Three core ingredients go into making up the religion of Islam. And they are expressed in three simple words: iman – the “faith” or “belief” one must have in God, His Prophets, as well as in the Afterlife; islam – outward “submission” to God in terms of such things like prayer, pilgrimage or moral uprightness; and ihsan – usually translated as “excellence”, which refers to internalising faith and outward submission, and bringing them to their peak and perfection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, described ihsan in these words: ‘It is to worship God as though seeing Him; and though you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.2]
Time and again, the Qur’an speaks of God, of Allah, as being al-Basir – “All-Seeing” and al-Khabir – “All-Aware”. We read in the Qur’an: Nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. [Q.3:5] We are also told: He knows what is secret and what is even more hidden. [Q.20:7] And as Edwin Arnold versified in Pearls of Faith:
‘Al-Khabir! Thou Who art ‘aware’ of all, By this name also for Thy grace we call. Yes! pardon, Lord, since Thou dost know Tomorrow, now, and long ago.’
So God sees us at every moment; and is aware of all things, at all times. But we need to tread very carefully here. For allowing hearts to nurture a healthy sense of fear of God, through awareness of Him being All-Seeing, All-Aware, is undeniably part of sound faith. But the notion that God is some sort of “Super-Spy”, eagerly waiting to catch us out and to gleefully punish us when we may slip, stumble, or harbour fleeting, shameful secret thoughts that we dare not acknowledge even to our ownselves, is not what such Quranic verses are about. That God is lying in ambush to see us hopefully slip or sin, so as to then pounce on us with divine punishment – well that sort of idea of God as being some sort of mean-spirited, cosmic Tyrant is utterly alien to Islam!
The Holy Qur’an wishes us to understand that God’s all-seeing presence isn’t suffocating. Rather the believer finds God’s all-knowing presence reassuring and comforting. In their deepest need to be known, the believer is aware that God fully knows them: and that is surely reassuring. And in their deepest need to be understood, the believer realises that God truly understands them: and that is comforting. The sense of loneliness which haunts so many people in our age, cries out for love; for friendship; for companionship. It cries out to be known and to be understood. What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it truly matters – we are fully understood, because we are truly known. For He who created us and fashioned us is in the best position to truly know us, meaningfully heal us, and ultimately forgive us.
But while the divine Mercy cannot wait to forgive us our sins and stupidities, it’s a two-way street. Whilst the Holy Qur’an insists that God’s mercy embraces all things [Q.7:156], it also states: Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself, that whoever of you does evil and afterwards repents, and does right, [for them] God is assuredly Forgiving, Compassionate. [Q.6:54] Repentance, or tawbah, doesn’t mean self-pitying guilt. It means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him, admitting the simple truth of our predicament: that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us.
But if our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with, or yearning for, God, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way. Does our theology reassure us that we have a God who we can bring our sadness, our sorrows, our loneliness, our fear, our hurt, our shame and sins to, or is it just a case of knowing what Islam has to say about those moments and for us to then mechanically carry out the external processes? When it’s the latter, we’ll always tend to stop there and not voice such feelings to God, thereby denying ourselves the whole point of God’s essential nature: When My servants ask you about Me, I am near, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]
That God is All-Seeing, All-Aware is, therefore to be known and, even more importantly, to be understood. And behind His awareness is the beautiful and comforting religious reality of a God who says: ‘O My servants who have wronged their own souls. Despair not of God’s mercy! For God forgives all sins; He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.39:53]
May knowledge of this truth lead to knowing Him more, and being known by Him. May it lead to deepening our awareness of Him, and being understood and healed by Him.
This read starts with the question: Does it matter how one sins? To answer it, it explores the deeper layers of the story of Adam, Satan and the divine command to not eat from the Tree of Immortality, in order to understand why it is that at the end of the story Adam is bathed in grace, while Satan is utterly disgraced. For at the heart of the saga, we discover the theme of divine love.
