The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “psychology”

Anger, Ordeals, Grief & Tests

griefThat God never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves [13:28] enjoins on us, not just some external reform fixated on a few manifestations of outward piety and morality, but instead an inward transformation – a realignment of the soul – which reflects genuine piety and purity of the heart. Regrettably, some see in this a call to quietism, while in reality it is a position of empowerment. For as we work on our inner world, keeping a keen eye upon the obligations and responsibilities we have in the outer world, we will begin to see the promise of Allah come to fruition in the human saga: If the people of the cities had but believed and shown piety, We would surely have opened for them blessings from the heaven and from the earth. [7:96]

To think that we should put all or most of our eggs in the basket of political activism, letting spiritual activism play second fiddle, isn’t just religiously naive; it continues to invite humiliation upon this blessed, yet fragile ummah too. Here, I’ll let the following hadith have the final say in the matter: ‘When you deal in ‘inah, hold on to the tails of cows, content yourself with farming and abandon striving [in Allah’s path], Allah will cover you all with humiliation and will not lift it from you, until you return to your religion.’1

ANGER

Anger is so often the thing that demolishes the bonds of love and affection between husband and wife, or between people in general. A man once said to the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Counsel me.’ So he ﷺ advised: ‘Do not become angry.’ The man repeated his request several times, and each time  he ﷺ said: ‘Do not become angry.’2

Our learned ones have explained the words, “Do not become angry” to mean: Do not do those things which will arouse one’s anger or unleash one’s temper; and if one is already angry, do not do or say anything in a state of anger.

In fact, in Islam, controlling one’s temper and restraining the soul’s anger is deemed to be a sign of intelligence, as well as a mark of piety. The Qur’an depicts the believer as those who: when they are angry, forgive. [42:37] And as: those who control their anger and are forgiving towards people. [3:134]

Not allowing our tempers to flare, or our anger to be aroused – or at least not giving vent to our anger – must be something we must work on, if we wish to traverse the path of piety and intelligence; and if we wish our relationships to flower and deepen. Learning to control one’s anger is one of the great hallmarks of the Sunnah and one of Islam’s cardinal spiritual virtues.

Anger often erupts when our pride is dented or our egos offended. Learning humility and humbleness is key to controlling anger. Likewise, forbearance and being forgiving are also keys. We learn in one hadith that: ‘Knowledge is gained by [actively] seeking it, and forbearance is gained by [actively] imposing it upon oneself.’3 As we learn to swallow pride and adorn ourselves with the virtues of forbearance and forgiveness, the oftentimes thin veneer of anger begins to dissipate.

The Sunnah also teaches us that when anger begins to swell, change our posture. So if one is standing, sit down; if sitting, lie down. Seeking refuge in Allah from shaytan is also recommended.

As for righteous anger and indignation, which is born of faith and is rooted in divine love, that is another matter altogether. And how rare it truly is!

ORDEALS

Ibn Mas‘ud (one of Islam’s earliest converts and leading scholars) said of the Prophet, when he had sustained an injury during the battle of Uhud: ‘I can see myself looking at Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, as he spoke about one of the prophets of old who, when his people had beaten him, was wiping the blood from his face whilst praying: O Allah! Forgive my people, for they know not.’4

As Muslims seek to mould and live out their lives in the light of revealed truths – in a continent that has become largely religiously illiterate, on top of being plagued with acute economic downturn and growing social unrest – they will be looked upon more and more as being counter culture; odd; out of sync with society; an annoyance, even; or a fifth column, perhaps! Are the insults or the demonisation of Islam and Muslims likely to stop any time soon? Most Muslims, I suspect, will intuit not!

Sometimes, though, as with the above, the inbreak of truth can lead to the outbreak of violence. Of course, even believers can or should take recourse to the law-enforcing agencies in order to procure justice or to fend-off harm. But where the law is unable, or simply fails them, faith instructs us to be patient and steadfast, and to cleanse our hearts of rage, revenge or undue anger. The higher virtue would be to repel evil with what is better [41:34] and pray, not for the ruin of the aggressors, but for their guidance and salvation. O Allah! Forgive our people, for they know not.

GRIEF

Many are the emotions that assail the heart, but grief, without doubt, is the hardest of all. The pain felt at the loss of a loved one awakens grief, yet seldom is much gained by yielding too far to grief’s cruelty. Yes, tears must flow. Pain must be endured. Souls must sorrow and be scarred. That you grieve not, none have the right to insist. Weep, then, but wail not; and let not sorrow’s suffering tarry too long. For your loved one would not have you sorrow more than is fitting.

