Examples from the Companions’ Ascetic Lives

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What are the examples from the ascetic lives of the companions?

In addition to the sayings and actions of the Prophet (pbuh) about his view on this world and the Hereafter, the reports from the lives of his distinguished companions are also significant. For instance, even though he was one of the richest men in Quraish, the Prophet’s best friend, Abu Bakr, spent all his wealth for the sake of Allah and lived a very humble life. Especially in the early and the most distressed days of Islam he bought Muslim slaves, who were being oppressed, and saved them from oppression by freeing them. His wealth did not hinder his asceticism; on the contrary by properly spending his wealth, he showed us how a pious life can be observed in wealth.

The following report about Abu Bakr (r.a.) clearly shows from what perspective he was looking at this world from and how much he was affected by the Prophet (pbuh). One day he was offered honey sherbet to drink. When he was taking the glass to his mouth, he began to cry. When he was asked the reason for his tears, he replied:

“Once I was with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Just then I saw that he was trying to send away something saying: “get away from me, get away from me.” But I could not see anything. When I asked what it was, the Prophet (pbuh) said:

“I was shown the world with its entire wealth. I told it to stay away from me. And it went away, but it said: “By Allah even if you escape from me, those who will come after you will not be able to escape.”” Abu Bakr (r.a.) continued his words saying: “I got scared of getting too attached to this world and that is why I began to cry.” (Abu Nuaym, I, 30-31)

Umar (r.a.) is also known for his extreme ascetic life. It is reported that during the years of his caliphate, Umar (r.a) gave sermons in a shirt which was patched in twelve different places. When his daughter Hafsa proposed that he wear some soft clothes and eat nice food, he talked to her about the Prophet’s difficulties about sustenance and said:

“By Allah! If I can manage, I will follow the Messenger of Allah and Abu Bakr and live as they lived. Maybe in this way I, too, can reach the wonderful place they have reached in the Hereafter.” (Ibn Hanbal, Zuhd, p. 125) As Yunuf Emre once said, “fleeing from this world is the most important act of worship.”

Even though it is possible to find traces of the Prophet’s ascetic life in all the companions, Abu Dhar (r.a.) is certainly one to come to mind; because Allah’s Messenger praised him saying: “whoever wants to see someone with little inclination to this world should look at Abu Dhar.” (Ibn Hanbal, Zuhd, p. 147) He became the representative of asceticism and piety until the end of his life. Even though 4000 dinar stipend was assigned for Abu Dhar Ghifari (r.a.), he used very little of this amount and donated the rest to the needy. (Abu Nuaym, I, 163) This companion, who said that in the Hereafter the questioning of the one who has two dirhams will be heavier than the one who has only one dirham. He once sent back three hundred dinars, which was sent by the governor of Damascus saying: “Could not he find anybody else needier than me? I have a place to live, some sheep to get benefit, and a servant who helps in my work. I fear to have more than these.” (Ibn Hanbal, Zuhd, p. 147)

From the contents of the verses and sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) or from the practice in this regard, it should not be concluded that this world and its blessings are things to be decried in an absolute sense. The practice and texts can be better understood under the light of other verses and traditions. Otherwise making mistakes is inevitable. There is a neutral approach towards this world in about sixty verses in the Qur’an; and in about fifty verses there is a negative approach; and in seven verses there is a positive approach. While this world is decried in some Qur’anic verses, what is condemned in these verses is not the world in its cosmic essence but the view of life which neglects the Hereafter. In the Qur’an the world appears in the Qur’an as a religious and ethical term, and the term “ard or earth” is used for its geographical meaning. According to the Qur’an, busying oneself with worldly life which does not hinder deeds for the Hereafter is not just something lawful but also brings happiness.

Since this world is the first station on the way to the Hereafter, a balance needs to be established between them. When people get ready for the Hereafter, they should also know how to benefit from the blessings of this world as it is pointed out in the verse: “…and neglect not thy portion of the world…” (al-Qasas 28; 77). Here, the important issue is not to get attached to the pleasures of this world and forget the Hereafter, but rather to use this world as a means for the Hereafter without letting it into the hearts. Rumi (q.s.) elegantly explains how the blessings of this world should be used:

“Water in the boat is the ruin of the boat, but water underneath the boat is a support. … A bagpipe with a closed lid floated on the deep and endless water because it was filled with air. When the wind of poverty is within anyone, he rests at peace on the surface of the water of the world; although the whole of this world is his kingdom, in the eye of his heart the kingdom is nothing. Therefore fill your heart with the air of loftiness of “min ladun,”[1] and fill and seal the mouth of your heart.” (Mathnawi, I, verses: 985-990)

On the other hand, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered that those who turn completely away from this world and try to live like priests to maintain a balanced life as follows: “Your Lord has a right on you, your soul has a right on you, and your family has a right on you; so you should give the rights of all those who has a right on you.” (Bukhari, Sawm, 51, 55) He also said that even though he was the most God-fearing believer, he refused priesthood in Islam. He did not even approve abandoning this world completely and he encouraged to always be in service by saying: “Priesthood in Islam is to strive for the sake of Allah.” (Ibn Hanbal, III, 266) In addition, the Prophet’s (pbuh) advice to Ka’b b. Malik to: “Keep some of your wealth for yourself, which is better for you” and to Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas as follows: “It is better for you to leave your inheritors wealthy than to leave them poor begging from others.” (Bukhari, Wasaya, 2) are both the result of the same reason.

We also need to thoroughly understand the wisdom behind the reason to why the Prophet chose a simple life and even a life in poverty. First of all, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) opted for poverty in his personal life and spent generously everything he owned for the sake of his mission and for the welfare of his ummah. Moreover, his ascetic life has become an example for both the rich and the poor members of Muslim society. The affluent ones can learn how to follow an ascetic life in wealth from him; while the needy ones learn how to be patient against hardships and privation. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) warned his followers by saying, “the poverty causing forgetfulness along with depraving richness” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 3) and “Being wealthy does not mean, having a great amount of property, but it is self-contentment” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 15). Furthermore, in his prayers he would say, “I take refuge in Allah from the mischief of wealth and poverty” which show us that wealth and poverty are not good or bad in an absolute sense. In other words, these two facts should be assessed in relation to the person’s situation. Throughout Islamic history, both the patient poor and the grateful rich have been praised and they have become the theme of many exemplary anecdotes.

[1] Min Ladun is a Qur’anic phrase used for knowledge given by Allah (al-Kahf 18; 65)

Source: An Excellent Exemplar, Osman Nuri Topbaş,  Erkam Publications

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