Peace, one and all…
One of my more enduring memories of October’s Threshold Society retreat is of the kitchen rota. During the weekend, we were each expected to take at least three turns in the kitchen, helping to prepare and serve the food, and then clean it away afterwards. Although in such situations people generally help out more willingly, Shaykh Kabir asked us to pay particular attention to ourselves during our work – in an effort to focus on how and why we were working. That is, the aim was to act for the sake of God alone and not for ourselves – nor even the reputation we might feel we have or deserve.
I was really glad of the opportunity to experience this kind of learning. I spent most of my own time washing up, trying to take on the most burdensome tasks myself so as to spare others the trouble. At least at this time, my intention was clear to me: I strove to act solely for God, to the best of my conscious ability. At other times, and in other places, acting in an unselfish way is a much harder business. During a retreat, where everyone is consciously focusing on inward growth, selfless action is perhaps easier (or, perhaps, our more subtle ego-desires are harder to see clearly). In other places, amidst the unceasing flow of everyday life, I find it much more difficult to maintain such clarity. In such situations, I am sure that my intentions are more mixed. Sometimes they seem clear and sometimes they do not. Understanding that this is an almost perennial issue has helped me greatly, as the following story illustrates.
In his Sahih, Imam Muslim relates the following story on the authority of Hanzala:
‘We were in the company of Allah’s Messenger (sall Allahu alaihi wa salem) and he delivered to us a sermon and made a mention of Hell-Fire. Then I came to my house and began to laugh with my children and sport with my wife’. (Hanzala) further reported: ‘I went out and met Abu Bakr and made a mention of that to him. Thereupon he said: ‘I have done the same as you have mentioned’. So we went to see Allah’s Messenger (sall Allahu alaihi wa salem) and said to him: Allah’s Messenger, Hanzala has turned to he a hypocrite. And he (the Holy Prophet, sall Allahu alaihi wa salem) said Show respite. And then I narrated to him the story, and Abu Bakr said: I have done the same as he has done. Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: Hanzala, there is a time for worldly affairs and a time for (worship and devotion), and if your state of mind is always the same as it is at the time of remembrance of Allah, the Angels would shake hands with you and would greet you on the path by saying: al-salamu-alaikum [‘peace be with you’]’ (Sahih Muslim, Book 037, Number 6624)
My family and I spent last weekend at my father-in-law’s house just outside London. On sunday morning, as my wife had a well-deserved lie-in, I tidied the living room, gave the children their breakfast and cleaned my mother-in-law’s kitchen. As I was standing at the sink washing the breakfast things, I began to reflect once again on the nature and meaning of service. As the children had been awake for a couple of hours, I found myself wanting my wife to wake up. My washing up became more intense as I followed this train of thought; at the end of the line, so to speak, I found myself wondering whether I was performing this action solely for the sake of God. To what extent was my vague feeling of frustration influencing my act? Underneath this frustration, to what extent was this issue really about me and my needs? Probably far more than I am consciously aware of, and probably far more than I am willing to admit.
Although I am a human being, and people are a strange mix of needs, desires and motivations, I find great help in the words of the Sufi masters of the path (may God sanctify their noble souls). In Lewisohn’s The Wisdom of Sufism, the words of Ibadi are recorded:
‘One of the fundamental principles of Sufi ethics is that they are continually occupied in service (khidmat). No principle is of the Sufi path is better or more laudable than this. Whoever inclines towards service finds acceptance on the Path. As long as one does not sacrifice one’s own personal fortune and possessions, abandon one’s conventional routine and personal desires, set aside one’s good name and the hauteur of honor and reputation, one will never be able to gird oneself with the belt of service’ (Manaqib al-Sufiyya, 87)
Abandoning conventional routine, personal desires, even one’s good name and reputation are essential elements in becoming a true servant of God. As I have quoted elsewhere, Najm al-Din Kubra defines servanthood as the first essential quality of a Sufi master:
‘As long as the wayfarer has not shrugged off the yoke of all else but God, he will not be distinguished by servanthood…for he is never considered to be ‘liberated’ as long as he is bound by selfhood or attached to his own joy or woe’ (Mirsad al-Ibad)
Perhaps, then, true service is proportionate to the extent that I forget myself in the act. Or, to put it another way, the more I act for myself (and its desires, both open and secret) the less I serve God. It is also worth noting that one of the key words often translated as service (ibada) also means ‘worship’. That is, the more I serve myself, the less I serve God – the more I worship myself, the less I worship God. God requires me to act solely for Him. To act for solely for ourselves can set up a kind of subtle partner with God. It is almost to draw a kind of spiritual membrane or barrier between ourselves and our true object of worship, that we use to parcel off pieces of our lives: ‘this for God, and this for me’. To live in oneness is to remove this filter, to stop dividing life into discrete pieces (only some of which are then rendered to God).
So, having reached something of an impasse how can I move forward? How can I begin the process of becoming that true servant of the Divine? Well, given our previous discussion, it is important to understand that all motion (whether forward or retrograde) comes from God: la hawla wa la quwwata illa Billah (‘there is no power or movement except in God’). Secondly, it is to understand what service truly requires. Ibadi continues his account thus:
‘Service requires love, sincerity, reverence, trust, submission, certitude, abstinence, piety, patience in the face of annoying and disagreeable circumstances, sacrifice of personal self-fulfillment, renunciation of all complaint, divorcing oneself from greed and cupidity, eradication of passion, suppression of anger, moderation of desire, removal of petter discrimination, abandoning affectation, and perfect faith’ (Manaqib al-Sufiyya, 87)
That the first requirement is love is quite profound. Love is the true healer. Not selfish, narrow ‘love’ (if such actually is love), but rather that love which helps us move beyond ourselves – enabling us to act and to be for others (and thus for God). The second quality is sincerity, or the ability to act for God with a whole heart. Love must be built upon sincerity, or else it is not truly love. Ibadi’s list ends with ‘suppression of anger, moderation of desire, removal of petty discrimination, abandoning affectation, and perfect faith’. That is, all of these things are based on faith in God (or iman) and on the honest work of caring for others. The path begins in faith and is walked by means of adab. These two essential qualities lead on towards the heights of sincerity and love. It is perhaps for this reason that Attar records an interesting saying in his masterful Tadhkirat al-Awliya:
‘Rather than persistence in service, service consists of courtesy (adab). Observance of courtesy in the course of service is better than service itself’
Because, action must be focused, consciously intended and built through hard work to be of real use. Nasafi has this to say this:
‘O dervish! Performance of service is as sowing seeds in the earth, and forgetting one’s service is as covering those seeds with earth. So, if you plant and sow some seeds but fail to cover them with earth, your life and wealth will both have gone to waste. All your service will have been in vain’ (Kashf al-Haqa’iq, 122)
Perhaps this is why the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is recorded as saying (as part of a much longer hadith):
‘The servant is under the protection of God Almighty as long as he is wearing the robes of service…’
For me, the ‘robes of service’ point towards selfless action, to humility in the face of my own ‘achievements’.
‘The eminence of the rank of the faqir lies in humility. If he forsakes humility, he abandons all other virtues as well’ (Hamdun Qassar in Attar Tadhkirat al-Awliya)
May God place us all under the shade of His protection. May He allow me to truly take on and wear the ‘robes of service’, the robes of humility, the robes of trust in Him.
Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.