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Ibn Qudāmah’s Ship

A Journey to the Island of Treasures

Those involved in teaching may spend a lengthy amount of time struggling to explain a simple concept. However, wrap that concept in an elegant analogy and the penny quickly drops! This reflects the fact that the human being is deeply conditioned to associate new information and concepts with familiar ones that can be visualised, and hence more easily understood.

The book of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) and Sunnah of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is replete with such teaching techniques. Pondering over the verses of Allāh, we identify 41 explicit analogies, and with a little contemplation, we quickly discover that the examples struck in the Qur’ān have a truly special eloquence that is unrivalled.

وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

“God makes such comparisons for people so that they may reflect.”[1]

Imām Ibn Qudāmah al-Maqdisi also utilises this linguistic weaponry to unleash upon us a captivating parable. In his book “Al-Wasiyyah” (The Advice), he clarifies the meaning behind the journey we are all on, the journey of life, by sending us on board a ship. Succinct and comprehensive, but with lessons easily forgotten or neglected, let us consider how we might board this ship with a triumphant outcome.

The world is ghost-quiet, except for the crack of sails and the burbling of water against the ship’s hull. The crew aboard the ship are gently blown along by the wind to an unfamiliar “paradise-island” in the vast ocean. At this location there are undiscovered precious jewels, including all the rare gemstones one can imagine, from rubies and diamonds to emeralds, sapphires and even onyx. There are other splendid gems and priceless stones everywhere, littered between the rocks. The island is further beautified with serene rivers and stunning meadows. The owner of the island, the king, has erected walls to surround his pastures, his servants and his children. All of his treasured personal belongings are confined within the walled compound of this mesmerising city and remain beyond the reach of the ship’s crew.

The day on the island

The ship’s crew disembark. As they feast their eyes on the beauty that greets them, an announcement is suddenly made:

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

Upon hearing this, the crew immediately split into three groups.

The first group

The determined from amongst them start working immediately. Driven by their lofty aspirations, they set about collecting the best of jewels and gems, carrying them back to the ship relentlessly and placing them in their treasure chests on board. During their uncompromising efforts, whenever they became tired, they would quickly remember the tremendous value of the gems as well as the little time they had. They would soon be setting off from the island with a one-way ticket, not able to return. Thus, they refused to rest. They also abandoned useless speech that would usurp their precious and finite time. Instead, this group focused themselves on the task at hand and worked hard to perfect the job with diligence. When sleep would entice them, they reminded themselves of their mission until the desire to sleep was overcome. To keep themselves motivated, they would chant;

Those who work hard now can rest joyfully tomorrow.”

The second group

As for another group of people; they took some of the jewels and gems, enjoyed frequent breaks and even slept during most of the night; content that they had at least made some effort, however little it may have been.

The third group

The third party, arrogantly unconcerned, did not lift a finger towards collecting any of these stones at all. Not bothered in the slightest, they dismissed the beauty of the gems. They preferred to sleep, rest and while away the hours as they occasionally watched others hard at work, building their future. There were three types among them.

  1. Those who indulged in building seasonal cottages, houses, castles and other properties.
  2. Others set about gathering useless seashells, colourful pebbles and chinaware.
  3. Lastly, those who preferred to divest their time on the island in entertainment mixed with petty gossip and hearsay. They drowned themselves in desires, listening to frivolous stories and music throughout the night.

Whilst immersed in amusements, they mocked at the first two groups for working; hurling slurs at them as they sang:

“An atom’s weight of instant gratification now is better than a promised and delayed gratification.”

The egotism of this third group eventually led them to having the audacity to make their way to the outer wall of the king’s sanctuary. They circled around it, with animalistic instincts, trying to find some way to get inside. When they were unable to locate a door, they employed all means at their disposal to make cracks and rifts in the wall, demolishing the gates and plundering the king’s treasures that were inside. Wreaking havoc, chaos and destruction, as they played with the children and neighbours of the king, they chanted:

“We live on this island forever! This is our permanent abode!”

