seeker of knowledge
Selflessness – “Al-’eethar”
~ By Amr Khaled
I seek refuge in Allah, the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing, from the accursed Satan. In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. We praise Allah, thank Him, seek His help, guidance and forgiveness. We seek refuge in Allah from the evil in our souls and the sinfulness of our deeds. “He whom Allah guides, he is the rightly-guided; but he whom He sends astray, for him you will find no guiding advocate”.
Today, we will discuss the manner of al-’eethar (selflessness: giving preference to others over yourself and considering their happiness and welfare before your own). It is amazing that some Islamic ethics have vanished and become unknown although Islam calls for them and the Messenger (PBUH) propagated such ethics, applied them and practiced them himself. This goes to the extent that when I say the word “al-’eethar” to youth, they ask me, “What does it mean?” It is also amazing that there is no exact equivalent for the word “al-’eethar” in any other language like English or French. This is not the case of the word “al-’eethar” only, but also of many other Islamic ethics. The word “Al-haya”, for example, is translated as shyness in English, which does not entirely satisfy the broad sense of the word in Arabic as we have already seen in the lecture of Al-Haia’a. The same can be said about the word “Al-tawadu”, which is translated as humbleness in English; the translation of this word means humility only rather than Al-tawadu with its broad sense. This also applies to the word “al-’eethar”.
What a loss, O youth! Who are we learning our values from? Not from our rich Islamic values, no! We are clinging to the West instead! I wish we had learnt technology, civilization and knowledge of management from the West, but we are just imitating them blindly. I wish our Ummah (Islamic community) were developed and civilized, and had just imitated the West in other less important matters. However, our Ummah is weak, lagging behind and still faces problems, yet instead of trying to solve the problems we're facing, youths are unfortunately imitating the West in the way they dress, eat and listen to Western songs. When the matter comes to our Islamic ethics, they do not want to learn anything! Where can you find al-’eethar then? You can find it only in what the Prophet (PBUH) taught us, and in the milieu of the men who believed in Islam and lived for it.
Let's now discuss the meaning of al-’eethar. Al-’eethar means giving preference to others over yourself and considering their happiness and welfare before your own. That is to say, to relinquish some of the pleasures of life to others; they enjoy them and you lose them. When we say that a person has given preference to another one over himself, it means that he preferred this person to himself for the sake of the reward of the hereafter.
Examples of Al-’eethar:
In a severe winter's night in Al-Madinah, a woman of the Ansar (The Muslims of Madinah who sponsored and defended the Call to Islam) brought a woven velvet cloak to the Prophet (PBUH). The Prophet (PBUH) took it, as he was in need of it to protect himself from the severe cold. Then, the Prophet (PBUH) came out wearing it for the first time, just as you would buy a new suit and wear it for the first time. One of the Companions from the Ansar looked at him and said, “How nice it is! O Messenger of Allah, give it to me”. What would your reaction be if you were in the place of the Prophet? The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Yes” and gave it to him on the spot. Peace be upon you, O Messenger of Allah. Do you realize the meaning of al-’eethar now? The Companions became angry with the Ansari and told him, “the Prophet is in need of it!” The man replied, “I am in need of it more than he is. I want to make it my shroud when I die”.
Here is another example of Al-’eethar:
Twenty three years after the mission of the Prophet (PBUH) had started, Makkah and Khaibar were opened (to Islam) and booty was gained. During this period of the mission, the Prophet and the Companions were suffering hardships and poverty to the extent that the Prophet (PBUH) used to fasten two stones against his stomach out of hunger. After Allah had granted Muslims victory, the Prophet's share of booty was a number of sheep enough to cover the space between two mountains. Imagine! Such a huge number of sheep became the possession of a poor man who had experienced poverty for such a long time. However, the Prophet (PBUH) sought the reward of the hereafter. An Arabian came to the Prophet and looked at the booty. The Prophet asked him, “Do you like it?” The Arabian answered, “Yes.” The Prophet said, “It is yours.” The Arabian wondered, “O Muhammad! Are you serious? The Prophet said, “Yes, take it if you wish”. Do you imagine to what extent one can prefer others to himself? The Arabian ran to the sheep and looking all around him took them all. Then he returned to his people, saying, “Embrace Islam. I have just been with the best man that ever has been. Muhammad gives with the generosity of a person who has no fear of poverty”. The narrator said that the Prophet never retained anything he owned from anyone who asked for it.
