The Humble "I"

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Archive for the category “sufism & spirituality”

What Now after Ramadan?

Now that Ramadan has come to an end; and now that the spiritual energy and barakah we’ve been surfing on for the past month is subsiding, there is always that conundrum of letting ourselves spiritually unravel and allowing our material concerns to eclipse our spiritual ones. 

And whilst we are not expected to be in fifth gear (or overdrive, even) as so many people were during Ramadan, our striving should still continue and our greater focus should still be al-tahabbub ila’Llah bi ma yarda – ‘seeking to become beloved to Allah by doing what pleases Him.’

It would be truly tragic if we only made it a point to strive to draw closer to Allah only in Ramadan, and to then abandon this commitment once the month was over. It was once said to the reknowned pietist, Bishr al-Hafi, that there are some people who only strive and devote themselves to Allah’s obedience and worship just in Ramadan. So he said: بِئْسَ الْقَوْمِ لا يَعْرِفُوْنَ للهَ حَقّاً إِلاَّ فِي شَهْرِ رَمَضَان – “What a wretched folk, who don’t really know Allah except in the month of Ramadan!”1

That said, here are a few suggestions to help keep the Ramadan spirit alive and well, and to answer the question, “What now after Ramadan?”:

[1]: Remember that the reward of fasting; that is to say, the rewards of denying ourselves certain worldly delights only for the sake of Allah, does not stop with Ramadan. No, the greatest reward for those who fast is yet to come – as we learn from the following hadith: لِلصَّائِمِ فَرْحَتَانِ يَفْرَحُهُمَا: إِذَا أَفْطَرَ فَرِحَ بِفِطْرِهِ، وإِذَا لَقِيَ رَبَّهُ فَرِحَ بِصَوْمِهِ. – ‘For the fasting person there are two joys: a joy when breaking the fast, and a joy when meet their Lord due to having fasted.’2 And it is for this Meeting; this Tryst, that lovers yearn and seekers seek. 

[2]: Realise that pursuing the path of becoming beloved to Allah begins by fulfilling the obligatory deeds, or fara’id. One hadith qudsi states that Allah says: وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ عَبْدِي بِشَيْءٍ أَحَبَّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ – ‘My servant doesn’t draw closer to Me with anything more beloved to Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him.’3 Obligations aren’t limited to just the acts of worship such as prayer, fasting or pilgrimage. They also include: fulfilling promises, pledges or contracts; doing justice and being fair; not cheating or defrauding people; and fulfilling the rights and responsibilities we owe others. 

[3]: Ramadan teaches us the importance of sacred time. It teaches us that we can – with some effort, planning and tawfiq – make our lives revolve around Allah; and that where there’s a will (a desire to seek God), there’s always a way. The Qur’an tells us that key to this is mujahadah – “spiritual striving”: وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَاThose Who strive in Us, We shall guide them to Our ways. [29:69] One hadith states: الْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي طَاعَةِ اللهِ – ‘The warrior in Allah’s path is he who strives against his ego/lower soul in obedience to Allah.’4

[4]: A core part of this struggle is to reinstate the neglected practice of zuhd, of “worldly detachment”. One hadith states: ازْهَدْ فِي الدُّنْيَا يُحِبَّكَ اللَّهُ – “Detach yourself from the world and Allah will love you.”5 This detachment has degrees or levels, the first of which is working to eliminate the haram from our lives – haram not just in terms of what we eat and drink, but in terms of what we see and hear; what we wear and say; how we earn and spend; and the way we behave and interact with others. It states in one hadith: اِتَّقِ الْمَحَارِمَ تَكُنْ أَعْبَدَ النَّاسِ – ‘Guard against the forbidden and you will be the most devout of people.’6

[5]: An excellent way to help keep the Ramadan spirit ticking along is by: keeping the six recommended fasts of Shawwal. One hadith has this to say: مَنْ صَامَ رَمَضَانَ ثُمَّ أَتْبَعَهُ سِتًّا مِنْ شَوَّالٍ كَانَ كَصِيَامِ الدَّهْرِ – ‘Whoever fasts Ramadan, then follows it up with fasting six days in Shawwal, it shall be as if he has fasted the whole year.’7

