How to Understand the Dunya
Aman from Bani Isrā’īl once approached Prophet ‘Īsā requesting to accompany him on his travels, to which Prophet ‘Īsā agreed. During their travels, Prophet ‘Īsā noticed that their lunch – three loaves of bread – had been reduced to two. When he asked his travel companion about this, the latter responded, “I swear they were only two loaves of bread.” Choosing not to investigate any further, Prophet ‘Īsā continued on his journey.
They came across a blind man, on whom Prophet ‘Īsā would use his God-given ability to cure the blind. He passed his hand over the blind man’s eyes, imploring Allāh to cure them, and at once, his vision was restored. This amazed the companion, to whom Prophet ‘Īsā asked, “I ask you in the name of the One who cured this man, what happened to the third loaf of bread?” The companion said: “I swear they were only two loaves of bread.” Again, choosing not to investigate any further, Prophet ‘Īsā continued on his journey.
Next, they arrived at a river. The companion asked Prophet ‘Īsā, “How will we cross it?” Prophet ‘Īsā told him to say Bismillāh, “In the name of Allāh,” and to follow him. His companion was baffled, and so Prophet ‘Īsā asked him, “I ask you in the name of the One who helped us cross this river, what happened to the third loaf of bread?” The companion responded, “I swear they were only two loaves of bread.”
When they reached the other side of the river, Prophet ‘Īsā gathered three heaps of soil and asked Allāh to convert them into gold, and Allāh answered. The companion of Prophet ‘Īsā asked him, “Who do they belong to?” to which ‘Īsā responded, “The first is for me, the second is for you, and the third belongs to the one who ate the third loaf of bread”. This time, his companion proclaimed, “I ate the third loaf!” Upon hearing this, Prophet ‘Īsā decided to give him all three piles of gold before separating himself from this man.
Shortly after Prophet ‘Īsā’s departure, three horsemen passed by the man as he stood beside his newly acquired wealth. Without a second thought, they killed him, without giving him even a moment to enjoy his riches. The three horsemen divided the wealth equally between themselves. Shaytān, however, was not too far away.
Two of the three horsemen decided to plot against the third in the hope of adding his share to theirs. The two men asked the third to fetch them some food, to which he agreed. As he returned, the whispers of the devil paid him a visit as well, and he imagined the potential of having all three piles of gold to himself. He decided to poison the food of the other two men. When he arrived with their lunch, they greeted him with a series of fatal stabbings. When they sat down to eat, they keeled over from the poison and died.
Not long after, Prophet ‘Īsā passed by and saw four corpses on the ground: his ex-companion and the three horsemen. The three piles of gold remained untouched. Prophet ‘Īsā remarked, “This is what the dunya does to people.”
Muslims should tire neither from addressing the topic of life’s deception nor of hearing it being addressed. This is because of the sheer amount of emphasis that Allāh, the Maker of life, has given this topic in the Qur’ān. Furthermore, the extent to which humanity’s thoughts, concerns, plans, ambitions, happiness, sadness, hope and fear are anchored on worldly matters only strengthens the case for this topic’s paramounce.
The story of Monsieur Foscue, first published in the London Chronicle in 1762, is incredibly telling. Foscue was a farmer who had amassed a large fortune, which he had stashed in an underground room underneath his mansion. The room was a vault with a door that would snap shut after one walked through it.
One day, the rich farmer took only a candle with him and went into the room to check on his money. The door snapped shut behind him, and he exhausted all his efforts to escape in vain, but there was no one around to hear his cries.
Foscue remained mysteriously absent from the public domain until all hope in tracing him was lost. This was until his mansion was finally sold. The new owner discovered the underground cellar and found a candlestick with no candle. In a desperate attempt to stay alive, Foscue had eaten the candle and had even gnawed at his own arm to survive. Strangely, there Monsieur was, lying dead from starvation in the middle of his heaps of gold. This is the dunya.
Only Allāh truly knows of the number of relationships severed, countries invaded, lives slain, honours slandered, families neglected, and homes in the Hereafter devastated in the pursuit of worldly gain. So intoxicated they had become that they would perhaps visit the Masjid only once a week for Friday prayers, or only once a year for Eid salāh, or have entered it only once in their lives, not to pray but to be prayed for.
