Historical Background

The Islamic civilization flowered during the reign of Umar (ra). Scores of countries and districts gave their allegiance to the Muslims, earning themselves countless rights that were secured and guaranteed in the court system.

During this era, two other dominant forces presided. To the west was the Byzantine (Roman) Empire and to the east was the Persian Empire. Despite their large size and military prowess, these two superpowers were nearing a state of disintegration. Europe was in its cultural and moral dark ages while in Persia, the king had to constantly fight off internal revolts.

To counter these social movements, these governments ruled with an iron fist and levied unbearable taxes on their citizens. They seized the hard earned money of their citizens only to support their own luxurious lifestyles and entertainments. Their power was maintained only through sustained oppression. They busied the minds of their citizens by constantly throwing them into constant wars with other countries. These costly wartime activities could only be paid by levying even more taxes on their weak citizens.

The heartless oppression was to the extent that people even had to sell their children into slavery in order to pay the government taxes. All of this was only so that the ruling class could support their own lavish lifestyles and worldly entertainments.

The people were disgruntled and felt the injustice intolerable. They felt powerless in front of the king's mighty military. Those who possessed some wealth and means of escape migrated to surrounding areas for the prospect of a better life. However, the majority had no choice but to live under that duress and endure the situation for as long as they could.

It was during these dark ages of human civilization that Allah (swt) sent to them a group of men who would help and free them. These were the well learned men around the Messenger, the Sahabah (ra) of Rasulullah (saw). Praying for Allah's (swt) help and with the duaa's of Rasulullah (saw) on their side, they set off in large numbers to free oppressed peoples. About their efforts, the Encyclopedia Britannica praises: "When Europe at last began to emerge from the doldrums, it was in great measure due to the efforts of Muslims."

Under the khilafat of Umar (ra), the Sahabah (ra) were able to free hoards of people from this oppression. Sometimes there were battles and heavy loss of life on both sides, while in other situations, the local citizens welcomed them with open arms without any resistance. Baitul Maqdis is just one of many examples where, Subhanallah, the keys to the city were just handed over to Ameer ul Mumineen, Umar Al Khattab (ra).

The Christians and Jews residing in Baitul Maqdis at that time stated that, "In our Torah and the Gospels, we have a description of the person who will take over this holy city. We have been waiting for a long time to see what person will come that will fit this description. Oh Ameer ul Mumineen (Umar al Khattab (ra)), that descriptions fits you perfectly and so, here are the keys to the city." Subhanallah, the sincere and honest efforts of the sahabah (ra) shone through and the people accepted them.

However, there were also situations where fierce battles ensued between the Sahabah (ra) and the ruling elite. Naturally, the ruling elite were hesitant to accept change because it meant an end to their lavish and luxurious lifestyle which was supported only by the labor and blood of its citizens.

Parents Were In Slavery

In one of their ventures, the sahabah (ra) encountered a fierce battle. The fighting continued for some time and many individuals were captured, including a person named "Yassar." At the end of the fighting, the Sahabah (ra) won the battle and Yassar became a captive of war.

Now, the question arises that what should be done with the captives of war? How should they be treated and taken care? Different countries have always had different ways of dealing with them. Some countries' laws require imprisonment in a 5x8 room for the rest of their life, some countries execute them immediately, while others may incarcerate them for decades, releasing them only when assured that this individual no longer possess any social threat. These are just a few different ways societies handle the issue of war captives.

But the best way to deal with them is how Islam teaches us. It is an organized system of moral and social reformation. The traditional word used for that system is "slavery". However, this word has now become a social taboo having a very different connation.

At the onset, many people (including Muslims) get very upset. "How can Islam allow slavery? It is such a wicked and ancient practice that was abolished years ago." Immediately, visions of European imperialism and injustice run through their minds. Violent images of brutality, racism, and heartlessness follow. And so, they infer that when Islam and Islamic books of fiqh says slavery, it must be referring to that very same system of injustice they read about in history class. Without further reading and understanding the matter, they reject a very important concept and solution to a social problem.

We must remember that before rejecting something, we have to become acquainted with its true meaning. And that doesn't mean just looking it up in the dictionary. It is imperative to understand the terminology of the people using the word and the context it is being used in. Many times, the linguistic definition of the word is different from its contextual usage.

