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November 2005
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Life in this World is a Test
Commentary by Adil Salahi

Jabir ibn Abdullah reports that the Prophet (Pbuh) once went through the market, entering from its upper side. People were with him walking on his either side. As he walked, he saw a dead goat with its two ears cut off. He held it by the remaining part of one ear and, addressing his companions, he said: “Who of you would like to have this for one dirham?”

What should be the attitude of Muslims to the comforts, pleasures and luxuries of this world?

The basic Islamic concept attaches no importance to such things and the Prophet, peace be upon him, was keen to illustrate this to his companions, and to Muslims in following generations. He always emphasized that life in this world is merely a test and those who prove their understanding of the nature of this test are the ones to pass it with honours and gain the great prize reserved for those who are successful. Failure in this test is the result of one’s own lack of effort.

A random incident or a readily understood image provided a chance for the Prophet to re-emphasize this concept. In Madinah, where the economy was agriculture-based, the Prophet described the life of this world as the farming that yields its fruit in the hereafter. This is an image that is clearly understood by everyone who works in agriculture, and its nature of hard work that for a long while does not seem to be producing anything. A farmer works hard for months on end, weeding, preparing the land, plowing, cultivating the soil, seeding, adding fertilizers, and ensuring irrigation at regular intervals. If you look at his farm during the long winter months, you do not see a promise of any yield. Yet without such work, no harvest would be forthcoming. The farm will be desolate, and the people who rely on it for their living will be in a miserable state of affairs.

Yet people find much enjoyment and are ready to sacrifice a lot for the comforts of this life. They compete with one another in pursuing the luxuries that give life a different taste of enjoyment. The Prophet repeatedly emphasized that such comforts are of little value, unless they are used to improve one’s chances to pass the test we have to go through in this life. Jabir ibn Abdullah reports that the Prophet once went through the market, entering from its upper side. People were with him walking on his either side. As he walked, he saw a dead goat with its two ears cut off. He held it by the remaining part of one ear and, addressing his companions, he said: “Who of you would like to have this for one dirham?”

They said: “We do not like to have it for anything whatsoever. What shall we do with it?”

He asked again: “Would you like to have it anyway?”

They answered in the negative.

He repeated this last question three times.

They added in answer: “We would not like to have it at all! Had it been alive, it would be of little value because of his cut ears. How could it be worth anything when it is dead?”

The Prophet said: “By God, the whole of this world is, in God’s sight, of lesser value than this is to you.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Muslim and Ahmad)

In his dialogue with his companions, the Prophet made sure that everyone of them was clear in his mind that he would not take that dead goat for the smallest amount of money. When this was clear to all, he told them that, to God, the entire world we live in is even more worthless. I suppose that the description here is so graphic that the intended message is most clearly understood.

Anyone who contemplates the message of this Hadith is filled with wonder when he looks at how people strive hard to get what they cherish and think most valuable in this life. Yet, what they can get is only a fraction of what this world offers. The entire wealth of the richest person on earth is only a fraction of what this world contains, and the most powerful ruler enjoys only a small portion of the authority and power that our world exhibits. The same applies to everything that people covet and desire. But if we put this whole world together with all the wealth, power, beauty and happiness it can provide to all its inhabitants, it is worth practically nothing in God’s sight. This is what we should remember when we wonder why unbelievers may have power, riches, and life comforts. We should not be surprised because we know that God may give whatever people may desire in this life to both believers and unbelievers, but He gives the happiness of the hereafter only to believers.

It has to be said, however, that Islam does not advocate a total rejection of life’s comforts. On the contrary, a Muslim may enjoy these, provided that he acquires them in a legitimate way. He must not seek to acquire a position of arrogance as a result of having such comforts. On the contrary, he should use them to show kindness to his neighbours and to the poor in the community. If he does, then these luxuries become a means of earning reward from God.

One aspect Islam disapproves of and is indicative of values that prevail in non-Islamic societies is that of treating tribal or national allegiance as paramount. When a person finds himself in difficulty or under pressure, he appeals to his family, tribe or community for support. He expects them to support him only because he belongs to them, not because he suffers injustice or oppression. When such bonds are made paramount, then Muslims must take the right stand, and show their rejection of such bonds. “Once a man appealed for support in the fashion of pre-Islamic days in the presence of Ubayy ibn Kaab, and Ubayy immediately abused him in clear terms. The people present looked at him with disapproval. He said to them: It seems that you disapprove of what I said. I do not fear anyone at all. I heard the Prophet as he said: ‘Whoever appeals on the basis of ignorant bonds should be abused in clear terms.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Ahmad and Ibn Hibban)

What is significant in this Hadith is that it recommends the use of clear abusive language, not merely indirect disapproval. Such language may be thought contrary to the values Islam advocates, which disapprove of express and clear abuse. There is no contradiction between the two, because the warning against the use of such language is made in the case of people who do not deserve such abuse. The situation to which this Hadith applies merits such usage as part of the punishment for the one who resorts to the values of ignorance. Indeed the Prophet disapproved even when some people made an appeal for support invoking ties much closer to Islam than tribal loyalties. In a dispute between two Muslims, one called out to the Muhajireen and the other to the Ansar for support. But the Prophet told them: “Abandon such blind loyalty, for it stinks.” Although the two men called out invoking an Islamic loyalty, it was akin to what the people of ignorance in pre-Islamic days used to make. Hence, the Prophet’s censure.