The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

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What Are the Consequences of an Unjust Socio-Political 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Imam Ibn Taymiyyah hold that it is the absence of justice that is the main reason for Allah’s help and support to be withdrawn from any Muslim polity, thereby causing it to descend into tyranny, weakness, or rack and ruin.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.

Are Good Deeds Alone Enough for Salvation?

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 without 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.

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