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What is Zuhd (ascetism) in Islam?

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Islamic Researcher based in Pakistan. Masters Graduate in Islamic Studies.
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In a Nutshell: Zuhd can be simply described as seeking contentment, putting your trust in Allah and hoping for a short life with an attitude of indifference to the world. Zuhd is not something destined for a selected limited group of people, but rather a code of behaviour that should be followed by any pious Muslim. Thus, the term Muslim becomes equivalent to the term zahid, and practicing Islam is parallel to practicing zuhd.

Introduction

This answer will look at what zuhd comprises of, its general and specific definitions, whether the term is merely associated with Islamic mysticism or whether it implies to the Islamic Society as a whole, the important role it plays in the Islamic way of life, the relationship between zuhd, zahid and the world.

The answer clarifies the misconceptions that revolve around “zuhd” taking the term to be generally attributed to Islamic mysticism (Sufism) rather than in its broader sense.

Evidences

Qur'an

"That you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you.” (Qur’an 57:23)

"The day when neither wealth nor children will avail, except him who comes to God with a heart that is sound. And Paradise will be brought near for the God-fearing." (Qur'an 26:88-90)

"The life of this world is nothing but a flitting pleasure." (Qur'an al-rad:20)

"But may you prefer the life of this world although the life to come is better and more enduring." (Qur'an al-ala:16-17)

Sunnah

Umar ibn al-Khatab (ra) entered upon the Messenger of Allah (saw) while he was on a straw mat that had marked up his side. [Umar] said, “O Messenger of Allah, if you would only make use of a finer sheet?” The Messenger said, “What has this world to do with me? My likeness in this world is but like a rider who travelled during a hot day until he reached a tree, and, having taken shade under it for a period of time, departed and abandoned it.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

A man came to the Prophet (saw) and said: “O Messenger of Allah, direct me to an act which if I do it, [will cause] Allah to love me and people to love me.” He (saw) answered: “Be indifferent to the world and Allah will love you; be indifferent to what people possess and they will love you.” (Ibn Majah)

Umar said, “The Messenger of Allah ordered us to give in charity at a time when I had wealth in my possession. I said, ‘If I am going to outstrip Abu Bakr, it will be today.’ I came with half of my wealth and the Messenger of Allah asked, ‘What did you leave for your family?’ I said, ‘Its equivalent.’ Abu Bakr then came with everything in his possession, and he [i.e. the Messenger] asked, ‘O Abu Bakr, what did you leave for your family?’ He replied, ‘Allah and His Messenger.’ I said, ‘I will never vie with you for anything.’” (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Hakim)

The Prophet (saw) was asked about the man who reaches the highest level of zuhd, and answered, "The one who did not forget the graves and the decay, and preferred the eternal upon the perishable, and considered himself among the dead." (Iqd, Vol. 2, p. 112)

The Prophet (saw) said, “God commanded the world and said: the one who serves me, you serve him, and the one who serves you, make him your servant.” (Muhadarat al-Udaba, Vol. 1, p. 246)

The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, “Faith is not through wishes and embellishments. Rather, it is that which settles in the heart and is ratified by action. And knowledge is of two types: knowledge of the tongue and knowledge of the heart. Knowledge of the heart is what is beneficial whereas knowledge of the tongue is Allah’s argument against the Son of Adam.” (Tirmidhi)

The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, “Four matters are such that whoever is given them is given the good of this world and the hereafter: a grateful heart, a tongue busy with remembrance [of Allah], a body patient with trial, and faith in that which Allah has guaranteed.” (Abu Na'im)


Scholars’ views

Classical Muslim scholars understood zuhd to be coterminous with the following of Qur'an and Sunnah, a code when followed results in a pious life. Some articulated definitions emphasizing the goals being sought whilst others focused on the means however their definitions were generally consistent and uncontroversial.

To give a clear conception of “zuhd” two categories are helpful to understand the scholarly views on the subject: general and specific definitions.

General Definitions

As expressed in several general sayings, the essence of zuhd as attributed to some of the most celebrated zuhhad (person who practices zuhd) is the purification of the soul and total devotion to God.

