What Got Him To This Stage?
I was driving down White Abbey Road in Bradford in the direction of a famous old restaurant, probably with samosas – it’s speciality – on my mind. The car in front of me slowed down and eventually stopped to allow some pedestrians – no doubt on their way to invade the local clothes shops – to cross the road. I too stopped.
When the traffic started moving, I noticed that there was a crowd gathered on the left. It was some young men who had been playing football in an all-weather pitch by the side of the road. They were loosely following an older man, probably in his fifties. Clean shaven, and raggedly dressed in western clothing, he walked clumsily away from them. He was clearly drunk, and probably holding a bottle of alcohol in his hand at that moment too.
The youths were jeering and hurling abusive comments at him. He simply walked away and left them. Perhaps he had said something foolish, or inflammatory to them. Maybe he was a someone who was always treated that way by local miscreants because of his ‘sinful’ lifestyle. I don’t know. What I do know is that there was a look on his face which betrayed feelings of extreme anguish, pain, turmoil, sadness, and rejection.
As I started to move along with the rest of the traffic I felt a deep sadness for the plight of this man. Was he committing a haram act by drinking? Undoubtedly! That is something we wish that he didn’t do – as it is harmful for him on many levels.
Why the sadness, then? Well, I began to wonder ‘What got him to this stage?’ Nothing happens in a vacuum. Allah told us, ‘God brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers not knowing anything…’ (16:78). Sins, addictions, destructive habits and actions are not pre-programmed into us. What led him to this lifestyle, then? It’s not something most Pakistani men of a comparable age would do.
So I prayed for him. Perhaps he’s lived through circumstances which have pushed him into this corner. Allah will judge him and the rest of us; and that judgement will be based on Allah’s knowledge of this man’s collective life experiences – not just a solitary incident. Our role is to advise according to the standards of the Shariʿa: to enjoin the good and forbid the evil – but with wisdom.
Wisdom – The Best Course of Action
Wisdom entails doing this properly, appropriately, and with the appropriate level of firmness or gentleness. Look at the Qurʾanic Firʿawn, who was most likely the historical figure Ramses II. A tyrant; a slave-monger; a child-killer; a genocidal maniac who convinced himself and the Egyptian populace that He was their god most high. When Allah sent Musa and Harun to him, what instructions did they recieve? ‘Go and beat him over the head with your admonishment!’? No.
Allah said, ‘Go [you two] to Pharaoh for indeed he has crossed all limits, and speak to him ever so gently!’ (20:44). Gently? To him? Yes. Going in guns blazing would have been contrary to wisdom.
Only after his repeated, stubborn refusals was he addressed with sternness in the hope that he would be shaken into realising his mistakes. All the prophets do this. In many places in the Qurʾan they are described as givers of good news (mubash-shirun) first and then as warners (mundhirun).
Sometimes, when seeing someone openly committing sins, or is in a destructive cycle, or in a drug or alcohol addiction, many people forget the above. Yes, hating the sin is part of faith – but not hating the sinner. How many of the companions went from being idolaters to the elite of the saints of Islam? What happened? They left the disbelief and the sins – but they remained the same individuals.
Seeing a sinner – someone who is wronging himself – should bring out the gentle, merciful nature in a believer. Did Allah not say to the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, ‘Is it the case that you will kill yourself over them out of pure sadness if they don’t believe in this great discourse?’ (18:7).
Many people are broken internally and this may not show outwardly. Perhaps the guilt they feel for their sin is pain enough to expiate that sin. Maybe they are in a situation beyond their control, which they cannot escape try as they might.
Was Adam not forbidden to eat from the tree? Of course he was – but he ended up doing it because he was meant to leave Paradise and come to Earth for the real test. In the afterlife, Musa had some firm words to say to him about that, to which Adam responded with a justification based on what had been decreed for him. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said Adam won that argument (Bukhari).
Does this mean that people can commit any sin and say ‘I can’t help it. It’s decreed for me’? No, and that’s not the point of the hadith.
Gentleness – The Door to All Good
When someone in this unfortunate situation approaches a religious person, be he a scholar or a layman, he usually does so with a degree of reverence for this individual. A cruel or harsh approach to this person can have disastrous consequences. You could chase him away from the din, or worse – out of it!
The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, has many beautiful and important saying on this matter: ‘Truly, whenever gentleness is in a matter it beautifies it; and whenever it is purged from something that thing becomes flawed.’ (Muslim). ‘O Allah, whoever governs any affair of the believers and then makes things hard for them, make things hard for him; and whoever is gentle to them, be gentle to him.’ (Muslim).
He also said, ‘Whoever is made bereft of gentleness he is made bereft of good itself.’ (Muslim) and ‘O ʿAʾisha, be gentle; because, when Allah wants great good for a family, He points them to the door of gentleness.’ (Muslim).
This is the approach which needs to be taken.
Saints and Sinners
Abu al ʿAbbas al Mursi, the famous Egyptian saint, was said to be kinder and gentler to the morally corrupt than he was to his righteous students – not to mean that he wasn’t kind to them. He saw who was more in need of the kind treatment. We see that this has its roots in the sunna of the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace.
ʿAmr b. al ʿAs – after fighting the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, for years – accepted Islam just before the conquest of Mecca. He later noted that the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would give special attention to the ‘worst’ of the people with him, and go out of his way to make conversation with them. Why? To aid them in their development in Islam. So much so, that ʿAmr ended up convincing himself that he was better than Abu Bakr and ʿUmar, until he realised what was going on.
