(lillahi ta’ala: for the sake of Allah). Because we are human beings and as the Qur’an says we have been created weak, we sometimes do things so that other people can hear us, other people can see us and other people can know what we are doing. They call that riya’ in Islam. There is a hadith (Prophetic Tradition) of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) in which he mentions that even if there is an atom weight of riya’ in one’s ibadat, those ibadat are rejected by Allah Almighty. Now this shows that the line between riya’ and ikhlas is very narrow, extremely narrow. One can go from the one state to the other so fast. One might be doing something for the sake of Allah and then one notices that somebody is watching and suddenly one’s ego is expanded a little bit. Finished is
The question that arises, of course, is whether there is a form of ibadat in Islam in which it is very difficult for riya’ to enter. I remember one day I was sitting in the masjid in Kensington. Somebody was delivering a lecture and I thought: “I can do a better lecture than that.” I was shocked by my thoughts. I wrote to Shaykh Muhammad Ja’far, my spiritual guide at the time, in Karachi, about the matter. In a reply he said that as long as one is aware of what had happened to one, then one can handle it but if there is no awareness, then it is extremely dangerous for one. I was going to give up lecturing at that time. It is very important for us to understand that the line between riya’ and ihlas is very narrow. So the question that arises is, is there a form of ibadah in Islam where others might be totally unaware that one is performing this ibadah? I’m not talking here about working in the quiet of the night or silent dhikr.
There’s a verse in the Qur’an in which Allah says, in talking about a group of people called the Ulul al-bab:
الَّذِيْنَ يَذْكُرُوْنَ اللهَ قِيَامًا وَ قُعُوْدًا وَ عَلَى جُنُوْبِهِمْ وَ يَتَفَكَّرُوْنَ فِى خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَ الأَرْضِ
Those who celebrate the praises of Allah standing, sitting and lying on their sides and contemplate (tafakkur) the creation of the heavens and the earth (iii: 191).
Now in this verse Allah speaks about three things. He speaks about a group of people that is classified as the Ulul al-bab. Allah Almighty has granted these people a very special understanding of Islam that many other people do not have. Allah describes them in a certain way. He says that these people do two things. Firstly, they are in a state of dhikr under all circumstances and in all positions. They are always remembering Allah Almighty. The word dhikr, of course, has different levels of meaning. Everything that we do in obedience to the Shari’ah’ in our day-to-day activities is dhikrullah. This is because in obeying Him we are remembering Him. Dhikrullah also refers to all the ibadat we do such as salah, giving zakah, fasting and going on haj or umrah. And then dhikr are also the litanies that we recite when we celebrate the praises of Allah, such as
لاَ إِلٰهَ إِلاَّ اللهُ
(La ilaha illallah) or
(Alhamdu lillah) or whatever the case might be. So Allah, in describing the Ulul al-bab, says: “These are people engaging in My remembrance. They are always busy celebrating My praises. They are always conscious of Me. They are always in obedience to Me.” But now comes the important part. In loud dhikrullah there can be riya’. I can be the imam of a congregational dhikr and I can become conscious of how beautifully I recite. Finished is
Allah says in this verse:
يَتَفَكَّرُوْنَ فِى خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَ الأَرْضِ وَ
(wa yatafakkaruna fi khalqis samawati wal ard…).
In this verse Allah Almighty mentions another form of ibadah for us. We know about the normal ibadat. We know about salah and zakah, for example, but here is a special form of ibadah in which riya’ cannot enter. What is tafakkur? Now this is what I want to come to. Tafakkur is when you ponder very quietly about certain matters with regard to your religion. Nobody can see that you are doing it. Nobody will know that you are doing it. Nobody will hear that you are doing it. You are busy very confidentially with your Lord. You are busy in your mind with what is called tafakkur. Some call it reflection, or pondering or thinking deeply about. One day, a very pious man was in a masjid in Egypt and he saw a man sleeping in the one corner. When the adhan went for Fajr, that man got up and went to pray. The pious man was very upset with him because he had prayed without wudu. When the person who had been “sleeping” left the mosque, the pious man ran after him to reprimand him for praying without wudu but he heard him reciting a poem in which he mentions that he had been busy with tafakkur. He left him alone.