The Islamic texts that condemn today’s world are countless. However, if these texts are not approached correctly, they have the potential to confuse the listener and leave him in a state of limbo wondering: how does one live in a life that has been so harshly denounced by its Maker? This point will be addressed later. For now, let us take a tour of the various methods employed by the Islamic texts to help the believer manage his expectations of life, lessen his attachment to it, and see life for what it truly is: a platform for the Hereafter that is of use only as far as it serves that sole purpose.
1) Clear instructions by Allāh
At times, the Qur’ān will plainly forbid man from being deceived by the present life.
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمْ وَاخْشَوْا يَوْمًا لَا يَجْزِي وَالِدٌ عَنْ وَلَدِهِ وَلَا مَوْلُودٌ هُوَ جَازٍ عَنْ وَالِدِهِ شَيْئًا إِنَّ وَعْدَ اللَّهِ حَقٌّ فَلَا تَغُرَّنَّكُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا وَلَا يَغُرَّنَّكُمْ بِاللَّهِ الْغَرُورُ
“O humanity! Be mindful of your Lord, and beware of a Day when no parent will be of any benefit to their child, nor will a child be of any benefit to their parent. Surely, the promise of Allāh is true. Do not let the life of this world deceive you, nor let the chief deceiver [the Devil] deceive you about Allāh.”
It is important to note how the verse warns of the deception of life before the deception of Shaytān himself. This is because life is man’s primary concern, so much so that when Shaytān seeks to misguide him, his primary go-to tool is the dunya. What was it that Shaytān used to deceive our father Adam? The dunya. Shaytān said to Prophet Adam:
يَا آدَمُ هَلْ أَدُلُّكَ عَلَى شَجَرَةِ الْخُلْدِ وَمُلْكٍ لَا يَبْلَى
“O Adam, shall I show you the Tree of Immortality and a kingdom that does not fade away?”
2) A giveaway for all, even the disbelievers
In one of the most profound verses of the Qur’ān that illustrates just how insignificant the dunya is in the Eyes of its Creator, Allāh said:
وَلَوْلَا أَنْ يَكُونَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً لَجَعَلْنَا لِمَنْ يَكْفُرُ بِالرَّحْمَنِ لِبُيُوتِهِمْ سُقُفًا مِنْ فِضَّةٍ وَمَعَارِجَ عَلَيْهَا يَظْهَرُونَ (33) وَلِبُيُوتِهِمْ أَبْوَابًا وَسُرُرًا عَلَيْهَا يَتَّكِئُونَ (34) وَزُخْرُفًا وَإِنْ كُلُّ ذَلِكَ لَمَّا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةُ عِنْدَ رَبِّكَ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ
“If it were not that the people would become one community [of disbelievers], We would have made for those who disbelieve in the Most Merciful – for their houses – ceilings and stairways of silver upon which to mount, as well as [silver] gates and thrones to recline on and ornaments [of gold]. Yet all this is no more than the enjoyment in this worldly life. The Hereafter with your Lord is only for the righteous.”
In other words, the offerings of this life are so insignificant to Allāh that, had it not been for the fact that humanity would end up uniting upon disbelief, Allāh would have given to every disbeliever the luxuries made of gold and silver described above. The benchmark is the Hereafter, which He gives only to His allies.
3) Rain as an analogy
At times, the Qur’ān uses rain to depict the worthlessness of life.
وَاضْرِبْ لَهُمْ مَثَلَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا كَمَاءٍ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ فَاخْتَلَطَ بِهِ نَبَاتُ الْأَرْضِ فَأَصْبَحَ هَشِيمًا تَذْرُوهُ الرِّيَاحُ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ مُقْتَدِرًا
“Put forward to them the example of the life of this world: it is like the rain that We send down from the sky. The vegetation of the Earth mingles with it and becomes fresh and green. But [later] it becomes dry and broken pieces, which the winds scatter. Allāh is Able to do all things.”
At times, you come across land that is green, lush, and buzzing with life. Later, you may come across the exact same plot of land that has now become barren, deserted, and utterly lifeless. This is the example of life. What you see now, be it the modern cars, stashes of cash, or spacious property, will not and cannot remain.
4) The oceans as an analogy
At times, the oceans are used to illustrate the pettiness of life.
The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
مَا الدُّنْيَا في الآخِرَةِ إِلاَّ مِثْلُ مَا يَجْعَلُ أَحَدُكُمْ أُصْبُعَهُ في اليَمِّ فَلْيَنْظُرْ بِمَ يَرْجِعُ
“The life of this world in comparison to the next is like a person who dips his finger into the ocean and then raises it. Let him see how much water he comes out with.”
