The Station of Al-I‘tisâm

AFTER THE STATION of repentance (tawba), the heart ascends to the station of i’tisâm. In Arabic, al-i‘tisâm, means to ‘hold fast to, and seek refuge with, that which protects you and prevents harm and fear.’ In the Book of Allah, two types of i’tisâm (or holding to) are mentioned: holding to Allah, and holding to the ‘rope of Allah.’ Allah says,

And hold to the rope of Allah, all together, and be not divided, [Surat Âl Imran, 3:103]

and also,

And hold to Allah; He is your protector— and what a good protector and what a good guarantor of victory. [ Surat Al-Hajj, 22:78]

Success in this world and in the Hereafter depends on these two types of i’tisâm, to Allah and to His rope. There is no salvation without these two.

Holding to ‘His rope’ is to be saved from misguidance, and holding to Him is to be saved from utter ruin.

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A traveler towards Allah is like any traveler with a destination: He needs directions for how to get there, as well as security and safety on the way—no one can reach his destination except by ensuring these two things. He needs a guide (or a map) to tell him the way and to save him from getting lost on the way, while he needs guards or arms to protect him against highway robbers, bandits and other dangers.

To hold to the rope of Allah guarantees that a seeker of Allah is on the right path, while holding to Allah guarantees that he is safe and protected.

The explanations by the early scholars of the phrase “rope of Allah” are various, but all lead to the meanings given above. Ibn ‘Abbas said,

(It means) hold to the din (religion) of Allah.

 Ibn Masud said,

[it means] the jama‘ah (that is, the community of all the believers, the ummah). It is the rope of Allah that He had commanded to hold to. What you may dislike about being part of the group and about obedience (to legitimate Muslim leaders) is always better than any benefit you may see in divisions.

Muqatil has a similar opinion,

Hold to the commandments of Allah, and be not divided as are the Jews and the Christians.

Mujahid and Ata said that the rope of Allah means

the covenant with Allah which, “all humans make—that they will worship Allah alone

— while Qatadah and Al-Suddi and many other commentators say,

It means the Quran.

It is reported in the Muwatta‘ of Imam Malik, upon the authority of Suhail ibn Abi Salit, upon the authority of his father, upon the authority of Abu Hurairah, that the Messenger of Allah said,

Surely God loves for you three things: that you worship him and consider none equal to him, that you hold to the rope of Allah all together, and you give sincere advice and goodwill to those whom Allah has made your leader. And Allah dislikes of you three things: gossip (which may include backbiting, slandering, mocking), wasting of wealth, and excessive questioning (about insignificant things). (Muslim, Muwatta‘ of Imam Malik, and others)

I’tisâm by holding to the rope of Allah, then, means obedience to Allah with watchfulness and consciousness (muraqabah). Conscious obedience means that one follows Allah’s commands not as a mere habit, out of mindlessness, nor for any other reason but to deliberately submit to Allah. Accordingly, Tulq ibn Habib defined God-consciousness (taqwa) as:

[A]cting and living in obedience to Allah as a result of the light from Allah for seeking reward from Allah, and abandoning disobedience of Allah as a result of the light from Allah for the fear of Allah.

The other aspect of al-i‘tisâm, holding to Allah Himself, means relying upon Allah and seeking his protection. Allah says,

Allah defends the believers… [Surat Al-Hajj, 22:38]

that is, when a believer holds to Allah, He protects him against the harmful doubts and desires of his own soul, the plots of his enemies, open or hidden.

There are three levels of steadfastness:

(i)   The i’tisâm of the common people holding to the message of Islam by hearing it and submitting to it, confirming the promise and the warning, upholding the commands and prohibitions of Islam, and basing their response to it on certainty and justice. This means that the common Muslims show I’tisâm by holding to the message about God that reaches them, and display an attitude of submission with certainty and justice. Certainty means they do not believe merely by way of prudence or expedience. As a poet said: The astrologist and the physician have both agreed in the claim that the dead shall never be raised again.

I said: “If you are right, I lose nothing. But if I am right, you both are lost.”

(Much later in history, the famous Christian scientist Pascal followed a similar line of reasoning to show why believing in God is more prudent and reasonable than not believing in Him. Islam rejects this as a legitimate way to believe, for this is not belief but expedience—tr.)

This is the way of doubt and incertitude which neither serve to save anyone from the punishment of God nor does such a person attain heavenly felicity.

Justice means fairness with respect to Allah by giving worship of Him and devotion to Him their due attention, and not to dispute in the matter of Allah’s unique attributes (as some deviants have done). It also means to thank no one else for His gifts and not to use them to commit wrong against His Will.

(ii)   The i’tisâm of the elite, those close to Allah. It means to shade the creation of Allah with one’s good morals and manners, and to renounce the ties (of this world) with determination. The real renunciation is to renounce the inner ties, for if one’s inside is not tied to this world, the external ties can do no harm. And if one’s heart is tied to this world, then even if you are penniless it will harm you.

It was said to Imam Ahmad, “Can a man be a zahid (ascetic) if he possesses one thousand dinars (gold coins)?” He said, “Yes. But upon the condition that he does not feel happy if he gets more and does not feel sad if he loses some.” Perhaps the Imam had in mind the happiness that leads to arrogance and mischief. As for the happiness, a believer feels upon God’s gifts —and thanks Him for them and puts them to uses that please Allah—the Imam would never object to such a sentiment.

It is in this manner that the Companions of the Prophet were the most ascetic of all—even while they possessed wealth.

Sufyan Al-Thawri was asked, “Can a wealthy man be a zahid?” He said, “Yes, if he is grateful upon its [his wealth’s] increase—and grateful and patient upon its decrease.”

Renunciation of ties with this world is commendable in two cases: if one fears from them harm in one’s din, or if there is no benefit in them. And the essence of all that is to sever the ties that become like dogs that prevent one from reaching one’s destination, and those two dogs are desires and doubts. If one cuts off these two ties, no ties will do any harm afterwards.

(iii)   The highest level of i’tisam is achieved through closeness to Allah. Allah says,

And bow in prostration, and come close. [Surat Al-‘Alaq, 96:19]

In a hadith qudsi Allah Almighty says,

If a servant comes close to me by a hand span (shibr) I come close to him by a yard (dhira’).

In another such report, Allah says,

And nothing gets a servant closer to me than performance of what I have made obligatory. My servant keeps getting closer to me by performing supererogatory acts until I love him. And when I love him, I become his ears with which he hears, his eyes with which he sees, his hands with which he sets out, and his legs with which he walks. So he hears through me, and sees through me, and sets out through me, and walks through me.

Another authentic hadith says,

The closest my servant gets to me is in the last part of the night. (Tirmidhi and Nasa’i)

Another narration says,

My servant is closest to me when he is in prostration. (Muslim)

Once when people raised their voices in saying takbir during prayers with the Prophet, he said to them,

O people, keep it to yourself. The One you are calling is neither deaf nor absent, rather He is All-Hearing and close—closer to one of you than the neck of his mount. (Bukhari, Muslim and Abu Dawud)

Originally posted 2017-05-17 08:00:46.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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