Mortification and Monasticism

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(An excerpt from Murtada Mutahhari, THE ISSUE OF HIJAB, pp. 23-33. Paperback available HERE.)

Causes of Man’s Inclination toward Monasticism

The connection of the issue of covering with the philosophy of mortification and monasticism is thus explained that the woman is the greatest source of man’s pleasure and delight, and if a man and a woman interact and are attracted to each other, they will consciously or unconsciously seek for such pleasure and delight. In order to keep the atmosphere perfectly compatible with asceticism and mortification, the proponents of the philosophy of monasticism and self-denial have advocated the separation of men and women and prescribed covering [for the latter]. In other words, they have also resisted similar things that incite physical pleasure and delight. According to this view, the conception of covering is caused by, or a result of, the consideration to marriage as abominable, and of sanctification of celibacy.

On the issue of wealth, the notion of mortification and abandonment of the world has brought about preference to poverty and rejection of all material amenities. In the same manner, on the issue of women, this notion has brought into existence the philosophy of celibacy and opposition to aesthetics. The keeping of long hair which is common to the Sikhs, Hindus, and some dervishes is also a manifestation of antagonism toward aesthetics and carnal desire, and an offshoot of the philosophy of abandonment of pleasure and inclination to mortification. They say that cutting and embellishing the hair increases sexual desire while keeping it long undermines and weakens it.

At this juncture, it is worthy to quote part of Bertrand Russell’s remarks on this subject. On page 30 of his book, Marriage and Morals, he thus says:

“St. Paul’s views were emphasised and exaggerated by the early Church; celibacy was considered holy, and men retired into the desert to wrestle with Satan while he filled their imaginations with lustful visions. The Church attacked the habit of the bath on the ground that everything that makes the body more attractive tends towards sin. Dirt was praised, and the odour of sanctity became more and more penetrating. ‘The purity of the body and its garments,’ said St. Paul, ‘means the impurity of the soul.’[1] Lice were called the pearls of God.”[2] 

Here, this question comes to the fore: Basically, what is the root of human being’s inclination to mortification and monastery? By nature, the human being is supposed to be pleasure-seeking and self-indulgent. There must be a reason for his self-denial and abstinence from pleasure.

As we know, monasticism and hostility to pleasure is something that has been experienced in many parts of the world. Among its centers are India in the East and Greece in the West. Cynicism which is a philosophical school and has been widespread in Greece has been a proponent of poverty and antagonistic toward physical pleasure.[3]

One of the reasons behind the coming into existence of this way of thinking and belief is human being’s inclination to know the Truth. This inclination is so strong in some individuals and if it is attached to this belief the notion that knowing the Truth for the soul is only possible by means of neglecting the body, physical inclinations, and sexual desires, then naturally it will lead to mortification and monasticism. In other words, this way of thinking that attainment of truth is only possible through annihilation, extinction, and combating carnal desire is the main reason for the coming into existence of mortification and monasticism.

The other reason for the emergence of mortification is the mixing of physical pleasures with some spiritual sufferings. The human being has observed that there has been always some spiritual suffereings alongside physical pleasures. For example, he has observed that although having wealth brings about some sort of happiness and prosperity, there are thousands of unhappiness, anxiety, and humiliations in obtaining and keeping it. He has observed that he can lose his innate freedom, self-sufficiency, and magnanimity through these physical pleasures. As such, he overlooks all those pleasures, while leading a life of celibacy and magnanimity.

Perhaps the first factor is more influential in the Hindu mortification and the second factor in the Greek cynicism.

Other factors are also mentioned for the emergence of mortification and avoiding pleasure. Among them is that deprivation and failure in material matters, especially failure in the arena of love, results in mortification. After these forms of failure, the human soul takes revenge of itself from material pleasures in this way that he regards them as impure, and conceives a philosophy to explain their impurity.

Extremism in seeking for pleasure and gratification is another factor for the tendency toward mortification. The human being’s physical capacity for pleasure is limited. Extremism in gratification, physical pleasures, and putting excessive pressure on the body’s capacity will entail a strong spiritual reaction, especially in old age. Weariness brings about frustration.

