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The Obligatory Spiritual Journey: What Does It Entail?

20121030105344Last year I wrote a blog piece, entitled Practical Steps for Learning Fiqh (which may be read here). This piece, I suppose, is a follow-up to it.

In his advice to those seeking the “Key to the Saintly Path” (miftah tariq al-awliya), the venerable Hanbali scholar and spiritual master, Shaykh Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Wasiti wrote about one of the essential “ridges” of such a key:

‘If, O my brother, you desire to be saved from the terrors of that Day, then prepare for it with piety (taqwa). This is done by avoiding what Allah has forbidden and fulfilling whatever He has enjoined in terms of those duties that have been codified in the fiqh manuals where the lawful and prohibited, prescribed punishments, and other rulings are stipulated. This, so that nothing the Sacred Law demands from you remains due from you. For there should be no obligation that remains unfulfilled by you: neither a missed prayer, fast, zakat, or backbiting a Muslim without valid reason, or any feud, grudge or enmity without lawful justification. Discharge the responsibilities that fall within your sphere concerning those rights (huquq) between you and Allah, as well as between you and others. In doing so, you will be joined, Allah willing, to the company of the righteous.’1

The task, then, is to be steadfast in conforming to the prescriptions of the Sacred Law in our daily lives, as per the teachings of one’s fiqh school. There will most surely be obstacles along the path, which we must struggle against and overcome. This spiritual struggle, or mujahadah, is referred to in the verse: As for those who strive in Us, We shall guide them to Our paths. [29:69] The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The fighter in Allah’s path (mujahid) is the one who strives against his lower soul (nafs) in obedience to Allah.’2

Imams of suluk, or spiritual wayfaring, speak about two areas of mujahadah. The first is the outward mujahadah. This is the spiritual struggle against four deadly enemies: the ego (nafs), the devil (shaytan), worldliness (dunya), and one’s whims (hawa); as they seek to prevent us from fulfilling the obligatory (fard) and recommended (mustahabb) acts, and eliminate the forbidden (haram) and then the disliked (makruh) deeds from our day-to-day lives.

As for the inward mujahadah, it is training our heart – through gratitude (shukr), love (mahabbah) and remembrance (dhikr) – such that it becomes attached to its Lord and learns to be present with Him. Essential to all this is the idea of restraint – of reigning in our egos and desires.

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: “The wayfaring of one seeking Allah and the Afterlife will not be sound except with certain restraints: Restraining one’s heart to seek and desire only Him, training it to turn away from other than Him. Restraining the tongue from whatever isn’t of benefit to it, training it to constantly remember Allah and whatever else increases it in faith and knowledge of Him. And restraining the limbs from sins and doubtful acts, training them to fulfil the obligations and recommendations. He must not part with these restraints till He meets his Lord.’3

1. Miftah Tariq al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 30-31.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, where he said that the hadith is hasan sahih.

3. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 74.

The Signs of Bliss & Misery

c06d5c005fc611dfb18f000b2f3ed30fSome people are catapulted into the limelight; some have a quiet greatness thrust on them; most, though, live simple, ordinary lives. The ordinary believer believes in God and realises he is here through God’s purpose, love and compassion. So he lives each day as God’s blessing and acknowledges what he has he owes to God – and therefore, whatever he can he seeks to share with others. He does good deeds unassumingly and unostentatiously, because that is what believers do. The ordinary believer’s life, then, in its simplicity, radiance and gravitas, is actually quite extraordinary. In what follows, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah outlines the path of the believer’s life – content, meaningful and blissful – as well as pointing to its opposite. He writes:

‘From the signs of bliss and success is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in humbleness and compassion. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in fear and vigilance. As he grows in age, he diminishes in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in generosity and giving. And as he grows in strength and status, he grows in drawing closer to others so as to serve them and help fulfill their needs.

From the signs of misery is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in pride and conceit. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in boasting; belittling others; and having an inflated opinion about himself. As he grows in age, he grows in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in stinginess and miserliness. And as he grows in status and standing, he grows in vanity and arrogance.

All these matters are trials and tribulation from Allah by which He tries His servants. Through it, He makes some happy and blissful, while others are made wretched and miserable.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 28.

