Friendship and Sincerity

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Friendship and Sincerity  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali
Friendship and Sincerity[1]

Friendship is one of God’s favours. says the Quran. And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favour of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your marts so by His favour you became brethren[2]. The Prophet says: Those amongst you are my close companions who have good dispositions, are affectionate and tenderly love each other. And again: “God when He shows His kindness towards any person gives him a Good friend.”[3] “Verily God will say on the day of resurrection where are those who loved each other for my sake; today they shall rest under my shelter when there is no other shelter.”[4]

“Seven kinds of men will, on the Day of Judgment, rest under His shelter when there will be no other shelter:—

  • (1) A just Imam,
  • (2) An adult who is devoted to God,
  • (3) A man who after coming out from the mosque finds his heart attached to it till he enters again,
  • (4) Two friends who lived and died in their friendship for God’s sake,
  • (5) He who for fear of the Lord wept in secret,
  • (6) He whom a beautiful woman of good birth allures but he replies: I have fear of my Lord,
  • (7) He who gives alms in a manner that his left hand does not know what is given by his right hand.”[5]

Friendship, then, is God’s favour and should be cultivated for His sake. But if we shun the company of our fellowmen let it also be for God’s sake. “The strongest rope of Faith”, says the Prophet, “is love and hate both for God’s sake.”

Christ says, “Love God by avoiding the wicked; seek His nearness by shunning their company and please Him by courting their displeasure.” With whom should we keep company, O Word of God”, asked the people. And Christ replied, “Sit with those whose appearance reminds you of God, whose words add to the stock of your knowledge and whose actions serve as an incentive for acquiring the kingdom of Heaven.”

God spoke to Moses saying, “Son of Amran be up and find out a friend for thee and he who would not be with thee for my good will is thy enemy.”

Choose a friend who has five qualities viz: wisdom, good disposition, abstinence from sin, heresy and greed.

A fool’s company gives no good, it ends in gloom. Good disposition is necessary in as much as a man may be wise but be subservient to his inordinate passion and hence unfit for company. And a sinner and a heretic are to be avoided for the simple reason that they who have no fear of the Lord and are regardless of committing forbidden actions are not to be relied on. Besides contagion will secretly spread and he too will think of sin lightly and gradually lose power of resisting it. And a greedy worldling is to be avoided because his company will deaden the heart in the quest of the kingdom of Heaven.

Alkama on his death bed gave a fine description of a friend. “My son”, said he “If you wish to keep company try to find out such a friend who, when you live with him defends you, adds to your prestige, bears the load of your hardships, helps you in your doings, counts your virtues, dissuades you from vices, readily responds to your requests, inquires himself for your needs when you keep quiet, shows his deep sympathy in your sufferings, bears witness to your sayings, gives good advice when you intend to do some work and prefers you to his own self when difference arises between you and him.” This piece of advice gives the qualities of a friend in a nut shell. When Caliph Mamun the Abbaside heard of it, he said, “Where should we find such a friend”. And Yahya replied, “Alkama’s description means that we should live in retirement.”

Imam Jafar ‘Assadiq’ (the veracious) gives a negative description of a friend. “Do not keep company with five sorts of men viz: a false man who deceives you like a mirage; a fool who cannot benefit you, (even if he tries to do so he would do harm through his foolishness;) a miser who when you need his help the most, severs himself from you; a coward who will leave you when you are in danger; a wicked sinner who will sell you for a piece of bread.”

Sahl of Taster says, “Avoid the company of 3 kinds of men, (1) tyrants who forget God, (2) Ulamas who practise dissimulation, (3) Sufis who are ignorant.”

It must be remembered here that the above passages serve as an ideal but for purposes we should look to the present practical conditions and try to get as much good as may be had from them. For man’s life seems dreary when he has no friends. And men are like trees. Some are fruit-bearing and shady, some are shady only and some are mere thorns and thistles. Similarly some friends are a blessing both here and hereafter; some are for worldly gain for the world is a shadow, and some are of no good in this world and the next as if they are scorpions in human form.