Are all sins equal? No, they are not. Are some sins worse than others? Yes, indeed! Does how you sin make any difference to Allah? This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, how one sins does make a difference to Allah. This last point is taught to us in a gem of a saying from the exemplary scholar and saint, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, who said:
‘Whoever sins due to a desire, have hope for him; while whoever sins out of pride, fear for him. For Adam disobeyed out of a desire, but was forgiven, whereas Iblis disobeyed from pride and so was cursed.’1
The reference to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and to Iblis or Satan, lies at the heart of the human drama. The story is recounted at the start of the Qur’an at 2:30-9, and also at 7:11-25; 17:61-5; 20:115-23 and 38:71-85. In the Adamic story, both Adam and Iblis are subject to a single divine command. For Adam it was: ‘O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and eat as you wish, but do not come near this tree.’ [2:19] For Iblis: ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ and they all fell prostrate, except Iblis, who was not of those who prostrated. [2:11] In both instances, Allah’s order was not followed through: Adam [and Eve] ate from the tree; Iblis refused to prostrate. One could be forgiven for assuming that both these actors would be recipient to similar consequences for having failed to uphold a divine command? But they were not.
On being asked why he disobeyed the command to prostrate, Iblis replied in this defiant and arrogant tone: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while You created him of clay.’ [7:12] Being made of subtle fire, Iblis presumed himself to be better than Adam, who was heavy and clay-like in nature. So driven by pride, and exercising his own reasoning in defiance of the Divine Command, Iblis set himself up as a god against Allah and thus was cursed. Yet what Satan, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge was the heavenly, luminous substance called ruh or “spirit” that was insufflated into Adam: ‘So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down prostrate before him.’ [38:72] Inspite of Adam’s opaque, earth-like nature, it is this God-knowing spirit which grants mankind the potential to rise above all other sentient creatures.
As for our father Adam, peace be upon him, his is a story of love; in terms of what drove him, deprived him and distressed him. We read in the Qur’an: But Satan whispered evil to him, suggesting: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that never decays?’ [20:120] His eating from the Tree of Immortality was not out of defiance of Allah’s will, rather: We made a pact with Adam before, but he forgot. [20:115] However, some of the scholars hold that his forgetting doesn’t refer to eating from the tree, but to not recalling that Satan is his avowed enemy: ‘O Adam, this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife; let him not drive you both from the Garden.’ [20:117] In this reading, it is Adam’s love for Allah and his aching desire to remain in His presence that drives him to eat from the tree. Let us hear from Ibn ‘Ajibah on this point:
‘Realise that Adam’s eating from the tree was not out of obstinacy or wilful disobedience. It was either due to not recalling the command, so he ate whilst being forgetful; which is what some have said, and is what may be meant in Allah’s saying: but he forgot. [20:115] If, however, he ate whilst remembering the command, he did so because: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree lest you become angels or become of the immortals.’ [7:20] So his love for Allah and his deep attachment to Him made him to want what would lead him to dwell forever in Allah’s company and abide with Him eternally. Or [he wilfully ate because] he desired to become angelic. For Adam, peace be upon him, held the angels to be closer to Allah, so he wished to eat from the tree to be an angel who – as far as he was concerned – were the best [of creation].’2
Satan whispered to Adam and Eve, in order to lead them by deceit: And he swore to them: ‘Truly, I am a sincere advisor to you.’ [7:21] Adam, in his innocence, believed him, thinking that no one would ever swear by Allah’s holy Name falsely!3 So he used Adam’s love for Allah and his yearning to be in His presence as a means to make him eat of the tree. Adam was thus deceived into thinking that if he were to become an angel or an immortal, he too would be able to abide in Allah’s holy presence forever – perpetually adoring, glorifying and worshiping God as the angels do. Hence the lover ate.4
Ironically, love deprived him – for a while, at least – of dwelling in Allah’s presence: He said: ‘Go down, both of you, from the Garden.’ [20:123] And: ‘There will be for you on earth a habitation, and a provision for a while.’ [7:24] It was this very same love that caused him to then weep a thousand tears and be utterly heart-broken and remorseful. For unlike Satan who refused to own his sin, but sought instead to justify it, Adam and Eve acknowledged their slip and were remorseful, repentant and longed for God’s acceptance: ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we shall be among the losers!’ [7:23] Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:
‘By Allah! Having committed the error, Adam neither profited from his rank: ‘Bow down before Adam!’ [2:34]; nor from his nobility: He taught Adam the names of all things [2:31]; nor his distinction: ‘that which I created with both My hands’ [38:75]; and nor his glory: and breathed into him of My spirit. [15:29] Instead, he profited only from his humility: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we will be among the losers!” [7:23]’5