The journey back

This latter group, continued in their oblivion until the horn was blown, signalling the end of their brief time on the island. The first group were delighted with their collection and came to the meeting place with more of their rightly-earned gems and jewels. They had but one regret; they would have preferred additional time to collect more items.

The second group had a growing sense of regrettable remorse and deep sinking sorrow for having wasted their time on trivial matters. They had not fulfilled a fraction of the potential on offer despite being conscious of it the whole time. They were scared and uncertain on their long journey back.

As for the third group; their legs now shook, their hair stood on end, and their eyes held bags of anguish and regret. It was said to them: “We will never let you go empty-handed, until you carry everything you have stolen from within the sacred walls of the king so that you can be disgraced by it.” The stolen goods were tied around their necks and on their backs in humiliation. Like donkeys, they were dragged through the long journey back, until the ship reached the tremendous dominion of the king.

An announcement is made: “The people have arrived, the people of the island of jewels have arrived!”

Judgement

They are greeted by a sea of people, waves upon waves of the inhabitants of this mighty kingdom surrounded by elegant and embellished soldiers. Waiting for their grand arrival was none other than the king himself.

The people were received with a welcoming command:

“Present your acquisitions and accomplishments to the King!”

The people of the jewels were brought before the king with all their valuable cargo.

“You are my elite, my closest companions and my beloved. You may take what you will from my generosity.” He boasted in praise.

He celebrated their achievements and, in turn, made them kings and granted 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 enjoy as you please.” They were gifted access to castles, cottages, maidens, meadows, towns and cities, as well as having the finest transportation. A procession of the army and the king’s children kept them company and entertained as they travelled. They became neighbours to the king and they would sit with him, look at him frequently and visit him, seeking advice 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.

Attention is now given to the second party.

“Where are your goods?” they are asked.

With their tails between their legs and their hearts heavy, they sheepishly reply; “We do not have much.”

“Woe to you! Were you not on the island of treasures?! Were you not on a level playing field with those who were just made kings?!”

The only answer they have is: “Yes, but we preferred comfort and ease. We had to rest and sleep.”

With ever-increasing disapproval, it is said to them: “How foolish! How absurd! Did you not realise how short your visit was? And how precious the jewels are? Did you not know that it wasn’t a place for you to remain nor a place for sleep? Did no one wake you up from your heedlessness? Did no one snap you out of your forgetfulness?”

They have no choice but to confess: “Yes, they did warn us. Indeed, we knew but we ignored. We were awoken but we turned a blind eye. We were reminded but we didn’t pay much attention. By Allāh, we heard what they said, but we just did not listen.”

They are rebuked and left to bite their own hands in regret over misusing their limited time. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, they stand in distress, weeping and wailing at their loss, ardently beseeching those who were made kings for an intercession.

The limelight is now shone upon the third group, the worst and most miserable of them who had broken into the king’s residence.

قَدْ خَسِرَ الَّذِينَ كَذَّبُواْ بِلِقَاء اللّهِ حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءتْهُمُ السَّاعَةُ بَغْتَةً قَالُواْ يَا حَسْرَتَنَا عَلَى مَا فَرَّطْنَا فِيهَا وَهُمْ يَحْمِلُونَ أَوْزَارَهُمْ عَلَى ظُهُورِهِمْ أَلاَ سَاء مَا يَزِرُونَ.

“Lost indeed are those who deny the meeting with their Lord until, when the Hour suddenly arrives, they say, ‘Woe to us that we disregarded this!’ They will bear their burdens on their backs. How terrible those burdens will be!”[2]

Upon reaching the city of the great king, they are made to come forward as they carry their stolen spoils and evil doings around their necks and backs, with great difficulty. Confused and drunk, they remorse over their regrettable actions with total and utter hopeless despair.

By the time they had arrived, they were stumbling whilst carrying the contraband. The people of the city, the king and his army took hold of them and cursed them.

