Gibril Fouad Haddad

Al-Zuhrī (58-124/678-742), Mālik (93-179/712-795), and Ibn ʿUyayna (107-198/ca.725-ca.814) all defined zuhd as taqwā and “relinquishing what Allah Most High forbade” (al-Qurṭubī, Qamʿ al-ḥirṣ p. 158). Thus, zuhd is first and foremost abstinence from sin (as borne out by the title of Ibn Ḥazm’s work, see Section vii below) and all that Allah Most High hates, beginning with the enormities of the Age of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya) such as polytheism (Q 3:64, 95; 4:48; 7:180), murderous feuds and clannishness (Q 3:103; 48:26), female infanticide (waʾd, Q 6:51, 137; 17:32), fornication (Q 4:22; 7:28; 17:32, and Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 6:120), usury (ribā, Q 2:278; 30:39), disloyalty to parents and relatives (Q 2:181, 215; 29:8; 31:14; 46:15…), treachery to strangers (Q 4:36), and mistreatment of slaves and the poor (Q 4:36; 30:38). Relinquishment is required to the point that one may not even let out a grumble against parents (Q 17:23), and the believers are summoned to part once and for all with even the very thought of sin: And abandon the outwardness of sin and its inwardness (ẓāhir al-ithm wa-bāṭinah, Q 6:120), where according to Sahl al-Tustarī “the outwardness of sin is its commission; the inwardness, love of it” (Abū Nuʿaym, Ḥilya 10:198).

Relinquishing Unbelief and Sin

The individual’s lifelong flight from sin is both the categorical precondition of Godwariness (taqwā) and its single most important element, both being enjoined in countless verses. Al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286) brings together the two strains of relinquishing evil and being conscious of Allah in the following definition of righteousness:

In the terminology of sacred law taqwā is a name for one who guards himself from what harms him in the hereafter. It has three levels:

  1. Guarding oneself against everlasting punishment by clearing oneself of polytheism, as in His saying, and He imposed on them the word of Godwariness (Q 48:26);
  2. Avoiding everything that constitutes sin—whether doing something or omitting to do it—including small sins according to some. This is what is commonly known by the name of taqwā in sacred law and what is meant in His saying, And if the people of the townships had believed and guarded against evil (Q 7:96);
  3. To keep oneself free of what preoccupies one’s inward other than the True, and to dedicate oneself to Him heart and soul. (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:2)

Relinquishing Worldly Lusts

The life of this world (al-ḥayāt al-dunyā) is mentioned no less than fifty-five times in the Qurʾān invariably with deprecation, notably in such verses as Stretch not your eyes toward what We gave certain classes of them to enjoy—the flower of the life of the world—that We may test them thereby. The provision of your Lord is better and more lasting (Q 20:131, cf. Q 15:88); And whatever you all have been given is a comfort (matāʿ) of the life of the world and an ornament thereof; and that which Allah has [in store] is better and more lasting. Have you then no sense? (Q 28:60, cf. Q 42:36, 87:17). The most frequent meaning of zuhd is freedom from the attraction of dunyā, in which sense zuhd closely parallels the Qurʾānic virtues of God-dependence (tawakkul), steadfastness (ṣabr), gratitude (shukr), the constant remembrance of death (dhikr al-mawt), and expectancy of next-worldly reward (iḥtisāb) together with the practice of hunger and the embracing of poverty Shining examples of these qualities are documented in the corresponding chapters of Nawādir al-uṣūl, the works of al-Muḥāsibī (d. 243/ca.857) and al-Sulamī (325-412/936-1031), al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī’s (d. 378/988) al-Lumaʿ, al-Kalābādhī’s (d. 380/990) al-Taʿarruf li-madhhab ahl al-taṣawwuf, Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s (d. 386/996) Qūt al-qulūb, al-Qushayrī’s (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073) Risāla, and other pre-Ghazālian Sufi classics which culminated with al-Ghazālī’s own Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, in addition to the zuhd compilations of the first five centuries.

