Revelation tells us that muraqabah, vigilance of Allah, is one of the sublimest spiritual stations. We are told too that habituating our heart to such vigilance requires training the heart gradually and step-by-step. Masters of the heart instruct us to accustom ourselves to being mindful and shy of Allah, even if it be for short periods at a time – persevering in this even in our day-to-day affairs, let alone when engaged in acts of worship – until such mindfulness or vigilance becomes part and parcel of our nature; a habit of our heart.
Vigilance, muraqabah, is to be mindful of Allah in all our states, realising that: وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنْتُمْ – He is with you wherever you are. [Q.57:4]
It is to feel His reassuring presence, being aware that: وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ – We are closer to him than his jugular vein. [Q.50:16]
It is to know that nothing is ever hidden from Him, thereby feeling reverently respectful and shy before Him: فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى – For He knows what is secret, and what is yet more hidden [Q.20:7]
Above all, it is to know that His care, help and loving concern are ever near: وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِي إِذَا دَعَانِي – When My servants ask you about Me, I am near; answering the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]
The more we interiorise such core realities of faith, the profounder will be our vigilance of Him, and presence of heart whilst worshiping Him. For a heart in which vigilance of Allah firmly takes root, is a heart that becomes occupied with Him above everything else.
That vigilance of Allah be ingrained and be made a habit of the heart is paramount, in order for its fruits to appear on us. The least of these fruits is that one does nothing, when alone with Allah, that he would be ashamed of doing should a person of virtue and rank be watching him. If, say our spiritual masters, when one calls to mind the fact that Allah sees us, we find a shyness in our heart which prevents us from disobeying Him or spurs us on to obey Him, then something of the lights of vigilance, the anwar al-muraqabah, have dawned on the 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; being now raised to the degrees of mushahadah – of worshiping God as though seeing Him.
THIS IS AN OBSERVATION that may be limited to my tiny window of experience; and it is something I’ve been aware of since the early 1990s. Which is that we Muslims are ready and eager to read stuff about the nitty gritty points of fiqh and shari’ah law, yet as soon as discussing the actual Lawgiver is involved, we tend not to be so keen or interested. Some choose to get so caught up in organising Islamic events, or engaging in activism, or doing da‘wah for God, that they simply don’t make any time to be alone with God.
This isn’t just an issue with the generality of Muslims; scholars can be just as guilty of it too. There are some who are so keen to prove the existence of God, yet care little for God Himself. Others will speak endlessly about divine governance, but care little for getting to know the “Governor” in any real or meaningful sense. Could it be that we’re turning those aspects of Islam into mini objects of devotion, instead of devotion to God Himself; exalted and majestic is He?
There’s another reason why we could be disinterested in God, even if we are still actively doing religious stuff: Boredom! As odd as it may seem to some, becoming bored with God can and does happen. Apart from having defective intentions to begin with, in that Allah was never truly our sought-after goal (thus it’s possible to be committed to certain aspects of Islam, yet not actually be committed to God), there is boredom in our religious lives to contend with too. Boredom with God could manifest itself in a diminishing of one’s faith and religious practice. Or it could come in the guise of religious practice; but a practice where one is just going through the motions without any life, love or joy. Boredom could even show itself in an apathy to actually worship or obey God, even when there’s a keen interest – a passion, even – to endlessly talk about religious matters. Al-Hasan al-Basri, a formidable sage of early Islam, once remarked; when he chanced upon a group of people who were arguing about religious matters: مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا– ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’1
So how do we stop the rot from setting in or, if it’s already done so, how do we reverse the rot? How can we cure spiritual boredom? The answer, as uninspiring as it may first seem, is to deepen our knowledge of God.
But how can knowledge be the healer of spiritual boredom when so many of us afflicted with this malady have attended plenty of Islamic courses, classes, seminars or talks over the years, or have watched enough clickbait Islamic videos on YouTube to last a lifetime? Well a lot depends on what one means by “knowledge.” Allow me to explain:
Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah, one of early Islam’s great scholars and saints, said: ‘The learned are of three types: One who knows God and knows His commands; one who knows God, but not His commands; and one who knows God’s commands, but not God. The most perfect of them is the first, and that is the one who fears God and knows His rulings.’2
In this sense, every one of the Prophet’s sahabah or “companions”, may God be pleased with them all, were ‘alim bi’Llah wa bi ahkamihi – “knowers of God and His commands”. Whether it was the likes of the senior companions who had been nurtured and tutored by the Prophet ﷺ for years or decades; or those lesser in rank who only spent a short time in the prophetic presence, each was a knower of God and knew the rulings God had obliged them to know for their daily lives – commensurate with their varying levels of faith, piety, ability and responsibility.