The impact of these two factors should not be denied, but obviously, these are not the only factors. The impact of these two factors is such that after failures, lack of success, or fatigue and exhaustion, the idea of attaining the truth is awakened in the soul. Paying attention to material things and drowning in materialistic thoughts are barriers themselves for a person to think about eternity, infinity, and the eternal truth and to reflect on and strive along this line – where did I come from, where I am currently in, and to where I am heading? But as a sense of evasion and aversion of materiality is developed in the soul due to failure or exhaustion, the mind is enlivened by unfettered absolutes. Supplemented by the first factor, these two factors are the cause of attention to mortification. Of course, some individuals who are drawn toward mortification are influenced by these two factors, and not all those [factors].     

An Examination of this Reason from the Islamic Viewpoint

Now, let us see if such an analysis and justification for the veil is correct or not from the Islamic point of view and way of thinking which Islam has presented to the world.

Fortunately, Islam is an explicit way of thinking and worldview. Its viewpoint regarding the human being, the world, and pleasure is vivid, and it can be understood well whether or not a particular notion exists in the Islamic worldview.

We do not deny that monasticism and abandonment of pleasure have existed in some parts of the world and perhaps women’s covering in places where such an idea has been dominant can be regarded as its offshoot. But Islam which has specified the mode of covering has neither cited such a cause nor can such a philosophy be compatible with the spirit of Islam and its other ordinances.

In principle, Islam has fought hard against the notion of mortification and monasticism, and this fact is also acknowledged by the European Orientalists. Islam enjoins cleanliness. Instead of regarding lice as ‘pearls of God,’ it has ordained, thus:

أَلنِّظافَةُ مِنَ ٱلْإِيمَانِ.

 “Cleanliness is part of faith.”

The Noble Messenger () saw an untidy person having disheveled hair and dirty pants. He said,

مِنَ ٱلدِّينِ ٱلْمُتْعَةُ.

 “Part of the religion is pleasure.”[4]

That is, pleasure and enjoying the blessings of God is part of the religion. He also said:

بِئْسَ ٱلْعَبْدُ ٱلْقأذورَةُ.

 “The worst of servant is he who is dirty.”[5]

The Commander of the Faithful [‘Alī] (‘a)[6] said:

إِنَّ اللهَ جَمِيلٌ يُحِبُّ ٱلْجَمالَ.

 “Indeed, Allah is beautiful [and] He loves beauty.”[7]

Imām al-Ṣādiq (‘a) said,

“God is beautiful, and He loves His servant who embellishes and beautifies himself. On the contrary, He hates poverty and showing off of poverty. If God gives you a blessing, the manifestation of such blessing must be shown in your life.”

He was asked, “How to manifest God’s blessing?” He said, “Your pants must be neat. You must apply perfume. You must whiten your house with stucco. Sweep your house’s exterior. Put on your lamps even prior to sunset as it will increase sustenance.”[8]

In the oldest books which are in our hands such as Al-Kā,[9] which is more than a thousand years old, there is a discussion entitled “Bāb al-Zayyi wa’t-Tajammul” (Section on Embellishment and Beautification). Islam has strongly encouraged cutting and combing of hair, applying perfume, and applying oil to the head.

In order to perform better and more acts of worship and benefit from spiritual pleasures, a number of companions of the Noble Messenger () abandoned their respective wives and children. They would fast during the days and perform [other] acts of worship at nights. As soon as he learned about it, the Messenger of Allah () prohibited them from doing so, saying thus, “I who am your leader am not like this; I would fast some days; I would break my fast in some other days. I would perform [other] acts of worship at some parts of the night and I would be with my wives in some other parts.” They asked permission from the Messenger of Allah () to castrate themselves in order to suppress their sexual urge. The Noble Messenger () did not allow them, saying that such practices are prohibited in Islam.