[6]: Let’s end with what Ibn al-Jawzi said about the types of Ramadan fasts, which serves as our final lesson: ‎الصَّوْمُ ثَلاثَةٌ: صَوْمُ الرُّوحِ وَهُو قِصَرُ الْأَمَلِ، وَصَوْمُ الْعَقْل وَهُو مُخالفَةُ الهَوى، وَصَوْمُ الْجَوارِح وُهُو الإمْساكُ عَن الطَّعام وَالشَّراب وَالْجِماع – ‘Fasting is of three types: the fast of the soul, which is not to have prolonged hopes [about the world]; the fast of the intellect, which is to oppose one’s false desires; and the fast of the limbs, which is to refrain from food, drink and sexual intimacy.’8

May Allah make us of those who are successful and whose deeds meet with His approval and pleasure.

1. Cited in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 496. 

2. Al-Bukhari, no.1805; Muslim, no.1151.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, no.23958; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, not including the words: ‘… in obedience to Allah.’ Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be jayyid, or excellent, in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 7:7.

5. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4102. After analysis, it was graded sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.944.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2305. it was declared as hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, no.930.

7. Muslim, no.2614.

8. Bustan al-Wa‘idhin (Egypt: Dar al-Rayyan, 1984), 316-17.

Satan’s Deceit, Adam’s Slip & the Tree of Immortality

This read starts with the question: Does it matter how one sins? To answer it, it explores the deeper layers of the story of Adam, Satan and the divine command to not eat from the Tree of Immortality, in order to understand why it is that at the end of the story Adam is bathed in grace, while Satan is utterly disgraced. For at the heart of the saga, we discover the theme of divine love.

Are all sins equal? No, they are not. Are some sins worse than others? Yes, indeed! Does how you sin make any difference to Allah? This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, how one sins does make a difference to Allah. This last point is taught to us in a gem of a saying from the exemplary scholar and saint, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, who said:

مَن كانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الشَّهْوَةِ فَارْجُ لَهُ، وَمَنْ كَانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الْكِبْرِ، فَاخْشَ عَلَيْهِ فَإنَّ آدَمَ عَصى مُشْتَهِيًا، فَغُفِرَ لَهُ وَإِبْلِيْسُ عَصى مُتكَبِّرًا فَلُعِنَ.

‘Whoever sins due to a desire, have hope for him; while whoever sins out of pride, fear for him. For Adam disobeyed out of a desire, but was forgiven, whereas Iblis disobeyed from pride and so was cursed.’1

The reference to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and to Iblis or Satan, lies at the heart of the human drama. The story is recounted at the start of the Qur’an at 2:30-9, and also at 7:11-25; 17:61-5; 20:115-23 and 38:71-85. In the Adamic story, both Adam and Iblis are subject to a single divine command. For Adam it was: ‘O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and eat as you wish, but do not come near this tree.’ [2:19] For Iblis: ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ and they all fell prostrate, except Iblis, who was not of those who prostrated. [2:11] In both instances, Allah’s order was not followed through: Adam [and Eve] ate from the tree; Iblis refused to prostrate. One could be forgiven for assuming that both these actors would be recipient to similar consequences for having failed to uphold a divine command? But they were not.

On being asked why he disobeyed the command to prostrate, Iblis replied in this defiant and arrogant tone: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while You created him of clay.’ [7:12] Being made of subtle fire, Iblis presumed himself to be better than Adam, who was heavy and clay-like in nature. So driven by pride, and exercising his own reasoning in defiance of the Divine Command, Iblis set himself up as a god against Allah and thus was cursed. Yet what Satan, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge was the heavenly, luminous substance called ruh or “spirit” that was insufflated into Adam: ‘So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down prostrate before him.’ [38:72] Inspite of Adam’s opaque, earth-like nature, it is this God-knowing spirit which grants mankind the potential to rise above all other sentient creatures.

