Chapter 1: The Importance of Self-Sacrifice (2/3)
Situations That May Require Self-Sacrifice
Allah created this life to test human beings with good and evil. For this reason, people may encounter sudden unexpected and disorientating events in which only belief can enable them to maintain a good moral character and adhere to the Qur'an's moral teachings. Their fear and respect of Allah, as well as their deep belief, allow them to react in the most appropriate way when confronted with unexpected and entirely new events. Basically, people can demonstrate self-sacrificial behavior under certain circumstances even without such belief. For example, if they think that they can gain respect in the eyes of others or that some advantage will accrue from it, they will engage in self-sacrificial behavior. But they cannot display such a moral character if some adversity happens to them suddenly and without warning.
In such unexpected situations, believers are happy and more than willing to sacrifice themselves without a second thought. In the days of our Prophet (saas), he and his Companions were shining examples of the self-sacrificial moral character that comes from sincere belief. Without regard for their lives or their possessions, they were determined to die in order to win Allah's approval when some people, mostly deniers, showed great enmity toward believers. When required, they were prepared to leave behind their homes, families, work, possessions, respect, and all the other worldly blessings to ensure the believers' comfort, contentment, security, and overall well-being. Putting our Prophet's (saas) security above their own lives, they became examples to all people, regardless of time or location, of superior moral character. In the Qur'an Allah tells us of the believers' faithfulness toward our Prophet (saas) and their self-sacrificial moral character:
The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves. (Surat al-Ahzab, 6)
Islamic scholars have passed down many such examples of the early Muslims' determination, courage, patience, and self-sacrificial actions done solely to win Allah's approval and mercy and attain Paradise. Living in a non-Islamic society, the Companions risked everything and believed in Muhammad (saas) as His Prophet, despite the unbelievers' oppression and threats. At that time, the powerful and respected members of the Meccan community applied great pressure to make the believers recant and return to their ancestral idolatry. Many sincere believers were determined to resist in order to win Allah's approval. Some of them were maimed by torture, had their hands and feet cut off, or even died. But none of them recanted. On the contrary, this oppression caused them to become more resolute, more self-sacrificial, and more eager to spread the Qur'an's morality. They may have been wounded in battles, but even this did not daunt them; rather, they accepted it as a blessing and a great honor. Their excellent moral character is described in the Qur’an: :
Many a prophet has been fought when there were many thousands with him. They did not give up in the face of what assailed them in the way of Allah, nor did they weaken or yield. Allah loves the steadfast. All they said was: "Our Lord, forgive us our wrong actions and any excesses that we went to in what we did. Make our feet firm and help us against these unbelieving people." So Allah gave them the reward of this world and the best reward of the Hereafter. Allah loves good-doers. (Surah Al 'Imran: 146-48)
Allah tells us in another verse that the Companions knew that all of these things drew them close to Allah and were important opportunities to attain Paradise: "Nor will they give away any amount, whether large or small, nor will they cross any valley without it being written down for them so that Allah can recompense them for the best of what they did" (Surat at-Tawba: 121). Since it was an act of worship performed to win Allah's approval, believers knew the joy of returning wounded from a battle and the excitement of joining another. At a time when the hypocrites, those who have diseased hearts, hold back in fear of being wounded, sincere believers are prepared to sacrifice everything for His cause:
Say: "What do you expect to befall us, except for one of the two best things? But what we expect to happen to you is for Allah to punish you either directly from Himself or through our hands. So wait. We are waiting with you." (Surat at-Tawba: 52)
They realize that every difficulty they encounter is a mercy from Allah, and so do not pursue this world but try to win His approval and success in the Hereafter. In the Qur’an Allah describes the tears of those who are eager to sacrifice themselves but cannot find a horse to ride into battle with our Prophet (saas) or help other Muslims:
… nor is anything held against those who, when they asked you to provide them with mounts and you said: "I cannot find anything on which to mount you," turned away with their eyes overflowing with tears, overcome by grief at having nothing to give. (Surat at-Tawba: 92)
All believers have experienced such things, for Allah says that He will test each person with regard to his/her possessions, life, friends and relatives, business, status, and respect. Satan stirs up in each person's heart a strong love of this world, a passionate ambition for possessions and position, worries about the future, and an addiction to a comfortable life; he urges them to follow their lower self's desires, robs them of their willpower, and urges them to be lazy and uninterested; and he leads them into fear and despair. But sincere believers always counter these incitements with the Qur'an's morality so that they can win His approval by refusing to placate their lower self.
