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Taqwa is Immunity not Restraint:


We have already mentioned some of the various elements found in the spiritual advices (mawa'iz) of the Nahj al-balaghah. We began with taqwa and saw that taqwa, from the viewpoint of the Nahj al-balaghah, is a sublime spiritual faculty which is the cause of certain attractions and repulsions; i.e. attraction towards edifying spiritual values and repulsion towards degrading materialistic vices. The Nahj al-balaghah considers taqwa as a spiritual state that gives strength to human personality and makes man the master of his own self.

Taqwa as Immunity:

The Nahj al-balaghah stresses that taqwa is for man a shield and a shelter, not a chain or a prison. There are many who do not distinguish between immunity and restraint, between security and confinement, and promptly advocate the destruction of the sanctuary of taqwa in the name of freedom and liberation from bonds and restraint.
That which is common between a sanctuary and a prison is the existence of a barrier. Whereas the walls of a sanctuary avert dangers, the walls of a prison hinder the inmates from realizing their inner capacities and from benefiting from the bounties of life. 'Ali ('a) clarifies the difference between the two, where he says:
Let it be known to you, O servants of God, that taqwa is a formidable fortress, whereas impiety and corruption is a weak and indefensible enclosure that does not safeguard its people, and does not offer any protection to those who take refuge in it. Indeed, it is only with taqwa that the tentacles of sins and misdeeds can be severed.[6]
'Ali ('a), in this sublime advice, compares sins and evil deeds which are afflictions of the human soul to poisonous insects and reptiles, and suggests that the faculty of taqwa is an effective defence against them. In some of his discourses, he makes it clear that taqwa not only does not entail restraint and restriction or is an impediment to freedom, but on the other hand it is the source and fountainhead of all true freedoms. In khutbah 230, he says:
Taqwa is the key to guidance, the provision for the next world, the freedom from every kind of slavery, and the deliverance from every form of destruction.
The message is clear. Taqwa gives man spiritual freedom and liberates him from the chains of slavery and servitude to lusts and passions. It releases him from the bonds of envy, lust, and anger, and this expurgates society from all kinds of social bondages and servitudes. Men who are not slaves of comfort, money, power, and glory, never surrender to the various forms of bondage which plague the human society.
The Nahj al-balaghah deals with the theme of taqwa and its various effects in many of its passages; but we don't consider it necessary to discuss all of them here. Our main objective here is to discover the meaning of taqwa from the point of view of the Nahj al-balaghah, so as to unearth the reason for so much emphasis that this book places on this concept.
Of the many effects of taqwa that have been pointed out, two are more important than the rest: firstly, the development of insight and clarity of vision; secondly, the capacity to solve problems and to weather difficulties and crises. We have discussed this in detail elsewhere.[7] Moreover, a discussion of these effects of taqwa here will take us beyond our present aim which is to clarify the true meaning of taqwa. It will not be out of place to call attention to certain profound remarks of the Nahj al-balaghah about the reciprocal relationship between the human being and taqwa.

A Reciprocal Commitment:

In spite of the great emphasis laid by the Nahj al-balaghah on taqwa as a kind of guarantee and immunity against sin and temptation, it should be noticed that one must never neglect to safeguard and protect taqwa itself. Taqwa guards man, and man must safeguard his taqwa. This, as we shall presently explain, is not a vicious circle.
This reciprocal guarding of the one by the other is comparable to the one between a person and his clothes. A man takes care of his clothes and protects them from being spoiled or stolen, while the clothes in turn guard him against heat or cold. In fact the Holy Quran speaks of taqwa as a garment:
And the garment of taqwa -that is better. (7:26)
'Ali ('a), speaking about this relationship of mutual protection between a person and his tawqa', says:
Turn your sleep into wakefulness by the means of taqwa and spend your days in its company. Keep its consciousness alive in your hearts. With it wash away your sins and cure your ailments... Beware, guard your taqwa and place your self under its guard.[8]
At another place in the same sermon, 'Ali ('a) says:
O God's servants, I advise you to cultivate the taqwa of God. Indeed it is a right that God has over you and it is through it that you can have any right over God. You should beseech God's help for guarding it and seek its aid for [fulfilling your duty to] God.[9]

