Abstinence from the world

Zuhd, is to remain free of desire for all worldly and physical pleasures, that is not to give them any worth and to adorn one’s inner world with worship and beautiful dealings with others. As a result everything other than Allah loses its importance in the heart.

The zahid, or the possessor of zuhd, is the one who avoids even doubtful things thus fleeing from sin, and who, out of love for and fear of Allah, uses the bounties of this world purposefully.

The great men of Islam have always displayed a superior servanthood in their hearts, and have lived with zuhd and istigna which reflected their withdrawal from the world and its pleasures. Thus in their world, everything but love for and fear of Allah had lost its value. In this way, zuhd is like a firm shield against love and greed for this world, which makes one forget the afterlife.

This deceiving world, with its attractions and its charm has made many people yield to it. Whereas one should keep the world outside one’s heart and benefit from it and turn it into trade for the hereafter. Almighty Allah has described the life of this world lived with its desires and whims as follows:

‘Know that the life of this world is merely a game and a diversion and ostentation and a cause of boasting among yourselves and trying to outdo one another in wealth and children: like the plant-growth after rain which delights the cultivators, but then it withers and you see it turning yellow, and then it becomes broken stubble. In the afterlife there is terrible punishment but also forgiveness from Allah and His good pleasure. The life of this world is nothing but the enjoyment of delusion’(Al-Hadid, 57:20).

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has said:

“The worth of this world as compared with the hereafter is as if one of you puts his finger into the ocean and then looks at it to see how water it brings when taken out”(Muslim, Jannah 55).

“Whoever desires the Afterlife, Allah will enrich his heart and order his affairs and the world will then lower itself and follow him. Whoever’s aim is this world however, Allah will place poverty between his two eyes and disrupt his affairs. As a result nothing more than what has been decreed for him from this world will come to him”.(Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 30/2465)

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) gave the following advice for his community to abstain from the world and be grateful for the bounties that Allah has provided:

Look at those whose conditions are worse than you, and do not look at those who are better off than you. This is more suitable for you in order that you do not belittle the bounties that Allah has given you”. (Muslim, Zuhd, 9)

Zuhd and taqwa, which are the signs of those who have adopted the prophetic way in response to life and its events, is sometimes misunderstood. It is thought that they imply withdrawing entirely from the bounties and riches of the world. Whereas to be able to execute one’s financial duties, which is also a type of worship, is also very valuable in the eyes of Allah. The word ‘infaq’ or giving out is mentioned in many places in the Holy Qur’an. Two of the five pillars of Islam, zakat and hajj, can only be performed when one possesses the ‘nisab’, or the minimum amount of property liable to payment of zakat. The prophetic hadith, that the ‘one who gives is superior to the one who takes’ also encourages one to at least possess this minimum amount, or nisab, in order to be able to carry out these acts of worship. In that case zuhd cannot be contrary to matters that the religion encourages.

To remain free of desire for worldly bounties out of fear that one may commit a sin or fall into heedlessness is a requirement of zuhd and taqwa. However this istigna is a matter of the heart and does not pertain to one’s actions or outward behaviour. That is, zuhd and istigna consist of taking part in worldly bounties without the heart becoming attached to them. In this respect, zuhd is not poverty; it is an attitude of the heart that must be adopted by all believers, be they rich or poor. If a person is living in apparent poverty as a result of the divine decree but his heart desires the world, then he cannot be considered a person of istigna and zuhd. Zuhd and istigna do not mean that one is forced to be content with little as a result of one’s fate; rather they imply willingly protecting one’s heart from becoming a slave to the world.

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) has described the state of zuhd beautifully:

Zuhd of this world is neither by making the lawful prohibited nor by abandoning property and wealth. Zuhd of this world is rather relying upon Allah’s property rather than what is in one’s hands; it is to be hopeful to the utmost of the reward and merit to be obtained from any calamity that may befall one” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 29/2340).

Scenes of Virtue

Iyas ibn Sa’labe (r.a) narrates:

“One day the Companions were discussing the world next the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Upon this the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said:

Do you not hear? Do you not hear? To live simply is from one’s faith; to live simply is from one’s faith” (Abu Dawud, Tarajjul, 1/4161; Ibn Majah, Zuhd 4).

