After the tragedy of Karbala (in the year 61H / 680 CE), in which the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn was slaughtered along with many of his family members, the following lines of poetry were recited by Zaynab bint `Ali (Husayn’s sister) (according to another version it was Zaynab bint `Aqil, Husayn’s first cousin):
Tell me what you would say if the Prophet of God were to ask:
What, O what have you done, O ye readers of God's Final Book?
To the folk of my household, my dear kith and kin, after me?
See now half of them captives and half drenched in blood lying slain.
Is this what I deserve? Nay, aforetime I warned you, quite clear,
Lest you later betray me, mistreating my own flesh and blood.
ماذا تقولون إن قال النبي لكم * ماذا فعلتم وأنتم آخر الأمم
بعترتي وبأهلي بعد مفتقدي * منهم أسارى ومنهم ضرجوا بدم
ما كان هذا جزائي إذ نصحت لكم * أن تخلفوني بسوء في ذوي رحمي
Abul-Aswad al-Du'ali, a close companion of `Ali ibn Abi Talib,
responded upon hearing these words,
"We will say (to God): Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves,
and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us,
we will surely be among the losers. [Quran, 7:23]"
رَبَّنَا ظَلَمْنَآ أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمْ تَغْفِرْ لَنَا وَتَرْحَمْنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْخَـٰسِرِينَ
Sources: Tarikh Dimashq, Ansab al-Ashraf, Muruj al-Dhahab with slight variations in the wording of the lines of poetry
Mental illness is a frightening reality that has been falsely stigmatized in many of our communities. People ignore it, or are ashamed of it; they blame themselves for lack of faith; they blame demons and black magic; they avoid seeking medical treatment for it.
I have encountered many cases of mental illness in interactions with people in my personal life, as well as in my role as a chaplain. I have discussed these matters at some length with psychiatrists, and have attended various workshops about mental illness. I am also familiar with, and endeavor to remain faithful to the Islamic theological and legal tradition. So, with this background, let me make two quick points:
1. Being a good, practicing Muslim does not make you immune to mental illness
Your iman (faith) in God can help you in coping with mental illness, but it does not make you immune to it, just as faith does not make you immune to influenza, heart disease, cancer or broken bones. Mental illness is also a type of illness; after all the brain is part of the body. Hanafi jurist Ibn al-Humam (d. 861H) classified insanity as an involuntary contingency (عارض سماوي), and the same applies to many other forms of mental illness. So, if you are suffering from mental illness, you do not have to assume it is because of weak faith or lack of spirituality. Do not be afraid or ashamed to reach out for social and medical help. As a Muslim, you are not committing any religious violation by taking medication. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,
تداوَوْا عبادَ اللهِ فإنَّ اللهَ لَمْ يضَعْ داءً إلَّا وضَع له دواءً (رواه ابن حبان)
“Seek medical treatment, O servants of God,
for God has not made any disease without making a cure for it.”
2. But what about jinns and magic?
Insanity (جنون) was defined by pre-modern Muslim jurists as a disorder of the mind that prevents the person’s utterances and actions from being rational. It can be an ongoing condition, or have intermittent episodes. Most Sunni theologians do believe in the reality of demonic (jinn) possession and black magic. But this does not mean they are the cause of all mental illness. It is noteworthy that Hanafi jurist Amir Badshah (d. 972H), while discussing the “contingencies of capacity,” points out that there are two types of insanity: one caused by an imbalance in the brain, and which can be treated (with medication), and another type that is caused by demons, and against which spiritual remedies (such as Quranic recitation) can be of assistance1. I would go further to say that even if one is certain of the involvement of jinns or black magic, one can and should still pursue medical treatment for the symptoms, in addition to spiritual remedies such as Quranic ruqya. May Allah protect us, and grant us strength to face the various tests in our lives.
