Imam Mawlud speaks next of a “quick-acting poison” that produces an inordinate attachment to worldly concerns, which is a cause of so many diseases of the heart. This poison is extended hope (tatwil al-amal), that is, assuring oneself that death is a long way off—a mental environment that leads people to live their days as if a long life is guaranteed. The dangers of this delusion are self-evident.
But before speaking about the perils inherent in this malady, it must be said that in some ways extended hope is a necessary human condition. Scholars have said that if people did not have hope, no one would have ever bothered planting a single tree. If one was sure that he was going to die very soon, he would not have planted an orchard or had children. There would be no infrastructure for the next generation. But because human beings do have aspirations, they sow orchards and the like. A famous Persian story speaks of a Shah who passed by an old man planting an olive tree, which takes decades to produce good fruit. The Shah asked, “Do you believe this tree will be of any benefit to you, old man? You will die before it bears fruit.” The old man replied, “Those before me planted and we benefited. We should plant so that others after us might benefit. The Shah was impressed with the old man’s concern for the future generations, and then rewarded the old man with money. The old man then said to the Shah, “You see! The tree has brought me benefit already.” The Shah smiled and rewarded him again. There is a similar Arab proverb that states, “Before us they planted, and now we eat what they have planted. We too must plant, so that those after us will likewise eat.”
Extended hope definitely has its place; in fact, it’s a mercy from God that we are capable of it, otherwise no one would embark on a course of education, for example, or undertake any endeavor that requires years before completion. Taking it a step further, one of the problems of modern society—and the apocalyptic nature of the age we live in—is that people are beginning to lose hope in the future. This is especially true among our youth, who are becoming nihilistic, taking a morbid perspective on the world. We live in a fast-food culture, in which we are led to believe that we need to have everything now; it is a culture that causes people to lose a sense of a future worth waiting for. Only recently have we seen the first generation in American history that in many ways will be materially worse off than their parents. Prior to this age, Americans were noted for their cheery optimism about the future.
The extended hope that Imam Mawlud calls a “poison” is akin to false hope that generates hard-heartedness and indolence due to heedlessness of the Hereafter. When one believes that he or she will live for a long time, what ensues is a diminution of pondering one’s mortality and a sense of independence from God. Fudayl ibn 3iyad— a great early scholar and a man of asceticism—said that the world is divided into two types of people: felicitous (sa3id) and wretched (shaqi). No third category exists. Aristotle, an icon of Western civilization, wrote in his Ethics that the goal in life is leisure and happiness, a notion reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which states that people have inalienable rights from God, among them are life and liberty, which are enshrined in Islam’s Sacred Law as well. Thomas Jefferson added “the pursuit of happiness,” which implied leisure. What was originally meant by leisure was time to study and meditate on life and pursue true happiness.
For most today, however, happiness is pursued through the acquisition and enjoyment of material goods. The believer, though, finds happiness in genuine worship, a connection with other-worldliness. The human being is a creature that cannot pursue two things simultaneously, especially when they are on opposite poles of the universe. Islam connects the definition and understanding of happiness with what is permanent and real. According to most religious traditions, true happiness is happiness derived from one’s relationship with God and happiness in the Hereafter. This includes living a life that prepares one for this destiny. If one is happy in the next world, this is the greatest possible achievement, regardless of one’s material accomplishments in this life. Devotion to God includes the enjoyment of God’s blessings, such as family, friends, and recreation.
The Prophet Muhammad made a spectacular supplication: “[O God], if You are not angry with me, then I do not care what You do with me.” In other words, “If my life is toilsome and difficult, but I have not incurred Your wrath, then I am happy with that.” He is happy because he knows that the real life—the everlasting existence—is in the Hereafter.
