Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

July 2006
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Last Word

The Frugal Life

Do you not shed a tear when you mend your own clothes, knowing that the Prophet (Pbuh) did so too?

This is a story - at this period of abundance and waste ­- about a humble thing: the frugal life.

Hisham was welcomed into the home of his uncle Adam, the retired widower. The host looked forward to the company of his young nephew. Hisham left behind him a sea of concerns: a failed business, judging parents, forsaking friends, suspecting colleagues. He had lost and he was here to find peace, to find himself. He was ready for a change.

Uncle Adam said to himself: “A change? Let’s be clear. It should not be a mere change of scene. Nor a change away from worrisome people to a fond old man who will nurse his nephew’s tender sensibilities. It should be a change of heart from the frivolous self to the frugal self. This young man shall acquire the love of life in the bare.”

And so Hisham observes his uncle saving, recycling, sacrificing. He saves by meticulously searching for the least expensive item whenever he shops. He recycles everything possible: containers, phone directories, appliances. The income from his pension provides him a life without the popular comforts.

Hisham looks at the old man’s attire, his diet, his tastefully modest home decor, his use of resources like water and electricity. If he were looking at all these things in isolation, it would be fascinating in itself, but these things do not present themselves in isolation. The extraordinary aspect of Uncle Adam’s life is that all he does and says are part of a pattern. What he is, is part of a pattern. So his dressing, eating and furnishing, matches his natural disposition with a mosaic-like consistency.

But Hisham is a little perplexed about the simple life of his uncle. “I wonder about the few exclusive brands he wears at times,” he asks himself. “What about his technological finesse? He is very clued up on the latest information technology. What about the designer spectacles that lend him the mature, cool look? And what about that deftly trimmed beard? Are these the signs of a frugal man? Why is my uncle so full of apparent contradictions?”

“Frivolous, my boy, frivolous, but you deserve an answer. I follow the cutting edge because that is a tool in my search for knowledge. A tool, not a toy. I read for many hours each day, therefore I need a pair of spectacles suited for that purpose. The fancy design is incidental, but I do appreciate what it does for my image.

“Keeping a neat beard is a Sunnah, and part of good personal hygiene. Again, if it enhances my image, that is a blessing.

“I value the things I have after I lost my wife and my business. I have learned to live with loss and I have learned to appreciate the things I still have without being too attached to them. This includes my brand-name clothes that still hang in my wardrobe alongside my mended clothes. For, in the end, all things will leave us, except our faith and good deeds.”

Hisham ponders the balance in the life of his uncle. For a man who enjoyed wealth in his former years, he has little, but he is not poor. For a man who has little, he is generous and what he gives is of value because he values the little things. So when he gives, it is the intrinsic value of a little thing, together with a good heart and the smile that makes it a great gift.

Uncle Adam is frugal without being cheap, miserly or impoverished. He is frugal, yet generous, giving and pleasant. There is a good balance.

“Good balance, my boy, works because all things are connected,” he says to his nephew. “Look at this grey water in my sink. I plug the drain when washing my dishes to collect water for watering my vegetable garden. That seems pretty simple, but if you look deeper, there is Allah reminding us of His favours. And there is the truly poor and thirsty who have no water.

“Frugal living, my dear Hisham, is not an escapist romantic trip. It can be, when you learn to love the frugal life for itself, the kind of love Kahlil Gibran goes lyrical about. But it is really about sacrifice motivated by love, not by fear or misery. It is a material sacrifice you willingly, lovingly make because the rewards are more than material.

“Come on, do you not shed a tear when you mend your own clothes, knowing that the Prophet (Pbuh) did so too? That simple deed is an act of labour to clothe the self, a skill that is the seed of industry, a touch that creates a bond between sensitive fingertips, fabric and needle. Does it not touch you that the greatest of all creation chose to teach us this humble lesson?

The wealthy seem to have the greater privilege in their access to pious people. “Material wealth, my son, is not an evil. It is merely the agent of distraction. Most blessed are those who build wealth with integrity and manage it with wisdom.” (Ibn Ai Fikr)