Zuhd and Piety:

Another spiritual motif conspicuous in the teachings of the Nahj al-balaghah is zuhd, which after taqwa is the most recurring theme of the book. 'Zuhd' means renunciation of the 'world', and very often we encounter denunciation of the 'world', and invitation and exhortation to renounce it. It appears to me that it forms one of the important themes of the Nahj al-balaghah, which needs to be elucidated and explained in the light of various aspects of 'Ali's approach.
We shall begin our discussion with the word 'zuhd' The words 'zuhd' and 'raghbah' (attraction, desire), if mentioned without reference to their objects, are opposite to each other. 'Zuhd' means indifference and avoidance, and 'raghbah ' means attraction, inclination, and desire.
Indifference can be of two kinds: involuntary and cultivated. A person is involuntarily indifferent towards a certain thing when by nature he does not have any desire for it, as in the case of a sick person who shows no desire either for food, or fruits, or anything else. Obviously, this kind of indifference and abstinence has nothing to do with the particular sense implied in 'zuhd '.
Another kind of indifference or abstinence is spiritual or intellectual; that is, things which are natural objects of desire are not considered the goal and objective by a human being in the course of his struggle for perfection and felicity. The ultimate objective and goal may be something above mundane aims and sensual pleasures; either it may be to attain the sensuous pleasures of the Hereafter, or it may not belong to this kind of things. It may be some high ethical and moral ideal, like honour, dignity, nobility, liberty, or it may belong to the spiritual sphere, like the remembrance of God, the love of God, and the desire to acquire nearness to Him.
Accordingly the zahid (i.e. one who practises zuhd) is someone whose interest transcends the sphere of material existence, and whose object of aspiration lies beyond the kind of things we have mentioned above. The indifference of a zahid originates in the sphere of his ideas, ideals, and hopes, not in his physiological makeup.
There are two places where we come across the definition of 'zuhd' in the Nahj al-balaghah. Both of them confirm the above interpretation of zuhd. 'Ali ('a), in khutba 81, says:
O people! zuhd means curtailing of hopes, thanking God for His blessings and bounties, and abstaining from that which He has forbidden.
In hikmah 439, he says:
All zuhd is summarized in two sentences of the Quran: God, the Most Exalted, says, ... So that you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you. [57:23] Whoever does not grieve over what he has lost and does not rejoice over what comes to him has acquired zuhd in both of its aspects.
Obviously when something does not occupy a significant position amongst one's objectives and ideals, or rather is not at all significant in the scheme of things which matter to him, its gain and loss do not make the slightest difference to him.
However, there are some points that need clarification. Is zuhd, or detachment from the world, on which the Nahj al-balaghah, following the Quranic teachings, puts so much emphasis, to be taken solely in an ethical and spiritual sense? In other words, is zuhd purely a spiritual state, or does it possess practical implications also? That is, is zuhd spiritual abstinence only or is it accompanied by an abstinence in practical life also? Assuming that zuhd is to be applied in practice, is it limited to abstinence from unlawful things (muharramat), as pointed out in khutba 81, or does it include something more, as exemplified by the life of 'Ali ('a) and before him bythe life of the Holy Prophet ('s)?
Proceeding on the assumption that zuhd is not limited to-muharramat only and that it covers permissible things (mubahat) as well, one may ask: what is its underlying rationale and philosophy? What is the use of an ascetic life that limits and confines life, rejecting its blessings and bounties? Is zuhd to be practised at all times or only under certain particular conditions? Is zuhd-in the sense of abstinence from even permissible things-basically in agreement with other Islamic teachings?
Apart from this, the basis of zuhd and renunciation of the world is the pursuit of supra-material objectives and ideals. What are they from the point of view of Islam? In particular, how does the Nahj al-balaghah describe them?
All these questions regarding zuhd, renunciation, and curtailing of hopes-themes which have so often been discussed in the Nahj al-balaghah-need to be clarified. We shall discuss these questions in the following pages and try to answer them.

