Hadith Reflection : Is Worldly Life (Dunya) Meant to Be Our Prison?

By Fatima Ariadne

During his era, a well-known hadith scholar Hafiz Ibn Hajar Asqalani was the qadi (judge) of Egypt, and everytime he went to his office, he would ride a carriage that was drawn by horses.

One day he passed by an infidel in a market who’s an oil seller, and it was common for an oil seller to wear dirty clothes. The infidel halted Ibn Hajar on the way and challenged him,

“Indeed, your Prophet had said that this world is a prison for believers and paradise for disbelievers. Yet you are the judge of judges in Egypt, you’re living in wealth and comfort, enjoying a high status. While here I am, in poverty and misery. Now you tell me, am I in paradise now?”

In response to his question, Ibn Hajar cleverly replied,

“Even if now I live in ease and comfort, my life now in this world is like a prison compared to eternal comfort I could get in Hereafter. And even if you live in a state of misery, it’s still a paradise compared to eternal punishment you could get in Hereafter”.

This answer affected the man’s heart deeply that in instance he embraced Islam in front of Ibn Hajar.

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world is prison for believer

You know what kind of infamous hadith I’ve meant in the beginning :

”This world is the prison for believers and a paradise for disbelievers”

Buddhism has the parallel term, ‘life is suffering’. But the actual word is ”dukkha” (life is ”dukkha”) that can mean either suffering or something ephemeral.

People readily interpret the hadith that we must renounce the worldly life, and we must not enjoy it because Afterlife is priority. Some interpret that muslims should not enjoy this life, we are restricted by rules of halaal and haraam so we can’t be extremely ”free” like the non-muslims counterpart. After all, ”only the infidels can have all the fun, not muslims”.

Is that true? Not really.

Islam is the ”middle path”. It’s not in denial of worldly life and its enjoyment. But the matter is different when we become so occupied with this world that we forgot our Creator, or put our akhira deposits in the last minute.

“Beautified for mankind is the love of that which they desire – of women and sons, heaped-up sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, and cattle and tilled land. That is the enjoyment of worldly life, but Allah has with Him the best return.” (Qur’an 3:14)

Some people also used this hadith to state that seeking wealth and becoming rich is Islamically reprehensible.

While I’m not an ‘alim, personally I disagree with this interpretation. Some of Prophet’s companions who are guaranteed Jannah are very wealthy, like Uthman ibn Affan, Abdurrahman ibn Awf, and Zubair, to name the few. Ibn Kathir recorded in ”Al Bidayah Wan Nihayah” their wealth in detail, which would be equal to six figures of dollars today.

Our difference with them is these luminaries are not the slaves of their wealth. Wealth and worldly possessions are their slaves to contribute in God’s cause.

But still, seeking wealth itself is not haraam, depends on how you get that wealth and where it goes to (how you spend it). Quran praises highly people who spend their wealth in God’s causes.

“But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and do not forget your share of this world.” (Qur’an 28:77)

I actually see this hadith in a different way. Note that i’m not a scholar, so these musings came from my opinion :-)

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Graduating from the Womb of Life

(The story below doesn’t come from me. Unfortunately I can’t find the original author for it. But it’s a good story to share)

Inside a mother’s womb there were two babies. Let’s call them A and B, and here are their dialogues :

A : “Brother, do you believe there is a life after birth?”

B : “Yes of course. There has to be  something after birth. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

A : “Nonsense. There is no such thing as life after birth. Even if it exists, what kind of life would that be?”

is there afterlife

B : “I have no idea. But maybe there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat and drink using our mouths. Maybe we’ll possess some other senses that we can’t understand now.”

A : Absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating from our mouths? Nonsense! The umbilical cord supplies everything we need, but it is very short and short-lived. Life after birth is logically impossible.

B : “But that’s because out there will be so different than what we see here. Maybe we won’t even need this umbilical cord anymore.”

A : “Nonsense talk.  If there is life after birth, then why has no one has ever come back from out there? Birth is the end of life, and after delivery there will be nothing but  oblivion. It leads us to nowhere.”

B : “And certainly we will meet Mother, she will take care of us.”

A : “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? Give me a break! If Mother exists then where is She now?”

B : “Mother? We are surrounded by Mother. We are of Her. We live in Her. Without Her we won’t be here.”

A : “Well I  can’t see Her, that means it’s logically impossible She exists”

B :  “Sometimes, when you’re in silence, focus and really listen, you can feel Her presence. And you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

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Graduating from the Womb of Life (part 2)

“When a child is small he knows nothing but milk and his mother. Yet, God does not leave the child there, but leads him on to eat bread and to play, and in this manner draws him on to the stage of reasoning. So too this world (dunya)—which is in its infancy compared with Akhirah. God does not leave you here, but brings you on so you can realize that this world is infancy and nothing at all. ” (Rumi)

Indeed, it is.

Inside the womb we only knew darkness, sounds are limited in our side, and we’re naked. Then at the time of birth, we were cut from our umbilical cord. Your mother no longer breaths for you, eats and drinks for you. For the first time you recognize light, heat, cold, noises. Your family clothed you.