One last point, and it’s an important one. When we say that Adam “sinned” – Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord [20:121] – it’s not the usual type of sin that is driven by the ego’s wilful opposition to Allah. Rather, as the Qur’an says elsewhere, it was an unintentional sin; an inadvertent “slip”: But the Devil caused them to slip. [2:36] Both courtesy and creed; adab and ‘aqidah, demand that we acknowledge this. Courtesy because when one speaks about God’s chosen prophets – the crown of all His creation – one does so in the most respectful and reverent way possible; salawatu‘Llahi ‘alayhim ajma‘in. Not to do so could, in certain cases, amount to disbelief (kufr). As for creed, then this is because the texts of the Qur’an and Hadiths, when taken collectively, teach us that the prophets are ma‘sum – “infallible” in the sense of being protected from sin and wilful disobedience. Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The prophets are protected from major sins and the reprehensible minor sins, by consensus.’6
Although Adam and Eve are the first humans to violate a command from God, Satan is the first of all Allah’s creation to wilfully disobey Him. His decision to rebel came purely from himself and his pride; no one else lured or persuaded him. Furthermore, his decision to continue to disobey God after his initial defiance ensures that God will not forgive him. In contrast, both Adam and Eve immediately felt remorse and sincerely repented. We could say that while Iblis was driven by pride; Adam’s slip, in stark contrast, was driven by love and his longing to be with his Lord. Love is what drove Adam to eat – and there is always some special consideration for Allah’s true lovers.
The example of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, remains as valid today as it was then. For having turned to God, Adam did not transmit the curse of an “original sin” to his descendants. Instead, he was received into divine grace and a state of harmony was once again restored between him and his Maker: Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord relented towards him. [2:37] A similar grace awaits all those who sin, but turn to Allah in remorseful repentance, following the Adamic example. The key is in pondering God and His grace, which allows one to become closer to Allah and more devoted to Him. In the Adamic saga, Iblis contemplates only himself: Adam constantly contemplates God and being close to Him.
2. Ibn ‘Ajibah, Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir Qur’an al-Majid (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawqifiyyah, n.d.), 4:320, citing Ibn Ata‘illah, Kitab al-Tanwir.
3. See: Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ bi Ta‘rif Huquq al-Mustafa (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 692.
4. Cf. Muhammad Idris Kandhalawi, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Sindh: Maktabah ‘Uthmaniyyah, 1422H), 3:85-90. I am indebted to Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoun, hafizahullah, for bringing this point, and this superb Urdu tafsir, to my attention.
5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 51-2.
6. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur‘an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:194.
Allah ﷻ informs in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’1 It’s a warning that only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was to do with women.’2
If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more potent in removing modesty, boundaries and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’3
The word ‘awrah, often translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability or something that is unseemly and indecent.4 Women are considered to be ‘awrah because of their desirability. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – should not be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.
Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest or dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public: some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations,so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:
The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’5 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we perhaps see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?
It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs far deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; it’s about how one carries themselves; of how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.
Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do.[24:30]. On citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:
‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why restraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.6 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes an ardent longing (sababah); the heart now hopelessly besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (‘ishq); an excessive love. Then it becomes a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’7
Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls upon men to lower their gaze and to refrain from the lustful, illicit and harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm wrought by sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘8
The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it must not gaze at, one reins in the gaze and diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared in doing so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.
