The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “a short read”

Sacred Knowledge: Between Serious Seekers & Flippant Jokers

Now that certain objectionable practices have wiggled and wormed their way into the da‘wah – e.g. corporate attitudes which seems to put money first, the conscious use of comedy and tomfoolery, the culture of edutainment, the huge fees or honorariums that some charge for da‘wah, and an unhealthy celebrity culture which now surrounds certain speakers – let’s remind ourselves about the reality of revealed guidance and sacred Islamic knowledge:

1 – Sacred knowledge (‘ilm) is to be conveyed with seriousness and dignity, given the sources it is being conveyed from and the realities it reveals. The Qur’an speaks about itself in these very sober terms: إِنَّا سَنُلْقِي عَلَيْكَ قَوْلاً ثَقِيلاًWe shall soon cast upon you a weighty word. [Q.73:5] And: أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلاَ تَبْكُونَDo you then marvel at this discourse and laugh, yet not weep? [Q.53:59-60]

2 – The Prophet ﷺ said: لَوْ تَعْلَمُونَ مَا أَعْلَمُ، لَضَحِكْتُمْ قَلِيلًا، وَ لَبَكَيْتُمْ كَثِيرًا – “If you only knew what I know, you would laugh little and would weep abundantly.”1 Religious knowledge, then, is serious and weighty: nothing about it is light or frivolous or lends itself to frolics or fits of laughter. 

3 – Even if we are not scholars, it behoves us speakers or seekers of knowledge to adopt the demeanour and comportment of the scholars. Imam Malik once said: ‘It is a right upon a seeker of knowledge to be solemn, dignified, possess reverent fear [of Allah], and to follow in the footsteps of those who preceded him.’2

4 – The above must be done out of a love of virtue, beauty of adab, as well as saving others from the unsavoury aspects of our own character; not from showing-off or pretending to be what we are not. Of course, actions are judged by their intentions.

5 – Those giving religious instruction are meant to help raise our levels of piety and make us serious people. They must not pander to the mediocrity or frivolity that people have steeped themselves in, or surrounded themselves with, today. ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu, said: ‘When you have learnt knowledge, then retain it; and do not mix it with laughter or futility so that hearts spit it out.’Ibn al-Jawzi makes a similar point about the wa‘iz; the preacher, not laughing, joking or behaving as the masses do: ‘so that they hold him in high esteem and thus benefit from his admonition.’4

6 – The occasional dignified humour or light hearted remark is permitted, providing it doesn’t compromise the seriousness of the message, nor trivialise it in peoples’ hearts; nor push people to being even more frivolous than most of them already are. While advising the students of Hadith – advice that is also applicable to other Muslim scholars, teachers, shaykhs and preachers – al-Khatib al-Baghdadi states: 

‘The seeker of Hadith is required to shun levity, frivolity, or lowering oneself in gatherings by being silly or idiotic, roaring with fits of laughter and excess joking, and being overly humorous and frivolous. However, a little humour is permitted occasionally, as long as it doesn’t transgress the bounds of good manners or the way of knowledge. As for foolish, immodest, or immoderate behaviour, or whatever else gives rise to it in peoples’ souls or creates harm, it is repugnant. Too much joking or laughter demeans one’s status and belittles one’s gentlemanliness (muru’ah).’5

7 – In conclusion: If sacred knowledge doesn’t help lift our gaze towards God, or does not make us more serious people with lofty concerns, then we are, in all likelihood, receiving it with wrong hearts or from the wrong people! Sacred knowledge is noble; as must be its carriers, callers and teachers. 

And Allah’s help is sought. 

1. Al-Bukhari, no.4345; Muslim, no.426.

2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), no.212.

3. ibid., no.213.

4. Laftat al-Kabad ila Nasihat al-Walad (Beirut: Dar al-Muqtabas, 2013), 60.

5. Al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi, 1:232-33.

Islam, Freedom, Modernity: Mastery of the Self v. Slavery to the Self

Believer must realise that, at root, there’s a parting of ways between Islam and the liberal monoculture when it comes to what human beings fundamentally are, what it is possible for them to be or become, and what it means to be liberated or free. Islam teaches that the human person is imbued with a ruh, a “spirit,” that yearns for God, truth and beauty. For the liberal monoculture, there is no spirit or soul, but merely a “self.” And this self is made up of our whims, wants and desires. Islam teaches that the intellect or reason’s role, in light of Revelation, is to enable us to know the good and what’s morally right, and direct our desires towards it. Reason is a restraint on desires, it is master of desires; hence the importance of self-mastery or mastery of the self in Islam. About this, the Qur’an says: As for those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s desires, the Garden is their abode. [Q.79:40-41]

