FROM AMONG THE stations of iyyâka naʿbudu wa iyyâka nastaʿîn [i] is the station of fleeing, or escape, to Allah (al-firâr ila Allah) which follows the station of holding to Allah (al-Iʿtiâm).

Allah Almighty has said,

Flee unto Allah. [Sûrat Al-Dhâriyât, 51:50]

The meaning of the original word in Arabic, al-firâr, is to hasten, flee, escape or take flight from one thing to another. The fleeing of the successful souls is towards Allah, and that of the doomed ones is away from Allah. The attitude of the special friends of Allah, His awliyâ, is to flee from Allah to Allah, which means, as Ibn ʿAbbâs said, to act in obedience to Allah, or as Sahl ibn ʿAbdullâh said, to flee from other than Allah to Allah, or as some others said, to flee from the chastisement of Allah toward His reward.

The most elementary level of this fleeing to Allah includes three aspects of flight:

(1) from jahl (ignorance and blinding passion) towards knowledge in intention and action,

(2) from indolence towards vigilance through effort and determination, and

(3) from narrowness and constriction (of the heart, due to petty concerns) towards vastness and magnanimity by means of trust and hope in Allah.

[Jahl includes not only ignorance but also being blinded by passion]

(1) Fleeing from ignorance (jahl) towards knowledge, both in intention and action. The word jahl in Arabic has two connotations,

  • one, lack of beneficial knowledge, and
  • two, lack of action in accordance with that knowledge.

Both of these are equally jahl, linguistically as well as by Sharîʿah and by custom.

[People often restrict the meaning of jahl to the first one only. To emphasize that jahl means not just ignorance of facts but also the incapacity to act upon knowledge, let us consider the following examples:] When his people insolently asked the Prophet Moses whether he was merely poking fun at them in the name of Allah, he said,

I seek Allah’s refuge from being among the jâhilîn (those who possess jahl). [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:67]

Obviously, the act of lying in the name of God, which allegation Moses was denying, consisted not in lack of knowledge but in abusing it and failing to act upon it.

Similarly, when Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) prayed to God to save him from the plots of the women who wished to seduce him, he said,

…And if You, O God, do not save me from their ploys, I would give in to them and become of the jâhilîn. [Sûrat Yusuf, 12:33]

Here again, the word jâhilîn (plural of jâhil, the one who possesses jahl) once again could not mean those who are ignorant of facts but those whose passion has overcome their reason, making them act as if they are ignorant. Finally, Allah says in the Quran:

Repentance with God is only for those who do evil out of jahâla (in a state of jahl). [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:17] [In this case, jahl could mean ignorance as well as the state of passion which blinds the judgment.]

The fleeing mentioned above is therefore from both kinds of jahl,

  • a flight from ignorance towards seeking knowledge, by knowing, believing and developing the attendant insights, and
  • a flight from the ‘blindness’ caused by passion that inhibits positive action and effort.

(2) Fleeing from indolence and laziness towards action requires two things,

  • sincere determination of intention (‘azm) and
  • sincere effort in action (jadd).

Allah has commanded the prophets and the believers to

Hold what We have given you (of the Book) with strength (quwwa). [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:63]

Similar commandments are given to Moses, John and to all the believers in Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7:145 and Sûrat Maryam,19:12.

(3) Finally, fleeing towards Allah entails escaping from the narrowness of the heart and mind due to worries, fears and regrets that ail one’s soul about matters internal and external, whether concerning one’s means of survival and welfare or concerning those of his dependents and relationships—from all of these towards the infinitely vast and broad space of trust and reliance upon Allah. One of the best aphorisms the people say is:

There is no concern when with Allah.

