Early Islamic Society
Self-effacement became second nature with the Companions. Ibn-i-Omar tells that, “We have seen days when none of us had a greater claim on his wealth than his Muslim brother.”
Consequently, many events took place which joined the frontiers of kindliness with those of fellowship, and which carried fellowship to the heights of altruism and self-sacrifice. It is related by Ibn-i-Omar that “Once a Companion of the Holy Prophet received the head of a goat as a gift. Thinking that such-and-such a person had a greater need of it, he sent it to him. But he, too, thought the same and sent it to another friend. The head of the goat, thus, travelled from one person to another till after making a round of seven homes it came back to the Companion who had received it first.”
Passing from the Companions to the Tab’een, we learn from Hazrat Hasan Basri that during their time the moral and spiritual state of Muslims was such that at day-break a man from among them would announce: “O you householders! Take care of the orphans in your midst; take care of the helpless in your midst.”
Ahead of all others were the tribe of Bani Hashim and the people of the Prophet’s household. They pursued the path of truth and earnestness with single-minded devotion. Innumerable instances of the generosity and kindheartedness of Imam Hasan and Abdullah bin Jafar are recorded in history. Imam Ali bin Husain bin Ali (known popularly by the name of Zainul Abedin) received the largest share of these virtues from his ancestors. It is related by Ibn-i-Ishaq that during the lifetime of the Imam many people did not know from whom were they received their livelihood. When the Imam died and the supply stopped they realised that it was he who used to bring them provisions secretly in the night. On the death of the Imam it was discovered that his body bore marks of the bags he used to carry to the homes of the poor and the needy.
This legacy of generosity and unselfishness was preserved by the Muslims as a sacred trust and their religious and spiritual leaders functioned in all parts of the world as the most faithful representatives of this glorious way of life. That no money be left in the house when night fell was regarded by these pious and truthful men as a regular rule of conduct. They never failed to place the needs of others above their own and to pass on promptly to the poor and the destitute what they received from better off members of society by way of gifts or donations. Their motto was: Charity should be taken from the well-to-do and distributed to the poor.’’ Like their hearts, their table spreads, too, were larger, wider and more open to the common people than those of the rich men and noble lords. It was once remarked by Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (universally accepted as the leader of the whole class of Sufia-i-Karam, the venerable Sufi ascetics) about himself that, “There is a hole in the palm of my hand. Nothing stays in it. If I had even a thousand dirhams they would be spent up before dusk.” On another occasion, he is reported to have said in a wistful mood: “I wish the whole world was given to me and I went on feeding the hungry.”
These evolved souls, these man of piety and godliness, were found in various parts of the far-flung world of Islam. They were the true blossom of the “tree of Apostleship.” They had sprung from the same ‘Goodly Tree’ about which it is stated in the Qur’an:
Its roots (are) set firm; its branches (are) reaching into heaven, giving its fruit at every season by permission of its Lord. (Ibrahim: 24-25)
Volumes can be written on the prodigious deeds of religious charity and selflessness which marked the lives of these peerless specimens of humanity. To illustrate our point we will refer to a few such events here.
About Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia it is related by his attendant that he took the Saheri to him which included all kinds of dishes. But the Sheikh partook very little of it and for the rest he instructed that it should be kept carefully for children. Khwaja Abdur Rahim, whose duty it was to take the Saheri to him, tells that often he ate nothing. The Khwaja would implore him to take some nourishment as he ate very little at the time of Iftar, and if he also did not eat anything at Saheri he would become very weak. Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia would burst into tears at it and say: “How many poor and helpless people are lying on the platforms of mosques without a morsel of food? They spend their nights in starvation. How, then, can this food go down my throat?” The attendant reports that often he used to find the meal untouched by the Sheikh.
When the hour of his death drew near, the Sheikh summoned all the disciples and attendants to his bedside and said: “Be a witnesses to it that if Iqbal (the name of an attendant) has held back any of the provisions in the house he will have to answer for it tomorrow, on the Day of Judgement.” Iqbal affirmed that he had spared nothing. Everything had been given away in the name of God. That fine, generous-hearted man really had done so. Except for a few foodgrains which could suffice for the needs of the inmates of the Khanqah for a few days he had distributed all that was in the house to the poor. Syed Husain Kirmani reported to the Sheikh that everything had been given to the needy save these foodgrains. The Sheikh was very angry with Iqbal when he came to know of it and calling him to his side enquired why had he held in reserve the ‘rotten dust’ (the foodgrains). He, then, ordered those around him to collect a crowd, and, when it had gathered, the Sheikh said to it: “Go and break the earthen jars in which the grain is stored. Take it away and leave nothing.” The multitude made quick work of it and within a short time the storehouse was empty.”
