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Understanding Zuhd (Asceticism) in Islām

Imām Ibn al-Qayyim, Imām Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn

An explanation from the scholars on what it means practice zuhd from a shariʿah perspective, contrary to extreme concepts of laziness and abandonment of effort in worldly affairs.

[Q]: What is the reality of asceticism in Islām and what are the means by which I may live an ascetic existence which is also far from radical or extremism in this sphere?

[A]: The scholars have said that it is to abandon everything that holds no benefit in the hereafter. To the extent that a person abandons all permissible matters that lack benefit in the hereafter. A person is aided in the attainment of asceticism by contemplating this worldly life, that it is as a passing, transient home rather than a place of settlement. Also, that worldly possessions have not remained for a single person who has preceded you. As such, it shall never remain for you. As Allāh—the Most High—said:

وَمَا جَعَلْنَا لِبَشَرٍ مِّن قَبْلِكَ الْخُلْدَ ۖ أَفَإِن مِّتَّ فَهُمُ الْخَالِدُونَ

“And We granted not to any human being immortality before you (O Muḥammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم)), then if you die, would they live forever?”
(Al-Anbiyāʾ, 21:34)

That is, no one shall ever eternally abide in this worldly life. Also, one should be well aware that this worldly life is a place of loathsome disturbances and grief. A person may find happiness with a matter today, and tomorrow the very same matter brings him sadness. Thus, the one who truly realises the reality of this worldly life, intellectually and by means of his īmān, will behave ascetically with regards to it. Never favouring it over the hereafter. The Most High said:

بَلْ تُؤْثِرُونَ الْحَيَاةَ الدُّنْيَا ‎﴿١٦﴾‏ وَالْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ وَأَبْقَىٰ

“Nay, you prefer the life of this world; Although the Hereafter is better and more lasting.”
(Al-Aʿlá, 87:17)1

[Q]: We have heard a great many verses of the Qurʾān encouraging zuhd (asceticism) from this worldly life. If a person was to abandon certain business opportunities which are available to him, intending asceticism by means of this abandonment, is such a person deserving of reward for intentionally leaving these deals despite surmising them to be profitable?

[A]: Asceticism does not mean abandoning buying and selling because Allāh—the Exalted in Might—is the One who has ordered us to engage in buying and selling. He—the Exalted in Might—said:

فَإِذَا قُضِيَتِ الصَّلَاةُ فَانتَشِرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَابْتَغُوا مِن فَضْلِ اللَّهِ وَاذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا

“Then when the (Jumu’ah) ṣalāt (prayer) is finished, you may disperse through the land, and seek the Bounty of Allāh (by working, etc.), and remember Allāh much.”

Despite saying in the preceding verse:

إِذَا نُودِيَ لِلصَّلَاةِ مِن يَوْمِ الْجُمُعَةِ فَاسْعَوْا إِلَىٰ ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ وَذَرُوا الْبَيْعَ

“When the call is proclaimed for the ṣalāt (prayer) on the day of Friday (Jumuʿah prayer), come to the remembrance of Allāh [khuṭbah) and ṣalāt)] and leave off business.”
(Jumuʿah, 62:9-10)

With what should we seek the bounty of Allāh after the conclusion of prayer? It is with buying and selling. So, there is nothing wrong with buying and selling. True zuhd is to abandon that which holds no benefit in the hereafter while piety is to abandon that which will harm one in the hereafter. If a person was to engage in buying and selling with the intention of seeking Allāh’s bounty, to find sufficiency in the sustenance provided by Him such that he is prevented from begging the people and showing mendicancy towards them, with the intention of spending his earnings to support his children and family, or intending to give some of that which Allāh has provided him in charity, then his engagement in business is actually representative of zuhd. Do not think that zuhd is for a person to wear ugly, dirty, ill-fitting clothing that is falling off of his body, or to drive a dilapidated vehicle, or refuse to live in a house that suits his situation. Rather, true zuhd is as Shaykh al-Islām or Ibn al-Qayyim have said: The abandonment of that which holds no benefit in the hereafter. So let this person buy and sell with these good intentions: refusing to beg the people, spending on his dependents, and giving in charity.”2

Ibn al-Qayyim said:

Zuhd does not mean complete rejection of wealth or belongings. As Dāwūd and Sulaymān (عليهما السلام) were among the most ascetic men of their time, despite what they possessed of wealth, dominion, and wives. Just as our Prophet Muḥammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) was the most ascetic man that ever lived despite having nine wives. ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿAwf, al-Zubayr, and ʿUthmān (رضي الله عنهم) were all among the ascetics despite the wealth they possessed. Just as al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī (رضي الله عنه) was ascetic despite being among the most loving among this ummah towards women and marrying them in addition to also being amongst the richest. Just as ʿAbdullāh ibn al-Mubārak was among the ascetic imams despite owning immense wealth. Among the best definitions of zuhd that has been said is the saying of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī or other than him: Asceticism of this worldly life is not by making impermissible that which is permissible, nor by spending money needlessly. Rather, it is that one has more trust in that which is in the hand of Allāh than that which he himself possesses. And that the reward of being afflicted with catastrophe—if you are afflicted with it—is more desirable to you than its complete aversion from you.”3

1. Source: Fatāwá Nūr ʿalá al-Darb 24:2
2. Source: Liqāʾ al-Bāb al-Maftūḥ 20:219
3. Source: Madārij al-Sālikīn (2:15)

Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: December 26, 2023
Edited: May 1, 2024

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