What is service? What does service mean in islam?

To lend an ideal service is to seek the pleasure of the Lord by approaching creation with a sincere, compassionate and selfless heart.

People of service must be courteous in all their conducts, as delicate as one tiptoeing around a minefield; for their objects are hearts, the focal point of the Divine Gaze.

Khidmah, or service, is of enormous importance in Sufi training. The most effective way of implanting feelings of modesty, selflessness (mahwiyah) and mercy for the created in hearts runs through service. All murshids have therefore considered it a vital means in training the disciple.

If we were to search for the pillar of Islamic morals, we would no doubt find it in turning to the Lord with love and sincerity, whose defining hallmark, in turn, is service. True to the principle ‘serve to receive grace (himmah)’, serving is an exceptional step on the ladder that delivers hearts to sublime peaks.

Such a step it is that the entirety of prophets and saints, blessed with Divine reunion and an eternity of rewards, have used for elevation. For a lifetime, they personified the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- words: “The notable of a tribe is he who serves it” (Daylami, Musnad, II, 324)

Thus the road to the peak and the acquiring of eternity lies in services lent with a genuine heart. There are times when a tiny service offered for the sake of the Divine can be superior to many supererogatory deeds of worship. To call to mind one such instance:

During a campaign under sweltering heat, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had the Companions camp at a suitable location. Some were fasting, others were not. Tired, those who were fasting quickly fell asleep. Others, who were not, carried water for those who were and set up tents to shade them. When the time came to breakfast, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- said: “Those who did not fast today have received rewards greater than those who did.” (Muslim, Siyam, 100-101)

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, who has presented countless spurs for his ummah to embrace service, carried stones on his back during the construction of the mosques of Quba and Medina, despite his Companions insisting him otherwise. The exceptional modesty and spirit to serve embodied by the Light of Being -upon him blessings and peace- lays out a unique example for all Muslims. Indeed, his entire life was a sheer case of serving the Real, humankind and entire creation.

Naturally, service becomes a defining feature of the wise who take that ‘sacred being’ as example. Each person in love with the Real and captivated by the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- is a person of service. People of service are like the sun and the moon, which only grow in brightness the more they light up their surroundings. The pallor of neither autumn nor winter can diminish their brightness in the least. They are like a river that traverses a great distance, serving animals, trees, the rose, the clove and the nightingale in its lengthy flow, whose delta can only be the Beloved’s ocean of eternity and reunion.

Those acquainted with this truth look upon themselves as servants, even if made a ruler over the public. On being referred to as ‘The Sovereign of the Two Holy Lands’ (Hakimu’l-Haramayn’is-Sharifayn), in the first sermon after having assumed custodianship over Mecca and Medina, Sultan Selim objected, behind eyes moistened with tears, declaring, “No; rather The Servant of the Two Holy Lands’. This can only be a manifestation of a sublime perception of service and a realization of the true purpose of servanthood to the Lord.

Ubaydullah Ahrar -may Allah sanctify his secret- in fact ascribes his spiritual level to the blessings of his service when he says, “We have not covered distance on this path solely from reading books of tasawwuf but from putting into practice what we read to the best of our capabilities and serving the public. Each is taken delivered from a certain path. We were delivered through the path of service.”

And this shows that knowing alone is not enough without putting what is known to practice through serving. Yet Divine acceptance of the service given depends on it carrying certain qualities. An accepted or ideal service, in this sense, is to seek the pleasure of the Lord by approaching creation with a sincere, compassionate and selfless heart. In other words, serving must not be marred with self-interest and must instead be offered genuinely, eyeing exclusively the rewards of the Hereafter. If carried out with this intent, then even ‘half a date’ is a potential means for eternal salvation, as is mentioned in the hadith.

Ubaydullah Ahrar -may Allah sanctify his secret- recounts:

“I was at the bazaar one day when a man approached me and said, ‘I am hungry. Could you feed me for the sake of Allah?’

I had no means at the time, except for an old, worn out imamah. So I went to a cook shop and asked him if he could feed the hungry man in return for it. ‘It is worn out but clean’, I said to him. ‘You might use it to dry your dishes’.

Not only did the cook feed the man, he also wanted me to keep the imamah. Despite his persistent efforts, I did not take it back. I waited until the man ate to his heart’s content, even though I was no better than him in needing a meal.”

With the blessing of Allah, glory unto Him, Ubaydullah Ahrar -may Allah sanctify his secret- ended up with great wealth; so great that there were thousands of workers laboring away in his fields. Still, he did not step a foot away from service. He again recounts his mindset as a rich man:

“I had taken upon myself the duty of caring for four ill persons in the Qutbuddin Madrasa in Samarkand. As their illnesses had become advanced, they had begun dirtying their beds. I used to wash and clothe them with my hands. Because I served without break, I soon became bedridden myself. But even then I continued carrying water with earthenware, cleaning the ill and washing their clothes.”

