I’sār or altruism is the measure of love and affection. People make the greatest sacrifices for the sake of their love.
Divine love requires real devotion. It can be achieved only by giving up worldly love and affections. When love and affection reaches its perfection, sacrifice for the sake of the beloved reaches its peak. Thus, pains turn into joy and pleasure.
A believer’s honor and dignity is that he considers the peace and happiness of his brothers and sisters in Islam before his own happiness. In other words, he advances from selfishness to i’sār and he can say “you are first” or “he or she is first” instead of “I am first.”
I’sār or altruism, which is the peak of self-sacrifice and generosity, is a characteristic particular to prophets and the friends of Allah. It means to be able to make sacrifices, to give up one’s own right, and to pass something to which he himself needs on another believer. It means to think about the peace and happiness of his brothers and sisters in Islam under every circumstance. In other words, one advances from selfishness to altruism, and can say “you are first” or instead of “I am first.”
In fact Ḥākim Tirmidhī gives the following answer for the question of “what is infāq?”:
“Infāq means to find peace in other’s happiness.”
The greatest reason that leads the friends of Allah to this good manner is their compassionate character. And again they always live according to the Divine message contained in the verse “The Believers are but a single Brotherhood…” (49; 10)
Altruism is the highest point of generosity; because generosity means to give out of the possessions, which exceed one’s personal needs. It means to silence the inner self and to win a victory over its objections and ambitions.
Our Lord says about this good morality:
“And they give food out of love for Him to the poor and the orphan and the captive: We only feed you for Allah’s sake; we desire from you neither reward nor thanks: Surely we fear from our Lord a stern, distressful day. Therefore Allah win guard them from the evil of that day and cause them to meet with ease and happiness.” (76; 8-11)
It is easy for a man to give when he has everything. Since it is given from the excess, it does not push the human’s inner self so much. The real difficulty is to be able to give in privation.
How nicely ‘Ali (r.a) states:
“When worldly possessions come to you, know how to give. Since giving it does not decreases its amount. When worldly possessions get away from you, still give. Because it will not stay with you forever.”
In i’sār, or giving up something you need, there is patience to the objections of the inner self and making sacrifice willingly and submissively. And this is not something that everybody can do. To be able to present such ethical qualities requires spiritual maturity, purity of the heart and soul.
The reward for every good deed is to the extent of its difficulty. This is why the reward for i’sār is greater than other types of charity. The friends of Allah have regarded the spiritual rewards of this moral quality as a matchless treasure and they have given in charity “without any fear of poverty” in this world in order to attain its happiness and magnificence in the Hereafter.
How elegantly Rumī states this in the following lines:
“If the leaves of this plane-tree drop off, the Creator will bestow on it the provision of leaflessness (spiritual poverty). If because of your liberality no wealth remains in your hand, how should the bounty of God let you be down-trodden?”
Therefore i’sār means being able to give by taking risks. It means to show the greatness of giving to your brother by taking the risk of being destitute and facing hunger. It means to give happily without showing a sour face no matter how hard it is on to the inner self.
GIVING FROM ALL KINDS OF BLESSINGS
I’sār is not something peculiar to money or other types of possessions. It is being able to give whatever Allah the Almighty bestowed upon us. In other words i’sār means to give altruistically from all kinds of material and spiritual blessings, abilities, knowledge, and wisdom. This would be possible only by making i’sār sensitivity of the heart.
For instance a teacher of the Qur’ān should not say “what do I have? What can I give?” On the contrary he should regard serving the Qur’ān as a treasure, and he can sacrifice his spare time to teach the Qur’ān. Thus he joins the community of i’sār.
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) got stoned by the residents of Ta’if when he was conveying them the message of Islam. However a slave’s conversion to Islam reduced his sorrow. After this painful journey, the Prophet (pbuh) went to the people from the polytheist tribes of Arabia who came for the pilgrimage. He explained to them what the Meccans were doing to the believers and told them: “Take me to your tribe so I can convey them the message of Islam.” He runs from one trouble to the other just to teach people about Islam. He forgot his comfort and rest; as it stated in the following verse:
“Therefore, when you are free (from your immediate task), still labor hard, and make your Lord your exclusive object.” (94; 7-8)
Therefore if we can sacrifice our comfort for the endless opportunities of the path of Allah the Almighty, we too can join the people of i’sār.
