CHAPTER - 1
CHOOSING A COURSE
Imagine that you are travelling alone on a road which eventually divides into two: one track is bumpy and difficult, while the other is a smooth and comfortable path, sloping down to a plain. The first road is uneven, rocky and full of thorny bushes and hidden dangers. It is also steep and hard going. However, the authorities have put up a notice at the beginning of the track which reads: Even though this road may initially seem difficult, it will eventually lead you to your destination. As for the second road, it is well-paved and both sides are lined with fruit trees and flowers, and there are plenty of cafes and places of entertainment. The traveller on this road will find everything he needs to satisfy his senses. But the notice at the beginning of this road warns: This is a dangerous and destructive road. it leads to a chasm and certain death. Which of the two paths would you choose to take? More often than not, human nature opts for the easy way because it seems effortless, enjoyable and does not involve any suffering. It prefers logo its own way and to free itself of all commitments and responsibility. God has created this human instinct, and everyone, if left to himself, would follow the second path. However, the human mind intervenes at the junction of these two roads and applies the brakes. It urges Man to reflect and weigh up his options. Will he choose to enjoy short-lived pleasure followed by unremitting pain, or a brief and temporary period of pain, followed by eternal bliss and joy? Eventually he will choose to take the first road.
These examples illustrate the comparison between heaven and hell. The way to hell is full of pleasures enjoyed by the human heart: temptations such as seductive beauty, sensuous pleasure and wealth, derived no matter from what source, and the kind of material pleasure sought after by so many. Besides this, unlimited freedom of action and renouncement of all forms of control are also experienced on this path, as human beings tend to crave this kind of freedom from all forms of restraint. The path to paradise is certainly no bed of roses. One has to face untold hardships and suffering and to abide by many restrictions and the desire to resist the cravings of the heart. However, whereas the consequence of indulging in what are the temporary pleasures of life lead to constant suffering in hell, the reward for following the more difficult path is eternal joy and pleasure in the life hereafter. It's rather like a student on the eve of his exams. He is reluctant to leave his family who are watching television, but he has to get on with his revision. However, after this temporary displeasure, he will enjoy the fruits of his success. 'Another example would be the case of a sick man who has to 'give up certain delicious foods. His reward is that he will regain his health. God has set the two paths before us and He has created the -faculty within us to enable us to distinguish between the two so 'that everyone, regardless of his or her educational background, has the ability to discriminate between good and evil. This means that in the same way as when we do something good we feel a sense of relief as we have a clear conscience, we equally feel upset when we do something wrong. This faculty is not restricted to human beings; animals have it too. For example, if you throw a piece of meat to a cat he will eat it in front of you in a perfectly relaxed way. But if he snatches the meat from you he will run off to a comer and gobble it up on his own so that you won't see him and grab the meat back! So we can see from this example that in the first instance the cat's conscience is clear because he feels the meat has been given to him, whereas in the second example his reaction shows he knows instinctively that he has acted aggressively. In other words, he has distinguished between right and wrong, and what is 'lawful' and what is 'prohibited'. A dog too will come and lick his master when he has done something good as if he is asking him for a reward. But when he misbehaves the dog looks sheepish, as if he regrets what he has done or expects to be punished. This is the interpretation of the verse in the Holy Qur’an which says: Have We not shown him the two paths (of good and evil)? (Qur’an;90:80).
God has appointed certain men to preach to and guide mankind on the path of paradise. They are the prophets. The path to hell also has those who lure men to it. They are God's adversaries. The Ulema (scholars and religious leaders) follow in the prophets' footsteps. Fatima, daughter of our Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him), did not inherit property or wealth from him. The ulema inherited the da'wah (the task of spreading the message of his religion) from him. Whoever fulfills this task with absolute sincerity and to the best of his ability deserves the honour of this inheritance. Da'wah is difficult, given man's strong desire for freedom, which religion wants to restrain. Religion endeavours to curb human nature when it gets out of control and indulges in every pleasure. Religion readily responds to any temptation to commit sins or behave immorally. Human nature is rather like a reservoir full of water, situated on top of a high hill. It's easy to destroy the reservoir: you merely pierce it with something sharp and the water will overflow in no time, flooding the valley below. But if you want to refill the reservoir, it's a different matter. You'll need to go to a great deal of trouble, install a pump and spend a vast amount of money. Here's another example to illustrate human weakness. If you want to bring a heavy boulder to the foot of a mountain, all you need do is to push it slightly and it will roll down, - but getting it back to the top is a tremendous task! And that is the way of human nature.