A wretched existence is plunging headlong into the worldly and having nothing good stored for the Hereafter. No matter how “well-off people appear in this world—regardless of the fine goods that surround them—if they have nothing good in the Hereafter, then they are essentially wretched. Fudayl ibn 3iyad said that there are well-known signs of wretchedness. The first is having a hard heart. A man saw the Prophet kiss a baby and asked him, “Do you kiss your children?” The Prophet said, “Indeed, I do.” The man then said, “I have ten children, and I never kissed any of them,” which said that if we were able to see the Muslims who fought at Badr, we would think that they were madmen because of their disregard of the world. “But if these Companions saw the best of you, they would say, “These people have no character.” And if they saw the worst of you, they would say, “These people do not believe in the Day of Judgment.”
There is a popular saying (often erroneously identified as a hadith of the Prophet “Act for your world as if you will live forever, and act for your Hereafter as if you are going to die tomorrow.” Shaykh Bashir Uthman Bashir, a contemporary saint, said that people frequently misunderstand that saying and use it as a justification for working very hard for the world. Rather, the tradition states that we have forever to take care of our worldly affairs, but we must tend to the Hereafter as if death awaits tomorrow. This implies making even our worldly affairs for the sake of god. The point is not to suggest that a person neglect his work; rather, it speaks to one’s intentions, such that one’s work in the world does not detract from the Hereafter. The Quran says, Do not forget your portion of this world (QURAN, 28:77). There are two ways this can be interpreted. First, do not neglect what God has given you to expend for the Hereafter. Second, do not forget or neglect this world, even though the more important concern is the Hereafter. Both understandings are acceptable. Believers are not anti-worldly in a sense propagated by some
Christian theologies. The world is a place God made for us to enjoy, but not to the point that we forget our purpose and ultimate destiny.
The Quran speaks of certain people who after a long span of time became hard-hearted and ungodly (QURAN, 57:16). When a person suffers the passage of time without consistent and serious reflection about the Hereafter, the world takes hold of his heart more and more, which has a way of making it hard. Those who have hard hearts become corrupt. This dynamic applies to societies as it does for individuals.
Although extended hope can harden hearts, Imam Mawlud says there are exceptions, like one who is “engaged in preparing for tomorrow or writing works.” One is not blameworthy for dedicating years of work for a single end product, like a scholarly work from which many people may benefit. It is one of the highest things a person can do. It is, in fact, a form of perpetual charity (sadaqa jariya) whose reward accrues in favor of its progenitor even after he or she has died. In cases like this, one is not censured for desiring a long life because one seeks to strive in ways that serve God, His religion, and humanity.
The Prophet warned against desiring death, for one “should desire life either to repent and make amends for past iniquities, or if one did much good, to increase his righteous deeds.” There is so much optimism and hope in this statement of the Prophet If one’s past has been marred with evil, then there is a new day and opportunity to turn things around. God says that good deeds blot out the evil deeds (QURAN, 11:114). People who recognize the urgency of the human condition and their own impending mortality do not squander their time. They set out doing positive deeds such as spreading knowledge, and this is entirely beneficial. God the Exalted says, What benefits people shall continue on earth (QURAN, 13:17). Once a great scholar who was a source of benefit for many people became very ill. A person came to him and asked him if he was fearful of dying. He said, “No! A verse of the Quran says that I will not die yet.” The man asked, “Which verse?” He said, “What benefits people shall continue on earth.” This kind of hope for a long life is a mercy from God, so that people who bring benefit to others will wish for more opportunity to taste the sweetness of being a harbinger of goodness.
It is no coincidence that those very people who do good and who hope to do more of it are in fact those who reflect on death and work for the Hereafter the most, so that the Day of Judgment will be a moment of joy and light for them. It is wise to meditate on death—its throes and the various states after it. For example, one should imagine, while he or she has life and is safe, the trial of the Traverse (Sirat) that every soul must pass over in the Hereafter, beneath which is the awesome inferno and the screams and anguish of those evildoers who already have been cast therein.
If athletes include as part of their training the visualization of their sport and mentally picture themselves going through all the steps required for success, how then can believers fail to visualize what is more important and consequential than sport? People of spiritual elevation prepare themselves psychologically for the ultimate journey. Although death is a sudden severance from this life, one remains conscious in a different way. In fact, the deceased is in a hyper-conscious state that makes this life appear like a dream. Ali ibn Abi Talib, may God be pleased with him, said, “People are asleep. When they die, they wake up.”
