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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 22–31 

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Spiritual Poverty: A Shi’i Perspective

Mohammad Ali Shomali

O God, grant me the riches of poverty
for in such largesse lies my power and glory.

– Hafez 1

Reflection on our limits and our absolute need for and reliance on God leaves no place for any kind of arrogance or self-admiration.

Islam teaches us that we need to strengthen our understanding of God, and our need for God, to achieve a sense of complete reliance on God. This is called “spiritual poverty.” Spiritual poverty is a cornerstone of Islamic spirituality. In what follows, we will first study different senses in which the concept of poverty or faqr is used in Islamic sources. Then we will focus on the concept of spiritual poverty and its significance as illustrated in the Qur’anic verses, hadiths, and mystical literature. {23}


Poverty in this sense is not good. According to Islam, God asks us to work hard to raise money and generate wealth, to be productive and fruitful for ourselves, and for the society.

He brought you forth from the earth and has asked you to improve it, therefore ask forgiveness of Him, then turn to Him; surely my Lord is Near, Answering. (Qur’an 11:61)

God has asked us to improve the earth, to improve our life situation on the earth. This type of poverty causes serious sufferings and may also prevent spiritual progress. For someone who is starving it would be very difficult to focus on one’s spirituality. Certainly this type of poverty is to be abolished. The prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying: Had not mercy of God embraced the poor of my nation, poverty would have led to disbelief. 2

Sometimes the poor cannot protect their faith; they may lose their patience and commit sins or lose their faith in God. Or, they may be so disturbed with difficulties that they may lose their concentration on remembrance of God and their spiritual journey. Imam Ali says:

One of the catastrophes that may occur is poverty, but more difficult than poverty is illness. And more difficult than illness of the body is the illness of heart. 3


Although people are urged to work and generate wealth and improve conditions of their lives or nature in general, they are not supposed to accumulate money. Sometimes you generate money but you do not keep this money for yourself, you spread your wealth and share it. It is not good to have a very luxurious life, because then we may forget our true nature. We may become the richest people, but we should not keep our earnings just for ourselves. The Qur’an blames people who do not share what God has given them with those who are in need:

Those who treasure up gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of God, inform them of a painful punishment on the day when these shall be heated in hellfire and therewith branded on their foreheads, their sides and their backs [and told]: “This is what you treasured up for yourselves! So taste what you have treasured!” (9:34, 35)

And miserly when good reaches him. (70:21) {24}

Thus, everyone is recommended to be economically productive, but not for the sake of accumulating wealth or spending extravagantly on oneself. This kind of voluntary poverty or modest life is good for all people, but leaders are especially asked to live a simple life so that the poor can be consoled. Imam Ali said:

Certainly, God, the Sublime, has made it obligatory on true leaders that they maintain themselves at the level of the humble so that the poor do not cry out over their poverty. 4


Once the Prophet Muhammad asked people: “Do you know who ‘Muflis’ [one who is bankrupt] is?” The people answered that a bankrupt person is one who has no money or property. The Prophet said: “The bankrupt from my nation is the one who comes on the Day of Judgment with some prayer, fasting and alms giving, but he has said bad things to people or misappropriated money of someone or shed the blood of someone. As a result, his good acts will be transferred to those people [who were harmed] and if his good acts are not sufficient, their bad deeds will be transferred to him and therefore he will be sent to hell.” 5 Thus, some people are poor because their record of good deeds is empty or nearly empty. The Qur’an says:

Those whose measure (of good) will be heavy, will prosper and those whose measure will be light, will dwell in hell. (101:6-9)


Reflection on our limits and our absolute need for and reliance on God leaves no place for any kind of arrogance or self-admiration. Whatever we have or whatever is at our disposal belongs to God and has been given to us as trust for a short period of time. We will be questioned on the Day of Judgment about the way we have dealt with them. Indeed, we ourselves belong to God in our very existence. René Guénon writes:

The contingent being may be defined as one that is not self-sufficient, not containing in himself the point of his existence; it follows that such a being is nothing by himself and he owns nothing of what goes to make him up. Such is the case of the human being in so far as he is individual, just as it is the case of all manifested beings, in whatever state they may be, for however great the difference may be between the degrees of Universal {25} Existence, it is always as nothing in relation to the Principle. These beings, human or others, are therefore, in all that they are, in a state of complete dependence with regard to the Principle “apart from which there is nothing, absolutely nothing that exists”; it is the consciousness of this dependence which makes what several traditions call “spiritual poverty.”