This analogy is clear: your savings, relationships, vacations, clothes, property, ambitions, and life as a whole – with all that it contains of towers, cities, empires, scenery, and treasures – is represented by that drop of water on your finger, whilst the Hereafter is the ocean. How many drops remain on a finger that has been lifted from the ocean? How many droplets of water are there in an ocean? Those who have allowed their worldly pursuits to interrupt their commitment to Islam have prioritised those one or two droplets over an ocean’s worth.
5) Food as an analogy
At times, food is used to illustrate the pettiness of life.
The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
إِنَّ مَطْعَمَ ابْنِ آدَمَ جُعِلَ مَثَلًا لِلدُّنْيَا وَإِنْ قَزَّحَهُ وَمَلَّحَهُ فَانْظُرُوا إِلَى مَا يَصِيرُ
“The food of man has been made an example of the worthlessness of life, for it does not matter how prepared and seasoned the food may be, look at what it becomes in the end.”
Our obsession with food requires no elaboration. Hours are spent in the kitchen and entire careers are formed around it, but the outcome is always the same: the bathroom. Thus is the example of life. Regardless of splendour today, none of this world’s pleasures shall remain on one’s deathbed, except for horrid regret towards the time lost disobeying Allāh. In fact, the more exquisite and richer the food, the more revolting the end product. Similarly, the greater one had indulged in life’s sins, the greater one’s bitter pain and revolting sense of regret will be during one’s dying moments.
Making sense of it all
The above is a snapshot of the narrations that condemn the life of today. No stone has been left unturned to guard the Muslim from falling into the nets of this life. However, at this point, we are compelled to return to the question at hand: where does this leave us, the inhabitants of life? We have been placed in a world despised by Allāh, yet the door to our salvation is through the very same world. How does this add up? Am I not allowed to be rich? Is wearing fine clothes problematic? Am I supposed to suppress my desire for being an integral part of society’s growth and progression? In short, how are we expected to be positive living in a world that is so disliked by the One we love the most?
Here, it is important to bring to the surface several key narrations for the sake of a balanced and fair approach to this topic. These narrations show that it is not as black and white as it may first seem.
The du’ā of the Prophet Muhammad for sound worldly affairs
The Prophet would say in his du’ā:
اَللَّهُمَّ أَصْلِحْ لِي دِينِي اَلَّذِي هُوَ عِصْمَةُ أَمْرِي, وَأَصْلِحْ لِي دُنْيَايَ اَلَّتِي فِيهَا مَعَاشِي, وَأَصْلِحْ لِي آخِرَتِي اَلَّتِي إِلَيْهَا مَعَادِي, وَاجْعَلْ اَلْحَيَاةَ زِيَادَةً لِي فِي كُلِّ خَيْرٍ, وَاجْعَلْ اَلْمَوْتَ رَاحَةً لِي مِنْ كُلِّ شَرٍّ
“O Allāh, rectify my religion that is a guardian of my affairs, and rectify my worldly life in which is my livelihood, and rectify my Hereafter that is my place of return. Make life an abundance of every good and make death a relief from every evil.”
The du’ā of the Prophet Muhammad for a blessed worldly life
The Prophet would say:
اللهم ! اغفر لي ذنبي ، ووسع لي في داري ، وبارك لي فيما رزقتني
“O Allāh, forgive my sins, expand for me my home, and bless for me my provisions.”
The encouragement to build the world regardless of the dire circumstances
The Prophet said:
إِنْ قَامَتْ السَّاعَةُ وَبِيَدِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَسِيلَةٌ فَإِنْ اسْتَطَاعَ أَنْ لَا يَقُومَ حَتَّى يَغْرِسَهَا فَلْيَفْعَلْ
“If the Final Hour comes while you have a plant shoot in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.”
One could ask: who will eat from such a plant? What time will it have to grow in light of the Day of Judgement that has come to pass? The idea of this narration is to encourage a positive, productive, and hard-working attitude towards life, whilst combatting the dismissive or neglectful one towards it.
With these narrations, we are now ready to share Imam Ibn Rajab’s commentary on this topic. His words resolve the ostensible conflict in our Islamic texts, some of which praise this worldly life whilst in other instances condemn it. I will first share the first half of Ibn Rajab’s explanation.
وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ الذَّمَّ الْوَارِدَ فِي الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ لِلدُّنْيَا لَيْسَ رَاجِعًا إِلَى زَمَانِهَا الَّذِي هُوَ اللَّيْلُ وَالنَّهَارُ [..] وَلَيْسَ الذَّمُّ رَاجِعًا إِلَى مَكَانِ الدُّنْيَا الَّذِي هُوَ الْأَرْضُ الَّتِي جَعَلَهَا اللَّهُ لِبَنِي آدَمَ مِهَادًا وَسَكَنًا، وَلَا إِلَى مَا أَوْدَعَ اللَّهُ فِيهَا مِنَ الْجِبَالِ وَالْبِحَارِ وَالْأَنْهَارِ وَالْمَعَادِنِ، وَلَا إِلَى مَا أَنْبَتَهُ فِيهَا مِنَ الشَّجَرِ وَالزَّرْعِ، وَلَا إِلَى مَا بَثَّ فِيهَا مِنَ الْحَيَوَانَاتِ وَغَيْرِ ذَلِكَ، فَإِنَّ ذَلِكَ كُلَّهُ مِنْ نِعْمَةِ اللَّهِ عَلَى عِبَادِهِ بِمَا لَهُمْ فِيهِ مِنَ الْمَنَافِعِ
“Realise that the condemnation of the worldly life that appears in the Qur’ān and Sunnah is not aimed at its time (its nights and days), nor is it aimed at its place (the land that Allāh made for the sons of Adam as a base and home), nor is it aimed at the blessings that Allāh has endowed it with (mountains, seas, rivers, and metals), nor is it aimed at what grows from the land (trees and crops), nor is it aimed at the animals that He spread forth, and so on. All of these matters are favours of Allāh upon His creation that benefit them…”
These words could not be any truer. Allāh describes the night, a worldly phenomenon, as one of His signs:
وَآَيَةٌ لَهُمُ اللَّيْلُ نَسْلَخُ مِنْهُ النَّهَارَ فَإِذَا هُمْ مُظْلِمُونَ
“A sign for them is the night. We withdraw therefrom the day, and behold, they are in darkness.”
Similarly, Allāh said about the earth:
وَآَيَةٌ لَهُمُ الْأَرْضُ الْمَيْتَةُ أَحْيَيْنَاهَا وَأَخْرَجْنَا مِنْهَا حَبًّا فَمِنْهُ يَأْكُلُون
“And a sign for them is the dead earth. We have brought it to life and brought forth from it grain, and from it they eat.”
So the dunya in and of itself has never been the target of blame for anything innately evil about it. On the contrary, it is a manifestation of Allāh’s mercy upon us. It is a cause of endless gratitude and a vehicle towards His remembrance. How could life be entirely evil when the doors of Paradise cannot be accessed except through the doors of life today?
‘Ali Ibn Abi Tālib said:
الدنيا دار صدق لمن صدقها ودارغنى لمن تزود منها ودار نجاة لمن فهم عنها فالدنيا مهبط وحي الله، ومصلى أنبياء الله، ومتجر أولياء الله ربحوا فيها الرحمة واكتسبوا فيها الجنة
“The dunya is a land of sincerity to those who are sincere to it, a place of prosperity for those who take from it, and a land of safety for those who understand it. After all, it is where Allāh’s revelation arrived, where the prophets prayed, and where the allies of Allāh traded having secured the mercy of Allāh through it along with Paradise.”
Now that we have discovered that life itself has not been condemned, I will share the second half of Ibn Rajab’s statement:
وَإِنَّمَا الذَّمُّ رَاجِعٌ إِلَى أَفْعَالِ بَنِي آدَمَ الْوَاقِعَةِ فِي الدُّنْيَا؛ لِأَنَّ غَالِبَهَا وَاقِعٌ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْوَجْهِ الَّذِي تُحْمَدُ عَاقِبَتُهُ
“The condemnation, however, is aimed exclusively at the actions of man that occur in the dunya, because most of them bring about blameworthy outcomes.”
Hence, according to Ibn Rajab, every condemnation that one reads of the dunya is to be understood as being aimed at the sins that man perpetrates using the blessings of life. This point provides the Muslim with a key touchstone with which he can assess which of the two categories (the praiseworthy or blameworthy) his different aspects of life fall under. Has life brought him closer to Allāh or has it caused him to drift further away?