“And they were not enjoined anything except that they should serve Allah, being sincere to Him in obedience, upright, and keep up prayer and pay the poor rate (zakat) and that is the right religion”.[6] “Then serve God, being sincere in religion unto Him, Aye, God’s is the sincere religion”. Musab says that his father Saad was considering himself superior to other poor and destitute companions of the Prophet. “God”, said the Prophet, “has helped my people with my poor and humble followers’ prayer and sincerity.”[7] “Sincere action,” says the Prophet “even if it be little will suffice for thee.”[8] The following saying of the Prophet is reported by Abu Huraira: “Three persons shall be questioned first on the day of resurrection. One will be the learned man who would be asked as to what he had done with his learning”. “Day and night,” the learned man will reply “I tried my best to propagate it, O Lord”. “Thou speakest falsely”, God will answer and the angels will also join with him “Thy sole aim was to be called a learned man by the people, and the title was thine”. The second will be the rich man who would be asked about his riches. “Day and night”, the rich man will reply, “I gave it in charity.” “Thou speaker of untruth”, God and his angels will say “Thou wishest to be labelled a generous man, and it was done”. The third will be the martyr who too will be asked about his deed “O Lord”, the martyr will reply, “Thou didst command us to wage Holy war (Jehad), I obeyed thee and fell fighting”. “Thou liest,” God and His angels will answer. “Thy aim was to be trumpeted as a hero and it was done”. “Then,” says Abu Huraira “the Prophet after finishing the sermon pressed me and said: These three would be the first to be thrown into the flames of hell”.

In the narratives of the Israelites, a story is told of a certain devotee who had served God for many years. Once he was informed of the apostacy of a tribe, which, forsaking the true worship of Yahweh had taken to tree worship. The hermit filled with the spirit of the “jealous” God took an axe and set out to level the tree to the earth. But the devil in the shape of an old man met him on the way and inquired of his intention. The hermit told him of his determination, whereupon Satan addressed him thus: “Why on earth are you leaving aside your prayers and vigils and devoting yourself to other work?” “But this too is a sacred cause” replied hermit. “No, nor will I allow you to do so” exclaimed the devil. Whereupon the hermit in the white heat of his pious rage caught hold of the devil and forcibly held him down. “Spare me Sir”, begged the devil, “I have something to say to you.” The hermit let him go. Then spoke Satan; “I think God has not commanded you to do this thing. You do not worship the tree, you are not responsible for the sins of others. If God wills it he will send some prophet, and they are so many, who would carry out his order. So I think it is not your duty, why then trouble yourself?”. “But I belong to the chosen people of Yahweh, and I am in duty bound to do so”, replied the hermit. Whereupon they again began to wrestle and eventually Satan was thrown down. “O! I see” cried Satan “An idea has just come into my mind; let me go please, and I will tell you.” Thus obtaining his release, the Evil One addressed him as follows: “Is it not the case that you are poor and have to live on the alms of those who are devoted to you? But in your heart of hearts you would like to shower your bounties on your brethren and neighbours so generous and compassionate is your nature. What a pity that such a noble soul lives on alms”. “You have read my mind aright,” quietly responded the hermit. “May I hope,” said the Evil One entreatingly, “that you will be pleased to accept two golden dinars which you will find at your side bed every morning from tomorrow. You will then be relieved of depending on others and be in a position to do charity to your poor relations and brethren. As for that wretched tree, what if that be cut down. Surely your poor needy brethren would get nothing and you would lose the opportunity of helping them while the tree would grow again”. The hermit pondered over these words and said to himself “This old man speaks quite reasonably, but let me think over the pros and cons of the case. Am I a prophet? No, I am not; therefore I am not bound to cut it down. Am I commanded to do so? No, Then if I do not do it I shall not be guilty of the iniquity. Should I accept his proposal? No doubt from the religious point of view it is more useful. No doubt. I think I should accept it: yes, I must.” Thus the two pledged their words and the hermit returned. Next morning he found the two dinars at his bed side and was highly pleased. Another morning the glittering gold was there, but on the third morning the hermit searched for them in vain. His fury knew no bounds. He rushed for his axe, and hurried with it towards the place of idolatry. Satan again met him in the way as before. “Thou wretch, thou archdevil”, cried out the hermit “wilt thou prevent me from my sacred duty?” “You cannot do it, you dare not do it”, ratorted the Evil one. “Hast thou forgotten the test of my powers”, sharply replied the infuriated hermit and rushed at him. But to his great discomfort and humiliation the hermit instantly fell flat on the ground like a dry leaf from a tree. The devil planted his foot on his chest, holding him by the throat, dictating the following terms: “Either swear not to touch that tree or be prepared to die”. The hermit finding himself quite helpless said, “I swear, but tell me why I am so discomfitured”. “Listen”, answered Satan “At first thy wrath was for God’s sake, and zealous vindication of his commandments. Hence I was defeated, but now thou art furious for thyself, and worldly gain”. The story illustrates the saying “I will certainly cause them all to deviate from the way except thy servants from among those who are sincere”. A devotee cannot be immune from Satan’s temptation except by sincerity and therefore saint Maaruf of Karkh used to upbraid himself, saying: “If thou wishest salvation, be sincere”.

