The Advice of Waki`
One of the blessings of living in Cairo, a place where history seems to have left its mark everywhere one looks, is that it is home to many of the graves of notable righteous people, distinguished worshipers and scholars of Islamic history. It is an entirely different experience to read or hear about a person of the past and their incredible knowledge or devotion, and to stand at the foot of their grave. The first is cerebral; the second, a visceral, personal experience that forges a connection that is difficult to express. In some ways it bring life to a tradition that may seem static, and make real and tangible what seems abstract and elusive. It is also sobering to consider what great heights such people reached and how far we may have left to climb.
A few steps down from the masjid of Imam Shafi`i in Old Cairo lies the grave of one of his teachers, Waki` ibn Jarrah. His name is familiar to many of us through the famous lines of Imam Shafi`i:
شَكَوْتُ إلَى وَكِيعٍ سُوءَ حِفْظِي فَأرْشَدَنِي إلَى تَرْكِ المعَاصي
وَأخْبَرَنِي بأَنَّ العِلْمَ نُورٌ ونورُ الله لايؤتى لعاصي
I complained to Waki’ about my poor memory:
“Give up your sins!” was his advice to me;
“For knowledge is a light from Divinity,
and the Light of God is veiled by iniquity.”
It is said that Imam Shafi`i was walking in the street one day when an inadvertent glance caused him to glimpse a woman’s shin, exposed by the wind as she was passing by. This momentary, seemingly negligible glance had its effect on his mind and heart, which led him to seek guidance from his teacher and resulted in these lines of poetry and profound wisdom.
Such a story seems almost incredulous in our times, when our senses are overwhelmed by a seemingly never-ending array of spiritually harmful things, often indulged in consciously.
In the Qasidat al-Burda Imam al-Busiri counsels,
واستفرغ الدمع من عين قد امتلأت من المحارم والزم حمية الندم
Pour out tears from those eyes that have become filled
With forbidden sights, and hold fast to remorse as a guard (against returning to sin).
My teacher pointed out the beautiful imagery of the language of this couplet, and the contrast of emptiness and fullness, the words chosen likening our eyes to actual physical containers or vessels. In these lines Imam Busiri counsels us to empty and pour out, by way of tears of regret and repentance, these vessels we have filled up with the forbidden, just as if they were physical vessels that we have consciously filled with impurity, that need to be emptied and cleansed.
We must ask ourselves, what have we filled our eyes with? And how can Divine light settle in a place that is filled to the brim with other things?
May Allah help us to heed Waki`’s advice to his student, honor us with light, and keep our spiritual gazes fixed on Him. Ameen.