The beauty of dunyā constitutes both a remembrance of Allah and a test for creatures: We have placed all that is in the earth as an ornament thereof that We may try them: which of them is best in conduct (Q 18:7). At the same time, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty” (Muslim, Īmān, taḥrīm al-kibr; Tirmidhī, Birr wal-ṣila, mā jāʾa fī-l-kibr, ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ gharīb). Accordingly, the believer also recognizes that “the universe is the apex of beauty” (cf. Ibn al-ʿArabī, Futūḥāt §372 and elsewhere). However, attraction to dunyā in obliviousness of the Creator, coupled with ingratitude, is characteristic of unbelievers: The life of this world is alluring to those who reject faith, and they scoff at those who believe (Q 2:212); They know an outward part of the present life, but of the Hereafter they are heedless (Q 30:7); They know the favor of Allah and then deny it. Most of them are ingrates (Q 16:83). Hence the proverb that “Love of the world is the source of every sin” narrated from ʿIsā—upon him peace—in the Muslim sources (cf. Aḥmad, Zuhd p. 143 §473) and the Qurʾānic warnings against the lusts (shahawāt) of carnality, empire, and capital: Beautified for mankind is the love of lusts—women, sons, arching heaps of gold and silver, gilded steeds, cattle and tillage (Q 3:14), as well as commerce (Q 62:9-11, cf. 24:37).

Like ʿĪsā and other Prophets before him, the Prophet Muḥammad—upon him and them blessings and peace—reviled the lure of money in many words and deeds in numerous hadiths:

  • Perish the slave of the dinar and the dirham!
  • Bukhārī, Riqāq, mā yuttaqā min fitnat al-māl;
  • Cursed is the slave of the dinar and cursed is the slave of the dirham!
  • Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa bi-akhdh al-māl bi-ḥaqqih; ḥasan gharīb
  • If the son of Ādam possessed a valley full of gold he would love its like in addition; nothing fills the soul (nafs) of the son of Ādam but dust!
  • Muslim, Zakāt, law anna li-ibn Ādam wādiyān; cf. Bukhārī, Riqāq, mā yuttaqā min fitnat al-māl
  • The most enviable of my friends (aghbaṭ awliyāʾī) in my sight is truly a light-backed (khafīf al-ḥādh, i.e., with little property and few dependents: Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs, sub ḥ-w-dh) believer with his share of prayer. He worships his Lord excellently, obeys Him in secret, goes unnoticed among people—no one refers to him—and his sustenance is barely enough, but he bears it patiently; he dies an early death, few weep for him, and he leaves little behind.
  • Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī-l-kafāf wal-ṣabr ʿalayh; through Abū ʿAbd al-Malik ʿAli b. Yazīd whom al-Tirmidhī declared
  • a weak narrator
  • My Lord offered to turn the entire plain of Makka into gold. I said, “No, my Lord. Rather, I shall be sated one day and be hungry one day; when I am hungry I shall entreat You and remember You, and when I am sated I shall thank You and praise You.”
  • Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī-l-kafāf wal-ṣabr ʿalayh, hadith classed ḥasan.
  •  This hadith shows that zuhd does not consist in doing without when one has no choice—which is more akin to patience (ṣabr, see Perseverance, Patience, and Fortitude)—but in willingly doing without necessities as a means of nearness to Allah.
  • The old man’s heart remains young in two things: love of the world and distant hopes (Bukhārī, Riqāq, man balagha sittīn); lust for life and love of money (Muslim, Zakāt, karāhat al-ḥirṣ ʿalā al-dunyā).

Commenting on the latter narration, al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. 320/932) said:

The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—there­fore urges us to remember death, as he said: “Always re­member the de­stroyer of de­lights” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī dhikr al-mawt,  hadith classed ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ gharīb; Nasāʾī, Janāʾiz, kathrat dhikr al-mawt). Remembered often, its power lessens; seldom remembered, its power grows. The meaning is that when you remember death you realize that your lot is to possess nothing and that you are head­ing for extinction in the end. If you remember the latter, death becomes an easy thing for you, and if you remember the former, you realize that the little that one has in the world is plenty. For one knows not at what time, in one instant, death suddenly may confront him. Thus death is the “destroyer of delights;” remembering its destruction does away with false joys and replaces them with despondency and sadness.  (Adab al-murīdīn p. 38-39)

