse refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or of drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; which is from piety of hearts.

The signs that one reveres God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed or contrite if having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.1 Such anger, I must add, isn’t the uncontrolled, egotistical kind that causes faces to be twisted or contorted beyond recognition, and mouths to froth with frenzied rage and pathetic political imbecility. God forbid that the dignity of a believer should be so degradingly compromised.

Revering the symbols of God, and the Sacred Law of God, becomes ever more difficult when one lives in an Age of Irreverence, as we do. For treating someone or something, not just with courtesy, but with deep respect – for that’s what reverence calls for – can be an uphill task. The ego is ever eager to demean the sacred and drag things down to the lowest common doleful denominator. The pursuit of its own diktats, cravings and impulsive desires is what the ego is about; not the pursuit of virtues, or the growth of the Spirit. Whatever good is inherent in any liberal democracy, is being demonstrably erased by the unstoppable entrenchment of an ego culture. Affluenza is what British psychologist Oliver James has named it. For embedded in the philosophy of political liberalism, and consumerism, is the principle of pandering to the ego, and a reverence for irreverence.

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in respect to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30].

1. Cf. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

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