Saturday, September 26, 2009


 Brief Life History

Abu' Abd Allah Harith Ibn Asad aI-' Ana,zi al-Muhasibi was born in Basra in 165 AH/781 AD. The name 'Anazi could possibly indicate that he belonged to the Arab Bedouin tribe of' Anaza.

Not many historical records could account for al-Muhasibi's family. However, it has been recorded by his biographers that his father had left at his death, a fortune of about 300 000 dinars for al-Muhasibi. However, because the father was said to have been a Qadari (believer of an unIslamic set of beliefs), al-Muhasibi renounced any inheritance of that wealth and had it handed over to the bait aI-mal.

One confirmed fact was that al-Muhasibi came to Baghdad at an early age with his parents. Baghdad, being the then centre of trade and scholarship in the Muslim world, provided al-Muhasibi with the best available education. This excellent training was to manifest in the future writings, talks and conduct of al-Muhasibi.

Al-Muhasibi's personality is well-illustrated by the title al-Muhasibi with which he is well-known. This title was bestowed due to his practice of frequently examining his conscience, especially during a state of recollection of Allah (SWT).

Al-Muhasibi was a jurist of the Shafi'i school of canon law. He had studied under Imam al-Shafi'i himself. As a theologian, he advocated the use of the 'aql (faculty of reasoning). Initially, he became inclined towards the Mu'tazilites and their rationalism. Eventually, he became among the first to turn against them using the dialectic vocabulary of the Mu'tazilites themselves. However, al-Muhasibi was wrongfully involved with the Mu'tazilites in a general persecution due to Ibn Hanbal's attack on the dialecticians. Although al-Muhasibi had employed the logical and dialectical methods of the Mu'tazilites with the intention of utilizing these methods to oppose the latter, al-Muhasibi's original works and the sufistic tendencies of his teachings caused him to be a suspect during the persecution. This unfair suspicion inevitably forced him to retire from all involvement to teach freely and openly in Baghdad.

This unfortunate landmark of his career was not to blemish the fact that al-Muhasibi was the first Bunni sufi whose works manifest as a complete theological education. He laced sufism with philosophy and theology. His works, both written and taught, combined to produce exact philosophical definitions evolved within the ambit of a rigorous search for increased moral purification. The famed al-Junayd Ibn Muhammad al-Baghdadi was to be a disciple to al-Muhasibi. However, the effect of the suspicion suffered from being unjustly related to the Mu'tazilites' erroneous ways was to persist until al-Muhasibi's demise in 243 AH/857 AD.

Major Works

The works of al-Muhasibi are good examples of distinguishing between the ascetic ways of the Muslim sufi and the Christian monks. Where the latter propagates the life of seclusion and a less active role in the mundane affairs of a community, the teachings of al-Muhasibi are judged to develop the sufi to remain an active member of his community despite his spiritual commitments. The works of al-Muhasibi are also reported to have a greater emphasis on the practical side of the spiritual-life adherent.

Perhaps in an attempt to avoid over-indulgence in solely spiritual conceptualization, in addition to excessive and unnecessary dogmatism in his teachings, al-Muhasibi based his works greatly on his own spiritual experiences. He sincerely believed in sharing with others the way of purification of the soul through the ways that he himself had undergone and found effective. Also perhaps, in an attempt to refute the misconceptions attached to the sufi teachings, he deliberated on the positive aspects of the sufi way of life and the necessity for inner purification (as a prerequisite to a more meaningful and effective role of a Muslim).

The number of al-Muhasibi's works have been claimed by sufi adherents to have reached a total of 200. However, only far smaller proportions are in existence today. A list of a selected few is presented in the appendix to this chapter.

Major Lesson of Economic Relevance

Need for Control of One's Self Interest ...