For example, the word "Salah" is an Arabic word that is used by Muslim, Christians, and Jews in Arabia. Now if a non-muslim will open up the Qur'an, look up the word salah, and try to explain the Salah by looking at a dictionary, he will never be able to understand what salah means in Islam. Because it is a special term and it is necessary to understand its context and usage by the Muslim scholars as well. "Wudu" is a word that was used by non-Muslims even before the coming of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Anyone may use this word, but when it is used by Muslims, it has a very specific definition.

Similarly, slavery can only be explained using the Islamic context. There are detailed rules, regulations, and guidelines in Shari'ah regarding it. It is not the Western form of slavery with its gross mistreatment and abuse. The Islamic concept of slavery is solely in reference to wartime situations regarding the captives of war. It has numerous details (such as the slave's rights, the caretaker's obligations, etc) which we must become aware of. Only then can we accurately compare it to other systems trying to resolve the same issue. A clear indication of its efficacy is that according to history, the majority of slaves became attracted to the unique Islamic lifestyle and accepted Islam.

Early Childhood

So now, Yassar became a captive of war and was given as a slave to the distinguished Sahabi of Rasulullah (saw), Zaid bin Thabit (ra). Zaid bin Thabit is the Sahabi who was entrusted by Abu Bakr (ra) and Umar (ra) during their khilafat to compile and write the Qur'an. And when Uthman (ra) wished to have it compiled as one written book, he again was trusted with the task. Rasulullah (saw) said about him that, "The person with the best knowledge regarding Islamic inheritance (Meerath) is Zaid bin Thabit." He was known to be the mufti of Madinah and particularly for his specialty in the laws of inheritance (Meerath) and Yassar is the slave of this great Sahabi.

He now has the opportunity to spend most of his time with Zaid (ra). Looking at the magnificent character of the sahabah, Yassar accepted Islam. Slowly slowly, he started to acquire knowledge of Qur'an and other Islamic sciences from Zaid (ra). Zaid (ra), being pleased with his service and efforts, decided to marry him to another captive of war named Khaira.

Khaira was no ordinary slave. She was the slave of one of the most virtuous women of her time, Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa, the wife of Rasulullah (saw). Khaira too obtained vast Islamic knowledge from Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa. After their marriage, Khaira gave birth to a baby boy and they decided to take Umm Salama's radhiallahu anhaa recommendation to name the child "Hasan."

Hasan's mother had a busy schedule managing the affairs of Umm Salama's house. So while she worked, Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa looked after the child. Consequently, this child ended up spending more time in the lap of Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa than his own mother.

Imam Zhahabi and Imam ibn Hajar narrate that sometimes it happened that the baby would cry out of hunger while the mother is away running some errands. The only food this baby could take was the mother's milk. In these situations, Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa would pacify the baby by pretending to breast feed him. This kept the baby pacified and quiet till the mother returned.

Scholars say that the feeding by Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa was what made this child Syed At Tabieen-- the leader of the Tabieen. Subhanallah, this person is known as the leader of his time, yet his father was a slave and mother was a slave. When Hassan rahmatullahi alayh grew up, learned individuals would come from far distances just to look at his blessed face or to shake his hands. They would walk away full of gratitude, thanking Allah (swt) that they had the opportunity to shake the hands of this great man.

This is what Islam did for these slaves. They and their children are becoming the leaders of the Ummah. No social class barriers or inferiority. In fact, historically most of the great tabieen came from the same route because they or their parents grew up in the houses of Sahabah (ra) and Sahabiyaath. And eventually some of these same captives of war became the leaders of the Ummah. This is how the sahabah (ra) took care of these individuals and how the Ummah humbled itself before learned people, irregardless of social class or color. (In India during the time of Muslims rulers, many slaves became kings and rulers of the country called "Slave Dynasty").

Now, this boy had a great opportunity to grow and learn from Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa. She loved him dearly and had great trust in him. She had no son, and needed someone to do errands from one house to another- bringing things, taking things, etc. She would always call upon Hassan rahmatullahi alayh to perform the task.