We Ask Allah for safety, sensibility and success.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.
2. Muslim, no.2742.
3. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.
5. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who declared: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’
6. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5
7. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits he discusses are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.
8. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.
In the 1970s, there was an advert on TV for a popular brand of moisturising cream.1 The advert sought to show how great the cream was by first showing us a dry autumn leaf which, upon being scrunched in the palm of the hand, crumbled into pieces.
Next came another dry leaf, this time the moisturising cream was applied to it. After it was squeezed, one saw the dry leaf gently unfolding back to its original shape. The message: If this is what the cream can do to a dry leaf, imagine what it could do for your dry or crinkled skin. I suspect many were sold on this moisturiser … including a young, teenage me!
The idea of moistening or revitalising faces and hands also applies to spiritual hearts. For the remembrance of Allah – dhikru’Llah – nourishes and revitalises the heart like nothing else. Indeed, it is its very lifeline. So much so, that Ibn Taymiyyah once made this following comparison:
‘Dhikr is to the heart as water is to a fish. Don’t you see what happens to a fish when it is taken out of water?’2
Islam’s masters of the heart teach us, then, to be constant in remembering Allah and in invoking Him. Consistent dhikr, with the required courtesy or adab towards the One being invoked, is key. As commitment to dhikr grows and deepens, and as souls begin to be illumined by the mention of His holy Name, Allah will cover our weaknesses with His might, cloth our lowliness in His glory, conceal our ignorance with His knowledge, heal the anger of our ego with His clemency, and calm the agitations of our heart with His assurance and serenity; such that one will be given to taste the bliss of the eternal realm whilst still living in this earthly abode.
1. The link to the actual advert was sent to me (via an earlier posting of this piece on my facebook page) courtesy of Paul Williams, and can be seen on his: Blogging Theology.
2. Cited in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayyan, 2006), 93.
‘I’m remembering Allah, but my heart’s not in it; what’s the point’ is a typical anguish for many of us? ‘When I make dhikr, my heart doesn’t have focus, it’s all over the place. Is there any use’ is another one?
So should we stop making dhikr because out heart lacks focus on Allah; because there isn’t any hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”? There are some who are dead set on the issue. There is no point in making dhikr when the heart is heedless, to do so would be making a mockery of dhikr – or so they’d have us believe.
But that’s not quite right. That’s not what those whom Allah has blessed with a huge share of fiqh and profound insight into the realities of faith (haqa’iq al-iman) teach us. Instead, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, dhikr ‘is sometimes performed with the heart and tongue, which is the best dhikr; sometimes with only the heart, which ranks second; and sometimes with only the tongue, which ranks third.’1 And whilst dhikr with the tongue alone does not yield the fruits of gnosis (ma‘rifah), divine love (mahabbah) and intimacy (uns) as does dhikr with the tongue and heart combined; nonetheless, it still has its benefits. In fact, for most people it begins with dhikr of just the tongue. Imam al-Ghazali wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously.’2
The truth of the matter is that if we were to make dhikr only when our hearts were fully present, absorbed and focused on Allah, most of us would never make any dhikr at all! Masters of the inward life instruct us that if, whilst engaging in dhikr, we drift into the valleys of heedlessness and idle thought, when we realise we simply bring our hearts back into focus and continue in our dhikr. In this, as with all other matters, it is Allah’s fadl and karam that we rely upon; not our own efforts.
