Embracing The Art Of Khidma

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Many of us have come across the term khid­ma at some point. It’s pret­ty much the same word in Ara­bic, Urdu, Ben­gali, and I am reli­ably told, in many oth­er lan­guages too. Lit­er­al­ly, it means to be in ser­vice to God, peo­ple, and nature, through acts of devo­tion, virtue and ben­e­fit. The khadim is the one who offers khid­ma (plur­al: khu­damaa). To be a khadim one must meet the stan­dard of khu­lafa al-ard 1 (trustees/stewards of the Earth). That is, to be of “peo­ple of incred­i­ble virtue, good­ness and love, who give them­selves whol­ly to the high­est ideals and seek to cre­ate a world in which all peo­ple have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­alise their fullest human poten­tial in every domain of life, from the most mun­dane to the most tran­scen­dent.” 2 Acts of khid­ma have the rare qual­i­ty of leav­ing a sweet taste. It’s not sur­pris­ing why. Khid­ma takes well-mean­ing inten­tions and accu­ra­cy to the lev­el of truth­ful­ness, self­less­ness, and sin­cer­i­ty, in, for instance, “pre­serv­ing peace,” “improv­ing con­di­tions” and “hold­ing peo­ple to account.”

Pre­serv­ing peace” to the khadim is about find­ing ways to rec­on­cile between peo­ple and a dis­course of jus­tice, diplo­ma­cy and heal­ing for those wronged or down­trod­den. “Improv­ing con­di­tions” is to be a source of ease for oth­ers and help­ing them to meet their needs or over­com­ing predica­ments and strug­gles – what­ev­er they may be. “Hold­ing peo­ple to account” is to offer well-rea­soned and unas­sum­ing hon­est words. Truth, though nec­es­sary at times, can often be a bit­ter pill to swal­low. But the khadim has a grace­ful man­ner (adab) and insight (hikmah) into the right time and place for things that makes truth a lit­tle eas­i­er to absorb.

For sure, the art of khid­ma can­not be neat­ly taught in best­selling self-help man­u­als alone. Hope is not lost how­ev­er. If our inten­tion (niyyah) is to remem­ber God—which by the way should be the piv­ot at every step of the way for Muslims—naturally, we will seek to mine the Quran and Sun­nah (or per­haps keep the com­pa­ny of the khu­damaa) to learn the art of khid­ma. If we strug­gle to make this connection—a leap of faith, knowl­edge and lived experience—it is per­haps to be expect­ed that, to dif­fer­ent degrees, we obscure God’s com­mand to tread gen­tly on Earth, to be for­giv­ing, truth­ful and just, and to say “no” to the excess­es of world­ly life etc. We’d also strug­gle to see how God com­mands us “to know one anoth­er,” 3 or to under­stand that the ahsan­ul qasas (“beau­ti­ful sto­ries”), as in the case of Prophet Yusuf and his broth­ers, “…are signs for any­one who wants to ask.” 4

Yet these are the very things that we usu­al­ly over­look. And hence the nar­ra­tives that might quite pos­si­bly inspire us towards khid­ma remain deeply buried. Instead, we feel that social, polit­i­cal or sci­en­tif­ic ratio­nal­ism are in them­selves suf­fi­cient­ly empow­er­ing and solv­ing. Whilst they are no doubt rel­e­vant, far from pro­vid­ing refresh­ing per­spec­tives, it seems that we trap our­selves in their intrin­sic lim­i­ta­tions or, worse still, selec­tive­ly use them to legit­imise our own self-con­ceit. It’s no won­der we strug­gle to even lis­ten to oth­ers, least of all to take their advice. Nor do we realise that the words we use in being social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly engaged impact us both in this world and the next.

Why? The unfor­tu­nate real­i­ty, deep down, is that we crave imme­di­ate results, think­ing on one hand that we achieve through our own abil­i­ties, whilst, on the oth­er, some­what lazi­ly, remain unwill­ing to make the sac­ri­fices or to put the effort in. Here, pow­er, mon­ey and ide­al­ism whis­per seduc­tive­ly, and it’s usu­al­ly when we’re least mind­ed to serve oth­ers that we lis­ten. In the course of which we strug­gle to see how our own jour­ney back to God, and that of our “flocks,” are inter­locked into the very same exis­ten­tial spaces and con­texts that we remain so detached from. The out­come is that we become far too reac­tionary. We con­vince our­selves that prob­lems are “out there” and not “in here” – a case of see­ing the speck of dirt in our broth­ers’ eyes, but for­get­ting the splin­ter in our own. 5 Feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy or lack of trust and con­trol that this cre­ates lures us to con­front pow­er than seek ways to mutu­al­ly work with it with­in our quite vast—though often large­ly unexplored—freedoms. What’s more, we feel unbash­ful in com­plain­ing when the very pow­er that we rushed to con­front now exerts itself against us. It is quite sad­ly the very dis­heart­en­ing par­a­digm that we bemoan, yet fail to see how we are so eas­i­ly seduced by it.

The chal­lenge for any­one work­ing for pos­i­tive change with­in their own spaces and con­texts, then, is sure­ly to make that extra bit of space and time to at least con­tem­plate tak­ing things to the lev­el of khid­ma. After all, the imper­a­tive to show com­pas­sion and love to peo­ple is a Prophet­ic one. 6


  1. Al-Quran2:30.
  2. A use­ful def­i­n­i­tion by Fethul­lah Gulen, see A Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tion by Jill Car­roll, Tughra Books, 2007, p55. Wider read­ing of this con­cept is worth­while.
  3. Al-Quran49:13.
  4. Al-Quran, 12:7.
  5. See hadith report­ed by Ibn Hib­ban.
  6. See hadith report­ed by Al-Tir­mid­hi: “Those who are mer­ci­ful will be shown mer­cy by the Most Mer­ci­ful. Be mer­ci­ful to those on the earth and the One above the heav­ens will have mer­cy upon you. The womb is derived from the Most Mer­ci­ful, thus who­ev­er keeps rela­tions with his fam­i­ly then Allah will keep rela­tions with him, and who­ev­er aban­dons his fam­i­ly then Allah will aban­don him.”