Dimensions of wisdom and advices of Nahj al- Balaghah (3/1) piety -zuhd

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Another spiritual motif conspicuous in the teachings of Nahj al- balaghah is zuhd, which after taqwa is the most recurring theme of the book, “zuhd” means renunciation of the “world”, and very often we encounter denunciation of the “world” and invitation and exhortation to renounce it. appears to me that it forms one of the important themes of the Nahj al- balaghah which needs to be elucidated and explaied in the light of various aspects of Ali’s approach.

Definition of asceticism (zuhd) and its varieties
The words “zuhd” and “ raghbah” ( attraction, desire), if mentioned without reference to their objects, are opposite to each other, “zuhd” means indifference and avoidance, and “ raghbah” means attraction, inclination, and desire.

Indifference can be of two kinds: involuntary and cultivated. A person is involuntarily indifferent towards a certain thing when by nature he does not have any desire for it, as in the case of a sick person who shows no desire either for food, or fruits, or anything else, obviously, this kind of indifferent and abstinence has nothing to do with the particular sense implied in “zuhd”.

Another kind of indifferent abstinence is spiritual or intellectual, that is, thing which are natural objects of desire are not considered the goal and objective by a human being in the course of his struggle for perfection and felicity. The ultimate objective and goal may be some thing above mundane aims and sensual pleasures, either it may to attain the sensuous pleasures of the Hereafter, or it may not belong to this kind of things. It may be some high ethical and moral ideal, like honour, dignity, liberty, or it may belong to the spiritual sphere, like the remembrance of God, the love of God, and the desire to acquire nearness to him.

Accordingly the zuhd (i.e. one who practices zuhd) is some one whose interest transcends the sphere of material existence, and whose object of aspiration lies beyond the kind of thing we have mentioned above. The indifferent of zuhd originates in the sphere of his ideas ideals, and hopes, not in his physiological makeup.

There are two places where we come across the definition of zuhd in the Nahj al- balaghah. Both of them confirm the above interpretation of zuhd Ali (a), in khutbah 81, says:

O people! Zuhd means curtailing of hopes, thanking God for his blessings and bounties, and abstaining from that which hehas forbidden.

In hikmah 439, he says:

All Zuhd is summarized in two in two sentences of the Qur’an: God, the Most Exalted, says,….so that you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you [ 57:23] whoever does not grieve over what he has lost and does not rejoice over what comes to him has acquired Zuhd in both of its aspects.

Obviously when something does not occupy a significant position among one’s objectives and ideals, or rather is not at all significant in the scheme of things which matter to him, its gain and lose do not make the slightest difference to him.

However, there are some points that need clarification. Is Zuhd ,or detachment from the world, on which the Nahj al- balaghah, following the Qur’anic teachings, puts so much emphasis, to be taken solely in an ethical and spiritual sense? In other words, is Zuhd purely a spiritual state, or does it possess practical implications also? That is, is Zuhd spiritual abstinence only or is it accompanied by an abstinence in practical life also?

IsIamic asceticism and Christian monasticism
Zuhd, as defined by the Nahj al- balaghah, is a spiritual state makes the zahid, on account of his spiritual and otherworldly aspirations, indifferent towards the manifestations of material existence. This indifference is not confined to his heart, intellect, and feelings and is not limited to his conscience. It also manifests itself on the practical level of life in the form of simplicity, contentment, and abstention from hedonistic urges and love of luxuries. A life of Zuhd not only implies that a man should be free from attachment to the material aspects of life, but he should also practically abstain from indulgence in pleasures, the zuhhad are those who in life are satisfied with the barest material necessities, Ali (a) was a zahid, who was not only emotionally detached from the world but also indifferent to its pleasures and enjoyments. In other words, he had “renounced” “the world”.

Two Questions:
Here, inevitably, two questions shall arise in the reader’s mind. Firstly, as we know, IsIam has opposed monasticism considering it to be an innovation of Christian priests and monks, the prophet (s) has stated in unequivocal terms that:

There is no monasticism ( rahbaniyyah) in IsIam.

Once when the prophet (s) was informed that some of his companions had retired into seclusion renouncing everything and devoting all their time to worship and prayer in seclusion, he became very indignant he told them “I, who am your prophet, am not such “, In this way, the prophet (s) made them to understand that IsIam is a religion of life and society, not monastic faith Moreover, the comprehensive and multifaceted teachings of IsIam in social, economic, political and moral spheres are based on reverence for life, not on its renuncitation.