What would he say to you, he whose loss you lament? That he welcomes the love you thus show to him; but that he doesn’t want your grief to be prolonged. He’d ask that you gently put your sorrows to slumber and remember him in the splendour of his days. And that although time will assuage the pangs of grief, he’d want that we move on from such grief by choice.

Remember and recollect: recall the most cherished things about the one who is loved but is lost; of how he enriched our lives and the lives of others too. For this honours our departed loved ones, and consoles us and keeps them with us in our hearts.

If death taketh away, life doth giveth. If so young a life is taken and an older one still remains; but when did death ever promise that it’d take us in order of age?! Now is a time to reflect, not just that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality follows no fixed law.

If tragedy darkens our days, how can we deny that the sun still shines. If destiny deals an unexpected blow, how can we give up on life. If we have buried one of our loved ones, other of our cherished ones still live on. So now is the time to cherish our living loved ones even more: celebrating our love of them and spending time with them. For we cannot love only when we’ve lost.

And while we honour those who have passed on with loving remembrance, we know that such remembrance is not without its bitterness. Yet still, let’s put our sorrows to slow slumber and remember him in the glory of his days.5

TESTS

And We test you with evil and with good as a trial, states the Qur’an [21:35]. According to Islam, life is not seen as being a random act of chance with no purpose and meaning. Instead, life is a theatre of signs and tests for the life to come. Trials, tests, ordeals and adversity are the inevitable price that we each must pay for the privilege of being born into the human drama. Providence allots to each of us opportunities, circumstances, talents and abilities so as to engage life’s tests and ordeals. Revelation also tells us that what counts, isn’t so much the form or nature of the actual tests, but how we respond to them. Sometimes we are tried with the obvious: hardships, misfortunes, calamities. At other times, with the less obvious: wealth, wellbeing, or material abundance. Both, nonetheless, are seen by the believer as tests.

As for the obvious, Allah says in the Qur’an: We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and of lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who are patient. [2:155] If the one being tried in this way is a person whose faith is generally upright, in terms of observing the religious injunctions and avoiding the prohibitions, then such trials are a sign of Allah honouring them and seeking to raise them in rank. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘When Allah loves a person, He tries them.’6 He ﷺ also told us: ‘No Muslim is afflicted with hardship, pain, anxiety, grief or injury; even to the extent of being pricked by a thorn, without Allah causing it to be an atonement for his sins.’7 This is the case provided they show patience, continue to observe the religious duties, and their conviction in Allah’s essential goodness does not waver.

Those who are not upright, especially those who make little or no attempt at being so, then such trials are the upshot of sins and rebellion against God: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, whatever ill afflicts you is from yourselves. [4:79] Such ordeals, then, are either a mark of divine wrath and punishment, or a caution from Allah to repent and amend our ways.

As for the less obvious tests, we read in the Qur’an: If they had but followed the path of rectitude, We would have given them abundant water, so as to try them. [72:16-17] Again, if a person is upright, then the ease, blessings or opulence Allah gifts to them is also a trial, to see if they are thankful; and to see if they enjoy such blessings in a lawful way, utilise them in the worship of Allah, as well as in the service of others. When blessed with Allah’s bounties and blessings, the believer acknowledges: ‘This is the favour of my Lord, that He may try me whether I will be thankful or ungrateful. He who gives thanks, he only gives thanks for [the good of] his own soul, and he who is ungrateful [is so only to his own soul’s hurt], for my Lord is Rich, Generous.’ [27:40] Now those who show gratitude, or shukr, Allah says: ‘If you are thankful, I will increase you. But if you are ungrateful, My torment is indeed severe.’ [14:7]

As for those who aren’t upright, nor attempt to walk the path of rectitude; those who neglect religious observance and who languish in the domains of disobedience, when they are surrounded by ease or blessings, it is nothing but istidraj – Allah seizing them little by little; His punishment coming upon them gradually without them realising it. The Qur’an says: We shall seize them by degrees from whence they know not. And I shall grant them respite; for [assuredly] My devising is firm. [69:44-5] Echoing these words, the Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘If you see Allah granting a servant something of the world that he desires, despite him being deep in sins, then [know] it is istidraj.’8 Indeed what trial could be worse than when blessings are, in reality, nothing but curses?