In stark contrast, the monoculture would have us believe that reason is not, and cannot be, master of desire but only its servant. Reason can tell us not what to desire or want, but only how to get whatever it is we desire or want. For the monoculture, it’s seldom about restraining our desires or mastering the self; rather it’s about slavery to self. Today’s freedom is freedom of the self; freedom to be servile to the self. Islam’s freedom is freedom from the dictates of the self; freedom from self-slavery. One of the saints of Islam once said: مَا وَصَلَ إِلٰى صَرِيْحِ الْحُرِّيَّةِ مَنْ بَقِيَ عَلَيْهِ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ بَقِيَّةٌ – ‘No one attains true freedom as long as he remains under even the slightest influence of his ego.’ With that being the case, any fiqh that isn’t rooted in this reality; any taysir or ease which fails to factor this into its fatwas, is sloppy and short-sighted and, in the long run, is part of the actual problem.

True or meaningful freedom, then; freedom from self-slavery, can only come with taslim; surrender to God: i.e. Islam. To minds that have been dulled and numbed by the monoculture, a Muslim who submits to the divine Reality and who binds himself to a code of life consisting of a series of religious duties and commitments, may not appear as free as the hapless victims of the secularised monoculture who live in accordance with their whims, base desires and egos. In reality, however, the Muslim discipline is no deprivation of freedom. It is a necessary measure so as to guide people, regulate their affairs, prevent them from straying, and dissuade them from doing harm to themselves or to others. By recognising that the divinely-given code of life exists to protect us, bring out the best in us, and help our Adamic potential flower to its fullest, we can attain balance and contentment in this life, and endless joy in the next. In fact, if anything, the sheer number of laws, regulations and prohibitions which the modern state constrains its citizens with – all in the name of progress and the public interest – is far far larger than the corpus of laws or duties the believer is required to uphold. Yet in the cult of blindness and double-standards, it is the shari‘ah that is the “straight-jacket”.

Ever since the French ‘philosophes’ and the French Revolution which swiftly followed on its heels – which wasn’t just a revolt against social injustices and an unjust aristocracy, but above all, it was a revolt against Religion; against God – Man would, henceforth, be the measure of all things. It would be Man’s will that would be sovereign. His personal will alone would have the right to decide what it desires to believe, want, own or serve; even as the upshot of it all – hedonism, ecological decimation, slavish consumerism, alarming rates of depression and ontological loneliness, erosion of family and community, or spiralling levels of substance abuse and addiction – aggressively gnawed away at his civilisational values like cancer.

It is clear, therefore, that the monoculture is heading in the wrong direction. It is leading us like lemmings to a cliff-edge. It’s driving the bus of humanity over the edge; and we Muslims have to be the ones to apply the brakes. Islam’s message of monotheism, hope and healing must restore direction and purpose back into peoples’ lives. It must help steer them back to restoring God in the hearts. Key to all this is the required virtue of sabr – of patience, perseverance, and ploughing on with what revelation expects of us. The Prophet ﷺ foretold: ‘There will come upon the people a time where a person patiently practicing his religion will be like holding on to hot coal.’1 There is also this hadith: ‘And know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.’2

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2260. It was given a grading of sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.957.

2. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11243; al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.745. Ibn Badran says, Sharh Kitab al-Shihab (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Nawadir, 2007), no.136, that the hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan.

Adab’s Golden Rule & Its Minimum Rule

SHAYKH ‘ABD AL-QADIR AL-JILANI’S “golden rule” is the height we must aspire to in how to be sincerely devoted to God, intending only His good pleasure without others sharing in our worship of Him; and how to be of sincere service to people:

كُنْ مَعَ الْحَقِّ بِلا خَلْقٍ وَ مَعَ الْخَلْقِ بِلا نَفْس

‘Be with God without people, and with people without ego’1

While Yahya b. Mu’adh al-Razi’s “minimum rule” is the baseline we must not fall below in our adab and dealing with others:

لِيَكُنْ حَظُّ الْمُؤْمِنِ مِنْكَ ثَلاَثاً: إِنْ لَمْ تَنْفَعْهُ فَلاَ تَضُرَّهُ، وَإِنْ لَمْ تُفَرِّحْهُ فَلاَ تَغُمَّهُ، وَإِنْ لَمْ تَمْدَحْهُ فَلاَ تَذُمَّهُ 

‘Let your dealings with another believer be of three types: If you cannot benefit him, do not harm him. If you cannot gladden him, do not sadden him. If you cannot speak well of him, do not speak ill of him’2

In both cases, spiritual ambition and desiring to be people of real beauty is key. Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. As cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 3:107.

2. As per Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:283.

De-Normalise the Culture of Self-Promotion!

Possibly one of the most spiritually damaging traits – particularly for scholars, shaykhs, preachers and teachers – is the culture of self promotion and of not passing matters on to those more learned or spiritually rooted. That such a tendency has now been normalised doesn’t speak to our savviness or sophistication, but to our sickness.  

