‘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.
One hadith states: ‘Laugh not too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’1 This isn’t to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-heartedness, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that helps lighten burdens, ease anxiety and bring about joy to oneself and to others. Indeed, there is little virtue in always looking grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] And as the Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked: ‘O Hanzalah! There is a time for this and a time for that.’2 Yet, as the above hadith shows, to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually.
The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf 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 In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature (one hadith says: ‘The believers are amiable and easy-going: al-mu’minun hayyinun layyinun.’5) is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, urged: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’6 A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.
The Qur’an warns about being diverted or distracted through things of the world: ‘O you who believe! Let neither your wealth nor your children divert you from remembrance of God. Those who do so, they are the losers.’ [63:9] In houses which God has allowed to be raised up, where His name is remembered. In them is He glorified morning and evening. By men whom neither merchandise nor trade distract from the remembrance of God. [24:36-7] Trade, riches, possessions, and the pursuit of thrills and pleasures so preoccupy most people, so as to make them oblivious to all else; unless hearts are tuned to the higher purpose of their existence. Wealth and children and partaking of permissible worldly pleasures are all lawful, and are to be a means to maintain our connection with God; unless and until they distract us from the worship and remembrance of Him. If we lose ourselves to the world, we ultimately lose everything.
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, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, 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.
O people! Fear your Lord, and fear a Day when the parent will not be able to avail his child in any way, nor the child to avail his parent. God’s promise is the truth. Let not the life of the world deceive you, nor let the deceiver deceive you concerning God. [31:33]
‘There are times where my heart feels clouded (innahu la yughanu ‘ala qalbi); and I seek Allah’s forgiveness a hundred times a day,’ said the Prophet, peace be upon him.1
Istighfar or “seeking forgiveness” of Allah is not simply confined to when we commit sins. Rather, courtesy (adab) towards Allah requires us to feel a sense of shyness (haya) before Allah on account of committing what He considers disliked (makruh) too; even when no sin has been committed. At a loftier level of faith, those who are distracted from Allah, even if momentarily, see this a lack of adab and a sort of transgression, for which istighfar is to be made.
Imam al-Nawawi holds that one meaning of the “cloudiness” mentioned in the above hadith refers to the Prophet’s continuous dhikr, and heart’s focus and presence with Allah, being interrupted – albeit, for brief moments – out of having to occupy himself with the affairs of the ummah and the welfare of the people. He writes: ‘Its cause is his being preoccupied with the affairs of the ummah and its welfare; waging war against the enemy and their harms; winning over hearts; and other such things. Even though such matters are from the greatest acts of obedience and the best of deeds, it is still a come down from the even more loftier degree and higher station of his being present with Allah, exalted is He, spiritually witnessing Him, being vigilant of Him, and being emptied of everything else beside Him. Hence he sought forgiveness.’2
Thus, how can we not feel a sense of shame before Allah when we are immersed in his graces, day in, day out, yet use them in acts of sin and disobedience to Him. Shaykhs of suluk urge us to have a daily recitation (wird) of istighfar which we recite with the above thought in our hearts. Istighfar one hundred times in the morning, and again towards the day’s end, is a good beginning, they say. One such way of carrying this out is to earnestly repeat: astaghfiru’Llaha wa atubu ilayhi – “I seek forgiveness of God and repent to Him.”
The Prophet, peace be upon him, mentioned that Allah, exalted is He, said: ‘O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and place your hopes in Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done and shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.’3
Another hadith states: ‘Whosoever takes to seeking forgiveness [of Allah], Allah shall appoint for him a way out of every difficulty, a relief from every anxiety, and provide sustenance from where he never expects.’4
Rabbighfirli wa tub ‘alayya innaka anta al-tawwab al-rahim.
1. Muslim, Sahih, no.2702.
2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 17:20.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.3540, saying that the hadith is hasan sahih.
4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.1517; Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3819.