Allahumma nas’aluka an taj‘alana mimman idha
u‘tiya shakara, wa idha’btuliya sabara,
wa idha adhnaba
istaghfara.
Amin.

1. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.3462. Ibn Taymiyyah deemed its chains to be good (jayyid) in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 29:30. ‘Inah is a particular business transaction that seeks to circumvent the shari‘ah, in order to loan money on interest (riba). More generally, it may point to any ruse or legal stratagem (hiyla) which seeks to skirt around the shari‘ah rulings, so as to make the haram halal. See: Ibn ‘Uthaymin, Sharh al-Mumti‘ (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2004), 8:210-11.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.5765.

3. Al-Khatib, Tarikh, 9:127. It chain was graded as hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.342.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.3477; Muslim, no.1752.

5. Adapted and reworked from A.C. Grayling, The Good Book (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 93-5.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.5645.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.5641.

8. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.9426. Its chain is hasan, as per al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), no.3772.

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.

Native Indians, Inward States & Outward Acts

winter village‘It was autumn, and the Indians on the reservation asked their new chief if it was going to be a cold winter. Raised in the ways of the modern world, the chief had never been taught the old secrets and had no way of knowing whether the winter would be cold or mild. To be on the safe side, he advised the tribe to collect wood and be prepared for a cold winter. A few days later, as a practical afterthought, he called the National Weather Service and asked whether they were forecasting a cold winter. The meteorologist replied that, indeed, he thought the winter would be quite cold. The chief advised the tribe to stock even more wood.

A couple of weeks later, the chief checked in again with the Weather Service. “Does it still look like a cold winter?” asked the chief. “It sure does,” replied the meteorologist. “It looks like a very cold winter.” The chief advised the tribe to gather up every scrap of wood they could find.

A couple of weeks later, the chief called the Weather Service again and asked how the winter was looking at that point. The meteorologist said, “We’re now forecasting that it will be one of the coldest winters on record!” “Really?” said the chief. “How can you be sure?” The meteorologist replied, “The Indians are collecting wood like crazy!”‘1

The chief has unwittingly fallen into a circular argument, of sorts; a vicious circle, so to speak. His evidence for needing to stock more wood turns out to be that he was stocking more wood!

Humour aside, there is another sort of circular logic in a more serious aspect of our lives: the connection between our hearts and our outward actions. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, informed us that, ‘Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be sound, all the body is sound and which, if it be diseased, all the body is diseased. Truly it is the heart.’2

What this hadith tells us is that when the heart is filled with piety, pious intentions and reverent submission to God, the outward acts of the limbs will reflect such piety in terms of hearing, seeing and doing righteousness. Conversely, if the heart harbours impiety, malice, spite, jealously and an inordinate love of materialism, that too will be reflected in deeds of defiance and disobedience to God; or injury and injustice to our fellow man. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali struck this simile when he wrote: ‘This is why it has been said that the heart is the king of the limbs, and the limbs its soldiers. This being so, they are soldiers obedient to the king, in its service, ever fulfilling its commands, never opposing it in the slightest. So if the king is virtuous, the soldiers will be too; but if the king is corrupt, the soldiers will act corruptly too.’3

The above hadith confirms the link between our inward and outward state, and how the heart influences the outward behaviour of the limbs. It is worth noting that other hadiths say that the reverse is also true. The Prophet, peace be upon him, would say about the need to straighten the rows for prayer: istawwu wa la takhtalifu fa takhtalifa qulubukum – ‘Straighten your rows and do not differ, lest your hearts differ.’4 So here we see that tending to the outward act of straightening the rows for prayer is a reason for hearts to be inwardly united; and visa-versa! In other words, outward acts of piety influence the heart’s purity and soundness. ‘A servant’s faith,’ says another hadith, ‘will not be upright until his heart is upright; and his heart will not be upright until his tongue is upright.’In short: the inner (batin) influences the outer (zahir); and the outer, the inner.

As for those deeds which best rectify the heart, and are a profound cause for its inner purification, they include: performing obligations (farad, wajibat), consuming lawful food, reciting Qur’an, making dhikr, keeping company of righteous people, praying at night and seeking God’s forgiveness abundantly.6

1. Cited in Cathcart & Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar (New York: Abrams Image, 2007), 42-3.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.52; Muslim, no.1599.

3. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:210.