That is to live like a zahid, humbly and free of want…

***

According to a narration by Aisha , a lady from the Ansar once came to her and saw that the bed of the Prophet consisted of nothing more than a thin mattress folded up. She then immediately ran to her house and brought back a mattress filled with wool. When the Prophet (pbuh) saw that his bed had been changed he was not happy and he said to Aisha:

“O Aisha! Give this bed back to its owner. I swear by Allah that had I so desired, Allah would make mountains of gold and silver move for me and put them under my command”.(Ahmad, Kitabu az Zuhd, p 30).

***

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r.a) narrates:

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had once laid down to sleep on a straw mat. When he awoke, the mat had left marks on the side of his body. We said to him:

“O Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Can we not get a mattress for you?” He replied:

What have I to do with this world? I am like a rider in this world who takes shelter beneath a tree and then goes on his way and leaves it behind him” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 44/2377).

***

Abu Huraira (r.a) once encountered a group of people who had before them a fried sheep. The people invited him but he did not wish to eat and he said:

“Allah’s Messenger moved on from this world without having filled his stomach even with barley bread” (Bukhari, At’ima, 23)

***

One day Sahl ibn Sa’d (r.a) said:

“From the day he was sent as a messenger until the day he died, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) never saw sifted flour”. It was said to him:

“Did they used to use sifted flour in the time of the Messenger of Allah?”

Sahl answered:

“From the day he was sent as a messenger until the day he died, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) never saw a sieve”

They asked him:

“How did you use eat to sifted barley flour?”

He replied:

“We used to grind the barley and scatter it. The bran would blow away; and we would wet the remaining flour and make dough with it” (Bukhari, At’ima, 23).

***

Anas (r.a) narrates:

“Some merchandise from Bahrain was once brought to the Prophet. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said:

Bring it and stack it in the mosque”.

Up until that time, this property was more than had ever been brought to the Messenger of Allah. He went to pray and did not even look at the property. After he had finished praying he came and stood before the goods and distributed them to whoever he saw… The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) did not leave from there until he had distributed it all and not a single dirham was left behind” (Bukhari, Salat 42, Jizya 4, Jihad 172).

***

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) once cautioned those of his wives who had inclined towards the riches of the world with a decree from the Qur’an. He asked them to choose whether they preferred the finery of this world or Allah, His Messenger and the life of the hereafter. He then distanced himself from them for one month. After this event, which was known as ‘Ila’, the following verse was revealed:

‘O Prophet, tell your wives: ‘If you desire the life of the world and its finery, come and I will give you all you need and release you with kindness.

But if you desire Allah and His Messenger and the abode of the hereafter, Allah has prepared an immense reward for those among you who are good-doers.’(Ahzab, 33:28-29)

Following this the Prophet (pbuh), beginning with Aisha , said to her:

“I am going to speak to you about a certain matter. Do not hurry to give me a reply. You can reply after you have consulted with your family”. Aisha asked him:

“What is this matter, o Messenger of Allah? The Prophet (pbuh) then recited the above verse to her. Upon this Aisha immediately answered:

“Am I to consult with my family in a matter concerning my preference for you? Never! I choose Allah, His Messenger and the life of the hereafter”. The Prophet’s other wives responded in the same way. (Muslim, Talaq, 29)

***

The freed slave of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), Sawban (r.a) narrates:

Whenever Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) was to leave on a journey he would farewell his daughter Fatima , last of all. And the first person he would go to when he returned was Fatima. It was a time when the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had returned from another of his journeys. Fatima had hung a curtain over her door and had placed two bracelets of silver on her two sons Hasan and Hussain. The Prophet arrived at Fatima’s house, however he did not enter. Fatima realised that the reason the Prophet did not enter his house was due to what he saw. She immediately pulled down the (decorative) curtain, and removed the bracelets from her sons’ wrists. She shared one of these amongst the two of them. Hasan and Hussain began to cry and went to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) took the bracelets and said to Sawban:

“O Sawban. Take these bracelets to such and such family. Hasan and Hussain are from my Ahl’ul Bayt[1]. I do not want them to use up in this world, the beauties that Allah is going to bestow on them (in the next). O Sawban. Go and buy a necklace made of bone for Fatima and two bracelets again made of bone for her children”.(Abu Dawud, Tarajjul, 21/4213).

