How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God
Without doubt, the greatest trait to nurture in our worship of God and in our journey to Him is hudur al-qalb - “presence of heart”. It says in one hadith: ‘Ask God [in a state where] you are certain of being responded to; and realise that God does not respond to a supplication from a heedless and inattentive heart.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3479] Thus, a mindless heart elicits little or no response from Heaven; whereas an attentive heart, present with its Lord, does. What is meant by presence of heart (for the heart to feel the presence of the One being invoked or remembered) is that the heart be liberated from distractions and be focused and attentive to its Lord. Such is the courtesy (adab) sought from the servant in his or her worship of the Generous Lord.
As we seek to break out of the prisons of our pleasures and distractions, and allow our lives to be illumined by faith and loving submission, the focus must be to educate our heart. The above hadith tells us that works of faith, presented to God from a heedless heart, count for very little; if anything at all. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Whoever purposes the shari‘ah, its sources and wellspring, will know how actions of the limbs are tied to works of the heart and how they are of no benefit without them, and how works of the heart are more obligatory than those of the limbs. Acts of devotion (‘ubudiyyah) of the heart are far greater, more numerous and more continuous than devotion of the limbs. For they are obligatory at each and every moment.’1
He also wrote: ‘Acts of the limbs, without works of the heart, either lack any benefit, or else contain very little benefit.’2
Presence of heart with God is not only required in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One way to nurture presence is by kathrat al-dhikr - “remembering God frequently,” wherever and whenever possible. At first, says al-Ghazali, dhikr is just with the tongue; the heart having very little share in it. Then the heart, with considerable effort, is made to be present in dhikr - although if left to itself, ‘it would drift into the valleys of idle thought.’ It then begins taking root in the heart and dominates it, such that it now takes effort to not make dhikr. Finally comes “extinction” and being “lost” in the One being remembered. Thus, he writes: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously, thereby leading to it being dominated by the One being remembered and to the effacement of the one remembering.’3
In other words, explains Ibn al-Qayyim, ‘the power of dhikr takes hold of the servant, causing him to lose consciousness of himself and his remembrance, in the One he is remembering.’ He goes on to explain that as this occurs, ‘the servant is bound to drift through the doors of indwelling (hulul) and unionism (ittihad) – unless he has a sound theology (‘aqidah sahihah).’4 Whatever else such extinction or fana’ connotes, it does not mean that one has “merged” or “become one” with Allah. Such unionism or belief of indwelling is utterly false and is, at best, merely a perception. The reality is that the servant always remains distinctly the servant and the Lord distinctly the Lord. In fact, to believe otherwise would be blasphemous or kufr.
Scholars depict this level of faith as maqam al-mushahadah – “the Station of Spiritual Witnessing” – basing it on the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which he explained spiritual excellence (ihsan) to be: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.80] This witnessing Allah with the heart is where, writes Ibn Rajab, ‘the heart is illumined with faith, and the inner sight arrives at gnosis, so much so that the Unseen becomes, as it were, seen (wa huwa an yutanawwara’l-qalbu bi’l-iman wa tanfudha’l-basiratu fi’l-‘irfan hatta yasira’l-ghaybu ka’l-‘ayan).’5
Another hadith that bespeaks of the same spiritual state is the following: ‘My servant does not draw close to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him. My servant continues to draw closer to me with the optional deeds till I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps and his foot with which he walks.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502] Returning again to Ibn Rajab, who explains:
‘What these words mean is that whoever strives to draw near to Allah by [performing] the obligatory deeds, then the optional ones, He shall draw him closer to Himself and will raise him from the degree of iman to that of ihsan. He will now come to worship Allah with presence (hudur) and vigilance (muraqabah), as if seeing Him. His heart will be filled with gnosis of Allah, exalted is He; along with love, veneration, fear, awe, and magnification of Him; intimacy with Him; and longing for Him, until this gnosis that resides in the heart begets spiritual witnessing of Him by the inner sight … What is in the hearts of such lovers [of God] who are drawn near to Him continues to grow and grow, until their hearts are filled by it; nothing remains in their hearts save it; and nor can their limbs move except in compliance with what is in their hearts. Whosoever’s state is like this, then it is said of him: “Nothing remains in his heart but Allah.” That is, [nothing remains but] gnosis, love and remembrance of Him. In this sense, there is a well-known Israelite report, “Allah said: My heavens cannot contain Me, nor can My earth. But the heart of My believing slave contains Me.”6‘7
