Individually, the consequence of our fears is a more fragile mind and spiritual state, wrecked with the havoc of worries on the next paycheck, the next trip to the grocery store, and the next step to resolve this global crisis. Communally we have seen suspicion, mistrust, and the general care of ourselves and others on the decline. The motivating impulse is often a deep-seated fear, particularly when one has the concern for those who depend on them. What then is fear? And how do we avoid falling prey to it?
ARE WE FEARING THE RIGHT THING?
"The devil shows you fear of poverty and enjoins evil upon you" (2:268)
Commenting on this verse The Prophet ﷺ said: "There are two impulses in the soul, one from an angel which calls towards good and confirms truth; whoever finds this let him know it is from God and praise Him. Another impulse comes from the enemy which leads to doubt and denies truth and forbids good; whoever finds this, let him seek refuge in God from the accursed devil." Then he recited the above verse.1 Fear of Allah (khawf) captures thousands of pages in exposition in the Islamic literature. For our purposes we will look at stemming the negative aspects of fearing ephemeral occurrences, while seeking its cure through the inseparable quality of hope (raj’a) in the eternal Divine plan.
“When there comes to them some matter touching (public) safety or fear, they divulge it. If they had only referred it to the Messenger, or to those charged with authority among them, the proper investigators would have tested it from them (direct). Were it not for the Grace and Mercy of Allah unto you, all but a few of you would have fallen into the clutches of Satan.” [4:83]
Sometimes when we are afraid of something, even if our fears are rational, it can lead us to make choices that will actually cause the very thing that we are avoiding. As weeks have turned into months, a pandemic of fear gave way to selfishly hoarding at the expense of necessary items for Frontline responders, and highlighted the greed of those seeking to profit on suffering. In a world where we are inundated with reports of a sensational 24-hour news cycle, we can blatantly see how it leads to the maddening preposterousness in our actions, which in retrospect produces cringe-worthy moments. COVID-19 will stay with us for a while as we move into the “touchless economy”, as will fear mongering. The disease has provided cover for existing societal plagues, as we see re-imagined narratives that reek of populist and even Islamophobic agendas here and abroad.2 How do we avoid mass hysteria? Simply put, we don’t take part in it. Limiting your intake of daily news, texts, and WhatsApp conversations allows one to take social distancing to the next level by developing a stoic mental state based upon trust in the Divine Providence. We often think telling others of the latest theory or the latest news is helping us to collectively cope, but like small undetected droplets we just end up spreading our anxieties to others. This tact should not be misconstrued as a fatalistic denial or willful ignorance, but a mental strategy against the daily assault on our senses. During Ramadan, it may be high time for us to fast from over-consumption of information.
THRIVING IN THE NEW NORMAL
Being in a state of hardship causes many to turn to Allah, Mighty and Magnificent. Likewise, we often observe that a state of ease, well-being and blessings can turn us away from Allah. Daily protests decry the state of the economy and ask, “When will things go back to normal?” What we should be asking is, “How can I leverage my current situation to be a better version of myself?” In tribulations, trials, misfortunes and calamities there exist numerous benefits that correspond to the various natures and understandings of individuals. Based upon Prophetic guidance, the believers are afflicted with tribulation to such an extent that they end up walking on the earth with no trace of sin remaining on them.3 Realizing the greatness of Allah, humility, servitude, sincerity for Allah, being patient, supplication, consistency in keeping a spiritual routine, expiation of sins, and many other benefits and wisdoms should instill the discerning person with a sense of hope.4
THE THERAPY OF HOPE
Hope (Raj’a) is defined as the, “tranquility of a heart awaiting the object of its love, along with the effort made to accomplish the means which lead to that object. Hope without effort is but vanity and self-deception"5. Therefore it is not a passive waiting for that which he or she wholeheartedly desires to come into existence, such as the acceptance of good deeds or the forgiveness of sins. It is something to strive and engage the heart and mind to attain. In his magna opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, Imam Al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) sought to discuss hope within the last quarter on the work on The Means of Salvation. Discussing the therapies and the technique needed to cure the soul of its earthly ailments, Al-Ghazzali situates hope as holding intrinsic value for humans burdened in sin or facing uncertainty and mortality.