A friend who is not adhering to a religious path might tell you about a beautiful woman who performs dancing shows in the nude, and you might be tempted to go along and see her. If a religious person were to come along at this point to advise you against seeing the woman, you might find it difficult to resist temptation and listen to his advice. Those who spread evil hardly have to exert themselves at all in order to spread their mischief, whereas those who uphold moral values and noble actions have to make a tremendous effort. The 'evil monger' has all the factors which play upon human weakness at his fingertips: feminine charms unashamedly exposed sexual arousal and easy access to whatever appeals to the senses. How can the preachers of Islam compete with all these attractions? What do they have to offer in their place? Simply restraint and moderation. You may find yourself looking at a girl who is not wearing the veil which Muslim women are required to wear, and you might fantasize about the shape of her body. At that point a preacher would ask you to lower your glance and not to look at her. Another example is of a businessman who finds the practice of lending money at a high rate of interest the best and quickest way of making money. But the preacher would advise him not to make money in this way. An employee might notice a colleague accepting a bribe equivalent to six months’ salary and imagine how much he and his family would benefit if he did likewise. The preacher, however, would intervene at this point advising him to restrain himself from carrying out such an action. Spiritual teachers advise all such people, warning them to keep away from temporary pleasures that cross their path, - to give up temptations in the physical world for the sake of the unseen: that which they cannot perceive at that moment. They encourage them to control their weak wills and the desires of their hearts, even though this is a tremendous task and a heavy burden. It should not be a wonder that we describe religion as a heavy burden. Indeed, Allah the Almighty has described it like this in the Holy Qur’an: “Behold, we shall bestow upon thee a weighty message” (Qur’an;73:5). Every noble act weighs down the human soul.
In the example we looked at, of the student leaving his family watching television in order to revise for his exams, he was no doubt fed up! It is also hard for someone who is a student of knowledge to detach himself from a social gathering when he is enjoying himself, for the sake of reading and teaching. The same goes for a person who is awakened at dawn to perform fajr (dawn prayer). Likewise, a man who sets out on the path of jihad (holy war) also takes a great burden upon himself, when he says goodbye to his wife and family. We therefore find there are far more unrighteous and unworthy people around than the other way round. Those who remember God and let Him guide them are far fewer than those who opt for the 'easy path'. And this is why it is harmful for us to fall blindly in line with the majority: Now if thou pay heed to the majority of those (who live) on earth, they will but lead thee astray from the path of God (Qur’an;6:116). However, if scarcity and rarity were not qualities of eminence and superiority, diamonds would not be hard to find and coal would not be in such abundance. Nor would great men of genius, brave heroes and men of distinction be so few and far between. For many generations, prophets and men of true knowledge have urged us to follow the right path, while the corrupt and virtue-less have tried to mislead us. And in fact, we have the faculty within us to go either way. There is a part of our inner selves that accepts the teachings of the prophets, and another part that is influenced by those who have been misled. The human intellect is the side that understands truth and the way of the prophets; and there is another side that provokes us into wrong doing. "What's the difference between the mind and the soul?" you may ask. I do not claim to provide here a clear definition to clarify and distinguish one from the other - and even science has failed to throw a light on them' However, I shall try to explain.
We all say. "I said to myself or "My mind told me" (or. my intellect}. But what is 'you' and what is your 'self? And what is your mind? Even though these things are still not clear to us, and 1 am not going to discover something unknown, I shall attempt to give a tangible example, The human body is in constant change, and cells which lived in it years ago no longer exist, The self is the same: its hopes, aspirations, pains and sufferings are constantly changing. At this point you may well ask which part of the 'I' is unchanging? It is the ‘soul’ and your next question may be "What is the soul?" God has revealed knowledge to us about many mysteries of the human body: the functions of our limbs and cures for many diseases. He has also informed us about sicknesses of the human self (nafas). He has told us that some selves (nafas) are more prone to doing wrong (nafas amara), while others are self-critical (nafase lawama); in contrast, other selves are completely satisfied and peaceful (nafase mutminah). He has also told us that every human (self, nafas) tastes death. But the Almighty has not disclosed anything concerning the human soul, as this knowledge belongs only to God. The soul is not affected by limits of time and space. For example, a person in your presence may drop off to sleep for fifteen minutes. And yet in that time may have 'traveled' to America or India, lived there for twenty or thirty years and experienced tremendous joys and sorrow. But how could a span of twenty years or more possibly be contained in fifteen minutes? This example shows how we can undergo great suffering or enjoy blessings beyond the grave. The soul itself is not affected by anything ~ not even disease or health. It was in existence before it was committed to this body and to this self and it will remain even after we depart from our bodies and after the self has vanished.
