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 Imam Abu Dawud, Allah have mercy on him, was traveling to a distant land. His journey would be across water, and this day 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)]
The Imam sprang into action! He quickly called a smaller boat and asked the rower to take him back to shore, just for one minute. Back on land, the Imam 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 Imam returned to his ship after comepleting his task. He paid the rower one silver coin [dirham] for this short ferry from the boat to the shore, and back. The curiously waiting passengers asked Imam Abu Dawud what he had just been doing.
He explained that by replying to the man who sneezed, the Imam was able to get his prayers as well. He wanted the sneezer to pray for him—perhaps he was someone whose prayers [duʿā] are easily accepted.
Everyone was amused by how much trouble he took for such a small affair. As the ship began its journey, they all quickly forgot about this incident and returned to their own business.
But that night, they heard a voice during their sleep:
“O people of the ship! Abu Dawud 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 Imam’s ship was already leaving shore when he heard someone sneeze and praise God. But for him, even in that moment it was not a question whether to do reply to the man—he was instantly ready and took action. 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 Islam—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 not our intentions hazy, if ever involving Him at all? Isn’t our attention always diverted, 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 because 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 remain absolutely Just.
Furthermore, we may carry out one small evil act and consider it insignificant. But that one thing could lead us to the Fire!1 Either way, we will not know until we are judged—when it is too late to rectify our affairs. This 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 Allah 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 and studied for His Sake.
We have hope, knowing that His Mercy prevails over His Wrath.2 He is looking for anything we do by which He can excuse us. This way our fear from earlier is thus balanced with hope, driving us to positive action.3
Finally, if God 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, 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 Imam Abu Dawud must have strived to perform even that tiny deed—it could have been his one action that is accepted.
In his case, the sneezer’s prayer for him may have been accepted. Or perhaps the angel’s reciprocal prayer for him was accepted.6 Or maybe Allah the Most Merciful just accepted his utterly sincere and needy attitude which caused his actions.
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! I didn’t hear correctly. I’ll just stay here…
But Imam Abu Dawud was not lazy or (unfittingly) shy. 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 fool 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.
So on top of internal resolve based on knowledge, Imam Abu Dawud possessed the confidence and perspective that let him carry out what he thought 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 from both the sources below. It has been 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 benefit for us.
- The Messenger of God said, God bless him and give him peace, “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 and 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 by the the Dr. Zaki Hammad’s Gracious Qur’an translation. [return]
- The Messenger of God said, peace and blessings be upon him, ‘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 Ḥiṣn al-Muslim [return]
- Imam 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 completely for free. [return]
- ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, from Yasmin Mogahed on Twitter [return]