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The Importance of Self-Sacrifice

Only Allah knows the depth of a person's belief, love, and attachment to Him: "He knows what they keep secret and what they make public. He knows what their hearts contain" (Surah Hud: 5). However, each one of us can form an opinion about another person's belief, fear, and respect for Allah by observing external signs. Allah states some important indications of a person's sincerity: observing the prescribed prayers, avoiding forbidden behavior, and doing one's best to live the kind of life of which He approves.

Allah tells us about those people who only pretend to believe. For example, they may act like believers, perform certain acts of worship, abstain from certain things that Allah has forbidden, and live as a believer lives. In addition, certain characteristics can reveal whether or not they are sincere, for some characteristics that are common among believers cannot be imitated. One of these is an unconditional determination to be self-sacrificial. This characteristic cannot be imitated by unbelievers, for they lack the desire to win Allah's favor and love, and attain Paradise, and therefore cannot sacrifice what they value to attain those goals. Sometimes, they may pretend to do so in order to hide their ignorance of the Qur'an's morality or gain some personal benefit. But when they are sure that no benefit is forthcoming, they lose their enthusiasm. When they think that they are about to lose something or suffer some emotional or physical setback, they cannot find the inner strength that comes from belief and so reveal their insincerity.

But believers regard any attempt to sacrifice for Allah's sake as a valuable opportunity to show their sincerity. They know that Allah creates difficult and troubling situations, which require patience and self-denial, for a good purpose. They act in the knowledge that this world is a short and transient place of testing to win Allah's favor, and so they seek to win His approval and attain Paradise: 

The life of this world is nothing but a game and a diversion. The abode of the Hereafter – that is truly life, if they only knew. (Surat al-'Ankabut: 64)

Allah expands provision to anyone He wills and restricts it. They rejoice in the life of this world. Yet the life of this world, compared to the Hereafter, is only fleeting enjoyment. (Surat ar-Ra'd: 26)

Whatever you have been given is only the enjoyment of the life of this world. What is with Allah is better and longer lasting for those who believe and trust in their Lord. (Surat ash-Shura: 36)

In this world, Allah tests individuals so that they can overcome the lower self's desires by seeking to win Allah's favor and mercy. Thus, Allah tests people with blessings and with difficulties: "Every self will taste death. We test you with both good and evil as a trial. And you will be returned to Us" (Surat al-Anbiya': 35). He also reveals the purpose of our creation: 

He created the heavens and Earth in six days, when His Throne was on the water, in order to test which of you has the best actions. (Surah Hud: 7)

He created death and life to test which of you is the best in action. He is the Almighty, the Ever-Forgiving. (Surat al-Mulk: 2)

Given this, the sensible course to follow is that of true sincerity and readiness to sacrifice, for the greatest virtue is to come in first in the race to do good deeds: 

Then We made Our chosen servants inherit the Book. But some of them wrong themselves, some are ambivalent, and some outdo each other in good by Allah's permission. That is the great favor. (Surah Fatir: 32)

Had Allah willed, He would have made you a single community. But He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to Allah, and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed. (Surat al-Ma'ida: 48)

Those who seek to do good in order to win Allah's favor act with great eagerness, determination, and self-sacrifice. Their sincere belief gives them many fine moral qualities: trusting in their submission to Allah as well as remain courageous, patient, merciful, helpful, tolerant, subtle in mind, and thankful in all circumstances. They are not caught up in any passion for this world and the desires of their lower self, for their goal is to win Allah's approval and mercy and to attain Paradise. In other words, they are so attached to Allah by a deep bond of love, respect, and fear that they will give up everything without a second thought for the sake of that love.

In the following example, the great Islamic scholar Imam al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) shows us that human life has no value that can compare with winning Allah's favor and mercy and attaining Paradise, and that those who choose to win His approval will be deemed worthy of reward:

Those who seek to do good in order to win Allah's favor act with great eagerness, determination, and self-sacrifice. Their sincere belief gives them many fine moral qualities: trusting in their submission to Allah as well as remain courageous, patient, merciful, helpful, tolerant, subtle in mind, and thankful in all circumstances. They are not caught up in any passion for this world and the desires of their lower self, for their goal is to win Allah's approval and mercy and to attain Paradise. In other words, they are so attached to Allah by a deep bond of love, respect, and fear that they will give up everything without a second thought for the sake of that love.

In the following example, the great Islamic scholar Imam al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) shows us that human life has no value that can compare with winning Allah's favor and mercy and attaining Paradise, and that those who choose to win His approval will be deemed worthy of reward:

Let's assume that someone has a very valuable and exquisite jewel. If he sells it for a low price when he could have sold it for a high price, would not this behavior be a loss to that individual and a grievous error? At the same time, would not this behavior indicate a deficiency of labor, a weakness of vision, and a shortage of reason?

Thus, in comparison with millions and even the whole world and its contents, the praise and things of this world that a servant will receive from other people, if not contented with the mercy, reward, praise, and merit that he will receive from the Lord of the worlds, are as next to nothing. Therefore, is it not a clear error to lose these valuable offerings from Allah the Almighty in return for these worthless things of this world?

If these worthless worldly things are absolutely necessary to you, turn again toward the Hereafter and you will see that the world will follow after you. Seek only the approval of the Lord, the almighty Presence, Lord of the two worlds.

