MUHAASABAH: Criticism and Self-criticism

BY M.Z. Muhammad

The word muhaasabah does not occur as such in the Noble Qur’an, but the meaning is present in the phrase yawn ul hisaab, i.e. in relation to the Day of Judgement. So any definition of muhaasabah would have to state that it embraces criticism and self-criticism, and the things leading off from these: trial, giving account, correction of errors, being pre- pared to accept correction, taking disciplinary measures or actions, etc. This is valid universally; not only is it valid for the individual, but also for the family, for the society, and for the State. Let us first ask the question, Why muhasabah? Why is it necessary? I shall review it firstly by starting with the State, and then working down to the individual.

Any State, to achieve certain desired goals, makes policies, rules, and laws, and tries to ensure that they are followed. One finds that from time to time the State revises its plans to meet a changing situation, adding to, and correcting mistakes in previous policies and legislations. This is, in fact, one type of muhaasabah.

On the other hand, the State applies certain regulations, or laws, to the conduct and behaviour of its citizens. Those citizens who fail to conform to these regulations are considered delinquent, and the State tries to bring them back under its control by various means.

This type of muhaasabah is a necessity for a successful, organised society, and was established by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, by a very simple example. He stated that if one were to imagine a ship at sea which was carrying passengers. The passengers divided the available places among themselves: some of them were on deck and others below. One of those below started drilling a hole where he was sitting. So, if the other passengers were to stop him (and this would be a duty both on the passengers below and on deck), his life will be saved and also the lives of the other passengers and crew: if they let him carry on, laissez fare, and connived at his individuality, they will all drown. This duty of the State, and also the place of ‘social controls’ within a political culture, has been recognised since the dawn of civilisation, and is a requisite of civilisation.

A third type of muhaasabah is that between the individual in the society and the rulers. This type of muhaasabah is greatly respected in Islam, and is one of the distinctive features of an Islamic State. There are many examples of it in practice in the Islamic State, and some of the most well-known concern the khulafa’u-r raashidin (the “Rightly-guided Caliphs”).

I give one involving al Faarouq ‘Umar bin al Khattab, may God be pleased with him. Some bales of cloth had been captured, and, as legitimate spoils of war, they were apportioned out and distributed equally among the Community, each person receiving one. Later ‘Umar, as the ruler, rose to give a khutbah (“sermon”). When he said “People, hear and obey . . .” One of the congregation replied “No! We will neither hear you nor obey you until you explain to us why you distributed to us one small sheet of cloth each, which was not enough to make a cloak, while now you are wearing a cloak made of a large sheet”. ‘Umar called his son ‘Abdullah to answer on his behalf. ‘Abdullah explained saying that his father needed a new cloak, and that as he was a tall man the one piece of cloth that was his share was clearly not enough, and so he gave his father his own piece as well. Having received a satisfactory explanation, the man said to ‘Umar, “Now you order, and we shall listen and obey”, and sat down. Thus the importance of muhaasabah is vital to the establishment of a just and well ordered society.

These types of muhaasabah are not limited to the functions of the State. Whenever there is an organisation which requires government of a majority by a minority there is a fundamental necessity of muhaasabah. The various types of muhaasabah should be applied immediately in any Islamic organisation, from the small constituents to the larger federal or confederal bodies. Firstly such organisations should select a leader on the basis of his piety and knowledge, and, his practice and behaviour according to the example of the Prophet of God, peace be upon him. He should display a high degree of self-discipline. He, or his committee, should appraise the way of attending to matters from time to time, to ensure the best results. Secondly, he should ask the various individuals why they defaulted on their assigned duties (that is, of course, if they did) and to correct their mistakes. Thirdly, he should accept any criticism from others, and give satisfactory explanations, and conform if the criticism is a valid one. All these should be done in accordance with the rules of (amr bi-l ma’rouf wa-n nahyu ‘ani-l munkar)” enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong”, which are well explained in the Noble Qur’an and in the teachings of the wise Messenger of God, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him.