Apart from this, monasticism and renuncitation of life are incompatible with the world- view of IsIam and its optimistic outlook about the universe and creation Unlike some other philosophies and creeds, IsIam does not view the world and life in society with pessimism, it does not divide all creation into ugly and beautiful, black and while, good and evil, proper and improper, right and wrong, Now the second question may be stated in these words: “Aside from the fact asceticism is the same as monasticism-which are both incompatible with the IsIam spirit- what is the philosophy underlying zuhd? Moreover, why man, seeing the limitless bounties of God and good things of life around him, be called upon to pass by the side of this delightful stream indifferently and without so much as wetting his feel?

Difference between IsIamic and Christian asceticism in their relation with life and realism
Are the ascetic teachings found in IsIam, on this basis, later innovations (bid’ah) introduced in to IsIam from other creeds like Christianity and Buddhism? And if this is correct, how are we to explain and interpret the teachings of the Nahj al- balaghah? How can we explain the indubitable details knows about the prophet’s life and that of Ali (a)?

The answer is that IsIamic zuhd is different from Christian asceticism or monasticism. Asceticism is retreat from people and society and seclusion for the purpose of worship. According to it, the life and works of the world are separate from the works of the Hereafter and the one is alien to the other, one should, of necessity ,choose either one of the two, one should either devote oneself to worship of God which shall bear fruits in the Hereafter, or take up the life the of the world and benefit from its immediate pleasures Accordingly, monasticism is opposed to life and social relationships, it requires withdrawal from people and negation of responsibility and commitment towards them.

On the other hand, zuhd in IsIam, though in requires a simple and unaffected life- style and is based on abstention from luxuries and love of comforts and pleasures, operates in the very midst of life and social relations and is sociable, it draws inspiration, and proceeds from the goal of better fulfillment of social responsibilities and duties.

The conception of zuhd in IsIam is not something that would lead to asceticism, because a sharp distinction between this world and the next is nowhere drawn. From the viewpoint of IsIam, world and the next are not separable, not alien to each other. The relation this world to the other is similar to that between the inward and outward sides of a single reality they are the warp and woof of a single fabric, they are to each other as the soul to the body. Their relationship can be assumed to be something midway between unity and duality. The works of this world and those of the next are interrelated similarly. Their difference is that of quality, without being essential. Accordingly, that which is harmful for the other world is also to one’s detriment in the present would, and every thing which is also beneficial for life in the next world. Therefore, if a certain work which is in accordance with the higher interests of life in this world is performed with motives that are devoid of the higher, supra – material and transcendental elements that work would be considered totally this- worldly and not, as the Qur’an tells us, elevate man in his ascent towards God, However, if a work or action is motivated by sublime aims and intentions and is executed with a higher vision that transcends the narrow limits of worldly life, the same work and action is considered other – worldly.

The IsIamic zuhd, as we said, is grounded in the very context and stream of life and gives a peculiar quality to living by emphasizing certain values in life. As affirmed by the IsIamic texts, zuhd in IsIam is based on three essential principles of the IsIamic world- outlook.

The three Essential principles:
1. Enjoyments derived from the physical material and natural means of life are not sufficient for man’s happiness and felicity. A series of spiritual needs are inbuilt in the human nature, without whose satisfaction the enjoyment provided by material means of life is not enough to make man truly happy.

2. The individual’s felicity and happiness is not separable from that of society. since man is emotionally bound to his society, and carries within him a senses of responsibility towards it, his individual happiness cannot be independent of the prosperity and peace of his fellow men.

3. The soul, despite its fusion and kind of unity with the body, has a reality of its own. it is a principle in addition to the which constitutes another principle in itself. The soul is an independent source pleasure and pain. Like the body, or rather even, more than it, stands in need of nourishment, training, growth, and development. The soul, however, cannot dispense with the heath and vigour of the body. At the same time, it is undeniable that total indulgence in physical pleasures and complete immersion into the delights of sensual experiences does not leave any opportunity for realizing the soul’s unlimited possibilities, therefore, there exists a kind of incompatibility between physical enjoyment and spiritual satisfaction. This is especially true if the attention and attachment to physical needs were carried to the very extreme of total immersion and absorption.

It is not true that that all sorrow and grief are related to the soul and that all pleasures are derived from the body, in fact, the spiritual pleasures are much profounder, purer, and lasting than bodily pleasures. to sum up, one – sided attention to physical pleasures and material enjoyments finally results in compromising the total human happiness. Therefore, it we want to make our lives happy, rich, pure, majestic, attractive, and beautiful we cannot afford to ignore the spiritual aspects of our being.

With due attention to these principles, the meaning of zuhd in IsIam becomes clear. The knowledge of these principles allows us to understand why IsIam rejects monasticism but welcomes a form of asceticism which is rooted in the very heart of the life and in the context of social existence. We shall explain the meaning of zuhd in IsIam texts on the basis of these three principles.


Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balaghah- pages: 180 to 189


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