ArticlesNahjul Balagha

Part V – Moral Lectures and Aphorisms

Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balaghah

Inimitable Moral Teaching: 

Moral and spiritual teachings constitute the greater part of the Nahj al-balaghah making up almost half of the book. More than anything else the fame of the Nahj al-balaghah is due to the sermons, exhortations, and aphorisms on ethical and moral subjects.

Aside from the moral teachings of the Quran and a number of the sermons and sayings of the Holy Prophet (‘s), which are to be considered the source and antecedent of the Nahj al-balaghah, the teachings of the Nahj al-balaghah are without a match in the Arabic and Persian languages. For more than a thousand years these sermons have played an influential role serving as a matchless source of inspiration, and yet retained their original power to quicken the heart, to sublimate emotions, and to bring tears to the eyes. It seems that as long as there remains any trace of humanity in the world, these sermons shall continue to exercise their original power and influence.

A Comparison: 

The literature of Arabic and Persian is replete with works containing spiritual and moral teachings of highest sublimity and elegance though mainly in the form of poetry. There is, for example, the famous qasidah by Abu al-Fath al-Busti (360-400/971-1010), which begins with the verse:

Worldly profit and achievement is loss,

And the gain unmarked by the seal of pure goodness.

There is also the elegiacal qasidah of Abu al-Hasan al-Tihami, which he wrote on the early death of his youthful son. It begins with these lines:

The law of fate governs the destiny of creation,

And this world is not a place to settle in.

Every one of these works is an everlasting masterpiece of its kind and shines like a star on the horizons of the Arabic literature of Islamic era, never to lose its freshness and charm.

In Persian, the Gulistan and the Bustan of Sa’di and his qasaid serve as an unusually attractive and effective means of moral advice and are masterpieces of their own kind. To give some examples, there are those famous verses of the Gulistan which start with the verse:

Every breath is a fraction of life gone,

And when I see, not much has remained of it.

Or in his qasa’id where he says:

O people, the world is not a place for leisure and repose;

To the wise man, the world is not worth the effort of acquiring it.

Or at another place where he says:

The world on water and life on wind do rest;

Salutes to the brave who do not tie their hearts to them.

And where he says:

Time and fortune are subject to endless change;

The wise man doesn’t attach his heart to the world.

Sa’di’s Bustan is full of profound and glowing spiritual advices, and, perhaps, is at its best in the ninth chapter on “Penitence and the Right Way“. The same is true of some portions of the Mathnawi of Rumi and works of all other Persian poets, from whom we shall not further quote any examples.

In Islamic literature, including the Arabic and the Persian, there exist excellent examples of spiritual counsels and aphorisms. This Islamic literary genre is not confined to these two languages, but is also found in Turkish, Urdu, and other languages, and a characteristic spirit pervades all of them. Anyone familiar with the Holy Quran, the sayings of the Holy Prophet (‘s), Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali (‘a), the other Imams (‘a), and Muslim saints of the first rank, can observe a characteristic spirit pervading all Persian literature containing spiritual counsel, which represents the spirit of Islam embodied in the Persian language and embellished with its charm and sweetness.

If an expert or a group of experts in Arabic and Persian literature acquainted with the works in all other languages that reflect the spirit of Islam, were to collect the masterpieces in the field of spiritual counsel, the extraordinary richness and maturity of the Islamic culture in lhis field will be revealed.

It is strange that so far as the works on spiritual counsel are concerned the Persian genius has mostly expressed itself in poetry; there is no such work of eminence in prose. All that exists of it in prose is in the form of short sayings, like the prose writings of the Gulistan-a part of which consists of spiritual counsels and is in itself a masterpiece-or the sayings ascribed to Khwajah ‘Abd Allah al-‘Ansari.

Of course, my own knowledge is inadequate, but as far as I know there does not exist in Persian prose any remarkable work, except for short sayings-not even a passage which is long enough to be counted as a short discourse, especially a discourse which was originally delivered extempore and later collected and recorded in writing.

There are discourses which have been related from Rumi or Sa’di, meant as oral moral advice to their followers; they also by no means possess the brilliance and charm of the poetic works of those masters, and definitely are not worth considering for a comparison with the discourses of the Nahj al-balaghah.