THE ALTRUISM OF THE MESSENGER OF ALLAH AND HIS COMPANIONS
As in all other aspects of Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions are the best examples for us about i’sār. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) never refused someone who asked for his help. If he did not have anything to give at the time, he would look for the ways to help, and never stay back from helping. On one occasion a needy man came to him. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said that:
“I do not have anything with me to give you, but go and buy whatever you need on my account, I will pay it later.”
When Omar (r.a) heard this:
“O Messenger of Allah! If you have it, you give it to the needy. Otherwise Allah did not hold you responsible for the things beyond your power.”
The messenger of Allah did not like Omar’s words. One of the Medinan believers said:
“O Messenger of Allah! May my mother and father be sacrificed on your path! Give! Don’t be scared for the owner of the world will decrease.”
The Prophet (pbuh) liked these words. he smiled and said:
“This is what I have been ordered.”(Haythamī, X, 242)
In other words Allah’s Messenger was so generous that he helped people even by borrowing money. His elegance and sensitivity should be an example for us.
Again when the Messenger of Allah was brought a bowl of milk, he would first present it to Ashāb al-Ṣuffa. He did not think about himself, when his companions were hungry; because, for him the joy of helping his companions was beyond all other pleasures.
How elegantly a poet depicted the Prophet’s attribute of i’sār by way of comparison:
“If one day someone compares you to the clouds in generosity, he makes a mistake in his praise. For clouds cry while giving; but you smile.”
When Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) and Abū Bakr (r.a) passed away, they were buried in Aisha’s room. Aisha (r.ha) was hoping to get buried to the last remaining space in her room. But when Omar (r.a) got stabbed and was in critical condition, he sent his son to Aisha (r.ha) to ask the space in her room for his (Omar’s) grave. Aisha (r.ha) renounced her right and gave the space to Omar (r.a).
A beggar asked A’isha, the wife of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, for something while she was fasting and there was only a loaf of bread in her house. She said to her female servant, “Give it to him.” The servant protested, “You will not have anything to break your fast with.” A’isha repeated, “Give it to him,” so she did so. When evening came, the people of a house or a man who did not usually give to them, gave them a sheep and some food to go with it. A’isha, mother of the believers, called her servant and said, “Eat from this. This is better than your loaf of bread.” (Mālik, Muwaṭṭā, Sadaqah, 5)
Because the Companions knew very well that Allah the Almighty is more generous than His servants and He would not leave His servant, who sincerely give for His sake. He bestows something better in place of the thing given. It is stated in a verse that:
“…And whatsoever ye spend (for good) He replaces it…”(34; 39)
Infaq is great pleasure for the believers who know the reward of helping others. Jalāl al-Dīn Rumī wonderfully depicts this in the following lines:
“When he sees a piece of merchandise exceeding (his own) in profit, his fondness for his own goods becomes chilled; (For hitherto) he has remained enamored of those, because he perceived no profit and advantage superior to his own goods.”
“Property will not decrease by giving charity; on the contrary helping people protects the property from getting lost.”
One of the Companions, Jābir (r.a), narrates the Medinan believers’ (Ansār) i’sār towards their immigrant brothers and sisters from Mecca (Muḥajirūn):
“When Ansār harvested their date gardens, they used to divide it into two and put in one half a little more than the other half. Then they used to place date branches under the pile with less date to make it look like bigger than the other. Then they used to tell Muḥājirūn “take whichever pile you want.” Muḥājirūn would choose the small pile to leave the bigger one to Anṣār. Thus Anṣār would prefer Muḥājirūn over themselves and get less amount of date.”(Haythamī, X, 40)
What a sensitive deed performed in order to experience the spiritual joy of i’sār! What a sublime state of brotherhood and altruism which leaves the material and worldly interests behind!