He further says: ‘When the heart is filled with Allah’s greatness, exalted is He, it wipes out traces of everything other than Him from the heart. Now nothing of the person’s ego remains, nor any [false] desires, nor any will; save what the Master wills for him. It is at this point that the servant does not utter, except His remembrance and does not move, except by His command. Whenever he speaks, he speaks by Allah; when he hears, he hears by Him; when he sees, he sees by Him; and when he grasps, he grasps by Him. This is what is meant by His words: “I am his hearing by which he hears, his sight by which he sees …” Whoever indicates other than this, is only intimating at the deviation of Indwelling or Unionism; and Allah and His Messenger are free of him.’8
So how is presence of heart nurtured? It starts by cultivating vigilance, or mindfulness of God within our hearts – as per the second part of the hadith about ihsan: ‘… though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’
Vigilance (muraqabah), as masters of the inward life tell us, is to be mindful of Allah in all our states, particularly in the state of worship, realising that He is with you wherever you are; [57:4] to feel His presence, being aware that He is closer to him than his jugular vein; [50:16] to know that nothing is ever concealed from Him, thereby feeling shy and modest before Him, for He knows what is secret, and what is yet more hidden; [20:7] and to know that His care and help are ever near at hand: When My servants ask you about Me, tell them I am near; answering the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. [2:186] The more we can envisage such realities about Allah in our heart, the profounder will be our vigilance of Him and our presence of heart in our worship of Him. For a heart in which vigilance of Allah profoundly resides, is a heart that becomes occupied with Him to the exclusion of all else.
We’re told that vigilance is one of the sublimest of all spiritual stations. We’re told too that habituating our heart to such vigilance requires training the heart: gradually and step-by-step. Shaykh Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Wasiti asks to accustom ourselves to being mindful and shy of Allah; even if it be for short periods at a time – persevering in this in our mundane day-to-day affairs, when at university or work, and when engaged in acts of worship – until such mindfulness and vigilance becomes part and parcel of our nature.9
That vigilance of Allah be ingrained and be made a habit of the heart is paramount, so that its fruits appear upon us. The least of these fruits is that one does nothing, when alone with Allah, that he would be ashamed of doing should a man of virtue and rank be watching him. If, say the shaykhs of the path, when you call to mind the fact that Allah sees you, you find a shyness in your heart which prevents you from disobeying Him or spurs you on to obey Him, then something of the lights of vigilance (anwar al-muraqabah) have dawned on your heart. Eventually, as the heart becomes accustomed to vigilance, and as the awareness of Allah’s nearness deepens within, the heart begins to be totally immersed in Allah and extinct in Him; being now raised to the degrees of mushahadah – worshiping Allah as though seeing Him.
The Qur’an says: Is the reward of ihsan anything but ihsan? [55:60] The believer, having lived his life in the pursuit of Allah’s good pleasure, and having striven in this world to worship Him as though seeing Him, is rewarded in the Afterlife with its supreme and sublimest delight: the beatific vision of Allah (ru’yatu’Llah). A celebrated hadith speaks about this rapturous joy in the following words:
‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and those of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out, saying: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil will be lifted and they shall gaze upon the Face of Allah. By Allah, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing upon His Face.’ [Muslim, no.181]
Allahumma inna nas’aluka ladhdhatan-nazr
ila wajhika wa shawqa
1. Bada’i‘ al-Fawa’id (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qahirah, 1972), 3:230.
2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 1:206.
3. Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 85-7.
4. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 134.
5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:129.
6. Similar views on this report can be seen in: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122; and al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), no.988 – where they categorically reject its ascription to the Prophet, peace be upon him. Rather it is, as stated, from the isra’iliyyat reports.
7. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 2:345-6.
8. ibid., 2:347.
9. Miftah Tariq al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Bashshar al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 34-5.