Christian Response by Timoty Wright (opens in new page)
Please excuse me for putting my comments before the text selected for the Hermes Forum, but the internal dynamics of the topic demand that it should be explained at the outset that in reality, it is almost impossible to conceive of a separation of the spiritual and daily lives for a Muslim and therefore, the topic has received almost no attention in classical Islamic sources in the sense in which we perceive issues and challenges stemming from our daily struggle to live a spiritual life amidst an “omni-presence” of cell phones, sudden text messages, and emotional and spiritual disturbances of all kinds which instantly popup on screen from outer space and demand urgent attention.
I have, therefore, chosen a contemporary text, but the one that is deeply rooted in primary sources.
The way this text deals with our topic, is to posit the question in a different way and then bring in classical texts through which it builds bridges with primary sources. The way it poses the question at hand is through creating a double layer of “daily life” and asking: how can we fulfill the “Rights of God” and the “Rights of Others” on a daily basis. Although both are seen as part of one’s spiritual life, the division helps to create a tension—and numerous challenges—which have been stated more openly in our original topic.
The text then seeks “Prophetic Guidance on dealing with “others” and thereby models the discourse on a dynamic interactive pattern, using a commentary on al-Nawawi’s classic,Riyad al-Saliheen.
Abu Zakaria Mohiuddin Yahya Ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi (631–676 A.H./ 1234–1278 ), is one of the greatest scholars of Islam. He was born at Nawa near Damascus, Syria. He studied in Damascus from the age of 18 onward with the greatest scholars of the time. After making the pilgrimage in 1253 he settled there as a private scholar. From a young age he showed signs of great intelligence, and so his father paid for a good education. As a judge, he was much sought after for advice and adjudication of disputes. During his life of 45 years, he wrote many books on Islamic studies and other topics. He collected and sourced 40 hadith of the Islamic prophet, Mohammed back to one of his companions. In 1267 he succeeded Abu Shama as professor of hadith at the Ashrafiyya school in the city. He died at Nawa, his home town, he was only 48.
Please note that the text “grounds” spiritual life in praxis, emphasizing one’s daily conduct in the light of one’s spiritual concepts and practices. This, I thought, would serve well, especially in light of our Oxford Meeting that follows the Forum.
Clear Paths to the Gardens of the Righteous, a commentary on Imam Nawawi’s Riyad al-Saliheen
The Believer’s Duty Towards Allah and Towards Others
The imperative of the believer is to seek and promote the good. The “good” means that in which there is benefit in this life or in the next life. The righteous person is the one who fulfills both the rights of Allah and the rights of humanity. The right of Allah upon you is that you obey him in what he has ordered. Fundamentally, the right of others upon you is that you seek the good for them wherever the good may be – and this was the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
Imam Nawawi mentions that Allah Almighty says, “Help each other to goodness and taqwa,” (5:2) and the Almighty says, “By Late Afternoon, truly man is in loss. Except for those who believe and do right actions and encourage each other to the truth and encourage each other to steadfastness.” (103:1-4), and “Do good so that hopefully you will be successful.” (22:77)
The believer should hasten to fulfill the needs of all others in everyday life and remember that the reward of actions in reality is in the next life and in accordance with ones deeds in this life. Imam Nawawi narrates:
Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “Allah will relieve anyone who relieves a believer of one of the afflictions of this world, of one of the afflictions of the Day of Rising. Allah will give ease in this world and the Next to anyone who eases the hardship of another. Allah will veil anyone who veils another Muslim in this world and the Next. Allah will help His slave as long as His slave is helping his brother.” [Muslim]
Lifting the hardships of others will cause Allah to lift hardships from the believer. This does not just include believers but also disbelievers as well, the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was to be avid to benefit and lift hardships from all human beings. This returns to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)’s quality of mercy.
Good Character and the Sunna
Allah Almighty says, “Indeed you are truly vast in character,” and Imam Nawawi narrates the following hadith on good character:
625. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-’As said, “The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, was neither obscene nor indecent. He used to say, ‘The best of you are the best in character.” [Agreed upon] 626. Abu’d-Darda’ reported that the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “There will be nothing heavier in the balance of the believer on the Day of Rising than good character. Allah dislikes foul language.” [at-Tirmidhi]
629. ‘A’isha said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘By his good character a believer can reach the same rank as someone who fasts and prays at night.” [Abu Dawud]
The summary of how the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) dealt with people is good character, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The meaning of “good character” is to expend all good to others and ward off all harm from others.
