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Social Distancing: Sign of the Seeker

In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

New letter from Tarek:

"Social Distancing: Sign of the Seeker"

Once upon a time, in an ancient Roman society, there lived a boy who believed in Allah. Each year, he'd reluctantly accompany his parents to a festival dedicated to the worship of the local idols.

But one year, the boy was fed up. So when his parents weren't looking, he slipped away, walked off the festival grounds, found a tree, and sat in its shade. After a while, he was joined by a second boy who'd also slipped away from his parents. Then came another. Then another. Then another. Eventually, there was a group of them, none of whom knew the others, but all of whom found themselves mysteriously gathered under the shade of the same tree.

At last, one of them spoke: "Each of us ended up here for a reason. So let everyone mention his." One of the others said: "As for me, I see what my people do as wrong. Only Allah deserves to be worshipped." One after another, each presented the same story, until it became clear that they'd been joined by one thing. It also became clear that the authorities wouldn't leave them be. So they fled their hometown and sought refuge in a cave, as Allah described: {"And since you secluded yourselves from them and what they worship besides Allah, then seek refuge in the cave..."} (18:16)

This is a true story about people who made a choice. Just as we practice social distancing to protect ourselves from a physical disease, they did so to protect themselves from a disease of the heart & mind. Those precocious youths realized at an early age that the good & bad in people are each as contagious as a virus. They knew that the company you keep can make you or break you. We know this because an anonymous dog is eternally honored in the Qur'an simply for having guarded the boys as they slept in the cave, as Ibn Kathir wrote that "this is the benefit of befriending good people: this dog is now memorialized & valued."

Conversely, one bad friend can destroy you. In his younger years, 'Uqbah bin Abi Mu'ayt listened intently to the Prophet in Makkah. Perhaps he was on the verge of becoming a Muslim. But that changed when one bad friend contaminated his mind. When Ubayy bin Khalaf discovered 'Uqbah's interest in Islam, he stopped responding to his greetings. So one day, 'Uqbah asked him: "Why don't you respond when I greet you?"

Ubayy replied: "How can I do so when you've become a Muslim?"

'Uqbah asked: "People are saying this?"

Ubayy replied: "Yes."

'Uqbah asked: "What can I do to put them at ease?"

Ubayy replied: "Go to Muhammad, spit in his face, and insult him in the worst ways you can."

So 'Uqbah went to the Prophet and spit in his face. In fact, in each subsequent incident during the Makkan years in which someone put his hands on the Prophet, that someone was 'Uqbah. But the years passed, the tables turned, and 'Uqbah was captured as an enemy combatant at Badr and executed - a miserable end thanks to one bad friend (who was himself later killed in battle at Uhud). This is why 'Ali bin Abi Talib said, in poetry:

Don't befriend an ignorant one * Beware of him and let him beware of you,

A man is likened to the other * When they walk together,

Just as a shoe is likened to the other * When they're worn together...

So a smart person takes no chances when it comes to the company he keeps. Imam Ahmad once said that "the sign of being a true seeker is that you cut ties with all who don't seek what you seek." And a bedouin was asked: "Why did you cut ties with your blood brother?" He replied: "I'll cut off a part of my body that's diseased even if it's closer to me than my parents." And 'Umar bin al-Khattab once said that "seclusion is a relief from bad company."

As Ibn al-Jawzi wrote, "most of the Salaf preferred seclusion over mixing with people," and aversion to bad company was a primary reason. But simply being isolated isn't the point, as Allah completed the aforementioned verse by telling the boys that {"your Lord will spread for you from His mercy and prepare for you a mirfaqa."} (18:16) A mirfaqa is "something that benefits." So seclusion is only as appropriate as the beneficial changes it causes within you. Throughout his writings, Ibn al-Jawzi identified at least four ways that seclusion can change you for the better:

i) Heart: "If you can financially & physically help people fulfill their needs while adhering to Islamic limits, this is better if your seclusion consists of nothing but extra prayer and physical deeds. But if your seclusion opens for you a door to actions of the heart, constant remembrance of Allah, and reflection, nothing compares to it."

