Brotherhood in Islam


Nearly thirteen centuries ago, Hassan al-Basri (R: may Allah have mercy on him), one of the Successors (tabi’un), was asked: "What is Islam, and who are the Muslims?" He answered: "Islam is in the books, and Muslims are in the tomb." What a profound statement! It really sums up the situation of Muslims.

The Muslim world has seldom faced the level of crisis as it is facing today with massacre and killings of Muslims everywhere. While most of these crimes are committed by non-Muslim regimes, there is no denying about the existence of criminal elements within the Muslim society that are responsible for tarnishing the image of Islam.

One of the most important teachings of Islam is brotherhood for the sake of Allah. It is with this intention of infusing love and brotherhood that I present the following treatise, "The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam," written by Imam al-Ghazzali (R). The treatise comes from the second quarter of Ihya’. Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi’i al-Ghazzali (R) was born in 1058 at Tus in Persia, and lived till 1111 C.E. This was the time when the Abbasid Caliphate was falling. The Seljuk Turks in the North and the Fatimids in the South began to play leading roles. There was also a great deal of antagonism between all these factions. It was during this critical period that he wrote Ihya’ ulum al-din. Looking back, one can easily notice that politically and socially, the situation of Muslims today is no better than it was in those days.

It was the custom of early Muslims following the example of the Prophet (S: May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) and his Companions (RA: may Allah be pleased with them), to commit themselves to a "contract" of brotherhood with fellow Muslims. Commenting on this "contract" al-Ghazzali wrote, "Know that the contract of brotherhood is a bond between two persons, like the contract of marriage between two spouses. For just as marriage gives rise to certain duties which must be fulfilled when it is entered into, so does the contract of brotherhood confer upon your brother a certain right touching your property, your person, your tongue and your heart – by way of forgiveness, prayer, sincerity, loyalty, relief and considerateness."

According to Imam al-Ghazzali (R) there are eight duties of brotherhood in Islam.

The first duty is the material one. Muhammad (S) said, "Two brothers are likened to a pair of hands, one of which washes the other." That means the two are like one person. In thus sharing one’s property with one’s brother there are three degrees — (i) the lowest degree is where he places his brother on the same footing as his servant, attending to his needs from his surplus. To oblige him to ask is the ultimate shortcoming in brotherly duty; (ii) at the second degree he places his brother on the same footing as himself. He shares his property equally with him; (iii) at the third degree he prefers his brother to himself and sets his need before his own. This is the degree of the siddiq. Self-sacrifice is one of the fruits of this degree. If any of these stages are not present, then the contract of brotherhood is not yet concluded.

A man came to Ibrahim ibn-Adham (R) as the latter was leaving for Jerusalem, and said, "I wish to be your traveling companion." [1]

Ibrahim: "On condition that I have more right to your goods than you yourself."

— "No."

— "I admire your sincerity," replied Ibrahim ibn-Adham (R).

He would only take those as his companions who were in harmony with him.

Ali (RA) said, "Twenty dirhams I give to my brother in God are dearer to me than one hundred I give in alms to the needy." Muhammad (S) said, "Each time two people are in company together, the dearer to God is he who is kinder to his companion." Ali ibn-Husayn ibn-Ali (R) said to a man, "Does one of you put your hand in the pocket or purse of his brother and take what he needs without his permission?"


— "Then you are not brothers,” was his reply.

Abu Sulayman al-Darani (R) used to say, "If I owned the whole world to put in the mouth of a brother of mine I would still deem it too little for him." [2]

The second duty is to render personal aid in the satisfaction of needs, attending to them without waiting to be asked, and giving them priority over personal needs. Jafar ibn-Muhammad (R) said, "I make haste to satisfy the needs of my enemies, lest I reject them and they do without me." If this be the attitude towards enemies, how then towards friends? A Muslim in those days would see to the maintenance of his brother’s wife and children for forty years after his brother’s death, attending to their needs, visiting them daily, and providing for them from his wealth so that they missed only the father’s person; in deed, they were treated as not even by their father in his life time.

Maymun ibn-Mihran (R) said, "If you reap no benefit from a man’s friendship, his enmity will not hurt you." Al-Hassan (RA) used to say, "Our brothers are dearer to us than our families and our children, because our families remind us of this world while our brothers remind us of the Other." Ata (R) said, "Seek out your brothers after three occasions. If they are sick, visit them. If they are busy, help them. If they have forgotten, remind them."

