Quranic Reflection No. 446. Āyat 57:27 – Monasticism and Islam

وَرَهْبَانِيَّةً ابْتَدَعُوهَا مَا كَتَبْنَاهَا عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَّا ابْتِغَاءَ رِضْوَانِ اللَّـهِ فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا
Warhabāniyyatani-btada‘ūhā mā katabnāhā ‘alayhim illā-btighā’a ridhwāni-llāhi famā ra‘awhā haqqa ri‘āyatihā
But as for monasticism, they innovated it—We had not prescribed it for them—only seeking Allah’s pleasure. Yet they did not observe it with due observance.
(Sūrat al-Hadīd, No 57, Āyat 27)

The term ‘rahbāniyyah’ (Monasticism) is derived from ‘rahba’ meaning fear and dread. In this context it means fear of Allah. It signifies piety and intense devotion, either done alone or in a house of worship.  It also involves the abandonment of the world. This could include prohibition of marriage, staying away from meat and delicious foods, social seclusion, etc. It is an attempt to refrain from worldly things in order to focus on God.

The verse above describes the followers of Prophet ‘Īsā ‘alayhis salām. According to this part of the verse elements of monasticism crept into them after his death. Their goal was to seek the pleasure of God, but they did not do justice to it. Many evils resulted from this practice of monasticism.

Tafsīr Majma’ al-Bayān narrates the following Hadith under this verse: The Holy Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālhi wasallam once said to Ibn Mas‘ūd: Do you know from where monasticism originated? Ibn Mas‘ūd replied: “Allah and His Messenger know better.’ The Prophet said: After ‘Īsā (a), some tyrants became leaders. The believers fought them three times and suffered defeat and so they fled to the deserts and mountains. They awaited the arrival of the Prophet that Nabī ‘Īsā had told them about (i.e. Prophet Muhammad). After a period of worship in the caves some of them remained on their religion while others followed the path of disbelief. The Prophet then recited the above verse. After that the Prophet said: Do you know what the monasticism of my Ummah is? Ibn Mas‘ūd said: ‘Allah and His Messenger know better.’ He said: Migration, jihad, salāt, fasting, Hajj and ‘Umrah.

The human being has been created with many different faculties and each needs to be realized for progress towards perfection. Ignoring the physical for the spiritual, or the spiritual for the physical, results in crooked growth. Islam attempts to channel and strengthen the fulfillment of various human needs and dislikes extremity in any matter. It encourages asceticism rather than monasticism. The former consists of disinclination and dis-attachment to worldly pleasures while the latter consists of renunciation of all worldly pleasures, even those that are permissible.

The Holy Prophet (s) showed through his own example that a life of spiritual perfection does not require monasticism. One day three women came to him and complained about the behavior of their husbands. One said, ‘my husband has stopped eating meat’. The other said ‘my husband does not want any good scents’. The third said ‘my husband refrains from all intimacy’. The Prophet was displeased with this. He used the next opportunity in the mosque to talk about it from the pulpit. What has happened to some of my companions? he said.  That they deny themselves meat, and good scent, and spousal relations? Know that I eat meat, smell good scent and have spousal relations. Whoever turns away from them is not from me.

On the day when we celebrate the joyous birth of the Holy Prophet and Imam al-Sādiq (a), let us remember the important practical guidance the Prophet and his Ahlul Bayt taught us. One of the Imams was asked: Does it befit a Muslim to go on a journey or adopt asceticism, enclose himself in his house and not come out of it?” The Imam (a) replied: No. Islam teaches us how to lead a balanced life, catering to the various human needs in order to achieve inner peace and fulfillment.

Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma’ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; http://en.wikishia.net/view/Monasticism