Tag: Islam

The Knowledge-Voyagers

The Knowledge-Voyagers

Cosmetic_icon_Itinerant_ScholarPeople have long traveled for diverse reasons, and there were various types of voyagers in the medieval Muslim world, including ardent pilgrims, wandering dervishes, and enterprising merchants. But, starting in the 8th century CE (2nd century Hijri), another large contingent joined the ranks of the itinerants: many Muslims began traveling extensively in pursuit of sacred knowledge, especially (but not limited to) to hear and write down ḥadīths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) from those who were transmitting them. This spontaneously gave rise to a remarkable, informal, decentralized,

unregulated, diverse global information network. We get some idea of the extent to which this voyaging reached by observing that ˁAlī ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ˁAsākir (d. 571/1176, a major hadith-voyager and chronicler) compiled a book called “The Forty City [Narrations]” (Arbaˁūn Buldāniyyah), which contained forty ḥadīths heard from forty different teachers in forty different cities, tracing back to forty different Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and dealing with forty different topics. In his prelude to the book, he describes the hadith-voyagers:

So, [the adīth-folk] intently pursued gathering [adīths] in all moments and circumstances, flying to [different] lands like eagles and falcons, consequently living lives of poverty and destitution in [willing] exile from home, and tolerating – on this quest – coarse food and clothing.”

It became unusual for someone laying claim to knowledge to not have traveled to seek knowledge from distant teachers. A couple of prominent exceptions are Imām Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179/796, the eponym of the Mālik school of law) and Abū Bakr ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936, the famous canonizer of the Seven Quranic Readings, whose scholarly travel was restricted to his hajj travel to Makka).

Imam al-Shafi`i (d. 204H) wrote some lines of poetry encouraging people to travel. Three centuries later, Qadi Tartushi (d. 520H, a Maliki jurist and judge) wrote a rejoinder, discouraging people from travel, on the basis that times had changed. You can read both pieces of poetry, with their translations, here.

So, what about today? Two quick points:

1. Start Local

Scholars of the past would not travel for knowledge until they had exhausted the knowledge available to them locally. Most large metropolitan areas in the US (and probably many other countries) have individuals within them who are qualified to teach you the basics of one or more Islamic disciplines, and perhaps even things beyond that. It is rather a waste of money to travel overseas simply to learn the ABCs of a discipline that you could learn at minimal cost and without travel. If you delay your educational voyage until after you have mastered the basics, your overseas studies can also be more productive (such as by studying advanced texts that you couldn’t study locally). Of course, if you have additional legitimate motives for travelling overseas at an early stage, such as to spend some time living in a city where you hear the call to prayer (adhan) fives times a day, or to sightsee, or visit relatives, then that is a separate matter, and you are free to make your decision after due thought and diligence.

2. What about technology? Can’t I be a virtual globetrotter, attending online classes in multiple countries, and save the costs of traveling? Yes, you can do that, and might get the same information content, but you won’t get the intangibles and other elements that constitute the full experience: The tiring exertions and other difficulties of travel that will make you truly value what you got out of the trip…. The invaluable face-to-face dimension of student-teacher interactions through you which you can experientially learn things about behavior, manners and ethos in a way that you won’t find in a book…. and if you are traveling to a different country, the broadening of horizons that comes from living in a different culture and seeing the challenges and joys of its people. For an advanced seeker of sacred knowledge, travel is almost essential.

And of course, if you want to be a knowledge-voyager, then as with any deed by which you intend devotion, check your intentions.

IMAGE CREDIT: Itinerant Scholar, taken from https://dota2.gamepedia.com/Itinerant_Scholar, that website’s content provided under the terms of CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Destigmatizing Mental Illness

Destigmatizing Mental Illness

brain-3446307_960_720Mental 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.