Keeping spiritual distance from the world is obligatory to the extent that not doing so veils one from the Hereafter. The remembrance of Allah Most High makes hearts tender (Q 39:23), tranquil (Q 13:28), and clairvoyant (cf. Q 22:46; 11:24; 12:108), while the remembrance of the world does the opposite (Q 5:13; 6:43-44; 19:83), until one reaches a state that the Qurʾān describes as covetousness akin to idolatry, and hopeless materialism—a condition worse than that of dumb beasts: And you will find them (certain Jews) the greediest of mankind for life, even more than the idolaters. Each one of them would wish to live a thousand years (Q 2:96); Have you seen him who chooses for his god his own lust? Would you then be guardian over him? Or do you think most of them hear or understand? They are but as cattle—nay, they are farther astray (Q 25:43-44). Ibn ʿUmar (d. 74/693)—Allah be well-pleased with him and his father—narrates:

The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—said: “None shall meet Allah with the testimony that there is no god but Allah alone, without partner, except he shall enter Paradise, as long as he does not mix anything extraneous with it.” He repeated it three times. Someone said from afar: “My father be your ransom, and my mother, Messenger of Allah! And what extraneous thing would anyone mix with it?” He said: “Love of the world, putting it first, accumulating its trappings, being pleased with it, and acting the way tyrants act.”  (al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab 7:338 §10499)

Accordingly, the heart’s attachment to transient things is the litmus test of belief: Say: If your fathers, and your sons, and your breth­ren, and your wives, and your tribe, and the wealth you have ac­quired, and merchandise for which you fear that there will be no sale, and dwellings you de­sire are dearer to you than Allah and His Mes­senger and fighting for His cause: then wait till Allah brings His com­mand to pass. Allah guides not wrongdoing folk (Q 9:24). Ibn Surayj (d. 303/ca.915 or 306/ca.918) saw in this verse a proof that love of Allah was a personal categorical obligation, since pun­ish­ment is not threatened except in relation to a categorical obligation (farḍ) (al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab 1:365 §406). Such higher love is indispensably coupled with following the Prophet—Say: If you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins (Q 3:31)—and, furthermore, cannot coexist with love of the world, since Allah has not assigned unto any man two hearts within his body (Q 33:4, cf. Q 58:22). That indeed is the commerce that shall never fail (Q 35:29, cf. 61:10) as opposed to the world, which is contemptible and even cursed: “If the world weighed as much as a gnat’s wing in the sight of Allah, He would not have allowed an unbeliever as much as a sip of water from it;” “Truly, the world is cursed and cursed is what is in it—except the remembrance of Allah and whatever is related to it, a learned person, and one who seeks learning” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī hawān al-dunyā ʿalā Allāh, hadiths respectively classed ṣaḥīḥ gharīb and ḥasan gharīb).

The proof that worldly luxuries are not inherently reprehensible is that the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—attributed them to both the unbelievers and the believers, but not in the same plane of existence: “Do not wear silk or brocade. Do not drink from vessels of gold and silver, or eat from plates of them. They are theirs in this world and ours in the next” (Bukhārī, Aṭʿima, al-akl fī ināʾ mufaḍḍaḍ; Nasāʾī, Zīna, dhikr al-nahī ʿan labs al-dībāj). Thus, the very same terms are used for the beauties of Paradise in the Qurʾān and the Sunna even though they pass all description: gold, silver, maidens, immortal youths, palaces of pearl, rivers of wine with banks of musk; however, their earthly types are the material of sin, repentance, and spiritual wayfaring, as expressed in the following remarkable report from the ever-inquisitive Abū Hurayra (d. 58/678)—Allah be well-pleased with him:

We said: “Messenger of Allah, how is it that whenever we are with you, our hearts soften, we do without the world, and we are among the people of the hereafter; but when we leave your presence and greet our wives and kiss our children, we no longer recognize our former selves?” He replied: “If you remained, whenever you left my presence, in the same state that you mentioned, the angels would visit you inside your homes; and if you did not sin, Allah Most High would produce another creation in order that they should sin and that He should forgive them!” I asked, “Messenger of Allah, from what substance would that creation be?” He replied, “From water.” We said, “And Paradise, what is its masonry?” He said, “A brick of silver alternates with a brick of gold, its mortar is fragrant musk, its gravel pearl and coral, and its soil saffron. Whoever enters it is gratified forever and never experiences hardship again, lives eternally and never dies again; their garments never wear out and their youth never fades.”  (Tirmidhī, Ṣifat al-janna, mā jāʾa fī ṣifat al-janna wa-naʿīmihā, with a slightly weak chain according to al-Tirmidhī; Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, musnad Abī Hurayra,  §8043, a collectively sound narration, according to the Musnad’s editors)

