After them We sent Our Messengers, one after the other and followed them with Jesus son of Mary and gave him the Gospel, and We put in the hearts of those who followed him, compassion and mercy,51 but monasticism52 they themselves invented. We did not prescribe it for them.
They invented it themselves53 in order to seek Allah’s good will. But then they did not observe it as it should have been observed.54 We gave those of them who had believed their rewards, but most of them are transgressors.”
Surah Al-Hadid = Chapter the iron (57:26-27)
48 Now it is being told what corruptions appeared among those who believed in the Prophets who came to the world before the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be Allah’s peace and blessings) with the Signs and the Book and the Criterion.
49 That is, whichever Messenger came with Allah’s Book, was from the progeny of the Prophet Noah and, after him, from the progeny of the Prophet Abraham.
50 “Became transgressors” became disobedient.
51 The words in the Text are rafat and rahmat, which are almost synonymous: But when they are used together, rafat implies the compassion that a person feels on seeing another person in pain and distress, and rahmat is the feeling under which he tries to- help him.
As the Prophet Jesus was highly compassionate and merciful towards the people, this trait of character deeply influenced his disciples: therefore, they treated the people with pity and sympathy and served them with all their heart and soul.
52 The root rahb (from which Rahbaniyyah or Rahbaniyyah is derived) means fear; thus, Rahbaniyyah means a mode of life which reflects fear and terror, and Rabbaniyyah means the mode of life of the terrified.
As a term it implies a person’s abandoning the world out of fear (whether it is the fear of somebody’s tyranny, or far of the worldly temptations and distractions, or fear of one’s personal weaknesses) and taking refuge in the jungles and mountains or living alone as a hermit.
53 The words in the original can have two meanings:
(1) “That We did not enjoin monasticism rahbanit) upon them: We enjoined upon them only the seeking of Allah’s good pleasure:” and
(2) that monasticism was not enjoined by Us: they of their own accord enjoined it on themselves, to seek Allah’s good pleasure.” In both cases this verse makes it explicit that monasticism is an un-Islamic creed, and it has never been part of the true Faith. The same thing has been stated by the Holy Prophet thus:
“There is no monasticism in Islam.” (Musnad Ahmed). In another Hadith the Holy Prophet said: “The monasticism of this Ummah is to fight in the way of Allah.” (Musnad Ahmed Musnad’Abi Ya’la That is, he way for this Ummah to attain to spiritual piety lies not in abandoning the world but in fighting in Allah’s way:
This Ummah does not flee to the jungles and mountains out of fear of temptations and distractions but counteracts them by resorting to fighting in Allah’s way. According to a tradition related both by Bukhari and by Muslim, one of the Companions said that he would keep up Prayers throughout the night.
Another said that he would fast perpetually without ever observing a break; and a third one said that he would never marry and would have nothing to do with women. When the Holy Prophet (upon whom be Allah’s peace) came to know of what they had resolved, he said:
‘By God, I fear Allah the most and remain conscious of Him at all times; yet my way is that I observe the fast as well as break it; I keep up the Prayer during the night as well as have sleep; and I marry the women also. The one who does not follow my way, does not belong to me ” Hadrat Anas says that the Holy Prophet (upon whom be Allah’s peace) used to say:
“Do not be- hard and severe to yourselves lest Allah should be hard and severe to you. A community had adopted this way of severity towards itself; then Allah also seized it in severity. Look, the remainder of them are found in the monasteries and churches. ” (Abu Da ‘ud).
54 That is, they were involved in a double error: first, they imposed on themselves the restrictions which Allah had not imposed; second, they did not observe in the right spirit the restrictions that they had imposed upon themselves with a view to attain to Allah’s goodwill and conducted themselves in a way as to earn Allah’s wrath instead of His good pleasure.
To understand this theme fully we should have a look at the history of Christian Monasticism.
Until 200 years after the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) the Christian Church knew no monasticism. Its germs, however, were found in Christianity from the very beginning. To look upon asceticism as a moral ideal and to regard celibacy as superior to matrimonial and mundane life is the basis of monasticism.
Both these existed in Christianity from the beginning. Owing to the sanctification of celibacy in particular, it was considered undesirable for those who performed religious services in the church to marry, have children and be involved in domestic chores; so much so that by the 3rd century monasticism began to spread like an epidemic in Christendom. Historically, it had three main causes!
