This World is the Root of All Blessings

Earth observations

Image courtesy of NASA;

Do you love the life of this world? Is a Muslim allowed to love it? The answer is YES. It is well-known that Muslims are not supposed to renounce the world; monasticism is not an ideal (as a hadith explicitly mentions), and in the Qur’an we are taught to pray for “good in the world and good in the Hereafter” [Qur’an, 2:201]. Yet, we find some passages of the Qur’an, and some hadiths, that are very critical of al-hayat al-dunya (often translated as “the life of this world”; I return below to a more expressive translation). Nevertheless, there is no contradiction or paradox here. In reality, the life of this world is not what is evil; the confusion comes from not taking account of lexicological and theological context . A complete condemnation of and renouncement of this world is not the correct Muslim attitude, and is dangerous and harmful to human existence.

Let’s look at one of the verses that paints al-hayat al-dunya negatively:

Know that the life of this world’ is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” [Qur’an, 57:20]

Fakhruddin al-Razi (d. 606/1209) began his exegesis of this verse with a comment that might seem audacious, for he seems to be claiming the opposite of what the verse tells us:

“Know that the life of this world is wisdom and rectitude, and a blessing; in fact, the root of all blessings.” [Razi, Al-Tafsir al-Kabir]

Razi was not a closet heretic; rather, he is reminding readers that the life of this world has different dimensions, and that the verse is discussing only one of these aspects. So it is true, as he goes on to discuss, that this life can be:

- la`ib: play, like children engage in, tiring themselves without any benefit (i.e. without any goal or achievement),

- lahw: a diversion, such as adults may engage in but which results in regret,

- zinah: an adornment, which can only be necessary to beautify ugliness

At the same time, God has created this world for us [Qur’an, 2:29], not without purpose [Qur’an, 23:115], and so it is not meaningless or in vain. Razi then contextualizes the verse’s dispraise by quoting Ibn `Abbas (d. 68/687), the famous exegete from the Prophet’s companions:

“The meaning [of the verse] is that the disbeliever is busy all his life seeking the adornment of this world without working for the Hereafter.”

Hanbali theologian Hafiz Ibn Rajab (d. 795/1392) further clarifies the scope of the condemnation conveyed by this verse and similar texts. He observes that the condemnation:

- is not of the place of this world, for God has made it an abode and a cradle for human civilization [Qur’an, 20:53, etc.]

- nor of the natural phenomena in this world (such as mountains, seas, rivers, vegetation and animal life), for God has created them as blessings, and as great signs, which through reasoning and reflection yield profound insights regarding the Oneness of God

- nor of the time of this world, for God has made the alternation of night and day a reminder for those who ponder and are grateful. [Qur’an, 25:62]

Hence, he concludes that the condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (“the life of this world”) is a condemnation of the evil deeds committed therein by human beings; deeds which lack benefit and/or cause harm. [Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wal-Hikam]

This world is deceptive (e.g. Qur’an, 35:5), Ibn Rajab continues, in the sense that its pleasures do not endure; youth yields to old age, the healthy become sick, the wealthy may be reduced to poverty, the mighty might be abased. A person may spend the greater part of his life saving money and making plans for the future, only to die leaving it all behind. Similarly Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350) mentions how “this world” is like an elusive shadow, a mirage or a dream. In a (much earlier) saying from Ibn `Abbas, the pursuit of the superficial things of this world is likened to the pursuit of an ugly hag who has adorned herself in pretty clothes.

It is in this context of ephemerality (especially in comparison with the unending state of existence after death, the world Hereafter), and as a reminder not to neglect the deeper realities and more meaningful dimensions of existence, that we must understand the Qur’anic condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (I return below to a more accurate translation than ‘the life of this world’.) It is not a renouncement, a trivialization, or a blanket condemnation of everything of this life.

This has always been the understanding of leading scholars. Thus, while it is true that Caliph Ali would say, “O world! Go and deceive someone else!” nevertheless it is also reported that he scolded a man for cursing the world: Don’t curse this world, for the world contains the mosques devoted to God’s worship; the world is the place God honored by sending down revealed guidance, and it contains angels who are engaged in God’s obedience; the world is a marketplace for the believer (wherein he achieves good and thereby earns the life of eternal happiness). In this light, the ascetic of Rayy, Yahya ibn Mu`adh (d. 258/871) said, “How can I not love a world in which there is apportioned to me sustenance by which I can earn a life in which I obey God and thereby attain the Hereafter.” In fact, in a hadith we are told that even the most pious believers, the persons loved by God, love this life (“He hates death, and [God] hates to displease him.”).