Allah has said,

[For him] whosoever is mindful of Allah, He makes for him a way out. And gives him from where he cannot even imagine. [Sûrat Al- >alâq, 65:2-3]

Explaining this, Al-Rabîʿibn Khuthaim remarks, “a way out of whatever weighs upon the people and worries them.” Abû Al-ʿÂliyah said, “a way out of every misery.” And this includes miseries of this world and those of the Hereafter. Allah goes on to say,

[For him] whosoever is mindful of Allah, He is sufficient for him. [Sûrat AlṬalâq, 65:3]

Allah the Exalted simply never ever disappoints those who have solid hopes in, and sincere reliance upon, Him.

The Real Escape: From Appearance towards Reality, and from Mediocrity towards Excellence

The highest form of escape is to flee from the superficialities to the essences and from mediocre pleasures of the nafs to pure and exclusive devotion (tajrîd). Those determined in their journey to Allah do not remain content with carrying out the outward appearance of the acts of worship, but rather they seek the heart and soul of worship.

However, the righteous people never seek to “transcend” the rituals except in their spirit; that is, they do not ignore the outward acts of worship, but only seek to perform them wholeheartedly. Those who deny outwardly obedience are plain heretics (zanâdiqa), while those who are deprived of inwardly worship are deficient and deprived.

Only those who strive for both, the outwardly and the inwardly, are the rightly guided ones. Such people are the elite among the believers and among the people of knowledge and spirituality. Such are the people who perfect their escape from the pleasures of the nafs, which has different levels for different people, towards an exclusive [focus of attention on Allah] (tajrîd).

The word aẓẓ (literally, “portion, fortune or pleasure”) in this context means any act or state that is less than the best, anything other than what Allah desires of you in dîn, which could vary from being prohibited (arâm), disliked (makruh), indifferent (mubâ) or recommended (mustaabb). In other words, any action or state that is not the most desired by Allah for a given person at any point in time would be called aẓẓ. People differ with respect to what they consider aẓẓ (less than the best), based on the highest level which they can reach. A particular action may be considered the highest possible for some people, while for other, more pious, people, that same action may be considered aẓẓ.

[For example, for some people, praying five times a day at home is a great achievement, while for others, it is a aẓẓ, which they run away from and strive to pray in the masjid in congregation. For some, making the Salah of Fajr and ʿIshâ’ with congregation and sleeping in between is a great achievement, while for others, merely stopping with this [as their goal] –and not going on to pray at night– is a aẓẓ which they regret. –tr.]

The highest level of fleeing, therefore, is to escape from the uû, meaning what is mediocre or less than the best, towards tajrîd, which is exclusive devotion. But for most people, this level is not attainable because it is hard enough for them to worship Allah at a mediocre level.

The believer who attains tajrîd is such that he, or she, is not content with anything less than Allah, not happy with any attainment other than Allah, and grieves over nothing that he loses other than Allah. He does not stop at attaining levels noble in the eyes of the people, but [he pursues as his goal] nothing short of Allah. He does not beseech anyone besides Allah, is not pleased except when in harmony with what pleases Allah, and does not grieve except over that which he has missed from the rights of Allah. He fears nothing but failing in the eyes of Allah or being veiled from Allah. All of his being is from Allah, for Allah, and with Allah. His journey is ever towards Allah.

The mediocrities (uû) beckon him towards themselves, but he says,

I want the One Who, if I have attained Him, I would have attained everything, and if I missed Him, I would have missed everything.

Some Shaykhs have made an error in understanding the nature of aẓẓ in thinking that the intention to do anything less than the best is a deficiency in intention. This is incorrect, because sometimes a less-than-the-best option, like taking a break from the prayers and worship and enjoying the beauty of Allah’s creations, etc., can be necessary to perform prayers in the best way.

So we must understand that there are two kinds of uû,

  • one, those pleasurable things that prevent one from doing the best (even if those are not prohibited) –and these could be reprehensible,
  • and those [pleasurable things] that aid one in performing the best actions and reaching higher levels –and these are indeed quite praiseworthy.

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[i]   It is You [alone] we worship, and it is You [alone] we ask for help. [Sûrat al-Fâtiḥah 1:5]

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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