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Classics

The Caliph and the Ascetic

Hasan al-Basrī, a spiritual master from the first century of Islam, warns the Umayyad sovereign ‘Abd al-Malik to keep the verses of the Qur’an that describe human beings as responsible for their own deeds

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-15 13:28:27

 

When the Omayyad ruler ‘Abd al-Malik enjoined the revered Hasan of Basra to clear himself of rumours of being a supporter of free will, the pious preacher warned him, without any fear, to keep to the verses of the Qur'an that describe human beings as responsible for their own deeds.

 

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

Copy of the letter from ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwān to al-Hasan Ibn Abī al-Hasan al-Basrī, may God have mercy on them both.

 

From ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful,[1] to al-Hasan Ibn Abī al-Hasan. Peace be upon you. In the first place, I unite myself to you in praising God, besides whom there is no god, and I ask Him to bless Muhammad, His servant and His Messenger. As for the rest, news has reached the Commander of the Faithful that you would have made statements about the divine decree which are unheard of amongst those who have gone before us. Indeed, we do not know of any of the Prophet’s Companions, may God be satisfied with them, who pronounced on the subject in the manner that has been attributed to you. The Commander of the Faithful knew you to be a good, virtuous and discerning man and a zealous lover of knowledge and he cannot believe that you have made these statements. So write to the Commander of the Faithful, explaining your position and whence you derive it, whether from one of the Companions of God’s Messenger, from a personal opinion of your own or from a statement contained in the Qur’an. Indeed, we have never heard this argument until now. Therefore, send the Commander of the Faithful your position on the matter and clarify it with him. May the peace and mercy of God and His blessings be upon you.

 

Al-Hasan al-Basrī, may the mercy of God be upon him, answered him thus.

 

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. To ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, from al-Hasan Ibn Abī al-Hasan al-Basrī. Peace be upon you, O Commander of the Faithful. I unite myself to you in praising God, besides whom there is no god. As for the rest, may God favour the Commander of the Faithful and make him rule in obedience to God and following His Messenger, hastening to put into practice all that he has ordered. In truth, good people are a model – nowadays neglected – to be imitated in their ways of acting. The Commander of the Faithful, may God favour him, lives in an era in which these people, who used to be many, have become few; but I, O Commander of the Faithful, have been fortunate enough to know the pious ancestors (salaf) who kept God’s commandments and passed on their wisdom. They complied with the tradition (sunna) of God’s Messenger, without denying any truth or asserting any falsity. They attributed to God – blessings be upon Him – only those names that He has attributed to Himself and they invoked only the proofs that God Himself has given to His creatures in His Book.

 

The Most High says, and His word is truth, “I have not created jinn and mankind except to serve Me. I desire of them no provision, neither do I desire that they should feed Me” (51:56-57). In acting thus, God has ordered of them that adoration in view of which they have been created. He certainly would not have created something and then prevent it from attaining its end, because the Most High, “is never unjust unto His servants” (3:182).

 

Not one of the pious ancestors has ever rejected this statement or tried to twist its meaning, because they were all in harmony with it and never ordered any evil, as the blessed Most High states: “Say: ‘God does not command indecency; what, do you say concerning God such things as you know not?’ Say: ‘My Lord has commanded justice’” (7:28-29). In this way, he forbade indecency, dishonour and insolence, “admonishing you, so that haply you will remember” (16:90).

 

Indeed, God’s Book is life in the midst of death, light in the darkness and knowledge in the midst of ignorance: God has not left His servants other proof after it and God’s Messenger and in the Book it is written, “That whosoever perished might perish by a clear sign, and by a clear sign he might live who lived; and surely God is All-hearing, All-knowing” (8:42).

 

O Commander of the Faithful, reflect on the warning “to whoever of you desires to go forward or lag behind. Every soul shall be pledged for what it has earned” (74:37-38). As this passage shows, the Most High has placed a power in men by which they can go forwards or lag behind and He has tested them to see how they would act. If things were as the supporters of error maintain, men should neither go forward nor lag behind and those who go forward should not be rewarded for what they have done and those who lag behind should not be censured for what they have not done because all that, in their opinion, would not come from them nor rebound upon them, but would be an action of their Lord. But in that case, God would not have said, “Thereby He leads many astray, and thereby He guides many; and thereby He leads none astray save the ungodly, such as break the covenant of God after its solemn binding, and such as cut what God has commanded should be joined, and such as do corruption in the land: they shall be the losers” (2:26-27).

