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On Hope and Despair

There was a fable of a commander who after meeting defeat on the battlefield lost all hope and set out wandering in wilderness. He sat down on a rock in dejection.  Then he saw an ant with a morsel in its mouth trying to climb the rock. Each time it tried to climb it came down rolling. It tried many times but failed. But not losing hope it ultimately succeeded in climbing the rock. This scene sparked the flame of hope in the mind of the commander. He thought if such a tiny creature does not lose hope after repeated failures why should I, being the best of all species, lose heart?  Eventually he gathered courage, regrouped his soldiers, launched an offensive against his enemy and won the battle.  It would appear that the greatest and decisive weapon in this battle was the hope rekindled in his mind by the example of the humble ant.

Once the Messenger of Allah () narrated to his companions the story of a man who had committed ninety-nine murders.  Then he realized his guilt and thought of repentance. He was sceptic of the acceptance of his repentance after committing so many murders. He approached a man of God and expressed his readiness for repentance as well as his scepticism. The man of God told him there was no hope of forgiveness for him. Hearing this he became furious and killed the man of God. He thus completed a tally of 100 murders. Again out of consternation, he approached another man of God. He consoled him saying there was a hope of acceptance of his repentance provided he left his village and settled in such and such village inhabited by the righteous men. There be pray to God along with them. He felt a new wave of life in his veins by the hope of his forgiveness. While he was on his way towards the settlement of the righteous men he died.  After his death both the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment visited him. They were confused as to who will take custody of him. The angels of mercy claimed his custody on the ground that he had repented. The angels of punishment argued he was guilty of committing one hundred murders; therefore, he should be given to them. Eventually they made a compromise that the distance covered by him should be measured. If he was nearer to the settlement of righteous men he should be given to angels of mercy.  But if he was nearer to the settlement of wicked men he should be handed over to angels of punishment. Ultimately, the distance was measured and he was found nearer to the village of righteous men so he was taken by the angels of mercy [unanimously narrated tradition].

Optimism means that one should not give up in the face of hardships but must be sure that after tightness comes relaxation and after hardship comes ease. One should keep on waiting for a way with an open mind. This state of mind is described as optimism. This optimistic bent of mind keeps a man moving and struggling for the recovery of what has been lost. He is never a pessimist about his ends.

We have the best instances of this optimism in the lives of the apostles. Their job was preaching of the divine mission. They had to transform the minds, manners and habits of their people to bring about a new moral and social order. This was by no means an easy task. First of all they had to face opposition of the whole society. But they never lost heart and hope. They kept on preaching to their in the hope that some day the people would change themselves. In this way, they suffered all the hardships and wrongs. They never lost hope. From this view the life of the prophet of Islam is the best model. He suffered  opposition, torture and obstructions in the way of God but never lost hope. He was extremely tormented at Taif that even God Almighty became angry and sent Hadrat Jibril to the Prophet to seek his consent for grinding the pagans of Mecca between the two mounts of Taif. The Messenger of Allah optimistically replied that he did not wish such an action.  He was hopeful that their coming generation will embrace the faith and renounce paganism [unanimous].

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) was all hope that the succour of Allah is coming. While hiding in a cave on his migration from Mecca, he saw the consternation of Hardhat Abu Bakr. God Almighty then consoled him with these words:

لا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا (التوبة: 40)

Translation of Meaning: “Don’t be sad. Allah is with us” (At-Taubah:  40].

The same was the case of Hadrat Noah (AS) who preached to his people consistently for one thousand fifty years. He never tired nor lagged behind. He persevered in calling them to God in the hope that someday they will agree to his call. Allah (Ta’ala) has depicted his situation in these ayats:

قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي دَعَوْتُ قَوْمِي لَيْلاً وَنَهَاراً (5) فَلَمْ يَزِدْهُمْ دُعَائِي إِلاَّ فِرَاراً (6) وَإِنِّي كُلَّمَا دَعَوْتُهُمْ لِتَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ جَعَلُوا أَصَابِعَهُمْ فِي آذَانِهِمْ وَاسْتَغْشَوْا ثِيَابَهُمْ وَأَصَرُّوا وَاسْتَكْبَرُوا اسْتِكْبَاراً (7) ثُمَّ إِنِّي دَعَوْتُهُمْ جِهَاراً (8) ثُمَّ إِنِّي أَعْلَنتُ لَهُمْ وَأَسْرَرْتُ لَهُمْ إِسْرَاراً (9) (نوح: 5-9)

Translation of Meaning: “My Lord! I have called unto my people night and day. But all my calling does but add to their repugnance. And whenever I call unto them that Thou may forgive them they thrust their fingers in their ears and cover up their bodies with their garments and persisted in their recalcitrance and exceeded in their arrogance. And I have called unto them aloud. And I have made public proclamations unto them and I have appealed to them in private” (Noah: 5-9).