Being the great sufi that he was, emphasizing on the purification of the inner self, it is thus not surprising that the reminder to control one's self interest appears unexhaustively in many of al-Muhasibi's writings. To al-Muhasibi, one can hope to serve Allah (SWT) in the true sense of the word and in all aspects of his life, only if he has no taint of self interest in his actions and thoughts. Demanding as this may be, al-Muhasibi had never declared that the act of self-purification will be an easy one. However, al-Muhasibi was cautious to remind people in his Kitab al Ri'aya Ii Huquq Allah wa'i Qiyam biha that efforts towards controlling of one's self interest can be hindered through one's association or indulgence (in whatever degree) with matters of sin.

Concept of the Balance (Mizan) ...

In his Kitab al-Tawahhum wa'l-Ahwal, al-Muhasibi enjoined that one must constantly be conscious of ensuring that the balance arising from one's indulgence tilts towards one's benefits. In other words, benefits should always outweigh costs.

In this regard, we should remind ourselves that the Islamic concept of benefits and costs are not limited to those of only the worldly or material forms. There are also the hereafter benefits and costs. Those that can be attained or received only from the hereafter, if ignored, can tilt the mizan towards one's disfavor.

Development of the Homo Islamicus ...

Among other matters, al-Muhasibi's Risalah Adab al-Nufus deliberates in detail on the development of the soul. Al-Muhasibi believed that the self needs constant observation and care. The fundamental values that must be imbued within the self include among others:

Ikhlas (single-mindedness in the service of Allah (SWT));
Thiqah (reliance on Allah (SWT));
Shukr (gratitude);
Nasihah (the giving of faithful counsel);
Love of what Allah (SWT) loves and hatred of what He hates;
Muhasabah (self-examination);
Muraqabah (meditation);
Self-discipline; and,
Being knowledgeable of Allah (SWT), Iblis, oneself and the work of Allah (SWT).
The underscoring significance of the above values lies magnified in the Islamic advocation for the replacement of the homo economics or the orthodox economic man with the homo Islamicus or the Islamic man.

Wealth ...

Wealth must not be made the object of one's love (or pursuit). Subsequently, even the desire to accumulate it is abhorred. Alternatively, one should be contented with little. Even if the reason for its accumulation is for use in good works, the act of accumulating wealth can potentially lead to one's preoccupation with mundane affairs. As a result, one's heart cannot be totally disposed for the remembrance and worship of Allah (SWT). Once this occurs, then the ensuing evils of avarice and pride may be seeded in one's heart. Further discussion on this perspective is available in al-Muhasibi's Kitab al-Wasaya.

Earnings ...

A clear exposition of this subject-matter and its related issues is detailed in al:'Muhasibi's Risalah al-Makasib wa'l Wara' wa'l-Shubuhah. Margaret Smith summarised the contents of this work (which has the greatest degree of economic content) in her book, An Early Mystic of Baghdadi:

"In this work, al-Muhasibi modifies the quietest tendencies of certain of his predecessors, and condemns excessive rigorism in the matter of what is dubious, while continuing to advocate the need for abstinence and asceticism. The basic principle in these matters, he teaches, should be reliance upon God (tawakkul), who can be trusted to provide for His creatures, and therefore they have no excuse for recourse to what is unlawful or doubtful in origin. In this connection al-Muhasibi sets forth a fine conception of God as Creator, with discerning knowledge of, and care for, His creatures. Faith in God and the remembrance, with the lips as with the heart, that He is the Sole Provider, the Lord of life and death, and Sovereign over all things, will lead men to this complete trust in Him, and to the observance of His sanctions. But this does not mean that a man should refrain from taking lawful means to earn a livelihood, or live in idleness at the expense of others. The right type of abstinence (wara') is to abstain from what God has prohibited and what is abhorrent to Him of action, whether in word or in deed, and of thought and motive, and what this is can be known by self-examination before proceeding to action.