The same can be said about the writings which have reached us in the form of a treatise or letter, such as the Nasihat al-muluk by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, the Taziyaneh-ye suluk by Ahmad al-Ghazali, the latter being an elaborate epistle addressed to his follower and pupil ‘Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadan

Spiritual Counsel and Wisdom: 

Moral counsel, according to the Quran, is one of the three ways of invitation towards God (hikmah, maw’izah, al jidal al-hasan, i.e. wisdom, good admonition, and honourable debate, as mentioned in 16: 125).

The difference between hikmah (wisdom, philosophy) and maw’izah (spiritual and moral advice and admonition) lies in this that hikmah is for instruction and imparting knowledge, while maw’izah is meant for reminding. Hikmah is struggle against ignorance and maw’izah is struggle against negligence and indifference. Hikmah deals with the intellect and maw’izah appeals to the heart. Hikmah educates, while maw’izah prepares the intellect for employment of its reserves. Hikmah is a lamp and maw’izah is an eye-opener. Hikmah is for ratiocination, while maw’izah is for self-awakening. Hikmah is the language of the intellect, while maw’izah is the message for the spirit. Accordingly, the personality of the speaker plays an essential role in maw’izah, which is not the case with hikmah. In hikmah, two minds communicate in an impersonal manner But in maw’izah the situation is like the passage of an electric charge that flows from the speaker, who is at a higher potential, to the listener.

For this reason, it has been said of maw’izah that: 

If it comes forth from the soul, then it necessarily alights upon the heart.

Otherwise it does not go beyond the listener’s ears. It is about the quality of maw’izah that it is said:

The speeeh which originates from the heart enters another heart, and the words which originate from the tongue do not go beyond the ears.

It is true that the words that come from the heart, being the message of the soul, invade other hearts; but if they do not convey the message of the soul, are no more than empty literary devices, which do not go beyond the listener’s ear-drum.

Maw’izah and Khitabah (Exhortation and Oratory): 

Maw’izah also differs from khitabah (oratory, rhetoric). Although oratory also deals with emotions, but it seeks to stir and agitate them. Maw’izah on the other hand is intended to pacify emotions and it seeks to bring them under control. Oratory is effective when emotions are inert and stagnant; maw’izah is required when lusts and passions become unmanageable. Oratory stirs the passion for power and glory, the feelings of honour, heroism, chivalry, manliness, patriotism, nobility, righteousness, virtue, and service; it is followed by movement and excitement. But maw’izah checks inappropriate passion and excitement. Rhetoric and oratory snatch control from the hands of calculating reason, handing it over to tempestuous passions. But maw’izah appeases the tempests of passions and prepares the ground for calculation and foresight. Oratory draws one to the outside, and maw’izah makes him turn to his inner self.

Rhetoric and counsel are both necessary and essential, and the Nahj al-balaghah makes use of both of them. The main thing is to judge the right time for the use of each of them. The impassioned speeches of Amir al-Mu’minin (‘a) were delivered at a time when it was necessary to stir up passions and to build up a tempest to destroy an unjust and oppressive structure, such as at the time of the Battle of Siffin when ‘Ali (‘a) delivered a fiery speech before the engagement with Mu’awiyah’s forces. Mu’awiyah’s forces, arriving ahead of ‘Ali’s army, had taken control of the river bank and stopped the supply of water to ‘Ali’s camp. At first ‘Ali (‘a) strived to abstain from resorting to force, desiring the problem to be solved through negotiation. But Mu’awiyah, who had some other designs, considering occupation of the river bank a victory for himself, refused every offer of negotiation. When things became difficult for ‘Ali’s men, it was time when he should stir the emotions of his soldiers through a fiery speech, creating a tempest that would rout the enemy. This is how ‘Ali (‘a) addressed his companions:

They are eager that you should make them taste the flavour of battle. So you have two alternatives before you: either submit to disgrace and ignominy, or quench your swords in their blood and appease your thirst with water. It is’ death to survive through defeat and true life is to die for the sake of victory. Muawiyah is leading a handful of deluded insurgents and has deceived them by keeping them in the dark about the truth, with the result that their throats are the targets of your deadly arrows. [1]

These words flared their emotions, provoked their sense of honour, and made the blood surge in their veins. It was not yet sunset when ‘Ali’s companions seized the river bank and threw back Mu’awiyah’s forces.