Such zuhd, however, does not countenance extremism. When the Prophet heard that one of the pious Companions had said, “I shall marry no woman,” another “I shall eat no meat,” another, “I shall not sleep,” and another, “I shall never break my fast,” he said: “What ails people that they should say such and such? I am the most Godwary of you all, yet I offer prayers and sleep, I observe and break the fast, and I marry women. Whoever avoids my way is not one of us” (Bukhārī, Nikāḥ, al-targhīb fī-l-nikāḥ; Muslim, Nikāḥ, istiḥbāb al-nikāḥ). On another occasion he said: “The priesthood and monasticism of this Community is fighting in the path of Allah” (Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq; al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab 4:14 §4226-4227). Zuhd, then, redresses from an Islamic perspective all the deviances of prior systems and rejects not only the merely medicinal self-discipline of stoicism and the idealism of certain forms of practices like yoga, but also self-flagellation, social aloofness, celibacy, and similar errors.

Relinquishing One’s Own Rights

A further level of zuhd is abstinence from the pursuit and obtainment of personal moral and physical rights. Revenge and self-vindication are diminished with repeated adjurations to forgive and forbear beautifully (Q 15:85 cf. 2:109; 5:13; 43:89); and the recompense of evil is evil the like of it; but whoso pardons and puts things right, his wage falls upon Allah (Q 42:40); accordingly, the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—did not seek revenge against Labīd b. al-Aʿṣam after it was established that the latter had cast a spell on him (Bukhārī, Ṭibb, siḥr; Muslim, Salām, siḥr), or against the woman of Khaybar who had served him poisoned roasted meat (Abū Dāwūd, Diyāt, fī man saqā rajulan samman; Dārimī, Sunan, Muqaddima, mā akrama Allāh bihi Nabiyyahu min kalām al-mawtā). He also renounced any action against Thaqīf—who had had him stoned and driven out of Ṭāʾif—and Quraysh when the angel offered to tumble down the two major mountains of Makka over them; he hoped that in time their progeny would accept belief (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, idhā qāla aḥadukum āmīn wal-malāʾika; Muslim, Jihād wal-siyar, mā laqiya al-Nabī min adhā).

The matāʿ or niceties and comforts of the world are downplayed and belittled because the real wealth is yet to come: The enjoyment of this world is little; the world to come is better for him who fears Allah (Q 4:77, cf. 9:38). The unmindful disbeliever enjoys only this world for a while at most, and that by way of beguilement(istidrāj): Allah outspreads and straitens His provision unto whomsoever He will. They rejoice in this present life; and this present life, beside the world to come, is naught but passing enjoyment (Q 13:26, cf. 10:23; 40:39; 43:35; 57:20); It is but a brief comfort, then their abode is hell—an evil resting-place! (Q 3:197, cf. 10:70; 16:117; 28:61). Moreover, it is not merely the anticipation of comforts in Paradise that motivates such relinquishment but the realization that one is accountable for all that one consumes and uses in this world, as indicated by the Prophet to Abū Bakr and ʿUmar after they had been served a hearty meal on a day they had left their houses famished: “On the Day of Resurrection you will be questioned about this bounty” (a reference to Q 102:8) (Muslim, Ashriba, jawāz istitbāʿih ghayrah ilā dār man yathiqu bi-riḍāh). The Prophet refused himself and his households the comforts of the world, as witnessed by the hadiths concerning Fāṭima requesting a servant and being taught a prayer of remembrance instead (Bukhārī, Nafaqāt, khādim al-marʾa; Muslim, Dhikr wal-duʿāʾ, mā yaqūl ʿind al-nawm), ʿĀʾisha citing the lack of hot food in the Prophet’s households for consecutive months (Bukhārī, Riqāq, kayfa kāna ʿayshu al-Nabī; Muslim, Zuhd wal-raqāʾiq, bāb), and ʿUmar’s visit to the room in which the Prophet spent the month of his vowed marital separation, at which time the following dialogue ensued:

I said, “May I be at ease, Mes­senger of Allah?” […] He smiled and, when I saw him smile, I sat down. Then I raised my eyes and looked around. By Allah! I could see nothing of note but three animal skins. I said, “Sup­plicate Allah, Messenger of Allah, that He grant some ease to your Community. For He has granted it to Persia and Rome, although they do not worship Allah!” He sat up and said: “Are you in doubt, son of al-Khaṭṭāb? Those are a people for whom their good things were hastened in this lower world.” I said, “Ask forgiveness for me, Messenger of Allah!”  (Bukhārī, Nikāḥ, mawʿiẓat al-rajul ibnatah; Muslim, Ṭalāq, fī-l-īlāʾ wa-iʿtizāl al-nisāʾ)

Such was the example that inspired the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, in turn, to deny themselves and their dependents the comforts of life and to adopt lifestyles of great austerity. They wore patched clothes, rode mules, and slept on the ground; ʿUmar fasted permanently and ordered his commanders in Persia and elsewhere to “keep the rough Arab ways of Maʿadd!” (ikhshawshanū wa-tamaʿdadū), free from foreign refinements in living, dress, and diet (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:187; Abū Nuʿaym, Ḥilya 1:52-53, 1:60; Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya 10:185 [Year 23]).

Self-reliance and parsimony betoken mistrust in Allah’s Power over all things (an Attribute repeated over thirty times in the Qurʾān), His exclusive ownership of the heavens and the earth (repeated four dozen times), His minute knowledge of all things therein (Q 2:33; 17:55; 18:25; 27:25), His full control of the storehouses (Q 15:21) and keys (Q 39:63; 42:12) of creation, and the fact that He is the sole guarantor of sustenance for all things (Q 6:14; 29:60; 51:58; cf. 16:73). In this respect the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—disapproved of saving for the next day (see Trust in Allah Most High). A remarkable incident has Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (164-241/780-855) narrate the following short-chained report about dependence on God (tawakkul), and then characterize this quality as a typically Sufi trait:

Yūsuf b. al-Ḥusayn al-Rāzī (d. 304/ca.917) said: “I came to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in the early days of al-Mutawakkil’s rule and said, ‘Narrate a hadith to me […] by which I shall remember you and invoke mercy upon you.’ He said, ‘Marwān al-Fazārī narrated to us, from Hilāl Abū al-Muʿallā, from Anas: Three birds were offered to the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and he gave his servant one of them to eat. The next day she brought it to him. He said: “Did I not forbid you to store up food? Truly, Allah Most High provides the sustenance of each morning” (Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq §13043; a fair chain of narrators according to Haythamī, Majmaʿ 10:546 §18188 and 10:579 §18273). Then Aḥmad said: ‘This [hadith] is very suited for you, Sufi! Narrate it’ (hādhā min bābatik yā ṣūfī, ḥaddith bih).”  (Ibn Abī Yaʿlā, Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanābila 1:418-419)

Under this chapter also falls the Qurʾānic condemnation of the delusion of reliance on oneself, one’s deeds, possessions, and powers, all of which the unbelievers mistake for tangible achievements: And it is not your wealth nor your children that will bring you near unto Us, but he who believes and does good (Q 34:37); Their own deeds were made to seem beautiful to the unbelievers (6:122, cf. 8:48, 9:37, 10:12, 35:8, 47:14). The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and his Community were taught never to put stock in their own acts or projects: You (Muslims) slew them not, but Allah slew them. And you (Muḥammad) threw not when you did throw, but Allah threw (Q 8:17); And do not say of anything, “I am going to do that tomorrow,” but only, “If Allah will” (Q 18:23-24); Yet “will” you shall not, unless Allah wills, the Lord of the worlds (Q 81:29, cf. 76:30). From such verses the Egyptian Sufi master Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh (d. 709/1309) extracted the first of his great sapiential aphorisms (al-Ḥikam): “One of the signs of relying on one’s own deeds is the loss of hope when a downfall occurs” (Ṣūfī Aphorisms p. 23).

