This was delivered by Habib Ali al-Jifri and translated by Ustadh Wael Zubi on 10th August 2022/12th Muharram 1444 in Slough. Habib Ali al-Jifri commented upon selections from The Book of Wisdoms by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari. The day retreat was organised by Ihya Initiative.
Note: Each wisdom that Habib Ali al-Jifri commented upon will be uploaded individually.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
All praise to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. And salutations and greetings upon our Master Muhammad and upon his family and companions.
I intend to study and teach, take and give a reminder, take and give benefit, take and give advantage, to encourage the holding fast to the book of Allah and the way of his messenger, and calling to guidance and directing towards good hoping for the countenance of Allah and His pleasure, proximity and reward, transcendent is He.
The حكم is a few words with layers of meaning. The Arabs had a tradition of wisdoms before Islam. They were relayed through generations. The wise men (who relayed them) had mutual factors. They were people whose words were a few but they were immensely contemplative and insightful. They combined the ability to look into themselves and to look at the world around them. Until the greatest beloved ﷺ came and gave us a way, a broad way, so that we can be recipients of wisdom. One of his sayings ﷺ is, “The fountainhead of wisdom is to be in awe/fear of God.” Fear of God here, Habib says, it is, if you want to penetrate into the depth of what that means: it means to know God and to know God necessitates that you love God. And, to love Him means that you have both fear and reverence.
Some may ask, how can love necessitate that you have fear and reverence? Many years ago, I was invited with our teacher; the Imam who passed away as a martyr: Shaykh Dr. Said Ramadan al-Bouti. There was a conference between Muslims and Non-Muslims in France. We were both amongst the guests. The first day was the interfaith dialogue and the second day was the inter-Muslim dialogue. On the second day, a non-religious journalist asked if she could attend. During a break, Dr. al-Bouti and I sat in a study to the side so we can rest. The host, Mr Arabi, came to them and said, “I’m sorry, Shaykh al-Bouti, I know you want to rest but this woman is weeping uncontrollably. I’ve never seen her like this. She wants to come in and ask you a question. I’ve never seen her like this. I’ve known her for many years.” When she came in, she said to Shaykh al-Bouti, with tears in her eyes, “I don’t believe in the existence of God but the gathering we had now has caused an earthquake in my heart. There is only one thing that I couldn’t harmonise with and that is what I wanted to ask you about. You said that you love God but you fear him and I come from a culture where we have a historical backlash and trauma because of the ideas of chastisement and hell and so on. So, it is very hard for us to find loving and fearing God congruent. How can the two come together?” At that moment, when she asked that question, Shaykh al-Bouti began to weep. He replied, “Have you found a fear greater than when the one in love fears losing their beloved?”
She said, “Here, I now know the answer.”
Fear is knowledge of the soul’s incapacity. The entire corpus of the Hikam is to teach you through its outpourings how to live as a slave. Its inspirations are there to teach you how to live the essential reality that you are the servant of God; the luminosity of the fact that you are a servant of God; the inward pleasure that you are a servant of God; the insight of knowing that you are a servant of God. The lower self’s entire work is to distract you from the fact that you are a servant. Beginning from the level of the self (نفس الكافرة) which denies the truth and is rebellious (nature) to even the self of the person who is travelling to God in the path (نفس السالكة).
Every madness you see in the world today, there is a madness in our world today isn’t that so? There is a lot of it especially these days. The madness is on an individual level, societal level, economical level, political level; at every level of society. In the 90s, we had mad cow disease, now we have mad people disease. What is the secret to this madness? Humanity is denied of the essential reality that they are slaves of God. This denial of our slavehood is madness itself like idiocy. Idiocy and madness is the polar opposite of wisdom; it’s diametrically opposite. Wisdom is the opposite of this: it is the acknowledgement of our essential slavehood. Hence we say: “The fountainhead of wisdom is the fear of God.” We ask Allah to give us of His reverence that allows us to ascend to a station of being pleasant with God and wisdom.
We will start now with some of the selected wisdoms.
Wisdom 18: Your postponement of deeds till the time when you are free is one of the frivolities of the ego.
Let’s start, what does he mean by the word deeds here? He means all deeds by which one draws near to God. What does he mean here by free time? He means any free time that you have from doing other things that take you away from good works. Not necessitating that these other things will distance you from God but it is that these other actions occupy you from doing works that will draw you near to God directly. What does he mean by frivolities? It is a state of idiocy in the self that takes it to misconduct. It misjudges and acts wrongly. It is a state based on misconception and misconduct; a combination of both. It has nothing to do with one’s intelligence. Being idiotic or doing idiotic things is not because someone isn’t intelligent. Many of those who have a high IQ also do things that are idiotic. So, here we have just broken down some of the terms the Imam has used. Let’s go back to the phrase itself.
Your postponing of good deeds because you are waiting for a time where you imagine you will be free of all other occupations that take you away from these good deeds. Your postponing here is to do with procrastination. When some of the sages enumerated the 7 ways in which Satan can get into the heart; you’ll find a breakdown in books such as in Minhaj al-Abideen of Imam al-Ghazali under the subtitle of third obstacle. He speaks about the obstacles that hold you back and in there he says there are 7 ways in which Satan insinuates the human and distracts the human being from good acts. The second one is procrastination, the third is ostentation, the fourth is conceit, the fifth is a subtle one which is that a person wishes to see the light that comes on a person’s countenance due to good works, the sixth is justifying their good works or bad deeds by saying it’s all decreed. You’ll find a breakdown in Minhaj al-Abideen. Ibn Ata’illah here is speaking about the second inroad of Satan into the human heart: procrastination. So, Satan comes in and the ego finds every excuse and justification to postpone a good work.