First, sensuality, immorality and worship of the world had so permeated the ancient polytheistic society that in their zeal to counteract it the Christian scholars adopted the extremist way instead of the way of moderation. They so stressed chastity that the relationship between man and woman by itself came to be looked upon as filthy, even if it was within marriage. They reacted so violently to monasticism that to possess property of any kind ultimately was considered a sin for a religious person and to live like a poor man and ascetic the criterion of moral excellence.
Likewise, in their reaction to the sensualism of the polytheistic society they touched the other extreme. They made withdrawal from pleasure and all material comforts, self-denial and curbing of the desires the object of morality and regarded torturing the body by different sorts of harsh discipline as the climax and proof of a person’s spirituality.
Secondly, when Christianity started achieving successes and spreading rapidly among the common people, the Church in its zeal to attract more and more adherents went on imbibing every evil that was prevalent in society. Thus, saint-worship replaced the ancient deities. Images of Christ and Mary began to be worshiped instead of the idols of Horus and Isis.
Christmas took the place of Saturnalia. Christian monks began to practice every kind of occult art like curing the sick by amulets and magic incantations, taking omens and fortune-telling, driving out spirits, etc. as were prevalent in ancient days. Likewise, since the common people looked upon a dirty and naked person who lived in a cave or den as a holy and godly man, this very concept of sainthood became prevalent in the Christian Church, and legends of their miraculous powers began to abound in the memoirs of the Christian saints.
Thirdly, the Christians possessed no detailed law and definite traditions and practices to determine the bounds of religion. They had given up Mosaic Law and the Gospel by itself afforded no perfect code of guidance. Therefore, the Christian doctors went on permitting every kind of innovation to enter the religion partly under the influence of alien philosophies, customs, and practices and partly under their personal preference and whim.
Monasticism was one such innovation. Christian scholars and Doctor of Law took its philosophy and rules and practices from the Buddhist monks, Hindu Yogis and ascetics, Egyptian Anchorites, Iranian Manicheans, and the followers of Plato and Plotinus, and made the same the means and methods of attaining self-purification, spiritual loftiness, and nearness to Allah. Those who committed this error were not ordinary men. From the 3rd to the 7th century
(i.e.. till about the time the Qur’an began to be revealed) the religious personalities who were recognized as the foremost scholars and religious guides and leaders of Christendom, both in the East and in the West, -St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Bazianzus, St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great-all were monks themselves and great upholders of monasticism. It was under their influence that monasticism became popular in the Church.
Historically, monasticism among the Christians started from Egypt. Its founder was St. Anthony (A.D. 250 -350) who is regarded as the father of Christian Monasticism. He set up the first monastery at Pispir (now Der al Memum) in the Fayum. Later he established another monastery on the coast of the Rod Sea, which is now called Der Mar Antonius The basic cults of Christian Monasticism are derived from his writings and instructions.
After this beginning, the monastic movements spread like a flood in Egypt and monasteries for monks and nuns were set up everywhere in the land in some of which lived three thousand monks at a time. In 325 another ascetic, Pachomius, appeared in Egypt, who founded ten major monasteries and nunneries for the monks and nuns. The monastic movement then began to spread in Palestine and Syria and different countries of Africa and Europe.
The Christian Church in the beginning experienced some confusion in connection with monasticism, for although it recognized abandonment of the world, celibacy, and voluntary poverty as an ideal of spiritual life, yet it could not declare marriage, producing children and possessing property or money to be sinful as the monks did. Subsequently, under the influence of holy men like St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Basil (d. 379), St. Augustine (d. 430) and Gregory the Great (d. 609) many of the monastic rules became part and parcel of the Church.
This monastic innovation has some characteristics which are briefly as follows:
Inflicting pain on the body by severe exercises and novel methods. In this thing every monk tried to surpass the other. The achievements of these holy men as related in the memoirs of the Christian saints are to this effect: St. Macarius of Alexandria constantly carried on himself a weight of 80 pounds. For six months he slept in a swamp while poisonous flies preyed on his naked body.
His disciple, St. Eusebius, even surpassed his master in suffering severities and rigours. He moved about carrying a weight of 150 pounds and lay in a dry well for three years. St. Saba ate the maize that would start stinking having. been soaked in water for a whole Month.