Perhaps the finest articulation of this reality (the reality of dhikr with just the tongue, and dhikr with the tongue and heart combined) is presented to us by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in his celebrated Hikam or collection of “Spiritual Aphorisms”. In one such aphorism, he states:
‘Do not abandon dhikr because you do not feel the presence of Allah therein. For your heedlessness of the dhikr of Him is worse than your heedlessness in the dhikr of Him. Perhaps He will lift you from dhikr with heedlessness (ghaflah) to dhikr with vigilance (yaqza); and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence (hudur); and from dhikr with presence to dhikr wherein everything but the One being remembered becomes absent: And that, for Him, is not difficult.[14:20]‘ 3
In his commentary to the Hikam, al-Shurnubi teases out some of the subtleties in the above aphorism. He writes: ‘Do not, O aspirant, forsake dhikr – which is an invitation to sanctity (manshur al-walayah) – because your heart isn’t present with God in it, due to it being preoccupied with worldly distractions. Instead, remember Him in all states and conditions. For your forgetfulness of His dhikr, in that you abandon it entirely, is far worse than your forgetfulness while making dhikr of Him. For at least, in this state, your tongue is moving in His remembrance, even if your heart is heedless of the One remembered. Perhaps you will be taken, by His grace, from dhikr with heedlessness to dhikr with vigilance; in other words, with an attentive, awakened heart; for this is the courtesy (adab) which befits His Presence; and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence, presence of His closeness; and from dhikr with presence to dhikr where all becomes absent except the One being remembered. So the person is “lost” even to his own dhikr … When dhikr flows from the tongue in this state, it does so spontaneously, without intent. Instead, his tongue only utters what the Manifest Truth [Allah] wants it to, for such a person is at the Station of Divine Love – which the [next] hadith refers to: ‘ … and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works (nawafil) so that I love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, and his tongue with which he speaks.’4 None knows the reality of this lofty station except the spiritual wayfarers (salikun). So accept it wholeheartedly, even if you aren’t from its people: and follow not the desires of those who have no knowledge. [45:18] And hold tightly to the means, then the veil shall be lifted for you: And that, for Him, isnot difficult. [14:20]’5
1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 176.
3. Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.47.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.6137. Even though the meaning is sound and correct, the phrase: ‘his tongue with which he speaks’ is not part of the wording of this particular hadith. This phrase occurs in a hadith related by Ibn Abi Dunya, al-Awliya, no.45; Ahmad, Musnad, 4:256; and others. But the chains all have defects in them and are therefore da‘if. See: Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:331-32.
5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 111-12.
Writing about the marvels of the human heart (‘aja’ib al-qalb), al-Ghazali states: ‘The honour and excellence of man, by which he outstrips all other creatures, is his ability for knowing God, transcendent is He. It is man’s beauty, perfection and glory in this world, and his provision and store in the world to come. He is prepared for [receiving] such knowledge only via his heart, and not by means of any other of his bodily organs. For it is the heart that knows God, works for God, strives towards God, draws near to God and reveals that which is in the presence of God. In contrast, all the other organs are merely followers, servants and instruments that the heart uses and employs … For it is the heart that is accepted by God when it is free from all except Him; it is veiled from God when it is totally absorbed in other than Him … The heart is that which, if a man knows it, he knows himself, and if he knows himself, he knows his Lord. But it is that which, if he knows it not, he knows not himself, and if he knows not himself, he knows not his Lord … So knowledge of the heart and of the true nature of its traits is the root of religion and the foundation of the path of the seekers.’1
Given the above, it is no wonder that the Qur’an says about man’s responsibility to his heart: The day when wealth and sons will benefit not, save he who brings to God a sound heart. [26:88-9] The status and preeminence of the heart (qalb) is also borne out by the following five considerations:
1. The heart is where intentions reside: The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Indeed, actions are by intentions and each person will have that which they intended.’2 Scholars stipulate: al-niyyah mahalluha al-qalb – ‘Intentions reside in the heart.’ Thus, if the intention of the heart is sound, the act will meet with divine acceptance. If, however, it is corrupt or insincere, the act will be rejected by Allah. The eminent scholar and pietist of early Islam, ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak, once remarked: ‘How many a small act is elevated by an intention, and how many a great act is diminished by an intention.’3