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) wanted the members of his Ahl’ul Bayt to live in the simplest, most humble way, free of desire for the world, as an example for his community.

***

Abu Dharr (r.a) narrates:

“I was once walking in the district of Harra in Madina with the Prophet of Allah (pbuh), when we saw the mountain of Uhud. The Messenger of Allah said:

“O Abu Dharr!” I replied:

“Yes o Messenger of Allah. I am at your command”. He replied:

“If I had as much gold as this here mountain of Uhud, it would not please me at all. I do not wish for three days to pass in which I have money with me other than to pay back a debt, even if it is a mere dinar – Allah’s Messenger made a gesture of giving, moving his hands in front of him, on his right, on his left and behind him – I would wish to distribute that which was with me to the servants of Allah”.

Then he walked a little further and said:

“Those who have the most wealth in this world will have the least reward in the hereafter. Except for those who give it out like this to those on their right, on their left, and behind them. But how few indeed are those”(Bukhari, Istikraz 3, Rikak 14; Muslim, Zakat 32).

***

One day a man came to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and said:

“O Messenger of Allah. Tell me such a deed that I can do that when I do it Allah loves me and the people love me”.

Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said to him:

“Be indifferent to the pleasures of the world, do not vie for it and Allah will love you and be indifferent to what others possess, and do not covet it and the people will love you”(Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 1).

***

One day the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) went to the marketplace. There were Companions around him. Allah’s Messenger came across a dead baby goat with ears that had been cut, lying in the road. He held it by the ears and asked:

“Which of you would like to buy this for one dirham?” His Companions replied:

“We would not like to have it for less than that. It is of no use to us”.

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) then asked:

“Would any of you like to have it for nothing?” They replied:

“We swear by Allah that even if it was alive it would be defective because it has no ears. So what use is it now that it is dead?” The Prophet then said:

“I swear by Allah that this world in the sight of Almighty Allah is more worthless than this dead goat you see in front of you”.(Muslim, Zuhd, 2).

***

According to a narration by Amr ibn Awf (r.a), the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) once sent Abu Ubaydah ibn Jarrah to Bahrain to collect the jizya[2]. Abu Ubaydah (r.a) returned from Bahrain with the jizya money. Hearing that Abu Ubaydah had returned, the Ansar gathered together to pray the dawn prayer with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). When the Prophet finished praying and rose to leave, the Ansar approached him. When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) saw them in this state, he smiled and said:

“I see that you have heard that Abu Ubaydah has returned from Bahrain with the money”.

“Yes, o Messenger of Allah” they replied.

“Be pleased and hope for things that will please you. I swear by Allah that I do not fear poverty for you. Rather I fear that the world and all its pleasures will be laid out before you like it was with those before you, and you will begin to vie for it just as those before you did. And I fear that this world will destroy you just as it did those before you”(Bukhari, Rikak 7; Muslim, Zuhd 6)

***

The following example has a very important lesson in showing the danger of inclining towards the world and forgetting the hereafter:

During the rule of the Ummayyads, the Muslim army under the command of Abdurrahman, the son of Khalid ibn Walid, had set off in the hope of conquering Istanbul, the good news of which had been predicted by Allah’s Messenger. Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari  was in that army. While the Byzantines were fighting from behind the city fortresses, a man from the Ansar drove his horse right into the centre of the Byzantine army. In surprise and in reference to the verse: ‘Do not throw yourselves into danger’, the believers who saw this began to exclaim:

“La ilaha Illallah! Look at him. He is throwing himself into danger willingly”. Upon this Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari (r.a) said:

“O Believers. Let it not be misunderstood. This verse was revealed about us, the Ansaris. When Allah helped His Messenger by making his religion reign, we said: “Let us now stay back with our property and manage it”. Upon this, Allah Most High revealed the following to His Prophet:

‘Spend in the Way of Allah. Do not cast yourselves into destruction. And do good: Allah loves good-doers.’ (Al-Baqara, 2:195)

What is indicated by the verse “Do not cast yourselves into destruction” is do not put all your efforts into working for worldly property like gardens and harvests and ignore and abandon your efforts in the way of Allah”.

Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari (r.a) who heeded this divine warning in all sincerity never once condescended to the pleasures and comforts of this world. He never desisted in his efforts to serve Allah and was eventually martyred near one of the fortresses and was buried in the region of Ayyub which still bears his name to this day. (See Abu Dawud, Jihad, 22/2512; Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 2/2972)

***

The blessed house of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was very simple. Hasan Basri, whose mother was the maidservant of Ummu Seleme, the Prophet’s wife, passed his childhood near this blessed house and described how he could touch the ceiling of the room of the Messenger of Allah when he was a child[3]. From this it has been concluded that the rooms were not very high. The doors of the rooms of our Prophet’s house were made from black felt cloth.[4]

Said ibn Musayyab, one of the great imams from the Tabi’een once expressed his sorrow that these rooms had to be pulled down during the reign of the Ummayyads, in order to be added to the Prophet’s Mosque:

“By Allah how I wish that these could have remained as they were. In this way the new generation and those who come here as visitors could see how little the Prophet sufficed with and they would not try to increase their wealth and boast about it” (Ibn Sa’d, I, 499-500).

That the Prophet (pbuh) lived in a tiny house was not due to poverty, but rather due to the fact that he did not give an iota of importance to this world. If he had merely kept his share of booty and not distributed it, he would have been able to have built splendid palaces and mansions. However he willingly preferred a meagre and humble life and was not at ease unless he gave out the share of booty that befell him. This is because Allah’s attribute of ‘Al-Rahman’ (the Most Compassionate) had manifested itself perfectly in him.

***

The Prophet Sulayman (upon whom be peace) considered himself a poor person because he had eliminated from his heart love of property and wealth. When he rose in the morning he would go to poor and needy people and sit with them in great humility. He would say:

“It is only befitting that a poor person sits with other poor people”.

***

According to narrations, when death approached the prophet Nûh (Noah) (upon whom be peace), he was asked:

“O long-living prophet. How did you find this world?” Nûh replied:

“I found it to be a house with two doors. I entered through one and left through the other”. (Ibn Asir, Al-Kamil, I, 73).

The prophet Nûh had built himself a little hut made of bamboo. When it was said to him:

“If only you had made a more solid house for yourself”, he replied:

“For someone who is going to die, this is even too much”. (Abu Nuaym, Hilya, VIII, 145).

***

Jabir ibn Abdullah (r.a) narrates:

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had appointed Abu Ubaydah  as our commander, and sent us to meet the caravan of the Quraysh. For our provision he gave us a sack of dates. He could not find anything else to give us. Abu Ubaydah would give us the dates one by one. Someone who heard this asked:

“How did you get by on dates alone?”

Jabir responded:

“We would suck them like a child suckles on the breast, then we would drink some water and that would suffice us that day until night time. We would shake the leaves off the trees with our sticks, wet them with water and then eat them” (Muslim, Sayd, 17).

Even though the blessed Companions did not possess even the necessities of this world, they never once complained about this. Neither would they desist from struggling in the way of Allah.

***

One day Abu Bakr (r.a) was offered a drink of honey. However just as he was about to drink it he began to cry. Those around him could not contain themselves and they too began to cry. When he was asked the reason why he cried, Abu Bakr replied:

“I was once with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). At that point he began to say “Stay away from me, stay away from me” and he was pushing something away from him. However I could see nothing. When I wished to learn what it was the Prophet said:

“The world with all its glory was shown to me. I told it to stay away from me. It moved away however it called out: “I swear by Allah that even if you manage to flee and be saved from me, those who come after will not be able to escape me”.

