The Humble I

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How Best to Keep Strife out of Our Life?

ip822278quality-2nd-gener-e1361470756715Shakespeare tells us in Othello: ”Tis the soldiers’ life. To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.’ In other words, it is part of the job description of men at war that they will often be woken from whatever pleasant sleep they could be having by the unexpected call to arms; or a surprise enemy attack; or by some other reason that pits them against some imminent danger. A soldier’s life is a life lived on the edge; ever ready to engage struggle and strife. (In Othello’s case, he and his wife, Desdemona are woken on their wedding night by the drunken brawling and clamour of some of Othello’s soldiers.)

When we talk about strife in war, we are talking about violent conflicts and discords. Though when we speak of strife in terms of our daily life, we tend to mean things like arguing, bickering, heated disagreements and undercurrents of anger or discontent. We can experience strife with family, friends, work colleagues, or just the day-to-day tasks of life.

To keep quarrels, conflicts and friction out of our lives, we must be ready and willing to avoid conversations which will lead to such dissension. In conversations that are getting hot, we need to learn to back off or just drop it because, what is being debated is, often, something trivial or not worth arguing about. It may even be something we do not have sufficient knowledge about to be discussing anyway. This last situation is so often the case when it comes to religious discussions. The Qur’an strictures: Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. [17:36]

But here’s the rub. The ego’s desire to be right frequently leads us into strife. We could keep conflict at bay simply by entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong. But pride, conceit or just being pigheaded will not allow us to do so. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned: ‘Three things destroy: greed that is obeyed, desire that is followed and a person enamoured with his own opinion.’ [Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80]

All kinds of problems come about by trying to insist that we are right. And what good does it usually do in the end? It satisfies the self. It assuages the ego. But it also stains the soul and hardens the heart.

Strife blocks God’s blessings, incites enmity and opens the door to all types of ills. At a more communal level, strife weakens us – as per the saying: ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ The Qur’an states: Dispute not with one another lest you falter and your strength departs. [8:46]

Truth be told, being right is often overrated. Next time your discussion with someone begins to get too hot under the collar and an argument begins to erupt, ask yourself if what you are discussing is worth breaking the peace for and sliding into strife. Rein in the ego and let peace reign; you’ll feel much better for it. One hadith presents us with a further motive for backing off from arguments: ‘I am a guarantor for a house on the outskirts of Paradise for whoever leaves of arguing even though he is in the right.’ [Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4800].

Islam’s Social Vision: Braving the Steep Road

imageIslam’s vision of society, as has been so admirably stated by Tim Winter (a.k.a. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), ‘is rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God.’

One of the prophetic statements which best encapsulates this outlook is found in the following hadith: ‘O people! Spread [the greetings of] peace, feed the poor, keep ties of relations and pray at night whilst others sleep, you shall enter Paradise in peace (ya ayyuha’l-nas afshu’l-salam wasillu’l-arham wa at‘imu’l-ta‘am wa sallu bi’l-layi wa’l-nasu niyam tadkhulu’l-jannata bi salam).’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2485]

While at first glance the hadith seems only to be depicting personal virtues, skimming beneath the surface reveals its social content too.

Afshu’l-salam – “spread peace”: No doubt, it applies first and foremost to spreading the greetings of peace: al-salamu ‘alaykum (peace be unto you). The Qur’an says: When you enter houses, greet one another with a greeting of peace from God, blessed and good. [24:61] In another verse, it instructs: When you are greeted with a greeting, return it with a better greeting or [at least] its equal. [4:86] One hadith offers these tidings: ‘You will not enter Paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another. Shall I not lead you to something that will cause you to love each other: spread the greetings of peace among yourselves.’ [Muslim, no.54]

At a deeper lever, “spreading peace” calls on each of us to be reconcilers, rectifiers; or simply peace-makers. God mentioned in the Qur’an: If two parties of believers fall into a dispute, make peace between them. [49:9] Extending beyond believers is the verse: There is no good in much of their secret conferences except in him who enjoins charity, or kindness, or peace-making among the people. [4:114] Then there is the verse that teaches believers how to respond to taunts or provocations: And the servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk upon the earth modestly and who, when the ignorant address them, say [words of] peace. [25:63]