ii) Mind: "There's nothing in the world sweeter than a scholar's getaway with knowledge, as it's his intimate companion... His preoccupation with knowledge guides him to virtue and allows him to roam delightfully in the gardens. So he's safe from the Devil, the ruler, and the general masses through his seclusion."

iii) Dignity: "I don't know of a pleasure, honor, relief, or protection better for a scholar than seclusion. It protects his body, din, and status before Allah and the people. This is because people lose respect for those who frequently mix with them, and their word carries less weight."

iv) Discipline: "Know that time is too valuable to waste even an instant of. How many hours do you waste in which you miss out on a lot of reward? Days are like fertile soil, and it's as if you're being told to plant one seed and have a thousand plants sprout from it. Would a smart person ever stop planting, or even take his time in doing so? What helps you take advantage of your time is solitude & seclusion whenever possible."

One man who best exemplified good use of time was Imam 'Abdullah 'Azzam. In a new biography ('The Caravan'), Thomas Hegghammer wrote that "Azzam was a workaholic and a utility maximizer who would not spend a minute on anything or anybody if he did not think it helped the cause. For the same reason, he had no hobbies, did not watch films, and read no fiction. He slept only three to four hours per night, topping it up with five-minute naps in the car throughout the day." Hegghammer also wrote that "he said he always carried three things: water for ablution, a siwak stick, and the Qur'an." Indeed, the best use of your time in Ramadan is reciting the Qur'an. But the point isn't to absentmindedly hum the words. Rather, the point is to consciously learn the lessons of the words, as Ibn Taymiyyah wrote that "pushing yourself to understand & reflect, even if you don't recite much, is better than a lot of reciting with no attempt to understand." When you recite the story of the boys and the cave, you learn how to insulate yourself and your children from the idols & diseases that surround you. You learn that staying healthy means staying away.

You learn the same lesson from Ramadan itself. Describing the Prophet's seclusion in the latter part of Ramadan, Ibn Rajab wrote that "he'd reserve a mat upon which he'd seclude himself from people, not mixing with or paying attention to them. This is why Imam Ahmad didn't recommend for a mu'takif to mix with anyone, not even to teach them knowledge or recite the Qur'an with them. Rather, the best thing to do is to be alone and free yourself to speak privately to your Lord, remember Him, and call upon Him... Restrict yourself to worshipping & remembering Allah, cut off anything that can distract you from Him, and focus your body & soul on your Lord and what draws you near to Him. You'll end up with no concern but Allah and what pleases Him." This is why in a lecture about Ramadan, Imam 'Azzam said that "there's no time in Ramadan for gossip, watching TV, or socialization. Don't visit each other's homes at night in Ramadan, as this is a waste & theft of time in this blessed month."

But as noble as seclusion is, it should be applied with care. Ibn al-Jawzi also noted that "there's no blanket ruling on the practice. Rather, you must look at the person and his circumstances, his company and their circumstances, what he gains from them, what he loses through them, compare the gains & losses, then you'll see the truth of the matter." Indeed, some don't handle it well at all. In the April 11 edition of the Wall Street Journal, an article titled 'Americans Stock Up on Booze' stated that "sales of alcohol at U.S. liquor and grocery stores jumped 22% for the week ending March 28." The article continued to state that "home drinking could be rising because of anxiety... and booze being the 'treat' people allow themselves during self-quarantine."

It was a society not much different from this that those boys distanced themselves from when they slipped away to the shade of the tree before heading to the cave. It's fitting, then, that the vaccine against the ultimate deception at the end of time be named after that cave. Written by: Tariq Mehanna
Sunday, the 10th of Ramadan 1441 (3rd of May 2020)
Marion CMU


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