طُوبَى لمن طالَ عمرهُ ، وحَسُنَ عمَله
Glad tidings to the one whose life is long and deeds exemplary.
[Tirmidhī 2251, 2252, Kanz al-‘Ummāl, Mishkāt al-Maṣābīḥ 2270, authenticated by al-Albānī]
In a world that obsesses over centenarians (those that live beyond 100 years) and super-centenarians (those who live past 110), these words of the Prophet could not be more timely. This great lesson was narrated through the Companion ‘Abdullah bin Busr al-Aslamī who recalls that he once witnessed some Bedouins, known for their frank and crude manners, appearing before the Prophet and asking him, Hey Muhammad, who is the best of people? Never losing patience nor exhibiting the least bit of annoyance, the Prophet at once moved to serve his appointed role as teacher and guide, replying with words that continue to ring through the ages: Glad tidings to the one whose life is long and deeds exemplary.
A long life is truly a great blessing. It is also one of the most sought after things in this world. The Qur’ān remarks that there are even those who wish to live for a thousand years [2:96]. That certainly remains true today. The secret to longevity remains the holy grail of modern medicine and one of the most profitable areas of scientific and medical research. The obsession with life expectancies, infant mortality and other stats related to life-span are quite obvious. We proudly keep tabs on those who are octogenarians (more than eighty years old), centenarians (more than 100) and up. Last week, the oldest documented person in the Guinness Book of World Records died, who happened to be a gentle woman from Brazil who passed away at the age of 114.
The Qur’ān affirms time and again that no one shall live forever, and that death is the inevitable end of all. And yet, at the same time, the Prophet also affirmed the blessing of a long life. Longevity is a desirable thing indeed, and the Prophet went as far as congratulating and sending salutations on those blessed with long years.
But the Prophet mentioned two things here: lifespan and lifework. These precise words contain the perfect balance to understanding the total life of a human being and what constitutes a commendable life and legacy. There are many who obsess over the longevity of life with no concern for its content. And there are others who refuse to acknowledge the blessing of a long life at all and emphasize only one’s contribution.
In his masterful way, the Prophet was teaching humanity that while the quantity of one’s life is indeed important and praiseworthy, but what is more important than that is the quality of one’s life. While a life that extends a good length and span is desirable, but what is more desirable is that it also contains meaningful content. In Islam, both quantity and quality, size and content, lifespan and lifework matter.
Each of our positive deeds impacts others in beneficial ways and increases our spiritual rewards and ranking with our Creator. Therefore, the greater the amount of time and opportunity spent in these endeavors, the greater our legacy and rewards. That is why a long life is a blessed thing for believers.
However, despite the universal interest in achieving longevity of life, unlocking the secrets to the life-span remains as elusive today as it ever was. The problem with survival rates, predictions of life expectancy, giving the terminally ill how long they have left to live, etc. is that that these numbers simply don’t work nor do they apply to individual cases. The Qur’ān repeatedly affirms that God alone knows the time and location of one’s death, and nothing can avert that by any degree. That knowledge is best left to God. When humans begin to use numbers and stats to predict life and death, not only does it make life difficult and invite unhealthy thoughts and emotions, but they also wind up ruining lives and making some wealthy at the expense of others.
The Prophet mentioned two things, one of which is mostly out of our control (our lifespan) and the other mostly within our control (our lifework). He was teaching us to acknowledge the first blessing which is out of our grasp, while at the same time, focusing and working on the second blessing which is within our grasp. From another perspective, a long life is a great blessing that comes with a great responsibility: to do good with that life.
The early Muslims recognized this great blessing and this great responsibility. Once an infant-child was brought to the Prophet in Madīnah by his mother seeking counsel and blessing. The Prophet supplicated for the child, asking that—among other things—Allah bless him a long life. That child did indeed live a long and productive life, not missing any opportunity to establish his legacy and increase his ranks. His name was Anas bin Mālik and he outlived the Prophet by almost a century, making him one of the last Companions to leave the earth at the age of 103. He was an important source of knowledge for the Muslim world for nearly a century, and continues to be so today. In our tradition he represents the third most prolific narrator of ḥadīth, and there is no single book of ḥadīth or sunnah that does not mention his name. He was able to leave such a monumental legacy because of these two things: a blessed life-span and blessed life-work. He was our greatest centenarian.