Again when companion Abū ‘Ubaydah b. Jarrāḥ(r.a), who was the commander of the Muslim army, was brought cold water and fresh bread in the desert, he asked “Do my soldiers find these?” When he learned that they were special for him, he did not accept them. He said that “I will have whatever my soldiers are having.” Because he was also one of those believers who do not say “I am first” but “my brothers are first.”
A man came to the Prophet. The Prophet sent a messenger to his wives (to bring something for that man to eat) but they said that they had nothing except water. Then Allah’s Apostle said,
“Who will take this (person) or entertain him as a guest?”
An Ansar man said, “I.”
So he took him to his wife and said to her, “Entertain generously the guest of Allah’s Apostle”
She said, “We have got nothing except the meals of my children.” He said,
“Prepare your meal, light your lamp and let your children sleep if they ask for supper.”
So she prepared her meal, lighted her lamp and made her children sleep, and then stood up pretending to mend her lamp, but she put it off. Then both of them pretended to be eating, but they really went to bed hungry. In the morning the Ansari went to Allah’s Apostle who said, “Tonight Allah laughed or wondered at your action.” (See Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, 10, Tafsīr, 59/6)
ALTRUISM OF THE FRIENDS OF ALLAH
The friends of Allah who have been adorned with the ethical principles of the Messenger of Allah presented similar i’sār manifestations like the companions of the Prophet (pbuh). One of them is narrated by Antakyalı Abu al-Ḥasan as follows:
“Once about thirty men were gathered around the city of Ray. They did not have enough bread for all of them. They cut the break, dimmed the lights and then sit to eat. After a while, when they turned the lights back on to clean up the table, they saw theta all the bread was staying on the table. Everybody on the table prefered his brother to himself/ herself.” (Ghazālī, Iḥyā, III, 572)
In this respect, another wonderful example belongs to Dawūd al-Ṭāī. One day one of his disciples told him:
“I have roasted some meat, would you please have some?”
Since Dawūd al-Ṭāī did not respond, his disciple assumed that his master wanted to have some of the meal and brought it. Dawūd al-Ṭāī looked at the meat and asked:
“Is there any news about such and such orphans?”
Implying the bad conditions of the orphans, the disciple replied:
“As you know”
Then Dawūd al-Ṭāī told his disciple:
“Then take this meat to them”
But the disciple wanted his master to have the meat, and insisted saying:
“Sir, you have not had meat for a long time.” Dawūd al-Ṭāī did not accept and said:
“Dear son! If I eat this meat, after a while it will get out of me; however if those orphans eat it, it will risen to heavens to stay there forever.”
Ubaydullah Aḥrār narrates:
“One day I went to market. Someone came to me and said: “I am hungry. Would you give me some food for the sake of Allah?” I did not have anything to give save an old turban. We went to a soup kitchen and told the cook: “Take this turban. It is old but clean. You can dry your dishes with it. And in return could you feed this poor man?” The cook gave some food to the poor man, and he did not want to accept my turban. But I refused. I waited until the poor man finished his meal, even though I was hungry myself.” (Ḥadāiq al-Wardiyyah, p. 651)
Later Ubaydullah Ahrar got so rich that he employed thousands of workers at his ranches. However, he never stopped serving human beings. His service to everybody, from the beginning to the end of the spiritual path, was magnificent. He narrates one of his services as follows:
“I had taken the care of four patients at Madrasah Maulana Qutbuddin in Samarkand. Because their diarrhea got worse, they started to wet their beds. I helped them to take their baths and washed their clothes. Because of my continuous care, I got infected and fell ill. Even then I continued my services and kept cleaning their clothes and beds.” (Ḥadāiq al-Wardiyyah, p. 653)
How exemplary Ubaydullah al-Aḥrār’s state is! If he wanted, he would have hire servants and have them do all his services. But he preferred not to lose the reward of i’sār and sacrificed from his own comfort.
Abbās b. Dahkān narrates:
“Among the people whom I know only Bishr b. Ḥāris left this world just as he came to it. he was born naked and left the world naked. When he was in the death bed, someone came and asked something from him. He did not anything but his shirt. He gave it to the poor man. He borrowed a shirt from someone and passed away. In other words when he died he did not even have a shirt. He came to this world without a shirt and left it without it.”
