Imam Ibn Qudamah’s examples of this life and its people

The following story is taken from the book “A word of advice”, a book on ihsan (spiritual excellence), by imam Muwaffaq ud-Din ibn Qudamah, translated by Abu Ja’far al-Hanbali:

“I compare this life and the people in it to the crew aboard a ship, blown along by the wind to an uncharted island in the ocean. At this location are precious jewels, stones such as rubies, emeralds, sapphires and everything else, including onyx and wormwood. There are other splendid things; priceless gems and stones everywhere, and the island’s serene rivers and beautiful meadows. The king of the island has put down walls to surround his pastures, and his servants and children are within the walled compound of the city.

The ship’s crew disembark, after which time they are told by someone on the island:

“You are to remain here for one day and one night, so make use of your short time here wisely by taking hold of what precious gems and jewels you can.”

The crew immediately split into two groups.

1. One group started working almost at once. They set about packing the jewels and gems, carrying them aboard the ship in turn and placing them in the treasure chests on-board. During the whole time of their work, whenever they became tired they remembered the value of the gems as well as the little time they had. They would soon be setting off from the island without being able to return. This made them decide not to rest. They also abandoned useless speech. Instead, this group focused themselves on the task at hand and worked hard to complete the job. When they were overtaken by sleep, they thought of their mission until the desire to sleep disappeared.

To keep themselves motivated, they said, “Those who work hard in the day can rest easy at night.”

Some people among them took some of the jewels and gems, rested at certain times and even slept in the night.

2. This group did not move forward to take any gems or stones at all. They mostly slept, rested and whiled away the hours. There were three groups among them.

a. Some people who hurried about building seasonal cottages, castles and other properties.

b. Others set about gathering seashells, stones for quarrying and chinaware.

c. Still others spent their time in playing about, chit-chat, enjoyment and listening to frivolous stories and music. While enjoying themselves, they would sing, “The little bit of good now is better than the good promised.”

These people eventually made their way to the outer wall of the king’s city. They circled around it, trying to find some way to get inside. When they were unable to find a door, they did everything they could to make cracks and rifts in the wall, demolishing the gates and plundering the king’s treasures that were inside. They played with the children and neighbours of the king chanting, “We live forever!”

They continued doing this until the horn was blown, signalling the end of their time on the island.

The first group of people mentioned in the parable were delighted with their things and came to the meeting place with their gems and jewels. They had no regrets about their time on the island except that they would have preferred additional time to collect more items.

When they were brought before the king, he praised them and said, “You are my elite, my closest companions and beloved. You may take what you will from my generosity.”

He in turn made them kings and gave them whatever they wanted. Whatever they asked for they were given. If they sought his counsel on a matter, it was granted.

If a time came when they desired something, they were told, “Take what you wish and seek judgement in whatever way you see fit.”

They took possession of the castles, cottages, maidens, meadows, towns and cities, as well as having the finest transportation. A procession of the army and the king’s children went in front of them when they travelled. They became neighbours to the king and they would sit with him, look at and visit him, seeking advice with him for what they willed. If they asked him for something, they were given it and even if they did not ask, it was still brought to them.

The second group lost out as they did not take advantage of their time to take goods. They had misused their time and not taken any goods. They had not done what they were told to do, which wasted their time and left them worried and without hope.

“Where are your goods you were supposed to collect?” the king asked.

“We collected nothing,” they said.

He said, “May mercy come upon you! You were in the same place to collect the gems and jewels weren’t you? Weren’t you and the people who were just now made kings in the same place collecting the gems and jewels?”

The second group responded by saying, “Yes, that is correct, but we were busy playing and sleeping.”

Some of the people with them said, “We were building houses and cottages.”

Some others said, “We were working hard collecting shells, stones and chinaware.”

The king then said to them, “You are to perish. Did you not know your time was short? Did you not see how precious the gems and jewels were with you? Did you not know that this was not forever and that it was not a place of rest? Did the trustworthy people not warn you? Did someone not try to correct you about this matter?”

“Yes, they did warn us. They did try to correct us. By Allah, we knew, we just did not take any notice. We were warned, but allowed ourselves to be heedless. We heard what they said, but we just did not listen,” they replied.

It was said to them, “You are to perish until the end of time.”

They bit their hands in remorse, weeping and wailing at their loss. They stayed in this state, waiting and hoping that some of those who had been made kings would go to the king and try and help them or speak in their behalf.

The worst and most miserable of the second group were the people who broke into the king’s residence. It was said to them, “We will not release you until you bear the burden of the treasures you took from the king on your back.”

They set out, carrying all these things with great difficulty. Once they reached the city of the great king, they were called into the city and made to come forward with the gems and jewels they had taken. The people said to them, “Take your things to the king.” The people of the city, the king and his army took hold of them and cursed them.

By the time they arrived, they were stumbling while carrying the things. They had no hope while they were humiliated and scandalised in front of the people. The king ordered them out of his presence, far from his neighbours and into prison. They were to stay at that place. Once they were put in jail, the people knew the punishment and they were certain they would have noting coming to them but retribution.

Then if they bear the punishment, the Fire is is still their home, and of they ask for favour, they are not those to whom favour can be shown (Qur’an, surah Fussilat [41], ayah 24). 

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