One day three women came to the Noble Messenger () to complain against their respective husbands. One of them said, “My husband does not eat meat.” Another one said, “My husband does not apply perfume.” The third one said, “My husband refrains from sexual intercourse.” The Messenger of Allah () immediately went to the mosque while his cloak was touching the ground as a sign of anger, mounted the pulpit, and then said, “What happened that some of my companions have refrained from meat, perfume, and women?! I myself also eat meat, apply perfume, and have intimacy with women. Whoever does not follow my tradition (sunnah) is not of me.”[10]   

It was due to cleanliness that the brief command on cutting of clothes – contrary to the Arabs’ convention of having long garments that would touch the ground – was among the earliest verses revealed to the Noble Messenger ():

﴿  وَثِيَابَكَ فَطَهِّر

“And purify your cloak.”[11]

Similarly, one reason for the preference on wearing white clothes is beauty and the other reason is cleanliness, because white clothes could expose dirt better, and this very reason has been pointed out in some traditions (aḥādīth):

إِلْبَسُوا ٱلْبَيَاضَ فَإِنَّهُ أَطْيَبُ وَأَطْهَرُ.

“Wear white [clothes] as they are better and cleaner.”[12]

Whenever he wanted to see his companions, the Noble Messenger () would look at the mirror, comb and fix his hair, and say, “God loves His servant who prepares and beautifies himself whenever he meets his friends.”[13] That is, he would wear white garment as it is more beautiful and tidier.

The Holy Qur’an has regarded the creation of the means of beautification as among the graces of God toward His servants, and has strongly condemned denying oneself of the adornments of this world:

﴿ قُلْ مَنْ حَرَّمَ زِينَةَ اللّهِ الَّتِيَ أَخْرَجَ لِعِبَادِهِ وَالْطَّيِّبَاتِ مِنَ الرِّزْقِ ﴾

“Say, ‘Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has brought forth for His servants, and the good things of [His] provision?’”[14]

It is mentioned in the Islamic traditions (aḥādīth) that the pure Imāms (‘a) have constantly debated with the derwishes and refuted their ideology by citing the same verse.[15]

Islam has not denounced husband and wife to enjoy each other’s intimate company but even considered it spiritually rewarding. Perhaps, it is unbelievable for a Westerner to hear that Islam encourages intimacy between husband and wife, wife’s beautification for her husband, and husband’s tidiness for the wife. During the olden times when all these sensual inclinations were denounced by the Church, these words would be considered proscribed, nay even ridiculous.  

Islam has strongly prohibited sexual inclinations outside the legal framework of marriage, having its own philosophy, which we shall explain later, but it has acclaimed sexual pleasure within the legal framework to such an extent of declaring that loving women is one of the prophets’ attributes:

مِنْ أَخْلاَقِ ٱلْأَنْبِياءِ حُبُّ ٱلنِّساءِ.

“Loving women is one of the prophets’ traits.”[16]

In Islam a woman who falls short of beautifying and adorning herself for her husband is reproached just as a man who falls short of satisfying his wife is reproached.

Ḥasan ibn Jahm says, “I went to Imām Mūsā ibn Ja‘far (‘a) and I saw him having applied hair dye.” I said, “You applied black pigment?” He said, “Yes, hair dye and adornment of the husband increase purity of his wife. For the reason that their husbands do not adorn themselves, some women lose their chastity.”[17]

Another tradition (ḥadīth) has been narrated from the Holy Prophet () thus:

تَنَظَّفُوا وَلاَ تَشَبَّهُوا بِالْيَهُودِ.

“Be clean and do not imitate the Jews.”

He then said, “The Jewish women who committed adultery did so because their husbands were untidy and unattractive. Clean yourselves so that your wives will be attracted to you.”[18]

In imitation of the monks, ‘Uthmān ibn Maẓ‘ūn, one of the prominent companions of the Noble Messenger (), wanted to abandon the world, his wife, and life, so to speak, and deprive himself of material pleasures.