However, ‘Ali’s mawaiz were delivered in different conditions. During the days of the first three caliphs, and particularly during ‘Uthman’s rule, immeasurable amounts of wealth and booty won through consecutive victories flowed into Muslim hands. Due to the absence of any careful programmes for correct utilization of that wealth, particularly due to the aristocratic, or rather tribal, rule during the reign of ‘Uthman, moral corruption, worldliness, and love of comfort and luxury found their way into the Muslim society. Tribal rivalries were revived, and racial prejudice between Arabs and non-Arabs was added to it. In that clamour for worldliness and mounting prejudices, rivalries, and greed for greater share of the war booty, the only cry of protest charged with spiritual exhortation was that of ‘Ali (‘a).

God willing, we shall discuss in coming chapters the various themes dealt with in ‘Ali’s mawa’iz, such as taqwa (God-fearing), worldliness, zuhd (abstinence), desires, the dread of death, the dreads of the Day of Judgement, the need to take lesson from the history of past nations and peoples, etc.

The Nahj al-balaghah’s Recurring Themes: 

Out of the 241 fragments collected under the title ‘Khutab‘ by al-Sayyid al-Radi (though not all of them are Khutab or sermons) about 86 can be classed as mawa’iz or at least contain a series of spiritual advices. Some of them, however, are elaborate and lengthy, like the khutbah 176, which opens with the sentence (Avail of the Divine expositions), the khutbah named ‘al-Qasi’ah; (which is the longest of the sermons of the Nahj al-balaghah), and the khutbah 93 (called khutbat al-muttaqin, the ‘Sermon of the Pious’).

Out of some seventy-nine passages that are classed as ‘kutub‘ letters, (which not all of them are) about twenty-five, either completely or partially, consist of spiritual and moral teachings. Some of them are quite lengthy and elaborate-like letter 31, which constitutes ‘Ali’s advice to his son al-Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba (‘a), and the lengthiest of all, except the famous directive sent to Malik al-‘Ashtar. Another one is letter 45, the well-known epistle of ‘Ali (‘a) to Uthman ibn Hunayf, his governor in Basrah.

The Themes in Spiritual Advices: 

Various themes are found in the spiritual advices of the Nahj al-balaghah: taqwa (God-fearing); tawakkul (trust in God); sabr (patience, Fortitude); zuhd (abstinence); the renunciation of worldly pleasures and luxuries, the renunciation of inordinate desires and far-fetched hopes; the condemnation of injustice and prejudice, emphasis on mercy, love, helping of the oppressed and sympathy toward the weak; emphasis on the qualities of fortitude, courage, and strength; emphasis on unity and solidarity and condemnation of disunity; the invitation to take lesson from history; the invitation to thought, meditation, remembrance, and self-criticism; the reminders about the brevity of life and the swiftness of its pace; the remembrance of death; the hardships of death-throes; experiences of the life after death; the reminders of the dreadful events of the Day of Judgement, and so on. These are some of the frequent themes of the spiritual advices of the Nahj al-balaghah.

Ali’s Logic: 

In order to understand this aspect of the Nahj al-balaghah, or, in other words, to understand ‘Ali (‘a) when he speaks as a moral and spiritual counsellor and to understand his didactic outlook, so as to draw benefit from that everflowing source, it is not enough to enumerate the various themes and topics dealt with by ‘Ali (‘a) in his discourses. It is not sufficient merely to remark that ‘Ali (‘a) has spoken about taqwa, tawakkul or zuhd; rather, we must see what significance did he attribute to these words. We must uncover his didactic philosophy regarding the development of the human character and his perception of the human aspiration for piety, purity, freedom, and deliverance from spiritual servitude and thraldom. As we know, these are words employed by all-in particular those who are wont to play the role of a moralist; but all individuals do not mean the same kind of things by these terms. Sometimes, the meanings one person attributes to these words are quite contrary to those meant by another, and naturally lead to conclusions which are quite opposite.