Allah gives in the Qur’an examples of situations in which believers could be called upon to make such personal sacrifices.
Abandoning Worldly Appetites
In the Qur'an Allah states that the world has been adorned in such a way to separate true believers from insincere people: "We made everything on Earth adornment for it so that We could test them to see whose actions are the best" (Surat al-Kahf: 7). Some of these adornments are described in the Qur’an:
The love of worldly appetites appears fair in people's eyes, painted in glowing colors: women and children, heaped-up mounds of gold and silver, horses with fine markings, livestock, and fertile farmland. All of that is merely the enjoyment of the life of this world. The best homecoming is in Allah's Presence. (Surah Al 'Imran, 14)
Each thing listed here was created as a blessing for humanity. However, it is up to individual human beings to realize that these blessings are from Allah and that they are obliged to thank Him and use them in ways to win His favor. Each blessing should draw people closer to Allah and lead them to give Him greater thanks and better appreciate His greatness, intelligence, artistry, infinite mercy, and generosity. Individuals should always be aware that He can remove all of these things whenever He wills and that, apart from Him, there is no power that can help them.
Those believers who are aware of this understand that, apart from Allah, they have no other friends, or helpers, and that only Allah protects and cares for them, gives them their blessings and daily bread, makes their work easier, and bolsters their heart with a sense of contentment and security. They are attached to Allah with such a deep love and unshakable trust that their greatest fear is that of failing to win His approval, pleasure, love, and friendship. Therefore, they avoid any action that might cause this by doing their best to please Him and conform to the Qur'an's moral teachings.
In accord with this sincerity, they use every blessing they have to win Allah's favor, friendship, and infinite mercy. Of course, all of the things listed above are blessings for believers; however, they are never more important than winning His approval. Believers are never greedy for such profits, for they would give up any one of them immediately in order to win His approval.
Some people measure self-sacrifice in terms of looking after their own needs, desires, and comfort before considering the well-being of others. But this view has nothing to do with the moral understanding of self-sacrifice described in the Qur'an. When these people say that they have been self-sacrificial in some things, they mean only with regard to things they do not need, things whose absence does not really trouble them. They may think they are being self-sacrificial, but the Qur'anic morality is being able to renounce all gain and give up without a second thought that which he/she loves the most:
You will not attain true goodness until you give of what you love. Whatever you give away, Allah knows it. (Surah Al 'Imran, 92)
Another measure is not expecting any benefits in return other than Allah's good pleasure in performing self-sacrificial acts and not making the recipient feel obligated. Some people do a favor for someone else and then take every opportunity to mention it so that the recipient will feel obligated and so that they can claim a favor in the future, if necessary. Some seek to collect appreciation from those around them, hoping that they will say how generous and kind-hearted they are. However, the purpose of sincere self-sacrifice is not to gain any material or emotional return, but to win Allah's approval: "The metaphor of those who spend their wealth, desiring the pleasure of Allah and firmness for themselves, is that of a garden on a hillside. When heavy rain falls on it, it doubles its produce; and if heavy rain does not fall, there is dew. Allah sees what you do" (Surat al-Baqara: 265). In addition: "Those who give their wealth to purify themselves – not to repay someone else for a favor done – desiring only the Face of their Lord Most High. They will certainly be satisfied" (Surat al-Layl: 18-21). Allah tells us not to belittle others and make them feel obligated, and mentions a reward for those who follow these words:
Those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah and then do not follow what they have spent by demands for gratitude or insulting words will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow. (Surat al-Baqara: 262)
Allah also tells us that believers, because of their moral superiority, often keep quiet about what they have given:
[People of intelligence] are steadfast in seeking the Face of their Lord; perform prayer and give from the provision We have given them, secretly and openly; and stave off evil with good. They will have the Ultimate Abode. (Surat ar-Ra'd: 22)
Another measure of sincere self-sacrifice can be seen among those who are poor or who have limited means. Such people could claim material and emotional difficulties in an attempt to assuage their conscience. However, they must not forget that Allah cares for them, as well as supports and helps them, and that He will show them an easy way out of their difficulties if they show a good moral character. Allah says that better things await those who seek only His approval:
Those who respond to their Lord will receive the best. But as for those who do not respond to Him, even if they owned everything on Earth and the same again with it, they would offer it as a ransom. They will receive an evil reckoning, and their shelter will be Hell. What an evil resting-place! (Surat ar-Ra'd: 18)
Those who refuse to be self-sacrificial and do favors for others, worrying that such actions might harm their interests, might wish to give everything that they have as a ransom to save themselves from the pains of Hell. However, they will learn on the Day of Judgment that nothing they offer will be accepted.
