The Humble I

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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!

The Isti‘adhah: Seeking Protection in God from Satan

THE HOLY QUR’AN MANDATES that: When you recite the Qur’an seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil. [Q.16:98] Hence Muslims will commence their recitation of the Qur’an with the words of isti‘adhah, or “seeking protection”:

أَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ

I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil.

Due to the above verse, the practice of isti‘adhah is considered an obligation according to some: the majority of scholars, however, hold it to be recommended. The key here is that such words should be uttered with understanding (fahm) and presence of heart (hudur al-qalb), rather than as a heedless sacrament or empty ritual.

So what is it that we are to apprehend, and bring into our heart, when seeking sanctuary and refuge from Satan the outcast?

If we recall that the word Satan (shaytan) is derived from the Arabic word shatana – ‘to be far” or “made distant” from God; then just as Satan, through his arrogance and contempt, was repudiated and made an outcast from Allah’s grace, honour and heaven, that is what he wants for everyone else too: especially Man. After his banishment, in his spite; malice; and jealous rage, he set himself in opposition to Allah, and to the utter ruin of humanity. Hence the Qur’an frequently describes him as ‘aduwwun mubin – “a clear enemy” to us. In fact, he is “the Enemy”.

Satan is evil and devilry personified. He and his entourage are not the civil, though utterly conniving creatures so cleverly depicted in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letter. His hatred, malevolence and demonic designs against mankind – that have lasted for uncounted ages and will continue till God gives him respite no more – can never be underestimated. That he is long-lived, cunning and unseen, and who whispers into the breasts of men [Q.114:5] makes him an enemy that we by ourselves can never hope to defeat. Hence it is with this recognition of our inability, and of our neediness in Allah’s might and mercy, that we seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil. And it is because Allah alone is All-Poweful, All-Invincible, All-Knowing, and He cares for our welfare, that we direct our broken pleas of protection to Him, and none other. And once Allah brings home to the believer his or her inability, and inspires them to sincerely seek refuge in Him when intending to recite the Qur’an, the believer is under divine protection and is gifted the halawah al-tilawah – “the sweetness of recitation [and reflection]”.

One hadith informs us that: ‘Indeed, Satan runs through the son of Adam as does blood.’ [Muslim, no.2174] These devilish whisperings that circulate in us, and influence our heart and thoughts, have an end desire: to make us slide into disbelief (kufr) by causing doubts about God or the core articles of faith; if not, then to tempt us into sin and away from acts of obedience to God; and if even that is not possible, then to corrupt our worship or good deeds through ostentation (riya’) or self-conceit (‘ujb).

SPIRITUAL BENEFIT

Our spiritual masters teach us that there are four main qawati‘, or things which cut us off from Allah (or obstacles that impede us from drawing closer to Him): the devil (shaytan), the ego (nafs), worldliness (dunya), and people (khalq). The cure from the Devil and his subtle whisperings is to seek refuge in Allah from him, and oppose his insinuations. The cure for the ego lies in taming it and training it. The cure for worldliness is to nurture a sense of zuhd, or worldly detachment in our hearts and lives, aspiring more to Allah and the Afterlife. And the cure for people lies in not socialising too much with them, allowing one to have regular periods of spiritual seclusion (‘uzlah) wherein the heart’s gaze can be focused on God.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

Do We Muslims Have the Right to Not Pray, Fast or Wear Hijab?

RightsQ. Does a Muslim have a right to choose whether to pray, fast, financially maintain family, or wear hijab?

A. A Muslim may indeed decide not to pray. But do they have a “right” to choose not to pray? Well, not really.

A Muslim man may decide not to maintain his family and dependents. But does he have a “right” to choose not to maintain them? Again, of course not.

A Muslim women may decide not to wear the hijab. But does she actually have the “right” to choose not to do so? Again, by no means.

In fact, the Holy Qur’an says about such matters: وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤْمِنٍ وَلاَ مُؤْمِنَةٍ إِذَا قَضَى اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَمْرًا أَنْ يَكُونَ لَهُمْ الْخِيَرَةُ مِنْ أَمْرِهِمْ وَمَنْ يَعْصِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلاَلاً مُبِينًا – It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger, to have any choice about their decision: whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into manifest error. [Q.33:36]

To imagine that we Muslim have a “right” to choose in those matters that Revelation has clearly made the choice for the believer is, as far as knowledge and faith are concerned, both incorrect and infantile. We simply do not have the “right” to disobey God!

Of course, some may use phrases such as: “It’s my choice to pray or not,” or “I will choose whether I wear hijab or not,” to simply mean that they should not physically be forced to comply with God’s commands, but should be given space or time to grow in surrender, commitment and obedience to God. In this case, such people should indeed be helped, encouraged and be given space. 

This post isn’t speaking to such people who, in principle, believe and respect God’s sacred rulings, but who may struggle to live up to some of those duties in practice. 

It isn’t even addressing those who believe in the revealed laws, but who – out of buckling under social pressure; or feeling a need to compromise; or being embarrassed or unable to wisely state revealed truths as they are; or other such human frailties – fudge issues of Islam and blur the lines between halal and haram, in order not to bring down scorn or criticism upon themselves.