Here is another example of the conflict between the mind and the self You may be warm and cozy in bed, fast asleep on a cold night when the alarm goes to wake you up for dawn prayer. At that moment an inner voice in you tells you to get up and pray. Just as you're about to get up, you hear another inner voice which says "Why don't you sleep for a bit longer?" "But prayer is better than sleeping," the first voice intervenes. "It would be lovely to go on sleeping," the second voice retorts, "and there's plenty of time. You can be a few minutes late." And so the battle between the two voices continues: "Sleep!" "Get up!" "Sleep!" "Get up!" The former is the mind and the latter is the self. This kind of situation shows up in many shapes and forms. It is the kind of hesitation that comes over a person who wants to jump across a wide ditch. He would like to get across, but is afraid of falling. He hears two different voices in his inner self: "Jump!" "Don't jump -turn back!" If he responds to the voice that tells him to jump, he will get to the other side. But if he hesitates and waits for the voice that tells him to turn back, and then decides to jump, he is bound to fall into the ditch. 'In every situation like the ones above, we find ourselves having to make a choice. At times like this, good reason can only prevail if we have faith. It is only when we have Iman (faith) that we can achieve victory of the mind over the body. The force of Iman is proportional to the victory of the power of your mind. However, this does not mean that the mind can always conquer the desires of the body, and that a Muslim will never make mistakes.
Islam is a compassionate religion; it is a practical faith, based on the realities of life. God has not created human beings to be angels, devils, domestic animals or wild beasts. Angels have been created to obey and worship; devils, for disobedience and blasphemy, and domestic and wild beasts are not bestowed with the power of reasoning, but with instincts. This means they are not under obligation to obey the divine commandments and will not be held responsible for their actions. We do not belong to any of these categories. So what are we? What exactly is a human being? Every human being is a unique creation containing some angelic, devilish and even animal-like characteristics. His angelic qualities are predominant when he sincerely worships God and establishes a close relationship with Him. Such a man is like the angels: "who do not disobey God in whatever He has commanded them, but (always) do what they are bidden to do "(Qur’an;66:6). But if a human being turns his back on or shows contempt for his Creator, or worships more than one God, he will fall victim to negative and harmful influences. When such a man gets angry he acts like a wild man, his sole aim being to beat his enemy at all costs, even if this means attacking him physically. On such occasions, a human being behaves like a wild beast. Likewise, if a man is unable to control his sexual urges, the animal side of his nature takes him over completely. These two tendencies form the basis of human nature, one inclining towards good and one towards evil. God, however, has endowed man with the power of reasoning and the will to choose which way is best. If he is able to use his willpower and exercise good sense he will be amongst those who enjoy eternal happiness in the life hereafter. If not, he will bear the consequences and suffer. The self by its very nature is inclined towards freedom. However, religion restricts this 'freedom' in order to discipline the self. Without such restriction, we could lose all good values and the self might lose control and act in a completely irresponsible way. With such unrestrained freedom, human society could run amok, with human beings behaving like lunatics. For example, a mad man does whatever comes into his mind: he might strip off his clothes and wander round the streets naked. He might even sit on the shoulders of a bus driver! Or he could take a fancy to your clothes and strip them off you. He may find your daughter attractive and want to have a sexual relationship with her based on passion, and not as ordained by Islam.