As for our father Adam, peace be upon him, his is a story of love; in terms of what drove him, deprived him and distressed him. We read in the Qur’an: But Satan whispered evil to him, suggesting: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that never decays?’ [20:120] His eating from the Tree of Immortality was not out of defiance of Allah’s will, rather: We made a pact with Adam before, but he forgot. [20:115] However, some of the scholars hold that his forgetting doesn’t refer to eating from the tree, but to not recalling that Satan is his avowed enemy: ‘O Adam, this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife; let him not drive you both from the Garden.’ [20:117] In this reading, it is Adam’s love for Allah and his aching desire to remain in His presence that drives him to eat from the tree. Let us hear from Ibn ‘Ajibah on this point:

‘Realise that Adam’s eating from the tree was not out of obstinacy or wilful disobedience. It was either due to not recalling the command, so he ate whilst being forgetful; which is what some have said, and is what may be meant in Allah’s saying: but he forgot. [20:115] If, however, he ate whilst remembering the command, he did so because: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree lest you become angels or become of the immortals.’ [7:20] So his love for Allah and his deep attachment to Him made him to want what would lead him to dwell forever in Allah’s company and abide with Him eternally. Or [he wilfully ate because] he desired to become angelic. For Adam, peace be upon him, held the angels to be closer to Allah, so he wished to eat from the tree to be an angel who – as far as he was concerned – were the best [of creation].’2

Satan whispered to Adam and Eve, in order to lead them by deceit: And he swore to them: ‘Truly, I am a sincere advisor to you.’ [7:21] Adam, in his innocence, believed him, thinking that no one would ever swear by Allah’s holy Name falsely!3 So he used Adam’s love for Allah and his yearning to be in His presence as a means to make him eat of the tree. Adam was thus deceived into thinking that if he were to become an angel or an immortal, he too would be able to abide in Allah’s holy presence forever – perpetually adoring, glorifying and worshiping God as the angels do. Hence the lover ate.4

Ironically, love deprived him – for a while, at least – of dwelling in Allah’s presence: He said: ‘Go down, both of you, from the Garden.’ [20:123] And: ‘There will be for you on earth a habitation, and a provision for a while.’ [7:24] It was this very same love that caused him to then weep a thousand tears and be utterly heart-broken and remorseful. For unlike Satan who refused to own his sin, but sought instead to justify it, Adam and Eve acknowledged their slip and were remorseful, repentant and longed for God’s acceptance: ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we shall be among the losers!’ [7:23] Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:

‘By Allah! Having committed the error, Adam neither profited from his rank: ‘Bow down before Adam!’ [2:34]; nor from his nobility: He taught Adam the names of all things [2:31]; nor his distinction: ‘that which I created with both My hands’ [38:75]; and nor his glory: and breathed into him of My spirit. [15:29] Instead, he profited only from his humility: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we will be among the losers!” [7:23]’5

One last point, and it’s an important one. When we say that Adam “sinned” – Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord [20:121] – it’s not the usual type of sin that is driven by the ego’s wilful opposition to Allah. Rather, as the Qur’an says elsewhere, it was an unintentional sin; an inadvertent “slip”: But the Devil caused them to slip. [2:36] Both courtesy and creed; adab and ‘aqidah, demand that we acknowledge this. Courtesy because when one speaks about God’s chosen prophets – the crown of all His creation – one does so in the most respectful and reverent way possible; salawatu‘Llahi ‘alayhim ajma‘in. Not to do so could, in certain cases, amount to disbelief (kufr). As for creed, then this is because the texts of the Qur’an and Hadiths, when taken collectively, teach us that the prophets are ma‘sum – “infallible” in the sense of being protected from sin and wilful disobedience. Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The prophets are protected from major sins and the reprehensible minor sins, by consensus.’6

Although Adam and Eve are the first humans to violate a command from God, Satan is the first of all Allah’s creation to wilfully disobey Him. His decision to rebel came purely from himself and his pride; no one else lured or persuaded him. Furthermore, his decision to continue to disobey God after his initial defiance ensures that God will not forgive him. In contrast, both Adam and Eve immediately felt remorse and sincerely repented. We could say that while Iblis was driven by pride; Adam’s slip, in stark contrast, was driven by love and his longing to be with his Lord. Love is what drove Adam to eat – and there is always some special consideration for Allah’s true lovers.