Wasillu’l-arham – “keeping ties of relations”: And those who join together what God has commanded to be joined … Theirs shall be the final abode, says the Qur’an. [13:21-22] In a hadith that gives us further insight into good character, sense and sensibility, we find the following instruction: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him honour his guest; whosoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him keep ties of the womb; and whoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him speak well or remain quiet.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6017; Muslim, no.47]

Again, at a more broader, social level, maintaining bonds between kith and kin helps define the pivotal role of the family as the bedrock of a healthy society; where children are lovingly raised and where social capital is invested in them as future social actors. Moreover, as the rights of family and relatives are honoured, it serves as an important impetus to honour the rights of others outside the family circle – particularly the poor and the vulnerable, and also the rights of the stranger. The Qur’an says: Worship God and ascribe nothing with Him. And show kindness to your parents, and to your relatives, and to orphans, the needy, close neighbours and distant neighbours, the fellow-traveller and the wayfarer. [4:36]

At‘imu’l-ta‘am – “feeding the poor”: Describing the righteous, the Qur’an declares: And they feed, for the love of God, the poor, the indigent and the captive. [76:8] Of course, when this verse was revealed in Mecca, there were no Muslim captives or prisoners of war; telling us that this, and other such verses, applies to helping to dignify vulnerable non-Muslims, as it does Muslims. In an unequivocal reminder of what opposes faith, God says: Have you observed him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor. [107:1-3] Thus Islam does not just require us to feed the poor, but requires of us to “urge others” to do so too.

The bigger picture in feeding the poor is for believers to develop a social conscience. For when true faith touches the heart to any degree, the individual’s view of man and society is transformed, motivating him to the benevolent service of his fellow human beings. But those whose focus is exclusively on theology (‘aqidah), tend to lose sight of Islam’s social vision. Instead, they become victims of a one-dimensional mindset that is virtually incapable of critical awareness and lacks meaningful social consciousness. Such people, therefore, have very little incentive to participate in society’s growth and well-being, or to look beyond their own little worlds. True faith, though, should make us selfless, not selfish; despite financial hardships or attendant economic hurdles: Yet he has not braved the steep road. And what will convey to you what the steep road is: [It is] the freeing of a slave; or the feeding, on a day of famine, of an orphaned relation; or a needy person in distress. Then shall one be of those who believe and enjoin one another to patience, and enjoin one another to mercy. [90:11-17]

Sallu bi’l-layl – “praying at night”: About it, God has urged: And some portion of the night, awake for prayer, as an extra merit for you. [17:79] And: Those who forsake their beds to call upon their Lord in fear and hope. [32:16] The Prophet, peace be upon him said: ‘The best prayer, after the obligatory ones, is the late-night prayer.’ [Muslim, no.1163] About this late-night (tahajjud) prayer, we also read: ‘Live as long as you wish, you shall soon die. Love whomever you wish, you shall soon taste separation. Do whatever you wish, you shall soon be recompensed. And know that the believer’s honour is in the night prayer and his glory is in being free of needing others.’ [Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.746] Hence to rise from sleep for the night-vigil, so as to express one’s love and gratitude to God, and to seek of His bounties – spiritual and temporal – is the believer’s crowning glory. For it entails defeat of the devil, subduing the nafs, and desire to seek divine intimacy. May God grant us all the enabling grace to seek such intimacy.

At the social level it reminds us of the need to cultivate a deeper connection with God, beyond the basic duties we owe to Him, and that ultimately it is God’s downpourings and blessings that are the true source of healing and well-being for society: And if only the people of the cities had believed and feared God, We would surely have opened for them blessings from the sky and from the earth. [7:96] For Muslims, matters of public morality and social justice are best given legitimacy by religion. But this is not an excuse to be armchair critics. Islam wants us to live the change we wish to see in society. Far too many of us Muslims are quick to criticise social ills or injustices, but are slow to brave the steep road that their healing requires. And that simply won’t do.

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