By Suheil Laher
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.