On the other hand what is important in services for the sake of Allah is to be able to do it when nobody else wants to do it; and to be able to take care of the needy when nobody else helps him. It means comprehending the secret of the saying friends of Allah shop from the markets where nobody shops. It can be achieved by making sacrifices from the things which nobody is willing to sacrifice, even if this sacrifice is life.
THE PEAK OF ALTRUISM:
GIVING FROM THE LIFE
I’sār is like the magnum opus of the religious efforts. It means to be able to raise the love for Allah and His Messenger above all other loves. this is why the Prophet (pbuh) said to his followers through the personality of Omar (r.a):
“No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) till I am dearer to you than your own self.”And Omar (r.a) paid the price of his love for Allah and His Apostle by his life and became a martyr.
Divine love requires real sacrifice. It can be achieved by sacrificing from worldly loves and affection. People make the biggest sacrifices for the sake of their lovers. Everyone makes sacrifices in the extent of their love. When love and affection reaches its perfection, sacrifice for the sake of the beloved reaches its peak. Then pain turns into joy and pleasure.
Those who live their faith with such strong love would not refrain from anything even giving their lives. In fact, the night that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was migrating to Medina, his house was besieged by his enemies. He let ‘Ali (r.a) lie down to his bed and he began his journey to Medina. ‘Ali (r.a) took the risk of death and fearlessly lied down in the Prophet’s bed.
About the believers who are at the peak of i’sār, it is stated in a verse:
“And among men is he who sells himself to seek the pleasure of Allah; and Allah is Affectionate to the servants.”(2; 207)
How nicely Jalāl al-Dīn Rumī depicts this state in the following lines:
“Whilst nothing is better than life, life is precious; when a better appears, the name of life becomes a slippery (futile) thing. The goods (of this world) and the body are snow melting away to naught; (yet) God is their purchaser, for God hath purchased.“
The infamous anti-Sufi Ghulām Khalīl was showing enmity towards Sufis. He made Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Nūrī and some other Sufis get arrested and sent to the capital of the state. By an official decree, they were all sentenced to death. Just as the executioner was beheading one of the Sufis, Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Nūrī voluntarily stepped forward for the punishment. Everybody was amazed. The executioner told him:
“O brave man! You are willing to get punished but this sword is not something to be liked. It is not your turn yet, why are you in such a hurry?”
Abū al-Ḥusayn replied:
“My way is the way of i’sār and the most valuable thing is one’s life. I would like to sacrifice my last few minutes in this world for my brothers. For Sufis, a single breath in this world is more valuable than thousand years in the Hereafter; since this world is the place to earn Allah’s pleasure, while the afterlife is the place to be close to the Allah the Almighty. Closeness to Him can be attained by serving others. This is why I want to sacrifice my last breaths for my brothers.”
Property, life and offspring are the blessings, which human beings value most and do not want to sacrifice. This is why our trials in this world about these three blessings have been the most difficult ones. Allah the Almighty tests heavily many of His servants about them and tries their sincerity in servitude.
Abraham (a.s) passed his trials in all these matters and became the “Khalīl or Friend” of Allah. He gave his property away without fear of poverty. He was thrown into the fire of Nimrod because of his struggle for delivering the message of Allah, thus he proved that he was ready to give his life for the sake of Allah. And in one of his heaviest trials about his son, he obeyed and submitted himself to his Lord.
Progeny holds a very important place in people’s lives. Progeny is a way to satisfy the human desire for eternity, since blood line can continue by means of it. This is why humans hold their children so dear. They are in a way a continuing part of their parents.
In this regard Abraham (a.s) faced the hardest of the trials when he was asked to sacrifice his son Ishmael (a.s) for the sake of Allah the Almighty. As a reward of their matchless submission and contentment, by Allah’s command, Angel Gabriel brought down a ram from Paradise. The memory of their candid sacrifices has been living and will live among the believers till the end of the days in the form of worship.