Relinquishing One’s Own Life

Naturally derived from the latter two aspects is zuhd with regard to life itself in expectation of the true life in the Hereafter. This translates into a perpetual readiness for the virtual sixth pillar of Islam—jihad—not in dark nihilism, but with scrupulous observance of Divine and human rights as well as fortitude in life and gratitude to Allah. Its despised antonym is fear of death and the abandonment of the cause He promotes in many vibrant Divine entreaties and Prophetic warnings, among them the following:

  • O believers, what is amiss with you, that when it is said to you, “Go forth in the way of Allah,” you sink down heavily to the ground? Are you so content with this present life, rather than the world to come? Yet the enjoyment of this present life, compared with the world to come, is a little thing. (Q 9:38)
  • This life of the world is but a pastime and a game. Verily the home of the Hereafter—that is the Life, if they but knew. (Q 29:64)
  • Whoso desires the harvest of the Hereafter, We give him increase in its harvest. And whoso desires the harvest of the world, We give him thereof, and he has no portion in the Hereafter. (Q 42:20)
  • Rivalry in worldly increase distracts you until you visit the graves. Nay, but you will come to know! Again—nay, but you will come to know! (Q 102:1-4)

and the well-known hadith reported by the Prophet’s freedman Thawbān:

Very soon, nations shall summon one another against you from every horizon the way diners summon one another to their platter. We said, “Messenger of Allah, will it be because we are so few at that time?” He replied, “You will be very many at that time! But you will be froth like the froth of a stream: fear will be removed from the hearts of your enemy and feebleness will be placed in your hearts.” We said, “What feebleness?” He said: “Hatred of death”.  (Aḥmad, Bāqī Musnad al-Anṣār, wa-min ḥadīth Thawbān)

Hence the threadbare, starving Companions, when they heard the Prophet—upon him and them blessings and peace—declaim “O Allah, there is no life but the life of the hereafter, so forgive the Helpers and the Emigrants!” on the cold eve of the battle of the Trench, declaimed back, “We are those that pledged to Muḥammad jihad for as long as we live!” (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, ghazwat al-khandaq; Muslim, Jihad wal-siyar, ghazwat al-khandaq). This state of belief reflects the reality that the Prophet has a greater right over the believers than their own selves (Q 33:6) and is further elucidated by the following hadiths of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace:

One will taste the sweetness of faith when Allah and His Messenger are dearer to him than all else; when he loves others for no reason other than for the sake of Allah; and when he would loathe to return to disbelief after Allah has rescued him from it just as he would loathe to be cast into a blazing fire.  (Bukhārī, Īmān, man kariha an yaʿūda fī-l-kufr; Muslim, Īmān, bayān khiṣāl man ittaṣafa bihinn wajada ḥalāwat al-īmān)

None of you believes until I am dearer to him than his father, his son, and all people. (Bukhārī, Īmān, ḥubb al-Rasūl min al-īmān; Muslim, Īmān, wujūb maḥabbat Rasūl Allah.
         Other versions, also in the Ṣaḥīḥayn, add property and self.

Relinquishing All but Allah Most High

Every Muslim is ultimately tasked with zuhd from all other than Allah, the reminder of which begins with the adhān and iqāma uttered into his or her ear at birth and ends with the talqīn on the deathbed: to remember Allah with all one’s strength, heart and soul, love Him, cherish Him and obey Him. This loving remembrance is enjoined in many verses, notable examples being O you who believe, remember Allah with much remembrance (Q 33:41); And among people there are those who, instead of Allah, attach themselves to peers whom they love as much as they love Allah; but the believers have greater love for Allah (2:165); and Strive for Allah to the ut­most of your power (Q 22:78). Such remembrance connects one to Allah Who is the Real (Q 22:6), besides which all is but falsehood (Q 22:62, 31:30), play and idle distraction (Q 6:32; 47:36), gloss, mutual vanity and increase in property and sons (Q 57:20), delusion (Q 35:5; 57:20), and a mirage (Q 24:39), with the recurring simile of the world as verdure soon withered (Q 3:117; 10:24; 18:45-46; 57:20). Such remembrance comprises abundant worship, which was an obligation for the Prophet and his close Companions (Q 73:20), and which Allah Most High extols (Q 3:191; 4:103; 32:16). It includes the obligation to love Allah Most High and the Prophet, as already shown, more than oneself, one’s family, one’s commerce, or the trappings of wealth, even though it be against yourselves or parents or kindred, whether a rich man or a poor man (Q 4:135). Al-Bayḍāwī sums up the above meanings in his explanation of the two Divine Names al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm:

He specifically chose to be named by these Names so that the knowing might realize that the one truly deserving to be sought for help in all matters is He Who is truly worshipped, Who is the grantor of all favors, both the immediate and the deferred, both the sublime and the humble, turning with every last shred of his being (bi-sharāʾirih) to the Divine Presence and firmly grasping the rope of success, engrossing his inward being with His remembrance and taking Him as his sufficiency without any other.  (Tafsīr, sub Q 1:1)