It is most important that there should be discipline in a group. The orders of the leaders should be followed; there is room for counsel and advice, but once the leader gives an order it must be obeyed providing it is not in conflict with the Shari’ah (i.e. the Qur’an and Sunnah). There are many examples of the necessity of discipline and obeying orders, and many of them too can be taken from the Seerah of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him. One famous example is the serious reverse the Muslims suffered at the battle of Uhud, through the indiscipline of a group of archers sent to block a pass. Their orders were not to leave their position under any circumstances. However, after the battle had started, and the disbelievers were suffering a serious set-back, a withdrawal by the disbelievers left some of their baggage and equipment behind within reach of the troop of archers. Some of the archers, thinking that the enemy were in full retreat and therefore that it was safe, left their position to capture some of the booty, thereby ignoring their orders. As you all know, the consequences were tragic and very nearly disastrous. A great lesson can be learnt form this incident: one should obey the orders of the leader of the group, and not one’s own whims and fancies, otherwise chaos and anarchy might ensue, and the whole group may suffer and even disband. This is why in Islam, obeying the imam whoever he may be-red, black, or white; Pakistani, Turk, Arab, African, or Malay-and keeping loyal to him, not siding with the kuffaar in a dispute in any aspect of life, is basic injunction, and an act of ‘ibaadah. God says.

“O those who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger and possessors of authority from yourselves, then if you carry on a dispute on anything refer it to God and the Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day, that is good and. most suitable in the issue.”4:59

‘ Clearly the “possessors of authority” over the believers must be chosen from the believers themselves, and our issues must be solved by judgements based on the Shari’ah, and the source of authority over the believers must also be the Shari’ah. For

” . . . those who do not rule by what God has sent down, those are the disbelievers.”5:47

Anarchy, schism, factionalism, etc. must not exist in the Islamic society, for God says

“And cling to the rope of God in a body, and do not become divided.” 3:103

Even in the family, God has appointed a leader for it:

“The men are guardians of the women . . .”4:34

And when one is on a journey, if there are at least three travelling, one should elect one of them as the imam of the group, according to a hadith of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him. After choosing him, one should follow what- ever he says, except if he does anything prohibited; in which case one should get rid of him and replace him with someone better.

God has created mankind, and He is the Most knowledgeable about the weak points in them, collectively or individually. He sent to them His Guidance through His Messengers (peace be upon them all), and He sent the Messengers and Prophets to teach them the truth and to be witnesses towards mankind. The Muslim nation will be a witness towards mankind.

“And thus we made you a middle nation to be witnesses to mankind, and the Messenger is a witness to you . . ….” 2:143

Hence, these are two types of muhaasabah for mankind generally: from the Muslim nation to mankind, and from the Messenger to the Muslim nation.

Since the Messenger is going to be a witness to the Muslims, then the Muslim nation must scrutinise and examine itself carefully to see how well it has followed and is following the Message brought by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. In the same manner, the non-Muslims will be judged and the Muslims will be witnesses: scrutiny and examination is necessary so that the testimony will be balanced on that day.

The last type of muhaasabah that I am going to describe is of great importance in building a nation of Muslims of high calibre. It is an integral part of tazkiyah (character-building), and is of great importance in building up iman. It is the muhaasabah of the individual to himself. In the story of Adam, peace be upon him, in the Noble Qur’an God mentions

“And We made covenant with Adam previously, but he forgot, and We did not find in him resolve.”

If Adam forgot and committed the sin of eating from the prohibited tree, thus disobeying God and breaking his covenant, there is nothing astonishing in finding his children forgetting and committing sins, even if they are Muslims:

“And those who avoid the enormities of sin and indecencies except the involuntary offences, certainly your Sustainer is extensive in forgiveness.”53:32

Consequently there are types of involuntary sin that Muslims might commit; but these minor sorts of sin should be watched very carefully. However, for some, even doing a small sin might eventually lead to Paradise: the Prophet of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said that doing a sin might lead a person to Paradise if the person does the sin habitually and then decides to stop and not repeat it again, and constantly ask God to forgive him. And this is the habit of the believer when he makes a minor mistake or commits a minor sin unwittingly or unwillingly.

The Messenger, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, said,

“The believer sees his sin just like a mountain above his head as if it is going to fall upon him, but the hypocrite (munaafiq) sees his sin like a fly which has passed over his nose and which he brushed away with his hand.” (Muslim).

The muhaasabah done by the individual on himself is the Greater Jihad as described by the Messenger of God, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said after a battle,

“We returned from the Lesser Jihad (al jihaadu-l asghar) to the Greater Jihad (al jihaadu-l akbar).”

