Impediments to Suluk: Six Steps in the Devil’s Deception
Masters of the inward life tell us that the aim of suluk or spiritual wayfaring to God is: al-tahabbub ila’Llah bi ma yarda – ‘Becoming beloved to Allah by doing that which pleases Him.’ They also teach that this Station of Being Loved, this maqam al-mahbubiyyah, must be grounded in knowledge and the firm resolve to act on that knowledge; and not just acquire knowledge for its own sake. The whole affair, they say, revolves around ittiba‘ – ‘adherence’ to the Prophet ﷺ, who is Allah’s most Beloved. The Holy Qur’an says: Say: ‘If you love Allah, then follow me; for then Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.3:31] More than this, such masters of the heart tell us that the secret (sirr) behind this ‘adherence’ is: yakhruj al-insan min muradi nafsihi ila muradi rabbihi – ‘The person leaving his own wants and loves for what his Lord wants and loves.’1
This adherence has levels that the wayfarer (salik) must progress through. One begins by shunning what the shari‘ah has made forbidden (haram), abiding by what it has obligated (wajib) – in terms of action of the limbs and deeds of the heart. One then progresses onto acting on what is recommended (mustahabb), giving up whatever is detested or disliked (makruh). This is a lofty rank with Allah, and one for which God draws the seeker closer to Him, enveloping them in His divine love and care. A celebrated hadith qudsi states: ‘My servant does not draw closer to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligations I have enjoined on Him. My servant continues to draw closer to Me through the supererogatory deeds until I love Him.’2 Central to all of this is learning sound fiqh from qualified scholars, so as to know what our gracious Lord commands and forbids; and then recommends and detests.
Of course, an even higher rank of adherence is when one begins to wisely and gradually detach their heart from worldly things that are permissible (mubah), but superfluous to one’s needs or spiritual journey; providing it doesn’t harm one’s adherence to the two levels just discussed above, nor interferes with any rights and responsibilities we owe to others. This forgotten Sunnah of worldly detachment (zuhd) is an immense door to the rank of mahbubiyyah and divine love, as the Prophet ﷺ said: izhad fi’l-dunya yuhibaka’Llah – ‘Detach yourself from the world and Allah will love you.’3
When one resolves to make Allah their aim and ambition, or when one wishes to turn away from a former life of heedlessness or dereliction of duty then, say the masters of the heart, one is to begin with sincere repentance, tawbah. Allah says: Truly Allah loves those that turn to Him in repentance, and strive to cleanse themselves. [Q.2:222] Again, tawbah raises one to the maqam al-mahbubiyyah. In fact, making the u-turn away from other than Allah, to Allah, is an essential and intrinsic part of spiritual progress; to the point that the shaykhs says: man la tawbah lahu la maqam lahu – ‘One who has no repentance, has no spiritual station.’ So what’s required of us now is to roll-up our sleeves and to put our backs into it, seeking Allah’s aid and tawfiq.
We ask Allah that He guide us to the sharafa of ‘ubudiyyah, of sincere servitude to Him, and that He gifts us the sublime daraja of mahbubiyyah.
In their quest of: yuriduna wajhahu – seeking [only] His face [Q.18:28], there are obstacles along the path which confront the one who seeks to rid themselves of the radha’il; the blameworthy traits, and instead adorn themselves with the fada’il; or praiseworthy traits pleasing to God. There are four such obstacles or impediments that constantly tease and lure the wayfarer, the salik, away from their goal of mahbubiyyah and loving submission to their Lord. They being: the devil (shaytan), the world (dunya), one’s ego (nafs), and one’s whims and false desires (hawa). With that spelt out, let us look at the first of the impediments: shaytan.
In reality, these four impediments that, in concert, conspire to hinder the salik are all interconnected and feed off one another. Thus, when a person’s nafs is strong and overwhelming – not having been tamed or trained – then Satan’s stratagems or subtle, devilish whisperings are more potent in misguiding the person. If the heart of a person passionately craves the dunya, craves worldly stuff or worldly status, and is bewitched by it, then even a small prompting by shaytan will incite the person’s hawa, causing him to further forget Allah and relentlessly pursue the dunya – even if doing so involves sin or transgression. Otherwise, despite Satan’s hatred; contempt; malice; and spiteful jealousy of human beings, the Qur’an tells us: Indeed the devil’s guile is ever weak. [Q.4:76] That is, Satan would have no power over us were it not for the weakness in our own selves and our relationship with Allah, and what we concede or capitulate to him. You shall have no authority over My servants, except those that follow you from among the perverse, is what the Holy Qur’an also says [Q.15:42].
