Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Three

Part Three:  The Ethical Dimension in the Kalam-e Mawla
- The Theme of  Charity and Generosity

Hazrat Ali’s aphorisms and wise counsels got translated into numerous languages across the Muslim world. The Kalame Mawla is a moving poetic rendition of his teachings in Hindustani. The work exhorts the believers to observe virtues such as brotherhood, honesty and generosity. This manuscript, written in a beautiful Khojki hand in Mumbai (Bombay), contains a few choice couplets at the end, including a verse of the famous Persian poet Hafiz. The Institute of Ismaili Studies Collection. Copied in 1908 samvat/1851 by Khoja Alahrakhea Koriji, 80 pages, 200 x 150 mm

Hazrat Ali’s aphorisms and wise counsels got translated into numerous languages across the Muslim world. The Kalame Mawla is a moving poetic rendition of his teachings in Hindustani. The work exhorts the believers to observe virtues such as brotherhood, honesty and generosity. This manuscript, written in a beautiful Khojki hand in Mumbai (Bombay), contains a few choice couplets at the end, including a verse of the famous Persian poet Hafiz. The Institute of Ismaili Studies Collection. Copied in 1908 samvat/1851 by Khoja Alahrakhea Koriji, 80 pages, 200 x 150 mm

In the previous two readings we provided an introduction to the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali (Part One) and briefly discussed the doctrinal and esoteric dimensions in the Kalam (Part Two).

The third, and predominant, dimension in Kalam-i Mawla is the ethical one, which is expressed in the poem in a number of ways. The most common way is by injunctions stated in the name of Mawlana Ali (a.s) whose status is sometimes further explained through the use of particular titles such as:

Shah-e Awliya (verses 2 & 182) – the Lord of the friends (of God)

Sahib-e Zulfiqar (verse 15) – Master of (the sword) Dhulfiqar

Wali Maqbul (verse 34) – the accepted friend (of God)

Sahib-e Israr (verse 98) – Master of the (spiritual) mysteries or secrets

Kawsar-e Saqi (verses 102 & 107) – the pourer (of water) at the Pond of Kawthar (in Paradise)

Shah-e Dul Dul Sawar (verses 113 & 130) – the rider of (the horse) Dul Dul; etc.

Such titles are almost always given in the last or penultimate line of the verse as a forceful culmination to the advice given in the previous lines; they are thus introduced by phrases such as “and so has spoken….” or “So commands….”

The (ethical) injunctions themselves vary in content and even in the style in which they are expressed. In terms of content, almost every major aspect of a Muslim’s way of life has been covered. The headings of some of the chapters cited in the previous reading, give an indication of the variety of the themes: the sub-themes are even more pervasive.

Let us take chapter four as an example and consider its contents which deal with the theme of charity and generosity (sakhawat). While each of its seventeen verses is pertinent to that theme, its exposition relates to different aspects of the subject.

Man is placed – as indeed he must – at the centre of the injunctions. But around him are constructed premises or arguments to help him see the benefits of being generous, benefits to be gained both in this world and the next, benefits both material and spiritual. Thus, generosity expressed also as acts of charity and philanthropy, is made a cornerstone of the relationship not only between man and God but also between man and man The two are interlinked, the one expressed in terms of the other, as we shall see below.

In so doing, the verses (18 to 34) also address themselves to fundamental questions of the theme: what is charity; to whom should one be charitable; in what way; and, perhaps most important, why.

The arguments setting out the rationale for the act of charity or generosity – the ‘why’- may be summarised as follows:

Since God has given wealth to a person through His bounty, His barakah, one should not hide or gourd that wealth but spend from it ‘in the way of God’; for, vast amounts of wealth which are either concealed from others or spent entirely on oneself eventually turn to dust and do not benefit other human beings. If, on the other hand, one gives generously in charity or is philanthropic in action, one is rewarded both in this world and the next. The act of giving is compared to ‘the philosopher’s stone’ (paras): just as the latter turns to gold what is rubbed against it, so does the generous character of a person bring him the good things of life.

People come to respect and love such a person and accord him a high position in this world and offer prayers for his well-being. And God – as the Razzaq, the Provider – grants him prosperity in wealth, family, household and rank in society. A philanthropist is the beloved (habib) of God who will grant him a rank close to Himself in the abode of the Hereafter and whose name will not perish in this world.

How should one give? A short answer from the verses is that charity ought to be given with a smile, with a feeling of happiness. The aim is to make the recipient happy. It is stated repeatedly in these verses that a donor must not make the recipient feel obligated to the giver nor should he hurt his feelings in any way. If these injunctions are violated, his charity will be considered “lost”, that is nullified in the eyes of God. Such a way of giving requires a disciplined heart, a heart that is under control from pride and arrogance. Feelings of kindness in the heart of the donor are gradually accompanied by respect and love for the recipients.

And who are the recipients? Although the verses do not give details of their identity, two broad categories are mentioned: the orphans and the weak who should be approached ‘by the strong’ with a view to aiding them in whatever ails them.

 The onus of taking the initiative is placed on the srong. It is interesting to note that charity is conceived, not only in terms of the giving of material wealth to those who are poor, but also in helping to redress the wrongs committed against the weak, to bring justice to those whose rights have been infringed.

Verse 28 states pithily: “The weapon of the weak is to grieve, and to shout out laments to all” but, it goes on to ask: if the grieving do not possess the wealth or the strength to defend themselves, and they continue to be oppressed with suffering and pain, what can be done about it? The implication is clear: the weak need those with a sense of fair play to stand up for them. That too, would be an act of charity.

__________

Continue Reading:
Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Four
Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Five

Adapted from Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla: A Brief Introduction, by Dr. Farouk M. Topan, published in Ilm, Vol 13, Number 1 (July 1990), Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom.

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