In the Qur’aan-e-Kareem Allah Ta’ala praises a certain Sahaabi and his wife for their self-abnegation. Self-abnegation is the attribute of forsaking one’s own right or preference for the right or preference of another. In the Shariah this is termed as Iethaar. The relevant Aayat in this regard states:
“And they give preference [to others] over themselves in spite of them being needy.” (Surah Hashr, 9)
Some visitors came to meet Rasoolullah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam). Rasoolullah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) asked the Sahaabah, who among them will host the visitors? Several Sahaabah were keen to host them. Each visitor was taken by one Sahaabi to his home. Hazrat Abu Talha (Radhiyallahu anhu) was also among those who offered to share the duty of hosting the visitors. He took along to his home the visitor entrusted to him. However, at home there was not sufficient food for him, his wife and the visitor. He told his wife to prepare the food and to blow off the lamp when the food was laid down. In the dark, without additional oil for the lamp, he would pretend to be eating with the visitor.
The wife was also a waliyyah who did not complain. She understood. When Hazrat Abu Talha and the guest started eating the light was extinguished. Hazrat Abu Talha (Radhiyallahu anhu) bade the guest to continue eating as they did not have oil for reigniting the lamp. The guest ate to his fill whilst Hazrat Abu Talha pretended to be eating. All the food was eaten up. That night Hazrat Abu Talha and his wife, Umme Talha (Radhiyallahu anhum) went to sleep without supper and hungry. But they were contented as they had seen to the needs of the guest of Rasoolullah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) whom they loved dearer than themselves and dearer than anyone else in the world.
The next morning when Hazrat Abu Talha came to Rasoolullah (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) he found Rasoolullah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) beaming. Wahi had come down in the form of Gracious Verses of the Qur’aan extolling the virtue of the action of Hazrat Abu Talha and his wife (Radhiyallahu anhuma). They had given preference to the right of the guest over themselves. Their attribute of Iethaar or self-abnegation was praised with glowing terms in the Qur’aan-e-Kareem.
Iethaar is part of the Akhlaaq of a Mu-min. The earliest Muslims – the illustrious Sahaabah (Radhiyallahu anhum) – were paragons of Iethaar. Once, during a battle a Sahaabi heard the cry of a brother Muslim for water. The Sahaabi crying out for water was in the throes of death on the battlefield. Just as the Sahaabi was about to administer water to the dying Sahaabi they heard a call for water from another Sahaabi who had also fallen in battle. The Sahaabi who was about to drink stopped and gestured to the Sahaabi who had the water to firstly give the other dying Muslim water to drink. The water carrier rushed to the other Sahaabi who was calling for water. But just as this Sahaabi was about to drink, yet another call for water was heard. This Sahaabi also refused to drink and sent the Sahaabi who had the water to the third caller. The Sahaabi rushed to that person. Seven times this happened. Each time, a dying Sahaabi who was about to have his last drink of water on earth, heard a voice crying for water from another dying Muslim and sent the water to his dying brother.
When the Sahaabi reached the seventh caller he found that he passed away. The Sahaabi with the water rushed back to the previous Sahaabi only to see that he, too, had passed away. In panic he ran to the previous caller, only to find this one also shaheed. In this way all seven drank from the Cup of Martyrdom without having that last drink of water. All had sacrificed their comfort for the comfort of their brethren. They had displayed unique self-abnegation even during the last moments of their lives.
The Awliya of former times bore the hallmark of Iethaar. Once, Hazrat Shah Abdur Raheem Saheb who is the father of Shah Waliyullah Dehlwi – the patriarch of the Ulama of Deoband – was walking on a narrow stretch of road. To the right and left was a marsh. Whilst walking on this narrow path, from the opposite side a dog came. Both came face-to-face. Both could not pass by at the same time. One had to get down into the marsh. They both stared at each other. By way of karaamat they started conversing.
Shah Abdur Raheem: Friend! Get down so that I can move along.
Dog: Why must I get down into the mud? What makes you more distinguished than me? Alas! Buzrugs of former times had Iethaar in them, whilst Buzrugs of today adopt Ikhtiyaar (i.e. they are given to self-regard).
Shah Abdur Raheem: No! That is not the case. You are mistaken. I am telling you to go down because you are not obligated to keep yourself paak (clean) and perform Salaat. If you get muddy and napaak (impure) you will soon become dry and clean. If, however, I get soiled and my clothes get soiled then I will have to wash myself and my clothes thoroughly to regain tahaarat (purification). That may delay my Salaat.
Dog: Fine. I have no problem in this, but remember that if you get into the mud you can wash yourself and your clothes with a bucket or two of water. On the other hand, if I get into the mud whilst you consider yourself holier than me, then your heart will not be purified of the dirt (i.e. the pride) in it even with all the water from the seven seas.
When Hazrat Shah Abdur Raheem Saheb heard this he went into a spiritual frenzy and immediately jumped into the dirty marsh allowing the dog to pass through. He then expressed his deep gratitude unto Allah Ta’ala for conferring to him such a wealth of guidance and knowledge, thus saving him from spiritual ruin.
This is Iethaar which is encouraged, and at times waajib, provided that it does not cause oneself or one’s family unbearable difficulty. In a situation like that of Hazrat Abu Talha (Radhiyallahu anhu), if by leaving all the food for the visitor one will suffer unbearable hunger or one’s children will have to endure hunger then it will not be permissible to exercise Iethaar.
There are many scenarios which require expert guidance to understand the category of the Iethaar. And, that guidance can be acquired from the Ulama Raasikheen (Expert Ulama) and the Mashaaikh of Tasawwuf. May Allah Ta’ala strengthen our Imaan and adorn us with noble character amongst which Iethaar has always been pivotal in good character. And the significance of good character can be adequately understood by the Hadeeth of Rasoolullah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) declaring good character as the weightiest of virtues on the Pan of the Scale of Deeds in Qiyaamat.