Dhikr Repetition: Is it Allowed?

dhikrIn his al-Fawa’id (a patchwork-like book on moral psychology, that contains within it a collage of spiritual benefits and lessons on practical piety), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah wrote:

‘God, Exalted is He, says: And remember Job, when he cried unto his Lord: “Affliction has seized me. But You are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” [21:83] This supplication (du‘a) combines in itself the essence of tawhid, manifesting indigence before the Lord, the taste of divine love in the praise and flattery of Him, affirming His attribute of divine mercy and that He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, seeking the means to approach Him through [mention] of His attributes (transcendent is He), and one’s dire need of Him. Whenever the afflicted one feels this, his affliction will be removed. Experience confirms that whoever repeats this [verse] seven times, especially with this awareness, God shall lift from him his affliction.1

Consider also another passage from the works of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah. This time, he writes: ‘Among the experiences of the wayfarers (min tajribat al-salikin) that have been tried and found to be sound is that whoever accustoms himself to [reciting]: “O Living, O Sustainer! There is no [true] God but You,” shall be bequeathed life into his heart and mind because of it. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may God sanctify his soul, was greatly drawn to it. He said to me one day: “These two Names of God – the Living (al-hayy) and the Sustainer (al-qayyum) – are decidedly effective in suffusing life to the heart. In fact, he indicated to me that they were God’s greatest Names (al-ism al-a‘zam). I further heard him say: “Whosoever habituates himself to reciting forty times each day, between the sunnah of Fajr and its fard: “O Living, O Sustainer! There is no God but You. With Your mercy I seek relief,” life shall be breathed into the heart such that it will never die.’2

There are a number of key principles and practices that relate to the above two passages; these include:

1. That it is not forbidden to repeat du‘as or dhikrs a specific number of times – even if this number hasn’t been stated as such in the Qur’an or hadiths – provided they have been initiated by one of our righteous salaf or imams; and that they not be deemed as an actual Sunnah; and that they not contradict a specifically legislated Sunnah for that time or occasion. In the above cases, although the du‘as are from the Qur’an (as in the first case) and from the Sunnah (as in the second), reciting them a specified number of times, and at specific times, has not been reported in the Book or the Sunnah. Instead, they stem from experience (tajribah) and spiritual intuition (ilham).

2. Permitting dhikr repetitions isn’t limited to the opinions of the above two scholars. Rather, droves of scholars can be seen allowing or practicing it. An early example of it can be seen with the Companion Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him, who ‘would repeat God’s glorification (tasbih) twelve-thousand times every day.’3 He also ‘had a string on which there were a thousand knots and he would not go to sleep until he had counted tasbih on it.’4

3. One further example: Ibn Taymiyyah was asked about the legality of reciting la ilaha illa’Llah seventy-thousand times so as to gift the rewards of it to the deceased, and whether there was any specific hadith to this effect. His response was: ‘If a person recites la ilaha illa’Llah in this manner, seventy-thousand times; or more; or less, then donates the reward of it, God shall benefit the deceased by it. However, there is no actual hadith, be it sound or weak, to this effect. And God knows best.’5

4. A similar rule holds for initiating non-Quranic and non-prophetic du‘as – in that so long as they do not oppose a legislated Sunnah for that time or place; and provided such du‘as not be thought of as being Sunnah; then they too are permitted. Rifa‘ah b. Rafi‘ said: We were praying behind the Prophet, peace be upon him, when he raised his head from bowing and said: ‘May God hear whoever praises Him!’ a man behind me responded: ‘Our Lord! To You belongs all praise; abundant, excellent and blessed.’ Afterwards, the Prophet asked as to who had uttered such words, saying: ‘I saw thirty-odd angels competing as to who would be the first to record it.’6 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘From this hadith can be inferred the permissibility of inventing an invocation inside the prayer, other than what is textually-related, provided it doesn’t contravene anything that is textually-reported.’7

5. The juristic rule underscoring all the above instances is simply this: ‘Acts that have a basis and which the texts stipulate in general terms of desirability, even if the actual practice is not specifically related in the texts, are judged as praiseworthy.’8

6. With that being said, one strives to first give life to the textually-reported dhikrs in the Book and Sunnah – in both form and content – making them the bedrock of one’s invocations and du‘as to God. To limit oneself to du‘as initiated by our rightly-guided scholars and spiritual authorities, while neglecting to learn or to put into practice the textually reported du‘as, would indeed entail blame.

7. As for the modern[ist] phenomena of waging war on such repetitions, or declaring them to be misguidance, then such revisionism goes against the normative teachings of our relied-upon imams from whom religion is taken. And whilst it’s true that some people are overly concerned with such du‘as and repetitions, and pay scant attention to the prophetic petitions and invocations, there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

And God knows best.

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 292.

