One of the most important lessons we learn from the Qur’an is that appearances don’t indicate reality. Something may appear to be the epitome of success but may hide failure and vice versa. The criterion of success and failure is faith in Allah and obedience to Him. Tawakkul means to trust that Allah knows what is best for us and to obey Him with love and sincerity. However, when we face trials in life, it is difficult to remember this and we can become victims of anxiety and lose hope. It is to guard against this that Allah told us the stories of His Anbiya so that we understand the reality behind the apparent. Let me remind you about 3 famous stories in the Qur’an which we are all familiar with.
Ibrahim (AS) a young man whose single-minded focus was the welfare of his people. Today when we use the term welfare, we think exclusively of material welfare. Food sufficiency, housing, health care, school education which really means literacy, numeracy and teaching random data from different branches of knowledge without focus on application. Critical attitudes and skills that will spell success or failure in life, like ethics, morals, values, manners (Adab), interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, problem solving tools & techniques, public speaking, creative writing, influencing, critical analysis of history and current events, strategic thinking, reading – especially the classics and poetry – social service, self defence, survival techniques, basic astronomy and orienteering, horse riding, swimming, camping, cooking; I can add to this list but will suffice to point out that barring exceptions, none of these are taught in any of our secular or religious schools anywhere in the world. In short, nothing which is useful to life and applicable to solve problems is taught in our schools. Yet we call that education. What hope then to expect that the spiritual needs of the child will be addressed when even material needs are not being fulfilled though the need to do so is abundantly clear?
Ibrahim (AS)’s concern for his people was about their spiritual health. He was concerned that they were steeped in idol worship. His father was himself an idol sculptor. Yet he and his people worshipped what they had created themselves. They refused to see that their idols were lifeless and incapable of doing anything either for themselves or their devotees. Yet they worshipped them. Ibrahim (AS) was connected to Allah in a way that Allah quoted that relationship of the Abd to his Rabb, as an example for us all to develop for ourselves. It is from this basis that Ibrahim (AS) questioned his father and his people about their idolatry. Their reaction was the usual reaction of all such people who hate being questioned about beliefs that they themselves question and find meaningless in their hearts but will still not admit that to themselves or anyone else. The result is that they get very angry when someone else points this out to them, especially when it is one of their own. This was the situation of all the Anbiya and the opposition they faced. Their people opposed and attacked them, not because they thought that they were wrong, but because they knew in their hearts that they were right. But admitting that would mean changing their ways and that is always painful. Resistance makes you stronger and Ibrahim (AS) continued in his questioning.
Violence is an admission of helplessness, whether this happens in the home, school, or society. When those in authority have no moral grounds for their position, no justification for what they are trying to impose on others, and no arguments to convince their audience to submit to them, they resort to violence. Paradoxically violence makes the opposition stronger. The blow that doesn’t break your back only makes you stronger. That is why corporal punishment is so useless in changing minds and attitudes.
In the case of Ibrahim (AS), when his people ran out of whatever arguments they had, they resorted to violence and decided to not only kill him but to do it in a way that would be salutary for anyone who aspired to follow in his footsteps. They decided to burn him alive. They lighted a huge fire and stoked it for many days until it became so massive that nobody could go near it. So, they brought a trebuchet and tied up Ibrahim (AS) and put him in the cup of the machine. The entire town gathered to see the spectacle of how someone who challenged their superstition and invited them to the truth of worshipping their Creator would be destroyed. As Ibrahim (AS) sat in the cup of the trebuchet, Jibreel (AS) came to him and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Ibrahim (AS) declined his offer. Jibreel (AS) then said, “Allah has sent me and Allah is asking what you want from Him.” Ibrahim (AS) said, “I want Allah to be pleased with me.” When Ibrahim (AS) refused to allow Ghayrullah (other than Allah) to come between him and his Rabb, Allah addressed the fire directly and ordered:
قُلْنَا يَـٰنَارُ كُونِى بَرْدًا وَسَلَـٰمًا عَلَىٰٓ إِبْرَٰهِيمَ
Ibrahim 21: 69 We (Allah) said: O fire! Be you coolness and safety for Ibrahim
While all this was going on, put yourself in that crowd baying for Ibrahim (AS)’s blood. What did they see? Did they see the success of their efforts or failure? They saw the trebuchet being fired. They saw Ibrahim (AS) trussed up and helpless, flying through the air and disappearing in the massive flames of the fire. They would have cheered themselves hoarse and congratulated each other at the destruction of their nemesis. But what was the reality? The fire turned into a garden for Ibrahim (AS). The flames remained but burned off the ropes that he had been tied with. He descended gently on to the earth inside the fire, totally unharmed and remained there as long as Allah willed and then walked out to the astonishment of his enemies. What was apparent with respect to Ibrahim (AS) in this whole story was negative, painful, and potentially lethal. But the reality was the pleasure of Allah, safety guaranteed by Allah, and victory over his enemies.
