Hilm: A Hallmark of Prophetic Leadership

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A man once lent the Prophet ﷺ some gold, with an agreement for to repay it on an agreed upon date. A few days prior, the man came up to the Prophet ﷺ, and in front of all the Companions, accosted him by saying - “O Muhammad, why are you not paying what is due? By Allah, I know your family well! You are all known for deferring your debts!” Umar (r), in response to this blatant disrespect, got up to respond.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Umar, we do not need this..Go with him, pay off his loan, and give him twenty additional sâ‘ (32 kg) of dates because you frightened him.” The man who originally lent the goal became Muslim on the spot. The man’s name was Zayd b. Su’na, and he was a Rabbi. He then explained to ‘Umar why he acted this way.

“There was not a single sign of prophethood except that I recognized it upon looking at Muhammad’s face—except for two that I had not yet seen from him: that his tolerance overcomes his anger, and that intense abuse only increases him in forbearance. I have now tested these, so know, O ‘Umar, that I accept Allah as [my] Lord, Islam as [my] religion, Muhammad as [my] Prophet, and that half my wealth—for I have much wealth—is a donation for the ummah of Muhammad.” [1]

This characteristic - forbearance (hilm) - is described as a prophetic trait in the Qur’an. Ibrahim (as) is described as halīm (11:75), as is his son (37:101)..

When the delegation of AbdulQays came to accept Islam, they rushed to meet the Prophet (s) the second they entered the city. Their leader, Ashajj, stayed behind to gather the delegations belongings and before coming to meet the Prophet (s). When he arrived, the Prophet ﷺ told him he had two characteristics that Allah loves - hilm (forbearance), and deliberateness [Refer to this episode of the Seerah podcast for a detailed explanation of this story].

So what exactly is forbearance? It sounds like one of those English words that only gets used by the Muslim community - like ‘circumambulation.’ Hilm carries meanings of patience and intelligence. In regards to leadership, it means having the intelligence to see the big picture or a broader vision while also having the patience to execute on it. In general, it also carries connotations of clemency, deliberateness, gentleness, calmness, and tranquility.

The Prophet ﷺ exemplified this characteristic on numerous occasions throughout his life. After being turned away from Ta’if, he was given the option to have the angels crush them under the mountains. Despite the emotion of the situation - being cursed at, physically abused, and chased out of the city - he instead hoped that their offspring would grow up with iman. There are other incidents such as when the bedouin urinated in the masjid, or when a man came and violently grabbed his clothing and demanded money. In all of these situations we find what Aisha (r) described:

“Never did the Messenger of Allah ﷺ strike anyone with his hand, neither a servant nor a woman, unless he was fighting in the cause of Allah. He never took revenge upon anyone for the wrong done to him, and would [only] carry out legal retributions for the sake of Allah when the injunctions of Allah were violated.”

Her description reinforces what Zayd b. Su’na tried to test for himself. People would insult the Prophet ﷺ, argue with him, try to provoke him, and even abuse him. He never flipped out. He never lost his cool. He was always in control of his emotions, and his response served a larger purpose.

On one occasion, the Prophet ﷺ silently smiled when Abu Bakr (ra), his most noble Companion, refrained from responding to a person who was insulting him. But when Abu Bakr (ra) eventually spoke up, the Prophet ﷺ became angry and left. He ﷺ later explained, “An angel was with you, responding on your behalf. But when you said back to him some of what he said, a devil arrived, and it is not for me to sit with devils.” The Prophet ﷺ taught thereby that when a person stoops to the level of those who insult them they allow the devil to steer their course. One of the core principles of Islamic spirituality is not to allow our emotions and actions to be hijacked by the devil to the point where our decision-making is driven by other than divine instruction. The Prophet ﷺ taught various methods such as seeking refuge in Allah from the devil, changing our physical positions to less confrontational ones, performing ablution, etc. to help us maintain composure when angry. In anger, we tend to respond in prideful, satanic ways that serve nothing and no one but our own egos. Righteous anger is necessary, but cannot be expressed when one is not appropriately composed. Therefore, the Prophet ﷺ overcame any attempts on the part of his enemies to provoke foulness, vulgarity, or anything not befitting his noble character (from Mohammad Elshinawy, see footnote at the end of article).

A natural reaction to praising a characteristic such as forbearance in the context of leadership is to worry about others taking advantage of us. The Prophet ﷺ showed righteous anger when the situation warranted, he spoke clearly and set boundaries when needed, and he established justice when required. The key is that he did those things with clear decision making, with purpose, and not out of emotion. The problem that we face is when we react out of a place of anger and ego, but shroud it in the guise of justice and fairness.

Hilm must be practiced. This requires looking at events through a different lens. When provoked, look at it as an opportunity to cultivate this characteristic. Mu’awiya (r) said, “No one has forbearance without it being put to the test (Adab al-Mufrad).”

We hope that by treating others with hilm, Allah will be merciful to us.

One of His beautiful names is Al-Halīm. Al Ghazali explained that Al-Halīm is “the One who observes the disobedience of the rebellious, and notices the opposition to the command, yet anger does not incite Him, nor wrath seize Him, nor do haste and recklessness move Him to rush to take vengeance, although He is utterly capable of doing that.”

“If God were to punish people [at once] for the wrong they have done, there would not be a single creature left on the surface of the earth. He gives them respite for a stated time and, whenever their time comes, God has been watching His servants (35:45).”

Allah (swt) has the right to exact justice, and yet He defers. He grants clemency, waiting for us to heed the call to repent and turn back to Him. Whenever the name Al-Halīm occurs in the Qur’an, it is always paired with another Name of Allah giving us additional context. It is mentioned alongside Al-Ghafūr - He not only delays, but also forgives and wipes away the sins. Al-Halīm is mentioned alongside Al-Shakūr showing us that not only does He overlook our sins, but He will also reward us with more than we deserve. It is mentioned alongside Al-’Alīm. He knows in detail every misdeed we have done, nothing escapes His knowledge, and in spite of this He is still withholding His anger and giving the opportunity to repent. And it is mentioned alongside Al-Ghanī, the One free of all needs. He does not need anything from us, or any favor from us, He is the one who forgives.

It is ironic that when we discuss having hilm for ourselves, we worry about people taking advantage of us. We should reflect on how many opportunities Allah, Al-Halīm, continues to give us that we squander.

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[1] Please see “How the Prophet (s) Rose Above Enmity and Insult” by Shaykh Mohammad Elshinawy. This article contains many detailed accounts from the seerah displaying the hilm of the Prophet (s).