Rediscovering Luqman The Wise

Source : | By : Margari Aziza Hill

When I began my research on depictions of Blacks and Africans in pre-modern Arabic Literature, I came across a passage:

It was related that a black man came to Said ibn Musaib Radiyallahu’ anhu (A wise man too) for asking him advice and Said told him to not worry for being black and he reminded him as follows:  “the best of men are three blacks whose names are: Bilal, Mahjaa and Luqman the wise.” [Khalid ait belarbi “Advice from Luqman the wise to his son” –]

According to the tafsir of The Quran Website, Luqman was a well known sage mentioned by pre-Islamic poets. The mufassir writes, “He has been mentioned in the poetry of the pre-Islamic poets like Imra’ul-Qais, Labid, A’asha, Tarafa and others.” []

In Imam Malik’s Muwatta a narration says:

Yahya related to me from Malik that he heard that Luqman al-Hakim made his will and counselled his son, saying, “My son! Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky.” [Imam Malik’s Muwatta Book 59, Number 59.1.1]

While I loved thumbing through hadith, I admit that I have never been strong in my study of tafsir.  So it is no surprise that I didn’t know much about Luqman the Wise. My historical outlook focused more on seerah and social institutions that developed in Muslim societies, rather than on traditional Islamic sciences.  Despite Bilal being a prominent figure in the imagination of Black American Muslims, Luqman escaped me all these years. And what made it worse was that there was an entire chapter of the Quran dedicated to him.

It wasn’t so much my academic studies and teaching responsibilities than my time management and avoidance of the judgmental Muslim gaze that made it difficult for me to take classes and find time to study.   Since I’ve been married,  I’ve been able to strengthen my Islamic knowledge in areas that had long been neglected, such as memorization, tajweed, and tafsir. I also needed a Maliki fiqh refresher.  In light of my feelings about my own gaps in knowledge, developing a curriculum for a Muslim summer camp and teaching 10 to 14 year olds Islamic studies was really daunting. Did I mention I taught pre-teens? Over the course of the summer I found that my students needed to focus on adab towards each other, their instructors, and their parents. I turned to Luqman the Wise for his advice.

While covering a great deal, Luqman’s advice as revealed in the Quran is really straight forward. Allah tells us in Surat Luqman:

13. And (remember) when Luqman said to his son when he was advising him: “O my son! Join not in worship others with Allah. Verily! Joining others in worship with Allah is a great Zulm (wrong) indeed.

14. And We have enjoined on man (to be dutiful and good) to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship, and his weaning is in two years give thanks to Me and to your parents, unto Me is the final destination.

15. But if they (both) strive with you to make you join in worship with Me others that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not, but behave with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of him who turns to Me in repentance and in obedience. Then to Me will be your return, and I shall tell you what you used to do.

16. “O my son! If it be (anything) equal to the weight of a grain of mustard seed, and though it be in a rock, or in the heavens or in the earth, Allah will bring it forth. Verily, Allah is Subtle (in bringing out that grain), Well-Aware (of its place).

17. “O my son! Aqim-is-Salat (perform As-Salat), enjoin (people) for Al-Ma’ruf (Islamic Monotheism and all that is good), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. disbelief in the Oneness of Allah, polytheism of all kinds and all that is evil and bad), and bear with patience whatever befall you. Verily! These are some of the important commandments ordered by Allah with no exemption.

18. “And turn not your face away from men with pride, nor walk in insolence through the earth. Verily, Allah likes not each arrogant boaster.

19. “And be moderate (or show no insolence) in your walking, and lower your voice. Verily, the harshest of all voices is the voice (braying) of the ass.”

The first piece of advice he offers his son is to not join partners with Allah (God). In class discussion, my students noted that not ascribing credit to a person who did the work is wrong. I compared that to not thanking their parents for raising them, feeding them, and clothing them, but instead thanking their neighbor or best friends. We went further by discussing how a lying about someone is a form of oppression. Therefore, we concluded that lying about Allah, who created us all and giving credit to something else, is truly a great oppression.

We also discussed being good to our parents, even if they don’t have the same beliefs as us. We talked about establishing regular salat (ritual prayer) and encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong. We talked about how Allah is knowledgeable of all we do, the no matter how small or how  we hope to conceal it. Our discussion about pride was both humorous and deep. We talked about being upon to receiving advice and admonition without discriminating based on status, race, class, or education background. We talked about how we could love nice things, but not be boastful or brag. Instead, we should show gratitude and avoid showing off.

Finally, we talked about using pleasant voices and not being walking stereotypes as young Black Americans (this goes for immigrant Muslims too because immigrant Muslims can be loud and obnoxious as an afternoon in Tahrir Square in Cairo demonstrate). Luqman’s advice covers a great deal, tawheed (Unity of Allah), to establishing consistent practice, encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong, personal conduct, and inner disposition.

Writing in the 14th century, Ibn Kathir describes Luqman in Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah:

He is Luqman Ibn ‘Anqa’ Ibn Sadun. Or, as stated by As-Suhaili from Ibn Jarir and Al-Qutaibi that he is Luqman Ibn Tharan who was from among the people of Aylah (Jerusalem). He was a pious man who exerted himself in worship and who was blessed with wisdom. Also, it is said that he was a judge during the lifetime of Prophet Dawud (Peace be upon him). And, Allah knows best.

