Many of you are avid readers of works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings series. Others may be huge fans of the movies. Tolkien’s work happens to be filled with some of the most beautiful prose and poetry found in 20th century fiction writing. Much of it takes from wisdom found in many parts of the world and reflects deep truths that are found within the Abrahamic, and thus the Islamic, tradition. This will be the beginning of a series in which we will explore selected passages from Tolkien’s work and explain how the lines reflect general wisdom that have specific relevance to the Muslim.
For those that may be uncomfortable with this approach, the idea here is not to take 20th century fiction as a source for religious guidance. The idea is to show that the wisdom of Islam and Divine Revelation is reflected in all of creation and drops of that wisdom inform cultures all over the world. As is narrated in at-Tirmidhi:
“The statement of wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”
BismilLah (In the Name of God)
“All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien)
Context in The Lord of the Rings
These are the first two lines of a poem written by Bilbo Baggins. They are in reference to the Dunedain, the descendants of the nobles and royals of Gondor, who sailed across the sea when their ancestral home, the Island of Numenor was destroyed by the One due to their breaking of his commandment to never try to reach the Undying Lands. The evil Sauron is able to convince some men to cross the sea and invade the Undying Lands so that they might be immortal. A group known as the Faithful refused to break the commandment and left Numenor to come to Middle Earth as the invaders were destroyed by the One himself. After founding the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor and the gradual descent of the kingdoms into decay and chaos, the descendants of the Faithful become wanderers. Their role was to secretly and discreetly allow their line to survive while fighting unknown to protect Middle Earth. Aragorn was their leader before the War of the Rings. These lines mirror a number of Islamic lessons and ideas.
Some Islamic Thoughts1. There are many human beings that God, subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He), has placed on the Earth who are unknown, hidden, and go about doing the work of God without any recognition or fame. They come from a spiritual and educational, and sometimes even familial, line connecting them to the Final Messenger of God ﷺ (peace be upon him). As the Messenger ﷺ said: “When the believers enter Paradise, there shall already be a number of people inside Paradise. The believers will ask, ‘How did you get here?’ The people shall respond, ‘We used to worship Allah secretly, so he placed us in Paradise secretly.’” For those seeking sincerity, this is a wonderful goal. Those who go out of their way to worship Allah (swt) and do good things secretly, Allah will reward them with some among His secrets in this world, and reward them secretly in the next, by His permission.
These people, the Friends of God (swt), are the gold of humanity, its most precious treasure, and one of the reasons that we are bestowed with divine Grace on the Earth. But just like the fictional Dunedain, they do not glitter, shine, flash, or have a ton of YouTube videos or social media entries. They put their head down and work to worship and serve others. We can pray that Allah (swt) allows us to meet them and learn from them—but even more critically—that by His unfailing mercy, He allows us to be like them.
This does not mean that utilizing social and mass mediums is a negative thing. Rather, as the statement says, simply that not everything that is gold necessarily HAS to glitter. That is, just because someone is not famous, well known, or all over the internet, does not mean they are not of amazing quality, close to God (swt) and useful to His servants.
Ibn Ata’illah, rahimahu Allah (May God have mercy on him), writes: “Bury yourself in the Earth of being hidden. For what grows without being buried, does not come to fruition.”
The idea that before one is able to engage people and provide fruit, one must first (and then continuously in intervals) spend some time buried in the earth the way a seed is buried is central to our understanding of tarbiyyah (spiritual growth) and tazkiyyah (purification of the soul). We find the proverbial “burying” of oneself in the cave of Hira with our Messenger ﷺ , the walk across the desert of Musa, the seemingly secret lessons of Khidr which we only found centuries later in the Revelation to the Prophet, as well the sabbatical of Imam al-Ghazali (ra) when he left his teaching and imam responsibilities to go and purify himself for years before returning to be Hujjat al Islam, culminating in some of the most critical legal and spiritual teachings of our Ummah (Muslim community).
One may call such people “wanderers” but such people are not lost. Some may not recognize the gold that such people are and consider them to be nothing. Rather, God (swt) has already put them on a path towards Him. Though they may seem like they are “wandering”, they are in fact racing towards their Lord (swt).
Once, Shaykh Muhammad Ash-Sha’raawi (ra), the Azhari scholar (Al-Azhar is an Islamic university in Egypt) and teacher of tafsir (Qu’ranic exegesis) was expected to give his nightly tafsir in the mosque, which was also broadcast. When the organizers could not find him, they searched the complex and finally found him in the bathroom dressed in the robes normally worn by religious scholars, cleaning the bathroom of the mosque. When they asked him what he was doing, he replied (paraphrased): “I had a moment in which I thought too much of myself as I was preparing to teach tafsir to so many, so I came here to remind myself who I am.”
- Flashiness is not Faith, nor it is it the path to Faith. As Ali Hujwiri (ra) said, if someone has attained ma’rifah (gnosis of God), he should keep quiet about it. So of course this would apply to the thousands of darajaat (levels) underneath ma’rifah of Allah (swt).
- We should strive to be of those who can do little things for God’s sake secretly (swt). God (swt) will make known what benefits others, we do not need to be our own spokesmen.
- Sometimes, I may feel that Allah (swt) is making me wander in my life as I try to reach Him. Career concerns, trials, and tribulations may make us feel that we are lost, but our religion teaches us that such occurrences are exactly the path that Allah (swt) is using to purify us so that when we present ourselves to Him, He will do nothing except enter us into Paradise. Our reaction to this “wandering road” is what will determine whether we indeed make ourselves lost, or reach God (swt) at the end.
- There are some spiritual people out there who have no websites, but their connection with Allah (swt) is beyond fiber optic. Pretty book covers and websites are not necessarily indicative of scholarship. As a community, we should realize that all the gold of our communities does not glitter. Benefit can be found in unlikely places. Whether a small house that serves as the seed for a hifdh (Qu’ranic memorization) school that turns into its own community, or a Ph.D. of shari’ah (Islamic law) with a white beard who serves in a quiet corner of a major city who happened to be involved in the curriculum design of Al-Azhar.
- As much as we strive to be God-centered in our religious practice, not nafs-centered (self)—we should not allow Shaytaan (the Devil) to fool us such that we leave any responsibilities that may be thrown our way. If you know something reliably that someone else does not, and you are asked about it, sincerity does not entail leaving them to themselves. This is laziness. Sincerity entails helping them find the answer, and even directing them towards one more qualified.
To completely ignore responsibilities under the guise of “sincerity” is also something that Ibn Ata’illah (ra) warns about. It is easy to turn the quest for sincerity into its own arrogance, assuring oneself that the reason one ignores the needs of people is that one is sincere. With this attitude, we lose both spiritually and practically. We have fooled ourselves and have not helped others. This is why Imam An-Nawawi (ra) provides us a simple formula to ward off Shaytaan’s whispers instead of having to re-affirm our intentions at every Planck Time:
Check our intentions at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the act. If we can re-affirm at these three checkpoints that what we are doing is for God (swt), then God-willing our action will be accepted.