By knowledge of God, I don’t mean some dry, formulaic learning about God. But learning which inspires the soul to be suffused with God’s majesty, awe, reverence, love, hope and fear. Knowledge which inspires hearts to yearn for God, know Him intimately, trust in Him wholeheartedly, remember and invoke Him abundantly, and seek the means of approach to Him sincerely.3
As for knowing God’s commands, it is to know what He has made lawful and unlawful in our daily lives, to know what deeds He loves and what ones He loathes, and the correct demeanour and comportment with which to worship Him.
To this end, sitting in the gatherings of those shaykhs or shaykhas who can nurture such knowledge and yearning of God in us is a tried and tested method. Reading books which depict the lives of God’s prophets, saints and sages is another potent way of stiring divine love in the heart. And contemplating the Qur’an with an eye to instil an abiding reverence and heartfelt acquaintance of God and His commands in us is yet another. Al-Hasan al-Basri again: ‘Knowledge is of two types: Knowledge which settles in the heart; and this is beneficial knowledge, and knowledge just upon the tongue; which is God’s proof against the Sons of Adam.’4
Islam teaches us that life does not run properly without joy. But true joy derives not from God and job, family, friends, Netflix, gaming, or the drug-like addiction of social media. True joy is only from, and ultimately in, God. Only when we can see God in everything, and the divine compassion, kindness and concern behind all things, are hearts gladdened and made joyful. And as hearts perceive God’s beauty in everyday life, and are thus made joyful, the world is gladdened and made joyful through them.
The world tells us that selfish indulgence in lusts or one’s desires is where the fun’s at. But our lives as Muslims should primarily be about quietly enjoying the beauty of God, and communing with him through prayer; gratitude; remembrance; and charity, in its widest sense, to His creation. The key to all this is ma‘rifah: knowledge of God, internalised and experienced.
As one deepens their knowledge of God, and seeks to internalise it, the soul is illumined; character is given to reflect prophetic beauty; and the heart is brought to bear upon life’s Ultimate End and love’s Ultimate Encounter.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Cited in Abu Nu’aym, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 2:156-57.
2. ibid., 7:280.
3. See: Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arqam, 1983), 46.
4. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, no.34361; al-Darimi, Sunan, no.394.
SCHOLARS AGREE THAT the actions of religion may be divided into two broad areas: the outward actions of the limbs, and the inward actions or states of the heart. Some describe the outward actions as shara’i‘a’l-islam – “the laws of islam” and the inner as haqa’iq al-iman – “the realities of faith”.
Other scholars describe these outward laws as shari‘ah, and the inner realities of faith as haqiqah. The method by which one internalises the outward teachings of Islam – such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc. – so that they become deeply rooted realities in the heart, they call tariqah (lit. “way”, “method”, “path”). It is to this three-fold categorisation of the religion – shari‘ah, tariqah, haqiqah (also equated with iman, islam and ihsan) – that the following passages speak:
The Law (shari‘ah): that you worship Him. The Path (tariqah): that you intend Him. The Reality (haqiqah): that you spiritually witness Him.
Shari‘ah: the sturdy ship. Tariqah: the shimmering sea. Haqiqah: the priceless pearl. One who desires the pearl must board the ship and sail the sea; only then can they arrive at the sought after goal.
Shari‘ah: what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. Tariqah: what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is also yours. Haqiqah: neither yours is yours nor mine is mine.
‘Shari‘a is a side of God’s mercy. Tariqa is a sign of God’s mercy. Haqiqa is a sigh of God’s mercy.’ – Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 4/7.
Crack-consumerism is the collective substance abuse that we as a nation now partake in. The remedy for this greed, avarice, hyper consumption and predatoriness is the forgotten Islamic virtue of zuhd – ‘renunciation’ or ‘worldly detachment.’