To be perfectly clear, this isn’t an excuse to underestimate Satan’s stratagems and plots. They are serious, and their misguidance highly subtle and seductive. The Qur’an warns: O you who believe! Enter into Islam fully, and do not follow the footsteps of the devil; for he is to you an avowed enemy. [Q.2:208] And: He makes them promises and stirs in them desires, but what Satan promises them is nothing but delusion. [Q.4:120] Also: The devil made their [sinful] deeds seem fair to them, and so debarred them from the Path. [Q.29:38] It’s further worth noting that the Qur’an itself warns about the devil’s plots and skullduggery much more than it does the corrupting influence of the ego – even though it is the ego, the nafs, which is the locus of a person’s waywardness and whimsical cravings.
One of the greatest weapons in Satan’s arsenal is to cultivate fear and anxiety in and around us: fear of not being able to live life as we wish, fear of economic hardship and a lessening of income, fear of losing good health, or fear of not doing well in this world if one lives the religious life: The devil threatens you with poverty and bids you to commit indecency. But Allah promises you His pardon and His bounty. Allah is Embracing, Knowing. [Q.2:268] By contrast, the believer, although he or she acts responsibly in regards the above-mentioned concerns, lives life with an inner sense of peace and tranquility; since he knows that all is in God’s hand, and all is unfolding as per His divine plan.
The remedy against Satan and his insidious whispering (waswasah) is: to seek refuge in Allah and actively push back against his insinuations. That the devil is long-lived, cunning and unseen, and whispers into the breasts of men [Q.114:5] makes him an enemy that we by ourselves can never hope to defeat. Hence it is with this recognition of our inability and of our neediness in Allah’s might and mercy, that we seek refuge in Allah from shaytan. And it is because Allah alone is All-Powerful, All-Invincible, All-Knowing, and cares for our welfare, that we direct our broken pleas of protection to Him, and none other. And when a person sincerely seeks shelter in God’s protective care and guardianship, then Allah will protect him; and the devil will shrink into insignificance and slink away. And if a whisper from the Devil reaches you, then seek refuge in Allah. He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. [Q.7:200] A believer’s suluk, then, cannot do without frequent and ample supplication (du‘a) of seeking refuge with Allah.
As for Satan’s stratagems of misguidance, then let’s conclude the article with a brief discussion of the steps he deploys. Undoubtedly, the greater plan of the devil is to first render Man disobedient, then ungrateful and then forgetful of God; and we seek refuge in Allah from this. Shaytan works tirelessly to make us Muslims forget who we are, where we are and to what end we are travelling on our brief earthly sojourn. So the first goto weapon of choice for Satan is:
1 – Diversion (sarf): The first ruse of the devil is to divert a person away from their work of worship and obedience to God. So when a person is inspired to do an act of worship or a godly deed, Satan will whisper a subtle suggestion to the person as to why they need not carry out such a deed, or how there are more gratifying things to attend to, or cast doubt on the very notion of trying to live righteously. And before he realises it, that flash of inspiration vanishes like a puff of smoke, and Satan leaves him in spiritual ruin. Should the Kind Lord be sheltering this individual in His protective care, or give him the enabling grace (tawfiq), he will say: ‘Works of faith are absolutely essential. I can no more do without them than I can the air I breathe!’
2 – Procrastination (taswif): If the devil cannot achieve his intent through sarf ‘ani’l-‘aml – diversion away from works [of obedience], then he tries to assail the believer through the door of taswif; procrastination. Putting off an act until tomorrow that should or could be done today is the essence of procrastination. So a person resolves to reform their wayward life and make it Allah-oriented. Not wanting to be transparent, Satan says to him: ‘It’s a good thing, but don’t rush into it. You’re still young. Wait till you’re forty or have at least made hajj.’ So the person succumbs to Satan’s ‘logic’ and puts-off reforming his life. Yet who knows how long we will live, or if one will receive such inspiration again? Or take the case of intending to give charity, or offer a few rak‘ahs of optional prayers. Satan will suggest we wait for a needier cause to come up to give our sadaqah to; or that we will be more focussed in our prayer if we first reply to our WhatsApp messages and check our social media notifications. And before we know it, we forget what it is we wished to do, or get lost in the distractions, or simply miss the window of opportunity entirely! The cure for this comes in the hadith: ‘Take advantage of five [things] before five [others]: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death.’4
3 – Ostentation (riya’): Failing to get a person to turn away from godly works, and if not, then to at least delay doing them, the devil doesn’t throw his hands up in the air and give up. If the person is that firmly resolved in carrying out a good act, the devil will even coax him in it. For even the devil tempts to virtue, if it leads to a greater vice! At this stage, that vice is frequently riya’ – making a show of good deeds and acts of piety. We humans like the approval of others. So Satan plays on that and tempts us into directing our acts of obedience and worship at winning such approval and praise. He stirs in us the desire for our works of faith to be seen by others and hopefully win their compliments. Riya’, ostentation, as the Book and Sunnah tell us, is one of the root sins of the heart, contradicts sincerity (ikhlas) and nullifies our deeds. ‘Sincerity is to single-out Allah as the sole object of devotion. That is, one intends by their obedience to draw closer to Allah, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else – like making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to Allah, exalted is He. It is correct to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’5 Such a major breech of adab with Allah is best remedied when we realise, as masters of the heart say, that the essence of sincerity is: nisyan ru’yati’l-khalq bi dawam al-nazr ila’l-khaliq – ‘To forget seeing the creation by constantly gazing at the Creator.’
