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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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Despair Not if Response to Your Du‘a is Delayed

13547973-silhouette-of-female-muslim-praying-in-mosque-during-sunset-time‘Why isn’t my supplication (du‘a) being answered?’ is a common complaint that some Muslims make. If we put aside the obvious gremlins (lack of sincerity in making du‘a, impatience with the response, asking for something sinful of for breaking family ties, not ensuring one’s income; food; and clothing are halal), there are other factors that play a part in the response of a du’a not being apparently forthcoming. We read in one hadith: ‘There is no Muslim who makes a supplication, in which there is neither sin nor cutting ties of kinship, save that Allah will grant because of it one of three things: either He will grant him a prompt response, or store it up for him in the Hereafter, or avert from him an equivalent harm.’1

That the response to a du‘a could be put-off, or be responded to in ways the petitioner doesn’t anticipate, is the theme of one of Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari’s (d.709H/1309CE) famous Hikam, or “Aphorisms”. The Kitab al-Hikam, or Hikam al-Ata’iyyah is the most famous collection of wisdom sayings in the corpus of Islamic literature, composed by the accomplished Maliki jurist and sufi, Ahmad ibn Ata’illah of Alexandria, Egypt. The Hikam has a reputaion for its succinct exposition of spiritual realities and practices to spur seekers on to the stations of ihsan. Its appeal is that it combines brevity, energy of expression and layers of meanings, couched in beautiful rhyming Arabic prose. This, together with its many large and small commentaries, has ensured its popularity among laypeople and scholars alike till this day.

Below is the sixth aphorism in the collection (in red), followed by a brief commentary by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Shurnubi (d.1348H/1929CE). The theme of this aphorism, as said before, addresses the issue of du‘a and the subtle wisdom behind why Heaven’s response to it is sometimes delayed:

6. If, in spite of intense supplication, there is a delay in the timing of the Gift, let that not be the cause for your despair. For He has guaranteed you a response in what He chooses for you, not in what you choose for yourself; and at the time He desires, not the time you desire.

‘That is, let not a delay in the timing of a gift [response] – despite persistence and firm continuance in making du‘a – be a cause to despair about a response to the du‘a. For Allah, transcendent is He, has guaranteed you a response, as per His words: “Call upon Me, and I will respond to you” [60:40] in what He chooses for you, not what you choose for yourself. For He knows what is better for you than you do. Perhaps you may ask for a thing, the denial of which is better for you. The author writes later: “Sometimes He gives while depriving you, and sometimes He deprives while giving to you.”2 This is witnessed by those who realise the station: It may be that you hate a thing though it is good for you, or love a thing though it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you know not. [2:216] This is why one of the gnostics stated: “His withholding from you is, in reality, a form of giving.”

Likewise, He has guaranteed you a response in the time He chooses, not in the time of your choosing. Cultivate a Moses like patience, for patience and avoiding hastiness more befits the servant. Don’t you see that Moses would supplicate against Pharaoh and his folk and Aaron would say: “Amen” to it: “O Lord, destroy their riches and harden their hearts so that they persist in disbelief, until they face the painful torment.” [10:88] Yet only after forty years were their prayers answered, as He said: “Your prayer is answered. Follow, both of you, the right path and do not walk in the footsteps of those who know not.” [10:89] In one hadith [it says]: “Indeed, Allah loves those who are persistent in supplicating.”

It has also been related that when a righteous slave supplicates to Allah, exalted is He, Gabriel says: O Lord, your slave wants a need of his fulfilled. So Allah says: “Leave my slave; for I love him and love to hear his voice.”4

So, O aspirant, fulfil what Allah has instructed you with in respect to supplication, and submit to His will. Perhaps you will be responded to by Him withholding from you and giving you other than what you were seeking, by which you are then granted the greatest good, and even more. [10:26]’5

1. Ahmad Musnad, 3:18; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:463, where he declared the chain to be authentic (sahih).

2. Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.83.

3. Al-‘Uqayli, Du‘afa, no.467. Al-Munawi graded it weak (da‘if), Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), no.1876; al-Albani graded its chain as very weak (da‘if jiddan) in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.637. The meaning of the hadith, however, is sound and is supported by other hadiths which speak about the virtues of frequently supplicating to Allah.

4. Al-Tabarani, al-Awsat, no.8442; al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.9562. In his Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 10:151, al-Haythami points out that its chain is weak (da‘if), as it contains a narrator who is abandoned (matruk).

5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 69-71; no.6

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