Speaking of such detachment, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal said: ‘Zuhd is of three degrees. Firstly, to shun the forbidden; this is the zuhd of the general folk. Secondly, to avoid the lawful but unnecessary; this is the zuhd of the elite. Thirdly, to guard against everything that distracts one from Allah; this is the zuhd of the knowers of Allah (‘arifun).’1
The challenge for most of us Muslims today is to keep the haram, the forbidden, out of our lives. This level of worldly detachment is an obligation upon us all and is deemed one of the greatest forms of spiritual struggle in our time. One hadith makes the point: اتَّقِ الْمَحَارِمَ تَكُنْ أَعْبَدَ النَّاسِ – ‘Guard against the forbidden, you will be the most devout of people.’2 The forbidden, here, includes both the outer and inner harams. The outward haram includes things such as not fulfilling basic obligations like prayer, fasting, etc; sins of the tongue like lying, tale-carrying and back-biting; and sins of the limbs, like not lowering the gaze from what is haram to see or what incites passions, hearing haram talk like slander, and doing acts of haram. The inner haram refers to the haram vices of the heart, like jealously, showing-off in acts of worship, arrogance, vanity, impatience with God’s decree, etc.
Often people who consider themselves as religious practitioners will say that they’ve been praying, fasting, giving charity and seeking increase in sacred knowledge for a few year now, but still they find an absence of blessings, spiritual satisfaction, or inner peace that they would have expected. Usually that is because, along with the good that they do, the haram still significantly permeates their life. One of the contemporary shaykhs of spiritual wayfaring, Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon, likens this to someone who installs new central heating in the house. When the icy winters comes arounds, he turns the heating on and cranks up the temperature. Yet after some time, the house is still freezing cold. Puzzled, he checks each radiator only to find they’re all working perfectly and are as hot as an iron! So why’s the house still freezing? It’s because the owner, although he’s turned the heating on, hasn’t shut all the windows in the house. So the heat is being lost to the outside chill. This, the Shaykh stated, is like spiritual warmth and blessings brought about by the doing of good deeds, but their effects are not felt because one has not turned their backs on the icy winds of haram! But as the windows of the house are each shut tight, even a small amount of heating will warm up the house and its occupants.
The next level is not becoming consumer cogs or addicts, by wisely detaching ourselves from superfluous and unnecessary consumption, and settling for simpler ways of living. Slowly and wisely ‘unsticking’ ourselves from dunya things is highly encouraged in Islam and begins to create real space for God and godliness to grow in our hearts.
Beyond that is detachment from whatever distracts the heart from its Gracious Lord; it is the station of God’s Prophets and, to a lesser extent, God’s saints. This is the sought after goal and the true embodiment of the prophetic path and Sunnah.
At this point it must be stressed that zuhd is less about minimalism; doing with only a few material possessions, and more about the heart’s detachment from material possessions. That is to say, one may own wealth, but should not be owned by wealth. It is said about the sahabah that they held wealth in their hands, but it didn’t enter their hearts.
So as we each roll up our sleeves and begin to empty our hearts from worldliness; to detach them from the dunya, we make space for the love of Allah to infuse our souls and of Allah enveloping us in His love. The Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘Detach yourself from the world and Allah will love you. Detach yourself from what people possess and people will love you.’3
Thus, detaching our hearts from the dunya allows us to attach them to Allah – attaching them to His acceptance, to His good pleasure, to His love and, ultimately, to Him.
Let the lover’s journey commence!
1. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 2:181.
2. Ahmad, no.8081; al-Tirmidhi, no.2305. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.100.
3. Ibn Majah, no.4102, with a hasan chain. See: al-Nawawi, Riyad al-Salihin (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1421H), no.476.