Abu Bakr (r.a) continued:

“And so I cried out of fear that I would fall in love with this world” (Abu Nuaym, Hilya, I, 30-31).

During his caliphate Abu Bakr (r.a) lived a very simple life. On his death bed he left instructions that a piece of land he owned be sold in order to pay back the salary he received from the state treasury while he was caliph. (Ibn Esir, Al-Kamil, II, 428-9).

***

While Abu Bakr (r.a) was on his death bed he left instructions to his daughter, Aisha (r.ha) to give the camel that they drank milk from, the container from which he dyed his clothes and the velvet robe he wore to Umar (r.a) . His reasons for this were that he had benefited from these while he was managing the affairs of the Muslims. After the death of her father, Aisha (r.ha) gave these items to the new caliph, Umar (r.a). Taking them Umar (r.a) said:

“Abu Bakr! May Allah’s mercy be upon you. You have left those who came after you in a dilemma” (Ahmad, Az Zuhd, p 110-111; Suyuti, Tarih al Khulefa, Egypt 1969, p 78-9).

***

During the reign of Umar (r.a), the lands of Syria, Palestine and Egypt were conquered and Iran was incorporated. into the borders of the Islamic State. The wealthy treasures of Byzantine and Iran began to flow into Madina, the centre of the Islamic world. The welfare of the Believers began to increase. However the heart of the caliph of the Believers, Umar  remained free from desiring this state of welfare and despite the magnificence of the state and the wealth of the state treasury he continued to preach the sermon wearing a patched robe. From time to time he would be forced to go into debt and he lived his life in dire straits. This is because he would only take the minimum amount needed from the treasury and this would be barely enough for him.

The leading men of the Companions could no longer bear this state of his. They considered increasing the salary of the Caliph. But because they hesitated to suggest this to Umar (r.a), they approached his daughter and the wife of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh), Hafsa (r.ha).They asked her to make this offer to her father without giving him their names. Without disclosing their names Hafsa (r.ha) presented their offer to her father. Having witnessed the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) remain hungry for days[5] with not even a single date to fill his stomach, Umar (r.a) asked his daughter:

“My daughter. How did the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to dress and eat?”

“Just enough as was necessary” she replied. Umar  continued:

“My two friends (Allah’s Messenger and Abu Bakr) and I are like three travellers who travel the same path. The first of us (Allah’s Messenger) reached his destination. The second (Abu Bakr) following the same path, was reunited with the first. And as the third, I would like to reach my friends. If I go with too much baggage then I will not be able to reach them. Or do you not want me to be the third traveller on this path?”[6]

***

Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari (r.a) who loved living a simple and humble life, far from luxury, was once allocated four thousand dinars from the state treasury. However he only used a very small portion of this and distributed most of it to the poor” (Abu Nuaym, Hilya, I, 163).

This Companion, who used to say that the account of the one who has two dirhams will be much more difficult than the one who has one dirham once returned the three hundred dinars that was sent to him by the Governor of Damascus, saying:

“Could the Governor not find anybody needier than me? We have a home to shelter us, sheep that we benefit from and a servant to serve us. I fear having any more than this” (Ahmad, Zuhd, p 147).

***

The zeal of faith after the time of the Companions had so enveloped the world that the army of Tariq ibn Ziyad, consisting of five thousand men was able to defeat the Spanish army of 90 000 men. Tariq had placed his foot on the treasure of the king and said to himself:

“Tariq! Yesterday you were a slave with a chain around your neck; then the day came when Allah set you free. Then you became commander of an army. Today you find yourself having conquered Andalusia and standing in the King’s Palace. Know this well and never forget that tomorrow you will find yourself in the presence of Allah”.

What sort of training is this that it builds the personality of a slave and raises him to the peak of virtue. It stops his heart from inclining towards the goods of this world and makes him live his life always taking himself to account”.

***

The great saint and student of Shaykh Nakshibend, Muhammad Parisa, once approached a radiant-looking young moneylender in the city of Baghdad, while on his way to Hajj. He became sad thinking that the youth was constantly occupying himself with worldly pursuits, having to spend too much time trading with customers. He thought to himself:

“How unfortunate. Just at the age when he can perform much worship, he has lost himself in worldly trade”.