But wasn’t the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, firm with people at times? Didn’t he get angry at times? Yes, but this was always a drop in the oceans of his loving and kind dealings with people. Never did he repeatedly, and persistently, be harsh to anyone. How could he, when he prayed for those who had tried to assassinate him at the battle of Uhud? This does not mean that he was meek, or that he could not stand up for himself. On the contrary – he was the bravest of men!
What it means is that the gentle side greatly outweighed the occasions where he had to be firm. Even with Kaʿb b. Malik, who, along with two other companions, didn’t take part in the military campaign against the Romans to Tubuk – despite the great need for every available man to go. Out of laziness they didn’t end up going, so, the sin was expiated by a period of them not being actively included in the community. The companions were told not to communicate with them for what eventually ended up as fifty days.
Even during this intense period Kaʿb would notice that the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, kindly look at him whist Kaʿb was praying, but then avert his gaze when he finished his prayer. This brought solace to Kaʿb, and counterbalanced the difficulty he was experiencing.
He even received a letter from one of the enemies of Islam inviting him to leave Madina to go to him with the promise of looking after him generously. What role did those glances from the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, play in him resisting that temptation?
People are not always as them seem. Someone could come across as confident, smiling, and joking, but internally they could be carrying many wounds accumulated over the years. If this person then receives repeated harsh treatment from those he looks up to as being righteous, or from teachers, elders, respected community members, then the door to righteousness becomes less and less appealing. Which other door remains for him, then?
Inspire People With Hope
Turning away from bad actions – if possible – becomes less appealing, as they become a sure barrier to keep away those who treated him harshly despite him wanting and needing their help, support, and approval.
Such people should be directed to what’s best for them with kindness, and never should they be made to feel like there is no hope for them. A perfect example of this is the hadith in Sahih al Bukhari which mentions the mass murdered who killed ninety-nine people. He went to a worshipper wanting to know if he could repent somehow. When he was told ‘no’ he killed him and made the tally one hundred.
He then went to a scholar with the same question. The scholar filled him with hope, and showed him the way to repent and attain forgiveness with kindness, mercy, and wisdom. He was advised to get out of the places which he kept committing those sins in and to go to another city where there were righteous people living. He died on the way, closer to his hometown.
When the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment disputed over him, Allah told them to measure the spot where he died in relation to his hometown and his destination. If he was closer to the former he would be punished, otherwise, he would be shown mercy. He was in fact closer to home, but Allah caused the ground to expand and contract such that he ended up closer to his destination! Compare how Allah treated him to what the first man told him!
What Is Not Visible On The Surface
I once attended a Wing Chun class with a friend. There was a Muslim man there with his young sons; he had been learning for a few years, and was quite skilled.
During the practice element of the lesson, he raised his shorts quite high, exposing most of his thigh to everyone whilst making some point. One of those present said something like, ‘Bro, I don’t think you should be showing that.’ The comment wasn’t harsh, but it might have been better said in private afterwards. The lesson was held in the basement of a masjid, so perhaps this person assumed everyone there was religious.
The man who lifted the shorts got incredibly upset. To me it seemed like he was overreacting. He was quite emotional, and wanting to leave.
It later transpired that he was abused as a child by the teacher who he memorised the Qurʾan with. When he told his father he was told to be quiet, and when he told his mother she had the issue brushed under the carpet. This hafiz then ended up leaving Islam. He eventually returned thanks to the efforts of the martial arts instructor, but was left very scarred and sensitive to religious criticism.
How many people are pushed away from religion – partially or fully – due to harshness from those who they admire and expect leniency from?
One of the Companions who would regularly make the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, laugh had a drinking problem. Yes, a drinking problem! And, yes; he was a Companion. His name was ʿAbdullah, but was usually loving referred as ‘the Donkey’ – probably due to him humorous antics.
After wine had been prohibited, and the punishment for being caught drunk was in place, he ended getting punished for this on a number of occasions. This was his particular test that Allah had chosen for him. Allah had also chosen him for the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace.
Being someone with a drinking problem did not mean that he had no virtue or standing before Allah. The drinking was a problem, but it didn’t mean that all the good he had ever done was worthless – that he was worthless.
After one public punishment, one of the Companions said, ‘May Allah completely humiliate you!’ In another narration he said, ‘O Allah curse him! How many a time is he brought [for punishment for this crime]!’ This was probably as a result of the disgust he felt for the sin – after all hating sins is a part of faith.
Yet, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, did not allow this sort of statement. He said to him, ‘Do not take the Devil’s side against your brother!’. What? Taking the Devil’s side? Helping him? Yes! The Devil wants all the descendants of Adam in Hell. Closing the door of warm, affectionate support for this person, such that it would prevent him from wanting to associate with the Muslims, is akin to helping the Devil lead him to Hell.
Not only that, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, ‘Do not curse him! [I swear] By Allah, all I know of him is that he loves Allah and His Messenger!’ (Bukhari).
What was that again? He loves Allah and His Messenger? That’s no small feat! And this statement came from the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, himself too! This internal act made him deserving of kindness and compassion, just like he got the flogging for publicly drinking.
Perhaps there are some similarities between him and the man swaying and staggering up White Abbey Road…
Something merely broken can usually be fixed without much difficulty; but something severely shattered is not at all easily fixed…