During November 2016 we at the Hawza Ilmiya of England had the pleasure of hosting both Sayed Shahristani, the representative of Ayatollah Sistani and our Christian brothers and sisters from the Focolare Movement. I had heard the representative of Ayatollah Sistani was going to visit and was very excited. I had a good feeling he was going to articulate a good piece of wisdom, relevant to our time.
Some of the brothers organised the seating arrangements for our teachers and guests. Most of the students were sitting down on the floor as a sign of respect. My ankle was in pain so I decided it was best to sit on a chair at the back of the room. The walls were resonating with the beautiful sound of the Holy Qur’an, being recited exquisitely by Sayed Jaffar.
At this point, Sayed Shahristani walked in. The way both Sheikh Shomali and Sayed Shahristani greeted each other is similar to how very close friends would greet one another after a long separation. He quickly sat on the floor in front of the chairs and everyone followed suit, including me and I forgot all about the pain in my ankle. Sayed Shahristani didn’t stay for long; he gave a short speech about the importance of Hawza and how lucky we all are to be studying the knowledge passed down from Ahlulbayt(as).
He recalled two stories from his own experience about some Sunni brothers receiving sayings and supplications of Ahlulbayt(as), how they were eager to learn this knowledge and how they cherished and memorised them.
It brought back memories of how thirsty for knowledge I was upon finding the fountain of Ahlulbayt(as). This message came at a good time because it reignited the fire, especially that passion for learning. I looked around and I think most of the other students were on the same page; we shouldn’t take for granted the fortunate position we are in.
A week later, members of the Focolare Movement came to visit. They are a Catholic Christian movement founded more than 70 years ago by a lady called Chiara Lubich. Their mission is to bring together different religions based on the similarities rather than emphasise those issues that separate the faiths. In this day and age, we need more people to bring us together to counter those scaremongers that seek to divide us. Sheikh Shomali has been in dialogue with them for some years now. One of the speakers, Dr Roberto Catalano, was very interesting not just because he had a unique accent, Italian with a hint of Indian due to his 28-year stay in India, but because he relayed this memorable Chinese fable. He didn’t tell us the whole story so I researched it: A frog in a well was content with his life. He had enough water to swim in and drink from and when he got hungry he ate the insects around him. To relax he would look up at the sky through the opening of the well.
He thought to himself there could be no place better than this and would often invite the occasional birds that flew past. None would take up his invitation but instead they would invite him to come up and see the world above. The frog would refuse because who knows whether the birds would take him up there and come back down by themselves to live in his abode.
One day he invited a yellow sparrow. The sparrow took no interest, not even replying. For the next few days, the same scenario repeated itself: the frog would invite and the sparrow would not reply, until one day the sparrow, irritated by the closed-mindedness of the frog swooped in and grabbed the frog from the back and flew with him out of the well.
The frog looked around and saw that the sky was a lot bigger; he saw vast rivers that led to the seas, the trees with blueberries and other insects such as butterflies and bees. He saw the land and mountains and he looked at a little hole in the ground, which he called home. He thought how silly he was to invite the birds to his place of residence when they had all of this.
A lot of lessons can be learnt from this tale. We all have our own personal traits of character that hold us back, but due to our closed-mindedness, we think that it’s the best thing in the world. The frog was lucky because the yellow sparrow came to the rescue. Are we not fortunate as well because we too are flying on the backs of Ahlulbayt and have the ability to see far and wide, only if we truly open our eyes and hold on.
Our end goal is not to see the beauty of this world but to see beyond this world and submit to the creator of this world; surely the creator is far more beautiful and bountiful than the created.
In Akhlaq class we learnt that those actions which help us get closer to God are compulsory (wajib) for Muslims, such as praying and fasting. A modern day example is if we wish to lose weight we are told to eat in moderation and eat healthy foods. The actions, which elevate us even higher and even closer to God, are the recommended (mustahab) acts such as nightly prayers. Similarly, frequent exercise will make us fitter and lose weight faster.
Any action that harms or slows us down but our spiritual growth is recommended not to do (makrooh), such as eating whilst walking. In our example eating junk food and irregular exercise would slow down the time it would take to reach our goal.
Any actions that cause us harm and push back our spiritual growth is forbidden (haram), such as backbiting. So in our example being lazy, eating excessive amounts or junk food or giving up on the idea of losing weight would negate our aim.
In Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) there is a fifth category where something that neither helps nor hinders our progress is termed mubah. However Sheikh Shomali argues that for the purpose of spiritual growth we do not have the luxury of infinite time to be throwing away the opportunity of doing good actions for not doing anything at all. It’s like a salesman selling ice in a hot country; if he’s not selling he is losing because his ice is melting.
In our lives, we should always be aiming to maximise our spiritual growth regardless of what we are doing even if it’s just drinking water or saying our nightly prayers. We should always have the intention of ‘qurbatan ilallah ’ seeking closeness to Allah.
by Ezra Hashme