Beacons Upon the Path of the Soul’s Purification
The Prophet, peace be upon him, once said: kun fi’l-dunya ka’annaka gharibun aw ‘abiru sabil – ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or traveller.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6416] Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali began his commentary to this hadith by stating: ‘This hadith forms the basis for having brief hopes (qisar al-amal) in terms of this worldly life and that the believer ought not to take the world as his permanent abode or residence, or grow too comfortable in it. Instead, he should live in it as though he were ready to depart for a journey, preparing his provisions for it.
The counsels of the prophets and their followers are in absolute agreement about this. God, exalted is He, relates that one of the believers amongst the courtiers of Pharaoh said: ‘O my people! The life of this world is nothing but a passing comfort; and the Hereafter, that is the ever-lasting abode.’ [40:39]’1
Among those deeds that help one to traverse the bridge from this dar al-fana’ – “abode of extinction and impermanence,” to the dar al-baqa’ – “the abode of permanence and eternity,” and which act as milestones and beacons along the path, are:
1. Venerating the Symbols of God: The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks and emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are religious rites that are emblematic of, or specific to certain religious communities. Here, the symbols of God refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions that are emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; and this is from piety of hearts. The signs of revering God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed and contrite when having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.2
As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in regards to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30]
2. Not to Overindulge in Humour & Amusement: One hadith states: ‘Do not laugh too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’ [Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4193] This is not to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-hearted humour, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that bring about joy and relief to oneself, and to others. There is little virtue in always being grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] Yet to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually and, as al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death. Its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God: be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4
Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, diverts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, economy, disintegration of society and social cohesion and the breakdown of family; as well as those existential issues more serious still that relate to our Maker, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
3. Cultivating 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” with Him. It states 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 very little response from Heaven; whereas an attentive heart, present with its Lord, does. What is meant by “presence of heart” (or for the heart to feel the presence of the One being invoked or remembered) is that the heart be liberated from all distractions and that it be constantly attentive to its Lord. Such is the courtesy (adab) sought from the servant in his 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. For 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.’5 Elsewhere, he wrote: ‘Acts of the limbs, without works of the heart, either lack any benefit, or else contain very little benefit.’6
Presence of heart with God is not only required in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during every moment of our life. The way to nurture such presence is through 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 takes 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.7 Thus, he wrote: ‘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.’8
1. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:377.
2. Consult: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.
3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.
4. ibid., 5:52.
5. Bada’i‘ al-Fawa’id (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qahirah, 1972), 3:230.
6. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 1:206.
7. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘In other words, when the power of remembrance takes hold of the servant, causing him to lose consciousness of himself and his remembrance, in [the consciousness of] the One he remembers, the servant is bound to drift through the doors of indwelling (hulul) and unionism (ittihad) – unless he has a sound theology (‘aqidah sahihah).’ Al-Wabil al-Sayyib, 134.
8. Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 85-7.
” 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 takes 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.”
Subhan’Allah- if only to be at this final stage……
Perhaps we can take inspiration from the great Maliki jurist and spiritual master, Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari(d.709H/1309CE), who wrote in his celebrated aphorisms, called Hikam (§.47):
‘Do not forgo invocation of God (dhikr) because you are not present with God in it. For your heedlessness (ghaflah) in not invoking Him is far worse than your heedlessness when invoking Him. Perhaps He may raise you up from invocation with heedlessness to invocation with attentiveness (yaqadhah); and from invocation with attentiveness to invoking Him with presence (hudur); and from invocation with presence to invocation with being absent (ghaybah) from all else besides the One invoked: “That, for Him, is not difficult.” [Qur’an 14:20]’
May Allah grant us the grace to worship and witness Him. Amin.
Ameen. Indeed for Him it is not difficult. The greatest obstacle is indeed the self ……
Thank you very much for this post.
I find these points instructive and inspiring. I especially like the passage you share here by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari about how one should not fail to invoke God, and that He may grant us His presence.
All good wishes,
A very belated reply, Robert, but thank you for your comment. May the One guide us to His good pleasure and presence. Hearts were created for nothing less. For this, let lovers sigh and seekers yearn.