Life is Short
By: Sh. Ahmed Arafat
عن عبد الله بن مسعود رضي الله عنه أن النبي ﷺ قال: «مالي وللدنيا! إنما مثلي ومثل الدنيا: كمثل راكب قال في ظل شجرة، ثم راح وتركها»
رواه الإمام أحمد في مسنده
To demonstrate the shortness of this life and his inner attitude toward it, the Prophet ﷺ stated : “ Why should I be so attached to this life? The parable that illustrates my relation to this life is that of a rider who took rest in the shade of a tree, then departed and left it.”
This brief Hadith teaches us that life is short. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ compares our lifespan to the time it takes a rider to take a nap in the shade of a tree before waking up to continue their journey. The Prophet ﷺ conveyed the idea of the shortness of this life and the certainty of the afterlife so eloquently and tangibly that even the words of his parable were carefully and perfectly employed. First, the word ‘rider’ refers to a person whose desire is not to travel permanently but to reach a specific destination. Second, the phrase ‘took rest’ refers to a short period of time that is too vital to be wasted. Moreover, the time available for this nap is too varied to be guaranteed. In other words, the time available may suddenly come to an end. Third, the phrase ‘in the shade of a tree’ refers to a passing period of time that does not remain forever. Finally, the phrase ‘departed and left it’ symbolically refers to leaving this life and heading for the afterlife. Thus through a tangible, unforgettable parable, the Prophet ﷺ implanted the reality of life in the minds of Muslims so that we will not be deceived by its false appearances or passing pleasures. About the use of parables, Allah said: “Such parables do We set for people so that they shall reflect” (Quran 59: 21). In another position, Allah says: “Allah sets forth parables for people so that they shall remember” (Quran 14: 25).
Unfortunately, many people misinterpret the Hadith as promoting the denial of pleasure and neglecting our worldly duties and responsibilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, our present life is the bridge to the hereafter. In other words, life here is our farmland where its harvest will be shown in the hereafter. No one can escape this relationship. Accordingly, the Hadith is not asking us to abandon life. The opposite is totally true. The Hadith is a reminder of our limited time on earth to avoid the many alluring distractions and focus on maximizing the good and minimizing the bad during this short stay. In an enlightening prayer, the Prophet ﷺ beautifully combined the benefits of life here and hereafter. Abu Hurayrah reported the Prophet ﷺ as saying: “O Allah purify my Faith which guards all my matters, purify my worldly life where I live, make good for me my Hereafter to which I shall return, make my life a means for increasing my good deeds and make death as a means of avoiding every evil” (Imam Muslim).
Accordingly, when we encounter texts from the Quran or Hadith about the insignificance of this life, we should understand them (1) in comparison with the afterlife, (2) as a warning against ghaflah or heedlessness and (3) as an invitation to broaden our perspective on life. The Quran reads: “This worldly life is no more than play and amusement, but far better is the eternal Home of the Hereafter for those mindful of Allah. Will you not then understand?” (Quran 7:32). These three perspectives are necessary for our spiritual and emotional growth. Commenting on the verse, “And the worldly life is but a deceiving and alluring pleasure” (Quran 3: 145), Sa’id ibn Jubayr states: “This ayah applies to those who prefer the worldly life to the Hereafter. However, it would be a great pleasure for those who use it to seek the Hereafter.” Similarly when we read the ayah “The life of this world is but play and amusement,” we cannot understand it as promoting isolation from the society or neglect of the God-assigned duties for humans since Allah said: “I shall make on earth a vicegerent” (Quran 2: 30). However, in the midst of suffering the storms of life, we felt depressed, we should put life in its proper perspective and affirm its transient nature.
Consequently, the Hadith has many positive implications that should be put into practice. First, life is short; do not waste it. Second, life is passing; do not take it for granted. Third, life is full of appealing distractions; do not be deceived. Finally, the Hereafter is much better; do not miss out. Failure to recognize these four facts will result in a big loss for the individual here and in the Hereafter. That is why the Prophet ﷺ used to remind his followers of the reality of life and the right way to understand it. The Hadith discussed is a case in point.