The example of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, remains as valid today as it was then. For having turned to God, Adam did not transmit the curse of an “original sin” to his descendants. Instead, he was received into divine grace and a state of harmony was once again restored between him and his Maker: Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord relented towards him. [2:37] A similar grace awaits all those who sin, but turn to Allah in remorseful repentance, following the Adamic example. The key is in pondering God and His grace, which allows one to become closer to Allah and more devoted to Him. In the Adamic saga, Iblis contemplates only himself: Adam constantly contemplates God and being close to Him.

So here’s to contemplating closeness!

1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:461.

2. Ibn ‘Ajibah, Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir Qur’an al-Majid (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawqifiyyah, n.d.), 4:320, citing Ibn Ata‘illah, Kitab al-Tanwir.

3. See: Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ bi Ta‘rif Huquq al-Mustafa (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 692.

4. Cf. Muhammad Idris Kandhalawi, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Sindh: Maktabah ‘Uthmaniyyah, 1422H), 3:85-90. I am indebted to Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoun, hafizahullah, for bringing this point, and this superb Urdu tafsir, to my attention.

5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 51-2.

6. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur‘an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:194.

The Content of Good Character

In this talk, Shaykh Surkheel (aka Abu Aaliyah) explores the most comprehensive verse in the Qur’an, as it relates to the core character of a believer. He then looks at three scholarly wisdoms which, taken collectively, sum-up the content of character for a Muslim. The first of them is Imam al-Zarnuji’s words: “The best knowledge is knowledge of one’s state, and the best action is to safeguard that state.” The next is the saying of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani: “Be with the Real [God], without creation; and with creation, without ego.” The last is this gem of an advice from Yahya b. Mu‘adh al-Razi: “Let your dealing with another person be of three types: If you cannot benefit him, do not harm him. If you cannot gladden him, do not sadden him. If you cannot speak well of him, do not speak ill of him.” Watch here.

Deepening Our Love for Allah’s Beloved ﷺ

Filmed in the warm and friendly setting of Chapters Coffee Corner, Goodmayes; London, this short talk discusses how a believer may nurture and deepen his or her love for the Prophet ﷺ. The video can be viewed here.

Ibn Taymiyyah: Best Moisturiser for Dry Hearts

In the 1970s, there was an advert on TV for a popular brand of moisturising cream.1 The advert sought to show how great the cream was by first showing us a dry autumn leaf which, upon being scrunched in the palm of the hand, crumbled into pieces.

Next came another dry leaf, this time the moisturising cream was applied to it. After it was squeezed, one saw the dry leaf gently unfolding back to its original shape. The message: If this is what the cream can do to a dry leaf, imagine what it could do for your dry or crinkled skin. I suspect many were sold on this moisturiser … including a young, teenage me!

The idea of moistening or revitalising faces and hands also applies to spiritual hearts. For the remembrance of Allah – dhikru’Llah – nourishes and revitalises the heart like nothing else. Indeed, it is its very lifeline. So much so, that Ibn Taymiyyah once made this following comparison:

.الذِكْرُ لِلْقَلْبِ كَالمَاءِ لِلسَّمَك فَكَيفَ يَكُونُ حَالَ السَّمَك اِذَا فَارَقَ المَاء

Dhikr is to the heart as water is to a fish. Don’t you see what happens to a fish when it is taken out of water?’2

Islam’s masters of the heart teach us, then, to be constant in remembering Allah and in invoking Him. Consistent dhikr, with the required courtesy or adab towards the One being invoked, is key. As commitment to dhikr grows and deepens, and as souls begin to be illumined by the mention of His holy Name, Allah will cover our weaknesses with His might, cloth our lowliness in His glory, conceal our ignorance with His knowledge, heal the anger of our ego with His clemency, and calm the agitations of our heart with His assurance and serenity; such that one will be given to taste the bliss of the eternal realm whilst still living in this earthly abode.