He states in his exposition on the therapy of hope and how to obtain it:
“Know that two types of people have of need of this therapy; either the person over whom despair has become dominant, so that he has neglected worship; or the person over whom fear has become dominant, and who has been extravagant in his perseverance in worship, so that he has done injury to himself and his family. And these two examples of people incline away from the equilibrium towards the two extremes of neglect and excess, and so they take of the treatment that which will restore them to the equilibrium.”6
Hope encourages us to be optimistic about our prospects with God and to fasten our thoughts to the Divine relief rather than our own sinfulness and predicament. Hope is looked upon as a higher prized state than fear, as it is dominated by love, and those nearest to God are those who love Him most. When thinking about being in “equilibrium” we must recall the Prophetic supplication, “O Allah, make me balanced in word and deed”.7 Ibn al-Qayyim, touching on how hope and fear can alternated to achieve this sense of balance stated:
Hope encourages us to be optimistic about our prospects with God and to fasten our thoughts to the Divine relief rather than our own sinfulness and predicament.
“The heart in its journey towards Allah is like a bird whose head is love, and hope and fear are its two wings. When the head and the two wings are sound and healthy, then the flight of the bird is good; but when the head is cut off, then it immediately dies; and when either or both wings are deficient, then the bird cannot properly fly and may become victim of any hunter or snare.
The righteous predecessors preferred to strengthen the wing of fear during good times when heedlessness is feared, and to strengthen the wing of hope at times of calamity and when near death.”8
This only underscores the mediating psyche of the believer when we tether our worship to Allah’s words, “And call upon Him out of fear and hope” [7:56]. One then looks at hope and its opposite, fear, as a means to repair excesses during moments of individual and communal crisis, so as to restore the soul to proper balance. The savants of our predecessors understood that the perfection of our faith encompasses fear, hope, and love.
SOARING PAST THE PRESENT MOMENT
Pain is often thought of as either acute or chronic. What the world is experiencing today, while likely lasting years globally, will not be a perpetual state of chronic illness. We have to keep in mind that our emotive response is as important as any state or federal response. The present moment is the place we perform works for eternity. In moments of crisis the heart may look towards its past transgressions. We would do well to not measure the Divine’s ability to alter our situation. Despair is looked upon as the antithesis of what God wants our mindset should be. Imam Ali stated, “O You, your despairing of the mercy of God is greater fault than your sins.” Returning to Al-Ghazzali, he states that there are two things which can greatly assist in making hope a dominant psychology. “One is reflection (itibar/fikr) and the other the reciting of the verses of the Quran and Hadith and reports”. He then points us to reflect on gratitude: “until he knows the kindnesses of the blessings of God to His creatures in the world, and the marvels of His wisdom which He has disposed in the constitution of man, so that He has furnished for him in this world all that is necessary to him for the maintenance of existence”.9 With regards to the second point he states, “The material which has to do with hope is beyond definition”.10 Allah the Almighty says for example11:
For those oppress their souls:
“They hope for His mercy and fear His punishment. Indeed, the punishment of your Lord is ever feared.” [17:57]
Those that seek an increase of His generosity:
“They hope for a commerce that will never fail.” [35:29]
Those who draw near to Allah, that their hearts may increase and their metaphysical moment be preserved:
“…but you hope to receive something from God for which they cannot hope. God is all knowing and wise.” [4:104]
We see that from fleeing to God, hope arrives:
“Is one who is devoutly obedient during periods of the night, prostrating and standing [in prayer], fearing the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, [like one who does not]? Say, "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Only they will remember [who are] people of understanding.” [39:9]
“Whoever should hope for the meeting with Allah - indeed, the term decreed by Allah is coming.” [29:5]
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "none of you should die but hoping only good from Allah, the Exalted and Glorious"12. The great guide amongst the Salaf, and the Great-Great Grandson of our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings upon him and his family) Muhammad Al-Baqir use to say, “We, The People of the Prophetic House (Ahl Al-Bayt), say: We hope in the guarantee in the Book of God, namely His saying: “Surely your Lord will bestow upon you and you will be satisfied” [93:5]. These narrations illustrate the need to pin our hopes to high aspirations and trusting in the Divine. This Ramadan is like no other, absent of socializing and mosque obligations, and is a time to build our relationship and discourse with the Qur’an, seeking inspiration from its reading beyond mere ritual.
