by Ustaz Muhammad Abdul Mateen Bin Hisham
The Story of Fudayl Ibn Iyad
In the famous work on history and biography, Siyar A’lam An-Nubala’ (lives of the noble figures) by Imam Az-Zahabi, the writer narrated a description about Fudayl Ibn Iyad, which said: I have witnessed the most knowledgeable, pious and chaste of people; (they are) Waki’, Fudayl Ibn Iyad, and Ibn Mubarak.
His own contemporary, Abdullah Ibn Mubarak, who is also highly regarded by the people of his time and today to be knowledgeable and trustworthy, testified:
I believe there’s no one left alive on the surface of this world who is better than Fudayl Ibn Iyad.
Fudayl Ibn Iyad is no stranger to our Islamic tradition. He is a scholar and a virtuous figure who is known for his wisdom, trustworthiness, piety and spirituality. However, contrary to what many might think, he wasn’t born on a silver platter, nor was he brought up with a prestigious religious education. As a matter of fact, he was once the head of a highway robbery syndicate.
How did someone who is known for delinquency and misdeed not only turn over a new leaf but reach an excellent level of virtue and is remembered today for his immense contributions and good deeds? What could’ve motivated him to change? What were the hurdles he had to face?
Fudayl was born around a century after the Hijrah of the Prophet s.a.w, in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan. Being part of the silk road, merchants and travellers in those areas used to journey together in caravans between cities and towns.
Although these roads were common pathways for people to travel, governments did not provide upkeep as much as they were in the towns and cities. This meant that it was not uncommon for outlaws to be present in isolated areas. Hence, travelling together was the safer option. However, there was no guarantee a caravan could be safe from highway robbers.
Today, a lot of heist-genre films can give us an idea of how these fail-proof robberies were planned out skillfully. During his youthful days, Fudayl was the head of his group of highwaymen. Imam Az-Zahabi narrated about Fudayl: Fudayl Ibn Iyad was a clever person who (once) robbed people along the road between Abiward (an ancient Sassanid city, present-day Turkmenistan) and Sarakhs (a city in present-day Iran).
Falling in love
Amidst his turbulent life, Fudayl came across a young maiden whom he fell in love with and longed to chance upon again. Instead of planning for the next heist, it became his priority to cross paths with her again. His motivation to amass wealth was extinguished by the pure and calm flame of love for someone dear to his heart.
This feeling began to govern his thoughts and movements. While observing the road and the caravans to map out the following heists, Fudayl set himself in sites that allowed him to see the young lady from afar.
According to the late Syrian scholar, Shaykh Al-Bouti, a pure sense of love (not to be mistaken for lust and desires) is the first step for a person to reach God, regardless of where it is directed or inclined to. He explains the reason is that the path of love is one. What matters is for the person to not cease his or her journey to one of the ‘destinations’ and settle upon it, but to continue walking on the path and to know that the Absolute and First beloved is at the end of that path, Allah s.w.t.
Islam is a beautiful religion where love plays a central role in our faith. For instance, the innate feeling of love we experience in life, such as the love for our spouses, is part of His signs to help us discover our Creator, Allah s.w.t.
This allows us to not only have a more blissful life with our loved ones, but it also establishes in us a more fulfilling sense of purpose in loving another.
Our faith does not tell us to give up or disregard any kind of ‘worldly’ love. Rather, the love we experience in this world should lead us to love Allah s.w.t. even more. In other words, our love for Allah s.w.t. should be even greater than the love for His creations.
As the days passed by, Fudayl yearned, even more, to actually meet the young lady. One night, he finally set out to the place where she resided. Without knocking on the door, he climbed the wall that surrounded her house.
As he sat on top of the wall, Fudayl heard a voice reciting the Quran in the middle of the night:
The divine words of Allah s.w.t. reached him deeply as he was overwhelmed in the state of love, liberated from the clutches of his desires. The verse struck him. He paused and then climbed back down from the walls while repeatedly uttering to himself and answering the verse, “certainly my Lord..the time has come”.
That night became a life-changing moment for Fudayl. Everything was as clear as day. He committed himself to the path laid before him, saying “O Allah, i truly repent to you, and I declare my repentance by being near to your sacred House of worship (Al-Bayt Al-Haram)”.
Walking on the path of repentance
Fudayl left everything that night. He left his infamous title of being the head of a highway robbery syndicate, his ambitions of amassing wealth from stolen goods, and even the young lady he once yearned to meet. He committed himself to repentance from his former life by journeying to Makkah.
Repentance is not only for the pious. In fact, it is exactly for people who have wronged themselves and others. Even if our sins are as big as mountains, we should not let them overwhelm us as if to give up on life, but to look upon the mercy of Allah s.w.t. and sincerely return to him.