His wife came to the Messenger of Allah () and said, “O Messenger of Allah! ‘Uthmān would fast during daytime and pray during nighttime.” The Holy Prophet () got angry, stood up, and went to him. ‘Uthmān was busy praying then. He () waited until he finished his prayer and then said:

يَا عُثْمَانُ! لَمْ يُرْسِلْنِي اللهُ تَعَالىٰ بِالرُّهْبَانِيَّةِ وَلٰكِنْ بَعَثَنِي بِالْحَنِفِيَّةِ ٱلسَّهْلَةِ ٱلسَّمْحَةِ.

“O ‘Uthmān! Allah, the Exalted, has not sent me for [the promotion of] monasticism but rather for the easy, lenient, and primordial religion (anīfiyyah).”[19] He () thus continued, “I also pray, do fasting, and interact with my wives. Anyone who loves my religion which is compatible with nature should follow me. Marriage is part of my tradition (sunnah).”

[1] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. iv, p. 31, as cited in Marriage and Morals, p. 27. [Trans.]

[2] Russell, Marriage and Morals, p. 22. [Trans.]

[3] The founder of Cynicism is a student of Socrates named Antis Tinus. Like his teacher, he regarded attainment of virtue as the ultimate end of existence, but he treated virtue to mean turning away from all physical and spiritual inclinations. It is thus said, “For this reason, he and his followers were called the Cynics. The discourses of Antisthenes were held in a certain location in the city of Athens which on certain occasions was called ‘White Dog’ (Cynosarges). Moreover, since his followers – as a form of turning away from the world and worldly desires – even went to the extremes of also abandoning social norms and amenities of civilized life and resorting to begging, they would appear in public barefooted and with wornout clothes and dischevelled hair (similar to the hippies of our time). Without inhibition whatsoever, they would say anything they would think of in conversations. In fact, they indulged in diatribe and took pride in poverty and enduring pain and suffering. They disregarded all limits and restrictions which people normally observe in social life, and they adopted the state of nature for themselves.” (Sayr-e Ḥikmat dar Urūpā (The Development of Wisdom in Europe), vol. 1, p. 70.)

[4] Wasā’il, vol. 1, p. 277.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The abbreviation, “‘a” stands for the Arabic invocative phrase, ‘alayhi’s-salām, ‘alayhim’us-salām, or ‘alayhā’s-salām (may peace be upon him/them/her), which is mentioned after the names of the prophets, angels, Imāms from the Prophet’s progeny, and saints (‘a). [Trans.]

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 278.

[9] Al-Kāfi: more fully, Al-Kāfi fī ’l-Hadīth: one of the most important Imāmiyyah collections of hadīth, compiled by Shaykh Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad ibn Ya‘qūb al-Kulaynī (d. 329 AH/941 CE) and divided into three sections: Usūl al-Kāfī, Furū‘ al-Kāfī and Rawdah al-Kāfī consisting of 34 books, 326 sections, and over 16,000 ahādīth that can be traced back to the Prophet () and his family by an unbroken chain of transmission. [Trans.]

[10] Muḥammad Ya‘qūb al-Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī, vol. 5, p. 496; Wasā’il, vol. 3, p. 14. For the traditions (aḥādīth) regarding the prohibition of monasticism and castration, one may refer to Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, vol. 7, pp. 4-5, 40; Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, vol. 4, p. 129; Jāmi‘ al-Tirmidhī (Indian Edition), p. 173.

[11] Sūrat al-Muddathir 74:8-9.

[12] Wasā’il al-Shī‘ah, vol. 1, p. 280.

[13] Ibid., p. 278.

[14] Sūrat al-A‘rāf 7:32.

[15] See Wasā’il al-Shī‘ah, vol. 1, p. 279.

[16] Ibid., vol. 3, p. 3.

[17] Al-Kāfī, vol. 5, p. 567.

[18] Nahj al-Faṣāḥah.

[19] Al-Kāfī, vol. 5, p. 494.

(An excerpt from Murtada Mutahhari, THE ISSUE OF HIJAB, pp. 23-33. Paperback available HERE.)

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