Another Example of Al-’eethar:
A man came to the Prophet (PBUH) and told him that he had nothing to eat. The Prophet sent a messenger to ask his wives if they had food. However, when they were asked, each replied, “No, by Allah I have nothing except water.” The Prophet stood and called his Companions, “Who will entertain this man as a guest?” An Ansari said, “I will, O Messenger of Allah.” Afterwards, the man took the guest and went quickly to his wife and asked her, “Do you have food?” She replied, “We have nothing except the food of my children” - that is to say, the remaining food that could only suffice their children. Then, he told her, “Make your children forget the food, put them to sleep if they ask for supper, and turn the lamp off when the guest comes so that he would think that we are eating and would eat like us.”
Do you see al-’eethar? Nowadays, we see two or three young persons traveling together, each hiding his food in his pocket. They do not eat together as the companions used to, and as the Prophet told us to.
When the guest came, she made her children sleep and turned the lamp off. Then, both of them pretended to be eating while the guest ate until he became full. When they went to pray the dawn prayer, the Prophet (PBUH) said to them, “Tonight Allah wondered at your action”- that is to say, Allah has been pleased with what you have done to your guest this night. Then, Allah revealed what can be translated as “and give them (emigrants) preference over themselves even though they were in need of that” (TMQ 59:9). It means that they prefer others even though they were in toiling, hunger, poverty or need.
They gave preference to their guest although they had nothing. We miss this ethic; we do not hear of it anymore nowadays. Have you ever considered giving preference to anyone over yourself by giving him your new suit for example? Our motto should be the following hadith; the Prophet (PBUH) said, “None of you will have faith till he wishes for his brother what he likes for himself.” This is the motto of al-’eethar. That is to say your faith will be complete only when you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.
There are other examples of the Companions' ‘eethar towards the Prophet (PBUH) in which they were ready to give away their souls not just their money:
On the day of the battle of Uhud, while arrows were shot towards the Prophet (PBUH) from every direction, Abu-Dogana gave preference to the Prophet over himself and hugged him in order to protect him from arrows. Abu-Bakr said, “When I looked at the back of Abu-Dogana, it was pierced by so many arrows that he looked like a hedgehog.” He gave preference to the Prophet over himself and went on doing that although he was wounded. Where is our ‘eethar towards the Prophet? Do we foster his Sunnah? (The Arabic word Sunnah has come to denote the way Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Messenger of Allah, lived his life. The Sunnah is the second source of Islamic jurisprudence, the first being the Qur'an.)
Another example of the Companions' ‘eethar:
On the day of Uhud, Talha Ibn-Ubaidullah came to the Prophet and told him, “Do not raise your head, O Messenger of Allah. (Let) my neck (be struck) rather than your neck, O Messenger of Allah.” When the Prophet was shot with an arrow, Talha intercepted it with his honorable hand, causing it to be paralyzed.
Another example is:
On the day of Uhud, the Prophet asked, “Who would prevent disbelievers from reaching me, and enter Jannah (paradise) as a reward?” At that point, disbelievers were flocking towards the Prophet in order to kill him. Ten of the Ansar youth (ranging between 18 and 19 years old) proceeded. The first one died, followed by the second, then the third. The last one was Yazeed Ibnul-Sakan who died at the foot of the Prophet while he was defending him. The Prophet raised his hand and supplicated, “O Allah, bear witness that Yazeed Ibnul-Sakan has fulfilled his duty.”