  • When asked when "when will I reach al-zuhd fi al-dunya," he answered, "when you renounce your soul”. (Al-risalah al-Qushayriyyah fi Ilm al-Tasawwuf, p.56)

  • When he was asked "what is al-zuhd fi al-dunya-," he answered, "It is neither being dishevelled nor living in squalor and neglecting your body. It is denying your soul all forms of desires.” (Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyn, Vol. 2, p. 143)

These definitions stress that the primary condition a Muslim must fulfill to become a zahid is the repression of all evil inclinations of the soul. Only after the release of all negative feelings and evil emotions can zuhd evolve, since, as ascribed to al-Shibli:

"Zuhd is to renounce anything which is not God.” (Risalah, p. 56)


Specific Definitions

These may be divided into two groups, those emphasizing a goal (contentment, trust in Allah or hope for a short duration) and those emphasizing the means to a goal:

1. The goal of zuhd

These definitions define zuhd as contentment (rida), trust in God (tawakkul), and hope for a short duration (qisar al-amal).

(i) Contentment (rida)

In defining zuhd, some sayings claim 'rida' to be a part of zuhd or zuhd itself. For example, Fudayl b. Iyad cited:

"The origin for renouncing this world is contentment with God.” (Iqd, Vol. 2, p. 113)

Contentment, which means acceptance of any situation, creates a special approach to life. As ascribed to Ibn al-Sammak:

"The zahid is a man whose heart was deserted by joy and sadness; he is not happy with what he finds in this world, nor is he sad for what it lacks; he does not care whether he gets up in the morning in easiness or difficulty.” (Qut, Vol. 1, p. 543)

A further elaboration of the idea of al-rida is found in the definition of the zahid as a man for whom:

"The prohibited (haram) does not overcome his patience nor the permissible (halal) overcomes his gratitude," (Bayan, Vol. 2, p. 143) or, in simpler terms, "when he is put to the test he is patient, and when being bestowed he is grateful." (Tabqat al-Hanabilah, Vol. 2, p. 14)

This idea of rida(contentment) connected with zuhd serves as an interpretation of the Qur'anic verse:

"That you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you.” (Qur'an, 57:23)

As rida is defined as a part of zuhd, in this way zuhd itself becomes a Qur'anic instruction, and therefore anyone guided by the Qur'an and behaves accordingly is a zahid.

(ii) Trust in God (Tawakkul)

Tawakkul (trust in God) and Rida (Contentment) are the necessary components of zuhd. The explanation given to this idea is based on a combination of two different definitions of zuhd: "Have you not listened to the following tradition: 'zuhd is that you trust God more than you trust yourself?' this is tawakkul. Then he (Hasan al-Basri) said: 'and that you be happier with misfortune rather than being recompensed for it, this is rida”.

The same idea occurs in the words ascribed to Yunus b. Maysarah al-Jilani, but here we are also introduced to the problem of exterior and interior manifestations of life:

“Renouncing this world is not by declaring the permissible impermissible, nor by squandering money; it is rather that you trust God more than you trust yourself and that your situation in disaster will be equal to that when you are not hurt, and that who blames you will be equal to the one who praises you.” (Qut, Vol. 1, p. 544)

According to a definition ascribed to Abdullah b. al-Mubarak:

"Zuhd is trust in God alongside love of poverty.” (Risalah, p. 56)

These two opposing perceptions of zuhd reflect two kinds of disputes:

  • Is zuhd merely an inner feeling, or does it have external indications as well?

  • The question relating to the problem of the zahid's poverty and occupation. ​​​​​

(iii) Hope for short duration (qisar al-amal)

The one who has qisar al-amal is the one whose world is filled with the thought of death. He constantly waits for death to come and leads his life; accordingly, he does not plan, store or accumulate, nor does he think about the future. The only interest he has concerns death and the world to come.

The two definitions of zuhd; one that declares zuhd to be a love of poverty while the other absolutely rejects it, saying that zuhd is not wasting money to the point of remaining penniless has raised the question that whether poverty is the part of zuhd or not.

Although Abu Talib al-Makki defines zuhd as poverty (Qut, Vol. 1, p. 502), we may not say that he holds zuhd to be a demonstration of poverty. He sees poverty as a consequence of the deep feeling for qisar al-amal. In other words, qisar al-amal functions in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand it builds the zahid's inner world, and on the other hand it creates a special code of external practices.

There is a permanent conflict, however, between the two approaches. In order to achieve absolute tawakkul, rida and qisar al-amal, the believer must abandon this world. But it is not possible for a person who lives in this world to abandon it, and consequently he cannot reach the highest level of tawakkul, rida and qisar al-amal. Since zuhd by no means calls for the desertion of this world, a compromise must be found between the facts that zuhd is directed to the dwellers of this world and the fact that perfection cannot be achieved without ignoring one's physical existence.