St. Bassarion lay in thorny bushes for 40 days and did not rest his back on the ground for 40 years. St. Pachomius spent 15 years of his life, and according to another tradition 50 years, without rating his back on the round St. John remained standing in worship for three years during which he neither sat nor (lay down; he would only recline at times against a rock.
His food consisted of the offering that was bought for him every Sunday. St. Simeon Stylites (390-449) who is counted among the most illustrious Christian saints, used to observe an unbroken 40 days fast and smiling. Owing to such concepts the bond of marriage between man and woman came to be looked upon as filthy. A monk was forbidden even to look at a woman, not to speak of marriage, and was required to abandon his wife if he was married.
As for men it was also impressed on the women that if they wished to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they should shun marriage and remain spinsters and if they were married, they should separate from their husbands. St. Jerome, the distinguished Christian scholar, ruled that the woman who remained a spinster as a nun for the sake of Christ, was the bride of Christ, and her mother was the mother-in-law of Christ, i.e., God. Elsewhere St. Jerome says:
“To cut asunder the bond of marriage with the ax of chastity is the primary duty of the true devotee of God. ” The first impact these teachings had on a Christian man or Christian woman, under religious fervor, was that his or her married life was ruined. And since there was no provision for divorce or separation in Christianity, the husband and the wife would separate from each other while they remained bound in wedlock. St. Nilus was the father of two children.
When he came under the spell of monasticism, he immediately separated from his wife. St. Ammon, on the first night of his marriage, gave his bride a sermon on the filthiness of the marriage bond and then the two between themselves decided to keep aloof from each other throughout life. St. Abraham abandoned his wife on the very first night of marriage. The same was done by St. Alexis. The memoirs of the Christian saints are full of such incidents.
The Church continued to resist in one way or the other these extremist concepts for three centuries. In those days it was not required of a priest to be single and unmarried. If he was married before being appointed a minister, he could keep his wife. However, he was forbidden to marry after his appointment.
Moreover, a person could not be appointed a minister if he had married a widow, or a divorced woman, or had two wives, or possessed a concubine. Gradually, by the 4th century, the concept became firm that for a married person it was odious to perform religious services in the Church.
The Council of Gengra (A.D. 362) was the last one in which such ideas wen held as anti-religious, but a little lour in 386, Roman Synod counseled the priests to avoid marriage relations and the following year Pope Siricius decreed that the priest who married or continued to have sex relations with his wife if already married should be dismissed from office.
Illustrious scholars like St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine upheld this decision most fervently, and after a little resistance it became fully enforced in the Western Church. In this period several councils were convened to consider the complaints to the effect that the people who were already married were having “illicit” relations with their wives even after their appointment to perform religious duties.
Consequently, with a view to reform them, rules were made to the effect that they should sleep in the open, should never meet their wives in private, and should meet them only in the presence of at (cast two other men. St. Gregory has made mention of a wonderful priest who did not have any relation with his wife for 40 years, and when the woman approached him at his death-bed, he rebuked her, saying: ‘Woman. keep away!”
The most painful and pathetic chapter of ascetic monasticism is that it cut asunder man’s relations with his parents, with his brothers and sisters, and even his children For the Christian saints love of the parents for son, love of the brothers and sisters for brother and love of the children for father also was sinful.
They believed it was necessary for man to break off all those relations for the sake of spiritual progress. In the biographies of the Christian saints, one comes across highly pathetic and heart-rending incidents. A monk, St. Evagrius had been undergoing severe exercises in the desert for many years. Suddenly one day letters reached him from his father and mother, who were passing their days in great agony without him.
The saint, fearing that the letters might arouse feelings of human love in his heart, cast the letters immediately into the fire, without even opening them. The mother and sister of St. Theodorus came to the monastery where he was staying, with recommendation letters from many priests, and desired to have only a glimpse of him, but the saint refused to come out before them. St. Marcus’ mother went to the monastery to see him.
She somehow obtained the abbot’s permission for it and requested him to order her son to come out before her, but the son was adamant to her prayers. At last, be implemented the abbot’s orders by appearing before his mother disguised and with closed eyes.
Thus, neither was the mother able to recognize her son, nor the son saw his mother. Another saint, St. Poemen and his six brothers lived in a desert monastery of Egypt. Years later their old mother came to know of their whereabouts and went to see them in the monastery.
As soon as the brothers saw their mother coming, they hurried into their cell and shut the door. The mother started crying and wailing outside saying: “I have traveled at this old age from a distant place only to have a glimpse of you. There will be no harm if only I see you. Am I not your mother?”
