How Islam Builds Grit: Imam al-Haddad on Remembrance and Regular Devotions Photo Abbas Wiswall

How Islam Builds Grit: Imam al-Haddad on Remembrance and Regular Devotions on

By Khadijah Qamar

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote:

"Each day is a little life; every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death."

The last phrase echoes hauntingly - and pervades Islamic thought on sleep. A century earlier, a Muslim saint in the valleys of Hadramawt reminded his students of a Prophetic tradition,

"When you wake up, rub sleep off your face with your hands and say: "Praised and thanked be God, Who gave us life after causing us to die, and unto Whom is the resurrection.”

For the saint, waking was like a conquering of death, a victory over the nafs, or ego, a conscious escape into the long life, the life of the heavens. Again, the saint spoke,

"Keep rising in prayer at night, for it was the way of the virtuous who came before you, it draws you nearer to your Lord…rising after some sleep constitutes a defeat for the devil, an opposition to the ego, and contains a wondrous secret."

Its speaker was Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi al-Haddad (d. 1720), believed to be a mujaddid, or renewer of faith, in the twelfth Islamic century. His birthplace of Tarim - a town in the southern regions of the Arabian peninsula - was home to a rich religious history and steeped in the Prophets’ traditions. Its inhabitants, molded by its sparse, arid environment, sought to possess only the essential: piety, erudition, and an uncomprising thirst for marifa, or gnosis.

Indeed, al-Haddad's writings reflect the ascetic frugality of the rocky plateaus and deep wadis he grew amongst. Debate, speculation, philosophy - these are absent in his short, firm treatises on the tenets of faith. His ability to cut sharply into the essence of Islam is no accident. At the young age of five, al-Haddad lost his eyesight. In metaphor and in life, becoming blind to the outer world lifts the veil on the inner sight, revealing a striking mental and spiritual clarity. Indeed, a lucid directness, focused on deliberate judgement and perseverant actions, pervade Al-Haddad’s works. For him is the domain of the practical intellect - the flinty texture of a lived morality. What he demands is no less than building the foundations of character. 

by Abbas WiswallPhoto by Abbas Wiswall

Modern literature, awash with superficial concerns for a good life, offers no meaningful parallels. Instead, how to build character is replaced with questions on how to acquire worldly success, often in the forms of money and fame. Ironically, the obsession with success has revitalized a discussion on human character, particularly in a quality best called grit. In fact, grit has emerged as the new answer to “genius” in very recent childrens’ development and cognitive studies. The book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity and the Hidden Power of Character makes the claim that what differentiates successful children is a subtle element of human character - specifically, grit. Grit is a passionate commitment to a mission and an answering dedication to achieve that mission. It’s the kind of tenacious fortitude that spurs on our favorite protagonists - overpowered but never overcome.

Of course, Muslim scholars have long held the spiritual intuition that a tenacious fortitude is a key quality in the seeker on a path to salvation - and that a lived Islam is the source of this fortitude. At the same time, character strengthens the Muslim’s spiritual life. In Islam, the circle acts as a constant metaphor: just as character builds one’s Islam, so does Islam build character. And of character, Islam - practiced with the same deliberation and integrity of action portrayed by Imam al-Haddad - builds grit.

Understand grit in these terms: "a recognition of self and a higher self, and setting out determinedly on the path between them.” Just so does Imam al-Haddad describe his Book of Assistance: “a guide for believers who earnestly desire to tread the path of the afterlife.” From his meditation on regular devotions, he writes,

“Fill up your time with acts of worship so that no period of time elapses, whether by night or by day, without being used in some act of goodness"

And warns,

“For if you abandon yourself to neglect and purposelessness, as the cattle do, and just do anything that may occur to you at any time it happens to occur to you, most of your time will be wasted. Your time is your life, and your life is your capital; it is the basis of your transactions [with God], and the means to attain to everlasting felicity, in the proximity of God the Exalted. Each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, and when it passes away it never returns.”

In a few sentences, Imam al-Haddad teaches important lessons on the value of time, how to use time wisely, and the need for constancy. The beauty of constancy is that actions of habit evolve into spiritual transformations.

On the outer and inner reality of constancy, particularly prayer, Imam al-Haddad writes, 

“Know that the ritual prayer has an outer form and an inner reality. You will not have established the prayer and its outward properties, such as correct standing, prostration, tasbih [acknowledging the Transcendency of God], recitation, bowing and so forth until you have established its outer aspect and its reality...its reality is that one be present with God, sincerely intend it to be purely for His sake, approach Him with complete resolution…The Prophet, peace be upon him, has said ‘When the servant rises to his prayer, God turns His Face towards him.'''

Grit, constancy, fortitude - in whatever terms it is described - is not easy to achieve. Recognizing this, Imam al-Haddad offers succor in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,

“The acts most pleasing to God are the most constant, even if few.” And, “Choose the acts of which you are capable, for God will not grow weary before you."

Indeed, the strongest character is forged through the sense that one can live doing equally what one wants and does not want to do, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, achievements, and can do what is difficult, that which requires toughness, a kind of moral nerve. The nature of grit ensures that it is not casually obtained - but its rewards are clear. A dedicated practice, like remembrance and regular devotions, builds on itself, and reveals its gifts over time. Alexander Graham Bell once exclaimed, "It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree!”

And no steady advancement exceeds in widening the mind and the heart more so than the wakeful remembrance and meditations upon God:

"The one who sits in a secluded place, in a state of purity, facing the Qibla (the direction of the Ka’aba), keeping his limbs still and his head down, and then remembers God with an attentive heart and complete courtesy, will see in his heart a manifest influence of the remembrance. If he perseveres, the lights of proximity will descend upon his heart."

This fundamental act of surrendering to tawhid, or God’s oneness, requires a oneness of mind, in intention and action. This focus is the same that builds grit, that lays the foundations for a strong character, and is a strength for the seeker, in this life and the next. And just as rising after sleep is a small resurrection, so is the forging of character - in persisting in good works against the nafs - a resurrection of the soul. 

Khadijah Qamar is a a political analyst and a writer who studied at Georgetown University. She is a seeker of Islamic knowledge and spends time with Islamic texts to revisit age-old truths. She writes about Islamic creative works in order to revisit, reflect, and revive our spiritual heritage. She shares her writings here:

By Guest Author , 16 Mar 2016

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