Ibn-Abbas (RA) was asked, "Who is dearest of men to you?"

–"One who sits in my company,” he replied.

He also said, "If someone sits in my company three times without having need of me, I learn where he is placed in the world."

The third duty concerns the tongue, which should be silent, and at other times speak out. As for silence, the tongue should not mention a brother’s faults in his absence or presence. Rather one should feign ignorance. He should not contradict his brother when he talks, nor dispute nor argue with him. He should keep silent about the secrets his brother confides in him, and on no account divulge them to a third party – not even to the closest friends of his brother; keep silent from criticism of his dear ones, his family and his children; also from relating other people’s criticism of him. However, he should not hide any praise he may hear. Concealment here would mean envy. Muhammad (S) said, "Seek refuge with God from the bad neighbor who sees some good and conceals it, sees some bad and reveals it."

As for mentioning his misdeeds and faults, this is slander and unlawful. Two things should turn one away from it. First, examine his own condition and if he finds there one blameworthy thing then he should be tolerant of what he sees in his brother. Second, he cannot find a blame-less person.

Ibn -al Mubarak (R) said, "The believer tries to find excuses for others, while the hypocrite looks out for mistakes." Muhammad (S) said, "God has forbidden a believer to temper with the blood, property or honor of another, or to hold a bad suspicion of him." Concealing faults, feigning ignorance of them and overlooking them –this is the mark of religious people. Muhammad (S) said, "If a man veils his brother’s shame, God will veil him in this world and the Other."

Silence includes abstaining from dispute and contradiction whatever his brother talks about. Ibn-Abbas (RA) said, "Do not dispute with the fool, for he will hurt you; nor with the mild man, for he will dislike you." Al-Hassan (RA) said, "Do not buy the enmity of one man for the love of a thousand men."

The fourth duty is to use the tongue to speak out. He should use the tongue to express affection for his brother. Muhammad (S) said, "If one of you loves his brother, let him know it." Umar (RA) said, "There are three ways of showing sincere brotherly love: give him the greeting "Salam" when you first meet him, make him comfortable, and call him by his favorite names." Still fundamental is that he communicates to him the praise of anyone who praises him, showing his pleasure, for to hide such praise would be pure envy. Ali (RA) said, "He who does not praise his brother for his good intention will not praise him for his good deed."

Muhammad (S) said, "The Muslim is brother to the Muslim. He does not wrong him, does not forsake him, and does not betray him." He also said, "Abu Hirr! Be a good neighbor to your neighbor and you will be a Muslim. Be a good fellow to your companion and you will be a Mu’min." Note the distinction between the excellence of Iman and the excellence of Islam.

The duty to use the tongue also embraces instruction and advice. If one teaches and instructs his brother and yet he does not act in accordance with the knowledge conveyed, then one is obliged to advise. Imam al-Shafi’i (R) said, "To admonish your brother in private is to advise him and improve him. But to admonish him publicly is to disgrace and shame him." Dhul-Nun (R) said, "In fellowship with God, only concord. In fellowship with men, only sincere advice. With the self, only opposition. With Shaytan, only enmity."

The fifth duty is forgiveness of mistakes and failings. The failings of a friend must be one of two kinds — either in his religion or in his duty (to you). In the case of religion, when he commits an offence and persists in it, he must be advised kindly. If he remains obstinate at this point, there seems to be a divergence in opinion among the Sahabas and Tabi’ins (R). Abu Dharr (RA) said, "If your brother turns his back on his duty, hate him as you used to love him." This course he considered to be dictated by love for Allah’s sake and hate for Allah’s sake.

Ibrahim al-Nakha’i (R) said, "Do not break off from your brother and do not shun him on account of a sin he has committed, for he may commit it today but give it up tomorrow."

Fellowship is a bond of flesh, like the bond of blood-kinship, and it is not permissible to shun a kinsman on account of his offence. Brotherhood in religion is firmer than brotherhood in kinship. Al-Hassan (RA) used to say, "How many a brother was not born of your mother." Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (R) said, "The affection of a day is a link. That of a month is kinship. That of a year is a blood-tie. If anyone cuts it, God will cut him off." [2]

As for his error in brotherly duty (to you), by which he causes alienation, he should be forgiven and shown patience. It has been said that one should seek seventy excuses for one’s brother’s misdeed, and if his heart will accept none of them he should turn the blame upon himself, saying to his heart, "How hard you are! Your brother pleads seventy excuses, yet you will not accept him. You are the one at fault, not your brother."

