Humans are social. We need other people. From the people around us we learn habits, beliefs, attitudes and more. Because of this the messenger, peace and blessing upon him, advised,
A man is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.1
This is a warning. But it also teaches one of the best ways to improve ourselves: spending time with good people. Imam al-Muhasibi described them as the one who, “seeing him reminds you of God, speaking to him increases your knowledge, and his actions remind you of the hereafter."2
We should search for friends like these and stick close to them. But if we don’t have good company, how can we fulfill our need for it?
Allah, His Glory be glorified, has given people empathy. It allows us to relate with other people’s feelings and experiences—so much that we feel what they feel.
By reading stories of virtuous people we can spend time with them. Thus Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi said:
If it is difficult for one to remain in the company of the pious all the time, then the substitute is for one to study the lives of our pious predecessors and their advices.3
Stories can be even better than pious company because only the dead are safe to follow. The living have yet to succeed, and may even fail. If we follow them while their final station is not clear, we can be doomed along with them.4
Most stories are about the dead, and so are safe to follow. There is immense benefit to be found in these treasures of guidance—we should love reading them5
Stories are also used by the greatest Teacher in His Scriptures to teach the worst of all students: us.
These are the most fitting substitutes for good company. The prophets, peace be upon them all, were teachers and righteous influences for their companions. Now, their stories are our company. Thus Imam al-Junayd said:
Stories are the armies of Allah by which He strengthens the hearts of the seekers.6
The companion Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, thus said: “Whoever wants to follow a path, let him follow the path of one who has died, for the living are not safe from fitnah [tribulation]." (IslamQA.info) ↩︎
Imam Abu Hanifa, may God have mercy on him, said: “Discussing and sharing the stories of the pious scholars is more beloved to me than studying fiqh." (Nur Publications Twitter) ↩︎