Understanding Greatness

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

All praise is due to Allah, the Creator of the heavens and earth and all that they contain. He alone is truly worthy of praise as He is the possessor and source of every good. May the best benedictions and peace be upon the best of creation, the master of the Messengers and Imam of the Prophets, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). To proceed:

There was an incident that occurred months before the birth of Allah’s final messenger (peace and blessings be upon him). A religious zealot built a temple which he planned would replace the Ka’ba in Mecca as a place for religious pilgrimage. Instead, an Arab snuck in and defaced it showing the opinion of the masses regarding it. Angry, this zealous Christian king, Abraha, raised an army and marched towards Mecca with the aim of destroying the Ka’ba. Abraha, upon arriving to the outskirts of the city confiscated all of the herds which were there. Amongst those herds, there were two hundred camels which belonged to Abdu-l-Mutalib, the grandfather of Allah’s messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).

Abraha had sent an envoy to the Meccans informing them that he had no intention of shedding their blood as long as they did not resist him; his only aim was to destroy the Ka’ba. He offered to meet with their chief if they sought any negotiations and so, the chief of the Quraish tribe, Abdu-l-Mutalib, returned with the envoy to meet with Abraha. Seeing the stature, physical beauty and nobility of abdu-l-Mutalib, Abraha honored him, descending from his elevated seat to sit with him. When they began to speak, Abdu-l-Mutalib said, “O’ king, you have taken a great deal of wealth from me, so return it back to me.” Abraha became frustrated at this and replied, “You had indeed impressed me when I saw you but now, now I withdraw that admiration from you.” Abdu-l-Mutalib asked why and Abraha responded, “I have come to destroy the house that is scared to your religion and that of your fathers, the house which is your sanctuary and protection yet you do not speak to me about that. Instead, you speak to me about some camels which belong to you.” At this, Abdu-l-Mutalib informed him, “I am the lord of these camels, this house has its own Lord and He will defend it.” After this discussion Abdu-l-Mutalib’s camels were indeed returned to him and the entire historical incident unfolded and indeed, God protected the Ka’ba.

This story directs one to reflect on what it means to be truly dignified and noble; to what it really means to be great. This forces me to once again visit one of my favorite essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Uses of Great Men.” In this essay he makes such a wonderful point, saying, “Every hero becomes a bore at last.” How often is it that we look at outward features, be it physical appearances, attire, mannerisms, or eloquence, and judge a person as “great” only to then be “let down” by the reality of their being human like ourselves. But as Emerson points out, “there are no common men. All men are at last of a size…Heaven reserves an equal scope for every creature.”

As every believing Muslim must know, looking at and judging solely on the outward aspects of another is satanic. This is a tyranny against our fellow man, regardless of his realities. Like Iblis, such an individual shall never be satisfied with the humanity of a human. So then we must ask, “what is greatness? How do we weigh it?”

Greatness is not that one is the most knowledgeable or the most articulate. It is not that one be the most wealthy or possess the best of products. It isn’t even that one has a beauty or is dressed well. Rather, true greatness is something that springs up from within. If we were to revisit the story of Abdu-l-Mutalib’s meeting with Abraha, we find that Abdu-l-Mutalib indeed possessed beauty, wealth, wisdom, and was articulate. This is what gave him stature in Abraha’s eyes. Interestingly, it was his true greatness that caused him to fall from his esteem. His true greatness laid in his sincerity, his faith and his taking care of what he was responsible for. Emerson mentioned in his essay, “Life is a sincerity.” The type of sincerity which I indicate as greatness is that one is true to themselves and congruent with the principles they attest to living by. As for faith, it is not the faith that one buries in their hearts, forget about and only investigate when conflicts arise. No. By faith I mean those beliefs by which a person’s judgements, decisions and actions are bound. Their true convictions which shape how they see and react to the world. It is that faith that is manifested in every act that they do and every word they say. As for the final element, taking care of that which one is responsible for, by this we mean that they do not busy themselves with matters that neither concern them in this life or the hereafter. This is as Imam An-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy upon him) advised his students, “If you are not busying yours of with matters to benefit your hereafter, at least be busy benefiting your life in this world.” It is foolishness to spend our time, energy, or wealth on matters that are of no consequence in this life or the next. Greatness lies in caring for those matters which we will be questioned about on the day of judgement.