4. Muslim, no.432.

5. Ahmad, Musnad, 3:198.

6. See: al-Haytami, Fath al-Mubin bi Sharh al-Arba‘in (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 250.

From the Lives of the Noble Ones: On Praiseworthy Trials

caught-in-the-storm-1024x724We continue our reading into the words and insights left to us by Imam Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi – accomplished scholar, copious writer and committed traditionalist – as per his celebrated hagiography of Islam’s scholars, sages and other personalities, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala:

When Great Minds Think Alike: After recording the words of Ishaq b. Rahuwayah: ‘If al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i and Malik agree upon any matter, it is sunnah,‘ Imam al-Dhahabi comments:

‘Rather the sunnah is what the Prophet, upon whom be peace, made so, or the Rightly-Guided Caliphs after him. As regards consensus (ijma‘), it is whatever the scholars of this ummah, both past and present, have unanimously concurred upon: [including] a consensus which is probable (zanni) or tacit (sukuti). Whosoever diverges from such a consensus, among the Successors (tabi‘un) or their followers – due to stances arrived at via independent legal judgement (ijtihad) – it is tolerated from him alone.

As for those who disagree with the three aforementioned senior scholars, then this is not considered to be opposing the consensus, nor the Sunnah. All that Ishaq intended was that if they concur upon any given matter, then it is most probably correct. Just as we say today that it is almost impossible to find the truth to be outside of whatever the Four Mujtahid Imams concurred upon. We say this whilst at the same time admitting that their agreement on an issue doesn’t constitute a consensus of the ummah: though we are wary of stating, in an issue on which they agree, that the truth is otherwise.’1

The Praiseworthy Trial: While describing the ordeal endured by Imam Malik in which he was severely beaten so much so that ‘his arm was wrenched out of its socket and an enormous wrong had been perpetrated against him. Yet, by God, Malik didn’t cease to be held in high esteem,’ al-Dhahabi wrote:

‘This is the result of a praiseworthy trial which only serves to raise a person’s rank and esteem in the sight of believers. Whatever the case, it is what our own hands earn; yet God pardons much. “Whoever God intends to show goodness to, He tries him through ordeals.”2 The Prophet, peace be upon him, further stated: “Everything decreed for the believer is good for him.”3 God, exalted is He, said: We shall try you until We know those of you who strive and those who are patient. [47:31] The following words were revealed by God about the battle of Uhud: When disaster befell you after you had inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: “How did this happen?” Say: “It was from yourselves.” [3:165] God also said: Whatever misfortune befalls you, it is what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30]

Thus a believer, when he is tried, shows patient, takes admonition, seeks forgiveness of God and does not busy himself in blaming the one who mistreated him. For God’s judgement is just. Instead, he should thank God that his faith remains intact, realising that worldly punishment is both lighter and better for him.’4

A Falcon Among Fledglings: Imam al-Shafi‘i remarked: ‘People are all dependents of Abu Hanifah in jurisprudence (fiqh).’ After citing these words, Imam al-Dhahabi says:

‘Leadership in fiqh, along with its minutiae, is undeniable for this Imam. It is a matter about which there is no doubt: Intellects cannot be sound at all / If daytime needs a proof. His life would require two separate volumes to depict – God be pleased with him and have mercy on him. He died as a martyr in the year 150H, at the age of seventy, after being poisoned. A huge dome has been built over him in Baghdad, and a magnificent tomb; though God knows best.’5

1. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 7:116-7.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.5645.

3. Muslim, no.2999.

4. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 8:80-1.

5. ibid., 6:403.

Coping with Life’s Pitiless Storms

Fotolia_1775674_Subscription_XL.jpgLife is never without its ups and downs, its triumphs and tears, its joys and sorrows. In the Qur’an we read the following: We will surely test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property and lives and trade. But give glad-tidings to the patient who, when struck by some misfortune, say: “We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.” On those shall be blessings from their Lord and mercy; and such are the rightly-guided. [2:155-57]

Patience (sabr) is seen as an antidote to the earthly struggles or sufferings we all must endure. The unbeliever must endure, as must the believer. Suffering is intrinsic to the human story – though the ‘problem of suffering’ as a crucial chapter in the philosophy of religion is of fairly recent origin. By patience I mean: restraining one’s soul in times of difficulty or discomfort, and enduring adversity without complaint.

Those who choose to lose sight of God, when they are struck by a misfortune, tend to suffer on two levels. First, there is the calamity itself and its corresponding pain and anguish. Second, there is the accompanying belief that it should never have happened and that its happening proves something very bitter and dark about the world (and if they bring God into it, then about the nature of God).

