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Four characteristics of the Age of Ignorance

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in The Broken Jug

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Fethullah Gülen: Four characteristics of the Age of Ignorance

Question: In one of his sayings, the noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, stated that his followers would not abandon four characteristics of the Age of Ignorance: boasting of (merits such as) high rank, reviling other peoples’ genealogies, using the stars to forecast rain, and wailing over the dead.[1] What are the lessons to be drawn from this saying?

Answer: Let me state first that it is not correct to imagine that these characteristics of the Age of Ignorance have remained or will remain among Muslims in the same form for, unlike Muslims, the people of the Age of Ignorance did not have sound belief. Therefore, even if some of these characteristics of the Age of Ignorance are observed in some Muslims later on, it is necessary to note that these actually differ in nature. In other words, the people of the Age of Ignorance had these characteristics in the real sense. Their continuation amongst Muslims should be considered in a metaphorical or secondary sense. Therefore, the idea that Muslims will not abandon these practices should not be understood as them continuing them in the same way as the pagans, rather that they will continue in a different form.

Boasting of one’s merits is a form of futile consolation and deception

The first characteristic mentioned is boasting of one’s merits such as coming from a good family or holding a high rank. Boasting about any quality like status, nobility, knowledge, wealth, beauty or intelligence, etc. signifies disrespect toward God. If we look at the approach of Bediüzzaman, disregarding Divine favors that have been bestowed is ingratitude, whereas laying claim to them is boastfulness. So, if a person wishes to avoid both ingratitude and boastfulness, he must acknowledge that all these blessings such as knowledge, wisdom, reason, judgment, wealth, health and the like, come from God; he must say, “all of these beauties belong to the Beautiful Creator of Beauty”. At times, when it is necessary to mention them, a person should only mention them in the form of acknowledging God’s blessings.

To elucidate this further, boasting and vanity are qualities disliked by God. He knocks down those who are boastful and haughty. The hadith refers to a particular form of this kind of failing which is boasting of one’s high rank, family and nobility. Even if a person is descended from the pure lineage of the noble Prophet, he must say: “My God, coming from such a blessed lineage is not something in my control. I know that You are the One Who blessed me with it. This goodness belongs to You and it is a heavy responsibility for me at the same time. My Lord, I praise You with thanks for having bestowed on me this favor and I ask for Your help so that I can give this responsibility its due.” No one should ever use this as a way to assume superiority over others.

If a person makes statements such as, “I am a descendant of such and such a general, my ancestors were so rich. We used to have such and such mansions in that most expensive area,” they also fall into the category of boasting of high rank. Similarly, one’s being the child of a high-ranking bureaucrat might also be a cause for boasting and ostentation. However, none of these bear any value in the sight of God, on the contrary, they are objectionable acts. If a person who entertains such considerations has faith, their punishment occurs in this world. If not, then the punishment is postponed until Judgment Day, which is a much graver consequence. In this respect, no matter at what level, a person should not commit a mean act by being boastful of one’s family and should not see this as a factor of superiority. The merits of one’s ancestors are of no benefit whatsoever for a person. What really matters is having worthy personal values. God Almighty drew attention to this fact in the Divine decree: “Surely the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness and reverence for God” (al-Hujurat 49:13). The measure of an individual’s value is related to that person’s worship, the quality of his or her relationship with God, and whether that person leads a God-conscious life; acting with the knowledge that God sees everything and as if one were able to see God. If a man does not stand where he should, descending from a noble lineage will be of no benefit to him at all. Umar ibn al-Khattab highlighted the vanity of seeking virtue and merit outside of Islam by saying, “Indeed, we are a people God has honored with Islam. Hence, we shall never seek any means of honor other than that.”[2]

The caste system that humanity has not gotten rid of

Secondly, the Messenger of God referred to the issue of holding others in contempt on account of their ancestry. While a person’s coming from a humble background and being the child of a shepherd does not reduce that person’s value at all—as stated above—coming from such and such lineage does not bring any virtue either. What really matters is having personal values. The following couplets of Ibrahim Haqqi summarizes this situation well:

Haqqi come, do not reveal your secret;
If you wish to progress on this path,
Do not deride the wretch my dear;
There are such wretches that hide a treasure.

It is definitely wrong to reproach and deride people by looking at their cultural environment, material status, neighborhood, family and the like. Ideas of superiority, and seeing others as inferior, date back to a more distant past. The caste system, born out of local religions in India, continued in many societies that were not rightly guided by the message of the Prophets. In the present day, this understanding continues in overt or covert forms in many places in the world, including Turkey. Given that humanity still continues a caste system in different forms and manifestations despite so many claims of progress in civilization, democratization and human rights, I am of the opinion that the situation of humanity needs to be revised. This issue particularly concerns Turkish society, which is actually very diverse. Many different peoples arrived and settled in Anatolia and most of them became Muslim. In this respect, when you look into the genealogy of any person in Turkey, you may see that their ancestors are Jewish, Armenian, Greek, etc. Nobody has the right to condemn anyone on such a basis. Note that even the fathers of most of the Companions passed on to the afterlife without declaring faith. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate people not based on their past or lineage but according to their own condition.

