This story is part of the Stories of the Righteous project, which aims to share stories that inspire reform, faith and piety in all who read them—trying to fulfill our need of righteous company in a time when it’s hard to find.
One day, Imām Abū Dāwūd (God the Exalted have mercy on him!) was traveling to a distant land. His journey would be across water, and today he boarded the ship to start his journey. The ship was leaving shore when he faintly, but clearly, heard someone sneeze on land and follow it up by saying, “All praise and gratitude belongs to God.” [Alḥamdu lillāh (1)]
He sprang into action—he immediately called a smaller boat and asked the boatman to take him back to shore for just one minute. When he got back on land, the Imām found the man who had just sneezed and told him, “God have mercy on you!” [yar ḥamukallāh (2)]
The sneezer replied, “God guide you, and set aright your affairs!” [yahdī kumullāhu wa yuṣliḥu bālakum (3)]
The Imām was satisfied and returned to his ship. He paid the rower one silver coin [dirham] for the short ferry to land and back to the ship. The curious passengers asked Abū Dāwūd what he had just been doing. He explained that he wanted the sneezer to pray for him—perhaps he was someone whose prayers [duʿā] are easily accepted. By replying to the man who sneezed, the Imām was able to get his prayers as well.
Everyone was amused by the trouble he took for such a small affair. As the ship began its journey, they quickly forgot about this incident and returned to their own business. But that night, all of them heard a voice during their sleep:
“O people of the ship! Abū Dāwūd has purchased Paradise from God—for one silver coin!”
This is a short story, but what it contains is life-changing. Give it a thorough read and reflect on it yourself before reading someone else’s thoughts and blocking your own.
The Imām’s ship was leaving shore when he heard someone sneeze and praise God—but even in that moment he still knew that he would reply to him. This is a marvelous alertness, an eagerness to do whatever good that is made possible.
He had a destination to reach, and he was obviously someone renowned for his great service to Islām—did he really need to take all that trouble to do such a little thing? Rather, God blessed him to do big things because he was righteous in small matters—truly the big is made up of the small.
Moreover, his natural resolve to do good was grounded in a deep point of understanding: we are all in urgent need of God the Greatest to accept a single action of ours. Who are we to think any good deed we have ever done has been accepted by God, His Glory be glorified?
Are they not full of errors, known and unknown? Are our intentions not diverted, if ever involving Him at all? Isn’t our attention always unfocused, whether in worship or not? Do we not give precedence regarding our time, attention and care to everything and everyone else over Him?
And even if we did something completly ‘right’, He may still reject our deeds. That would be completely fair—He has created us, grown us and protected us till date; He has provided us the time, materials and ability to do the good action, and then He allowed us to do it. The action belongs to Him and so He can reject it freely and be just.
Furthermore, we may carry out one small evil act and deem it insignificant—but that could be what leads us to the Fire!1 Either way, we will not know until we are judged, when it is too late to rectify our affairs. These realities must produce a fear in us that propels us towards good deeds and away from evil. (And leaving evil is a good deed itself.)
On the other hand, we do not know what God has accepted from our meager deeds. It could be the smile you held with a family member even though you felt terrible, that time when you cleared a single piece of litter from the street, or just that one class during which you remembered God.
We can hope, knowing that His Mercy prevails over His Wrath,2 that He is looking for anything we do by which He may have some kind of excuse to forgive us. Our fear from earlier is thus balanced with hope, driving us to positive action.3
If God the Almighty did accept anything of our deeds, that one acceptance would be enough.4 This is because acceptance means one is among the God-fearing [muttaqūn]—and truly their destination cannot be but Paradise. This was the understanding of one of the Companions5:
One day, a beggar came to him [Ibn ʿUmar, God be pleased with him!] and he told his son to give him a gold coin [dīnār]. Afterwards, the son said, “May God accept it from you, O beloved father.”
Ibn ʿUmar said, “If I knew that God had accepted from me just one prostration, or a charity of a single silver coin [dirham], it would be more beloved to me than anything. For do you know from whom He accepts?
‘Indeed, God but accepts ⸢the offering⸣ of the God-fearing.’” [Qur’an 5:27]
It is from this understanding that Imām Abū Dāwūd must have strived to perform even that tiny deed—it could have been his one action that is accepted.
