The Humble "I"

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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.

The Meaning Behind Life’s Trials, Tragedies & Suffering

teen depression, tunnelLife 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.

Are We Letting Time Whizz Right Past Us?

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.

How to 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.

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