The superior morality of believers is praised in this regard:
[The people who guard against evil] give in times of both ease and hardship, those who control their rage and pardon other people – Allah loves the good-doers. (Surah Al 'Imran: 134)
Your wealth and children are a trial. But with Allah there is an immense reward. (Surat at-Taghabun: 15)
Allah reveals in the above verse that the allures of this worldly life are only a trial and a source of temptation. In another verse, He warns those who are overcome by desire and forget about winning His favor:
You who believe. Do not let your wealth or children divert you from the remembrance of Allah. Whoever does that is lost. (Surat al-Munafiqun: 9)
There may be times when people have to sacrifice not only their material possessions, but also their life. It should not be thought that this is restricted to certain situations. People enjoy many different blessings in this earthly life. Believers know that all of these blessings come from Allah's mercy in the form of a test, and so always think about how they can best use the means at their disposal to win Allah's favor. Sometimes they may have to risk their life to save another believer or give up their respect, rank, and position to help another person. Likewise, they may have to use their own money to solve another person's problems, sacrifice their orderly life for a person's well-being, put their own needs second to somebody else's health, or become physically exhausted and have to expend more effort than usual.
Fully aware believers try every day to use their mind and talents, knowledge and experience, physical strength and time in the best way. When required, they give up their own comfort and free time. For example, they may deprive themselves of sleep and food, ignore their personal affairs, and do good works with the intention of benefiting others. It would be quite reasonable for them to set apart large blocks of time for themselves and use the rest to help others. Although such people may be considered to act according to their conscience and freely donate their spare time, each action can still be done better. The spirit of self-sacrifice that comes from sincere belief leads people to do more than they were going to and to make the best use of every second at their disposal.
Allah offers human beings many such possibilities. However, some people get caught up in a great desire for the things of this world. Instead of thanking Allah for the blessings they have, they become less generous, and even greedy to acquire more:
Leave the person I created on his own to Me alone, the one to whom I have given great wealth and children who stay with him and whose way I have smoothed. Then this person wants Me to add yet more! (Surat al-Muddaththir: 11-15)
Greedy for the allures of this life, such people avoid self-sacrifice and, instead of trying to win Allah's favor, pursue their own gain:
As stated in this verse, whatever people possess and may avoid sacrificing is like plant-growth in the field, for one day everything will pass away. Only good deeds done to earn Allah's favor will receive the finest reward in His Presence and turn into blessings in this life and the Hereafter. Allah reveals this truth:
Wealth and children are the embellishment of the life of this world. But in your Lord's Sight, right actions that are lasting bring a better reward and are a better basis for hope. (Surat al-Kahf: 46)
Being Patient and Performing Self-Sacrificial Deeds
Allah tells us that people will encounter hardships and anxiety as well as blessings: "We will test you with a certain amount of fear and hunger, as well as loss of wealth and life and fruits. But give good news to the steadfast" (Surat al-Baqara: 155). Allah explains the reason for this: "We will test you until We know the true fighters among you and those who are steadfast, and test what is reported of you" (Surah Muhammad: 31) and: "Do people imagine that they will be left to say: 'We believe' and will not be tested? We tested those before them so that Allah would know the truthful and would know the liars" (Surat al-'Ankabut: 2-3).