Yacub, the Sufi, says: “He who conceals his virtues like vices, is sincere.” In a dream a man saw a Sufi who was dead and inquired about the actions of his previous life. “All those actions” said the Sufi, “which were for God’s sake I was rewarded for, even the least of them. For example, I had thrown aside a pomegranate’s peel from the thoroughfare. I found my dead cat but lost my ass worth one hundred dinars, and a silken thread on my cap was found on the side of iniquities. Once, I gave something in charity, and was pleased to see people looking at me,—this action has neither reward nor punishment for me”. “How is it that you got your cat and lost your ass?” said the man to the Sufi. “Because”, responded the latter, “When I heard of the death of my ass I said: ‘Damn it’. I ought to have thought of God’s will”. Saint Sufyan Saori, when he heard of this dream, said, “The Sufi was fortunate as no punishment was meted out to him for that charity which pleased him when people watched him”.

There is a report that a man, putting on a woman’s dress used to frequent purdah parties in marriage and funeral processions. Once a lady’s pearl was lost in a party. Everybody was being closely searched, and the man was very much afraid of the disclosure of his identity, as it would mean the loss of his life. He sincerely repented in his heart, never to do the same thing again, and asked God’s forgiveness and help. Then he found that it was now the turn of himself and his companion to be searched. His prayer was heard, the pearl being found in his companion’s clothes and he was saved.[9]

A Sufi narrates the following story: “I joined a naval squadron which was going on holy war (Jehad). One of us was selling his provision bag, and I bought it, thinking it would prove useful in the war, and that when the war was over I might dispose of it with profit. That same night I dreamt that two angels came down from heaven. One of them said to the other: Make a complete list of the crusaders. The other began to write down: So and so goes on a trip; so and so for trading, so and so for reputation; so and so for God’s sake. Then he looked at me saying: Put this man down as trader. But I spoke: For God’s sake do not misrepresent me. I am not going for business. I have no capital, I have simply started for the holy war. “But Sir”, said the angel “Did you not buy that provision bag yesterday, and were you not thinking of making some profit?” I wept and entreated them not to put me down as a trader. The angel looked at the other, who said: “Well, write thus: This man set out for the holy war, but on the way bought a provision bag for profiting: now God will judge the man”.

