Imagine iron locking onto your feet 24/7. Imagine not having the luxury of roaming around your home. Imagine not being able to look out a window. Imagine you lose track of day and night. Imagine darkness becomes your only light. Imagine the only treatment you get is cruelty. Imagine through all that, you are alone. While we find ourselves incapable of imagining such a harsh lifestyle, Imam Musa al-Kadhim (peace be upon him) actually had to live through it for over 20 years.
The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid imprisoned Imam al-Kadhim and inflicted many forms of torture upon him. When we study the life of our Imam, the imprisonment period usually serves as an emotional endeavor that constantly reminds us of the oppression our Imam suffered.
But upon further examination, we find that through the darkness of the dungeons, the Imam was educating the followers of Ahlul Bayt. The lessons one can extract from the Imam's time in prison are applicable to this very day.
The Brighter Side
We are often told to think of the glass as half full rather than half empty. While this is an effective approach, there are two major pitfalls that one needs to avoid.
The first pitfall is using the "half full" as a mere consolation to the situation. Often times, all the negativity of a situation is put forward. Then in order to feel some relief, one starts to search for something to convince ourselves that things are fine.
The second pitfall is not acting based on the "half full". We are often so emotionally invested in whatever situation we are in that we forget to proceed forward. This stems from the fact that we are searching for a consolation to feel better as opposed to dealing with the situation.
When we look at the imprisonment of Imam al-Kadhim, we find how this approach is utilized effectively. The Imam says, "O Allah, You know that I used to ask You to give me free time to worship You. O Allah, You have done that. To You be praise." (Bihar al-Anwar)
Clearly, the oppression and torture brought upon the Imam is countered with the Imam's desire to connect with Allah without distractions. He spent his time in prayers, fasting, and supplicating to Allah. This is the highest degree of patience mixed with the optimistic approach towards any situation. Indeed, we should learn to have this optimism towards any situation. It is such drives that solidify patience and faith in humans.
Knowing Our Purpose
The foundation of recognizing the good and bad of a given situation lies in knowing our purpose in this life. If one proceeds without a purpose, then one becomes enslaved to this world. Any calamity will be sufficient to destroy such a person. It is in knowing our purpose that we will have a direction to follow in. The notion of purpose has been referenced in the Qur'an multiple times. Allah says, "And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me." (51:156)
When we look at our Seventh Imam, we recognize that his servitude to Allah was the highlight of his time in prison. He was known as the man in prolonged prostration.
The Imam's behavior inside the prison was also educational. One example is with Isa ibn Jafar. He was the warden of the first prison (in Basra) the Imam was sent to. After one year of imprisoning the Imam, he came forward to Harun and informed him that he cannot stand having such a person in prison, let alone hurt or kill him, especially after he saw nothing but good from the Imam. He told Harun to move him from the prison, or he will set the Imam free.
Another account involves Harun wanting to hurt the Imam by sending a slave girl, thinking that she could seduce the Imam. That girl was struck by the Imam's aura. She was also surprised to see the Imam invested in worship. Instead of seducing the Imam, she actually ended up believing in him and becoming one of his followers.
It is such accounts the showcase the Imam not only knowing his purpose but also acting upon that knowledge. This is a lesson to all of us to know our purpose. It is independent of where we are or what we are doing – we always have a purpose in life, and we should honor it.
Acting upon the knowledge of our purpose is dependent on carefully analyzing the situation. We need to make the most of what we have at our disposal. If, however, our purpose was not clear, or was not solid, then the situation may sway our actions away from what is right.
Often we hear of people traveling by plane and not praying while en route. Whether the reason was not knowing where Qibla is, or the space being too tight to pray, or not knowing the times for prayer, the fact remains that many people leave prayers when they are traveling.
However, the Imam lived in darkness. There was no day and night for him. He was tired. He was hurt. He was bleeding. He was pale. The space was tight. Despite all that, the Imam used to pray. He used to engage in the acts of worship. He used to cry during the day while supplicating to Allah. The situation of the dungeons did not change the Imam. His purpose was solid, and so were his actions.
The Imprisoned Mind
Prisons and confinement have been used throughout history until today. However, no matter how tough and ugly they are, these prisons can only trap the physical presence of the human being. No prison is able to confine the mind. No prison can limit imagination. The person can be sitting in a room for months, yet he is in his mind climbing the tallest mountains and sailing in the largest seas.
The Imam was kept in the dungeons for over 20 years. His body suffered the consequences but his spirit did not. The Imam continued serving his position as an Imam despite the harsh conditions, simply because the oppressors could not imprison his mind. That is why the Imam was able to withstand all the pains of this period and continued to teach his followers from behind bars. The prisons of Harun could not limit the dedication of the Imam towards Allah. They could not limit the knowledge of the Imam. The certainly could not limit the patience of the Imam.
When we look at our lives, we see our bodies free. We are not behind bars. We are not in dark dungeons. However, our minds are in danger. If our dedication towards Allah is limited to physical actions, then our mind is locked in a deadly prison. If we cannot recognize our purpose, our mind is in a prison. If we are to dwell on negativity, then our mind is in a prison.
It does not matter whether we are locked in a prison or not. However, it matters if our minds have been locked away in the prisons of this age. And if they are, then we need to break all the bars; just like Imam al-Kadhim broke all the bars and shackles and left an illustrious example of leading a free life.