Zuhd, Asceticism, and Worldliness
Zuhd implies refraining from worldly desires and all material aspects of life. It is also defined as the intellectual indifference to the luxuries of the world and hedonism. Zuhd involves transcending over the material existence by living a simple life. The “I don’t care” attitude we see amongst some of youth is often an indifference towards Islamic teachings. A similar “I don’t care” attitude can represent the same indifference in terms of Zuhd; however in this case, it implies indifference against the sensuous, worldly pleasures. The benefits of living such a life gives us satisfaction in the spiritual sense.
The crucial difference between an animal and a man is that the animal mostly possesses its head, heart, stomach and sexual organs in the same order horizontally, whereas man’s head, heart, stomach and sexual organs are aligned vertically. Pondering over this leads to the psychological conclusion that man has the power to control sexual desires, hunger and emotions through the use of the intellect that sits right up the top, being the head of the organization of the complex body. In the words of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), “Allah endowed angels with intellect without desire, animals with desire without intellect, and man with both of them. So he whose intellect manages to conquer his desire is better than the angels, and he whose desires overcome his intellect is lower than the animals.” (Ilal al-Sharai)
Islam has laid down for us teachings to control human desires, through abiding by proper jurisprudence and rules. Islam continuously asks man strive for the satisfaction of the soul rather than the body, thus pleasing his Creator. A few common questions arise among the educated and intellectual people: What is the need for controlling natural desires and “renouncing” human freedom? Why can we not wear short skirts? Why can we not listen to rock music? Why can we not eat and drink what we feel like? Why can we not touch or look at someone from the opposite sex in the wrong manner? After all, this is all natural instinct.
Let us study a very interesting and often over-looked topic of Zuhd that Imam Ali has taught us in Nahjul Balagha. Zuhd has been explained in great depth in the famous book Glimpses of Nahjul Balagha by Martyr Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari. It implies refraining from worldly desires and all material aspects of life. It is also defined as the intellectual indifference to the luxuries of the world and hedonism. Zuhd involves transcending over the material existence by living a simple life. The “I don’t care” attitude we see amongst some of youth is often an indifference towards Islamic teachings. A similar “I don’t care” attitude can represent the same indifference in terms of Zuhd, however in this case, it implies indifference against the sensuous, worldly pleasures.
Imam Ali says in Nahjul Balagha: “O people! Zuhd means curtailing of hopes, thanking God for His blessings and bounties, and abstaining from that which He has forbidden.” (Sermon 81)
He further says: “All Zuhd is summarized in two sentences of the Qur’an: God, the Most Exalted, says, “So that you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor rejoice in what has come to you.” (57:23) Whoever does not grieve over what he has lost and does not rejoice over what comes to him has acquired Zuhd in both of its aspects.” (Wisdom 439)
Zuhd has been misinterpreted as asceticism, although Zuhd does not imply detachment from the world, which signifies both spiritual and practical abstinence. When comparing Islamic Zuhd with Christian concepts of Monasticism or Asceticism, Martyr Mutahhari explains that Zuhd is different and more effective as compared to them. Asceticism and Monasticism involve seclusion, withdrawal and retreat from people, responsibilities and society for the sake of worship. On the contrary, Zuhd does not perceive the world with pessimism. Zuhd connects this world and the Hereafter similar to the union the soul and body; Monasticism separates the two.
One may argue – What is the point of living a simple life when one can achieve luxuries, pleasures and desires?
The benefits of living such a life gives us satisfaction in the spiritual sense. The material world we live in, which may involve luxurious clothing, phones, computers, cars, big houses, music and weekend holiday lifestyles. This material world is known as Worldliness. We go round and round, catching our tails trying to achieve our worldly dreams. Stop. Reflect. Where are we heading? What would happen if we do not buy that pair of colorful shoes? What would happen if I don’t ask my father to buy that motor bike for me? What would happen if I say, “I don’t care” against the peer pressure? What would happen if I turn that pop music off? The answer is – it would make no difference, other than a positive one. This is what Zuhd is. When one experiences such indifference, renunciation and simplicity, one transcends and achieves a spiritual satisfaction that no official promotion, material things or success can ever provide.
This approach can be perfected by enjoying what has been provided by Allah. Since emotional satisfaction and living with society are important aspects of human life, Zuhd does not deny them. Instead, Zuhd asks one to begin sharing and feel the happiness of fellow men rather than yearning for individual happiness. Zuhd asks one to fulfill the duties of the family, work and society by leading a happy, selfless, contended, pious, faithful and striving life. It is important to exercise our soul together with the body. One cannot ignore either of the two. Analogous to the body needing growth, training, food and shelter, our soul too needs to be nourished. The balance between physical contentment and spiritual satisfaction encompasses the concept of Zuhd. Zuhd can also be expressed as drawing the minimum material intake to maximize the output in order to achieve physical and spiritual agreement. This world is a playground, in which we must continuously refine, improve and strive for perfection.
An important aspect of Zuhd is altruism. This involves preferring others over oneself so that the spirit may reach its peak of satisfaction. The perfect example is that of Imam Ali and Lady Fatima (peace be upon them) giving whatever they had to the poor for the sake of God despite having nothing to eat. Following this, magnificent verses of Surah al-Insaan were revealed, praising the honored family. Zuhd also encompasses freedom and fearlessness from the luxuries of the world.
Explaining freedom, Imam Ali says Nahjul Balagha, “The world is a place of transit, not a place to abide. Its people fall into two categories: those who sell away their souls into slavery, and those who ransom their souls and liberate them.” The slavery in this tradition refers to worldliness and attachment to worldly desires, whereas freedom or liberty refers to a man who practices Zuhd.
The famous philosopher, Avicenna, in his book al-Isharat writes about the man who practices Zuhd as “…an aware Zahid, acquainted with the philosophy of Zuhd, practices it because of his unwillingness to engage his inner self with anything other than God. Such a man, out of his self-respect, regards anything other than God to be unworthy of attention and servitude.”
Imam Ali further says, “Dominate the passions of your self, before it (the “self”) becomes stronger, because once he becomes stronger, he will take control over you pulling you in every direction as he pleases, and in that situation you will not be able to offer resistance against him.” (Gharar al-Hukm)
Clarifying about this world being a good place, Imam Ali states, “What a good abode it is for him who would not want to make it a home.” (Sermon 223) In another sermon, he states, “This world indeed is a transit camp, whereas the Hereafter is a place of permanent abode. So take from the transit what you need for your destination.” (Sermon 203)
Complementing with the Holy Qur’an, there are many verses that awaken and inspire people to reflect about worldliness: “So turn away thou from him who turns away from Our remembrance, and desires only the present life. That is their attainment of knowledge…” (53:29-30) “And they rejoice in this world’s life; and this world’s life is nothing compared with the Hereafter but a temporary enjoyment.” (13:26)
The best Zahid, Imam Ali, has given us tremendous insight of Zuhd, teaching us to practice it in life and condemn the bondages to this world. It is very important to practice Zuhd in our day-to-day lives for several benefits, and to help in answering the many questions a youth asks in his mind. This practice will not only take one closer to God, but also assist in controlling money and desires – rather than being controlled by them.