1. The link to the actual advert was sent to me (via an earlier posting of this piece on my facebook page) courtesy of Paul Williams, and can be seen on his: Blogging Theology.

2. Cited in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayyan, 2006), 93.

Al-Hajjawi: Protecting the Fortress of Faith

Imam al-Hajjawi (d.968H/1561CE) – author of a celebrated Hanbali fiqh text, al-Iqna‘, and its abridgement, Zad a-Mustaqni‘ – wrote the following as part of his commentary to a famous Hanbali adab-poem:

يُقَالُ مَثَلُ الْإِيمَانِ كَمَثَلِ بَلْدَةٍ لَهَا خَمْسُ حُصُونٍ، الْأَوَّلُ مِنْ ذَهَبٍ، وَالثَّانِي مِنْ فِضَّةٍ، وَالثَّالِثُ مِنْ حَدِيدٍ، وَالرَّابِعُ مِنْ آجُرٍّ، وَالْخَامِسُ مِنْ لَبِنٍ، فَمَا زَالَ أَهْلُ الْحِصْنِ مُتَعَاهِدِينَ حِصْنَ اللَّبِنِ لَا يَطْمَعُ الْعَدُوُّ فِي الثَّانِي، فَإِذَا أَهْمَلُوا ذَلِكَ طَمِعُوا فِي الْحِصْنِ الثَّانِي ثُمَّ الثَّالِثِ حَتَّى تَخْرَبَ الْحُصُونُ كُلُّهَا

فَكَذَلِكَ الْإِيمَانُ فِي خَمْسِ حُصُونٍ الْيَقِينُ، ثُمَّ الْإِخْلَاصُ، ثُمَّ أَدَاءُ الْفَرَائِضِ، ثُمَّ السُّنَنُ، ثُمَّ حِفْظُ الْآدَابِ، فَمَا دَامَ يَحْفَظُ الْآدَابَ وَيَتَعَاهَدُهَا فَالشَّيْطَانُ لَا يَطْمَعُ فِيهِ،

وَإِذَا تَرَكَ الْآدَابَ طَمِعَ الشَّيْطَانُ فِي السُّنَنِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْفَرَائِضِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْإِخْلَاصِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْيَقِينِ ‏.‏

‘It has been said: The allegory of faith (iman) is as a fortress having five walls. The first [innermost] is made of gold; the second of silver; the third of iron; the fourth, baked bricks; and the fifth [outermost wall] from mud bricks. As long as the inhabitants of the fortress are diligent in guarding the clay wall, the enemy will not set its sights on [attacking] the next wall. But if they become negligent, they will attack the next wall, then the next, till the entire fortress lays in ruins.

‘In a similar way, faith is defended by five walls: certainty (yaqin), then comes sincerity (ikhlas), next up is performance of the obligations (ada’ al-fara’id), after which are the recommended acts (sunan), and lastly guarding beautiful behaviour (adab). So long as adab is guarded and defended, the Devil will not find a way in.

‘If, however, adab is neglected, Satan makes inroads into the sunan, then the fara’id, then ikhlas, and finally yaqin itself.’1

Given that ours is an age in which the distinction between halal and haram are being ever more blurred; and given our age also challenges religious conviction and seeks to undermine the foundations of revealed faith, believers must always be on their guard against this encroaching onslaught. Crucial to all this is to ensure we are well-rooted in: knowledge of God, knowledge of Self, and knowledge of Sin.