 

Reflect on this, Commander of the Faithful, and strive to understand it, because the Almighty says, “So give thou good tidings to My servants who give ear to the Word and follow the fairest of it. Those are they whom God has guided; those – they are men possessed of minds” (39:17-18). Lend your ear to the words of the Most High when He says, “But had the People of the Book believed and been god-fearing, We would have acquitted them of their evil deeds, and admitted them to the Gardens of Bliss. Had they performed the Torah and the Gospel, and what was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have eaten both what was above them, and what was beneath their feet” (5:65-66). And again, “Yet had the peoples of the cities believed and been god-fearing, We would have opened upon them blessings from heaven and earth; but they cried lies, and so We seized them from what they earned” (7:96).

 

Know, O Commander of the Faithful, that God has not ordered things for His servants in such a way that they are inevitable but has, rather, said, “If you do those things, I will act against you; if you do these things, I will act in your favour.” God rewards His servants only on the basis of their works, as in the passage “Give him a double chastisement in the Fire!” (38:61).[2] And in another passage God has made clear who led these people astray, “They shall say, ‘Our Lord, we obeyed our chiefs and great ones, and they led us astray from the way’” (33:67). It is the chiefs and great ones who proposed unbelief [to these damned souls] and led them astray, far from the right way that they had been following, because the Most High states, “Surely We guided [them] upon the way whether [they] be thankful or unthankful” (76:3). That is to say, whether they are grateful to God for having guided them along the right path by His grace or whether they prove to be ungrateful. “And whosoever gives thanks gives thanks only for his own soul’s good, and whosoever is ungrateful – my Lord is surely All-sufficient, All-generous” (27:40). And again, the Almighty says, “so Pharaoh had led his people astray” (20:79). Stick, O Commander of the Faithful, to the word of God according to which it was Pharaoh who led his people astray, and do not start arguing with God about His word. Say of Him only what He accepts to be said of Him, since He has said, “Upon Us rests the guidance, and to Us belong the Last and the First” (92:12-13). Guidance therefore comes from God and errancy from men.

 

Furthermore, reflect, O Commander of the Faithful, on these words of the Almighty, “It was naught but the sinners that led us astray” (26:99) and on these, “The Samaritan has misled them into error” (20:85) and on these, “For surely Satan provokes strife between them, and Satan is ever a manifest foe to man” (17:53). And, yet again, on these words of the Most High, “God will bring you [punishment] if He will; you cannot frustrate Him” (11:33). That is to say, you will not manage to save yourselves from His punishment if it befalls you and you will not be able to prevent it; in that hour, as Noah here says, my warning will not help you, even if I want to give you good counsel when the punishment befalls you. Indeed, Noah well knew that when the punishment would have fallen on his people and they would have contemplated it with their own eyes, their [belated] faith would have been to no avail, as the Most High has explained, in connection with the nations that have been annihilated in the past, “But their belief when they saw Our might did not profit them – the wont of God, as in the past, touching His servants; then the unbelievers shall be lost” (40:85). Indeed, it is God’s wont not to accept repentance when the sinner is already seeing the punishment with his or her own eyes.

 

As for the words, “If God desires to pervert you; He is your Lord, and unto Him you shall be returned” (11:34), in this passage “perversion” (ghayy) means punishment, as in the verse, “Then there succeeded after them a succession who wasted the prayer, and followed lusts; so they shall encounter perversion” (19:59) i.e. a painful punishment. Indeed, Arabs say, “So-and-so went into perversion today”, in the sense – as a way of saying – that the chief gave him a violent beating and inflicted a painful punishment on him.

 

Amongst the passages that our adversaries cite in disputation, there are the words, “Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam;[3] whomsoever He desires to lead astray, He makes his breast narrow, tight, as if he were climbing to heaven. So God lays abomination upon those who believe not” (6:125). These ignoramuses have interpreted the passage as meaning that the Most High would choose some people in order to open their breasts, without any good deeds on their part, and other people in order to seal their breasts – that is, their hearts – without any unbelief on their part, nor wickedness nor deviancy, so that the latter would have no way of obeying the divine commandments and would be destined for the eternal fire. However, Commander of the Faithful, things are not as these ignoramuses, in their error, maintain. Our Lord is too merciful and just and generous to behave like that with His servants. How could He act in this way, if we can read that, “God charges no soul save to its capacity; standing to its account what it has earned, and against its account what it has merited” (2:286). God has created the jinn and mankind to adore Him and He has shaped ears, eyes and hearts for them with which they would succeed in carrying out much more than the worship God has imposed on them.

