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Monasticism 

Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
President
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA

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The final Messenger of the Bani Israel-Hazrat Isa(Jesus)-was sent with the Gospel, the Injeel. The followers of Jesus(AS) who really followed his way-in their hearts Allah had placed love and affection. They dealt affectionately with the creatures of Allah. They were also affectionate and loving with one another among themselves. Onward the followers of Hazrat Isa(peace be upon him) had invented an innovation(Bidat) Ruhbaniyat(Monasticism), i.e. renunciation of the world, being tired of the oppression of the irreligious king and rulers and being disgusted with the involvements of the world, but this renunciation was not prescribed by Allah upon them, but their intention was this only that the good pleasure of Allah should be sought, but they could not accomplish it fully. In Surah 57(Al Hadid), verse 28, we read But monasticism which they invented for themselves-We did not prescribe it for them-for the seeking of Allah's Pleasure; but they did not observe it as it should have been observed ." Now Allah has sent the Prophet Muhammad(upon whom be His peace and blessings). Those who affirm faith in Him and pass their life fearing Allah's accountability, will be given by Allah a double share of His mercy and He will bless them with the Light by which they will see and walk the straight path among the crooked paths met with at every step in the life of this world. Although the followers of the earlier revelation regard themselves as the monopolists of Allah's bounties, the fact remains that Allah Himself controls His bounties He may bless with these bounties on whomever He pleases. 

Verse 28 in Surah Al-Hadid 57 may mean that the followers of Jesus invented monasticism in order to seek Allah's pleasure but Allah had not prescribed it for them; or they invented monasticism which Allah had not prescribed for them-He had only prescribed for them the seeking of His pleasure.
 

In the present verse the example of a people-the Christians-has been cited to show that the adoption of an extreme course by them, with howsoever good intentions, led them away from the goal they had sought to attain. They invented the institution of monkery(monasticism) in order, as they thought, to seek pleasure of Allah, and in conformity with, according to them, Jesus's own teaching and practice. The adage that the road to heaven is paved with good intentions was never better illustrated than in the case of Christians for whom monkery(monasticism) proved a source of many evils. They started with monasticism and ended with giving

themselves up to the worship of Mammon. By implication the Muslims were told that because a great Prophet had been raised for them, by following whom they would be given great worldly power and wealth, they should not go to the other extreme and give themselves up to the pursuit of material gains and physical pleasures. While monasticism has been decried and deplored as repugnant to human nature, the Noble Prophet also is reported to have said: there is no monasticism in Islam(Ibn Athir). Islam is not a religion for dreamers and visionaries who live in a world of their own conception, entirely divorced from the hard realities of life, but is a practical system which gives effective and full guidance in mundane as well as spiritual affairs. It has not left any aspect of crowded human life for which it has not laid down practical guidance. There is no place in Islam for such an impracticable teaching as "take no thought for the morrow"(Matt. 6:34). It emphatically enjoins a Muslim "to look to what he sends forth for the morrow"(59:19). According to Islam a true Muslim is one who discharges fully and completely the obligations he owes to his fellow-beings(Haquuq al Ibaad) as he discharges those he owes to his Creator(Haquuq Allah).  

1. History of Christian Monasticism:  

For about 200 years after Prophet Jesus(peace be upon him) the Christian Church did not know anything about monasticism. The basis of monasticism is to look upon asceticism as a moral ideal and to regard celibacy as superior to matrimonial and mundane life. Historically the spread of monasticism has three main causes: 
 

First, in the ancient polytheistic society sensuality, immorality and materialism had so permeated that in their zeal to nullify it the Christian scholars adopted the extremist way instead of the way of moderation. They so stressed chastity that the relationship between man and woman by itself came to be looked upon as filthy, even if it was within marriage. To possess property of any kind was considered a sin for a religious person and to live like a poor man and ascetic the criterionof moral excellence. They made withdrawal from pleasure and all material comforts, self-denial and curbing of the desires the object of morality and regarded torturing the body by different sorts of harsh discipline as the climax and proof of a person's spirituality. 

Secondly, when Christianity started achieving successes and spreading rapidly among the common people, the Church in its zeal to attract more and more adherents went on imbibing every evil that was prevalent in society. Thus, saint-worship replaced the ancient deities. Images of Christ and Mary began to be worshipped instead of the idol of Horus and Isis. Christmas took the place of Saturnalia. Christian monks began to practice every kind of occult art like curing the sick by amulets and magic incantations, taking omens and fortune-telling, driving out spirits, etc., as were prevalent in ancient days. Likewise, since the common people looked upon a dirty and naked person who lived in a cave orden as a holy and godly man, this very concept of saintlihood becameprevalent in the Christian Church, and legends of their miraculous powers began to abound in the memoirs of the Christian saints.  