2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 2:29. This Ibn Taymiyyan experience seems sufficiently important to be mentioned again at 4:136. The actual Arabic of the du‘a being: Ya hayyu ya qayyum la ilaha illa anta bi rahmatika astaghith.

3. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-Safwa (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 2008), 249.

4. Al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:623.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 24:323.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.799.

7. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 2:365.

8. See: Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1984), 1:47; Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 20.

The Five Degrees of Prayer

537357_350393535062386_1229517523_nIn the following extract taken from his monograph explaining the virtues and merits of dhikr – God’s remembrance and invocation, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H/1350CE) takes us through the ascending degrees of prayer (salat):

‘With respect to prayer (salat), people are of five levels:

The first [degree] is of he who wrongs his own soul [35:32]; who is negligent [concerning it], and who falls short in his ablution as well as in the times, limits and essential pillars of the prayer.

The second is he who safeguards the times, limits, outward pillars and ablution, but is taken away by the devil’s whisperings and by stray thoughts, which he lacks the inner strength to resist.

The third is he who keeps the limits and essential pillars, and inwardly strives to repel the whisperings and stray thoughts. This person is occupied with striving against his Foe [the Devil], lest he rob him of his prayer. In prayer, he is engaged in jihad.

The fourth is he who stands in prayer, perfecting its rights, limits and pillars. His heart is engrossed in safeguarding its limits and rules, lest he miss any of them. Indeed, his entire focus is on performing the prayer as it ought to be performed; completely and perfectly. By this, concern for the prayer and devotion to his Lord absorb his heart.

The fifth degree is he who stands in prayer and establishes it as the fourth does, but along with this places his heart before his Lord. With this, he beholds his Lord (naziran bi qalbihi ilayhi), is vigilant before Him, and is filled with His love and glory; as if he sees and witnesses Him. Thus all whisperings and stray thoughts vanish, as the veil is lifted between him and his Lord. The difference between this person in his prayer and everyone else is as vast as the distance between heaven and earth. For he is occupied solely with his Lord, in which he finds his source of sheer delight.

[Of the five], the first kind of person is punished; the second admonished; the third redeemed; the fourth rewarded; and the fifth drawn close to his Lord, for his source of delight has been placed in prayer. Whoever is delighted by the prayer in this world, will be delighted by nearness to his Lord in this world and the next. And he who finds delight in God, delights and gladdens others. Whoever does not, leaves this world a loser.’1

1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 55-6.

Better the Devil You Know than the Devil You Don’t

devilsepiasmall‘It is a pity,’ argued Gai Eaton, ‘that so few people believe any longer in shaytan, the devil, if not in a personalised form, at least as an influence or a tendency. We need to be able to identify evil, not only when it manifests itself in genocide or torture, but in its roots and its ramifications. We need also to understand how subtly it can operate behind the scenes, seldom showing its true face … The idea of the devil, in Islam as in Christianity, has been that of a force – an agency – which reverses values, making evil seem good, and good seem evil.’1 The Qur’an says: But the devil made their [foul] deeds seem fair to them. [16:63]

Below, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d.751H/1350CE) summarises for us the main ways in which Iblis, the Devil, seeks to assault Man; rendering him ungrateful, then forgetful of God. He writes:

‘Whoever possesses intelligence knows there is no path for the devil to overcome him, except from three directions:

Firstly, excess and extravagance. Excess refers to whatever is beyond one’s needs: it is the actual surplus which is the devil’s portion and with which he invades the heart. The path of diligence is to not gratify the ego (nafs) in all that it desires of food, sleep, pleasure and recreation. Whenever the doors to such [gratification] are closed tight, one obtains safety from the devil entering.

Secondly, heedlessness (ghaflah) of God’s remembrance. For one remembering God is in the fortress of remembrance (dhikr). When he lapses into heedlessness, the doors of the fortress are opened and the Foe enters. Once inside, it is harder and more difficult to expel him.

Thirdly, burdening yourself with things that do not concern you.’2

Aware of the monoculture’s greed, extravagance and excesses; and its relentless push to render people heedless of God’s presence; and its seduction of souls, alluring them with all but the Essential – it’s not surprising that many Muslims see this bulldozing liberal process as ‘satanic’. And that which strays so defiantly from God’s purpose is unlikely to escape the Divine Rigour or Wrath for very long: How many a city given to wrongdoing did We destroy, after which We raised up another people. [21:11] And how many a town did We destroy which was thankless for its means of livelihood. [28:58] For believers, all this makes it urgent that we come together to partake in the healing of this ever-growing, decadent monoculture. And God’s help is sought.

1. Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 22.

2. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 277

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