At the same time, for the being who has acquired this consciousness, it has, as its immediate consequence, detachment with regard to all manifested things, for the being knows from then on that these things, like himself, are nothing, and that they have no importance whatsoever compared with the absolute Reality. 6

Imam Husayn [Hussein] prays to God:

What can I bring when I want to come to you . . . Can I come with my ears, my eyes, my tongue, my hands, my feet? Is not this the case that all of these are gifts that you have given me? 7

Elsewhere he says:

O My Lord! I am poor in my richness so how can I not be poor in my poverty? 8

If whatever I have is a sign of my need, a sign of my dependence, what about those things that I do not have? Suppose that there is a person who has taken a loan, say, of one million dollars from a bank and another person who has taken one hundred thousand dollars. Which one is richer, and which one is not? It seems obvious that the one who has taken more money is more indebted and more responsible, and must have more concerns and worries. Whatever God gives us puts us more in debt. If this is the case about what we have, how can I be proud of things that I do not have? They do not belong to me anyway. Imam Husayn says:

With respect to my knowledge, I am ignorant. How can I not be very ignorant in respect to what I do not know? 9

What we know is very limited and surrounded with lots of questions. The more we know, the more questions we will have. This is why those who are more knowledgeable are more careful and cautious in their claims and stay more remote from arrogance. Also, what we know we can easily lose or forget. There are people who cannot remember even their own names or names of their closest relatives. Imam Husayn also says: {26}

O God! Verily the alteration of your affairs and the speed of progress of your decrees prevent those servants of You who know You to be confident when faced with your favour or to feel despair when challenged with calamities. 10

Everything changes quickly in this world. Sometimes we are happy, and sometimes sad. Sometimes people respect us; and sometimes no one may respect us. Sometimes our children are good to us and sometimes not. There are lots of ups and downs. What is the reason for this? We need to learn that we cannot trust anything except God. No one knows what will happen and, therefore, we should not trust anything. As the Imam says above, this should help us in understanding that we should not trust anything or anyone other than God and at the same time we should not despair. We should not become hopeless when bad things happen. The key is in the hands of God and he can change our situation to better in any moment. Having said all this, Imam Husayn says:

I appeal to You with my poverty and need for You. And how can I appeal to You with something which is impossible to reach You? Or how should I mention my complaint to You while it is not hidden to You? O my God! How can I not be poor when You have put me amongst the poor? And how can I be poor when you have made me rich with your generosity. 11

This shows that the means (wasilah) that the Imam uses to get closer to God is his dependence on God and his deep understanding that he is poor and nothing before God. Thus, the valuable means that the Imam finds and wants to use and mention is “poverty.” According to the Qur’an, we are all needy:

O ye men! It is ye that have need of God: But God is the One Free of all wants, worthy of all praise. (35:15)

We are all needy; only God is rich and free of need. Many people do not understand this. But Imam Husayn declares that he understands and admits this, and wants to use it as a means to get nearer to God. Then he says that when he wants to come with his poverty there is a problem, in that poverty does not reach God. This is to emphasize that poverty is only from one side; poverty cannot reach God. It may also mean that the one who goes towards God admitting his poverty will meet God while he is rich. To become rich, you must take poverty with you, but those who feel they are the poorest people are, indeed, the richest people in the eyes of God. Whoever is most humble, God will raise him more than anyone else. As we find in a hadith, “Whoever tries to be humble for God’s sake God will elevate him.” 12 In a divine saying (Hadith Qudsi) we find that God told Moses: {27}

The reason why I made you a Prophet is that I looked into the hearts of all people and I saw that you are the most humble one before Me. 13

According to a well-known hadith, the person who avoids arrogance and chooses to be humble before God and serve Him sincerely is no longer a slave of others or of his own whims. He will achieve some kind of lordship:

The servitude to God is a substance whose essence (core) is the lordship. 14

In another hadith we read:

My servant, obey Me. [If you do so] I will make you similar to Myself. I am alive and never die, so I make you alive and never die. I am rich and never become poor, so I make you become rich and never poor. Whatever I want it will be, so I make you in the way that whatever you want it will be there. 15

Reflecting on his life, one can see in the Prophet Muhammad the perfect example of humbleness. Indeed, the reason the Prophet was chosen by God lies in the fact that he was a true servant of God and the most humble person before God and his people. At least nine times a day in their prayers Muslims “bear witness that the Prophet Muhammad was a servant of God and His Apostle.” This means that amongst his qualities these two must be very outstanding: first, he managed to be a servant of God, and second, he was rewarded by being appointed as the Apostle of God.