Hassan rahmatullahi alayh didn't waste this rare opportunity to serve the mother of the believers. Anytime Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa needed something, he would complete the task immediately. He continued doing this all the way until he reached that the age of 14. Up to this point, he spent all of his time in Madinah Munawarrah with his parents and Ummah-hatul-Mumineen (wives of the Prophet (saw)).

Then came the day when both of his parents were released from their service. His father was set free by Zaid (ra) and his mother by Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa. Together they decided to migrate to Basra, an area in what is now Iraq.

People's Admiration for Him

Then this boy was known as Hassan Al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh. The first 14 years of his life were spent in the service of the great Sahabah (ra) and Sahabiyaath, acquiring vast Islamic knowledge and Imaan. ‘Umar (ra) knew how much Umm Salama radhiallahu anhaa loved him and observed the unique character of this boy. One day, he made the duaa, "Ya Allah, give him the deep understanding of the deen (Allah huma faqih hoo fid deen) and make the people love him (Wa hibibb hoo ila khalilih)."

Undeniably, both parts of the duaa were accepted. Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was the master in all of the Islamic sciences. In those days, people would choose specialties in the Islamic sciences. The knowledge of deen was so vast that it was very difficult for one person to encompass everything. Some people specialized in fiqh, some in hadith, others in tafseer and some in Tasawwuf (or Tazkiyah). But Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was so well versed in all of these sciences that people from far distances would come just to learn from him.

Once a person went to Basra and asked the people, "Who is your leader?" They responded, "Hassan al Bisri." Then he asked, "How did he become your leader?" (Bi ma sadaa kum) And the people with much adoration responded, "Because he never looked towards the people to receive anything (in return for his service). (Li ana hus taghnaa bima fi aydinaas)" He didn't desire to receive gifts or money from the people nor was he doing all of this work for their praises of, "What a learned man this is."

The people went on further to say, "And the people needed his knowledge (wah tajan naasoo i la 'ilmi)" so he became the leader. Simply put, he didn't need anything from the people, but all of the people needed things (knowledge) from him.

Amongst the tabieen, it was known that Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh had the great resemblence to the Sahabah (ra). His words and actions were the closest to them. In particular, he most closely resembled to two sahabah (ra). It was said that his wisdom (Hikma) resembled that of Ali (ra) and his rightful opinion and understanding resembled Umar's (ra).

Sayyidna Musa al Ashari's son, Abu Burda, says that I have seen alot of Sahabah (ra) in my time. But I have never seen anyone resemble them more than Hassan rahmatullahi alayh. 'Amir us Sha'b rahmatullahi alayh, who is also a highly ranked tabiee, says "I met more than 70 sahabah (ra), and Hassan resembles them more than anyone else." The most amazing part of this statement is that Amir rahmatullahi alayh had met more than 70 sahabah (ra) which is many more sahabah (ra) than Hassan rahmatullahi alayh had met. Yet, Subhanallah, he resembled them more.

He earned this high esteem by following closely in the footsteps of the sahabah (ra). He listened to their words and acted upon them. Following and imitating these men around Messenger means imitating the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). If we wish to obtain high ranks in our lives, then we must follow the model set forth by Rasulullah (saw) and our pious predecessors. If we choose any other directions in our lives, we must realize that we cannot reach that blessed status.

Once, he went to Makkah Mukramah for Hajj. When people learned that Hassan Al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh had come, the scholars in the area held a meeting and assigned a special place for him to sit at. It must be noted that numerous sahabah (ra) and tabieen were around in those days. It wasn't so easy to be recognized as a leader whom the people consulted, and whose knowledge and taqwa the people trusted.

Ibn Khalqaan says in his book 'Ilmu Fathul Ayaan' that "They made a raised bed for him. From this raised position, he would teach them words of wisdom. All the scholars that came for Hajj would sit respectfully before him and take benefit form his company. Great scholars like Mujahid, Ata, and Ikrimah used to sit there as well." Subhanallah, just these three individuals were of such high caliber that today, if you open any book of tafseer, it will be impossible to miss their name in the chain of narration.

Ibn Khalqaan goes on to say that, after the gathering was over, people would say, "Mara 'aiyna mithalahoo qab" which means "We haven't seen any person like him at all." Subhanallah, what a tremendous statement from these highly learned men. Now it must be made clear that Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was not narrating hadith that these people already didn't know. They too were great scholars of their time who had been in the company of sahabah (ra). These individuals felt a spiritual benefit just by sitting in his company (Sohba).

