The Wages of Youth
I STUDIED THE conditions of people who attain glory or wealth. That’s just when the downfall of most comes.
Behold the youthful among them: How excessive grows their sinful behavior; how neglectful they are of their chance for knowledge; how dissipated in the sensuous they become.
All of them turn regretful in their old age. Alas, for the time to make up for bad deeds has passed. Strength is depleted. Merit is lost. Then their elderliness wastes away in bitter remorse. When age finally brings them to their senses about their sinfulness in the world, they lament: “Oh, woe is me! Would that I had not transgressed!” For some, it’s not even the sins they rue, just the loss of the iniquities they so used to delight in.
But one who gives forth his youth in the attainment of knowledge, his old age extols the fruits of its labor. It derives pleasure in composing his in-gathered knowledge into books.
He feels not the loss of physical pleasures his youthful body used to know, because the intellectual and spiritual pleasure he now cultivates eclipses it. Moreover, this pleasure mounds on top of the pleasure wherewith seeking knowledge used to fill him. More pleasurable still is his realization of the vision of happiness he so long pursued.
Rather, the deeds of his happy pursuit are very likely more pleasing to him than the rich lode he has gleaned through them. For it is even as the poet has said:
I dance when I dream of her and when we shall meet
And dreaming next to having is all the more sweet
In this light have I pondered my own life compared to my greater family. Most of them waged their lives in pursuit of the world. I spent my childhood and youth seeking knowledge. I see now that not a thing they attained passed me by, save all I would have paid for with regret.
When I gaze deeper into my condition as compared to my relations, I behold my standard of living. It is higher than theirs. I behold my standing among people. It is fairer than theirs. Then I behold my fund of knowledge, both its degree of attainment and quality…and my appraisal stops here, for there is nothing to compare.
Then Iblîs said to me: “Forget not your exhaustion, your sleepless nights.”
To this I replied: “Alas, O ignorant one. The cutting of the hands was felt not when Yusuf was beheld.”
It is even as the proverb in couplet says:
Never a distance too great, nor road too long,
That leads to one with whom bond is strong
True, indeed. Oh, for the sweetness I found in striving for knowledge! I used to come hard up against arduous adversities. Yet they tasted to me sweeter than honey, for I realized the greatness of what I was seeking, wherein my hopes lay.
As a boy, I would take dry bread loaves with me and go out to learn ḥadîth. I would sit at the River ʿÎsâ, for without water the bread was inedible. Every bite, I softened with a gulp of water, the eye of my resolve ever trained on the pleasure of attaining the knowledge I pursued.
This conferred on me a certain renown. I became known as well-versed in the statements of the Messenger ﷺ, and in the events of his life and his ways. My knowledge extended also to the lives of his Companions and their Successors, until I became like the ( ḥadîth master) Ibn Ajwad in my knowledge of the Prophet’s way.
This accorded me the blessing of knowing how to comport myself with people in a way that can only be learned (from Revelation). And what a blessing! For early in life, in my youth and bachelorhood, I had the chance to quench my nafs, my lower self, with desires it craved like the thirst-mad yearn for cool water, and nothing prevented me from these cravings save the fear of Allah instilled in me by the harvest of my studies. Had it not been for mistakes (of which no man is free) I would have feared becoming self-satisfied (al-ʿujb).
It was Allah, Exalted and Most High, who thus protected me, taught me, and guided me, through the secrets of knowledge, to know Him and to prefer to be in seclusion with Him. Indeed, had Maʿrûf Al-Karkhî and Bishr Al-Ḥâfî themselves been present with me [two pious ascetics renowned in ʿIrâq at the time], I would have beheld them as a nuisance and distraction.
Then Allah returned and shrouded me in shortcomings and negligence, until I saw that the least of people were better than me.
Sometimes He would awaken me to keep prayer vigil in the night and to feel the delight of engaging in intimate converse with Him. He would deprive me of this at other times, even though my body was healthy.
Had it not been for the glad tidings of knowledge that this was a kind of (divine) training and teaching, I would have either swelled with vainglory when I was self-controlled and striving, or despaired when I was undisciplined and idle.
Yet always my hope in His benevolence balanced my fear of Him.
In fact, my hope outstripped my fear on the strength of its evidences. For I saw how He raised me up as a child, as my father died when I was too young to understand, and my mother never turned to me. Hence, He is the One who concentrated in my nature the love of knowledge.
Then He continued to cause me to come upon one important learning experience after another, conveying me to those who would convey me to that which was correct, until He set firm my affairs.
And how many a time has an enemy sought me out for harm and He barred him from me! So when I see how He has given me victory, how He has looked after me, how he has defended me and vouchsafed me my needs, my hope in the promise of the future grows ever stronger based on what I have seen in the past.
I say in truth that two hundred thousand souls have repented at my hand in our thikr sessions, in our chanted remembrances of God.
And how many arrogant eyes have flowed with tears at my admonitions that never flowed before! So it is only right, I say, that one who has born witness to all these blessings in his life should hope for their completion….
…Then I look inward at my shortcomings and slips, and the cause for fear overwhelms me.
A Secret Plea
One day, I took to my lecture chair (to speak my admonitions) and beheld an audience of more than ten thousand, and there was not a single one among them before the end whose heart had not grown tender, whose eyes had not welled with tears. Suddenly, I said to myself: “How shall it be, then, should they be saved while you are destroyed?” The tongue of my distress shouted out:
Yâ ilâhî, O God of mine! My Master! If you decree tomorrow that I am to be punished, then let them learn nothing of it, as a preservation of their image of Your graciousness upon me. Nor ask I You this for my own good. Rather, I beseech You, that they might not say: He who led us to Him was punished. O God of mine! Indeed, it was said to Your Prophet ﷺ: “Kill Ibn ʿUbay, the Chief Hypocrite,” and he replied: “Let people not say among themselves that Muhammad kills his Companions.” O God of mine! Then protect their good thoughts of me, by Your graciousness. Let them know not about the punishment of him who led them to You. Far be it from You, my Lord—by Your name, O Allah, I swear—to adulterate what is pure.
Let reed not wither that You let bloom
Far be it from builder his work destroy soon
Let no plant suffer thirst that You’ve grown
After it is bathed in and the blessed rain known