Hence, the struggle against bad habits, faults, mistakes, minor sins of the person, etc., is greater than the armed struggle against the enemies of God and Islam. What is the use of a number of inferior quality soldiers when faced with a superior quality enemy? The high calibre of individual required for active participation in an armed struggle against God’s enemies is produced in part by tazkiyah, of which the ‘Greater Jihad’ is a part.

God has placed in the person an element which tries always to correct his mistakes, The human being is just like an ‘automatic feed-back control system.’ which contains a correcting element to correct the ‘input’ in order to produce the desired ‘output’. God says in the Noble Qur’an,

“And those who struggle hard for Us, We shall certainly guide them to Our paths. And God is definitely with those who do right.”29:69

The ‘struggling hard’ mentioned here is, according to many ‘ulama, a struggle against the self, the surrounding glittering tinsel of ‘the world’, and against the forces of evil.

This important struggle of the person includes practising different types of ‘ibaadat, reading and understanding the Qur’an and other sciences of religion, correcting bad habits and malpractices, applying the Islamic system to the self and then to the family, explaining and preaching Islam to friends, neighbours, and then to non-Muslims generally by example and practice as well as by word of mouth. The most important part of these is that one should think lslamically. We must admit to ourselves that we have grown up and have been living in an un-islamic society.

To think islamically is one of the most difficult things to achieve, and requires a very long, in fact continuous, struggle. Central to this, is the realisation that whatever happens to us occurs only with the permission of God, Almighty, All-Wise, All-Knowing. The Wise Messenger, may God grant him His blessings and peace, said to his cousin, ibn ‘Abbas, may God be pleased with him,

“Young Man I am going to teach you a few things: take care with the orders of God and He will take care of you, Take care with the orders of God and you will find Him in front of you, that means He will lead you. If you ask, asK only God. If you seek refuge, seek refuge with God. And learn that if all people met and agreed to do something useful for you, they will not do that except by the wish of God; and if they decided to harm you they will not do that except by the wish of God. Everything has been determined beforehand”.

Thus, I think that one of the most important issues in the muhaasabah of the individual is the struggle against the residuum in our minds and thoughts, and in our behaviour, actions and habits, of the un-islamic societies we come from and live in. I should like to suggest two examples:

The first is Imam al-Ghazali. He left his position as head of the ‘ulama and head of the Nizamiyah in Baghdad and went to Damascus, living alone and as a ‘sufi’, where he wrote his famous book “The Revival of the Sciencies of Religion” (Ihya ‘Ulumi-d Din). By this means he washed his person clean of the residuum of the environment of his contemporary society, and came back with a changed outlook on life and the world and with a leading authoritative work on Islam after the Wise Qur’an and the Scientific Book on the Sunnah.

The second example is Sayyid Qutb, Being imprisoned by the tyranical regime of Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1953 and not released until 1965, he spent these twelve years of incarceration washing his person clean, and writing a tafsir (commentary) of the Qur’an. This work, “in the Shade of the Qur’an” (Fi Dzilaali-l Qur’aan),is one of the best works written about the Qur’an in this century. He was re-arrested in 1965, after a few months freedom, and hanged in 1966. He was martyred for his writings.

For us, living as we are in an entirely un-Islamic society, we need muhaasabah exactly as we need our daily food. We, as Muslims. believe that we shall stand before God on the Day of Reckoning: why do we not judge ourselves now, and correct our mistakes in this life, for we cannot possibly correct them in the after-life when it will be too late? The Prophet, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, said,

“The wise man is he who criticises himself, and works for what comes after death; and the foolish man is he who allows his self to follow its own guidance, and wishes from God dreams.”

To conclude, I would like to suggest one way to perform this muhaasabah; and if some Turkish brothers could translate the works of Badiu-zzaman Sa’id Noursi on this subject, many would be grateful. If one was to merely allocate five minutes before going to bed each night especially for muhaasabah, much would be achieved. In remembering how each hour had been spent, if one comes across a sin committed during the day one should ask forgiveness from God, and resolve not to repeat the sin. And then review the good things that one should have done but did not and resolve to do them the next day as a promise to God, Most High. By such means one’s conduct and thoughts will become closer to the example set by the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him.

This way we will become Muslims of high calibre, ready to face any threat or danger from any quarter, and meet it for God.

The Muslim
[March/April 1971]