We always hear of individuals who practice al-’eethar, but we have never heard about a whole country that practices it. Al- Madinah was such a country and the Ansar were its people. Their ‘eethar was truly incredible. When the Muhajireen (emigrants) emigrated from Makkah to Al- Madinah, they had nothing except the clothes they were wearing although they were rich merchants in their own country. Some of them came to Al-Madinah on foot. Whereas the people of Al-Madinah (the Ansar) were farmers, the Muhajireen knew nothing about agriculture. However, what happened was incredible. The Companions said that the Muhajireen entered Madinah by ballot because the Ansar were crowding and competing to host whoever arrived from the Muhajireen.
Look at us now; a mother might find no one to host her when she grows old and needs someone to take care of her, although she has a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and she has her own daughters. However, they keep sending her to each other. The Ansar, on the other hand did the opposite, although they were weak and poor. Nowadays, everything is available in our homes, yet a daughter-in-law wouldn't bear to host her mother-in-law.
Examples of the Ansar’s ‘eethar to the Muhajireen:
Sa’d Ibn-Al-Rabi (an Ansari) hosted Abdur-Rahman Ibn-Ouf, a Muhajir (an emigrant). The former said to the latter, “Here is my money. I will divide it between you and me. This is your share and this is mine. Here is my property. I will divide it equally between you and me. I have two wives. See which of the two you like so that I may divorce her and you can marry her after she completes her Iddah (prescribed retreat)”. Can you see to what extent they were practicing al-’eethar? However, Abdur-Rahman Ibn-Ouf was decent and did not make use of this opportunity. He replied, “May Allah grant you good reward. Where is the market?”
In all immigrations throughout history, there was blood-shed. Take for example the immigration of Europeans to America at the cost of the native Americans, as we have all seen in movies. Have you seen how much blood was shed and how many native Americans were killed so that America would belong to the Europeans? However, the greatest immigration that ever was throughout history was full of love and ‘eethar; it was the immigration of the Muhajireen to Al-Madinah. Consider how the Ansar received them. Imagine! Each Ansari shared his home, money, clothes, his wives’ clothes and his children’s clothes with a Muhajir and his family. Who can imagine that someone would share his house with another person? Were the Ansars’ homes big? 200 or 300 square meters for instance, or were they small? How did the Ansar behave in such a way without being afraid that their wives might be angry! How come their wives accepted their attitude? The reason is that al-’eethar spreads blessing and pleases Allah, and that increases your sustenance. On the other hand, the more selfish you are, which is the opposite of al-’eethar, the less blessing you will feel.
Open your cupboard and have a look at it, you will find out that there are clothes that you have not worn for years, or even have not worn at all. Why do not you give them to the needy? I am not asking you to give them the new clothes you have, although the Prophet gave others the new clothes he had! What do you think of that? What do you think of the one who shares his house with others! It is a very hard example to follow, is it not?
When the Prophet (PBUH) and his Companions immigrated to Al-Madinah, the Prophet went to the Ansar and told them, “Your brothers (Al-Muhajireen) have come to you and they know nothing about agriculture. What do you think of sharing your property with them?” They replied, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah. We will divide our money equally between us and them”. The Messenger wanted the Ansar only to help the Muhajireen when he asked, “Can you help them more?” the Ansar replied, “How, O Messenger of Allah?” He said to them, “Share your fruits with them" - because they can neither make use of money nor get out of Al-Madinah as it is besieged. They replied, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah, but for what (in return), O Messenger of Allah?” He said to them, “For Al-Jannah”.
Do you see the reward of al-’eethar? After a whole year of farming, an Ansari would take the ripe dates to a Muhajir before going to his own home. He would not choose the best and give the rest to the Muhajir. You, on the contrary, might give the worst money in your pocket as Sadaqa (charity). However, an Ansari would take all the dates he collected to the Muhajir and tell him, “I will come back to you after an hour so that you can choose whatever you like”, so that he wouldn't embarrass him. Then, at the Ansari’s return, he would discover that the Muhajir chose the worst of the dates for himself, and they would keep quarreling; each insisting that the other should take the best fruits.
