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The real wise guys – wisdom (hikmah) in Islam

“He gives wisdom unto whom He will, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly hath received abundant good. But none remember except men of understanding.”

(Al-Baqarah 2:269)

In the midst of war and tyranny, confusion and consumerism, disputes and depression, there is no greater need for wisdom. As we live in the information age, its interesting to note that despite being awash with data, there is a distinct difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Ironically, rather than being more considered and wise, it seems that rash and foolish decisions are commonplace, ranging from fake news to viral conspiracies.

In fact, in the book “The distraction addiction”, the author explains that “if maintaining your online life feels like a job, maybe that’s because it is.” He explains that the average American spends 3 months of full-time work per year online – 20 days on social networking websites, 38 days on blogs, YouTube and news websites, and 32 days purely on email. When looking at the usage of devices in just one day, we find that the average American sends and receives 110 messages, checks their phone 34 times, visits Facebook on 5 separate occasions, and spends 30 minutes total liking posts daily.

When we look at the situation in Palestine today, we despair over our helplessness and sadly see people swearing, arguing and fighting with others on the streets here rather than dealing with the situation constructively.

I recently talked about Surah al-Feel – the story of the people of the elephant who came from Yemen with a plan to destroy the Ka’bah. But why did they come from as far as Yemen? Do you remember that it was some desert Arabs who in their emotion about them competing with the Ka’bah thought it would be the right thing to do to defecate and dirty their place of worship. This was not wise. This act led to a world superpower marching across 700 miles and defeating many Arab tribes in their attempt to demolish the Ka’bah. Was it these Arabs that defended their Ka’bah or did they almost lead to their own defeat? Was it their actions which led to that church being forgotten today, or did Allah(SWT) take care of that without any of their effort?

Today, we see similar acts in the name of Islam and Muslims, which are borne out of pure emotion. How many times have we witnessed that if someone says something offensive, they are beaten up. If someone has a disagreement, their legs are broken. If someone cuts someone else up in traffic, they put them in hospital. That’s the jungle, not society.

And Hollywood has made out that wisdom is attributed to gangsters and drug dealers – the so-called “wise guys” who pollute their own neighbourhoods, corrupt their families and end up dead in a ditch killed by their own.

Oftentimes, when the term wisdom is used, it is intended to try to contradict someone else’s opinion with your own to show they are wrong. But how do we know our opinion is any wiser? How is wisdom defined in Islam, by Allah(SWT)?

The importance of wisdom

The Qur’an is characterised and filled with wisdom – These are the ayats of the Book of Wisdom. [Surah Yunus 10:1]

Of all the things we should aspire to, the Prophet(SAW) taught us that “There should be no envy but only in case of two persons: one having been endowed with wealth and power to spend it in the cause of Truth, and (the other) who has been endowed with wisdom and he decides cases with the help of it and teaches it (to others).” [Muslim, 816]

In Surah al Baqarah, as quoted, Allah(SWT) tells us that He bestows wisdom as he wishes. In his tafsîr, Ibn ‘Abbâs (RAA) said that wisdom here means the interpretation of the Qur’an; as it is said that it refers to being in the right in speech, action and opinion. That means that those who truly understand the Qur’an are amongst the wise – our true scholars. Abu Nu’aym reported: A man said to Al-Fudayl, may Allah have mercy on him, “The scholars are many.” Al-Fudayl said, “But those with wisdom are few.” [Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ 8/92]

Of all the types of wisdom, religious wisdom is of the highest order. This is also why the Quran narrates to us stories of wise individuals, like Luqman the Wise and his superb counsel to his son.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he is most deserving of it.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2687]

Wisdom defined

Wisdom has been defined in various definitions and meanings. Some of them are as follows:

  • Performing something in the ideal and optimum way.
  • Reason explaining the real nature of things.
  • Divine mysteries and intentions inherent in things.
  • Knowledge together with action.
  • Beneficial knowledge and good deed.
  • The state of being on the right path and avoiding excessiveness.

The scholars of Islam mention that the best classical definition of hikmah is to put things in their due place and portions. Interestingly, although we consider the opposite of wisdom to be foolishness, this understanding tells us that the opposite of wisdom is oppression (dhulm) which is defined as putting things in the wrong place.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, would say in his sermons, “The best provision is mindfulness of Allah (al-taqwa), and the foundation of wisdom is the fear of Allah Almighty.” [Shu’ab al-Imān 712]. Fear should lead to hope, and hope should lead to love and this all should ultimately lead to a level of ihsan or beauteous perfection, where ultimately all things other than Allah are absent from one’s heart.

How do we develop wisdom?

  1. Honestly knowing the difference: Wisdom should know be confused with being intelligent or knowledgable. Although intelligence helps, you can be intelligent without being wise. Though ‘ilm (knowledge) may open the doorways to hikmah, hikmah is in fact distinct from knowledge.

Being honest with yourself and others – having a high degree of self-awareness and being able to detach yourself from the emotions of a moment is critical. It is recommended that one should ask the learned, consult with the wise and accompany the poor.