When he went to inspect him he found that the heart of this youth was together with Allah and he was amazed. This time he thought to himself, and he praised the youth:

Mashallah. His hand is in profit yet his heart is with the True Beloved”.

This state is what is known as ‘halvet der encumen’, that is, being together with Allah while living amongst the people, managing to focus on Him only and being able to live a state of unity within multiplicity.

When Muhammad Parisa arrived in Mecca, he encountered a white-bearded old man who had embraced the cover of the Ka’bah and was sobibng and weeping. Firstly looking at the outer appearance of the old man and the way he was entreating Allah in such a moving way, he thought to himself:

“If only I could weep so and seek refuge in Allah”, and he envied the old man.

Then when he looked at his heart he found that all of his weeping and prayers were for this fleeting world. His soft heart was then saddened.

In short, remaining indifferent to the world is not merely in times of poverty but is an attitude of the heart that should be constant. The important thing is to be able to continue one’s worldly pursuits without neglecting one’s hereafter.

***

The following state of Jalâluddin Al-Rumi is very beautiful and reflects how he managed to adopt the state of zuhd of the Prophet out of his love for him.

Whenever he arrived home he would ask: “What do we have to eat today?” If he received the reply: “Nothing”, he would be pleased and say “Praise be to Allah. Today our home is like the home of the Prophet (pbuh)”. Under no circumstances would Rumi accept charity and he would also prevent his students from doing the same, instead encouraging them to work”.[7]

***

Malik ibn Dinar once saw Rafi’, one of the friends of Allah, in his dream. He was bareheaded and walking barefoot. He asked him:

“Where are you going”.

Rafi’ replied:

“Thank God, I have escaped from prison”.

The next morning Malik immediately went to Rafi’s house, where he found that Rafi had passed away.

The Prophet (pbuh) had said:

This world is the prison of the believer and the paradise of the unbeliever”. (Muslim, Zuhd, 1).

***

After Sultan Murad Han II gave up the throne in order to dedicate more time to worship and retired to Manisa he penned a poem which indicated that he had carried out his duty solely to gain the pleasure of Allah:

Let us go and remember Allah for at least one or two days

We did not come to this world in order to possess it.

***

Another brave man who adopted an attitude of living free of desire for property and wealth and worldly position and who accepted the bounties of this world not to satisfy his own soul but rather to use in the service of the slaves of Allah was Yavuz Sultan Selim Han. One day he addressed those under his command as follows:

“If your aim is to continue in your rebellion then let me know and I will immediately withdraw myself from the government. I accepted this sultanate from my father for the sole purpose of serving Islam and I have sacrificed my brother and my brother’s children for the reformation of this world. I offered you a pact (bey’ah) and you have accepted. I have abandoned my sleep, my comfort and peace of mind in my efforts to establish this religion. If your aim is not to revivify Islam then I too have no desire for this sultanate”.

***

In short, the slave of Allah should turn towards desiring the pleasure of Allah, the Creator of all things. When the heart submits to Allah the state of zuhd becomes manifest in the slave. And when the state of zuhd becomes manifest, then all property and wealth becomes worthless in the sight of the nafs and only gains any worth when it is attributed to Allah, that is, it is given out. In this way it returns to its true destination. This is because the heart is now nourished by love for Allah and by good deeds, and these deeds that are beloved to his beloved begin to give pleasure to his soul.

[1].     The family members of the Messenger of Allah e (translator’s note).

[2].     Jizya is the tax that non-Muslims had to pay in return for protection by the Muslims (Translator’s note)

[3].     Ibn Sa’d, VII, 161; Zuheyli, I, 248

[4].     Ibn Sa’d, I, 499

[5].     See Muslim, Zuhd, 36

[6].     See Ahmad, Zuhd, p 125; Shahbenderzade Ahmad Hilmi, Tarih’i Islam, I, 367

[7].     Ali Nihat Tarlan, “Mawlana,” Istanbul 1974, p 29