Today, we will discuss the manner of al-’eethar (selflessness: giving preference to others over yourself and considering their happiness and welfare before your own). It is amazing that some Islamic ethics have vanished and become unknown although Islam calls for them and the Messenger (PBUH) propagated such ethics, applied them and practiced them himself.
Al-’eethar means giving preference to others over yourself and considering their happiness and welfare before your own. That is to say, to relinquish some of the pleasures of life to others; they enjoy them and you lose them. When we say that a person has given preference to another one over himself, it means that he preferred this person to himself for the sake of the reward of the hereafter.
Let us look at this example of Al-’eethar:
In a severe winter's night in Al-Madinah, a woman of the Ansar (The Muslims of Madinah who sponsored and defended the Call to Islam) brought a woven velvet cloak to the Prophet (PBUH). The Prophet (PBUH) took it, as he was in need of it to protect himself from the severe cold. Then, the Prophet (PBUH) came out wearing it for the first time, just as you would buy a new suit and wear it for the first time. One of the Companions from the Ansar looked at him and said, “How nice it is! O Messenger of Allah, give it to me”. What would your reaction be if you were in the place of the Prophet? The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Yes” and gave it to him on the spot. Peace be upon you, O Messenger of Allah. Do you realize the meaning of al-’eethar now? The Companions became angry with the Ansari and told him, “the Prophet is in need of it!” The man replied, “I am in need of it more than he is. I want to make it my shroud when I die”.
When the guest came, she made her children sleep and turned the lamp off. Then, both of them pretended to be eating while the guest ate until he became full. When they went to pray the dawn prayer, the Prophet (PBUH) said to them, “Tonight Allah wondered at your action”- that is to say, Allah has been pleased with what you have done to your guest this night. Then, Allah revealed:
وَٱلَّذِينَ تَبَوَّءُو ٱلدَّارَ وَٱلْإِيمَٰنَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ يُحِبُّونَ مَنْ هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَا يَجِدُونَ فِى صُدُورِهِمْ حَاجَةً مِّمَّآ أُوتُوا۟ وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ ۚ وَمَن يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِۦ فَأُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْمُفْلِحُونَ
And those who, before them, had settled in the homeland, and had accepted faith. They love those who emigrated to them, and find no hesitation in their hearts in helping them. They give them priority over themselves, even if they themselves are needy. Whoever is protected from his natural greed-it is they who are the successful.” (Q 59:9). It means that they prefer others even though they were in toiling, hunger, poverty or need.
Our motto should be the following hadith; the Prophet (PBUH) said, “None of you will have faith till he wishes for his brother what he likes for himself.” This is the motto of al-’eethar. That is to say your faith will be complete only when you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.
When the Prophet (PBUH) and his Companions immigrated to Al-Madinah, the Prophet went to the Ansar and told them, “Your brothers (Al-Muhajireen) have come to you and they know nothing about agriculture. What do you think of sharing your property with them?” They replied, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah. We will divide our money equally between us and them”. The Messenger wanted the Ansar only to help the Muhajireen when he asked, “Can you help them more?” the Ansar replied, “How, O Messenger of Allah?” He said to them, “Share your fruits with them" - because they can neither make use of money nor get out of Al-Madinah as it is besieged. They replied, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah, but for what (in return), O Messenger of Allah?” He said to them, “For Al-Jannah”.
Do you see the reward of al-’eethar? After a whole year of farming, an Ansari would take the ripe dates to a Muhajir before going to his own home. He would not choose the best and give the rest to the Muhajir. You, on the contrary, might give the worst money in your pocket as Sadaqa (charity). However, an Ansari would take all the dates he collected to the Muhajir and tell him, “I will come back to you after an hour so that you can choose whatever you like”, so that he wouldn't embarrass him. Then, at the Ansari’s return, he would discover that the Muhajir chose the worst of the dates for himself, and they would keep quarreling; each insisting that the other should take the best fruits.
Selflessness is not only seen in financial matters as described earlier but spiritual ones as well. Ikrima Ibn-Abu-Jahl fought the Prophet (PBUH) for twenty two years, then converted to Islam and became a very good Muslim who died as a martyr because of al-eethar. Ikrima was among those injured in the battle of Yarmuk. All the wounded were gathered in a certain area until the battle was over. Ikrima's cousin was one of the water carriers i.e. those who were giving the wounded water to drink. He narrates, “I was searching for Ikrima and found him among the injured, wounded, in pain and about to die. He was surrounded by ten other wounded Muslims. I ran to give him water, but when he took the waterskin and was just about to drink he heard a Muslim brother saying, “I am thirsty!” He said “No, I swear by Allah I shall not drink unless my brother drinks first.” I moved to the second. When he was about to drink he heard another brother saying “Ah!” Then he said, “No, I swear by Allah I shall not drink.” Then I went to the next, and the next, and so on, until I reached the tenth soldier, who said “No, I swear I shall not drink unless Ikrima drinks.” I went back to Ikrima to find that he has already passed away as a martyr. He practiced selflessness even when he was wounded and dying.”
Imam al-Ghazaly says in his book Al-Ehyaa (The Revival), that there are three levels/grades of al-'eethar:
- First- to give your brother what you would give to a servant, i.e. you eat and give him your leftovers.
- Second- to treat him just like yourself i.e., you give him what you would take for yourself.
- Third- to prefer him over yourself, i.e. provide his needs before yours. His children, for example, will enter school and have no clothes, so before buying clothes for your own children you buy for his.
These are three levels of al-'eethar for you to choose from. The greatest 'eethar in this life is to seek Allah's pleasure over that of mankind, yourself, or any other thing.
On the Authority of Abu Muhammad Abdullah bin Amr Ibn-al-As (may Allah be pleased with him) who reported that the messenger of Allah said, "None of you is a true believer until his inclination becomes in accordance with what I have brought"
Allah's pleasure should be given the priority.
To conclude, a good man once said at the moments of his death, “My daughter I don’t fear death any more, even if it came now. I took a lot from life I mean I gave a lot! Sometimes my daughter it is very hard to differentiate between taking and giving, because for a believer they carry the same meaning. Every time I gave, I took. Actually I took more than I gave.” Youth! Let us try to apply this moral. May Allah make us benefit from it.