A lunatic is the only person who enjoys total freedom. A sane person is governed by his common sense which is rather like a 'tether or strap that binds him'. This is reflected in the Arabic word aql 'mind' which refers to the rope with which a camel is tied. The word hikmah, meaning wisdom, is similar, in that it is also derived from the meaning of a tether. The word 'civilization' also reflects the meaning of such a bond or tether, in that it places limits on your conduct in everyday life. It prescribes respect for the rights of others and for the accepted conventions, traditions, etc., of a society. 'Justice' is another concept that has the same implication, because it fixes a limit on your freedom with regards to the freedom of your neighbour. The self is constantly being tempted since what is alluring is always attractive. For example, you may enjoy listening to and taking part in gossip, hearing about what people have or haven’t done, and you may derive a vicarious pleasure in it, because you feel that you are better than the person whose weaknesses are being exposed. In the same way, theft may be considered as fun, as it's an easy and effortless way of bringing in money. The self may find committing adultery an enjoyable way of satisfying its desires. Cheating in an examination helps the person to pass it, without having made an effort. The self may want to shirk its duties, thus becoming lazy and lethargic. But if you really stop and think, you will find that this short-lived freedom is not worth the trouble, because in return you will have to bear the consequences of your misdeeds for a long time. How would a person feel, if he was asked to sign a legal contract granting him whatever he wanted to satisfy his wildest dreams, for a year: he could live in whatever country he chose, and have as many love affairs as he wanted. Imagine that contract stated that nothing would be forbidden but it also stipulated that at the end of the year he would be hanged. Wouldn't he say "No pleasure lasting for a year is worth being hanged for!"? Wouldn't he realise that as soon as the noose was tightened round his neck he could not take any of these sources of pleasure with him? Wouldn't he understand that even though the pain of being hanged may only last for a minute, the torture in the life hereafter would never come to an end? There can hardly be anyone in the world who has not sinned at some point in their life, and enjoyed committing that sin. The least of all sins might be the reluctance to get up and perform the dawn prayer. If we stop and think about all the pleasures we might have enjoyed ten years ago and then ask whether we are left with any of those pleasures now, what's the answer?... Nothing! To perform any duty is always hard and causes some discomfort. For example, the duty of fasting during the month of Ramadan means we Muslims have to suffer feelings of hunger and thirst. But what effects are we feeling now from those sufferings? What is left of the hunger pangs we underwent during the month of Ramadan ten years ago? The pleasures of sin may have vanished, but the punishment remains. Whereas the pains and sufferings undergone for the sake of performing duties have disappeared, but the reward stays with us.
What consequences await us at the hour of death from all the pleasures we enjoyed and the sufferings we underwent? Deep down in our hearts we always want to repent and return to the path of God, but we put it off and play a waiting game. For example I used to tell myself that I would repent and follow God's way after performing Hajj. I would perform Hajj regularly, but I still didn't repent! My fortieth year and my sixtieth years went by and I still hadn't repented. This does not mean that I have been leading a life full of sin all these years. Not at all, thank God. But that example just shows that man wants to lead a good life, but he keeps finding excuses to put it off. He thinks he has plenty of time ahead and can therefore afford to vegetate - until, all of a sudden, he is struck by death. I myself have had two near death experiences, and this made me repent every moment I had wasted in acts of disobedience to God, and this feeling of repentance persisted for several months and during that time I became a good person. Later on though, I became involved yet again in the rough and tumble of life - and forgot about death. We all forget death. Even seeing funerals go by isn't enough to remind us that we will die one day. Even during prayers at funerals our minds may wander onto worldly matters. We think that everyone else is going to die except us, and yet, deep down, we know we shall depart from this world one day. A man may live up to sixty, seventy or even a hundred, but he is bound to die one day. You must know people who lived o to a great age, but they all died. Perhaps you know that Noah lived till he was 950, preaching to his people. Where is Noah now? Has he been living in the world all this time? Has he been excluded from death? Why is it then that we do not think about death and prepare for it, since it is inevitable? A person who is going on a journey starts getting ready from the moment a date has been fixed until his departure. I was once in the company of some Jordanian teachers who had signed contracts for employment in Saudi Arabia informed that their flights were scheduled to take off one after the other. Those who had prepared themselves in time were able to leave as scheduled as soon as they had attended to passport formalities and said goodbye to their families. But those who needed more time to get ready for the journey were not given that time and were therefore unable to leave. So what can we say about a call for departure announced by the Angel of Death! It is a call that can be neither put off nor ignored The Angel of Death will seize a person even if he is unwilling and will not allow him any respite. And who knows when the Angel of Death will arrive? What is death exactly? What is the truth about it? Human life is divided into stages: the first stage is the embryo in a mother's womb; then comes life in this world followed by the stage of barzakh (the interim period between death and resurrection). Finally, there is the eternal stage of the life hereafter. Each successive stage has the same degree of relativity to the one next to it.
