Living Simple: Asceticism (Zuhd) – Listening More, Talking Less

Living Simple: Asceticism

Part Two: Listening More, Talking Less by Shaykh Farid Dingle

In order to get through life with ease, the Early Muslims (salaf) focussed on certain key ways of living that would make it spiritually and practically easier and more fruitful. They coined a term for the different and variegated rules that they lived by, a term that summarised the system of living for the Hereafter. They called it Zuhd: Unattachment in This World. For purposes of this article series, we have found the best match in terms of meaning to be asceticism. Other terms to describe Zuhd are unattachment or being unconcerned for worldly matters, or living simple. This is the second article from a series of articles and podcasts by SeekersGuidance scholar, Shaykh Farid Dingle.

Introduction to Asceticism (Part one)

This article deals with the importance of listening: listening to others and listening to sacred knowledge. One should only speak with knowledge and this requires that one has learned first. The microphone fever and desire to be the next best things bars one from benefiting oneself and others. 

Imam Waki ibn al-Jarrah opens this chapter with the words of Abdullah ibn Masud, ‘If you can, be a listener and not a talker.’

The self-centered ego loves itself, its ideas, and the sound of its voice. This is very dangerous. One has to train oneself to be a listener in relationships so as to give to others, and to be a listener to revelation so that one can learn, apply, and benefit. Ibn Ata Illah says, ‘Bury your existence in the earth of obscurity, for a seed that is not buried properly never grows properly.’ 

One has to train oneself to be a listener in relationships so as to give to others, and to be a listener to revelation so that one can learn, apply, and benefit.

In the Islamic sciences, this means that you listen to your teachers, read what books they guide you to read, and “absorb” their way of doing things. There is room for your own individuality, but not in the beginning. One has to listen a lot first.

In our public lives and on social media, this means being reserved and only expressing opinions that reflect wisdom and benefit to others. Continual reference to oneself, to one’s own opinions, and views that are neither based on religious nor worldly learning are often based left out. As Ibrahim ibn Adham said,

Whoever says whatever he wants kills himself.

Connecting this maxim to the specific sphere of learning Sacred Knowledge, Waki quotes Hasan al Basri saying,

Either be learned, a learner, a listener, or someone who would love to do that. Never be anything else lest you should be destroyed.’

Someone who acts without knowledge, or worse, preaches or teaches without knowledge is in great danger of falling into sin or misrepresenting the religion of Allah. One must listen first in order to learn and act according to the Sunna in a prophet fashion.

Umar ibn al Khattab gave words of encouragement to anyone even so much as trying to try to learn. He said, ‘Someone who is listening but cannot hear has the same reward as someone who is listening and can hear.’  The next hadith:

‘No man ever traveled in search of knowledge save that Allah made easy for him the way to Paradise. Whoever is slowed down by his deeds will not be sped up by his lineage. No people ever sat in one of Allah’s houses studying together the Book of Allah and learning it together save that mercy overspread them, the angels encircled them, and Allah mentioned them to those with him. They remain as His guest as long as they do not delve into something else.’

These words are of the utmost worth and encouragement. It tells us that the physically moving to go and listen to Sacred Knowledge is itself a means of divine help in overcoming one’s spiritual obstacles. Physically being with others is also very important, and not the same as merely reading an article or listening to a recording. This also applies to “being there” for someone: lending someone an ear on the phone is not like being there to give them a hug, and physical contact is a very important medium of communication. How often do we see the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) touch or hold someone he is teaching!

Physical contact is a very important medium of communication.

The hadith also emphasizes the importance of studying with others. The momentum gained by group effort, particularly when it is towards a religious goal that transcends the current generation is something truly felt by any student of knowledge. That is to say, the sense of being part of the tradition. There is, as is said, strength in numbers.

No One Was Born a Scholar

Furthering the theme of the need to listen before one talks (or learn before one teaches), Waki cites the words of Abdullah ibn Masud, ‘No one was ever born a scholar. Knowledge is only acquired by study.’ These words tie in very subtly with the previous hadith: just because you are born Muslim, or born into a “religious” family, it doesn’t automatically make you a scholar or religious. It takes personal effort to get where other people got. This person’s effort means listening, studying, memorizing, and eventually positive debate to order to truly take on and inherit the Islamic science one is trying to learn.

Waki quotes the Abu al Darda saying,

‘Learn before knowledge is taken away. Knowledge goes when scholars go. The scholar and the student have the same reward.’

These words tell us Sacred Knowledge is something rare and precious. It is not something that one can be careless or complacent about. It is not only because its source is divine, or that it can be very complex, it is also because it can only be taken from scholars, and no simply stored on someone’s hard drive. Someone who just reads by himself may when get lots of bytes of knowledge into their brain, but they can never fully understand and master the science without a teacher. 

This concept of inheritance is mirrored by another hadith: The scholars are the heirs of the prophets. The prophets do not leave as inheritance dinars and dirhams. All they leave is sacred knowledge. So whoever takes it, takes a mighty share.’ This “mighty share” must be “inherited” and not simply dug out of books. Through tutelage, listening, discussing, and spending time with teachers, the real inheritance process can happen. That said, it is definitely not true that books are of no use or have no role. The large and vast depositories of Hadith, Tafsir, Fiqh, Usul, Arabic language, and literature play an indispensable role in the inheritance process. It is just that cracking the role and use of all these variance pieces of information can only be threaded together by someone who has been truly trained in the tradition.

Through tutelage, listening, discussing, and spending time with teachers, the real inheritance process can happen

The author then concludes this chapter with the non plus ultra of learning: the Qur’an. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace said, ‘The best of you is he who learns the Qur’an and teaches it.’ The book of Allah is the core of all Islamic learning; its role in the life of the scholar, student, and laymen is central and paramount. It is the ultimate word to physically listen to, to intellectually listen to, and to listen to with one’s heart.

When the Qur’an is read, listen to it with attention, and pay heed.

(Qur’an, 7: 204)

The Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him) was told to listen to the Qur’an while it was being revealed and not to try and even mouth the words (Qur’an, 75: 16-19).

Although the author doesn’t mention it here, listening to oneself is also important. By “self” I mean soul and not ego. Jalal al-Din al Rumi invites the listener to listen to the internal pain of his own soul by saying,

Listen to the complaint of the Flute as it tells its story…

By putting the word “listen” at the beginning of his spiritual magnum opus, the Masnawi, we can understand that it is of the utmost importance to spiritual change. That is, if we do care to listen!

About the Author

Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to crafts lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language which can be found here. 

The corresponding podcast is due for release soon.