2. The way to reach his goal

These set of definitions deal with the attitude of zuhd towards the world.

(i) The attitude of zahid toward this world

As total rejection of this world is impossible, therefore al-zuhd fi al-dunya has to be understood in such a way as to enable the Zahid (person who practices zuhd) to lead his life. The following three definitions show the possibility for co-existence between the zahid and the world in which he lives:

  1. “Zuhd is not abandoning the whole world; it is merely being indifferent to it and taking only a sufficient of it." (Uyun, Vol. 2, p. 357)

  2. Zuhd is "thinking little of the world and wiping out its effects from the heart." (Risalah, p. 56)

  3. "Zuhd is looking at the world with a vanishing eye, so that it will become small in your eyes and thus easier for you to turn away from it." (Ithaf, Vol. 9, p. 344)

The first definition recommends Zahid a forced survival which meant keeping nothing more than the basic needs required for existence. And the last two definitions present an unequivocal approach suggesting that as the Zahid keeps living in this world because he has no other choice, he must not pay attention to any of its experiences nor incidents. His heart should be filled with constant thought of the world to come.

Orientalist scholars attributed varying English translations to the Arabic term “zuhd”. Goldziher, R. A. Nicholson and L. Massignon render the Arabic word “zuhd” using the term “asceticism” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 2, p. 499) whilst A. J. Arberry​​​​​​ uses “abstinence” (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, p. 8). In Kinberg’s opinion both terms are vague given the fact that a term used in one society cannot give the clear idea of another term used in another society. In her opinion Encyclopaedia of Islam (Vol. 4, p. 1239) has given the most accurate and comprehensive definition of the term zuhd as:

"Abstinence at first from sin, from what is superfluous, from all that estranges from God... then abstinence from all perishable things by detachment of the heart... complete asceticism, renunciation of all that is created."

But still none of these definitions elaborate the most essential issue in the examination of this term, namely the implications of the various aspects included in the term zuhd on the daily life of the individual Muslim.

Analysis

The demand to purge one's heart of this world and to fill it with thoughts of the world to come gives the background for understanding a whole series of sayings that connect al-zuhd fi al-dunya with the eagerness for the next world:

  1. “The renunciation of the world is the key to the desire for the after world, and the renunciation of the after world is the key to the desire for this world.” (Iqd, Vol. 2, p. 278)

  2. "All evil was put in a house, the key to which is the desire for this world, and all the good was put in a house, the key to which is al-zuhd fi al-duniya.”(Risalah, p. 57)

  3. “The zahid is not the one who discarded the anxieties of this world and relaxed from them; this is merely a rest. The zahid is the one who renounced this world and wore himself out for the world to come.” (Tarikh Daraya, p. 51)

These statements reflect a disagreement with the various zuhhad who defined zuhd as wiping out the effects of this world from the heart. According to Abu Sulaymin's words, this is not zuhd. Zuhd is a deeper feeling and requires efforts in this world on behalf of the world to come.

4. According to one tradition the Prophet (saw) was asked about the man who reaches the highest level of zuhd, and answered: "the one who did not forget the graves and the decay, and preferred the eternal upon the perishable, and considered himself among the dead." (Iqd, Vol. 2, p. 112)

This definition of zuhd is the most extreme we have come across so far. Here we do not find the compromise between the physical existence in this world and the desire to reach the after world. The demand given in the fourth statement is to live as a dead person, with no desires and no materialistic needs. However, as can be seen in the other three sayings, the zahid is most often introduced as a human being who does not care about this world but is involved in its affairs. Being involved with earthly affairs means dealing with people and property.

Is it possible to be a Zahid while owning some property?

Sufyan al-Thawri and Sufyan b. Uyaynah stated:

"It is possible on the condition that when he (the zahid) is tested he is patient and when he is being granted, he is grateful." (Wara, p. 112)

Ahmad b. Hanbal has also given a similar answer:

"Yes (it is possible to be a zahid while having money), on the condition that when the money increases, he is not happy, and when it decreases he is not sad." (Tabqat Hanabilah, Vol. 2, p. 14)

According to both answers there is no harm in property as long as the prevailing feeling is contentment and dependency on God.

A problem emerges when the zahid becomes enslaved to property and begins to see money as a goal in itself. In such a case money, or any kind of possession becomes dangerous. Once a zahid said to a king:

"You are the slave of my slave, because you worship this world out of your yearning for it, whereas I am its master because I dislike it and renounce it."