The first part of good character is to “expend all good.” This is achievable through the Islamic concept of loving for another human being what you love for yourself. Imam Nawawi narrates the following hadith,
236. Anas reported that the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “None of you can truly be said to believe until he loves for his brother what he wants for himself.” [Agreed upon]
The perfection of belief which was best manifest in the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) occurs when one loves for one’s brother what he loves for himself. One must love for all human beings what one loves for oneself of faith, fair and upright dealings, and good treatment. Our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was described by Allah as a “mercy to all creation” and not just as a “mercy to Muslims.” The believer should love for all of humanity, as Imam Nawawi explains, what one loves for oneself – and the ultimate blessing that we love for others is the blessing of iman which provides safety in the next life, and happiness, rest, and spiritual closeness to Allah in this life. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) strongly loved for everyone to be given this great blessing and worked his whole life loving for all human beings to be guided, Allah tells him in the Qur’an, It may be that you are going to kill yourself with grief, that they do not become believers (26:3) Even on the day of judgment, the disbelievers who will be given eternal hellfire will have the intensity of their punishment lightened due to the supplication and intercession of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asking Allah to lighten their punishment.
The lover is a seeker, the lover seeks! They seek that which they love and they seek all good to come to that one which they love. Thus, if one loves for your brother what he loves for himself then he will seek all means to get it for them – even if this means is as simple as praying for them. It is the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to pray for the guidance of disbelievers and to pray for the general welfare of believers such as asking Allah to grant them relief, wealth, health, happiness, security, etc. Imam Nawawi in his commentary on this hadith states that not praying for your enemy’s good (such as the ultimate good which is guidance) is from jealousy. At Uhud the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) prayed for the very disbelievers which were fighting him saying, “O Allah guide my people for indeed they do not know.” The believer if he follows the sunna is a lover for his brother – he seeks both worldly good to come to them such as their relief, their happiness, their security; and next religious good to come to them such as good character, upright dealings, praying, fasting, patience, and repentance.
The second part of “good character” is not only seeking the good for one’s brother but also warding off harm from them. This first starts with restraining ons own harm from others so that one does not harm others, yet its perfection is actively working to ward off all harm from ones brothers in humanity – for the disbeliever one wards off the ultimate harm of disbelief, and for the believer one wards off worldly harms such as sadness, sickness, hardship, worry, grief, and poverty – and religious harms such as arrogance, insincerity, sinfulness, anger, and jealousy. This is what “good character” means in the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) – to seek and love the good for all of humanity, and to ward off harm for all of humanity.
Jealousy is the opposite of “loving for one’s brother what one loves for oneself.” Jealousy is to hate that someone else is given a blessing, and to covet that blessing. If the believer finds jealousy in his heart because he covets the blessing of another then he should pray and ask Allah continuously to grant that person more than what he has of blessings. The sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is that instead of feeling arrogance because one has certain skills, talents, and blessings – such as knowledge, health, wealth, beauty, friends, social skills, or a strong work ethic – one should convert this feeling into thankfulness to Allah. For indeed it is Allah who certainly gave everyone all of their blessings and nothing came from anyone’s own hands.
Living Good Character with Others
How can one live this good character? How did the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) expend the good to others and ward off harm from them? What was his sunna?
One’s love or hate should be for the sake of Allah. The believer does not hate the disbeliever – instead the believer hates the attribute of disbelief. He does not hate the sinful Muslim, but he hates his sinfulness. In the spirit of this, the believer works to remove disbelief from the disbeliever through da’wah, and to remove sinfulness from Muslims through enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.
The sunna of the Prophet, and the imperative of the believer, is to be of a happy disposition at all times – even at times when one is inwardly miserable. The believer deals with people with a genuine and true smile. The means of achieving the genuine and true smile is by remembering the blessings of Allah upon one. Thus the believer should remember the importance of good character and following the sunna in dealings with others as the heaviest thing on the scales on the day of judgment is good character.
The believer should express his care for others for their happiness, sorrow or need – this is the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). An example of this is if someone one knows is graduating high school then it is from good character to give them a gift, if someone’s family member dies then one should share with them in their sorrow, and if anyone is in need the believer should do his best to help out.
The sunna is to be caring – genuinely caring – for the affairs of other people. From the very best of faith and good character was the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is to lift up happiness in other people’s hearts. If a teenager is going through turbulent times then one should invite them to tea and a few nice words may lift up their hearts. However, one should care for others without prying into their affairs and engrossing oneself in that which does not concern one.
Imam Nawawi narrates several hadith about the sunna in experiencing disputes with others:
181. Abu Ruqayya Tamim ibn Aws ad-Dari reported the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “The deen is good counsel.” We said, “For whom?” He said, “For Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the Imams of the Muslims and their common people.”
249. Umm Kulthum bint ‘Uqba ibn Abi Mu’ayt said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘Someone who puts things right between people and promotes good or says good cannot be called a liar.’“ [Agreed upon] It adds in the variant of Muslim, she said, “I did not hear him make an allowance regarding anything that people said except for three things: war, putting things right between people, and a man speaking to his wife and a wife speaking to her husband.”
The sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), is to consult impartial friends for advice to avoid seeing things from only one side. When disputes arise in everyday life, one should strive to do those actions which will bring about the good. Since the sunna is to promote the good wherever it may be, this entails that even actions which are primarily bad such as lying are actually permitted at times when they are the only means and ways to the good. However, even in times where lying is permissible one should take all means to achieve the good without lying, for if the believer overuses permissible lying he will not be taken seriously by others.
The sunna in speaking with others is to think before one speaks and not to rush. The believer is calm and circumspect before acting. Haste is rushing into things without thinking of the consequences – this is from the devil. Circumspection is from Allah, and is the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
The Believer Shuns Suspicion and Hides the Faults of Others
Imam Nawawi narrates the following verses and ahadith:
Allah Almighty says, “O you who believe! Shun much doubt; for lo! some doubt is sinful.” (49.12) and, “People who love to see filth being spread about concerning the believers will have a painful punishment both in this life and in the Next World.” (24:19)
240. Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “No slave veils another slave in this world without Allah veiling him on the Day of Rising.” [Muslim] 241. Abu Hurayra said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘All of my community will be given safety except for those who flaunt themselves. An aspect of flaunting yourself is to do an action by night and then in the morning, when Allah has veiled you, to say, “O so-and-so! I did such-and-such yesterday,” removing Allah’s veil in the morning after your Lord has veiled you in the night.’“ [Agreed upon]
The default assumption of the believer concerning all people, following the sunna of our Beloved (Allah bless him and give him peace), is that they are upright. The believe should cover up his faults as well as the faults of others. Concerning believers the sunna is to assume that they are upright socially and religiously, and it is absolutely unlawful (haram) to think ill of others unless one has sufficient proof to do so. Concerning disbelievers the sunna is to assume that they are upright socially. If the believer finds dubious actions he must interpret them in a favorable light. Suspicion should lead to precaution but not ill-thinking. Prying into the affairs of another, Muslim or non-Muslim, is sinful. Suspicion and doubt not based on sound basis are sinful. One’s certainty in the state of others is not lifted by mere conjecture or doubt.
The Sunna with Neighbors, Orphans, and Guests
Imam Nawawi narrates some of the following verses and ahadith: Allah Almighty says, “Worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him. Be good to your parents and relatives and to orphans and the very poor, and to neighbours who are related to you and neighbours who are not related to you, and to companions and travelers and your slaves.” (4:36)
303. Ibn ‘Umar and ‘A’isha reported: “The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Jibril continued to advise me to be good to my neighbour until I thought that he would have me make him my heir.’“ [Agreed upon] 305. Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “By Allah, he does not believe! By Allah, he does not believe! By Allah, he does not believe!” It was asked, “Who is that, Messenger of Allah?” He said, “Someone whose neighbour is not safe from his mischief!” [Agreed upon] In Muslim’s variant, “No one will enter the Garden whose neighbour is not safe from his mischief.”
It is sunna to help out ones neighbors when one can, to visit the sick, and to feed the hungry. These are not just concepts or ideas which we write on paper, but the sunna is lived and the believer should sincerely and genuinely try to do this as much as he can. The believer should visit friends, relatives, and work associates to and do nice things to benefit them and spread love and good feeling. If it is not possible for one to invite them for a celebration then one should at least send them some sweets. The believer does not forget his neighbor, and the closer the neighbor is to one the more right that person has over you.
The very least level of being a good neighbor is that the believer does not harm his neighbor in any way and restrains himself from harming his neighbor – in his words and actions. Harm is not only done to one’s neighbor through the bad, but also through the good – if the Qur’an is raised at a high volume at night for example this may offend one’s neighbor.
At least one time in his life the believer should try to take care of an orphan or do something good for orphans. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) strongly emphasized the reward of the one who helps the orphan saying that he would be near the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in paradise – what can one ask better than this?
The sunna with ones guest is to honor them, and the meaning of “honor” is to seek out the poor, neglected, needy, and emotionally needy as ones guest. The believer also seeks the pious as his guest for next-worldly benefit. The believer should treat his guest with the best of manners and genuinely seek the good for them, which is what everything of the sunna of good character returns to.