Indeed, hardship brings out a person's true character: courageous or cowardly; generous or mean; humane, aware, and compassionate, or thoughtless and selfish. In the same way, the excellent character of those believers who have dedicated their life to Allah and striven to win His favor is also revealed under harsh conditions. No matter what difficulty or hardship they may encounter, they will remain steadfast in the eagerness and determination that their belief has imparted to them. Even in the hardest circumstances they will try to do their best and help others. They know that Allah creates such circumstances to test people, to see whether they will engage in the same amount of self-sacrifice as they would if they were in a comfortable situation. For example, they cannot just be generous when they are well-off, but must be the same when they find themselves in reduced circumstances. They know that being distracted with their own problems and not considering other people's difficult straits are incompatible with the Qur'an's morality, for Allah is pleased when they help those in need.
Allah tells us that the believers of Mecca, who abandoned all of their possessions and moved to Madinah to escape persecution, were welcomed by the believers of Madina. The latter took care of the former and gladly shared everything with them, even if they suffered as a result. In the Qur'an Allah tells us about the Madinan believers' (the Ansar [Supporters]) superior moral character toward the Meccan believers (the Muhajirun [Migrants]):
Those who were already settled in the abode, and in belief before they came, love those who have migrated to them, do not find in their hearts any need for what they have been given, and prefer them to themselves even if they themselves are needy. Those who are safe-guarded from the avarice of their own selves are successful. (Surat al-Hashr: 9)
Allah reveals in another verse the good news about the Ansar, who put Allah's approval before appeasing the desires of their own hearts:
The forerunners – the first of the Migrants [Muhajirun] and the Supporters [Ansar] – and those who have followed them in doing good, Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. He has prepared Gardens for them with rivers flowing under them, remaining in them timelessly, forever and ever. That is the great victory. (Surat at-Tawba: 100)
Ali (ra) said that performing acts of self-sacrifice was a great blessing:
I do not know which of these two things is the greater in terms of gratitude: the first is my Muslim brother's applying to me with a pure intent with the idea of relieving my need. The second is Allah's making good his need through my hands. I swear that meeting the need of my Muslim brother is more delightful than having all the world's gold and silver by my side. (Muhammad Yusuf Kandahlawi, Hayat as-Sahabe [Life of the Companions], vol. 2: Sentez Nesriyat, p. 474.)
Allah informs us of the excellent moral character of those believers who, in spite of their own need, gave to the poor, the orphans, and the captives:
They give food, despite their love for it, to the poor, the orphans, and the captives. [Believers say:] "We feed you only out of desire for the Face of Allah. We do not want any repayment or any thanks. Truly, We fear from our Lord a glowering, calamitous Day." So Allah has safeguarded them from the evil of that Day, has made them meet with radiance and pure joy, and will reward them for their steadfastness with a Garden and silk. (Surat al-Insan: 8-12)
In these verses, Allah shows us the extent to which believers can sacrifice their own interests. They spend their lives fearing and respecting Allah and listening to their conscience. These things determine their actions. They know that everything they have given up to win His favor will earn them a far better reward in the Hereafter. Their need may be short-lived, but their good deeds will bring them Allah's love, friendship, and mercy. This hope will make them forget their deprivation, for it will be the source of great joy and pleasure. This is the only basis of real goodness and self-sacrifice. Real goodness is defined in the Qur’an as:
It is not devoutness to turn your faces to the East or to the West. Rather, the truly devout believe in Allah and the Last Day, the Angels, the Book and the Prophets; those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives, the orphans and the very poor, the travelers and the beggars, to emancipate slaves, and perform prayer and give alms; those who honor their contracts when they make them and are steadfast in poverty, illness, and battle. Those are the people who are true. They are the people who guard against evil. (Surat al-Baqara: 177)
Here, it must be noted that people can never be sure of what they will encounter in the Hereafter. For this reason, believers have a constant hope, as well as a sense of fear, in regard to the Hereafter. Only knowing that they have spent their life seeking His approval and practicing the Qur'an's moral teachings keeps their hope constant and strong.