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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 243 A.H) – Part One

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Recently I wrote a paper regarding one of the works of an early Sufi and scholar of kalam, al-Harith b. Asad al-Muhasibi (d. 243 A.H. / 857 C.E.), entitled, “The Quintessense of the Intellect and Its Meaning.” As part of the paper I translated this tract. Of interest is that this is the first serious attempt made by a ‘Sunni’ scholar to understand the reality of the intellect.

Al-Muhasibi is one of the first people who combined between Sufism and kalam – the general norm for the first five centuries of the hijra was that these two trends were distinct and separate from one another. Most early Sufis had little to do with kalam, and the greatest luminaries of early kalam were not known for their tasawwuf. It was only after Abu Hamid al-Ghazali that such a marriage between Sufism and kalam became the norm, such that in our times it is hardly possible to find a person who is involved in one without the other. Of course, even in the first few centuries, there were a handful of exceptions, al-Muhasibi being perhaps one of the more famous ones, and definitely the earliest. In many ways he was a precursor to al-Ghazali, and this comparison has been commented on by many a researcher in the field.

Due to al-Muhasibi’s tendencies, Imam Ahmad (amongst others), who was a contemporary, gave extremely harsh verdicts against him. In a future post, I will insha Allah discuss and comment on these verdicts in greater detail.

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For now, this is the concluding portion of al-Muhasibi’s tract on the intellect, translated from the Arabic:

 

And there is no substitute for a servant in reflecting, and contemplating, and remembering, so that his reflections may increase, and his knowledge be augmented, and his status be raised. For he who decreases his contemplation decreases as well in reflection, and he whose reflection is decreased also decreases his knowledge, and whoever’s knowledge decreases, only increases his ignorance. Of what use is the knowledge of one who has only studied knowledge with his tongue, and memorized its words with his heart, but avoided reflecting, contemplating, and thinking about its meanings and extracting its benefits? How close is such a one to an animal that is only able to recognize what it feels with its limbs!

Rather, the real one who contemplates ishe who ponders over what he hears, and reflects upon what he knows, and understands what he has been commanded to do. This is the one who can differentiate between what is beneficial for him and what is harmful for him, and such is the one who has the power to withstand his own nature that strives to make him do that which will harm him. He can resist his own desires that try to overcome him, for he is aware of the net result of his actions, and what will happen in the future ahead. He fears his Lord, and prefers the pleasure of his ʿaql over the pleasure of his desires. For indeed, the pleasure of the wise scholars is in their intellects, and the pleasure of the ignoramuses and beasts is in their desires.

And what happiness can equal the happiness of knowledge, and the spirit of certainty, and the brilliance of noesis, all of which can only be attained and affirmed through sound reasoning, and long thinking, and continuative reflecting.

Thus, through all of this, he attains knowledge of God, and exposes himself to His protection, and raising his ranks with Him, expending a little of this world in order to attain the real rewards [of the Hereafter], for indeed He is the Ever-Generous Lord. Whoever seeks Him finds Him, whoever asks Him for self-sufficiency is granted it, whoever fears Him achieves His protection, and whoever strives to come close to Him is swiftly responded to. He calls out to you if you turn your back to Him, and He accepts you if you return to Him; He praises and commends you for your share that He has given you, and He encourages you to contemplate for yourself. And He only causes you to be sick in order that He cure you – if you but understand! – and He impoverishes you in order to enrich you. He withholds from you in order to give you, for He withholds that which is meager and temporary so that you are content, in order that He may give you that which is plentiful and permanent. He causes you to die only to resurrect you back to life, and He gives you the medicine of sickness so that you may be cured from the effects of sins. He inflicts you with suffering so that He may wash away the filth of your mistakes, and He throws upon you troubles so that your heart may soften in order to achieve success.

He gave you His blessings before you even asked, and then followed it up with more after you had forgotten to thank Him. He continued to shower His munificence (iḥsān) upon you despite your continual neglect of Him. So how else will you recognize His iḥsān, and realize your own shortcomings, and see the way to your success, except by using your intellect (ʿaql) to reflect over what He has said, and by pondering and struggling with yourself so that you may recognize what pleases Him, and avoid what displeases Him and takes you away from Him?

For indeed, He has blessed you with the innate quality (gharīzah) of intelligence (ʿaql), and given you the gift of knowledge, and tested you with what is in your nature – of anger, and content, and miserliness – with silence.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> For silence is a foreign language, and the one who practices it is like one who is dumb: no one understands him except for his companion. As for speech, it is clear and explanatory: the one who hears it understands it. And indeed, the Prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, has commanded the one who has no good to say to remain silent, for he said, “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day – let him say what is good, or else remain silent!” And there is no way to explain and clarify all blessings except with speech. Thus ends the ‘Quintessence of the Intellect and Its Meaning‘, of al-Ḥārith b. Asad al-Muḥasibī – praise be to God as He is worthy of, and may peace and salutations be upon our master Muḥammad and his family.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>


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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> The Arabic phrasing is problematic: و ابتلاك بما في طباعك مما يهيج الغضب و الرضى و البخل بالسكوت لأن الصمت أعجمي. The only meaning that I can derive is that God has tested you to see if you remain silent at times of strong emotions.

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Sh. Dr. Yasir Qadhi is someone that believes that one's life should be judged by more than just academic degrees and scholastic accomplishments. Friends and foe alike acknowledge that one of his main weaknesses is ice-cream, which he seems to enjoy with a rather sinister passion. The highlight of his day is twirling his little girl (a.k.a. "my little princess") round and round in the air and watching her squeal with joy. A few tid-bits from his mundane life: Sh. Yasir has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He is an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib, and the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Anon.