Islamic groups and organisations will do this due to hizbiyyah – ‘partisanship’, ‘bigotry’ and gaining their share of the limelight, or because of the revenue loss it could entail if their own speakers are not the public’s port of call. Individuals will usually succumb to this out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons.

Consider Imam al-Ghazali’s words: ‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he cannot see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the mere pleasure of [their] mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being lauded and eulogised.’1

He then offers this example: ‘Thus you see a preacher who advises people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease and distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’2

It would be unwise of us to feel confident that we are free of such a malady. And yet rida ‘an al-nafs – being ‘self-satisfied’, or feeling smug about oneself; one’s knowledge; or one’s accomplishments, is the spiritual poison many of us seem content to inhale, despite it choking to death our spiritual life. Sincere and genuine repentance is the only healing balm, and serious spiritual introspection about our motives or intentions the only course of action.

Compare today’s culture of self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in the path of knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted and well-travelled. Indeed, even well-travelled ones would frantically avoid giving fatwas when possible, if they could pass the buck on to someone else.

Ibn Abi Layla, a famous tabi‘i, said: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’3

In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’4

Al-Bara’ said: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by [giving] the fatwa.’5

And Bishr al-Hafi said: an ahabba an yus’ala fa laysa bi ahli an yus’al – ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’6

The sirah of the Prophet ﷺ, and the hagiographies of the awliya and leading imams teach us that the believer is one who has deep humility, is unassuming in terms of the good Allah honours them to do, and is self-deprecating – not in some outward Victorian sense, but from sincere inward realisation of what they are not. But such virtues are antithetical to our age, which demands that we sell ourselves, and over magnify our ‘talents’ so as to promote our selves, and not delve too much into the question of intentions. And the truth of the matter is that Muslim organisations and individuals have not been immune to this regrettable self promotion and commodification of the ummah. Nor has enough be done to tackle this spiritual morass.

We ask Allah for safety, sincerity and grace; and we ask, too, that He help us be sincere to Allah’s servants and point them to those better suited to be sacred shepherds.

1. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 9:70-71.

2. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.

3. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.

4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.

5. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.

6. ibid., no.1084.

Spiritual Discourses: Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon [1]

Long time readers of The Humble I may have seen Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon’s name crop up now and again. I first wrote about the Shaykh, hafizahullah, after my first travel, and therefore my first real suhbah or spiritual companionship, with him back in 2013. The piece, a sort of travelogue, was called: You Have Wings to Fly, So Don’t Crawl!

After that, I’ve quoted some of the Shaykh’s malfuzat, or ‘[spiritual] discourses’, and have woven them into three or four blog pieces. I have long intended to translate much more of the Shaykh’s malfuzat (he speaks in Urdu, breaking into Persian mystical poetry – Sa‘di, Rumi, et al – now and again), but haven’t had the window of opportunity. I hope to rectify such a remiss on my part, beginning with this piece which is a translation of some of his shorter gems and discourses. Sometimes I will paraphrase Shaykh Jaleel’s words, at other times I’ll quote him directly, depending on how it helps the flow of the discourse. In other words, sometimes I’ll be faithful to the spiritual meanings the Shaykh intends to impart; at other times I will be faithful to his actual words; bi’idhni’Llah. 

1 – Flee to Allah: In his Safrnama or ‘Travelogue’ to Zambia in 2013, Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon exhorts: ‘People today say that society’s condition is really bad; what can we do? But look! The venerable Yusuf, ‘alayhis-salam, didn’t just sit there in a sinful environment making tasbih. Instead, he ran [to Allah; i.e. he took serious steps to shun sin]. This is the only way to be safe from sin, to start running. It’s the only way: So flee to Allah. [Q.51:50]’

What Shaykh Jaleel is stressing here is that we must resist the temptation to let our guards down in the face of modernity’s widespread laxity in sinful conduct and promiscuity. The way to do this, as the Shaykh often states, is via mujahadah – ‘spiritual struggle’ against sins and one’s egotistical soul, to bring ourselves in line with Allah’s loving obedience:

2 – Spiritual Struggle and Seeing Allah: Once in a conversation among spiritual aspirants and seekers in Karachi, the Shaykh advised: ‘Try to spiritually strive (mujahadah) right up till death. After that, it’s spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) all the way.’