When Khaibar was opened (to Islam) and there was a lot of money, the Prophet said to the Ansar, “May Allah grant you good reward, you have fulfilled the conditions.” They said to the Prophet, “O Messenger of Allah, you have stipulated a condition and we have done the same. We have fulfilled your condition for the sake of Jannah.” He replied, “You will have it”. Do you see the reward of al-’eethar? Give others what you have. The more you give others, the more generous you will become, and the further away you will be from malice and envy.
There is an amazing relationship between al-'eethar and the comfort of the heart, peoples' mercifulness, and abandoning arrogance and envy. If you want to clean away your heart's diseases, learn Al-eethar.
When the Prophet (PBUH) received a larger sum of money from Bahrain, he declared that all of it would be for the Ansar (his companions from Al-Madinah) in return for their sacrifices and efforts. The Ansar objected, “No! Messenger of Allah, we will not take it unless our brothers from the Muhajireen share it with us!”.
The Muhajireen did not accept, “No, Messenger of Allah! That would mean that our brothers have taken all the reward” leaving the final decision to the Prophet (PBUH), who said, “No; as long as you pray for them you shall receive the same reward.” What an amazing society! One that can be easily established if the faith and morals of Islam return, and if Paradise is the target sought.
Al-eethar is not only seen in financial matters as described earlier but spiritual ones as well. Ikrima Ibn-Abu-Jahl fought the Prophet (PBUH) for twenty two years, then converted to Islam and became a very good Muslim who died as a martyr because of al-eethar. Ikrima was among those injured in the battle of Yarmuk. All the wounded were gathered in a certain area until the battle was over. Ikrima's cousin was one of the water carriers i.e. those who were giving the wounded water to drink. He narrates, “I was searching for Ikrima and found him among the injured, wounded, in pain and about to die. He was surrounded by ten other wounded Muslims. I ran to give him water, but when he took the waterskin and was just about to drink he heard a Muslim brother saying, “I am thirsty!” He said “No, I swear by Allah I shall not drink unless my brother drinks first.” I moved to the second. When he was about to drink he heard another brother saying “Ah!” Then he said, “No, I swear by Allah I shall not drink.” Then I went to the next, and the next, and so on, until I reached the tenth soldier, who said “No, I swear I shall not drink unless Ikrima drinks.” I went back to Ikrima to find that he has already passed away as a martyr. He practiced 'eethar even when he was wounded and dying.”
Today we are reluctant to give away money, clothes, or even knowledge fearing that our colleagues might surpass us using such information.
‘Eethar of Abdullah Ibn-Omar
This is an astonishing story of al-'eethar. Abdullah Ibn Omar used to like the ayah, which can be translated as, “By no means shall you attain Al-Birr (piety, righteousness - here it means Allâh’s Reward, i.e. Paradise), unless you spend (in Allâh’s Cause) of that which you love; and whatever of good you spend, Allâh knows it well.”(TMQ 3:92). Therefore he used to give alms from the things he liked. One day, while riding on his she-camel he realized that he liked it. So he dismounted it and stood next to it in the middle of the road waiting until he found an old poor man and said, “Ride it old man, it is yours!”
On another occasion, he was given a fish as a gift, and he used to love fish. His wife grilled it for him and he was very pleased. Then, a poor man knocked on his door asking for something to eat, so he told his wife, “Give him the fish.” His wife said, “We have bread and barley and meat in the house.” However, he said, “and what about Allah’s words, (which can be translated as), “By no means shall you attain Al-Birr (piety, righteousness - here it means Allâh’s Reward, i.e. Paradise), unless you spend (in Allâh’s Cause) of that which you love; and whatever of good you spend, Allâh knows it well. Give him the fish.” The woman gave the beggar the fish then said, “Would you sell it to me for one dirham?” The man agreed. The wife brought back the fish and put it in front of Ibn-Omar who was pleased and just as he was about to eat, the poor man knocked on their door again asking for alms. Ibn-Omar told his wife, “Give him the fish”, the wife replied, “I did it once.” He said, “Allah said it many times not just once!” The wife handed the man the fish and said, “I would like to buy it from you again.” The man agreed, so she said, “I beg you not to come back a third time.”
