[Mention] when the youths retreated to the cave and said,
‘Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy
And prepare for us from our affair right guidance.’ [Surat Al-Kahf, 18:10]
Our Prophet secluded himself in the Cave of Hira. The People of the Cave went and lived in that miraculous cave for three hundred years, (full story later in the article). The famous Companion Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari went and lived in the wilderness till death. Some of the major Companions locked themselves up in their houses till death when the Muslims began fighting among themselves during the caliphates of ‘Uthman and ‘Ali.
Well? Should you then throw away your magazines and laptops and, waving goodbye to crying friends, hop into an airplane taking off for Brazil, and then, while the plane is passing over the Amazon Rain-forest, jump off (making sure your parachute is in working order) and land into the jungle, to live happily ever after among frenzied monkey-comrades?
Yes, you should do that – given certain conditions. What are these conditions? Why should I live among sinning people and pick up their bad habits? Why should I tolerate people’s criticisms, judgmentality (wait, is that a word?), neglect or imbecilities? Why can’t I just shut myself up in my own room with my iPhone and my coffee cup, and live on home-delivered pizza?
Being a female student of knowledge, this issue has been relevant to my own life for some time. At different points in my life, I have felt differently about it, and I’ve always struggled to find the correct balance between isolation from others to avoid their harms, and mixing and bearing them and earning the attached rewards. This is a relevant issue to many Muslims (especially introverts like me) who are struggling hard to maintain their din in a sinning world, especially those who’re taking their beginning steps in becoming close to Allah, and those who are primarily homemakers.
But on the other hand, Muslims aren’t supposed to be individualistic. We are socially responsible people. How do we strike a balance?
Let’s begin by looking at each of the options separately.
Mixing with People – It’s Benefits and Harms
There’s a very strong reason for mixing with people, namely, that the Prophet recommended it. He said,
The believer who mixes with people and bears their annoyance with patience will have a greater reward than the believer who does not mix with people and does not put up with their annoyance. [Ibn Majah]
Commenting on this hadith, Shaykh Nur Al-Din Al-‘Itr says,
In this hadith [is mentioned] the benefit of mixing with people and accompanying them for those who can be patient with their harms, in matters of dunya or din, and the opposite [is true] for those who can’t be patient. (587)
Then he mentions the cases in which mixing with others is encouraged:
- Earning one’s living (wajib)
- Attending the five daily prayers in congregation
- Attending Jumu’ah prayer
- Attending gatherings of knowledge and remembrance
- Visiting the sick
- Attending funerals
- Helping the needy
- Educating the uneducated
- Advising those who need advice.
Some of these cases, he says, are wajib (obligatory) and others sunnah. On the other hand, mixing with people for the sake of earning money to increase one’s already sufficient wealth is mubah (allowed) if you’re sure to be safe from harm or fitna in your religion. And even that is a sunnah if there is a benefit for others in it, whether in dunya or din, such as hiring workers and so on. (587-88)
This is just a small list. The benefits of being one among a crowd are countless. Walking down the street smiling at the passers-by brings you rewards.
On the other hand, mixing also entails picking up all kinds of sins and bad habits from others – backbiting, anger issues, love of extravagance, overeating, jealousy, greed, wasting time, watching sinful movies, talking nonsense – to name a few. You have to be constantly on the watch, because it’s easy for Shaytan to distract you into joining in with other sinners. After all, they’re doing it. Why shouldn’t I?
So, let’s weigh the Pro’s and Con’s of mixing together:
|Disadvantages of Mixing||Advantages of Mixing|
|Falling into other people’s sinful acts, such as:||Earning rewards by doing good acts, such as:|
|• Backbiting||• Strengthening ties of kinship|
|• Overeating||• Relieving others’ pain by lending a sympathetic ear|
|• Wasting time||• Helping others|
|• Spreading evil in the ummah||• Spreading knowledge|
|• Strengthening the bonds of brotherhood in the community|
|• Spreading good in the ummah|
|• Keeping yourself psychologically healthy and providing yourself with a support network.|
Isolation – It’s Benefits and Harms
The main occasion for which scholars prefer isolation over mixing is at times of fitna (trial in religion).
The People of the Cave were a group of youths mentioned in the Quran. These brave young people left their homes to go live in a cave. Why? Because they were being forced to either leave their faith in Allah, or to be killed. Allah captures the scene of their fleeing in this ayah:
[Mention] when the youths retreated to the cave and said, ‘Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy and prepare for us from our affair right guidance.’ [Surat Al-Kahf, 18:10]
Imam Qurtubi mentions with respect to this that
This verse is explicit concerning fleeing for the sake of one’s religion and the abandonment (hijrah) of family, children, relatives, friends, land and wealth out of fear of trials and what persecution a person may experience…. So living in the mountains, dwelling in caves, and isolating oneself from people in order to seclude oneself with the Creator, and the permissibility of fleeing from tyrants is the sunnah (way) of the prophets and the saintly. (quoted from Philips, 30)
Scholars also quote the following hadith in support of this idea, that the Prophet said,
A time will soon come when the best property of a Muslim will be sheep, which he will take to the top of mountains and the places of rainfall (valleys) so as to flee with his religion from afflictions. (Bukhari, 19)
Another reason for isolation being preferred is to focus on worshiping Allah by yourself.
