What is the prophet muhammads altruism? What does islam say about selflessness?
“By no means shall you attain righteousness unless you give (freely) of that which you love; and whatever you give, of a truth Allah knows it well.” (Al-i Imran 3; 92)
Altruism (i’thar) means to prefer others over oneself and think about others’ needs before his/her own needs even when he/she is in need and will have to experience difficulty.
Altruism is the general characteristic of generous and kind people. Best manifestation of altruism can be seen in the life of the Messenger of Allah and then in the lives of his companions. This is stated in some verse and in the traditions of the Prophet (pbuh). In this respect, Allah the Almighty says in the Qur’an:
“But those who had homes in Medina before them and had adopted the Faith show their affection to such as came to them for refuge, and entertain no desire in their hearts for things given to the latter, but give them preference over themselves, even though poverty was their own lot. And those saved from the covetousness of their own souls, they are the ones that achieve prosperity.” (al-Hashr 59; 9)
The reason for the revelation of this verse was to express the extraordinary generosity and altruism of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions. One incident happened as follows:
“Abu Huraira (r.a.) reported that a man came to Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and said:
“I am hungry” and asked that the Prophet (pbuh) entertain him as a guest, but the Prophet had nothing with which he could feed him. Then Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) asked one of his wives for something to eat:
“By the One Who sent you as a messenger, there is nothing but water.” Then he requested food from his other wife. She said the same. After Allah’s Messenger got the same response from all of his wives, he asked his companions if there was any person who would entertain him as a guest that night. A person from the Ansar named Abu Talha stood up and took the man to his house. When he arrived at his house, he said to his wife:
“Is there anything at home to serve our guest?” She said:
“No only enough subsistence for our children.” He said:
“Distract their attention with something, and when the guest enters extinguish the lamp and so we can give him the impression that we are eating.”
So they sat down and the guest had his meal. And they went to their beds hungry. When it was morning Abu Talha (r.a.) went to Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) who said:
“Allah was well pleased with what you both did for your guest this night.” (Bukhari, Tafsir, 59/6; Muslim, Ashribah, 172-173)
The Prophet’s willingness to serve the poor man and his search for food from his wives manifests how generous and self-sacrificing he was. The shortage of food in the Prophet’s wives’ homes is another exemplary point in this tradition. Maybe that same day the blessed mothers of believers, who would always give something when they were asked to, even if it were a single date fruit, had given their daily sustenance to somebody already.
Another reason for the revelation of this verse is reported as follows:
Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) sent a lamb’s head to one of his companions. The companion thought that “my brother so and so is poorer and in more need that I am” and sent the Prophet’s gift to his Muslim brother. Then he sent the gift to another companion and this continued on. Hence, the Prophet’s gift circulated around seven houses and eventually it ended up at the first companion’s house. Then the above mentioned verse was revealed. (Hakim, II, 256)
A third reason for the revelation of this verse is the following incident:
“Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) distributed the war booty taken from Bani Nadir among the Muhajirun. He did not give anything to the Ansar except three of them. Then he addressed to the Ansar:
“If you would like, you may leave all of what you gave to the Muhajirun before and get a share from the war booty. Or if you would like, you may ask for the things that you gave to them and get nothing from the booty.” Upon this the Ansar (may Allah be pleased with them all) gave the following magnificent response:
“We both are giving them from our property and leaving everything and do not want to be partners with them in sharing the war booty. (Razi, XXIX, 250; Qurtubi, XVIII, 25)
Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) praised Ansar’s characteristic as follows:
“As I see, your number increases when you are invited to join a battle or to help the needy; and it decreases when you are called to be given a worldly possession.” (Ali al-Muttaqi, XIV, 66)
There are many examples of altruism in the lives of the companions. In fact, Allah the Almighty praised and commended them in the following verses:
“And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, Saying, We feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks. We only fear a Day of distressful Wrath from the side of our Lord. But Allah will deliver them from the evil of that Day, and will shed over them a Light of Beauty and a blissful Joy.” (al-Insan 76; 8-11)
They certainly learned altruism from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Of course it is impossible to reach his level of altruism and self-sacrifice. His honorable life is teemed with the manifestations of this attribute. Shal bin Sa’d (r.a.) narrated:
“A lady brought a burdah٭ to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). The lady said,
“O Allah’s Apostle! I have knitted this burdah with my own hands for you to wear it.”