Imam ibn Khalikaan narrates that once Anas bin Malik (ra) was approached by some people asking him questions on Islamic law. He said to these people, "Ask Maulana Hassan (Is aloo maulana al Hassan). In surprise, they responded, "We are asking you, Oh Abu Hamza, (Nas alooka Abu Hamza) for you are the companion of Rasulullah (saw) and you are telling us to ask Maulana Hassan?"

So Anas bin Malik (ra), this great Sahabi of Rasulullah (saw), said to the people "Sami-a wa sami' na fa hafiza wa naseena", "He heard and we heard; and he remembered and we forgot." Subhanallah, this prominent Sahabi (ra) is referring people to Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh. Abu Qatadah rahmatullahi alayh says that if Hassan rahmatullahi alayh was alive during the time of Rasulullah (saw), all the sahabah (ra) would have been in need of him.

 His Knowledge of Tassawuf

Of all his mastery in the Islamic sciences, Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was particularly known for his knowledge in 'Ilm ut Tassawuf', (science of purifying the heart). This science deals with the inner spiritual state of individuals, and so it is also the most difficult.

The concept of Tassawuf seems strange nowadays too many people because it is seen with so many changes and corruptions attached to it. As written in the earlier article, labels can be misleading. People flee due to misconceptions and lack of understanding. And naturally, if people observe a phenomenon that is forbidden according to the Qur'an and Sunnah, then indeed that particular practice should be rejected.

Unfortunately, people reject the entire concept of Tassawuf based on a few deviant individuals or sects. It is just like how some people may look at us and see our ill behaviors. Upon this, they exclaim, "You are a Muslim! If that is Islam, then I want nothing to do it" and then they turn away from Islam. Looking at our mistakes, they think Islam is awful and reject the whole concept of Islam based on our actions. Of course, this is incorrect.

Tassawuf is referred to in the Qur'an as "Tazkiya" (purification of the heart). Allah (swt) mentions this in the Qur'an as one of the four responsibilities of Rasulullah (saw): "And purify them! (Wa you Zaki him)" The study of this field is called "'Ilm ut Tazkiya" and in hadith, it has been called "Ihsaan."

Let me present a simple example regarding Tassawuf. Imagine that you love sweets and have heard people speak highly about a particular dessert. One day, this irresistible dessert is presented before you. You are ecstatic and get up to quickly wash your hands to eat. However, upon returning you are surprised to find many flies sitting on the dessert trying to taste its sweetness. Now you've lost your appetite. You don't even want to look at this sweet anymore because all the flies around it have ruined it.

Finally, one day you see the same dessert in a bakery, preserved from all the filth and flies. You quickly run inside the store, purchase the dessert, thank Allah (swt) for the blessing, and start enjoying its sweetness. So, seeing the dessert with flies made you turn away from it, and seeing it pure and clean, made you love it. And this is exactly what happens today in the field of Tassawuf.

Ilm ul ihsaan is a necessary part of our deen and discussed in hadith. In a hadith narrated in Sahih al Bukhari, Rasulullah (saw) was once asked by Jibreel (al) different questions about Islam. One of those questions was, "What is Ihsaan?" Rasulullah (saw) responded, "Worship Allah as if you see Him."

Subhanallah; imagine the dedication and focus it takes for a person to reach that level of Imaan where he feels he is in the presence of Allah (swt), looking at Him directly.

Rasulullah (saw) further went on to say, "And if you can't do that, then at least be aware that he is watching you." Even arriving at this realization, which is of the lesser degree than the former is a difficult task for many of us. Most of the time, we forget that Allah (swt) is watching us and we go on to commit great mistakes. Developing this feeling is the main goal of Tassawuf. Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was on the true and correct path (Sulook). And he specialized in the true Ilm ut Tassawuf. He wasn't, nauzhobillah, committing bida'ah or going away from deen. This is why many of the greatest people of their time (who even knew more hadith than him) were sitting around him, benefiting from his company (sohba).