Similarly, when Omar Ibn-Al-Khattab (RA) was dying after being struck by Lo’lo’a Al-Majoosi, he asked his son Abdulla Ibn-Omar to go to Um al-Mo'mineen, Aisha (RA) and tell her, “Omar Ibn-Al-Khattab, and don’t tell her Amir Al-Mo'mineen for I am not so any more, tell her Omar Ibn-Al-Khattab is requesting your permission to be buried beside his friends (the Prophet (PBUH) and Abu-Bakr (RA)) in her room. She replied, “I wanted that place for myself, but I shall offer it to Omar”. Imagine that she was going to be buried beside her husband and father, i.e. the Prophet (PBUH) and Abu-Bakr (RA). What an honorable burial place! Despite this, the great lady agreed to be buried in the Baqee (a graveyard in Al-Madinah) and offered that place to Omar.
Abu-Huraira narrated, “Sometimes I used to be so hungry that I could have gone crazy. People would say that I was crazy and I would swear I was not insane; I was starving! I used to sit beside the Prophet's (PBUH) minbar (the pulpit in the mosque where the Imam stands to deliver sermons), and recite verses of expenditure from the Qur’an whenever I saw a Muslim passing by, hoping that he would give me something. Abu-Bakr (RA) passed by me but did not realize what I wanted, and so did Omar (RA). Then the Prophet (PBUH) passed by. He looked at me and knew what I was going through. He said, 'Abu-Huraira, follow me!' We entered his house after taking permission from his wife. He asked her, 'Do we have anything?' She said, 'A bowl of milk; enough for a man or two only.' I was looking eagerly at the milk but to my surprise the Prophet (PBUH) asked me to call all the needy.” The Prophet (PBUH) wanted to teach him al-'eethar. Those people were as poor and as hungry as Abu-Huraira. They were about a hundred Muslims. Abu-Huraira then said, “I got depressed and told the Prophet (PBUH), 'Will this be enough for all of them?' I was very depressed but I could not but obey the Prophet's orders and so I went and got them all. Looking at me with a smile, the Prophet (PBUH) said, 'O! Abu-Huraira let them drink from it.' The Prophet meant this to be a lesson for him and us as well. Then Abu-Huraira said, "I took the bowl and started passing by them until they all drank, while the Prophet (PBUH) was looking at me and smiling. Then he told me, 'O! Abu-Huraira no one else is left except you and me.' I told him, 'Right you are, O Messenger of Allah.' He then told me to drink." He preferred them all over himself, and then did the same with Abu-Huraira and the milk was sufficient for all that large number of people. This was to teach us something about Al- 'eethar and the blessing it brings. Abu-Huraira said, “I drank then gave the bowl to the Prophet (PBUH) but he insisted, 'Drink Abu-Huraira!' I drank over and over again as he told me, then I said, “I can’t drink anymore I swear by Allah (SWT).” Finally, the Prophet (PBUH) took the bowl and drank the remaining milk.” He actually drank what remained after all this! Drive away stinginess out of your houses and pockets and you will be blessed with the generosity of the soul and you will taste the sweetness of al-'eethar. Whenever you give, it is as if you have been given.
Let's see the Prophet's (PBUH) 'eethar, in the battle of al-khandaq (the trench). He taught the whole army that great moral. Jabir Ibn-Abdullah approached the Prophet (PBUH) and said, “We have at home a chicken and some wheat, so would you come over and eat with me?” The Prophet (PBUH ) looked at him and asked, “Me alone?” The companions and the Prophet (PBUH) were extremely tired after digging for fifteen days. They used to tie stones against their stomach out of hunger. Jabir Ibn-Abdullah continued, “You and one or two more men.” However, the Prophet (PBUH) stood on a hill and said, “O! Community of Al-Muhajireen, O! Community of al- ansar, our lunch today will be offered by Jabir Ibn-Abdullah.” Jabir said, "I sneaked back home to my wife and told her, 'The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) is coming with the rest of the army!” She asked, “Did you inform him about the food we have?” He said, “Yes!”