In other words, as the true seekers strive their utmost to live their lives in loving surrender and sincere worship of Him, they are gifted and lifted to a station of: an ta‘budu’Llaha ka annaka tara – ‘that you worship Allah as though seeing Him’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502] in this world; in the next: Some faces on that day shall be radiant, gazing at their Lord. [Q.75:22-3] In this life, mushahadah – spiritual witnessing – is to see Allah with the spiritual eye, due to the heart being full to the brim with faith, sincerity, loving obedience and yearning for Allah. Such yearners are then given to actually see Allah in the Eternal Abode of Ultimate Bliss. Thus by divine grace, a life of mujahadah leads to mushahadah, and to an eternal life of the Beatific Vision. So let’s roll up our sleeves and begin the work! But let us beware of:

3 – Having a Poor Grasp of What Counts as Sins: Also in his Zambian Travelogue, Shaykh Jaleel laments: ‘We haven’t grasped what taqwa is. We think that only a few big sins – like theft, robbery, or fornication and adultery – are actual sins, and that not falling into them makes us a muttaqi. But if the reality of taqwa truly dawned on us, we would seek Allah’s forgiveness for even the good we’ve done; in that: O Lord, what worth is there in our good deed? We don’t ask a reward for it; instead, please just forgive us.’

What the Shaykh, hafizahullah, is alerting us to is that without rooting this reality in our soul, that any good we do has its true source in Allah, we’re in danger of falling into ‘ujb: vanity and self-conceit. ‘Ujb is when we fail to realise the good we have done is not of our own doing: it’s a gift from God. Only when blinded to this do we then see good deeds as being of our own achievement. It’s here we begin to become vain or egotistical, basking in our own self-glory.

As for a common sin often overlooked or downplayed by us moderns, and which is highly toxic to the purity of the spiritual heart, it is:

4 – The Eyes Feasting on the Forbidden: ‘Whoever corrupts their eyes in this world, Allah, exalted is He, will not permit him to be drawn close. For how can impure eyes ever see the Pure Being [of Allah]? Those whose eyes have the traces of impurity or filth in them shall not see the lights of Allah’s mushahadah; neither in this world, nor in the next.’ Guarding the gaze from haram forms and images is a frequent theme of the Shaykh’s mudhakarahs and tarbiyah, given our complacency of the inherent spiritual dangers in not doing so.

The pressing question which remains is this: How can we turn our heart’s gaze away from sin and focus it on Allah (or else to at least learn to avert our gaze or to see mindfully)? To this spiritual quandary, these words of the Shaykh, hafizahullah, are key to those who give them pause for spiritual thought:

5 – Kindling the Flame of Divine Love in Your Heart: ‘Mawlana Rumi, rahimahullah, often asked his shaykh Shams Tabrizi, rahimahullah: “Put a few words into my ear by which the flames of Allah’s love can be set ablaze in my heart.” This is because the ear is a funnel, an auditory canal, through which sound travels and then reaches the heart. So the reason why it is made to hear talk about divine love is so that such talk can become, as it were, a capsule of light which may then burst into our heart. By this, the heart is illumined; the flames of Allah’s love are kindled in it; the world diminishes in our sight; big and mighty nations are seen as lowly; and throne and crown appear as trinkets to sell.’

This sense of the dunya’s hold over us weakening as love of Allah more and more fills our heart is beautifully, yet simply, illustrated in the next exhortation:

6 – On the Wings of Love: A few years back, in a small gathering of seekers and students of sacred knowledge in London, Shaykh Jaleel told us that as one steadily fills their heart with sincere love of God, love of dunya is gradually cast out. Imagine it to be an airplane journey, he said. If, while the plane is still on the tarmac, one peers out the window, other planes and the airport terminals look large and imposing. But as the plane takes off and starts its upward climb, those same objects appear smaller and smaller, until they look so tiny and insignificant, and just disappear. Likewise, as we make a serious effort to fill our heart with Allah’s love; and as the heart soars higher and higher in its journey to Him, the dunya appears more and more insignificant in its sight; until it diminishes, dwindles, and finally vanishes.

Vital to nurturing love of Allah in the heart, and of shunning sins and hastening to divine obedience, is the spiritual practice of muraqabah – ‘vigilance’ of God. Muraqabah is to be mindful of Allah at all times, trying to feel His nearness and presence, making sure that He never see us in a situation He has forbidden us from – which is the subject of our final discourse from Shaykh Jaleel, hafizahullah:

7 – Cling to Muraqabah and Mindfulness: In this respect, the Shaykh explained: ‘This is the Station of Spiritual Excellence (maqam al-ihsan), that a person brings to mind at every moment that Allah is watching me. Whoever actualises such a state will not commit a sin. This is why our grand shaykh, the venerable ‘arif, Mawlana Shah ‘Abd al-Ghani Puhlpuri, rahmatullah ‘alayhi, would teach this muraqabah practice that for five minutes every day meditate over the verse: أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى – Is he not aware that Allah sees? [Q.96:14] This is everyone’s belief. We all believe that Allah, exalted is He, sees us. But as a person steadily contemplates over the fact that my Lord sees me, then love of Allah grows and it becomes harder to commit sins.’

Allahumma inna nas’aluka hubbaka, wa
hubba man yuhibbuka, wa hubba
‘amalin yuqarribuna
ila hubbika.
Amin!

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