Many of the righteous forebears of Muslim civilization stressed that one should visualize the states of death and the Afterlife: their bodies being washed and prepared for burial, being lowered into the grave, having soil cover them, being questioned by the angels, climbing out of the grave on the Day of Resurrection, and being called to stand in judgment before God the Exalted. In fact, some of them actually placed themselves in an open grave to feel with greater intensity what awaits them. This may seem like a morbid exercise, but it is effective training that adds
spring to one’s life and enthusiasm to work for the Hereafter, its peace and bliss. Spiritual masters have long said that if a person is struggling with his appetites, this exercise is a good way of controlling them. Reflecting on death brings sobriety to one’s state.
Imam al-Qarafi differentiates between the hope inherent in the Arabic word raja and the hope implied by tatwil al-amal. The Quran praises one who hopes for God and meeting Him in the Hereafter: Say [0 Muhammad], “I am but a man like yourselves, but to whom it is revealed that your God is but one God. So whoever hopes to meet his Lord, let him do righteous deeds and never associate anyone with the worship of his Lord” (QURAN, 18:110). A famous hadith by A’isha relates that the Prophet said, “One who loves to meet God, God also loves to meet.” And A’isha asked, “O Messenger of God, what about disliking death?” He replied, “It is natural to dislike death, but ultimately meeting God is something the believer seeks and looks forward to.” This kind of hope is known as raja’. It is hope coupled with sincere effort to achieve what one hopes for.
It was common among Muslim scholars to discuss the delicate balance between hope and fear. If one is overwhelmed with fear, he enters a psychological state of terror that leads to despair (ya’s)— that is, despair of God’s mercy. In the past, this religious illness was common, although less so today because, ironically, people are not as religious as they used to be. But still, some of this is found among certain strains of evangelical Christianity that emphasize Hellfire and eternal damnation. One sect holds that only 144,000 people will be saved, based on its interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelations.
But an overabundance of hope is a disease that leads to complacency and dampens the aspiration to do good, since salvation is something guaranteed (in one’s mind, that is). Some Christian sects believe in this unconditional salvation, holding that one can do whatever one wills (although he or she is encouraged to do good and avoid evil) and still be saved from Hell and gain entrance to Paradise. They base this on the belief that once one accepts Jesus as a personal savior, there is nothing to fear about the Hereafter. Such religiosity can sow corruption because human beings simply cannot handle being assured of Paradise without deeds that warrant salvation. Too many will serve their passions like slaves and still consider themselves saved. In Islam, faith must be coupled with good works for one’s religion to be complete. This does not contradict the sound Islamic doctrine that “God’s grace alone saves us.” There is yet another kind of hope called umniyya, which is blameworthy in Islam. Essentially it is having hope but neglecting the means to achieve what one hopes for, which is often referred to as an “empty wish.” One hopes to become healthier, for example, but remains sedentary and is altogether careless about diet. To hope for the Hereafter but do nothing for it in terms of conduct and morality is also false hope.
A perennial teaching of revealed religion since Adam is that entry into Paradise is a matter of God’s mercy, which is attained by combining faith with sincere deeds that confirm one’s profession of faith. Unfortunately, on the Day of Judgment many Muslims may find themselves in Hell because of false hopes. All they have to show for their religiosity is the mere declaration of faith, a testimony unconfirmed by deeds, especially the rites of worship and charitable acts toward others.
Fear (khawf) treats or prevents two maladies: moral complacency and self-righteousness. Having a good measure of fear is necessary to stay on the path. But when one reaches his or her deathbed, one should have absolute hope in God, certain that God will offer forgiveness and allow him or her entrance into Paradise. This is having a good opinion of our Lord. The Prophet warned that no one should die except with “a good opinion of God.”