“If applied with a correct understanding, isolation can be most beneficial,” says Dr. Al-Qarni. He then cites a quote from Ibn Taymiyyah:
At times, it is necessary for the worshiper to be isolated from others in order to pray, remember Allah, recite the Qur’an, and evaluate himself and his deeds. Also, isolation allows one to supplicate, seek forgiveness, stay away from evil, and so on. (135)
You also free up time to study Islam or write books by isolating yourself.
On the other hand, we lose a lot by isolating ourselves. Apart from the rewards we could have earned by mixing, we lose some control over our emotional and psychological health.
“If a person were condemned to spend months in isolation, cut off from all normal activities and interpersonal relationships, a substantial depression would result,” says renowned CBT psychologist Dr. David Burns. “Even young monkeys slip into a retarded, withdrawn state if they are separated from their peers and confined to a small cage.” (82)
Well, we are more sociable than monkeys, I hope. Human beings are intended to live around others of their kind. We like to belong to others, to form warm connections, to love and cherish. All the rulings in the Quran and sunnah about social interactions indicate this.
In isolation you also lose the opportunities to share ideas, thoughts and experiences with others, leading to your theoretical knowledge stagnating in the pages of books rather than coming out and finding expression in the real world. You’re missing out on the practical aspect of ‘ilm.
So, to sum up:
|Advantages of Seclusion||Disadvantages of Seclusion|
|• It can save you from risking your spiritual health by facing fitna.||• You miss all the advantages to be gained from mixing.|
|• You avoid catching sinful habits from other people, or propagating your own sin by transferring your own sinful habits to others.||• You become susceptible to depression and other issues linked to loneliness.|
|• You can focus all your time and attention into worshiping Allah, reflecting on the Quran, seeking knowledge and other beneficial acts.||• You lose out on learning and sharing practical knowledge.|
|• It is easier to protect your good deed from riya’ (showing off) if you do good deeds alone.|
Isolation so as to Avoid Fitna
So then, we should isolate ourselves in times of fitna. But the question is, what is fitna? What level of difficulties entitles us to seek isolation from society?
The answer can be found by looking at another question: At what level of difficulty did the Prophet, the Companions of the Cave and other righteous examples in history seek isolation?
Take the Companions of the Cave. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan, in his in-depth tafsir of Surat Al-Kahf, cites Al-Qasimi’s Tafsir:
Some people think, that the benefit of this ayah [18:16] is that it will, from divine sanction, allow for people abandoning society and actually that’s the preferred thing to do in an absolute sense. That’s wrong. Actually what it alludes to is the fact that the People of the Cave had lost all hope of doing anything else. When a person is being coerced in the matter of his religion, and shirk is wanted from him…. Actually the People of the Cave did not run away from other Muslims. They ran away from people that were thirsty for their blood, wanting them to turn away from their own religion. (In-Depth, Surat Al-Kahf, Ayah 16)
Ust. Nouman then explains that this is how that sort of fitna is categorized in the Quran.
These people were going to be killed, they had nowhere else to go, and then Allah [came] to their miraculous aid. When did the people of Musa run? When they were going to be wiped out by Fir’awn. (Ibid.)
Our society will always be scattered with fitna-thorns till the coming of Dajjal. But that’s not a reason to never walk on the road and to live on a tree. Seeking isolation, according to Ustadh Nouman and Al-Qasimi, is justified only if the thorn is big enough to kill you, or to kill your soul.
Isolation to Worship Allah
Throughout history, many people have deemed praiseworthy the seeking of isolation to worship Allah and to reflect on life. Evidence in favor of this view? The Prophet went to Cave Hira’ to meditate before revelation came to him. In fact, that’s where Jibril came to him for the first time.
Sh. Yasir Qadhi disagrees.
There’s no question that our religion encourages moments of solitude, i.e., that we break away from the world around us and concentrate on worshiping Allah (Swt). However, it is no longer a sunnah to cut yourself off from society and go out of society. This was something the Prophet (sa) did before the revelation came down. Once the revelation came down, … there was no need for him to do that. So he never returned to Hira’ to worship there anymore. He never returned to that type of solitude.
Striking a Healthy Balance
I’ve tried to present some of the pros and cons of isolating yourself from society. There is no one-size-fits-all conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion. Each individual has to decide on his own which is better for him, based on his own circumstances.
Ibn Al-Mubarak saw seclusion in a slightly different light. He defined it as seclusion of the heart. You stay among people and yet your heart is free.
When they engage in the remembrance of Allah you join in with them, and when they engage in other than that, be silent. (Philips 31)
Mix with people as long as you can bear it. But don’t stress yourself too much. Take regular breaks and seek isolation so as to reflect on how mixing is affecting you and what you can do better, to recharge your iman and your mental energy, and plunge back into society with renewed vigor.
And if a person truly wants solitude, proposes Sh Yasir, then the Prophet (sa) told us the way to do that – pray at night when everybody is sleeping.
- Burns, David D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Avon Books, 1999.
- Al-‘Itr, Nuruddin. Sharh Umdatul Ahkam vol.4.
- Khan, Nouman Ali. “Quran In-Depth: Surat al-Kahf”. www.bayyinah.tv. 08-Feb-2017.
- Philips, Abu Ameenah Bilal. Tafseer Surat al-Kahf. IOU, DATE.
- Al-Qarni, ‘Aid Ibn Abdullah. Don’t Be Sad. Riyadh: IIPH, 2003.
- Qadhi, Yasir. “Seerah of Prophet Muhammed” Part 10. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIpG-3Fvk4c&list=PLAEA99D24CA2F9A8F&index=10>. 07-Feb-2017.