Thirdly, the Christian possessed no detailed law and definite traditions and practices to determine the bounds of religion. They had given up the Mosaic Law. The Gospel by itself afforded no perfect code of guidance. Hence the Christian theologians went on permitting every kind of innovation to enter the religion partly under the influence of alien philosophies, customs and practices and partly under their personal preference and whim. Monasticism was one such innovation. They took their philosophy and rules and practices from the Buddhist monks, Hindu Yogis and ascetics, Egyptian Anchorites, Iranian Manicheans, and the followers of Plato and Plotinus, and made the same the means and methods of attaining self-purification, spiritual loftiness and eness to Allah. Those who committed this error were not ordinary men. From the 3rd to the 7th century(i.e., till about the time the Qur'an began to be revealed) the religious personalities who were recognized as the foremost scholars and religious guides and leaders of Christendom, both in the East and in the West-St.Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great- all were monks themselves and great upholders of monasticism. it was under their influence that monasticism became popular in the Church. The basic rules of Christian Monasticism are derived from the writings and instructions of St.Anthony(25-350 A.D.) f. Egyt hoisregaredas the father of Christian Monasticism. Afterwards monasticism spread like a deluge in Egypt and monasteries for monks and nuns were set up everywhere in the land. In some monasteries three thousand monks lived at a time. The monastic movement then began to spread in Palestine and Syria and in different countries of Africa and Europe. In the beginning the Christian Church accepted relinquishment of the world, celibacy and voluntary poverty as an ideal of spiritual life, however it could not declare marriage, begetting children and possessing property or wealth to be sinful as the monks did. Subsequently under the influence of early saints such as St. Athanasius(d. 373 AD), St. Basil(d.379 AD), St. Augustine(d.430 AD), and Gregory the Great(d. 609 AD) many of the monastic rules became part and parcel of the Church.  

Hemoasinnovtion has some characteristics which are described below:

1. Inflicting pain on the body by severe exercisea v tds. In this act every monk tried to surpass the other. St. Macarius of Alexandria constantly carried with him a weight of 80 pounds and for six months he slept in a swamp while poisonous flies preyed on his naked body. His disciple, St. Eusebius carried a weight of 150 pounds and lay in a dry well for three years. St. Bessarion lay in thorny bushes for 40 days and did not ret his back on the ground for 40 years. St. John remained standing in worp for three years during which he neither sat nradn; he would only recline at times against a rock. St. Simeon Stylites (390-449 A.D.) spent last 30 years of his life on a 60 foot high pillar and remained permanently exposed to the elements. When he died the Christian world proclaimed that he was the best model of a Christian saint. One saint remained silent for 30 years. Some lived in the dens of beasts, or in dry wells, or in old graves; and some other remained naked and concealed their private parts under long hair and would crawl on the ground. After death their bones were preserved in monasteries.    

2. They remained dirty and strictly avoided cleanliness and bodily care. A famous nun, Virgin Sylvia, never allowedny part of her body except the fingers to become we with water throughout life.

3. sticism practically forbade married life and ruthlessly abandoned the institution of marriage. All religious writings of the fourth and fifth centuries are filled with the thought that celibacy is the highest moral virtue. Chastity meant that one should strictly abstain from sexual relation even if it was between husband and wife. The perfection of a pure spiritual life lay in complete self-denial, with no desire for physical pleasure. It was indispensable to suppress any carnal desire because it strengthened animality. For them pleasure and sin were synonymous. St.Basil forbade even laughing and smiling. arriage was sid as filthy. A monk was forbidden even to look at a woman, and was required to abandon his wife, if he was married. Women were asked to shun marriage and remain spinsters, and if they were married, they should separate from their husbands. St. Jerome, the distinguished Christian scholar, ruled that the woman who remained a spinster as a nun for the sake of Christ, was the bride of Christ, and her mother was the mother-in-law of Christ, i.e.,God. Hence many Christian saints abandoned their spouses as there was no provision for divorce. As a result married monks were having "illicit" relations with their wives in private. They were asked to meet their wives only in the presence of at least two other men and they should sleep in the open. 