2. It is where the Divine Gaze is focussed: God looks at our hearts to see if they have sound intentions and sincerity to Him, and He also looks at our deeds, to see if they conform to the Sunnah of His Prophet ﷺ. A celebrated hadith declares: ‘Indeed, God doesn’t look at your forms or your appearances, but He looks at your hearts and your actions.’4
3. It is where the Qur’an, the Divine Word, is understood: One Quranic verse states: Will they not meditate on the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts? [47:24] Sins and exposing the heart to trials and temptations may seriously diminish the heart’s clarity or understanding. Sufyan al-Thawri said: ‘I was granted understanding of the Qur’an. But when I accepted a gift [from the sultan], it was removed from me.’5
4. It is where piety (taqwa) is located: The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Piety is here, piety is here, piety is here’ – pointing to his chest three times.6 The Prophet ﷺ was once quizzed: Who among people are the best? He replied: ‘Those with a clean heart and a truthful tongue.’ They inquired: We understand what a truthful tongue is, but what is a clean heart? To which he ﷺ said: ‘It is one that is pious and pure, in which there is neither sin, nor rancour, nor jealousy.’7
5. It is God’s vessel on earth: In one hadith, the Prophet ﷺ declared: ‘Indeed God has vessels from the people of the earth, and the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous servants: the most beloved of them to Him are those which are the gentlest and softest.’8 So what we fill these vessels with – faith or disbelief; piety or profanity; submission or transgression; God’s invocation or worldly distractions – is indeed our choice and we alone shall bear the consequence.
A person’s spiritual life seldom unfolds in an orderly fashion, instead it has its ups and its downs. For the spiritual life is subject to the many sensitivities of the heart which, in turn, is subjected to many diverse influences, both negative and positive. The heart, by its nature, is constantly flipped one way, then another, by these influences. In fact, Imam al-Ghazali wrote: The Prophet ﷺ struck three smilies for the heart: ‘The heart is like a sparrow, turning about every hour.”9 He ﷺ also said: “The heart’s example in its constant change is like a pot when it boils.”10 And he ﷺ stated: “The heart is like a feather in an open land, which the wind keeps flipping one way then the other.”11‘12 Such is how the states, moods and sensitivities of the heart change from one moment to the next.
This is why Revelation urges that we each tend to our hearts above all else, and accord them the inalienable rights they were created to have. From the most critical of these rights are:
1. Adorning the heart with faith: A person possesses nothing of greater worth than his heart. And the heart cannot contain anything more cherished by it or more necessary to it than faith (iman); sound beliefs; and internalising the reality and requirements of la ilaha illa’Llah. For hearts were created to worship and adore Allah, and to be filled with faith. The Prophet ﷺ would say in one of his du‘as: ‘O Allah! Endear faith to us and beautify it in our hearts, and make unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to us, and make us of the rightly guided (Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan waj’alna min al-rashidin).’13
2. Illuminating it with the Qur’an:O people! There has come to you an exhortation from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts, and a guidance and a mercy for those who believe. [10:57] So the Qur’an declares itself to be a counsel to heal hearts and cure them of doubts, darknesses and anxieties. Its message consoles, reassures and revives hearts mired in desperation, desires and disbelief.
3. Bringing to it tranquility: One hadith informs: ‘Detachment from the world (zuhd) brings relief to the heart and the body, while desire for [worldly] increase brings worry and anxiety.’14 Despite scientific studies revealing, and continued human experience proving, that an increase in material things, above subsistence living, doesn’t increase our overall happiness, we moderns are obsessed with worldly acquisitions. Whether it be living way beyond our means, racking up huge personal debts, pinning our whole sense of self-esteem on wearing the right brand names, anxious about whether or n0t we’re keeping up with the latest trends – all this has pushed us moderns to the mental brink.15 Despite the tech and material comforts that now embrace us, ours is a society ridden with depression, angst and discontent; desperately seeking fulfilment in what can never truly fulfil us: materialism/consumerism. In contrast, the Qur’an offers us this simple truth: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [13:28] In one hadith we are reminded of this timeless insight: ‘Richness lies not in possessing many things, but it lies in contentment of the soul.’16 Simple living, then, lived out in the remembrance of God, is the key to tranquility. Such is the heart’s right.