Saint Sari Saqati says: “Two rakats of prayer offered with sincerity in seclusion are better than copying seventy or seven hundred traditions with the complete list of authorities. Some say that one moment’s sincerity is salvation, but it is very rare. Knowledge is the seed, practice is the crop, and sincerity is the water nourishing it. Some say that God’s displeasure is revealed in a person who is given three things; and is denied the same number. He gets access into the society of the virtuous, but derives no benefit therefrom. He performs good actions but lacks sincerity. He learns philosophy but fails to understand truth. Says Susi: “God looks to sincerity only, and not to the action of his creatures”. Says Junaid: “There are some servants of God who are wise, who act as wise men, who are sincere when they act, then sincerity leads them to virtue.” Mohammed, son of Said Marwazi, says: “The whole course of our actions tends towards two principles, viz. (1) His treatment meted out to thee; (2) thy action for him. Then willingly submit to what is meted out to thee and be sincere in all thy dealings. If thou art successful in these two things thou shalt be happy in both the worlds”.

Says Sahl: “Sincerity means that all our actions or intentions—all the states of our minds whether we are doing anything or at rest, be solely for God.” But this is very difficult to acquire as it does not in the least attract the ego itself. Rowim says: “Sincerity means disregard of recompense for action in both the worlds”. In this he wishes to point out that the gratifications of our sensuous desires whether in this world or the next are all insignificant and low. He who worships God in order to attain joy in paradise is not sincere. Let him act for God’s “Riza”. This stage is reached by Siddiks (Sincerely devoted to God), and is sincerity par excellence. He who does good actions for fear of hell or hope of heaven is sincere in as much as he gives up at present his sensual worldly enjoyments, but wishes for the future, the gratification of his appetite and passion in paradise. The longing of true devotees is their Beloved’s Riza. It may be objected here that men’s motive is pleasure, that freedom from such pleasures is a purely divine attribute. But this objection is based on misunderstanding. It is true that man desires pleasure but pleasure has different meanings. The popular view is gratification of sensuous desires in Paradise but it has no idea of the nature of higher pleasures of communion and beatitude or the vision of God, and hence fails to consider them as pleasures. But these are the pleasures and he who enjoys them will not even look to the popular pleasures of Paradise for his highest pleasure. His summum bonum is the love of God.

Tufail says: “To do good for men’s sake is hypocrisy; not to do is infidelity: sincere is he who is free from both and works for God only”. These definitions suggest the ideal of sincerity aimed at by noble souls. Let us now look to the practical side of it for the sake of the average man.

Actions make an impression on the heart, and strengthen that quality of it which served as a stimulus for them. For example, hypocrisy deadens the heart and godly motive leads to salvation. Both of them will gather strength in proportion to the actions which proceed from their respective sources. But as they are intrinsically opposed to each other an action which gets an equal stimulus at one and the same time will be stationary in its effect on the heart. Now take a mixed action which draws the doer nearer to virtue, say, by one span, but removes him away by two spans, the inward result of his progress will be that he would remain where he was, although he would be rewarded or punished according to his motive. A man starts for “Haj” but takes with him some articles for trade, he will get his reward of pilgrimage but if his motive was trade only, he could not be considered a “Haji”. A crusader who fights for his religion would have his recompense although he acquires booty, for so long as his sole motive is to uphold the cause of religion the latent desire of booty would not come in the way of his recompense. Granted that he is inferior to those noble souls who are wholly absorbed in Him “who see through Him, who hear through Him, who act through Him,” (Hadis) He still belongs to the good and the virtuous. For if we apply the highest standard to all, religion will be considered a hopeless task, and will ultimately be reduced to pessimism.

At the same time we must sound a note of warning for those who are satisfied with the low standard. They are very often deceived. They consider their motive is purely for God’s sake while in reality they aim at some hidden sensuous pleasure. Let a doer, after he has exerted himself and pondered over his motive, be not over-confident of his sincerity. With the fear of its rejection let him hope for its acceptance - this is the creed of the righteous who fears the Lord and hopes from him.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya 115; IV. 7.
  2. Quran III: 102.
  3. Tibrani and Abu Daud.
  4. Muslim
  5. Bokhari and Muslim.
  6. Quran XVIII 5.
  7. Nasai and Bokhari.
  8. Adu Mansur
  9. Rumi has beautifully described this story of Nasuh in Masnavi Bk. V.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.