The Sunna of Dealing with One’s Parents and Close Relatives
Imam Nawawi narrates the following verses and ahadith:
The Almighty says, “Those who join what Allah has commanded to be joined.” (H13:21) The Almighty also says, “We have instructed man to honour his parents,” (29:8) and the Almighty says, “Your Lord has decreed: that you should worship none but Him, and that you should show kindness to your parents, whether one or both of them reach old age with you. So do not say ‘Ugh!’ to them out of irritation and do not be harsh with them but speak to them with gentleness and generosity. Lower to them, out of mercy, the wing of humility and say: ‘Lord, show mercy to them as they did in looking after me when I was small.’“ (17:23-24)
312. Abu ‘Abdu’r-Rahman ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud said, “I asked the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, “Which action does Allah Almighty love the most?” He said, “The prayer in its time.” I said, “Then what?” He said, “Devotedness to parents.” I said, “Then what?” He said, “Jihad in the way of Allah.” [Agreed upon] 313. Abu Hurayra reported: “The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “No child can repay his father unless he finds him enslaved and then buys him and sets him free.” [Muslim]
314. Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah said, “Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should honour his guest. Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should maintain his ties of kinship. Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak well or remain silent.” [Agreed upon]
The sunna with ones parents is good character and ihsan or excellence and kindness. The believer treats his parents with ihsan, and then his close kindred and relatives. Part of good character is to preserve blood ties, and to assist family members. The believer should fear Allah regarding this.
Allah commands that the believers speak to their parents in the best way. The sunna in speaking is to think before one speaks and not to rush. The believer is calm and circumspect before acting. Haste is rushing into things without thinking of the consequences – this is from the devil. Circumspection is from Allah, and is the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
Obedience to ones parents is of the most important of obligations in Islam and is the best of all outward works after prayer. While excellence (ihsan) to one’s parents is unconditional and absolute obedience is neither unconditional nor absolute. Being good to ones parents is acting with them in excellence and not allowing any undue harm to come upon them in one’s words, dealings, and actions. “Being good” includes respect for parents, and causing no sorrow or grievance on them unduly.
However, sometimes parents demand things from their children which intrude upon the rights of others, or the rights of Allah. The sunna teaches that if parents forbid one from religious obligations then it is obligatory to disobey them, and if they command the prohibited it is prohibited to obey them. If parents also forbid one from following the sunna duties it is not obligatory to obey them, but it is prohibited to speak angrily with them regardless.
The sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) teaches us that if the believer has something that he would like to do and one’s parents will not allow it then even if it is of general worldly or religious benefit one is prohibited from doing it if such an action will lead to the unfulfillment of ones obligation or duty to be good to his parents. An example of this is if someone would like to study the religion of Islam, but ones parents need them for a month physically and financially to help them and by going to study on this course one is harming one’s parents then one cannot leave and take this course – even if it is about Islam.
The question arises – what if obedience to them will not lead to your unfilfillment of their duties but instead will make you miss out on worldly or religious benefit? One should weigh the options – as obedience to parents is a great good deed, but one is not obliged to follow them if they will miss out on worldly or religious benefit – however they must disobey completely respectfully and with manners. The exception is if parents are exceptionally upset, which happens often, in these cases one should seek the guidance of a reliable scholar. This returns to the fact that the believer always seeks good in this life and leaves the harm and that which does not concern him – he seeks benefit and not detriment in this life and the next and seeks avoiding troubles in this life, and the hellfire in the next life.
When one needs to disobey one’s parents they should do so with ihsan or excellence – they should not respond to parental provocations and should change the subject in a debate. It is a good idea, and of the sunna, to give them a gift later as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) encouraged the giving of gifts as it instills love between people.
Although one is obliged to obey one’s parents with the few exceptions given above – the shari’ah does not oblige the believer to obey their close relatives. Instead, one should simply deal with them in excellence and sound customs of the pious.
Ibn Hajar explained “maintaining family ties” as meaning expending the good to them and being excellent to them in some ways – the least of which is that you do not harm them directly or indirectly. One major harm is that family ties can be broken – and it is the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to work hard to maintain ties. The responsibility one has to ones family members depends on the degree of the relationship – brother over cousin, near over far, etc. However even those family members which live far or are distant relatives should still be corresponded with once in a while – as this is the teachings of the sunna.
One of the signs of the last days is that people will be bad to their parents and let their family ties die out. Being good to ones parents does not mean that one simply obeys them and is caring to them yet at the same time the person speaks harshly to them – the sunna is to speak in kind and gentle ways with ones parents and to be silent and not argue with one’s parents.
The contributor of this text to the Forum, Dr Muzaffar Iqbal, explains the most difficult concept in it to Shrivatsa Goswami, his Hindu colleague. In doing so, he raises an important question about the challenges of applying an ideal to real, day-to-day human interactions.
Jewish, Christian and Hindu participants find deep resonances in this Muslim sources with the values that their own faiths teach. The discussion leads them to consider the concept of ‘justice’ as a religious obligation. Each religion demands of adherents a level of personal refinement, that they shed their selfish perspective and view the world for the benefit of and even through the eyes of the other, as well as through the eyes of the Divine.