What made all this possible? Absolute obedience to and trust in Allah where the slave obeys without question because he trusts Allah’s Mercy.
The second story is of Yusuf (AS). We all know the story, so I won’t talk about it in detail. It is a story moving from attempted murder, to slavery, to major temptation, to imprisonment for no fault of his, to Governor of Egypt.
Some highlights about how the apparent hides the reality which we would not know, had it not been for Allah’s Revelation. Allah said:
وَقَالَ ٱلَّذِى ٱشْتَرَىٰهُ مِن مِّصْرَ لِٱمْرَأَتِهِۦٓ أَكْرِمِى مَثْوَىٰهُ عَسَىٰٓ أَن يَنفَعَنَآ أَوْ نَتَّخِذَهُۥ وَلَدًا وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُۥ مِن تَأْوِيلِ ٱلْأَحَادِيثِ وَٱللَّهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَىٰٓ أَمْرِهِۦ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ ٱلنَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Yusuf 12: 21 And he (the man) from Egypt who bought him, said to his wife: Make his stay comfortable, maybe he will profit us or we shall adopt him as a son. Thus, did We establish Yusuf in the land, that We might teach him the interpretation of events. And Allah has full power and control over His Affairs, but most of men know not.
What are we seeing here? We are seeing him being sold as a slave. What can be good about that? But Allah has His plan. Then we see what happened with him in that house. Allah told us about the woman trying to seduce him and the reality behind that and said:
وَلَقَدْ هَمَّتْ بِهِۦ وَهَمَّ بِهَا لَوْلَآ أَن رَّءَا بُرْهَـٰنَ رَبِّهِۦ كَذَٰلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ ٱلسُّوٓءَ وَٱلْفَحْشَآءَ إِنَّهُۥ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا ٱلْمُخْلَصِينَ
Yusuf 12: 24 And indeed she did desire him, and he would have inclined to her desire, had he not seen the evidence of his Rabb. Thus, it was, that We might turn away from him evil and illegal sexual intercourse. Surely, he was one of Our chosen, guided slaves.
Allah tells us that he would perhaps have succumbed to her seduction if Allah had not guided him. This is something that we must always be conscious of, that when we do something, it is only by the Mercy of Allah and not a result of our own ‘goodness’ or ‘virtue.’ What this resistance earned for Yusuf (AS) was prison. Being imprisoned for being virtuous. The woman had power and had no compunctions about using it to please herself. Yusuf (AS) chose prison over committing Zina (fornicating) and Allah accepted his dua. All this was a part of Allah’s plan to take him away from being a house-slave and put him in a place where he could meet someone who was destined to bring him to the attention of the king of Egypt. Strange as it may seem, that place was the prison and not the court. If Yusuf (AS) had been taken to the court, then the scheming of the women wouldn’t have ceased. But in prison he was free from them and Allah put other things in motion. That is why Yusuf (AS) says about guidance:
وَمَآ أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِىٓ إِنَّ ٱلنَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌۢ بِٱلسُّوٓءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّىٓ إِنَّ رَبِّى غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
Yusuf 12: 53 And I free not myself (from the blame). Verily, the (human) self is inclined to evil, except when my Rabb bestows His Mercy (upon whom He wills). Verily, my Rabb is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
We see the same plan of Allah in the life of Rasoolullah where in Makkah we see him facing difficulty after difficulty to the extent that if one were to examine the Makkan period alone there is nothing in it to indicate that his mission would ever be successful. Yet history and we are his witnesses.
