Virtue, Apparent and Real

By Khalid Baig

He was a contemporary but not a companion of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Seeing the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, undoubtedly, would have been the greatest achievement of his life. For any believer no event could have been of greater emotional or spiritual value than a chance to see the last of the Messengers of Allah in person. To shake hands with him. To listen to him. To learn directly from him. But Owais Qarni's mother was old, blind, and disabled. He had to constantly take care of her and that responsibility did not permit him to take the trip from Yemen to Madinah. He missed the chance to become a companion --- the highest category of any group of believers. But his piety earned him the title of Khairut Tabiyeen or "the best of the generation following the companions," from the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, himself. Later when he did visit Madinah, Sayyidna Umar, Radi-Allahu unhu, sought him and asked him to pray for him, explaining that he made the request for prayers because the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, had advised him to do so.

The story obviously tells us about the status of mothers in Islam and the virtue of serving one's parents. But there is even a bigger lesson here. Sometimes there is a fine line between apparent virtue and real virtue; between what we like to do and what we must do; between religion as hobby and religion as the serious business of obedience to Allah. This is a delicate issue because the conflict between duty and desire may be camouflaged by the apparent virtuosity of the deeds. To detect the difference and make the right choice requires balance, sensitivity, and wisdom---qualities that are central to Prophetic teachings.

Jihad in the battlefield is a very important Islamic institution and the Qur'an and Hadith are full of merits of those who are willing to lay their lives to uphold Truth and fight falsehood. Yet there were occasions when the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, sent back aspiring mujahids to their homes to take care of their old parents when the parents really needed them. For a mere general, the soldier who had demonstrated his devotion to the battle by overcoming his personal ties would have been even more valuable.

Voluntary fasts and prayers, especially night prayers, are highly emphasized in Islam's system of worship as the means of attaining closeness to Allah. They have special blessings precisely because of their voluntary nature. Yet when some companions decided to fast everyday and pray all night, they were admonished. For a mere religious leader who was promoting these particular forms of worship, the more his followers indulged in these things, the better.

In declaring Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, as the most influential person in history, Michael Hart, in his famous book admits that he is the only person who has been equally successful in both religious as well as secular spheres. Actually not only did Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, excel as the best human being and the best leader in all areas of life, he demonstrated and taught an unprecedented balance between conflicting real life requirements. There is simply no other example of that achievement in the entire history. What is more, he inculcated that wisdom in the companions and their followers. Anyone who looks at this aspect of Prophet's life with an open mind, will find himself declaring, "I bear witness that Muhammad (Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam) is Allah's servant and Messenger."

There have been great warriors and there have been people with remarkable self-restraint, but where do we find an example like that of Syedna Ali Radi-Allahu unhu, who, in the heat of a fight left his opponent when the later spit at him in desperation. To the perplexed enemy he explained that he was fighting for the sake of Allah not for his ego. His commitment was not to the fight, it was to serving Allah.

Consider a small incident from the life of great scholar, mujahid, sufi, and jurist, Abdullah ibn Mubarak. Among his many virtues is that he was fond of performing Hajj regularly and even paid the expenses of all the members of his Hajj group. During one such trip he saw that at a stopover, the people of another caravan threw a dead chicken in the trash. Moments later a little girl emerged from a nearby house, and rushed home with that dead bird. Curious, Abdullah ibn Mubarak followed her. He found that the girl lived with her widowed mother and they had no source of income. They had been starving for days. Seeing this he gave all the money he had for the Hajj trip to the poor family and returned home. The Hajj being voluntary was a personal passion. It meant a lot and he had already undertaken a big part of the difficult journey. But when faced with the need of a destitute family, he immediately knew what he had to do. His commitment was not to the Hajj trip, it was to serving Allah.

Today as individuals and groups we seem to be lacking that perspective. We have heard that something is good but we do not know its limits nor do we realize how it fits in the big picture. Examples abound. Some of us have heard that leaving home to invite people to the religion is a great act. It indeed is. But if one's own family needs him and leaving it alone will expose it to dangers then it is not. In those cases it would be "performing a hobby and not doing a duty," says Justice Mufti Taqi Usmani. A group learns that we need to establish an Islamic state. Another realizes that we need to restore Khilafah. Both are right. But then they put these goals to the exclusion of everything else and develop elaborate philosophies to justify that distortion. In north America in some places Muslims have built big empty mosques when what the community really needed was a full time Islamic school. But million dollar mosques as status symbols become pet projects in ways that a school cannot.

In the best case we are wasting resources by having the wrong priorities. In the worst case we are putting a religious cover on our own desires, without even realizing it. In each case the solution begins with a critical self-examination. It would help to occasionally ask ourselves what would we do if we were in place of Owais Qarni? Or Abdullah ibn Mubarak?