Malik reported: Luqman al-Hakim, upon him be peace, instructed his son, saying, “O my son, sit with the scholars and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom, just as he gives life to the dead earth with rain from the sky.” [al-Muwaṭṭa’ 1890]

  1. Speak less: Hadhrat ‘Ali(RA) said that the tongue of a wise person is behind the heart and the heart of a fool is behind the tongue.

Abu Darda(RA), said, “Silence is a form of wisdom, yet few people practice it.” [Jāmiʻ Bayān al-ʻIlm 628]

  1. Think before you speak: It is said that ‘a still tongue makes a wise head’ and if you ‘speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’ Put things in perspective before you jump to conclusions and as Covey coined it “seek first to understand, then be understood”.

Imam an-Nawawi said in explanation of the hadith ‘Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak well or keep quiet.’ [al-Bukhāri, 2018 and Muslim, 47] ‘that it is required of every legally responsible person (mukallaf) that they guard their tongue from all types of speech, save that which contains an overriding benefit. [ al-Adhkar]

  1. Balance self-interest with the collective good: The Prophet (SAW) said, “The example of the person abiding by Allah’s orders and limits (or the one who abides by the limits and regulations prescribed by Allah) in comparison to the one who do wrong and violate Allah’s limits and orders is like the example of people drawing lots for seats in a boat. Some of them got seats in the upper part while the others in the lower part ; those in the, lower part have to pass by those in the upper one to get water, and that troubled the latter.

One of them (i.e. the people in the lower part) took an axe and started making a hole in the bottom of the boat. The people of the upper part came and asked him, (saying), ‘What is wrong with you?’ He replied, “You have been troubled much by my (coming up to you), and I have to get water.’ Now if they prevent him from doing that they will save him and themselves, but if they leave him (to do what he wants), they will destroy him and themselves.” [Sahih al-Bukhari 2686]

  1. Humility: ‘Ubaydullah ibn ‘Adi reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said upon the pulpit, “Verily, if a servant humbles himself for Allah Almighty, he will increase his wisdom.” [Juz’ fīhī Ḥadīth Sufyān ibn ‘Uyaynah 24]

In this humility, its essential to focus on the process, as much or more than, the outcome. Its not just about whether you achieve your goal but also how you achieve your goal. The outcome is in the hands of Allah(SWT) but your sincere effort is what you can control and influence.

This also requires the ability to be reflective (muhaasabah) and learn from your mistakes.

  1. Giving up the dunya: Abu Nu’aym reported: Sufyan al-Thawri, may Allah have mercy on him, said, “When a servant renounces the world, Allah will cause wisdom to grow in his heart and to come forth from his tongue. He will grant him insight into the faults of the world, its diseases, and its cures.”[Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ 6/389]

Abu Nu’aym reported: Abu Sulayman, may Allah have mercy on him, said, “Thinking about the world is a veil over the Hereafter and a punishment for people. Thinking about the Hereafter produces wisdom and life in the heart. Whoever looks to the world as his protector will come to accept its delusions.” [ Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ 14447]

  1. Prepared for death: Ibn Umar reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, which of the believers is best?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Those with the best character.” The man said, “Which of the believers is the wisest?” (akyas)The Prophet said, “Those who remember death often and have best prepared for it with good deeds; those are the wisest.” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 4259]

Shaddad ibn Aws reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The wise man is one who holds himself accountable and performs good deeds to prepare for what comes after death. The foolish man is one who gives into his lowly desires and seeks their indulgence from Allah.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2459]

Examples of the wise

Sulaiman(AS): Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There were two women, each of whom had a child. A wolf came and took one of their children, so one woman said, ‘It has taken your child!’ The other woman said, ‘No, rather it has taken your child!’

They took their case to David, who judged in favour of the old woman. Then, both of them went to Sulaiman, son of David, and told him about the matter. Sulaiman said, ‘Bring me a knife, I will cut him into two pieces.’ The young woman, ‘Do not do it, may Allah have mercy on you! It is her child.’ Thus, Sulaiman judged in favor of the young woman.” [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3244, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1720]

Ibn al-Qayyim reported: When Imam al-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, sat in front of Malik and read to him, Malik was impressed by his intelligence, wisdom, and complete understanding. Malik said, “Verily, I see Allah has placed light in your heart, so do not extinguish it with the darkness of disobedience.” [al-Jawāb al-Kāfī 1/52]

  • Find wise company
  • Speak less and think before you speak
  • Think about the collective good
  • Increase in humility and fight the ego
  • Know your real ending – the grave and what lies beyond, so you dont obsess over this world

It’s important that we remain wise to what is happening around us and see through thinly veiled policies. While there is talk of a ceasefire in Palestine, it doesn’t mean the death and destruction has ended. The illegal occupation of Palestine remains, the blockade of Gaza is still implemented and there are repeated violations of international law.

Examples of the unwise

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The parable of one who hears wisdom in a gathering, but then only reports evil from its speaker, is the likeness of one who visits a shepherd. He says: O shepherd, shear off the wool of a sheep for me from your flock. The shepherd says: Go and take the best of them by the ear. So he goes and take the shepherd’s dog by the ear.” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 4172]

The command of the Holy Quran:Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching (the Bee (An-Nahl), 125)


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