But the saints did not open the door and told the mother that they would meet her in the next world. Even more painful and piteous is the story of St. Simeon Stylites, who left his parents and remained away from them without any trace of his whereabouts for 27 years.
The father died of grief. When the fame of the son’s piety and holiness spread the mother, who was still living in agony, came to know of his whereabouts. She came to the monastery to see him, but women were not allowed to enter. She prayed that either the son should call her in, or he should himself conic out to let her have a glimpse of him, but “the saint” before Easter every year. Once he kept standing on one leg for a whole year.
Often, he would leave his monastery and retire to a well. Later he got a 60-foot-high pillar erected near Antioch, which was three feet wide at the top and railed round. He spent the last 30 years of his life on this pillar and remained permanently exposed to the elements. His disciples carried food to him by ladder and removed his filth.
He had even tied himself to the pillar by a string, which cut into his flesh; when the flesh became rotten, it bred worms; whenever a worm fell out, he would restore it to the sore, saying: “Eat what God has given you.” Crowds of pilgrims flocked to him from far and near. When he died the Christian world proclaimed that he was the best model of a Christian saint.
The memoirs of the Christian saints of this period are full of such instances. One particular saint had the characteristic that he observed silence for 30 years: he was never seen speaking. Another had tied himself to a rock; another roamed the jungles and lived on grass; another moved about carrying a heavy load; another kept his limbs and body tied in fetters and chains; some saints lived in the dens of beasts, or in dry wells, or in old graves; and some others remained naked and concealed their private parts under long hair and would crawl on the ground.
After death, the bones of the illustrious saints were preserved in the monastery. I saw a full library decked with such bones in St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. There were skulls and foot-bones and hand bones arranged separately. A glass-case contained the whole skeleton of a saint.
Their second characteristic was that they were dirty and strictly cleanliness and bodily care. Washing or applying water to the body was regarded as opposed to God-worship, for according to them purification of the body was tantamount to pollution of the soul. St. Athanasius has faithfully described this virtue of St. Anthony that he never washed his feet during life. St. Abraham from the day he entered Christianity neither washed his face nor feet for 50 years.
A famous nun Virgin Sylvia never allowed any part of her body except the fingers to become wet with water throughout life It is said of 130 nuns of 8 convents that they never washed their feet and would shudder with horror at a mere reference to bath.
Monasticism practically forbade married life and ruthlessly discarded the institution of marriage. All religious writings of the 4th and 5th centuries are replete with the thought that celibacy is the highest moral virtue, and chastity meant that one should strictly abstain from sexual relation even if it was between husband and wife. The perfection of a pure spiritual life lay in complete self-denial, with no desire for physical pleasure.
It was necessary to suppress any carnal desire because it strengthened animality. For them pleasure and sin were synonymous so much so that being happy was regarded as being forgetful of God. St. Basil forbade even laughing and refused to oblige her. The woman lay at the entrance for three days and three nights and at last breathed her last in the same state. Then the holy man emerged from his seclusion, mourned his mother’s death, and prayed for her forgiveness.
In the same harsh way these saints treated their sisters and children. There is the story of Mutius, a prosperous man by all means. Drawn out suddenly by the religious impulse, he took his 8-year-old son and went to a monastery. But for the sake of his progress to holiness it was necessary that he should give up love for his son.
Therefore, first the son was separated from him Then the innocent child was subjected to harsh treatment before his very eyes and he watched it patiently. Then, the abbot of the monastery ordered him to go and Cast the child into the river. He became ready even for this; then right at the time when he was going to throw the child into the river, the monks saved the child’s life. then it was admitted that he had actually attained to the rank of a holy man.
The viewpoint of Christian monasticism in these matters was that the one who sought love of God, should break off all relations of human love that bound him in the world to his parents, his brothers and sisters and his children. St. Jerome says, “Even if your nephew clings to you with his hands around your neck; even if your mother calls you back in the name of having suckled you.
Even if your father obstructs your way and lies down before you, you should hasten out to the banner of the cross, trampling the body of your father, without shedding a tear. Ruthlessness in this matter is piety itself.” St. Gregory writes, “A young monk who could not give up love for his parents, left the monastery one night in order to pay them a visit.