A sense of guilt for our shortcomings is not necessarily negative or harmful to our well-being. The companion of the Prophet, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud r.a. said:
This constant state of vigilance is what helped Fudayl Ibn Iyad to continue walking on the path of repentance. The closer he was to Allah s.w.t. in remembering and exalting Him, the more he developed his sense of fear (khauf) of Allah and sadness (huzn) for the shortcomings in his previous life.
Fear of Allah s.w.t. is not the same as having fear of His creations. It helps us to draw closer to Him. Ibn Al-Qayyim states:
“The heart in its journey towards Allah s.w.t. is like a bird whose head is love, and hope and fear are its two wings.”
Both fear and hope for Allah s.w.t. are important for the development of our soul and it should meet the right balance.
When life is easy and granted to our liking, it can be challenging to continue staying vigilant. In times like these, it can be helpful to reflect on our shortcomings and how far we are from being perfect. Fudayl was able to be consistently vigilant of his shortcomings by reciting and reflecting on the Quran, establishing a discipline for the remembrance of Allah s.w.t, contemplating his fate in the hereafter, and recalling back his regrettable younger days in Samarkand.
Developing his intellectual rise
On his way to fulfil his promise in Makkah, Fudayl stopped by Baghdad and then to Kufah, two important cities that were the central hub for knowledge and civilisation at that point in time. He stayed for some years to learn about the religion and master its sciences.
Repentance is not a self-destructive path where a person rejects the pleasures of life to seek retribution. In essence, repenting means to return back to Allah s.w.t, and it should be on the basis of knowledge. When a person wants to make a ‘hijrah’ in his or her life, there is no shortcut but to start by learning about the religion.
The first verse revealed upon the Prophet s.a.w. enjoins us to read, which is key to attaining knowledge. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
Fudayl was so sincere and dedicated in his pursuits that he eventually became recognised for his knowledge, wisdom and piety, during his later years in Kufah. Many scholars of hadith attributed him to be ‘trustworthy’ (thiqah) – a strict condition and praiseworthy status for narrators of hadith.
Amongst the many testimonies about his knowledge and piety, Ibn ‘Ammad narrated Ibn Nasir Ad-Deen, who described Fudayl as follows:
Fudayl Ibn ‘Iyad – Abu Ali At-Tamimi Al-Khurosani, (was) the Imam of the sacred house, Shaykhul-Islam, the exemplary of scholars and noble figure. (Imam) As-Shafi’i and Yahya Al-Qattan, amongst others, learnt (narrated) hadiths from him. He was a faithful, impressive, trustworthy, noble, devoted, ascetic, and dignified imam.
Fulfilling his promise
After spending a number of years in Kufah learning about the religion and its sciences, Fudayl has finally moved on and reached Makkah for the Hajj season. He was now a changed person, and yet, Fudayl was never deluded by the praises he received. He had come to terms with his past by accepting that it happened, but never forgot about his shortcomings. He remained vigilant and aware of himself.
Being haunted by our past could cripple us from developing into better versions of ourselves. However, being conscious of our shortcomings is important to help us avoid making the same mistake or worse, becoming narcissistically self-conceited.
Ibn ‘Ata’illah once said in his famous aphorisms of wisdom:
أجهَلُ الناس مَنْ ترك يقين ما عنده لظنِّ ما عند الناس
The most ignorant of people are those who abandon what he certainly knows of himself for what people suspect he is
In other words, he who abandons what he certainly knows (yaqeen) of himself of his flaws and shortcomings for the praises of others (dzon) is ignorant.
Fudayl embodied this value and discipline, which can be seen from testimonies of his state during the day of Arafah. It was narrated how people saw Fudayl was crying over his shortcomings: “Truly I am ashamed of myself, even if You (O Allah) have forgiven me”
Fudayl Ibn Iyad spent his remaining years in Makkah with his family until his death. He had a son, Ali, who was also known for his knowledge and piety, a trait he developed from the upbringing of his father. More importantly, Fudayl fulfilled his promise and contributed immensely to the Islamic tradition.
This is a story about love and repentance. A servant’s journey back to His Lord. In Islam, it is never too late to return back to Allah s.w.t, The One who created us, brought us into this world and allowed us to experience joy, happiness and laughter, because of His wisdom, mercy and love.
There are many other inspiring stories of hope and resilience, such as the case of Sayyidina Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a, who once tried to kill the Prophet, but ended up being one of his closest companions that is revered by many today.
It can be difficult to change. More often than not, it is better to take gradual steps than drastic ones. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. taught us that the best kind of deeds are those that are consistent, even if they are small. Fudayl taught us that we must commit wholeheartedly when the situation demands it.
If the path of repentance feels overwhelming, seek counsel from our Asatizah. Just as how Fudayl Ibn ‘Iyad returned to Allah s.w.t. from experiencing pure love, may we too be granted the pleasure of walking the path of love and be guided back to Him.
And Allah knows best.
About the author: Upon graduating from Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, Ustaz Mateen pursued his studies at Al-Azhar University and graduated with a degree in Islamic Theology, specialising in Creed and Philosophy.
Leave a Reply