Another example of the same way of living can be cited from the biography of Syed Mohammad Saeed Ambalavi. It is stated by his biographer that once Nawab Roshanudaula presented to him a purse of Rs. 10,000 (which must have been equal to 700000 of rupees today) for the construction of the Khanqah. The saint advised him to leave the money and go and have a little rest as the work would commence in the afternoon. After Nawab Roshanuddaula had retired, he sent, through his disciples, the entire amount to the widows, orphans and other needy people of Ambala, Thanesar, Sirhand and Panipat. When Roshanuddaula returned in the evening, the saint said to him: “Yes could never have earned so much Divine reward by the construction of Khanqah as you have by serving so many poor and helpless people.” On another occasion, Emperor Farrukh Siyar, Nawab Roshanuddaula and Nawab Abdullah Khan sent him Rs. 300,000 with their petitions. For his part, he distributed so received all the money among the indigent and well-born families of neighbouring towns and villages.
It may be said that these were the deeds of the ascetics who had renounced the world and dwelt on a different place, well away from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. What remains to be seen is whether similar instances of unalloyed asceticism, self-sacrifice and contentment are as easy to find among other sections of the Ummah. Here, too, the verdict of history is in the affirmative. For, in Islamic society there have been found, at very stage, men who have conformed to the noble standard set by the Holy Prophet in their attitude towards life, worldly possessions, relatives, neighbours and countrymen. They belonged to all classes of people, including kings, noblemen, saints and savants. To take up only two examples, one from among the scholars and the other from among the rulers, the name of Sheikhul Islam Ibn-i-Taimiya comes first to mind in the former category of earnest and deep-hearted Muslims. Those who do not know much about him are often inclined to imagine that he was a dry, old-blooded theologian who had little regard for human emotions, but his contemporary, Hafiz Ibn-i-Faizullah-el-Umari, writes thats “Heaps of gold, silver and other goods would come to him and he distributed them all till nothing was left. If he ever laid aside anything it was only with the object of giving it to some particular person… His generosity knew no bounds, and, sometimes, when there was nothing to give he would hand over the clothes he was wearing to the needy.”
From the class of kings and conquerors, Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi makes an ideal choice. He was the ruler of the largest Muslim Empire of his time and had inflicted a crushing blow to the mightiest military power of the then known world. His friend, Ibn-i-Shaddab tells that the entire assets of the Sultan at the time of his death amounted to a mere 47 dirhams and a gold coin. He left no other property to his descendants.
This powerful monarch whose Empire extended from the north of Syria in Asia to the Nubian desert of Sudan in Africa departed from the world in such a state that there was not enough money in the house to pay for his funeral Ibn-i-Shaddad writes:
“Not a price was spent for his legacy on his burial. Everything had to be borrowed, even the bundles of straw for the grave. The shroud was provided by his Minister and chronicler, Qadi Fadil, from a legitimate source.”
Such an austere and self-denying way of life was not peculiar to any generation or school of thought, but all theological masters, divines and spiritual leaders punctiliously abided by it. ‘A new day a new provision’, was the guiding principle of their lives. They never saved anything for the future nor did they economise in the fear of being empty-handed. This is not a romantic tale of bygone days. Even today, there are men of Religion and spirituality among Muslims who do not like that anything in excess of their requirements remain with them which might be needed by someone else or that a night should pass with money above their needs. This is not a philosophy of mortification or renunciation of the world, nor is it motivated by the desire to interfere with the Divine scheme of things or to create hardship where God has provided ease or to forbid and disallow what has been declared by Him to be lawful and legitimate. Furthermore these men of God do not take to his path because of any constraint. They are inspired solely by the fear of Divine Reckoning, by a love of mankind and by an eagerness to follow the confirmed practice of the Prophet and trace his steps not only in charity and self-sacrifice but in all good and virtuous deeds.