Some of the people with them try to excuse themselves; “We were building houses and cottages!” Others claimed: “We were collecting seashells, pebbles and chinaware!” Their excuses totally rejected for they presented no good that could help them.

They are shamed and defamed in front of the masses. Humiliated and scandalised, they accept that they have no hope. The king orders them out of his presence, far from his neighbours and consigns them to prison. Once they are dragged on their faces to jail, they are given the glad tidings of the punishment to follow, until they became certain they have nothing coming to them but retribution.

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

فَإِنْ يَصْبِرُوا فَالنَّارُ مَثْوًى لَهُمْ وَإِنْ يَسْتَعْتِبُوا فَمَا هُمْ مِنَ الْمُعْتَبِينَ

“The Fire will still be their home, even if they resign themselves to patience, and if they pray to be allowed to make amends, they will not be given permission to do so.”[3]

Pay careful attention to the differences between the three groups. The first was joyfully successful; they used their time on the island to work hard and remain patient with the difficulties encountered, remembering the hardship would only be for a short while. The second, despite trying, still found themselves swamped in regret over all that they lost and the third party deceived their own selves losing out completely.

Imām Ibn Qudāmah’s parable of life shows, quite literally, the great opportunity we have at hand versus the heavy losses we can amass. Our life is short, and the days are numbered as every breath that we take steals away some part of our life. There are no replacements for lost time.

If our waking and our sleeping and everything in between is not something weighty for the eternal, then it will be a regret in the coming life. This life is the grazing pasture for the Hereafter, a place where provisions can be taken as well as profitable gains from smart investments. Those who act have been victorious and those who have engaged in vanities have lost everything. Therefore, each of us needs a self-revolution to work hard and strive to be from the first group who filled their time with actions of productivity and did not engage in frivolous matters.

Know that not a moment passes except that it can be a jewel in the next life. Let us utilise our hearts to reflect over the favours of Allāh and understand how to express gratitude for them. Contemplate over shortcomings and plan practical changes, so that we may seek forgiveness for them and reflect over time lost in pursuit of other than our main objective.

Imām Ibrahīm al-Taymī, said: “I imagined myself in the Paradise eating from its fruits, enjoying the company of the maidens therein, enjoying its favours. Then I imagined myself in the Hellfire, with its iron chains and blazing fire eating from its Zaqqūm (a tree in hell with exceedingly bitter fruit), and drinking from its scorching valleys, so I said, “O my soul what do you wish for?” It replied; “To return to the world and perform a righteous action by which I will be saved form this punishment.” I quickly answered, “Your wish has been fulfilled. Get started and act righteously.”

The ship is your arrival and departure from this life, and the island is this world – the dunyā. Collect every jewel you can for the few days you have and prepare yourself to meet the King of Kings so that He may enrich you in a perfect, eternal manner.

ثُمَّ أَوْرَثْنَا الْكِتَابَ الَّذِينَ اصْطَفَيْنَا مِنْ عِبَادِنَا ۖ فَمِنْهُمْ ظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ وَمِنْهُم مُّقْتَصِدٌ وَمِنْهُمْ سَابِقٌ بِالْخَيْرَاتِ بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْكَبِيرُ

“Then We granted the Book to those We have chosen from Our servants.

Some of them wrong themselves,

some follow a middle course,

and some are foremost in good deeds by Allāh’s Will.

That is ˹truly˺ the greatest bounty.”[4]

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes

[1] Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah Ibrahīm (14:25)

[2] Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah Al-An’ām (6:31)

[3] Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah Fussilat (41:24)

[4] Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah Al-Fātir (35:32)

About Dr Abdelrahman Elashry

Dr Abdelrahman Elashry (BDS) is a dentist by profession. Having graduated from Cardiff University, he is now pursuing a Masters degree (MSc) in Restorative Dentistry at UCL in London. He is currently studying Sharī'ah at the Tafsir Academy, with a special interest in Quranic studies and Tafsir.

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