The concept of ‘renouncing the world’ is present in most, if not all, religious traditions although it is often understood in different ways. In Islamic terminology it has been referred to as ‘zuhd’ or ‘zuhd fi dunya’. Sometimes it is translated as ‘asceticism’, and such expressions have been highly praised in the scriptural traditions. On the other hand, several people may show a reproachful attitude when hearing this word as its meaning at times has been interpreted as involving the abstention from general comforts of life, living in small houses, eating a little food, etc., for the sake of God and with the intention of attaining a blissful Afterlife.
In reality renouncing the world as a religious concept does not mean to detest the world in itself and remaining disengaged from worldly activities: the life and conduct of the prophets, in fact, point to quite the contrary. Prophets and pious people have been always engaged in worldly activities at the due time. Even in religious classical texts, the world is considered as a place of sowing good deeds to reap their fruits in the Afterlife, a field in which to harvest for tomorrow. It follows that the world is not a problem; it is rather the attachment to it and the desire for it that holds negative connotations and brings no fruits.
There is a reference in the Qur’an to this when it is said: “For he who wants the harvest of the Afterlife We shall add to his harvest. But he who wants the harvest of this world We shall give him a portion of it and he shall have no share whatsoever in the Afterlife” (42:20). Here it is the attitude of ‘wanting the world’ that has been blamed and not the world in itself. The world is, in fact, a place where it is possible to elevate man and bring him closer to God. Eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. are not evil but if they become our final end in life it could be very damaging as they are not everlasting pleasures and we will not be able to see beyond them to what is eternal and enduring. Even wealth, social positions, prestigious careers fall in the same category and although they may be correctly used in some circumstances, they are not an aim worthy of being followed.
‘Wanting the world’ has been seen by some ethical teachers as an illness the cure of which is to be found in zuhd or renunciation which implies detaching the heart from the world. The renouncer of the world, therefore, doesn’t become sad because of it, nor does he get engaged in working for it, as he is busy in nothing else other than pleasing his Lord.
A legitimate question at this point may be: considering that renunciation does not directly and physically involve cutting off the world, how can it be achieved? In order to answer this question, we may divide renunciation into stages and degrees according to the intention, capacity of the renouncer, and the intensity of the renunciation itself.
The first stage implies that the different temptations of the world would not prevent resistance to them and no blessing would obstruct a sincere thanksgiving. In other words, the renouncer won’t give up his patience for committing a forbidden act and won’t stop to give thanks at the time of ease. In a more advanced stage, the renouncer will rejoice when the world is not with him and will be saddened when he has to deal with it. This is due to his fear of being involved in the world so his inward feelings always incline towards what is safer. However, the last stage and the best expression of renunciation is found, as the great Imam Ali(a) has pointed out, in the following Quranic verse: “so that you may not grieve for what escapes you, nor exult for what comes your way,” (57:23). Here the renouncer, while being physically in this world and taking advantage of it, is not affected at all by it and he is totally focused on the Afterlife. In this stage, the world has no control over him and actually, it is he who has control over it with God’s leave. It is not surprising then to read in religious scriptures that the Prophet Suleiman had the ability to control winds and Jinni on the earth.
In the light of what we have said, the popular concept of renunciation, implying a necessary physical abstention from the world, has little to do with real ‘zuhd’. In fact, not everybody showing frugality is a ‘renouncer’ and not everybody who doesn’t show frugality is not a ‘renouncer’. Yet, living with kifaf (sufficiency and modest means of survival) was the way of the Prophet Muhammad(s) and the great Imam Ali(a) but it is not something that can be imposed on every single renouncer. Also, that ‘external sufficiency’ which do not stem from internal renunciation has no value in God’s eyes because it comes from a heart that is not looking at Him.
Of course, it is not our task to judge who is and who is not a real renouncer and we should always try to keep a ‘good feeling’ between us and who is around us. Those who have familiarity with spiritual affairs may easily recognise pure souls from impostors. Also there are clear hints that warn us as to who is who: for example violating Islamic laws or not having good ethical behaviour or high moral standards are clear signs of a lack of spiritual understanding but again, praise for the well-being of others and wishing the best for them seems to be a healthier approach than studying other individuals lives when this is not our concern.