The vastness of this world when compared to the narrow space in the mother's womb is like the vastness of the barzakh when compared to life in the world; the same goes for the vastness of the life hereafter when compared to the barzakh When a child is in the embryonic form he thinks his entire world is his mother's womb. If the embryo were to be asked about the meaning of his exit from the womb, he might say that it would mean death. If the embryo consisted of twins and one was born before the other, the one who was born late might say] that his twin brother had died and been buried in an unknown world. He would weep if he had seen his twin's placenta discarded and thrown away in just the same way a mother would grieve over her son's dead body. A mother who has to keep her child clean and sees him being buried in the earth of his grave breaks down. What she doesn't realise is that this is like the placenta: it is like a dirty shirt that needs to be ''thrown away. It is a garment whose life is over and is no longer needed. This is what death is. In fact it is a 'new birth'. It is an exit .into another dimension which is longer and wider in terms of time and space. The world we live in is only a place of transit. Our life in it is similar to the life of a migrant going to the United States by ship. He pays for a pleasant cabin and makes .provisions to ensure he has a comfortable trip. But do you think he would bother to spend all his money renovating the amenities in his cabin and arrive in the United States penniless as a consequence? Or would he say to himself: ‘’I’ will only be staying in this cabin for a week, so I might as well enjoy what's provided for and save my money for my home in the States as 'that is where I'll be taking up permanent residence." Here's another example to compare this world with the .world to come. Some years ago the United States announced that it was going to carry out an atomic test on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. This island was inhabited by a few hundred fishermen who were asked to vacate the island and were offered residence in the country of their choice, with the same terms and conditions as those they had been used to. A final date was fixed, giving them time to submit their particulars and prepare for their departure. The inhabitants reacted in different ways. Some of them did as they were advised, some dilly-dallied and neglected the matter till the final date, whereas others said the whole issue was based on lies, that there was no such place as the United States and they were therefore not willing to leave the island.
It did not occur to them that the whole island would be blow to pieces and left in ruins. This example illustrates the different attitudes that may have to life on earth. The believer is aware of what is to come in the hereafter and therefore prepares for it by leading a life of repentance and obedience, and we can compare him to the first; group of fishermen who started to pack up and get ready to go and live in a different place. But the believer who does not obey God and ignores his obligations is like the second group of fishermen, who took no notice of the fact that danger was imminent. As for the non-believer, he is like the third group of fishermen: he rejects and doubts the truth of religion. He is convinced that there is no life after this worldly existence, and that death is a deep sleep, a permanent rest and that he will be extinct. This does not mean that Islam calls upon every Muslim to give up this world completely and free him self of all responsibilities. Islam does not say that mosques provide the only place of interest for Muslims; nor does it say that they should live in caves and lead the life of hermits. On the contrary, Islam calls upon Muslims to set the best example of a civilized people and to strive to be among the richest in terms of material wealth as well as to take a lead among scientists. It urges every Muslim to lead a balanced and healthy life, taking care of his or her body by eating proper food and keeping fit Islam advises Muslims not to overwork and to enjoy life and relax, so long as this recreation does not break the boundaries of Islam. It urges a Muslim to take care of his family and carry out certain duties in the society in which he lives. He should be just as aware of these obligations as of the principles of faith in the Oneness of God and the need to obey Him. In other words, a Muslim may accumulate wealth, provided it is accumulated lawfully. Equally, he may enjoy all the lawfully permitted good things in life. And he should be very much of this world, provided that he remains true to his faith and does not let any form of polytheism, explicit or implicit, infiltrate into his faith. He must keep away from whatever is deemed to be unlawful and perform all his religious duties. Wealth is something which should be carefully possessed in a Muslim's hands and not in his heart, because his dependence should be on God and not on material possessions. And his one and only purpose in life should be constantly to seek to do what is acceptable to God.