Many of us have come across the term khidma at some point. It’s pretty much the same word in Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, and I am reliably told, in many other languages too. Literally, it means to be in service to God, people, and nature, through acts of devotion, virtue and benefit. The khadim is the one who offers khidma (plural: khudamaa). To be a khadim one must meet the standard of khulafa al-ard[i] (trustees/stewards of the Earth). That is, to be of “people of incredible virtue, goodness and love, who give themselves wholly to the highest ideals and seek to create a world in which all people have the opportunity to actualise their fullest human potential in every domain of life, from the most mundane to the most transcendent.”[ii] Acts of khidma have the rare quality of leaving a sweet taste. It’s not surprising why. Khidma takes well-meaning intentions and accuracy to the level of truthfulness, selflessness, and sincerity, in, for instance, “preserving peace,” “improving conditions” and “holding people to account.”
“Preserving peace” to the khadim is about finding ways to reconcile between people and a discourse of justice, diplomacy and healing for those wronged or downtrodden. “Improving conditions” is to be a source of ease for others and helping them to meet their needs or overcoming predicaments and struggles – whatever they may be. “Holding people to account” is to offer well-reasoned and unassuming honest words. Truth, though necessary at times, can often be a bitter pill to swallow. But the khadim has a graceful manner (adab) and insight (hikmah) into the right time and place for things that makes truth a little easier to absorb.
For sure, the art of khidma cannot be neatly taught in bestselling self-help manuals alone. Hope is not lost however. If our intention (niyyah) is to remember God—which by the way should be the pivot at every step of the way for Muslims—naturally, we will seek to mine the Quran and Sunnah (or perhaps keep the company of the khudamaa) to learn the art of khidma. If we struggle to make this connection—a leap of faith, knowledge and lived experience—it is perhaps to be expected that, to different degrees, we obscure God’s command to tread gently on Earth, to be forgiving, truthful and just, and to say “no” to the excesses of worldly life etc. We’d also struggle to see how God commands us “to know one another,”[iii] or to understand that the ahsanul qasas (“beautiful stories”), as in the case of Prophet Yusuf and his brothers, “…are signs for anyone who wants to ask.”[iv]
Yet these are the very things that we usually overlook. And hence the narratives that might quite possibly inspire us towards khidma remain deeply buried. Instead, we feel that social, political or scientific rationalism are in themselves sufficiently empowering and solving. Whilst they are no doubt relevant, far from providing refreshing perspectives, it seems that we trap ourselves in their intrinsic limitations or, worse still, selectively use them to legitimise our own self-conceit. It’s no wonder we struggle to even listen to others, least of all to take their advice. Nor do we realise that the words we use in being socially and politically engaged impact us both in this world and the next.
Why? The unfortunate reality, deep down, is that we crave immediate results, thinking on one hand that we achieve through our own abilities, whilst, on the other, somewhat lazily, remain unwilling to make the sacrifices or to put the effort in. Here, power, money and idealism whisper seductively, and it’s usually when we’re least minded to serve others that we listen. In the course of which we struggle to see how our own journey back to God, and that of our “flocks,” are interlocked into the very same existential spaces and contexts that we remain so detached from. The outcome is that we become far too reactionary. We convince ourselves that problems are “out there” and not “in here” – a case of seeing the speck of dirt in our brothers’ eyes, but forgetting the splinter in our own.[v] Feelings of inadequacy or lack of trust and control that this creates lures us to confront power than seek ways to mutually work with it within our quite vast—though often largely unexplored—freedoms. What’s more, we feel unbashful in complaining when the very power that we rushed to confront now exerts itself against us. It is quite sadly the very disheartening paradigm that we bemoan, yet fail to see how we are so easily seduced by it.
The challenge for anyone working for positive change within their own spaces and contexts, then, is surely to make that extra bit of space and time to at least contemplate taking things to the level of khidma. After all, the imperative to show compassion and love to people is a Prophetic one.[vi]
[i] Al-Quran, 2:30.
[ii] A useful definition by Fethullah Gulen, see A Dialogue of Civilization by Jill Carroll, Tughra Books, 2007, p55. Wider reading of this concept is worthwhile.
[iii] Al-Quran, 49:13.
[iv] Al-Quran, 12:7.
[v] See hadith reported by Ibn Hibban.
[vi] See hadith reported by Al-Tirmidhi: “Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One above the heavens will have mercy upon you. The womb is derived from the Most Merciful, thus whoever keeps relations with his family then Allah will keep relations with him, and whoever abandons his family then Allah will abandon him.”