Islamic Zuhd and Christian Asceticism:

In the last section we said that zuhd, as defined by the Nahj al-balaghah, is a spiritual state that makes the zahid, on account of his spiritual and other worldly aspirations, indifferent towards the manifestations of material existence. This indifference is not confined to his heart, intellect, and feelings and is not limited to his conscience. It also manifests itself on the practical level of life in the form of simplicity, contentment, and obstention from hedonistic urges and love of luxuries. A life of zuhd not only implies that a man should be free from attachment to the material aspects of life, but he should also practically abstain from indulgence in pleasures. The zuhhad are those who in life are satisfied with the barest material necessities. 'Ali ('a) was a zahid, who was not only emotionally detached from the world but also indifferent to its pleasures and enjoyments. In other words, he had 'renounced' the 'world'.

Two Questions:

Here, inevitably, two questions shall arise in the reader's mind. Firstly, as we know, Islam has opposed monasticism considering it to be an innovation of Christian priests and monks.[10] The Prophet ('s) has stated in unequivocal terms that:
There is no monasticism (rahbaniyyah) in Islam.
Once when the Prophet ('s) was informed that some of his Companions had retired into seclusion renouncing everything and devoting all their time to worship and prayer in seclusion, he became very indignant. He told them: "I, who am your prophet, am not such". In this way, the Prophet ('s) made them to understand that Islam is a religion of life and society, not a monastic faith. Moreover, the comprehensive and multifaceted teachings of Islam in social, economic, political and moral spheres are based on reverence for life, not on its renunciation.
Apart from this, monasticism and renunciation of life are incompatible with the world-view of Islam and its optimistic outlook about the universe and creation. Unlike some other philosophies and creeds, Islam does not view the world and life in society with pessimism. It does not divide all creation into ugly and beautiful, black and white, good and evil, proper and improper, right and wrong. Now the second question may be stated in these words: "Aside from the fact that asceticism is the same as monasticism-which are both incompatible with the Islamic spirit-what is the philosophy underlying zuhd ?
Moreover, why should men be urged to practise zuhd? Why should man, seeing the limitless bounties of God and good things of life around him, be called upon to pass by the side of this delightful stream indifferently and without so much as wetting his feet? Are the ascetic teachings found in Islam, on this basis, later innovations (bid'ah) introduced into Islam from other creeds like Christianity and Buddhism? And if this is correct, how are we to explain and interpret the teachings of the Nahj al-balaghah? How can we explain the indubitable details known about the Prophet's life and that of 'Ali ('a)?
The answer is that Islamic zuhd is different from Christian asceticism or monasticism. Asceticism is retreat from people and society and seclusion for the purpose of worship. According to it, the life and works of the world are separate from the works of the Here-after and the one is alien to the other. One should, of necessity, choose either one of the two. One should either devote oneself to worship of God which shall bear fruits in the Hereafter, or take up the life of the world and benefit from its immediate pleasures. Accordingly, monasticism is opposed to life and social relationships. It requires with-drawal from people and negation of responsibility and commitment towards them.
On the other hand, zuhd in Islam, though it requires a simple and unaffected life-style and is based on abstention from luxuries and love of comforts and pleasures, operates in the very midst of life and social relations and is sociable. It draws inspiration, and proceeds, from the goal of better fulfilment of social responsibilities and duties.
The conception of zuhd in Islam is not something that would lead to asceticism, because a sharp distinction between this world and the next is nowhere drawn. From the viewpoint of Islam, this world and the next are not separable, not alien to each other. The relation of this world to the other is similar to that between the inward and outward sides of a single reality. They are like the warp and woof of a single fabric. They are to each other as the soul to the body. Their relation-ship can be assumed to be something midway between unity and duality. The works of this world and those of the next are interrelated similarly. Their difference is that of quality, without being essential. Accordingly, that which is harmful for the other world is also to one's detriment in the present world, and everything which is beneficial for the summum bonum of life in this world is also beneficial for life in the next world. Therefore, if a certain work which is in accordance with the higher interests of life in this world is performed with motives that are devoid of the higher, supra-material, and transcendental elements, that work would be considered totally this-worldly and would not, as the Quran tells us, elevate man in his ascent towards God. However, if a work or action is motivated by sublime aims and intentions and is executed with a higher vision that transcends the narrow limits of worldly life, the same work and action is considered 'other-worldly.'
The Islamic zuhd, as we said, is grounded in the very context and stream of life and gives a peculiar quality to living by emphasizing certain values in life. As affirmed by the Islamic texts, zuhd in Islam is based on three essential principles of the Islamic world-outlook.