This work includes an interesting section on the practices of the ascetics and Sufis of al-Muhasibi's time and proceeding times, showing their scrupulous anxiety to refrain from anything including the least taint or possibility of what was unlawful. Some, he says, betook themselves to the mountains and the valleys, and gathered tamarisk leaves and what could be picked up in the way of seeds and pulse and herbs, which had a value if stored, and these they collected in summer for use in wi1?ter. Others chose to exist on windfalls and fresh herbs and grass and such vegetation as was to be found growing wild, when hunger drove them to eat. Some were content with what had been thrown away, while another group preferred to beg for food. Some ascetics living in the regions of Syria used to glean what they could of corn and barley, following the reapers, but this, al-Muhasibi notes, was not a practice in his time. He refers also to those who would not glean behind the reapers on land bought with money wrongfully acquired, or land bestowed by the Government upon "its supporters, or consisting of estates of which the rightful owners had been despoiled. Others, again, chose to earn a living by manual labor, or by taking up the sword in the service of God, in preference to gleaning at the harvest, because the latter procedure had no precedent under the rule of the first four Imams, and these were agreed upon fighting under the banner of every Commander of the Faithful, whether good or bad. Others chose to retire into a monastery and live there in seclusion, unless there was a call for the services of Muslims, on account of the advance or invasion of some enemy into the territory of Islam, and in these circumstances, it was obligatory for them to wield the sword,' but when the need had passed, and the community no longer required their services, they would retire once more into the monastery they had established, holding that it was the more excellent way. This group among the Sufis, al-Muhasibi considers to be much in error.

He deals also with the question of buying and selling and what is to be considered lawful or unlawful for the servant of God in this respect, and quotes the case of those who considered that to buy a knife, or wood to serve as fuel for cooking, from the Government, was unlawful, and so also was the purchase of a leather whip or a whetstone from a Christian. Others disliked trading with women for thread (the twisting of thread being done by women), or for a rosary, lest it should mean temptation to look upon what was unlawful.

Al-Muhasibi deprecates bigotry and fanaticism and the attitude of those who would starve rather than partake of what did not seem to them lawful, and points out that this extremist view had brought some to the loss of reason and to suicide. The right road to follow, he thought, was that of scrupulous abstinence from what was known to be unlawful, after self-examination in order to be sure in the matter, and trust in God that He would not fail to provide all that was necessary for His creatures, who need to have recourse to what was unlawful or to extreme fanaticism in the search for the lawful, which was in itself unlawful".

Zuhd (Abstinence) ...

In his Kitab al-Masa'il fi Zuhd wa Ghayriha, al-Muhasibi discussed the subject of zuhd. To him, it may be necessary at times to abstain from what is right (in itself) because it may become the cause for something which is wrong. However, al-Muhasibi did not believe in abstinence of extreme degrees.

"... what is wrong must be renounced without hesitation, whether it be in thought or word or deed, and much that is doubtful must be renounced, even if right in itself, because it may lead to wrong, but what is right and, as the result of investigation and self-examination, is seen to be in accordance with the Will of God, should not be renounced from mere scrupulosity, for such abstinence may lead to injury to health or reason and risk to life, find abstinence of this kind is itself unlawful and a sin against God".

Al-Muhasibi is reported to have written:

"The believer who is seeking for godliness ...renounces all that is destructive to him in this world and the next, and leanness is manifest in him", and mortification and solitude and separation from the companionship of the pious, and the appearance of grief and absence of joy, and he chooses all that, hating to indulge in pleasure which may incur the wrath of his Lord and make him worthy of His chastisement, and he hopes that his Lord will be well pleased with what he does, and that he will be saved from chastisement, and will be permitted to come into His presence and to taste of the joys of Paradise, unalloyed and unabated, and to abide therein to eternity, enjoying the good pleasure of his Lord, the All Gracious and All Glorious".

Al-Muhasibi's opinion on zuhd should enlighten a more objective commitment rather than a "fanatical" occupation on the concept of zuhd. Al-Muhasibi qualified the concept well and directly portrayed the zahid (the person practicing zuhd) as one who has a sound set of criteria in determining which forms of abstinence qualify as an Islamically acceptable form of abstinence. To a substantial extent, this dissolves the initially perceived counter productive image created by al-Muhasibi's sufi-based opinion on the accumulation of wealth, stated earlier. What is actually propagated by al-Muhasibi is the highly cautious, meticulous and controlled relationship between a person and his wealth, not a rampant and uncontrolled liberal attitude towards it.

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