A tradition transmitted from the Prophet (saw) strengthens this statement:

"God commanded the world and said: the one who serves me, you serve him, and the one who serves you, make him your servant."

And it was said:

"As long as [one] renounces the world, he controls it and the one who desires it, makes it his owner." (Muhadarat al-Udaba, p. 246)

This passage takes us to the analysis: the weak point in 'being involved in this world's affairs is the danger of falling prey to it. Therefore, the zahid has to control his emotions and desires, a state which will enable him to be physically involved, but never emotionally.

The following three definitions of zuhd support this idea:

  • "Zuhd is to vacate the hands from possessions, and to vacate the heart from pursuing (wanting the possession).”

  • "Zuhd is vacating the heart from what the hand is vacant from.”

  • "Zuhd is diverting the heart from the means of subsistence and shaking the hands of possessions." (Risalah, pp. 56-57)


Relationship between Zuhd and Wara

Finally, to emphasize the fact zuhd does not deprive the zahid of his basic needs but rather regards him as a highly moral human being, I will look at a set of statements, all of which connect zuhd with wara (scrupulosity).

Generally speaking, wara means hesitation and caution in deciding or acting out of conscience. The primary issue with which wara' deals is the border between halal (lawful, or permissible) and haram (unlawful, or prohibited), and the meaning of shubhah (moral doubt).

Ahmad b.Hanbal has divided wara into three classes:

  1. zuhd of the common people (awamm), which is abandoning the haram;

  2. zuhd of the religious elite (khawass), which is abandoning the surplus of the halal,

  3. ​​​​​​zuhd of those who know God (arifin), which is abandoning whatever detracts the believer from God. (Risalah, p.57)

A similar definition is ascribed to Ibrahim b. Adham:

"There are three kinds of zuhd:

  1. zuhd which is a duty (zuhd fard), and this is the renunciation of the haram,

  2. zuhd which is a privilege (zuhd fadl), and this is the renunciation of the halal;

  3. zuhd which is completeness (zuhd salamah), and this is the renunciation of the moral doubts (shubuhat). (Hilyat al-Awliya, Vol. 8, p. 26)

Both definitions imply zuhd has to be practiced by each and every member of a pious Islamic community; one limits zuhd to the social sphere, to man-to-man relations, and the other adds a severer and more general demand. It seems, however, both definitions agree that the higher the religious level the zahid reaches, the clearer his conscience should be. But even at the top, zuhd does not mean total abstinence of affliction, but rather a higher standard of morality.

However, rida, tawakkul and qisar al-amal are the essence of zuhd and a zahid’s goal in life. Wara, on its part, gives zuhd its special flavor. Wara is the way of life the zahid should follow to reach the most exalted goal, i.e., total dependency on God combined with a deep love for Him.

Conclusion

Through the above discussion we can thus conclude that once the heart, or inner desires, are controlled, the zahid is allowed to lead a regular life in this world. By submitting his heart, the zahid secludes himself mentally from this world and overcomes its temptations. This is the way the zahid adjusts himself to the surroundings.

By emptying his heart of materialistic desires and filling it instead with permanent thoughts about God, death, and the after-world (rida, tawakkul and qisar al-amal), the zahid achieves a compromise. The compromise is between the fact he lives a spiritual life and is supposed to annihilate himself and the whole world in which he lives, and the fact he cannot escape his existence and physical needs in this world.

References

Abd al-Jabbir al-Khawlani, Ta'rikh Daraya
Abd al Karim Qushayri, al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah fi Ilm al-Tasawwuf
Abu Nu'aym al-Isfahani, HIilyal al-Awliya
Abu Talib, Qut ul Quloob
Abu Uthman al-Kinani al-Basri, al-Jahiz, al-Bayan wa al-Tabyn​​​​​​​
Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Hanbal, Tabaqat al-Hanabilah
Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf, Ithaf
A. J. Arberry, Sufism - An Account of the Mystics of Islam
Ibn Abd al-Barr, Jami al-Bayan al-Ilm​​​​​​​
Ibn Qutaybah, Uyun al-Akhbar​​​​​​​
Ignaz Goldziher, Vorlesungen uber den Islam
Leah Kinberg, What is meant by Zuhd
L. Massignon, Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane
Muhammad b. al-Husayn al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Suflyyah
R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs
​​​​​​​Raghib Isfahani, Muhadarat al-Udaba
Zayd Al Qayrawani, Risalah


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