On Zuhd (Renouncing the World)

‘So that you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you.’ (Holy Qur’an, 57:23)

The word Zuhd when taken on its own means indifference and avoidance. This indifference can be two-fold: either involuntary (when by nature something is not desired), or cultivated (which comes from spiritual or intellectual exercise of the self in the struggle for perfection and happiness). We are obviously going to look at the latter form of ‘abstinence’, and investigate further.

A person on the path of attaining human perfection, whose interests lie beyond the realm of material existence, has set himself practical goals in the form of simplicity, contentment and abstention from indulgence in pleasures, on top of the intellectual goals mentioned above.

Zuhd is not monasticism, which is forbidden and incompatible with the world-view of Islam. Contrary to ‘common knowledge’, Islam reveres and celebrates life, and encourages all its followers to be involved in all aspects of social, economic, political and moral spheres. Without this life, then how are we supposed to attain perfection and knowledge of God and oneself, in preparation for the Hereafter? We have to take this world, this universe, as our aid and partner in reaching our ultimate goal.

Now, one might find some contradiction in these statements, and rightfully so. At one point, we are calling for the denunciation of this world, and the next to enjoy life and partake in all its pleasures. Here we can clarify the philosophy of zuhd more clearly, in order to grasp the concept as intended. As mentioned before, our life in the next world depends entirely on our work in this world. Hence, if our work in this world is entirely dedicated to satisfying our material interests and desires, then it would aid us an iota in the ascent to God. Therefore, when we are motivated to perform our daily tasks and duties, always keeping in mind the higher vision and ultimate goal of the Hereafter, this work becomes supra-material and agrees with the spiritual needs of man, already existing in his nature.  Because this in itself becomes worship and hence aids man in his pursuit of perfection.

Now, to summarize up to this point, here are ‘Three Essential Principles of the Islamic world-outlook’:

1) Human nature has an innate disposition for spiritual needs.

2) The individual’s happiness is inseparable from that of society. 

3) The soul has a reality of its own, and cannot dispense with the health of the body. 

Then we can describe Zuhd from the point of view of Islamic Philosophy, which is considered Ithar (altruism), and is the highest manifestation of human greatness. Ithar means to live a humble and simple life, so that others may live in comfort. And here we can say that sympathy and kindness also comes in to play when helping the needy and suffering. And when those deprived of the comforts of life witness those who are affluent spend lavishly on things they are in no need of, this anguish is multiplied and here is where a person of zuhd and ithar will consider himself responsible to come to the aid of those in need. 

When we look to the life of Imam Ali (‘a), especially during his time as leader of the Islamic State, he was the best example there ever was, and ever will be (next to the Holy Prophet (s’aw)), of a true zahid:

‘Indeed God has made it obligatory for just leaders that they should maintain themselves at the level of the poor class, so that they do not despair of their distress.’ (Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon 209)

With this post I’ve tried to give a brief overview on the philosophy of zuhd. This topic will take up volumes if analysed in detail, but I pray that I have at least made the concept clear in the readers’ mind. So, in summary, these are the main ideas to remember when contemplating zuhd:

1) People who try to practice zuhd without the knowledge of the true meaning of this philosophy, will strike a kind of deal with God in their minds, for which they trade a life of abstention and self-denial in this world, for a life of enjoyment and bliss in the Hereafter. But this is the worship of traders and will only increase their distance from God. On the other hand, the fully aware zahid, practises zuhd due to his objection to involve his self with anything except God, whence, anything but God becomes unworthy of any attention and servitude.

2) Every kind of hedonism and attachment to pleasures is considered polytheism, and contrary to the fundamental Islamic concept of Tawhid (Divine Unity/Monotheism).

3) This world and the next life are mutually exclusive. One cannot have this temporal life as a final goal and expect to attain nearness to God and the reward of eternal happiness in the Hereafter.

4) True human personality will emerge once man learns to strip money and goods of their power and subjugates them to his own authority.

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