“Allah and his Messenger know more!” she commented. The Prophet (PBUH) stood and told Jabir, “You shall be our gate keeper today.” While he split the bread, Jabir allowed ten men in at a time to eat and then to come out, to allow the next ten in.
Do you realize when the miracle of the Prophet (PBUH) appeared and the blessing took over? It appeared when this incident in which he taught al-'eethar took place. Although they were hungry for quite some time they were all fed. Jabir Ibn-Abdullah said, “When ever I allowed a group in, I thought it would be the last group to eat and that there would not be any food left for the next, but they used to come out with their stomach full, cleaning between their teeth. Finally Jabir entered and the Prophet (PBUH) told him, “May Allah bless your food, yours and your family's.” Jabir was shocked to find the food as it was, except for a small eaten piece of the chicken. Peace be upon our Prophet the teacher of al-'eethar. What a pity that our nation no longer has the moral of al-'eethar.
Jaffar Ibn-Abu-Taleb died in the battle of Mo'tah leaving behind three children. The companions were weak and poor. The Prophet (PBUH) stood up and asked, “Who will adopt Jaffar's children?” The narrator of the story said, “Three of the companions stood arguing, “Me, O Messenger of Allah!" "No me, O Messenger of Allah!” Each one of them was poorer than the other and yet they were willing to adopt three orphans. Today if a person's brother passes away he would instead try to get rid of his late brother's orphan son and send him to his other brother and in the end the boy is lost. Jaffar Ibn-Abu-Taleb when alive had the morals of al-'eethar, and therefore Allah (SWT) blessed his sons and allowed them to be brought up well. The Prophet (PBUH) used to name Jaffar the father of the needy. The community will not feel comfort, safety, or stability except if al-'eethar is practiced. Imagine with me the community today, the husband works day and night collecting money, and maybe the wife too, but why? They want to make sure that their children would have a good future and leave behind a fortune that is enough for them! Why? They know if they die the children will be on the streets; no one will take care of them and they will be at a loss. On the other hand, if there is al‘eethar in the community, the mother or father will die knowing that there will be someone who will look after their children and may be even argue about that matter as the Ansar did with the children of Jaffar Ibn-Abu-Talib. That is why al-'eethar is important.
Imam al-Ghazaly says in his book Al-Ehyaa (The Revival), that there are three levels/grades of al-'eethar:
- First- to give your brother what you would give to a servant, i.e. you eat and give him your leftovers.
- Second- to treat him just like yourself i.e., you give him what you would take for yourself.
- Third- to prefer him over yourself, i.e. provide his needs before yours. His children, for example, will enter school and have no clothes, so before buying clothes for your own children you buy for his.
These are three levels of al-'eethar for you to choose from. The greatest 'eethar in this life is to seek Allah's pleasure over that of mankind, yourself, or any other thing.
On the Authority of Abu Muhammad Abdullah bin Amr Ibn-al-As (may Allah be pleased with him) who reported that the messenger of Allah said, "None of you is a true believer until his inclination becomes in accordance with what I have brought"
Allah's pleasure should be given the priority.
When we live only for ourselves, we live a short life where we are born small and die small! However when we live for each other we live as great people whose lives would last as long as humanity exists. If you live for others not only yourself, you will find your happiness in other peoples' smiles, your opportunities will be in other peoples' opportunities. You will be extremely happy when you find someone asking Allah (SWT), “May Allah be pleased with him, as he pleased me.” It is a strange yet a great feeling! Try it, and you will feel much more satisfied than you would have been if you had reaped all the benefits for yourself.
To conclude, a good man once said at the moments of his death, “My daughter I don’t fear death any more, even if it came now. I took a lot from life I mean I gave a lot! Sometimes my daughter it is very hard to differentiate between taking and giving, because for a believer they carry the same meaning. Every time I gave, I took. Actually I took more than I gave.” Youth! Let us try to apply this moral. May Allah make us benefit from it.