    June 1, 2007 at 6:05 AM

    Sh. Yasir, I meant to ask you if you’re going to learn some French/German as part of your course requirement. That’s a thought :)

  2. Jamal

    June 1, 2007 at 2:13 PM

    Original comment deleted as it had no relation to the article. We currently don’t have a system for general announcements. If you can email them, we can try to include them in a post. w/s -MM

  3. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    June 1, 2007 at 6:51 PM

    Jazzak Allaahu Khayr for sharing that translation Shaykh Yasir…I found it quite beautiful.

  4. jamal

    June 2, 2007 at 10:37 PM

    A fair point. I will do that next time.

  5. oldschool

    June 3, 2007 at 10:59 PM

    The point is good and makes sense, but takes so long to make a point. I can taste the philosophy. Compare that to the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), one can notice how the words of the Messenger were laconic and beautiful.

  6. MrEspy

    August 14, 2007 at 9:47 PM

    Shaykh…inshaAllah all is well w/ you and your family…

    I wanted to give tags a different type of flavor and thought you’d do the honors:

    Meme Tag

  7. Amad

    August 14, 2007 at 10:42 PM

    MrEspy… your tag isn’t working… thought the wrong Shaykh would let you know…

  8. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » UPDATE! Suhaib Webb’s “Departure” from “Traditionalism”

  9. Abu Rumaysah

    September 26, 2007 at 8:06 AM

    perhaps an alternative translation to the problematic sentence would be as follows

    …and has tested you by [arousing] those attributes of your disposition that would intensify emotions of anger, contentment, and miserliness [to ascertain] if you would remain silent for silence [in such circumstances] is an alien [reaction].

    Allah knows best
    Abu Rumaysah

  10. Abu Rumaysah

    September 26, 2007 at 8:18 AM

    modified it slightly to:

    …and has tested you by [arousing] those attributes of your disposition that would intensify emotions of anger and contentment, and provoke miserliness [to ascertain] if you would remain silent for quiesence [in such circumstances] is an alien [reaction].

  11. Amad

    September 26, 2007 at 8:44 AM

    jazakAllahkhair Abu Rumaysah. Good to hear from you here. You may not remember it, but more than a decade ago, when I was running the MSA-Houston’s website, and if I remember correctly, you were working with the University of Essex MSA site… I believe we were in touch a few times as we were taking the dawah online!

  12. Yasir Qadhi

    September 27, 2007 at 7:20 AM

    Abu Rumaysah,

    Jazak Allah khayr… yes that is a better way of looking at it, except that it then makes the following sentence problematic.

    I feel that the edition I have has something missing at that point (and there is only one printed edition), and Allah knows best.

    Yasir

  13. abu Rumay-s.a.

    March 2, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    And there is no substitute for a servant in reflecting, and contemplating, and remembering, so that his reflections may increase, and his knowledge be augmented, and his status be raised. For he who decreases his contemplation decreases as well in reflection, and he whose reflection is decreased also decreases his knowledge, and whoever’s knowledge decreases, only increases his ignorance. Of what use is the knowledge of one who has only studied knowledge with his tongue, and memorized its words with his heart, but avoided reflecting, contemplating, and thinking about its meanings and extracting its benefits?

    This statement reminds of what Shaikh Jafar sometimes refers to regarding a person (A) who does not have as much knowledge as another person (B) (who exceeds him in textual knowledge), but the (A) may be able to surpass (B) in rank due to his contemplation, his reflection and his inference and benefit from the texts…

    SubhanAllah, irrespective of this Sufi schloar’s beliefs, according to this citation of his writing, it really indicates great depth of his own remarkable intellect and reflection, a blessing that is endowed by our Exalted Creator. As the prophet (saws) once said about an ayah in suratul Imran, “woe to the one who reads/recites these ayat and does not reflect/ponder upon its meanings..”

    JazakAllahu khairun for the article and I believe it behooves us to open our hearts/minds to the great wealth of knowledge within this ummah even from sources we may not totally agree with as someone’s beliefs/misunderstandings in some issues does not necessarily render their entire “thoughts” to be rejected. This is why you may hear some of the more well read scholars such as shaikh Salman quote poets like Rumi and other poets, thinkers as their words provide some insight to some issues and as long as they are consistent with the Quran and sunnah, insha`Allah there is benefit.

    One final observation just as a side not, subhanAllah, we see our beloved teachers and masha`ikh taking the benefit from all the Muslims and I think this is an indication to the well balanced approach of the believers (may Allah accept us amongst them)….i sort of see it as a “wala” to their good and “bara” from their errors”…..and this is contrastly antithetical to the hardliners who you hardly ever see quoting or benefiting from those whom they disagree with….

    tamim, abu rumay-s.a.

  14. abu Rumay-s.a.

    April 4, 2009 at 11:20 AM

    Due to al-Muhasibi’s tendencies, Imam Ahmad (amongst others), who was a contemporary, gave extremely harsh verdicts against him. In a future post, I will insha Allah discuss and comment on these verdicts in greater detail.

    Any updates on this commentary of his contemporaries?

  15. Rasheed

    September 7, 2009 at 6:09 AM

    subhanallah,,a beautiful teaching from Al Muhasibi, looking forward for part 2

  16. Nexuses

    February 15, 2012 at 3:39 AM

    AS, it’s been 5 years already and I was just wondering if the follow ups are every going to be posted? And if not? Why? Jazaka Allaahu khayran

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