4. The most painful and pathetic chapter of ascetic monasticism is that it cut asunder man's relations with his parents, with his brothers and sisters, and even his own children. Because love for family members was sinful. They believed it was necessary for man to break off all those relations for the sake of spiritual progress. After 27 years the mother of St. Simeon Stylites came to see him in a monastery, but was not allowed to enter being a woman. The son refused to go out and meet her. The woman lay at the entrance for three days and three days night and finally breathed her last. Then the holy man emerged from his seclusion, mourned

his mother's death and prayed for her forgiveness. The same way they treated their sisters and children. The viewpoint of Christian monasticism in these matters was that the one who sought love of God, should break off all relations of human love that bound him in the world of his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his children. Of a nun it is said that for three days after her death, she remained subject to a torment because she had not been able to cleanse her heart of her mother's love. About a saint it is written that he never treated anyone harshly except his relatives. 

5. With practices like these, they made their human feeling dead, with the result that they would treat with utmost enmity those with whom they had any religious differences. In the beginning of 4th century, there arose 80 - 90 sects in Christianity, each of which regarded the other with extreme hatred. Alexandria was a great center of this sectarian conflict. There, in the beginning the Bishop of the Arian sect attacked the Athnasius party. Virgin nuns were dragged out of their convents, stripped naked and beaten with thorny branches and branded in order to make them give up their creed. Then, when the Roman Catholics came to power in Egypt, they treated the Arian sect likewise; so much so that according to the prevalent view Arius himself also was poisoned. Once in the city of Alexandria the monks of St. Cyril created turmoil. They seized a nun of the opponent sect and took her into the church; they killed her, hacked her body to pieces, and cast them into the fire. Rome was not any different from this. In 366 A.D, at the death of Pope Liberius, two sects nominated their respective candidates for papacy. This resulted in great bloodshed. In one day 137 dead bodies were taken out from one church.

6. Although they retreated from the world and lived a life of seclusion and poverty, but at the same time they amassed the wealth of the world most avariciously. In the beginning of 5th century the condition was that the Bishop of Rome lived in his palace like a king, and when his carriage emerged in the city, it would be as stately and splendid as of the emperor himself. St. Jerome complained that the feast hosted by many of the bishops out-classed the feasts of the governors. The flow of wealth to monasteries and churches had assumed the proportions of a deluge by the beginning of the 7th century(the age of the revelation of the Qur'an). A person who happened to commit a grave sin could be redeemed only by making an offering at a saint's shrine, or a sacrifice at the altar of a church or monastery. Common people developed extreme reverence for the monks because of their self-discipline and self-denial. Taking advantage of this, hosts of world seeking people also donned the monk's garments and entered their ranks. Then under the garb of feigned poverty they turned acquisition of worldly wealth and possessions into a flourishing business. 

7. Monasticism was repeatedly was defeated in the matter of chastity and in its fight against nature. In the monasteries some exercises of self-mortification were such that the monks and nuns were required to live together in one and the same place, and they had often to pass the night in the same bed in their enthusiasm for more and more temptations. St. Evagarius, the well-known monk, has praised the self-control acquired by the Palestinian monks, saying : "They had mastered their passion so completely that although they bathed with the women together, looked at their bodies, touched them, even embraced them, yet they remained invincible to nature." Albeit bathing was an abhorrent thing in monasticism, such baths were also taken for the same of exercise in self-control. Finally, about the same Palestine, St. Gregory of Nyssa(d. 396 AD) writes that it has become a center of wickedness and immorality. Human nature avenges itself on those who fight it. Monasticism fought it and ultimately fell in the pit of immorality, the story of which is a most shameful blot on the religious history of the 8th to 11th centuries. An Italian bishop of the 10th century writes: " If the penal law for misconduct is practically enforced against those who perform religious services in the church, none would escape punishment except the boys, and if the law to remove illegitimate children from religious services was also enforced, there might perhaps be left no boy among the attendants of the church." Books of the medireview authors are filled with complaints that the nunneries had become houses of prostitution. Within their four walls new-born babies were massacred; the priests and religious attendants of the church had developed illicit connections even with forbidden relatives; the crime of the unnatural act had spread like epidemic in the monasteries; and the practice of confession had become a means of immorality in the churches.  

From these details one can fully appreciate what corruption of Christianity is the Qur'an alluding to when it says: "The Christians themselves invented monasticism, but they did not observe it as it should have been observed." (57:27).

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