Then as the time flies, you use your other senses. You can see the colors, movements. You can hear clearly the sounds of your parents talking, people, the winds, music. You learn to use your mouth to eat, make sounds, and language.

You learn to form attachment with people around you. To discern. To be curious. To love.

So as the birth is the bridge that connects us to one form of life to another, death is our birth to that realm of spirit once again. As the life inside womb is ”prison” compared to the outside world — so too this world is “prison” compared to the infinity of the next world.

That’s why Imam Qurtubi said, ”death is not anhiliation. Death is simply a transformation from one state to another”.

Prophet’s companion, Anas ibn Malik stated, as narrated by Al Hakim At Tirmidhi,

“The death of a mu’meen is like a child delivered from her mother’s womb, which is dark and narrow, into the outside world, which is vast and bright”

Ponder this hadith :

life in dunya

The Source had created your spirit, deliver you to your physical body and let you grow utilizing all senses attached to it. He created the world for you to explore, observe, learn, and grow up to. What is impossible for Him to bring you into your second birth? What is impossible for Him to create entirely another world, and another senses for you to trod into?

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Because Our Home was Perfect

One of reader, sister Nabeela, wrote this super profound comment :

“The words ‘Feels like a stranger’ got me. In fact, for a long time I used to think I don’t belong here or this is not my home. The answer that came to me was that “Indeed, It is not.”

Know that the worldly life is only a game, a temporary attraction, a means of boastfulness among yourselves and a place for multiplying your wealth and children. It is like the rain which produces plants that are attractive to the unbelievers. These plants flourish, turn yellow, and then become crushed bits of straw. In the life hereafter there will be severe torment or forgiveness and mercy from God. The worldly life is only an illusion. – Surah Al Hadid v:20

So instead I realized that Allah has sent me to earth to test my faith in Him and then we will all return to our true home. That is why all of us humans yearn for perfect happiness or perfection in this world because the real home where we belong is perfect.

I often used to think that I’m the only one who thinks like that, but I realized that it is not so. All of us think and wonder about it but there are few whom Allah guides to realize the real truth of this world and the hereafter. Surely we belong to Him and to Him shall we all return. So, searching for a home in this world is futile. There is none.”

is there afterlife

In Qur’an we found a verse :

“We have certainly created man in the best form; then we return him to the lowest of low.” (Qur’an 95:4-5)

Generally we think this verse speaking about a person who despite having a perfect physical stature, ends up in hell anyway due to his sins and disbelief.

But when I read one of classical scholar (forgot his name, sorry!) explanation, it was a rather unique one. He said this verse can alternatively be interpreted as our transformation from the spirit world into this life.

”And [remember] when your Lord summoned from the children of Adam – from their loins – their seeds and made them testify of themselves, “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified….” (Qur’an 7:172)

Basically, our souls were created millennia ago before our bodies. When we were in the form of spirit we’re so close to the Divine. We knew no suffering, no confusion, only purity.

Then we are sent to physical life and forgetting our spiritual origin. We trod into hardship, fear, suffering, trials, egotism, and confusions. The latter is the “lowest of low” as the verse said.

The word ”dunya” in its original Arabic means ”lower” or ”closer”. Hence the phrase “hayat al-dunya” is not just meant “worldly life”, it’s “the life which is closest to our perception”.

Nevertheless, there is always the part of the soul that remembers Home, the love and Divine spark of purity which is its original nature. This is fitrah. For ages humanity always asked, ”who am I? where do I come from? why are we here? where do we go when we die?”. This is nothing but the calling of fitrah itself.

But for those who are deceived by the charm of worldly life, they believe that the only paradise is here, ”closer” that which can be reached immediately. This is why the world is paradise for disbelievers, i.e. for those who never expect the meeting with Creator. For those who thinks that life is only here and will only end here.

“Beautified for those who disbelieve is the life of this world, and they ridicule those who believe. But those who fear Allah are above them on the Day of Resurrection. And Allah gives provision to whom He wills without account.” (Qur’an 2:212)

But for those who knew there is something more beyond the ephemeral, they could see that this world is a veil. For the lover of God, this life is a separating veil between him and Beloved. The world is a dream and no one mistaken dream to waking life but sleepers. That’s why the world is ”prison” for spiritual being.

After all, spirit is boundless compared to the confinement of physical world and created things.

“He gives you spiritual experiences to take you out of the prison of your existence into the expansiveness of beholding Divine.” (Ibn Ata’illah)

Traveler with Purpose

Each heart is a traveler in time, but we are not here as an aimless wanderer. We are here to serve our Creator, as vicegerent and guardian of earth, to serve humanity, and to grow. In fact, the trials in this life are nothing but to challenge our souls to grow, and to be a better vicegerent.

This world is an open field, this lifetime we sow and plant. Akhirah is time for harvest. This world is nothing but a seedplot for the next world. May God let us to enjoy the fruits of our work here when the time comes.

And in eternity! :-)

“A person will rest in Akhira according to how hard he strived in dunya” (Khalid ibn Walid)

“He made the akhira the abode to reward His believing servants only because this world cannot contain what He wishes to bestow upon them, and because He deemed their worth is too high to reward in a world that is not permanent” (Ibn Ata’illah)

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