The lives of such great figures provide splendid examples, for us, of the virtue of spending and serving in the way of the Real. However rich a Muslim may be, he can offer what is due of his wealth only by increasing his spiritual strength and raising the level of his heart-world. Observing the standards of piety and abstinence (zuhd) the more one progresses spiritually and maintaining a perfect modesty despite of wealth may, then, carry a Muslim to the ideal point illustrated in the life of Ubaydullah Ahrar -may Allah sanctify his secret-.

Another level of service that is difficult to reach is highlighted in the below account of the righteous Maruf Karhi -may Allah sanctify his secret-.

An ill man, old and frail, had come to visit Maruf Karhi -may Allah sanctify his secret-. The poor old man was as pale as death; it was as if he was putting a spike through his fragile body with every breath. Maruf Karhi -may Allah sanctify his secret- laid a bed on the floor for him to get some rest.

Wailing and moaning, the old man was not able to get a blink of sleep until morning; neither could anyone else from his moans. To make things worse, he had gotten restless by each passing moment, taking his frustration out on those around. Able to put up with him only for so long, others in the house soon began heading out, in ones and twos. Maruf Karhi -may Allah sanctify his secret- and his wife were left alone with the old man.

To see to the old man’s needs and serve him proper, Maruf Karhi was spending the nights without any sleep. But one night, when his lack of sleep caught up with him, he involuntarily dosed off for a while. Seeing him asleep, instead of being of thankful to a man so graceful and compassionate to see to his needs, the inconsiderate old man began grumbling to himself:

“What sort of a dervish is this? People like him only have reputations. In truth, they are showoffs. Desire is the end their deeds serve. They are clean on the outside, yet dirty on the inside. They advise others with piety, yet neglect it themselves. That is why that man over there sleeps so comfortably without thinking of my condition. How can one who sleeps contented on a full stomach understand the troubles of a bedridden man who does not blink an eye from pain?”

Maruf Karhi had heard every single word. Yet, patient and magnanimous, he pretended to have heard nothing. But his wife could not put up with it any longer, as she whispered to her husband, “You have heard what the grumpy old man just said. We cannot have him at our house any longer. I cannot allow him to be a burden on you and cause you more discomfort than he already has. Tell him to fend for himself. Kind treatment is merited by those who appreciate it. It is bad to treat an ungrateful man kindly. It drives them even wilder. You do not just pamper and place a pillow under their heads. Severing them would serve them just right.”

Patiently listening to his wife’s outburst, Maruf Karhi smiled and replied:

“Why do the words he says hurt you, dear? If he has screamed, so be it. If he has acted rudely, it was against me. His mean words are pleasant to my ears. You can see that he is in continuous pain. Can’t you see that the poor old man cannot even blink an eye? Know that true finesse, true mercy and compassion, lies in putting up with the treatment of people like him.”

Sheikh Sadi, who narrates this incident, adds the below advice:

“Virtue in service is to bear the burden of the weak when strongest and healthiest, as a show of appreciation. A heart filled with compassion is forgiving. If you rest content with your dull image, with your body your name will die, too. But if you become a man of generosity, devoted to service, your life will continue even after death, in hearts where your generosity survives. Can you not see that there are many tombs in Karh, none more visited and renowned than that of Maruf Karhi?”

The righteous have already said it wonderfully: “Tasawwuf is to become adored, without being a burden”.

The gates of mercy are opened by compassionate and benevolent service. The value of a given service depends on the greatness of the sacrifice involved and it being carried out like it is a deed of worship. Again, an ideal service is that which is lent solely for the pleasure of the Lord, with a sensitive conduct that utterly avoids disparaging the person served. As said by Abdullah ibn Munazil -may Allah sanctify his secret-: “Manners in service are more important than the service itself.”

Mawlana Rumi -may Allah sanctify his secret- speaks in a similar tone: “Work for the love of Allah. Serve for the love of Allah. What is it to you if the public appreciates it or not? Does not Allah suffice as an auspicious customer in the bazaar that is the world? What can people possibly give you in comparison with what Allah shall give? So turn your gaze not to the thanks that come from the way of the people, but to the acceptance that comes from the way of Allah!”

This is exactly the beauty and greatness tasawwuf wishes to impart onto hearts. The words of advice given by Amir Kulal -may Allah sanctify his secret- to his student Bahaaddin Naqshbandi -may Allah sanctify his secret- for him to rid his heart of deep set egoistic tendencies are emblematic:

“Seek to win hearts; serve the vulnerable! Protect the weak and the brokenhearted! They are such that they receive no income from the public. Nevertheless, they remain in their frames of complete peace of heart, modesty and dejection. Search and find these people and serve them!”

During the first seven years of his initiation into the Sufi path, Shah Naqshbandi -may Allah sanctify his secret- in fact lead a life defined by khidmah, where he served the ill and weak, as well as injured animals, even sparing time to clean streets which people used, simply to reach the state of ‘nothingness’, the complete opposite of pride and conceit.