Narrated Sufyan Ath- Thawri from Al-Ash’ath after ‘Ikrimah on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) as saying: He was an Ethiopian slave who worked as a carpenter. Qatadah narrated from’ Abdullah Ibn Az-Zubair as saying: I asked Jabir Ibn ‘Abdullah about Luqman. He said: “He was short with a flat nose. He was from Nubia”

Narrated Yahia Ibn Sa’ id Al-Ansari after Sa’ id Ibn Al-Musayib his saying: Luqman belonged to the black men of Egypt. He had thick lips and Allah the Almighty granted him wisdom but not Prophethood.

Al-Awza’i said: I was told by ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Harmalah: that a black man came to Sa’ id Ibn AI­Musayib asking him for charity. Sa’ id said: do not feel distressed for your black color because there were from among the best of all people three blackmen: Bilal Ibn Rabah, Mahja’ (the freed-slave of ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab), and Luqman, the wise who was black, from Nubia and whose lips were thick.

Narrated Al-A’mash after Mujahid: Luqman was a black huge slave, thick-lipped, and cracked­footed.

‘Umar Ibn Qais said: “Luqman was a black slave, thick-lipped and cracked-footed. It happened while he was preaching some people, a man came to him and said: aren’t you the one who used to look after the sheep with me at such and such place? Luqman said: yes, I am! The man said: then, what made you of that position? Luqman said: telling the truth and keeping silent regarding what does not concern me.” (This Hadith was narrated by Ibn J arir after lbn Hamid after Al-Hakam)

Ibn Abu Hatim said: I was told by Abu Zar’ ah that he was told by Safwan after Al- W alid after ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Abu Yazid Ibn Jabir who said: “Allah the Almighty raised Luqman’s status for his wisdom. A man used to know him saw him and said: Aren’t you the slave of so and so who used to look after my sheep not so long in the past? Luqman said: yes! The man said: What raised you to this high state I see? Luqman said: the Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.”

Narrated Ibn Wahb: I was told by ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Ayyash Al-Fityani after’ Umar, the freed slave of ‘Afrah as saying: “A man came to Luqman, the wise and asked: Are you Luqman? Are you the slave of so and so? He said: “Yes!” The man said: You are the black shepherd! Luqman said: As for my black color, it is obviously apparent, so what makes you so astonished? The man said: You became frequently visited by the people who pleasingly accept your judgments! Luqman said: 0 cousin! If you do what I am telling you, you will be like this. The man said: What is it? Luqman said: Lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me. All these made me the one you are looking at.”

One day Abu Ad-Darda’ mentioned Luqman the wise and said: He was not granted wisdom because of wealth, children, lineage, or given habits, but he was self-restrained, taciturn, deep-thinking, and he never slept during the day. In addition, no one has ever seen him spitting, clearing his throat, squeezing the lemon, answering the call of nature, bathing, observing trivialities, or foolishly laughing. He was very eloquent and well-versed. He did not weep or cry when all his children died. Finally, he used to frequent the princes and men of authority to mediate and think thoroughly and find admonition. So, because of all these he was granted that great wisdom. Some people claimed that he was offered Prophethood, and that he feared not to be able to carry out its requirements and obligations. Thus, he chose to have wisdom for it is easier -this cannot be totally true -and Allah knows best!

‘Ikrimah also narrated that: Luqman was a Prophet. This narration is very weak for the sub-narrator, Al-Ja’ fi is mentioned by Imams Al-Bukhari and An-Nasa’i among the Weak Narrators. However, the majority of scholars are of the view that he was a wise man and not a Prophet. Moreover, he was mentioned in the Glorious Quran and was highly praised by Allah the Almighty Who narrates his advice to his own son.

[Ibn Kathir. Stories from the Quran. from Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah  translated by Ali As-Sayed Al- Halawani –]

Ibn Kathir’s recounting of Luqman narrations raises important issues about the intersection of race and piety. This is something that has gone largely unexplored by many scholars. Reflecting his time period, Ibn Kathir’s description highlights the fact that Luqman was not just a dark skinned Arab, but his thick lips and broad nose indicated his sub-Saharan African descent. In other words, they highlighted his otherness in Arabia. Further, he was a former slave and a shepherd. The respect he gained for his piety contrasts with his low social status. When questioned about how he attained a position of respect and influence as a preacher, in one tradition Luqman states, “The Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.” Luqman tells the questioner that Allah gave him the status, and that he repaid his debts, told the truth, and stayed out of people’s business.

In another tradition Luqman answers, “by lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me.” This tradition highlights how Luqman earned his rightful place in society as preacher through following Allah’s laws and maintaining good relations with people through hospitality and mutual respect. He encourages the questioner to do so in order to be raised also.

Ibn Kathir’s tradition bring to light two realities of ethnic identity in the medieval Arab world: 1. the lower status of blacks in general their societies and  2. the possibility to gain respect due to piety, knowledge, and eloquence. In other words, if a humble Black shepherd can be so esteemed for following basic tenets of the faith, you can too.

While Luqman’s identity as a Black African initially raised my interest, his wisdom transcends racial or ethnic designation.  Although he is not a prophet, his advice is still worthy to mention in the Quran. I think his role helps clarify what it means to be a prophet, a messenger, or a friend of Allah. A prophet receives revelation, but it is not obligatory for him to spread it. A Messenger spreads what is revealed to him. While there was a seal on prophecy, there are still friends of Allah who help guide us to rightful conduct. While it may not be clear who those are in the modern age, the Quran clearly tells Luqman the wise has something for all of us. And for that reason, the Golden Advice Series have featured a book expounding upon the ayaat in the Quran titled, O My Son (Luqmaan’s Advice).  I recommend getting the entire series, not just because of Luqman, but for the precious pearls of wisdom in the texts. I also think we should spend more time reflecting on Luqman’s advice and focus on applying his advise during Ramadan.

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