The Three Essential Principles:

1. Enjoyments derived from the physical, material, and natural means of life are not sufficient for man's happiness and felicity. A series of spiritual needs are inbuilt in the human nature, without whose satisfaction the enjoyment provided by material means of life is not enough to make man truly happy.
2. The individual's felicity and happiness is not separable from that of society. Since man is emotionally bound to his society, and carries within him a sense of responsibility towards it, his individual happiness cannot be independent of the prosperity and peace of his fellow men.
3. The soul, despite its fusion and a kind of unity with the body, has a reality of its own. It is a principle in addition to the body which constitutes another principle in itself. The soul is an independent source of pleasure and pain. Like the body, or rather even more than it, it stands in need of nourishment, training, growth, and development. The soul, however, cannot dispense with the health and vigour of the body. At the same time, it is undeniable that total indulgence in physical pleasures and complete immersion into the delights of sensual experiences does not leave any opportunity for realizing the soul's unlimited possibilities. Therefore, there exists a kind of incompatibility between physical enjoyment and spiritual satisfaction. This is especially true if the attention and attachment to physical needs were carried to the very extreme of total immersion and absorption.
It is not true that all sorrow and grief are related to the soul and that all pleasures are derived from the body. In fact, the spiritual pleasures are much profounder, purer, and lasting than bodily pleasures. To sum up, one-sided attention to physical pleasures and material enjoyments finally results in compromising the total human happiness. Therefore, if we want to make our lives happy, rich, pure, majestic, attractive, and beautiful, we cannot afford to ignore the spiritual aspects of our being.
With due attention to these principles, the meaning of zuhd in Islam becomes clear. The knowledge of these principles allows us to understand why Islam rejects monasticism but welcomes a form of asceticism which is rooted in the very heart of life and in the context of social existence. We shall explain the meaning of zuhd in Islamic texts on the basis of these three principles.

The Zahid and the Monk:

We said that Islam encourages zuhd but condemns monasticism. Both the zahid and the ascetic monk seek abstinence from pleasures and enjoyments. But the monk evades life in society and the respon-sibilities and the duties it entails, regarding them as the low and mean facets of worldly existence, and takes refuge in mountains or monasteries. On the other hand, the zahid accepts society with its norms, ideals, duties, and commitments. Both the zahid and the monk are otherworldly, but the zahid is a social otherworldly. Also their attitudes to abstinence from pleasures are not identical; the monk disdains hygiene and cleanliness and derides married life and procreation. The zahid, on the contrary, considers hygiene and cleanliness, matrimony and parenthood to be a part of his duties. Both the zahid and the monk are ascetics, but whereas the 'world' renounced by the zahid is indulgence and immersion in pleasures, luxuries, and comforts (he rejects the attitude which considers them to be life's ultimate goal and objective), the 'world' renounced by the monk includes life's work and activity, and the duty and responsibility which go with social life. That is why the zahid's zuhd operates in the midst of social life, and is, therefore, not only compatible with social responsibility and commitment but is moreover a very effective means of discharging them.
The difference between the zahid and the monk arises from two different world-outlooks. From the viewpoint of the monk, this world and the next are two different spheres, separate from and unrelated to each other. To him, happiness in this world is not only independent of happiness in the next but is incompatible with it. He considers the two forms of happiness as irreconcilable contradictories. Naturally, that which leads to felicity and happiness in this world is considered different from the works and deeds which lead to success in the Hereafter. In other words, the means of acquiring happiness in this world and the next are regarded as being incompatible and contradictory. It is imagined that a single work and action cannot simultaneously be a means for acquiring happiness in both the worlds.
But in the world-view of the zahid, the world and the Hereafter are interconnected. The world is a preamble to the Hereafter. It is a farm of which the Hereafter is the harvest. From the zahid's viewpoint, that which gives order, security, uprightness, prosperity, and flourish to life is application of other-worldly criteria to the life of this world.
The essence of felicity and happiness in the other world lies in successful accomplishment of commitments and responsibilities of this world, performed with faith, piety, purity, and taqwa.
In truth, the zahid's concept of zuhd and the monk's rationale for his asceticism are incompatible and contradictory to each other. Basically, monasticism is a deviation introduced by men into the teachings of prophets, due to ignorance or vested interests. Now we shall explain the philosophy of zuhd in the light of the teachings of the Islamic texts.

