The Islamic faith strikes a balance between excessive self-gratification and self-abnegation and emphasises moderation. “There is no asceticism in Islam,” the Prophet said. The Quran says, “Do not forget (to partake of) your share of the world” (28:77). “Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of God, which He has produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He has provided) for sustenance” (Quran 7:32). At the same time, Muslims are urged not to waste and squander food, money and resources (7:31, 17:26, 26:27, 25:67). The Quran warns Muslims against becoming too enamoured of worldly comforts and luxuries (31:33, 35:5). Islam’s espousal of a balanced approach to life is reflected in the following verses of the Quran: “There are some who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world; but these people have no share in the next world. And then there are others who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world and in the next world and deliver us from the torment of hellfire. They shall have a portion of that which they have gained; God is swift in taking an account” (2:200-202).
In many societies across the world one finds an excess of either communitarianism or individualism. Societies such as India and China privilege society and community over the individual whereas contemporary Western societies consider the individual as the basic unit of society. In the traditional Indian and Chinese worldviews, society is not just the sum total of all individuals but has an autonomous reality of its own, which takes precedence over the interests and identities of individuals. The tenet of individualism in the West, which is embedded in the doctrine of liberalism, emphasises the autonomy and freedom of the individual from all kinds of tyrannies. Liberalism holds that what is morally sound and desirable is to be determined by each individual. In his thought-provoking book The Individualised Society, Zygmunt Bauman has argued that the tenet of radical or exaggerated individualism has become a defining feature of modern Western societies.
Both exaggerated communitarianism and radical individualism take an extreme, reductionistic view of the interface between individual and society. While societies such as India and China suffer from a surplus of communitarianism and a deficit of individualism, the equation is reversed in the context of Western societies. The problem with exaggerated communitarianism is that it takes little or no cognizance of human freedom, autonomy and agency. Radical individualism, on the other hand, ignores the fact that the individual does not exist apart from society, that no man is an island, that his/her personality, identity and values cannot be dissociated from the social milieu in which he/she is located.
Islam avoids the pitfalls of exaggerated communitarianism and radical individualism and considers the individual and society not as polar opposites but as parts of an inseparable unity. It seeks to harmonize individual autonomy and agency with societal cohesion. It provides sufficient autonomous spaces to the individual and at the same time urges him to engage with his community and to take an active part in the moral reconstruction of society. Islam does not demand that the individual must always conform to societal norms and cultural traditions regardless of whether they are attuned to the moral values prescribed by Islam. When a society sinks into the abyss of moral degeneracy, injustice, tyranny and anarchy, it is the responsibility of each individual to resist it with whatever means or resources he can muster. Islamic tradition greatly values the courage of conviction on the part of the individual in the face of injustice and oppression. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The most superior form of jihad is to speak the truth before a despotic ruler”. In Islamic history, scholars and sages have acted as the conscience keepers of the community. Many of them publicly rebuked, often at the risk of their lives, kings and emperors for their wayward behaviour, their transgression of moral norms and their tyranny.
The Islamic emphasis on balance and moderation is also reflected in matters of worship and prayer. The Quran says that God does not like imposing any hardships on people in religious matters beyond their capacity (2:286, 5:6, 6:152, 22:78, 23:62). The Prophet is reported to have said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings and in the nights”.
Salman the Persian, one of the prominent Companions of the Prophet, once came to his close friend Abu al-Darda’s house to meet him. The latter was not at home, but Salman noticed that his wife looked perturbed and unhappy. “What is the matter,” he asked her. She replied, “Well, your friend is in no need of worldly things”. After a while Abu al-Darda returned and since it was time for the mid-day meal, he placed some food before Salman. When Salman asked Abu al-Darda to join him, he declined, saying that he was fasting. Salman said that if he did not join him he would not eat either. Abu al-Darda then ate with Salman. When night fell the two friends retired to bed. After a couple of hours Abu al-Darda woke up to offer the supererogatory prayers, Salman, who also woke up, told Abu al-Darda that a longer part of the night was yet to be over and asked him to go off to sleep. Abu al-Darda slept for some time. After a couple of hours Abu al-Darda woke up again, and Salman also woke up. The two of them then offered the supererogatory prayers. After the prayers Salman told his friend, “You have an obligation towards your body, your Lord, your guest and your family. Therefore, you must fulfil all these obligations”. In the morning Salman and Abu al-Darda went to visit the Prophet and narrated to him what had transpired in the night. The Prophet said, “Salman spoke the truth”.