Ibn Abbas (r.a.) and Abu al-Darda (r.a.), two very famous Companions, reported that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “An hour of tafakkur is better than a whole night of prayer.” This is partly because in an hour of tafakkur one is in the most personal relationship with Allah. It is within this most intense “personal relationship”, free of show, that one contemplates deeply about one’s Lord with regard to His creation and His Attibutes. The intensity of the process causes one to gain access to the endless oceans of His Attributes, and it is this access that is better than a night of non-obligatory prayers.
What can we taffakkur about? In other words, what can we reflect, ponder or think about? It’s an ibadah. We seldom talk about this and I must apologise to you for this. We talk about dhikr, salah and fasting but we always somehow or other leave tafakkur out. What is it that we can tafakkur about? First of all it is important that we start to tafakkur about the creation. Allah says that tafakkur has to take place:
فِى خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَ الأَرْضِ
(fi khalqis samawati wal ard…). Tafakkur has to be about the creation of the heavens and the earth, what He had created. And so we look at the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, and at the creation of humans. All these kingdoms, we can tafakkur about, about how Allah created all of these, all of the creation.
The other day I went to a doctor. I had a pain in my chest and I thought that this was heart trouble. You know at our ages, whenever a pain comes in the chest we panic. We think that it is the heart. The doctor showed me on the little screen how my heart was beating. He mentioned to me that he does not know how a person who studies the human body cannot believe in Allah Almighty because the body is such a delicate intricate system of organs and cells and tissues.
I used to love gardening. Any gardener will tell you that he cannot understand how a person who does gardening cannot believe in Allah. A dry seed that crumbles in one’s hand is placed in the ground and a plant grows from it. Just looking at how plants grow tells one about the greatness of Allah. And so by studying the creation we come to see the greatness and the magnificence of Allah. These are the conclusions we draw. But we draw these conclusions in the intense privacy of our minds. We think: “O Allah! Thou art akbar. Thou art greatest. If Thou had created this, how must Thee not be?” And we think about that and we come to conclusions about it in our minds and our faith intensifies, and it does so in a very private way. This is the one thing that we can tafakkur about.
The other matter to tafakkur about is the favours of Allah Almighty. He has granted us faith. What a major favour! We are part of the nation of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ). Look at that favour. He has not made us of the nation of the other Prophets. Look at that favour. Look at all the different favours of love of Islam, of help, of knowledge, of understanding. So much he has given us. And we do not always recognize these favours. We must sit quietly and think about all the favours in our lives that Allah has granted us, and we must say: “O Allah! I am in deep gratitude to you for the favours you have granted me. I am in deep gratitude, and I say,
(Alhamdu lillah: all praises be to Allah). These are the most appropriate words to say at this stage. Allah says in the Qur’an:
وَ قُلِ الْحَمْدُ لِلّٰهِ
And say: “Praise be to Allah… (xxvii: 93).
I, for example, must say
(Alhamdu lillah: all praises be to Allah) for all the favours I have received. Just the fact that I’ve come to this age is a major favour! That I can still pray and do all the other things that other younger people can do is a major gift. Most Muslims die between sixty and seventy. We don’t always see what we have been given. We don’t always realize. Allah gives us pious wives. What a magnificent favour. He gives us good children, another magnificent favour. There are so many. And then we say
(Alhamdu lillah: all praises be to Allah) for all the things granted. He might not have granted one wealth but one is healthy. What a favour!
The shaykh here has been granted hifz as a major favour. Everybody cannot just memorize the Qur’an. It is a special grant. The imam here, look what Allah has granted him. He has memorized the Qur’an and is one of the most beautiful reciters in the Cape Peninsula. What a grant! When we look at what we has received and sit and taffakkur about it, then at the end we say
(Alhamdu lillah), in deep appreciation. This strengthens our belief in Him, and our thanks and our gratitude in Him increases. And so in a few minutes of pondering or thinking about it or reflecting about it, our gratitude towards Allah increases. We say
(Alhamdu lillah) very privately. Nobody knows. Taffakkur is one of the most private forms of ibadat.
