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Monasticism: An Analysis

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Monasticism: An Analysis

(…As for monasticism, it was invented by them;). The
word rahbaniyyah (monasticism) is attributed to ruhban. The words rahib
(singular) and ruhkban (plural) mean ‘the one who fears’. After Prophet
‘Tsa $8), transgression became common. In particular, the kings and the
leaders publicly defied the laws of the Gospel. When the scholars and the
righteous people among them attempted to stop them from doing evil
deeds, they were put to death. Those that remained, felt that they would
not be able to stop them, nor did they have the power of resistance. If
they lived in society, there was every likelihood that their religion too
would be destroyed. Therefore, they took upon themselves in earnest that
they would give up all pleasures and comforts of this life including the
legitimate ones. Thus they avoided marriage, abandoned any activity to
earn livelihood and any effort to build homes, and took to jungles,
mountains and caves, or took to nomadic life in order to protect their
religion and follow their religious duties freely and completely. They did
all this out of fear of God. Therefore, they were referred to as rahib or
ruhban. Their practice is referred to as rahbaniyyah.

As the Christians introduced monasticism under forced circumstances
in order to protect their faith, it was not reproachable in its origin. But
once anyone has imposed anything on himself, it becomes binding on him,
and its violation is a sin. For example, making a vow for an act of worship
is not obligatory. But if a person were to vow to do an act of worship or
abstain from a lawful thing, it becomes binding on him in Shari‘ah to
maintain the vow; its violation becomes a sin. Some of the Christian
monks invented monasticism with the best of intentions, but there were
others who could not endure the hardships of monastic life and soon
succumbed to the pursuit of material gains and physical pleasures when
the general body of people believed in them, offered them gifts and
oblations. History bears ample testimony to the fact that the monks who
detested the system of marriage indulged in indecent acts and fornication.
(The free intermingling of men and women in monasteries turned those
places into centres of evil.)

The current verse denounces the practice of the monks who imposed
monasticism upon themselves, and once they had imposed it, they should
have observed its requirements which they did not.

That there was nothing wrong originally in what they had introduced
as rahbaniyyah is proved by a Hadith narrated by Sayyidna ‘Abdullah
Ibn Mas‘ad (RA) and recorded by Ibn Kathir with reference to Ibn Abi
Hatim and Ibn Jarir who have cited a lengthy narration in which the
Messenger of Allah we is reported to have said:

“Allah has split the Children of Israel into seventy-two
sects. Only three of them were saved from punishment.
These are groups who, after Prophet Isa (as), stopped the
oppressive kings and affluent and powerful transgressors
from violating the Divine laws. Among those who raised
the voice of Truth against them and invited them to the
religion of Prophet ‘Isa, the first group faced the
oppressors with whatever power they had at their
command, but they were defeated and killed. Then after
them a second group stood against the tyrants and
aggressors who did not have even that much fighting
strength as the first group had. However they conveyed
the Truth without caring for their lives. This group too was
killed. Some of them were ripped apart with saws and
others were burnt alive. But they, for the sake of Allah’s
pleasure, bore all pains and attained salvation. Then a
third group stood against them. But this group was weak:
They had no resources to fight the tyrants nor could they
live in that corrupt society and follow their religion.
Therefore, they took to the jungles and mountains, and
became monks. It is to this third group that Allah refers in
the current verse ‘As for
monasticism, it was invented by them; We did not ordain it
for them, …’.”

This narration indicates that the people who originally adopted
monasticism from among the Israelites and took care of its essentials and
endured its hardships were among those who attained salvation.

According to this interpretation, the present verse shows that the
monasticism initially adopted by such people was not bad or evil in itself,
though it was not a religious obligation either. They had made it
obligatory on themselves at their own will and wish. The element of evil
starts from the fact that after making it binding on themselves, most of
them were not able to keep to its essentials. As a result, in keeping with
the adage “isi Se AU (Majority takes the status of all), the Qur’an
attributed this evil aspect to the entire Israelites in that they invented it
and could not practice it and did not take care of its requirements : 642543
gale, 3~ (…but [they adopted it] to seek Allah’s pleasure, then could not
observe it as was due. ….57:27).

It is also learnt from the above discussion that the word ibtida’,
derived from bid‘ah, used in (…it was invented by them …) is used
in its litera] sense of invention, and not in its technical or religious sense
of heresy. The religious concept of bid‘ah (which refers to a baseless faith
or practice that is made part of the religion) has been denounced in the
following narration of the Holy Prophet (S) (Every religious
innovation is deviation).

The context of the verse is very clear about it. Let us first study the
following sentence: (And We placed in
the hearts of his followers tenderness and mercy and the monasticism
they had invented; We did not prescribe it for them, except to seek Allah’s
pleasure. Then they did not observe it as was due…57:27)” The context
indicates that just as ‘tenderness and mercy’ are not evil qualities,
likewise ‘monasticism’ which they adopted is not an evil quality in itself.
Otherwise Allah would not have listed it alongside the favorable qualities
of ‘tenderness and mercy’. Scholars, like Qurtubi, who held monasticism
as absolutely prohibited, had to face grammatical difficulties. They had to
go out of their way to show that rahbaniyyah is not a part of the
conjunctive expression joined together by the conjunction ‘waw’ [and]
They treated the sentence starting with “…and monasticism…” as a
separate sentence, and understood the verb ibtada‘ as omittted. The
interpretation adopted above renders this construction unnecessary. That
is why the Holy Qur’an does not reject their adoption of monasticism in
principle, but their failure to keep it up, and take care of its rights and
obligations. This interpretation is possible only if the word ibtida‘
(invention) is taken in its literal sense. Had it been employed in its
religious or technical sense, the Qur’an would have denounced adoption
of monasticism in itself, because bid‘ah (innovation in religion) in its
technical sense is deviation.