God punished him for this error, for as soon as he returned to the monastery, he died. His body was buried in the grave, but the earth did not accept it. He was placed in the grave again and again, and the earth threw him out every time. At last, St. Benedict placed a sacred offering on his chest, and then the grave accepted him.” Of a nun it is said that for three days after her death, she remained subject to a torment because she had not been able to cleanse her heart of her mother’s lout. About a saint it is written that he never treated anyone harshly except his relatives.
Their practice of meting out ruthless, cruel, and harsh treatment to their nearest relatives, made their human feeling dead, with the result that they would treat with utmost enmity those with whom they had any religious differences. By the beginning of the 4th century, 80 to 90 religious sects had arisen in Christianity. St. Augustine has made mention of 88 sects of his own time, each of which regarded the other with extreme hatred.
And the fire of this hatred also was fanned by the monks, who were always in the forefront to haft and destroy the opponent sects by their machinations. Alexandria was a great center of this sectarian conflict.
There, in the beginning the Bishop of the Arian sect attacked the Athanasius party. Virgin nuns were dragged out of their convents, stripped naked and beaten with thorny branches and branded in order to make them give up their creed. Then, when the Roman Catholics came to power in Egypt, they treated the Arian’ sect likewise; so much so that according to the prevalent view Arius himself also was poisoned. Once on the same city of Alexandria the monks of St.’ Cyril created a turmoil They seized a nun of the opponent sect and took her into their church; they killed her, backed her body to pieces,
and cast it into the fire. Rome was not any different from this. In 366, at the death of Pope Liberius, two sects nominated their respective candidates for papacy; this resulted in great bloodshed; so much so that in one day 137 dead bodies were taken out from one church.
Side by side with this retreat from the world and life of seclusion and poverty, wealth of the world also was amassed most avariciously. By the beginning of the 5th century the condition was that the bishop of Rome lived in his palace like kings, and when his conveyance emerged in the city,
it would be as stately and splendid as of the emperor himself. St. Jerome complains of the conditions of his time (later part of the 4th century) saying that the feast hosted by many of the bishops outclassed the feasts of the governors. The flow of wealth to monasteries and churches had assumed the proportions of a deluge by the beginning of the 7th century (the age of the revelation of the Qur’an).
It had been deeply impressed on the minds that a person who happened to commit a grave sin could be redeemed only by making an offering at a saint’s shrine, or a sacrifice at the altar of a church or monastery. Then the same world and its luxuries and comforts abstention from which was the mark of distinction of the monks, lay at their feet. The factor which, in particular, caused this decline
was that when the common people developed extreme reverence for the monks because of their undergoing severe exercises of self-discipline and self-denial, hosts of the world seeking people also donned the monk’s garments and entered their ranks. Then under the garb of feigned poverty they turned acquisition of worldly wealth and possessions into a flourishing business.
In the matter of chastity also monasticism was repeatedly defeated in its fight against nature and defeated well and proper. In the monasteries some exercises of self-mortification were required such as requiring the monks and nuns to live together in one and the same place, and they had often to pass the night in the same bed in their enthusiasm for more and more temptations. St. Evagarius, the well-known monk, has praised the self-control acquired by the Palestinian monks, saying:
“They had mastered their passion so completely that although they bathed with the women together, looked at their bodice, touched them, even embraced them, yet they remained invincible to nature.” Although bathing was an odious thing in monasticism, such baths were also taken for the sake of exercise in self-control. At last, about the same Palestine, St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 396) writes that it has become a center of wickedness and immorality.
Human nature avenges itself on those who fight it. Monasticism fought it and ultimately fell in the pit of immorality, the story of which is a most shameful blot on the religious history of the 8th to 11th centuries. An Italian bishop of the 10th century writes:
“If the penal law for misconduct is practically enforced against those who perform religious services in the church, none would escape punishment except the boys, and if the law to remove illegitimate children from religious services was also enforced, there might perhaps be left no boy among the attendants of the church.
” Books of the medieval authors are replete with the complaints that the nunneries had become houses of prostitution. Within their four walls newborn babies were being massacred; the priests and religious attendants of the church had developed illicit connections even with forbidden relatives; the crime of the unnatural act had spread like an epidemic in the monasteries; and the practice of confession had become a means of immorality in the churches.
From these details one can fully appreciate what corruption of Christianity is the Qur’an alluding to when it says:
“The Christians themselves invented monasticism, but they did not observe it as it should have been observed.”
Allah knows Best.