Likewise, Hadrat Yaqub [Jacob] was persistently hopeful, despite enormous misfortunes befalling him.  His two beloved sons Yusuf and Benyamin were separated from him. The whereabouts of Hadrat Yusuf were unknown. He kept on weeping for them so much so that he lost his eyesight. But he remained steadfast and never lost hope of their return. He exhorted his other sons to go and search for them. His condition has been depicted in Quran in this way:

يَا بَنِي اذْهَبُوا فَتَحَسَّسُوا مِنْ يُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ وَلا تَيْئَسُوا مِنْ رَوْحِ اللَّهِ إِنَّهُ لا يَيْئَسُ مِنْ رَوْحِ اللَّهِ إِلاَّ الْقَوْمُ الكَافِرُونَ (يوسف: 87)

Translation of Meaning: “O my darling sons! Go and search for Yusuf and his brother, and despair not of the Spirit of Allah. Lo! None despairs of the Spirit of Allah save the unbelievers.” (Yusuf: 87).  Eventually God fulfilled his hope, both his sons were returned to him and his eyesight was restored to him.

Now look at the optimism of Hadrat Musa (AS). When he led his tribe of Bani Israel out of Egypt and came up to the sea, he was being chased by Pharaoh along with his army. It was clear that either they would drown in the sea or would be captured by Pharaoh’s army. Out of fear, Bani Israel began shrieking. In this situation Hadrat Musa declared in the words of Quran:

قَالَ كَلاَّ إِنَّ مَعِي رَبِّي سَيَهْدِينِ (الشعراء: 62)

Translation of Meaning: “Never. Verily my Lord is with me. He shall guide me” (Ash-Sho’raa: 62). Then Allah ordered Musa to strike at the water with his rod. Lo! The water fell apart into two and the tribe of Musa passed across the sea through the dry parting. Pharaoh and his army pursued the on this way butt when the reached the middle of the sea the two parts of water merged and the whole army was drowned.

Likewise,  Allah (Ta’ala) put Hadrat Ayub [Job] on trial. Once he fell sick. His entire wherewithal was spent. His children dispersed. He then had only his hope in God. Allah (Ta’ala) mentions his patience in this way:

وَأَيُّوبَ إِذْ نَادَى رَبَّهُ أَنِّي مَسَّنِي الضُّرُّ وَأَنْتَ أَرْحَمُ الرَّاحِمِينَ (الأنبياء:83)

Translation of Meaning: “And remember Ayub when he cried unto his Lord [saying]: Lo! Adversity has afflicted me, and Thou art most merciful of all mercy-givers” (Al-Anbiya: 83). His prayers were granted and he got back his health and his wherewithal more than he had lost.

The proper concept of hopefulness: To be hopeful of mercy and forgiveness of God does not mean that one should stay put and expect that all his problems shall be solved automatically. This is wishful thinking. One should have hope in God and at the same should make his own efforts. Mere hopefulness will not pay. Allah (Ta’ala) ordains:

فَمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُوا لِقَاءَ رَبِّهِ فَلْيَعْمَلْ عَمَلاً صَالِحاً وَلا يُشْرِكْ بِعِبَادَةِ رَبِّهِ أَحَداً (الكهف: 110)

Translation of Meaning: ” And whosoever hopes for the meeting with his Lord, let him do the righteous deeds, and make none co-sharer of the worship due unto his Lord.” (Al-Kahf: 110). It is declared further that:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَاجَرُوا وَجَاهَدُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أُوْلَئِكَ يَرْجُونَ رَحْمَةَ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ (البقرة: 218)

Translation of Meaning: “Lo! Those who believe, and those who emigrate [to escape persecution] and struggle in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah’s mercy. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Al-Baqarah: 218).

It will be an improper attitude on the part of the believer to have hope in Allah but keep sitting assuming that Allah will deal with him fairly. It is merely self-conceit not to discharge one’s obligations, not to obey God’s commands, and not to keep away from forbidden things and still think that God will do him good. It is to this attitude that the Messenger of Allah () pronounced:

“حسن  الظن من حسن العبادة” (أبو داوود ، أحمد)

Translation: “Good expectation emanates from good worship” [Abu Daud; Ahmad].

Hope is the essence of life; despair means death. In hope life is enriched; in despair it is shorn of lustre. That’s why Allah (Ta’ala) has equated despair with kufr [infidelity]. The hope for forgiveness leads a man to the door step of repentance. It restores man’s relationship with God Almighty.  Allah (Ta’ala) proclaims:

قُلْ يَا عِبَادِي الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ لا تَقْنَطُوا مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعاً إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ (الزمر: 53)

Translation of Meaning: “Say: O my bondmen who committed excesses on their own souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah who forgives all sins. Lo! He is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Az-Zumar: 53).

Optimism is a bounty of God. If it is denied man’s life becomes dark; if it is bestowed, life becomes efflorescent. Now ponder over this saying of the Prophet:

“إن قامت الساعة وفي يد أحدكم فسيل ، فإن استطاع ألا تقوم الساعة حتى يغرسها فليفعل” (أبو داوود، الطيالسي).

Translation: “If the hour of Rising [Qiamah] comes and one of you has a sapling in his hands he should halt the Qiamah, if he could, until he plants that sapling.” [Abu Daud, Al-Tayalsi].