The year was 632 of the Common Era (Julian) calendar, the day 27 January (29 Shawwal year 10 of the Islamic Hijri calendar). It was probably a mild, dry, mid-winter day in Madinah, with a clear sky, and a gentle easterly breeze. In the middle of the morning, the people of Madinah witnessed a solar eclipse, with about three-fourths of the sun becoming obscured. A solar eclipse remains even today a moving experience, with darkness falling and the stars coming out in the middle of the day, but in that late-antique period, superstitions and myths about eclipses were still rife, and this particular instance came in the midst of an emotionally charged atmosphere. The Prophet Muhammad’s son, Ibrahim, had just died that day, aged about 16 months. It was not long before people began chattering, saying that the two events were connected, and that the eclipse was either a sign of divine mourning or a portent of negative consequences to occur on the earth. The Prophet himself did not buy into his people’s superstitions, but upon the onset of the eclipse his first thoughts were turned towards the Creator, for the eclipse is a awe-inspiring reminder of God’s power, and of similar cosmic events that will occur on the Day of Resurrection. Prophet Muhammad therefore hastened to the mosque, where he performed a special prayer involving recitation of lengthy portions of the Quran, and prolonged glorification of God’s greatness. After completing the prayer, he gave a special sermon to address and dispel the superstitious rumor. He said, “The sun and moon are two of the signs of God. They do not eclipse for anyone’s death nor for anyone’s birth. So, when you see that [occurring] then perform prayer until it passes over.”
Theological Dimensions of the eclipse
1. The Quran states clearly that the sun and moon move, “by precise calculation,” (Quran, 55:5) and that each moves in its own path, so that neither of them reaches or catches up to the other (Quran, 36:40). This cuts at the heart of baseless beliefs of eclipses being a fight between the sun and moon, or a union between them. These verses had been revealed in Makkah (i.e. many years before the eclipse), but it often takes time for people to release themselves from the mental and psychological shackles of superstition. Lunar eclipses are relatively frequent, and the Prophet used to observe the eclipse prayer when they occurred.The solar eclipse, on the other hand, is rarer and also more striking, and the instance described above was probably the only solar eclipse witnessed by the Prophet Muhammad. It was therefore an ideal teaching moment, and the lesson conveyed in such a moment would have a powerful and lasting impression on those present. Rather than opportunistically fuel people’s superstitions, and thereby garner status for his own family by presenting the eclipse as a divine sign in honor of his son’s death, the Prophet instead used the opportunity to uproot the superstition. Sadly, some Muslims even today still hold on to superstitions, such as believing a pregnant woman should not view an eclipse or should not use a knife during an eclipse lest her child be born deformed. Such baseless notions are still firmly ingrained in many Muslim cultures, despite the fact that they have no basis in the Quran or sunna.
2. One question might remain, however, Why did the Prophet perform a special prayer during the eclipse, for is this not itself superstitious? The answer (to which I already alluded in the narrative) is that the eclipse prayer is not motivated by superstition, but rather by senstivity to the greatness of God that the eclipse manifests. We do not pray out of unfounded fears such as thinking that the dragon might gobble up the sun if we don’t pray for safety. But there is a big difference between superstition and being in tune with nature and aware of the attributes of God that manifest in the natural world.
“And how many a sign within the heavens and earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away. ” (Quran, 12:105)
“Do they not look into the realm of the heavens and the earth and everything that Allah has created and [think] that perhaps their appointed time has come near? ” (Quran, 7:185)
That heart that is not awed and moved by powerful natural phenonema is either spiritually cold and unfeeling, or too much distracted by other concerns. As William Wordsworth observed in one of his poems, “The world is too much with us,” and we often fail to see the beauty and power of the universe. The Prophet Muhammad was in touch with God’s signs, and would see powerful natural phenomena as reminders of God’s greatness and ability to punish, and would draw admonition from them. An eclipse, in particular, is a reminder of cosmic events associated with the Day of Judgment.
“When the sight is dazzled, and the moon loses its light, and the sun are brought together (possibly in the figurative sense that they will both lose their light, as many Quranic commentators suggested).” (Quran, 75:7-9)
The moon “losing its light” might be an eclipse, and the Arabic word used carries both the meanings of “eclipse” and of “losing light.”
Even such seemingly mundane things as the winds and rain can be powerful reminders of God, as the Quran often draws our attention to. Unusual natural phenomena catch our attention, and are therefore appropriate occasions for spiritual reflection and prayer.
The Quran recounts to us the story of the pious woman who, while pregnant, vowed to dedicate the coming child to the service of God. She had been expecting a son (who could serve in the Temple at Jerusalem), but went on to deliver a daughter. It is at this time that she (or God, according to a different reading) remarks, “The male is not like the female.” The statement is not clear-cut in indicating overall preference for either one of the genders.