Imam al-Haythami relates that having extended hope (tatwil al-amal) is founded on heedlessness of the reality of death, which, he said, is not wrong in and of itself. There is no commandment that obliges the
remembrance of death, although it is difficult to imagine a spiritual life without such reflection. But still, when the Prophet said, “Remember death” and when he said, “I used to tell you do not visit graves, now I tell you to visit graves because it will remind you of the Hereafter,” the command does not rise to the level of obligation. Rather, it is considered something highly recommended (mandub), the same way that the remembrance of God, beyond what is prescribed, is recommended, but not obligatory per se.
The Quran states that there are people who desire to continue in their wrongdoing throughout the entirety of their lives. They ask, “When will this Day of Resurrection come?” (QURAN, 75:6). One interpretation of this verse, according to scholars, is that although people may be aware of ultimate accountability, they put off repentance as if they are guaranteed a long life. This is an ethic exemplified by the saying, “Sow your wild oats,” which advocates getting all the lewdness and sin out of one’s life when one is young, and then later calming down and adopting religion. Besides the obvious error of this ethic, another terrible flaw is that people die at all ages and some never get the chance to repent and make amends. Moreover, what kind of repentance is this when people intentionally indulge in sin banking on the possibility that later on in life—after all the energy and drive diminishes—they will turn in penitence to God? We know that God loves those who spend their youth obedient to Him and His commandments.
Imam Mawlud mentions next the concept of divination and foreboding (tatayyur). When the pre-Islamic Arabs needed to decide upon something, they would run toward a flock of birds. If the flock veered to the left, they took this to be a bad omen; if to the right, it was a good omen.
Foreboding is blatant superstition. The word mutatayyur in the Arabic language refers to someone who is a pessimist, who always sees the worst in any given situation. Imam Mawlud says that superstition is lack of knowledge that everything belongs to God. All affairs are His. Having a good opinion of God produces a view of Him that is impregnable to negative thoughts and behaviors that thrive in the soil of disbelief. To hang on to superstitions is to have a negative understanding of the reality of God and His authority and presence.
There are two types of foreboding. One is based on normative experience: observing things that consistently happen. For example, getting near a cobra usually results in it striking its victims. So when you see a cobra, get out of the way. There is no superstition in that. But this differs completely from some practices like avoiding walking under a ladder, staying clear of a black cat, and the culture that has evolved around the number 13 and its association with bad luck. There is also a stigma connected with breaking a mirror. Even the seemingly harmless “knock on wood” originates from pagan practices of worshipping trees. These superstitions emanate from having a bad opinion of God, not recognizing His power and authority in the world, and attributing power to inanimate objects and delving into other similar practices. These superstitions are explicitly forbidden in Islam.
What the Sacred Law permits as a means to avoid calamities is not superstition. Saying certain prayers, reading certain passages of the Quran that ward off evil, giving extra charity, and the like are acts of worship. These are based on revelation from God Himself and, therefore, differ completely from pre-Islamic practices, for example, of avoiding coming between two sheep, which was considered bad luck.
The Prophet warned against superstition, no matter how widespread it may be in societies. Some people routinely read the astrology page of the newspaper before starting their day. Often people buy and sell stocks based on the advice of their astrologers. No matter how common this has become, it remains an offense against revealed religion and God Himself. It is founded on a completely absurd premise. While these practices have taken on an aura of innocence and light humor, they are nonetheless connected to their pagan and idolatrous ancestry.
Imam Mawlud proffers that the way to cure this trap of superstition is for one to simply persist in what he was doing when confronted with something viewed as a bad omen. Altering one’s course of action because of some perceived omen is admitting that the superstition has power. It is important to note that if it is not one’s habit to have such forebodings and one finds oneself with a bad feeling about a situation or person, it is prudent to “listen to the heart.” This is known as firasa in Arabic, and in traditional theology, it is known simply as “discernment.” It is an angelic agent that attempts to protect us from some imminent harm.
Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart
Translation and Commentary of Imām Mawlūd’s Maṭharat al-Qulūb
by Hamza Yusuf
Yusuf, Hamza. (2021, January 22). Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart. Retrieved from https://www.mylifeisislam.com