Zuhd and Altruism:

One of the ingredients of zuhd is altruism. Ithar (altruism) and atharah (egoism) are derived from the same root. Atharah means giving precedence to one's interests over those of others. In other words it implies monopolizing everything for oneself and depriving others. But Ithar means preferring others over oneself and bearing hardship for the comfort and good of others.
The zahid, by virtue of his simple, humble, and content living, is hard upon himself so that others may live in ease. He sacrifices for the sake of the needy because with his sensitive heart which feels the pains of others he can relish the world's bounties only when there does not exist a single man oppressed by need. He derives greater satisfaction by feeding and clothing others and working for their ease than if he did those things for himself. He endures deprivation, hunger, and pain, so that others may be well fed and live without hardships.
Ithar represents the most magestic and sublime manifestation of human greatness, and only very great human beings climb to its noble heights.
The Holy Quran refers to the episode of the self-sacrifice of 'Ali ('a) and his honoured family in the glorious verses of the Surat Hal ata. 'Ali, Fatimah, and their sons once gave away whatever they had-which was no more than a few loaves of bread-to the poor for the sake of God, and despite their own distress. That is why this story circulated among the angels and a verse of the Quran was revealed in the praise of their act.
Once when the Holy Prophet ('s) came to visit Hadrat al-Zahra' ('s), observing that his daughter had put on a silver bracelet and hung a new curtain on the door, signs of unease appeared upon his face. Al-Zahra' ('a) was quick to discern the cause of her father's reaction. When the Prophet ('s) left, without losing time, she took out her bracelet and removing the curtain from the door, sent them to be carried to the Prophet ('s) so that he might give them to the needy. When al-Zahra's messenger brought them to the Prophet ('s) he looked at them with amazement. He was glad that his daughter had taken the hint and foregone her simplest luxuries for the benefit of others.
'The neighbours first', was the maxim in the household of 'Ali ('a) and Fatimah ('a). In khutbah 193, which describes the qualities of the pious, 'Ali ('a) says:
The man of [taqwa] subjects his own self to hardships so that the people may live in comfort.
The Holy Quran describes the Ansar (the Helpers), who in spite of their poverty welcomed the Muhajirun (the Emigrants) as their own brethren, giving them preference over their own selves, in these words:
They love whosoever has migrated to them, not finiding in their breasts any need for what they have been given, and prefer others above themselves, even though poverty be their lot ... (59:9)
Obviously, the altruistic ingredient of zuhd comes into play only under certain conditions. In an affluent society, altruism is less frequently required. But in conditions where poverty and deprivation are prevalent-as in the society of al-Madinah during the Prophet's time-its need is greater. This is one of the secrets of the apparent difference of the life-styles of 'Ali ('a) and the Holy Prophet ('s) with the rest of the Imams ('a).
In any case, zuhd with its underlying altruistic motives has nothing in common with monasticism and escape from society; instead it is a product of man's gregarious instincts and a manifestation of his noblest feelings, which reinforce the social bonds between fellow human beings.

Notes:

[6] Ibid., Khutab 157
[7] See Guftar e mah, vol. I, the second speech
[8] Ibid., Khutab 191
[9] Ibid.,
[10] Bihar al Anwar, vol. XV Bab al nahy an al rahbaniyyah wa al siyahah. Rumi in the sixth part of his Mathnawi, refers to this tradition in the story of the bird and the hunter.

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