This is an interesting question I received from one of my students a few years ago. I am sharing this with you because I felt you may find it beneficial and thoughtful. . .
“. . . are you saying that the practice of asceticism, which is to physically renounce the pleasures of life for spiritual reasons, in not encourage by Islam? That would appear to contradict part of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) because the Prophet (PBUH) use to journey to Mount Hira and climbed up to a cave for spiritual reasons. If the Messenger (PBUH) felt it was necessary to go on several of these spiritual retreats to a desolate cave on a mountain and if all Muslims are required to emulate the Prophet (PBUH) then Islam does promote some form of ascetic practice. Are Muslims allowed to practice asceticism for a limited amount of time? Throughout the Quran, Allah appears to make a distinction between Islam and the life of this world and demands people to chose one but not both. Such as ayah 57:20, in which Allah seems to emphatically condemn what the world has to offer (the nonessential aspect) and describes it as insignificant. How can asceticism be simply a metaphor, which was the impression I got from your last email, if Allah so strongly denounces the pleasures of this life?”
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful:
I will try to explain more clearly with verses from the Quran, Traditions from the Prophet, sayings of the Companions, writings of the Scholars, and commentaries of the Activists.
The Quran says:
The true servants of the Gracious One are those who walk upon the earth with humility and . . . They are those who are neither extravagant nor stingy, but keep a balance between the two; (25:63-67)
His people said to him, ‘Do not exult in your riches, for God does not love the exultant. But seek the Home of the Hereafter by means of that which God has bestowed on you; do not forget to take your share in this world.’ (28:76-77)
The Prophet said:
“There is no celibacy in Islam.”
“There is no monasticism in Islam.”
“Nine portions of God’s bounty are in commerce.”
“Abstinence from the world is not by denouncing as prohibited that which is permitted or by neglecting wealth to go to waste. On the contrary, abstinence means that you do not place greater reliance on what you have in your own hands than you do on what lies in Allah’s hands, and when misfortune strikes, you have such faith in the reward for bearing it with patience that you wish it could remain with you.”
When the Prophet knew of a man who spent all his days in the mosque, praying and reciting Quran, he asked the Companions “How does he provide for his food and shelter?” They told him, “His brother spends on him so he can devote all his time to God alone.” The Prophet said, “His brother is better than him.”
The Companion Ali ibn Abi Talib said:
“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
Imam Hassan al-Basri said:
“Zuhd [detachment from the world] resides in the heart, and it can be achieved by ridding the heart of the slavery from the love and the eagerness for this life. This way, the world will be in one’s hand, not in his heart, where the love for Allah Glorified and Exalted and the Hereafter will and should reside.”
Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal said:
“Zuhd [renouncing worldly pleasures for gaining Allah’s closeness] in this world is: to not be overjoyed with what one possessed and to not be distressed by turning away from it (i.e. the world).
So he (Imam Ahmed) was asked about a man who has 1000 Dirhams, and if such could be considered a Zaa’hid (i.e. one who renounces this world).
Imam Ahmed said, “Yes, but with one condition, which is: if his wealth increases, he does not become too joyful; and if it decreases, he does not become distressed.”
Imam Ibn Taymiyyah said:
“Zuhd [detachment from the world] is to leave alone those things which will not benefit you in the next life. And piety is to leave the things you fear might harm you in the next life.”
“The position of wealth should be regarded like that of the toilet, in that there is need for it, but it has no place in the heart, and it is resorted to when needed.”
More recently — Ahmed Taleb of Algeria said:
“The Prophet himself did not opt to live far away from the camp of men. He did not say to youth: ‘ Sell what you have and follow me.’ On the contrary, he worked and toiled among things as they are. He did not achieve the glory of the just, except by way of the risk of his life. . . We see him sharing personally in the construction of the Mosque and the dwellings of the emigrants. Later, carrying arms, he put himself at the head of his troops. Charged to deliver a message he opted for action, because he was convinced that amessage can only pass from the realm of idea to the realm of life by taking the hard road of involvement.
Thus, Islam commends action – we plainly see – just as, no less explicitly, it condemns craven aloofness from it.”
Finally — Ali Muzrui of Kenya reflected:
“Commercial activity is . . . part of the origins of Islam. . . . Muhammad might well be the only founder of a major religion who was once a man of commerce. He attended to some of the trading interests of his wealthy wife. . . A verse from the Quran assures Muslims that it is not wrong to seek a livelihood in trade and exchange [even] in the course of the pilgrimage (2:198).
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So this is the orthodox view, but why so much emphasis on renouncing the world in the first place? Why does Allah so strongly denounces the pleasures of this life? Let me share with you one passage and one Tradition:
But you prefer the life of this world, although the Hereafter is better and more lasting. (88:16-17)
So the reason for the emphasis is that most people prefer the life of this world even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting.
This meaning is confirmed by the Prophet’s LAST WORDS as he was dying:
“By God, I do not fear poverty for you; rather I fear that you will covet this worldly life as those before you coveted it, and you will compete over it as those before you competed over it, and it would destroy you as those before were destroyed.”
So the worldly life is BAD when it is seen as an end of itself. However, it is GOOD when it is seen as tool and gift from God to be harnessed and used for the realization of justice on Earth and the fulfillment of those responsibilities which God has enjoined on humanity.
One more thing, the Prophet never went back to Hiraa after receiving the first revelation. This is the cue to him and all his followers that Salvation is not found by running away from the world; it is found by engaging the world and working to make it a reflection of God’s Kingdom. This can only be done with effort, resources, wealth, and right guidance.