The counter-implication of these two Names is the over-arching human attribute of servanthood to Allah (ʿubūdiyya) as the highest possible human state. This level of ʿabd Allah is embodied in the person of their foremost model, the Prophet himself—upon him blessings and peace—thus named or rather extolled in several great verses (Q 2:23; 8:41; 18:1; 25:1; 39:36; 53:10; 57:9) and as expressed in the following hadith:

An angel descended as Jibrīl was sitting with the Prophet—upon all of them blessings and peace. Jibrīl said: “This angel has never descended to earth before this moment since it was first created.” The angel said: “O Muḥammad, your Lord has told me to ask you: ‘Shall I make you a king, or a servant and Messenger?’” Jibrīl tapped his foot to signify: “Humble your­self before your Lord, O Muḥammad!” The Prophet said: “Rather a servant and Messenger!”  (Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, musnad Abī Hurayra, with a sound chain according to Haythamī, Majmaʿ 9:18-19)

Al-Būṣīrī (608-695/ca.1211-1295) recapitulated some of the above aspects of the Prophetic zuhd in the following celebrated passage of his “Poem of the Mantle:”

I’ve wronged the example of him who

revived the black nights, praying until his

feet complained of painful swellings.

Over his belly and soft skin he

placed a stone, tightening a belt over it

to blunt the hunger-pangs.

High mountains sought to tempt him by

turning to gold, but he showed them

lofty height upon height!

His extreme need emphasized his zuhd.

Verily need never prevails over the infallible.

And how could need tempt him to

worldliness when but for him the world

would not have been brought from the void?   (Burda v. 29-33)

The last line dramatically highlights the paradoxical fact that the Prophet, who is the paragon and liegelord of creatures stands in no need of the world, but only of Allah Most High. Ibn Taymiyya (661-728/1263-1328) addressed this fact in glowing terms in one of his fatwas devoted to Sufism:

Muḥammad—upon him blessings and peace—is the Chief of the Children of Ādam, the Best of Creation, the noblest of them in the sight of Allah Most High. This is why some have said that “Allah created the universe be­cause of him,” or that “Were it not for him, He would have nei­ther created a Throne, nor a Footstool, nor a heaven, earth, sun or moon.” This is not a hadith on the authority of the Pro­phet, but it may be explained from a correct perspective...

Since the best of the righteous of the children of Ādam is Muḥam­mad, creating him was a desirable end of deep-seated pur­poseful wisdom, more than for anyone else, and hence the com­ple­tion of creation and the fulfillment of perfection was at­tained with Muḥammad...

Since Man is the seal and last of all creation and its microcosm, and since the Best of Men is thus the Best of all creation absolutely, then Muḥammad, being the Pupil of the Eye, the Axis of the Mill, and the Distributor to the Collective, is, as it were, the Ulti­mate Purpose among all the purposes of creation. Hence it cannot be denied if one says that “On his account was all of this created,” or that “Were it not for him, all this would not have been created.”  (Majmūʿ al-fatāwā 11:57-58)

Early Zuhd Literature

Among the works on zuhd that came to prominence in the first five centuries are:

  • al-Zuhd of Ibn al-Mubārak al-Marwazī (d. 181/797);
  • al-Zuhd of Asad b. Mūsā, known as Asad al-Sunna (132-212/ca.750-827), largely a book of eschatology;
  • al-Zuhd of Hannād b. al-Sarī al-Kūfī (152-243/769-ca.857), a student of Ibn al-Mubārak;
  • al-Zuhd of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, a student of Hannād;
  • al-Zuhd of Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (195-277/ca.811-ca.890) in which he narrates the reaction of Abū al-Dardāʾ to a group of bereaved mourners at a burial: “Pity them—tomorrow’s dead weeping over today’s dead” (p. 38-39 §9);
  • al-Zuhd of Abū Dāwūd (d. 275/ca.888), a student of Aḥmad;
  • al-Zuhd of Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (208-281/823-894);
  • al-Zuhd of Ibn Abī ʿĀṣim (206-287/ca.821-900) the Sufi Ẓāhirī, a student of Abū Bakr Ibn Abī Shayba and colleague of al-Bukhārī;
  • al-Zuhd wal-maqālāt wa-ṣifat al-zāhidīn of Ibn al-Aʿrābī (d. 340/ca.951), a student of Abū Dāwūd;
  • al-Zuhd al-kabīr of al-Bayhaqī (384-458/994-1066);
  • Mudāwāt al-nufūs wa-tahdhīb al-akhlāq wal-zuhd fī-l-radhāʾil of Ibn Ḥazm (384/994-456/1063), thought to be his last work;
  • al-Zuhd wal-raqāʾiq of al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī (392-463/1002-1071), the teacher of Abū Nuʿaym;
  • al-Zuhd, attributed to al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī but in actuality a modern compilation of the reports narrated from al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī in the above and other works.