The believer, by contrast, lives under the awareness that whatever we have or enjoy is ultimately a gift on loan to us from God, upon an acceptance of the destiny willed by God.“We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.” Yet knowledge that God is the sole owner of all that we have (including our ownselves) is not to deny human emotions; that are themselves God-given. Once, as his dying infant son gasped his final breath, the Prophet, peace be upon him, took him in his arms, whilst tears flowed from his eyes. One of those present was puzzled over such weeping, given how the Prophet himself had forbidden wailing and vociferous lamentation. When he did finally find his voice, the Prophet said: ‘This is compassion. The eyes shed tears, the heart grieves, yet we say nothing to displease our Lord. O Ibrahim, we grieve over being parted from you.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.1303; Muslim, no.2315]

Patience amid trials, adversity and suffering – without the heart becoming resentful, bitter or hard – exists only if there is a sense of proportion. Which is to say, suffering is bearable only if it is understood; even when such understanding is unformulated or hazy. The fact that I am grieving, does not mean the world is out of kilter. The fact that I have been done injury to, does not mean that God is unjust. The fact that my life is now darkened by tradegy, does not mean that no sun shines upon creation. No! It is when anguish and grief are taken out of their proper sphere that we have the “problem of suffering”.

A believer endures precisely because adversity and suffering are not seen as senseless or meaningless. Instead, he sees them as invested with purpose. One hadith goes: ‘No Muslim is afflicted with hardship, pain, anxiety, grief or injury – even to the extent of being pricked by a thorn – without God causing it to be an atonement for his sins.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5641]

On being asked who among people is tried the toughest, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, responded: ‘The prophets, then the righteous, then those most like them, then those most like them. A person is tried in proportion to his faith. If his faith is firm, his trial is increased; if it is fragile, his trial is lightened. A person continues to be tried in this way till he walks on the earth with no sin whatsoever.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2398]

Then there is the following hadith that offers great comfort and healing amidst what may seem like the pelting of life’s pitiless storms: ‘When God loves a person, He tries them.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5645]

All this helps to comfort the believer and assures him that his suffering is not without meaning; although it is unlikely to satisfy the profane mind, or the armchair critics of God.

Here, as is often the case, the believer inhabits a different world from others. For his ambition is to grow in faith and to mature spiritually. He knows this worldly life is a preparation for what comes after. Therefore, he views trials as being, not something negative, but part of his life education where the divine intent is either to nurture his latent potential in order to bring out the best in him; or refine and raise his rank with God; or prune and purify him from sins; or to simply humble him and bring home to him how powerless he is in the face of affliction and how in need he is of God’s grace. Moreover, the believer is less concerned with why he faces trials and ordeals – which he is content to leave to a Wisdom much greater than his – than with the appropriate response he should offer God in such situations.

The believers, then, live their lives knowing full well that in this earthly arena they will certainly face trials and tribulations. But with patience and being steadfast, they know that the outcome will always be favourable to them; that whatever happens will surely bring them good: ‘The case of the believer is wonderful,’ one hadith celebrates, ‘for his affair is always good; which isn’t the case with anyone else except the believer. If good fortune comes his way, he is thankful, and that is good for him. But if adversity strikes him, he is patient, and that too is good for him.’ [Muslim, no.2999] In that, let believers take comfort, let hearts hold out hope and let souls be soothed.

The Lord of the Rings & Death’s Appointed Time

85585It was, I think, the summer of 1979 that I visited the local library to borrow Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Around about five years earlier, over the course of a few months in morning assemblies, the head teacher of my primary school, a silver haired Mr. Smith, read to us all Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was expecting to be enthralled by The Lord of the Rings as I was with The Hobbit; but I was pretty well disenchanted. The first chapter about Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday was filled with too many details for my liking. So I promptly returned the epic back to the local library; disappointed with the book and, I think, with myself.

About a month later, I borrowed the book again. And though I read a few more pages than previously, I still couldn’t manage to complete the first chapter. Again, the book went back to the library!

Three months later, in the winter of the same year, I took it out for a third time. But this time I had resolved to get pass Chapter One, no matter how gruelling it would be. By the third day, I had not only done that, but I had completed the second chapter too; and I was hooked! The next few weeks, sitting by the electric fire in the sitting room, I completed the entire book. I fell in love with the myths; the characters; the languages; the worlds … the detail. I was fast becoming a true Tolkienite!