Sayyidna ‘Abdullan Ibn Mas‘ud’s (RA) foregoing narration makes it
clear that the groups that adopted monastic life attained salvation. If they
were guilty of committing religious innovation, they would never have
been counted among the saved ones, but rather among the deviant ones.

Is rahbaniyyah (Monasticism) absolutely Prohibited or is it a
relative Concept?

The fact is that rahbantyyah (translated as monasticism) generally
means to give up some lawful things and pleasures. It has several stages,
one of which is to treat a permissible thing as impermissible doctrinally or
practically. This is distortion of religion. From this point of view,
monasticism is absolutely prohibited as declared by the Holy Qur’an at
several places, like verse [87] of Surah Al-Ma’idah that lays down the
principle (O believers, do not prohibit
the good things which Allah has made lawful to you…) The prohibitive
verb (‘do not prohibit’) in this verse indicates that it relates to a situation
where a person holds unlawful what Allah has made lawful, either in his
belief or in practice, and as such it will amount to distortion or perversion
of the Divine laws.

The second stage is when a person does not, dogmatically or
practically, turn a lawful thing inte unlawful, but gives it up for some
mundane or religious reason. In mundane affairs, a person might give up
eating a lawful thing on account of some disease. In religious matters, a
person might give up the company of people and mixing with them, lest
he should commit moral sins like lying and backbiting, or he might
abandon some permissible things temporarily in order to suppress his base
desires. This restriction is no more than a treatment of a spiritual disease.
When the treatment is over, the restriction is no longer observed. Some
Sufi adepts require a novice in the initial stages of his spiritual journey to
exercise ascetic discipline, such as eating little, sleeping little and mixing
little with people. This brings him to a state of greater harmony and
balance [I‘tidal]. This ascetic discipline is a ‘means’ and not an ‘end’ in
itself. When the perfect balance is attained and the nafs (inner-self) is
brought under control, and there is no longer the danger of committing
sins, they are asked to give up the exercise. This in fact is not monasticism
but taqwa or righteousness which the religion requires and was practiced
by our predecessors, the blessed Companions, their followers and the
leaders in religion.

The third stage is when a person does not turn a permissible thing
into unlawful. However, he abstains from its use under the belief that its
giving up has more virtue and carries more reward, while such use is
proved through Sunnah (the practice of the Holy Prophet [S]) This is in
fact ghuluww (over-indulgence). Many of the Prophetic Traditions
prohibit ghuluww.

The Holy Prophet (S) is reported to have said: (There is
no monasticism in Islam.) This relates to a situation where someone
abandons permissible things with the mistaken notion that it will bring
him reward. If the Children of Israel initiated monasticism for the
protection of their religion, it will fall under the second category of
righteousness. But the people of the book were given to ghuluww or
practicing religious fanaticism. If they turned lawful into unlawful, they
fell under the first category and are guilty of committing haram. If they
fall under the third category, then too they are guilty of committing
something that is condemned. Allah, the Pure and Exalted, knows best!

(O those who believe, fear Allah, and believe in His Messenger, and He will give you two shares [of
reward] out of His mercy,..28) The vocative expression (“O
those who believe…” in this verse refers to the People of the Book who
believed in Prophet ‘Isa). As a general rule, the Qur’an uses this
vocative expression for Muslims only, not for Jews or Christians. The
expression used for them is ahlul-kitab [People of the Book] because their
believing in Prophets Musa and ‘Isa (pbut) is not tantamount to being
“believers’. They need to believe in the Holy Prophet Muhammad (S). Only
in that case can they be called Spelt “O those who believe”. But here the
Qur’an deviates from the general rule, and addresses them by the words,
“O those who believe” presumably because the concluding verse reminds
the Christians that believing in Prophet ‘Isa (pbuh) is not sufficient: the true
meaning of believing in Prophet ‘Isa dictates that they should believe in the Last Prophet (S). If they do, then they deserve to be called as ‘those who believe’.

Then the verse promises the People of the Book that believe in the
Holy Prophet (S), their reward will be doubled. The first reward is on
account of their believing in Prophet ‘Isa or Musa (as) and following
their Shari‘ah, and the second reward is for their believing in the Holy
Prophet (S) and acting upon his Shari‘ah. The reason for their double
reward is that Jews and Christians were unbelievers until they believed
in the Holy Prophet (S), and no worship of an unbeliever is acceptable. It
required that any action they had performed according to a previous
Shari‘ah would go waste. But the present verse clarifies that when an
unbeliever embraces Islam, all his good actions are restored, hence he is
doubly rewarded.

(so that the People of the Book may know ….57:29) The
negative particle [no] is grammatically redundant [but rhetorically it
serves to emphasise the expression]. This final verse states that the
People of the Book need to know that faith in Prophet ‘Isa (as) is not
necessarily faith in the Prophet Muhammad. In the circumstances,
they do not deserve any Divine grace unless they embrace faith in the
Last Prophet (S). Allah, the Pure and Exalted, knows best!

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