Far from being foreign to Islam, sufism – the science of spiritual excellence (‘ilm al-ihsan) and purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) – is a central aspect of the religion. In fact, it is its very core or heart. This is especially true when such sufism reflects the spirit of the early traditionalists or ahl al-hadith renuncients and pietists; like Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi, Sari al-Saqati, Bishr al-Hafi, Sahl al-Tustari, Junayd al-Baghdadi, Yahya ibn Mu‘adh al-Razi, or other illumined souls mentioned in Qushayri’s Risalah or orthodox “Epistle on Sufism”. This was a sufism tightly-tethered to the Sunnah; severe against bid’ah; averse to the over-rationalising of the kalam practitioners; and devastating towards the metaphysics of the philosophers. It was a sufism ‘ala tariqat al-salaf – “upon the path of the predecessors”; a tasawwuf al-‘amali or “practical sufism”. Al-Dhahabi sketches the contours of this sufism (tasawwuf) and spiritual wayfaring (suluk), thus:
‘The critic of a genuine sufi becomes the target of the hadith: “Whoever shows enmity to a Friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him.”2 While one who forgoes all condemnation forwhat is plainly wrong in what he hears fromsome of them, abandons the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.’3
‘How beautiful was the sufism of the sahabah and tabi‘un! They never probed into such phantasms or whisperings. Instead, they worshipped God, humbled themselves beforeHim and relied upon Him. They had immenseawe and fear of Him, waged jihad against His foes, hastened to His obedience and shunned vain talk.’4
‘Rather, the perfect suluk entails being circumspect in one’s food and speech; guarding one’s tongue; making dhikr continuously; not socialising with people too much; weeping over one’s sins; reciting the Qur’an calmly, distinctly and by pondering over it; detesting one’s ego(nafs) and rebuking it for God’s sake; increasing in the prescribed fasts; praying tahajjud regularly; being humble with people; maintaining ties of kinship; being tolerant and largehearted; smiling alot; spending on relatives and dependants; speaking the truth, even if bitter, mildly and without haste or frustration; enjoining good; having a forgiving nature; turning away from the ignorant; guarding the frontiers; waging jihad; performing pilgrimage; only eating what is lawful, at all times; as well as seeking forgiveness of God abundantly in private. Such are the characteristicsof the awliya, and the qualities of the Muhammadans (sifat al-muhammadiyyun). May God cause us to die loving them.”5
Pointing to the worldly detachment required to purify the nafs and to wean it away from worldliness; and that it is the doing that counts, not mere book knowledge, Junayd said: ‘We did not take sufism from “he said this” or “he said that”; but from hunger, worldly detachment and abandoning comforts.’ After citing this, al-Dhahabi remarked:
‘This is excellent, and what is meant here is forgoing most comforts, renouncing what is superfluous of the world, and hunger without extreme. As for one who goes beyond limits in hunger, as monks do, or renounces the world and all comforts of the self – like food, sleep or family – he exposes himself to huge tribulation that can even impair his rational mind, and by which he forfeits much of the easy-going monotheistic religion. For every thing God has made a measure; and happiness lies in following the prophetic ways. So weigh matters justly. Fast and break fast, sleep and pray, cling to circumspection with regards to sustenance, be content with what God apportions for you, and keep silent save for good. May God have mercy be upon Junayd. Where is the likes of him in respect to his knowledge and spiritual state?’6
In order not to be, as al-Dhahabi put it, “empty”; hollow; a mere shell without substance, we must each have a serious regime of spiritual practice where prayer, fasting, dhikr and other religious practices are internalised; where true sincerity is cultivated; and where the ego is tamed and trained. And this is what sufism or tasawwuf – the normative scholarly term for this science – is all about. Of course, the rule to follow here is, as Ibn Taymiyyah writes, that there are two extreme tendencies in respect to sufism: ‘One type that affirms all that is true or false from it, and a type that rejects whatever is true or false from it – as certain theologians and scholars of law have done. The correct stance, as with any other thing, is to accept whatever conforms to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and to reject from it whatever opposes them.’7 And, of course, the other scholarly maxim to follow is: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfadh wa’l-mabani – ‘Consideration is given to the realities and meanings, not to the jargon or terminologies.’
Attempts to kick the whole of sufism into the long grass is thus a retreat from normative Islam and a digression from Sunni orthodoxy. Afirm commitment to our fiqh, to the outer duties of Islam, is admirable and obligatory. But any following of the outward that is not illumined by a wise and transformative spiritual life, will only breed those who are harsh, hostile, self-righteous, who lash out against the innocent, and who thrive on schisms and controversy. Such has long been the received wisdom in Islam: our present state of affairs being the product of its collective neglect.