Over the next decade or so, I would read other works in the Tolkien canon; the canon of middle-earth: The Silmarion, Unfinished Tales, Bilbo’s Last Song and then in 2007, The Children of Hurin. Middle-earth still enthrals me to this day.

In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings comes The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It tells the enchanting, yet bittersweet tale of how Aragorn first met Arwen in Rivendell, and fell in love with her; of how, after a long parting, they met each other again under the trees of Calas Galadhon in the forests of Lothlorien; how they betrothed themselves to each other on the fair hill of Cerin Amroth where ‘they looked east to the Shadow and west to the Twilight, and they plighted their troth and were glad’; and of how at Midsummer, in the year of Sauron’s fall, Aragorn and Arwen were wedded in Gondor; and finally how, after ‘six-score years in great glory and bliss’, Aragorn fell into death’s deep sleep; and how, a short time later, a grief-stricken Arwen, finding death – ‘the gift of the One to Men’ – hard to bear, bade farewell to all whom she loved and left at winter’s end for a now deserted Lothlorien, laying herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth: ‘and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men who come after.’

Aragorn’s love for Arwen sends him on a long and perilous path to protect Frodo and the Ring. Arwen’s love for Aragorn, however, demands of her even more. For to marry him, she must forsake an immortal life with her father and her elven-folk, and endure the pain of separation from them. In choosing Aragorn and his fate, Arwen makes her own death inevitable.

When the time comes for Aragorn to ‘move beyond the circles of this world’, Arwen is beset with grief and begs that he stay a while longer. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test,’ Aragorn counsels her. His last words to her, before he gives up his life, speak of hope, of happiness, and anticipation of an even better life in a world remade: ‘In sorrow we must go, but not in grief. Behold, we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’

Belief in an Afterlife – a realm after death – is central to the faith of Islam. The Qur’an states: Every soul shall taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as a trial. And to Us you shall be returned. [21:35] Death, then, is not the end of life. Once man has died, he will be raised-up; once resurrected, he will be held to account for the time he spent on earth; and once he has been judged, he will be recompensed and treated according to the way he conducted himself in his earthly life. Just as the fictional Aragorn trusts that the purposes of the One in regards to Men, after death, are good ones, and that if he and Arwen bind themselves in obedience to that trust they would be reunited with one another in unendless bliss; then such is the case with the believers when they bind themselves in obedience to the will and purpose of God.

In what follows, Najm al-Din Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.742H/1341CE) – a Hanbali jurist, pietist and preacher – discusses the remembrance of death and the Afterlife. In one hadith, we encounter this somber decree: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures – i.e. death.’ [Tirmidhi, no.2308] Indeed, remembrance of death, recounting the final judgement and other sobering details of Islam’s eschatology, underscores the devotional life of the believers, helping them to recall their ultimate purpose and final return.

This is what he says in the popular Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin – his abridgement of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Minhaj al-Qasidin; which, in turn, was a redaction of Imam al-Ghazali’s masterpiece, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din:

‘Know that the heart of the man who is engrossed in this world and is overcome by its deceptions will certainly be neglectful of the remembrance of death; and thus will fail to recall it. If he does recollect it, he finds it odious and recoils from it. Now, men may either be engrossed [in this world], or penitent beginners, or arrived gnostics.

The person engrossed does not remember death, or, if he does, it is with regret for his worldly affairs, and he busies himself with disparaging death. Remembrance of death does nothing for such a man except increase him in distance from God.

The penitent man remembers death frequently, so that fear and apprehension might thereby proceed from his heart, thus making his repentance complete. It may be that he fears death lest it seize him before his repentance is complete, or before he musters sufficient provisions for the journey. He is excused in his aversion to death, and is not included in the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Whosoever loathes meeting God, God loathes meeting with him.’ [Bukhari, no.6026; Muslim, no.2683] For he only fears meeting God because of his deficiencies and remissness. He is like a man who is made late for a meeting with his beloved because of busying himself with preparation for the encounter in a way which meets with the beloved’s approval: he is not deemed to be reluctant about the meeting itself. The telling mark of such a man is his constant preparation for this affair and his lack of any other concern. Were he to be otherwise, he would be like the man engrossed in the world.

As for the gnostic, he remembers death constantly, because for him it is the tryst with his Beloved: and a lover never forgets the appointed time for meeting the one that he loves. Usually such a man considers death slow in coming and is happy [when it does] that he may have done with the abode of sinners and be borne away into the presence of the Lord of the Worlds – as one of them stated as death approached: “A dear friend has come at a time of need. Whoever repents [at such a moment] shall not succeed.”

