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Zuhd in the life of Imam Ali (as) Islamic Centre Rebecca Masterton 19-6-11 Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim All praise is due to the One that has brought us into being in order for us to know Him by means of our own souls and salutations to the Lantern of Guidance, Muhammad the Chosen One and the purified transmitters of his Light, his Holy and Purified Progeny. Special greetings to leader of the zuhhad, the ascetics, who detached himself utterly from this world. I pray we may inculcate something of what he strove to teach his followers, if only not to hurt him or break his heart. Today we can take a short look at an element of his practice, which is also central to Islam: that of zuhd, asceticism. What is it and why is it so essential? Imam al-Sādiq (AS) said, ‘All goodness has been placed in one house, and its key is zuhd and restraint from worldly pleasures.’ (Bihar al-Anwar, 1/308/78). Zuhd is the key to all goodness. The key to attaining peace of mind, is not only to break our attachments to worldly things, but also to reduce the importance that we give to our desires for things, and we can do this by turning our attention to our vision of the life which we long for in the next world. Zuhd involves instilling within ourselves an attitude towards the world, and this is taught to us in the Holy Qur’an, where it says ‘Whatever is with you, will be exhausted, and whatever is with Allah (of good deeds) will remain.’ (An-Nahl 16:96). Again the Holy Qur’an warns us: ‘Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw. But in the Hereafter (there is) a severe torment (for the disbelievers, evildoers), and (there is) Forgiveness of Allah and (His) Good Pleasure (for the believers, gooddoers), whereas the life of this world is only a deceiving enjoyment.’ (Al-Hadid 57:20). It warns us again: ‘Say: The enjoyment of this world is short; and the Hereafter is better for him who obeys God’s commandments in fear of Him’ (AlNisa’ 4:77) And again: ‘This life of the world is but a pastime and a game, but the home of the Hereafter, that is Life if they but knew’ (Al-‘Ankabut 29:64) We live in an age where we desire the rewards of salah, fasting and giving charity, while at the same time our hearts are riven with envy for the good things that our fellow Muslims have acquired and bitterness for what we have lost or what has been taken away from us. We compare salaries, job positions, qualifications; decide whether we will associate with someone based upon the type of car they drive; classify each other into those worth our time and those not worth our time based upon whether they are from a country that we consider rich or a country that we consider poor. We jostle for position within our families, our community and our company at work. We feel hard done by if we don’t get what we want; if Allah (swt) does not
appear to have provided us with what we have prayed for; yet the ayah says ‘Stretch not thine eyes to that We have given pairs of them to enjoy−the flower of the present life, that We may try them therein; and thy Lord's provision is better and more enduring.’ (Ta Ha 20:131). We attend majalis, read certain surahs and du‘as for a certain number of days and times and seek out ‘a’maal that are going to fulfil our wishes, our hearts burning for the things that we desire. Yet the Holy Prophet (s) has said ‘People cannot worship Allah with anything better than asceticism [al-zuhd fi al-dunya].’ Bihar alAnwar, 66/80/78) (Scale of Wisdom, p.480). To free ourselves from our attachment to our wishes and desires is the best way to worship Allah (swt). Imam ‘Alī said: ‘Asceticism is the distinguishing characteristic of people with taqwa – who are God conscious - and the natural disposition of those who turn to Allah.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, al-Hikma, 28) Note that he says here ‘the natural disposition of those who turn to Allah’. It is a characteristic of the person; something that is innate to him or her. The one who inclines towards Allah is the one who will naturally incline away from the world. It is therefore not something that such a person has to force and it is certainly not something that someone can mimic, or fake. Asceticism arises from an attitude and a way of being; it arises from a way of relating to the world. We find that people of the umma feel compelled to compete in a capitalist society with ahl al-dunya who have succeeded in attaining some of its wealth and social status; and we find people of the umma beginning to assess each other based upon the degree and extent to which they have also managed to attain some wealth and social status. Yet, here the Imam reminds us: ‘Certainly, if Allah were to allow anyone to indulge in pride He would