Rather, the post addresses those who imagine they have the God-given “right” to choose to reject God-given laws, after such laws are made clear. For what faith can there be if one believes their alleged personal “right” can ride roughshod over God’s Right!

If our egos, desires or weakness gets in the way of fulfilling God’s Right – yet still believe such an act (like prayer or hijab) is indeed part of God’s Right, then faith is still present. But we are sinful and have a duty to desist, repent and reform. 

If, however, a person believes such acts are indeed obligated by Islam, yet still insist they have a choice whether to believe in them being obligations or not, then this isn’t just a lapse in religious observance; as with the above case. It is an actual lapse in faith itself!

And while the post isn’t an incitement for people to start declaring specific individuals to be unbelievers or apostates (the scholarly maxim here is: “Not everyone who commits disbelief becomes a disbeliever because of it”). It is a reminder of how grave such words are about having “the right to choose” not to pray, fast, wear hijab, or accept other clear-cut, agreed upon and well-known obligation and prohibition of Islam.

We ask Allah to guide and protect us, and when we’re wrong that He gently correct us.

Friday Reminder for Thoughtful Hearts: 2

WE READ IN THE Qur’an: And when the [Friday] prayer is ended, then disperse in the land and seek of Allah’s favour, and remember Allah much, that you may succeed. [Q.62:10] The shari‘ah combines between establishing Allah’s rights; like prayer, fasting and dhikr, and between securing benefits to oneself; such as the need to earn a living. This is clear from the above verse. What is also clear is that we should seek aid in earning our livelihood by fulfilling the rights we owe Allah.

THE PROPHET ﷺ SAID: ‘Whosoever makes the world his main concern, Allah will scatter his affairs, put poverty before him, and nothing of the world will come to him except what is written for him. Whosoever makes the Afterlife his main concern, Allah will gather his affairs, put contentment in his heart, and the world shall come to him even if he is averse to it.’ – Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4105.

THOSE WHO PURSUE a life of greed, self-gratification or neglectfulness of God, choosing to expose themselves to inner darkness and a plague of inner demons, will ultimately be cast into perdition with hellish devils!

‘GREED INVITES YOU to rush blindly into sin; the loneliest are those who are conceited; and the best worldly detachment (zuhd) is to conceal one’s worldly detachment.’ – ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.

OURS IS AN AGE filled with two kinds of angst or anxiety. The first is an existential angst: an angst or despair born from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic “chance”; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: thus life is pointless. The believer is shielded from such an angst because of knowing that life has a God-centred purpose; death isn’t the end; and the good we do, seeking God’s good pleasure – even if unappreciated by others – is known by God and is accepted by Him. In this way, the believer is known to God and loved by Him.

The other angst can afflict anyone – believer or unbeliever, saint or sinner – and is a part and parcel of the human drama. This is a clinical angst and is usually experienced in the context of a physical threat, a trauma, or a personal crisis. It can usually be treated with conventional medicine, professional therapy, meditative practices or spiritual healing, or a combination of them. And while some anxieties, like trauma brought on in childhood, is not the individual’s fault, it is their responsibility to try and remedy or cope with it.

SPIRITUAL MASTERS INSTRUCT that we Muslims, whatever we do or desire to accomplish in life, it must ultimately serve the glory of God.

ONE OF THE PITFALLS in the path of godliness is ‘ujb: vanity or self-conceit. ‘Ujb is when we fail to realise that the good acts we have done are not of our own doing, but are purely from God’s grace. Only if blinded to such a reality do we then see these works as being of our own accomplishment or doing. We then begin to be vain, egotistical and bask in our own self-glory, thereby nullifying our good deeds and ruining our spiritual heart.

THE QUR’AN WANTS marital life to be a life of mutual love, kindness and companionship. It says, addressing men: Live with them in kindness. [Q.4:19] And it insists: Give them their dowry in kindness. [Q.4:25] Allah also warns: House them in your own homes, according to your means. And do not harass them, so as to make life intolerable for them. [Q.65:6] So the affair is to be one of kindness. The mark of a real Muslim man is nothing less; all else just isn’t manliness in any true faith-based sense of the word. ‘Her vulnerabilities invite you to stand up for her, not stand up to her.’ – Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 19/18

A SIGN OF God’s special concern for a person is His inspiring them to repent for their sins and to thankfully acknowledge the blessings they receive from Him. The former nurtures humility in the heart; the latter, a deep and abiding love for Allah.

AS SOCIAL MEDIA SITES are tweaked to get more and more addictive, and as social media companies are in a war for our  attention, where only the most addictive sites will survive, most people will be little more than lab rats in a huge social experiment. If we don’t learn to cultivate inner restraint or a sense of balance, most will continue to be manipulated by social media sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us; unless we recall that we were created for a higher, more exalted Connectivity and a profounder friendship with the Content Creator of all creation. The choice, then, is ours: where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

‘RECITE WHATEVER IS EASY for you to do of the Glorious Qur’an, each day or night, in a slow, measured tone; with presence of heart; and by reflecting over it. Recite it in stages, starting at the beginning till you complete it … The secret is in [having] presence of heart and in reflection (tadabbur), not in reciting a lot of the Qur’an.’ – Imam al-Haddad

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