The Prophet (saas) states: "There is no doubt that Allah gives the things of this world in return for labor belonging to the Hereafter, but not the Hereafter in return for labor belonging to this world." (al-Suyuti)

Thus those people who genuinely labor solely for His approval and for the Hereafter will have gained both this world and the Hereafter. In the same way that they lose the Hereafter if they turn toward this world, they may also not acquire the things of this world, either. Even if they do, those things will not remain in their hands forever. They will eventually become disappointed both in this world and in the Hereafter. (Imam al-Ghazzali, Minhaj al-'Abideen, pp. 264-65)
 

Believers Seek to Please Allah

People who do not live according to the Qur'an's moral teachings see their lower self as a part of themselves that must be cared for and protected. They do all they can to foster it, justify it, and bring its desires to fruition. They arrange their life, ideals, friendships, and viewpoints according to its demands, because they see it as a force that they must obey and whose every desire they must fulfill if they are ever going to be happy.

But these ideas are based on wrong beliefs, for Allah reveals that the lower self will always lead a person into evil, unless He wills otherwise: "I do not say my [lower] self was free from blame. The [lower] self indeed commands to evil acts" (Surah Yusuf: 53). For this reason, only by renouncing it can people be happy and content. Instead of accepting its demands and bowing down to it, people must assert control over it and direct it as Allah wills.

Since the lower self is created together with much evil, people must listen to their conscience and do good. Otherwise, it will lead them to live in ways that do not please Him and that will cause them great disappointment in this world and the Hereafter. Out of His mercy, Allah inspires the human conscience with many ways to train the lower self: 

And [I swear by] the self and what proportioned it and inspired it with depravity or a sense of duty, the one who purifies it has succeeded, [and] the one who covers it up has failed. (Surat ash-Shams: 7-10) 

Believers are aware of this truth because adopting the Qur'an as their guide means that they always listen to their conscience. But those whose belief is shallow sometimes fall victim to the lower self's desires even if they acknowledge this reality. As a result, many things in this life are more important for them than winning Allah's favor. Their basic goals are to get a good job, have a good marriage and a good circle of friends, be respected, have money, live in luxury, and make the best use of all of the blessings that this life has to offer. What is wrong with this? In short, they regard these things as more important than winning Allah's favor and so choose them instead of trying to please Him. Otherwise, it is legitimate to have all of the good things in this life.

People who think in this way generally do not believe in Allah, the Hereafter, or the Day of Judgment. They just take what they can from this life and placate their lower self. Some people want to hide their strong attachment to this life and their lower self by saying that they believe in Allah and that their main goal is to win His favor. Sometimes they might even display a moral attitude similar to that enjoined in the Qur'an. However, they show their real faces when something conflicts with their lower self's desires, and begins to harm their personal interests.

One can see this in daily life. For example, those who worry about the future think that guaranteeing their own material and emotional situation and that of their family is more important than winning Allah's favor. They may regard personal gain as more important than trying to conform to the Qur'an's moral teachings. In the Qur'an Allah describes the insincere nature of this spiritual state, for such people have no real belief and view their own profit as more important than Allah's approval: 

Yet you see those with sickness in their hearts rushing to them, saying: "We fear that the wheel of fate may turn against us." But it may well be that Allah will bring about victory or some other contingency. Then they will deeply regret their secret thoughts.  ((Surat al-Ma'ida, 52)

Such people do not consider that everything is under Allah's control and that everything happens, both now and in the future, only with His permission. No precautions can prevent a calamity from befalling them, and their efforts will be of no use if Allah has willed the calamity. In the same way, if Allah has willed that something good happens, no one can prevent it.

Those who are aware of this reality will not worry about this life or the future. As long as they are sincere and work to achieve Allah's favor, they will enjoy His assistance, mercy, and support, by His leave. In the Qur'an, He proclaims the glad tidings of this mercy: "Allah will certainly help those who help Him" (Surat al-Hajj: 40). Only Allah gives us blessings. People who forget this, thinking that they can obtain their own blessings by pursuing the things of this world, are living in great error.

For sincere believers, nothing is more important than winning Allah's favor in every sphere of life. For them, material possessions, wealth, status, respect, or concerns for the future are unimportant. They never compromise their goals, even if such a decision results in hardship or anxiety. They gladly undertake any act of self-sacrifice to win His favor, for they are aware that Allah's friendship, love, and mercy are beyond value and cannot be compared with any earthly blessing, and that nothing can be given in exchange for them. As Allah states in the Qur'an: 

Say: "My prayer and my rites, my living and my dying, are for Allah alone, the Lord of all the worlds." (Surat al-An'am: 162)

Allah has bought from the believers their selves and their wealth in return for the Garden. They fight in the way of Allah, and they kill and are killed. It is a promise binding on Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an. And who is truer to his contract than Allah? Rejoice, then, in the bargain that you have made. That is the great victory. (Surat at-Tawba: 111)

BIn another verse, He tells us that sincere believers regard winning His favor as more important than fulfilling their lower self's desires:

And among the people are some who give up everything, desiring the good pleasure of Allah. Allah is Ever-Gentle with His servants. (Surat al-Baqara: 207)

As Allah says, believers give up everything without a second thought in order to win Allah's favor. Knowing that He will reward them with much finer things in the Hereafter, they live in this world without pursuing their own comfort and advantage, without expecting any return for their self-sacrifice. Their only hope is to win Allah's approval:

"We feed you only out of desire for the Face of Allah. We do not want any repayment from you or any thanks." (Surat al-Insan: 9)

 

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