Continuing our Ramadaan series, this post continues the book entitled “Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart” – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson‘s translation and commentary of Imam Muḥammad Mawlūd’s didactic poem “Matharat al-Qulub” (purification of the heart). The Imam was a 19th century Mauritanian scholar. For notes on the copyright status of the book, as well as links to purchase your own copy, please see the introductory post of the series.
Obliviousness to Blessings
POEM VERSES 164–166 Among the faults of the soul is obliviousness to blessings. Its root lies in inattentiveness to [the statement], “Whatever blessings you have [are from God].” By simply remembering this and keeping in mind other verses of admonition, such as, He does not change…, and If you show gratitude…, then this chronic disease can be excised from you.
Definition and Treatment
The next disease is oblivion of blessings, a lack of understanding and acknowledgement, and noxious disregard that “whatever blessings you have are from God” (QUR’AN , 16:53). The blessings that come to us, night and day, are beyond numeration, as the Qur’an reminds. These blessings come in all forms—what we can see and touch (by way of material goods: food, clothing, shelter, wealth, and the like), as well as what we cannot see (such as safety, friendship, love, health, and protection from harm and calamity).
The Qur’an begins with the phrase translated as, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Mercy-Giving” (QUR’AN, 1:1). According to some scholars, “Merciful” (raḥmān) refers to the Giver of the major blessings, while “Mercy-Giving” (raḥīm) implies the Giver of subtle blessings, which are not perceived until they are removed. For example, we blink thousands of times in a day without thought. There are people, however, who require artificial lubrication because their tear glands do not function. There are countless blessings related to the eye, let alone other aspects of our lives, such as our ability to walk in balance without needing to consciously stimulate dozens of muscles required to take one step. Our thumbs permit us to do with our hands what most creatures cannot attempt. God has made food delicious and flavorful instead of bland. He has also given us dignity in our nutrition, which is a tremendous blessing, especially when one considers the way carnivores devour their prey.
While we cannot count our blessings, we are commanded to be grateful for them: So let man reflect on the food he eats. Indeed, We have poured down water in showers. Then We split the land in clefts. Then We caused to grow grain therein, and grapes and fresh herbage, and olives trees and date palms, and dense orchards and fruits and pasture—all provision for you and for your cattle (QUR’AN , 80:24–32).
The fact that the Qur’an has been revealed to tell us to reflect on these blessings is in itself a great blessing, for, without guidance, the human being cannot on his own determine out how to live. To deny God’s blessings can lead to outright disbelief and denial of God, the Exalted.
“God never changes any blessing He has bestowed upon a people until they first change what is in themselves” (QUR’AN , 8:53). God will not take away a blessing unless people show ingratitude. A poet said, “If you have a blessing, guard it, for disobedience shall snatch away.” Gratitude to God protects one from having blessings removed.
Istidrāj is God’s allowing an ingrate to flaunt his blessings and not diminishing the ingrate’s blessings in the least. In fact, God may even increase that blessing. The ingrate is then deluded into thinking that God really loves him or her, and the only thing worse than a misguided person is the person who is astray but believes himself to be favored by God. “As for man, whenever his Lord tries him by honoring him and bestowing favors on him, he says, ‘My Lord has honored me.’ And whenever He tries him by restricting his provision, he says, ‘My Lord has humiliated me’” (QUR’AN , 89:15–16). Qur’anic commentators say that this passage shows the confusion of people in the way they interpret the blessings they receive. When they are the recipients of great wealth, they see themselves as especially pleasing to God. And when their provision is restricted, they feel God is debasing them. However, people often miss the reality that wealth is a test from God to see if its recipient will be generous or miserly. The same applies when wealth is restricted: Will a person be patient and content or feel despair and bitterness?
Certain qualities benefit a person in the short and long term, such as knowledge and excellent character. Similarly, certain characteristics harm a person immediately and in the long run, such as ignorance and obnoxiousness. Furthermore, some actions offer immediate gratification, but the long-term benefits are nil. Carnal desires (shahawāt) are generally of this type. If a person overeats, he experiences immediate gratification; but in the long- term, doing so invites health problems. Also, other actions may be beneficial in the long-term but somewhat uncomfortable in the short. For example, one may find it difficult to stop eating to his full, but the long-term benefits are obvious. This is also true with sexual intimacy: being patient until marriage may be uncomfortable and even frustrating, but its benefit is far greater than any temporary pleasure attained in falling into sin.
Those who are ignorant see only short-term relief as a blessing and disregard the benefits of patience and temporary discomfort. On the other hand, knowledge opens the eyes to the long-term benefits, which last forever. In a study conducted on some children, researchers left cookies out on a table and told the children that they can have either one cookie now or two later. Consistently, the children who scored better on intelligence tests waited for the two– cookies option rather than indulging in one cookie right away. After following these children for thirty years, it was found that those who opted for the long-term gain were better adjusted, better educated, and more successful in their marriages.
Intelligence is linked to morality, as to be moral one must be willing to put off a short-term gain for a long-term benefit that ultimately is greater and everlasting. This kind of intelligence is conditioned by Islam. Sayyidunā ʿUmar said, “We are a people to whom God has given dignity with Islam; but if we seek dignity elsewhere, God will humiliate us.”
Blessings are either roots or branches. Roots include faith, Islam, health, safety, and wellbeing. The branches are money, clothing, shelter, and the like. According to the Qur’an, the Children of Israel disputed with a prophet among them over the choice of Saul (Tālūt) as their king because he was not a man of great wealth. However, their prophet told them that God has given Saul knowledge and strength (QUR’AN , 2:247), which are blessings greater than wealth.
The Prophet once asked a man, “Do you know what the completion of a blessing is?” The Prophet told him, “Entering Paradise.” The best of blessings are those connected with entering Paradise. Faith, patience, good character, swiftness in doing good, and promptness in worship are blessings from God, and they are everlasting. Islam itself is the completion of God’s blessings upon humanity: “This day, I have perfected for you your religion, and I have completed My blessings upon you, and I have chosen Islam for you as your religion” (QUR’AN, 5:3).
The ornaments of this life include houses, furnishings, clothing, and the like. The more one acquires of these blessings, the more he will be accountable for. The Prophet said that the meat, dates, and cool water that we consume are of those things we will be asked about, even the sandals on our feet. To be zāhid (ascetic) does not always mean a lack of material possession. There is asceticism of the heart, in which one is not attached to the material world and is indifferent to it. In other words, a person’s character and level of faith will not change if he loses his wealth. That is the sign of a zāhid. However, if one falls apart and plunges into despondency when losing something valuable, it shows an inordinate attachment to worldly life.