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Ibn Atta’ on Keeping Priorities Straight

Ibn Atta’ on Keeping Priorities Straight

In his well-known book, Al-Hikam (Words of Wisdom), sheikh Ahmad Ibn `Ataa’illah As-Sakandari says:

A sign of following one’s whims is to be active with optional good deeds while being lazy with required obligations.

The next step in our journey to Allah requires sound knowledge and deep understanding. The Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) said:

If Allah wishes good for someone, He grants him knowledge (fiqh) of the faith”. (Al-Bukhari)

Knowledge (fiqh) is not only about the judicial rulings pertaining to the practical rituals and social aspects. In principle, fiqh means the deep understanding and full comprehension of the Islamic law and its different rulings.

This deep understanding of the Islamic law is very important in our journey to Allah.In Islamic law, there are principals (usul) and secondary issues (furu`). Principals have priority over secondary issues. There are required obligations and optional good deeds. Obligations have priority over optional deeds.

There are major sins and minor sins. Major sins take priority, in terms of avoiding them, over minor sins. The action of the heart is more important than the action of other organs of the body, and thus has higher priority. The sin committed in the heart is more dangerous than the sin committed by the other organs. And so on.

One should be aware of those differences and their implications; otherwise, he/she will be following whims and not a proper understanding of the Islamic law. Without the knowledge of priorities, one will be following the outward appearances and not the essence of the faith.

For example, if you have some money by which you can either perform pilgrimage or help in improving the building of a mosque, a proper understanding entails that you perform pilgrimage first.

Pilgrimage is an obligation and one of the pillars of Islam, and thus it has to be performed first, whereas improving or beautifying the building of a mosque is optional and in fact not necessary. If you give priority to the optional deed over the principle obligation then, the Sheikh says, you will be following your whims not the right path.

However, if this money is needed for medication for your elderly mother, for example, then you should spend this money on her and delay the performance of pilgrimage. Taking care of your mother is an immediate obligation, while pilgrimage is an obligation that could be delayed. If you do the opposite, then this is a sign of following whims and not proper knowledge.Another example is that, if you have a limited time either to perform the obligatory prayer on time or perform the two rak`ah (units of prayer) of greeting the mosque, and if you perform the optional prayer, you will miss the obligatory one, then what should you perform first?

The answer is to perform the obligatory prayer first. If you perform the prayer for greeting the mosque and thus you miss the obligatory prayer, this is a sign of misunderstanding and following whims.

Unfortunately, some people are keen on performing optional good deeds and especially ritual formalities, while they themselves are careless with basic obligations of the faith. It is agreed that being kind to one’s parents is an obligation:

{For your Sustainer has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto [your] parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in your care, never say “Ugh” to them or scold them, but [always] speak unto them with reverent speech}. (Al-Israa’  17:23)

It is also obligatory to return the trusts to people:

{then let him who is trusted fulfill his trust, and let him be conscious of Allah}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 283)

A believer is also required not to curse. The Prophet said:

“It is not fitting for a believer to be a curser or a defamer”. (Al-Bukhari in his Al-Adab al-Mufrad)

Unfortunately, in our present-day societies and communities, we find some people who claim that they follow the Prophet’s way of life, i.e., his way of dressing, his outward appearance, his way of sitting, the color of his clothes, etc. Yet, you find the very same people mistreating their parents, using corruption as means to make fortunes, misusing the public trust or resources, or cursing and backbiting other people. In other words, they are fulfilling the outwards looks while missing the obligations.

Some other people may not perform the obligatory prayers, but they perform the Eid prayer even under the most difficult circumstances, even though the Eid prayer is optional. This is another example of following whims.

Some people commit grave sins in public and sometimes on TV. The same people, ironically, are in the habit of performing `Umrah every year! Umrah is  optional, but refraining from spreading mischief is obligatory.

We often hear a hadith in which Allah speaks about optional good deeds.

“And my servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks”. (Al-Bukhari)

But we forget that “And my servant” is not the beginning of the hadith. The beginning of the hadith in all of its different narrations goes like that: “My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the duties I have enjoined upon him”.

If we perform the obligations such as prayers, zakah, fasting and pilgrimage, giving up sins, being kind to parents, treating the young and the old gently, and so on, we shall enter Paradise.

When the Prophet was asked about Islam, he did not begin with the formalities or outward looks. A bedouin came to the Prophet and said, “O Allah’s messenger! Inform me what Allah has made compulsory for me as regards the prayers.”

He replied: “You have to offer perfectly the five compulsory prayers in a day and night, unless you want to pray optional prayer“.

Here the Prophet did not detail the optional prayers, but he continued to mention the other obligations as we read in the rest of the tradition.

The bedouin further asked, “Inform me what Allah has made compulsory for me as regards fasting.”

He replied, “You have to fast during the whole month of Ramadan, unless you want to fast more as optional fasting.”

The bedouin further asked, “Tell me how much zakah Allah has enjoined on me.”

Thus, the Prophet informed him about all the fundamentals of Islam.

The bedouin then said, “By Him Who has honored you, I will neither perform any optional deeds nor will I decrease what Allah has enjoined on me. The Prophet said,

“If he is saying the truth, he will succeed and will be granted Paradise”. (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet’s last words in this hadith imply that if we are sincere with Allah in performing the obligations without ever performing the optional deeds, we will succeed and be granted Paradise.

We pray to Allah to grant us correct understanding and sound knowledge so that we can journey to Him in the most guided way.


About Dr. Jasser Auda

Jasser Auda is a Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada. He is a Founding and Board Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fellow of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, and General Secretary of Yaqazat Feker, a popular youth organization in Egypt. He has a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law from University of Wales in the UK, and a PhD in systems analysis from University of Waterloo in Canada. Early in his life, he memorized the Quran and studied Fiqh, Usul and Hadith in the halaqas of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He previously worked as: Founding Director of the Maqasid Center in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in London; Founding Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Ethics in Doha; professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alexandria University in Egypt, Islamic University of Novi Pazar in Sanjaq, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the American University of Sharjah. He lectured and trained on Islam, its law, spirituality and ethics in dozens of other universities and organizations around the world. He wrote 25 books in Arabic and English, some of which were translated to 25 languages.

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