“We have seen many scholars who had a bad ending because of their proximity and mixing with rulers. They were after comfort but did not achieve it properly, because the sadness of the heart never goes away with money or food…
If we compare the difference between Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s refraining from rulers, and Ibn Abi Du’ad* and Yahya ibn Aktham**, then we will learn the difference between a good life in this world and safety in the Hereafter.
Ibn Adham said, “If kings and their sons knew the pleasures in which we are living [because of our religious contentment], they would have fought us over it.”
Ibn Adham spoke the truth. When a ruler eats something he fears that someone might have poisoned it, and when he goes to sleep he fears that someone will assassinate him. He remains indoors fearing leaving his residence. If he does so he gets annoyed from the closest people to him.
If he likes a certain food he will eat too much from it and trouble his stomach; if he has too much sexual relations he becomes weak and feels little pleasure. He does not find the same joy that a poor person finds when eating after being hungry or a single man after finding a woman. A poor person might feel secure enough to sleep on the street, something that a prince would not be able to do. So their pleasure is always reduced, yet they will be held to account more.
By Allah! I do not know of any people who lived honorably while achieving pleasures more than sincere scholars such as Al-Hasan al-Basri, Sufyan al-Thawri and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and true worshippers such as Ma‘ruf [al-Karkhi].
The pleasure of knowledge exceeds all pleasures and whenever seekers of knowledge feel hunger or harm, this only elevates their status. There is also a sweetness to seclusion and worship.
Ma‘ruf for example, was alone with his Lord, living comfortably with Him and enjoying the sweetness of being with Him.
Although he died about four hundred years ago [edit: he passed away on the 2nd of Muharram, 200 Hijri], he is still gifted (the reward) of reciting many chapters of the Qur’an! The least that is done for him is people stand at his grave, reciting:
قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ
“Say: He is Allah, the One” [112:1]
And gift him its reward. Even rulers stand humble in front of his grave. On the day of resurrection more honours will be distributed.
The same applies to the graves of scholars. Those who have been inflected with visiting leaders, they confessed that they were harmed by doing so.
Sufyan Ibn ‘Uyaynah said, “Since I accepted the gift of such and such prince, I was stripped from the understanding of the Qur’an.”
So refraining from mixing with leaders might cause hardship sometimes, yet it will result in goodness in many other ways. It is best for someone to be firm upon this issue.”
*Considered a leading Mu‘tazilite and one of the chief architects of the mihnah [Inquisition], Ahmad ibn Abi Du’ad’s persecution of orthodox men of knowledge, including the famous scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal, caused his reputation to suffer after his death – no-one attended his funeral prayer. He was made into an object of vilification by later biographers.
** Yahya ibn Aktham was instrumental in Ahmad ibn Abi Du’ad eventually becoming a close associate of the Mu‘tazilite Abbasid caliph Al-Ma‘mun. Ibn Aktham himself was appointed as chief judge by Al-Ma‘mun. He was eventually dismissed during the caliphate of Al-Mutawakkil when his money and land were seized and he was placed under house arrest.
[Al-Hafiz Jamal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi, صيد الخاطر (Quarry of the Mind), pp. 630-633 of English translation (with some edits)]