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Prophet Muhammad: The Spiritual Ascetic

I am not a materialistic person. As a child, I chose to wear second-hand clothes. My wedding cost $5. My dream car? One that doesn’t break down.

But the idea of asceticism or living a zuhd lifestyle never appealed to me. In fact, I used to think that was one area (of many) that I failed at in my life and deen.

As a Muslim, I have always sought to live as much like the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as I could. And I always found myself falling short because he was the epitome of asceticism.

The Prophet (PBUH) was an Ascetic

When I compared my life to the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), I felt ashamed of my materialism. Since I enjoy my comfy place to sleep, I thought I could never measure up to the Messenger whose mattress was crude and rough.

“He would lay down on a reed mat, and it left marks on his skin.” […] (Narrated in Ibn Majah)

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I thought that I could never be an ascetic because, while I am mindful of what I eat, I enjoy eating rather a lot. How could I measure up to a man who, Aisha said:

[…] would sight three new moons in two months without lighting a fire (to cook a meal) […]

Her nephew asked:

“O Aunt, what sustained you?”

She said:

“The two black things, dates and water […].” (Narrated in Sahih Muslim)

While I was in the process of beating myself up, I often thought of how much I own in comparison to a man, about whom a companion said:

“When the Prophet died, he left neither money nor anything else except his white riding mule, his arms, and a piece of land which he left to charity.” (Narrated in Sahih Bukhari)

I try to live a minimalist lifestyle, but I couldn’t see myself implementing the extremes of a zuhd life.

Looking at Asceticism in a Different Light

That was until I read something that changed my mind about the term zuhd:

Practicing Zuhd means achieving that balance between being a world-savvy survivor and a Paradise-achiever. It’s about being content with where we are at, who Allah made us to be, what Allah has given us and what situation and conditions He has permitted us to be in.

It’s most importantly about being content and making peace with ourselves and making the best and full use of what Allah has blessed us with and avoiding grey matters which we are not sure of.

A light switched on. Maybe I could be ascetic, I thought. Has my misunderstanding been holding me back from implementing this kind of balance in my life, I wondered. How could I forget that Islam is about balance, I beat myself up.

But this misunderstanding didn’t happen in a vacuum. Like most people, the image I conjured in my head of an ascetic was one who wears tattered clothes, rejects owning anything, is disgusted by any kind of creature comfort, and basically is living on that thin line between life and death.

Looking further into the Islamic idea of asceticism in the deen, I discovered that the idea I had was actually that of a fake ascetic. Sufyan Ath-Thawri, an early Islamic scholar and jurist, explained, “Zuhd is to have limited amount of expectations (very few hopes); it does not mean eating poor or inadequate foods as many think, or wearing a cheap gown or cloak.”

Ali ibn Abi Talib’s famous statement, “asceticism is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you,” perfectly explains what this misunderstood concept means.

A Better Understanding of Asceticism

I started to open my eyes to the reality of how the Prophet (PBUH) practiced asceticism, why some other prophets were rich beyond imagining (Solomon, for example), and what was actually required to be an ascetic.

It was in the story of Job (peace be upon him) that I really started to gain some understanding. Here was a man who had every worldly thing some believe will fill our souls and make us happy.

But when he was tested, and everything was taken away, it didn’t break him. He didn’t lose hope. He didn’t lose heart.

Many of us wonder how Job could just keep on going after all that he had been through. The answer is in the misunderstood term “zuhd”. Even after all that he had lost of worldly life, he still had the one thing, the only thing that can truly make us fulfilled—connection with Allah, the Eternal (SWT).

And after his heart was shown to be pure and his life ascetic, his worldly wealth was given back to him.

Job, Prophet Muhammad, and all the prophets understood even when they had material wealth that:

The enjoyment of this world is little, and the Hereafter is better for he who fears Allah. (Quran 4:77)

The true ascetic, no matter how much he or she owns, he or she knows:

That the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion. (Quran 57:20

In reality living like the Prophet is simple, living a zuhd life is easy. All anyone ever has to do is look at their life and, in their heart, and remove what shouldn’t be there.

(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.