4 – Haste (‘ajalah): If Allah protects a person from the devilish temptation of riya’, the person will be given the tawfiq to tell himself that he will not seek the praises of others in his worship of God; praying Allah make his actions correct, sincerely seeking His face, letting none have any share of his worship of Him.6 Haste, then, becomes Satan’s next method of attack. The Prophet ﷺ said: al-ta’anni min Allah wa’l-‘ajalah min al-shaytan – ‘Deliberation is from Allah, but haste is from the devil.’7 Thus when one recites the Qur’an, and reads their daily adhkar and awrad, and even when praying, the devil incites the person to read or pray hastily; without deliberation, without thoughtfulness, or without mindful focus or presence of heart. The recitation then resembles thoughtless babble; the prayer, the rapid pecking of a woodpecker. Such haste deprives one of the lights of worship, the fruits of worship, the effects of worship, and the delights of worship. The therapy: to be deliberate, thoughtful, composed, and focused in worship. One should ensure, too, that the act fulfils the conditions, pillars, obligations and required courtesies that are stipulated in our manuals of fiqh and suluk; doing so with as much excellence as we can muster.
5 – Vanity (‘ujb): First comes diversion from acts of righteousness. The second is procrastination. Failing that, Satan tries to worm his way through the third door, that of ostentation; then the fourth, which is haste. If he doesn’t succeed even there, he whispers thoughts of ‘ujb: vanity, self-conceit, being impressed with oneself. This fifth ploy is where a person begins to harbour pretensions of righteousness, even though righteous accomplishments are not of our own doing, but are gifts from God: Allah created you and what you do. [Q.37:96] And: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah. [Q.4:79] It is only when shaytan blinds us to this reality do we then start to see godly works as being of our own doing; and thereby grow vain, conceited, and bask in our own self-glory. ‘I have been given it because of the knowledge I possess’ [Q.28:78] isn’t really the attitude of a believer. Instead, Ibn ‘Ata’illah reminds us of the proper state to be in when he expressed in his celebrated Hikam: ‘Let not acts of obedience make you joyous because they come from you. But be joyous because they come from Allah to you. Say: “In the grace of God and His mercy, in that let them rejoice. This is better than that which they hoard.” [Q.10:58]’8
6 – Subtle Ostentation (daqiq al-riya’): If after pulling out all the stops shaytan still finds the worshipper resolute, sincere and humble, he has this deception to corrupt the person’s good deed and render it null and void. He secretes this thought into the person: ‘Be sincere in your worship, and do not seek peoples’ praises or let them have any share in it. Then Allah Himself will make this act known to the public, and cause them to appreciate you and turn to you.’ The person’s motives are thus corrupted and he ends up on the wrong side of God. For true sincerity is to seek only Allah’s ridwan – only His good pleasure and approval. That Allah may cause the sincere one to be known and loved by others is one thing. But to surreptitiously crave this as the end object, instead of Allah, is another thing entirely. But once temptation is stirred, the intellect become blinded, and so: The devil made their [sinful] deeds seem fair to them, and so debarred them from the Path. [Q.29:38] Therefore let us not feel secure against his deceptions and ploys for even an instant, seeking frequent refuge in our Merciful Lord.
May Allah guide us to be alert to shaytan’s stratagems and subtle deceptions, and protect us from our own weaknesses. Indeed, He is the One to hear, and the One to respond.
1. Its like was said by Imam Ahmad, in Abu Ya‘la, Tabaqat al-Hanabilah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyyah, n.d.), 2:379.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.
3. Ibn Majah, no.4102. Its chain was considered hasan in al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1421H), no.476.
4. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.9575, and its chain is hasan. See: al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 3:1206; no.4366.
5. Al-Qushayri, al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.
6. Ibn Taymiyyah attributes this du‘a to sayyiduna ‘Umar in his essay called, al-‘Ubudiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-Mughni, 2012), 56.
7. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Sunan al-Kubra, no.20057; and something very similar was related in al-Tirmidhi, no.2012. Its chain was evaluated as being hasan in Nasir al-Din al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1795.
8. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Egypt: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.58.