Before going into the explanation of this narration, there are two points that must be cleared up. First, the title scholar in most Islamic narrations usually refers to the seventh Imam, Imam Musa ibn Ja'far al-Kadhim (peace be upon him). The Imam and his followers were under such pressure that it was dangerous for his followers to mention any sayings directly from him. Therefore, when they related his teachings, they used such names as "the scholar" when referring to him.
Second, many matters mentioned in the Qur'an and Islamic narrations can be explained differently, and at times these explanations can contradict each other. Therefore, in explaining these matters, expertise in Islamic sciences is required because a high possibility for mistakes and improper deductions exist. One of these matters is the world. In some traditions, we see that the world is blamed, and staying away and renouncing it is praised.
For example, we read in a narration from Imam as-Sadiq (peace be upon him), "Love of the world is the source of all vices." And in another narration we read from Imam al-Kadhim, "The similitude of the world is like the snake. It is soft to the touch, but within its belly is killing poison. Intelligent men stay away from it, and children rush towards it with their hands."
In another narration, we read from him that he said: "The similitude of the world is like seawater. However much a thirsty person drinks from it, his thirst will increase until it kills him." And finally we read in another saying from Imam as-Sadiq that he said: "Whoever's heart is attached to the world, his heart is attached to three things: (1) worries that will never end, (2) desires that will never be met, and (3) futile hopes."
To the untrained eye, these sayings can suggest complete abandonment of the world. For example, the Sufis have misinterpreted such sayings to mean that one must denounce all worldly matters, seclude himself from the world, and spend his days and nights worshipping God. Their mistake is that they did not take other clear Islamic principles into consideration when they interpreted such sayings.
If seclusion from society and the world was a tenet of Islam, then what about all those verses and Islamic narrations that deal with social responsibilities, fighting against injustice and oppression, charitable works, enjoining good and forbidding evil, and other such issues? Can one fight injustice from a cave or a mountain retreat? Can enjoining good and forbidding evil be practiced from solitude? Can oppression and injustice be uprooted when we have no role in society?
Based on this, we see that it is vital to be a Mujtahid (jurist) and expert in religion in order to be able to interpret its teachings. Moreover, we see that the real intent of the verses and narrations that blame the world and praise refraining from it is to prevent us from making the world our life's goal and objective. Rather, self-building, spiritual perfection, the hereafter and, most importantly, God's pleasure must be the goal. All of the bounties and wealth of the world is not the human objective; they are simply provisions for our journey to the next world.
To make the world one's objective in life is like the traveler who makes his home on a bridge and makes it the goal of all his endeavors. The bridge and all of its nuts, bolts, steel, paved road, and other components are simply for reaching a destination. The world with all of its bounties is simply a bridge to our true destination: the next world. If this world was the purpose of our existence, then no one would ever die and leave it. However, everyone dies and leaves this world; therefore, it cannot be our permanent home.
Nevertheless, the world is extremely important in our progress towards perfection of being and building our homes for the hereafter. Now we will turn to our main topic, the saying from Imam al-Kadhim:
"Work for the world as if you are going to live forever."
This part of the narration deals with how we should deal with the world. This sentence can be defined in two ways:
First, that we should carryout our worldly tasks with firmness, foundation, and basis. We shouldn't think that these few days in the world are worthless so it leads to careless and tactless work. Although we know very well that we will not live here forever, we must work as if we will so that our work is lasting and solid. Even if we die and cannot make use of it anymore, others will be able to benefit from our labor.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has said: "God the Exalted loves it when one of you takes on a task and performs it well." In another place, he said: "God the Exalted loves of a worker who does good work." And after his son Ibrahim (peace be upon him) was buried, the Holy Prophet saw a hole in his grave and filled in and fixed it himself. The he said: "When one of you takes on a task, do it firmly."
The second meaning, which is better than the first one, is that we should not rush and hasten towards worldly tasks. Do not think that it will leave you. If it isn't done today, then you can do it tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then the next day. Think that you will live forever. However, when it comes to working for the hereafter, you must hasten and rush to get it done. Do not leave today's task for tomorrow, because tomorrow might not come, and then you will regret missing that chance.
"Work for the hereafter as if you are going to die tomorrow."
This part only has one meaning. A person who is traveling the path towards success and believes in life after death must hasten and rush towards doing works for the hereafter. Whenever he is presented with an opportunity to do a task for the next world, he must hurry to carry it out without wasting any time.
Although haste is highly discouraged in Islam, because it wants its followers to think and contemplate before acting, this is one of the circumstances where rushing is praised. In one verse from among many in regards to this matter, the Holy Qur'an states: "And hasten toward the forgiveness of your Lord and paradise whose width is that of the heavens and the earth, [and it is] prepared for the pious self-controlling ones." (3:133)
In this verse, God commands us to rush towards His forgiveness. Perhaps it means towards those good acts because of which God forgives His servant's sins. Then it continues to say rush towards paradise whose width is that of the heavens and the earth. We know from Islamic narrations that this universe with all of its galaxies and celestial bodies, including the Earth, are all part of the first heaven or sky. In addition to this heaven, there are six more. Thus, it is possible that the size of paradise is equal to this universe and many more like it. We also know that gaining paradise can only be done through faith and righteous actions. Therefore, the verse is telling us to hasten towards faith and righteous deeds.
Furthermore, the verse states that this paradise is prepared for the pious and self-controlling ones. This means that a person must rush towards and carryout such works that will foster Taqwa (self-control) in him and make him of the pious ones.
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said: "Take precedence and hurry to do good deeds before you are occupied by other than it." If a person spends his entire day performing good deeds, then he does not have any time left to carry out bad deeds.
In conclusion, we see that the teachings of Islam are indeed logical and for the well-being of every individual and all of society. However, not everyone can interpret and explain the teachings of Islam, because there is a danger of falling into error and misinterpreting the intent of these teachings. Therefore, expertise and specialization is required in order to interpret Islamic teachings.
Furthermore, Islam warns us not to take the world as our sole objective in life. Rather, it teaches us to use it and its bounties and riches for reaching our true objectives: perfection of being, God's pleasure, and paradise. It also encourages us to make our works solid and firm and not to be careless in our actions.
Moreover, Islam in general – and this narration under discussion in particular – advise us to use the precious time in this world to work for the hereafter. We must hurry towards any deed that will ensure our success in the hereafter. But we must perform these deeds with God in mind and not any worldly motives.
Sayyid Baqir Imrani is a popular speaker among North American Shia communities. Further articles and lectures by him can be found on http://www.mzk4.org