In Madina it is not as if everything switched to success. In reality only the nature of the struggle changed. In Madina opposition was both apparent and hidden and the hidden opposition was more harmful than the apparent. The Munafiqoon (Hypocrites) are a Madinan phenomenon. Things came to a head until Rasoolullah and the Sahaba faced, what I call, the final exam. That is the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. I call it that because Allah tested everyone by this and with His Grace the Sahaba passed the test. That is when Allah opened Makkah for them and declared Hudaybiyya a victory.
إِنَّا فَتَحْنَا لَكَ فَتْحًا مُّبِينًا
Fath 48: 1 Verily, We have given you (O Muhammad SAW) a manifest victory.
The key elements of the test were:
- Rasoolullah and the Sahaba were not allowed to make Umrah despite Rasoolullah having seen that in his dream, which was Wahi. What must have gone through his blessed mind and what kind of test it was for the Sahaba with respect to their belief in his Messengership?
- The terms of the treaty that Rasoolullah agreed to were totally one sided and humiliating for the Muslims. They all hated it.
The big question was, would they still obey Rasoolullah and retain their devotion to him and faith in his Messengership? Hudaybiyya was a victory of the love of Allah and His Messenger over the desire to make Umrah. The test of love is to see if we will do for the one we love something we ourselves find painful? When the Sahaba proved that Allah revealed:
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ يُبَايِعُونَكَ إِنَّمَا يُبَايِعُونَ ٱللَّهَ يَدُ ٱللَّهِ فَوْقَ أَيْدِيهِمْ فَمَن نَّكَثَ فَإِنَّمَا يَنكُثُ عَلَىٰ نَفْسِهِۦ وَمَنْ أَوْفَىٰ بِمَا عَـٰهَدَ عَلَيْهُ ٱللَّهَ فَسَيُؤْتِيهِ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
Fath 48: 10 Verily, those who give Bai’a (pledge) to you (O Muhammad) they are giving Bai’a (pledge) to Allah. The Hand of Allah is over their hands. Then whosoever breaks his pledge, breaks only to his own harm, and whosoever fulfills what he has covenanted with Allah, He will bestow on him a great reward.
Once again in Hudaybiyya we see something which apparently was negative and painful, but which was the key to achieving the Ridha of Allah. The result of passing these tests was not only worldly victory and benefit, starting with Fatah Makkah and on to the conquest of Jerusalem and the spread of Islam from Iran and Sind in the East to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and everything in between before the end of the Khilafa Raashida. More importantly it was the status that Allah gave to those who remained faithful to His Messenger through all the trials and declared:
وَٱلسَّـٰبِقُونَ ٱلْأَوَّلُونَ مِنَ ٱلْمُهَـٰجِرِينَ وَٱلْأَنصَارِ وَٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّبَعُوهُم بِإِحْسَـٰنٍ رَّضِىَ ٱللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا۟ عَنْهُ وَأَعَدَّ لَهُمْ جَنَّـٰتٍ تَجْرِى تَحْتَهَا ٱلْأَنْهَـٰرُ خَـٰلِدِينَ فِيهَآ أَبَدًا ذَٰلِكَ ٱلْفَوْزُ ٱلْعَظِيمُ
Tawba 9: 100 And the first to embrace Islam of the Muhajirun and the Ansar and those who followed them exactly. Allah is well-pleased with them as they are well-pleased with Him. He has prepared for them Gardens under which rivers flow (Jannah), to dwell therein forever. That is the supreme success.
It is the mercy of Allah and the Baraka of Rasoolullah that Allah left the door leading to His Ridha, open for all those who followed the Sahaba until the end of time. May Allah enable us to live our lives in such a way that we are included with them when we meet Him. This is the benefit of realizing that the apparent hides the reality and when one is focused on the reality then the apparent can’t deceive him and he is neither elated nor discouraged but will continue to remain steadfast on the path of righteousness.