How to translate al-hayat al-dunya?

As I mentioned earlier, a part of the confusion about the role of and attitude to this world comes from translating al-hayat al-dunya simply as “the life of this world”. Let’s look closer at the two Arabic words involved. Al-hayat does mean life, but al-dunya is not, strictly speaking “the world” (which would normally be al-`alam). Dunya is a superlative from the Arabic root d-n-(w/y), which has two meanings: one of nearness and the other of lowness and contemptibility. [See: Ibn al-Manzur’s classical lexicon Lisan al-`Arab] So al-hayat al-dunya is literally “the Nearest Life,” (by comparison with the Hereafter, which is temporally further away), but also potentially “the Lowest Life.” The latter translation is powerful in that it captures the underlying concepts discussed earlier in this article. So, let’s plug this back into our previous translation of [Quran, 57:20]:

“Know that the Lowest Life is play, and diversion, and….”

Thus, there are parts of this world — the more profoundly meaningful ideas, as well as beneficial acts and good deeds done with the correct motivation — that are not part of al-hayat al-dunya. We have already seen this implicitly contained in the statements of scholars quoted above, and to this we can add that the classical exegesis Tafsir al-Jalalayn states that “[good] deeds of obedience to God, and everything that assists in that,” are not part of the dunya but rather of the Hereafter. In English, we have the (similar, although perhaps narrower) term “low life” that carries similar connotations to dunya. A view from mystical Judaism considers this world – with its pain, suffering and death – as the “lowest” possible world that still reflects the attributes of divine goodness and mercy.

Rise Above the Lower Life

The correct attitude to this life is to keep striving to ascend to higher things, spiritually and morally.

“To [God] ascend the good words, and the righteous deeds lift them up.” [Qur’an, 35:10]

The five daily prayers – which according to the hadiths were prescribed upon Muslims on the Night of the Heavenly Ascent (Mi`raj) – are your personal opportunity for a private ascent to communicate with your Creator. In a hadith, we are told that the the Highest Assembly of Angels was arguing about the three expiators of sins (kaffarat) and the three deeds of rank (darajat). In order to ascend upwards, you need to first break free of the shackles of “the lowest life,” and your past sins are those shackles. This lift-off is achieved through the three expiators: performing ablution properly under difficulty, walking by foot to congregational prayer, and waiting for one prayer after the next. But in between we need to strive in the “worldly” domain too, and to continue the ascent there, as two of the three deeds of rank show: spreading peace and feeding others. Spreading peace is not limited to using the Islamic greeting of salam; rather it is merely a start of striving for global peace, and likewise we desire the eradication of poverty and hunger. The third deed of rank, “praying by night while people are asleep,” (a non-obligatory, but praiseworthy deed), is a reminder that the ascent cannot be achieved only by deeds that benefit others, unless the individual develops his/her own spirituality and relationship with the Creator.

So, to recap, this world is not evil, and not to be renounced. The Qur’an portrays the world as a blessing from God, full of tremendously profound and beautiful signs of God’s existence and oneness, and a place with potential for great good. The Prophet has said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [Narrated by Muslim] The condemnation is of the lowest life, a pursuit of the fleeting without concern for deeper values, and without acknowledging God and the eternity that is far greater (indeed, infinitely so, in mathematical terms) than this finite world. This world should be appreciated appropriately, which includes striving upward to make it a better place. An insular lack of concern for this, even in the guise of religiosity, is contradictory to the mission of humankind on this earth; the task of furthering good, and fostering and handing on a constructive, beneficial civilization (see: Qur’an, 67:2, 2:30, 11:61, 7:129).

A key to escaping the lowest life is: not to allow the mundane to become profane.

On Celebrating Mawlid/Milad

Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was a wonderful and exemplary human being who was concerned for the spiritual welfare of humankind, and endured great hardship to convey and explain God’s final message. Every Muslim loves him, and indeed love for him necessarily follows from belief in God. I have personally seen signs of deep love for him among various flavors of Muslim, across sectarian and ideological spectra: Sunni, Shi`i, Sufi, Salafi and others, and this is one of numerous central teachings that unite us as Muslims. I feel it is important to keep this in mind, at this time of year in which controversies emerge — sometimes even rage — over whether (and if so how) to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him).  If we consider the situation carefully, I am confident we can greatly reduce, hopefully even eliminate, stereotyping and condemning other Muslims with whom we happen to disagree on this matter.