Thus, the penitent man may be excused for his aversion he feels for death, as this one is excused for his desire for death and longing for it. Higher [in degree] than either of them is he who entrusts his affair to God, Exalted is He, no longer preferring death or life for himself. Instead, the dearest thing to him is that which is more beloved in the sight of his Lord. So by virtue of profound love and loyalty, this man has arrived at the station of absolute surrender and contentment; which is the highest goal and utmost limit.

But whatever the situation, in the recollection of death there is reward and merit. For even the man engrossed in the world benefits from recollecting death and acquiring an aversion for this world. Since remembering it spoils and mars its pleasures.’1

1. Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 409-10. My translation of the section is heavily indebted to T.J. Winter (trans.), The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), 7-9.

Don’t Let Time Pass You By

as_time_passes_by_____by_d_meImam al-Shafi‘i remarked: ‘Time is like a sword, if you do not cut it, it will cut you.’ He also said: ‘Your soul, if it is not kept busy with the truth, it will busy you in untruths and falsehood.’1

Islam’s “masters of the heart” tell us that filling our lives with works of faith and with service to others is how blessings (barakah) of time is manifested and the journey to God made constant. The jewel in the crown of the journey, and the seeker’s weapon, is remembrance of God (dhikr).

Imam al-Ghazali (d.505H/1111CE) speaks about the need to organise our time and fill it with prayer, charity, dhikr and other award (‘litanies’, ‘regular acts of devotion’) so that our time is blessed and not squandered, and so that we are not cast adrift from the path by dragging our heels and constant procrastination. He writes:

‘You should not waste your time, doing at any moment whatever chances to present itself when it presents itself. Instead, you should take stock of yourself and structure your acts of devotion during each day or night, assigning to each period of time some specific function that is kept to and is not left for something else in that time. In this way the blessing (barakah) of your time will become evident. But if  you leave yourself to drift, aimlessly wandering as cattle do, not knowing what to occupy yourself with at each moment, you will squander most of your time. Your time is your life; your life is your capital through which you spiritually transact [with God] and through which you reach endless bliss in the proximity of God. Every breath you take is a priceless jewel that cannot be replaced. Once it passes, it can never be retrieved.”2

1. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1998), 239.

2. Bidayat al-Hidayah (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2004), 120.

Know Your Soul, Grow Your Soul

a flower on the woodMany verses in the Qur’an extol the significance of the soul or nafs. In one celebrated passage, it states: By the soul and Him that formed it, then inspired it with its wickedness and God-fearingness. He is truly successful who purifies it, and he is indeed ruined who corrupts it. [91:7-10]

The Qur’an also offers this glad-tiding: But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s desires, the Garden is their abode. [79:40-41]

The idea of curbing the soul’s passions and of seeking to purify it is reiterated in the following hadith: ‘There are three acts that, whoever does them will experience the sweetness of faith: one who worships God alone, for there is no true god but Him; one who pays his yearly zakat on his wealth with an agreeable soul – not giving a weak, decrepit nor diseased animal, but giving from his middle wealth, for God does not ask for the best of your wealth and nor orders to give the worst of it; and one who purifies his soul.’ A man inquired: What is purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs)? He replied: ‘To know that God is with him wherever he may be.’1

The Qur’an describes the human soul (nafs) as possessing three potentials or degrees which are present within it simultaneously.2

The first and lowest degree is al-nafs al-ammarah bi’l-su’ – “the soul that constantly incites to evil”. The Qur’an says: The soul does indeed incite to evil. [12:53] This wild, untamed, unweaned soul is the abode of a multitude of incessant cravings, whims and passions: be it for wealth, fame, power, physical gratification or exploiting others; that is, anything which deflects one away from God and to the lower possibilities of the human condition. Al-Jurjani (d.816H/1413CE) defined the nafs al-ammarah as: ‘It is that which inclines to the bodily nature, ordering [the pursuit of] physical pleasures and carnal appetites, pulling the heart to debasement. It is the abode of evil, that gives birth to all reprehensible traits.’3 So this nafs, equivalent to the English word “ego”, refers to the reprehensible aspects of our actions and character – actions in respect to our sins of omission or commission; character in terms of pride, envy, vanity, greed, impatience, ostentation, and the like.