In this age mankind has become diseased. Sadly, for all the advancements in technology, healthcare and the like we seem to be living in a new dark-age; one filled with moral decadence. We have made ourselves small by fabricating ourselves anew nearly every day to get “liked”, by betraying our faith, seeing it as a social taboo, and by concerning ourselves with the everyday trifles in the lives of others whom we have never and most likely never will meet. We see an age of humanity in which mankind is so materialistic that they are led like cattle by every newly marketed marvel be it people, places or things. We see the latest and greatest being chased around like some deity to receive homage in the form of our wealth, our energies, and our very lives. We must make a shift towards the guidance of the best of creation (peace and blessings be upon him) who taught, “the best of one’s Islam (submitting to God) is that he leaves that which does not concern him.” A stricter translation might read, “he leaves that which is not meant for him.”

True greatness will be found when we begin leaving off that which is not meant for us to concern ourselves with. When we begin to focus our attention, our energies, our wealth and our time on that which we must inevitably stand before Allah and answer for. Abdu-l-Mutalib understood that he was not responsible for the Ka’ba. No matter how sacred and beloved it is, he was not personally responsible. His camels on the other hand, this was his responsibility. This must be understood very well and was highlighted by a lesson one of my teachers taught us. That is, “a man should be found in one of three places. If he is not at one, you will find him at one of the other two. His work, his home or the masjid.” It is true that we may visit others or stop by a store or even visit a park or the like. However, our energy and focus should be spent on the places for which we are responsible to be before our Lord.

I would say, I do not mean that your body is in these three places while your eyes, your ears, your heart and your mind are thousands of miles away in social media or the Internet! I mean that you attention, focus and energy is spent in these places so as to prepare that which you will send forth for tomorrow.

Nobility, dignity and honor spring from within. They become manifested in uprightness but all of this is masked by our simplistic human nature. Being sincere inwardly and outwardly, publicly and privately and mindfully manifesting your convictions in your every word and deed – all while caring after that which you are responsible for – that is what it means to be truly great.

Our prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was the greatest man who ever lived and there should never be any doubt regarding this. What is it that we find in his life? As one can read in “Coming to Know the Beloved (peace and blessings be upon him)”, we see that he was the best of humanity in regards to companionship such that everyone thought they were the most beloved to him. He was never asked except that he would give, assist in getting it, or supplicate on their behalf. He treated the strong and the weak, the wealthy and the poor the same but preferred to be amongst the impoverished and he was known to walk on foot to the ends of the city just to visit the infirm He was kind and merciful; he never criticized or looked down on others contemptuously. He would always give preference to the needs of others.

He was equitable and tolerant, patient and forbearing. He never became angry for himself but rather would become angry only when the rights of others or the laws of Allah, the Exalted were violated and when he became angry he would avert his face and only manifest it in the most appropriate of ways. He respected the elders, honored the youth and did not distinguish himself in appearance from his companions. His displeasure and censure was but a hint or allusion and he never repaid an evil with evil.

He preferred the hereafter to this world and spent his time in the remembrance of Allah. He was the most God-Fearing and Go-conscious of creation yet, he would do manual labor, such as his carrying stones when building the masjid and assisting in the digging of the ditch. He would mend his own sandals and clothes, clean around his home and serve his family.

This is the example of our messenger, of the seal of prophethood, of the beloved of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him). This is indeed the example of true greatness. It was not about eloquence, fancy clothes, fine grooming, having wealth or some special seat above others! It was about his faith, his sincerity and his fulfilling those responsibilities which he will be accountable for before his Lord. May the best benedictions and peace be upon him.

Until we return to manifesting the realities of the sunnah and not just outward aspects how can we ever expect to understand true greatness let alone arrive at it? We must return to focusing on and manifesting our faith, sincerity and fulfilling those responsibilities which we will be accountable for before our Lord, in relation to our personal lives, our families, our communities and the entire Ummah of Muhammad. That is not only true greatness, it is the straight path to Allah. Framed in this light, true greatness, perhaps, can be looked at with words Emerson mentioned at the closing of his essay. He said, “It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.”

Truly, with Allah alone is every success.


About hvsmrspct

Brother Wm. Halim Breiannis was born and raised in Baltimore, Md.. He accepted Islam in 1996 and has continued studying Islam since that time. Brother Halim has studied with various scholars being a direct student of Sheikh Khalil Majdalawi for ten years and has been a student with the Cordoba Academy since 2011. He is called upon to lecture, teach and act as the khateeb at masajid and universities in the Baltimore area where he continues to reside with his wife and children.
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