have allowed it to his selected prophets and vicegerents; but Allah, the Sublime, disliked vanity for them and liked humbleness for them. Therefore, he laid their cheeks on the ground, smeared their faces with dust, bent themselves down for the believers and kept them as humble people. Allah tried them with hunger, afflicted them with difficulty, tested them with fear, and upset them with troubles. Therefore, do not regard wealth and progeny as the criterion for Allah’s pleasure and displeasure’. (p. 411). And this is also a reminder for those of us who have not succeeded in competing in this world; it is a reminder for those of us who have failed to attain wealth or progeny; who have failed to live up to the hopes and expectations of our families, friends and neighbours, and we can take comfort in the reminder that, as Imam Ali (as) says: ‘The Prophet used to eat on the ground, and sat like a slave. He repaired his shoe with his hand, and patched his clothes with his hand.’ (Sermon 159, p. 347) As we know, Imām ‘Alī is also said to have patched his own clothes. Do we follow in his tradition? What happens when something tears? Do we sew it again, or do we throw it away and buy something new, because we would be ashamed about what our friends and neighbours might think, or perhaps because we ourselves look at it and dislike it for being torn? This is not to say that we must dress in rags, as that too is disliked. The Muslim is meant to look clean and smart; but if Imam Ali (as) mended his clothes, this is a benchmark for the definition of smartness; it is a smartness accompanied by simplicity and humility. We can look at another verse of the Qur’an on which the Imam commented, and indeed on which the Imams after him also commented: ‘There befalls not any misfortune either in the earth or in your own persons, but it is recorded in a Book before We bring it into being – surely that easy for God – that you may not grieve over what is lost to you nor exult because of that which He has bestowed upon you. And God loves not any conceited boaster.’ (57:22-3). And the key part of these ayahs
on which the Imam has commented is the phrase ‘that you may not grieve over what is lost to you nor exult because of that which He has bestowed upon you.’ On this Imam Ali (as) has said ‘Zuhd is summed up between two phrases in the Qur’an, where Allah, most High, says, “So that you may not grieve for what has escaped you, nor be exultant at what He has given you.’ Therefore, one who neither grieves about past losses nor is overjoyed about the possessions he is granted has perfected his asceticism from both sides.’ Bihar al-Anwar, 40/222/103). What we are trying to cultivate, then, if we are seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Imam, is detachment from the vicissitudes of this life; we are seeking to be freed from being ruled by the circumstances in which we find ourselves and over which we have no control. Imam Ali (as) has thus taught us the way to liberate ourselves, which is not to give these changing circumstances such importance that they affect our iman – our inner state and our relationship with and connection to Allah (swt). Indeed, what is the iman that changes with the weather? The Qur’an says ‘And if We cause man to taste some mercy from Us and afterward withdraw it from him, indeed he is despairing, thankless./ And if We cause him to taste grace after some misfortune that had befallen him, he says “The ills have gone from me. Indeed he is exultant, boastful/ Except those who persevere and do good works. Theirs will be forgiveness and a great reward.’ (Hud, 11: 9-11). Imam Ali (as) says ‘No person gets rejoicing from this world, but tears come to him after it, and no one gets its comforts in the front, but he has to face hardships behind him. No one receives the light rain of ease in it but the heavy rain of distress pours upon him. It is just worthy of this world that in the morning it supports a man but in the evening it does not recognise him. If one side of its sweet and pleasant, the other side is bitter and distressing.’ (Sermon 110) So, Imam Ali (as) warns us against attaching our hopes to what this world may or may not provide us and against anxiety, fear and despair over what we have lost and are going to lose. He says: ‘Certainly this world has not been made a place of permanent stay for you. But it has been created as a pathway in order that you may take form it the provisions of your actions for the permanent house in Paradise.’ (p. 312) Indeed, in theory we know this. We have heard that we should be as travellers in this world; we know that it is not our permanent abode; yet living according to those teachings is another matter. We say ‘Yes, my Imam (as). I hear what you say’, yet aligning our hearts with his words is another matter – the most difficult thing of all. Imam looks at us and says: ‘What is your condition? You feel satisfied with what little you have secured from this world, while much of the next world of which you have been deprived does not grieve you. The little of this world which you lose pains you so much that it becomes apparent in your faces and in the lack of endurance over whatever is taken away from you.’ (Sermon 112, p. 284) We seek the assistance of Allah (swt) through the haqq of our Imam to give us endurance in the face of losses. Not only was the Imam the perfect example of zuhd, of detachment from desires, he further taught us to thank Allah for whatever condition is given us. Imam says: ‘We praise Him for whatever He takes or gives or whatever He inflicts on us or tries us with.’ (p. 312). What kind of inner state of being must a person have, who can thank Allah sincerely for whatever happens to him and whatever befalls him? Imam al-Sadiq (as) after him has even said that the zahid is one who is glad for such apparent losses. He says that, for the zahid, ‘their loss as a source of comfort and their presence as a source of misfortune’ (Bihar al-Anwar, 23/220/103 in Scale of Wisdom, p. 481). We may remember here the advice of Imam al-Husayn (as), which is not to pray to acquire things, but to pray for Allah (swt) to lighten our burdens. Enforced losses of the things of the world prevent us from becoming complacent and falling
into the trap of the illusion of comfort and stability so that we forget our afterlife. Such losses keep us alert to the world’s instability and compel us to turn inwards to the heart through means of which we learn reliance on Allah (swt) only. We can compare those whose pains at the losses of this world show in their faces, to those who have trained themselves in the art of detachment. Here, Imam ‘Alī (as) says, ‘Those who restrain themselves from worldly pleasures are such that their hearts are weeping though outwardly they may laugh, they experience great sorrow though they may display joy, and they are filled with self-contempt thought they rejoice at all that they have been bestowed.’ (Kanz al-Ummal, 44403). Furthermore, it is not that their hearts are weeping through loss of worldly things, but weeping through separation from their Lord; weeping through shame of their lowly state before their Lord; weeping at the state of the world in which they find themselves; and while they may grateful for the blessings bestowed on them in this world, they do not exult in them and see them as a source of pride in themselves; rather, they continue with the process of self-analysis; of stripping away anything that even resembles pride or selfadmiration, and of remaining humble. Imam Ali (as) says ‘The best level of zuhd is to conceal one’s zuhd.’ (Ma’ānī al-Akhbar, 1/152, in Scale of Wisdom, p. 484). Our zuhd is between us and our Lord; it is something private, not something that we show to the world, for that contradicts the very act of turning away from the world. Such people, who don’t seek self-promotion among the people, are the real zuhhad. Imam ‘Ali (as) gives us the advice that: ‘When zahid flees from people, seek after him, and when he seeks after people, flee from him.’ (Kanz al-Ummāl, 44559). The zahid whose company we should seek out for knowledge, honesty and piety is the one who shuns fame, glamour and power over other people. Therefore, whatever happens to us in this life, Imam Ali (as) advises us to keep humble and to focus our attention more on the realm to which we are all destined to travel. As he says: ‘You should become the children of the next world and not become the children of this world, because on the Day of Judgement every child would cling to its mother. Today is the Day of action and there is no reckoning, while tomorrow is the Day of reckoning while there is no [opportunity] for action.’ (Sermon 42, p. 200). It is in focusing resolutely on our destination that we can avoid being deceived by our own desires, hopes and wishes; and it is in contemplating more deeply the meaning and the reality of the next world that we can more easily turn away from this one. As he says ‘How can one renounce the pleasures of this world when he has not yet fathomed the worth of the Hereafter?’ (Bihar al-Anwar, 10/219/103). We give value to what is of little value, while we treat as of little consequence that which is weighty. So he pleads with us ‘Do not keep your eyes on the shining clouds of the world’, Sermon 190, 407. A beautiful du‘a that he has made, that can help us, is ‘O Allah, guide my heart to the right goal’. We ask Allah (swt), through the haqq of our great Imam, to guide us through this world and to preserve us from self-deception, so that we may reach our destination with a sound heart. Ameen.