A CLOSING THOUGHT
Many of us are suffering through financial setbacks, relationship tensions, and lest we forget the health of ourselves and loved ones. The over-riding concern we should have this Ramadan is to devise a means by which we may participate in our faith and be exposed to the best of its salutary effects. In this “Zoom” environment we oddly face a crisis of communication within ourselves and families for the pastoral needs to ensure our faith dominates over our fears, and plays a positive force in our quarantined lives. Our self-disclosures of faith in this trying time must not be formulated as to become a fascinating intellectual exercise of scholars, nor yet a sublime and other-worldly saintliness for the few. The therapeutic virtues ascribed to hope in such dire circumstances may seem to be antique or even repulsive to some, but we ought to give our spiritual tradition credit for its unfaltering ability to traverse the multiplicity of human existence, allowing each of us the ability to participate in revelation. In this current state of affairs, we approach the blessed month knowing that our faith affords us hope in a Lord who is All-Aware of the pressing problems in the world, and who offers therapeutic remedies for the pandemic of fear and uncertainty that infects us all.
1. Sunan al-Tirmidhī
2. Perrigo, Bill, “It Was Already Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus” (https://time.com/5815264/coronavirus-india-islamophobia-coronajihad/)
3. Sunan al-Tirmidhī
4. 'Abdus-Salam, al-Imam al-'Izz bin (Translated by Abu Rumaysah). Trials & Tribulations: The Wisdom and Benefits. Published by Dar As-Sunnah (2013). Appendix 1
5. Ibn Ajiba, Ahmad (Translated & Annoted by Mohammed Fouad Aresmouk & Micheal Abdurrahman Fitzgerald). The Book of Ascension to the Essential Truths of Sufism (Mir’aj al-tashawwuf ila haqaiq al-tasawwuf): A Lexicon of Sufic Terminology. Published by Fons Vitae(2011). Pg. 5
6. Ghazzali, Abu Hamid (Translation by William McKane). Book of Fear and Hope being a Translation of Book 33 of the Ihya 'Ulm ad-Din of al-Ghazzali with Translation and Annotation. Published By E. J. Brill Leiden (1965). Pg. 9
7. Suyuti, Jalal Al-Din (Translated by Rashad Jameer). The Work of Day and Night (Al-`Amal al-Yawm wa’l Layl: Suyuti’s Collection of Prophetic Practices and Prayers. Published by Islamic Texts Society Cambridge (2016). Pg. 173
8. Jawziyyah,Ibn Al-Qayyim (Transaltion By Dr. Ovamir Anjum). “Madarij Al-Salikin (Steps of the Seekers) | The Station of Khawf (Fear)” published August 16, 2016 aljumuah.com. Based upon earlier statements made by earlier Khurasanian Sufi Masters Khwaja Ansari, Al-Qushayri, and Al-Ghazzali.
9. Ghazzali, Abu Hamid (Translation by William McKane). Book of Fear and Hope being a Translation of Book 33 of the Ihya 'Ulm ad-Din of al-Ghazzali with Translation and Annotation. Published By E. J. Brill Leiden (1965). Pg. 11
10. Ibid. Pg. 12
11. Ansari, Abdullah (Translation by Nahid Angha). Stations of the Sufi Path: The One Hundred Fields (Sad Maydan) of Abdullah Ansari of Herat. Published by Archetype (2010). Pg. 104
12. Sahih Muslim
Life & Culture Related Articles
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks: Obituary
An internationally recognised Islamic scholar, who saw spirituality, justice, and knowledge as integral to an authentic religious existence. Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, who passed away on the 9th of July 2020 at the age of 64, was a scholar of international repute, able to communicate and engage on the level of state leaders, religious scholars and the broader public.
Racism’s Suffocation of the Human Spirit
I can’t breathe. George Floyd’s last words, conveying, verbatim, Eric Garner’s last words, with echoes through a long chain of souls – Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark and Botham Jean – is a testamentary call that should pierce every Muslim’s mind and heart.
Between the Coronavirus & Ramadan: On Vigilance & Building a Better Now
I pray that, as we continue to lovingly welcome and vigilantly discover the blessings inherent in Ramadan upon us, we awaken to all the moments and especially the moment that Allah has chosen to place us. A quotation from Charles Dickens, the opening to one of his novels, is worth reflecting on: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”