Imam al-Ghazali mentions when he speaks about the 7 inroads of Satan, he says the way to cure the malady of procrastination is to remember death. In our contemporary culture, especially in the last 50 years, people don’t really like to remember death. It maybe because many confessional speakers in the years that have passed have overused the remembrance of death so it has gone from something which wakens people up to now it causes repulsion. Why do people actually turn away when they are reminded of death? Why does the soul find it heavy to remember death? Some people say it makes them feel sad and other say it strips all joy and happiness from their life. People will find different excuses as to why they don’t want to hear about it. The reality is that our mortality is part and parcel of our slavehood. Do you know what the hardest thing for the ego is when it comes to remembering death and the idea of death? It’s harder than losing money, loved ones, belongings and property. Rather, it is because death reminds me and you that intrinsically we are powerless. Humanity today lives in a state of madness regarding its power; they think they have power over everything. The Qur’an says, “When the earth was bedecked with its adornment and its people thought they had power over it, our command came to them.” When people believe they have all this power and to even launch things into space, our remembrance of our mortality kills any of that illusion in us that we have this power, as it reminds us of our intrinsic incapacity and powerlessness.
This state of incapacity (or traditionally impotence) is tied to our slavehood and is a reality we all won’t escape. Why did I not say people try to escape like non-Muslims? Why did I say ‘we’? We all have a portion of trying to escape this reality but the portions differ from one to the other except to those Allah has shown mercy to. If you can put a shackle on yourself when it’s trying to escape its reality and reign it in, remember a moment when a calamity happened and you questioned: Why God? Why me? If the reality of your slavehood was something that settled into you and permeated your being, that question would never have occurred. Try to go back, remember and review occasions in your life when something befell you and you weren’t able to fully submit. That’s why we say what you need to do in order to stop procrastinating is to remember your own mortality and death. The remembrance of death takes you out of the illusion that the opportunity is in your hand. At that point, one will stop saying things like believing in micro-managing everything in their life. They won’t say things like: I will do this good work when I’m free from such and such; I will start taking reading the Qur’an seriously when I’m done with such and such project; I will start treating my parents well when I’m not living under their proof because I will prove I’m treating them well because I’m discharging the rights of God and not distracted with doing that whilst living under their roof; I will stop lying when my life is more stable financially; and, I will stop lying to the social security system by making a claim in my name and my wife’s name once we have got such and such together. This is postponement of good works; meaning to delay. What you are doing is delaying because of an illusion that once you are done at a particular time, you are going to do something. Your remembrance of death will wake you up. I can’t even guarantee that I will be alive when I leave this gathering. How can I delay good works for another time when I have no guarantee that time exists?
That’s why he says: Your postponement of deeds till the time when you are free is one of the frivolities of the ego.
This rebelliousness of the self which is to do with idiocy; this idiocy is because we try to go against the nature of our essential slavehood to God.
Something to mention before we move to the next aphorism although there is much to say about this aphorism. There are 2 types of good works when it comes to time. We are talking about how time is being used and postponed. They say there is an obligation in the time and an obligation of the time. The obligation of time takes precedence. What is the obligation of time? It is a good work that you are obligated to do specific to that particular time. What is obligatory in time is something you can do at that time or another time. The second category applies to all good works. Reciting Surah al-Kahf on the day of Friday and Thursday night after Maghrib; that is one of the great works to do in that time. This is favoured over other good works at that time. Salawat/Durood Sharif is favoured on a Friday over other good works including reciting other surahs at that time because it is the action that is particular to that time. In this, there is a secret of how to treat some of the maladies of the ego. It takes you out of the ego’s pleasure in having an illusion that it has free choice of what to pick. Slavehood is submission. We are servants.
Why is the obligatory prayer worth 70 times more than the supererogatory? Why on the Day of Judgement when a person’s good deeds are weighed and their obligatory devotions are weighed, for any 1 obligatory devotion that is missed, 70 of their supererogatory will be placed on the scale to make up for the 1 obligatory that they missed? Why do you find sometimes that your ego will be more motivated to do a supererogatory work than it feels when it’s made to do an obligatory work? Have you tried it? You want yourself to do some nafila (supererogatory), meaning to sum it up an act that you have choice, your ego hastens to do it such that it’s full of energy. Have you ever seen that it feels burdensome and heavy when asked to do obligatory worship? Have you ever captured it when its wearing this disguise? If you think about how it was energised with the supererogatory and felt lacklustre when it came to the obligatory act, if you review your life you will see many times where it has done that. Sadaqah which is voluntary is easier for the ego than zakah. To pray 2 cycles of prayer when in a time that you want to is much easier than waking up to pray 2 cycles of Fajr. To listen to the Qur’an and lie back with your headphones on is easier for you at that time than to get up and pray your obligatory prayer. The reason is because with supererogatory prayer, you have a choice. It gives you breathing space and a relief from feeling your essential slavehood. In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah says, “Nothing brought those who are near to me, near to me, except what I have made obligatory for them. My servants ceases not to draw closer to me with supererogatory worship.” Meaning, after he has done the obligatory. “…Until I love him. When I love him, it is by Me he hears…(until the end of the tradition).” In this Hadith Qudsi, He made the obligatory first and then the supererogatory follows.
To launch yourself into supererogatory work after you’ve laid the foundation based on your slavehood is the path to becoming beloved to God. When you do your supererogatory works based on the acknowledgement of your slavehood, it is because you acknowledge Allah’s favour and bounty to you that He gave you any choice in any matter and your acknowledgement of your slavehood therein.
These are notes which are close to verbatim of the translation. Any mistakes, errors or misinterpretations of words are from the Treasures for the Seeker admin. Please correct us when you spot any mistakes.