FOOTNOTE:

1 (وَأما الْجُنُون) وَهُوَ اختلال الْعقل بِحَيْثُ يمْنَع جَرَيَان الْأَفْعَال والأقوال على نهجه إِلَّا نَادرا إِمَّا لنُقْصَان جبل عَلَيْهِ دماغه، فَلَا يصلح لقبُول مَا أعدّ لَهُ كعين الأكمه، ولسان الْأَخْرَس: وَهَذَا لَا يرجي زَوَاله، وَإِمَّا لخُرُوج مزاج الدِّمَاغ من الِاعْتِدَال بِسَبَب خلط أَو رُطُوبَة أَو يوسة متناهية، وَهَذَا يعالج، وَإِمَّا باستيلاء الشَّيْطَان وإلقاء الخيالات الْفَاسِدَة إِلَيْهِ. وَقد ينجع فِيهِ الْأَدْوِيَة الإلهية [أمير بادشاه, “تيسير التحرير” دار الكتب العلمية, 2/259]

PICTURE CREDIT: QuinceMedia, https://pixabay.com/en/brain-chain-health-idea-human-3446307/

What to Do during an Eclipse (Islam)

What to Do during an Eclipse (Islam)

SolarEclipse

As discussed in another post, eclipses are a reminder of God’s power, and of cosmic events at the end of the world, and are therefore a good time for spiritual reflection and prayer. This post summarizes recommended acts during the eclipse, and comments briefly on the spiritual dimensions of eclipse-viewing.

1) The Eclipse Prayer (Salat al-Kusuf)

إِنَّ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ لاَ يَنْكَسِفَانِ لِمَوْتِ أَحَدٍ مِنَ النَّاسِ، وَلَكِنَّهُمَا آيَتَانِ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ، فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمُوهُمَا فَقُومُوا فَصَلُّوا

The sun and moon do not eclipse for anyone’s death, but [in fact] they are two of the signs of God, so when you see them, then stand and pray.” [Bukhari]

Muslim scholars differed about some of the details of how to perform the eclipse prayer, and this is not the place to discuss that. You can consult a scholars whose knowledge and piety you trust, and follow their instructions on how to perform the salat al-kusuf. This video describes one of the methods.

2) Remembrance of God (Dhikr)

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ شَيْئًا مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَافْزَعُوا إِلَى ذِكْرِهِ وَدُعَائِهِ وَاسْتِغْفَارِهِ

…so, when you see anything of that, then hasten to remembrance (dhikr) of God, supplication (du`a) to God, and seeking God’s forgiveness (istighfar).” [Bukhari]

فاذكروا الله وكبروه وسبحوه وهللوه

so remember God, and declare God’s greatness, transcendence and oneness” [Sunan Sa`id ibn Mansur]

3) Charity

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ ذَلِكَ فَادْعُوا اللَّهَ وَكَبِّرُوا، وَصَلُّوا وَتَصَدَّقُوا

….so when you see that, then supplicate to God, declare God’s greatness, and give charity.” [Bukhari]

4) Manumission

لَقَدْ أَمَرَ النَّبِىُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِالْعَتَاقَةِ فِى كُسُوفِ الشَّمْسِ.

Asma’, the daughter of Abu Bakr, said: “God’s Messenger commanded the freeing of slaves at the solar eclipse.” [Bukhari]

5) Eclipse-Viewing

It is permissible to view the eclipse, provided you take sufficient precautions to avoid damaging your eyes. You should consult medical and astronomical experts for details of how to view the eclipse safely. If you take approriate medical precautions, then there is no religious prohibition on observing the eclipse, and in fact it is recommended if done with the correct attitude and intention.

Say: Observe what is in the heavens and earth.” (Quran, 10:101)

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)

A couple more points should be noted regarding eclipse-viewing:

1) According to most Muslim scholars, the specific eclipse prayer (salat al-kusuf) is not an obligation, and according to this view one would not be sinful if one did not perform the prayer and instead spent the time observing the eclipse or engaged in other mundane activities. However, most Muslim scholars also agree that the eclipse prayer is strongly recommended, with some holding it to be obligatory. Therefore, it would not be encouraged to neglect this prayer entirely. The optimal eclipse prayer extends through the entire duration of the eclipse, but if one is unable to do that due physical difficulty, or time constraints, or simply because one would like to spend some time observing the eclipse, then one could perform a shorter eclipse prayer. Given that the eclipse duration will be close to three hours, you can very easily perform an eclipse prayer that is decently long (30 minutes or an hour, for example) and time this in such a way that you can still observe some of the eclipse. Small children, who will probably not have the attention span or endurance for a 2-3 hour prayer, should still be given the experience of partaking in a shorter eclipse prayer, and the rest of the eclipse duration can be filled in with eclipse-viewing, dhikr, dua, discussion about the mechanics and spiritual dimensions of the eclipse, and perhaps some craft activities.

2) While it is certainly permissible to view the eclipse, for the believer, such a viewing is not merely a “fun activity” or light-hearted party (for which there are plenty of other opportunities). Observing the eclipse should ideally be done with a spiritual attitude, bringing to mind God’s greatness, and with feelings of awe and fear.

إِنَّ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ آيَتَانِ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ، لاَ يَنْكَسِفَانِ لِمَوْتِ أَحَدٍ، وَلَكِنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى يُخَوِّفُ بِهَا عِبَادَهُ

The sun and moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for anyone’s death, but God thereby instils fear in His servants.” [Bukhari]

This fear is not an irrational, superstitious fear, but rather an experience of natural awe, as well as of fear of the events of the Day of Judgment. In fact, the religiously-recommended activities listed could conceivably be considered a type of Qiyama-drill that makes us think of God’s oneness, uniqueness and power; seek forgiveness from God; try to tip your balance of deeds through charity; free slaves, for the human being should be in bondage only to God.

And God knows best.

– Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: Vishnu_kv, https://pixabay.com/en/solar-eclipse-eclipse-sun-sky-moon-2575133/

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The Male is Not Like the Female : Gender Equity and Quran 3:36

(iii) “The male is not like the female”

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:

  1. 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]
  2. 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]
  3. 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 (1 2 3), 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).

— Suheil Laher

A Degree Over Women? Gender Equity and Quran 2:228

(ii) “A degree over women”

And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable, and men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

The “degree” that men have over women, unspecified in the Qur’anic text, has given rise to a range of different suggested interpretations, some of which clearly hold little weight (such as the view that it refers to the beard!). The eminent traditionist-exegete Tabari (d. 310 H), after quoting all the transmitted opinions, concluded that the strongest view is that men are being instructed to unconditionally fulfill their duties and responsibilities in full, while being forgiving of women if they fall short in their duties; i.e. it is a degree of responsibility, rather than privilege. Tabari and others have narrated this view, with isnad, from Ibn `Abbas, an eminent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet.

According to traditional Muslim understandings of gender roles (I will not address Muslim feminist interpretations), men also are expected to lead the family unit (every social unit needs one person in charge, in order to function efficiently), but this leadership neither implies a superiority (remember when Abu Bakr was appointed Caliph, he said, “I have been appointed to lead you, but I am not the best among you”), nor is it supposed to be a means for overbearingness or tyranny. Rather, the relationship between husband and wife is to be based on love, compassion and cooperation, and includes consultation.

“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy.” (Qur’an, 30:21)

“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another” (Qur’an, 9:71)

“….and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (Qur’an, 42:38)

The alleged hadith, “Consult with [women] and then do the opposite of what they advise,” has no authentic chain of narration back to the Prophet (as pointed out, for example, by Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana), and is likely a sheer fabrication. Among the more striking narrations showing that the Prophet (s) valued the opinions of women is the famous incident at Hudaybiyah, in which he acted on advice from his wife Umm Salamah on a matter of great religious and public significance.

Gender Equity and Quran 4:34

A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:

(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

(ii) “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)

(i) Men are qawwamun over women”

“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:

“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)

Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!

Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.

Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over  women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.”  Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”

The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).

 

-Suheil Laher

This World is the Root of All Blessings

Earth observations
Image courtesy of NASA;http://d3.static.dvidshub.net/media/thumbs/photos/1210/680029/445x450_q95.jpg

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.