Renunciation: Definition

This is the first in a series of articles on how to live simply and practice renunciation from the On Demand Course: Living Simply or How to Practice Zuhd in Complex Times

The topic of living simply and upholding this key Prophetic quality of renunciation (Zuhd) is central to our religion. It is at the heart of what the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and all Prophets (Allah bless him and give him peace) before had come with.

Renunciation is one of the qualities that we are tested regarding in our material times. 


When scholars look at any virtue or value, they begin with definitions. To understand things, we need to understand their definitions. 

If we look at the Arabic language, the term Zuhd comes from three primary senses. The first of these is that something is insignificant, or it is just little in extent, but it also has the sense of a person having renunciation for something. It is them considering a particular matter to be bereft of significance.

These three senses in the Arabic language are interrelated. Renunciation is not about simply doing without. Imam al-Ghazali makes a very important point that deeming something insignificant is a comparative matter. If one considers something as not important, one is doing so only because one deems something else significant.

Our tradition is not an ascetic tradition in the sense that we simply leave the worldly. Rather, our tradition is one of putting the hereafter first. Deeming the matters of this world insignificant, considering the attainment of this world to be little, considering it not to be so important, is in a comparative sense. It is in comparison to the significance of the hereafter. 

There is no inherent merit simply in saying, “I have acquired renunciation. I downscaled my home and I gave away most of my clothes and I did all these things.” Our faith is not about the good worldly life, even though living simply may facilitate that. But, it may not. 

Detesting Worldliness

One of the great scholars of Islam, Imam al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Jurjani, tells us (in his dictionary of definitions) that renunciation has three key meanings as a religious value. 

The first is detesting worldliness (dunya) and turning away from it. Worldliness is not this worldly life. “Worldliness is those things that busy you away from Allah,” as mentioned by early Muslims like Abu Sulayman al-Darani. Those things make you fall into sin or they cause you to be heedless of your responsibilities before Allah. 

For instance, if one had an active devotional life as a family. Then they purchased a large-screen TV and since then, there has been a major prioritization of getting together and watching movies or a TV series. It may even be the permissible. 

Detesting worldliness is the things that cause you to fall into sin or that busy you away from the things pleasing to Allah or being conscious of Allah. That is what is meant by worldliness.

A Rule of Thumb

It is not, for example, in the case where Allah has facilitated for you to have plenty so you get yourself a good minivan for the family. That is not worldliness, particularly if connected with good intentions. For example, a family may buy a large minivan that is quite expensive because, in winter, Maghrib can come early, so they can pray standing in the car. That is not worldliness because something of this life was sought with good intentions. 

Detesting worldliness is to develop a dislike of the things that cause you to fall into sin, or that busy you from other than the things that facilitate seeking the pleasure of Allah, or that make you heedless of Allah.

You can use that as a guide. One may have purchased a subscription for a particular service but then when self-accounting, you realize that your spiritual routines have gone down, but the amount of time spent watching cricket, has gone up. One may be able to feel the difference in one’s relationship with Allah. 

So turn away from the things that busy you away from Allah. Recognize the significance of prioritizing Allah and prioritizing the next life. 

Leaving Worldly Comfort

The second key meaning of worldliness religiously is leaving worldly comfort for the next worldly comfort. Some of these sacrifices may not be easy, at least in the beginning. An example of this is leaving going to a restaurant to go to the mosque, to go to the learning center, or to attend gatherings of remembrance. 

What are the things that will lead to everlasting comfort? Many intelligent people, choose to live in a smaller house rather than a bigger house, even if Allah has blessed them with wealth. It may even be more constricted. However, the money they save every month enables them to spend on the means of next-worldly comfort. They can buy religious books. Spend on their children’s religious education. Simplify their life. 

Leaving worldly comfort is not just for the sake of leaving it, but because the comfort you are ultimately seeking is next-worldly comfort. When you leave these things, it is renunciation. 

Freedom of the Heart

The third definition is for your heart to be free of what your hand does not have. You are giving up the lesser because you are concerned about what is greater. 

Preferring Allah and the next life underlies these simplifying choices. One understands and has certitude regarding what Allah tells us: 

مَا عِندَكُمْ يَنفَدُ ۖ وَمَا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ بَاقٍۢ ۗ

“What you have ever vanishes, and that with Allah ever lasts.” [Quran, 16:96; tr. Keller, Quran Beheld]

وَلَلْـَٔاخِرَةُ خَيْرٌۭ لَّكَ مِنَ ٱلْأُولَىٰ

“And verily the next world is far better for you than this” [Quran, 93:4; tr. Keller, Quran Beheld]

The next life is better for you than this life. The next life is everlasting. Whatever wealth, pleasure and joy you have in this life, over the everlasting, unlimited, pleasure, reward and joy of the next life, is essentially zero.

One of the beautiful explanations of this Islamic value of renunciation was given by Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (also known as Ibn al-Qayyim), “Renunciation is the heart’s journeying from residing in the worldly and its taking to the stations of the next life.” 

You are not created to be a worldling. You realize that the next life is the true life. The homeland of the believer is Paradise. It is not an accident that Prophet Adam (upon him be peace) started off in Paradise, even though he was created for the earth. 

This world is a means. The end is the hereafter.