His Taqwa

Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh was in the normal habit of performing some Nafl prayers and some tasbihaath (zhikr) before going to sleep. He would then wake up for Tahajjud and pray most of the night. One day, his family noticed that he was unusually tired in the morning. They asked him the cause of his fatigue. He said he was unable to sleep all night. His family became worried since he was always at peace and was never troubled over worldly affairs.

Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh then told them that it was not any worldly affairs. What happened was that tonight my nafs was not in the mood to do all these extra prayers and the tasbihaath. It kept stopping me from my routine ibaadah. So I said to my nafs, okay, I will not do the tasbihaath tonight nor I will perform the tahajjud prayer tonight. But you want to sleep, don't you? No, I won't let you sleep either. I am not going to do the extra things since you don't feel like, but I'm also not going to sleep. I am just going to sit here all night and think about the Greatness of Allah (swt). And I am sure tomorrow, you will tell me to quickly do the Nafl prayers and then go to sleep.

This is what it means to control our nafs. One of the scholars was approached by a person who was complaining about people that that people don't listen to me these days. My own children even don't listen. The scholar responded to that person that you are worried about other people? My own nafs that is within me does not even listen to me. I ask my nafs to get up for the night prayer and the nafs says go to sleep.

The heart of Tassawuf is to control the nafs so much so that the love of Allah (swt) is more important than anything else in this world. It is to instill the love of Allah (swt) and His remembrance firmly in the heart. This way, when a person is dealing with people and thinks about cheating or looking at something forbidden, he says to himself "You can try to cheat a little bit now, but Allah (swt) is watching you." And the person walks throughout the day always thinking that Allah (swt) is watching over him.

Imam Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh specialized in this Tassawuf and taught it to others as well. Sahabah (ra) and tabieen used to sit in his company to take benefit of this knowledge. He had instilled in him the taqwa of Allah (swt) as mentioned in the hadith. In fact, they used say that whenever he talked about Akhira, he would cry profusely as if the hellfire was only created for him, "Ka anna man-naara inama khuliqaath la..."

Once a man came to Hassan rahmatullahi alayh and informed him that someone was backbiting him. The informer expected Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh to get upset and say a few negative words about the individual who had backbitten him. But to the man's surprise, he got up, prepared some gifts for the person and told the informer to give these gifts to him and tell him "I learned that you sent me some of your good rewards to me as a gift by backbiting me. I cannot repay you in the same way; however, please accept this offer of worldly gifts in return of your kindness towards me."

This was their realization of actions and their true consequences. Unfortunately today, we have no control of our tongue. We are just giving up our good deeds day and night, minute after minute, just transferring all of our hard work and efforts into other peoples account.

Once, a person came to him and said that "I heard you backbit me." Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh replied, "I don't love you that much," so the man said, "I know you hate me and this is why you backbit me!" He replied to the man by saying, "If I was to backbite anyone, I would backbite my father because no one deserves my good deeds more than my father."

His Death

A person went to Imam Ibn Seerin and said to him, "I saw a dream in which a bird came and picked up the best stone of the masjid. What does this mean?" Imam Ibn Seerin said to the man that if this dream is true, then Imam Hassan rahmatullahi alayh has passed away because he is the best stone of the masjid.

They inquired and discovered that indeed, that was the night that Imam Hassan al Bisri rahmatullahi alayh passed away. He died in 110 Hijri on the night of Friday. They performed his Salahtul Janaaza right after the Jum'ah salah.

One of his students, Humaid At-Taweel, narrates that the day they offered his Janaaza was the only day since the beginning of Islam that Salahtul 'Asr was not performed in congregation in that Jamiah masjid of Kufa. This was because after Salahtul Jumah, they carried his Janazah for burial. There were so many people present that they could not come back in time to the masjid to perform Salahtul 'Asr in time. Many people there were so overwhelmed with grief that they did not want to leave the company of the Janazah. And so they ended up performing Salahtul Asr in an open area near the cemetery.

We see the great blessings that this child, whose both parents were slaves, was endowed with. We see how people came running especially to him from distant lands to learn deen, irrespective of his lineage. And this is also what Islam has to offer for all of us. This respect and honor was not only for them, but it is there for all of us. If we follow in their footsteps, Insha Allah, we also will see that Allah (swt) will bless us in the same way as he had blessed our pious ancestors. Ameen.