There are other things we can tafakkur about. Our shortcomings, for example. One perhaps knows that one is greedy, or envious, or lies, or does not live well with one’s neighbours, and one thinks about these shortcomings and starts a process of overcoming them. Nobody knows that one is thinking about the fact that one tells lies. Nobody knows about the fact that one is greedy. Nobody knows about the fact that one envies people. We know, and on the basis of our tafakkur we start a process of personal purification of these shortcomings, by working out ways and means of overcoming them.
Another matter one can ponder about is the lives of pious people. One may think, for example, of the life and contribution of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar, and one asks quietly: “O my Lord! Let me be like him.” Or one looks in one’s community and sees intensely pious people, and one thinks of their lives and of what they have achieved, and one asks in the privacy of one’s mind: “O Allah! Please grant to me what Thou hast granted to them.”
There are so many things to do with our religion that we can sit quietly about and tafakkur. It is the most confidential form of ibadah that we have. In a hadith on the matter, Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “Tafakkaru fi khalqillah wa la tafakkaru fi dhatillah.” (Reflect on the creation of Allah and do not reflect on His Essence). I told you previously that there are certain things about Allah that we know. We know that He has an Essence. We don’t know what that is, we call that the dhat of Allah. Many of the pious people say that when we refer to Allah as Hu, Huwa (He) in other words, we are referring to the Essence of Allah. Of course, there are also the Names of Allah. We know those. There are His Attributes. We know about those. There are also those things that He does or has done. Some of these things we see in our environment. Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “Be careful, be careful. Don’t try to ponder about the nature of your Lord. Leave that alone. Ponder about what He has created and examine that.” In the examination of what our Lord has created, our little understanding of Him will increase and improve and in the process our faith increases and our gratitude improves.
The important question that arises, of course, is that we are very ordinary human beings and for us to be able to reflect we must have understanding and knowledge. I’ve said on so many occasions that you can’t put the word “ignorant” next to the word Muslim. A Muslim is somebody that always strives for knowledge. And so because we are Muslims we would have, over the years, accumulated a large volume of knowledge. This means that if he tafakkurs, he does so on the basis of knowledge. On a personal level, when I studied in the field of geography, for example, I came across so many things that gave me a better understanding of the creation of Allah. One day, for example, I explained in the Bellville South Masjid the verse:
رَبُّ الْمَشْرِقَيْنِ وَ رَبُّ الْمَغْرِبَيْنِ
(He is) the Lord of the two easts and the Lord of the two wests (lv: 17).
I explained that one has east and west on the surface of the earth and also in the heavens, called the Celestial East and the Celestial West. The late Mawlana Crawley who was in the masjid came up to me and said: “You know, I’ve been wondering what that meant, and for the first time now I understand what it means.” I had learnt that in the field of geography. We must accumulate knowledge in order to understand. When we understand we can then ponder, we can reflect and we can think.
I must end off now. What I’m trying to explain to you is that there is a very private form of ibadah that is extremely valuable, that has a very high rank by Allah. Ibn Abbas (r.a.) said, and let me repeat: “An hour of tafakkur is better than a full night of prayer.” He would not have placed tafakkur at such a high level if he was not aware of its greatness. And so we have to slowly introduce tafakkur into our lives. It is far better, for example, to sit quietly in the masjid and tafakkur than to sit and make dhikr for people’s eyes and ears. We must ask Allah Almighty to grant us knowledge, to grant us understanding and to introduce this aspect of Islam into our lives. We ask Allah for that with the blessings of Suratul Fatihah …
And Allah knows best, and I ask forgiveness for any mistakes or distortions in what I have said, Amin.
[Some of the matters mentioned in this talk, I found in The Key to the Garden by Habib Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad.]
Selected Talks by Yusuf da Costa [Published 2008]