Language-wise, there are three possibilities, and each of these views is a position held among Muslim scholars:
to indicate preference for the male, i.e. the male is not like the female, he has the advantage of being able to serve in the temple (under Jewish ritual law) without the monthly menstrual interruption [Mawardi, and many other scholars of exegesis]
to indicate preference for the female, i.e. the male I wanted is not like the female God gave me; God’s choice is necessarily better [Zamakhshari, Abu Hayyan; two prominent exegetes, both of whom are heavyweights in the Arabic language]
to not imply any preference either way (simply that they are different), like red is not like green, nor is green like red. [Ibn Hazm]
Even if one takes the first or second interpretation, it is still contextual, and cannot be a proof-text for overall superiority of one gender, because:
According to (i) the male is better in the specific aspect of being able to serve in the temple, but this does not rule out that the female might intrinsically be better in other respects (see my earlier post that discusses Quran, 4:34)
According to (ii), the female in this specific case (the Virgin Mary) is better than the male that her mother had hoped for. It does not rule out that there might be other scenarios (involving other people) where a particular male is better than a particular female.
From this post, along with the preceding three (123), it is clear that the Quran does not teach intrinsic superiority of either of the two genders. Certainly, an ordinary believing man cannot claim superiority over the prophetesses and spiritual heavyweights like Mary and Fatimah. Rather, the criterion is piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you before God is the most pious.” And believing men and women are expected to support, protect and help one another – not to deride nor to oppress one another (despite what too often happens in some Muslim societies).
Human history, one might conclude from the Bible and Quran, is an ongoing struggle against the human tendencies towards evil and polytheism. The late Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah censures his people for (among other transgressions) sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molekh. Much earlier, such child sacrifices are already condemned in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus 20:3 describes this ritual as profaning (חַלֵּל) God’s holy name. The Hebrew root for ‘profaning’ H-L-L, has an Arabic cognate, which is found in a Quranic verse (5:2) warning believers not to profane (تحلوا) God’s religious symbols, days, rituals and devotees. A famous Biblical prohibition against taking God’s name in vain (although it uses different wording) has been interpreted in various ways, many of which prohibit associating God’s name with sinful acts (be they lies, idolatrous rituals or anything else sinful). So, God’s name can be profaned by both explicit and implicit association with evil.
A famous hadith says that, “Any matter of importance that is not begun with God’s name is defective,” and observant Muslims are in the habit of reciting God’s name at the beginning of prayer, before eating, and when about to undertake any major action – provided of course the act is something religiously lawful. The hadith’s specification that the teaching applies to matters of importance implies that trivial matters should not be started with God’s name, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Name by not taking it in vain. Clearly, then, the name of God should not be recited before sinful actions, and in fact to do so is considered an act of blasphemy and apostasy by Muslim legal scholars. (They make an exception for someone who says it out of habit, without presence of mind, because he did not consciously intend to associate the name of God with the sin. In Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin stops at Lucrece’s door to pray before entering to rape her, “As if the heavens should countenance his sin.” “But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,“ Tarquin realizes:
The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact;
How can they then assist me in the act? )
If the Hebrew prophets of yore were to witness our times, they would likely inveigh against the many social and ethical ills of today. And while child sacrifice is (thankfully) no longer prominent, there is a bane of our times that is evocative of its horrific disdain for the sacredness of life. Of course, I am referring to the acts of wanton killing and terrorism that (sadly) appear to be increasingly common. Major sins, like rape and murder, are certainly an act of implicit profanation of God’s name, and if someone (God forbid) explicitly utters God’s name upon it, the profanation becomes even greater.
When Caliph `Ali heard the Kharijites chanting the slogan, “Judgment is only God’s,” he is reported to have said, “It is a statement of truth by which falsehood is intended.” So, if a murderer shouts “Allahu Akbar” / “God is Great” / “Elohim Gadol” over his murder, those who truly understand God’s teachings might well shake their heads, and respond much as Caliph `Ali did. Yes God is indeed greater; greater than to defile His name by your profane sin of murder; greater than to not hold murderers responsible. We will not allow criminals to appropriate our sacred language. God is truly Great.
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] Soal-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.