On the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar (May Allah be pleased with them both), he relates that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) once held my shoulders and said:
“Live in this world as (if you are) a wayfarer or a stranger.” And Abdullah ibn Umar (May Allah be pleased with them both) used to say: “If you live till night, then do not wait for the next day (i.e. do not have hopes that you will live to the next day), and if you wake up in the morning do not have hope that you will live till the night. And take (advantage) from your health before your sickness and take advantage of your life before your death (i.e. do every possible obedience in your life before death comes to you for then no deeds can be performed.)” [Recorded in Bukhari and Tirmidhi*]
“The similitude of ‘Living in this world as a wayfarer’ is like that of a traveler in this world who undertakes a journey and then stops to rest under the shade of a tree in a particular place. So the traveler ties his mount, lays down his luggage and retires for a moment under the shade in the midday heat, reclining against the tree. Then after having rested a while, he gathers his belongings, unties his mount and resumes his journey moving away from the temporary resting place, where he had sheltered for a short time. Such is the similitude of man in this world, who resides in this temporary abode of the world for a short time, and then he must thereafter continue his journey towards his real destination, which is the hereafter.”
Note: I didn’t write the above explanation. I found it at this blog. I thought it was pretty on point so I decided to put a like to the blog.
The mouth of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is such an effusive well-spring of uncanny wisdom that I often find myself pondering the effects his words have on the psyche of those who take stock in what lies beyond the norms of human perception (al-ghayb). When I read them, I’m usually taken aback. Considering his statements in tandem with the words of the Qur’an and the historical situations he was placed under unveils the true complexities of our lives as human beings and brings to fore, whether we like it or not, the paradoxes which must be managed. Most times, I figured we don’t like it: paradoxes don’t sit well in the modern mind (at least within the Newtonian mind. The quantum mind might fare them better, but then quantum mechanics produces some pretty bizarre and unintuitive results): they make us uncomfortable; they make us swarm; they can be a source of mystery, and “mystery,” as Flannery O’Connor reminds us, “is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” One of these paradoxes, as I see it, has been bothering me for a while now and I figured I’d try to write about now. Insha’Allah, I’ll able to do so eloquently.
The above hadith (a reported saying of Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم) is one of my favorites. When I think about my short life, I can’t help but to recall this pithy statement. I’ve never felt at home anywhere really, save in the company of my mother, who’s now dead, my two brothers, and a few of my close friends. With everyone else, there’s always some distance involved, some repulsion that holds me at bay. Even with regard to my conversion with Islam, I still struggle, after almost six years, to find a sense of belonging within the Muslim community, a struggle which – I think, and God knows best – will endure for the remainder of my life. The result of this itinerant status has been an almost near constant state of spiritual vagrancy accompanied with a small degree of detachment, like that of wayfarer or a nomad who’s always both wondering and wandering but never lost, alone but not lonely, “a soul admitted to itself,” going where the winds of fate take him.
- There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself-
- ~Emily Dickinson
- One ship drives east and another drives west
- With the selfsame winds that blow.
- ‘Tis the set of the sails,
- And Not the gales,
- That tell us the way to go.
Some would balk at such notions; thoughts of being alone or distant from others, even in our individualistic society, can elicit rather visceral reactions of rejections. And why wouldn’t they? After all, we’re told that we are a part to an ummah, community, that we belong somewhere – to something larger and greater – that to be alone is a defect, right? Of course, some veracity does exist in what we’re told, especially for the Muslim to some degree. Yet, the quality of a wayfarer requires, I think, a degree of aloofness. A wise Sufi sheikha (a female sheikh) and a good friend of mine, relaying to me what her sheikh told her, once told me that feelings of spiritual homelessness were a blessing in disguise. The sensation, she told me, keeps one from becoming spiritually and intellectually complacent, keeps one from become too attached to the dunya, the realm of earthly and temporal values.
I give her words much credence, but herein lies the problem: how does one reconcile the two approaches? How do does one live life both as a detached wayfarer and also as one enveloped in the concerns of dunya? I mean, shouldn’t we make the a priori assumption that the dunya does have some intrinsic value, some form of telos, of purpose? If it didn’t, if we abandon the quest for meaning and purpose, then the nihilists, moral relativists, and post-modern deconstructionists would win the game. (I’m being a bit puerile here, so bear with me). However, if we assign value and purpose to the dunya, how then can we detach ourselves from it? If the idea seems paradoxical, it’s probably because it is so: you know, if-it-looks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck, then-it-must-be-a-duck-type-of-thing.
So what do we do?
Perhaps the answer lies in being the Middle Nation, in balancing between the demands of monastic asceticism (rahbaniyyah) on the far right and the demands, or lack thereof, of crass, liberal materialism on the far left. Now, take it from a capoeirista (a practitioner of Capoeira): achieving any sort of balance within ANYTHING requires hard work, practice, discipline, contemplation, time, and patience. In most things, most people, myself included, usually teeter this way or that way, toward one extreme or the the other. I employ vague generalities intentionally because – well – being in the center is just that difficult. In fact, Charles le Gai Eaton reminds us of this difficulty and of the ease at which one can take residence at the extremes.
“Extreme positions always offer a certain comfort. You can take your rest at the extreme. Tension and effort are involved in maintaining a balance, together with skill and judgment. Those who watch ballet with enjoyment may think, if they know little about the technique of the dance, that it looks easy. They do not know that the dancers sometimes have blood in their shoes. A dancer achievers balance through training and discipline, but also through the conscious cultivation of a talent that is innate. Contrary forces must be kept in perfect equilibrium.” ~Charles le Gai Eaton, Remembering God: Reflections on Islam
Seldom are there exact formulae for what we seek in this life; there are no easy answers nor should there be. Nothing would be gained in the way of wisdom and value if everything were easy and came without some sort of struggle. The challenge makes us truly appreciate the beauty of the whole ordeal, just like Gai Eaton’s ballet analogy. We, as Muslims, should learn, as T.S. Eliot said, “to care and not to care” and “to sit still.”
Balance in everything. Balance in all things. These things, I’ve discovered, can only be managed.