Once someone told Shaykh Abu Said Abul Kayr, a prominent Persian Sufi who lived in the 11th century, that so and so walked on water. He responded by saying, “This is not a difficult task. Some animals swim even under water.” Someone said to him that so and so could fly in the air. He said, “Crows and cranes also fly in the air.” Someone told him that so and so could travel from one city to another in a moment. The Shaykh replied, “Satan can also travel from East to West in the twinkling of an eye. He then said, “All such miracles are of no consequence. A real saint is one who lives among people, mingles with them, lives with his family and keeps in touch with people. And, amidst all this, he never forgets Allah even for a moment.”
The Quran and Hadith emphasize that trust in Allah (tawakkul) is a great moral virtue. The Prophet is reported to have said, “If you have trust in Allah the way it ought to be, He would feed you just the way He feeds the birds.” However, the Prophet warned his followers to be wary of exaggerated tawakkul. One day a Bedouin, came to visit the Prophet with his camel. He asked him, “O Messenger of Allah! Should I leave my camel free to roam and have trust in Allah?” The Prophet replied, “No. First you tie up the camel with a rope and then have trust in Allah.”
Ruwaym (d. 915 CE) was an eminent Sufi of Baghdad and a close friend of Junayd, one of the great Sufi masters of the medieval period. Ruwaym was different from other Sufis of his time in that he eschewed extreme austerities. He lived and dressed like a wealthy man. One day his little daughter, dressed in a red dress, came running into his arms. He held her and caressed her and said to someone who had come to visit him that he liked to care for his family. He also told hi that, for him, trust in Allah (tawakkul) meant trust in Allah’s promise to look after His creatures, but, he added, it did not require one to completely abandon worldly concerns.
A good deal of confusion and misunderstanding surrounds the idea of “giving up the world” (tark-e-duniya) espoused by many Sufis. The critics of Sufism object to this notion and say that this is tantamount to asceticism, which is forbidden in Islam. It is instructive to quote a 13th century Sufi saint of Delhi, Nizamuddin Awliya, to clarify this matter. He said, “Gold and silver, horses and other worldly possessions do not really constitute worldly life. The problem arises when one gets too attached to these things… Giving up the world does not mean that one should shun clothing and wear just a loincloth and live an isolated life. In the real sense of the term, giving up the world means that, while one should dress properly and eat (the normal food), one should not hoard money but spend it (on the poor and the needy) and that one should not get too attached to worldly possessions.”
Service to Humanity
Compassion and kindness and selfless service to humanity, particularly to the poor and the dispossessed, is one of the cardinal principles of Sufism. It is essentially derived from the Quran and Hadith. The Prophet is reported to have said, “All of humanity is (like) the family of Allah, and the dearest of them in His sight is the one who is the kindest to His family.”
Abdullah ibn Mubarak, a great scholar of Hadith and one of the earliest Sufi masters, was once engaged in a war against the enemies of Islam. He asked his companions, “Do you know about an action that is superior to jihad in the way of Allah? They said they did not know but added, “We do know that we are fighting with the enemies of Allah. And what could be better than this?” Ibn Mubarak said, “A man who has a family and who does not ask anyone for money, wakes up in the middle of the night to find that the sheet of cloth that covered his children had shifted away from them, and then he puts it back on them. This action is superior to jihad.”
Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, a well-known Sufi saint of the 13th century, once remarked, “A person who is close to Allah possesses three qualities: He has affection like that of the sun; generosity like that of the river; and humility like that of the earth.”
Junayd of Baghdad visited his mentor Sari al-Saqati while he was on his deathbed. Junayd asked for an advice, to which he replied, “Do not be unmindful of serving people while you are living among them.” Shortly after saying this he breathed his last.
Shamsuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236), the emperor of Delhi, used to visit Qutbuddin Bakhtiya Kaki, a highly respected Sufi saint, once in a week. One day the saint advised the emperor to treat the poor and the destitute with kindness and compassion and to be considerate towards his subjects. God protects an emperor who treats his subjects with kindness, he said.
A disciple of Khwaja Fariduddin Ganjshakar (d. 1266), one of the celebrated Sufi saints of the 13th century, presented him with a scissors. He refused to take it and told him, “You can give me a needle, for I do not cut, I sew.”
Shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya once said, “Worship and devotion are of two types, obligatory and infectious. Obligatory worship includes the daily prayers, fasting, Pilgrimage and the repeated invocation of God’s names. The benefit of obligatory worship is confined to the individual who performs it. Infectious worship, on the other hand, includes unity, affection and kindness to others. The benefits of infectious worship extend to others as well and its virtues are countless.