As the believer strives to purge his soul of blameworthy traits (radha’il) and labours to replace them by their praiseworthy opposites (fada’il), the nafs al-ammarah; this ego, is gradually weaned away from heedlessness and disobedience to God, and thus begins to give way to al-nafs al-lawwamah – “the reproachful soul.” The Qur’an declares: No! I swear by the reproachful soul. [75:2] This soul is man’s active conscience which is afflicted with regret, remorse and self-reproach whenever God’s Will is violated and disobeyed and elements of the lower, evil-inciting soul resurface. Al-Jurjani writes of the reproachful nafs al-lawwamah: ‘It is that which is illumined with the light of the heart, according to the measure of how much it has become awakened from habitual heedlessness. As soon as it commits a sin due to its natural oppressive disposition, it takes to blaming itself and repenting from it.’4

After much inward striving and discipline, the nafs al-lawwamah is further purified of any opposition to God’s will or shari‘ah, and is ever receptive to heavenly outpourings. Here the nafs al-mutma’innah – “the soul at peace” or “the tranquil soul” then begins to predominate. It is this soul that is most worthy of divine assistance and acceptance. It is about this that the Qur’an says: O tranquil soul! Return to your Lord, pleased and well-pleasing. Enter among My servants. Enter My Paradise. [89:27-30] Having been graced with establishing His obedience and internalising it, it is intimate with God, at peace with God’s decree (rida bi’l-qada’), and given to taste the sweetness of faith. Al-Jurjani defines the nafs al-mutma’innah as follows: ‘It is that whose illumination is completed by the heart’s light, such that is has been purged of its blameworthy traits and adorned with praiseworthy ones.’5

In all of this, four factors are crucial and have a significant bearing in purification of the soul: (i) one’s inborn nature; (ii) his upbringing; (iii) spiritual striving (mujahadah) and self-discipline (riyadah) in adulthood; and, of course, (iv) God’s tawfiq or enabling grace. Concerning spiritual struggle or mujahadah, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi ta‘ati’Llah – ‘The warrior is the one who strives against his lower soul in obedience to God.’6 So let’s roll-up our sleeves and begin the work.

Our Lord! Grant piety to our souls and purify them.
You are the Best of those who purify;
You are their Guardian
and Master.
Amin!

1. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Sunan al-Kubra, no.7275. Its chain is sahih – as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1046.

2. Cf. T.J. Winter (trans.), al-Ghazali, Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), xxviii-xxix.

3. Al-Jurjani, al-Ta‘rifat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2000), 239; no.1931.

4. ibid., 239.

5. ibid., 239.

6. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4707; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, who said the hadith is hasan sahih.

The Modern Pursuit of Happiness

man-chasing-money“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” seems to best express the only kind of happiness modern man has made available to himself; and we know where such gross hedonism leads to. Our current culture of greed, of instant-gratification and of turbo-consumerism may deliver us short term ‘highs’, the momentary ‘buzz’, but these soon wear-off, and all too often leave in their wake anxiety, depression and despair.

Knowing what happiness or the good life truly is has occupied philosophical minds since antiquity. It is, as one might expect, a theme also taken-up by the Qur’an. In one of its verses, it promises: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [16:97]

In contrast to this hayatan tayyibah or “goodly life”, God proclaims in the Qur’an: ‘But whoever turns away from My remembrance will assuredly have a life of narrowness, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall raise him up blind.’ [20:124]

Echoing this Quranic declaration, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘God says: O son of Adam! Free yourself for My worship and I shall fill your heart with sufficiency and remove your poverty. But if you do not, I will fill your hands with preoccupations and your poverty will not cease.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2466] Poverty, here, as our scholars have duly explained, refers to spiritual poverty: i.e. unhappiness, disaffection and the absence of contentment – even when basking in the midst of material abundance.

No doubt, some minimum level of materialism is required for our happiness and well-being. But beyond the basics, or above what is termed ‘subsistance living’, an increase in wealth or material goods in no way ensures happiness, contentment or fulfilment. In Islam, happiness and fulfilment are profoundly bound with obedience, worship and God’s remembrance and recollection: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [13:28]

So as believers commit to the worship of God and reconcile themselves to His decree, inner peace begins to diffuse within their souls, till it permeates all their thoughts and actions; bringing happiness, fulfilment and, ultimately, salvation. Those who pursue a life of greed, self-gratification and neglectfulness of God, choosing instead to expose themselves to a plague of inner demons, shall ultimately be cast into perdition with hellish devils!

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