 

God opens the breasts of those who obey the commandments, so that they might give themselves to Him completely, and He does this as a reward for their obedience in this ephemeral world, making good works light and easy and unbelief, wickedness and rebellion onerous on them. So they become able to carry out all the commandments and abstain from forbidden things: so has God decreed in relation to anyone, great or small, who chooses the path of obedience. On the other hand, those who abandon the obedience enjoined by God and plunge into unbelief and straying in this ephemeral world, albeit being able to repent and change course, find that God makes their hearts narrow and tight, as if they were climbing to heaven, as a punishment for their unbelief and straying in this ephemeral world. Penitence is a duty and a call [from God]: so has the Almighty established in relation to all who take the path of unbelief and wickedness.

 

Commander of the Faithful, if God has spoken in His Book of opening and sealing hearts, He has done so out of mercy towards His servants and in order both to induce men to carry out the works through which they will, in His wisdom, merit the opening of their hearts and to put them on their guard against carrying out works by which they will, in His wisdom, merit the sealing of their hearts. He has not reminded them of these things in order to discourage them or make them despair of His mercy or His favour, nor to cut them out of His indulgence, His forgiveness and His generosity, if they behave well. Indeed, the Almighty has clarified all things in His Book, “Whereby [He] guides whosoever follows His good pleasure in the ways of peace, and brings them forth from the shadows into the light by His leave; and He guides them to a straight path” (5:16).

 

 

[The Glossarist’s Summary]

Then al-Hasan al-Basrī continues his letter recalling that the pious ancestors amongst the Prophet’s Companions kept to his words without rejecting or disputing a single one of them because they were in agreement about everything, without denying any truth or asserting any falsehood, attributing to God only those names that He has attributed to Himself and invoking only those proofs that God Himself has given to His creatures.

 

Then the author explains to the Commander of the Faithful that he has begun to speak of the divine decree only because there have appeared people who have started to deny it. “And since the innovators have produced their own discourse on religion, I have cited passages from God’s Book that contradict them”. The author then recalls various passages from God’s Book and the Prophet’s Tradition of which the Commander of the Faithful is not ignorant but, on the contrary, knows well. After God’s Book, this letter of al-Hasan al-Basrī’s contains healing and sure proof.

 

I have therefore sent you, O Commander of the Faithful, a copy of al-Hasan’s letter, so that you can read and understand it, so that God may add guidance to your guidance and knowledge to your knowledge. Understand it well, meditate on it and act in its regard according to your opinion and your reason, to your benefit and for the benefit of Muslims. Do not introduce ambiguities into it because it is clear for those who meditate on it using their reason and accept God’s justice.

 

Know, lastly, that of those who have known the pious Companions of God’s Messenger personally, no one knows more things about God, understands God’s religion more profoundly or interprets God’s Book more rightly than al-Hasan, by virtue of his goodness, reliability in matters of religion, honesty and concern for Muslims. So honour him with an honour on account of which you can hope to be rewarded by the Most High in both the afterlife and the present life.

 

[Taken from Rasā’il al-‘adl wa l-tawhīd, edited by Muhammad ‘Imāra, Dār al-Shurūq, al-Qāhira, 1988, vol. 1, pp. 111-117. Italian translation by Martino Diez. English translation by Catharine de Rienzo, revised on the basis of the Arabic original by MD]


[1] “Commander of the Faithful” is the title first used by the caliphs. ‘Abd al-Malik ruled from 685 to 705 and re-founded the Omayyad empire after the crisis that followed the death of Mu‘āwiya (r. 661-680). Among his achievements are the empire’s reunification, the adoption of Arabic as the official language and the creation of an Islamic coinage. He ordered the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
[2] The invocation “Give him a double chastisement in the Fire!” is addressed by the damned to God. In this passage, they are asking God that those who deceived them into adoring idols might receive double punishment. Herein lies the connection with the next citation from the Qur’an.
[3] The passage can also be translated as “opens their breasts to Himself”, according to whether “islām” here is understood as the trans-historical attitude of recognised dependence on God that the Qur’an teaches or as the name of the historic religion brought by Muhammad.

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