The Blessing of Serving OthersMuhammad Hüdayi (Stuart R. Clark)
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful and Peace and Prayers upon his beloved Prophet Muhammad and his family.
I'm writing this in the tekke of Sandıkçı Şeyh Edhem Efendi (d. 1878) may Allah protect his secret, a saint of the Rifa'i tariqah. A tekke (Turkish), khanqah (Persian), ribat or zawiyah (Arabic) is a permanent building used as place of retreat for those learning a spiritual path. One of the first lessons for any student would be Islamic manners (edeb); students would continue to refine their manners as they refined their inner state. Sitting in the cool courtyard, with the saints' graves around, I can feel the spiritual atmosphere still here, nearly a century after the tekke was closed.
Around İstanbul, I've seen many traditional Islamic buildings being repaired and restored, by private foundations and by the various councils. The Üsküdar City Council renovated this building last year, careful to maintain the Sufi principles of sparcity and cleanliness. Before that, it was a tea garden and the graveyard was used as a rubbish heap. As I write, council workers are here tending to the gardens. In my opinion, the care of the city and its people for its sacred spaces, including mosques, but also including the graves of the saints, is a outward sign of its greatness. By this measure, Turkey is now entering a new golden age; not only are they looking after these places in Turkey, but funds are going to looking after graves in the Arab world and beyond. Last year, I saw Şeyhi Halide Bağdadi's tomb in Damascus and heard from the caretaker that it was restored and maintained by funds from İstanbul.
According to the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him): “Verily, every action is by intention”: one of the meanings of this, according to Abdal Hakim Murad Efendi, is that the outward outcome of a certain action is the same as the inner state of the person. Thus, the actions of those with pure hearts will be blessed, while those without will find their actions frustrated. What does it mean to have a pure heart? It is to have our hearts directed to God alone, and for us to desire His pleasure alone. When we truly love, we love what our beloved loves as well. According to the famous story, Majnun loved Leyla so much, he fell in love with the dog that frequented her neighbourhood and began serving it so much that people thought he was crazy. As God's Mercy extends to all of His creation, the entry point of our service begins with our fellow human beings.
Where can we begin serving? What are the basics? Charity begins with your immediate environment: the things, plants, animals and people around you. As for the ecological environment, I'd say the least of charity is to remove rubbish, beginning with what is potentially harmful, as in the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Travelling around Turkey, it is astonishing to see the amount of rubbish around. One of my pet (forgive the pun) hates is water bottles. They take a huge amount of energy to make, stay in the environment for thousands of years and most of them end up not getting recycled. Thinking about the broader implications, rubbish is harmful as well and thus we fulfill the hadith.
What about people? How can we leave our social environment better? Try smiling at people. According to the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him), "Smiling at your brother is charity." It is so rare that people smile for no apparent reason these days, that people may regard you, like Majnun, as crazy if you do it too often. If you don't believe that something as small as a smile can improve the condition of those around you, perform an experiment. Spend the day in the office smiling to everyone; people will notice and soon will be affected by it. Try it at home, and see the effect. As Imam Yahya Rhodus recently said, “Kill them with kindness”. Even more than helping others, you'll end up helping yourself feel better, and your own happiness is good for your health.
Imam Ghazali (may God be pleased with him), specified three levels of helping others: not being a source of harm to others, forgiving them their faults and the third level is being of service to them. In fact, while many people take to religious concepts such as prayer, fasting and charity easily, they find it hard to stop suspecting and talking about the faults of others. The Qur'an tells us to avoid suspicion and backbiting (Quran: Surah al-Hujurat, 10-12), comparing the latter with cannibalism. Even before we smile at others, we should make sure we are not harming them, even by as apparently little a thing as talking about them behind their back. Again, thinking about an office situation, mentioning the faults of a colleague to others can have a negative impact on their career, as the gossip spreads about. Not only that, but you'll find others identify you as a gossiper. Being a trustworthy person who can keep the secrets of others, whether they are freely given or not, is a rare quality. Think of how many you could trust to keep something about you hidden.
The next higher state is to forgive others' faults. Holding a grudge with others or with the world, is probably why no one is smiling. Release your heart from the prison of being upset with others and you'll feel happier and even younger because we accumulate these grudges as we go through life. In the Qur'an it says, “Let them rather pardon and pass over the offense. Do you not desire that Allah forgive you?” (Qur'an Surah an-Nur, 22) If we desire that Allah manifest His forgiveness to us, this verse teaches us to show that same quality to others. In a divine saying, God says “I am as My servant thinks I am.” If we act to others as if God is forgiving and merciful, then inshallah we'll see that side to him on the Final Day. Based on this saying, being strict with others is a scary state to be in.
Finally, by setting out on this path of not harming, but forgiving and helping others, we can expect Divine help and blessings. Continuing the above divine saying, “I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm's length, I draw near to him a fathom's length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.” The point is not to be perfect, but to always aim at being better. May God strengthen our steps on the path of being of service to his creation, following the Prophetic and saintly tradition of the friends of God, like Şeyh Edhem Efendi, and grant us the capacity to be thankful for that and even for being thankful (Amin).