The Prophet was so humble that he never admired himself. He never felt superior to others; he never separated himself from the masses and always lived a very simple life. Both when he was alone and powerless, as well as when he ruled the Arab peninsula and Muslims were wholeheartedly following him, he behaved the same. He lived very simply and was always with the people, especially the poor. He had no palace or guard. When he was sitting with his companions, no one could distinguish him from others by considering his seat or clothes. It was only his words and spirituality that distinguished him from others.

Just before his demise, the Prophet announced in the Mosque: “Whoever among you feels that I have done injustice to him, come forward and do justice. Surely, enacting justice in this world is better in my view than being taken account of in the Hereafter in front of the angels and the Prophets.” Those present wept, for they were reminded of all the sacrifices the Prophet had made for them and the troubles he had undergone in order to guide them. They knew he never gave any {28} priority to his own needs or preferred his comfort and convenience to that of others. They therefore responded with statements of deep gratitude and profound respect.

But one among them, Sawadah b. Qays, stood up and said: “May my father and mother be your ransom! O Messenger of God! On your return from Ta’if, I came to welcome you while you were riding your camel. You raised your stick to direct your camel, but the stick struck my stomach. I do not know whether this strike was intentional or unintentional.” The Prophet replied: “I seek refuge from God from having done so intentionally.”

The Prophet then asked Bilal to go to the house of Fatimah and bring the same stick. After the stick was brought, the Prophet told Sawadah to hit him back. Sawadah said that the stick had struck the skin of his stomach. The Prophet therefore lifted his shirt so that Sawadah could in return strike his skin. At that moment, Sawadah asked: “O Messenger of God! Do you allow me to touch my mouth to your stomach?” The Prophet gave him permission. Sawadah then kissed the stomach of the Prophet and prayed that because of this act of his, God would protect him from fire on the Day of Resurrection. The Prophet said: “O Sawadah! Will you pardon me or do you still wish to retaliate?” He replied: “I pardon you.” The Prophet then prayed: “O God! Pardon Sawadah b. Qays as he pardoned Your Prophet, Muhammad!” 16

Thus, in Islamic spirituality it is very important to feel humble and that we are nothing in front of God, not just as a claim we utter without firm belief but as a deep sense of nothingness. Once a person saw Imam Sajjad in Masjid al-Haram, next to Ka‘bah at Hijr of Isma‘il. He says: “I went to Hijr Isma‘il and saw Ali b. Husayn there saying his prayer. Then he went for Sajdah (prostration). I told myself that this is a pious man from a pious family so let me listen to him while praying to God in his Sajdah.” Then he quotes the Imam as praying:

My Lord, your small and little servant has come to your door, your captive has come to your door, the one who is poor has come to your door, the one who begs you has come to your door. 17

In the Qur’an, God warns the believers that if they turn away from his religion, soon God will bring forward a people who have, among their characteristics, humbleness before the believers:

O you who have faith! Should any of you desert his religion, God will soon bring a people whom He loves and who love Him, [who will be] humble towards the faithful, stern towards the faithless, striving hard in the way of God, not fearing the blame of any blamer. That is God’s grace which He grants to whomever He wishes, and God is all-bounteous, all-knowing. (5:54) {29}

In Islamic literature, especially in Persian poets, great emphasis has been put on spiritual poverty. For example, in a long poem in his Mathnawi, Rumi illustrates the significance of this feeling of nothingness and humility, and the fatal danger of pride and arrogance. Rumi argues that when people bow in adoration to anyone, they are (really) cramming poison into his soul. If he is not spiritually strong, he may be deceived and feel proud of himself. In this way, he may become arrogant and damage himself and lose his humility. Rumi goes on praising those who are humble in themselves, in contrast to those who are arrogant. The example of someone who has not established humbleness in himself is like the one who drinks a poisonous wine. In the beginning, he may feel happy and joyful, but after a few minutes he will collapse.

Another example is a fight between two kings. When one king wins the battle, he will either imprison the defeated king or kill him, but he will never punish “a fallen wounded man.” Indeed, he may help and promote him. Rumi says the reason is that such people are humble and have no ambition of becoming a king, and therefore by no means pose a threat to the new king. Another example is a caravan going from one place to another. When thieves come to rob the caravan, those who have no money will be safe. Or when wolves attack, they may attack anything that comes before them. They may even attack each other; when they want to sleep, they sit in a circle so they can watch each other carefully. But, Rumi says, wolves never attack a dead wolf. And we know that the Prophet Khidr made a breach in a boat, because an unjust ruler in the area used to confiscate every boat or ship passing by. Thus, the only way for that boat to be saved was to be broken. Here Rumi says:

Since the broken (contrite) one will be saved, be thou broken (contrite). Safety lies in poverty: enter into poverty. 18

