We know how beneficial socialising is, and how our religion Islam emphasises on community and being with people. A large portion of what we do is with other people; from work to social interaction to religious programs in a congregation.
However, to the same extent that Islam emphasises on al-‘ishrah(socialising), there is also a strong emphasis on al-‘uzlah(seclusion). We all know for a fact how difficult it is to find gatherings that are free of sin, backbiting, gossiping, useless topics and wasting of valuable time. Spiritual ascension can only be achieved through minimising our talk, restricting our interactions and avoiding too much socialising.
Hence the hadith attributed to the Commander of the faithful Imam Ali (a.s.) that says:
كن في الناس ولا تكن معهم
While researching on this particular narration that is frequently mentioned I was not able to find any reference for this, but I did find a narration from Imam Ali (a.s.) that carries this very meaning:
خَالِطُوا النَّاسَ بِأَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَجْسَادِكُمْ ، وَزَايِلُوهُمْ بِأَعْمَالِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِكُمْ
Mix with people with your tongues and bodies, and leave them with your actions and hearts.
[al-Ghaybah, by al-Nu’mani, p. 210. Sunan al-Darami, h. 315.]
This means you should mix with people as long as there are reciprocal benefits, but must always bear in mind that your journey is an individual one. Be with people physically, but spiritually be with God. Share your life with others, in doing your ‘amr bil ma’ruf and nahi ‘an al-munkar(enjoining the good and forbidding the evil), but do not copy or follow those around you, if it leads you astray.
Being too social is not good, and being anti-social is certainly unhealthy. So, how do we find the balance? At times it’s better to be alone and to yourself so you can find out who you are and pursue your goals in life. Too much interaction will bring dramas and problems that we can live without.
A pious believer should not isolate themselves, or else what is the benefit of being religious if one does not benefit others, or benefit from others. Yes, we assimilate and integrate, but our real solace is God, that’s why we are always on our own.
Imam Hasan al-Askari (a.s.) has said:
من آنس بالله استوحش من الناس
“Whoever finds solace with God will feel estranged from people.”
[A’lam al-Din, p. 313]
Interacting with people is only a means to reach our greater goal and objective, which is attaining perfection in this short life of ours. This is why it is so important that we search for quality, and not quantity. There are certain narrations that say if you were to spend your whole life searching for only one genuine friend you would not be wasting your time.
We all need time for ourselves, and this is what will give us the ability to do some soul searching and progress on an individual level. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) spent long periods of times in the cave of Hira`, and our Imams (a.s.) were accustomed to having time dedicated for themselves.
There are numerous traditions that speak about socialising and how one must be collectively responsible towards the affairs of the community and the betterment of the society, but not so much that it encompasses our whole life and consumes all of our time.
There is a tradition from Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.) that is narrated in various ways where he says that if it was not for the position Almighty God had given him in his responsibility he would prefer to stay at the peak of a mountain and not see anyone until he dies. [Mustadrak Wasa`il al-Shia, vol. 11, p. 384 h. 4]
Here are some traditions about seclusion from Imam Ali (a.s.):
الْعُزْلَةُ أَفْضَلُ شِيَمِ الْأَكْيَاسِ
“Seclusion is the best trait of acute people.”
[Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 7350]
مُدَاوَمَةُ الْوَحْدَةِ أَسْلَمُ مِنْ خُلْطَةِ النَّاسِ
“Being alone is safer than mixing with people.”
[Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 7360]
كَثْرَةُ الْمَعَارِفِ مِحْنَةٌ وَخُلْطَةُ النَّاسِ فِتْنَةٌ
“Too many associates is a misfortune and mixing with people is a sedition.”
[Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 7367]
يَنْبَغِي لِمَنْ أَرَادَ صَلَاحَ نَفْسِهِ وَإِحْرَازَ دِينِهِ أَنْ يَجْتَنِبَ مُخَالَطَةَ أَبْنَاءِ الدُّنْيَا
“It is necessary for one who wishes to reform themselves and preserve their religion to avoid mixing with worldly people.”
[Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 7374]
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