Today, I will be narrating to us the beautiful story of Abdullah bin al-Mubarak—Allahu Akbar. Those who know this great man and are familiar with his story will understand why I mentioned his name and then magnified the Name of Allah. Ibn Mubarak is an embodiment of piety. In other words, he is a role model to whoever chooses to fear Allah. One would wonder and ask; why not our noble Prophet (SAW)? The answer is simple. Indisputably, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is our ultimate role model. The Qur’an attests to it “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammad SAW) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much” (Q33:21).
However, there is this common notion that the Prophet is a unique being such that we should not try to be like him. But as it is apparent from the instruction given in the verse quoted above, we are supposed to emulate him and try to be like him. The right thing to say is that—and Allah knows best—we should endeavor to be like him, though we cannot be like him in the real sense. In that case, we cannot be perfect but we can come near perfection. With this clarification and understanding, we turn to the story of Ibn Mubarak as one of our role models. In his own case, the right thing to say is; ‘we should endeavor to be like him and we can actually be like him by the leave of Allah.’
Abdullah bin al-Mubarak was a scholar who possess many virtues. He was known for combining numerous traits of virtue. It was reported that his friends would sit and count all of the good things about his character and personality. Adh-Dhahabi related that they said: “Let’s sit and count the good traits that Ibn al-Mubarak has.” So, they ended up listing: “Knowledge, Fiqh (jurisprudence), literature, grammar, language, zuhd (ascetism), eloquence, poetry, praying at night, worship, Hajj, Jihad, bravery, instinct, strength, speaking little in what doesn’t concern him, fairness, and lack of conflict with his companions.”
This is Interesting! One single person? All these attributes? Can our friends or those who know us rightly attribute these attributes to us? I wish we can say ‘yes’. But in reality, the answer is ‘no’—at least for me. We may all set this target for ourselves if we so wish. One important lesson to learn from this pious man is that he was not born with these qualities. In fact, he was initially a wrong doer, a bad person, and a drunkard—a chronic drinker of alcohol.
Al-Qadi ‘Iyad mentioned that Ibn al-Mubarak was asked about the circumstances in which he began studying. Let’s listen to his response: “I was a youth who drank wine and loved music and singing. While engaging in these filthy acts, I gathered some friends to one of my gardens where there were sweet apples, and we ate and drank until we slept off while drunk. At the end of the night, I woke up and picked up the stringed lute (a musical instrument similar to the guitar) and began singing: “Isn’t it time that you had mercy on me, and we rebel against those who criticize us?
And I was unable to pronounce the words as I intended. When I tried again, the lute began speaking to me as if it were a person, saying the verse: “Isn’t it time for the hearts of those who believe to be affected by Allah’s reminder?” (Q57:16). This is found in ‘Tartib al-Madarik’ (1/159). This is the verse that changed Ibn Mubarak completely and turned him to Allah. If we can all memorize this verse, it could be of great help. Each time I recite this verse, my inner response invariably is: ‘it is time.’ Especially now that we are living in a time in which death is closer to us just as we are closer to it due to perennial insecurity; due to injustice and cruelty of men against their fellow men; due to our hearts that are bereft of the fear of Allah. Indeed, it is high time, and the time has come for the hearts of those who believe to be affected by Allah’s reminder.
It will be difficult, of course, for the hardened heart to have place for the remembrance of Allah. But it will be easy for a tender heart to be affected by Allah’s reminder. In this regard, Ibn Mubarak still outdid most of his contemporaries. In ‘Sifat as-Safwah’ (2/330), al-Qasim bin Muhammad said: “We were on a journey with Ibn al-Mubarak, and I was always asking myself: what is so special about this man that he is so famous? If he prays, we also pray. If he fasts, we also fast. If he fights, we also fight. If he makes Hajj, we do as well.
One night, we spent the night in a house traveling on the way to Sham. The lamp went out, and some of us woke up. So, he took the lamp outside to light it, and stayed outside for a while. When he came back in with the lamp, I caught a glimpse of Ibn al-Mubarak’s face, and saw that his beard was wet with his tears. I said to myself: “This fear of Allah is what has made this man better than us. When the lamp went out and we were in darkness, he remembered the Day of Resurrection.””
Let’s pause to ask a question. We must have, several times, shed tears and even cried loudly for the lost of our beloved. We must have cried for the sight of our darling ones who were in pain due to sickness. Perhaps we have witnessed a horrible scene of accident and tears uncontrollably rolled down our cheeks. Have we ever shed tears, in isolation, for the fear of Allah? For the gravity of our sins? And in contemplation of where will be our final abode (Hell or Paradise)? This is what made Ibn Mubarak worthy of emulation. This his despite his sordid past.
So, no matter how bad you think you are, you can still become Allah’s friend. And the Qur’an says about Allah’s friends: “Unquestionably, [for] the allies of Allah there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve –Those who believed and were fearing Allah. For them are good tidings in the life of the present world and in the Hereafter. No change can there be in the words [i.e., decrees] of Allah, this is indeed the supreme success. And let not their speech grieve you, for all power and honor belong to Allah entirely. He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. (Q10:62-65).
Of the story of Ibn Mubarak, as recorded by Muslim scholars in their voluminous books, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope many would admire him and his sterling attributes. Our prayer to Allah is: “Our Lord! Bestow on us from our wives and our offspring who will be the comfort of our eyes, and make us leaders for the Muttaqun (the righteous)”. O Allah, forgive Ibn Mubarak and have mercy on him.
Abdulkadir Salaudeen writes from Nigeria