1. Sharh Manzumat al-Adab (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 36.

Lessons from Imam Malik’s Letter to al-‘Umari, the Renuncient

Imam Malik was once urged by ‘Abd Allah al-‘Umari – who was given to much worldly detachment (zuhd) – that he ought to devote far more time to spiritual seclusion and to other personal acts of piety. Imam Malik wrote a letter of courtesy to him, offering this piece of wisdom:

إِنَّ الـلَّـهَ تـعـالَـى قَـسَّـمَ الأَعْـمَـالَ كَـمَـا قَـسَّـمَ الأَرْزَاقَ ، فَـرُبَّ رَجُـلٍ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـلاةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـدَقَـةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الْـجِـهَـادِ , وَنَـشْـرُ الْـعِـلْـمِ مِـنْ أَفْـضَـلِ الأَعْـمَـالِ ، وَقَـدْ رَضِـيـتُ مَـا فُـتِـحَ لِـي فِـيـهِ ، وَمَـا أَظُـنُّ مَـا أَنَـا فِـيـهِ بِـدُونِ مَـا أَنْـتَ فِـيـهِ ، وَأَرْجُـو أَنْ يَـكُـونَ كِـلانَـا عَـلَـى خَـيْـرٍ وَبِـرٍّ.

‘Allah, exalted is He, apportions people’s actions as He apportions their sustenance. So sometimes He grants a spiritual opening to a person in terms of [optional] prayers, but not [optional] fasting. Or He grants an opening in giving charity, but not in fasting. To another, He may grants them an opening for jihad. As for spreading sacred knowledge, that is from the best of deeds, and I am pleased with what Allah has opened to me. Nor do I imagine that what I am engaged in is any less than what you are engaged in; and I hope that both of us are upon goodness and righteousness.’1

Its adab and humility aside, the core lesson from the letter is: When Allah opens a door to being consistent in doing a certain righteous deed, and makes that your main focus, then cling to it and do not give it up for anything else. We should, undoubtedly, have a share of other good deeds too; without them necessarily being our main preoccupation or focus.

Something similar is suggested in a report concerning Ibn Mas‘ud, when he was asked as to why he did not fast optional fasts more frequently. His reply:

.إِنِّـي إِذَا صُـمْـتُ ضَـعُـفْـتُ عَـنْ قِـرَاءَةِ الـقُـرْآنِ , وَقِـرَاءَةُ الـقُـرْآنِ أَحَـبُّ إِلَـيَّ مِـنَ الـصَّـوْمِ

‘When I fast, it weakens my ability to recite the Qur’an; and reciting the Qur’an is more beloved to me than [optional] fasting.’2

We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq.

1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:114.

2. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.8909; al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8868.

The Kaʿbah, the Abrahamic Call & the Spiritual Meaning of Hajj:

The Qur’an relates to us this duʿa of the Holy Prophet Abraham:

رَبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِنْدَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلاَةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِنْ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُمْ مِنْ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ

‘Our Lord! I have settled one of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House so that, O Lord, they may establish the prayer. Thus make the hearts of people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ [14:37]

This duʿa was made around 2000 BC. But let’s go even further back in sacred time to the dawn of man’s arrival on earth, to 3000 years earlier; or much more so:

It’s been said that Adam, the first man and prophet, having been told to leave Paradise for this dusty earth, was ordered to undertake a great journey.

Guided by Heaven, he travelled far till he came to the deserts of the Hijaz and stood, at last, in a valley ringed by mountains; a barren place of rock and sand. There he built a holy structure, a place of worship; and when this task of his was complete, he left. And for a great length of time, silence and stillness descended upon this sacred place, and windblown sand covered what Adam had built. The Qur’an says of this sacred House and valley:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِي بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلْعَالَمِينَ

The first sanctuary ever built for mankind was that at Bakkah [Makkah], a blessed place and a guidance for the worlds. [3:96]

The hadiths about Adam’s role in erecting the Kaʿbah aren’t definitive, their soundness questionable. What is certain, though; what does constitutes sound sacred history, is that:

After long ages had passed, two people came over the desert into the Makkan valley, with a child. The one, an elderly man in his eighties, Abraham by name and a prophet by destiny. The other, Hagar, his Egyptian maid-servant who had borne him this child in his old age: Ishmael. Near the mound that now covered the Sacred House, Abraham left both Ishmael and Hagar to the divine mercy and under divine instruction, leaving with them a few dates and a water skin.