In this respect, the real object of worship of sacrifice is the servant’s promise to his Lord that he will make sacrifice even by his life, when it is needed. Again worship of sacrifice means to pass the test of piety and register our submission and obedience to Allah. About the sacrifice, it is stated in the following verse:
“There does not reach Allah their flesh nor their blood, but it is your piety that reaches Him:…”(22; 37)
How elegantly Rumī explains the merits of sacrifice made from lives:
“The Prophet said, “For admonishment’s sake two angels are always making goodly proclamation, Saying, ‘O God, keep the prodigals fully satisfied, give hundred-thousand fold recompense for every dirham that they spend.
“O God, do Thou give the prodigal a boon in return, and O God do Thou give the miserly a bane (in return).” Especially (does this apply to) the prodigal who has freely spent his soul (life) and made his throat a sacrifice to the Creator. He offers his throat, like Ismá‘íl (Ishmael): the knife cannot do anything to (hurt) his throat.
If you give bread for God’s sake, you will be given bread (in return); if you give your life for God’s sake, you will be given life (in return).
And if he saw them, how should he grudge his life? How should he become so grieved for the sake of one life? On the river-bank, water is grudged by him (alone) that is blind to the stream of water.”
THE MAGNIFICENT BLESSING OF ALTRUISM
Sacrificing self and giving a single coin is much more valuable than giving hundreds of thousands of coins given without self-sacrifice. This is explained in the following saying of the Prophet (pbuh):
One day the Prophet (pbuh) told his companions:
“One single coin passed hundred thousand coins.”
His companions asked:
“O Messenger of Allah! How could this be possible?” Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) replied:
“A man had two silver coins. He gave one of them in charity. Another man (who was very rich) took hundred thousand silver coins and gave as charity.”(Nasā’ī, Zakāt, 49)
In other words, the important thing in charity is not its amount but the level of sacrifice made by the giver. The real wealth is not about the size of the possessions but the contentment of heart. And the real generosity is to force the means and to give devotedly.
Sahl b. Abdullah al-Tustarī narrates:
Moses (a.s) prayed to Allah the Almighty saying:
“Dear Lord! Show me the ranks of some of the followers of Muhammad (pbuh) in Paradise.”
Allah the Almighty replied his prayer:
“O Moses! You are not strong enough for this, but I will show you one of those who have the highest ranks amongst them. With this rank, I have made him superior to you and to all other creation.”
Then a door from Heaven was opened for him. When he saw the light of him and how close he was to Allah, Moses almost got fainted. Upon this Moses asked Allah the Almighty how he had attained this rank.
“By means of lofty moral principle that I have given him”
When Moses asked what this moral principle was, Allah the Almighty said:
“That is i’sār or self-sacrificing for other’s needs. Whoever comes to me with this conduct, I will feel ashamed to question him and I will give him wherever he wants in Paradise.” (Ghazālī, Iḥyā, 570-571)
Of course not everybody can attain such high ranks, but it is for certain the closer we get to this horizon the more we attain blessing.
We should not forget that a small step in the conduct of i’sār will perhaps becomes an eternal door of profit for us.
It is also stated in a saying of the Prophet (pbuh):
“He who sleeps full while his neighbor is hungry is not a believer.”(Ḥākim, II, 15) This hadith reminds us the extent of our responsibility. Just as when a part of a body hurts, entire body feels its pain; every believer feels the pain of his brother in their hearts.
Therefore we should deeply feel the pains of our brothers starting from the closest ones and reaching to those in Africa, Aceh and every other place in the world.
May Allah the Almighty bless our lives with the spiritual atmosphere of the Age of Happiness and with the spirituality of His friends. May He bless our hearts with the peace of helping our brothers and appeasing their pains. May He make our peace of heart in this world as the manifestation of the tranquility of Hereafter, which He will bestow upon us.
. Dânâ, Sâdık , Altınoluk Sohbetleri, v. 3, p. 48.
. Mathnawī, I, 2233-2234
. Mathnawī, III, 4107-4108
. See Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Aymān, 3
. et-Tevbe, 111.
. Mathnawī, III, 4110, 4115
. Ḥujwīrī, Kashf al-Maḥjūb, trans. by Süleyman Uludağ, Istanbul 1996, p. 302
. Mathnawī, I, 2223-2224
. Mathnawī, II, 381-383
. Mathnawī, I, 2236
. Mathnawī, II, 893-894