Consequently, it is essential to elaborate somewhat the specific meanings of these terms in ‘Ali’s vocabulary, starting with taqwa.


Taqwa is one of the most frequent motifs of the Nahj al-balaghah. In fact it would be hard to find another book which emphasizes this spiritual term to the extent of this book. Even in the Nahj al-balaghah, no other term or concept receives so much attention and stress as taqwa. What is taqwa?

Often it is thought that taqwa means piety and abstinence and so implies a negative attitude. In other words, it is maintained that the greater the amount of abstinence, withdrawal, and self-denial, the more perfect is one’s taqwa. According to this interpretation, taqwa is a concept divorced from active life; secondly it is a negative attitude; thirdly, it means that the more severely this negative attitude is exercised, the greater one’s taqwa would be. Accordingly, the sanctimonious professors of taqwa, in order to avoid its being tainted and to protect it from any blemish, withdraw from the bustle of life, keeping themselves away from involvement in any matter or affair of the world.

Undeniably, abstinence and caution exercised with discretion is an essential principle of wholesome living. For, in order to lead a healthy life, man is forced to negate and affirm, deny and posit, renounce and accept, avoid and welcome different things. It is through denial and negation that the positive in life can be realized. It is through renunciation and avoidance that concentration is given to action.

The principle of tawhid contained in the dictum la ilaha illa Allah is at the same time a negation as well as an affirmation. Without negation of everything other than God it is not possible to arrive at tawhid. That is why rebellion and surrender, kufr (unbelief) and iman (belief), go together; that is, every surrender requires a rebellion and every faith (iman) calls for a denial and rejection (kufr), and every affirmation implies a negation. The Quran says:

So whoever disbelieves in taghut and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm bond …. (2:256)

However, firstly, every denial, negation, rejection, and rebellion operates between the limits of two opposites; the negation of one thing implies movement towards its opposite; the rejection of the one marks the beginning of the acceptance of the other. Accordingly, every healthy denial and rejection has both a direction and a goal, and is confined within certain definite limits. Therefore, a blind practice and purposeless attitude, which has neither direction nor a goal, nor is confined within any limits, is neither defensible nor of any spiritual worth.

Secondly, the meaning of taqwa in the Nahj al-balaghah is not synonymous with that of ‘abstinence’, even in its logically accepted sense discussed above. Taqwa, on the other hand, according to the Nahj al-balaghah, is a spiritual faculty which appears as a result of continued exercise and practice. The healthy and rational forms of abstinence are, firstly, the preparatory causes for the emergence of that spiritual faculty; secondly, they are also its effects and outcome.

This faculty strengthens and vitalizes the soul, giving it a kind of immunity. A person who is devoid of this faculty, if he wants to keep himself free from sins, it is unavoidable for him to keep away from the causes of sin. Since society is never without these causes, inevitably he has to go into seclusion and isolate himself. It follows from this argument that one should either remain pious by isolating himself from one’s environment, or he should enter society and bid farewell to taqwa. Moreover, according to this logic, the more isolated and secluded a person’s life is and the more he abstains from mixing with other people, the greater is his piety and taqwa in the eyes of the common people.

However, if the faculty of taqwa is cultivated inside a person’s soul, it is no longer necessary for him to seclude himself from his environment. He can keep himself clean and uncorrupted without severing his relations with society.

The former kind of persons are like those who take refuge in mountains for fear of some plague or epidemic. The second kind resemble those who acquire immunity and resistance through vaccination and so do not deem it necessary to leave the city and avoid contact with their townsfolk. On the other hand, they hasten to the aid of the suffering sick in order to save them. Sa’di is alluding to the first kind of pious in his Gulistan, when he says:

Saw I a sage in the mountains,

Happy in a cave, far from the world’s tide.

Said I, “Why not to the city return,

And lighten your heart of this burden?”

He said, “The city abounds in tempting beauties,

And even elephants slip where mud is thick.”

The Nahj al-balaghah speaks of taqwa as a spiritual faculty acquired through exercise and assiduity, which on its emergence produces certain characteristic effects, one of which is the ability to abstain from sins with ease.