Thirsty, hungry and perhaps by now distraught, Hagar left the child under a sheltered spot and began looking for water and help. Following a path that led her to the hilltop of Safa, there she saw no spring nor signs of habitation. She ran to the neighbouring hilltop, Marwa; again she saw nothing. Seven times she ran between the two hilltops, calling on Allah for mercy. It was then she heard the sound of a voice. Hurrying back to her son, she saw standing besides him an angel who was now striking the earth with his wing so that water gushed forth. This was the spring of Zamzam, from which the pilgrims in their millions drink even today. Here it was that Hagar settled, and reared Ishmael, soon to be joined by a wandering tribe from the north, the Jurhumites; and it is here she died and here he thrived.

Abraham would often come back to Makkah. On one such return, when Ishmael had grown to manhood, both father and son set about rebuilding the Kaʿbah; repeating Adam’s deed, as all men must in one way or another. Father and son dug the earth, found the foundations of the original structure, and rebuilt the Kaʿbah as a simple structure of four walls, setting in one corner of this House a white stone:

وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنْ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]; You are indeed the Hearing, the Knowing.’ [2:127]

On another earlier occasion, according to one of two authoratative readings, Abraham came to fulfill a dream about him and his first born, Ishmael:

فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ. فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ. وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ. قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ. إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ. وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ.

And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so what do you think?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you have been commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ So when they had both surrendered to Allah and he had turned him down on his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. Thus We reward the doers of good.’ That was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-07]

And then there is this duʿa spoken by Abraham, perhaps when he was leaving Makkah for the last time, or perhaps when he was back in the fertile land of Canaan:

رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمْ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

‘Our Lord! Raise from their midst a Messenger who shall recite to them Your signs, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

More than two millennia passed before Abraham’s prayer was answered. By that time, the worship of the One true God taught by Abraham was mixed with much idolatry, the Kaʿbah had been defiled with idols in and around it, and the pure white stone set in the eastern corner had been blackened because of the sins of men. Once more, the sacred House was largely forgotten, except to the Arabs and a few scattered tribes of nomads, of whom history took little notice.

But the time was at hand when the Abrahamic call would be reinstated, re-energised, and its scope made universal. And in the fullness of time, with destiny being ripe, there was born from Ishmael’s seed, among the Arabs, from the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim, a Messenger of God, a final Prophet, in a line of prophets extending all the way back to Adam and his descendents: Muhammad ﷺ – mercy to the worlds. Under the weight of the final divine Revelation, the Prophet ﷺ restored the primordial Adamic faith and reestablished the salvic truths of Abrahamic monotheism.1

The Pilgrimage to Makkah and to the Kaʿbah, as well as involving the continuity of a number of ancient rites, contains potent spiritual symbolism. The physical journey from one’s homeland is a reminder that one must eventually leave this world forever. Wearing the ihram reminds one that each will be buried in a shroud when they die and shall meet their Maker, shorn of any ability to hide behind clothes of pretension or of status. The huge multitudes of people camped out on the plain of Arafat, or under the desert sky of Muzdalifah, brings to mind the tumult and terror of the Resurrection, when all shall be marshalled together for judgement. But of course, the most potent symbol, and the one that most links us to the Abrahamic legacy, is the ritual sacrifice, in remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. For Abraham’s story is a story of loving submission – and it is loving submission and surrender that lie at the very heart of Islam.

1. See: Gai Eaton, Islam & the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 46-48.

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Do Good Deeds, But Don’t Rely Upon Them!

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 with 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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