If you don’t celebrate, then realize that those celebrating the occasion are moved by love for the beloved Prophet, even if you disagree with some of the specifics of how they are celebrating. You might believe they are wrong or mistaken in those details, but you cannot cast aspersions on their sincerity. Give them the benefit of the doubt as far as possible if you see or hear something objectionable from them[1]. If you do celebrate, then avoid the temptation to think that those not celebrating are lacking in love for the beloved Prophet[2]. Whatever your view, realize that the Muslim holding the opposing view on Mawlid might be better than you (overall and in the final analysis), and perhaps even love the Prophet more. In our world, we need more dialogue, tolerance and unity between Muslims, and we positively want to avoid entrenching ourselves into narrow, exclusive moulds. We may note that when Hindus in India were objecting to Shi`ite Muharram processions (which are generally considered a heretical practice by Sunnis), a prominent Sunni (Hanafi Deboandi) scholar, Moulana Asraf Ali Thanwi, told Sunni Muslims in India to support the Shi`ites in this matter.[3]

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Justice : A Taxonomy

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Justice involves putting everything in its appropriate place, and giving each his/her/its due right.

“God commands you that you restore deposits to their owners, and, when you judge between mankind, that you judge justly. How excellent is the teaching that God gives you! Surely, God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [Qur’an 4:58]

“The just ones will be, before God, on pulpits of light….those who are just in their judgment, their families, and what they are in charge of.’ [Muslim]

For convenience, we can subdivide justice into the following categories:

1.      Justice to God

“I hate ingratitude more in a person; than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness, or, any taint of vice whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood.” [Shakespeare, Twelfth Night] Read more

On Justice

Below are some brief notes on Justice in Islam. Neither the list of points, nor the scriptural texts quoted, are intended to be exhaustive. The topic is clearly more vast than to be encompassed in a brief note such as this.

·                     Justice is a central value – if not the central value – in Islam

“Verily, Allah commands justice, kindness and giving to relatives, and prohibits shamefulness, wrong and transgression. He instructs you that you might take heed.” [Qur’an, 16:90]

`Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, the Companion, held this verse to the most comprehensive verse of the Qur’an.

The themes of divine justice, particularly in the Hereafter, and of the imperative for human justice, can be found in a large number of verses.

·                     Justice is also one of the attributes of Allah

“Allah does not do injustice [even to the extent] of an atom’s weight.” [Qur’an, 4:40] Read more

A Case of Framing

We know that the Prophet, along with many of the early Muslims, emigrated from Makkah to Madinah to escape persecution. The early phases of life in Madinah were difficult, due to the pressure of the large influx of émigrés on the city’s economy (not to mention the military aggression which the Makkan polytheists began against Madinah). Food was sometimes scarce, and typically comprised barley flour and dates. Wheat flour was a rare commodity, only occasionally being brought in, in small quantities, from the Levant. Rifa`ah, one of the Companions, once obtained a quantity of this wheat flour, and stashed it in a room of his house, with some weapons placed over it. A man – outwardly a Muslim, but actually a hypocrite – from the family of Banu Ubayriq (he was named Bashir, or Tu`mah, according to different narrations) came to know of this, and that night stole the flour as well as the weapons. The following day, Rifa`ah discovered that the items were gone, and publicized the unfortunate news. Some people told him that they had seen smoke emanating from the house of Banu Ubayriq the previous night, and that it was likely that they were the culprits and had been cooking their ill-gotten acquisition. When the thief from Banu Ubayriq came to know of these developments, he started rumors that Labid ibn Sahl was actually the thief. Labid, however, was a trustworthy man, and so these rumors did not gain currency, and hence – according to some of the narrations – it appears that the thief then implemented a more devious strategy of framing someone else. He craftily laid a trail of flour from the house of Rifa`ah to the house of a Jew, and also deposited the stolen weapons with the same unsuspecting man, under the pretext of asking him to hold onto them for safekeeping. Upon discovering the trail of flour, people became suspicious of the Jew, and when he was found to have the stolen weapons in his house, their suspicion against him increased, despite his earnest remonstrations that the weapons had been entrusted to him by Ibn Ubayriq. Read more

On Marriage

Praise be to Allah Who created everything, and ordered it in proportion.
Glory be to Him!  He created and gave order, measured and gave guidance!
Praise be to Allah Who created mankind from a single soul, and created
from it is mate, so that he could incline towards her, and find reassurance,
companionship and intimacy with her.