The sneezer’s prayer for him may have been accepted, or perhaps the angel’s reciprocal prayer for him from when he prayed for the sneezer,6 or maybe God Almighty just accepted his utterly sincere and needy attitude.
The end of the story relates that the Imam had earned Paradise—he was able to do so through the knowledge he had been blessed with.
He knew the prayer we are advised to say to the believer who sneezes and the consequent reply by the sneezer7; without it this story wouldn’t have happened. But he also knew his neediness as a slave of God and all that has been mentioned above, which drove him to act.
“The fruit of knowledge is in acting upon it.”8
Knowledge is key. We are in a time when people are unaware of even the basic essentials of religion: what is forbidden and what is compulsory. At the same time, someone who knows what is right but does not act upon it brings about his own doom as well. Knowledge and action must go hand-in-hand.9 This story demonstrates the fruits reaped by a man of knowledge who applied it.
Even if we knew what to do and the thought crossed our minds, we would be too meek to carry it out. This saying has sadly come to be true:
“I fear the day when the disbelievers are proud of their falsehood, and the Muslims are shy of their faith.”10
On a ship with so many other people watching our thoughts would be:
If I leave the ship now, everyone else will think I’m weird… they might make fun of me. I might even trouble them by delaying them! Why should I spend a whole silver coin for such a short boat ride? I don’t have to reply to the person who sneezed anyway, it’s optional… And maybe I just imagined it! Let’s me stay here…
But Imām Abū Dāwūd was not lazy or meek. He knew what would be more pleasing to God and so he was determined to do it. If any concerns came to him he dealt with them as they actually were, instead of letting (or making) them grow and become flimsy excuses to delude himself with.
The truth of his situation:
To keep his ship waiting was fine—society didn’t run by the minute in his era, so taking maybe 10 minutes total to go and come back would not be an annoyance to the crew or passengers.
Any amount of money spent getting to shore would count as charity spent for the sake of God. There is no loss. And it ended up being counted as his admission to Paradise!
People would wonder what in the world he’s doing… but when he’s back on board and they’re asking him what he just did, he would have a golden chance to preach his faith!
If people still thought he was crazy or weird, it would be God’s blessing that he could follow the tradition of His past messengers and be considered mad.
On top of internal resolve based on key knowledge, Imām Abū Dāwūd possessed the confidence and perspective that let him carry out what he thought internally he should do.
And he thought only about what would be most pleasing to God.
The story presented on this site is a combination of the wordings of both the sources below. Then it was edited further for clarity, flow and impact.
The original source of the story is on Twitter from Mufti Abdur-Rahman, citing Fatḥ al-Bārī volume 10, page 626. A translation was supplied by Rayyan Instititute. Further research brought a reference to Sharḥ al-Mukhtaṣar ibn Abī Jamrah page 290, by al-Shanawānī according to the Islamiology blog.
All that seems immensely reliable—but whether or not this story truly happened makes no difference to its impact on us.
- The Messenger of God – God bless him and give him peace – said, “Verily a person utters a word that he deems harmless, but it results in his falling into the depths of the Hellfire.” (Tirmiḍī, Ibn Mājah) [return]
- Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3022, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2751 [return]
- Conditions Acceptability of Deeds by Allah & Fearful That Deeds Will be Worthless in Hereafter — Further reading on our relationship to our deeds. [return]
- The single deed that saved them — There are many cases of a single action being enough! [return]
- Al-Jawāhir al-Luʿluwiyyah by Muḥammad al-Jardānī al-Dimyātī & also mentioned without source by the UAE Islamic Affairs Authority. The mentioned Quran translations have been replaced in the reflection by the same verse [āyah] from the Gracious Qur’an translation. [return]
- The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘There is no Muslim servant who supplicates for his brother behind his back but that the angel says: “And for you the same.”’ (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2732) [return]
- Al-Bukhārī 7⁄125 according to Hiṣn al-Muslim [return]
- Imām al-Ghazālī, from Khidma Slough on Twitter [return]
- If there is any knowledge you lack about the faith, I highly advise you to check out SeekersHub and their courses — insightful knowledge, taught by reliable scholars and completely free. [return]
- ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, from Yasmin Mogahed on Twitter [return]