Fortune telling by the stars and the deep voids in the heart

Another characteristic of the Age of Ignorance that continues to survive is the issue of expecting rain from the stars and ascribing the coming rains to the stars. In Mesopotamia particularly, the people deemed the stars to imbue a special holiness. The people of that land believed the stars to be directly influential on a person’s destiny. Although such beliefs do not exist in our time, belief in fortune telling by the stars and horoscopes still continues showing that this tradition of the Age of Ignorance remains in different forms.

In relation to this subject, the noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, expressed that God Almighty stated:

“On this morning, some of My worshippers remained as true believers and some became unbelievers; he who said that it rained with the blessing and mercy of God is one who believes in Me and does not believe in the stars, but he who said it rained because of such and such (star) does not believe in Me and believes in the stars.”

Then, seeing the falling rain as a manifestation of God’s mercy and responding to it with praise is a sign of faith, whereas ascribing it to simple causes, such as the stars, is a sign of associating partners with God. If God Almighty had rendered the stars a veil before the operation of His power and greatness, it could have been acceptable to see them as causes. However, as the natural sciences have also proven, there is not even a direct relation of causality between the stars and rainfall.

Unfortunately, when people do not believe in what they should, namely, when they do not have sound faith in God, the Prophets and the Qur’an, the natural need for belief in something, that is an attribute of human nature, leads them to believe in falsehoods. While some seek help in yogism or meditation, others try to find satisfaction with horoscopes and the like. All of these block the ability and potential of the human soul from accepting the real truth. Human nature is inclined to a quest for the truth but sometimes people put on the hat of falsehood and try to satisfy their heart, which actually yearns for the truth, with stones, trees and stars instead, even though those are not even conscious beings.

Faith in destiny and a culture of wailing

The final point stated in the hadith is wailing over the dead. In some parts of Turkey, there still exist certain forms of mourning that are incompatible with the essential teachings of the Qur’an and sunnah. People gather together and mention the good attributes and virtues of the deceased person. While they sing his or her praises, the women slap their hands on their knees and cry artificially like performers.

However, this exaggerated display of emotions is of no benefit to the deceased whatsoever. Let alone being beneficial, as it was stated by the Messenger of God, while the mourners sing the praises of the deceased, angels hold that person to account for whether he or she had really been like that; thus the wailers in a way cause suffering to the deceased.

If a person did not attain closeness to God through worship, and did not live as an obedient servant while in this world, it is useless for him (or her) even if a large crowd attends his funeral, sings his praises, or bears witness that he was a good person. In addition, it also needs to be stated that knowingly giving a positive account of an evildoer is bearing false witness. Therefore, God will call to account whomever commits such a falsehood. We surely can bear positive witness about a person who attended the mosque and seemed virtuous, for we make judgments according to the outward reality. Only God knows what is in one’s heart. On the other hand, some people are openly enemies of religion while others merely pay lip service to religion while committing embezzlement, misappropriation and fabricating slanders. Giving a good account of them is both a horrible lie and a gross disrespect toward God.

Asking the congregation, “How do you view the deceased?” and their reply, “Good,” which is such a common practice in Turkey, has no place in the genuine Tradition of the noble Prophet. This is rather an innovation by society. Some people make new additions to this innovation and repeat the question three times, asking whether the congregation gives their blessing. However, none of these have any place in the Qur’an, the Sunnah or books of Islamic Jurisprudence. Therefore, it is an innovation which benefits neither the dead nor the living.

It should be known that if only two people attend the funeral of one who has passed on to the other world with faith and righteous deeds, it causes no harm to that person. For example, only five to ten people attended the funeral of Ahmed Naim, a person I truly loved and appreciated. When I mentioned this near the late Yaşar Tunagür once, he remarked: “God did not grant those sinful people the honor of attending Ahmed Naim’s funeral!” Similarly, the people showed no faith to Mehmed Akif either and did not attend his funeral. When his Funeral Prayer finished, university students took away the flags from his coffin. There are so many other instances in history where people were not treated in accordance with their true worth.

Funeral ceremonies of pharaohs and tyrants

Millions of people attended the funerals of so many pharaohs, nimrods and other tyrants, but this does not absolve them from the sins of their atrocities and oppression. Even if the world shakes with the shouting of crowds singing their praises, it means nothing at all for that person. Such a person will enter the pitfalls of Hell anyway.

As a matter of fact, the noble Prophet said that if forty people bear positive witness for a deceased person, that person will be forgiven. However, as I have tried to point out above, this does not apply to knowingly bearing false witness. The Messenger of God made the following address to Abu Hurayra as a warning against death:

“Restore your ship, for the sea is deep. Take your provisions perfectly, for the journey is truly long. Keep your load light, for the slope before you is truly steep. Preserve sincerity in your deeds because God, The All-Seeing and Righteous One, is well aware of any of your acts.”[3]

These were the points the Messenger of God found worthy of emphasis. If you pass away having remained within such a righteous sphere, then you will have passed to the pure horizons of our soul and be blessed with the truth of: “Surely we belong to God (as His creatures and servants), and surely to Him we are bound to return” (al-Baqarah 2:156). Otherwise, the wailings and praises—even if performed by millions of people—and the crowds attending your funeral will do you no good at all.

[1] Hakim, Al-Mustadrak, 1/539.
[2] Ibn Abi Shayba, Al-Musannaf, 7/10; Hakim, Al-Mustadrak, 1/130.
[3] Daylami, Al-Musnad, 5/339.

This article has originally been published in Turkish on 15/02/2016.