Allah has created us, and knows us and our nature, needs and capabilities,
and has legislated our religion, to best serve those needs and channel
those capabilities for our benefit.  Islam, as we know, guides not
only our personal life, but also society as a whole.  What we are
going to talk about today, inshaAllah, is a very important aspect of Islam,
which is at the same time the building block of society — marriage. Read more

On the Methodology of Acquiring Knowledge

Praise be to Allah, the Mighty, the Exalted, and blessings and peace be upon His chosen messenger.
The Qur’anic and hadith texts on the virtues and excellences of knowledge are numerous, and need not be listed here, for they are not the subject of disagreement.  Those who so desire may peruse them in the appropriate references.  What is, however, sometimes overlooked, is that knowledge is taken first and foremost from the scholars; books alone are not sufficient to make a person a scholar.  The scholars say, “Knowledge may not be taken from a SuHufi (‘journalist – one who studied only from books) nor the Qur’an from a muSHafi (one who learned to recite the Qur’an on his own, without a teacher).”

1. Evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah

Allah sent the Qur’an – a book – with a Messenger – a teacher, to explain its contents.
(“And We have sent down to you the Reminder in order that you might explain to people what has been sent down to them.”) [Qur’an]
The story of the Sahabi who misinterpreted the verse about the black and white threads of dawn is well known.  And, according to a narration in Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet criticized those Companions who, based on the outward meaning of the Qur’an, gave the fatal fatwa that tayammum is not permissible for one who has water, even if he fears the water will harm him.  It is reported that he said, “Could they not have asked, since they did not know? The only remedy for incompetence is asking.” Read more

In Censure of Ignorance

The following is a thought-provoking sermon, attributed to Caliph `Ali (may Allah be well pleased with him).

Among the people most detested before Allah are two: One whom Allah has [forsaken and] entrusted to his own self, and so he has transgressed from the sound path and is enamored with speech of [reprehensible] innovation and invitation towards error. He is therefore a tribulation for those who are afflicted with him, astray from the guidance of those preceding him, misleading those who follow him in his life or after his death, carrying [part of the burden of] sins of others, and mortgaged for his own misdeeds.

[The second is] a man who has amassed ignorance. He moves among the ignorant of the ummah [to deceive them] and hastens to the darknesses of tribulation, while being blind to the advantages of tranquil satisfaction. Pseudo-men have named him a scholar but he is not so. He goes out in the early morning, and amasses an abundance of things which are better to be lacking in than to have in plenty, until, when he has quenched his thirst from polluted, brackish water and gathered purposeless things, he sits as a judge amongst people, taking upon himself to clarify what has been perplexing to others. If an enigmatic matter comes before him, he prepares for it some crumbling stuffing and passes it off as a certainty. Read more

Truth and its Perception

Perception, Between Truth and Error

There are many important issues on which people disagree, yet each of them may think he/she has the correct position. Clearly, at least some of the people must be mistaken – in part or totally – for there cannot be contradictory truths about the same matter.

Caliph `Ali (may Allah be well pleased with him) is reported to have said that a shubhah (confusion or misunderstanding) is so named in Arabic because it resembles (tushbihu) the truth in some respects. In this light, we summarize here the main scenarios of perception, between truth and error.  Perhaps it will be useful to those who want to honestly evaluate themselves.

  1. A complete perception of the truth, along with all of its elements, parts and characteristics. This is somewhat rare, especially for matters related to the unseen. [See Qur’an[17:85] for example]
  2. An incomplete perception, whereby one has perceived part of the truth, but not all of its elements, parts and characteristics. We need to humbly acknowledge our deficiencies and limitations.
  3. Blurring of some of the boundaries of the truth, often arising from ignorance, or insufficient knowledge, or misconceptions.
  4. Exceeding the boundaries of the truth, under the impression that the excess is also part of the truth. e.g. unjustified generalization, such as judging a school or philosophy based on a single factor attributed to it, or a single individual who claims to follow it.
  5. A partial conformity to the truth, analogous to someone who intends to aim a searchlight at a certain building, then proceeds to do so, except that the searchlight falls on only one wing of the building, while the person does not realize this, and imagines what he sees to be the entire building.
  6. A complete miss of the truth, such as if the searchlight from the above analogy misses the targetted building entirely, and instead strikes another building, or nothing at all, with the person being under the false impression that he is now seeing the building he targetted.

[These six categories are summarized from: Basa’ir li’l-Muslim al-Mu`asir, by Shaykh `Abdur-Rahman Hasan Habannakah al-Maydani, a contemporary Muslim scholar.]” Read more