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 ready and sprang to action. This is a marvelous alertness, an eagerness to do whatever good that is wihtin reach.
He had a destination to get to, 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 completely ‘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 [people of taqwā]—and their destination cannot be but Paradise. This was the understanding of one of the greatest Companions5, Allah be pleased with him:
One day a beggar came to Abdullah bin ʿUmar, so he told his son to give him a gold coin [dīnār]. Afterwards, the son said, “May God accept it from you, O beloved father.”
Then Ibn ʿUmar replied, “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.'" [Quran 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 Importance of Knowledge
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 what he knew.
Confidence Among People
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."
—ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab10
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 try fool himself with.
The truth of his situation:
To keep the ship waiting was fine—society didn’t run by the minute in his era, so taking maybe 15 minutes total to go and come back would not be unfair 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 crazy unfairly.
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 Source of This Story
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 Fath al-Bari volume 10, page 626. A translation was supplied by Rayyan Institute. Further research also brought a reference to Sharh al-Mukhtasar ibn Abi Jamrah page 290, by al-Shanawani 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.
This story and reflection is part of the Stories of the Righteous project, which shares narratives that inspire reform, faith and piety in all who read them—trying to fulfill our need for righteous company in a time when it’s hard to find.
The Messenger of Allah 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.” (Tirmidi, Ibn Majah) ↩︎
Al-Jawahir al-Lu’luwiyyah by Muhammad al-Jardani al-Dimyati & 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. ↩︎
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.”' (Sahih Muslim 2732) ↩︎
Al-Bukhari 7/125 according to Hisn al-Muslim ↩︎