Allah’s Apostle took it and he was in need of it. Allah’s Apostle came out to us and he was wearing it. A man among the people saw it and said,
“O Allah’s Apostle! Would you give it to me to wear?” The Prophet s said, “Yes.” Then he sat there for some time and then he went to his house. He folded it and sent it to the man. The people said to that man,
“You have not done a right thing. You asked him for it, though you know that he does not put down anybody’s request.” The man said,
“By Allah! I have only asked him so that it may be my shroud when I die.” Sahl added,
“Later that burdah really became his shroud.” (Bukhari, Libas, 18; Adab, 39)
As in this incident, when the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) met someone in need, he would prefer him/her over himself. He would want the things more than the necessities to be donated to people in need. In other words, he loved to share everything he possessed with other people and he accepted altruism as a principle for his life. He pointed out the blessings of helping others saying that: “The food for two persons is sufficient for three, and the food of three persons is sufficient for four persons.” (Bukhari, At’imah, 11) For him, the real possession of something can be achieved by giving it to others and receiving it to the eternal life. He stated that Allah the Almighty would protect and increase the property spent for His sake and return it to its owner many times more in the Hereafter. (Muslim, Zakat, 63) One day he slaughtered a lamb and asked his family to distribute its meat to the poor. Then he asked Aisha (r.a.):
“What is left from it?” Aisha (r.a.) replied:
“Only the shoulder blade.” Upon this Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said:
“You mean that all of it has become our property except this shoulder blade.” (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 33) Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) praised and loved those who preferred his brother over himself. This is stated in the following saying:”The Prophet said, “When the people of the Ash’ari tribe ran short of food during the holy battles, or the food of their families in Medina ran short, they would collect all their remaining food in one sheet and then distribute it among themselves equally by measuring it with a bowl. So, these people are from me, and I am from them.” (Bukhari, Shirkah, 1; Muslim, Fadail al-Sahabah, 167)
Aisha’s (r.a.) following report is a good example that shows how the Prophet (pbuh) addressed acts of self-sacrifice. This report also shows how great the rewards in the Hereafter will be. Aisha (r.a.) said:
“A poor woman came to me along with her daughters. I gave her three dates. She gave a date to each of them and then she picked up one date and brought it to her mouth in order to eat it, but her daughters expressed desire to eat it. She then divided the date that she intended to eat between them. This kind treatment of her impressed me so much that I mentioned what she did to Allah’s Messenger (pbuh). Thereupon, he said:
“Because of her action, verily Allah has assured Paradise for her, or He has rescued her from Hell-Fire.” (Muslim, Birr, 148)
Altruism and unselfishness, one of the commands of Islam, let the people of the age of happiness live the life of Paradise in this world. Companions, however, even regarded altruism as inadequate and felt sorry for not being able to do more. Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with them both) elegantly states the altruism and spiritual level of the people of the age of happiness as follows:
“We lived in such an age that no one would consider himself/herself more deserving of gold and silver than his/her Muslim brothers and sisters. Now we live in such an age that we love gold and silver more than our brothers and sisters.” (Haythami, X, 285)
When we listen to the examples of unselfishness even from the age which Ibn Umar was complaining about, we admire them. What an astounding example the unselfishness of Harith b. Hisham, Ikrima b. Abi Jahl, Iyash b. Abi Rabia (may Allah be pleased with them all) was. They preferred each other over themselves and sent water given to them to the other during the Battle of Yarmuk when they were all badly wounded and extremely thirsty. Finally all of them became martyrs without drinking a single drop of water. (Hakim, III, 270) History has not witnessed such an example of altruism, maybe it will never be able to witness it ever again.
These unselfish and self-sacrificing brave men were trained by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and learned the true meaning of faith from him. This was why they sent the water given to them under the most unbearable situation to their Muslim brother.
Gulam Halil, the well-known opponent of Sufism, presented a hostile approach towards all Sufis. He had a group of Sufis, amongst them was Abu al-Husain al-Nuri (d. 295 A.H.), arrested and sent them to the center of the caliphate. The Abbasid caliph of the time issued a decree for their punishment by death. When the executioner was going to behead one of the Sufis, Abu al-Husain al-Nuri voluntarily and happily came forward. People were amazed by his willingness. The executioner told him:
“O brave man! You are voluntarily coming forward but this sword is not something to be wanted. It is not your turn, why are you in a hurry?” Al-Nuri replied:
“My way is established on self-sacrificing. One’s life is the most valuable thing. Thus, I would like to sacrifice my last few breaths for my brothers. For me a single breath on this earth is more valuable and loveable than a thousand years in the Hereafter, because this world is the place to serve others; whereas the afterlife is the place to be close to Allah the Almighty. Closeness to Allah can only be achieved by serving others. Nevertheless, I sacrifice my last breaths for my brothers.” (Hujwiri, p. 302)
After the death of the Ottoman sultan, Osman Beg, it was custom that the eldest son Alaaddin Beg, who had the support of all the prominent members of the state, be enthroned; but, he preferred Orhan Beg over himself and asked him to be the head of the state. While presenting Orhan Beg, Alaaddin Beg said:
“My Brother! Our ancestor’s supplication is with you. He appointed you as the commander of the army; therefore, you deserve to be the head of the state.”
Later Alaaddin Beg became the greatest supporter of Orhan Beg. He pioneered the conquest of Rumelia and his life ended as a martyr. (Ziya Nur Aksun, I, 36)
The difference between all of the above-mentioned examples and the lives of contemporary people is remarkable. It is obvious where the problem is in today’s world, in which people try to destroy each other’s lives; sharing has been long forgotten and selfishness has prevailed all over the society; helping others has become a means of vanity; and expectations have come into prominence. People have forgotten altruism and unselfishness, which were the basic characteristics of the prophetic ethics, and they have begun to love each other not for the sake of Allah but for their own interests.
Altruism and sacrificing ourselves for the needs of others means to prepare a nice place in the real life of the Hereafter. This was the way of our Prophet (pbuh) and his companions. What we need to do is to be in an effort to get closer to them.
٭ A type of blanket used by the Arabs as a wrap; or mantle; or cloak
Source: An Excellent Exemplar, Osman Nuri Topbaş, Erkam Publications