If a mountain or hill has lots of valuable minerals inside, people will excavate all its soils, sand, and minerals. But an ordinary hill or mountain with nothing special inside will remain intact. Another illustration from Rumi goes like this: Someone who is walking is standing on his feet and his neck is straight. Therefore, his enemies may cut off his head with their sword, but no one would cut the head off his shadow. When a ladder is going to collapse, the higher anyone goes up it the more foolish he is, for his bones will be broken more badly. After mentioning these examples, Rumi finally says:

This is (constitutes) the derivatives (of the subject), and its fundamental principles are that to exalt one’s self is (to claim) copartnership with God. {30}

Unless thou hast died and become living through Him, thou art an enemy seeking to reign in copartnership (with Him).

When thou hast become living through Him, that (which thou hast become) is in sooth. He: it is absolute Unity; how is it copartnership?

Seek the explanation of this in the mirror of (devotional) works, for thou wilt not gain the understanding of it from speech and discourse. 19

On the same idea of losing one’s self, René Guénon says:

This “poverty” (in Arabic al-faqr) leads, according to Islamic esotericism, to al-fanaa, that is, to the extinction of the “ego”; and, by this “extinction” the “divine station” is reached (almaqaam al-ilaahii), which is the central point where all the distinctions inherent in the more outward points of view are surpassed and where all the oppositions have disappeared and are resolved in a perfect equilibrium. . . . This reduction of the “distinct ego,” which finally disappears by being reabsorbed into a single point, is the same thing as al-fanaa, and also as the “emptiness” mentioned above. 20


It has been suggested that poverty means not to possess something and at the same time desire to possess it. For example, he who feels in himself a certain lack of human perfection and sincerely desires to remedy this lack is a faqir. Furthermore, it has been suggested that in Sufism “the longing of love is born of faqr (‘spiritual poverty’).” 21 I think there are some problems with this understanding of poverty. First, poverty is much more than not possessing and then desiring to possess. Poverty is an awareness of our absolute need and dependence on God. As long as we are what we are, this need cannot be removed. Second, this sense of poverty is a spiritual gift and virtue that should be maintained forever. Poverty is not a transient station towards richness or affluence. Rather, poverty itself is the greatest wealth and fortune that human beings can ever have. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, “Poverty is my honour.” 22


  1. English translation cited from Javad Nurbakhsh, Spiritual Poverty in Sufism, trans. Leonard Lewisohn (London: Khaniqahi Nimiltullahi Publications, 1984), 4. {31}
  2. For example, see Mohammad Baqir Majlesi, Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 69 (Beirut: al-Wafa, 1983): 48.
  3. Nahj al-Balaghah [Shi’a sermons], No. 338.
  4. Ibid., No. 208.
  5. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 69: 5.
  6. René Guénon, “Al-Faqr or Spiritual Poverty” in Studies in Comparative Religion (Winter 1973): 16–20.
  7. “Du’a of ‘Arafah” in Shaykh Abbas Qummi, Mafatih al-Jinan.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Du’a of ‘Arafah” in Mafatih al-Jinan.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. This hadith is narrated from Jesus (Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 14: 307), the Prophet Mohammad (Vol. 16: 265; Vol. 72: 120), Imam Sadiq (Vol. 72: 121), and Imam Kazim (Vol. 75: 312).
  13. Ibid. Vol. 13: 8.
  14. Mohammad Rey Shahri, Mizan al-Hikmah, Vol. 6:13, No. 11317.
  15. Hurr ‘Amili, Al-Jawahir al-Saniyyah fi al-Hadith al-Qudsiyyah, 284.
  16. Shaykh Husayn Nuri, Mustadrak Wasa’il al-Shi‘ah, Vol. 18: 287, 288.
  17. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 96: 197.
  18. Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mathnawi Ma’nawi, Book Four, ed. and trans. Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (Tehran: Nashr-e Buteh, 2002).
  19. Ibid.
  20. René Guénon, “Al-Faqr or Spiritual Poverty,” 16.
  21. Javad Nurbakhsh, Spiritual Poverty in Sufism.
  22. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 69: 32, 55.
Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali is a graduate of the Islamic Seminaries of Qum (Iran). He holds both a BA and an MA in Western Philosophy from the University of Tehran and has a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Manchester. His publications include Self-Knowledge (1996, 2006), Ethical Relativism: An Analysis of the Foundations of Morality (2001), and Shi‘a Islam: Origins, Faith and Practices (2003, 2010).
Reprinted with permission from On Spirituality: Essays from the third Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue. © 2010 Pandora Press. All rights reserved.

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