4. Nurturing in it tenderness and humility: The Prophet would exhort others to bring into their lives those deeds that would have a profound effect on softening hearts and removing hardness from them. One such example is the saying of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘I used to forbid you from visiting graves, but now visit them. For doing so softens the heart, brings tears to the eye and reminds one of the Afterlife.’17 As we saw earlier, tender hearts filled with faith are the hearts most beloved to Allah: ‘Indeed God has vessels from the people of the earth, and the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous servants: the most beloved of them to Him are those which are the gentlest and softest.’18
5. Guarding it from the poison of sins: Endeavouring to keep our hearts free from sins is the heart’s right over us. For sins stain the heart and poison it. The Qur’an says: By no means! That which they have done has veiled their hearts. [83:14] This veil (rayn) has been explained as: atharu’l-ma‘asi ‘ala’l-qulub – the traces of sins upon the hearts. The following hadith sheds further light on this matter: ‘Temptations will be presented to the heart, just as a reed mat is interwoven strip by strip. Any heart that soaks it in will have a black stain upon it. Any heart that rejects it will have a white mark on it. Thus hearts will be of two types: one white, like a smooth stone, that will not be harmed by temptations as long as heavens and earth endure. The other, black and corroded, like a jug with cracks, neither recognising good nor rejecting wrong; rather being overrun by its desires.’19
6. Keeping it free from diseases:The day when wealth and sons will benefit not, save he who brings to God a sound heart. [26:88-9] Keeping the heart sound entails guarding it against two types of sickness or diseases: the disease of doubts (amrad al-shubuhat) and that of desires (amrad al-shahawat). About the first: That He may make what Satan has caste a trial for those in whose heart is a sickness. [22:53] The second type: Be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire to you. [33:32]
7. Praying constantly for the heart’s guidance: This is another essential right (haqq) of our hearts upon us, to pray for its guidance, rectitude and wellbeing, and that it not swerve from faith. This right must never be thought little of, trivialised, or neglected. The Prophet ﷺ would often supplicate: ‘O Turner of Hearts, turn our hearts to your obedience.’20
O Lord, cause not our hearts to swerve after You have guided us, and bestow upon us mercy from Your Presence. Assuredly you are the Bestower.
1. Al-Ghazali, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 5:9-11.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.1; Muslim, no.1907.
3. Cited in Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:71.
7. Ibn Majah, no.4462. It was graded sahih by al-Albani, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.2889.
8. Al-Tabarani, Musnad al-Shamiyyin, no.840; it is hasan. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1691.
9. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.740; al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:329 where he stated: ‘It is sahih according to the conditions of Muslim.’
10. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 20:252, but with the following wording: ‘The heart of the son of Adam stirs far more intensely than a pot that has reached boiling point.’ It is sahih, as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, no.1772.
11. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, nos.736-38; al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah, no.88. One of its chains is graded hasan in al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), no.2676.
12. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din, 5:161.
13. Al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Kubra, no.10370, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Adab al-Mufrad (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Saiddiq, 1994), no.538. This du‘a echoes the Qur’an when it says: But Allah has endeared faith to you, beautifying it in your hearts, making unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are they who are rightly guided. [49:7]
14. Al-‘Uqayli, al-Du‘afa, no459; al-Tabarani, al-Awsat, no.6256. Examining its various routes of transmission and supporting chains, al-Albani declared the hadith as weak (da‘if). Instead he considered it to be the statement of one of the people of knowledge of the past. Consult: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1291. The hadith does, nonetheless, state a general spiritual truth about the human situation.
15. See: Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (England: Penguin Books, 2004), p.4.
16. Al-Bukhari, no.446; Muslim, no.1051.
17. Abu Ya‘la, Musnad, no.3705. The hadith is sahih, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.4584.
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 ila liqa’iq. Amin.
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.