Take one’s presence on social media as an example. One should ask himself:
“Have my social media accounts softened my heart towards Allāh? Have they caused me to grow in knowledge and action? Have they assisted my goals of being a proactive Muslim and enhanced my relationship with the Masjid, Qur’ān, and my family?”
If the answer is yes, then your social media is that part of life that Allāh has praised.
Conversely, one should ask himself:
“Have my social media accounts dented my relationship with Allāh? Have they ruined my ability to focus in salāh and shed tears in du’ā? Have they wasted my God-given time in pointless browsing? Have they brought my ability to lower my gaze to an all-time low? Have they introduced me to relationships that I was previously safe from? Have they increased my obsession with my mirror reflection?”
If the answer is yes, then your social media is that part of life that Allāh has condemned in the harshest of terms.
The exact same exercise can be applied across the board: to one’s marriage, newly-acquired wealth, good looks, children, and to every other aspect of your life.
The wakeful believer exerts every effort to evict the dunya from his heart and place it within his hands and beneath his feet so that it serves his noble cause. This is in contrast to the one who has the dunya in his heart and lives a humiliated life in pure service of its cause, departing from life empty handed from all good, as one poet once said:
وفي قبض كف الطفل عند ميلاده ** دليل على الحرص المركب في الحي
وفي بسطهما عند الممات اشارةٌ ** الا فاشهدوا اني رحلت بلا شي
“When a child is born, his fist is firmly clasped, a sign of the natural greed found in man. But when passing away, his hands are spread open, as if to say: ‘Be my witness, I have departed with nothing.’”
The Islamic approach towards life is uniquely balanced. Religion is not made the enemy of worldly pursuits, nor is the happiness of the afterlife made the enemy of happiness today. Īmān, worship, and righteousness are not made the enemy of worldly innovation, productivity, and progression. Our history as Muslims is the greatest testimony for a people who excelled in both domains.
However, as he furthers his worldly pursuits today, the believer should have his eyes fixated on one inevitable home: that of the Hereafter. He should not allow any sin to interrupt that arduous journey that began with birth and will end in Paradise or Hell. This journey is made up of nine stations, and every reader of this piece is at the seventh station, with only two remaining.
وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ سُلَالَةٍ مِنْ طِينٍ (12) ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاهُ نُطْفَةً فِي قَرَارٍ مَكِينٍ (13) ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا النُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْمُضْغَةَ عِظَامًا فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنْشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقًا آخَرَ فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ (14)
“And indeed, We created humankind from an extract of clay [the first station]. Then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place [the second station]. Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot [the third station], and We made the clot into a lump (of flesh) [the fourth station], and We made the lump into bones [the fifth station], and We covered the bones with flesh [the sixth station], then We developed him into another creation [the seventh station]. So blessed is Allāh, the best of creators.”
What remains, therefore, is two more phases:
ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ لَمَيِّتُونَ (15) ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ تُبْعَثُونَ (16)
“Then indeed, after that, you are to die [the eighth station]. Then, on the Day of Judgment, you will be resurrected [the ninth and final station].”
The wakeful Muslim realises that what remains of one’s life is far less than what has passed. Those who have drowned in the oceans of life are far more than those who were saved. Those whom life has let down by its false promises are far more than those whom it was faithful to. Therefore, in every second of his life and before every decision he makes, the believer remains vigilant, realising the dunya for what it is: a mere vehicle to a destination he needs to get to – never growing too attached to the vehicle but instead obsessed with the destination.
 Judeo-Christian narration. A similar account was recorded by Ibn ‘Asākir in his Tārīkh Dimashq and Imam al-Tabari in his Tafsīr.
 Al-Qur’ān, 31:33
 Al-Qur’ān, 20:120
 Al-Qur’ān, 43:33-35
 Al-Qur’ān, 18:45
 Muslim on the authority of Al-Mustawrid Ibn Shaddād
 Ahmad, on the authority of Ubayy b. Ka’b
 Muslim, on the authority of Abu Huraira
 Al-Tirmidhi, on the authority of Abu Huraira
 Ahmad, on the authority of Anas
 Al-Qur’ān, 36:37
 Al-Qur’ān, 36:33
 Ibn Abu al-Dunya, Islāh Al-Māl
 Jāmi’ Al-‘Ulūm Wa Al-Hikam
 Prophet Adam
 When the soul is breathed into him during his time within the womb
 Al-Qur’ān, 23:12-14
 Al-Qur’ān, 23:15-16