I guarantee the truth of my words and I am responsible for what I say. If similar events and experiences of the past serve as a lesson for a person, then taqwa prevents him from plunging recklessly into doubts … [2]

Beware that sins are like unruly horses whose reins have been taken way and which plunge with their riders into hell-fire. But taqwa is like a trained steed whose reins are in the hands of its rider and enters with its rider into Paradise. [3]

In this sermon taqwa is described as a spiritual condition which results in control and command over one’s self. It explains that the result of subjugation to desires and lusts and being devoid of taqwa degrades one’s personality making it vulnerable to the cravings of the carnal self. In such a state, man is like a helpless rider without any power and control, whom his mount takes wherever it desires. The essence of taqwa lies in possessing a spiritual personality endowed with will-power, and possessing mastery over the domain of one’s self. A man with taqwa is like an expert horseman riding a well-trained horse and who with complete mastery and control drives his tractable steed in the direction of his choice.

Certainly the taqwa of God assists His awliya (friends) in abstaining from unlawful deeds and instils His fear into their hearts. As a result, their nights are passed in wakefulness and their days in thirst [on account of fasting].[4]

Here ‘Ali (‘a) makes it clear that taqwa is something which automatically leads to abstention from unlawful actions and to the fear of God, which are its necessary effects. Therefore, according to this view, taqwa is neither itself abstinence nor fear of God; rather, it is a sacred spiritual faculty of which these two are only consequences:

For indeed, today taqwa is a shield and a safeguard, and tomorrow (i.e. in the Hereafter) it shall be the path to Paradise. [5]

In khutbah 157, taqwa is compared to an invincible fortress built on heights which the enemy has no power to infiltrate. Throughout, the emphasis of the Imam (‘a) lies on the spiritual and psychological aspect of taqwa and its effects upon human spirit involving the emergence of a dislike for sin and corruption and an inclination towards piety, purity, and virtue.

Further illustrations of this view can be cited from the Nahj al-balaghah, but it seems that the above quotations are sufficient.

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.

Sympathy and Kindness: 

The sympathy and the willingness to share the suffering of the needy and the deprived is another ingredient of zuhd. When the destitute witness the luxuries and comforts of the richer classes, their anguish is multiplied. To the hardships of poverty and destitution is added the stinging feeling of deprivation and backwardness in relation to others.

Man, by nature, cannot tolerate to remain a silent spectator while others who have no merit over him eat, drink, enjoy and relish freely at the cost of his deprivation. When society is divided into haves and have-nots, the man of God considers himself responsible. In the first place, as Amir al-Mu’minin (‘a) says, he should strive to change the situation which permits the gluttony of the rich oppressor and the hunger of the oppressed, in accordance with the covenant of God with the learned men of the Ummah.[11] In the second place, he strives to ameliorate the state of affairs through altruism and self-sacrifice, by sharing whatever he possesses with the needy and the deprived. But when he sees that the situation has deteriorated beyond reparation and it is practically impossible to alleviate the misery of the poor through sympathy, he practically shares their deprivation and tries to soothe their wounded hearts by adopting a life-style similar to that of the poor.

Sympathy with others and sharing their suffering is of essential importance especially in the case of the leaders of the Ummah on whom all eyes are fixed. ‘Ali (‘a), more than at any other time, lived a severely ascetic life during the days of his caliphate. He used to say:

Indeed God has made it obligatory for just leaders that they should maintain themselves at the level of the poor class so that they do not despair of their distress.[12]

Should I be content with being called ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’ while refusing to share the adversities of the times with the people? Or should I be an example to them in the distress of life?[13]

In the same letter (to ‘Uthman ibn Hunayf) he says:

It is absolutely out of question that my desires should overpower me and my greed should lead me to relish choicest foods while in the Hijaz and Yamamah there may be some people who despair of even a single loaf of bread and who do not get a full meal. Shall I lie with a satiated belly while around me are those whose stomachs are hungry and whose livers are burning? [14]

At the same time, ‘Ali (‘a) would reproach anyone else for practising the same kind of asceticism in life. When faced with their objection as to why he himself practised it,

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