Whenever his brother apologizes to him, he should accept his excuse — be he lying or telling the truth. Muhammad (S) said, "If a man’s brother apologizes to him and he does not accept his excuse, he incurs a sin like that of a tax-collector." He also said, "The believer is quick to anger, quick to be content." Umar (RA) said, "Let not your love become attachment, nor your hate become destruction." That is, do not perish yourself by wishing your fellow’s destruction.

The sixth duty is to pray for one’s brother, during his life and after his death. He should pray for him as he prays for himself, making no distinction at all between them. For in reality his prayer for his brother is a prayer for himself. Muhammad (S) said, "Whenever a man prays for his brother in secret, the angel says, And to you the same." According to a tradition: a man’s prayer for his brother, in secret, is not rejected. Abu Darda (RA) used to say, "I pray for seventy of my brothers during my prostration, naming them by their names."

It is related that Muhammad (S) said, "The dead man in his grave is like one ship-wrecked, completely dependent for everything. He waits for a prayer from a son or brother or relative." Truly, lights like mountains enter the tombs of the dead from the prayer of the living.

The seventh duty is loyalty and sincerity. The meaning of loyalty is steadfastness in love and maintaining it to the death with one’s brother, and after his death with his children and his fellows. The prophet (S) said, "Among the seven whom Allah keeps in His shadow are also two men who love each other for His sake, constant whether together or apart." Someone said, "A little loyalty after death is better than much during a lifetime." Allah said, "Tell My servants to say what is kindlier. Surely, Shaytan sets them in variance." (Al-Qur’an 17:53). Lasting affection is that which is for Allah’s sake.

Part of loyalty is not to let the relationship with the brother degenerate into humiliation. One of the early believers counseled his son, "My son, take no man for your fellow unless he draws near you when you need him and is not jealous of you when you can manage without him. When his station is exalted he should not lord it over you." Loyalty includes not listening to gossip about one’s friend, not befriending his enemy either. Imam al-Shafi’i (R) said, "If your friend obeys your enemy, they share in enmity towards you."

The eighth duty is relief from discomfort and inconvenience. One should not discomfort one’s brother with things that are awkward for him, he should not ask him for help with money or influence. No, the sole objective of his love should be God, being blessed by his brother’s prayer, enjoying his company, receiving assistance from him in his religion, drawing close to God through attending to his rights and bearing his provision.

Someone said, "He who demands of his brothers what they do not demand, wrongs them. He who demands of them the same as they demand, wearies them. He who makes no demands is their benefactor."

Complete relief means wiping out discomfort until the brother feels no more embarrassment (from you) than from himself. Al-Junayed (R) said, "If two became brothers for God’s sake, and one of them is uncomfortable or embarrassed with his fellow, there must be a fault in one of them." A’isha (RA) said, "The believer is brother to the believer. He does not plunder him, nor does he embarrass him."

There are three kinds of people: a man from whose fellowship one can benefit; a man one can be of benefit to, and by whom one will not be hurt, though one cannot benefit from him; and a man whom one cannot benefit and by whom one will be hurt, namely the fool or man of evil character. The third type one should avoid. As for the second, one should not shun him, for one will benefit in the Other World by his intercession and prayers, and by one’s reward for attending to him.

One of the Companions (RA) said, "Allah has cursed those who cause discomfort." Relief and lack of fuss is only complete when one considers oneself beneath his brothers and thinks highly of them, but poorly of him. When he considers them better than himself, he is actually better than they! Perfection lies seeing the greater merit in the brother. A brother should never be belittled. The Prophet (S) said, "The believer can do no worse than belittle his brother."

The completion of comfort and freedom from embarrassment includes consulting one’s brothers in all his plans, and in accepting their suggestions. None of his secrets should be hidden from them.

May we all benefit from these noble teachings of Islam.


[1]. Ibrahim ibn Adham (R) was born in Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan) in a princely family, who renounced his kingdom to live a life of complete asceticism. He died around 165 AH. He was a disciple of the Imam Abu Hanifah (R).

[2]. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (R), the son of Imam Baqir (R), was a contemporary of Imam Abu Hanifah (R).


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