Yesterday, I went to the beach. As I sat watching the massive Californian waves, I realized something strange. The ocean is so breathtakingly beautiful. But just as it is beautiful, it is also deadly. The same spellbinding waves, which we appreciate from the shore, can kill us if we enter them. Water, the same substance necessary to sustain life, can end life, in drowning. And the same ocean that holds ships afloat can shatter those ships to pieces.
This worldly life, the dunya, is just like the ocean. And our hearts are the ships. We can use the ocean for our needs and as a means to get to our final destination. But the ocean is only that: a means. It is a means for seeking food of the sea. It is a means of travel. It is a means of seeking a higher purpose. But it is something which we only pass through, but never think to remain in. Imagine what would happen if the ocean became our end – rather than just a means.
Eventually we would drown.
As long as the ocean’s water remains outside the ship, the ship will continue to float and be in control. But what happens as soon as the water creeps into the ship? What happens when the dunya is not just water outside of our hearts, when the dunya is no longer just a means? What happens when the dunya enters our heart?
That is when the boat sinks.
That is when the heart is taken hostage and becomes a slave. And that is when the dunya – which was once under our control – begins to control us. When the ocean’s water enters and overtakes a ship, that ship is no longer in control. The boat then becomes at the mercy of the ocean.
To stay afloat, we must view this world in exactly the same way, for Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’ala) has told us that “Verily in the creation of the heavens and the earth are signs for those who reflect.” (Qur’an,3:190) We live in the dunya, and the dunya is in fact created for our use. Detachment from dunya (zuhd) does not mean that we do not interact with this world. Rather, the Prophet ﷺ has taught us that we must:
Anas (Radiallahu Anhu) said: “Three people came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, to ask about how the Prophet ﷺ worshipped. When they were told, it was as if they thought it was little and said, ‘Where are we in relation to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, who has been forgiven his past and future wrong actions?’” He said, “One of them said, ‘I will pray all of every night.’ Another said, ‘I will fast all the time and not break the fast.’ The other said, “I will withdraw from women and never marry.’ The Messenger of Allah came to them and said, ‘Are you the ones who said such-and-such? By Allah, I am the one among you with the most fear and awareness of Allah, but I fast and break the fast, I pray and I sleep, and I marry women. Whoever disdains my sunnah is not with me.’” [Sahih Bukhari]
The Prophet ﷺ did not withdraw from the dunya in order to be detached from it. His detachment was much deeper. It was the detachment of the heart. His ultimate attachment was only to Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’ala) and the home with Him, for he truly understood the words of God:
“What is the life of this world but amusement and play? But verily the Home in the Hereafter, – that is life indeed, if they but knew.” (Qur’an, 29:64)
Detachment does not even mean that we cannot own things of the dunya. In fact many of the greatest companions were wealthy. Rather, detachment is that we view and interact with the dunya for what it really is: just a means. Detachment is when the dunya remains in our hand – not in our heart. As `Ali (Radiallahu Anhu) expressed beautifully, “Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
Like the ocean’s water entering the boat, the moment that we let the dunya enter our hearts, we will sink. The ocean was never intended to enter the boat; it was intended only as a means that must remain outside of it. The dunya, too, was never intended to enter our heart. It is only a means that must not enter or control us. This is why Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’ala) repeatedly refers to the dunya in the Qur’an as a mata’a. The word mata’a can be translated as a “resource for transitory worldly delight.” It is a resource. It is a tool. It is the path—not the destination.
And it is this very concept that the Prophet ﷺ spoke about so eloquently when he said:
“What relationship do I have with this world? I am in this world like a rider who halts in the shade of a tree for a short time, and after taking some rest, resumes his journey leaving the tree behind.” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi)
Consider for a moment the metaphor of a traveler. What happens when you’re traveling or you know that your stay is only temporary? When you’re passing through a city for one night, how attached do you get to that place? If you know it’s temporary, you’ll be willing to stay at Motel 6. But would you like to live there? Probably not. Suppose your boss sent you to a new town to work on a limited project. Suppose he didn’t tell you exactly when the project would end, but you knew that you could be returning home, any day. How would you be in that town? Would you invest in massive amounts of property and spend all your savings on expensive furniture and cars? Most likely not. Even while shopping, would you buy cart-loads of food and other perishables? No. You’d probably hesitate about buying any more than you need for a couple days – because your boss could call you back any day.
This is the mindset of a traveler. There is a natural detachment that comes with the realization that something is only temporary. That is what the Prophet ﷺ in his wisdom, is talking about in this profound hadith. He understood the danger of becoming engrossed in this life. In fact, there was nothing he feared for us more.
He ﷺ said, “By Allah I don’t fear for you poverty, but I fear that the world would be abundant for you as it has been for those before you, so you compete for it as they have competed for it, so it destroys you as it has destroyed them.” (Agreed upon)
The blessed Prophet ﷺ recognized the true nature of this life. He understood what it meant to be in the dunya, without being of it. He sailed the very same ocean that we all must. But his ship knew well from where it had come, and to where it was going. His was a boat that remained dry. He understood that the same ocean which sparkles in the sunlight, will become a graveyard for the ships that enter it.