He recounts these years himself: “For a long time, I worked on the road as my master had commanded, fulfilling all services required of me. There came a point where, on seeing any creation of the Lord whatsoever, I would stand still where I was and wait for it to walk past. This lasted seven years all together. In return, I was engulfed by such a spiritual mindset that I could feel their inner moans of anguish, pleading the Lord.”

This is a concrete manifestation of serving creation for the sake of the Creator and looking upon them through eyes of Divine love.

About righteous Muslims, the Almighty states:

“They compete with each other in what is good” (Al-i Imran, 114). The most exceptional fruits this competition has yielded are waqfs or charity trusts.

Most certainly, service comes in various forms. All efforts made for the pleasure of Allah, glory unto Him, are included in service. The important thing is for hearts to lend a service, be it spiritual or financial, as much as is allowed by their aptitudes, powers and suitability. The Lord has entrusted each person with a distinct kind of service to lend and has made each person suitable for the task. And no less, He has endowed each person with the required means, spiritual and physical.

There were approximately 120,000 Companions present in the Farewell Pilgrimage. Over a 100,000 of them ended up going to various lands on Earth, near and far, offering their lives as trusts in the way of the Lord, passing away in those lands. Just to cite one example among many, the tombs of the sons of Othman and Abbas -Allah be well-pleased with him- are in fact in Samarkand. Istanbul itself is home to the graves of many Companions. An overwhelming majority of those who remained in Mecca and Medina, in turn, served to protect the hubs of Islam, continuing their services there.

One of the most illustrious feats of leaving no stone unturned in calling people to guidance and striving genuinely for their happiness in Here and in the Hereafter is vivid in the life of Khalid ibn Zayd Abu Ayyub al-Ansari -Allah be well-pleased with him-, who twice arrived at the fortified walls of Istanbul, despite his old age. The love of serving and the battle to salvage their eternity steered them to four corners of the world.

Another colossal personification of the spirit of service is Wahb ibn Kabshah -Allah be well-pleased with him-. The tomb of this celebrated Companion is in China.[1] The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had entrusted him with the duty of carrying the light of guidance to China. Considering the circumstances of then, China was at a year’s distance away from Arabia. After spending many years there, the Companion set out to Medina, in hope of appeasing the longing for the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- burning within his heart. He made it to Medina after a grueling one year journey, only to find that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had passed away. He was thus unable to see him. But fully conscious of the sacredness of the mission given him by the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, he returned once again to China and served until he ultimately passed away in that land.

These are magnificent portraits of khidmah only an ecstatic faith can explain. Their love for and spirit of service are like stars that light up our skies of eternal salvation.

There is no doubt that the Companions were able to attain to this level by minutely abiding to the nine principles of service below, in the light of the exceptional training of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-:

  1. Serving Allah, glory unto Him and wholeheartedly abiding by His commands and prohibitions.
  2. Serving the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-; loving him from the bottom of the heart and leading a life according to his Sunnah.
  3. Serving the spiritual elders of Islam, loyally and lovingly.
  4. Serving parents; striving to gain their blessings without retorting even an ‘ah’.
  5. Serving the children by ensuring they are raised as righteous Muslims.
  6. Serving relatives; visiting them and seeing to their needs.
  7. Serving Muslims, sharing their joy and pain.
  8. Serving entire humankind, striving to be beneficial in both speech and action.
  9. Serving entire creation; taking all beings under their wings of compassion.

There is great lesson in the following words of Ali Ramitani -may Allah sanctify his secret- concerning the performance of all the above mentioned services: “There are many who mix their services with insult. But there are only a few who appreciate how great a blessing it is to serve. If you treat the opportunity to serve as a blessing and be thankful towards whom you serve, everyone will become satisfied with you and there will only be a few who complain.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all searching for spiritual peace and serenity. And that is a profound treasure that may only be attained through services offered with the passion one has whilst offering a deed of worship. A believer who has a penchant and spirit to serve therefore always knows how to find the opportunity and means to do so. The keenness he shows in his sacrifices in the way of Allah, glory unto Him, is more intense than the ambitions of those who pursue worldly interests.

Once the desire to serve, which is nourished by the climate of love, becomes fixed in the heart, it renders one a wayfarer of eternity. The heart sheds its hardness of Hajjaj and enshrouds itself in the gentle cloak of Yunus. Knowledge, art and morals obtained in this state of mind, achieve an enrapturing life of eternity. A genuine and true service is thus a masterpiece of a mature heart. And it is such hearts that are the focus of the Divine Gaze.

How massive a loss it is then to lay waste to a life, away from the qualities of the heart! And how great a joy it is for those truly able to fill their hearts with the love to serve!

[1]        There is also a post (maqam) attributed to Saad ibn Abi Waqqas -Allah be well-pleased with him- in Guangzhou, China. Historically renowned is the fact that the graves of Companions and the righteous, more often than not, play a vital role in keeping the religious feelings of locals animate. There are many such extant examples of this in the Central Asian towns like Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

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