Also among the notable works on this topic are al-Qushayrī’s chapter on zuhd in his famous Risāla, al-Hujwīrī’s (d. 465?/1072?) pages on poverty and its relationship to the spiritual path (taṣawwuf) in the first few chapters of his Kashf al-maḥjūb, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s (471-544/ca.1078-1149) chapter on the zuhd of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—in his Shifāʾ, and al-Qurṭubī’s Qamʿ al-ḥirṣ bil-zuhd wal-qanāʿa wa-radd dhull al-suʾāl bil-kutbi wal-shafāʿa (“The subduing of greed through abstinence and contentment and the repelling of the humiliation of beggary through handwritten requests and intercession”).

Al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) has given two epitomes of the topic of zuhd in his Riyāḍ al-ṣāliḥīn and Bustān al-ʿārifīn. The former comprises a series of chapters entitled “The Excellence of Zuhd in the World and the Insistence on Making Do with Little of its Resources, and the Excellence of Poverty”; “The Excellence of Hunger and Coarse Living”; and “Being Content with Little, Living Abstinently, and Moderation.” These chapters begin by citing some of the verses mentioned in this article. In Bustān al-ʿārifīn, al-Nawawī expresses his unbounded admiration for the early Sufis who in his opinion were the best embodiment of the Prophetic zuhd both in speech and deeds, as illustrated by this passage on Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī (d. 261-875):

Abū Yazīd—Allah be well-pleased with him—said: “I was for twelve years the blacksmith of my ego (ḥaddād nafsī), then for five years I became the mirror of my heart, then for a year I looked at what lay between the two of them and saw around me a noticeable belt (the vestimentary sign of a non-Muslim subject of the Islamic state). I strove to cut it for twelve years, then looked again and saw around me a hidden belt. I strove to cut it for five years, leaving no stone unturned. Then I reached a state of spiritual unveil­ing (kushifa lī) and looked at creation and saw that they were all dead. So I re­cited the funeral prayer over them.”

I say: The fact that hypocrisy should be as elusive as this to the peer­less Master in this path (i.e., taṣawwuf) is enough to show how deeply hidden it lies. His phrase: “I saw them dead” is the apex of worth and beauty, and seldom do words other than those of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—combine such a wealth of mean­ings.  (Bustān al-ʿārifīn p. 53-54)

Among other works, Ibn al-Jawzī’s (509 or 510-597/1115 or 1116-1201) monographs on al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728) and early Sufis such as Ibrāhīm b. Adham (d. 161/777), Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 185/801), al-Fuḍayl b. ʿIyāḍ (d. 187/803), and Maʿrūf al-Karkhī (d. 200/815), as well as several large Sufi biographical dictionaries such as al-Sulamī’s (325-412/937-ca.1021) Ṭabaqāt al-ṣūfiyya and Dhikr al-niswat al-mutaʿabbidāt, Abū Nuʿaym’s (336-430/ca.948-1039) Ḥilya, its adaptation in Ibn al-Jawzī’s Ṣifat al-ṣafwa, ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī’s (d. 481/1088) Ṭabaqāt al-ṣūfiyya in Persian, Ibn al-Mulaqqin’s (d. 804/ca.1402) Ṭabaqāt al-awliyāʾ, and al-Munāwī’s (d. 871/ca.1467) massive Ṭabaqāt al-ṣūfiyya are all replete with the ascetic acts and sayings of the early Muslims who strove with all their might to emulate the zuhd of him whose “character was the Qurʾān” as described by ʿĀʾisha—Allah be well-pleased with her (Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-Anṣār, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq; a sound chain of narrators).


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See also

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